Standing knee-deep in mud in the pitch-dark is not the usual way I spend a Saturday night, but I was with my younger brother and that explains everything really. We both lead responsible lives, but on the rare occasions we do meet up, an element of playfulness and even recklessness can ensue.
Childhood trauma can link siblings in strange ways. Being with each other is a reminder of past events and can be triggering, but there is also comfort and solidarity in knowing that no-one else in the world shares these same childhood experiences.
A few years ago, we made a pit stop at Hervey Bay while travelling to visit our elderly parent in full-time care. Our mother has had schizophrenia for most of her adult life. During my childhood her condition was untreated. After I left home, she was finally diagnosed and placed on medication to help reduce symptoms.
It’s always emotionally challenging to visit Mum. She may not have died, but there is ongoing grief at what this serious illness has stolen from her. There is also anger and sadness about what else she has had to endure. Before her condition arose, she was molested as a young child by a church member, a close relative, and in her teens by a much older man in her first job. Being married to a man with an alcohol addiction, and having a child born with serious heart abnormalities and a severely limited life span, only exacerbated her mental anguish. My heart breaks for her.
My brother and I also feel grief for how Mum’s illness has impacted our own lives, and also for how it has limited Mum’s relationship with our children. That’s why when we share these visits to Mum, my brother and I try to offset our sadness with a little frivolity and adventure. On this occasion, we went fishing. I should clarify. My brother went fishing for fish. I went fishing for birds.
Now I have to admit that fishing is not on my list of favourite activities. My brother though, should have been born a seal. He never goes anywhere without a fishing rod or reel in his car and he can’t help but evaluate any creeks or rivers we drive past as potential fishing locations. In my case, I was born permanently attached to a camera. Some may call it obsessive, but it gives us pleasure and helps distract us from worries.
Eli Creek flows into the sea at Point Vernon in Hervey Bay and is a place of mud, mangroves, and sandflies. When it comes to his big sister though, my brother is fine-tuned in the art of persuasion, and with a simple sentence had me hooked,“You can take bird pictures, Janey!” Our only other sibling is buried at a cemetery close by, so in a way it was like we would also be sharing our adventure with him.
Now this was a perfectly good plan except for one thing. As often happens, we got caught up in conversation over a meal, and by the time we arrived at Eli Creek, the sun was already setting.
In my “other” life, I prepare for every scenario. After all, you never know when an apocalypse might hit. On this occasion, I was uncharacteristically nonchalant. I neglected to bring appropriate shoes, a torch and mosquito repellent. Luckily, my brother had a head lamp and strode ahead. He was a man on a mission!
The mud was still as muddy as I remembered and the sandflies were just as ravenous. Snowshoes would have been more useful than flat canvas slip-ons, which I kept losing every time I tried to lift my feet. I was too nervous about broken glass and jagged shells to remove my shoes and hold them though.
My brother was having some fun as well…
The surface was also uneven, scattered with depressions left by resting stingrays.
It didn’t take me long to lag behind. My brother has much longer legs, and I was also pausing to capture photos of the birds, shellfish, and sky before darkness descended. As you can see, there was a dearth of avian subjects to be found at this late hour!
A stunning sunset helped block out thoughts of sharks, sea snakes, deadly stone fish, stingrays, and jellyfish. Yes, despite loving the sea and living by it for a good portion of my childhood, I am fearful of its depths.
I have a friend from my teens to partly thank for this anxiety. We were at the Urangan Pier at Hervey Bay, when he alerted me to a few ripples in the sand below and proceeded to hook up a deadly stonefish concealed beneath the surface. He then pointed out all the other marks in the sand, indicating there was a whole congregation of them. Thanks for the nightmares, Ian!
I also spent part of my childhood at Yeppoon where we survived mainly on a diet of shark fillets and cheap locally-grown pineapples from a roadside stall. There was never a shortage of sharks for my father to catch. Seeing them surround his little fishing boat was not a highlight of my youth, even though I do think they’re majestic creatures. Watching the movie, “Jaws,” as an impressionable child probably didn’t help my galeophobia.
It was also in Yeppoon that my brother and his friend were stung badly by jellyfish. I still remember his screams, “Something’s biting us!” while I was swimming close by. The sad demise of Wildlife Warrior, Steve Irwin, from a stingray barb, has me wary of this beautiful marine creature as well.
Back to the trip now before I contribute to phobias in my readers. While being sucked into the mud, I managed to take a million shots of this mollusk.
I hadn’t seen live ones like it in Hervey Bay before, and couldn’t remember what venomous cone shells looked like. Were these the highly deadly cone shells? I might as well add another fear to the growing list.
A solitary mangrove leaf distracted me briefly from these nightmares.
Eventually, I reached my brother. He’d found plenty of bait with his yabby pump and was eagerly awaiting a nibble.
It wasn’t to be my brother’s lucky evening though, and we turned towards shore with empty buckets. It was only then we realised we had a new problem to contend with. It was too dark to confidently know which direction to head to our parked car, and by now my brother’s headlamp was dimming.
Then it went flat. A moonless night didn’t help our situation. Darkness encourages the imagination. My brother may not have had any nibbles on his line, but something small and fishy was enjoying the taste of my submerged toes. In some countries people pay a lot of money to have their feet cleaned by fish, but in the dark, the tickling sensation was disconcerting. Above the water, mosquitoes drained blood.
We tentatively picked our way through muddy mangroves and flowing streams created by the incoming tide, while trying to head towards a faint group of lights in the distance.
I’m still not sure how we made it back to the right spot as we are both directionally-challenged. No fish may have been caught, but plenty of fear-tinged fun and laughter was had.
The next morning, I woke early in our motel room, but decided to let my brother sleep. I tip-toed downstairs, opened the back of the station wagon to pack the car, and nearly fainted from an overpowering stench. A hot Queensland summer night in a locked car had hastened the putrification process of the shrimp remains in the bucket and yabby pump.
We spent the next hour cleaning the juices out of the yabby pump and car before continuing our long drive. Even with all the windows down to blast us with fresh air, the residual odour kept us “alert.” I suppose it’s a novel alternative to caffeine to keep us awake on a long trip. Another memorable sibling escapade to store in the memory banks!
On a later trip with my daughter to visit my mother, we stopped off at the other end of Hervey Bay – the Urangan Pier – and managed to “catch” a few birds.
In my youth, the pier was much longer and ended with dilapidated buildings smelling of urine and fish entrails. Many of the boardwalk planks were rotten or missing. It was a favourite haunt for die-hard fishing fanatics, including the teenage friend I mentioned previously. We would sit in quiet companionship, legs dangling over the sides of the pier, while he fished for lunch.
The revamped Urangan Pier is still a favourite of fishing fanatics and it was here that I added to my “fishing for birds” album. With so many rods and reels cast, the pelicans and seagulls were an easy catch. The pier even has stainless steel tables for scaling and gutting.
I’m extremely fond of pelicans. Their cheeky faces are endearing. I especially enjoyed the almost smug expression of this one, who foiled attempts to stop it roosting.
I’m not sure why authorities need to place spikes there to stop birds nesting or roosting, but I was amused it hadn’t worked in this case.
Seagulls are not my daughter’s favourite birds, possibly due to a Hitchcockian-style attack on a Byron Bay trip with me when we tried to eat hot chips. I still admire their sleek silver and white lines though.
A tethered dog on the pier could only look on enviously as distant canines splashed with delight.
Fishing is so popular at the pier that some have even made fancy fishing gear bicycle trailers.
And when you need to follow the fish, a fully equipped kayak makes for an eco-friendly alternative to motorboats.
New since my days as a Hervey Bay resident are these signs. Hervey Bay used to be a sleepy little seaside town when I was young, but it is now recognised as an international whale watching tourist destination.
It is also known for being the gateway to World Heritage-listed K’gari Island, the largest sand island in the world. “K’gari” means “paradise” in the language of the Traditional Owners, the Butchulla people. For a while it was known as Fraser Island as a tribute to Eliza Fraser, which was extremely inappropriate given that her narrative led to the massacre and dispossession of the Traditional Owners. One day I hope to return to this island of lush rainforests, heathlands, stunning freshwater lakes, long golden beaches and towering sand dune formations. I’ve visited K’gari twice in my youth but barely had time to appreciate its treasures.
Some of you may still be curious about the mollusk I saw on the mud adventure with my brother. Was it deadly? After returning home, I contacted the Queensland Museum’s helpful identification service and was rewarded with a rapid response. It wasn’t the dangerous cone shell of my imagination. I must admit, I was a little disappointed. It was confirmed to be Nassarius dorsatus, a snail that is a great scavenger of dead crabs and fish (or whatever). They have a fairly wide Indo-Pacific distribution and are common in Queensland.
Even though my many fears were unfounded, they did contribute to a more exciting experience. Fears arising from traumatic life events such as my mother experienced can be extremely debilitating, but a few fears on an adventure of one’s own choosing can be fun. That’s what I tell myself anyway when my imagination starts to dance…