Cruising

Bundaberg, Australia

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This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue

The Burnett River is a big, slow-moving river, muddy from eons of moving silt. Where Moose, our 39-foot cutter, is moored at “Bundy,” eight miles up from the sea, the current direction changes twice a day as the tide floods and then ebbs. But Moose doesn’t clock around with tide cycle because she’s tied, fore and aft, into a long necklace of mooring buoys. Around us the birds work the river in two shifts: the cycle of the tides and the sun.

The Aboriginals believe that the sun is pulled around the sky by a god and that he times his appearance by listening for the insane call of the kookaburra just before dawn. And it’s true; the kookaburra is always the first bird awake here. It’s taboo among Aboriginals to imitate the call of the kookaburra, because it might cause the sun to appear at the wrong time. The bird looks like a large, poorly dressed kingfisher, and its call is a long, drawn-out, maniacal laugh that rises and falls: “Hu, hu, hu, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha….” Often the kooks will begin their pre-dawn reveille in a two- and even three-part chorus, one coming in over top of the other. It’s a near-human sort of sound, an anthem of the outback.

Both banks of the river are covered with mangroves and our view in either direction is only of foliage, pierced occasionally by a church spire or a Victorian clock tower. Up-river to the west an iron bridge hums with early morning traffic. For us it’s a perfect mix: a colonial-styled city, with its shops and services, and the unblemished nature of the surrounding area.

Up by the slipway an Australian pelican is preening in the sun. He’ll soon be floating along with only the slightest effort. Fat and full from fishing, and he’ll spend the rest of the morning putting every feather back in place, as proud as a Zulu.

By then we will have taken our dinghy to the Mid-Town Marina, checked for mail, had a shower, caught up on scuttlebutt with the staff, and headed off to shop. Our last stop will be the library—the wonderful library where we are known by our first names!

Dinner finished, we sit with a glass of Chateau Carton; the sky is the color of a felt hat. A familiar quarrelsome noise begins in the mangroves under the bridge. Thousands of grey-faced flying fox bats that have been hanging upside down all day sleeping, begin to stir and protest. On some unknown signal they flutter up and mill around. More and more rise until—from a mile away—they look like the smoke of a prodded fire. They form up into routes; a one mile-long stream passes along the mangroves on its way to the orchards of stone fruit out by the coast. Right over top of Moose it flows, dipping and rising; thousands of bats flying drunkenly into each other’s paths, nearly colliding, over correcting, and again almost running afoul of each other. They come on and on, until only a few late or confused ones circle and fly back toward their roosts—as though their original intention had been to stay home for the evening.

And then they’re done and gone and the night is punctuated only by the odd rasp or croak. Until, at last, toward dawn, a mad, foolish laughter will begin, and come cackling out of the eucalypts, and across the moorings on the Burnett River.

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