Australia, Beach & Coastal Walking, Streams, Creeks & Rivers
Comments 29

An Eerie Encounter in the Mangroves

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever bedded down in the outdoors? (Don’t answer if you’d be incriminating yourself.)

I’ve laid down my bedroll in some pretty cool spots, not even counting the multitude of stealth-camps on or along the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. Here’s a few that come to mind:

  • Under bridges, foot-, local and highway, in Japan and Korea
  • Numerous beaches and river banks
  • Atop a rickety New Hampshire fire-tower
  • Two Korean roadside bus shelters
  • In the bushes in a Tokyo park
  • A complete stranger’s front driveway (oops) in southern California
  • A roadside shrine in Shikoku, Japan
  • Second-highest summit in mainland Korea
  • A hammock hung over a gushing stream near a Queensland mountain top
  • A derelict bikers’ guesthouse in central Hokkaido, Japan
  • A WWII bunker on Moreton Island
  • A closed-for-Winter tourist park next to a frozen Hokkaido lake, underneath a giant fibreglass tyrannosaurus
  • A building site on the steep side of a gorge in central Shikoku

So when the chance came to add another interesting locale to the list, I was pretty excited. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll probably get that.

But things didn’t turn out as planned. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably get that, too…

 *          *          *          *          *

NEW YEAR’S EVE, 2014

At the last minute, I thought I should do something special — low-budget, solitary, but special — to see in the new year. The old one had started well but deteriorated badly; let’s flip it the bird with a modest adventure.

It was hot as hell, humid and showers were forecast, but I had my tarp and the forecasts are usually wrong. I quickly threw my big pack together, farewelled the folks and ran up the road to catch the 5:13 train to Boondall.

I’d decided to visit my old seaside hometown, sleep rough, and rise early for some shots of the first sunrise for 2015. Cheating with four minutes’ worth of train ride would just about get me there by sundown.

I also wanted to try out the new tripod with some sunset shots before camping — I mean “camping”.

I had an hour and a bit to get there, and strode hard through the Boondall Wetlands along the deserted bike path, spirits sinking just once, as I passed some new roadworks eating at the borders…

mmm

Just like Korea all over.

..and exiting these preserved remnants of coastal habitat…

mmm

Black-winged stilts & mangroves.

mmm

Bike/foot bridge near the edge.

..to join the only road stretching to the village where I’d grown up and spent my first 19 years.

The old hometown: it’s changed considerably, it’s exactly the same. Here’s Nudgee Creek, running behind the houses on the western side of the main street (there are only four streets):

mmm

The sign is a relatively recent addition — when we lived here, there was no RAMSAR protection:

mmm

Just before town, Kedron Brook…

mmm

..which subsumed the original Jackson’s Creek, the natural waterway separating us from Cribb Island, a larger village a little further south where the Bee Gees grew up.

Most of that blue water was once abandoned farmland. I used to explore it like it was a foreign land. When they extended the airport in the 70s the creek, the farm and the whole of Cribb Island town was eradicated, and this canal was constructed for drainage.

Into the village itself. Here’s the view from near our old house, which my father built in the early 60s:

mmm

But memories could wait — the sun was diving down. I hurried to the park further along the beachfront, where family groups had gathered for New Year’s Eve picnics and the old-growth mangroves, trunks submerged by high tide, swayed gently, creaking like old ships moored against a vividly hued sky:

view of moreton bay through mangroves

mmm

mmm

mmm

On the main street I could hear a house party. I left the picnickers behind, trotted further into the mangroves edging the mouth of Nudgee Creek. There’s a boardwalk here nowadays…

mmm

..which I raced along to the creek bank, hurriedly erecting the tripod in the last gasp of daylight, grabbing a few quick twilight shots, swatting mosquitos whenever I remembered.

A half-moon lent some useful light. All was quiet and still on Dinah’s Island beyond the far bank as the creek languidly began to drain. As the fruit bat flies I was only a few miles from home:

mmm

The twilight faded, out of the blue and into the black. Remembering I needed to sleep somewhere, or at least lie somewhere, I backtracked to a junction in the boardwalk where a side-path led to a bird hide peering from the forest edge (you can see it here).

I decided at once that I would now add bird hide to my list of unconventional bivouacs. There was a roof if it rained, no chance of pesky birders visiting, and I’d be ideally situated for some dawn shots as the wetlands came alive.

Also, there were benches where I could cook; it was genius. I prepared noodles and mashed potatoes (old habits, etc), slugged from a bottle of gin & tonic I’d mixed at home, listened to Elliot Smith, and sat there watching the moon.

I tried one last shot, through the viewing slot in the hide wall…

mmm

..and attempted some verse as I sat there quite mellow and proud of myself:

The birder watches from the hide

The bird hides from the watcher…

The bottle was empty — don’t you hate that? I took my cook-pot back down the path to the park — my night vision is good and I can walk in near-blackness without a light —  and washed it and my muddy, sweaty self at a tap. A few cars were still there; another pulled in as I left.

nudgee creek night

It was around 9:30. I laid out my mattress just under the roof, left the tripod standing ready for the morn, set my alarm for 4:00 and had just put my head down when I thought, Turn to face the walkway. Someone will walk up, silently, in the dark.

I turned. Someone was walking towards me, silently, in the dark.

Voila: instant sobriety (don’t you hate that?).

“Don’t be scared,” I said, “Someone’s sleeping in here.”

The figure stopped, staring into the hide. It was a young man, shorter than me, thin, but just a silhouette.

He stood there, still silent, perhaps a minute. Then he walked closer, went back and forth between opposite railings a couple of times, looking over, or pretending to.

He was very close. I rested lightly on one elbow, gently slipping the sleeping-bag cover I used as a sheet down my legs, and attempted conversation.

“I’m a photographer. I’m sleeping here so I can get up early and shoot the first sunrise of the year.”

No reply.

creek bank night

“Are you a local?” It occurred to me that he might be one of the Asians I’d seen in a large picnic group earlier. Perhaps he didn’t speak English.

“I was — temporarily,” he replied in an almost inaudible mumble, still looking into the trees. Definitely not Asian — he sounded vaguely British, but the few sentences he spoke were so soft that I had to ask “Sorry?” more than once.

Never trust a mumbler, especially one who speaks at you side-on. In the dark.

“I grew up near here,” I continued.

“Near here?” he almost-whispered.

“Yeah, a couple of minutes on foot,” I lied. He was walking from side to side, slightly unsteadily; I guessed he was drunk or stoned or both. But who would walk in here, without a torch, in the mosquito-ridden darkness, for a good time?

(I mean, apart from me?)

“You’re a photographer?” He was looking at the tripod.

“Yeah.” That was a mistake — photographers carry a lot of expensive stuff.

“For a magazine?”

“Mainly for myself.”

I sat upright, reminding myself where my two small knives were stashed — this wasn’t my first campsite weirdo, you see — and that the tripod, 2.6 pounds of hefty aluminium, would double in a pinch as a handy club.

nudgee creek mouth dusk

Something was seriously askew with my visitor. He might have stumbled drunk from that party, or one of those cars — he might have been the driver who saw me washing and followed me in. But at last he muttered something that I took to be a farewell.

I said, “See you later,” with relief, and he turned and began walking —

And then he stopped. Five or six paces from my bed he turned and stood there, staring in my direction again. He stayed there like that for at least two minutes, swaying slightly, watching me.

It was time I took control.

“What are you doing?”

He turned and walked back along the walkway into the black.

I got up and looked down the walkway: no sign. But my dream campsite had lost a good deal of its charm — if I stayed it would be a one-eye-open half-sleep till 4:00, and that was if he didn’t come back.

And if he did come back… Perhaps with company. Hey, there’s this guy down there by himself with some nice-looking gear…

mangrove tree night nudgee creek

I’m a notoriously slow packer; not this night. But it was an odd dance I did, packing everything up one-handed, quiet as possible, headlamp squeezed into the other hand with just a crack of light, plus the moon, for illumination, and punctuated every half-minute with another step out to the middle to scan as far down the walkway as I could manage.

I debated moving into the park and bedding down somewhere in the open, but what if he followed me? And anyway, the fun had followed that creep outta there. With a knife in each pocket I hauled on the pack and held my tripod over one shoulder, clasping the folded legs with both hands like it was a baseball bat.

It was 10:00.

young mangroves nudgee beach night

That path through the trees was the worst, a few hundred metres, headlamp off, trying to anticipate every spot a homicidal youth might lurk.

Reaching the park, I swung onto the main street and started homeward, head swirling with a mix of nostalgia (That’s the spot I got the bee sting and the lady came out of the house to help…), regret, anger and deep unease.

I passed our old place and was soon on the lonesome stretch of road heading out of town through the mangrovey plains.

A couple of cars passed but I was no longer as nervous. I could easily outmatch any driver who cared to stop and get out. Fight-or-flight is a useful friend, and I knew these woodlands and marshes. Good luck to any loser who tried to get me in there.

I turned to check behind every minute or so for the rest of the journey, even when I reached the Wetlands and turned in to negotiate a long, relentless hour of dark woods, rustling things, croaks and squawks, a golden orb web netted across my face and a rain shower requiring a stop to find my umbrella.

I kept the headlamp off the whole way home.

I was almost out of the woods, in more ways than one, when I realised it was midnight…

screenshot phone 2

..distant fireworks went off and cheers and laughter erupted from a few otherwise dormant suburban streets.

Happy New Year.

A glimpse of fireworks between some houses; a few kids ran onto the road with sparklers, giggling — they saw me, stopped giggling and ran right back inside. When I made it home at 12:20, the walking app on my phone told me this:

mmm

I was a little footsore and depressed but looking forward to a shower, soap, a clean shirt and a soft bed and a door with a lock on it.

Plus, of course, all the other good stuff 2015 had in store…

Hope your New Year’s was less exciting than mine! Have a great 2015!

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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29 Comments

  1. Happy New Year. Thanks for all the marvelous photos you have been sharing with us. You are such a wanderer!

  2. Kate says

    What a story! Though before I went to pick you up at JFK in Dec 2012, my brother told me you had some great stories to tell. He said it was funny that the strangest things happened to you. He told me a story about the PCT and some cow skulls or something…that might be a story for another day though. I also feel like you should mention who else slept in that Morten Island bunker with you…cause honestly I didn’t think spiders got that big. Seriously.
    As always, your pictures are fantastic and your talent for photography and story telling is amazing. Your amazing not my amazing…you know what I mean. Really amazing not everyday amazing.

    • Thanks for the really amazing comment, Kate!

      Yeah, that incident with the bones — they were reasonably fresh as well, not sun-bleached, and there was a whole backbone as well as a skull, all draped over the gate with “KEEP OUT!” painted over it. You meet the best people when you travel. I should add that I was (again) a little intoxicated, and also, quite disconcertingly, utterly lost and alone on a deserted dirt road in the middle of the desert — at night.

      Still, it ended well. And I got a good story.

      That spider was the size of a goddamn frisbee. Well, it gets a little bigger every time I tell it, but I tell you it owns that bunker!

  3. Just to show it’s not only solo women wanderers that have weird encounters in strange places, here’s a guy with one. Two of my strangest: the public bus breaking down on the busy highway in the middle of the Jordanian desert, me walking with a bus full of non-english speakers, with most of the women in Hajib, to a town I didn’t know the name of. I stuck with the most conservative scarf-wearing woman and walked beside her, talking as if we were friends. She completely ignored me, but it was a good enough ruse for the walk…of course, then I got lost four more times that day due to transportation malfunctions, before ending up eating dinner with a family at their home because I was too illiterate in local custom to know that I was supposed to say no at least seven times when they asked if I wanted to eat dinner with them. Oops.

    • Yeah, I feel bad for women who travel alone in the outdoors, but inspired by those who do. I did think, “What if I was a woman in that situation?” but now having read Alex’s comment, I think I might have been better off! (Assuming I knew the truth, and I suspect he may be right about this place.)

      Cultural faux pas is my speciality! One lesson I learned during my Japanese peregrinations is my golden rule of travel there: Never assume that because a Japanese person invites you to dinner/stay the night, it means they really want you to say yes!

    • Thank you! Though I must stress, it’s a perfectly enjoyable spot to explore (if you like mangroves and wetlands as I do) — in daylight hours! Also: by not actually being there, you get the pictures without the mosquitos.

  4. Carl says

    Great post, had me anxious reading it! Funny how these potentially dangerous situations occur close to home.

    • Thanks. Yeah, I now believe I understand what happened, thanks to Alex, but it’s true I feel far safer (as a rule) in the outdoors or outright wilderness than anywhere near humans and roads. (Provided said outdoor areas don’t come with grizzlies, crocs, large cats or sharks.)

  5. Alex says

    Um, I’m not sure if you were aware of this, but you were at a gay beat and you probably freaked out a horny punter more than he freaked you out!! He was probably trying to determine whether you were up for a bit of nookie… maybe if you’d had two bottles of gin you would have had more of happy (new year’s) ending!

    • God damn it, is nowhere safe anymore?! Remind me never to participate in any online “birding” forums! “Nabbed me a nice Great Egret this evening” — yikes.

      I thought it was suspicious that he wasn’t carrying binoculars or a good-quality guidebook. Poor bugger no doubt had a worse New Year’s than I did, but I’m sure a replacement venue for his nefarious activities was only a short drive away. Though he did seem a little too intoxicated to drive — perhaps it was a bit of Dutch courage?

      I really need to approach Brisbane City Council about producing a nice Beats of the Greater Brisbane Area pamphlet for those of us old-timers who still like to patronise public toilets, parks and bird hides for their original purposes!

  6. I’d rather camp in a remote wilderness spot any day than places around Brisbane and Ipswich! There are too many creepers around the city areas. The same with actually hiking. I’ve had no bad experiences in distant national parks, but a few scary incidents in reserves/parks within the city area. I pity the homeless who have to live on the streets at night. It must be a very fearful existence. How can they sleep?

    Anyway, despite the frightening experience, it made for an entertaining blog post and you’ll probably remember it forever. You also scored a great collection of pictures as well. Enjoying that new tripod I see! I bet you didn’t think you were buying a potential weapon when you purchased it… Happy new year! 🙂

    • Agreed. There have been half a dozen or more murders on the Appalachian Trail over the decades, but as someone pointed out, try drawing a line 2,175 miles long anywhere in the world with that little violence along it. One thing I liked about Japan and Korea is that I never worried about the human threat there. I think even for women it’s a lot safer than here and other western places.

      Remote areas are usually safe. Most hikers are good people who look after each other. The golden rule is never sleep anywhere near a road crossing if possible — you need to go at least half a mile in. Most psychos and general deadbeats are lazy opportunists. That said, I broke my own rule here, and learned a valuable lesson about not camping at dead ends either.

  7. P.S. I dare you to stealth camp at Slaughter Falls, Mt Coot-tha…I’ve just been researching it for my blog post. Sounds extra creepy. 🙂

    • Another eerie place I’ve camped was next to a high-elevation pond near Mt Amagi on the Izu peninsula, Japan. Students told me spooky stories about a woman committing suicide by drowning in it, or something. I also camped at the mouth of a long, dark, old road tunnel lower down the mountain. Dared myself to walk through it at night. It was a long walk, maybe half a mile in blackness. Later that night a single car drove through it from the far side — I’d thought it was disused! Scared the crap outta me as I was camped on the only flat ground, right near the road.

  8. Penny says

    Oh Alex, that is funny! Anyway, Happy New Year Ian, we spent a few days at Woodford hanging out with Jackie, martine and Mandy, watching the Violent Femmes, was lots of fun. Hope 2015 is good for you x

    • Thanks, Penny. Haven’t been to Woodford in decades, not my scene these days, prefer to take my chances with the deviants in the dark than brave all those hippies and folk musicians!

      Have a good 2015 yourself.

  9. Ah, Goat! –After Alex’s comment my perilous concern for you has turned into a raucous laugh and chuckling smile.

    You heartbreaker, you, Goat!😂😂 That guy thought he’d found his date for New Years Eve and you had to go and spoil it!! Ba-Ha-ha-ha!! (So that’s why your not with Kate at the moment!! –You dog, you!!!)

    Go get ’em, Goat! Happy picnicking in 2015!

    Darius

  10. I’m sorry, Goat! But Alex’s comment just gave me the laugh of the Century!!

    After reading along with your latest adventure, and my hairs standing on end with concern for your welfare…now Alex putting the whole episode into perspective…([Me whispering]: Does Kate know?)

    The Shadow thought he’d found his date for New Years!!! You ‘ol heartbreaker, you, Goat!

    So THAT’s why your not in America with Kate!!

    Be who you are brother! (You rascal you!!!)

    Happy midnight rambling on 2015!!

    Best, as always,

    Darius

    • I had a laugh too, Darius, but it was a melancholy laugh as I reflected that the old home town had come of age at last…

      Heheh, yes, it’s possible this whole tale was an elaborate cover for my true purpose that fateful night. You read it here first, Kate!

      All the best on your rambles in 2015, mate!

  11. I bet you the other guy has done a entry on his blog about this insane , freaky guy sleeping in a bird hide on new years eve ….apparently waiting for the sunrise. I’m sure his story mentions he was happy to get out of there with his life. Of course, he couldn’t find a place to shag his girlfriend, which is what he was scouting for in the first place. So, his New Years didn’t start with a “bang” either.

    • Frank, it’s quite possible I’m now mentioned on an online forum for folks who look for love in all the wrong places. See Alex’s comment for some humorous perspective — doesn’t look like he was looking for a girl-friend…

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