Friends of the Far North Flying Foxes Inc
Walking the Plank
(from the FFNFF Newsletter, Edition 3, October 1996)
The shrill ringing of the alarm woke me. It was 6.30 am and both dogs were standing in the bedroom doorway, waiting for me to climb out of bed. For them, it was walkies, for me, log walking practice. I dressed quickly and went outside. It was overcast with a slight drizzle falling, ideal conditions for practising crossing fallen logs. We, (the dogs & I) made our way up to the nearby quarry where many large trees had been felled by the bulldozer to clear the area for extraction of the rocks used for road maintenance.
I chose a couple of small trees at first, quite narrow in diameter and only a few inches off the ground. Chicken feed!! I crossed them at a brisk pace, reaching the end and jumping down with great satisfaction. Now for the bigger one, the one with the long uphill sloping trunk, and the large bump in the middle, the one that bowed over in a great arch, four feet off the ground. I approached it with confidence, stepped onto the end and started to cross in a sideways shuffle, making my way up the slope towards the bump then over it and down the slope to the end, with just a slight wobble or two along the way. Piece of cake!!!
I was crossing logs every morning now without a hitch. I never fell off, maybe a slight hesitation here or there, but I always managed to regain my balance before toppling over the edge. I was ready. For what? You may ask.
It all began a couple of weeks earlier. I had telephoned Ann to tell her I would like to join her on one of the twice daily searches she and her family and any willing volunteers did of the flying fox colony at Whiteing road. "Yes" she had said, "Volunteers are always welcome".
I arrived at the Johnson's in time for the afternoon search. The car was already packed with whicker baskets to carry the unfortunate tick victims and their babies if any, towels, syringes and bottles of tick antitoxin, combs and tweezers for removing the eggs and maggots of the ever persistent flies that struck the paralysed flying foxes virtually the minute they hit the ground. We climbed into the car and were off. Ann chatted all the way to the colony. She was excited about a new route that Alan Williamson had forged through the forest. Instead of a 20 minute walk along a track that skirted a nearby dairy farm, off limits to searchers, Alan had found a quicker way across the river, straight down from the road where we parked the car.
We arrived at the colony. Ann and her daughters, Isabelle and Elspeth and myself gathered up the baskets and we set off through the opening in the forest, beside the road. We snaked down through the muddy forest in single file, Ann extolling the virtues of this new track. Thanks to Alan's efforts it now only took 6 minutes to reach the flying foxes.
The leeches were plentiful, as always just after rain, clinging to our shoes and even falling out of the trees onto us. I knew how to deal with them though. Ann had shown me how to roll them between the forefinger and thumb and then flick them away. We had tucked our shirts into our trousers to prevent scrub itch from getting under our clothing and wore hats to shield our hair from falling bat excreta. We chatted as we made our way down the hill approaching the Beatrice River.
Suddenly, the undergrowth cleared and we were standing on the banks above the fast flowing water. My heart sank. Before us, stretching from where we stood across to the other side of the river, a massive tree on the river's edge had collapsed, spanning the water and forming a convenient bridge. The bank dropped steeply away in front of us, so the log for the first few feet was high above ground. It then sloped gently down towards the water and crossed the river a couple of feet above the surface.
"You're not going to tell me this is the only way across," I said to Ann.
"Yes" she answered enthusiastically. "Wasn't it thoughtful of this tree to fall just where we needed it". I could feel my knees already becoming weak and I had a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. "Alan has even cut notches in the bark to make it less slippery." She rattled on.
"There is no way I will be able to cross this log," I said firmly.
"It's as easy as failing off a log," said Isabelle and Elspeth in unison, quoting a volunteer by the name of David, as they both skipped across to the other side. Ann then proceeded to show me various ways that I might be able to cross. Shuffling sideways; walking slowly with arms extended out for balance; even running quickly over so as not to give myself time to think about it.
I felt terrible. I had been enthusiastic about the search and really wanted to be involved in rescuing the flying foxes, not just fostering the babies. I said to Ann that I would wait on this side of the river while her and the girls searched the colony.
"No. You can't give up now," she said. "We will cross together. I will hold your hand and help you across".
Ann stepped onto the log and I followed clinging to her arm. We shuffled sideways slowly, Ann asking me trivial questions and me answering with equally trivial answers, as a diversion. Down the sloping section at the beginning, then straight across to the small bump in the middle, we shuffled, "How was the party last night? How did the holiday go?", both of us talking continuously, saying anything to keep my mind occupied. The knot in the centre caused me some concern and we wobbled precariously for a second or two, but soon regained our balance without mishap. Then we were on the flatter stretch leading to the bank. Here the log widened and was only an inch or so above the water and we crossed this section with ease.
"There!" said Ann triumphantly. "You did it! It gets easier the more you do it." I stood on the bank with trembling knees trying not to think that after the search of the colony, we had to repeat that terrifying experience all over again to get back to the car.
For the next couple of hours, I forgot all about the log, the search of the colony taking up all my attention. The stricken flying foxes lying in the leaf litter on the forest floor were hard to spot. One had to keep a watch out for the barbed tendrils of "wait- a-while" and the furry heart-shaped leaves of the stinging bush. Both inflicted painful wounds on the unwary.
As soon as an unfortunate tick victim was found, it was taken to Ann for its anti-toxin injection. The tick had to be located and dispensed with and any fly eggs or maggots removed with combs and tweezers. The animals were then placed in the baskets ready for the journey home. We carried two adults with their babies and four unattached babies out with us that afternoon.
By the time we reached the river bank, it was dusk and we needed to hurry if we were to get back to the car before the light disappeared altogether. The log lay waiting and had to be dispensed with. The girls crossed first, carrying a basket each. Ann said she would help me cross as she had done before. My knees once more turned to jelly as we set off, shuffling along the wide stretch just above the water. We reached the bump in the log and I froze. We were about half way across, teetering over the water. Even Ann's diversionary chatter didn't help me now. The log sloped steeply upwards, seemingly stretching forever out of sight into the darkness on the far bank. It was then I decided I would only be able to manage if I sat astride the log, as if riding a horse. I was at home on horse back. I dropped onto my bottom and dragged myself up the steep section bit by bit.
I had not realised how difficult it would be for me to haul my own weight up the slope. Jeans ripped and tore over the rough bark and it seemed to take forever. When I finally reached the fractured base of the trunk, the forest was in almost complete darkness and the bats were circling above in silhouette against the night sky.
Demoralised and ashamed, I followed the others up through the gloomy forest to the car.
It was on my walk to the quarry the next morning, that I decided once and for all, to master log crossing. I was determined that a mere "state of mind" would never get the better of me again. Two weeks later, practice perfect, I was ready for any log that would come my way. I could help search the flying fox colony with confidence. I rang Ann.
"Do you need a hand to search this afternoon?" 1 asked confidently.
"Volunteers are always welcome." she replied. "By the way, Alan has found a new track into the colony. He discovered a way to cross the river over the rocks. You will never have to cross the log again. We've named it "Jude's track". I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.