A hurtful blue sky reflects on the mill pond lagoon. Old gnarly gums reach out of the heat haze on the distant shore. Closer, poking up out of the water like giant spikes on an echidna, are millions of reeds. Some are green and some browned off by the summer heat. A magpie goose squawks in front of me - alerting his friends of my presence. Any number of other waterbirds shelter from the heat, hidden among the maze of reeds. You can hear them shifting in their hidey holes.
"People travel the world to experience something similar on an organised tour - they go a thousand miles to see something they could see in our backyard," says Robert Hunt, who is exploring the fringes of this picturesque lagoon with me.
Suddenly the sounds of nature are broken by a semi-trailer as it rattles past. We're at Rowes Lagoon Rest Area on the busy Federal Highway, about 50 minutes north of Canberra. Anyone who has driven this well-travelled stretch of bitumen regularly would be familiar with this small lagoon which, like nearby Lake George, completely dried out during the last drought, but right now it's full of water, and teeming with wildlife.
There are birds everywhere, such as the commonly occurring swamphens, swans and lapwings. Threatened species are occasionally spotted here, including the blue-billed duck and swamp harrier. Although it's an official roadside rest area, some birds such as the Latham's Snipe use this wetland as a bit of a rest stop of their own. I reckon this short-legged, stocky bird endures a slightly longer trip than most motorists who stop here to stretch their legs or use the facilities. The Latham's Snipe is a trans-equatorial migrant that breeds in Japan and China and sometimes visits here in the warmer months.
But it's not just birds - large stencilled warning signs on the picnic shelters warn of snakes. "This place is literally crawling with tiger and brown snakes," says Hunt, who has lived near the lagoon for the past 15 years but has only had the grazing license for the area, which includes the lagoon, for the past 12 months. Part of the conditions of Hunt's licence require him to manage noxious weeds and preserve the integrity of the site by fencing it off and not grazing the lakebed, nor its fringe.
"Just last week I sat on the hill and watched a white-bellied sea eagle fly in," marvels Hunt, clearly relishing his conservation responsibility for this lagoon.
"Often I'll come and sit by the edge of the lagoon at dawn or dusk and soak up the atmosphere. You could be anywhere - that is, until you hear the traffic!"
OF DRAGONS AND THE SPHINX
While wandering through the woodland of Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Ross Young of Giralang recently encountered this dragon tree which, thankfully for him, wasn't breathing fire. Can you make out its eye, and long jaws ready to chomp?
Meanwhile, Philip Eliason of Red Hill isn't so certain that the headland hidden among the rocky outcrops of Eurobodalla National Park should be referred to as Queen Victoria Rock (Mystery Solved, December 15).
"I and my young daughters used to regularly walk along that section of coast in the late afternoon. At the end of the beach, at certain moments the headland very closely resembles the Sphinx," says Eliason, who diplomatically adds, "in pure silhouette like in your photo, it can seem like Queen Vic, but seeing the shadows and lines of the face itself it is closer to the Sphinx."
Often facing a long walk home, Eliason confesses that he often coaxed his girls to turn around by suggesting, "The Sphinx might come to life after the sun sets". It seemed to work - "the imagination would take over and the two girls would worry, and we would put some fast distance between us and the imposing Sphinx as dusk fell", Eliason recalls.
The exceptionally long (and, sadly, dead) diamond python (Morelia spilota) recently featured in this column's expose´ on the beaches near Mystery Bay (Mystery Solved, December 15), isn't the only large creature you might encounter along this spectacular stretch of coast.
"Some years ago", while fossicking along the coast between Mystery Bay and 1080 Beach, Peter Bolger and his family stumbled across "large scats filled with pieces of Little Penguin [Eudyptula minor]."
Thinking it might be a wayward leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx) the next day, the Bolger clan "set out to try and find it".
It didn't take them long. After a short rock hop, the Bolgers found it just north of 1080 Beach, on a small shingle beach between rocks. "It was fast asleep so we all gathered to admire its bulk and its evident power," Bolger recalls.
Despite warning everyone not to get too close to the sleeping beauty, "suddenly young Clancy, then aged six or seven, confidently strode forward and patted the head of the monster".
Bolger says, "Everyone held their breath as Clancy approached,'' but, thankfully, "the monster-sized seal raised its head into a nose-vertical position and yawned immensely, like anyone's favourite labrador".
Bolger reports that when they returned the next day, it had vanished and he wonders if anyone else has seen a sea leopard (as they are also known) along our south coast.
Leopard seals are not commonly found this far north, as they prefer the waters of south Antarctica. They can grow up to four metres long and weigh almost half a tonne, so if you do encounter one, I'd strongly recommend you keep your distance. Stan Gorton, this column's south coast beach hound, reports that "Clancy was really lucky he didn't get his arm bitten off - they are pretty docile creatures but they have huge teeth!"
Gorton remembers at least one other sea leopard making landfall on his patch. "One washed up at Kianga [just north of Narooma] a couple of years ago, everyone thought it was dead and the council turned up with a tractor to bury it, but it was still alive - just exhausted."
PS: Happy New Year to all. This column relies (and thrives!) on your regular contributions of unusual photos, quirky stories and local secrets. Keep them coming in 2013 by whatever means of communication suits you best.