The Honeyeaters’ Tree

Travel Book Cover

Suddenly homeless and beyond mid-life, a British birdwatcher takes off for the Antipodes. He’s looking for the 73 species of honeyeater. In the process he uncovers the tree of life and the landscapes of Australia and New Zealand. He learns how the tree of life connects all the planet’s species and how one of them threatens it like rarely before.

The author flies via Singapore to a week around Perth. As 2008 turns into 2009, he drives two months in a campervan from Adelaide to Cairns, Queensland.

The route skirts floods and cyclones. A fortnight in Tasmania and Victoria, with its fatal fires, concludes the Australian leg. New Zealand then offers a coda with its own branch of the family. Railways, cities and culture shock play cameo roles throughout.

Not just about birds, the trip is a last chance to witness other survivors from the Triassic as they struggle against the latest mass extinction.

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That’s the impression of Western Australia from the air, the very ground rusting away, contrasting with the Indian Ocean blue as my flight followed the coast down to Perth. Not a town to be seen for hundreds of kilometres until the grids of civilisation appeared within a boomerang-throw of the capital. Perth was upon us, and the plane was down and passengers were out of the terminal faster than Adam Gilchrist bats his way to a century.

I had booked the shuttle bus downtown, which surprised the driver, who was prepared to hang around until the last body had squeezed out of the airport. This gave me time to identify welcome swallows, so at least the birds were pleased to see me; and I had finally hit summer after a couple of dismal UK washouts.

The bus bounced into the city, over the Swan River, home to silver gulls, and past the WACA, home to cricketers. A kid sitting in front of me clicked his camera phone at everything. He had flown from Britain in one and was hyper from lack of sleep. He snapped the cricket ground without having any idea what it was – cute.

The remainder of the day only gave me time to eat but it was light enough, while I sought out a restaurant, to register par­rots. In the square outside the hostel they were screeching and zipping between trees. The birds were too fast to identify but their calls were familiar; I couldn’t quite pin them down. A disappointing nasi goreng preceded bed, perchance to sleep.

Or not, as it happened.

Some ten thousand species of bird inhabit this planet. Every year a few dedicated souls manage to see a sizeable fraction of them but I had spent thirteen years bumbling up to a world life list of 849. This trip, principally to Australia, pushed me over the magic thousand mark and provided 41 types of honeyeater as a diversion. I had been promising myself a return to the country for a few years since spending a mere week there on my long way round, back from California in 2003. The landscapes and the birds had captivated me. I needed to see more of both.

The trip would never have happened but for the combin­ation of a mental landlady and her psychopath son. I was left homeless in Edinburgh, which is not a pretty prospect, and had to decamp to my mate Dave’s house in Redditch. This seemed the perfect platform from which to launch Round-the-World Mark Two.

I needed a route. Wandering aimlessly is not my style. Certainly, I wanted to take in Perth, and Queensland was a must. How to fill in the gap between? I also needed a quest, apart from generally boosting my life list. The 73 species of Meliphagidae honeyeaters, a very Australian family of birds, would do. I would try to see most of them.

Dave’s copy of Graham Pizzey’s field guide took a hammer­ing, then later my own green-jacketed Simpson & Day, retrieved from storage after my 2003 visit. From this welter of distribution information a route began to emerge: the south coast of Western Australia; Adelaide to Cape York via the outback; and Tasmania. That way I figured half a dozen definite misses and half a dozen species at the extreme edge of their range (which would therefore be unlikely).

The pool of data grew with acquisition of the Lonely Planet book. By some serendipity, Birmingham Central Library held the only site guide to the country, Where to Find Birds by John Bransbury. The pool became a lake. I tapped what I could into my PDA – birds, sites, hotels…

To make accommodation easier I opted to hire a campervan for the eight-week Adelaide-Cairns leg. Then only campsites would be an issue. It also solved the problem of school and Christmas holidays cutting through the middle of my tour. I needed the widest possible choice of lodgings and I didn’t want to be hunting around for motels in the outback.

Would a van be cost-effective against renting a car? It seemed so but in the event there was nothing in it: unforeseen expenses cropped up. On the plus side, I did surprise myself by spending every night bar one in the van; I had expected at least a few in the comfort of bricks and mortar.

I was set. Now I had only to buy the tickets, and pay for them.

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