I'm sure there are many Alice Rivers in Australia. Mine is just north of Townsville, where it runs from the Mount Frederick Range in the west over a flat area with bush and grazing lands, and then on to the ocean. It runs right by the property of my sister and brother-in-law in Rupertswood where I have spent quite a bit of time the last couple of years, and thus it has become my river. I have walked up and down its beds and banks in all seasons, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others, and most times with Ferbie, Puppy and Fifi - two labs and a chihuahua.
Alice isn't only my river, in many respect it's my Australia - it has the colours, the landscapes and the wildlife to be the perfect image of this exciting continent. Of course, the beaches of Magnetic Island and the rain forest creeks of Paluma are more spectacular, but Alice River and its semi-dry bush will always hold the essence of Australia in my view.
Coming down from my sisters house the river is almost at its widest. The riverbed, I should say, because most of the year there really isn't much of a flow. In between the high banks, 25-30 feet above, the bed is mostly dry and weeds and trees, flowers and bushes are grabbing hold to the soil in hope of not getting washed away by the next rains. The water is mostly in smaller or bigger pools between the pebbles, rocks and the sand. Alongside the beds are paths, mostly trodden by cattle that come down once a day to drink. Even in the dry season the riverbanks are quite lush, most greenery being eucalyptuses whose white trunks set the colour along with the pale ochre of the soil and rocks.
It's a wonderfully peaceful place. You might hear a dog or some voices once in a while, or a distant car, but mostly you're pretty much alone with the rustling of leaves, the birds and the cicadas. The cicadas can certainly be loud sometimes, but it's a sound that belongs here and even adds a rhythm to the atmosphere.
The dogs love this walk. When we get down to the river they jump into the nearest pool of water right away. Fifi, the little chihuahua, tries to impress the labs by jumping in fearlessly if not always convincingly. After some minutes along the banks we take one of the side paths up to the flat bush land above, where we keep our eyes alert for kangaroos and wallabies. Their 'thump, thump, thump' is a familiar sound here, when they jump away after hearing the trespassers. The dogs get all excited and track them for a short, hectic while before we continue.
The tiny path finds its way under some scattered, tall eucalyptuses, by bush and grass, and around the termite mounds and we arrive at the wide, open, grassy pasture. Most times the cattle can be seen way over on the other side, and sometimes kangaroos will stretch their necks and point their rabbit's ears in our direction. I've also run into some more irregular visitors at times: a large black-necked stork walking royally around the middle of the pasture, and another time at the same spot, three brolgas looking for delicacies on the ground. High above us kites and buzzards are circling, trying to spot a suitably sized meal, while Fifi wisely sticks very close to my heels.
The cattle have produced a web of paths criss-crossing the open landscape, and I think we always ended up on a new one before making our way down to the riverbed again, a bit further up-'stream'. While the dogs run back and forth from bank to bank - now in the river, now following tracks in and out of the bush - I stroll back in the sand of the riverbed and along the path on the side. I love the trunks of the eucalyptuses down here. Some white and straight like columns, some lying in and across the river, having fallen over in last years flood - or maybe years ago, and some twisted and bent. Some are pale and smooth, while some are shredded and torn with their paper bark hanging down in strips. Together they flank the boulevard on which we are walking.
Once in a while a kookaburra laughs at us passers by from a branch, and cockatoos - both the white and the black, corellas and parrots fly by and make a stop in the treetops. There are always herons and egrets, and of course ibises. Some more rare birds are also attracted to the river: I once came across two pheasant coucals and once I surprised a big striated heron only ten-fifteen feet away. Beautiful birds and here you are often rewarded for not being a noisy walker.
In '07 the wet season was back to normal, they say, after many years with too little rain. Normal means a lot of rain - it means 'The Big Wet'! Alice River rises several meters when the rain keeps pouring down for some days and my hiking grounds are suddenly unrecognisable. The water flow is fast, bank sides are undermined and soil and trees fall into the current. The water overwhelms all ones senses: you hear it, you feel it, my glasses get all fogged and my feet wet, and I worry about the dogs getting too close to the river. It's a spectacle. It's nature. We are small!
After the Wet the river slowly and gradually returns to a manageable size, and after a few weeks we venture to cross it again. Where the sand reappears it is flattened and furrowed by the flow of the water, branches and big tree trunks are strewn in the river and all around, and debris of leaves, twigs and whatever is everywhere - some places hanging in branches metres above the river.
The open pasture has also changed greatly. The grass now grew greener and higher, reaching up to five feet, and I had a hard time keeping an eye on the dogs. Some big flowers with long, thin, white petals could be seen by some termite mounds, and the kangaroos obviously enjoyed the green transformation, sticking their heads up again, seemingly more relaxed in the high grass.
Back at the house the dogs collapse in their baskets, totally drained of energy. I settle with a beer in a chair on the deck, happy to have gotten today's exercise, and once again to have taken in all the impressions from my river. When I travel around I visit many new places, often spectacular and they remain memories for life, but it's different, yet equally good, to have places to come back to. Places where you can enjoy both recognition and the small changes from day to day, week to week, from season to season. For me Alice River has become such a place, and even while I'm writing this at a desk in the opposite corner of the world, I know I'll get back there in not too many years and walk the same paths again. I'm looking forward to that.