This is a guest article by Cameron Amos.
I am awake well before the sun will appear from the east; it is dark and cold. Eerie silence, street lights and condensed breath greet me at my destination, Lilydale. Why Lilydale? Here I am to meet Paul, an aquatic ecologist, whom I am to assist in conducting fish surveys throughout the Dandenong Ranges.
I jump into Paul’s four-wheel drive and soon we are hurtling towards the ranges. We pass through the pleasantries and Paul looks at me coyly from the driver’s seat. “Our first site”, he begins slowly – then swallows, hesitates, rubs his forehead – “is at a nudist colony.”
A what! My mind races. What does a nudist colony mean? Surely no nudist in their right mind will be walking around the creek, starkers, in this temperature. But it is Easter Saturday; who knows how people might celebrate or commiserate this day? I respond with a mumbled acknowledgement: “That’s fine.” Well, I have no choice, now that I am travelling with haste, as the sun rises, towards our first site.
We travel in silence as we drive up the increasing gradient into the hills of the Dandenongs. A couple of sharp turns and we are there, facing a well-built, steel-gated, unmarked driveway in thick, old-growth forest. The call is made to one of the residents and we wait for the gate to be manually opened. Both of us are silent in our wonder – or is that fear? – of what or how the resident could be greeting us. A shadowy figure emerges from the gloom of the greying light. A jumper, some track pants and a cheerful lady in her mid-to-late sixties approaches the gate. We both exhale our relief in too loud a manner as the woman opens the gate. Paul chats to her about our plans and how long we intend to take.
We drive through. It looks like a school holiday camp. Small one- and two-bedroom shacks are dotted all over. Signs line the road, showing the quaint road names, speed limits, and where the games room is located. We pass an upright volleyball net near the games room. Both of us let out a synchronised immature giggle, like we are schoolchildren.
We arrive at the site and get organised to sample the section of the creek. I prepare myself, putting waders on, pulling out the buckets, bins and fish ruler. My mind is conscious of the knowledge that there may be nude people outside the periphery of my vision. Like some impending zombie attack. I try not to get too hung up on it – just like the impulse to ignore “do not press the red button”, the urge to gawk and stare around the complex is irrepressible. We commit to little chat as we prepare the backpack electrofisher to undertake the survey in the small tributary.
The backpack electrofisher uses pulses of electricity to attract fish towards the appliance, and as they are drawn closer, the pulse stuns the fish. Once stunned, fish return to consciousness quickly. My job as assistant to Paul is to act as netter. The job of the netter is to catch the stunned fish before it returns to consciousness or gets washed downstream. At the same time, I am required to carry a bucket with recovering fish, climb over large fallen trees, dodge or climb over slimy, waterlogged snags, power through gumboot-deep mud and try not to trip and fall into the creek. Most important of all: don’t drop the bucket of fish back into the creek.
We quickly move through the site and collect short-finned eels (Anguilla australis), river blackfish (Gadopsis marmoratus) and mountain galaxias (Galaxias olidius). All the time my eyes are darting around in search of obstructions, trip hazards and stunned fish, whilst the distracting possibility of some goose-bumped flesh (that being a curious resident) interrupts my concentration.
We finish in an hour. I’m sure there’s a nudist about to appear out of thin air and surprise me, but no. No one. We hop in the car and we’re off. Paul rings the lady to let her know we’ve finished and that we’ll lock the gate behind us. “No, it’s okay, we’re okay, we don’t need a cup of tea, thanks for the offer.” He hangs up and we both look at each other. I imagine calling into their shack for a cup of tea. Is it polite to enter a nudist’s home with clothes on? Would we be asked to de-robe? Fortunately, we didn’t accept the offer; too busy, too many sites to complete, or something like that.
As though we stole the ute, we burn out of the driveway and the ute fishtails as Paul presses exuberantly on the accelerator.
At the next site we are greeted by a driveway full of wood carvings. Paul curls the car around the back of the property and we park. He races to the back door to let the landowner know we’re here, while I stay and wait in the car. I look around the property. Above the ute, glaring at me like the Eye of Mordor, is a timber-carved eagle. Paul jumps in after a few minutes of me locking eyes with the angry wooden raptor. The GPS is fished out of the glovebox and it tells us where to head – that being some random direction where tracks have not been made and cars have never been. We park in the middle of a paddock on a slope that is asking the handbrake big questions.
We bash our way through a mangled, gnarled, old and seemingly impenetrable tea-tree stand. With a few more scratches than we had before, we get to the stream and begin the electrofishing. After two hours of grunting, groaning and pushing through overgrown vegetation, we’re done and we head back to the car. It’s late in the day and I’m grateful that we're finished. My body aches with the climbing and vegetation bulldozing, and I look forward to a shower. When we have parked in front of the angry eagle, Paul goes inside again. The eagle glares at me. I shy away this time, unable to hold the staring competition.
Paul’s back in. “Right,” he says, “one more site.” Eh?! Another surprise. We race off, trying to beat the setting sun, which is now just a sliver of light to the west, penetrating through the tree giants, leaving perpendicular orange slots along the road.
The next site is accessed from a landowner’s home that sits on the ridge of a valley. We turn the headlights on and start the trip through the paddocks towards the creek. It’s darker than dusk but lighter than night. In this light, there’s no dodging the small mounds and gutters and the car heaves and bounces like an angry rodeo bull at each change in elevation, pushing us up and down against our seat belts. Eventually, battered, shaken and thankfully not stirred, we make it to the bottom. Under the moon, squinting in the hope of light, we finish the site.
It’s late in the evening. I am back in my own car, starving, heading for home, smelling of fish and sweat and feeling a whole-body exhaustion, both mentally and physically. This has been the strangest day of my life as an aquatic ecologist. I will never forget it.
Cameron Amos is an aquatic ecologist of 17 years who currently works for a consultancy. When he's not chasing fish with an electrofisher, you may find him locking eyes with macroinvertebrates.
Banner image courtesy of Uzman Naleer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.