Photo : Suzi Bond
Unusually for someone living in Australia, I have never had a driver’s licence. I’m a great believer in public transport and try to support it whenever possible, despite my enduring love/hate relationship with Sydney’s train system. In addition, I’m rather uncoordinated and likely to be a menace to society if I were ever to get behind a steering wheel, so in the interest of public safety I’ve avoided taking driving lessons.
To reach many butterfly sites I had to travel as far as I could by train and/or bus, and then walk the rest of the way. On many, many occasions I have had to hike for some hours to reach a particular spot; this combination of butterflies and hiking led to my wife’s son Christopher coining the term Butterhiking. The name stuck and it is still what I call my eccentric hobby; it is also the title for the book I am endeavouring to write.
As I live in Sydney most of my Butterhiking trips have been to nearby locations, mainly within the metropolitan area and the Blue Mountains, though my silly hobby has taken me to many other parts of Australia. Since far north Queensland is home to the greatest number of butterfly species it’s not surprising that I’ve been to Cairns about a dozen times, whilst I’ve also made trips to Lockhart River and Townsville. I’ve been Butterhiking in every state of Australia except Victoria, strangely enough.
I’ve seen and photographed a lot of interesting and beautiful butterflies, as well as some very boring ones, but the process of obtaining all these photos has not been free of incident. Over the years I’ve had plenty of amusing misadventures, several of which involve me hurting and/or embarrassing myself, and it occurred to me that a book about these experiences might make interesting reading. I have therefore been endeavouring to write said book. It’s been an On Again / Off Again project, but so far I have put down about 75,000 words and chosen plenty of photos for inclusion. If I ever get round to completing it I’ll look into the possibility of getting it published. The working title is BUTTERHIKING : My Mad Quest To Photograph Australia’s Butterflies”.
The subjects covered in the book include :
- How I serendipitously got into butterfly photography when a Common Eggfly (Hypolimnas bolina) settled in my Sydney backyard shortly after I had bought my first digital camera.
- The time a man tried to hit on me while I was looking for butterflies in the bushland reserve near my home.
- My embarrassing, yet surprisingly effective, technique for avoiding snakes
- How a combination of dehydration and leech bites left me covered with blood and hopping up and down to combat excruciating leg cramps, to the great amusement of the people packed into my train carriage.
- Managing to avoid being eaten by Crocodiles in Cairns.
- Lust Lists.
- Ripping my trousers so badly that my backside was displayed for all to see, getting stung by a nettle tree, then caught in heavy rain, and finally catching a bus filled with teenaged girls who all laughed hysterically at the sight of my backside. All in one day.
- My first Small Ant-blue (Acrodipsas myrmecophila); a perfect female specimen which obligingly landed on the leg of my jeans and posed for a couple of photos.
- Photographing Blue Jewels (Hypochrysops delicia) whilst surrounded by a deafening crowd of Chinese tourists and their even louder tour guide.
- The fall that left me with a bruise on my hip that turned such a deep purple it could play the riff from “Smoke On The Water”.
- Spending 3 whole days trudging around mangrove swamps near Darwin to get a photo of one butterfly.
- Catching a ski lift to go Butterhiking on Mount Kosciuszko.
- My inability to distinguish between Left and Right when trying to give directions
- Spending 2 nights in a motel so disgusting even the cockroaches went to look for somewhere nicer.
- Man-eating ticks
- The sheer excitement of passing through Wyalkatchem, the famed Cradle of Bulk Handling in WA’s wheatbelt.
- Going Commando in Hobart (and other places)
- There are also plenty of bits describing how, when and where I found some of the butterflies I’ve photographed.
Here’s a short excerpt from one of the more finished parts of the book, covering an incident that occurred on my second trip to WA in the company of my Butterflying comrade-in-arms Derek :
A year later, Derek and I again made our way up the coast to the north of Perth. This time we took a little detour to visit The Pinnacles, a curious part of the Nambung National Park in which several thousand narrow limestone pillars rise about 3 metres from the ground. It’s a popular port of call on the tourist trail as it provides plenty of scope for interesting selfies. It’s worth Googling images of “The Pinnacles WA” as the search returns a host of very impressive photos of this moonscape. I didn’t take any, which is a shame because a colourful photo of the area would have looked really good at this point of my book.
The scenery was all well and good, but of course we were there for more important business, namely an attempt to get close-up shots of Satin Azures (Ogyris amaryllis). I’d seen photos posted online of these Azures settled low down in bushes around the Visitor Centre and car park, and as this butterfly usually flies high up around tree tops we thought this was an opportunity worth looking into.
The moment we got out of the car we were accosted by flies. Billions of flies. They were everywhere, and it was extremely aggravating as they were covering our faces and getting into our eyes, ears, noses and mouths. This was clearly a common occurrence here because, in addition to the usual paraphernalia, the souvenir shop sold fly nets designed to be worn over the head to keep pesky insects off. They worked well, except for one enterprising fly which wriggled its way inside my net and then buzzed around like a mad thing. I tried to swat it, but in a predictably slapstick moment I missed and hurt my nose instead.
With the help of our head nets we were able to look for the Satin Azures. It didn’t take long for Derek to spot one; it flew rapidly around the tops of the bushes and then settled, albeit much higher than we would have preferred. It’s unfortunate that these butterflies always close their wings when they land; their upper side is a dazzling iridescent blue which you can briefly glimpse as they fly at great speed above you, but upon landing they instantly close their wings so only the mottled grey underside is visible.
By standing on a low sandstone wall we were able to get one or two photos, though far from the close-ups we were hoping for. We decided to split up and search for more promising spots; I went across the carpark then followed the sealed road further up the hill, before cutting across to an unsealed, but firm and smooth, track of orange earth. I quickly got a photo of an amaryllis feeding from a flower at a reasonable height; he wasn’t a great specimen but I was hopeful there would be others around.
I have to admit, I’m not the world’s greatest multitasker and it seems that walking and looking for butterflies, whilst at the same time trying to ignore the fly inside my head net, was simply too much for me to process. The end of my right shoe caught in the blameless surface of the track and slowly, but surely, I began falling forwards. I tried flailing my arms around but gravity got the better of me and I realised that my slow-motion descent wasn’t going to end well. I had my precious camera in my hand; both it and the macro lens were quite expensive items. To avoid damaging anything important I deliberately kept my arms up, ensuring that my face broke the fall instead. It must have been funny to watch; the people in the 4WD vehicle passing close by certainly seemed to be enjoying it. I’m surprised they didn’t post a video on YouTube – it would have gone viral for sure.
Having been planted firmly into the bright orange dirt my face, deeply ingrained with coarse grit, was approximately the same colour as an Oompa Loompa, or even Donald Trump after a heavy session at the spray tan salon. I had a couple of bloody cuts and scrapes, to the great delight of the fly trapped inside my head net, so I hustled back to the car and made liberal use of the antiseptic cream in Derek’s first aid kit.
Over the next couple of days, I developed my first ever black eyes. At first only my left eye was affected but the right side soon caught up, leaving me looking like a Butterhiking panda.
As a joke, Derek suggested we should tell everyone I’d been in a bar fight. It seemed like a bit of a hard sell given my weedy physique –my arms and legs bear close resemblance to knotted string – as I really don’t look like the sort of person who goes looking for trouble. And, of course, there’s also the fact that I’m a complete and utter coward. But it did sound like a bit of a laugh, and I thought perhaps I’d be able to convince people that Derek and I had met a group of birdwatchers in the pub. A lively debate about whether butterflies were more interesting than birds had led to an angry confrontation, which finally had to be settled outside as per the usual bar fight cliché. I ended up with two black eyes, but you should see the other guy. It sounded plausible; anyone who has spent much time with birders knows how seriously they take their hobby.
I first tested out this story on Dawn when I phoned her that evening. Being well aware of my clumsiness, my abject cowardice and my penchant for piss-taking, Dawn wasn’t fooled for a moment. Over the next few days several people asked “So mate, what happened to your face?”, but not one of them believed the bar fight story. I hope I am not losing my ability to bullshit convincingly, as I treasure it greatly. It’s something of a family trait; Dawn once fell victim to my Mum and me discussing the value of keeping a supply of dehydrated water tablets.