On Wednesday, we wake up to more rain. I walk up the muddy path to the house, hiding under my raincoat, watching black cockatoos circle overhead. They swoop and chatter while I slosh through the muddy puddles below. Local folklore has it that black cockatoos mean more rain is coming.
I’m looking forward to a cup of Anastasia’s hot butter coffee, but when I reach the house there’s bad news. The sheep have vanished overnight. It’s a bad day for the sheep to wander off. We’re expecting floods this week and the causeway is already over. The rain isn’t so heavy this morning but last night it came down in sheets and the wind blew it horizontal across the fields.
After a fruitless search in the paddocks we hear from a neighbour who is in the bush far above the farm clearing fire trails today. The sheep have wandered all the way up into the mountains overnight, almost reaching the national park. Anastasia and I rug up in our raincoats again and begin our search.
We leave the back paddock behind and hike up the ridge into the bush. Up here, blackened trunks of eucalyptus trees line the rough path we follow. The path has been worn down by wallabies, goats and human feet, but even so it disappears from time to time into the dripping foliage. In this weather, the bush up on the ridge is eerie. Mist rolls through gullies and between the ferns. Sap bubbles and drips down the tree trunks. You can almost smell the smoke of last year’s fires.
As sodden as we are, this weather is a relief compared to the fires and droughts of the summer of 2019-2020. To see ancient subtropical rainforest burn so close to our homes just over a year ago was terrifying and like nothing we’d witnessed before. The effects of the climate crisis on our own lives had never felt more real. The impacts of the fires are still visible all around the region (and the country) even as new leaves grow and saplings sprout from the damp ground.
This year we’ve been more worried about floods than fires and the rainy season has well and truly arrived. This kind of weather means cozy flood days, constant damp and rain so heavy on the tin roof that you can’t hear yourself think.
We pause a while at the top of the ridge, trying to deduce which way the sheep have wandered. The house looks small and welcoming down below, the windows glowing warm through the grey light. We turn back toward the forest and take the path that seems most trodden by cloven sheep hooves. By the grass trees we find a stinky clue: a mound of sheep poo. We’re on the right track. Again, the path disappears altogether into the shaking, shifting trees. But before we know it we’re back on track until finally, after almost an hour walking, we emerge at the fire trail, where the sheep were spotted last.
We’ve been walking another half hour along the fire trail by the time we spy a wooly head through the leaves. Aphrodite!
The sheep seem almost as happy to see us (and our bag of feed) as we are to see them. Many of these sheep Julia and Anastasia have raised themselves and they act more like puppies than sheep sometimes, asking for scratches and following you about. We can tell they’re ready to go home after their adventure into the woods. Even so, the flock take a bit of coaxing before they begin to follow us back up the trail. More than once, they decide to take a different track than us and disappear into the bush with ease, while we force our way through the undergrowth, dodging spiderwebs and overhanging branches. On either side of the main trail are thick groves of wattle saplings growing soft and green and bright to about shoulder height. The brightness of their leaves stands out against the charcoal trunks of the older trees. This is the forest repairing itself after the fire. The saplings are beautiful but they grow close together so that when a sheep or ten slip between them, they disappear quickly from sight. Anastasia decides to follow them, shepherding them back toward the main trail. I stay on the track, hoping I’m keeping pace with Anastasia and the sheep. While they’re probably only ten or fifteen metres from me I can tell only by the shake of a tree or the bleat of a sheep.
The downhill walk feels much steeper and the mud is slippery. Anastasia leads the flock and I walk at the back, prodding impatiently at Lanky Boy when he decides to stop and munch for a little too long. My jeans are muddy and my socks are squelching in my boots. Lunch and a hot shower are beginning to sound very appealing. We head back through the mist and the gullies and the swaying trees. Soon we can see the cattle in the neighbours paddock and the house down below. The sheep seem happy to be home as we shut the gate and give them a well deserved lunch. The rain is still falling and the flock spreads out between the trees, slipping beneath the kiwi trellises, until we can only just see their shaggy tails as we head toward home.