Perfect Cottage Retreat in the Surrey Hills

Hello – I write on the first day of the relaxation of the lockdown here in the UK and we have travelled from Warwick in the Midlands to the lovely Surrey Hills, close to Leith Hill Tower with its wonderful views.

 

This early 18th century cottage was originally a gamekeeper’s cottage and is hidden amongst dense woodland down steep, narrow winding lanes and is like a storybook dwelling. It stands beside a beautiful sparkling pond which often attracts swans, geese and ducks and other wildlife.

It is so peaceful here, with a sense of stillness and tranquility, a gentle subdued light lending a dreamlike quality to the scene as we move towards the end of the day.

Only the delicious sounds of a bubbling brook, an enchanting variety of birdsong, buzzing insects and the numerous calls of other wildlife can be heard. The cool breeze and the receding golden glow of the sun highlights the long shadows across the grass. This is indeed the perfect place for a retreat, in the heart of nature.

Book Review: The 99th Koala by Kailas Wild

This account of the koala-rescue campaign in bushfire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is gripping and very emotional. Accompanied by superb photos, arborist Kailas Wild tells a story sometimes dramatic and inspiring, and at other times sad and heartrending, packed with tense and harrowing descriptions of koala rescues.

As one of the few professional tree-climbers/ experienced koala handlers called to Kangaroo Island following the wildfires that swept through parts of Australia in 2019, Kailas used his rope climbing equipment to scale 30 metre high burnt trees to flag down traumatised koalas, bundle them into pet carriers, and drive them to the animal hospital for treatment – or sometimes to be euthanised.

As you read the book you feel amazed he didn’t suffer long-lasting mental health difficulties following this incredibly harrowing and challenging time on Kangaroo Island. He is, indeed, very open about his emotional distress and his mental trauma. Throughout the book the reader is moved by his skill and courage, in this dangerous and tough work.

Kailas Wild with rescued koala

Kailas gives many fascinating details of his work, including for example his knowledge of how to test the structural integrity of a fire damaged tree before he starts climbing; his endurance of scratches from the claws of frightened koalas; and the best way to handle them, to avoid the very real danger of being bitten by their knife-sharp teeth. The photos are often dramatic and impactful; shots of him up a tree trying to reach a koala on an adjacent tree, images of a burnt koala, photos which make clear his own mental trauma, visible in his face.

His working days among the burnt plantations involved 10-12 hours of physically and emotionally draining labour. He spent “days alone amongst burnt trees and dead animals… and even the successful rescues are traumatic.”

After a considerable time in which he feels a lack of co-ordination and resources, he finally gets the help he needs from two other wildlife rescue experts – Deb and Fraya. The efforts they go to as the terrified koalas resist capture is astonishing. Their own stress is compounded by the knowledge of the stress to which they are subjecting the koalas – and then at the end the rescued animals may have to be euthanised.

The author is very open about the toll this takes on his mental health. He also considers the ethics of human intervention in the lives of wild animals suffering an environmental disaster; does his work compromise the ability of the wild animals to live independently when released back to the wild, having become over-reliant on humans? He also describes the moment when they realise the risk of injury to the koalas themselves outweighs the benefits of attempting rescue.

Finally the time comes when Kailas and his colleagues realise they have done everything they can, and the remaining koalas, having already survived this long, will most likely thrive.

A deeply moving book for all those who love animals, care about environmental issues and are interested in wildlife conservation, but also an account of courageous human endeavour and compassion, in the face of ethical dilemmas.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 20: North Island, New Zealand: The Magic of Millions of Glowworms in the Caves at Waitomo

This is the twentieth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the fourth of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about one of New Zealand’s most iconic attractions: the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata where all who visit may believe themselves in the heart of The Shire, that pastoral idyll which JRR Tolkien‘s hobbits call home. For all The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings enthusiasts this was indeed a heartwarming experience, which exceeded all our expectations.

Our next experience was to be another one full of magic: a visit to the Glowworm Caves at Waitomo.

We drove south west from Matamata through the green and picturesque rural landscape so characteristic of the North Island, which reminds me of The Shire. Our destination was the Top 10 Holiday Park in Waitomo Caves Village.

The Top 10 Holiday Park at Waitomo Caves Village

Cabin in the Top 10 Holiday Park at Waitomo Caves Village

Across the road was the visitor information centre, where we booked our tour of the caves.

Visitor information centre at the Waitomo Caves Village

Spellbound Cave Tours departure point

We found our Maori tour leader, Haihei, gregarious, chatty and full of encyclopaedic knowledge about the history, geography and biology of the region, its wildlife, landscape, caves and glowworms. Our group of twelve included visitors from Switzerland, the USA, the UK and Australia.

Map of the Waitomo Caves Region

The landscape of the region is striking: both pretty and rugged, with many hills, steep valleys and rocky outcrops; we were told several sink-holes exist above the caves, and during the course of time hapless animals such as goats and cattle have fallen down these sink-holes into the caves, there to perish.

Here I felt, as before in the North Island, that the landscape appeared ‘designed’ by a landscape gardener; it was so appealing to the eye, moving in ripples and furrows and bumps, hills and valleys. Perhaps this is the consequence of volcanic activity in the past.

We drove for twenty minutes through the Waitomo Caves Region to reach the first cave we were to visit, where we would see stalagmites and stalactites.

walking through Cave 1 at the Waitomo Caves

Once in the cave, our knowledgable guide explained to us that we would find the bones of animals which had fallen through the sink-holes into the cave: and some in the long distant past. We occasionally saw the remains of a cow or a goat which had met this fate; and in one area we saw the ancient bones of a large bird thousands of years old.

the bones of a creature which had perished after falling through a sink-hole into the cave
inside Cave 1 on the Waitomo Caves tour – photo credit Jamie Robinson

Following our visit to Cave 1 we had a tea break in a little hut among the hills, and there the ‘stranger-silence’ was broken and we all started chatting and finding out where each other had come from.

on the way to our tea break after visiting Cave 1

After that we walked down to the river where members of our group were fascinated to see large black eels in the water.

Looking for black eels in the river by the Waitomo Caves

Then we donned white helmets with lights before entering Cave 2 to see the glowworms.

donning our caving helmets before entering the glowworm cave.
entrance to the Waitomo glowworm cave

As we walked through the cave, we learned that glowworms emit their pinpoints of light from the bio-phosphorescence on the tips of their tails: they send down fine silky threads to catch flies and other insects which breed prolifically in the water and rise up to the pinpoints of light to be trapped and eaten.

After we had walked for some distance through the cave we found a boat landing stage; we all boarded the boat which would glide along the underground river in the direction of the waterfall, and where we would see the millions of glowworms.

This was indeed a magical experience; as we glided along in the silence, the water reflected countless pinpoints of light in the roof above us. They shone brighter when our tour leader created a loud booming noise (which he only did briefly, lest you think he was cruel to the glowworms!)

It was amazing to reflect upon the fact that this wondrous fairy-like display was really all for the worms to catch their food. In fact, the caves are a giant 24-7 running buffet for glowworms.

As we glided along we heard the thunder of the waterfall ahead.

Not stars in the sky, but glowworms in the Waitomo Caves

Finally we left the caves, awed by our experience here, and the sense of having briefly entered another world.

leaving the caves

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 7: Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Gold Coast, Queensland

This is the seventh in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In our November 2019 visit, we found Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary just a short walk around the corner from our accommodation at Currumbin Sandcastles, Gold Coast. The sanctuary is popular with families and has many attractions for young children including a ‘Meet the Gruffalo‘ area – though we didn’t include that on our day’s itinerary.

There is plenty to fascinate visitors of all ages with a wide variety of birds and animals to delight and amaze, along with an Aboriginal Culture Show. The sanctuary also enchants visitors with its magnificent rainforest landscaping, boardwalks and waterfalls.

The sanctuary is famous for its lorikeet feeding opportunity, and on my past visits here I’ve experienced thousands of these exquisite birds swooping down to feed from the dishes of honey held by visitors. Sadly, on this occasion, we noticed a much smaller number of lorikeets; whatever the reasons for this, we felt sad to see the reduction in numbers.

Like Australia Zoo, the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary offers many opportunities to learn about wildlife, and on this visit we were captivated by the Crocodile Behaviours Show. Here we learned intriguing things about the large crocodile in the enclosure. He had been relocated from his previous environment, where he had proved a danger to local livestock and had finally sealed his fate (not such a bad one) by preying on an expensive prize bull.

We learned that crocodiles have inbuilt ear-plugs and nose-clippers, and can stay immersed and invisible in muddy water using their nostrils as snorkels. So they can drown their vicitims whilst avoiding drowning themselves in the process. Another fascinating fact about crocodiles is that they can live for up to a year without eating anything.

However, that day, the crocodile was clearly in the mood for a snack because the keeper fed him on a chicken dangled from a line on a rod; and he was happy to eat it.

If you visit the Gold Coast, do include a visit to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on your itinerary.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 6: Australia Zoo

This is the sixth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

Australia Zoo is one of the jewels of Queensland; I’ve visited it a number of times during different periods of time spent in Australia. Not only is it a shining example of animal conservation, and of education about respect for and protection of wildlife, but it is also a superlative tourist attraction.

I believe that one of its strongest attributes is the personal nature of the organisation, owned by the Irwin family. Some may even view the prominence of the family members as a little like a ‘personality cult’. And yet the emphasis upon Steve Irwin and the work he did, and now upon his window Terri, daughter Bindi, her fiance Chandler, and her photographer brother Robert, only serves to enhance the profile of the zoo and the profoundly important work it does.

When you visit Australia Zoo, not only are you guaranteed a good day out, and the chance to see and admire a magnificent collection of wild animals, but you also learn about how to interact with wild creatures in a more respectful, understanding and compassionate way. The famous Crocoseum performance always includes a teaching element, especially about how to deal with snake encounters.

This is of course more likely to be relevant for Australians than for those living in the UK. And yet, it becomes relevant the more you travel around the world. Interestingly enough, the correct way for us to behave towards snakes is often counter-intuitive. If you meet a snake across your path, stop, turn, and walk very slowly and calmly away. If you get a snakebite, remain still, (assuming you have someone who can call for help). The more you move around and panic, the more easily the poison can move through your system.

If you visit Queensland, do include a visit to Australia Zoo on your itinerary.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.

A Visit to the Prinknash Bird and Deer Park, Gloucestershire

What a lovely place the Prinknash Bird and Deer Park is.

I was very impressed with it when we visited on Easter Saturday. The park is beautifully landscaped with some enchanting gypsy caravans and playhouses for young children, and the birds and animals are very tame indeed.  A word of warning – do buy the bird-feed before you go in as all the birds and animals come hurrying towards you at every bend of the path, full of expectancy and anticipation (rather like authors at a writers conference converging on the agents and editors present with their first three chapters and a synopsis….)

I can thoroughly recommend this attraction as a day out for a family. And it’s set in the most beautiful part of the Cotswolds, with deep valleys and steep hills, close to Prinknash Abbey with its delightful cafe and shop.

A Cat Cannot Always Win: After all, It’s Only A Visit to the Vet

It was the moment she heard me take the basket out of the cupboard.

Cat in cat basket
Cat in cat basket

I had under-estimated the acuteness of her hearing skills, and also her memory of past abductions.

But having removed the cat carrier from the hall cupboard, unfastened the straps, and set it  out in the hallway, I was undone.

She was on the alert, hiding behind the sofa.

My plan had been to pick her up first when she was relaxed and unsuspecting.

But too late. the chase was on.

We raced from one end of the room to the other, now dragging the sofa out, then pulling the table forward, reaching to grab her, as she streaked past us, sinewy, slippery and high speed.

Now she was crouched in the small space behind the television amongst the jumble of cables.

Cat amongst Christmas gifts beneath Christmas Tree
Cat amongst Christmas gifts beneath Christmas Tree

I said to my husband “You stand there to cut off her exit, and I’ll grab her from this end.” We both moved into place.

I grabbed, and she shot out the other side past my husband’s flailing fingers.

I snapped, “Stop being so kind and gentle! You have to be tough! You have to grab her by the scruff of the neck.”

Cat on vet's table
Cat on vet’s table

Eventually I caught her in the study. She cringed back from me against the wall, I seized her by the neck, held her tight in my arms, carried her to the hall, and stuffed her in the basket.

It was done. Cat Zero. Human beings – one.

 

………………

For other posts about cats on SC Skillman Author, click here:

https://scskillman.com/2013/12/18/live-christmas-present-under-the-tree-one-kitten/

https://scskillman.com/2012/04/19/the-psyche-of-a-cat/

https://scskillman.com/2013/10/21/mother-and-daughter-relationships-poignant-family-drama-in-the-animal-world/

https://scskillman.com/2013/10/28/friends-at-last-building-trust-in-the-animal-world/

Boxing Day Entertainment by the Kenilworth Lions at Kenilworth Castle and Abbey Fields

The English love to do fun – and some might even think silly – things on Boxing Day.20161226_113145

Perhaps this is a relief from all the stress of preparing for Christmas. It’s also the opportunity for people to gather together in the fresh air and enjoy themselves with traditional English entertainments.

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Here are a few fun things that took place in one of my favourite places, Kenilworth, on Boxing Day – at Kenilworth Castle and Abbey Fields.

The events were organised by Kenilworth Lions who not only give people a lot of fun and enjoyment, but also provide tremendous support to local charities through their fundraising.20161226_111614

The entertainments included Morris dancers, Punch and Judy Show, and the best dressed dog contest at Kenilworth Castle…20161226_112701

 

 

……..and the annual duck race along the brook through Abbey Fields – an event which attracts a huge crowd.  We followed this with another very popular local activity – a walk through the fields behind Kenilworth Castle, through the area once covered by the Great Mere, filled with pleasure boats, out to the former site of Henry V’s “Pleasance in the Marsh” and back again to the Castle….

May I take this opportunity to wish you  a happy New Year and for all of us the chance to play our part in making the world a more compassionate, caring and loving place for us all, one in which people may come together in a spirit of mutual tolerance, acceptance and good will, so in many more countries people may enjoy being together as shown on the pictures in this blog post.

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Signs and Omens at Gloucester for A Passionate Spirit

Many have through the centuries seen signs or omens from the natural world.

A view of Gloucester Cathedral
A view of Gloucester Cathedral

In my article on Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes “How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Archetypes Help You In Your Creative Writing?” which I wrote for ezine articles in January 2012, I mention the archetype of the animal spirit guide/messenger. This runs as a theme through all mythology, appearing everywhere from aboriginal legend to ancient Greek thought to the Bible to classic literature.

Here’s what I wrote then on the theme of the animal spirit messenger:

“…the Bible of course makes use of this theme too by giving the Dove a key role as a guide; and as a symbol of peace, love, the Holy Spirit. Another example is the Raven. “To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb meaning “to have a seer’s supernatural powers”. The Raven was banished from the Ark by Noah – but it returned later on in the Old Testament to feed Elijah in the wilderness.”

The Raven Centre in Gloucester
The Raven Centre in Gloucester

I make use of the theme of the Raven in my new novel A Passionate Spirit.

Yesterday I was in Gloucester where I visited the local branch of Waterstone’s on my Cotswolds bookstore tour.

Gloucester has many historical locations, and so I was tempted to take several photos. When I viewed my photo of Gloucester Cathedral I noticed that my camera had caught a large bird on the wing, flying past the Cathedral.

Bird flies past Gloucester Cathedral
Bird flies past Gloucester Cathedral

Then I turned round and discovered that the  lovely timbered building behind me was called The Raven Centre.

A fanciful coincidence? Or maybe a beautiful sign or good omen?  I choose to hope so!

Friends At Last: Building Trust in the Animal World

Molly has now overcome her resistance  to the idea of an alien cat in the house with her (albeit her mother)

But it took  Willow a little while to overcome her annoyance at her daughter Molly’s initial rejection of her.

Willow and Molly 27 Oct 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Willow and Molly 27 Oct 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

She spent a few days expressing her annoyance, and trying to exert some discipline.

She was a strict mother,and we watched her setting the boundaries.

“Behave!” she would say to Molly.

And then she discovered what it’s like to have your young one defying orders.

And later I was reminded of  one of those classic situations which many young mothers bemoan; the toddler who won’t even let her mother go to the toilet alone.

Molly has been pushing at the door of  the litter tray while Willow is in it, trying to jump in with her.

“Can’t I even go to the toilet in peace?” cries Willow.

Now we hear the scampering of feet across the floor as the two play-fight with each other and chase each other from room to room.

Relaxing? No. And sometimes those play-fights look horribly real.

But I reassure myself that the claws are retracted.

Otherwise the squeals and  squeaks and cries that  come from 8 week old Molly would be screams of pain.

Watching a relationship of mutual trust being built in the animal world has made me reflect on how this may apply to us humans too. Suspicion breaks down, the first tentative steps are taken; building trust is a process of experimentation and small moves forward. So we see ourselves and our own characters partially reflected in animal behaviour.