Melbourne’s Fairies

I have vague recollections of the 20th Century Fox film FernGully (1992), an animated movie where fairies fight to stop a lumber company and an evil pollution spirit from cutting down their forest. (It’s one of those ridiculous films you watch as a kid and think is brilliant then but later realize how cheesy it really was. All I really remember about it, now years later, is the environmental message (which I guess is kind of the point).)

I had no idea it was supposed to take place in Australia (the main characters don’t exactly have Australian accents…thank you America). So when Kirsten mentioned that she wanted to hike this 1,000 step path in the Dandenong Ranges and I started to do some research, I laughed in shock when I found out that the nearest town is called Fern Tree Gully.

I hadn’t thought of that movie in years…I didn’t exactly have flashbacks to the film while hiking up the 1,000 step path, but part of me did begin to think that I was walking up some ancient pathway to a hidden magical kingdom. The steps were worn by thousands of ambitious fitness enthusiasts and curious tourists and dirtied by countless days of rain, giving them an earthy appearance, like they had just grown out of the forest floor or been placed there by some ancient civilization. The sharp sunlight streaming through the greenery, which lent everything a sunny aura, added to this feeling by granting the setting a slightly magical presence.

It should’ve taken us a while to get up those 1,000 steps. The sounds of heavy breathing increased as the screech of cockatoos decreased the farther up we went. But there must’ve been some magic in that track after all because we made it up quicker than expected (though we could definitely “feel the burn”).

Afterwards we made our way to the deserted One Tree Hill picnic grounds only a short walk away to eat lunch. The light was once again streaming through the now straight trees and the bench enclosure emerged between the trunks like some fairy-tale hideaway. As tired as I was, I could appreciate the sight.

We lingered with our lunch (consisting of bread from the Queen Victoria Market, oranges, and peanut butter) and watched over the trees as huge gleaming black birds watched us from the other tables, waiting for crumbs.

We took the Lyrebird Trail back down, heading straight to the train station. The magic had worn off and exhaustion had set in. We both fell into the showers the moment we got back to the hostel to wash off the stink of exercise.

And because we hadn’t seen enough nature in one day, we walked down the street back to St. Kilda Beach to see the fairy penguins come out along the pier at sunset. The enchantment of the sinking sun and glimmering sea lasted for a while but was quickly dampened by the tourists.

There were relatively few of them on the little boardwalk next to the penguins’ homes amongst the rocks. But once they began to emerge into the twilight, the tourists swarmed. Pushing in as close as they could for the perfect picture, they crowded these wild animals just as they stepped blinking into the light.

It’s kind of appropriate that they’re named fairy penguins. That frantic human greeting would be exactly how fairies would be treated if they were real and alive today. Imagine if they actually were living in Fern Tree Gully? The crowds…oh the crowds…

One of the plot points in FernGully is that the fairies believed that the humans were extinct. The main character had never seen one before. But would that even be possible in the modern age? Could a fairy live in the Australian wild without once encountering a prying hiker or photo-obsessed tourist? For most, the magic would live in getting the snapshot, not in seeing the image.

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