Tim the Yowie Man: On the nose

"Come up now and I will have something bizarre and smelly for you to look at!'' reads the unusual subject line of a missive that landed in my inbox early last week.

The body of the message is brief, and to the point: ''The yellow stinkhorns appear to have faded but I found a red starfish stinkhorn today.''

Now, while most people would usually dispatch such an odd message to the ''junk'' folder alongside unsolicited requests from Russian brides and offers of appendage enlargements, for me it's welcome news. It's the last in a long line of dozens of emails I've exchanged with Denis Wilson, a Robertson-based naturalist who some time ago (Smelly Challenge, July 16, 2011), issued this column with a curious challenge: to get up close and personal with his town's rancid fungus - the stinkhorn.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, I duly accepted and have waited almost three years for a combination of conducive temperature and rainfall for the stinkhorns in Robertson to live up to their name.

But the long wait is over, so swiftly I stuff my magnifying glass into my bag, grab the macro lens for my camera and hit the road. On the way out the door, I pilfer a plastic peg from Mrs Yowie's clothes basket and pop it in my top pocket. I'm not taking any risks - if this fungus smells even half as rancid as reputation suggests, I'm going to need all the nasal protection I can get.

Despite our extensive exchange of emails, I've never met Denis, but the full-of-beans fungi fancier is impossible to miss when I arrive mid-morning at Cafe Pirouette, a bustling little eatery just off Robertson's main drag. Denis sits at an outdoor table, resplendent in his trademark blue hat with silver orchid brooch on the brim, and next to his generous serve of fresh country toast is a copy of Bruce Fuhrer's encyclopaedic A Field Guide to Australian Fungi. Between taking sips of his double-shot cappuccino, Denis is feverishly scrawling a list. After the comparing of tears in our well-travelled hats I glance at his list; it reads: ''13 starfish fungus, 18 icicle fungus, 21 puffball fungus, 24 ''semi-slug'' eating moss on trees, 25 ear fungus.''

''This is what I documented yesterday,'' says Denis, an ex-Canberran who fell in love with this quaint village as a child while on a family road trip in 1959. ''We stopped at Ranelagh House (now Fountaindale Grand Manor) and I saw the most magnificent rhododendron I'd ever seen at the entrance gate, and thought any place that can grow a rhododendron that big, must be good.'' So, when Denis had the opportunity to move from Canberra to Robertson over 42 years later, he jumped at it. In the interim, his passion for the natural world had expanded beyond his boyhood fascination with rhododendrons to include the strange world of orchids and fungi.

Everyone who arrives at the cafe for their morning fix seems to know Denis - through his blog ''The Nature of Robertson'' he's become somewhat of a local identity. But it's soon apparent there's another reason why this cafe is his hang-out - literally a few hundred metres around the corner is a nature reserve that makes up for what it lacks in size with its extraordinary diversity, especially, you guessed it, in orchids and fungi.

It's a remnant patch of the ''Yarrawa Scrub'' - the name given by early European settlers to dense, impenetrable rainforests that once covered 2500 hectares of the eastern part of the Southern Highlands. Outside it's a bright and warm autumn day, but as we step over moss-covered roots and mottled tree trunks, inside the reserve, its dark. It's a step back in time to a primaeval rainforest, with tangled, hanging vines and tropical ferns and I half-expect a triffid to snare me around the first corner.


Apart from the dim light, the other noticeable difference in here is the bird life. It's like we've entered an aviary, with crisp calls of Lewin's honeyeater permeating the humid air. Then there's the high-pitched ''coo'' of the wonga pigeons, and the whip-crack calls of the eastern whip bird. We even see a male bowerbird watching over his bower, complete with blue decorations.

Oh, and then there are the leeches. The recent rain has these slimy bloodsuckers waiting to ambush us in record numbers. You can almost sense them flexing the trio of blades crammed in their tiny jaws as they hear our approaching footsteps. I flick three off Denis' left boot, and that's just in the first 20 metres.

It wasn't far from here that on a school excursion one of my classmates found an engorged leech in the corner of his left eye. Removing it was a quite a job for the poor teacher. Since that day, I've never been a fan of leeches. In fact, before I'd even left Canberra I applied a whole can of heavy duty DEET to both the inside and outside of my boots and, as an extra precaution, I'm also clad in gaiters. No leech is coming within cooee of me.

Meanwhile, Denis cavorts into the leech-infested understory like a randy buck deer, and along the way identifies just about everything that moves (along with much that doesn't). Little wonder he chaperones visiting groups such as the Sydney Fungal Studies Group on their annual field trips here. First he's down on his haunches pointing out giant earthworm casts, next he's trying to get a bead of his sweat to land on a puffball fungus (once a droplet of water hits it, it emits a cloud of spores). A few steps on and he uncovers some ear fungus on a tree above - they really do resemble ears - and then there's my favourite, the intricate clumps of icicle fungus.

In fact, you get the feeling that Fuhrer could have written most of his guide, which Denis still clutches, without having to move off this 700-metre track, but Denis saves the piece de resistance for me at the end of the track - the decomposing remains of a stinkhorn. Although partially devoured by hungry slugs, part of the slightly blackened gleba (the bit that smells) remains. I get down on all fours for a sniff. This is the moment I've been waiting three years for.

''One, two tree, inhale!'' exclaims Denis.

Yuck! Pooh! It stinks, it really does. ''Many describe it as smelling like a bum,'' says Denis as I go back for one last sniff. And he's right.

Most visitors would race through this hidden Garden of Eden in 10 minutes or less, missing many of the natural treasures best picked out by a trained eye.

We emerge after two hours, however I reckon I've spent at least half of that checking every itch on my legs (and elsewhere) for signs of leeches. Luckily, I've come out unscathed.

Although best-known for its underwhelming Big Potato and ''famous'' Pie Shop, I don't think anyone can say they've really experienced Robertson until they've sniffed a stinkhorn in the village's nature reserve.

Oh, and the smell can't be that bad, I didn't even use the peg.


Getting there: Robertson is an easy two-hour drive north of Canberra. Take the Illawarra Highway exit off the Hume Highway and follow the signs.

Robertson Nature Reserve: Louth Street, Robertson. Free entry. The stinkhorn fungus usually produces its spore slime with an intense smell in early autumn.

Cafe Pirouette: Shop 6/79-81 Hoddle Street, Robertson. Ph: 02 4885 1788.

The Nature of Robertson: Denis Wilson's nature blog: peonyden.blogspot.com.au

Remarkable Rhododendron: The magnificent rhododendron that caught Denis Wilson's eye back in 1959 is still alive and well at the entrance to Fountaindale Grand Manor (formerly Ranelagh House), 4575 Illawarra Highway, Robertson.

Did You Know: Denis Wilson's love of fungi began about 25 years ago while gardening alongside his driveway in Reid. A lattice fungi burst while he was weeding. It then rolled down the slope towards him. It seemed to be ''alive'' and it terrified him. It then stopped rolling and Denis realised it was not an animal, so he collected it and promptly took it to the botanic gardens for identification.

DEET: This is the most common active ingredient in insect repellents and was developed by the United States army, following its experience of jungle warfare during World War II.


Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick. A selection of past columns is available at: canberratimes.com.au/travel/blog/yowie-man.