Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wild West

We left the comforts of Darwin Saturday morning after one last market browse. I just love markets. The sights, smells, colours, excitement. We were headed to Kakadu National Park. One of the best National Parks in the world, our Lonely Planet said. Our first night we headed to Ubirr, famous for it's ancient aboriginal rock art and stunning sunsets. Unfortunately dark, imposing clouds blocked our view of the setting sun, but the view from the top of the cliffs at the magnificent landscape was worth the effort in itself. We met a friendly aboriginal ranger wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt. I was barely even wearing a strapless dress and drank litres of water a day without ever having to go to the bathroom because I sweated so much. We are in crocodile land. She told us all about it. It was hot, though. And very, very humid. Attempting to sleep in a van maybe wasn't the best idea we have ever had on a 40degree airless night. We flew through the rest of the Northern Territory, unfortunately because we couldn't take the heat. It's true. We might just be wimps. But, you know what they say, 'If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.'
The Northern Territory we saw from the relative comfort our air-conditioned van was spectacular. Lizards the size of my arm pranced in front of the vehicle like a game of dodgeball. Frilled lizards, Monitors, skinks and more. There were tons of wallabies hippity hopping along to look at and the changing landscape was enough to keep us in awe for the hours, and hours and hours (and hours) we drove. I wish we could have stayed longer to enjoy it. Next time.

The other major sight along the roads were the hundred and hundreds of skinny 'farmless' farm animals. Cows mostly in the North but sheep and goats now on the West as well. I say 'farmless' because they literally just wander around, stopping wherever they choose. Their favourite resting area seems to be in the middle of the highway. The cows aren't your regular black and white milk cows. I don't know what they are used for, or what they eat because there isn't much vegetation, or what they drink because there certainly isn't any water here in the dry season. They might just be robotic cows strategically placed to keep drivers on their toes. You would think it would be easy pickings for the crocs in the North due to the limited watering holes. I would use the term 'livestock' but this would be a loose description. In particular the 'live' part. There may have been as many dead cows on the side of the road as live ones lurking on the yellow lines. Maybe this is how they make leather in the outback? This topic requires further research.
Speaking of driving, as we were speeding along (at the speed limit, of course) the other day we found our selves driving right smack through a mini tornado! There was some sand whipping up along the side of the road, as we drove past the mighty blowing sands, the van jolted across the centre line. It wasn't until it was behind us that we could see clearly in the rear view mirrors the perfect outline of a little tornado. One thing you can say about driving (and driving) in Australia: it's never boring. Whipitty Whip.

We arrived in Broome, high on the west coast early in the morning and headed almost directly to Cable Beach. It is a beautiful stretch of snow white beach set off by milky turquoise waters and blood red cliffs. The water was warm, like in Darwin but the lack of jellyfish (this time of year) make it perfectly swimmable. This whole area has a 'vibe' to it. Rickety campervans full of girls in bikinis, implying that yes, they all do cuddle up in those little campers with very little on, long haired men playing their guitars on the boardwalk and, later in the day, everyone in the entire town drives their 4wheel drive jeeps down onto the beach for sunset. Oh, and camels. Not wild, but there nonetheless doing their part to complete the Cable Beach atmosphere. All good things come to an end. Some things, like Cable Beach do it in style. The white sand somehow miraculously morphs into firey red cliffs made of shapely carved rocks contrasting the blue blue ocean leaving you in a take-your-breath-away sort of moment. Wow. So this is why people come ALL the way up here. Wow. Just wow. Because, really it is ALL the way. 611km north of the nearest town linked by flat, relatively featureless terrain. You have to really want to come to Broome. But you do.
'And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.'

Eighty mile beach is perhaps the only thing between Broome and Port Headland. You don't get any beach views from the highway though. They make you work for it. Nine or so grueling kilometres westward on a badly corrugated red dirt road, bumpity bump, shake, smash, ERR and you find yourself at a campground that thinks they are justified in charging you $30/night for a slice of shadeless sand wide enough for one of those skinny roadside cows to park on solely because there is absolutely no where else to stay. And so, when your driver has driven approximately 1,500 kms in less than a week, and is hot and cranky and sunburned: you gladly fork over your $30. In it's defense, 80mile beach is breathtaking. We drove over the dune and gasped. We really weren't expecting THIS pristine. People from Western Australia will argue that some of the world's best beaches are in these parts. I would find it hard to disagree. The sand is snow-white. The water is so turquoise, so clear, so gorgeous that I can't look away. Apparently the wonder of this beach is not lost on Flatback Sea Turtles either. After almost 20 years of drifting around the world they return to the very beach that they were hatched to lay eggs themselves. They come ashore an hour before high tide between November and February. Turtles are amazing creatures. As hatchlings they only have about a one in a thousand chance for survival! They scurry down the beach to the ocean, being picked off by awaiting sea birds and then into the ocean where they are eaten by fish and other predators. They then spend the next ten years or so 'lost' at sea, drifting in the currents, eating and growing. They come back to the warm coastal waters in their teens and spend the rest of their years returning to these sites. Female turtles do not start reproducing until they are between the ages of 20 and 50! They always return to the very beach that they were born and mate with many different males before they lay their eggs, meaning one clutch can have multiple dads. Another amazing tidbit is that the sex of the turtle depends on the temperature of the sand! If the sand is warm, all the hatchlings will be female and if its cooler, they will all be male! Australian Conservation Volunteers were on-site to monitor the turtles, so with our wealth of information we headed down to the beach as the sun was setting to sit quietly and still in hopes of sighting one of these amazing animals. As the sky turned orange-y gold and the last rays of the sun fell behind the earth the first turtle crashed onto the beach in a tidal wave and laboriously began to make her way up to the beach. WOW!!! Turtles are endangered. And, surprise, surprise, the main reason is humans. Like most wild animals they are very timid and will not come ashore if there are people moving about or making lots of noise. You can imagine with only a smidgen of a chance for survival to begin with, obnoxious humans don't help the odds. Sometimes they even abort the eggs into the ocean in all the hype. It was to our horror, then, that as this mother, full of eggs, began her way up the beach, that an ignorant 20-something spotted her, ran past her to grab his camera out of his SUV which was parked on the beach, and then proceeded to literally chase the poor terrified turtle in circles trying to take her picture. This was followed by a girl, racing across the beach with her point-and-shoot, to capture the moment. We watched in disgust. There are signs EVERYWHERE informing people about the turtles. Even if there weren't, one would think it would be common sense not to chase around a wild animal. Especially one that obviously can't get away. Turtles aren't known for their quickness, as you may know. They are graceful in the water, but extremely awkward on land. The turtle, after what seemed like eons finally found a sliver of space between Stupid#1 and Ignoramous#2 to make her escape back into the ocean. Not, however, before the whole shamause was spotted by the all and mighty 'Turbo' (as named by us).

Enter Turbo. Quite literally. He stomped onto the beach, the rim of his outback hat quivering with anger, his beer sloshing to and fro (his beer AND his beer belly for that matter). Later he told us that he and his partner drove all the way to Port Hedland (240kms) just to stock up on beer. Turbo does have his redeeming qualities, on the bright side, they include today, his turtle saving antics. Half Canadian, from Campbell River (by Brian's very own Quadra Island), half Aussie (the baked half) and half Kiwi (the friendly when he's not fuming half). This is three halves. It should paint a picture for you. A big, crispy beer bellied picture..Allow me to paint a picture. Take an nine and a half month pregnant lady. Now take Steve Irwin. Now, use your imagination. Put the belly on the Steve, the animal advocate and throw your concoction into the deep fryer for about an hour and PRESTO!: Turbo. He stormed right up to the Goof show and tore one, big, massive strip off the two of them. Arms were flailing, postures were intense, profanities were drifting in the ocean breeze. I am half surprised he didn't grab the camera's right form their grubby little paws and toss them into the ocean in protest. The only thing that maintained it's composure through this whole ordeal was his beer. Tucked safely in it's cozzie. The photographers fled and he turned his eagle eye to us. Uh Oh. I looked around. I was shaking in my flip flops. Were we doing something bad? I haven't moved the whole time: I swear! '$&)@&$ dumb People!' he greeted us. He came in peace. Turbo lives on Vancouver Island half the year, but 'hasn't spent a winter in Canada in 12 years.' 'Wow, you must have a great job that you can do on the road,' Jon commented. Turbo whirled around. 'Why do you ask that?' he demanded. 'Well it just sounds like a fantastic way to live your life..' Jonathan recovered. Apparently Turbo's source of income was a guarded secret. 'You gotta make life what you want it, man' was his reply. He then continued to tell us all about his shell collection. What a character. As Turbo was winding down the list of shells he had collected that day I spotted a turtle emerging in a wake directly in front of us. Turbo left us for dinner and Jonathan and I sat memorized by the turtle making its way up the wide beach awkwardly like a fish (or turtle) out of water. 'Fiona the Flatback Sea Turtle' we named her affectionately and she became our pet for the night. We sat as still as statues while Fiona fought her way across the sand slowly. She would pull herself forward a few feet and then stop, exhausted and panting. She would look around, and being only about 10ft from us we often caught her gaze. I was worried we might spook her by the sheer intensity of our staring. We didn't thankfully and as the stars started to freckle the sky Fiona dedicated herself admirably to the task of excavating her nest in the dunes behind us. In the end she had dragged herself and belly full of eggs at least 75 meters to the nesting sight. What a humbling experience to know that this turtle, now at least a metre long had hatched on this very beach years and years ago and somehow knew exactly how to get back here. I felt like bursting out into the chorus of Lion King's 'Circle of Life.' I didn't though. For Fiona's sake. Jonathan and I sat on the beach for a long while, checking periodically on Fiona's progress and enjoying the perfectly clear star studded night sky and cool ocean breeze. What a night!

I really did think our encounter with Fiona was as good as it would get. But, to my astonishment, Western Australia had more in store. A full 14 hour drive south we detoured to Ningaloo National Park. The Ningaloo Reef is Australia's largest and most accessible reef. It is much less known than The Great Barrier Reef, and all the better for it. We rented snorkel equipment from a dive shop in the charmingly underwater-oriented town of Exmouth. I couldn't imagine it at the time, but for the next 48 hours I spent more time breathing through a snorkel than is probably healthy. Its like stepping out of this world into a completely fantasy one. Especially at Turquoise Bay, where it's not called 'turquoise' for nothing. Was I swimming in an aquarium? The colours, variety and number of fish mere inches from my face was outstanding. It was like the Blue Planet. I thought I had fallen asleep watching an episode and was dreaming that I was in the series. Maybe we should watch that episode again,maybe i am in it! (like that time I appeared as Sydney Bristow in Alias). Why aren't people here video tapping this spectacle all day every day? Parrot fish that look like they were cut straight out of a bright neon 90's tye dye shirt, butterfly fish, angelfish, damsel fish, groupers, wrass, triggerfish, picassa fish, blue spotted faintail ray, garden of sea cucumbers,trumpet fish, crocodilian long tom, clown fish, starfish, and, the absolute highlight...
Lurking in between pieces of coral I saw something large move. My heart stopped. What was it? I was half hoping to see a white tip reef shark, until that fateful moment of course when the thought of seeing a shark out here all by my myself made my blood run cold. I watched, unable to move. When I realized what it was I practically jumped out of the water with excitement. A Green Sea Turtle!! All to myself! I watched him for a long while. I almost didn't want to tell Jonathan who was standing on shore. Serves him right for wanting to be out on the boring land instead of in the wonderful water. But, my golden heart prevailed. I brought my head out of the water for the most fleeting of moments. Just enough to yell 'TURTLE' and then, my duty complete, I settled back in to watch him as long as he'd have me. Curiosity got the best of me and I peeked out to the beach again to see Jonathan's reaction. He was pulling on his
fins and mask as fast as he could. 'How big?' he yelled. 'So cool!!' I yelled back. Within 60 seconds he was out snorkeling beside me. How did
he get all the way out here so fast? Did he walk across the water? Just when I was beginning to think I had married Superman, Jonathan told me that I was actually only metres off the beach. Oh. I felt like I was bobbing in the middle of the ocean out here.

The next day was much of the same thing. The hours flew by like I was Hermione in that Harry Potter book. Only her little watch made the time go the other way, didn't it. Jonathan and I were up with the sun. I felt like I put my mask on, and then it was lunch. I allowed a short break and was back into my underwater wonderland. The afternoon was flashing by like a road-train on these Australian highways. (Yes, they have trucks that pull three truck loads behind them, like a train on wheels). I knew I should have gone back to shore, it was getting later in the afternoon, our fins were due back at 15:45, but I just really wanted to see one more turtle. I took my head out of the water to scope out where I was and when I put my face back in 'poof' a turtle right underneath me! Literally just like that. Sometimes I feel so lucky that I don't want to acknowledge it in fear that I will wake up from this dream life I am in. I followed the turtle for a while. He was so graceful. So different than on land. He floated around with the current, nibbling on tuffs of sea grass. Sometimes the current would push his little butt upwards while his mouth was still intent on the sea grass and he would be suspended in the water like a marionette. Colouful fish swam in his wake. When he eventually used his fins he glided through the water so peacefully, streamlined and chillaxed. His big dark eyes were so inquisitive. He was 'Dude' in Finding Nemo. It was incredible. Our fins were returned at 340pm on the dot. Five whole minutes early.
Before leaving Ningaloo we wanted to stop and fill up our camp water at the fresh water tap. Or, watering hole, it turns out. Fresh water is a hot commodity in these parts. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. It seems funny to think that there is a lack of water when you are surrounded by it. But, true, judging by the two kangaroos and five emus that stood (relatively) patiently round the tap awaiting for some magical human to come by and miraculously make water flow from this metal knob. It was a real up close and personal experience. Jonathan and the 'roo vied for the water flow while emus closed in from all sides ready for the ambush. I did my part by recording the action. Being within scratching distance of the roo made me notice their particularly long jagged nails. After our jug was full the kangaroos started fighting over who would get to lap up the spillage and in all the confusion the herd of emus slipped in and stole their thunder. What a spectacle of survival in Australia. It's rough out here.

At a dusty, fly infested roadside stop further inland Jonathan and I had the pleasure of meeting a fantastic Spanish couple: Antonio and Andreas. They had us 'over' (to a camp-table in the shade of their van) for breakfast, coffee, green tea and bread with Olive Oil and sugar. They travel with a bottle of olive oil! How fantastically European is that. We have fake hydrogenated chemical fat compounded into a margerine like state. Well not even that anymore because it's too darned hot. I suppose it's like our beloved maple syrup. You just have it with you. That's all. Although Ted's homemade maple syrup has been quite hard to find down here.. Antonio and Andreas are on a year long sabbatical pretty much mirroring our trip, only backwards! They regaled us with helpful tips and fascinating insights from their travels to India, China and Southeast Asia. We feel very lucky to have met them and sincerely hope our paths cross again.

So. Back to the marine world. Anyone who knows Jonathan is aware of his exception fear/fascination with sharks. This is the
kind of guy who marks National Geographic Shark week on the calender, folks (well, not anymore...). When we were going to go snorkeling at Ningaloo maybe, I don't know, two days ago he refused to dip his baby toe in the water until there was absolutely no one left to ask 'So, what should we be 'concerned' with while in the water.' He was just hoping someone would confirm that, yes, there was a near daily shark attack in these waters, and then he would be scot-free and not have to go in swimming. This didn't happen, of course. Even against his best attempts, asking at least five separate people. This in mind, I practically fainted when he jumped out of his sandals and proceeded to run into the shallow waters of the aptly named 'Shark Bay' to chase down the sharks we saw from the shore. It all started with an innocent lunch break on the dunes. We could see multiple black sea animals with fins breaching in the waters right off the beach. There were at least 100 of the creatures. What could they be? When we couldn't take the suspense a second longer, Curious George and I went to investigate. 'They are definitely sharks' the expert (my husband) confirmed. See, Gord and Cathy, all those hours as a child watching National Geographic did pay off. Jonathan was able to recognize sharks so that we could steer clear. Or so I thought. This is precisely when he practically threw his sandals at me and started off into the shark infested waters to 'get a closer look.' Yup, what I always expected was finally confirmed. He was crazy. This is the same guy who wouldn't wade past his thighs when swimming with Sophie and I at Bondi Beach. At least I think its the same man. Did I make sure he put sunscreen on today? Did he eat some crazy pill from Turbo? I 'watched' (that was my job, he told me, to 'watch') as he waded out to his knees into the sharks. He was flailing his arms with excitement. 'There's one!! He's coming straight at me!' Shark Bait would yell back to me. I watched him in disbelief. What do you say to that? 'Great, honey? I'm happy for you! Sure hope that shark gets real close!' Maybe little children should cover their ears. Don't do this at home, kids. It will worry your parents. ' Can you see this?' my Shark Hunter would yell, 'I'm surrounded by sharks! One is about 5ft long!' But then the reassurance 'Don't worry, most are only about 3 feet! I wish I had a mask!' Yup, its official: he's nuts. Steve Irwin, ahem, I mean Jonathan, emerged unscathed ready to try again further down the beach where the sharks had moved to. 'I just want to touch one' he said to me, wading back out to the unknown. Great. Just great. At least we splurged for health insurance...

ps. We're still looking for volunteer opportunities....... help!

pps. 'Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday dear Jess and Leeeeeeeeee! Happy Birthday to you!!!!


Anonymous said...

Awesome Blog guys!

I am amazed at you Jon . . . you went in with the sharks?!!?

I am sooo green with envy K! Jacquette Cousteau!!
Hope you connected with friends in Thailand re: volunteer opps let me know if there is any trouble contacting them.
PS. if you see any of my U2 friends hanging around be sure to say hi for me ;D!
Love you guys and missing you too!

Anonymous said...

It was probably Jon's beard that confused the sharks.LOL But, would it not be cooler with out it Jon?
Here I'm excited about snorkeling in Belize but it will never compare to your experience.
Where are the underwater pics?
Great stories. Love to you both.

Anonymous said...

Hi you two,
This is just the most amazing blog to read!I can almost feel the heat and the excitement/fear etc...what a trip you are having.Wonderful photos too.
We have deep snow here in Belfast with airports closed and conditions treacherous so we could do with a wee bit of your excess heat!
lots of love
A Eileen and U Trevor