18 November 2015


"...For my ways are strange ways and new ways and old ways, And deep ways and steep ways and high ways and low;
I'm at home and at ease on a track that I know not,
And restless and lost on a road that I know."

-- Henry Lawson [The Wander-Light]

The idea of hitting the open road, driving wherever your heart pulls you, has long been alluring, especially in modern America.  Jack Kerouac & John Steinbeck catapulted their career by writing about it.  Thelma & Louise was a blockbuster.  Willie Nelson & Red Hot Chili Peppers crooned about their love for it.   The infinite autonomy is so tantalizing: Want to make a detour for ice cream?...add it to the itinerary on the spot.  Want to pause to photograph a watercolor sunset?...simply pull over right then & there.  Hate the town?...leave whenever you like.

However, it's easy for an adventurous soul to romanticize a nomadic life on the highway only for reality to come crashing down.  Oh a road trip across America, seeing all the sights... until you head through hundreds of miles of flat corn fields through Kansas, swearing there cannot possibly be a food shortage in the world!  How divine to drag your arm out the window and feel the wind caress every finger... until you are driving white-knuckled through heavy rain with zero visibility.

Surviving in a campervan in remote Western Australia proved that my mother & I needed to be just as organized as if we had a hotel room, if not more so.  Our Britz Hi-Top served as our kitchen, bedroom, closet, living room, electronics charging station, laundry room, pantry, travel agency and ground zero for daily operations.  Items were frequently misplaced: buried on the bed, up front near the driver seat or rolled into a groove in the floor.  There was no nightstand but even if there had been, all surfaces needed to be clear before switching the vehicle into gear.
When the beds were unfolded (and they always were because set up was a conundrum), a corridor 4 feet long by 2 feet wide was the only place to stand upright.  So, my mother and I learned to stagger our showers and divvied up dinner tasks so that we would not be crawling over each other.  If one person was cutting -- therefore using what little counter space was available -- she had to be responsible for all parts of the meal process save actually cooking.  There simply was not enough room to open drawers, rifle through cupboards, stow cookware and chop in the teensy area.

Aside from the logistics of cooking, meals in general had to be meticulously planned.. The mini-fridge (smaller than I've seen in most American hotels) lacked a freezer & leftovers occupied too much space, so we typically ate the same food for lunch, then dinner, and maybe lunch again the next day.  Every vegetable, meat or fruit needed to serve multiple purposes.  For example, we only bought apples because they could get crammed into a backpack or mixed into chicken salad.  Bread grew mould a.k.a. mold quickly in the stuffy vehicle so it held the aforementioned chicken salad and became croutons.  My mother & I never debated "What would you like for dinner tonight?" because we didn't have a lot of vittles at our disposal.  We ate all the mince a.k.a. ground beef and poultry first -- to prevent spoilage -- then foraged through what remained until we eventually returned to civilization & could stock up on supplies.

For five weeks, nearly everything we ate was prepared with one pan or one pot. Our water was rationed for fear we might break down & need at least 4 liters to survive.  Old spaghetti sauce jars became Tupperware.  The plastic bags that held our groceries were repurposed for rubbish a.k.a. trash.  Likewise, the bulky sweater we each brought from the U.S.A. became our pillows.  My mother claimed a towel from a caravan park's Lost And Found.  Also from the caravan parks, we hoarded extra paper towels.

When I imagined living out of a campervan for over a month, I didn't envision the not-so-romantic nuances:  my "bedroom" smelling like a locker room because my sweaty clothes were piled in the front seat; being confined when it rained all night.  When we passed the 26th parallel into "the Northwest" of the state, daily life became more uncomfortable thanks to the humidity.  We honestly crossed the imaginary line of latitude and within kilometers, the air felt heavier.  The towels hung out to dry never did.  At 21º S in Exmouth -- the furthest north we would venture -- I was too uncomfortable to sleep. I felt like I was suffocating inside the cramped Britz despite every window being wide open.

Or was it more unpleasant in the southern interior highlands that comprised Dryandra Woodland? The sun slipped behind the horizon at 17:30 [since it was Australia's winter] and left my mother & I in the frigid darkness of Congelin Campground.  Freezing, I layered every article of clothing, buried my head in the sleeping bag, covered with every last towel and blasted the heat before shutting off the vehicle. Still, I shivered & remained fetal all night.  The wintry air blustered through the campervan's openings for water drainage & electricity.

As taxing as spending 24/7 with someone for 5 weeks sounds, I assure you it was far from rotten.  Most days life on the vacant Western Australia roads was no fuss.  Though the speed limit was 110 kph a.k.a. 68 mph, no sane cop would bake in his metal car in the middle of the desert to earn revenue off one speeding ticket.  To me, it felt like 110 kph was merely a suggestion.  The only congestion we encountered outside of Perth was the 4-trailer "roadtrains".  They were certainly slow enough to overtake but usually I couldn't see that far ahead.  Often, the spotter vehicles (normally a mini-van or ute a.k.a. truck similar in size + design to a Ford F-150 or van) would jovially wave our Britz on when it was safe to use the on-coming traffic lane to pass.  Though there were no bonafide rest stops with extravagant pavilions like in America, there were plenty of barren pull-offs with trash cans and possibly a compost toilet.  Some provided fire rings & most small-town parks offered free BBQ grills.  Indeed, Australian culture embraces and caters to travelers, both local and global.
All this traveling transmuted my mother & myself into vagabonds.  With each finished day, we grew less and less attached to our clothes and physical belongings (I mentioned we threw away the majority of our attire before returning to the U.S.A).  To save money, we compromised to stay at a caravan park every other night in order to recharge our refrigerator & shower.  On the evenings we rolled into a campsite, under the cover of night we ran an extension cord to an outlet, though we did not pay for electricity. I always asked if my college ID or Western Australia Discount Pass was accepted. Though the cards were frequently rejected, questioning was an ice-breaker which lead to conversation which sometimes evoked a discount (like my "Cleveland discount" from Shelly in Kalbarri who once lived in Ohio).

Keen on saving money in the larger cities -- not to mention, sparing us the difficulty of steering a boxy campervan in a city full of one-way streets -- we parked the vehicle in free areas instead.  In Freo a.k.a. Fremantle, Mom & I left the Britz on the outskirts of town then jumped onto the complimentary blue CAT bus which brought us to the doorstop of most tourist sites.  In the state's capital, Perth, we stopped at Kings Park Botanic Gardens, snuck out a back exit, walked a few blocks & finally caught a CAT to take us into the CBD a.k.a. Central Business District.

Many nights my mother & I sat on the stoop, feet in the sand, eating dinner; or we'd simply admire the 'roos, like in Nambung National Park.  Inquisitive fowl feasted on our crumbs.  One in Coral Bay was brave enough to cross the threshold into the cabin. Often we rolled up to a beach, found it deserted & the sun shining so we opted to remain the entire afternoon, like in Port Gregory, as we watched waves violently collide with the reef.  No need to leave for meals, just hike back to the Britz. 

The second best thing about having wheels was all the aleatoric wildlife we observed.  In Dryandra Woodland I thought I saw a boulder crossing the road, but it turned out to be an enormous echidna startled by the loud Britz.  That night, in the pitch black, our headlights surprised a 5 foot tall gray kangaroo in the bush, eyes aglow. In Exmouth, I sped past a lean, tan dingo in a dried creek bed.  While leaving a coastal parking lot in Cape Ranges National Park we startled a young kangaroo then nearly flattened another hopping across the thoroughfare (no doubt the most inherent danger in regard to Australian driving).  Less appealing to Americans -- but no less threatening -- were the meandering cattle and sheep, since the majority of stations a.k.a. homesteads lacked fences.
The total disintegration of our American standards occurred when my mother & I agreed paying for a campsite was too expensive!  Why?  Because less than a kilometer down the road laid a well-lit park with free gas grills and public ablutions a.k.a. restrooms with soap.  My mother & I ate dinner, played cards, and reviewed photos as we waited to be kicked out of the lovely Coogee Beach park, but a police officer never materialized.  Other times we did not care for a hostel so we utilized the kitchen wherever we slept the night before.  Once, I acted like a fugitive in my quest to utilize a caravan park's facilities without being a patron.  To avoid sticking out, I pretended I was walking the trail to the coast like so many other people.  Behind the tall brush, I squeezed my body through branches into a residential area & circled back around toward the kitchen.  In the end, to any customer or staff nearby, it looked like I had just left the park's ablutions and belonged there. In reality I was a hobo who had rolled up 15 minutes prior.  The ultimate example of my frugality happened on the last day of nearly 2 months abroad. Too cheap to pay for lodging the day of my redeye flight home, I snoozed the day away in the sun then took a shower in the hotel restaurant's bathroom.  In my defense, there was a makeshift stall (no curtain) & drain so I helped myself.  Imagine dining at the expansive Tokatoka Resort, stealing away to the restroom to check your makeup & discovering someone in a bikini showering!

Though we bounced the Britz down unsealed, outback roads and I crunched the side of it against a petrol a.k.a. fuel pump, I couldn't have asked for a better campervan! In a foreign country where every organism was exceptionally deadly & each day marked another dot on the map, the Britz was our home. It was our only sense of the familiar, yet it symbolized our desire for new experiences.  The campervan was dually pure freedom and an expensive commitment.

Heaven forbid -- but honestly it's quite probable -- you end up in a predicament such as when a mechanic hands you a steep repair bill for your vehicle abroad. There is a metaphorical gun aimed at your head because, in essence, you are forced to dole out an extra $1,000 that certainly wasn't in the budget.  But what can you do?  If you do not pay it, you are stuck, and for a free-spirited soul, that's far worse than being a broke wanderer.

05 November 2015


"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not."
-- Dr. Seuss [The Lorax]

No doubt Nicky and Surprise had rough upbringings, but they weren't the only ones in the area with gut-wrenching stories.  In fact, the common theme in Shark Bay -- the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing Monkey Mia Marine Reserve and the entire peninsula -- was hardship.

Like the other two, elder matrons of Monkey Mia's feeding program (Nicky & Surprise), many of Puck's calves passed away soon after birth.  Fiesty Piccolo was her first baby to survive weaning. However, Piccolo almost lost her mother as a yearling when Puck became entangled in a large net, the seamen oblivious to Puck drowning.  A nearby research tinny noted Piccolo's frantic whistling and zipping back & forth. The scientists alerted the fishing boat. However, Puck's dorsal fin and melon still bear the markings of her brush with death; the cartilage from her fin never reformed.
Other dolphins bore similar -- if not worse -- scars.  The tip of one poor irrabuga a.k.a. dolphin's dorsal fin limply dangled in the breeze; another's looked like it was almost ripped off entirely. India, a haughty juvenile male, displayed his battle wound every time he dove: a dark gray, almost complete, elliptical shark bite.
In Shark Bay, the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins weren't the only species prone to adversity.  Of the throngs of jurrunas a.k.a. pelicans [in Malgana dialect], Rogue was notoriously famous amongst the staff.  Whenever she appeared during a feeding -- and it was quite common for Australian Pelicans in general to turn up -- she was a force to be reckoned with.  Rogue swooped in to steal Puck's fish, terrorized the crowd and created havoc at feedings as she swam from vollie a.k.a. volunteer to vollie in search of Whitetail, refusing to let tourists in the water.

But by the end of my stay at Monkey Mia, I grew to pity Rogue & whenever I shared her history with inquiring visitors, they too left changed I think.  Rogue would be entertained for a moment then suddenly nip at the air with her dangerously hooked beak.  One day, Rogue performed an all-too-close dance with me in the Indian Ocean.  I was forced to put myself between her and the shiny metal bucket of fish, but she had her eyes set on the prize.  She must have known her food was behind my back, but all I could do was continue to twirl despite my dizziness, attempt not to topple over Puck & wait until a ranger came to lure Rogue away.

However, Rogue's erratic behavior & scariness stemmed from a caveat: her brain injury.  She snapped at the air because she saw forms that didn't exist.  One day, I observed her repeating the all-too-close-dance on land with a ranger, encircling her prey.  In reality, Rogue shuffled about unpredictably because she was a scared peli protecting herself.  She had a crooked gait and her deformed right wing stuck out awkwardly.  The reason she got unnervingly close to people was because she actually felt safe there. Rogue endured bullying from all the other jurrunas, especially the males. Perhaps due to her disability or her gender; maybe both.  She was forced to be a loner. And when she bit a little Asian boy on the beach,  I didn't rush over to save or coddle the child.  His bite was a natural consequence for harassing the wildlife of Shark Bay. Sure enough, the crying boy and his older sibling stopped chasing Rogue.

The pelagic life patrolling the nutrient-rich sea grasses of Shark Bay did not scourge the dolphins compared to the harm humans wrought in the area.  You've already read the horrors involving Nicky's offspring. Lazy fishermen illegally dump offal a.k.a. fish remains overboard which draw sharks ever closer to the shore where dolphin calves find security.  Rangers have caught tourists picking up dolphin calves and posing for photographs in the shallows! The resort at Monkey Mia generates at least 85% of the trash scattered around the Marine Reserve but cleans up 0%, despite being the only business in Monkey Mia.  Yet, it reaps 100% of the revenue. My last day volunteering, a lady in the campground confessed she stood up from her lunch on the lawn & threatened to beat up a man who grabbed an irrabuga's tail.  He proceeded to jab the female dolphin in the eye with a selfie stick as he chased the irrabuga through the sea.

Assuming you were an animal already subsisting the vicious social scene and food chain of Shark Bay, you would still have plenty of travails with the environment.  Despite being at the 26th parallel, parts of Shark Bay are two times saltier than the ocean and water temperatures have reached 45º C a.k.a. 113º F. Can you imagine swimming in water that hot?

As a homo sapien, the environment was equally ruthless. Despite my olive complexion, the sun & its intense reflection off the Indian Ocean left my skin frequently burnt. I suffered a nasty, deep gash in my right heel from a busted seashell.  While strolling the water's edge, I was one step away from stomping on a stingray. It must have sensed the commotion because it scurried away kicking up sand in its wake, but from then on I dredged my feet as recommended.

Blissfully unaware of hidden dangers my mother and I hired a.k.a. rented a kayak one afternoon and paddled far from Monkey Mia Marine Reserve.  Preoccupied by surveying for dolphins, we eventually drifted to a distant pearl farm, waves peacefully lapping against the side of the vessel.  A tinny approached us at full speed.  I assumed the metal boat would pass us, but instead the man commandeering the small motor abruptly shut it off.  The passenger, a middle-aged woman, lifted the brim of her sun hat and shouted in an Australian accent "There's a Tiger Shark around here that's damaged our [oyster] traps.  I reckon I'd go closer to shore since its biggah than our boat!"  My mind flashed back to yesterday -- during the sunset cruise aboard the catamaran -- when I glimpsed a Thaaka a.k.a. Tiger Shark so large I thought it was a Whale Shark (the largest fish in the world.)  In a flurry, fatal scenes from Jaws sped through my mind and I imagined a massive, dark shadow gliding under us.  Filled with growing uneasiness we furiously rowed closer to Monkey Mia.
The world is a trying place, for humans, Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins & other creatures alike; even crueler here in Shark Bay.  These are not simple-minded animals; they are complex beings who -- like so many of us -- fight every day to survive. Let us not make life any harder for them.