07 December 2016

Skydiving

"A blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
-- Martha Graham

I am broke. Saving for a new car and depositing double into a retirement fund (since I neglected it all these years) eliminated visiting the majority of places still on my bucket list. Since starting a new job in March 2016 I have accrued little vacation time so it seemed the only days off I'd truly have were based on the winter holidays (November + December 2016).  Yet, where others see a time to relax & enjoy company, I see opportunity.  How could I let 7 paid days off pass without going somewhere?!  As Jack London voiced in one of my absolute favorite quotes: "I shall use my time."

After the trials of this past year since returning to the U.S.A. in July 2015, I craved venturing off on my own again. Maybe it's because I'm single and used to providing for myself.  Maybe it's because I'm an only child who finds myself the best company.  Maybe it's because I'm an introvert who relishes the sounds of nature and my private thoughts.  Maybe, I wanted to go solo because I've done it before and experienced the value of drifting through the world.  Paradoxically, my favorite days and loneliest nights have occurred while I was abroad and alone. There's the allure of being open to meeting whoever and whatever, and therein lies the danger.  It's proving you can be emotionally tough and equally resourceful in navigating the culture and landscape of a foreign country.

Scraping by financially is not a new stress to me. I don't remember a time when I had extra money in the bank or didn't have to look at a pricetag before a purchase.  I attended university full-time, but stressed over juggling academia with a professional workload.  Why did I need to accrue so much cash?  So I could spend it all -- in one transaction -- at the dropzone.  You see, at age 17, I became obsessed with the sport of skydiving.  The immeasurable blue sky and the freedom to be fluid sold me.  The welcoming fellow jumpers only sweetened the experience.  However, it's not a cheap sport.  I was literally buying fuel for a plane, once a Hercules C-130, and paying for very specific, qualified instruction.  YouTube and personal accounts couldn't facilitate me becoming a licensed skydiver.  It's one of those things I could not learn remaining on solid earth; only experience could wholly teach me.

Wow, did experience teach me well!  My knees were covered in semi-permanent bruises for an entire year, I've had to land in a tight 900, square foot backyard to avoid power lines, had to cutaway my main parachute, known too much tragedy and survived one of the deadliest malfunctions.  While these events formed my current view about the fragility of life, not all of them were negative. I've also fluttered around towering clouds, fallen through rainbows, hung off the strut of an airplane, exited the plane into a pitch black sky and made life-long friends.
Similar to my 13 years in the sport of skydiving, I have not had a bad trip traveling, but my track record gives me anxiety.  I am undeniably grateful for both, but I feel like you don't receive a life as stellar as mine; like my good luck supply is nearly depleted.  While I was hurling myself out of airplanes those years, I wondered how many could I come out on top of the odds while screaming towards the ground at 160 MPH.  Especially because I know a lot of people who perished within the sport.  Now -- in terms of traveling -- should I heed the proverbial "cash out while your chips are high"?  If I keep gambling, I'll eventually lose it all. I've heard myriad horror stories and am not naive to how cruel nature and people can be.  Do all these great wanderings and times I've pushed the envelope (such as sleeping in my car in the outback) still outweigh one hypothetically scarring adventure?  Even worse, what if there is no bad situation as the outcome... what if I am murdered abroad? The conundrum is a nomad can never know the potential consequences and awesome of traveling until she is in the thick of it.
Through research, I fully knew this would be the most dangerous country to date that I have explored, but isn't the purpose of life to keep pushing one's boundaries?  After skydiving, rock climbing, and sleeping in cars around the world, I'd say the answer is hell yes!  I aim to prove the general public's misconceptions wrong, especially when Americans balk at the developing world without any real basis for their discrimination.

As with traveling to Puerto Rico, I was met with adversity that was all heresay (perfect example from a customer: "I know a manager who's workers won't cross the border into their motherland because it is so dangerous!"), and that only fueled my fire. The more I delved into the guidebook, the more confident I felt about pulling off this trip.  My trepidation changed into readiness; my fear evolved into an unmatched desire.

The timing coupled with inexpensive flights, cheap services, and the great exchange rate from American currency made it a tough offer to refuse.  So, I am excited to announce I'm off to central Mexico for two weeks: powerful volcanoes, ancient civilizations, and the continent's winter retreat for Monarch butterflies!

17 November 2016

Complements

"Life is all memory, except for the present moment that goes by you so quickly, you hardly catch it going."
-- Tennessee Williams


Perhaps there is someone like this in your life, be it a sibling, friend, someone of the same or opposite sex. A person who knows your entire history or has only been present in your life for a short period of time, but is indelibly a saint.  For me, that person is my mother, Stephanie.

It's no secret my mum is aging, and has worked so incredibly hard to earn the money to pay for our voyages through the years. I don't remember a time in my life when she was not working two jobs, always running from one to the other. We hopped buses and walked across San Francisco, my mother toting me to all of her college classes because she was a single parent without a babysitter. One night in the city, I even witnessed her launch a fist at an approaching stranger who tried to lay a hand on her.

Although that was 25 years ago, the same tenacious qualities still exist in my mother, they just manifest in different ways.  Namely, when we travel.  I cannot recall a trip we've embarked on where I haven't seen her strength.  In Greece, she handled a mini-crisis when I became violently ill unexpectedly.  In Norway she assertively and diplomatically told off a meddling stewardess who harassed me because I wouldn't change seats with another passenger.  As recently as Australia, she emphasized enjoying the adventure instead of agonizing over price tags.  "It's only money," she reminded.

In a strange way, going abroad brought -- and brings about -- absolute role reversal.  I now feel an odd sense of protection over my mother, the same woman who has looked after me since my first breath.  In Italy, after my mother wrecked a hire motorcycle, I reminded her we could have been hurt and the outcome much worse. "Besides," I told her "it's only money." While our ship's frame scraped through the ice, my fear was minimally assuaged because if I died at least I would be with my mum.
So, as Australasia commenced, I became the brawn.  Flying to and fro, I lifted our bulky bags over my head, straining under the weight, shoving them into the bins more times than I can count.  I led our hikes, and -- in Karijini National Park -- harnessed the backpack filled with supplies for the trip, so she could cling to the rock easier.  Since we traveled by bus in Fiji, I got even more of a work out.  I always hoisted her carry-on onto the bus, climbed up the narrow high steps, then returned to the road to retrieve my baggage and repeat the process. I created a makeshift foothold for mom by cupping my hands together so she could use my human platform to hoist herself into the tinny a.k.a. small boat after snorkeling at Moon Reef.  Although it would have been strenuous, I was prepared to bring my suitcase and hers over the hills of Wayalailai, although I was relieved of this duty since the hotel staff insisted on hauling it.
To me, it felt  -- and still feels -- like my duty to ferry her luggage across the world.  Like if I shirked, I was acting selfishly.  Though my mother would never think that and loathes being mollycoddled, it's paramount to me that she simply enjoy the scenery, smells, and people without having to be hassled with the logistics.  Not to mention, traveling is tough on the body, and her health is of the utmost importance.  I tell myself: I will do this [physical effort] because I still can.  And if ever there comes a day when I cannot do all the heavy lifting, then at least my mother will be well-rested for it.

My mother is my responsibility, and I, hers, but not in a negative way. It's like traveling with the Hope Diamond.  I will always protect her and strive to make her life easier. To me, she is such precious cargo I cannot entrust this inestimable role to anyone else. Our irrevocable love knows no boundaries.  Every time we embarked on a new trip, we promised that should one of us become gravely sick -- or even die -- the other will continue on in homage to the other.

When I falter, have an emotional meltdown in a foreign country, or become violently ill, I know she will pick up the slack. This is the beauty of these journeys with my best friend, Stephanie.  I see the deepening crows' feet around my eyes and her progressively graying hair, and understand the fragility of life.  Although we lived in Australasia for two months, it will never be enough. I can never have enough of these times with my mum.  Now, -- at age 32 -- in light of this epiphany I feel time slipping away faster.  While most people are excited to check items & countries off their bucket list, or retire, I have growing anxiety that we haven't checked off enough yet.  Time will be gone for one -- and both -- of us too soon; in the blink of an eye.

02 November 2016

Chaos

"Let me lose everything on earth and the world beyond, but let me not lose what I'm craving for, let it be that I died on the way than retreating from getting it."
-- Michael Johnson


I created my 7 week Australasian itinerary based solely around the wildlife of the region.  My mum and I raced up Western Australia’s coast to Shark Bay to beat the school holiday crowds; I assured we would arrive at Dryandra Woodland’s marsupial enclosure midweek to avoid the weekend masses; and we specifically disembarked the Yasawa Flyer at Drawaqa island to drift through its channel with ominous Manta Rays.

Yet, Mother Nature does not always cooperate.  Off the northwest coast of Fiji’s main island (Viti Levu), the small Mamanuca grouping of islands rise out of the azure Pacific Ocean.  Stay on the boat – or seaplane – hours longer and eventually you encounter the idyllic Yasawa chain, extending from the mainland like an octopus' tentacle.

In Fiji, Manta Ray season typically runs May to October, so when Mom and I checked into our oceanside bure a.k.a. typical Fijian house on 6 July 2016, I immediately hiked through the sand to the dive shop to inquire about these giant gliders.  Sadly, the Mantas – whose wingspan extends 7 meters a.k.a. 23 feet, dubbing them the largest Mobula in the world – were simply missing. Twice a day the staff at Barefoot Resort searched the waters, but my quest for pelagic life on Drawaqa island proved a misfire.
Likewise, when I crossed into the Tropic of Capricorn in Western Australia – eventually settling in the sprawling, flat town of Exmouth – my first order of business was to confirm my expedition with Ocean Eco Adventures, slated for the next day.  Due to a turbulent forecast, it was postponed two days. Now, the endeavor fell on my last day in Exmouth (pronounced “ex-muh-th”).  I prayed Mother Nature would acquiesce because this was my absolute last opportunity to swim with the pelagic life that swarm Ningaloo Reef every April to July: Whale Sharks.

On the eve of the Whale Shark Tour, tropical rains tortured me throughout the night, pelting the Britz Hi-Top.  I indolently arose early the next morning to 100% cloud coverage, formidable humidity and a gray sky… but the expedition was a go!  I affixed a medicated ear patch to combat my horrendous seasickness and boarded the bus for the coast.  As the vehicle meandered through the Cape Range peninsula retrieving guests, I was surprised to bump into two vollies a.k.a. volunteers – Scots, Robbie and Louise – from my week in Monkey Mia, WA.
After everyone unloaded at the marina, we were ferried via rigid inflatable to Ocean Eco Adventures’ largest fleet member: Latitude 22.  In the small, 60 horsepower tender I could feel every crest and trough, and hoped the Scopalomine already absorbed into my bloodstream.  Ironically, the company’s photographer – Cindy – commented on the “smooth” surface of the water.  If that was smooth, I didn’t want to experience bumpy!

Latitude 22 ostensibly resembled a yacht rather than a sturdy seafarer with its sun-bathing deck, towering antenna, spread of homemade food, and stark white color against the cobalt Indian Ocean.  In contrast to the boat’s glitzy façade, the crew seemed amiable and comical as they greeted us.  Still groggy, my mind only retained the most crucial aspect of the crew’s briefing: the signal for help (one arm shot straight up into the air, hand in a fist as if you were an angry protester).
To prepare for the voyage outside the harbor protected by Ningaloo Reef, as well as test our snorkel equipment and swimming skills, the captain dropped anchor at a locale known as The Oasis.  After an introductory dip in the shallow – and surprisingly chilly – sea, our group of 20 tourists, hustled onto Latitude 22, through the fog toward the cerulean horizon. A Whale Shark had been scouted from the air! a frenzy as the ocean swells increased and people scurried to gear up. Though the Whale Shark was leagues away, it felt like the vessel had teleported because everything was happening concurrently and so quickly. To add to my anxiety, guests were informed of a potential Irukandji threat – a lethal jellyfish the size of an ant. Therefore, underneath my wetsuit, I also sported a tight, navy Lycra Stinger Suit that flattered every bulge but assured every inch of skin was protected.  I looked like I should be performing with Blue Man Group because – after all the equipment – only a small section of my insteps, forehead, chin and palm were bare.
Within minutes the captain positioned Latitude 22 to drop its first batch of passengers into the rolling sea.  As I sat on the wide platform my jaw chattered uncontrollably from nervousness. Ideally, my group would quickly plunge into the Indian Ocean, efficiently file into a line parallel with Jenny (our guide), and – when given the signal – dunk our heads underwater to observe this female Whale Shark on her journey.  However, as soon as my group splashed into the water, all hell broke loose.

In truth, it was a trial to remain in a constant line while the ocean churned.  During my first plunge I fretted about being disobedient because – legally – no person except Cindy was permitted to encroach.  The rest of the staff and visitors had to maintain a ten meter circumference around any Whale Shark.  After feverishly treading water for a few minutes and trying in vain to correct my heading, my gang received the “heads down” behest.  Now, fully submerged, I saw nothing but a gorgeous, deepening blue gradient.  Eventually, to my right, the hint of a figure caught sunlight three feet below the water’s surface.

She had arrived.

Every person was temporarily paralyzed in the water, transfixed by the female’s commanding approach.  Attached to her monstrous body was a dorsal fin that did not seem as sharp nor menacing as other sharks’.  Her comparatively tiny eyes were easy to descry since they paralleled her wide mouth, which traversed the entirety of her head, giving her the semblance of an overgrown sock puppet.  Her face was more spread out more than I expected.  Who could miss her bright spots -- an array that separated her from every other Whale Shark on the planet, as fingerprints do humans.
Like the rest of the gang, I snapped out of my hypnotic trance as the Whale Shark swiftly overtook us.  Simultaneously, we realized we had better get moving! The others closed in around her and fins whipped about as everyone mercurially attempted to stay alongside the benign giant.  I bonked into people and absorbed flailing arms.  The overabundance of bubbles kicked up obscured the seascape, so I purposely slid to the end of the pack to watch the Whale Shark in peace.

It instantly became clear I would never keep pace with the world’s largest fish.  At roughly 6 meters a.k.a. 20 feet in length I [later] learned the female was merely a juvenile! As she pulled ahead of my group, I drifted nearer her rakish, boomerang-shaped tail which occasionally pierced the water’s surface.  With each methodical swish of her tail, I felt the water displace around it and impact me.
Whale Shark fading into the sapphire void, I launched myself onto the marlin board of Latitude 22.  My heart raced from the physical exertion and adrenaline.  The captain swung the vessel around and proceeded full steam ahead.  Basically, the passengers were playing a large-scale version of the childhood game, Leap Frog, with the Whale Shark; being dropped off ahead of her only to repeatedly fall behind.

During my third round in the sea, the waves became more violent and the chaos persisted.  Once again, my unit queued next to Jenny, peering left, until – at the last possible second – she realized we were misaligned.  With Jenny’s correction everyone frantically paddled 3 meters to the right, but the ocean current was so strong my insteps cramped and I made meager progress.  Meanwhile, the Whale Shark – and her symbiotic fish drafting below her trunk – held a steady pace, unfazed by our bum-rushing.  By now, I had learned to scurry as soon as I caught sight of the Whale Shark since she would briskly surpass me anyway.

After the Whale Shark deserted us again, I prepared to beach myself on Latitude 22’s platform.  As I braced my hands on the marlin board, a gigantic swell lifted me, slammed my shins into it, and washed over the stern.  Feckless from the calisthenics, I started to feel odd, though I couldn’t pinpoint where on my body.  I thought it best to sit out the fourth round and take my blood sugar.

My glucose was fine, but – not feeling the best – I decided I must return to the blight sea once more before I called it quits since I paid $410 AUD for this excursion. More than the money though, this was one of the reasons I specifically visited NW Western Australia!  So much is still unknown about Whale Sharks: litter size, where they go when they’re not feeding, how they mate.  No one has ever observed a Whale Shark reproducing nor giving birth.  The closest scientists have come to unraveling the mysteries of the species was when they dissected a dead female harboring 300 embryos!

Back in the water and juddered by the Indian Ocean, my eyes scanned the water’s horizon until Jenny shouted that the female was instead ascending from a dive! Though these creatures skim the surface (as their main food source is plankton), they can dive up to 1,000 meters a.k.a. 3,300 feet!  Against the ocean’s fluid background, her outline and white spots distinctly stood out.
As the Whale Shark propelled upward at a 45º angle, I swam furiously to keep level with her, but she finally vanished into the blue yonder. I would never see her again… but would I ever see dry land or my mother again?  Effete after a morning snorkel and four rounds with the Whale Shark, my fellow swimmers pushed onward as the distance between them & me widened. I raised my head above water expecting to see Latitude 22 approaching.  Instead, white-caps surrounded me.  I submerged, thinking it’d be easier to breaststroke through the sea rather than float atop it.  Though I kicked with all my might, I felt the ocean’s resistance as its currents dragged my body back to my point of origin.
Even though I swam furiously to keep level with the Whale Shark, she finally vanished into the blue yonder and I would never see her again… but would I ever see dry land or my mother again?  Effete after a morning snorkel and four rounds with the Whale Shark, my fellow swimmers pushed onward as the distance between them & me widened. I raised my head above water expecting to see Latitude 22 approaching.  Instead, white-caps surrounded me.  I submerged, thinking it’d be easier to breaststroke through the sea rather than float atop it.  Though I kicked with all my might, I felt the ocean’s resistance as its currents dragged my body back to my point of origin.

To gauge how far behind I was, I raised my head again.  I only saw a few people and Jenny, but they were considerably further away than the last glance.  Then, everyone disappeared as a large crest swept in front of me.  I caught a few more glimpses of the group on the horizon before they were swallowed by another tempestuous wave; just enough to give me a bearing.  Enfeebled – but trying to ration my energy – I bobbed on my back in order to catch my breath.  In this position I used only my legs to accelerate, however I was constantly engulfed by waves.  Every inhalation resulted in ingesting salt water.  As I sank into another wave’s trough, I panicked at the realization that I was marooned in the vehement Indian Ocean.  In this sorry predicament, my mind morbidly questioned how much I resembled prey to the Great White Sharks that [I imagined] were watching my struggle from below? I pictured them patiently swirling, mildly entertained by my futility and misplaced hope of surviving alone in the wild ocean.

Forlorn and choking, I fully weighed my last resort: chucking my hand straight up in the air.  Would anyone from Latitude 22 even see my skinny arm when I couldn’t see over the waves?  I closed my eyes – to prevent seasickness and focus on survival – and willed my legs to kick.   The only time I opened them was to see if there was other life nearby, but each time the vision was the same: a bright, pale sky and waves crashing onto me as if trying to bury me at the bottom of the sea.

Truthfully, I don’t know how long I floundered in the open ocean, making single, deliberate kicks.  When the outlook is bleak, your body has reached its limits, and every breath is labored, macabre thoughts are all-consuming and moments translate to an eternity... but then, somehow, despite the pain, we persevere.  After an indeterminate period adrift, Latitude 22 materialized ahead of me.  With just 3 people left undulating with the ocean, I was the last to arrive at the marlin board.  I can't say that I would want to repeat that day; I can't say that I had faith I would survive.  Looking back, I'm proud that I hopped into the tumultuous Indian Ocean one last time despite my seasickness.  Despite the overwhelming feeling of imminent death, I continued to swim though painful and bleak.  As with all things in life -- from skydiving to enduring a chronic illness -- always die trying.  Keep chasing your dreams!

07 June 2016

Forever

"Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers.  The mind can never break off from the journey."
-- Pat Conroy


It’s difficult for me to fathom that 7 years has elapsed since I upheaved my life in the U.S.A. and relocated to Australia.  Seven years was, numerically, quite some time ago, especially considering how much has occurred globally – and personally – in that time frame.  However, to me the milestone feels only slightly stale.  I can still picture the backyard where I’d hang laundry to dry while the Kookaburras cackled.  Suddenly, some sense triggers an onslaught of memories.  The smell of Bounce dryer sheets instantly brings me back to my hire car [and home] in Puerto Rico.  My mouth salivates and I can almost taste the warm pear atop the melted Pecorino pizza in Siena.
Yet, some memories have slipped into the void, and only by rereading my journal, reviewing photographs, or speaking with my mother, are they yanked to the forefront of my mind.  My trek through Western Australia – specifically Monkey Mia – is the exception. I am positive I will never forget the week spent at the marine reserve.  Despite the paradisical landscape, wildlife, isolation, sunsets, and relaxing pace of Monkey Mia, the dolphins were the true reason for my trans-Pacific voyage.  I present you with my best captured moments!


* CONFIDENCE.  If I inhabited the world’s largest sea grass population – and the myriad life teeming within it, like the enormous Thaaka a.k.a. Tiger Shark I saw underneath my catamaran – I would be terrified to swim out of hiding into the open water.  However, dolphins are truthfully everywhere you look in Monkey Mia.  They must know their strength and trust in it.  According to a DPaW a.k.a. Department of Parks and Wildlife ranger, minutes after being attacked by a shark, India – a rascal male dolphin – paraded up and down the shore during a feeding, effectively showing off his gnarly battle wound.

I watched a similar showdown with Puck and a determined female pelican, Rogue.  She frequently delayed the feeding of the dolphins by trying to snag their Yellowtail. One morning in particular, ruffian Rogue hectored the first and second dolphin to receive a fish.  Now the third – and last – feeding of the day, she lingered in the water.

I pulled a slimy Yellowtail from the bucket, handing it to an older couple already shin-deep in the Indian Ocean.  As they bent over, offering the snack to Puck, I saw splashes and a mess of feathers in the periphery, in addition to the collective yelp from the onlookers and the the man chosen from the crowd crossly asking “What the…?”

The kerfuffle started and finished in a blink.  From my vantage, there was no fuss at all because my eyes were focused on Puck.  Despite Rogue’s grayish-blue feet dangling underwater and her invading Puck’s space, Puck was unfazed.  She was a 38 year-old woman; mother to 8 calves (though some perished), and would never be intimidated by a bird.  Even during the melee, amidst the mess of animal parts (a bird beak, dead fish, human arm, and dolphin rostrum) Puck wasn’t startled.  Quite the contrary; she was so stealth I never saw her dart for the Yellowtail at the water’s surface.  With barely any effort exerted, she captured the fish in [what felt like] the nick of time.  Immediately pursuant to the chaos she casually swam around, knowing she could outwait pesky Rogue.


* EYES.  There’s not much better than gazing into the eyes of another living soul, be it your child, your dog, your lover or a wild animal.  Only monkeys and dolphins can recognize their reflection – an attribute previously reserved for the supreme species homo sapien – so I wondered what Puck was thinking as she looked me over.  It’s impossible to limn what it feels like to be at peace with, but study, another animal driven solely by curiosity and weighted by respect (at least on my end), but it was a visceral affinity.

I felt the same, harmonious connection one lazy afternoon with Nicky.  She rocked up around 14:00, Monkey Mia's beach mostly deserted by that hour. While Missel was preoccupied nearby in the tranquil, deeper water, Nicky approached the shore.  The atmosphere was peaceful and still from the intense, midday heat and lack of tourists.  The only sound came from the lapping of subdued waves and the swish of water from Nicky's occasional movement.  For twenty minutes she hung out, idly bobbing in the ocean as she studied me and I, in turn, sat in the wet sand, mesmerized by her.


* PROWESS.  We already know life in Shark Bay is increasingly tough and 40% of calves in the area do not make it to age three.  Shark Bay is also the only place in the galaxy where dolphins have been consistently observed using tools.  The mammals pad their beaks with sea sponges from the ocean floor to protect themselves against razor-like coral as they snare smaller organisms. 

Surprise – who taught daughter Shock her remarkable skills – is the best of the best when it comes to foraging for a spiny fish that hides in sea grass.  Few dolphins in the UNESCO World Heritage Site are masterful enough to catch Flatfish.  Presumably, the numerous hardships have bred this subspecies of the Common Bottlenose Dolphin to excel at other tasks.


* INTELLIGENCE.  Cetaceans are capable of aurally receiving over 20 times the amount of information as humans, so their brains too must supersede ours in order to process all that data.  They associate their own anatomy with that of another species and follow recipes.  For me, the grandest display of irrabugas’ a.k.a. dolphins’ cognitive supremacy happened when Piccolo baited a tourist into thinking he controlled a feeding, but there were other prime examples.

The Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins of Monkey Mia were provisioned 3 fish per feeding (always commencing before noon).  Though the dialogue changed, the marine reserve staff’s spiel always included some Delphinidae facts and preparations for the feeding encounters.  After the offering of every third fish, we – the vollies – immediately rinsed our buckets in the Indian Ocean “as a signal” to Puck, Piccolo, Surprise, Shock and Nicky that no more fish would be extended.

Certainly, these ladies did not require a signal.  Though probably a rudimentary skill, I know the females were counting the number of Yellowtail they received. The majority of the time, after the third fish, they were already swimming out to sea.  Sometimes I couldn’t say “see you tomorrow” fast enough.  Furthermore, there was such commotion and a long lull between the second and third fish (thanks to Rogue’s interference) that any other animal – for instance, a dog – would have lost interest and rightfully assumed the treats ceased.  On the contrary, Surprise passively floated in the water.  She knew she had only consumed two fish and one more laid in my pail.



* EXPRESSIVENESS.  DPaW staff at Monkey Mia and dolphin activist Ric O’Barry [in his controversially heart-breaking documentary The Cove] were sure to point out that an irrabuga’s perma-smile cloaks his/her true feelings.  Like when Surprise’s chubby cheeks and underbite masked her surly mood one day.
Other times during my week at Monkey Mia, the Delphinids exhibited happier spirits.  When my mother and I arrived at the beach as tourists, two inquisitive females played with – and eventually ate – a prawn in the shallow water.  One calm afternoon, as I sat in the information kiosk counting boats, my mom had just stepped away when I caught sight of an Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin leaping entirely out of the ocean in a perfect arch.  The pose was so iconic I’d only seen it on posters… until now.

Crossing the continent and proceeding roughly 2781 kilometers a.k.a. 1728 miles, to Viti Levu, Fiji, most people visiting or residing in the eastern half of the island make a day-trip to Takalana Bay in the quiet and remote Dawasamu region.  Though Takalana Bay (the name of the lodge) boasts plenty of highlights, the main attraction – as it was for my mother and me – was to venture to Moon Reef.  An aerial image reveals it looks predominantly like a half moon with the curved cap and tail of a crescent moon.

The tiny reef houses more than 100 Spinner Dolphins, when they return – from whereabouts unknown – to rest. From the tinny a.k.a. small, metal boat the Spinners sported darker streaks of gray, but had dorsals similarly shaped to the Bottlenose genus. At Moon Reef there were Spinner Dolphins aplenty!  Once my vision adjusted to finding them, what I thought was the crests of waves turned out to be their arching bodies everywhere!

Spinner Dolphins are famed for launching themselves out of the sea, barrel rolling at breakneck speed when aroused.  The Fijian captain had been whistling since our arrival at Moon Reef, and midway through my boat tour the group noticed the mammals were becoming frisky. Soon thereafter we cooed as more cetaceans were sighted catapulting into the air!  Finally, we witnessed one complete four revolutions before he/she smacked into the Pacific Ocean. As soon as the excited Spinner finished its show, it was out of the water again, repeating the acrobatic process.


* COMMUNICATION.  While dolphins are on par with humans in a lot of fields, they greatly surpass us with their communication system and many mysteries still revolve around it.  Although their ears are located a bit further down the body than their eyes, they possess impeccable hearing.  Sonic, born in 2010 to Shock, was the focus of international research conducted to learn how echolocation develops in young Delphinids.  Though not a derivative of that project, fascinatingly, scientists know that cetaceans send 3-dimensional images to others via sonar across the miles.  It’s the equivalent of me imagining the Sydney Opera House, then projecting that replica to another human, fathoms away, who would mentally “see” the venue exactly as I did in my mind. 

In so many of my videos you can hear clicking, squealing, and language. I first-hand experienced dolphin chatter while in the water with Nicky and her calf Missel my last time serving as a vollie a.k.a. volunteer for Monkey Mia Marine Reserve. One day of dolphin feedings turned into a fiasco when naughty Rogue interfered multiple times.  Additionally, although I was charged with Nicky’s fish bucket, she refused to leave another vollie’s side. The DPaW staff’s number one priority is to keep these tourist-centered events within a timeframe specifically for the cetacean babies who need to nurse every 20 minutes… but we know no one can control nature.
Initially, Missel patiently socialized around mum as she would any other day they visited the beach.  However, on this occasion – as the holdups amounted – Missel’s behavior changed.  She began swimming forcefully to the feeding position – just under Nicky, behind her left pectoral fin – and emitting two, high-pitched squeals.  As the event dive-bombed past the 20 minute mark, Missel’s unrelenting squeals sounded like hungry wails and broke my heart, but Nicky responded, trying to mollify her daughter.


* AFFECTION.  Eden was most esteemed to one of the Monkey Mia rangers.  Eden – the first child born [in 2003] to refractory Piccolo – eventually surpassed her mother in terms of social networking. She frequents the shoreline, locking eyes with observant visitors. She also displays the broadest range of any of Shark Bay's myriad dolphins, having been spotted as far as Dirk Hartog Island, 90 miles a.k.a. 145 kilometers away as the crow flies.  More importantly, Eden is a magnanimous female who took an orphaned calf under her wing.

Not all the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins in Monkey Mia were as expressive with their tenderness.  However, Thursday, 11 June 2015 was forever etched into my heart when Piccolo both yearned for and offered such warm emotions.  I had never worked with her until the first feeding [that day].  Although I wasn't permitted to initiate contact, she was so darn touchy-feely that we spun in circles in the water, I observing her; her watching me.  Heart already oozing with love, my second feeding was with the ever-affectionate Surprise who softly nuzzled my calf.


In rereading the list I’ve created, I struggle to choose the irrabuga characteristic that was the most meaningful to me.  Was it the dolphins' emotivity because it directly impacted my mood?  Or was it their intelligence, of which I only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg?  For clarity, I posed the question to my mum, who helped me decipher the true reason the trip to Australasia was a dream come true.

It’s not a single attribute, nor cumulative; that is far too narrow a scope.  It’s the fact that Mom & I were blessed to immerse ourselves in their world.  For a fragment of the dolphins’ life – and ours – we swam in the same water, felt their stiff cartilage against our bodies, watched them roostertail for food, traversed the same seagrass meadows, shared their dread of Tiger Sharks, and related on a pure, existential level.

10 May 2016

Tested

“And I also know how important it is in life not to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.”
-- Primo Levi, Bear Meat


Yesterday, on my way to work, I pulled into an unassuming petrol station.  While the fuel dispensed, I noticed the bird poop smattered over my windshield so I grabbed the communal scrub brush soaking in bright blue cleaner.  As I began scouring the dried scat, my mind flashed back to a year ago in Western Australia.

On a rare, overcast day in Perth -- a city that boasts 285 days of exotic sunshine -- my mother and I pulled into a petrol station a few kilometers south of the [PER] International Airport.  After more than a month cruising through the outback, we needed to fill our Britz Hi-Top one last time before we returned it, but – more importantly – we needed to hide the evidence. You see, hire companies in Australia aren’t ignorant to foreigners and their antics.  It is written into every rental agreement, in every state, that drivers never utilize unsealed roads.  As you can imagine, no one abides by this rule since the nation is rugged, wild, sparsely populated and two-thirds desert.  Indeed, this country was meant to be conquered via the open road. To receive our $3500 bond, Mom and I borrowed every container with clean fluid and began rinsing the gargantuan Britz in the parking lot to eliminate any speck of red dust.
Of course Mom & I could’ve paid for a bonafide car wash, but why? Especially since the sudsy water in the bucket was complimentary for patrons.  Though many endeavors precariously teeter between ethical and simply being a cheapskate, they also strike a deeper nerve with travelers.  I was reminded of the comical yet all-too-backwards scene from Into The Wild wherein the main character approaches a ranger, asking “Where’s the best place to launch [to kayak the unbridled Colorado River through the Grand Canyon]?:
RANGER:  ...Do you have a permit?
CHRIS:       A permit for what?
RANGER:  You can't paddle down the river without a permit. If you like, you can apply
                   for one here, get yourself some experience, and I'll put you on the wait list.
CHRIS:      Wait list? To paddle down a river?
RANGER:  That's right.
CHRIS:      (giggling) Well how long do you have to wait?
RANGER:  Next available is May 17, 2003.
CHRIS:      (laughing) Twelve years?

The way Chris perceived the wait list, and his reaction, is the exact principle I’m referring to. Recalling abluting the Britz, these are the actions you take and the personality traits that surface when you become a nomad.

Mom & I chose to recuperate in NSW a.k.a. New South Wales for 5 days, after 36 in the outback.  We stuffed ourselves at pricey, well-known Sydney establishments like Mr. Wong's; slept in every day since we each had a Queen bed with a pillow menu at Amora Jamison, and strolled through cute neighborhoods like Darlinghurst.  Though we were reveling in urban life, it was the polar opposite of the past five weeks in Western Australia where we fended for ourselves.

We simply had changed too much.  Despite Sydney’s vibe, Mom and I could not entirely shed our nomadic skin.  Desperate for clean clothes, the nearest laundromat was over a 2 kilometer walk away and not open late. Refusing to pay the outrageous taxi fare and haul (literally) our entire wardrobe to another neighborhood of the metropolis, we pulled back the curtains in our extravagant hotel and scanned the cityscape.
Eureka! In illuminated red letters, a block from our reconnaissance window, I zeroed in on the word “Travelodge.”  Mom and I set off, backpacks crammed full of rank clothing.  However, I grew uneasy about our mission since we were unfamiliar with the hotel’s layout and may be stopped by staff as we wandered around the building.  My mother – who watches a Jason Bourne film every time it is aired– reassured me “you belong here,” quoting the main character. 

So, I feigned confidence and smiled nonchalantly at the front desk attendant as we waltzed across the Travelodge’s lobby.  I made a beeline for the elevators while Mom casually asked a clerk how to access the laundry room.  The world was our oyster.

Throughout my time abroad in Western Australia, I secured many discounts.  There were tons, I just needed to find the boldness to ask!  Regardless of age, origin, or sex, there is one commonality between all budget travelers: they are exceedingly assertive.  With a little sweetness, the foreign exchange teller waived my transaction fee, I paid $30 AUD for a WA Discount Pass (that saved $100 on lodging), and – most importantly – the hire company delivered a replacement Britz Hi-Top since ours hadn’t been returned but we needed to get on the road to Cervantes (pronounced “Seer-van-teez”).

As the fifth – and final – week in Western Australia neared, Mom and I had morphed into excellent vagabonds.  After surveying a campervan park our first night as guests, we realized we could pay for a grass site without electricity, but run an extra-long extension cord to the power box so long as we did it at night after all the staff [& occupants] dispersed.

By this point in the voyage, we were confident in our adaptability and willing to further test our skills considering our vagabond behavior had only been rewarded thus far.  We questioned, why settle for free electricity, when we could aim for an entire night of lodging that cost $0? The challenge became exciting, addicting, and practically a game… as in how many costs could we cut before the universe reprimanded us?

With just two nights until we flew out of Western Australia, Mom & I decided to take the risk of sleeping in a public park.  This manicured area south of Freo a.k.a. Fremantle was situated near the beach, offered 24/7 WCs a.k.a. bathrooms, and provided heated grills.  Essentially, it was a free version of the RV park we slept in the night prior. After using the various amenities, I parked the Britz in a dark corner – as out of sight as possible –  and passed out.  However, in the back of my mind I anticipated being awoke in the middle of the night by a police officer’s assertive knock.
However, that knock never materialized and we snoozed soundly that morning under the shade of a gum a.k.a. Eucalyptus tree.  Staying in an extravagant Ritz-Carlton is certainly global travel, but you want for nothing. You’re never really tested by the world outside.

22 April 2016

Dangers

"It's not the danger I love. I know what I love. It is life itself."
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery



If you didn't learn from the entries about the dolphins living in Shark Bay, Australia is an extremely deadly country.  Although also odd and beguiling, the flora, fauna and environment are inhospitable.  Often, the dangers are not as obvious as the east coast's notorious Great White Sharks. In Western Australia, many dangers lay in wait while others are invisible to the naked eye or naive foreigner.

***
Next time you plan a picnic in Australia, remember it is home to nearly 90 species of Bulldog Ants a.k.a. Bull Ants.  I was shocked by their size. These freakishly large ants -- similar in length to a kiwi fruit -- are confrontational and have a painful sting even to humans.  As if that's not bad enough, their stinger does not dislodge so they can continuously impale and poison their victim. 

***
Though a stunning national park to explore on foot, a few of Karijini's chasms are off limits to visitors thanks to an asbestos presence.  Hikers may enter Yampire & Wittenoom Gorge but are advised to stay off the rock to avoid blue asbestos.  I kept my hands off any rock that wasn't a natural, earth tone just to be safe.


***
A prepared swimmer should always expect rip tides in the open ocean, but you know an area is particularly perilous when signage has to be posted.  Such was the case at appropriately-named Turquoise Bay -- voted the country's second best beach.  As you can see, plenty of tourists still swam haphazardly. 



***
As a skydiver, comrades & I used to tell customers to have a safe drive home, since the act resulted in more annual fatalities than hurling oneself out of a flying plane. However, hitting the open road in WA involves a few more risks than driving in the U.S.A.  First, during The Wet a.k.a. summer plenty of highways flood (and remain inaccessible), which left one of my mates a.k.a. male friend unexpectedly trapped in a Pilbara town.  Second, fatigue sets in swiftly and easily as the kilometers seem to stretch through the deserts, Nullarbor and up the northwest coast to Broome. 

Third, there aren't a lot of encampments -- especially in the interior -- so plan accordingly.  Much to my dismay, I had to cut my time in Karijini National Park two days short. The campervan was running on fumes since I drove throughout the park to various gorges and the "nearest" petrol was 136 kilometers away in Tom Price.

Fourth,  distances on the map are quite deceiving.  What looks like a simple day-trip turns into an all-day haul into the blinding sun.  After referencing a map and its scale, I calculated the distance from Exmouth's peninsula to Karijini National Park as 5.5 hours.  In reality, it took a solid 7 hours -- that's how spread out encampments are in this state. 

Fifth, you still need to protect yourself from the searing WA sun!  On day 2 there was not a cloud in the sky.  It was a picturesque day for driving, but my right arm & right cheek were toasted pink.  As you can see in the video, Mom's face is quite flushed.

Sixth, being on the road in the range of 1 hour before sunset to 1 hour after dawn is not wise.  Granted, many Aussies drive at night without fuss, but that's in the city.  Meanwhile, the outback and already vacant highways transform into a wildlife gauntlet. On this continent, sheep outnumber people and the majority of farm animals roam freely. On a few occasions our Britz Hi-Top would pop over a hill at Mach 4 and my mom would instantly grab the Oh-shit-handle, yelling "COW!" or "'ROO!" Semi-trucks literally bulldoze through the marsupials all night and posted on billboards throughout the state are haunting reminders, such as the one outside of Narrogin that states "Killer 'roos. Belt up."

Another major obstacle facing WA drivers is the road train.  It is a foreign concept to Americans, but in essence, it is a bunch of freight trailers (ranging from 2 to -- I'd guess-- 5) strewn together so that only one employee has to cover the far-flung distances in Western Australia.  In reality, it is a monstrous chunk of metal, barreling down the road with so much velocity even if it wanted to stop abruptly it couldn't... hence the trail of dead wildlife.  Passing one proved to be quite the adrenaline rush.  Although there was considerably less vehicular traffic in WA than most developed nations, I still required the assistance of the spotter ute a.k.a. pick-up truck who radioed ahead to inquire about oncoming vehicles. Once, he/she received the all clear, I would be waved on.  At that point I would redline the Britz Hi-Top and drive in the wrong lane [for what felt like miles] before finally reaching the nose of the road train.  My mom's role was to stick her hand outside and wave in gratitude.


***
Repeatedly throughout Western Australia I noticed signs warning "1080 POISON RISK" with a bold, red exclamation mark. Totally unaware, I guessed it meant there was an underground mine in the area utilizing caustic chemicals so the water was non-potable.  In actuality, the signs referred to the country's poison pea bush whose synthetic pesticide number is ten-eighty.  The entire family of poisonous plants reside only on this island.  The Western Australian variety boasts bright yellow flowers with cherry red centers and a lethal dose of toxins responsible for killing millions of dollars worth of livestock every year.

Early farmers learned the hard way.  Cattle were dropping dead days after lounging at the station a.k.a. ranch.  Amazingly, fauna native to the continent have built a tolerance and are relatively unscathed when digesting the shrubs.  Therefore, rangers have used the plant to bait and control the feral cat, pig, and fox populations that were wrongfully introduced by foreign settlers.... Mother Nature's revenge.

***
The month before Mom & I flew across the Pacific, I jeered her for purchasing corny, $1 over-the-head bug nets in a camouflage print.  When worn, they resembled Jewish yarmulkes with an Army Green veil. My mother sported hers proudly, but I was too hip to be caught in one of them, so I waved the bugs away by hand and wiped myself with organic bug wipes.  That is, until, we crossed into Shark Bay's peninsula.

Outside the town of Denham, on an insouciant afternoon, the clouds reflected off the still water at Hamelin Pool.  The setting was wholly serene except for the swarm of inexorable flies.  I frantically scrambled in my backpack for the bug net while Mom unfussily waltzed ahead.  When we paused on the boardwalk to gaze at the humble Stromatolites more than two dozen of the little bastards also rested on Mom.
Further north on the peninsula, in Monkey Mia, the insects kept up their barrage.  They contaminated any food left unsealed, ruined lounging at the beach, and haunted us in the campervan by buzzing around all night trying to siphon blood.  Upon first arriving at Monkey Mia I was so incensed by the flies as they tickled my ears and landed on every millimeter of exposed skin.  However, by Day 4 I'd become less strung out by their exasperating swarms. I was unaware when they dangled off my upper lip; I no longer cared when they became ensnared in my eyelashes like Aeon Flux.  In fact, the one time I still furiously swatted the flies was when they breached my nostrils (and many did) because I feared they would venture up to my brain, although I do not know of a person in Western Australia -- or the continent -- who has died this way.  As Alfred Wallace perfectly detailed in the late 1800s, "...with the flies was enough to set one deranged... one might kill them in millions, yet other and hungrier millions would still come on, rejoicing in the death of their predecessors..."

***
In the southwest corner of the state near Yallingup, Ngilgi Cave a.k.a. cave in this spot was named for the Aboriginal benevolent god of the ocean who banished the maleficent god Wolgine from Yallingup. Wolgine fled through the roof of the cave, thus creating its only penetration point. Ngilgi, was an underground gem that housed both rare and odd crystals.  However, the deeper Mom & I delved into the cavern, the higher the CO2 levels rose.  The ranger suggested we move slowly or surface if breathing became arduous.


 ***
Let's not forget the behemoth Thaaka a.k.a. Tiger Shark I saw in Monkey Mia that was larger than the double-kayak.  While the cobalt Indian Ocean and its creatures are alluring, they are also unfettered and predators in a food chain.  While snorkeling in Ningaloo Reef, staff advised me to give the barracudas present plenty of distance.  Likewise, a Monkey Mia vollie a.k.a. volunteer spotted a Stonefish -- with its venomous spurs -- hanging out near the end of the jetty.

***
Most Americans wouldn't think much of hopping onto their bike for a relaxing, evening ride. However, in Western Australia that hobby assumes an entirely new risk! The scorching city of Exmouth posted signs along its trails, warning cyclists and pedestrians to beware of dingoes.  Driving back into the town after snorkeling with Whale Sharks I chanced upon a Dingo, in the middle of the day, in a dried up river bed, ironically, not far from one of the signs.

***
The picturesque Zuytdorp Cliffs vary from steep vertical faces to grooved inlets, stretching 200 kilometers up Western Australia's coast.  Yet for all their beauty, they were created from violence. The limestone formations -- like Natural Bridge and Island Rock -- are the result of being relentlessly smitten by the Indian Ocean.  This scarp has strong currents and enormous swells that explode against the headland and is so named because of the first ship it claimed, the Zuytdorp.

Because the coast consists of limestone, the edges are hazardous since one never knows when a chunk will fracture and fall into the depths.  Since I am a rock climber, I wanted a photograph of myself hanging from Kalbarri's red rock.  With a secure grip, I lifted my feet from the ground and immediately after my mother captured the shot, a piece of rock broke under my weight and I pile-drived it directly into my skull, nearly knocking myself unconscious.

 


***
The ramifications of not touching wildlife in Western Australia are twofold.  Specifically, with the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins of Monkey Mia, human contact could pass along the common cold for which the animals could die since they lack immunity to the viral infection.  On the flipside, dolphins can transmit Tuberculosis to humans via their blowhole spray.  Unfortunately, I did not learn this fact until after being doused by a cranky Puck one day.


***
Everyone is aware the Box Jellyfish is the deadliest marine animal, but did you know another Australian animal gives it a run for its money?  At 2.5 centimeters long, Irukandji actually have the most lethal toxin which they inflict on humans with an internal pressure of 2,000 psi (compared to your car tires, filled to about 35 psi). Uncharacteristic of jellyfish, both their tentacles and bell can excrete the venom.  Not surprisingly, they are related to the Box Jellyfish.  These organisms were unknown until the 1950s since they were clear and minute.  Due to a potential presence in the Tropic of Capricorn, everyone who went on an excursion to Ningaloo Reef sported "stinger suits" to prevent their nasty whips.  The unflattering, stretchy suits transformed everyone into The Blue Man Group, but I would take that any day over a sting 100 times more powerful than a Cobra's!  Completely outfitted with snorkel gear, my only skin exposed were my insteps, cheeks and upper lip.


***
But by far, the most imposing threat in and to Western Australia are homo sapiens. They dump sewage into the ocean, improperly dispose of rubbish a.k.a. garbage which ends up killing marine life (whether by ingestion, suffocation, or strangulation), introduce foreign fauna which disrupt ecosystems, destroy forests for timber, strip the land of its natural resources, try to domesticate pelagic wildlife, and overfish.  This Earth Day my hope is that you'll take one tiny step to minimize your impact on this planet that so many of us love fiercely.

09 March 2016

Weird

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes


Foremost, traversing the globe to Australia from the eastern U.S.A. is no simple feat.  In fact, it is futuristic time travel! On 1 June, Mom and I departed from LAX a.k.a. Los Angeles to MEL a.k.a. Melbourne well after dark, around 22:00.  From wheels up, we were locked in the cabin of the Airbus for 18+ hours.  Eventually, our vessel touched down in the land down under....on 3 June.  2 June had evaporated and was in limbo somewhere over the colossal Pacific Ocean.

If anything, I'd guess we were actually traveling back in time, since I had not seen daylight in over a calendar day (the 4 hours spent in Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX + the 21 aboard Qantas + the layover in MEL + the 4 journeying from VIC a.k.a. Victoria to WA).  No matter where I landed, it was still dark; only the scenery had changed.  My grandma at home in Ohio had passed two full days of summer.  Meanwhile, Mom & I had lived a perpetual night where we just ate and slept, ate and slept, ate and slept.  After a grueling anti-podean trek and time travel inside a hunk of metal, the sun finally rose in PER a.k.a. Perth.
 
Here are more absolutely astounding and mind-blowing sites in Western Australia.


*** Outside Yallingup a.k.a. Place of Love -- a sleepy surf town situated on a horn of land in the southwestern corner of WA -- lies Ngilgi Cave.  Discovered in 1899, I regarded it as a great specimen of the beauty and wonder hidden within the Earth's crust, though the Margaret River peninsula boasts many impressive caves.  Inside Ngilgi (pronounced "Nill-gee"), one area named The Jewel Casket showcased rare Dog-Tooth Crystals which form outward upon contacting water's surface.  They were a more fragile and natural version of a toilet scrub brush, though some resembled upside-down mushrooms straight out of Alice In Wonderland.

However, Ngilgi continued to get more and more weird as the self-guided tour progressed and I descended.  Around 37 meters a.k.a. 121 feet (and still not the deepest point), in the largest accessible area of the chasm, a guide placed broken stalactite and stalagmite chunks in a box enveloped in darkness.  Unexpectedly, the rock began glowing an alien green!  Had I been spelunking through Ngilgi back in 1899 and seen something glowing in the dark, I probably would have been scared to death.

Weirder still were the unexplained Helictites.  Spread throughout Ngilgi, these unexplained crystals grew from the rock walls at sharp angles to give the impression they were reaching out to poke you.  Others -- a key trait of a Helictite -- mysteriously grow upward like a plant, defying gravity and spiraling like a pig's tail.  Though scientists have postulated, no one is certain how a Helictite forms.
 

*** Before the construction of Indian Ocean Drive, Nambung National Park was a relatively isolated vicinity despite being home to a very famous Australian landscape: Pinnacles, found nowhere else in the country, to my knowledge.

Tucked off the highway rise the limestone rock formations.  Limestone is present on every continent save Antarctica, but what makes Pinnacles unique is the quantity of rocks occupying just this tiny speck of the globe. From a hilltop, I could see them in their entirety. It would be like staring at weirdly shaped fruit trees that only grew at a particular orchard in the outback of Western Australia. Jet-lagged from 48 hours of non-stop flying, Mom and I found new energy as we set foot into the yam-colored sand at Pinnacles.
The natural structures were formed as one solid bed of coastal seashells.  Over many eras, the Indian Ocean receded and wind aided in slowly stripping away the hardened layers.  Meanwhile -- working in secrecy -- acidic groundwater seeped its way through cracks made from plants and the drying earth, also eroding rock. The weaker sections were bludgeoned by shifting sands and only the strongest columns remained.

Some survivors were no taller than three inches.  They acted like booby traps belied by the fluid sand and repeatedly tripped us up. I was thankful to be wearing boots. I felt a tad guilty for stepping on these archaic wonders though and tried to cautiously navigate the empty spaces, as if I was exploring a cemetery.  Indeed it looked like a shrunken graveyard in some sections where we dwarfed the rock.  However, towards the center of the site were spires that rose to almost 15 feet. Birds and small lizards resided in the protected kerfs of the limestone.  Of the taller formations, most were phallic and a few sported windows.
 


*** As one would expect on the largest island in the world, there are some odd creatures.  On each end of the spectrum, there are profoundly wonderful specimen thanks to Australia's isolation. Many endemic fauna -- like Dingos -- have evolved as anomalies of their species.  They have specialized purposely for Australia's harsh climate, the driest inhabited place on Earth.  Based on Darwin's theory of evolution, they are the cutting edge of their species and will certainly survive.

At the other end of the spectrum of isolation, Australia is so untouched (the same size as the USA with 92% less population, mostly settled near the coast) that much of the country remains unspoilt; its interior still enigmatic.  You can find things that today -- in the new millennium -- are like taking a giant leap back in time.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in the state of Western Australia, and the epitome of gazing at the past is Hamelin Pool.

Turn off Highway 1 a.k.a. The Brand onto an empty, two-lane road and you enter the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shark Bay.  Within this peninsula, down a dusty outback road, is a parking lot and an eerily quiet beach known as Hamelin Pool.  Not a single wave crashed; not a single bird chirped; not a single person spoke.  My mother & I pulled in two hours before sunset and had the place to ourselves.
We jaunted toward the end of the boardwalk, the only manmade object around. Here, at Hamelin Pool, is the world's healthiest and largest population of Stromatolites.  I imagined them as immobile, rotund boulders showcased in the center of the circular walkway.  To my surprise, many of the Stromatolites were short and flat, though their tops were bulbous.  They were everywhere, underwater as far as the eye could see!
To experience these living organisms is to really contemplate life -- not just human life, but the short timeline of life itself on Earth.  The mats that spread out from the beach are comprised of microscopic life forms that slowly -- and that is a tremendous understatement -- created the world by exhaling exiguous amounts of oxygen.  The output of these countless cyanobacteria in combination with 3 billion years, produced miraculous results!
Throughout the planet's five mass extinctions the Stromatolites endured by moving into the niches of already dead species.  Despite these hardships, the cyanobacteria steadfastly stayed the course of releasing a nanogram of oxygen, thus unintentionally breathing Earth's atmosphere into existence.  Eventually this led to the evolution and sustainability of more complex life.  3 billion years, and to know it all started with the Stromatolites.  These organisms inhabited our planet at the dawn of time, long before the Pangaea and the dinosaurs. I couldn't fathom all they had experienced; oh the stories they would share if only they could communicate!  I couldn't believe how poignant I felt, staring at these banal rocks.  Sitting on the wooden planks observing them, it was like meeting my maker.  What a profoundly humbling moment to meet something singularly responsible for your existence.


*** Iconic Uluru a.k.a. Ayer's Rock in NT a.k.a. Northern Territory is partly so because you drive 4 hours from the nearest bonafide city through the endless, pedantic Simpson Desert, to find an enormous monolith rising up from the flattest continent in the world.  However did you know WA is the Australian state that submissively harbors the World's Largest Rock? More than double the size of Uluru, hidden in the outback off gravel roads squats the sprawling monocline Burringurrah a.k.a. Mount Augustus.

Imagine that same superlative on a smaller scale and you have WA's termite mounds.  Driving the entire western half of the state, the common theme on the road was barren.  In fact, more sheep populate this country than people! Having seen so much nothingness as we conquered the Exmouth peninsula, Mom and I questioned the weird rock formations sporadically scattered throughout the meadows.  Resembling dinosaur droppings some surpassed the stout trees in height.  Finally -- upon inspection -- we deduced these giants were actually solid termite homes.


*** Nothing was stranger than the day Mom and I attempted to find "pink lake."  I stumbled upon its mention on TripAdvisor and the directions posted were vague. Literally, the post read "when you round the corner you can't miss it." Since I refused to look at attraction photos beforehand, I figured there would be a pond with pastel pink sand (like in Bermuda) in the middle of Port Gregory, a tiny town on the Indian Ocean.

Lake Hillier, also located in Western Australia, is a much more famous pink lake since it is surrounded by smooth white sand, a forest of green, and the vivid blue of the Great Australian Bight.  However, it is located on Middle Island off the desolate southern coast of the state.  Years ago I sent an email to the tourist centre in Esperance inquiring about a visit there.  Due to its protected status as a nature reserve, no visitors are permitted on the island, nor is there any water transportation to it.  The employee suggested chartering a helicopter to view it.

Two years later, the full on sunshine made me mildly optimistic as our campervan finally veered off toward this forgotten town.  Zoned out from driving on the open road, we passed a vast body of water in the middle of nowhere. I was distracted, scanning for signs to Port Gregory, that when I looked to my right and briefly saw flecks of pink, I assumed I was seeing my mom's shirt reflecting onto the passenger-side window.  Eyes still searching, I honestly thought I was hallucinating as the pool of water to my right fluctuated between crisp blue and pale pink.  In perfect timing, my mother randomly stated "That water is pink!"

After confirming something was indeed askew, the droll body of water  -- actually named Hutt Lagoon -- morphed into a sea of rose.  I carefully maneuvered the campervan off the bitumen's a.k.a. paved road drop-off, into the rust-colored earth.  Completely agog, I grabbed my Sony Action Cam and immediately descended the talus to investigate.  At the shoreline I totally expected to see clear water, knowing the pink was an optical illusion since the water ahead still showed a clean shade of blue.  However, on the banks of Hutt Lagoon the shallow water remained carnation pink. I shoved the handheld camera into the lagoon and it disappeared into the milky liquid.  Then, I thought perhaps that was a bad idea since caustic chemicals, alien life forms or a deadly type of protist could be giving the water its creamy carnation appearance.
After lunch [using the free BBQs] at Port Gregory's chilly public beach, Mom and I proceeded north. As we pulled onto Port Gregory-Kalbarri Road, toward the horizon Hutt Lagoon stretched on like a rosy finger.  Mom & I discussed the pink lake days later because it was the coolest freaking thing, but found better topics of conversation once we arrived to Monkey Mia (the dolphins).

Three weeks later -- after Monkey Mia, after Exmouth, and after Karijini National Park -- we begrudgingly set off on the first of three 10-hour days of non-stop driving.  We had crossed the 26th parallel into the northwest of the state, traversed the Great Sandy Desert & now, needed to make our way back toward WA's only city with an international airport, Perth.  Basically, we were driving everything it took us 3 weeks to cross (and more, since we were headed to the SW corner of the state) in less than 3 days!

We left Auski Roadhouse in the Pilbara around 08:00 and vowed to stop at every fuel station down Highway 95 a.k.a. Great Northern Highway since we practically ran out of petrol getting to Auski.  Thank God for Capricorn and Kumina Roadhouse otherwise I'm positive we would have been stranded along the road en route to Meekatharra.  Kumina Roadhouse consisted of two pumps for gas and two for diesel, entirely caked in dirt.  The lonely pumps fried in the desert sun and looked straight out of a 1960s magazine.  Other than the nostalgic petrol dispensers, the one-story house that doubled as the convenient store, and this clearing of earth, there was absolute nothingness for hundreds of mile; only the bush.  This was unmistakably the outback.

Legs stretched and expensive fuel paid for, Mom and I departed Kumina Roadhouse to conquer another chunk of the map.  Shortly after -- in the middle of the desert mind you -- a Cantaloupe lake materialized!  I suspect many other passersby before us had the same idea because I pulled into a bay off 95 with tire tracks.  Save the baby blue edges of the water, the entire pool was melon-colored! 



From ocean to desert, lush river regions to arid, red soil, Western Australia's extremes are certainly its highlight... but so is everything in between! From traversing rock formed 420 million years ago and finding Earth's most steadfast life, to the future of tidal energy, this state is dichotomously past and future.  If you're willing to go the distance, Western Australia offers countless unequaled wild, wonderful, and weird treasures!