Saturday, November 21, 1998

Aussie Rules

The night before and for most of the morning it rained. I hadn’t set up my dome tent correctly, and I woke up to find most of clothes floating in a puddle. I was sleeping on top of an air mattress, and hadn’t noticed the rain seeping in. I soon went to huddle underneath the large tarp our guides had set up. The rest of our sea kayak campers joined us - a pair of bay area travel agents, a volleyball couple from Boston, a woman on her seventieth birthday with her daughter-in-law, and the three guides from the Adventure Company.

We waited for the rain to stop. We had camped for two nights on an uninhabited island four miles off of the shore of Northern Australia. It was a small island with a sharp coral beach and a large hill that had vines, golden spiders and the graves of a lighthouse operator and his family, the last residents of the island. Ours was the last trip of the season before the rainy season and jellyfish arrived in mid December. When the rain stopped for a lunch break we quickly packed our gear and headed to the mainland in the post storm swells. We had to paddle single file through the first channel and then turn at an angle to the three to four feet waves. That size wave isn’t really that dangerous – leaning into the waves would prevent tipping. The breeze was pushing us to shore.

But soon our boat was last, a kilometer behind everyone else - the boat the guides moan about afterwards in the pub when they are sucking their XXXX beer and reminiscing about Australia versus England cricket or the time they chucked a spear into their neighbor’s yard. My right shoulder had cramped and my kayak partner was busy throwing up into the sea. No, this wasn’t real danger. That came earlier.

A month before I had a career hiccup and decided to go on a break after a good dinner and a Johnny Cash album failed to cheer me up. Normally I listen to alternative rock but I had had too much of thirty-one flavors and then some. I needed a change.

After using the Internet as a way of spinning the globe and sticking a pin in it (search = English speaking, warm, end of November) Australia bubbled to the surface. It is a country that mixes summer and Santa. Two weeks of looking at nature.

It is a fierce place - a home of sharks, 30 proof sun block, pythons, strangler fig, and drivers on the other side of the road. And then there were the stickers and blood suckers: the lawyer cane vine, the elephant ear plant, the stinging jelly fish, and, of course, the leeches. The trip was broken up into five parts - canoeing, biking, backpacking, scuba, and the sea kayak. When the pamphlet came for what to bring for the 8-mile backpack into the rainforest (the politically correct for jungle - no one is for jungle) it mentioned insect repellent somewhere between a water bottle, a good pair of socks, and a good hat. It didn’t say that the spray was for leeches.

These leeches are smaller than the Hollywood variety - a half inch long and pencil lead thin, but quicker. They move like inchworms, head to toe, always creeping towards heat. They avoid the zones of toxic levels, and quickly find the barren sections of skin. We flicked them off (no salt, cigarette, or Humphrey Bogart needed) but we had to be careful not to bombard our fellow hikers. Two of them clung to my hands after a miss-flick and nibbled gently at my palms. By the end of the trip I had had about twenty of these on me with about a half a dozen successfully drip drying me of A positive blood. This year I not only tried to save the rainforest, I also fed it.

It did take a day to get over the leach search breaks - you get strange dreams at night after spending a day with these worms. Eventually I came to the conclusion that leeches are like mosquitoes that apologize with
anaesthetic before the bite. All things considered I would much rather have blood-letting leeches than skin crunching mosquitoes (but this is the type of decision I am not really looking for in my little career search).

Now there was also beauty on the trip: sleeping in a hammock next to a waterfall, watching the sun set over a coral beach, hovering above a sea turtle or a giant clam in the Great Barrier Reef, discovering what looked like a branch of a tree was really a bird, stopping at a strangler fig that floated down from the rainforest canopy like a curtain, and eating fresh pineapple that had been carved into a boat or the fresh fruits (tucker) that our guide picked for us in the rain forest.

There was the shame of the feral things that had been brought to the island - the gigantic raging cane toad, the root digging pigs, and the TV show, South Park. The times away from nature when we were in a hotel or walking down the street, the place felt like America through a looking glass. Seinfeld cruises a TV that hasn’t got fifty channels. Take out fast food is called take away. The fanny refers to the other side of a woman. Don’t mix these up in a pub. And be very careful whom you root for.

There were the storms. On the second day of the trip (the first day of biking, the day after the canoe) after we biked around what felt like a mostly uphill Atherton tablelands, we stopped at Lake Eachem for a quick swim. As we got out of the crater lake the meteorologist cicada began to chirp. A cool breeze hit us as we got on the bikes. It started to rain.

It was a machine gun downpour. The rain hit like an over caffeinated masseuse. In California this weather would cause land slides, national guard movement, and a long afternoon for a marketing department spin control ("I think we should call it something like el tiburon"); in Australia it was an afternoon. My shoulders were protected by my backpack but my windbreaker was of little use for my front. We had to bike through a forest, which would have been already dark, and the clouds blocked whatever other light. I took off my sunglasses and squinted unsuccessfully to avoid the rain.

We rode on. The rain slapped into the forest causing the leaves and dust to fall onto the road. Pretty soon there were small branches coming down and we were forced to zig zag around the mounting debris. The rain kept pounding. Up ahead the cars had stopped and were starting to back up the street. A tree had fallen across the road. We flung our bikes over the tree and continued into the storm.

More branches. Bigger branches. And then the realization that a tree is a fairly large object. This was not an automated Disney Land ride when the hydraulic trees pop once the ride is over to scare the batch of E-ticket holders. This was not an Indiana Jones flick in which you know that the guy with the good hat can’t get hurt. This is what I believed was a real issue. We rode on carefully listening for an early warning crackle a tree makes as it is about to fall. Another tree across the road. This one blocked a car that was stuck between it and the earlier one. We hopped off of our bikes and began to push the trunk. We kept looking around to make sure nothing else was falling as we cleared some branches so that the car could make it through. We once again hopped on the bikes and rode on.

The third tree that fell was the smallest. Our guide motioned us out of the forest - he would take care of the last tree and we were close to the exit and the main road. Only a few minutes latter we were out of the forest. The rain still pounded the rest of the way home, and it was impossible to see much of the traffic on the road. But we knew that the
tough part was done and a pub was within reach.

Most of the time, we deal with small problems - the hobgoblins of daily commutes, status reports, and under-budgeted projects. I believe the great vacations are the ones that the at-home issues get flung away - that you really do only take the four tee shirts, water bottle, a good pair of socks, a wide brim hat and, of course, insect repellent; and leave the did-I-turn-that-report-in worries behind. If you have to clean out a backpack because you have spilt meat sauce all over it and are worried about the marsupial equivalent of big city rat will perforate most of your remaining underwear as a snack when it is dark out and the leeches are still moving, you will forget about how you babble too much at interviews and the general career angst that awaits you back home. Cherish these moments as you scrub. In the rain pedal forward squinting and listen for the crackling on the sides of the roads.

My partner in the sea kayak righted herself and cleaned her mouth out with the last of the water in her water bottle. My right shoulder started to feel better and I was able to do the deeper paddles and catch up to the group. Shortly we turned to our right so that the rest of the trip was with the surf and wind. We pulled the boats back up on shore,
and I smiled at the troubled sea.