The day of the cyclone

Cyclone. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

On day two, the tropical cyclone that was tracking off the coast of Indonesia had weakened.

This meant that we wouldn’t have to evacuate the island. What it didn’t mean was that we were in the clear.

As the storm that was not a cyclone came in, some afternoon rain turned into the blackest night I have ever known, there was nothing to see and only the sound of the waves could be heard.

The rain threatened that night’s monitoring. Not because the conditions were dangerous in any way, but because we couldn’t record turtles seen on clipboards with paper if they were going to get wet. Our electronic tablets also were not to get wet.

I asked around, and nobody seemed to know if turtles mind the rain. Do they hate coming out of the ocean to nest if it’s raining because they will get wet? That seemed almost likely when it comes to turtles. Their love of wind, however, was well documented.

Last year, it was considered a coincidence when on the windiest nights they had unusual numbers of turtles nesting. With the behaviour repeating again this year it was beginning to look like a pattern.

Heading out

Eventually, we went out around 9.30 — having had a rare opportunity for everyone to eat together, in one place, at the same time, and take our time about it. There were a few turtles here and there, the usual routine. Nothing much to write home about, or to write a blog about.

Eventually, I took a walk on my own down the beach and past the jetty. After some distance past the jetty I didn’t see any fresh tracks in the wet sand, and I turned back. However, I didn’t go all the way down to the end of what was known as the “tagging area.” There could still be turtles there.

It was suggested that if I was going back, my fellow volunteer Jess might like to join me. I couldn’t tell if it was suggested she could join me because she might like a walk, or because she was more capable. Jess certainly was capable, either way.

It didn’t take long for Jess to spot a track above the high tide line where I hadn’t noticed it in the dark. We agreed between us we would cross it off the track for that missed turtle on the way back. When we found another track, Jess went to investigate further in the undergrowth.

That’s where she found a turtle, actively digging.

Since we were almost at the end of the tagging area, Jess suggested I watch the turtle and she’d check for further tracks or turtles. Reminding me to get all the equipment ready before she went, Jess disappeared into the dark night and the receding tide.

Photo by Reef Catchments.
Photo by Reef Catchments. https://flic.kr/p/c3n3DC

Getting everything ready wasn’t a quick task, so t’s lucky that turtles can take a long time to nest.

So in the dark, you fish out your clipboard and pen. You dig out the PIT tag scanner, to check if the turtle is new or returning. You find your tagging pliers and ready to two metal flipper tags, making a note of their numbers on the fresh data sheet. Then you find your applicator for the PIT tag, find your biopsy kit, and find your tape measure. 

All of this equipment is in one small backpack. It may sound like a lot, but should be easy to keep together and organised. It doesn’t take long for things to become disorganised.

While I was preparing and making notes, the turtle took advantage and made a break for the ocean. Jess tried to restrain it, but a determined mature flatback turtle is little match for one person on their own. It got away.

This was starting to become a habit, and if it was an actual job, I probably would have been fired by now.

The Turtle that Got Away

A flatback turtle crawls back into the ocean after laying eggs and being tagged.

The first turtle that night was spotted on the farthest reaches of the beach.

With high tide leaving little more than a metre of the beach’s sand for the turtle, we camped out in the vegetation to observe and be ready to move on the turtle when it was ready to return to the ocean.

Except she was taking her time. The turtle would dig a pit, give up on it, move on, dig another pit, give up, you get the idea.

Then suddenly she decided she’d had enough of digging unsatisfactory pits, and was ready to go back to the water. So we moved into position, blocking her path and ready to restrain her.

The turtle takes one look at this, and decides maybe she will have another go at digging pits after all. Once again she begins digging, giving up, moving on, digging, before again abandoning the plan.

We scramble to get to the turtle and we are right on the very edge of the high tide line, trying to see if she is a microchipped “returning” turtle, and suddenly a big wave comes washing in and we all jump out of the way. Except for the turtle, since turtles are not known for their ability to jump and she was waiting for exactly this. She’s on her way.

The tide pulls back and I take the brief moment of respite to try again to get that reading — then the waves come crashing back, and the turtle lifts with the current and floats away with a gentle kick of her flippers.

Returning and New

Volunteer Rebecca Evans and Parks and Wildlife officer Hannah Hampson measuring a flatback turtle.
Volunteer Rebecca Evans and Parks and Wildlife officer Hannah Hampson measuring a flatback. Photo: Liz Grant. Source: https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/news/item/2915-turtle-monitoring-taskforce-descends-on-pilbara-island

Let’s rewind this slightly, as some of you might be wondering what is a returning turtle? And why would they be microchipped?

Flatback turtles on the beaches of Thevenard Island fall into two categories: new turtles, and returning turtles.

Returning turtles are ones we have met before. They have been chipped, and they have been given identifying tags on their flippers. They are in the system.

New turtles haven’t been given any of these things, and so require the works: a chip in their shoulder, tags in their front flippers, a biopsy taken, and their measurements recorded.

These are the ones that get challenging.

Sandbank

Later that night, a turtle was spotted climbing up a steep sandbank. She gained many points for making it up the bank, but everyone knew that she was never going to nest up there — despite spending an hour or more, digging pits, rejecting them, and repeat.

Things got interesting when the turtle accidentally slid down the opposite side of the dune. Where there was no beach, only concrete. But, turtles being what they are, she continues wandering about, trying to dig pits in concrete, until one volunteer physically heaved her back onto the sand.

It was right around the time that she was coming down the slope towards us, and towards the issue, and we were preparing to scan and possibly tag her that another turtle emerged from the ocean.

And went straight up the exact same sandbank.

And did exactly the same thing, falling down the wrong side of the dune.

Past Midnight

Metal tag showing identification number. Photo: Stephen Connett.
Metal tag showing identification number. Photo: Stephen Connett.
Source: https://accstr.ufl.edu/resources/report-a-tag/

It was gone twelve and yet there were even more turtles (remember how the night before had no turtles at all?) emerging from the ocean, digging pits, laying eggs.

Our last turtle of the night had just one flipper tag. Where the other tag should have been there was a scar. She needed another, and it was my turn to do it.

Enough to say, it didn’t go as planned. The new tag instead had to be removed, while the turtle was less than impressed with proceedings. It didn’t end there, because she still needed that new tag. I did it again, and it was only slightly better.

Then the turtle needed a second tag to alongside the existing, original tag, and my skills at adding tags hadn’t much improved.

Turtles on the Beach

Australian beach with marine turtles

Sunrise on the beachMy first real day of turtles conservation started at 4.30am, having got to bed at midnight. We had to be looking for turtle tracks on the beach for 5am as the sun came up. “We” was me, and my roommate George.

One of us would take the car and drive to the opposite side of the island, and walk from there until they ended up back at base. The other would just start walking from the beach in front of our cabins and go until they reached the car.

I chose the second option. Before we leave camp we grab a backpack each, it has a tablet for recording the tracks of turtles we might see, and for me a bottle of water, a can of Solo, and a cereal bar. The cereal bar is for breakfast and my promise to myself that I’ll take a short break.

I marked my starting position and time on the tablet, made a brief note about the weather conditions, and started walking.

Seeing Turtles

Green marine turtle tracks in wet sand on the beach

Having seen no turtles the night before — not to mention none last year — I was excited to see a pair of turtles on my walk. They were easily identified, even at a distance, as green turtles from their domed shell. The fact that there were two of them, close together, was a good indication what they were doing.

I crouched quietly, watching them, for some time, gradually edging closer when they were looking the other way or when they were under the water, until they just gracefully swam away — either for more privacy or to continue their discussion somewhere else.

There were plenty of tracks to see, including green turtle tracks — distinguishable from flatback turtles in part because of the small holes in the sand their tails make as they make their way up the beach, but also flatback turtle tracks, too. There were tiny tracks, spreading out from holes in the sand, that I thought at first were hatchling tracks. On reflection and discussion with a supervisor it turned out they were probably crabs, instead.

As the day wore on it got less sunny and more windy. Windy nights meant there could be lots of turtles nesting. Or there could be a storm coming, after all there was a tropical cyclone off the coast of Indonesia…

Onslow and Onwards

Thevenard island

Onslow Stepping off the plane in Onslow, the first thing that struck me was that while it was warm it wasn’t hot. It’s strange the things you notice in a new place.

I thought to myself “This isn’t too bad. This is doable.”

Then I realised: it was only 8am. I’d forgotten what it was like in the Pilbara.

I spent a few hours hanging around in Onslow with the other volunteers where we picked up a few things from the local supermarket, and killed time in a hotel while waiting for our boat to Thevenard island .

The town boasts such attractions as the Onslow Goods Shed Museum. It may not seem like much, but in a part of the country that is alternately baked in the sun, thrashed with cyclones, and drowned in floods, it’s good going.

The jet boat trip from the mainland out to Thevenard takes about 45 minutes. Luckily for us, the crossing was smooth and the water beautiful blues and greens.

sky and sea

As we powered along, we saw something in the water up ahead. Was it something floating? Some discarded rubbish? Then it became clear: it was a turtle, just merrily swimming along.

One of the first things you see on Thevenard Island are Chevron’s decommissioned storage tanks.

Several huge, grey concrete structures dominate the island, and if they survive for centuries to come may one day be regarded like the statues on Easter Island.

That this conservation work exists alongside mining, oil and gas giants like Chevron or Rio Tinto is no surprise, since they help fund the programs, but it’s an uneasy partnership.

At night

At night, when you sit on the beach on Thevenard island it’s almost completely dark. Out in the ocean blinks the lights of offshore oil and gas facilities, and in the distant is the constantly-burning gas flame from Wheatstone Project.

The moon rises around 11pm, and the sky is blanketed with countless stars, with the occasional streak of a meteor.

about last nightThat first night was warm, humid, perfectly still and calm. And there was not a single turtle to see.

Apparently, they prefer windy nights.

It was just as well, since I had to be awake and on the beach at 5am the next morning.

Shipping off to Thevenard Island

sea turtles nesting

green marine turtleOn Friday, this rugged adventurer and all-round dashing outdoorsman will be on Thevenard Island.

It’s my second adventure in marine turtle conservation, and the game has changed since last year’s West Pilbara Turtle Program.

If you have been following closely, you’ll remember that the threatened flatback is native to Australia, and nests only in Australia, and the martine turtle holds cultural, spiritual and economic significance to Indigenous Australians from coastal regions.

Thevenard IslandThevenard Island

Thevenard island is a nature reserve, home to the traditional custodians of the land for tens of thousands of years, and more recently home to decommissioned Chevron-operated Gorgon gas project (who fund the North West Shelf Flatback Conservation Program.)

The island is one of the important turtle nesting site for flatback sea turtles, and in addition to flatbacks this year there will be green turtles and hawksbill turtles.

As well as other marine life like dolphins and dugongs, but who cares about those when you are there for the turtles.

Adventure is out there

Not only are there different turtles to be seen, on this adventure the work gets more hands on, too. Activities include taking tissue biopsies and fitting satellite trackers, on top of the more-familiar track monitoring of nesting turtles.

I’ve completed my online training. I’ve had my medical assessment, I’ve borrowed a head torch, and I need to start packing my bags and arranging my journey to the airport for my 6am flight.

Unlike last year’s adventure, I’ll be working with other people, too — a new challenge of its own. While other adventures, like the ones in Peru and Norway, involved other people I wasn’t working in a team. I was more of a team with my sled dogs in the Arctic than I was with the other people on the expedition.

You know it’s a good adventure when I’m feeling nervous about it. That means I’m getting out of my comfort zone.

The Costa Rica & Nicaragua Expedition

Costa Rica

I wrote over a year ago about a Costa Rica adventure, traversing the country from one side to the other. I also wrote how prohibitively expensive it would be to do it.

With no real expectation to ever be able to do it, it’s been on my mind’s back-burner, alert to any opportunities to make it happen.

Which is why an opportunity advertised in Escape the City caught my eye: Communications Officer in Costa Rica. I’m a Corporate Communications Manager by trade, and find myself drawn to various aspects of comms, PR and marketing even when I’m not being paid for it.

So I checked it out.

If you’re a keen writer, volunteer to write blogs about sustainable development in rural communities and environments.

That could be me. I’m writing a blog right here, right now, for no money — and writing for an NGO about rural communities and environments would be helping make the world a better place.

It would also be fulfilling my purpose as the Flat Foot Adventurer: to have adventures, write about them, inspiring and educating people in the process.

I applied. Got a reply fairly quickly asking me to write a sample blog post. Some research and elbow grease later, I submitted the blog post and waited.

Just when I thought I was going to get a Sorry, no I got a reply saying how impressed they were with my post, and how impact focused it was. Instead of a thanks, but no thanks, I got an invitation to interview.

The interview went well, even if you include me getting off-topic and discussing how if you are bitten by a venomous snake you shouldn’t try and catch it to bring it to the hospital with you. And how Perth is one of the most remote cities on the planet.

I got offered the opportunity. I paid the deposit. I provided references. I’m going to Costa Rica for three months at the end of 2019.

Short of raising a small fortune to cover the cost of the expedition, plus funding flights to Costa Rica — and a whole galaxy of minute things to sort out when you are gallivanting around the jungles of central America — this is really happening.

Costa Rica rainforestThe Costa Rica Adventure

In the autumn of 2019, I join the Raleigh Expedition in Nicaragua & Costa Rica, as a volunteer communications officer.

Volunteers from diverse backgrounds and all over the world join Raleigh expeditions in different countries. On this particular trip, I will be working with rural communities in the very heart of Nicaragua and remote areas of Costa Rica.

As part of working to protect one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, projects on the expedition will involve working with local people on water and sanitation initiatives to bring clean water to rural communities, as well as helping construct school buildings for indigenous communities.

One of Raleigh’s core values is creating impact together. Passionate about change, Raleigh ensure that positive results are meaningful, long-lasting and far reaching.

When local communities and young people work side by side to create positive change, it empowers them. This can only achieved this by connecting with motivated people – supporters, project partners, communities, and volunteers. Everyone gets involved because they believe in young people and communities working together to create lasting change.

Volcán Momotombo NicaraguaIt was prohibitively expensive as a short-term adventure, and joining a charity expedition hasn’t made it any cheaper.

Plus it has added extra complications — like fundraising, and going for a longer period of time.

So why do it at all? Because an adventure is better if you can help change the world in the process.

Adventures Old and New

watching the sunrise in Peru

Way back in 2009, I went on an adventure to Peru. One of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures type things.

A one off adventure, inspired by people who had done or were doing similar things.

Except it wasn’t a one off and it didn’t end there.

A five day hike to the lost city of Machu Picchu in 2009 inspired this blog, the Flat Foot Adventurer.

In 2011, I traded remote mountain paths for the Arctic tundra of Norway. Instead of high mountain paths I was driving a sled and a pack of huskies through the snow and across frozen lakes.

Since then, the adventures continue. I raced on a dragon boat team, moved to Australia, tracked nesting sea turtles on deserted beaches, started a street roller hockey team, and kept looking for more adventures.

Adventures in 2017 and Beyond

thevenard islandIt’s now 2017.

In December, I travel to WA’s Thevenard island to join the flatback turtle monitoring program, counting tracks, tagging turtles, and collecting data.

In September 2019, I plan to embark on my biggest and most challenging adventure yet. I will be joining Raleigh International as a volunteer on an expedition for three months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Volunteers will be working with rural communities in remote areas of Central America. Protecting one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, projects can involve working on a water and sanitation initiatives to bring clean water to rural communities, or constructing school buildings for indigenous communities.

On the expedition as a volunteer communications officer, I am not getting paid. Due to Raleigh International being a registered charity I need to fundraise for them, and various charity fundraising activities and begging will follow. In addition, there will be some unashamed requests for funds to help me cover the period I will be in a remote Central American jungle instead of at a desk in Perth.

This will make the next year a challenge all of its own.

Adventures in Costa Rica awaitI set up today the Facebook page for The Flat Foot Adventurer.

After eight years of adventures it deserves to have one! Previous adventures had pages, but lost relevance when the adventures were complete.

It makes sense for there to be one page for sharing these adventures to.

Stay tuned for more adventures!

The Amazing Aussie Adventure: Hyden Seek

Wave Rock, Hyden

Ever seen a wave that’s 15m high and over 100m long?

It was a long weekend in Western Australia for Anzac Day, so with a few friends I took a road trip to a town called Hyden — and to the iconic Wave Rock.

Wave Rock is about 350km east from Perth, out in WA’s wheatbelt. You can do the drive in about four hours, but if you want to see anything of Wave Rock and the surrounding area, it’s best to take an overnight trip, making some stops on the way.

Getting out of the city always excites me, there’s so many new places to see and the way the empty road stretches out in front of you seems like a red carpet, or an invitation. With WA, the desire to get in your car and just drive and drive and drive is a real possibility — and that’s just going north. Imagine if you pointed the car east and just kept driving.

Our first stop on the journey to Hyden was the town of York, and calls itself the oldest inland town in Western Australia. Whether that is true, or true depending on a certain definition, I’m unclear.

York

York, WA
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:York_WA_town_hall.jpg

York is a beautiful historic town with some original architecture and heritage buildings dating back to the gold rush.

If you’re ever passing through, it’s a good place to stop or to visit for a few hours. You can have lunch at a local cafe and have a look around the town, it’s one of those places that could use your tourist dollars now there’s little to be made from traditional agriculture.

Corrigin

Statue to acknowledge the world record convoy of 1527 utes with dogs, Corrigin WA
source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corrigin_dog.jpg

After a short break in York, and a visit to a local bakery, we pushed on: to another notable town, a placed called Corrigin.

As difficult as it may be to believe at first, Corrigin holds  the world record for ‘the most dogs in a ute’.

It may sound incredible, but this WA town took the title back in 2002 with over 1,500 dogs in utes.

I’m presuming that’s separate utes, not one ute piled high with 1,500 dogs. The town even has a statue to commemorate the historic event. It also has a large pet cemetery, but that didn’t seem like such an important thing to visit.

Hyden

Wave Rock, Hyden, WAIf Corrigin seems like a difficult place to beat, even if you don’t see any dogs in utes, then the only thing left to do is keep pushing on to Hyden.

While the town of Hyden might not have historical, heritage buildings, or world records for dogs and utes, it does have a big draw: Wave Rock.

Big is the word for Wave Rock: it’s nearly 15m high and over 100m long. And yes, it kind of looks like a crashing wave, appropriately enough for Western Australia.

Some people think I’m slightly crazy for wanting to drive for nearly 4 hours and stay overnight in a motel in a country town just to see a rock. I think those same people are slightly crazy to prefer to spend that time watching sport on television.

Hippo's Yawn, Hyden, WAWave Rock isn’t the only thing to see in Hyden, either! So don’t think it’s a wasted road trip, and that all there is to do is look at this one rock.

There is also the Hippo’s Yawn: a short walk through the bush from wave rock. Hippo’s Yawn is a rock that’s over 12m tall that kind of, maybe, looks a bit like a hippo’s gaping mouth.

Once inside the mouth of the “hippo” if you’re so inclined you can climb and wriggle through gaps in the rock to get on top of the rocks behind it, for a view of the surrounding area.

Another “must see” place in Hyden is Mulka’s Cave. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much — not after Wave Rock and Hippo’s Yawn. But, much like with people and a Kinder surprise, it’s what’s inside that counts. What some of the legends about a child-eating cannibal don’t tell you is that inside the cave are original hand prints and paintings on the rock. That kind of thing always excites me more than any footy game on television ever could.

You don’t need much more than 24 hours in Hyden — and technically you could do Wave Rock in a day, if you wanted an 8-hour round trip, but it’s worth taking your time, stopping on the way, and getting a room at the Wave Rock Motel.

The Adventure to Save the Turtle

Australia's threatened flatback marine turtle
Nullabor plain
source: http://motherlode.com.au

I got to thinking, after my last post. With the up-front cost of Costa Rica so insurmountable, it struck me that I needn’t travel so far for adventure.

Australia is this incredible, vast and diverse country. I have barely even touched it, let alone scratched the surface of this great southern land.

I am already thousands of miles from where I grew up. Why can’t I find an adventure here?

A while ago I tried pitching the Flat Footed Adventurer as a concept to places like Lonely Planet and in-flight magazines. I would have adventures and I would write about them. It’s a pretty straight-forward concept, and the driving idea behind this blog. To inspire some people towards adventures, and provide entertainment and escapism to those who prefer to just read about it.

Some adventures would be big. Some adventures smaller. There would be spear fishing expeditions, but also adventures of quiet introspection and self discovery in Buddhist monasteries. Adventures to find the coolest small towns, and adventures in the jungles of South America.

For in-flight magazines I was even willing to find adventures in locations they wanted to promote. All I wanted was the adventures, and the opportunity to write about them all.

The fact that I’m writing about it here, and not directing you to websites, books and magazines where I am published, tells you that they didn’t go for it.

But the point is adventures don’t always have to be pushing yourself to the limit of your ability, multi-activity, many thousands of dollars worth of expenses. Some adventures can just be about going somewhere new and doing something out of your comfort zone.

Australia's threatened flatback marine turtle
source: http://scienceillustrated.com.au/

With this in mind, I am focusing my current adventure dream on volunteering with the West Pilbara Turtle Program. The program aims to monitor and track the threatened Flatback marine turtles that are native only to Australia.

This might seem like an abrupt change of direction: where’s the hiking, rafting, cycling, kayaking? And what about South America? It is a change of direction, but I feel that it is doing important work, for something I care about, and it fulfills the wanderlust inside of me.

To get to the beach where the monitoring takes place is something approaching a 16-hour drive from Perth, although the closest airport is only a 2-hour flight. I would first have to attend a training day this year before being able to be a volunteer — so that means there might be two trips. Just getting there would be an adventure in itself.

This is still in the earliest stages of a plan, but even flying there would have costs  dramatically lower than Costa Rica and it would be doing good in the world, something that is important to me: leaving things slightly better than I found them.

Traversing Costa Rica

Costa Rica. Adventure is out there.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53197929@N00/6641930801/

I’ve been talking about a new “big” adventure for a while. It’s been more than three years since I was in the Arctic Circle, and while moving to Australia and completing the country’s highest urban abseil have kept me occupied, I need a real adventure like drop bears need warm human blood.

The good news is, I know what the adventure should be. The bad news is, there’s a high barrier to entry.

First: the adventure. The Costa Rica traverse is a 12-day journey crossing the Latin American nation on foot, by kayak, on bicycle and by raft — distinguishing it immediately from my hike to the lost city of the Incas, and a world apart from driving a pack of huskies across Norway’s frozen tundra — making it easily my most ambitious adventure yet.

sea kayaking

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a expedition for the faint-of-heart. There are full days of hiking, days of nothing but cycling, and days split between activities — such as rafting and cycling, or cycling and sea kayaking.

I haven’t cycled anywhere in years, haven’t hiked seriously since I was in Peru, have never set foot in a white water raft, and my one and only experience with sea kayaking was a recent trip to penguin island [aside: it’s opportunities like that I live for in Australia].

These days, I keep myself in something vaguely resembling a state of fitness, even without a specific adventure to train for — on a good week I visit the gym several times a week in the mornings before work, and add on a couple of trips to the rock climbing wall. To get myself to the required level of fitness for this adventure I am going to have to add at the very least swimming and cycling to my weekly routine.

I’m presuming lack of experience kayaking and rafting isn’t good to be an issue, like a lack of experience with a rickety wooden dog sled wasn’t in Norway. This kind of training is all part of the adventure, though — it’s not fun like the adventure itself, but feeling yourself getting fitter and stronger and knowing what you’re training for is almost an adventure in itself. Almost.

There is a dark cloud hovering over the whole adventure, however, and why I haven’t yet registered.

While there is a fundraising element to it, this is quite modest and something I could achieve without too much hassling of friends and family for donations, a bigger barrier to entry is not having the funds to pay to sign up. Without even including flights from Perth to San Jose, or additional costs, I need $3,600. And I don’t know how to find it.

Costa Rica Traverse

In previous adventures when there’s been large sums needed to be raised, the full amounts were going to charity — making it slightly easier, because I could spend entire days standing in train stations with collection buckets, or organise fundraising quiz nights. This doesn’t work when all the money is going to you: or to the trip organisers, via you.

I have considered crowd-funding the adventure through the usual websites, but get stuck on the question what’s in it for anyone else? I’m taking suggestions here, and welcoming feedback: how can I raise this money, or what can I offer sponsors in return for donating towards it?