From Australia to Cancún to Mérida

Photo by Ishrak Sami on Unsplash
Photo by Ishrak Sami on Unsplash

After what felt like a lifetime of flying (but was like 35 hours) I arrived in Mexico.

In a thunderstorm.

Cancun was humid and close even at 10.30 at night.

I was picked up at the airport, and then it was a short drive to the bus station before I was left on my own.

I approached the ticket counter and waited my turn. Waiting your turn seemed to be maybe optional, but I was not about to upset any locals by pushing in.

Yo tiene un boleto I told the lady behind the counter. She didn’t understand. I hadn’t been prepared for this. I thought I would speak perfect Spanish, they’d understand my flawless pronunciation, I’d be given my ticket and it would all go smoothly.

Ummm…un boleto? I tried again, probably now stammering nervously than with confident command of the language. Donde? The woman asked. I understood she was asking where (thanks, Duolingo lesson 1) but not the wider context. Where was my ticket? How do you say, in your system? In cyberspace? In my phone in the form of a confirmation number?

I kept showing her my phone, in particular the important part of the details where it said confirmation number, right underneath where I was going. Some understanding passed between us, and the woman started entering details into the computer. One passenger, leaving at midnight, going to Mérida. I even entered my name for her. Then she showed me the price.

I had already started to suspect maybe she wasn’t looking up my booking, and was instead starting a new one, but I didn’t know the Spanish for I am very sorry, I think there has been a comical misunderstanding here. Given the choice between just buying a new ticket or facing the embarrassment of starting this whole business again, I decided I would persevere.

This time I think I was clearer with what I wanted, was referred to another assistant who did understand what I wanted, and got my ticket without having to buy one from scratch.

The bus station was much like you’d expect. It’s a far cry from Perths underground bus port, but probably almost indistinguishable from bus stations in a variety of the dozen cities I’ve lived in or had the misfortune to catch public transport in.

There was no aircon, but there were a couple of pedestal fans at one end that seemed to be more for the benefit of the staff than anyone else.

I feel very conspicuously foreign, but my masterful command of the Spanish language — while failing to immediately retrieve a booked ticket — did help me to buy a donut and a bottle of water.

Then it was just a mere four hour bus ride from Cancún to Mérida.

Down in Mérida, Mexico

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash
Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

Mérida

The city of Mérida, Yucatán, is humid and crowded and busy and colourful and alive.

The pedestrian crossings play a jaunty tune when it’s time to cross the street and in the evenings people gather in the parks in ones and twos and small groups, just to be together.

There is a clear Spanish colonial influence to the city, which is understandable, and its architecture contrasts with the enormous temples and sprawling cities of the Mayans. I’m told that when the Spanish first arrived in Mérida there was a huge Mayan pyramid, that the conquistadors wasted no time in dismantling the temple, taking the stones to build a cathedral instead.

Other than the recycled stones, all that remains of the pyramid now is a plaque celebrating achieving the impossible feat of destroying the marvel of architectural engineering.

The day of the cyclone

Cyclone. Photo by NASA on Unsplash
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

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

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.

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

Returning and New

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 beforehad 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

Sunrise on the beach

My 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

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…

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.

Onslow and Onwards

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

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.

A Blog is Not a Mirror

Social Media is not a mirror.

Instead of being a mirror, apps like Facebook and Instagram can make feelings of depression and loneliness worse.

These platforms show idealised versions of other people’s lives that we can confuse with reality.

Who is updating their Instagram of pictures that show the days they can’t get out of bed? Sharing pictures from when eat junk, because they can’t be bothered cooking. Uploading when their relationships are troubled.

Is there evidence that the beautiful people who share the most selfies are the most insecure? Or any studies on endless pictures of happy couples being them over compensating? I don’t think there is any conclusive data on these things.

Just the same, it seems like we shouldn’t confuse the edited highlights of lives we see online with our own.

Writing about adventure

The Flat Foot Adventure is a blog about adventure, and very little else. It’s not a mirror to my life.

I have kept journals and blogs online where I talk about what’s going on in the day to day of my life. This is purposefully not one of them. It’s a place to write about adventures. It exists to inspire people to have adventures of their own, and entertain people who prefer their life quieter.

I wasn’t writing about how I lost my job in 2009 before I went to Peru. I didn’t devote a blog post to how I ended up crying in a bar in Cusco because my cat of 18 years had recently passed away. These things were going on in the background.

What I don’t cover here is my struggles with depression and anxiety.

Although they represent part of the blog’s theme of overcoming adversity, I am not comfortable talking about it.

My mental health issues affect my behaviour and as a result affects my relationships in negative ways. I don’t write about the really bad decisions I make.

Or maybe I am just a flawed person making some bad decisions, and in addition also has other issues. And sometimes adventures.

The point is, keep reading this blog for adventures. Go find adventures of your own, of whatever size. But don’t read this blog and think your own life is inferior, because it isn’t. You are doing the best you can.

Adventures Old and New

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!

Flat feet, no sense of direction — but a burning sense of adventure