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.
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, 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.
That 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.
On 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 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.
Bells Beach in Point Samson doesn’t show up on Google maps. After several attempts to reach the beach that hit private roads or entrances to mine sites, I arrived at the sand of a pristine and deserted shore.
Shortly after sunrise, I was met by the program coordinator where we assembled with the other trainee volunteers.
You see, one does not simply just walk onto a beach and start monitoring marine turtles. Or, in this case, their tracks. It takes training.
Training starts with a hidden backpack. A backpack for volunteers inside a locked metal box. Hidden behind a sign. The backpack contains essential items including a clipboard, sheets of paper for recording turtle activity, a GPS tracker, a tape-measure and other important items.
It turns out Bells Beach wasn’t the pristine beach, but instead about a 10 minute walk away over sand dunes, hills, and long grass.
Our very first job on the beach involved a large stick.
One of the most important things with tracking the activity of marine turtles is being able to distinguish what is new and is old activity. To do this, you need to establish a timeline in the sand.
To establish a timeline on a beach, a volunteer takes the stick and marks a line in the sand over the top of the line drawn the previous day. Any tracks that cross over the top of the previous day’s line are new. The fresh line drawn resets the timeline for the next day.
What happens when you find a fresh track? That’s where the items in the backpack come in useful.
First, turtles leave two tracks: an emerge track and a return track. The names are quite self explanatory: when the turtle emerges from the ocean and leaves a track up the beach that is the emerge track. As the turtle returns to the ocean it is a return track.
Telling the two apart is vital for finding if a turtle has nested, and for a new volunteer this means getting down in the sand. Because of the way turtles almost swim through the sand, they push the sand behind them.
Why care which track is which? Turtles don’t necessarily decisively emerge from the ocean, make a nest, and then return. Sometimes they might try digging several pits for nesting. Sometimes they will traverse about the beach before returning to the water. If you follow their emerge track you could be led on a wild goose chase. Or, in this case, a wild marine turtle track.
By following their return track, you find their last activity. A turtle doesn’t nest and then wander about for a while longer.
As volunteers, we then had to identify the breed of turtle whose tracks we had found. This is where the tape-measure would come in useful — to distinguish a flatback turtle from a loggerhead, green or hawksbill turtle. Each turtle leaves different tracks, which also differ in size — so when in doubt, down in the sand you go.
Nine times out of ten, the turtle is a flatback on Bell’s Beach. 100% of the turtles I recorded on the beach were flatback, but just the same — you have to be sure.
With a turtle identified by breed, we had to record if it nested. A false crawl is when a turtle emerges from the ocean, and doesn’t nest — for whatever reason. Sometimes a turtle might start to dig, hit a root or a rock and be put off. Sometimes a turtle might just not feel like. Sometimes a turtle could get spooked, and be frightened away before they lay their eggs.
But sometimes, a turtle did nest…
I landed in Karratha on Tuesday morning on my adventure to save the turtles. Stepping off the plane shortly before midday, I was immediately hit by a wave of heat.
When asked if I’d been to Karratha before, I had joked that the furthest north I’d been before was Perth’s suburb of Yanchep. While that wasn’t true (I’d been to Cervantes which is 200km north of Perth) there’s a big difference between Cervantes and Karratha.
A short while after landing I’d already grabbed my bag, and found my hire car. Except it wasn’t the car I’d expected.
Instead of the 4WD SUV I had requested, I was to be driving a slightly battered ute that seemed to be the vehicle of choice for a region where 90% of people worked on the mines.
After figuring out how to drive it, I was on my way. I had no satnav, and my phone battery was dead, so relied on remembering the directions I’d been given by the booking desk.
Had the directions been to go left-right-left? Or left-right-right? The name on the road sign sounded familiar, but was that because it was where I was headed, or was it just mentioned, and I should have been going the other way?
The radio in my ute didn’t work, so I had to amuse myself. It’s funny how few songs you can remember when you just want to sing to pass the time.
But I drove. And I drove. I drove some more. And after a while I started to wonder, was I even going the right way? How could I tell? There were no signs, other than the markers counting down to the next town.
Pulling into a rest stop in the hope of finding someone to ask, the only other people around were some grey nomads with a caravan. Unconvinced they’d know the way to Point Samson, either, I left them in peace.
There would be somewhere I could stop. A petrol station. Another town. Something.
I kept going.
As the marker for the next town counted down I scanned ahead for signs of civilisation. 5km came. And it went. Without any town. The markers started counting down to the next place, more than another 100km away.
There was nothing else for it. I’d driven for an hour or more already, but there was no way I was driving any further. I turned the ute around, put my foot down and drove back to Karratha — to the petrol station that was a short distance outside of the city.
The directions really must have been the left-right-left, and I had been driving in completely the wrong direction. Luckily, another traveller in the petrol station was heading the same way as me, and told me I could just follow him.
Wolf Creek was just a story…wasn’t it?
But what if this was a trap? These weren’t busy roads and it wouldn’t take much for the guy to get me to follow him down some track… At what point would I realise the trap? How could I escape or raise the alarm?
My over-active imagination was at least some entertainment on the long, dusty road. I tried to get the two-way radio to work just for something to listen to — or be able to use to call for help — but my attention was better focused on the road ahead.
Eventually my guide turned off to the town of Wickham, my destination of Point Samson was less than 10km further. He waved me on without ever trying to lure me to some remote killing field.
Arriving at my accommodation, I showered, changed, charged my phone and set out to find the beach where I would be tracking and monitoring the turtle nesting.
I’m going to save the turtles this November. It’s really happening.
I wanted to get involved with the program, but it was a long way from Perth. Over 1,600km from Perth: and to put that into perspective, it’s about 4,000km from Perth to Sydney.
With a trip back to England last December, and a shortage of both funds and annual leave, the adventure has had to wait.
This year, things are different. Flights are booked. Accommodation is booked. Even the hire car is reserved.
Driving to Karratha would add an extra two days to the journey in each direction, and so it isn’t practical to make part of the adventure getting to the West Pilbara. But the important part is my new motto for this adventure: save the turtles, save the world.
Threatened Flatback Turtles
The threatened flatback is native to Australia, and nest only in Australia.
With cultural, spiritual and economic importance to Indigenous Australians from coastal regions, these ancient mariners have existed for more than 100 million years. Modern humans are considered to have evolved around 200,000 years ago, and what we call civilisation has existed for about 6,000 years. We are new kids in the neighbourhood to the flatback turtle
But changes to air and sea temperatures, rising sea levels, and other aspects that may come with climate change all threaten their survival.
Turtles can take up to 50 years to become a breeding adult. Ongoing monitoring and tracking is important if the flatback turtle is going to survive.
This adventure is in the early stages right now: all I know is how I am getting there and where I am resting my weary head. Which is important. Training on how to monitor the turtle tracks will be provided, then I just need to get some good photographs.
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.
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.