Photos from India

Monday, November 26, 2007

Into the Outback

Roaring down a single lane dirt road on a big red bus, I look out the window to see the heads of kangaroos popping up from small patches of shade provided by the few gum trees scattered throughout this barren environment. Families of emus are walking in every direction looking for their next source of water in a sea of red sand that extends to the horizon. With a cloud or red dust flying behind, I am heading into the red center of Australia for a week. On a previous trip to Australia, I found the outback to be my favorite part of the country and wanting to visit Uluru again in hopes of taking that perfect sunrise photo, I bought a ticket on a bus that makes the trip from Cairns to Alice Springs stopping at enough spots along the way to get a good feel of what life in the outback is all about. While the flight would have cost the same as the bus ticket, I am a firm believer in the old saying of the journey is more important than the destination.
Shortly after departing Cairns we passed through a highland area known as the tablelands that was once covered in lush tropical rainforest. Here in Australia, the rainforest has long since been destroyed, replaced now with rolling green pastures dotted with black and white dairy cows. The moist environment didn’t last long because just over an hour outside of Cairns we began the slow decent down the Western side of the great dividing range creating an immediate change in the rolling green hillsides. The soil changed from a rich black to a dusty red and the pockets of lush tropical vegetation yielded to scrubby patches of dry grass scattered amngst countless white gum trees.
Our first stop along the three day journey into the desert was at a beautiful waterall known as Millstream Falls. The last source of running fresh water on the journey into the desert, the falls have played an important part in the history of Australians making their way into the outback. After a short hike, a few photographs and an unsuccessful hunt for snakes, I borded the bus and we headed on down the road. Not long after getting underway, the smooth pavement we had been travelling on so far ended leaving us on a single lane dusty red road. While throughout the thousand mile journey we would pass a few patches of rough asphalt, most of the travelling from this point on would be on unsealed roads.
As my stomach began to rumble, the bus started to slow down. Strangely enough, out in the middle of nowhere, we came upon a small building that looked like nothing more than a house. A sign outside revealed this house to be The Oasis Roadhouse and it is known througout the country as the smallest pub in Australia. With little seating room for more than a couple of people, it is more like someones living room than a real pub. I washed down a few sandwiches with a pint of four x bitter and was now feeling like I was really getting to see what life in the outback was like.
With one more stop in the afternoon at a miniature version of the Grand Canyon known as Porcupine Gorge, we made our way on to our final destination for the first day, the town of Hughenden. I don’t understand how a town like this can survive out here in the outback. There is really no reason for anyone to come and visit and the only industry in the area is the cattle stations which employ just a few people but are the size of many small countries! After taking a few minutes to explore around town and discovering nothing more than a few sculptures of dinosaurs that had been found in the area, I made my way to the pub at the small hotel we would be spending the night at. I am starting to remember how much Australian life revolves around drinking as every small town has at least one pub and I find myself stopping to investigate every one of those. After ordering my first beer and finding it strange to hear country music being played not to mention everyone in the bar singing along, I noticed an old man arguing with the bar tender. I am not exactly sure what the circumstances were behind the conversation but it was pretty appareant that the old man was drunk and the young bartender wasn’t going to serve him any more drinks. Now, keep in mind that the sun still hasn’t set yet so this guy must have gotten started pretty early. After being asked several times to leave, another man decided to step in between the two and try to persuade the old fellow to head on home and sleep off his alcohol for the evening. Now even more enraged the old man decided to take both hands and slap the other gray haired man on the sides of the head. With a slow swing of the fist, the gray haired man sent the old man crashing to the ground. Now I feel like I am getting to see the real Australia!
At the beginning of the second days journey, the landscape beacme a flat plain of dry grass. There were no longer any trees or hills, just dry grass in a bed of red sand in every direction. We made our way through the unchanging landscape until we were on the Carisbrooke cattle station. Here we had the pleasure of enjoying a short hike into Python Gorge where the walls are covered with ancient aborigonal rock art. Being told that the gorge had been so named for it’s large numbers of pythons, I set out flipping over every rock I could find and inspecting all of the shady spots to find one of these snakes. While I managed to disturb several kangaroos, I was once again unsuccessful in finding any snakes!
In the afternoon, we again stopped at another small pub. This one was known as the Middleton pub. Middleton has a poplulation of six and I think that includes the dog! While everyone made their way into the pub for a beer, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos of this place. Bits and pieces of every kind of rusty old debris were scattered around the pub along with an aging old abandoned house. Against a deep blue sky covered in patches of puffy white coulds, the old house and bits of debris made amazing subjects for some Aussie style outback photography. After snapping away in the heat of the desrt sun, I made my way to the pub to join the rest of the passngers in the traditional Australian way of cooling off, an ice cold pint of beer!
Now close to the border of the Northern Territory, our day ended watching a beautiful sunset on the red sand stretching across the endless horizon at the Wirrelyerna cattle station. Enjoying the company of a pet kangaroo who drinks coffee at breakfast and washes down her dinner with a bowl of ice cream, it was a wonderful night spent enjoying the star filled sky after a dinner prepared on the camp fire. After most of the other passengers of our expedition into the outback had gone to sleep, myself and a couple of friends wandered out into the desert in search of what are known as Min Mins. Known in this part of Australia for thousands of years before white men arrived, Min Mins are these balls of light that the aborigonees believed would steal there children from them. The lights would appear and the children would follow them into the bush never to be seen again. Kind of like an Aussie version of Roswell, the area is known for it’s sighting of the Min Mins and even has an entire information center dedicated to them. After a half hour of standing out in the desert with no lights other than the thousands of stars that lit up the sky we gave up our search and slowly made our way back to the station.
Without any luck in the search for a Min Min, I retired to my sleeping bag that was laid out under the stars. With Mary the kangaroo nosing around throughout the night, I lay in my bag staying awake as long as possible to enjoy the shooting stars that zipped across the horizon every few minutes. When dawn came I was abruptly awoken by the generator on the station starting up. It was perfect timing to see an incredible outback sunrise over an old barn and windmill. The colors of the morning sky with the shilouette of a windmill on the horizon made for one of the most incredible sunrises that I have ever seen.
Our final day of driving to Alice Springs was probably the most remote portion of the trip yet. After not seeing another vehicle for nearly three hours we finally entered the Northern Territory. Our first stop of the day was to check out a termite mound that stood about twenty feet high. Everyone had there turn at taking a photo of the large pile of mud and I inspected all of the nearby bushes for signs of snakes. Three days now in the outback and still not a single snake spotting! From the termite mound we moved on to another cattle station to have lunch followed by a long drive to Alice Springs. About fifty miles outside of town we finally got our wheels back on consistent pavement. Bumping along the dirt roads for the last three days was really starting to take its toll on everyone. The frustrating sounds of a vibrating bus and the continuous shaking of your book when you trying to read was definitely getting annoying. The smooth hum of the bus over the black pavement was a welcome sound. It is sad to be ending this portion of my journey as the remote portions of the outback that we have just seen are visited by so few tourists. The town of Alice Springs while culturally important takes on the feel of a touristed town anywhere in the world. Souvineer shops and tour booking signs everywhere. While yes, I am hear to take a tour of the amazing nearby sights, the places I have just come from were just as incredible and here in Alice Springs I will fortunatlely not see a sign for a tour bus to take you there! While it was a long and slow journey, the rewards of seeing the outback in it’s unspoiled form I will have with me forever.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Waterfalls and too many tourists!

What a strange place to be! Coming from the remote islands I have been in for the past six months, everything here seems like a giant version of Disney World. When I was here seven years ago, I knew that there were several water falls in the area that were supposed to be quite beautiful. They were all in an area known as the tablelands, a bucolic farm land that sits atop the small mountain range near Cairns. While there are plenty of opportunities to pay a tour company to take you to see them, I can’t imagine paying for a tour to a group of waterfalls. In the islands, all I had to do if I wanted to see a waterfall was ask any local if there were any nearby and of course in Papua New Guinea there always were. After that, I just had to ask someone to take me. They always gladly accepted without asking for a thing. Hacking our way through jungles with an armada of people following along, we would make our way to some of the most amazing and remote spots that anyone has ever seen. Having a week in Cairns before heading back to California, Elina was excited about seeing a bit of Australia. After spending a month on the boat, she was now staying at one of the nearby hotels. Early one morning when Yiannis and I were still trying to figure out how we got home the night before not to mention what happened to all of our money, Elina came to the boat. She was on her way to rent a car and wanted to know if we wanted to chip in and spend a couple of days seeing the area around Cairns. We both thought that sounded a lot better than paying a tour company and off we went! Our first day in the car we visited a nearby group of waterfalls called Crystal Cascades. Following the handicapped accessible path, we were able to make the short walk all the way to the top of the falls before deciding on which one of the many pools to have a swim in. With families and Japanese tourists covering most of the pools, this didn’t exactly look like the place for us. Leaving Crystal Cascades, we headed up the Captain Cook highway towards our next stop, Mossman Gorge. The drive followed the coastline past a series of beautiful beaches without a sole on them. While the beaches in Queensland are absolutely breathtaking, you can’t get in the water here. Crocodiles show up in a lot of places and during the rainy season which we have just entered, the box jelly fish inhabit all of the coastal waters. As the box jelly fish can kill you, not many people choose to swim alongside them, especially me! Mossman Gorge was as beautiful as I remember it from my first trip here. Situated in the middle of the rainforest, the heart of the Gorge is a clear stream with White Granite Boulders protruding from the water just begging to be photographed. While there were a few people swimming here, the short trail followed alongside the water was definitely not handicap accessible. Winding through an amazing stretch of rainforest, we saw wonderful lookouts to the stream below as well as incredible trees that are found only in this part of the world. With the end of the day rapidly coming to a close, we hopped back in the car and headed back toward Cairns. Our second day’s journey in the rental car took us into the Tablelands where all of the tour companies were taking people on what is known as the waterfall circuit. After a steep and winding climb to the top of the mountains we came to a lookout where we decided to get out of the car. It was very hot and very dry. Scrubby forest and brittle soil was everywhere to be seen. With lots of haze in the dry and dusty sky, I didn’t even bother with a photograph. Pressing on in our journey, we came to another turn and suddenly we had entered a completely different ecosystem. Lush tropical foliage and rich black soil were covering everything. The air was clear and our first stop in the car would reveal that the temperature had dropped quite significantly! I have never seen a change in the environment like this anywhere in the world. Our drive continued on into the heart of the tablelands. At one time the entire area was covered in rainforest. Now, there are only small pockets of the virgin forests left. Most of the wood was cut down long ago. Now the area is a series of dairy farms that blanket the landscape. If you can look past the fact that the rainforest was chopped down to give this area the character that it now has, it is an incredibly beautiful place to be. Rolling green hills dotted with black and white cows all resting underneath a blue sky with puffy white clouds slowly drifting by. The entire area makes you feel like civilization just doesn’t even exist. It is a land that feels like you are somewhere in medieval Europe making your way across the landscape between small villages and towns. Our journey led us to a couple of small towns along with two stops at fig trees that were over 500 years old. A fig tree is actually a vine that starts as a seed dropped on a tree by a bird. It then sprouts and begins reaching it’s roots down toward the ground until they take hold. Eventually, the whole tree is strangled by the many roots that begin to grow and the fig becomes the tree itself. The two trees we saw were incredible labyrinths of vines twisting in and out in every direction. A prehistoric looking sight, it is strange to think that these trees were still standing long before any white man had set foot on the shores of Australia. Reaching the waterfall circuit, I was suddenly reminded of the strange ease in accessibility that Australia provides to so many of it’s tourist attractions. Rarely do you find a series of trailheads in the parks here. Most of the sights around, you can drive your car right up to the edge of. It is a retired man’s dream! He doesn’t need to be in good shape to see any of it. You just pull up your car and after a maximum two minute walk you can take a picture and move on to the next destination. There are even toilets, trash cans and concrete viewing platforms for your convenience. It is really all quite disappointing. They have taken a group of amazing natural wonders and turned them into miniature theme parks. Half of the reward of seeing so many things in life is the actual journey to get there. Seeing the world shouldn’t be that easy. Some of these sites actually look better in the photographs than they do in person. The photos never show the metal toilet buildings built alongside or the concrete basins that surround their edges. Feeling overwhelmed by the mass tourism chaos in Cairns, I am looking forward to spending some time amongst the more remote places that lie just beyond the reach of the tourists who flock to Cairns for a chance to see the Great Barrier Reef.

The Passage to Australia

A day before we left Papua New Guinea, I was explaining to Yiannis how we would need to wear harness’s while we were on watch. Also, I informed him that he wouldn’t be allowed nor would he need to venture towards the bow of the boat. If anything needed to be done up there, Bill or I would take care of it. Explaining that the harness’s were just a precaution in case a big wave swept over you while you were on watch, Yiannis seemed to have a hard time grasping what the open ocean was going to be like. Yiannis looked at me and said “I don’t see how you could get thrown out of the cockpit. You are surrounded by the boat and you would have to fall a long way to actually make it overboard.” I responded to him “Just wait and you will see.” After passing over our last navigational challenge in PNG, a sunken barrier reef, the swells of the open ocean began to engulf us. Just a couple of meters high to start off the journey along with a consistent twenty five knot wind and it was looking like it was going to be a relatively fast and easy journey home. As Bill finished his shift, the first of our watches, I volounteered Yiannis to go next. The only reason I suggested we put Yiannis on at that time was that it was daylight and he could get some experience sailing in the increasing swells while there was still light. Elina and Bill had some kind of argument and it was just going to be the three of us doing watches for the journey home. With the sun setting, I relieved Yiannis of his first watch and took over steering. While on watch I could see the swells growing larger beneath the bright moonlight. The wind had increased to thirty knots and when Bill came out to relieve me, I told him that if the boat was doing anything under nine knots, it was going slow! With the boat racing across the waves and Bill at the helm, I happily laid down in my bed for a few hours of sleep. I awoke at midnight and emerged from below into the cockpit. There I found Yiannis with eyes the size of oranges looking like a crazed lunatic, his long hair dripping with water. All he could say was “Man this is crazy!” The swells now were even bigger, some being as much as fifteen feet high at times and the wind was still howling. We were loosing a bit of our course but with the speed we were making, we would worry about making up the direction whenever the winds shifted direction. Taking the helm from Yiannis, he slowly and carefully unclipped his harness and headed down below. The next morning, we were still getting beat up by the enormous swells. Getting dressed to come out for my first watch I heard Bill start cursing something outside. I came outside and asked what was going on. He said that he had just buried the bow into a swell and ripped off a chunk of the gunnel, a wooden member of the boat on the bow. Appareantly he had misjudged an enormous swell and the bow had buried itself about ten feet under the water. When it came back up, the water rushing over it peeled back one of the boards and broke it in half before dragging it out to sea. When I asked how the watches went last night, Bill said everything was fine. When Yiannis had shown up to do his first night watch however, Bill told him that he just couldn’t leave him alone out there to steer the boat so he would just take over his shift. The swells at that time were consistently twelve to fourteen feet with the occassional one being even bigger. Combine that with the boay sailing through the swells at ten and sometimes eleven knots, he just couldn’t let him do it. Yiannis reponded with a bold cry of “Let me try! I have always wanted to steer a boat through crashing waves in the open ocean! I can do it! Let me take the watch!” Appareantly Bill couldn’t say no to the passion of this Greek man. At the end of the night, everything was fine and Yiannis had done an excellent job of cruising through the waves. It must be the seafairing blood that runs in the Greeks because sailing the boat in those conditions for someone who has as little experience as Yiannis is a very difficult task. I have a feeling he will be doing a lot more sailing in the furture! Yiannis awoke and recapped the story for me again, but he also said he now understood why we wear a harness. Throughout his night watch he was constantly checking to make sure that the harness was secure on his chest as well as properly clipped to the boat. After having several waves had crashed over him, he said he must have checked to make sure he was hooked in correctly at least a hundred times. He even attempted to figure out a way to try to clip himself into his bed! After three nights at sea we awoke to calmer waters and a bit lighter winds. Being able to maintain an average of about nine knots the entire way, we were already to the Great Barrier Reef over twenty four hours sooner than we had planned. My first night back in civalization wasn’t far away! Twenty five final miles sailing through the calm and clear waters protected by the Reef and we would be in Cairns! A city filled with beautiful backpackers, great drink specials and lots of wonderful food was close enough to taste. I can’t wait to arrive for some much needed time surrounded by the liveliness of the civalization that I left behind almost six months ago.

Departing Papua New Guinea

While preparing to depart on our last morning in Papua New Guinea we were anchored in the Lee of a beautiful uninhabited island. On our first day there, the anchorage appeared to be well protected. The winds were light and the seas were calm. The second morning however, everything was a bit different. Throughout the night, the speed of the wind gradually increased bringing with it larger swells. Awaking to a boat that was rocking and rolling in every direction, we could see that this would not be a good day to set sail. The island was no longer offering protection to us, only splitting the swells as they came in allowing them to reconverge in the area where the boat lay, causing it to get tossed about in every uncomfortable way you can imagine. With the seas being a bit too rough to snorkel, we confined ourselves to reading on the boat for the day as well as making a few last minute preparations to the boat for the journey back to Australia. The next morning we awoke to lighter winds but the swells were still rolling in. While standing on the stern of the boat getting the sheets and jack lines prepared for our departure, we heard a loud crash and felt the boat shudder. Unsure of what it was, Bill and I walked towards the bow to figure out what had happened. Looking at the windlass, we found the anchor chain had become dislodged from the grip of the wildcat. The snubber line had caught the chain and was holding it strong to a deck cleat while the swells continued tossing the bow of the boat up into the air. As Bill investigated the windlass to see what had happened, it only took a few cranks to realize that something inside was not working right. A glance inside revealed that a critical piece had sheared off and our windlass would be out of service until we could get back to Australia and find a new part for it. Not only did this mean that we would not be making our last intended stop in PNG but it also meant that we were going to have to pull in a couple of hundred feet of anchor chain by hand. All this while the boat continued to be tossed up and down by the swells that were still bombarding us. After a tough struggle to get the anchor on board, we were off to Australia. Sailing through the last of the islands of the Engineer group, we made our way through the last pass before heading into the open ocean. As we passed by the last island, Yiannis decided to venture out onto the point of the bowsprit. This is a great place to be while sailing in calm seas, but when it starts to get rough, you don’t want to be anywhere near there. Now in the lee of the island, the seas surrounding us had temporarily calmed down. I am not sure what was going through Yiannis’s head, but I could see the massive swells pouring in-between the two islands. That was the only way out and with an outgoing current flowing toward the open ocean, the last portion of the pass looked like a pretty nasty stretch of breaking waves that we were sailing directly into. Watching Yiannis standing on the bowsprit looking in the other direction when we first touched the waves, it was quite apparent he didn‘t realize what was about to happen to him. After the first few little bumps, Yiannis looked down to see the sea drop from beneath the boat followed by the bow plunging into the water and submerging Yiannis to his waist. From the back of the boat, I could see the look of fear and concern in his eyes and I asked Bill what the hell he was doing out there. We both looked on as the second wave broke over Yiannis, almost knocking him off the boat. Yiannis was now trying to wait on a gap in the waves to make his way back to the deck of the boat. Gripping the inner fore stay with all his strength he began making the long stretch to step back on deck. With an outstretched leg, another swell hit and Yiannis went flying. Holding onto the steel cables, he was flung in a circle to the other side of the boat where he then went overboard! Watching the scene, I thought he was gone and we would be executing a very difficult man overboard exercise in the midst of the crashing waves. Somehow, Yiannis was still holding on to the stay and amazingly his feet had landed on another cable that supports the bowsprit from the side! Fighting the swells, Yiannis pulled himself back on board and slowly made his way back toward the cockpit. Holding his hands and slightly limping, we could tell he was in pain. How he hung onto that steel cable, I will never understand. They are the most slippery surfaces on the boat and somehow he kept his grip. A quick glance at his hands told the story. Across the bottom of all of his fingers was a tear in the skin. More like a burn, each finger had been ripped open like a painful series of blisters. The bottom of his foot was already turning blue from the impact but without landing on that cable, he would have been drifting out to sea, alone amongst the white capped waves that now surrounded us`.

Strange Sea Creatures

While heading toward an anchorage in the afternoon that we left Dawson Island, we noticed a couple of beautiful little islands just a few miles away. The chart didn’t contain any information about the islands, not even so much as a name. We still had plenty of daylight to explore and navigate through any reefs we might come across on our way over so we decided to attempt to anchor there. If it proved to be impossible to reach, we could easily turn back to the known safety of our original planned anchorage. Sailing directly toward the island with Bill up in the rigging looking for reefs, we managed to sail right up to a well protected stretch of coastline on the first of the two tiny islands. Reefs stretched out all around and the shore was a tropical paradise so we decided we could figure out a way to make this anchorage work. Passing close by the reefs and the shore trying to find a shallow enough spot to anchor, we realized that the sea floor was a steep slope up from the deep. Anchoring would be difficult, but not impossible. We would attempt to drop the anchor along the steep slope and hope that it didn’t slide off. There was plenty of open sea in the direction of the current which fortunately coincided with the wind as well leaving us miles to drift in the case of the anchor becoming dislodged. With just enough daylight left to explore the nearby reefs, Yiannis grabbed a snorkel and jumped in. Since I know sharks like to feed at sunrise and sunset I elected to stay on board and talk to the mass of locals who were already overwhelming the boat. We learned the name of their island was Di Gala Gala. The people had never had a sailboat visit them much less any white men at all. They were all glad to have us there and as this would be one of our last stops in the islands, we gave away almost everything on the boat that wasn’t nailed down. All of the children were given packages of crayons, pencils and writing books. The women were given the last of our clothing and all of the men were happy to receive twine, fishing gear and kerosene. In return came the standard multitude of gifts. Shells, fruits and vegetables came from everywhere. One man gave Bill one of the best wood carvings I have seen in the islands. A plaque shaped piece of wood that depicted a battle scene amongst competing villages complete with a celebratory pig roast at the end. What an amazing gift for someone to hand out. I can’t imagine the time and work that the man put into this thing and here he was willing to give it away without a second thought to someone he didn‘t even know. With the sun almost gone, Yiannis finally began making his way back to the boat. Climbing out of the water and onto the bow of the boat, he had a look on his face of complete confusion. After removing his mask and snorkel, he began rambling on about some huge sea creature that had followed him around the reef. “Massive” he said. “This thing was massive!” When I asked what he was talking about, he told us the story. While swimming around near the beach, he was focused on the reef. This reef was better than any that we had seen since leaving Alotau, completely covered in fish of all sizes and amazing colors on all of the coral. No surprise with such an enormous reef surrounding such a small island with so few people living on it. Anyway, as he glanced back in the direction of the beach, he saw a huge animal swimming along right next to him! His account of the creature was only that it was massive! He said after catching his breath from the shock of such a big fish popping up next to him, he immediately began looking for the fin on it’s back. After careful studying and still being a bit apprehensive, he continued to watch this thing swim around him. Standing probably 6’4” tall, Yiannis is a pretty tall guy. Apparently this thing dwarfed him in size. After deciding that the animal was friendly, he continued on his snorkeling adventure. The animal proceeded to follow alongside throughout the reef. From the boat, we had noticed Yiannis swimming back and forth in the same direction for a long time. We had all commented on it and wondered what in the hell he was doing. It now made complete sense. With Yiannis describing this animal to me, I immediately knew what he had scene. It was a dugong. We had often heard that there were plenty of them around but none of us had yet to see one. I can only imagine the thrill and exhilaration that Yiannis felt when he first laid his eyes on an animal that he had never even heard of! While completely terrifying at first, I can’t imagine a more amazing feeling of being somewhere and seeing an enormous animal having no idea what it even is. That is the ultimate prize in exploring anywhere, to discover something that you didn’t even know existed! With everyone on board jealous of his dugong spotting, I think we all spent more time in the water there at Di Gala Gala than anywhere else. Sunrise and sunset along with several times during the day, we were all on a mission to find the elusive dugong. With no success, everyone was disappointed to never track the animal down again. While the feeling of seeing it wouldn’t carry the thrill of the unknown that Yiannis experienced, I have never had the opportunity to swim alongside a dugong and am terribly disappointed that I elected to bypass that first evening of snorkeling.

Travelling throughout Milne Bay

With the last traces of civilization behind us in Alotau, we have spent the past couple of weeks sailing Eastward through the many islands that make up the province of Milne Bay. Tiny uninhabited islands and white sand beaches dot the horizon and each new anchorage is better than the last. There are over 400 islands in this province alone and we are leisurely navigating our way amongst them, trying to sail as far East as we can before laying a course back to Australia. As the days have passed by, we have continued to surpass even our own expectations. Each island we visit is friendlier than the last while the water just keeps getting clearer and clearer! We spent a couple of days anchored at a beautiful little spot called Dawson island. We were anchored in about sixty feet of water and you could look down to the sandy bottom and see the miscellaneous coral heads scattered about as well as all the fish that were passing by. One morning while sitting on the boat enjoying a cup of coffee, a local man came up and offered us some cuttle fish he had caught during the night. With everyone craving some calamari, we gladly accepted. After providing the man with a small bag of rice along with some pencils and paper for his children, he offered to clean the fish for us. While he began to pull the insides out and toss them into the sea, I resumed my position on the stern of the boat looking into the depths enjoying the variety of sea life that was swimming below. Now Bill and I must have drank too much the night before or something because typically when we clean fish, we take the guts in the dinghy and row them out to deeper water that is far away from the boat. That way we aren’t attracting sharks to the boat, getting them accustomed to a free feeding when often times the next thing that goes overboard is one of us enjoying a swim or heading out for a snorkel. Well sure enough, as I looked down, here comes a shark swimming by right underneath the boat. As I told Bill to have a look, we both realized that we were attracting them to the boat with the guts of the cuttlefish that were being flung overboard. A few minutes later, a second and then a third appeared, swimming in large circles around the bottom of the sea. After making a few passes along the bottom and realizing that the free meal they were after was not to be found, they swam off into deeper water where they might actually have to pursue their prey. Following breakfast, I jumped off the boat to explore the huge expanse of coral reefs that surrounded Dawson Island. Making my way down the coast of the island, I swam in and out of the coral that was spread out across the sand like a field of mushrooms. Around the corner of one coral head, I noticed a school of batfish hanging around the sea floor. Taking a deep breath, I ducked beneath the water and swam down to the bottom to take a closer look. As I neared the bat fish, I realized there was a small cave where light was coming through from just a short distance to the other side. Investigating the cave for a good photo opportunity to frame the batfish, I was startled to realize that I was staring into a giant eye! Almost sucking in a mouthful of water from the surprise, I was able to make out the camouflaged shape of a shark lying not four feet from my nose! Ordinarily, it is not that surprising to see a shark while out for a snorkel. This one however was different. It is what is known as a Wobegong shark. They are very well camouflaged, looking like the rocks on the bottom of the sea. While not a very dangerous shark, they have been known to bite people in the same way that they attack their pray. They don’t attack from the front, they wait until something approaches just to their side and then, with a quick jerk, they lunge to the side clamping their jaws down upon their next meal. Seeing as how the shark was an adult and around seven feet long, it is hard to imagine how in such clear water I was unable to notice him. He was as well camouflaged as any fish I had ever seen and I am definitely glad I didn‘t attempt a swim through that small cave! After annoying the shark for sometime, I noticed Yiannis swimming around nearby and called him over. “Do you want to see a shark?” I asked him. “Of course” he responded. So diving down beneath the coral again, I pointed to it’s location. While Yiannis swam down, I waited at the surface for his reaction. Emerging to the surface he came back saying “I didn’t see anything?” I told him to keep looking. Four dives later, Yiannis broke the surface of the water in a rush! His eyes were wide and spitting his snorkel out all he said is “That thing is enormous!” In the afternoon, Elina, Yiannis and I decided that we wanted to climb up to the top of the island which was covered in long grass with a just two trees sitting in isolation at it’s highest point. The man who had brought us the squid, David, offered to take us up but said that even though it is not very far, no one ever goes up there so we would have to hack out a new path on the way up. With David and I leading the way and our machetes in hand, we made our way up the side of the hill hacking through the dense jungle that blocked our path. As we emerged from the forest into the tall grass covering the top of the hill, we realized that what had looked like waist high grass from the boat was actually about eight feet tall. David asked me to cut a young tree down and pass it up to him. As he laid the stick on the grass horizontally, he pressed his foot forward, laying down enormous tracts of grass for us to walkover. A few minutes later we reached the top where we were still surrounded by grass in every direction. Not a view in sight! David however was still stepping down on the grass and clearing more space. He made his way to each edge of the peak eventually providing us with views in all directions. In every direction as far as you could see were tiny little islands surrounded by coral reefs. Looming back in the distance where this leg of our journey began we could see the sun starting to near the tops of the mountains on the mainland. It looked like an amazing place to watch the sunset but lacking any torches to guide us down, we decided to head back to the coast and enjoy the last few rays of sunshine from the deck of the boat.

Crew Change!!!

Looking for a taxi after dark in Alatou is not an easy task. During the day they are frequently spotted around the warf, heading to and from the nearby town. As we looked around for any signs of a cab to pass us by, a few local boys walked up and started talking to us. We told them that we were heading to Napatana lodge for dinner and were looking for a taxi. The boys told us that the taxis don’t run after dark and not to even think about walking as many people have been killed along the road at night there. Without taxis around and no chance of walking, there we stood by the roadside, trying to figure out a way to get to the lodge for dinner.
“Hello!” cried a voice from a small pickup truck that stopped nearby. “Where are you going?” the driver shouted. Thinking that this could be our lucky break, I walked over to the window and introduced myself to a broad shouldered man named Sonny. He said he saw us stainding on the side of the road and it looked like we needed a ride. I told him we were trying to get to Napatana and could he possibly take us there. “Of course!” he replied. Sonny had just moved here and was still trying to figure his way around town but knew exactly where Napata was because he had spent a few nights their upon is arrival in Alotau.
Piling out of the back of Sonny’s Toyota pickup, we invited him in to join us for dinner and a few drinks inside. He gladly accepted and into the hotel we went. Our new arrival Elina who always seems to have a smile on her face was now acting as a wonderful go between with the Russian girl, Irina. She was very friendly to her and included her in all the conversations we had. The only problem was that while Irina would contribute to anything Elina had to say, when Bill or I spoke, she still just closed her mouth and looked around the room without interest in anything we were saying. At the bar, we met a Greek guy named Yiannis whom we had seen walking around town ealier in the day. He’d been backpacking around Papua New Guinea for the past couple of months and had been to some amazing and remote places. We invited him to join us and were all eager to hear his account of his journey across the country.
While Sonny told us incredible stories about his life in the highlands, Yiannis encaptivated us all with tales of his adventures travelling on the small trading and fishing vessels that we have encountered throughout the islands. These boats are all timber and load down their hulls with more cargo than they are supposed to carry before piling as many people on to every inch of surface that covers the tiny little boat. This is all done for journeys that can take several days and always have the risk of encountering severe storms at sea. The captain of one boat told us that he thinks that about one of these vessels sinks each month and here was Yiannis, travelling around the country aboard many different trading vessels!
After realizing that Yiannis was heading back to Australia around the same time as us and what a wonderful personality he would add to the crew, Bill invited him to join us on board Seawanhaka. Yiannis immediately accepted and was excited about the opportunity before him. Even Irina looked excited about someone other than Bill and I to talk to. It looked like he and Elina just might do the trick to turn the cold war around and bring everyone on board Seawanhaka together.
The dinner ended and Bill volounteered to pick up the check. He bought everyone at the tables dinner as well as their beers along with several bottle of wine. It was a kind gesture and I gladly thanked him for the wonderful night out. Sonny drove us back to the boat and dropped us off at the harbor where we invited him to come out the following day for a look at the boat. He gladly accepted and wished us goodnight before heading home. Yiannis departed for his guesthouse to pack his things and was due to be on board early the next morning. With Bill rowing, Irina, Elina and myself boarded the dinghy for the short row back out to the boat.
Now, as I previously mentioned, Bill purchased dinner for everyone on board. I noticed everyone at the table thank him except for Irina. She just followed along with the same miserable scowl on her face as if she had been condemmed to live in this hell that the rest of us are calling paradise. Back on the boat, I opened a beer and offered everyone on board one as well. It was late and everyone other than Bill was headed off to sleep so he accepted the beer and told me he would be up top shortly.
The next thing I know, I hear Bill talking to Irina down below. He had already confronted her several times about her poor attitude and lack of desire to sail. She had been told that if she did not learn how to sail, she would not be going back to Cairns with us as it is too dangerous to have someone completely unfamiliar with the boat on board during a journey upon the open sea. Down below, I could hear Bill confronting Irina about the fact that she didn’t even have the courtousey to say thank you. Sarcastically she replied to him “Thank you.” She said it in such an awful way that Bill just looked at her in disgust and said that it was too late and he was absoloutely tired of her attitutde. He told her to pack her bags and get off the boat first thing in the morning! While I listened in from above, I raised my beer to the stars in the sky, offering thanks to the heaveans above. The cold war had now ended and while I listened to the ranting and raving of a crazed russian woman complaining of how awful the boat was, I couldn’t help but smile knowing we were finally rid of her!