Category Archives: surf

Bicheno Beachside Penguin Surprise

Views looking out over the rocks at dusk in Bicheno

Evening arrives in Bicheno, Tasmania

I never went to Bicheno with the intention of seeing anything or anyone other than my friend, and to avoid the storms that were starting to whip the southeast corner of Tasmania.

Having had enough chills for a lifetime, I was keen to search out some sprays of sunshine and gaps in the bursts of wind. This was a holiday, dammit. Don’t give me storms.

If there had been more time to play with I would have headed to the far northeast tip of Tasmania and sailed across to the white sands and warmer weather of Flinders Island, but with ferries only running once weekly, I’d have to save that adventure for another time. The Bay of Fires – another place where I would have loved to have got lost for a week or two – would also have to wait. No time.

The other option?

Bicheno, a place I knew nothing about other than that my friend, Hugo, would be working there on a marine project. Having hinted that the climate was usually more forgiving up that way, he’d got my attention and so D-man and me drove a couple of hours north of Hobart to this ‘jewel of the East Coast’.

Maybe some of you have been to Bicheno and enjoyed kicking back in its limited scattering of cafes, restaurants and bakeries. Maybe you’ve been to paint the fishing boats bobbing about in the bay or the blowhole coughing up metres of pillared mist. Maybe you’ve been kitted up to surf crystal waves or dive into the cold currents of the Tasman Sea.

Or maybe you’ve visited Bicheno with the full intention of seeing what I had no idea I was going to see. Because, it seems, if you actually do some research on the place, there is one main reason to visit Bicheno.

After a campervan cook-up washed down with (yet another) glass of local Pinot Noir, D-man and me layered up. On the way to buy the aforementioned Pinot Noir my friend Hugo had taken us on a cliff and scrubland wander and hinted at the activity that occurred once night-time fell.

And the night-time activity started with squawks; the gathering call of adult fairy penguins coming onshore en masse, and the call of the young awaiting their parents, reminding their parents of where to find them.

A baby penguin waits for its parents to return

Waiting for its parents to return

Walking quietly with a t-shirt covered torch, D-man and me made our way back along the cliff path and found a perch on the rocks overlooking the beach. We didn’t’ have to wait for long before we saw the waddles. Creatures, barely knee high, shuffled over boulders and through undergrowth in search of their young.

Little penguins – AKA fairy penguins – going about their daily routine as if this were the most usual thing in the whole wide world. Which for them, of course, it was. But for us? Not at all. I felt like I was living an Attenborough documentary. Bring on the narration.

Two fairy penguins heading back from a day at sea to return to their young in Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia.

Two fair penguins…

Two fairy penguins heading back from a day at sea to return to their young in Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia.

…heading back from a day at sea…

Two fairy penguins heading back from a day at sea to return to their young in Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia.

…to return to their young.

Once the cold of the night took hold we retreated, giving the continuing dribs and drabs of returning penguins a wide berth when we encountered them on our walk back. Which we did. Over and over. Little waddles, little flaps, and, well, just lots of little.

Catching up with a friend in Bicheno: wonderful. Living a magical bedtime story full of squawks, waddles and fluff: unexpected. Sometimes not reading about a place before you go: priceless.

Further reading and watching

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Filed under activity & sport, australia, diving, natural wonders, nature, oceania, sea, surf, travel, wildlife

Can’t I just get drunk and dance (or should I really find out what Australia Day is actually about)?

Flag of Australia

Flag of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it’s my second Australia Day in… erm… Australia. And guess what? It’s raining and blowing the start of a storm. Again. Mid-summer? Pah! ‘So what exactly are you celebrating on Australia Day?’ I asked a friend. ‘Er… something to do with our independence’. ‘You don’t even know what you’re celebrating?!’ ‘Yeah, yeah I do…’

And so I became determined to find out what Australia Day was really about. If I’m going to pause my travels for a little while to be here, to explore this place, I definitely want to have some idea of what’s going on (and why).

Dubbed by some as Invasion Day, Wikipedia gives a bit more insight into the event: Celebrated annually on 26 January, the date commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, New South Wales in 1788 and the proclamation at that time of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia.

But what about the impact of the British arrival on indigenous communities? Surely Australia Day is far from a day of celebration for communities who were robbed of their land and rights? As one website states, ‘To many Aboriginal people there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their land, loss of family, loss of the right to practice their culture.’

There are efforts being made to be more inclusive and redress the situation (as much as is possible), for example The Australia Day National Network states that On Australia Day we recognise the unique status of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The National Australia Day Council (NADC) is committed to playing a part in the journey of Reconciliation by helping all Australians to move forward with a better understanding of our shared past, and importantly how this affects the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today and how we might build a better future together’.

I later read a little more into modern views of Australia Day and came across a good few grumbles about the Australian flag that with prominent inclusion of the Union Jack is not deemed to be sufficiently Australian. It made me think: is the wish to have a separated, unique identity so unreasonable?

Further discussions on news sites focused on nationalistic behaviour and accusations of  ‘the “boganisation” of Australia Day”. Is Australia Day really ‘all out bogan day, get drunk, wear a flag cape, cause some violence, be racist, get arrested and vomit’? It makes me think of football finals in the UK, cars covered in scarves and banners, houses draped in giant St. George flags, bloody faces on sore losers. Just a matter of patriotism? Hmmm…

On the alcohol side of things, there definitely is some truth.  ‘It’s about barbecuing with friends, and drinking until you can’t stand up’, said Sam, a Melbourne based guy in his mid-thirties. ‘We usually go for a surf, then head back for a barbie and beers’, said another friend up in North New South Wales.

It would seem that for many Australians, the way to celebrate this day is by spending time with friends and family, barbecuing, beaching and drinking. It is, after all, suggested as being the ‘largest annual public event in the nation’, so why not get together?

It also seems that for many, many people, Australia Day is about Hottest 100 parties, The Sydney Morning Herald claiming that the countdown event ran by Triple J (a popular ad-free and government-owned station)  ‘brings us together’ whilst Triple J themselves talked up the day weeks in advance, generating hype and giving shout outs to registered parties around the country.

On my way back from a trip out into Byron Bay I stopped at the off-license (or bottle-O, if we want to keep things Australian), expecting to find myself in amongst a last-minute booze scramble. But the only hint at Australia Day was the seller’s insistence that I buy the organic Australian vodka over an imported brand, and maybe the guy who was slurring and paying up wearing only a pair of tightie boxer shorts was my second sign? My first bogan sighting? Quite possibly.

And then I drove on through oncoming storms, home to a veranda of bodies huddled out of the reach of driving rains, to a barbecue sheltered by parasols, to music blasting from the radio, to eskies crammed with ice and beers, to over 30cm of rain in one hour (noted when we were still level-headed enough to check).

The beach party, I guessed, wouldn’t be happening. Maybe next year.

So what are we celebrating again? Oh yeah. Independence. No, invasion. No, the British landings. Ah, it’s getting a bit fuzzy. Now, where is my drink?

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Not getting barrelled at Teahupo’o

Teahupo’o. Having shared a big chunk of my life with someone who breathed, dreamed and lived surfing, I was somewhat educated on the waves of the world. And Teahupoo? I could fairly easily recognise the wave in a picture, that crazy, powerful reef break that has surfers around the world dreaming of making a trip to French Polynesia.

I’m a rubbish surfer. It used to wind up my ex. How can you surf for six years and barely progress? He wanted to be able to ride a two foot wave with me; actually, just riding a wave together – any wave – would probably have sufficed.

If I actually made it out the back, I stalled myself out of waves, freaking that they were too big for me. Often I was happiest on the smaller, reformed waves closer to the shore, or riding the white water when I got bored of waiting for a ‘proper’ set to push through (although when I started to finally take the little drops and get on the faces of waves, the white water lost a bit of its appeal).

Realistically, one to two foot on a sunny day in the UK suited me perfectly. I don’t like rips, I’m a bit over mid-winter surfs, and the necessary evils of stiff 5/4mm wetsuits and a full booty-glove-hood get-up makes me tired just thinking about it. I have, I suppose, given in to the fact that I am never going to be one of those girls that rip, and that maybe I am indeed a fair-weather surfer (yet, actually, if the waves are right on a British December day then I’ll definitely get in the water for a splash around, just don’t give me a biting wind and a troubled sky).

Not much happening wavewise back in Devon in the winter of 2007... but its sunny and I'm smiling. Enough.

Not much happening wavewise back in Devon in the winter of 2007… but it’s sunny and I’m smiling.

There was no way, then, that my trip to Tahiti would include me undertaking the giant paddle out to the Teahupo’o showpiece and scuffling for a place in the line-up.

But I wanted to see the magic first hand. I felt that this wave was part of my history, a wave that had been part of conversations and memories and dreams. So I wanted to see the wave and its birthplace, I wanted to experience the magic of bobbing about in a little boat close to the crashing power, and I wanted to watch surfers get barrelled, get air and then bail off the back before the wave closed out and slammed them onto the jagged reef.

Watching the action up close (*not my picture).

From photos and calendars and videos, I knew what it should look like. So why the disenchantment?

Together with my Pacific crossing crew mates, I arrived into the village of Teahupo’o and to a little beach at a river mouth. The only people around were a few kids riding the beach break, twisting and turning on boogie boards, a couple more on stand-ups. The café was closed, the houses empty, the narrow, stony beach deserted.

By the river mouth at Teahupo'o, Tahiti

By the river mouth at Teahupo’o, Tahiti

A couple of boats were moored up by a house but captains were absent and a ride out to the mighty wave began to seem unlikely. I looked out to sea, out past the flatter near-water to a section of crashing waves that occasionally delivered a peel and spit but more typically smashed down on to the reef without any form. Closing out. Surely no one would be out there today trying to surf? I squinted but it was no good. I saw no one.

Shall we just borrow it?

Shall we just borrow it?

Kinda doing... not much

Kinda doing… not much

After a wander through the ghost village and along a rocky, coral beach, we weren’t any closer to the wave or to scoring a boat ride. I wondered if some of these houses were even occupied by locals and just how different this sleepy place was when the annual Billabong Pro surf comp came to town.

A hint of what Teahupo'o has become?

A hint of what Teahupo’o has become?

I gave up on getting out there to see it up close, and retreated back to the hire car. The only friends we made were some stray dogs. Oh, and one of the teens who gave us a wave as we left.

No barrels for me, or anyone else it would seem. Maybe I should have done some research before I left? Sometimes things just work out. This time it didn’t. Back to the perfect waves of picture books, then.

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Day trippin’ Tahiti

Having picked up some maps at the tourist information by the docks, planned a few desired stop-offs and hired a car for the day, we were ready to drive the coast road that wraps around Tahiti Nui and smaller Tahiti to the south-east. The constructed concrete and development of Papeete slowly faded into the background as we sped south down the smooth roads of the west side of the island into a scene framed by thick, dark green trees and mountains that raised up from the roadside.

Enter the lushness

Enter the lushness

Our first stop was at Grotte de Maraa caves barely 30km south of Papeete, a public garden bursting with every tone of lush green imaginable, despite being but a machete strike away from the main road. The detail of fanned leaves, the variation in plant patterns and the odd splash of water and other colour created a world in which I wanted nothing more than to walk alone and once again get lost in the thicket of nature whilst Joel and Matt headed up into the jungle, following an overgrown path.

Plants and water and happiness

Plants and water and happiness

...and more...

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Beautiful, right?

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Yep.

The caves themselves gave cover to pools of water on which lilies clustered, some white petals on display. To the side of the main cave was a sign hidden behind foliage that stated No lifeguard on duty, surely a joke of sorts. Matt went for a paddle and the water barely reached his knees (although apparently further into the belly of the cave it drops away).

Really?

Lost girl? Nah, not really.

Lost girl? Nah, not really.

Back behind the wheel and we drove on down to Teahupo’o on Tahiti Iti, Tahit Nui’s little sister joined to the main bulk of the island by a slim stretch of land over which passed two roads. A few young teens body boarded on little waves on the edge of the village whilst the infamous Teahupo’o break smashed about a couple of kilometres out to sea. We walked by empty houses and quiet air, accompanied by a stray dog.

Arriving to the village of Teahupo'o

Arriving to the village of Teahupo’o

Hanging out on the wire looking out towards the famous break

Hanging out on the wire looking out towards the famous break

Shall we just borrow it?

Shall we just borrow it?

On the way back up north we decided to head to the Taravao Plateau, stopping first at a little spot off the beaten track by a river where we dunked in cool waters and got nibbled by creatures in a murky river bed. At least I did. Joel and Matt, my crew mates from the Pacific crossing, swam against the river flow, then let themselves get carried for a little while. I guess it had been a long time at sea without exercise.

Taking a river rest

Taking a river rest

Capturing the creature who had a good nibble on my toes

Capturing the creature who had a good nibble on my toes

The boys think about stretching their legs again

The boys think about stretching their legs again

The viewpoint of Taravao Plateau itself took us out of the jungly lowlands, high enough to get a wide look over both parts of the island. A little hut shaded us and the gentle yet constant trickle of tourists who pulled in for a quick glance. Beer tops, a few empty bottles and a smattering of graffiti hinted at a place that went beyond that of a lookout. This place saw it all. Or some variation, at least.

Views one way... down to Tahiti Nui

Views one way… down to Tahiti Nui

Views from the same spot

Views from the same spot

Our last stop-off was driven by the need to get to the water’s edge once again. Whilst the west coast beaches seemed unreachable and – where visible – chunked up with rocky entries, the east coast offered up a good dose of sandy beaches. Finding an unmarked place to pull in, the boys were quick to the water whilst I lay down, full stretch, and the warmth of the sand against the length of my body made me sleepy.

Getting drowsy

Getting drowsy

I dozed through all the fun – the body surfing, the local kids playing up to the Go-Pro camera, the refreshing splashing around – and roused only for the homeward stretch, a half hour drive with a red dusk sky backdrop

Nearly there

Nearly there

And we were back. In Papeete, at the pontoon, within the rock of the boat. Home.

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When travel and terror collide

www.travelola.orgBack in October 2002, two bombs went off in the midst of Kuta nightlife, killing 202 people, many of whome were travellers enjoying a bit of social time in Bali. Ten years on, survivors have returned to Indonesia to remember those who died in the blast.

I’ve met a few people on my travels who document their journeys, but often, like me, their writing focuses on foreign intrigue, on misunderstandings, on the quirks of being out of your comfort zone. Some travel writing goes deep and addresses the big ones, but so much stuff out there seems to only skim the surface of cultures and countries that would more than likely require a lifetime to properly understand.

And now as my own written journey looks to leave South America once again, I can’t help but think how fortunate I was during my travels throughout Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. No muggings, no violence, no hold-ups. South America, many people warned me, was still a highly dangerous place to visit, particularly as a solo female traveller. For some reason, I was undeterred, and I refused to buy into the scaremongering.

And South America showed me her beautiful sides, her warmth, generosity and a little dash of chaos. People opened their doors to me, invited me to socials, looked after me when I was sick and alone. And they encouraged me to keep an open mind and heart. I did at times feel uneasy, there were a few moments of military interrogation that shook me up, and in some places there were guys in the street shadows bearing batons. But no dramas for me, thankfully.

But of course not everyone is so lucky, I appreciate that. When I heard about the recent kidnapping of two tourists on the Ecuador-Colombia border, I stopped in my tracks. One of the captured women was my age. The girls were doing the same Cuyabeno jungle tour that I had done back in October 2011. And they described wading through the same mud that I vividly recall.

It could easily have been me. Not that that’s the point, but rather it made me reflect on travelling and timing, on coincidence and luck. These girls did nothing different to what I would have done. It’s not as though they could have been more savvy about the situation, unless you suggest that they should never have visited Ecuador in the first place (and the idea of never leaving ones home comforts out of fear would surely only serve to narrow our views on the world, to close off to different cultures and people? No, please don’t go there.). The girls were released, evidently traumatised, but alive.

Ecuador with its varied terrain and climate and wildlife remains my favourite South American country to travel in. This news won’t discourage me from going back, but it might make me more aware, more alert. Not that that would necessarily make a difference, though. The girls, having been through such an ordeal, may well feel very differently. I’d be curious to know whether it has affected their entire perception of the country.

Because how can such an event not impact on your entire psyche? On your attitude? Different people, I guess, will find different coping mechanisms for traumatic travel stories, ones that hopefully won’t quash their zest for adventure.

Returning to Bali in 2012, one girl who has worked towards finding some solace in the aftermath of the bombings is Hanabeth Luke.

In January 2012 I temporarily put down my backpack in New South Wales, Australia where I met Hanabeth, – a surf chick tomboy mixed with a good dash of feminine quirk and a twist of British. During chats I discovered that she was writing a book, something to do with the upcoming ten year anniversary of the Bali attacks, but I didn’t pry. It seemed too sensitive a subject for strangers.

As time has passed I’ve learnt more, although I’ve undoubtedly learnt more about the spirit of Hanabeth than the event itself. Being in the now is where we’ve been at, in some way as important as remembering. But I will read her book, and I will try to understand what surviving the Bali bomb feels like, what losing a love actually means. Right now it is beyond my comprehension.

The people returning to the place of the 2002 Bali bombings have had ten years now to try to make sense of what happened, ten years to grieve and reach some level of acceptance. I can’t imagine the process ever stops, and that for different people there will be different ways of working through the pain. Writing one’s journey, for example.

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Filed under activity & sport, culture, dancing, ecuador, health, indonesia, random, solo travel, south america, south east asia, surf

I’m just off to climb a volcano

‘What are you up to tomorrow?’ asked a friend during a Skype call. ‘Ah, I think I’m going to go and climb a volcano’, I told him, ‘an active volcano’. The island of Isabela is, after all, made up of six volcanoes (five of which are active) and to visit the Galapagos and not take in some volcanic splendour would surely be a half-hearted effort. As with many activities on the islands, local laws require you to be accompanied by a guide so doing it totally off my own back wasn’t going to be an option. I booked in for the $35 tour.

Tomorrow had arrived and here I was with a group of unknowns sheltering from the damp air, drizzle and grey skies, waiting to start the great ascent to Volcán Sierra Negra, one of the largest active volcanos in the world. But with this turn of bad weather and such poor visibility, would the trek go ahead?

It hadn’t started like this. Oh no.

Less than an hour earlier I had ran through sun soaked streets and arrived, in a sweat and seven minutes late, to an empty Tropical Adventures shop. No cars were waiting. No tour guides around to tell me off. They had left without me. Oh, crap.

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Running through the streets of Puerto Vilamil on Isabela, Galapagos

I started to walk back towards the main square in search of breakfast. A jeep drove by, five, maybe six people crammed inside. Someone waved. Was that one of the guys from yesterday’s Los Tuneles tour? Another car beeped and pulled up alongside me. “Quick! Get in! You’re late!”

No rucksack, no breakfast and late. It was shameful. I made my apologies. People were gracious, on the surface at least, but maybe their tolerance was tested when half an hour later we were still driving through the streets of Puerto Vilamil doing random pick-ups and drop-offs and who-knows-whats.

And so, having driven north east from Puerto Vilamil upwards into an increasingly hostile weather front, here I was standing snuggled in with a bunch of about twenty strangers, and all those efforts to get here seemed to be in vain. It was surely a no go. This weather encouraged thoughts of duvet days and movie sessions, of chatting and playing music by the fireplace with friends.

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The starting point

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Some of the group before the hike began

Stop. Doubt not. This weather was, apparently, totally normal. ‘English speaking with me’, said our young guide who later told me how much he loved doing this job in between surfing the islands various breaks. The variety in landscape and climate, he told me, made Galapagos the best place to live.

And what about city fun? Wild, chaotic moments? Didn’t he crave a bit of breaking loose at times?  ‘The mainland’, he said, ‘sometimes’. I found out from a few people that Guayaquil and Quito (on the mainland of Ecuador) offer them an escape at times, but do nothing in trying to tempt them away from the tranquillity of the Galapagos Islands.

For an hour we climbed along muddy, cracked pathways. The drive up must have dealt with a good chunk of the 1,124m altitude because the physical climb was the gentlest I could have imagined. As we ambled along, I chatted with French tourists and a young German couple, with an Argentinian wanderer and a chatty entrepreneur who had left his entire family and cultural sensibilities behind in India for a new life in Australia. As travelling often allows, I saw way beyond what was right in front of me, leant more about the world in a broader sense.

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Grassy, gentle paths

At the main lookout I realised my expectations of what a volcano might look like were limited to glossy photos in magazines that showed spewing lava flow and an excess of red and orange hues tipped with flashes of bright white heat.

This expanse of flat, cracked blackness that stretched off into the far distance was strikingly different to the volcano images in my mind. The drop off into the crater, although steep, was not as dramatic or as deep as I might have imagined, and swaths of clouds were swept along the surface by a moody breeze.

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Sierra Negra to my left…

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…and to my right

It was, undoubtedly, a unique landscape, all 10 kilometres of parched rockiness. We stood for a little while and looked out over this section of Sierra Negra. As recently as 2005 she had belched up a load of lava, and before that, 1979. There was a good chance that she might erupt again, right now. A sign stated ‘since the magma chambers are approximately two kilometres deep, there are cracks where every so often the fumes vent or lava erupts’. It could happen.

Onwards we walked, skirting along the eastern side of Sierra Negra, our grassy path contrasting with the bleak gravel of her belly spread out below us. The landscape started to change. More rocks, more slip, more hostility.

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Landscape change

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North east side of Sierra Negra crater, heading towards Chico

Those in the group who didn’t have boats to catch back to Santa Cruz continued on over shale and scatter towards Volcán Chico whilst the rest of us turned around and backtracked through ferns and hairy trees, walking and talking and stopping for a quick picnic lunch. Within two hours we were back at a still drizzly starting point, ready to descend back down to Puerto Vilamil.

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Ferns and hairy trees

One of the most active places for volcanic activity? Pah. Really? It all seemed very gentle and relaxed, dreamy even. Today, in any case.

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Spending the day at Tortuga Bay

Ah, Galapagos! That place of mystery through which Charles Darwin journeyed back in the autumn of 1835; those islands chock full of natural wonders, of  unusual birdlife and iguana-like creatures, of volcanic formations and varied landscapes. The Galapagos archipelago, Darwin said, is quite simply ‘a little world within itself’. Time to get in amongst it and find out for myself.

So here I am, in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz having spent my first night crashed out in a simple yet immaculate room. I’m wondering where to go, how to start on my independent Galapagos adventure. Most visitors to the Galapagos jump on board a week-long cruise around the islands. It sounds nice, I guess, providing you get on with everyone and get lucky with a good guide. But avoiding luxury and high costs is my thing, my necessary thing, so it’s a matter of keeping it local. And keeping it real. Surely this way I can get a better idea of the place? I’m going to chat to people in the town, talk to the woman who runs the residence where I’m staying. She’ll point me in the right direction.

And she does. In fact many people do. Today, I decide, will be the day to check out Tortuga Bay. It’s close, it looks beautiful, and it’s an ideal way to taste what the Galapagos islands are about.

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The pathway to Tortuga Bay

Clutching a map of the island I walk out west and it’s not long before I’m  ambling along a fine, white sand beach a few of kilometres from the town.

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Arriving at Tortuga Bay

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Tortuga Bay minus the tortugas (turtles)

I had anticipated crossing paths with a few more folk, but maybe I’ve hit the low season? It certainly doesn’t feel like I’m going to experience anything close to the three hundred visitors per day that this reserve typically expects. A lone surfer tries to carve up rippy waves to the left of Tortuga Bay and I see two people to the right in the far distance, the only other signs of human life.

As I get closer to the couple I see the girl crouch down, posing whilst her partner takes photos of her next to some… hang on… something moves. I squint and see that she is edging in as close as she dare to some chunky, four foot lizards oozing island laziness but whose spiky mohawks and slow, flickering tongues hint at a potential to turn nasty. In Th e Voyage of the Beagle (1836) Darwin describes this type of lizard (A. cristatus) as a ‘hideous looking creature of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements’. A little harsh, maybe, but I hear him.

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Lazy lizard

Around the corner I find the crowds. All fifty of them, if that. A young couple play in the sea, mouths teasing and eventually giving in to the kiss. The first kiss? A holiday romance? Families shade beneath mangrove trees and kids paddle in the calm shallows.  Here in this little lagoon it is sheltered and perfect for a relaxing afternoon dip, a significant contrast to the rougher waters around the corner.

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Shallow water play in the bay

I sit down on a slither of sand and watch birds swooping and boobing, sorry, bobbing about in the water. (The boobing comes later. No blue-footed boobies for me today. Let the anticipation build.) My picnic lunch creates some curiosity and a Straited Heron moves in on my personal space. Feeding the animals and birds on the islands is, however, banned so sorry, matey, today I’m going to be selfish and enjoy my avocado, tomato and bread feast alone.

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My picnic companion

As I start to make my way back through a scattering of trees and shrubs and a speckling of deserted beach towels, a guy shouts over from a small boat in amongst the mangroves. ’Puerto Ayora?’ he asks. Nah, I think I’ll walk.

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Lagoon calm at home time

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Perching pelicans

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Looking back up Tortuga Bay towards Puerto Ayora

And I retrace my steps, back along Bahía Tortuga and past perching pelicans, back along the pristine, cacti edged pathway, back to the wardens’ hut. I sign out and sit down to pause and look down over a dusky Puerto Ayora and the visiting yachts rising and falling in the gentle swell of Academy Bay. Soon, I hope, I will make my home on one of those yachts and embark on the most daring adventure of my travels thus far: a South Pacific crossing, back towards Australia via the tropical magic of French Polynesia. Am I really going to do this?

One of the wardens comes out and perches on the wall a few metres away. I’m crucially aware of his presence, a quiet, strong guardian of this beauty spot, and I wonder whether to continue sitting in silence or to strike up a conversation.

Of course I go for the latter, studying his face as I nosy in on island life. He has kind eyes. ‘Do you ever think about working somewhere else? Going somewhere a bit busier?’ I ask him, trying to not show that I’ve noticed his visibly beating heart. A stress condition? Surely not, not in this lovely, serene environment. He fixes his gaze on the village below. No, he tells me, he can’t imagine leaving this place, not for more than a few days.

And why would he want to? Fair enough.

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Escape to beach time in Ubatuba

Sandy beaches against a thick, deep green backdrop. I had been told that Brazilian beaches were undeniably beautiful. Time to find out.

I was staying with a friend in Taubaté, 96k inland from Ubatuba. The Masters in Management has served him well, landing him a relocation to Brazil where he is still trying to get a feel for the language and surroundings. One place he had explored and insisted on taking me to was Ubatuba and its complex of 92 unspoilt beaches, each with a flavour of its own.

The 1 ½ hour drive took us past smooth, rolling hills covered in thick quilts of lush vegetation and swaying seas of skinny, bubble-topped paper trees. Chunks of hillside revealed rich, red earth and purple plant explosions sat snug in amongst the vast greenery.

The road started to wind down as we approached the town, tight turns, hard on the brakes. At regular intervals, people stood by their vehicles, bonnet open, car cooling.

The last two times I visited, its rained’, said my friend Glyn as we drove the somewhat rough and confusing streets of Ubatuba. Diversions sent us in circles through a colourful maze of cute buildings, and the occasional painted mannequin stared down at us from a balcony.

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Statue/mannequin/model/whatever... on balcony in Ubatuba

We dodged the numerous cyclists out and about, were careful to give space to the man loaded down with at least eight bin bags of rubbish hanging off of his bike. The fact you could actually see the guy was unusual, apparently, as garbage collection on bike is to be expected.

Despite being a pretty place bursting with fully saturated colour, the beach in the town itself was a narrow, steep strip of sand leading down to a dumping wave whose ferocity didn’t invite a swimming crowd. So we moved on.

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Beach in Ubatuba

A few kilometres down the road, Praia Grande not only had a shallower pitch but a far bigger stretch of actual beach along which people power walked, couples strolled hand in hand and kids learnt to surf. A lifeguard perched up in a stilted hut, keeping an eye on us as we played silly wave kicking and sand throwing games to keep ourselves entertained.

Swimming, splashing about and mermaiding on the rocks, this was a relaxed, lazy and playful day on a spacious, empty beach. Can’t complain. It felt like being on holiday. It’s understandable why Ubatuba is such a popular weekend escape for the people of Sao Paulo.

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Praia Grande, Ubatuba

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Praia Grande, Ubatuba

Drawn in by rhythmic music, we finished the day trip with a drink and generously portioned pastel in Quicsque Recardo Sole Mar, one of a few cafés sitting on the actual beach.

And then back up the windy road, this time into a load of mistiness that got thicker and thicker as we climbed into the clouds until we pushed right through and arrived back to a clearer sky and a striking setting sun.

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Leaving Ubatuba

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10 things I did in Australia that I’ve never done before

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Sunday kangeroo roast anyone?

Pre-school graduations, eating kangeroo meat, and serious sunburn were all part of my fun in Australia. Whilst it may be a very Westernised country with a mass British population, there were still plenty of things that I experienced for the first time during my month and a half stay in Australia. I:

  1. Got sunburnt. Okay, maybe I’m stretching the truth here a little bit, but I have never got as badly sunburnt as I did when I spent too long on Broken Head beach in the midday sun. Mad dogs and Englishwomen. Clearly the people I was hanging out with were mad. My thighs hurt so badly and I got through a bottle of aloe vera after-sun within a couple of days. Ouch.
  2. Ate kangaroo. I worked at an event where they served up kangaroo burgers and I watched the guests chomp away, complimenting the chef as they did so. I wanted to try some. The next week my friends cooked up a roast dinner; kangaroo styley. It tasted gamey. Kangeroo meat is a good option because it’s so sustainable and, apparently, because kangeroos aren’t hooved beasts, their impact on the environment is also diminished.
  3. Slept with a giant spider somewhere in my room. I got too tired of hunting it that even the prospect of it being truly dangerous and life-threatening wasn’t enough to keep me awake. Not only did I get to experience this Huntsmen spider, but I also had the privilege of seeing some more of Australia’s recognisable creatures: cane toads, wallabies, and a kangaroo in the distance. But no koalas. Dammit.
  4. Swam in a tea-tree lake. Okay, I didn’t really swim. The spot that I chose for a drip wasn’t really deep enough. Maybe I should have gone to the proper tea tree lake at Lennox Head. Regardless, it was a gentle, beautiful outing designed to heal my body and soul. Or at least sort my skin out.
  5. Did RSA training. To work in any establishment in Australia that serves alcohol you need to get your Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) qualification. I can’t say that the course was the most interesting afternoon of my life, but I got work out of it and I made a new friend. Bonus.
  6. Swam and surfed in warm seas. To not start a shivering frenzy within a few minutes of getting in the water was amazing. It was still refreshing, but I never got bored of the warmth. At night it was a little chillier but still pretty pleasant, and a scattering of phosphorescents made a midnight dip even more special.
  7. Kept an eye out for sharks. Back in England, sharks were never something that I would have thought about whilst out for a swim or a surf. But in Australia, the bliss of the warmer waters means that our sharky friends make the odd appearance. My eyes were open but I saw nothing other than schools of dolphins. Twice over. Happy times.
  8. Broke a surfboard. This was horrible. I hadn’t been in Byron long and I managed to crumple the nose of my friends minimal. Badly. It put me off getting in the water (if it’s mine, fine, if it’s someone else’s, more hesitant). And then not too long later, the bike helmet that I had borrowed from another friend got nicked. Bad times.
  9. Went to a pre-school graduation. Oh yes. Really. Those heading off to public school sported capes and mortar boards just like in a proper university graduation ceremony. If it hadn’t been for the join-in song of ‘we’re going to big school… we’re going to big school… and that is really cool’ I could have been fooled: the kids posed professionally for photos, picked up their scrolls and took it very seriously whilst parents wiped their eyes. I don’t know really how common practise this is in Oz, but I did wonder: if this is the norm for each school transition, by the time they do actually graduate from uni will they be so blasé and bored by the whole thing?
  10. Confirmed some Aussie traits. I learnt that Australians are generally very positive people, which I loved, but the juxtaposition between boozy and healthy (very anti-smoking, pro sport) was a strange one; Aussies haven’t gotten to the ridiculous levels of being PC like we have in Britain, but some things can just come across racist to a foreigner (such as using the word ‘wog’ to refer to southern European immigrants); and words are nearly always shortened to the most simplistic syntax.

So many other experiences, wonderful times, good people. Thanks Australia.

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Spiders, snakes and other scary stuff

I spotted it just as I was about to climb into bed: a three inch black thing scuttling on eight legs across the floor towards me at hyper speed.

Now, I’m not arachnophobic by any means, and I’m not one to flush spiders down the plughole, but here I was in Byron Bay and I was well aware that Australia boasts so many of the world’s deadliest creatures. And that, quite honestly, did freak me out a little. Was this visitor one of the nasties?

I heard that funnel webs, red backs and white-tailed spiders were the ones to worry about, but in truth, I didn’t really know what I was actually looking for. Not to worry then, I guess.

My first introduction to Australian wildlife was the wonderfully fat leech that I found wriggling around in my sock post-Blue Mountain hike. It had had a good munch on my ankle, leaving me with an itch that bled easily. Nice. I was also warned about ticks. But neither of these seemed unique to Australia. Hiking in the UK bore the same risks.

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Pretty, pretty ugly or pest?

Cane toads, on the other hand, are a unique to Australia, or rather the problem of cane toads is pretty unique to Australia. The kids of the family that I was staying with found one in their garden. He was bagged up, ready to be destroyed by the time I got to see him Sound harsh? Not as bad as the story another friend told me about golf clubbing the things when she was a kid. Really. And whilst I was staying in Byron, the local council invited everyone along for a ‘cane toad muster in Mullum’. These creatures are definitely considered pests by a large majority.

Whilst I act blasé about getting taken by a shark, it is a thought that occasionally smacks me in the face when I’m bobbing about in the water. Luckily, I’m not as worried as my friend Dund who can’t even deal with shark pictures, and I do think it would be one hell of a story for my family if I died that way, but really, I’d rather not.

Although Lonely Planet states: ‘The risk of shark attacks in Australian waters is no greater than any other countries with extensive coastlines’, it is a reality of swimming and surfing these waters. Whilst I was in Byron, there were a few spottings on the southern beaches and in 2011 there was a marked increase in shark attacks on the Australian coastlines, three of which were fatal. Other things I’d been warned to look out for were stone fish, jellyfish, sea urchins and stingrays. Oh, and the brown snake that decided to take a swim with the surfers one day.

So onto snakes. Since I stroked a snakeskin in a museum in Middlesbrough, UK when I was a kid, I’ve had a real aversion to these scaly creatures. Australia has six of the top ten most deadly snakes in the world. Why I chose to spend time here, then, is anyone’s guess. New Zealand was a safer option for sure. But during my six weeks in Australia, I didn’t actually see a single snake. Phew. (And a little disappointment).

Crocodiles were another of Australia’s ‘one to avoid’ that I easily managed to avoid by just not going too far north. Not this time at least. But I’m one to face my fears, so maybe one day.

And bugs and beasties aside? There are some dangerous plants over Australia way too. Such as the stinging tree. Think massive stinging nettles. Don’t let their heart shaped leaves fool you because their hairy barbs can stick in for up to two months. And when in the rainforest, also steer clear of the long, mean Wait-a-While Vine whose harsh hooks…well… hook into you and stay stuck.

And what about that spider? ’It could have been a Huntsmen’, said my neighbour Daniella the following day. ‘It’s the small ones you want to worry about, but they prefer damp, leafy spots, not bedrooms’.

On that particularly night, anyone I might have gone to for advice was already in bed so I took matters into my own hands, turning my room upside down, shaking out absolutely everything and checking every inch of the room. But spidey had done a great hidey job. Enough was enough. I was tired. Crawl over my face if you must, spider, but just, god dammit, let me sleep.

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