Category Archives: natural wonders

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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Wordless Wednesday #22: Bicheno Blow Hole

Morning at the Bicheno Blowhole overlooking the ocean.

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August 13, 2014 · 7:33 AM

Sensing isolation on the fringe of the Australian outback

Queensland Roadtrip Day 9: Charters Towers - Isla Gorge National Park (892km)

Queensland Roadtrip Day 9: Charters Towers – Isla Gorge National Park (892km)

Two hours into our journey the radio cut out. I checked my phone for reception. Nope. I looked out for other vehicles. Nothing.

Vultures drew black circles in a bright blue sky as we drove along straight, wide roads, over bone dry creeks and past dirt tracks that may or may not have led off to tiny villages or hundred acre farm settlements. We were leaving behind the spindly, pitchy trees of the Blackwood National Park, heading towards a hillier backdrop in the far distance.

Nerrell – our 1984 Mazda 323 – had thus far served us well on our Queensland road trip, but as we drove further away from civilisation and on into flat, barren lands and big, big skies, we acknowledged our vulnerability. If we were to break down now, I wondered, how long would our water last? Our food supplies? How long before someone found our shrivelled remains? Before the vultures moved in and made dinner of our weakened bodies?

Up ahead, something loomed on the horizon, visible movements. Someone? Where was their car? Their truck? Why were they on the road? Were they in need? Were we about to play out a scene from a terrifying road trip movie where the person in need pulls a knife and cable ties and wipes his blade clean after leaving us to bleed to death?

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What’s that on the road?

We got closer. The shape didn’t move from the centre of the opposite lane. It was an eagle chomping on road kill, a bulky, black horror film bird who didn’t even acknowledge us spluttering past.

We weren’t to be the victims of this bright, bleak environment, thankfully.

Trees thinned out to expose open planes and squat shrubs, and still the road cut a red line through the green brown fringe of the outback. These were good roads, maintained roads along which only the odd road train thundered by, infinity trucks with bully noses, vehicles that wouldn’t – couldn’t – easily stop.

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On and on and on. Just us, it would seem.

On and on and on until finally the rising banks of a coal mine and the first turn off in nearly 400km. Don’t take it. Wrong turn would head us back up north somewhat, back to the coast, back to Mackay. Nope, we were heading south by the inland route.

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Back to industrialisation: Clermont coal mines

The midday sun beat down on the car but now the fuel tank was full and our water supplies replenished. We’d be okay. Breathe. Absorb this isolation, suck in hot air. Breathe. We chased mirages on new, unpainted stretches of tarmac before eventually arriving at the mown grain fields surrounding Emerald. We didn’t stop. Call us small minded, but tractors and trailers held little appeal, so on we pushed, back to empty landscapes.

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Late afternoon skyscapes

It was only after Rolleston that the scenery started to change significantly, shift from open expanses to windy up and down roads hugged by woodland lushness and grassy verges dotted with little purple flowers; leaves, petals and blades colour saturated in the late afternoon sun.

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Set up camp before sundown?

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Nope. Definitely not.

We pulled into Isla Gorge National Park campground some hours after nightfall. Once again, we were alone. This would be the last evening with my road trip crew, finishing as we started, just the three of us sitting around a camp fire, eating instant noodles, chatting the journey, sitting quietly looking up at the sparkling night sky through a gap in the tree canopy.

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One last wild camp

Still no phone reception, though. Ah, who cares? We were alright, just the three of us.  Out of the outback yet still covered by the same star blanket. Tired, safe, content.

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A great day at the Barrier Reef

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Back on the ocean!

It was never going to be a big day in terms of covering any great distance, but in others ways it was a big day. How could I go all the way to Far North Queensland without at least glimpsing the Great Barrier Reef, the ‘world’s largest coral reef system’, so big and impressive it can be seen from space? People travel to Australia especially to visit this Unesco Heritage Site, to snorkel and dive in tropical waters, to observe the corals and sealife, to drink in postcard appropriate scenery. Tropical, beaches, warmth? Try stopping me.

After a too-short sleep and a wake-up coffee with the stranger, L-man, D-man and me stuffed bags into the car, said goodbye to temporary housemates, and drove away from the farm to meet back up with other friends and seek out a Great Barrier Reef daytrip deal in Port Douglas.

The realistic option in terms of time and cost was a tour on the Wavedancer, a ‘luxury sailing catamaran’ which would take us out to the Low Isles for AU$161.

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Approaching the Low Isles

Within an hour of north east sailing we were mooring up in calm waters next to a teeny slither of palm trees and golden sand. It was the stereotype. Would the ocean deliver the same or had it already been too damaged? (Was I, I suddenly wondered, in fact contributing to further damage?)

The next few hours passed in a stinger suited blur of guided snorkelling and solo floating about. Occasionally I lifted my head to check I hadn’t drifted miles out to sea, never to be found again, but mostly I just bobbed around and explored and marvelled at underwater spaghetti.

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Round the island walk (all of maybe, oh, fifteen minutes)

It was pretty, undeniably, but like so often can happen, documentaries and coffee table books show it better, at its best. The colours weren’t quite as vivid as anticipated, the fish not quite as abundant. And, I can’t help but feel that the Low Isles experience was far less impressive than that of the Outer Isles.

But I’m not complaining. It was beautiful, the whole experience was beautiful, particularly when I imagined it was just me and a companion or two hanging out on this 4 acre coral cay. Whilst others might tell you that the onboard lunchtime smorgasboard was a highlight of the day, I’d probably say a giant clam did it for me.

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Free beach time massage for a buddy. Paradise, for sure.

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Kitted out, ready for action

Later that evening, camped up a little further down the coast near Palm Cove and sitting on fold-up chairs in a circle around a stove, I looked over at my friends and thought, ‘yeah, I love hanging out with you guys. What a day. Last minute decisions, sunshine, laughter, underwater play and explore, new sights, new sounds, boat time nodding off, after cruise oysters. The Great Barrier Reef. Yeah. And now chats about childhood and life and all that stuff. Good times. Great times’.

I’ll lift a plastic beaker with some left over wine to that.

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Queensland Roadtrip Day 7: Port Douglas – Palm Cove (43km)

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Total solar eclipse: the power of the universe puts things into perspective

I’ve been putting off writing this up for some time. Why? Because everything I put down on paper feels empty compared to the actual experience, because each moment and emotion described feels shallower than the reality, an indignity, an untruth.

Sunrise, clear skies

Sunrise, clear skies

Yet, I was one of those fortunate enough to witness the universe lock in to a moment of perfection and the experience touched me. Deeply.

During the days following the event I did little other than describe it as ‘amazing’, which is pretty nondescript, bland even. I couldn’t come up with anything better. My senses were pricked and I was filled with awe for the universe, and yet I was somewhat dumbed.

So what happened? Time to start finding my words.

Wrapping up the pre-eclipse party just as dawn breaks

Wrapping up the pre-eclipse party just as dawn breaks

At around 5.30AM on 14th November 2012 I made my way from base camp at the Eclipse 2012 festival up in Far North Queensland Australia, back past music stages where I’d recently bounced to Fat Freddy’s Drop and later stomped about to a DJ I can’t recall, stages that were now winding down. It was the first break from beats we would have in a whole week of celebrations. Respect the moment and the magic. Instead, birdsong was the gathering call.

Ravers, families and a man dressed in a mask and gown gathered on the hill by the Moon Stage as the sun rose, warming the dusty ground and the bones of people who had not stayed up to party, sleepy bodies re-awaking for this unique moment in time. Against a pinky orange sky, a little girl of maybe two snuggled into her father’s cuddle whilst the man in the mask started to sing out in monotone. He raised his face and stretched out his arms to the rising golden orb.

People start to make their way to the viewing spots

People start to make their way to the viewing spots

Sun worshipper

Sun worshipper

Crowds start to gather for the eclipse

Crowds start to gather for the eclipse

And then came the moon, crossing in front of the sun, starting at the top left, a creeping blackness.

The first quarter passed quickly but then time slowed down and the moon seemed to stick on a partial cover up. I took off my glasses and looked around at everyone else. Hoards of people, crowded up against makeshift fencing, creating silhouettes on the hillside. A raft of upturned faces standing, sitting, lying on a sea of festival dust, eyes protected by paper solar safe shades. Some people headed away from the crowds in search of a private observation spot.

By now all festival stages had hushed, completely, and other than quieting birdsong, an occasional charged ‘whoop’ or a monotone ‘ooooh’ from the sun god worshipper, the world started to silence.

Each minute that the moon moved closer to total cover-up brought with it a drop in temperature. I shivered and wrapped myself up in a jumper. I put my safety glasses back on and stood still with this collective of people who all seemingly had the same intention to watch this process unfold. Occasionally someone shuffled about but mostly people, having found places to perch,  were still, some having resigned themselves to the fact that they would probably not be sharing the eclipse experience with their closest buddies. Finding anyone in these crowds would be a considerable mission, one that might take away from actually taking in the event. No, sit still, let things unfold. Observe. (And be glad that you weren’t one of the ones that woke up mid-morning and wondered ‘Have I missed the eclipse?’).

It became dark. The moon was now firmly between us and the sun and the birds fell silent.

And then, in a flash of sunny brilliance, it all locked into place.  Light shone out of the sides, bright rays crowning a ball of the deepest black. We took our glasses off.  I started with my limited ‘amazing’ exclamations and listened to equally immature and breathy responses that only awe can generate. And lots of cheering. This wasn’t a film, hell no! How does life do this? How is our world so damn beautiful?

Lock in

Lock in

I felt comforted by this vivid reminder that there are far bigger things going on in our world, forces that we try to understand yet still contain mystery, patterns that can be predicted but only up to a point, beauty that generates a moment of wonder shared, appreciated by a humanity hotchpotch.

So much was going through my mind – my life events, choices and hopes – passing through in a moment of clarity and understanding. It all made sense: it didn’t really matter. And, yet somehow, in relation to everything else and everyone else, it did.

Lie back, watch the sun re-emerge, choose whether to join the post-eclipse party or finally go to bed

Lie back… watch the sun re-emerge… choose whether to join the post-eclipse party or retreat to camp and finally go to sleep

Just over two minutes later and the moment of magic was broken as the sun and moon moved out of alignment, and we were back to reality. The light and warmth returned, the birds started to sing once again and the doof doof of the party started afresh.

Days later I still carried the magic with me, and months later the memory can still evoke a stomach flip and an utterance of ‘amazing’. Because it truly was amazing. Even the dismissiveness of a self-proclaimed eclipse king has done little to dampen my wonder.

And so I may yet become an eclipse chaser. But, would I get that same sense of awe, that absolute natural high from repeating the experience in another setting? Would it not, like any repeat experience, lack the magic of the first time? I’m hesitant.

The next total solar eclipse takes place in 2015 and is visible from Iceland, Europe, North Africa and Northern Asia whereas if I’m still Oz-side, I’ll have to wait until 2028. Might I see you there?

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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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Journey into the strangest landscapes

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Approaching Los Tuneles

Despite first impressions of an inhospitable, aggressive and alien landscape, these dry, spiky islands were also strangely fragile and elegant, composed of narrow passageways, slim archways and slender pillars dipping into lightly rippled lagoons of clear, turquoise waters.

I was on a trip out to Los Tuneles and typically I had failed to do any research other than listening in on a couple of travellers debrief the outing. I knew, then, that it involved tunnels and snorkelling in waters with a selection of our sea life friends And I heard sharks were involved. I was both strangely drawn in and totally terrified.

So I set off with expectations of big, fat tunnels where we’d sail into the depth of darkness and take to the water, and splash and snorkel around in a flash-lit womb. I guess I was thinking about caves, or maybe I still had the tunnel experience at El Chato at the forefront of my mind.

Instead, we motored along south from Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela, Galapagos for forty minutes until we reached a splattering of mini lava islands. Nazca and blue footed-boobies sat king-of-the-castle on top of black, chunky rocks as we wound our way further into a thickening maze.

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Getting closer

The skipper manoeuvred through narrow passes and shallow spots, finally dropping anchor in a more sheltered lagoon. Here was a network of lava archways and strips that joined islands into a bigger formation. Cacti and a few piles of rockiness gave some height to this floating land.

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In amongst it

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Moored up in an alien landscape

‘Give me your camera’, said a French tourist. On our way out to Los Tuneles we’d picked him and his family up from a yacht moored a little off Isabela. ‘Come, I take a photo of you here’. I posed awkwardly and then went off on a little solo wander. It was crunchy underfoot and I nearly lost my grip. But no! If you’re going to fall, don’t grab out! There is nothing to hold on to apart from cacti.

I sat on the edge of an archway and looked into one of the lagoons. Here, the water was less rippled and the sun pierced right through to the bottom. A sea-lion swam along, hitting the surface and then diving down again. A turtle glided past, a little beneath the surface. Another woman joined me and shouted over to the others, but the show continued only for a little while longer.

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Sea lion taking a dip

Within fifteen minutes we clambered back on board our little boat. As we headed away from the main bulk of lava mass we passed by some penguins and pulled over for a closer look. It wasn’t long before they leapt into the sea. You humans are all the same! Such voyeurs! Can’t a penguin socialise without you guys hanging around like a bad smell?

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Pose? Nah, let’s get out of here

And what about the snorkelling? Ah, yeah. It turns out that the snorkelling was to come later and was totally separate to the tunnels or archways or whatever you want to call them. Someone mentioned something about swimming and snorkelling not being allowed in Los Tuneles anymore. What was I thinking? Silly me.

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I paid $60 for the tour through Tropical Adventures in Puerto Vilamil.  The tour included a trip out to Los Tuneles, a basic pack lunch and snorkeling in another spot in the afternoon.

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Tunnels, tortoises and being a teeny bit terrible

I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but it had the desired effect: even the coolest amongst them couldn’t resist a hint of a smile. And the restaurateur and taxi driver laughed along, despite undoubtedly having seen many stupid tourists smile and giggle at the same silly – and possibly inappropriate – antics.

I had managed to persuade three fellow travellers to join me on a little trip out to El Chato, a reserve a half hour taxi ride away from Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, one of the main Galapagos island stop-offs.

Not being the right season for this sort of mission, our driver had suggested we would be better off visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station, but determined to track tortoises in the wild we set off undeterred, and with the enthusiasm of explorers arriving to a new land, we clambered over tufty grasses and splintered off in search of our discovery.

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The adventurers set off

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Tramping through the undergrowth

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A little more familiar

One of the guys shouted over. ‘Here, here is one!’ Her four foot body hid in amongst tall grasses and she chomped away on stems, ripping off little clumps of organic feed. We gathered around and she got shy. For a moment she studied us through a crust of wrinkly skin and then retracted her head back into the safety of her hard-backed home. Enough.

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Oh rare creature! We found you!

To find evidence of this ancient creature in the wild? Incredible. It gave me a sense of how Charles Darwin may have felt, beneath his scientific façade, when he had a somewhat similar experience back in 1835:

As I was walking along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds: one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly walked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head. (from The Voyage of the Beagle p543)

After an hour of wandering in the wilderness we had found only two of our tortoise friends, their rarity and the need for their preservation firmly evident. The second tortoise was a whole lot less social and, much like in Darwin’s experience, a whole lot more vocal.

So we left them to do whatever it is that tortoises do whilst they saunter on for years and decades on end.

Somehow, in amongst the grasses and scrubland, we stumbled across the entrance to a cave. Dust covered steps and a wooden handrail lead us down into the darkness where two of the group assumed the role of torch bearers and flickered their lights around. Our eyes adjusted to take in a curious cave over a kilometre in length full of pillars and archways and curvy, spiky edged formations.

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The tree that marked the cave entrance

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Into the darkness

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It starts

Strung-up bulbs hinted at the potential to brighten up narrow pathways and tight spaces that opened up into high-ceiling hallways, but we couldn’t find a switch. Anywhere. So on we went with considered, ill-lit steps, until we saw a chasm of light and a way back up and out.

The exit, we realised, was directly behind the empty restaurant that we’d started out from. When we told of our dark, daring tunnel adventure, the woman started to laugh. ‘I forgot to put on the lights!’ she said. Ah well. It added to the atmosphere, I guess.

So, back to the start and my clowning antics. As the only customers that the restaurateur would probably see all day, it was only courteous to stay for a drink. The driver chatted and laughed with her whilst we refreshed with a cold drink and lounged in the hammocks for a few moments of island laziness, during which time I spotted a ginormous tortoise shell.

In all fairness, it was hard to ignore, sitting there in the middle of a tiled floor. Without its inhabitant, it lost some of its loveliness. On closer inspection I found the shell to be exceedingly tough. Unlike Darwin who gave the actual creature a bit of a rough rapping and tapping, I hadn’t bothered to disturb the living tortoises that I’d come across earlier in the day. But this deserted shell?  Oh, what the hell! Get inside the skin of the locals, live as they do? Oh, yeah. It was a tight fit.

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At least they’re smiling in the background

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This post is dedicated to Lonesome George, ‘a giant tortoise believed to be the last of its subspecies’, a rare creature from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador who died aged 100 in June 2012. R.I.P. Good effort, mate.

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Conversational confidence (and a splash of Spanglish)

I am on a flight to the island of Santa Cruz on the Galapagos archipelago, and somehow I’ve landed a seat wedged in amongst a lively group of school kids at the back of the plane. Their teacher throws me an apologetic smile before returning to her itinerary in an earnest attempt to ignore flying objects and playful punches. And in amongst the excitement and chaos and chatter I can’t help but smile to myself. Why? Because I can understand a good chunk of what these hyperites are saying. (Oh, and the fact that I am winging my way to one of the world’s most awesome places for nature and wildlife. It’s definitely another good reason for my optimistic mood).

The desire to speak and understand Spanish had been a big decider in my choice to travel in South America. Back in September 2011 I landed in Ecuador and gave Spanish a good go, but realistically it was a half-hearted effort that all too often resulted in a Spanglish language mish-mash coloured with a splash of German and Dutch and Hebrew.

I got by, don’t get me wrong, but during this second trip to South America I wanted to immerse myself further in the language and culture of the place and not the language and culture of my fellow travellers (as interesting as it might be).

After my visit to Brazil (with its added confusion of Brazilian Portuguese), I had decided to head back into Spanish-speaking South America, roughing it out for over twenty-eight hours on two buses through Paraguay into Bolivia.

It had been over three months since I’d spoken Spanish yet once I arrived into Asunción in Paraguay I was easily able to sort out tickets and taxis and day stays in a hostel whilst the two English girls in tow stood tongue-tied.

I could suddenly speak Spanish! It came flooding back to me with renewed energy and confidence. Could I really have improved? People understood me! Oh happy day!

Because being able to speak the language, I’ve found, enables one to connect better with locals, to feel closer to a country, to understand its nuances a little better.

For example during the day-long bus journey into Bolivia, I chatted away with the guy who had taken my window seat. I found out he was Colombian with four kids aged between four and twenty-six. Through body language and Spanish we talked on and off for hours about religion and family and everything in between.

In Pucara I found myself eating lunch with a family from Santa Cruz discussing Bolivian and European politics and economies. I understood pretty much everything. Sure, their language was probably dumbed down in order to give me a chance, and of course I couldn’t babble away in too much detail and depth, but it was a conversation nonetheless. In Spanish!

When I returned to Ecuador in April 2012, I taxied to a hostel in Guyaquil. ‘Your Spanish is good’, noted the driver. We chatted away. And once at the hostel I went through the whole check-in question and answer process in easy Spanish. ‘Your Spanish is good’, they complimented. I glowed. It was a day for ego-boosts.

But, for the amount of time I’ve spent in South America I really should be a lot better. I didn’t do daily homework like the good girl I wanted to be. I hung out with other travellers and spoke English far more than I ever intended.

And I got over my shyness and embarked on conversations a lot too late.

But shoulda-woulda-coulda. I partially achieved my South America goal to have a conversation in Spanish. So long as it’s not too in-depth, tick. I can get by.

Not that I’ll stop now, oh no.

So here I am, on my way to Galapagos with only a week or so to go before I leave South America once again, and I’m starting to think of ways to keep my language dreams alive. Anyone want to be my Spanish speaking buddy when I’m back in Australia? Weekly food and chatter at mine, no English allowed. Bon appetit. Oh no. I mean buen provercho. Si.

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Alright, geyser

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Am I still on Earth?

The smell hits me, slaps me around the face. I’m in any case feeling queasy from high altitudes and now I’m back out of the jeep, wandering around gurgling mud pools at over 5,000m.

I’m in Bolivia and it’s Day 2 of my Uyuni tour where I’ve been cruising around in a jeep with five guys, a guide and a driver. There’s a second car in the group containing a far politer and better behaved bunch. Two blonde German girls and a minx of a Brit brunette are part of that mix and the boys in my car lightly tease each other about who has taken a fancy to whom.

On this tour we’ve already visited the train graveyard, we’ve let our imaginations run wild on the salt flats and we’ve spent our first night in a primitive and cold (yet mostly comfortable) hostel in Villa Mar.

And now, here, we’re drifting dreamily in a pitted landscape of strangeness and smells, sulphery smells that compete with my early impressions of Rotorua in New Zealand. Maybe they’re even stronger. I feel a bit dizzy and sick.

It’s a matter of timing my run along ledges between geysers spurting boiling sludge. They don’t shoot as high as I expect, but I’ll take my guide’s advice on the temperature. Third degree burns? Nah, it’s not something I want to add to my ailment list.

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Beautifully bizarre and alien

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Geysers and geezers

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Gurgling, popping, cooking

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Hubble bubble and wait for the spurt

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