Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sea Turtles and School Teachers: Bundaberg, part 1

One of my favorite things about train travel is the act of simultaneously typing on my netbook and looking out the window. Because I am an accomplished typist, this is a lovely possibility. There might be an occasional typo to go back and correct. But really my fingers can do the thinking. They gamely record my thoughts while my eyes enjoy the landscape outside the train, which in many cases is some of my favorite landscape, snatches of the life lived in tis village or on that farm, fleeting and intriguing.

The ride from Brisbane to Bundaberg was no different. I drowsed, exhausted from my long night, and watched a young girl waving at the train from her family's dinner outside in their yard; glimpsed an old freight car in a backyard; saw cows and horses cantering, rolling, and sleeping over endless, empty green hills. Taking a train through Australia makes it's hard to believe in the world's overpopulation problems.

My Bundaberg host, Pat, met me at the train station. He was an interesting character and had worked all sorts of jobs, from commercial fishing to dishwashing to hunting for feral pigs. He lives in what is called a "caravan park" in Australia, what Americans know as a trailer park but minus most of the social stigma. Ths caravan park was called Elliott Heads, and it marked the first time I'd ever stayed in a trailer. Well, technically I slept in the Annex, a tent contraption attached to the caravan. There were showers and toilets in a building nearby.

Elliott Heads Beach

The weather was finnicky, and it changed abruptly to rain from bright sunshine as Pat and I had dinner outside the comfortable, tiny Elliott Heads general store. We had just enough time to finish before making our way toward the reason I had come here, so far off the East Coast tourist track: sea turtles.

Mon Repos, 15 km outside Bundaberg, is one of the best known sea turtle preserves in the world. I had gotten the idea to come here from a book I read in Sydney that belonged to James (remember him, my Sydney host?) The book included travel ideas for every day of the year, and when I read that it was possible to see both laying mothers and hatchlings during January and then confirmed that Bundaberg was very much on my way up the coast I was convinced.

The night was long. We showed up, as instructed, at 6:30 PM to register. As we had only made reservations the day before, we were placed in the last group, meaning we would be the last to get called if the staff patrolling the beach discovered hatchlings or a mother coming to lay her eggs. There were a few educational films to watch about turtles and a little museum to browse through, but those small entertainments quickly dwindled. At 10:30 PM Pat repaired to his truck to get some sleep, as he had his first day of teaching the next day (I felt terrible, but he had assured me it wouldn't be a problem.) After he left I sat, restless and frustrated. I missed the comfort of Brisbane; I was bored and still exhausted. All in all I waited 4.5 hours, sometimes making small talk with the dwindling group (some people gave up and went home) and other times just quietly stewing. More than 15 years before I had been in a similar situation in Costa Rica with my parents; we had sat on a star-filled beach for hours waiting for sea turtles that never came. It was a very cool night, regardless, but my young self had been deeply disappointed, and this situation wasn't shaping up to be any different.

Finally, just after midnight, our group was called. The rangers apologized; Nothing is happening tonight, they said. They hadn't seen a single nest or hatchling, so they'd been taking the groups out to watch nest processing for nests from other nights, where a ranger counts numbers of hatched eggs. I felt furious and disappointed, slogging through the sand for no reason at midnight, but then--

Our guide stopped short. "Don't move," she said in a hushed voice. "I thought that was a boulder, but there isn't a boulder on this part of the beach."

I leaned into the blackness in front of me and, as she approached, could just make out a female sea turtle the size of a laundry basket working slowly up the beach. She was beautiful; I didn't know why, but the sight of her slow path toward the dunes brought tears to my eyes (and I don't cry easily.) We, the last, forgotten group of the night, were lucky: this female couldn't decide whether she wanted to lay, so we were allowed to see her more fully as the ranger used a flashlight to help her find her way up past the high tide mark to the dunes. Again and again she turned back to the ocean, in her slow but stately way, and finally the ranger gave up. Then and only then were we allowed to use cameras. Turtles are very sensitive to light, so they are usually prohibited to keep the turtles from leaving their laying point too early.

The ambivalent mother

All of that alone would have been enough to make the night magical, but there was more to come. We went to watch the ranger process the nest we had been on our way to see, and as he went through the empty egg shells, he found three live hatchlings that had been left behind! They were teeny and incredibly cute. We were allowed to touch them and take pictures of them, and when that was finished we helped them find their way to the dark ocean. We led them down the gently sloping sand with a flashlight, watching as they struggled over pebbles, seaweed, and the guide's feet toward the water. Apparently, picking up young turtles and bringing them to the ocean yourself does more harm than good, because during that trip they orient themselves to the magnetic impulses of the earth, impulses which will bring them back to the same beach to lay eggs/breed (if they are the one individual out of a huge number to survive.)

On the walk back the former rain had cleared, and the stars were incredible. Incandescent is the word I'd like to use.

Unfortunately, despite all that, my time at the beach was tainted. Pat had been texting me from his car for at least half an hour. It's 1 am, where are you? he asked. He had to get up for work, he wrote. He needed to sleep. It was so late, and I felt terrible. But I wasn't allowed to leave the beach without the rangers.

Hatched eggs


Pat left early for school, and I slept in, creeping into the caravan when it got too hot and sleeping the last half of morning wedged under the "kitchen" table. I spent the afternoon chatting with two Aussies next door and floating in the water at Elliott Heads Beach. When I walked back, however, I found that the situation was more complicated than I had thought.

To start out, I found that to get to Airlie Beach (my next destination) on Greyhound that night would cost twice the price of a train, but there was no train until the next night for reasons that did not become clear until later. Then my cell phone ran out of minutes; when I tried to use Pat's, his did the same. By the time I found a phone to use, the Greyhound office had closed and Pat had started to stress out, as well. Although he had said previously that my presence would be no problem, he felt very behind on work and exhausted from the previous night. He clearly wanted me out.

I didn't know what to do. I had nowhere to stay and no way to get to Airlie until the next day; Pat encouraged me to try to get a seat on the Greyhound bus that night at 2 AM, but I certainly wasn't up for staying on a bus bench if it didn't work out. Finally, barely keeping a lid on my anxiety, I agreed to stay in a hostel and take the train the next day. After having trouble finding the correct hostel, I ended up at a no-frills down-at-the-heels place that was particularly unwelcoming, but I sucked it up and reminded myself that it was only 24 hours. Once I settled into the hostel, I wandered down to the attached bar and had a Bundaberg rum and cola-- Bundaberg rum is incredibly popular in Australia, and it felt like a fitting thing to do and a good way to celebrate what was hopefully the resolution of an ordeal.

A few hours later, I sat in my sweaty bun, with three German girls asleep around me. Maybe I'll go to the zoo tomorrow, I thought. I woke just as sweaty, remembering with a groan that I was in a nasty hostel and that I had lost my one pair of shorts at Elliott Heads. But the day had better things in store.

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