Happy Australia Day!

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Heron Island, the Great Barrier Reef

It’s Australia Day, a day much like our Columbus Day, part celebration/part protest, depending on whether your family lived there before or after the British arrived on January 26, 1788. Personally, I arrived there on February 28, 2014, part of an epic month long South Pacific adventure with my husband Karl, the ear biting Heidi and her husband Rockey. We had just spent 2 weeks driving all over New Zealand and that road trip had pretty much molded us into one fluid entity, ready for anything. Well, maybe anything except Australia.

We should have known right away it was going to be intense as our hotel in Brisbane caught on fire the first night we were there and the climb down 66 flights of stairs left Karl both in need of medical attention and also unable to walk for three days (someone might need to spend more time stretching his hamstrings). From there we went to Fraser Island, where we spent three incredible, and incredibly strange, days on this largest sand island in the world, complete with inland lakes and a spectacular rain forest where you can literally see kookaburras sitting in the trees.

It isn’t for the faint of heart though. To get there you have to drive to the edge of a deserted beach and then just wait in hopes that a barge will appear to ferry you across (it did). Then you have to drive like hell for miles down a deserted beach so you can get to high ground before the tide cuts off the pass (we made it). And you better have a high clearance 4 wheel drive car or you won’t. Most visitors to the island just do day trips, unwilling to take all this on, but not us, we decided to stay for three days, on a completely deserted outpost of cottages. Just us, the caretakers, the wild dingos and the tarantulas. It was here that we learned how Australians survive.

They carry sticks. Are the wild dingos getting too friendly with you on the beach, use your stick. Did you just look up and realize that there is a softball size tarantula on the ceiling right above your head. Use your stick. Well, first you have to stop me from having a panic induced seizure but then, use your stick. In this case, get a bigger stick because the first one isn’t big enough. It was truly wild. But as wild as it was it didn’t compare to Heron Island, which will be referred to as “Bird Poop Island” for the remainder of this blog.

We had gone to Bird Poop Island, one of the few islands on the Great Barrier Reef where you can sleep overnight, in hopes of snorkeling. Unfortunately the wind was too strong and we couldn’t get out on the boat. The only one happy about that was Rockey, who almost drowned snorkeling with us in Grand Cayman a few years ago. While I was prepared to tether myself to Rockey and save him all over again if it meant we could snorkel, it was not to be. There was nothing to do but hang out on the island, which sounds like a lot of fun, at least in theory.

We really didn’t know much about this island, or the birds on it, as we were focused on the snorkeling when we planned the trip. All we knew about it was that it was a tiny island way out in the Pacific. It really was tiny. If you walk around the circumference it is about a mile trip and takes about 20 minutes. So we were right about what we knew but that wasn’t saying much and it left us ill prepared for Bird Poop Island.

When we got there we probably should have notice something was off as Heidi and I both noted that the people waiting for the boat back had a particular look of desperation about them. And when I say desperate, I mean desperate. No one was smiling or talking. It was an entire crowd of panicked people with clenched jaws. The second thing we noticed straightaway was the birds. And I mean ALL the birds. At first I was thrilled. I LOVE birds! Anyone who knows me will tell you I am a slightly (?) obsessed bird watcher and initially I was mesmerized, as the sky was absolutely awash in birds. Think of the scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds and then multiply by a factor of 10 and expand the scene to a giant panorama. Turns out, Bird Poop Island has a breeding colony of Black noddies, and there were roughly 25,000 of them on the tiny island with us, a situation which quickly turned mesmerization into bird induced mania.

To say the noddies were everywhere would be an understatement. When you walked anywhere on the island except at the waters edge, they swooped, flew and dipped all around you. You could literally reach out at any point and touch at least one flying by. More often there were 2, 3 or half a dozen within arms reach. Plus the walkways ran through the trees that they were nesting in so it was like being under a canopy of birds and nests wherever you went. They are loud gulls so the noise was deafening and the smell?? Hmm….. What to say about the smell?

Perhaps I should share some information I learned on the guided bird walk (yes, of course, I took the bird walk! Karl came too although Heidi tried to poke me in the eye when I suggested she should come with me because, seriously, the birding situation had already grown a little too intense.) Anyway, when the noddies mate, the female picks a spot for the nest and the male brings her leaves from the trees which she then builds into a nest by gluing them together with her own excrement. Yes, that is what I said. So, in effect, being prodigious poopers is critical to the survival of the species. And they are thriving. The smell is beyond description. And, of course, all the nests that you walk under are dripping in bird poop and, of course, all the birds that flock you constantly are also pooping all over everything. Yes, we all got hit, repeatedly. I simply threw out an entire outfit.

Needless to say, after 4 hours on the island we had retreated to the bar and were watching the sunset (beautiful). We were also amazed that immediately after the sun dipped below the horizon the noddies stopped shrieking. It was like you threw an off switch. They all settled in and started cooing, a nice change. After we got to the island, people told us that the birds shrieked all night and sleep would be impossible so we were so relieved to find they had stopped! Little did we know that the people weren’t talking about the noddies, they were talking about the split tailed sheerwaters, another breeding colony on the island. They fish in the water all day and then arrived back on the island at 2:00am, at which point they get really loud. Anyone who has heard the sheerwaters describes their call as the plaintive wail of a baby crying. This is highly accurate but as there were hundreds of them, it was really the plaintive cries of 100s of babies wailing at the same time. Seriously. Not exaggerating. They continued for 4 hours, at which point we had 3 minutes of quiet before the noddies started again.

The situation was made more comical by our “resort” accommodations. Having spent weeks in New Zealand already we were used to cozy lodgings (by which I mean sleeping practically on top of each other and sharing a bathroom that always managed to be at the head of our bed. To this day, I can tell you who is peeing just by listening. Seriously, it is like a fingerprint). Our lodgings on Bird Poop Island were no exception.  We were in a “2 bedroom” cottage by which I mean a small room with a rice paper screen that you pulled across to separate one bed from the 2 small couches that someone was suppose to sleep on (thank you Heidi and Rockey.) Unfortunately, our screen didn’t work and just to add to the togetherness factor, they had hung a giant floor to ceiling mirror at the exact spot where the room intersected. So no matter where you were in the room you could see everything and everybody else and from your bed, you could watch everyone else sleep.

And, in spite of the sheerwaters, most of us did manage to sleep a little. Except Karl, who wants you to know that at one point he had to endure not only the wailing birds but also the simultaneous snores of all three of his roommates. He was furious and incredulous that the rest of us had managed to fall asleep, even briefly. And what he really wanted to do was to pummel all of us.

Fortunately for us, he’d forgotten how to survive in Australia. He’d forgotten to bring his stick.

 

 

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