Posts Tagged ‘conservation

20
Oct
17

Road Trippin’ Down Under: Cowabunga Kalamunda

Morning came much too early for me on Tuesday. Having slept far less than the Jarhead had over the last several days I gratefully would have slept for several hours after he had gotten out of bed. And while I haven’t sat down to do the math, I suspect I could have slept until noon and not even come close to tying—much less breaking—his record for the total number of hours spent sleeping by an American in Australia. Still, I would have given it a shot if Mr. Sunshine hadn’t opened the blinds and turned on the news after hopping out of the shower and brewing up a mini pot of coffee.

That option discarded, I dragged myself out of bed and left him to plan our day once again. He hadn’t done a bad job the day before, after all, and I didn’t have the brainpower to contribute to a discussion even if we had tried to have one at that point. That plus the fact that I’m in charge of nearly every aspect of life back in North America made it easy for me to let him be the boss Down Under.

Once I had showered my energy level out of the negative numbers and caffeine-d my way into the positives, I offered to let him be in charge for the rest of our stay, and every time we visit Australia in the future. He liked that idea so much—as evidenced by the fact that he nodded absently without looking up from the map—that I then suggested that we divvy up the various potential travel destinations in advance so we will know who will be responsible for organizing the itineraries and activities for all our future vacations. He paid as much attention to that as my previous suggestion, which is why he also gets to plan any vacation we take to Europe, Asia, Africa or South America, and I’m responsible for planning all our trips to Antarctica.

I know. How magnanimous of me, right?

That decided, we packed up and headed over to Salted Board. We had been there so many times by that point that I wondered briefly if we should go somewhere else for once. We didn’t want Chrissy to think we were crazy stalkers, after all, and it probably wouldn’t have hurt us to try something new. But then again, why risk it? So, another delicious breakfast later, we were on our way to Kalamunda National Park.

I’ll say this for the Aussies: they take their parks, wildlife, and conservation in general very seriously. And yet, in typical Aussie fashion, they seem to take them seriously without seeming to take them seriously. It seems almost assumed—a given—if you will, that the environment is a priority, and that the people who live on Earth are its stewards. Unlike in the US where you have some very passionate people striving to understand, appreciate, and protect the environment from those who want to rape, pillage, plunder and profit from it (while the rest of us are left wondering what to do and whether it will even matter so we almost nothing) in Australia conservation appears to be a way of life. Full stop. No drama. No debate. Just effing do it.

And the evidence was everywhere—at least in Western Australia. From the signs guiding you (if not literally inviting you) to all the local natural attractions, to the ubiquitous and well-maintained trash bins that were almost too clean and attractive to be trash bins, to the utter lack of litter or neglect anywhere, the place was seriously pristine.

And yet, as tidy as everything looked, it never seemed deliberate, groomed, or staged. There were no mower lines on the grass, or anything to indicate that the trees and other greenery had been purposefully planted, preened, or perfected.

One might be tempted to conclude that this was evidence of a lack of visitors, but this was clearly not the case. In literally every park, preserve, beach and boardwalk we visited there were people walking, hiking, biking, picnicking, backpacking, and snacking. And yet, there was no trash. Anywhere. No wayward candy wrappers. No discarded bottles, cans, or plastic bags.

Nor was anything broken or missing. In the restrooms, all the stalls were clean, and everything in them—including the door locks and latches—were fully functional. The trash bins were never overflowing and there was always tissue in the dispensers. It was like a neat freak’s version of paradise. Or Oceania’s version of Canada.

Which was mostly awesome but also a bit disconcerting in a Wrinkle in Time meets Stepford Wives meets Supernatural kind of way. Because we never saw even one groundskeeper, nor any grounds-keeping equipment. And yet we KNEW they had to have groundskeepers, who in turn had to have equipment. Somebody is emptying the trash cans and filling the tissue dispensers, after all, and even the most conscientious traveler drops a tissue now and then. And I doubt very much that the visitors are cleaning up after themselves—even the Canadians.

Which made me wonder if perhaps the Department of Parks and Wildlife was deploying nature ninjas to swoop in and sweep up when no one is looking. Or maybe they show up after dark decked out in optoelectronic devices to mow the lawns and collect the trash by starlight. The more likely explanation, I suppose, is that the park employees get up a little bit earlier than the average bear, and take care of business while the rest of us are having coffee. But doesn’t that sound boring? (More likely, yes. But definitely less interesting.)

Anyway, although we’d been in the car for over thirty minutes, our excursion officially began when we arrived at the Perth Hills Visitor Centre and Zig Zag Cultural Centre in the town of Kalamunda. Located between the Kalamunda History Village and the Kalamunda library (in what their website proudly calls the ‘Kalamunda Cultural Precinct’) the center offers a wealth of information relating to the historical, cultural, and recreational options to be found in and around Kalamunda and Kalamunda National Park.

After studying the map and our hiking options, we got back in the car and headed for the hills. Okay, one hill. Gooseberry Hill Recreation Reserve to be perfectly honest. Here we would find a trail that would suit not only our age and fitness level, but also our footwear. Turns out some of the trails are a bit jagged and loose, and since we weren’t properly equipped for anything too treacherous we had to settle for one of the easier routes.

By the time we parked the car at the entrance to the reserve (which, oddly enough, was at the terminus of Hill Street right smack in the suburbs of Perth) I was pretty fired up. I had brought my walking poles and brand-new hiking boots, and my almost brand-new knees. I had plenty of water, eyewear, and sun protection, and although we weren’t exactly about to hike the Aussie equivalent of Appalachian Trail, I was fully psyched. I had survived the hike the day before without encountering one snake, spider, or crocodile, so I knew it could be done. I was feeling bold. Brave. Confident. I was going to hike that trail and I was going to crush it!

And then I got out of the car.

Instantly, I heard it: the sound of bees buzzing all around me. And I mean literally ALL around me. You couldn’t see even one single bee. But you could hear them—thousands of them.

To be honest, I’m not allergic to bees. And I’m not really afraid of bees as much as I am terrified of them. No lie. As a kid, the sound of a bee (or wasp or hornet or anything resembling a bee—including but not limited to dragonflies, horseflies, and houseflies) would leave me quivering in terror. Outwardly, I would either freeze and nearly wet my pants, or run around in nonconcentric circles with my arms, legs, and head flailing in all directions like I was having a seizure, while internally screaming and hyperventilating at the same time.

Like other disabilities, this crippling fear made outdoor activities a bit more challenging for me, but thanks to my dad and his abject lack of patience and sympathy, I managed to overcome it. Mostly. I no longer freeze or have a seizure when a bee buzzes by me in the garden or my phone vibrates on the table. Inside I still scream a little and sometimes need to be reminded to breathe, but I don’t have a full-blown panic attack. Usually.

But there at the entrance to the preserve, I admit I had a mild relapse. The buzzing was so loud, and it seemed to grow louder with every passing second. It was like some of the bees had noticed my arrival, and word was spreading among the other bees that I was there. And they were all plotting how they would attack, and in what order, at what speed, and in which formation.

Standing there, just steps away from the edge of a suburban cul-de-sac with my new Keens and fancy hiking poles, I felt like a dog faced with the choice of staying with the kid who found me when I was lost and the kid I knew and loved until fate separated us. Do I conquer my fears and crush that trail full of bees, or do I go back to the car a failure, foiled by her apiphobia?

It didn’t help that I had just read an article that said tourists are more likely to die from a bee sting in Australia than from a spider bite or snakebite. Because bees are more numerous and less afraid of people than snakes and spiders, tourists are more likely to encounter a bee than they are a snake or a spider, and because tourists typically haven’t been exposed to Australian bees, they are more sensitive to their venom than native Australians are. Fan-tabulous.

Knowing that the Jarhead would not take that hike without me, it came down to this: would I rather make his day and die by a thousand bee stings or would I rather ruin his day and live to tell the tale? The more I thought about it, the harder the decision got. Especially since the Jarhead was not standing next to me awaiting the outcome of my internal struggle. Instead, he was striding eagerly toward the entrance to the trail. With or without me. In other words, my choice wasn’t whether to hike and die or leave and live; it was to either hike and die with him, or sit in the car and die alone.

How’s that for a plot twist?

Well I wasn’t about to sit in the car waiting for the Jarhead to come back from a bushwalk, I’ll tell you that much. It could take hours for me to find someone to drive me back to the hotel if he didn’t come back, and years to find someone who likes my cooking enough to put up with my crap. Nuts to that.

So, bees or no bees, I was staying with the Jarhead.

Which is fortunate, because just a few yards down the trail—as the Jarhead was checking the treetops for koalas and I was distracting myself from the bees by scanning the ground for the shier, less dangerous snakes—I looked up momentarily and came nearly face to face with two kangaroos. They were both adults this time and instead of lounging around in the shade ignoring us, they were both standing upright looking directly at me. Not wanting to alarm them or the Jarhead, I stayed perfectly still and whispered out of the side of my mouth. “Psst! Kangaroos at your four o’clock.” Slowly, he lowered his head and turned to his right. “Oh, wow,” he whispered back. They’re pretty close.”

They were definitely close, but they were also behind a fairly tall and sturdy fence. Still, we didn’t want to spook them, so I left my phone in my back pocket and let the Jarhead take all the pictures and a few short videos. Which is why I don’t have any evidence of this encounter to offer you today. It’s all on one of his many SD cards, which got all mixed together during our recent move. But if and when we find them, I’ll be sure to share them.

Meanwhile, content yourself with the knowledge that we both survived the hike through the reserve and went on to enjoy a walk on the beach and a nice leisurely dinner back at the hotel.

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Another day down and only one more to go. I was already beginning to miss Australia.

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09
Oct
15

Road Trippin’ 2015: Circuitous Logic

The road between the Denali turnoff and Fairbanks is remarkable in that it is entirely unremarkable from a topographical perspective. With its winding rivers, grassy marshlands, random forests, and scrubby brush land, the area looks pretty much like northern Minnesota or Wisconsin. In fact, were it not for all the fireweed and the unfamiliar town names and road numbers gracing the signs along the way, the route we took to Fairbanks could have passed for any number of highways connecting the northern part of any Midwestern state to its nether regions. Still, it was uncharted territory for the two of us, and we were thrilled to have the chance to see it up close—even if it looked a lot like home.

Although the topography was relatively familiar to our eyes, other aspects of the geography were not. In fact, now and then it would feel as though we’d entered a land that time forgot—like when we would run across a house featuring four different types of siding or a tri-color roof that looked more like a shed or a kid’s fort than a dwelling. In any other setting, such a sight might suggest poverty or malfeasance. But out here, where resources are scarce, a house of many hues is not so much a reflection of one’s income or iniquity as evidence of one’s ability to improvise, overcome and adapt. Many in the so-called civilized world like to talk about the environment and conservation, but the folks who live in the sticks of Alaska take the concept of reduce, reuse, and recycle to a whole new level. Whether they do so by choice or by necessity, one has to admire their ingenuity.

Contrary to what some might believe, I did not spend the bulk of the drive waxing poetic about the virtues and vitality of the inhabitants of Alaska’s interior. If I had, no doubt the Jarhead would have set aside his distaste for talking to strangers and stopped off somewhere to borrow a strip or two of duct tape. But since he was napping (ostensibly) most of the way and thus would not have heard me anyway (or would have pretended not to) I kept such thoughts to myself.

There were times, of course—especially when we would go miles and miles without seeing another car—that I wondered if we were making a huge mistake in venturing out on our own without an atlas or a firearm. But whenever such a thought would occur to me I would remind myself that the people who live in the interior do so for a reason, and therefore are less interested in us than my ego would have you believe. Not to mention the fact that the folks who are up to no good are likely to be packing more firepower than whatever we could have brought along for protection.

And so instead of contemplating who might be looking to murder me (and when, where, and how) I considered what I had learned about Alaska so far on this trip that was unlikely to be found in your average textbook or on even the most thorough of travel websites. One thing that came to mind was the subtle rivalry that apparently exists between Alaska and Texas, as evidenced by all the items bearing the phrase “Let’s cut Alaska in half and make Texas the THIRD largest state” or some variation thereof. With both states being famous for their size and their oil, I suppose it’s only natural that they would compete with one another, but I found it odd that two places that are so different—and so far apart—would even bother.

Being more accustomed to regional rivalries, such as exist between Minnesota and Wisconsin, I would have expected to see merchandise with trash talk directed at Canada, perhaps, or at least the Yukon. Consequently, a rivalry between Alaska and Texas made about as much sense to me as would a rivalry between beef jerky and Laffy Taffy.

A more fitting rivalry for Alaska, in my view anyway, would be Minnesota. Both states are known for their harsh winters and hardy residents, after all, and until Alaska came along and stole its thunder, Minnesota was home to both the northernmost point in the United States and—according to my friends at Wikipedia—more square acres of wetlands than any state in the nation. In addition, both are populated by hunting, fishing, hockey, and snow machining enthusiasts, and both attract their share of tourists. And still, despite all these ingredients of a rousing rhetorical grudge match, I have yet to see even a one tee shirt or coffee mug in either state speaking mockingly of the other.

Then again, having been to the Lone Star State three times without seeing any evidence of an adversarial relationship between it and the Land of the Midnight Sun, I’m inclined to think Alaska’s war with Texas might be a one-sided argument. Either that, or Texas handles its enemies the way I do mine: by pretending they don’t exist.

Near the end of the day’s drive, I learned something else about Alaska: The suburbs there look pretty much the same as the suburbs in every other state. In fact, if I hadn’t been awake for the entire drive—if instead I’d been chloroformed, thrown in the trunk, driven around for several hours and somehow managed to escape the vehicle while my captors stopped for coffee or to use the restroom—you could have told me we were in Burnsville, Green Bay, Fredericksburg, or even Philadelphia and I totally would have bought it. At least until I noticed the road signs. And maybe a license plate or two. But up to that point, surrounded by buildings bearing the names of nearly every single restaurant, clothing store, and home improvement center to be found orbiting every city in the lower forty-eight, you would have had a hard time convincing me we were in Alaska.

As they saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” With that in mind, we pulled into the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn, tossed our bags into a room that looked exactly like every other room in every other Hilton Garden Inn in every other city and, after a brief stop at Walgreens, set out to find a place to eat whose sign did not end in bee’s, back, or bucks. This was a bigger challenge than one might guess since, those that weren’t part of a chain often looked a bit like the houses I mentioned a few paragraphs ago.

Eventually, though, we found a place called Brewster’s where we enjoyed “Great Food, Great Alaskan Spirits” just as their slogan promised. Specifically, we enjoyed their simply-named, signature appetizer, Steak Bits, which are tiny chunks of steak simmered in a sort of savory broth and served with garlic toast. And when I say enjoyed, I mean it. It was the most delicious and different treat we’d sampled in a long time. And the rest of the meal was no slouch either. To top it all off, our server apparently recognized the Jarhead’s military bearing and, without prompting, offered us a military discount. It was all almost too good to be true. And yet, it was.

The next morning we set off for the Arctic Circle, which, according to LaVon’s map, was just a few miles off the highway between Fairbanks and North Pole. Although we didn’t expect to be greeted with the kind of fanfare one might receive upon completing a marathon or winning a Grammy, we were at least hoping to take a photo and earn some bragging rights.

Two hours and countless miles later, however, the road terminated at a resort at Chena Hot Springs. Having seen nothing in the way of a sign or symbol referencing the Arctic Circle along the way, we were more than a little bit confused. Had we misread the map or simply missed a turn? Had LaVon’s memory failed her when she was drawing the map that morning? Or could the phrase “a few miles” means something different to one former Minnesotan than it did to others?

Sadly, there had been no one to ask about the location of the Arctic Circle as we made our way to Chena Hot Springs, and once we got to the point where the road terminated it seemed a moot point. So, after giving Oscar-worthy portrayals of a couple of paying customers while strolling around the resort in search of a restroom, we turned the rental around and headed back to toward the highway.

We never did find the Arctic Circle, but we did make it back to Fairbanks and on to Glennallen via North Pole and Delta Junction. Along the way, we stopped off at several state parks and scenic overlooks to admire all the rivers and other natural wonders to be found along the way—including two moose, one moose calf, scores of bison and one semi-suicidal elk. At one stop we found and photographed no less than a dozen types of mushrooms—more than I had ever seen in one place other than a field guide. Despite our futile attempt to find the Arctic Circle, it was a great day.

By the time we landed in our room—having stopped at the first place we found with a vacancy—we were more than ready for bed. Which is good because we had few other options. Having arrived at 8:51 to a restaurant whose staff had decided to close at 8:45 instead of 9, we were unable to procure a hot meal, and thus had been forced to choose between something from the cooler and whatever could be found at the convenience store we’d passed two miles back on our way into town.

In addition, as none of the outlets in our room were tight enough to maintain a circuit or hold a plug, we were unable to use any electronic device other than the television that was mounted in the corner of the room near the ceiling and whose cords had been carefully run through the wall with the goal, one assumes, of thwarting a theft. Consequently, the Jarhead was forced to position the nightstand in such a way that would hold the plug in the outlet so I could run my CPAP and not die from lack of oxygen. Likewise, he was able to arrange a chair, the refrigerator, and microwave—MacGyver style—so we could charge our phones and run the box fan that provided the white noise I needed in order to sleep in a remote area with funky electrical systems and employees who resented their patrons.

On the upside, there was a Jacuzzi tub in the room from which one could see the television and imagine it falling from its perch and landing somewhere in the vicinity of one’s knees. Even after the Jarhead pointed out that for the TV to fall into the tub it would also have to break loose from its power source I was completely disinclined to give it a try. Given my lack of faith in the facility’s wiring and my general aversion to death by electrocution, it just made more sense to avoid using water altogether.

Instead, we hit the rack and watched reruns of Forensic Files and Unsolved Mysteries until the Jarhead had nodded off and I was left to imagine all the possible crimes to which I could fall victim before daybreak. Naturally, I would have preferred to imagine myself awakening to a bright sunshine and travelling joyfully to Valdez, but we all know that isn’t how this mind works. Nevertheless, at some point I decided I’d rather be killed in my sleep than face whomever might come through the window or door, and switched off the tube and waited like Will Smith in “I am Legend” for morning.




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