The next transition was gentler if not more dramatic than the last. We are in a scrub desert. Yellow grasses, stunted trees, and plants that were low to the ground extended to the horizon in a sea of red dirt. It was windless. Not even a breeze, and hot , over 100. The sky was a pale blue with a patchwork of clouds that looked promising but would bring no rain. You could hear in the distance a deep bass sound that had the reminded me of the music I would make blowing over the top of a soda bottle back when soda bottles were made of glass when combined with electronic feedback.
You grabbed my hand and whispered in my ear “Where are we?”
I replied “You can’t guess? I was beginning to think you were able to read my mind.”
“Normally, I can…but this place is so different. Almost, as if, we are on a different planet. No landmarks…just scrub and grass…”
I put on my best Rod Serling voice and said “Pause to consider that somehow, someway in the vagaries of mind travel, your body has been turned in such a way that you are not seeing the most important part of the landscape…the one thing that can you help you identify this place in the Twilight Zone.”
I took you by the shoulders and gently turned you 180 degrees. The new vista showed a group of indigenous 4 indigenous people. One was sitting and blowing into what looked to be a long wooden branch, a didgeridoo, while the others stamped and chanted, spear and boomerang in hand. All were festooned with white and red symmetrical marking over their deep chestnut colored skin. Beyond them, bathed in the persimmon glow of a setting sun, a great red monolithic rock glowed.
You shove by me as you sometimes do when you when you are in a hurry to get somewhere and said nothing. Your silence a testimony to the out of world vista you were seeing.
“My luv, do you know where we are now?”
Not turning your head to look me, still intent on taking in what lay before you, you say “Uluru…Ayres Rock. We are in the outback of Australia.
“I knew you would know. It is why I had you turned around when we arrived. Isn’t magnificent. Just looking at it, can’t you understand why the aboriginal people of Australia have thought it sacred.”
“Its beautiful. I mean it is really glowing like it is a living thing. I don’t think I have ever seen that color red before.”
“They say it changes color through out the day. Scientists believe its because it does that because its limestone is studed with minerals like feldspar which make it take on the characteristics of the ambient light. For example when it rains it changes color completely again turning silver and black.”
“I love it. I could stand here for a long time and still not see all that could be seen. It is like our mountain, Pedra de Gavea, I have seen it every day for 20 years but it never looks the same twice.” You turn to me and add “ I love it. But why are we here?”
“I don’t understand.”
“When I was a kid and first heard about them I thought they were the be all to end all.”
“I thought they were terrific because it was as if they were made from spare parts. Fur like a beaver, bill like a duck, poisonous like a snake, and laid eggs like a chicken. Then I discovered that Australia had a lot of bizarre animals like Kangaroo’s, Koala’s and salt water crocodiles the size of a SUV. What I did not know then and only learned years later, after reading a book I gave you, “In A Sunburned Country” that was not even the weirdest shit about Australia. Did you know that ground in Australia is considered a living fossil?” You mean besides the fact that you once made me promise that I wouldn’t go to Australia without you.” You nodded and I said. “I have wanted to come to Australia for the longest time, I think from the time I was a kid and I discovered there were all sorts of weird animals down here like a Platypus. What kid wouldn’t be fascinated with some beast that it looked like it was made out of spare parts….a body like a beaver, a bill like a duck, that laid eggs, that was poisonous to boot. And then to throw on top of it that they had Kangaroos which just seemed like fun bouncing all over the place….well its just so much honey for a bee.”
“The older I got the more the place seemed to grab hold of me. Imagine living in a country that is an island and a continent that has changed little in millions of millions of year. Its soil is so old that it can be considered a fossil because it comes from a different geologic era than the rest of the world. That the remnants of the earliest known life on earth was found off the coast of Australia….and they still exist?”
When I take a breath I can see you are interested but also have that quizzical look on your face that asks silently “Where did all of this come from.”
“Yeah, I know. I get carried away but think but this place is just so cool. It is vast. Rougly the size of the United States with a population that is only about that of New York. And new to Europeans. They only found the place in 1770. So big and so underpopulated that they are literally discovering new things about themselves everyday. Did you know a few years ago they discovered a type of ant, or proto-ant, that was supposed to be extinct for millions of years. From what I understand that kind of stuff goes on here all the time. It is a country that has the most venomous animals on the planet including the top ten venomous snakes. Add to that it is the only country that was settled by convicts…compare that to the Puritan fathers who permanently screwed up the United States and the “Captains” who settled Brazil., and you get a place that at every turn and in every way seems to captivate me.
You smile and reply “Now I know why you got Yankee and Rosie from here.”
“ You know better. Yankee came from down under because I couldn’t find any Labradoodles in the US and Rosie came from here because Yankee was the best boy ever.”
“So why haven’t you been.”
“Because you wouldn’t let me. Remember this is where I wanted to go on our last trip but you wanted to go to Asia…and as usual you got your way.”
“Okay. You were right. Australia is not a country you visit on a cruise. But we need to find the time because this is a country that will take at least two weeks. You would need that just to get beyond the 20 hr flight from New York. …But two weeks probably wouldn’t be enough. Three would be good but four almost perfect.”
“Well we don’t have that much time right now. In fact we have only a couple of hours left. So are we going to stick around here and see a few places or are we off to see another place right away?”
“Just one more place here and then we can be on our way…But before I could take Elaine to our next destination we are approached by two Aborigines. Dark brown skin with broad foreheads and pierced noses, their hair is wild and matted. They wear nothing but a loin cloth. The older of the two seemed very excited and came up to us and beraged us with a torrent of his native tongue. Circling around Elaine he sniffed and stamped his feet. To Elaines credit she just put on her beatific smile and allowed the old man investigate her.
The young one began to speaking English flawlessly albeit with an Australian accent telling us “My grandfather is very excited to see your friend. His says that there are many spirits here but he has never seen a spirit such as your friend. He wonders whether she is an evil spirit or good. He says it doesn’t matter as both exist here as we need both to exist.”
Taken back a little I say “She is not a spirit.“She is my wife.”
The young man translated what I had said to his grandfather who again his let fly with a series atonal sounds and clicks. The young man translated. “No. She may be your wife, but she is also a great spirit. At which point he paused, and his grandfather and he exchanged a few words and said “It is hard to translate but he is wondering if he can go walk about with you. He seems to think that you travel in an interesting way and I can’t really get this word but it sort of means you are just going to be there….does that make sense to you…anyway he wants to experience it.”
Elaine and I exchanged the glance that couples sometimes exchange when you are trying to decide who will speak for both of you when neither one of you wants the job. How do you explain the inexplicable? Elaine as usual won this dual of silence and I try to gracefully explain to our new friends that our “walkabout” was a private one. But we would return one day and perhaps then he would honor us by joining us”
When the old man heard the translation of my words, he nodded, smiled and hit his didgeridoo on the ground twice and Elaine and I were sitting in a swarm of brown, caramel and cream-colored Labradoodle puppies. They seemed not at all surprised at our presence and thought the best thing in the world was climbing on our laps and competing to see who could like our face the most. They had that great puppy smell and enthusiasm about life only found in puppies and I am sure my face reflected my joy in being amongst. Elaine looked happy as well but in the reserved way a cat lover would look happy amongst a swarm of puppies. I said “Aren’t they adorable.”
“Yes. They are very cute.”
“And…” I said with hope.
“No, my darlingo. Now is not a good time.”
“Wouldn’t it be great for Rosie to have a companion?”
“She has you…”
“One day my love, just not today.”
“Well, as long as we were here it was worth a try….”
I leaned over and kiss Elaine and we are standing in a forest surrounded by trees that are so large that they made us feel as if we were Lilliputians in the land of Gulliver. The tree nearest us looked like it could use its own area code for it was at least as tall as a 25 story building in Manhattan and as wide as a brownstone. I heard “wow” and Elaine pulls away from me and within a couple of strides is standing at the base of one of these amazing tretrees are hands touching the bark.
“I knew you loved nature” I said smiling, “and you love trees…you do after all live in the jungle.”
You shoot me a look that would make any man wish he were wearing depends.
So I add, “These trees, the jarrah and karri grow no where on the planet except here in the most southwestern part of Australia. 50 million years of evolution have flowed to this one place and created these magnificent trees. And in many ways it is the story of Australia in and of its self. Isolated from the rest of the world, species of plants and animals forced to evolve in a harsh climate that can barely sustain life these living things have had to find their own way. I mean in many ways these trees are the platypus of the tree world. Think about back home. We live on continentd blessed with wonderfully rich soil. The earliest settlers were greeted by forests greater than anything they had ever seen before. Consequently, the trees that could survive in the most places excelled and spread across the continent killing off the ones that could not compete. Here in Australia the soil is so poor that most species have little competition. The only things that could survive are those who could truly specialize themselves. When I read about thes trees it really made me wonder about the nature of competition and what is lost. Do you know what I mean?
“I think so. It is not that competition is a bad thing. It isn’t. It is the nature of everything to compete but that sometimes things get lost in that competition and what we lose can be truly spectacular.”
“Exactly! And also that when you find those things that have survived despite the odds against them, I feel like you should venerate them. Celebrate their survival.” You gave me an understanding look so I continued. “So there is a second part of this story. The jarrah it turns out can only live in soil that is rich in bauxite, the base mineral for aluminum. When commercial interests discovered this, they quite literally believed that they had found the motherlode. You see they could rip down the tree and make a huge profit on the wood and then mine for Bauxite as well.”
“Exactly, I am against capitalism but often enough the interests of those who are greedy for money conflict with something that is for the common good. Like looking for oil in undisturbed places in the Alaskan Wildlife Preserve. Not that they shouldn’t but they have to take care not to destroy something or interfere with something that is every bit as precious a resource except that it can not be sold or quantified…….I started laughing at myself “ sorry I didn’t realize that there were soapboxes in the middle of Australian woods. But you know what I mean. I took you here because I wanted to show you something that may disappear and it is important to remember them and protect them but I am also here because it is unique and disappearing. And if we don’t get here soon, we may miss the opportunity. Does that make sense to you?”
You nodded and the splendid forest and its tall canopy of leaves were gone and replaced by a large sky peppered with puffy white clouds and a rolling ocean. We were on a large boat, surrounded by folks wearing wet suits, floatation devices, and scuba tank. The dive master was standing in the middle of the fan tail telling those standing around them.
“G’day folks. Today’s dive is going to be on a part of the Great Barrier Reserve known as the Olympic Reef. This is a wildlife protected area and as such you as visitors are not allowed to touch the reef in any way. The reef itself is a very delicate organism. Touching it can kill it so if you are looking for handholds to steady yourself for any reason do not touch the coral. It is also to protect yourself. There are lots of things in the water and on the reef that can hurt or even kill you. These range from some as relatively benign like a sea urchin which is just painful, to a sea snake or box jellyfish that if they don’t kill you, you will seriously wish you were dead.” He paused for effect “If you see one those blokes out there the best thing to do is just get out of their way. Sea snakes are as passive as they are venomous so if you leave them alone they will leave you alone…..The box just flow with the current so they too won’t come after you but remember they have very long tentacles so if you see them give them a wide birth….Everybody understand?
“Okay we are going to do a drift dive today. Meaning that when we drop you in the water the current is going to carry you a long the face of the reef. The boat will follow your bubbles. When you run out of air just surface inflate your “scuba sausage” and will be right along to pick you up. The reef itself sits about 10 meters and drifts down to about 40. Please keep yourself no deeper than 20 meters as we don’t want to do any decompression today. Does anyone have any question?
As people began to ask questions, I turned to ask you a few questions of my own. You were wearing a purple and black dive skin that looked like it came out of the latest incarnation of star trek. Your PFD was simple and black but your mask, fins and snorkel all matched the purple in your skin. I smiled and said “Nicely coordinated outfit.”
“Hey I didn’t pick this outfit. You did and besides look whose talking blue boy.”
I looked down myself….and I was dressed just as you were except where yours was purple mine blue. “Well at least were stylin! Are you nervous about this. I mean I know you don’t know how to dive but I have seen you snorkel and it isn’t that different.
“I am fine….I think that under the circumstances this is something that I can do.”
“Good. When we get in the water. I want you to lead us down to the reef, that way I can keep an eye on you. Then when we get there and the current picks up we will hold hands and if either of us sees anything interesting point to your eyes and then at the object that you see that is interesting….Okay?”
“If you have any trouble or get spooked in any way just get my attention any way you can and point up and we will go to the surface and have the boat pick us up. And if you run out of air, making a slashing motion across your throat and we will go up. And I may give you the little ok sign with fingers to check on you. If you are ok signal back. Okay?”
People began getting up and walking to the transom of the boat and two by two jumping into the water holding their masks in place with one hand and steadying their tanks with another. We were the last couple to go.
The water felt cool as compared to the warmth we were feeling on deck with all of our equipment and as soon as the bubbles had cleared from our jump, I look for you. You are already slowly kicking for the reef in the crystal clear water. I kicked hard to catch up with you and finally managed to tug on your fins. You turned around and managed to smile through your regulator, your brown eyes luminescent behind your mask. I gave you the ok sign and you returned it and we then, hand in hand, kicked gently to the reef.
When we got there I checked our depth, we are at about 30 feet which was just perfect. As we were above one atmosphere depth there is lots of air in a tank at this depth and no matter how long you are down for, no decompression time. The current was not too strong but strong enough so we could be like passengers at airport on a moving walk way, slowly but easily moving towards our destination.
Once we were drifting, I was free to be a tourist. As we drifted by a large pink coral head, we saw on the lee side of the current, a school of hundreds of silver, blue and yellow fish, moving as a single unit. When one of our dive parties drifted through them, they simply made a hole and reformed. We see beautiful fans of choral drifting in the breeze, brightly colored parrot fish with their white bills gently biting the reef as their midday meal.
On the far side of the reef, in shallow waters a school of Tuna dart by their big eyes glinting in the filtered sunlight. I see a small opening in the face of the reef and I pull you down to it and shine my light into the darkness. There is the long tapered snout of a lime green moray eel its mouth, with its rows of razor teeth , slowly opening and shutting pushing water past its gills. We stop at the base of a huge piece of brain coral. I to point out the little things that live on the reef that if you don’t stop and really look you miss like the cleaner shrimp waiting for a grouper to come by to groom, or the little clown fish dancing through the venomous tentacles of a sea anemone.
The dive is over too soon. From the moment the regulator is out of your mouth you bubble with excitement of all we have seen. I bask in your joy hearing only every other word, not because I don’t care but I am more swept in your joy than your words. Finally, you add “It was just incredible. Who knew something like that even existed. It is like a world that has been hidden from me all of my life has suddenly been opened up!”
I smiled and kissed you and said “Now you know how it is to be in love with you.” You smile and kiss me back.