Nature’s simmering anger

The famous arch at Cabo

There had been reports in Cabo San Lucas, on the Western peninsula of Mexico, that a hurricane known as ‘Odile’ was approaching. On a Sunday morning, having had three days of beautiful weather and relaxation, we awoke to an unusual sight from the balcony window – there was no ‘loose’ item in view. Every sunlounger, table and umbrella had been taken away. The storm was coming, at this time category 3, and strong winds were expected.

However, given recent reports that the hurricane would pass by at a distance, the effect anticipated was one of inconvenience and light damage. The sky looked cloudy, but not unusually so (to a British man…) and the sea, whilst whipped into a foam of waves and surge, was not threatening to breach further inland. The morning passed without incident.

It was around 1pm, sat in the garden area of the local spa, that the World began to change. One drop of rain was followed by three, and then without a seconds warning a tumult of water began to pour from an instantly blackened sky. The wind, previously no more than a breeze, rapidly gained tempo and within seconds chaos ensued. Such was the power of the storm that the rain was not actually able to hit the ground, but rather was whipped vertically back up into the air by the wind, thrown horizontally and swirled like a vortex. Within two minutes of the rain and the wind, all power went down and we were plunged into an unseasonal darkness. It was time to flee.

Taking shelter in a large auditorium only provided temporary reprieve – the ceiling began to collapse piece by piece as the winds began to reach their 135mph, now category 4, speed. Water began to pour with a disconcerting consistency through the now exposed holes in the roof, and with that we fled down into the staff kitchens below the resort. It was here that, with the howling sounds of destruction all around us, we waited out the storm, water dripping through the floors of the rooms above into the underground staff complex below. People were panicked, people were scared, and perhaps most terrifyingly people had no control over what was happening anymore.

Emerging 24 hours later was akin to the opening scenes of the movie ‘28 Days Later’ – an eerie stillness and quiet belied the sight of roof tiles strewn across the ground, uprooted trees, broken windows and scattered possessions. The Sea of Cortez, well known for its clarity by scuba divers, was entirely brown to the horizon. There was no power, no communications, no roads to transport supplies or messages. After five days of sitting and waiting, the Mexican military began to evacuate individuals to anywhere they could possibly find them space, looting and rioting inevitably following the storm with food and water in short supply. Fires burned in previously populated areas. Life will return to normal in Cabo, but not for many months, possibly years.

Travellers see many incredible sights, and often find themselves awestruck at what nature has crafted. Let us not forget, however, that nature’s palate often includes the deep red colour of raw power and destruction, and She is still perfectly capable of using it.

The destriction wrought by Odile

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Sharks in a storm, Australia

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It was a stormy night.  The boat was pitching back and forth, arching in the continuous flow of waves breaking over the surrounding reefs.  Seasickness had kicked in a few hours ago, and the darkness of the night made staying on two feet all the more challenging.  Resolute, I forced my way into my wetsuit and assembled my regs – it was time to dive blind, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

Everyone was struggling.  A few were ”sitting it out”, confidence knocked by the choppy water and the lack of visibility underwater.  I tested my torch; it was strong, but the beam narrow.  If you shone it on your depth gauge/air measure, it briefly glowed an eery green before fading back to its usual white – this is how you keep a measure of your air and buoyancy underwater at night, with the surface and the bottom invisible maintaining a level profile is challenging.  The dive boat had a fairly bright blue light underneath which was designed to give you a reference by which to return.  As I pulled on my fins and shuffled to the bucking edge of the boat, what was revealed by the light caused me to pause momentarily. 

The water was teeming with sharks, their sleek silhouettes moving slowly, circling around in the light, using the small source of light as an aid to their hunt.  Most of the bodies were typically small, white and black reef sharks, and they wouldn’t trouble any of the divers many of whom were already paddling in the water just above them.  One or two were a little larger.  I held my mask in place and took a giant stride out into the water, and then descended through the sleek, barrel-shaped bodies which paid me no heed and finned away from the boat’s light, into the dark. 

The light of the torch probably went up to 10 metres ahead in a straight, narrow beam, and other than that long white line I could see absolutely nothing else.  It was a matter of luck as to what the light found, usually sleeping fish but occasionally something greater; a huge green turtle making its bed for the night being the highlight.  Navigating using the brief green glow of the compass was difficult, and after 30 minutes or so I signalled to my buddy to ascend.  We located the light beneath the boat, grabbed the mooring line and began to pull ourselves up, the current sweeping us out horizontally as we climbed hand over hand.

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At 5 metres we stopped, in order to allow excess gasses built up at depth to seep out of our bodies and avoid ‘the bends’.  We were being swept sideways by the powerful current, all the while right in the middle of the dozens of circling reef sharks.  Suddenly, my buddy’s grip on my arm tightened, and a pointing hand gestured wildly to my left.  I turned just in time to see the dark eyes and white teeth of a large grey shark, close to the largest length to which they can grow, about two feet in front of me.  At the very last minute, staring into my eyes, it bent its trajectory and soared over my head, knocking my mask with the lower lobe of its caudal fin and disappearing out of the light into the murky darkness.  We surfaced, bucked back and forth by the now stronger waves, and fought our way up the kicking steps at the rear of the boat.

I spent the rest of the night racked by seasickness, but still grinning to myself about the close encounter with the inquisitive grey.  I had gotten in the way, I suspect, he had just wanted to know what clumsy creature was interrupting his feeding. 

A storm at the Sea Temple, Bali

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The contrast couldn’t have been much starker. The romaticism promised by the offer of the seven sea temples of Bali was initially dampened somewhat by the carefully structured maze of trinket stalls and hawkers that led down towards the coast, but people need to make a living, via religious overtones or otherwise.

 

The thought of a temple hewn from the rocks in the Balinese waters conjured almost mythical images of peace and solitude in my mind. The place of respite of Nirartha, a priest in the 15th century, Tanah Lot had promised a certain solitude, a glimpse of a time that probably never existed, an existential contemplation bordering on fanciful. The timing of the visit, to coincide with sunset, was designed to heighten this experience – there is something primitive and magically regressive about the setting sun. However, our trip to Pura Tanah Lot actually offered a stark glimpse of the reality of the world. I had made the foolhardy error of having ‘expectations’. It was beautiful, but in an unexpected way, like much of Indonesia.

 

The sky was aggressively grey, laden with thick cloud, any light was barred. Passing through the elaborate gateway, typical of Bali, towards the land’s edge the wind whipped fiercely in the air, like the tails of a thousand snakes, venemously cold. The land poked out into the water in sharp shards, ragged and worn, ancient and tired but defiant and strong. The water was whipped into a foam, spray climbing up the cliff face and showering those brave enough to get close to the edge. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled. To the left, the temple in the sea stood seperated from the mainland by a fifty metre shallow crossing. The few trees on the islet swayed violently, waves crashed against the pillars of rock, a group of monks in bright orange stood hesitantly at the shallows, faith and duty being tried by nature, by the Gods.

 

The temple itself was beautiful. I could imagine it standing in the sun, in calm water, being perfect. Entered either by a cave or by winding stone stairs, conical towers hidden amongst the trees, standing placid in the storm, it represented hundreds of years of faith and devotion. In spite of the dangers, the Monks began to press through the violent shallows, drenched, occasionally losing their footing but assisting one another when one fell. They did make it, their duties fulfilled they disappeared into the cave mouth, swallowed by darkness. Working together, bound by common belief, they had prevailed.

 

I had come expecting a sort of spiritual fulfilment, an experience of beauty and serenity. What I had experienced was the defiance of man in the face of the elements, how he finds calm and sanctuary in religion, his devotion to his cause despite the obstacles presented to him. It was enlightening in an unexpected way, and as the sun, somewhere deep within the clouds, passed the horizon and the world went darker, I left Tanah Lot with a sense of something valuable, but intangible, having been learned. Hand in hand we walked away.

 

Lost in the Great Barrier Reef

ImageThe horizon curved around us, stretching in azure blue with not another boat in sight. Looking overboard, the surface of the water was made of transparent crystal, the bottom of the ocean clearly visible 25 metres below, such was the stillness. Our dive boat, a small white speck on an endless blue, had moored up at Flynn Reef, on the outer rim of the Great Barrier Reef, and we were decompressing, waiting eagerly to get back into the 29 degree celcius water. The divemaster was mapping out the coming dive on the whiteboard, giving us bearings, fin-kicks to measure distance, turning circles. He promised a great dive if we could maintain enough air to allow us to get amongst the farther corals. That shouldn’t be a problem, we agreed.

It was time to dive – we undertook our equipment checks which by this point are second nature, and took a giant stride out into the unknown. The noise of entry and the fizz of bubbles that accompany it are always the only chaotic part of any dive, and as soon as we had followed the mooring down just one meter the familiar, peaceful silence of the warm ocean had engulfed us, and life and colour was everywhere. Brilliant streaks of sunlight led us down to the sandy ocean floor 20 metres below, we checked our compasses and set off on the route unguided, just the two of us, surrounded everywhere by beauty. Bommies, small underwater islands of life, scattered across the seabed each one covered in a different aray of greens, yellows and reds. Hard coral stood like miniature fortresses guarded by their faithful fish, soft coral stretched out as though awakening from a deep sleep. Turquoise parrotfish pecked at rocks, batfish floated by with their signature shape, a giant trevally soared past the size of a small shark. We followed the coral to shallower water, gliding along a solid wall of colour for what felt like eternity, the tiny creatures watching us intently from within. The underwater world was welcoming us, with unspeakable splendour.

As we got lost gliding through endless swim-throughs and along the reef wall at 10 metres, several ‘nemo’ fish ushered us away from their anemone homes, a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose into the sand in defiance, several green turtles slowly swept within inches of us, unconcerned by our presence, each shell a distinct pattern of pentagonal greens and browns. Utterly lost in the brilliance of the moment, only our diminishing air could drag us back to the surface; we signalled to the boat that all was well, and snorkelled across the glass-like surface back to the boat. “I said an hour,” said the divemaster. I looked down at my computer – 73 minutes flashed back at me. Looking sheepishly up, I met his stare as I removed my mask, and what did he say? “To be honest mate, I don’t blame you. Beautiful, isn’t it?”. I sit here now and think yes, it truly is, beautiful

Fighting the Amazon River in Bolivia

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Upon stepping down to the small pier on the fringe of Rurrenabaque, a tiny settlement on the edge of the Bolivian Amazon, the size and scale of the mighty river was overwhelming. The night before our scheduled trip up the river a thunderstorm had struck relentlessly, and the rain had taken a profound effect on the nature of the water. Where I was expecting a murky blue, the river was stained brown with the colours of the clay and silt that had been washed down into the basin by the rain. The water was also flowing fast. Very fast.

Approaching the rickety, unsteady wooden pier two young boys, no more than 15, were talking in racing Latin-American Spanish, gestliculating wildly and pointing towards the river. We approached hesitantly, and upon seeing us they stopped and beamed a bright welcome smile that we had become so accustomed to during our time in South America. After shaking hands, not a common word between us, a Bolivian in Steve Irwin-esque attire came down the pier and greeted us in broken English. “No worries,” he assured us, the fact that it had rained was good news. Water levels had been dangerously low of late, causing difficulty for those travelling upstream. Not convinced, but exercising trust, we nodded and stepped into the narrow, motorised canoe bucking wildly at the shore.

With a struggle, the two boys pushed the canoe out with long sticks and we began working our way upstream, keeping close to the bank where the current was less strong. Progress was slow, the guide working the motor and the boys occasionally levering us away from threatening rocks with their sticks, and as the heat of the rainforest rose like a mist from the canopy of the trees. Pulling our knees to our chests we pressed our way into the basin, eyes peeled for glimpses of wildlife, spotting colourful macaws nesting in rock faces, and capibara trudging along the banks, rodents the size of large dogs. All around us the weird and wonderful sounds of life were defiantly challenging the debilitating heat, each one alien, unfamiliar and mysterious.

The banks of the river were so densely lined with foliage that we could see no further than a few feet past the tree line before deep greens and lucious yellows crowded our vision and barred us from seeing any further. The whole experience was one of mystery, the rainforest shielding her secrets, the defiant river making every new corner a challenge. At one point we hit an unexpectedly shallow area of rock and ground to a halt. Without hesitation, the boys grabbed their poles and leapt into the water to begin levering the canoe off the gravelly riverbed. At another, a huge crocodile-like shape slipped silently into the water just ahead, and disappeared instantly into the reddy-brown water. The howls of monkeys drifted occasionally across the air, their sillhouettes marked out in the tree tops against the now risen sun. Life was everywhere, on the land, in the water, in the air, and as heavy going as progress was every minute was an absolute pleasure.

Which was as well, as it took us over 9 hours, squashed into the canoe, our backpacks under our legs, to reach camp. The return journey took just over 4.

Underground in Buenos Aires

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Down a brick-walled, spiral staircase into a small, intimately lit chamber is where I discovered one of the true wonders of Buenos Aires. In the underbelly of one of the cities’ most revered cafes, under a barrel-ceiling, twenty tightly packed tables tense in anticipation as the lights dim for the “Sensaciones de Tango”. The heady aromas of Argentinian red wines hang heavy in the air, the cigarette smoke gives the scene an atmospheric haze. In the Sala Quinquela Martin, the basement room of the Cafe Tortoni – frequented by some of the most famous minds of the last century – the tango show is about to begin.

A deep, maroon light faintly highlights a small quartet of musicians in the corner, who slowly strike up a score that ebs and flows faintly but purposefully across the room. From another corner of the room, a large man smarlty dressed in black braces steps out of the shadows and begins addressing the audience in flowing Latin American Spanish that I don’t quite catch. The theme, however is clear. A dark haired woman in a flowing dress threads a lithe leg between those of her handsome male counterpart. This is a story of passion, both romantic and forbidden.

As the music built the pace followed, and for two hours dancers paced entwined together about the stage, the women with flurries of leg flicks and twirls, the men with gestures of robust extravagance. The story quickly became irrelevant, for as the musical quartet brought the dancers together and flung them dramatically apart the excitement and the danger, the love and the anger of the scenes were conveyed with a silent beauty. The entranced eyes of the audience were captivated by the performance, by the flaming reds and endless blacks moving effortlessly around the stage, bringing the highs and lows of lust and passion to life. The compere would occasionally break the rhythm of the dance to tell the more of the details of the clinches being played out, his tone sometimes energetic, often sombre. He would then pass back into the shadows, the maroon light would deepen, and another whirl of thighs and blood-red colours would commence.

In the pentultimate stanza, during a traditional zapateada routine, two male dancers span metal balls on long strings around in each hand while they danced, bouncing them off the floor, pillars and walls in perfect harmony tapping out a pulsating rhythm, competing for attention. The dance ended abruptly soon after with the first duo in an exhausted embraced, breathing heavily nose to nose, after an explosively enthralling routine. The audience rose to its feet in an uproar of appreciation, admiration and emotion. We had all been introduced to a world we didn’t know, deep under the paved streets of Argentina’s capital city, and had experienced love, lust, heartbreak and wonder, all through the art of tango.

Fishing like a local in Fiji

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My introduction to fishing was not your typical father and son weekend at the side of the local river. In fact I never had any interest in fishing until a large, jolly Fijian on Waya Sewa island offered to take a group of us out on his friend’s boat to catch dinner ”traditionally”. Having dived amonst the islands comprising the Yasawa chain, northwest of central Fiji, I was well acquainted with the colourful life below the surface and was a little reticent, but it was a way of life amongst the islanders and I found myself waiting at the pier.

Eventually a small, rusty looking motor boat approached, stalled, and floated the rest of the way to the mooring. The captain greeted us with a toothy grin and a garish floral shirt, and we jumped aboard noting both the lack of fishing rods and the lack of bait. The boat sparked into life and shuttled over to the other side of the island, skimming over the coral beneath the water’s surface. Stopping, the captain dropped anchor, grunted approval and slid a brown woven bag out from under his seat. From within he pulled out a beautiful (deceased) parrotfish and a crude, gnarled machete and proceeded to ruthlessly carve the scales off the sorry fish and cleave it into pieces, driving the knife into the wooden seat when finished. He then handed pieces out to each of us, along with nothing more than a length of wire with a wicked, curved barb at the end. This was fishing, Fijian style.

The idea was to poke some parrotfish on to the barb, and drop the line down to the bottom. If you felt a bite, you simply had to pull the wire up as quickly as possible. We sat for a while, occasionally pulling up the line, having lost a tussle with an unseen fish. An hour in and without success, the captain was getting tetchy, when all of a sudden my line went taught. With excitement he shoved me out of the way, grabbed my line and hauled it up with superhuman speed. I – or rather he – had landed a (tiny) snapper. The fish was quickly and unceremoniously put into the sack, and swung down against the floor of the boat with a thud. Truly no nonsense. He grinned.

That was the only fish caught that afternoon, but it wasn’t the only catch. Within moments of the snapper incident, my girlfriend got a bite. Again the captain took over, but as he reeled in the line he pulled up a thrashing, hissing moray eel. Chaos ensued as the captain rushed to cut the wire and release the moray, everyone backed away and one of the other fishers fell overboard in panic. Once we had all recovered, we decided that was that and the captain steered us back to Waya Sewa. He docked, jumped out and strode off without a word, taking my one measly fish off with him, grinning.