Once I earned my scuba certification on the Great Barrier Reef, my group and I went on a night dive to watch sharks hunting. It was a creepy concept. Not because we jumped into dark water at night, and not because of the sharks waiting for us 70 feet below. It was creepy only because the boat crew was playing the JAWS theme song on the deck speakers the entire time we geared up into our wetsuits, still damp from the earlier daytime dives.
“Point your torches (flashlights) toward the coral. You’ll see thousands of red eyes shining back at you. Those belong to the shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans that come out at night,” our instructor said before we submerged. “And the yellow eyes — those are the sharks and rays.” I’ll never forget the silhouette of the fat grey reef shark. He circled us, which let me assure you, causes a strange feeling, before disappearing into the foggy, moonlit water. I pointed my waterproof flashlight directly at him until he faded into the distance. The reflection of his yellow eye as he swam away was incredibly haunting.
The day before the night dive was particularly rewarding. I saw a massive green sea turtle, and a white-tip reef shark, who let me swim on his back with my GoPro while taking beautiful footage of his swimming. Tons of colorful tropical fish and exotic coral made the day dives fantastic, like diving in an alien garden.
Still, something about being in the ocean at night and finding my way with a flashlight and glow sticks has a special place in my memory. Diving in the dark with hunting sharks may sound frightening, but it was enchanting. I’m looking forward to my next moonlight dinner with them.
After seeing wild cassowaries, my search for Australian wildlife couldn’t have gotten more rewarding. Though after a few weeks, I became greedy…
The Platypus Bush Campground sat the end of a dirt road where no cellphone signal dare go. Our research showed this was a good place to see a wild platypus, though it was a few hours out of our way.
“Ten bucks per person? Online it said seven.” I tried to haggle with the old man wearing a chewed-up leather hat. “We’re just setting up a tent,” I insisted.
“It was seven— but that’s subject to change without notice.” He said with a wink. A literal wink. He sat at the end of a dirt driveway, smoking while reading a book at a rickety wooden table. His half-dingo dog lay by his side, and a wooden block on the table read: OFFICE.
It was near sunset and we were miles away from any other camp, so we paid him, but I expected specific details on where to spot a wild platy.
“In what part of the creek do they stay?” I asked. He pointed me toward a calm pool at the end of the rapids, but I had to decode his thick accent.
“So what time should we be there?” I pushed for more engaging directions.
“Between 5:30pm and 5:30am,” he answered, not looking up from his book.
“So for the platypus in this area specifically, what time range is best? When are they most likely to surface?” I was going to get $10 worth of answers. He looked up from his book. His cloudy blue eyes were connected to the hearing aids in his ears by deep wrinkles criss-crossing his tanned face.
“Mother Nature, mate,” he said with a wink, then returned to his book. Again with the wink. I think this guy was a woodland elf or some kind of forest spirit.
I didn’t take his response as rude. It was enlightening. Finding rare creatures wouldn’t mean nearly as much if I had a road map and schedule for each appearance. The cassowaries were a thrill because it took days to find them. So, my friends and I grabbed our snacks and flashlights, then walked down the rapids to a crystal pool surrounded by towering trees.
Hours passed. I saw a 3-foot freshwater eel, but no platypus. The duck-billed platypus is the most Pokemon-like animal I’ve searched for. A living fossil, these are one of two egg-laying mammals on the entire planet.
The general evolutionary transition is from fish to amphibians, to reptiles, to birds, to mammals. Dinosaurs differed from reptiles because many were mesothermic and could regulate their own body temperature, essentially prehistoric birds. Reptiles still existed back then— crocodilians to name one group— but they were slow moving and cold-blooded, relatively unchanged today.
The transition from reptile to bird to mammal is an abstract one. While dinosaurs evolved into modern birds, prehistoric reptiles have remained similar and survived, though some are thought to have adapted more mammalian-like qualities.
Kiwi birds are a bird-to-mammal link
A mammal-like kiwi chick in New Zealand
The platypus has fur and nurses its young, both of which are mammalian traits. It also has scaly feet and a beak. This animal has survived in an isolated pocket of the planet, giving us a glimpse into an era of goofy-looking mixed animals, called “transitional links.” This link is still thriving, and happened to have had three burrows beside the creek next to which I sat.
The sun set, the flying foxes rose with the moon, but there was no chubby beaver duck anywhere in sight. After almost five hours, it was pitch black, aside from the fire flies. We didn’t see a platypus.
A couple of weeks later, we went even further off the route to try and see the mythical beast.
Another late night with snakes, bugs and turtles, but no Platys. The fog hovered over the glass water, and each of us knew there was a little, legendary animal vibrating its beak in-between the river stones, scurrying through the bubbles in search of worms. Dylan, one of my travel buddies, even dreamed the night before that he saw four platypus. We all sat on the rocks in silence, envisioning where one would pop up. One never did.
Remember being a kid, imagining what it would look like to finally see the Easter bunny hop over the fence to hide some eggs before vanishing? My parents found me asleep inside a pillow fort every Christmas night— a failed attempt to stay up and catch Santa in the act. Here I am, with two other adult males, resting on river boulders with visions of a platypus dancing in my head.
What else in our adult lives inspires that kind of excitement? I’ve never seen a real platypus— not even in a zoo. Such an odd animal, it makes more sense that it wouldn’t exist. But here we are, in search of something elusive. Something we’ll probably go home without seeing, thus, keeping it mythical, and giving our inner child something to stay up late to catch.
I landed in Australia with a list of specific wildlife found only on this continent. I also had a willingness to get as dirty, wet, bruised and tired as it would take to get a glimpse— a glimpse recorded uniquely in my memory, not to be experienced the same by any other human for the rest of time.
At the top of my list was the endangered cassowary. The second largest bird on the planet, the cassowary is included in a group of prehistoric birds called “ratites.” There are only 1,200 left in the wild, lurking deep in the rainforests of Northern Australia. It is rarely seen— even by locals born and raised in the area.
Travellers said that most sightings take place in the ancient Daintree rainforest, so we traveled further North (out of our way) to scratch the creature off my list. Sunrise to sunset, we explored the forest only to leave disappointed (though I did swim with a rare freshwater pipefish in one of the forest ponds, and saw some BIG monitor lizards).
The next day, a woman at the supermarket said we should drive South toward Etty Bay. Sightings were still rare, but a specific family unit of cassowaries had been seen raiding campsites near a beach recently.
Obviously, a few days later, there we were— standing outside of a campsite where the forest meets the beach. Within 30 minutes, I sprinted barefoot toward some movement. A juvenile male was bobbing between some trees, deciding if he should venture onto the beach. He was small— almost five feet tall, with some brown feathers left over from being a chick.
My day was made. He was weary, but did not mind me getting close. The way he walked was straight out of the Jurassic era, leaving large, clawed footprints in the sand.
I followed him toward the campsite, then when he disappeared in the jungle, I went for a walk to look through my pictures. I came across a blue tent, and my jaw hit the grass below. An adult female cassowary (larger than adult males) sat comfortably, eating a watermelon some campers had left unattended. Just sitting, her head was up to my chest. Bright yellow eyes blinked between long, black lashes. You could hear the power of her beak tearing into the rind. Her thick neck transitioned from light powder blue to a deep royal blue, then to red.
After she finished, she stood up. I suddenly remembered all of the documentaries about cassowary attacks. Zookeepers often need shields just to enter enclosures with hand-raised cassowaries. This one was wild.
Her claws were thick and black— built for swift sprinting or disembowelling an opponent, whichever she preferred. She had a fossil-hard horn on her head, raising her height up to my chin.
She walked toward me. I remained calm, though eager. She seemed to appreciate that, as she strolled beside me down the beach toward the jungle. I got really close— closer than I should have. After a few minutes, she straightened her neck, stood up straight and looked me in the eye. Then, as silently as the first one I saw, she disappeared into the foliage.
Maybe I got too close and she was warning me, or maybe she thought I was as abstract as I thought she was. Either way, my number one animal had been seen, and the experience, and photos, will stay with me forever.
This will be a short one, as it’s not about finding wonder through wildlife or nature.
We’ve camped almost every night of our journey. We’ve stayed at one hostel, and at another hostel that turned out to be a hippie commune. That’s a story for another time.
I’m now downtown Sydney, in a hostel called Elephant Backpackers- an old, ex-hotel, run by travelers in their twenties. This weathered building sleeps over 200 kids every night. I ate dinner in a “dining room” where people yelled, laughed, and cooked their own meals. Afterward, my friends and I were invited into the TV room by a random French guy to play Fifa.
My bunkroom is shared with eight other people, the city bustling outside our window. I feel like a freshman at Texas State University, in a big, new place full of people from everywhere. A place where I haven’t yet earned my stripes. It’s refreshing.
The building is old and smelly. Paint peels off of the graffiti-coated walls. We busted out laughing when our friend Mike, from the UK, didn’t know how to ask the random girl he found sleeping in his bunk to move.
This place is as clean as any four-story building operated by traveling children will be. I’m running around with no shirt or shoes, while cigarette smoke and foreign languages float around the outside windows. The girls in my room line chocolate and ramen noodles on the window next to their bunks.
As I walk toward the showers, I noticed people’s shoes lining against the wall in the florescent-lit hallway. On the shower ceiling, I found black mold, and I smiled. All the imperfections of this building give it so much character. My old freshman dorm, Brogdon Hall, had rickety pipes that kept us up all night during the winter. Mold, mildew, and community toilets forced us away from our (lack of) amenities, and into downstairs to the lobby. To bond over the building. To met, and to fall in love.
Brogdon built my college career. My best friend, whom I met in Brogdon, has been my roommate for six years and is now in Australia with me. The young lady who helped me create the H.E.A.T. non-profit was one of the first people I met in our dorm. I keep in touch with all of my Brog Dogs to some extent. I owe so much to that community, and this old hostel downtown Sydney has the same magic floating through its hallways. Goodnight Sydney, Australia.
The sounds of the Australian rainforest at night are from another world. Leaves constantly rustle and creatures scream in the distance, sounding like robotic toddlers.
Last night, we drove through a cloud on the top of Lamington Mountain. The cloud was flashing with lightening, as it was a thunderstorm, so we had to set up our tent in a public bathroom.
After living wherever can pop up a tent, I feel connected in a way I’ve never felt. The highway and its zooming cars outside my nylon wall transform into calming ocean waves lulling me to sleep.
This morning, I stopped in my tracks to smell a flower, something I can’t remember doing at home. That got me thinking- if I wasn’t in Australia, would I have done that? What if I moved here and Australia became my home. Would I get numb to it all and stop smelling flowers after a while?
I’m lying in a park, writing this on Arlie Beach. The Palm leaves above me clap in the breeze, the kookaburras laugh, and the lorikeet parrots scream. A couple of pink galah cockatoos even perched above us a little earlier, making robot noises before flying away.
My breath is taken away with the breeze, floating with the gulls.
I want to soak in how much “better” this place is than anything I could find at home, but I keep correcting myself. This is new, and different, but not better (aside from the temperature- the weather is definitely better).
My point is, wherever we are, we need to connect with what’s around us. If there is a park near you, make time to explore it. If you’re wearing shoes, remove them, and feel the grass. Any place can feel like home if you can connect.
As much as I’m loving my travels, I still miss my nature spots back home, especially the San Marcos river in Texas.
Lush mountains kissed the clouds. Palm trees and bright bromeliads welcomed me off my airplane— contrasting the arid landscape I expected.
Cairns is a northern city. It’s tropical, yet a cool, cloudy, 70 degrees. I explored all day (to stay awake) and took a late afternoon hike though the ritzy part of downtown, toward the yacht docks.
There’s a park where the city meets the water. People of every color and culture walked, skated, and ate along the street-side restaurants. Towering lofts and lit trees reached toward golden stars, as children splashed in the park’s sand-bottom swimming lagoon.
I sat in the grass to absorb the live guitar. I looked up to see stars, but instead, I saw a veiny set of fleshy, clawed wings flapping out of the Palm tree under which I leaned. Fruit bats, measuring between four and six feet long, dove out of trees and flew toward the moon, adding a prehistoric flavour to the modern setting.
I thought about my adventure from an hour before. My friend and I watched sunset from a pier before running into a group of Australian youngsters. They were fishing, but the creature struggling at the end of their line was no fish. They accidently entangled a frantic seagull, and it was beginning to drown.
I dropped my backpack and prepared to climb off the pier into the water, but the kids warned of a saltwater croc exposing himself minutes before. Plan B was to walk the fishing pole close to a ladder, climb down, and grab the bird.
“Sorry mate,” the kids whispered, as the bird panted in fear while being dragged through the salty sea. The did their best to keep his head above water.
I pulled out my knife (a very Australian thing to say) and took the bird in my lap. I explained to the boys how to fold a birds wings to keep it still, and from further injury. I untangled the wings, but the neck feathers hid the green line cutting his circulation. I grabbed the base of his beak, allowing me to pull his neck out so we could cut the line. By this point, locals were gathering around, snapping photos of us.
I eventually got the bird free. He tried to fly but was so exhausted and disoriented, he flopped into the water and paddled like a duck to a near beach. I couldn’t help but feel connected to him. I had just walked away from a 24-hour journey in a plane seat. I was stumbling around this new world the best I could, trying to adapt. Back at the hostel, meeting my Israeli and German roommates, I laid in bed, listing in to the sounds of the rainforest outside our open window.