I stepped off a turbulent plane flight less than 30 minutes before meeting Dylan, the new Colorado resident eager to show me his state. He led me up a 14,000 foot mountain hike. I like to think I’m in good shape, but the altitude took advantage of my foreign lungs and seized a 50% tax on every breath of oxygen. It was 60 degrees, but I panted like a bulldog in Houston.
Atop the mountain, an unusual bird cried a shrill call. I scanned the sun-dyed horizon but saw nothing. The corner of my eye caught a glimpse of a small, round boulder skipping along the top of other rocks. Not believing in animated rocks, I crept closer for a better look.
A grey, round animal scurried in-between the rocks, stopping only to nibble lichen and to squeak the shrill bird cry I heard earlier. The animal was a Pika, and although it looked like a large hamster, it is not a rodent. The Pika belongs to a separate club of animals, shared only with rabbits and hares. These animals are lagerphones, and Pikas, though they are not endangered, are protected animals. Not considered to be rare, my sight that day certainly was uncommon. I enjoyed the elusive, rock dancing teddy bear on the peak of Mount Evans.
There’s something about falling asleep in your own dried sweat with mud-stained ankles that makes you feel invincible— as if your skin is an organic armor, and no matter how dirty, scratched or bruised it gets, the essence of “you” is always safe, wrapped up in your fleshy blanket.
After a week exploring the humid city of Chaing Mai, my volunteer group headed into the mountains to visit one of planet earth’s most famous beasts. Night time in the mountains, which we spent in bamboo huts under the stars, was fairly cool. We had plenty of opportunities to fall asleep in our own dried sweat.
“Arrowan doesn’t like to be touched when eating. We think he has bad memories from his entertainment days,” said the man named Yo, who served as our tour guide/ life guru/ my role model. He was describing the young, energetic male that lives with the free-roaming, all-female group of rescued elephants.
We trekked through the forests in search of the herd. It’s impressive how quietly such large animals can sneak up on you. Four massive, modern mastodons galloped out of thick air to meet us, their ears flapping excitedly. Before beginning our journey, we had rolled some salty tamarind balls. The elephants could smell the treats from the other side of the mountain. They raided us for the snacks and we loved every second of it.
I try to write only about wild animal encounters. Though these elephants were once used for tourist entertainment, they now live a semi-wild life thanks to the Journey to Freedom project. They roam freely around the mountain ranges, while money from volunteer groups like H.E.A.T. Abroad goes to paying for each elephant to have their own “mahout,” (a man who cares for the elephants). Rather than leasing the elephants out to an abusive tourist industry, the men now make a good living watching the elephants and keeping them out of farmlands.
I could go in-depth about how amazing the program is, but for those details, you’ll have to check out a blog overseen by my good friend and travel writer Josh Andrews at heatabroad.org. My blog, however, is about the poetic storytelling of animal encounters, so for those of you who have not had the chance to be fondled by the bristly hairs of an delightfully intrusive elephant trunk, let me try and paint this picture for you.
Every time we interacted with the elephants, we couldn’t ignore how dog-like they were. They indicated their level of joy by fanning us with their huge ears, rather than wagging their tails. Instead of excited howls and happy barks, they expressed their contentment by way of high-pitched “toots,” which sounded exactly like a third-grader trying to imitate a trumpet by pressing their lips together and blowing against their arm.
Just like any other animal, the elephants also had moments of uncertainty and distress. That, my friends, is a sound I will never forget. I’m grateful that I pressed record on my phone at the perfect moment, and captured the low, bass-filled growl that the largest female made when her mahout blocked her from entering a farmer’s strawberry field. You’ve seen Jurassic Park or Jurassic World? The deep growl of the Indomnus Rex is the exact sound elephants make when concerned, and it is bone chilling.
I was pleased to disprove my pre-conceived ideas that elephants were slow and clumsy. In fact, as we followed them through the forest, they were quite hard to keep up with, and could disappear within minutes without a trace. They would get on their knees to adjust their weight and scale steep, muddy cliffs that even I, with my precious human intellect and opposable thumbs, could not climb.
I am always impressed by strong, powerful creatures that want nothing more than to graze in peace with their loved ones. Any of these elephants could have trampled any person in my group at any time. It seems to be consistent among large, strong vegetarians, be it a bull, a rhino, or an elephant, that they rarely use their power to abuse others. There is wisdom among these animals that I hope my species may be perceptive enough to learn.
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.
To see the top of a cloud.
A privilege unique only to the gods, now earned by mankind.
What was a dream for our ancestors is a reality for modern man.
Let’s sit back, enjoy, and fly too close to the sun.
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.
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.