Catching a Cassowary

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.

Wild female posing for me

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.

Sand stomping


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.

Eye contact was intimidating to say the least

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.



Finding Brogdon in Sydney

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.

The TV room in all of  elegance

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.

Untied and Ready to Fly

Day 1 Down Under

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.

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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 carried the full to the grass before letting him flutter away

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.

Me helping untie the bird as a bystander captures the moment

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.

I’m untied and ready to fly.


Dueling Dimorphodons

To be successful in life is to wake up every morning without the aid of an alarm clock. That is all I’d require for life to be considered luxurious. -Ian Smith

Some of my travel group learning about the different bromeliads of the forest
Some of my travel group learning about the different bromeliads of the forest

I usually wouldn’t attend anything starting at 6am, but I promised myself that I’d grasp every opportunity available as I boarded the plane for my first study abroad trip to Costa Rica. A few days before the trip ended, our head coordinator announced a special sunrise yoga class in the rainforest, beginning at 6am. I said I’d do it, knowing I’d probably just sleep in and just act really bummed for missing it. My roommate Daniel made sure that didn’t happen, as he did not want to be the only boy at the event. I’m glad he woke me because otherwise, I would have been jerked from my slumber by the alarm on my IronMan sport watch. That high-pitched “beep” would ring in my ears every morning— as if a rogue mouse set off an alarm after breaking out of its tiny holding cell.

Me with my roommate, Daniel
Me with my roommate, Daniel.

Daniel and I, barely awake, stumbled to a clearing surrounded by trees and tropical flowers. We were dwarfed by the lush Arenal Volcano directly in front of us— famous for its hot springs, which we later visited. At this point, everyone quietly greeted each other. We hadn’t been outside longer than five minutes and I’d seen more types of humming birds than I thought existed.

The volcano leaked steam while the bromeliads around us collected dew from the morning mist. I inhaled a breath while the orchestra of a tropical morning danced in my lungs.

The view during our hilltop yoga
The view during our hilltop yoga

We went through an hour of intense yoga- more of a workout than I would have liked. It grew as the sun rose higher. We finished our yoga hour with the “corpse” pose, which is essentially lying still to feel your heart pump.

Though my eyes were supposed to stay shut, I felt the sun vanish behind my eyelids, so I cheated and opened an eye. Storm clouds rolled over the top of the volcano. Our coordinator was coaching us on how to breathe while in corpse pose, and we could hear her excitement as a light mist fell onto us from above. “Let the rainforest cleanse you as it washes away your negativity,” was the ad-libbed line that has stuck with me through the years.

Photos couldn't capture the feeling of jungle rain on a sweaty body, so here's me swimming under the La Fortuna waterfall instead
Photos couldn’t capture the feeling of jungle rain on a sweaty body, so here I am swimming under the La Fortuna waterfall instead

That moment was one of the few in my life where things lined up perfectly. As if on cue, the rain cooled us after we finished the most vigorous yoga of our lives. The symbolism was overwhelming. This memory is enhanced not by the flawless setting, but by the unexpected guests who joined us. As raindrops freckled my face, I peeked again just to take everything in. Once more, as if on cue, I saw perfection in motion. A Swainson’s toucan swooped onto the branch of a leafless tree, taller than the others. Everyone was calm, quiet, and experiencing a natural high in its purest form during our jungle rain yoga, but this was the first wild toucan I’d seen, so I squealed and sat up to get a better look. The sky was grey-blue, the rain misting down, and a multi-colored bird just perched above us. We pointed as the toucan bounced around the branches, acting a bit frantic- as if the rain was getting it really excited.

We soon realized he was displaying for another male that swooped onto the branch next to him. Everyone gasped. The show went on as he fluffed his feathers in the rain, pruning in front of his friend. As if my heart needed to pound harder, a third toucan perched atop the tree, prompting the two males to begin jousting with their massive colorful beaks for her attention. This was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had the honor of experiencing. The rain, the bright, yellow chests of the birds against the green trees behind them- I was watching two delicate Dimorphadons duel for a damsel— a behavior the coordinators said they’ve never seen, even while growing up in Costa Rica.

This was actually the fourth wild toucan I saw, but it is the same species as the ones in this story.

As an artist, I always appreciate the colors of nature. When I watched wild toucans spar in the rain, my appreciation evolved into teeth-gritting obsession. I’ve never been to an art museum and fallen in love with a piece of art, but there are connoisseurs who do, and who pay tens of thousands of dollars to experience that love. After this experience, I’ve finally been lucky enough to fall in love with a perfect scene, all because I peeked.

Me with some rescued babies at the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Not wild, but still marvelous little creatures.
Me with some rescued babies at the Toucan Rescue Ranch. Not wild, but still marvelous little creatures.cropped-pieces-of-pangea-logo.png

Sun Rays & Stingrays

Staring over the balcony in the middle of the ocean will heal any over-sized ego. Look any direction and you’ll see vast blue waves kissing the immeasurable horizon. Occasionally, a silver sparkle highlights the presence of a school of fish darting near the surface.

I promised myself that if my girlfriend and I last five years, I’d make up for the lackluster anniversaries and birthdays preceding. We agreed to give each other experiences rather than materials, so here we are, on a cruise ship hugging the tip of the peninsula between Progresso and Cozumel, Mexico.

Exploring the city
Exploring the city

I earned my degree in communications, but my goal is to be a professional sunset chaser. As I lean against this balcony with a salty breeze sculpting my hair, the wind catches the undersides of my unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt, whipping it in a motion similar to that of the animals I had met underwater a few hours prior.

Pangea iguana

Related to the shark and dangerous in their own way, stingrays are hunted for their meat and hide. For a $60 fee— taxi ride included— we explored a string ray reserve in Cozumel. They had a number of different stingrays— mainly southern stingrays, most rescued from fisherman and other threatening situations. The reserve offered cold drinks and beach-side relaxation, all to be enjoyed after a dive in the fenced-in coral nursery. The fence was large enough to allow native tropical fish to swim through the spaces and investigate the various sections of the coral nursery, but after moments of exploration in the deep area, we realized the fences were for keeping animals in, not out.

Stingrays in all their elegance
Stingrays in all their elegance

Enormous stingrays— ranging in size from two to ten feet— flapped their fins as they flew toward us. They moved like graceful creatures of a dream. Our apprehension faded quickly— these shark cousins came in peace, and as they surrounded us under water, we pet their silky, slimy hide, polished by crystal blue water. Their smiling mouths under their bodies sucked small pieces of squid from our hands as we trembled with excitement.

Riding the ray
Riding the ray

Take a look at the video I took underwater from my GoPro:

Being underwater mystified the experience with muddled sounds, colorful fish, and random bubbles catching glimmers of sunlight. The rays remained serene and glided across the sand, like a squadron of disc-shaped hovercrafts searching for squid from our hands. They really enjoyed squid.

Sergeant major damselfish swarmed us as we dove
Sergeant major damselfish swarmed

The center released the babies in local reefs in an effort to sustain the population of Mexican stingrays in the face of poaching. It’s nice to spend time with an organization that gives back, especially when you get to float in a daydream with magical sand discs.


An Unfortunate Bathroom Break

Sloths relieve themselves once a week, and it’s the only time you’ll see one climb to the forest floor. I was “lucky” enough to witness this in person, as the fuzzy alien gripped the base of a thin tree with his claws, smiling at me as he did his business behind the trunk. That’s probably all the context you need to walk through this memory with me.

Finishing his business in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa REica
Finishing his business in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Sweat stung my eyes. When our coordinator told us we could spend our afternoon on the beach, everyone let out a sigh of relief. The students were young and from the city, so the rainforest humidity was a little much for us. As beautiful as the beach was, I didn’t know how many times I’d be able to hike through the Costa Rican rainforest, so a girl named Andrea and I snuck back into the foliage to explore while our group laid out on the beach.

The tree canopy strained the sunlight, resulting in a grey, pre-rainstorm hue. We crunched through the leaves, sliding down a hill and grasping vines for stability. Insects were screaming and monkeys were rustling, but the forest was eerily silent. My ears tuned into the trickling of a stream, logically at the bottom of the hill we were scaling. When the ground evened out, we sank half an inch into the moist earth; still no running water. Purple, tropical crabs darted in and out of muddy holes. At the time, there hadn’t been especially heavy rainfall, so the stream was thin and shallow when we found it.

We caught our breath and appreciated the beauty of the flowing creek. About 10 feet to my left, the stream deepened as it curved around a stone cliff. Keep in mind we were at the bottom of a gorge. We sat in silence. I noticed how the sunlight reflected off of the water and onto the stone wall as the water slithered into a shallow pool.The sunlight flickered and danced, when suddenly:

SPLOOSH, SPLASH and CLAMP, CLOMP sounds launched my eyebrows to the top of my forehead. Scaly jaws exploded from the pool tossing around a bleeding fuzzy mammal.

Rainforest Surprise
Rainforest Surprise from my camera

There’s something in your bones that locks up when a predator exposes itself to you. It saw us, considering it was peering at us from a distance I could have long-jumped in high school. This croc wasn’t massive, but still, NOT something you’d expect in a clear, shallow stream. I have since spent plenty of time with large crocodilians, including wild 20 footers on the Tárcoles River with one of our H.E.A.T. Abroad trips. Most crocs prefer dark, muddy water they can disappear into. They also enjoy basking in direct sunlight, another reason I was so surprised to see one in the deep forest.

Wild 15 footer in the Tárcoles River
Wild 15 footer in the Tárcoles Rivermud crock

Of course, while the dinosaur was thrashing in the water 10 feet away, I wasn’t trying to make sense of why it was there. Rather, I was instinctively scrolling through the basic files in my head.

“Am I too close?”

“Should I sprint or remain frozen?”

I soon realized the reason behind its thrashing- the croc was tearing apart a sloth it had been holding under water (presumably to drown it) upon our arrival. Knowing a thing or two about reptile behavior, I decided to creep closer, since the croc was most likely focused on keeping its trophy clenched in between its jaws rather than trying to add me to the menu. Just for good measure, I kept a streamside bolder between the animal and myself. The croc saw me approaching and sank to the bottom, only three inches under the clear surface. The stream was only a few feet wider than the crocodile, but he was determined to convince us he was a smooth river rock so we’d leave him to his kill.

A blurry photo of me by the wild croc
A blurry photo of me by the wild croc

I soon left him to enjoy his meal after a photo. No one knows why the crocodile was in a hilly forest stream- the rangers I later spoke with said they’d never seen anything like that. Perhaps it was someone’s released pet. In my opinion, it’s just another of the many creatures adopting new survival strategies and adapting to new environments, some that we may not expect.

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Introduction: The Capture of Wonder

Pangea can only be found by the star-gazers and sunset-chasers. The life-lovers and the wind-inhalers. The picture-takers and the memory-makers.

Traveling to sea kayak in Alaska
The mirror captures more than the camera. Exploring Alaska

From elves of fairy tales to Santa’s flying reindeer, mystical creatures entranced me as a child. My most gripping obsession was with Pokemon. I was quite literally in love with the shimmering scenery and the mentality that a ten-year-old and his friends could set out to capture and befriend powerful creatures. Looking back as a man in his 20s, I notice the crude Japanese elegance in the artwork, portraying both people and bright-eyed, magical “pocket monsters.”

Ash, the protagonist, saw a legendary Ho-oh fly over a rainbow in the first episode and no one could tell him what it was. He and his friends once discovered a rare moon rock surrounded by nymph-like Clafairy (their name is both singular and plural). A lurid scientist explained the peculiar connection between these small pink sprites and outer space. It was an enchanting episode.


My surreal dreams of Pokemon adventures were innocent and beautiful. In my youth, I couldn’t bear to acknowledge that Pokemon were not real. I feel a bit disgusted with myself for even typing that sentence, as I reflect on my pseudo-scientific debates, eagerly trying to prove their existence to my grade school non-believers.

I still dream about magical creatures with super-powers. Today’s dreams are not fantasy, but rather, excited preparation for real-life encounters. From my work at a chimpanzee sanctuary to my trips around the world, I now devote my free time to experiencing fantastic creatures that give me the same giddy amazement as a child watching Pokemon.

My pet flying squirrel is named Feathertail. She has the agility of your average tree squirrel, but is a quarter of the size, has night vision, and glides through the air like a swift paper plane. Sounds like a Pokemon, right?

Keeping my shirt pocket warm
Gliding from my shower curtain
Gliding from my shower curtain

The animals on Earth seem more miraculous every day. This planet is home to sharks—massive, prehistoric fish that continuously grow teeth for the sake of efficient killing, putting them next to our orange-stripped jungle cats and snow-white arctic bears—all designed for being bad-asses. These would be your strongest 120 HP Pokemon for all of you who played the card game.

The colors and patterns of ocean fish could inspire a 70’s hippie poster. Dart frogs, along with most amphibians and reptiles, could have been designed by a third-grader with a rainbow paint set. Have you ever seen a cassowary? Or any bird, really. Some parrot’s intelligence rivals that of a three-year old human. They can speak, and are capable of understanding some words and their context. How likely is it that a chameleon looks the way it does? A color-changing reptile with a prehensile tail and a missile for a tongue? An adult male Panther chameleon looks like concept art for a James Cameron movie.

I learned that people committed suicide after the release of “Avatar” because they felt that our planet could never be as cool as the movie’s planet, “Pangea.” We are floating in space, on a planet covered in oceans, swimming with some creatures science has yet to identify. We have deserts with dinosaur fossils yet to be discovered. Why are we not packing our bags and exploring our planet?  What an honorable position we’ve inherited from our forefathers: Earth Explorers – seeking the secrets of our planet and finding the secrets of our own history.

I’m not emphasizing the mountains, rain forests and other astonishing geographical settings. Let’s simply focus on how much beauty, danger, and wonder is hidden right here, under the leaves in the park down the street. Fantasy is free. We can atrophy as we live in our heads, but I prefer to emulate the Pokemon masters I looked up to as a kid, and capture moments of wonder.

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My trip to Australia begins in T-40 days.