Prey

I crawled up the sand away from the other divers desperately clutching at my chest. My breaths shallow, useless, unable to satisfy my burning lungs. I rolled to my back, sand and saliva mixing grainy on my face. Trying desperately to fill my tightened lungs with air I gasp and swallow as I wrestle my wetsuit to my waist.  I whispered to myself, ‘Moses is right; this may be all in your head.’

 

Moses and I rolled off the bow at Silk Cayes, three pronged sling spears in our hand. We signalled our descent and ducked below the white caps to the calmness of a slow ocean current. Normally an advocate of taking only memories and leaving only bubbles, today we were diving with a purpose. There was a predator on the loose. One that needed to be eradicated.

Lionfish are introduced in the Caribbean. According to local legend a resort’s fish tank broke so they threw the Lionfish into the ocean. From there, having no predators, the Lionfish have multiplied in numbers and are eating all the reef fish on the Belizean coral reef. They can consume thirty juvenile fish in a minute and can reduce certain species of fish by up to 80% in an area within a five day period. Against all other instincts, today I am a hunter.

The coral in the clear warm waters off Belize inspires an inner tranquillity. Angelfish and Parrotfish brighten the scene, Jackfish school in a twisting cloud that bends and reforms as we pass and a lazy Grouper watches on as we scour the gradient of the reef.

Lurking in the coral recesses, the Lionfish hang in suspended animation, rocking gently on the ebb and flow. Their beautifully striped red, cream and black colouration and elaborate fins a warning to their protruding venomous spines.

The Lionfish venom won’t kill a human, but it will make you wish you were dead. I keep a respectful distance as I line my shot.

At first I wasn’t very accurate and managed to “scare” more than I speared. But as we traversed the lower realms of the reef I got the hang of it and soon was dragging a couple of dozen in the bucket behind me.

I looked across to a Black Tipped Reef Shark trailing to my right. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are generally not aggressive. They are beautiful, timid and social. Since making my way to Belize to dive the Blue Hole I had many wonderful up close encounters with these curious sharks.

At six foot and over a hundred kilograms I was genuinely excited to see this shark moving in and out of my periphery. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are quite harmless…. except when you are dragging a bucket of dead fish behind you and then they are considered extremely dangerous.

As this dawns on me, I look behind me. Another shark emerged and another and above another. Four sharks, excited by the smell of the blood of the fish in the water. Casing us.

One by one, they came into sight and then disappeared into the blue. No longer objects to be marvelled at. They were now vicious and energetic hunters, their eyes beady and foreboding, focussing on Moses and I. The hunters had become the prey.

I tap the fins of Moses ahead, signal that something is wrong and raise my hand flat, sideways and vertical against my forehead. He points at his eyes and signals we move ahead. The sinister outline of their pointed snout and blackened dorsal prowling across our perimeter, skirting the margins then darting away.

We flee across the base of the reef, escaping the predation of a pack of menacing sharks. Through the watery depths, my heart racing, fins kicking double time. Sharks following frighteningly close.

I look again to my air supply. As this was my first spear fishing experience, I had failed to fully appreciate how quickly you can use the air in your tank as you exert yourself at depth.

I signalled to Moses again that something was wrong. This time signalling that I only had 25 bar left in my tank. I cursed myself for my stupidity. An advanced diver I knew better than to get myself in this situation. I looked up towards the surface as a figure casts an alarming shadow. 25 bar wasn’t enough to get me to the surface with an appropriate safety stop.

We signal to each other to head towards the surface and to stop at 5 metres. If we don’t wait there for 5 minutes we put ourself at great risk of decompression sickness.

Suspended in the blue we float, bubbles trailing to the surface. The sharks return, circling below us. I count five now. My tank is nearly exhausted, the sound of our strained breathing and my heartbeat in my ears the only sound.

As my tank empties I grab Moses’ emergency buddy regulator and we both pull the remaining air from the one tank for the rest of our safety stop, silently keeping a watching eye for the sharks. It was getting quite tough to pull the air through the regulator from Moses’ tank into my lungs when Moses signalled it was time to surface. Moses looks at his watch, gives me the OK and I start to ascend.

As we fin to the surface I look around, I cant see the sharks. There is only one thing worse than seeing a pack of frenzied sharks in your midst and that is not seeing them. Then Moses’ watch starts sounding. This was his dive watch telling him it was not safe to surface yet. We waited another minute but his dive watch was still going crazy. Moses signals for me to surface. I pause. We can’t ascend too quickly after diving so deep but there was no choice, we had no more air. I look down, still can’t see the sharks.

I sat on the back of the boat as we made our way to the nearest island. My chest tight, unable to take a full breath, lungs felt like they were burning. Moses sits next to me explaining he thinks his watch is broken, “we are ok, no problem, we are safe up.” I wasn’t so sure. “Its no problem Robbo, this…” he points at my labouring chest, ” this in your head.”

 

I lay on the beach, half in the water. The sun warming my tanned skin. The fire down the beach wafting grilling Lionfish and the flow of the wave gently rising to my navel. The clouds above stretch across the blue, interrupted by a palm fidgeting and rearranging its shadow. I roll my eyes closed, concentrating only on my breathing. Deep, slow, I breathed.

Eventually I return to the group, a plate of Lionfish awaiting me. The crew and some local islanders enjoying the merits of our excursion in a postcard perfect scene. I pull up a patch of driftwood near Moses. “You ok Robbo?” he enquires.

“I think so Moses, I just had to give myself a good talking to. I’m alright now”

“We will go down again then after lunch?” He queries, picking at the remains of his fish

“Absolutely mate, I wouldn’t miss it.”

The Pofadder

We start on our afternoon walking safari through the Okavango Delta, the sun still hanging high in the sky. A light breeze occasions our sweaty skin providing a momentary reprieve to the oppressive heat. The dry open fields of bush and savannah grassland framed by fingers of delta water carving through the dryness.

Ahead of us an unsuspecting Pofadder basks in the sun, camouflaging itself in the dryness of the grass. Bitis arietans, is a particularly aggressive biter and is answerable for more fatalities than any other snake in Africa. Preferring to bite rather than avoid confrontation it releases a cytotoxin venom, which in the remoteness of the Delta is likely to result in a best case scenario of the victim losing the limb this viper strikes.

We head out along a thin trail carved by animals through the savannah grass. Master, a member of the local Bayei Tribe and expert tracker in the Delta helping me lead the group. He has been training me to track animals through the bush, to decipher the subtle notes of broken twigs and tracks. I recall my many failed attempts when I started this training. At each track in the dirt he would point.

“Wildebeest?” I would look at him like a student eager to please his teacher

“No Robbo”

Hartebeast?”

“No”

A sounder of warthogs run by, tails in the air as a guide to the scurrying suckers following an impatient mum. The babble of the Delta waterways close by, keeping inconsistent time, occasioned by a stirring bush. The whisper of the breeze through the Mopani trees only interrupted by the coos of tourists spotting something big in the distance.

Our group stops momentarily to observe a cohort of zebra grazing across the expanse. No fences, no vehicles, in a line we pause to appreciate the wildness of it all before starting out again. We try to keep our footfall light on the dusty track, eyes keenly scanning the scene for hints of wild in the dry savannah.

The Pofadder ahead recoils, ready to strike.

Overhead the shrill and ominous cries of an African Fish Eagle, the sound of the African wild, signals the danger unfolding. The grass reaches up, slowing our steps, pulling us at our legs in an attempt to prevent our path to the wickedness ahead. But a sinister trap had already been laid and we were about to be under attack.

The Pofadder strikes. Silently, swiftly. I saw nothing, heard nothing, only the barking and high pitched braying of the zebra as two long fangs inject a venomous cocktail deep into the fleshy skin. The victim jumps back in a terrifying and futile panic. Kicking out as the Pofadder recoils, resets, pausing as the heavy feet of our group push up the trail.

Again the Pofadder strikes. A new victim now. Master and I turn to see the terror in her eyes as the serpents powerful thrust sends frantic and repeated blows to the ankle of one of my female passengers.

This second attack however was thwarted. The Pofadder’s mouth was still full of frog. Its first victim kicking, sheathing the viper’s fangs. The girl jumps away with a shriek and the Pofadder retreats back into obscurity in the grass.

Our hearts race frantic. We stand there all scanning the ground for further terror before composing ourselves to continue cautiously forward. A close escape. Fortunately for us, not so fortunate was the poor frog.

Want Power?

I follow the rope down. The blue slowly suffocates the light as I keep my eyes fixed on the braided cord.  Every few metres I lower my hand to my mask to equalize the pressure building on my face. Upside down. I follow the rope still. Down into the blue.

At twenty metres I grope for the weights at the bottom of the rope, my breath running low. I feel I’ve been underwater too long already. My chest tightens as I straighten and look back up towards the surface. Its too far and I first feel my lungs start to burn. A desire to swallow filling my mind to distraction I start my ascent. My diaphragm starts to tremble. Fighting to breathe I foolishly open my mouth, it floods with water causing me to cough.

“Calm yourself Robbo” I repeat in my mind, “you’ve trained for this.” My blood is still fully enriched with Oxygen. “You don’t need to breathe” I tell myself.

I close my eyes. I feel tired. I try and concentrate on my slow kicks to the surface, searching for the power to overcome the desperation in my lungs.

*****

“Something… want something?”  A murmur comes from a local boy as I pass. I’d have questioned whether he was even talking to me if there was anyone else remotely close. “Hey, you want something, want power?”

I continue walking down the dirt road to the centre of town, picking my way around puddles in the street and dodging a Shetland horse drawn cart. Wooden shop fronts with thatched roofs line the strip. Restaurants, bars, yoga studios, and dive shops. Purveyors of tours and Bintang and ice cream attempt to prise me from my path.

I had made it to Gili Trawangan in Indonesia to learn to free dive. The goal was to dive on one breath to a depth of 20 metres. Each day my instructor Victor refined my technique. Victor is the second best freediver in the Ukraine and he can dive to 85 metres. Mike who owns Gili Freedive is the British champion who reaches depths of 103 metres on a single breath. I am in awe of these guys. Baby steps.

After two days of exercises and training, breaking through the mental urge to breathe and the physical symptoms of CO2 build up I surfaced to the cheers of Victor and my fellow students. Mission accomplished. This evening I am out on the town ready to relax and celebrate over dinner.

Travellers pock the road. Their hair braided and skin deeply tanned. There are no cars on Gili Trawangan. Travellers walk, take a cart or ride a push bike. The horses were not well maintained and one had already bitten me on the hip as it passed, leaving a bruise and who knows what rabies type mad horse disease it might be carrying.

Another man sidles next to me on the road. “You want something, you want power?”

It is said some of the locals are on crystal meth and they will approach you trying to sell you drugs to support their habit. Some follow you into the toilets, they stand next to you while you are peeing and pull out a bag of weed. Others simply prop up next to you at a bar and pull out a little box with bags of cocaine, HDMA, crack and ice. They refer to drugs as power. “You want something?” they would ask.

I start out down the road and immediately am beckoned towards a pizza shop. I stopped to give courtesy to the tout, pointing out to him though that there was a mouse in the window walking on the toppings. He acknowledged that it was in fact a mouse. “Good eye, please come and sit.” I don’t.

I move further along to the town centre. Under a mish mash of tarps, strung across a square concrete football field, the smoke wafts from coal BBQs, the heat being fanned to cook fish, rays, crustaceans, and local chicken. Aromas swirling through the mugginess around cats on the ground, Christmas lights hanging early or really really late flashing in one corner, across seafood stalls, laden with today’s catch under melting ice blocks and the more than occasional fly.

Locals are choosing their dinner, the newer tourists with a little more care circling a couple of times before committing or moving to a more “western” restaurant.  Bintang and fresh juices adorn pink lino covered wooden bench tables. Travellers are picking through charred fish and their day’s adventures in tongues from across the world. The smoke thickens, the sweet clove smell of Gudang Guram cigarettes linger in the air, I feel totally in place.

After dinner my dive buddies and I find an outdoor bar with live music. Travellers walk past us on the street as we settle in for the evening.

A guy selling DVDs comes by intently trying to sell his wares, surely this is a diminishing business that once flourished in South East Asia.

A guy walks by intently trying to sell some portable Bintang speakers. I have seen this guy no less than 10 times in the last few days and every time he played Sultans of Swing. He must really like that song, or by now really hate it.

A guy walks by selling woven bracelets… intently.

As we talk a local man is grabbing at my arm. “Want power?” he mutters. His eyes look through me, his clothes dirty and torn, face shifty and world worn. I politely decline as he pulls up a stool directly behind us. He opens his box of drugs and puts his feet on the back of my chair. Again he grabs me with his rough hands “what you want? Again I politely fob him off.

He interrupts us again, now bragging about taking HDMA that morning. He looks left and right down the street. “The high very good, you want?”

“No mate I don’t”

His partner in crime hassling a couple nearby spun around, his pupils like saucers, pronounced aloud “I take crack. You want something?” He grabs a bag of HDMA and tosses it into my lap. I pick it up urgently and throw it back at him.

“Why you scared?” he demands.

“Im not scared, I’m tired and you are annoying me” I replied curtly

“Tired huh? You just need some power!”

An African Morning

The shimmering mirage creating a river in front of us through the barren and alien landscape. Cruising through Kuisab Canyon, the sky is bright, the koppies familiar, plummeting into a maelstrom of ravines. A series of striated earthy colour surrounds us and creates a back drop in a study of browns. The wind is given form by the dust trailing our truck…. I know this road.

I had now been guiding in Africa for the best part of a year. We head north through Namibia and make our bush camp.

Sleeping in the bush can be confusing. The groans, gasps and cries in the night of animals I didn’t know initially disorientate years of conditioning. But now I am woken by a noise. It was a familiar sound and I lay there. Still. I feel the stony ground through my swag against my back. Breathing slowly and silently, terrified. Skin prickly, I hear the throaty exhalation of a male lion. Listening intently, trying to determine distance….. “huh….. huh….. huuuuhh”. It’s close, very close. I lift my head, ever so slowly and look into the darkness. There are no other points of reference. I can’t see anything. Slowly I release my arm from my swag, and ever so stealthily I reach behind me and grab hold of the side panel of the truck. Slowly I pull myself under the truck and peek out from under it.

Another low grumbling growl comes from the darkness. My hands tremble as I reach for my swag and pull it under with me. For the next hour, I keep a silent vigil. Eventually I fall asleep, satisfied the roar of the lion is now miles from me.

I wake up, as always just before dawn, crawl out from under the truck and kick the Black Backed Jackals away from the base of my swag. I wrap my maasai blanket around me, light my cigarette and move to tend the smouldering coals of last night’s campfire to life, grinning that Rod is also under the truck up the other end. He obviously faced his own midnight confrontations with the passing pride.

My Grandfather used to tell me pre-dawn was the best part of the day. It won’t be long until the older of the tourists stir but until then this is my time. The air is crisp and so still it can noticeably be disrupted by the turbulence of movement. The sky sand washed, dust cleansed, incrementally shading to blue. I stand there, the coldest part of the night. Watching the movement of elephant, of buck, of monkey as a side show to my focus on the horizon. Gripping the maasai blanket tight around my shoulders as I light another cigarette. Enjoying the cool against my face that barges past the fluttering edges of my blanket. And then the sun pokes up. The expanse providing room for awakening clouds to battle, tumble and streak away. Levitating herds grip the pinks and dissolve into the blues.

Sometimes a passenger gets up and tries to join me in conversation “Wait…..” I would say “listen, watch” and we stand there waiting for the brightness of the sun’s orange to force a squint upon us and the heat rush our faces. Then you notice the beating of wings. The birds darting through the tousled head of the tree tops, the hum of the insects keeping one pitch, then the whisper of the morning breeze through the acacia. I never believed my Grandfather until now.

Silently we stand, connecting. It’s a failure of the western world that it becomes an awkwardness when the silence lingers and inevitably nature’s magic is broken. I’m never the first to speak but when they do it is always in some blessing of the wild. It doesn’t matter. The troops are rising, back to the fire to get breakfast organised and to discuss the sounds everyone heard last night and their hypotheses on the creatures from which they emanated.

The Bucket List

I finally found my travel bucket list. It was the list that was supposed to remind me to keep living. It consisted of the exotic, the dangerous, and the far off places. It embodied my traveller past and beckoned for me to dust it off, or more to the point to put it to use and get it dusty again.

I shuffled through the list of destinations and experiences. Dive sites. Monuments. Villages. Drawing a line through those I had conquered. Pondering the next secretly, never to be shared. Worried to some a list of this type would seem boastful and privileged, and to others unsophisticated and pedestrian.

To me it was a plan. A purpose. A structured approach to whimsy and spontaneity. An insurance policy to assure myself I wouldn’t lie in my grave wondering if I gave myself completely to using my days on earth well. I lay back, remembering. Perhaps the memory is still an important part of the journey.

But I shouldn’t confuse travelling with the journey. The journey lingers. As I grow from a combination of experiences. The journey lingers through reflection, through a change in perspective. As the past settles and cements, the journey continues. Travelling however can only exist in the today.

I hope my travel bucket list inspires a journey in you and I look forward to your comments and any helpful additions to my journey.

Taj Mahal, India

Everest Base Camp, Nepal

Three Games of Man, Mongolia

Blue Hole, Belize

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Humpback Whales, Niue

Great Wall, China

Machu Picchu, Peru

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Stonehenge, United Kingdom

Petra, Jordan

Qin Terracotta Soldiers, China

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Whitewater Rafting on the Zambezi Rapids, Zimbabwe

Deer Cave, Borneo

Foz Du Iguazu, Brazil

Arora Borealis in Tromso, Norway

Tulum, Mexico

Cinque Terra, Italy

Wildebeest Migration, Tanzania

Island Hop in the Caribbean

Captain a sailboat through the South Pacific

Amazon, Bolivia

Galapogas Islands, Equador

Madagascar

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Parthenon, Greece

Over Water Bungalow, Bora Bora

Havana, Cuba

Full Moon Party, Thailand

Hogmanay, Scotland

Dive with Great White Sharks, South Africa

Gorilla Trek, Democratic Republic of Congo

Antarctica

Anzac Day, Turkey

Whale Sharks, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Munich Beer Fest, Germany

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Cruise Route 66, United States

Dive Sipidan, Borneo

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Sky Dive over the Namib, Namibia

Bungee Jump Bloukraans, South Africa

Running of the Bulls in Pampelona, Spain 

Grand Canyon, United States

Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Masaii Mara, Kenya

La Tomatina Festival in Bunol, Spain

Easter Island

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Dive the Yucatan Cenotes, Mexico

Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Moments that take your breath away

It took the briefest of moments for the excitement to build. The distractions of working life distant. Her back arched and then down below the cresting waves she dove, her tail seemingly beckoning we follow as it glided into the water. I looked at my dive master. “Robbo, jump in and tell us where she goes.” I nodded and I was in.

I didn’t think and I didn’t have time to hesitate. I was on the verge of something truly remarkable. A moment that embodied the word wonderful and I was seizing it.

The water off Niue, a small rock island in the middle of the South Pacific between Tonga and Samoa is warm and clear. There is little dirt or sand on the island to reduce visibility off its shores.  Its soft embrace rushed my skin as my mask plunged into the water searching frantically. Sunlight streaming in shards through crystal clarity adding a further tranquillity to the whale song in the sub terrain.

Then I spotted her in the distance. I called out to my eagerly awaiting comrades on the boat and I swam. I swam for all I was worth until I caught up to her. I swam until she was directly below. I swam, keeping my eyes fixed on her. Twelve metres of grace and power. Her knobbly head looking up at me. Dorsal protrusion, bumpy pectoral fins and greyish skin shimmering in the water.

She slowed. Watching me curiously. Almost not moving she floats next to me. I imagine she is as inquisitive as I. Maybe I was the first human she had seen. Closer to the surface she rises until she is about 10 metres below me. She rolls slightly to one side, eying me off. This is when her calf makes its first appearance peeking out from below his mother’s belly. She guides her calf to view this strange looking creature on the surface before tucking him away.

I stop still, giving her the respect of distance from her and her baby. She gave a flick of her tail and shot ahead about twenty metres. Again she arched her large back. I stopped to watch her, expecting her to disappear into the blue when she turned and swam back towards me. Maybe wondering why our encounter had ended, maybe she thought I was too close. I floated still. Rotating in the water she hovered, vertical, opposite me. Her white underbelly and large white fins outstretched. We watched each other. Silently she scanned. I looked away only to grab a quick breath and returning to gaze deep into her eyes.

Then in one swift move, her tail beat and fins pushed in a downward motion. Up towards the surface she rushed. Her magnificent body effortless through the water in front of me. Her head breeching the water as I raise my head from ocean to air. Up she climbed, so close I could barely take in the whole of her frame. Further until her whole body was now out of the water. Almost pausing as if trapped in suspended animation in the sky a metre or so above the water.

And then down, her splash causing waves of wash over my head. Breaking through the wave I choke for air and frantically return my mask to the water.

Looking down I could make out the distant figure of her disappearing with her calf into the blue. I say a silent goodbye and thank you, watching on ‘til the eyes could no longer determine her and my lungs panged for air. I surfaced, breathing in a deep gasp, eyes wide, staring to nothing, treading water in some kind of amazed state right on the edge of where language fails.

Journey to the centre of the Amazon

Off a rickety wooden pier with rotting pylons we step into the river panga and set off through a Rio Negro tributary into the Amazon jungle. Last night’s rain heated steamily adding a voluptuousness to the air and a ghostly mist that hovered inches from the water cutting an eerie corridor through the jungle. Like we had entered the Degobah System we embarked. Below fallen branches spanning part of the waterway, between tight bends and jungle thicket invading the backwater’s space we buzzed, the chattering of our motor the only noise above the insect and birdlife. The jungle dense with obscurity, breathing, heaving.

Our skipper only cutting the engine to drift past precariously close to an outstretched tree snake and to point out an area on the bank where he thought he may have just seen a jaguar in the distance. Other than these occasions we pushed into the dark recesses of the rainforest sending squirrel monkeys, brilliantly coloured macaws and parrots and a leafy wash of interrupted reptiles, scurrying away.

By late afternoon we pulled up to a nondescript bank and scaled its heights as part of a much needed leg stretch. Onto the top of the bank we walked through a grassy clearing before coming to a village of indigenous families. Our greeting party was a small child barely walking, in a pretty but dirty little dress, walking around with a large knife. She waves it at us, cutting the air in play before dropping it to play with an old coca cola bottle.

The village was basic with wooden and grass shelters on bare dark dirt. Our skippers gone, Juan heads out ahead of our group being sized up by the local Indian community, the children clutching at their parent’s legs, peering out from behind them in tentative fascination. Juan comes back to us, from the looks we were receiving it was uncertain whether we were in the right place but he informs us the village chief was on his way to greet us. We stood around, the locals keeping their distance but eyes affixed until a larger bellied man made his way over.

“That one is the chief” he whispered to me, which left me wondering why we were talking like spies in the expanse of the jungle. Juan and the chief spoke in Spanish for a few moments. It was fast and heavy in dialect and I couldn’t understand any of it, but before long Juan calls out to our group pointing in a direction and saying we could stay that way. I thought it rude to stay on someone’s property without having the courtesy of saying hello at least. I walk up to the chief with hand outstretched.

“Hola” I say with a smile.

“Hola” the chief responds.

“Mucho Busto” I say and turned to walk away, satisfied I had shown my politeness. Behind my back the chief grimaced and then looked at Juan all confused like. I was heading back towards the group when Juan catches up to me.

“Pronounce your words” he hisses.

“What did I do?” I question

“Its Mucho Gusto when you are pleased to meet someone, not Mucho Busto”

“Oh, did I say Mucho Busto did i?”

“Yes” he hisses again

“What does Mucho Busto mean?” I query

“You told the chief he has big breasts……”