Friday, 23 May 2014

A Lesson Learnt: Safety in Numbers

Apologies for the recent lack of blog posts. It is currently school report writing season; a time when trying to maintain a healthy work/life balance is in no way possible and even sitting down to watch the news for 10 minutes is regarded as a waste of precious time.

Having said this, I have had the opportunity to escape to a place called Picnic Beach on two occasions. The first time, Adrian and I went on our own with absolutely no knowledge of the area or just what we were in for. The second time, we went with a mature-aged couple who Adrian vaguely knew from back home in Bega, NSW  (we just  happened to be swimming in the same river as them a week earlier) and a car load of Indigenous people who work with them in Umbakumba; one of which is a traditional land owner.
In this post I will share with you a recount written by Adrian the day after our first adventure. In a post that will shortly follow, I will tell you about our vastly different experience at Picnic Beach the second time around when accompanied by a group of Indigenous locals.  Please check back soon as I will hopefully share this within the next few days.

Water bottles? Check. Fishing rods? Check. Land permits? Check. We slid the freshly printed plastic cards into our wallets and told Willy (our black lab) he wasn't welcome this time round. It'd just gone lunch time and we were in high hopes of seeing something special, just the two of us.
 
We plotted our course for Umbakumba on the north eastern side of the island about 40 minutes from home. After passing the airport and driving through the low-level water crossing, the road straightened out and we watched the roadside flora gradually shift from rainforest to low-level eucalyptus forest struggling to gain nutrients in the sandstone soils. Before European settlement, I imagine the whole island would have been in abundance with earthy trunks and woody branches.
 
We slowly rolled into Umbakumba, going the designated 40km/h. Driving through the open streets, it seemed as though Gemco's maintenance budget mustn't have spanned beyond Alyangula. I imagine that if it weren't for the abundance of Gemco miners, Alyangula would be as basic and tired looking as this small town.


Umbakumba’s residents are mostly Indigenous folk, with only a hand full of white fellas who work in the community living in similar houses scattered around. The town has one very basic food store (with prices even higher than Alyangula), a Centrelink office and a school resembling a jail with steel roller doors to prevent break ins and vandalism. After a few minutes, we decided that we’d seen enough and consulted our one and only poorly illustrated map on how to reach Mamalingmanja (Picnic Beach).

We took roads leading to various dead–ends, old dumping grounds or narrow tracks that were eventually swallowed up by the dense shrubs. We’d almost had enough (I know that Casey certainly had) but our persistence paid off when we began to follow a track that took us on a bumpy tour towards the coast.
We encountered our first hurdle when we came to what looked like a shallow water crossing roughly 15 metres long. My first thought was to jump out and walk the depth, but with another four-wheel drive quickly approaching, I made the fleeting decision to jump out and lock the hubs and take the risk. I eased the front wheels in slowly and cautiously, then, without warning the whole front end seemed to disappear. Water was washing over my bonnet (which stands 1.5m off the ground). I had a sudden blood rush as the possibility of losing my Landcruiser to this watery grave filled my thoughts. Nevertheless, I remained silent for Casey's sake and all I could do was keep power to the wheels and hope to see the nose pop out of the water. Much to my relief, the crisis didn’t eventuate as the Landcruiser pulled itself to safety. I almost felt foolish to have even doubted its capabilities.
We continued our journey down the narrow train-track like strip of sandy dirt which had a band of low-lying vegetation neatly maintained in the centre by the frequent traffic of weekend campers and adventure seekers. With another vehicle hot at our heels, we became excited as we thought we must be getting close. We reached a point that allowed for many detours, which is where we lost the other car and began to doubt ourselves yet again. Before we knew it, we were travelling on a path which seemed to be less travelled; and for good reason. I was faced with tight lefts and rights as the track weaved its way through the coastal bush land. We’d been travelling for 15–20 minutes at about 10km/h before we spotted the coastal sand dunes towering well over 40 metres. The track abruptly turned into fine-grained sand and made driving that little bit more difficult.
The thought of no telephone service along with being ten kilometres deep in thick bush started to slightly worry me. We were warned that driving alone in bush on the island wasn’t a good idea, but of course this really only sinks in when you have your own bad experience. I started conjuring up worst-case scenarios and how I would tackle them. Catastrophizing is the best way to describe my frame of mind as dramatic images flooded in. I quickly filed through all of them. Deadly snake bite, crocodiles and all imaginable creepy crawlies through to spending cold nights in the car and walking out of the bush with torn clothing and 10-days worth of beard growth like in the movies.
As we bounced over built up patches of sand, we could see little glistening triangles of ocean through overlapping tree branches; much sparser than before. The only thing keeping us from reaching the ocean was a 150 metre barrier of soft, white sand. Each car that had driven the same route had left its mark by channeling a deeper trench into the sandy road. I had no choice but to follow these deep earthworks because any attempt to change direction would have undoubtedly gotten us bogged. The wheels sat so deep into the sandy channels that the car was steering itself through the bush.
Eventually we reached a fork in the road. A left turn lead onto timber slats laid by the land council; a system allowing cars to gain more traction than driving on sand alone. The timber ribbing resembling a cattle grid about 2.5m wide and looked as though it led directly down to the beach. Much to my amazement, the tire tracks veered to the right, suggesting that the locals must love a challenge. I decided not to disrupt my car’s desire to follow along the soft sand and looked over to see the corners of Casey’s mouth form downward creases in disapproval.
Fifty metres ahead we came to a sign reading ‘NO ENTRY NO PUBLIC ACCESS’. Terrific! I had Casey shouting “No, No, NO!” whilst I kept rolling forward; cautious of becoming stuck if I stopped. I had to start making efforts towards turning my tank of a car around within the space of a living room. The wheels were throwing sand in the air as I completed what seemed like a 40-point-turn before heading back toward the slats. We had a small hill to climb so I started to gain as much speed as possible. We started well, but slowly came to an agonizing stop. I went backwards, then forwards, then backwards again. Yes. We were stuck! Casey remained mostly silent; probably occupying her mind with the same stranded and dying scenario I had let slip into my mind earlier. I jumped out to see sand engulfing my tyres. It’s all the way up to the wheel nuts and over the tow ball. I started digging. I had a method in mind. I’d start leveling out sand on all four wheels to the base of each tyre and try again. I put the car into reverse and powered out of the holes until we reached a shallow patch of sand. I put the gear back into drive and we aimed for the slats that seemed so close, yet so unreachable. The Landcruiser was screaming in pain, yet wasn’t really moving anywhere. We started shifting our upper bodies forward and back in a desperate attempt to assist with momentum. And whatta’ know, we became free! I like to think that it was in-fact our cartoon-like movements that helped free our struggling heap of metal; and for our stories sake it sounds much more appealing anyway.
Now that the visual of a snake engulfing our heads had evaporated from our minds just as quickly as it had entered moments early, the trip became enjoyable again and I announced in relief that ‘the worst was over’.
We were greeted by vast blue ocean as we cruised down onto the beach. The horizon was so wide it looked as though it was frowning at us. A small freshwater creek marked the entry to the road where clean, crisp water trickled over a bed of immaculately formed sea shells before reaching the ocean. It was a picture perfect day so I started snapping away while Casey quickly got to work collecting various shells, some of which we’d never seen before. We both took solo dips in the ocean while the other was summoned to ‘croc watch’ duty. The sun beamed down and the water was so warm you could swim for hours; had it not been the home of a number of large salties.
Casey was happy to be out of the car
Adrian swimming cautiously in croc inhabited water

Whilst Casey combed the beach happily, I quickly explored the area hoping to find an easier exit. With no luck, I hurried Casey along and we agreed to come back again soon; perhaps with some friends to save us from the stressful ordeal we’d found ourselves in.

Casey looking pleased with her shell collection
This time there was no laughter or jokes as I started the car up. We both kept our faces forward as I drove towards the timber slats. I started to gain speed as soon as I could, preparing my wheels for the sandy climb. I gave it all it’s got and started charging through the sand like a runaway camel. I was gripping the wheel with all my strength whilst watching the sand fly out from my front arches. I felt like I should be yelling out words of encouragement like “Come on, you can do it!” Instead I remained quiet, and focused on keeping my foot flat to the floor.
We made it. I almost felt as though I shouldn’t have doubted my car’s capabilities once more, putting our previous experience down to ‘back luck’. We began to loosen up and the laughter and jokes started once more as we headed for home.