Trials in Tribulation

The internet has been down in this obscure, tropical corner of the planet for the last few days, and I confess to having been relishing the lack of connection to the outside world for a while. There is a lot to be said for switching off from technology and external expectations for a few days – interesting things start to happen.

I am glad that life’s serendipitous path has led me to this place. It’s only been a few days, but I feel refreshed, stimulated and inspired. I had imagined the Bat House to be a modern, buzzing tourist facility, supported behind the scenes by a state-of-the-art ecological research centre full of industrious scientists racing around with bat nets and drumming out their revelations onto computer keyboards in laboratories. However, as I passed by the dark, empty Bat House building, which looked like it had seen better days even back in the 1960s, and then wandered on through the deserted, dilapidated buildings of the research centre, festooned with dust and golden orb spider webs, I felt a gut-crunching sense of realisation at how wrong my mental image was.

I found the communal area and stared in horror at the germ-fest of a kitchen – dirty dishes were stacked onto every surface, the floor was filthy and cupboards creaked open to reveal the layered strata of provisions from at least the last two decades, in various stages of rusting and moulding. Party-central for cockroaches – yum. I made myself comfortable on one of the fusty old sofas and tried not to look too hard at the orb spider above the table, at least one and a half times the size of my hand.

However, for all its foibles, I felt a familiar feeling of excitement and fortitude bubbling up inside – I love being challenged and finding the positives in bizarre circumstances, and am lucky that I am able to adapt quickly to new environments. Plus, I was sitting in a peaceful clearing in one of the oldest, most ecologically important rainforests in the world, listening the the orchestral chimings of various birds, frogs and insects and feeling the tropical heat trickle down my skin. This was good.

Gradually, throughout the afternoon, I met the four other occupants of this quirky place:

  • Brad, with a wild beard and a wild look in his eye – definitely a scientist, I thought. But nope, another false impression: I later found out that he was taken in off the street by Hugh, to add to the other waifs and strays staying at the centre, including a cat, a large dog, seven fruit bats, a gosling and some tadpoles;

  • Dwyght, a very friendly, laid-back aussie, who helps with day-to-day maintenance of the centre. He showed me his amazing self-built home, complete with hand-crafted furniture from naturally fallen rainforest hardwoods, plus an amazing outside bath and shower surrounded by palms, buddha heads and a serenade of croaking frogs – the kind of place I would love to have the vision and skills to create myself;

  • Hannah, a beautiful nineteen year old Portuguese-German fellow volunteer who has been here for four months already and has found her ‘happy place’. An enigmatic girl with an intriguing dark-horse twinkle in her eye, who seems to have most of the male Cape Tribulation population following her around with their tongues out;

  • And last but most definitely not least, Hugh, the boss. Hugh has been running this centre in the rainforest for over twenty-five years now, and was probably pretty eccentric to start with, so you can imagine the entertaining craziness that has ensued over time. An incredibly interesting, intelligent academic, with challenging and stimulating views on, well, everything. No sitting around discussing last night’s TV here – it’s a fascinating, non-stop rollercoaster discussion of politics, global warming, the over-population taboo, conservation, ecology, anti-capitalism, pro-communal living, cooking (he’s a keen chef), permaculture and self-sufficiency.

As for the centre itself, there’s the pheromone-heavy bat cage (containing the seven rescued fruit-bats: Rex, Old Boy, Bratsky, Sammy, Seraphina, Edwina and Jasper), the solar panels lawn, the overgrown veggie-patch, the long-drop composting toilets and spider-infested cold showers, the ‘laboratory’ (rather a grand title for a damp portacabin, stuffed full of defunct computers and other random bits and bobs), Hugh’s library (a fantastic literary treasure-trove, complete with a piano – that room alone could definitely keep me happy for quite some time), a plethora of sheds, workshops and garages containing a hoarder’s dream of random machinery and engine parts, a fresh-water creek and pool for bathing, the already described hygeine-repellant communal area, and finally the accommodation – I have my own, damp room containing a zed-bed, with geckos, cockroaches and spiders watching my fitful slumber from the walls. I have to negotiate the most enormous (and very beautiful, I’ve decided, now I know where it is and that it rarely moves) orb spider to reach the door – slightly hair-raising at night with just a torch…

My arachnid bedroom guardian.

The buildings are linked by narrow forest paths flanked by goannas shinning up trunks (large monitor-like lizards), cane toads scuttling away on the floor at speed, bush turkeys scrabbling in the dirt, native frogs on branches and the signs of feral pigs tearing up the soil at night to slurp some worms. Plus the entire area is submerged beneath a miasma of sandflies and mosquitoes – the only real downside.

The centre lies at the heart of the Cape Tribulation area, which basically comprises a large resort complex on the other side of the road, a few houses for locals, a cafe, shop and a few other tourist accommodations dotted around, all amidst the stunning setting of the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest area and the beautiful Marine National Park area of white-sand coastline and the barrier reef. Rainforest literally does cascade onto the beach here, with a fringe of coconut palms (although these are actually an alien invasive, which the centre is trying to eradicate). To reach the beach it’s a ten minute walk through dense forest followed by a short mangrove swamp boardwalk (where you have to run the midgie gauntlet). I go there as often as I can for yoga, swims, walks, thinks – a very special place.

In my short time here, I’ve helped Hannah out with manning the Bat House (where visitors pay five dollars to meet Bratsky, the most humanised and sociable of the rescue bats), done some serious ‘bottoming out’ of the offensive kitchen (my mum’s phrase for when you deep-clean a room from top to bottom, no holds barred – mum, you would have been proud), weeded the veggie patch to make it functional again, contributed to the forest regeneration work by carrying out ongoing maintenance of the newly planted areas (basically pulling out any alien invasives), under Hugh’s watchful eye, and helped out with day-to-day life at the centre such as feeding the bats and taking Chirples, the orphaned gosling, for her daily trip to the sea for a swim. It has felt great to work up a sweat doing some hard toil, and even more rewarding to know I’m putting something back into the environment that has been giving me so much pleasure on my travels. It has also felt wonderful to just stop, and become part of daily life somewhere for a while, especially such a magical place as this.

There have been many challenges: fighting my way through countless spiders’ webs, especially on my hands and knees, whilst bottoming-out; coming face-to-face with my first ginormous, hairy huntsman spider whilst weeding (a heart-stopping moment, but then, when it didn’t move, a chance to closely observe its beautifully patterned, velvety body); becoming accustomed to having large, hungry fruit bats launch themselves at me and hang off my clothes, scratching at me with their claws to reach the fruit I’m carrying at feeding time; walking through the forest in the dark when I’ve forgotten my torch, trying not to get freaked out by all the rustles; trying to get to sleep knowing for a fact there are a number of very large cockroaches racing around the room; plucking up the courage to swim in the sea amidst all the warning signs regarding potential death by crocodiles and box jelly-fish; daily encounters with the kitchen-ming, despite my best attempts at eradicating it; stomaching the stench of the toilets; putting up with the gradual draining of my blood by the neverending host of midgies/mossies/sandflies… I could go on – this place is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

However, all the challenges listed above have made this the enriching experience it has been – I’ve successfully faced them all and feel a better person for it. And the flip-side has been the number of wonderful rewards I’ve had for taking the time to reach this obscure corner of the world: spying a brilliantly camouflaged forest lizard on a tree; watching the vivid blue ulysses butterflies and awesome Australian bird-wing butterflies flutter and flap through the air; listening to the cackles of the kookaburras and cockatoos as they mob an encroaching goanna; being chuckled to sleep by a gecko, with the rain gently tapping on the roof; watching the sun rise and set most days on the beach; lots of stimulating conversation over glasses of red wine and good, home-cooked food; sitting alone on the beach beneath a thick blanket of stars; wandering down the lane listening to the cheeps of my gosling shadow and feeling a bizarre sense of maternal pride when tourists stop to coo and take photos; playing with Bratsky and marvelling at a) her intelligence and b) her crapness at flying (there’s often the sound of her wings flapping followed by a crash, and we turn from our scrabble game to see her sheepishly crawling across the floor of the Bat House to us); feeling immense pride at baking a top-notch apple cake without a recipe, in ‘challenging’ kitchen circumstances; feeling a huge sense of gratification at collecting spinach, beans and herbs for tea from the newly accessible vegetable garden… again, I could go on.

Anyway, a few picture below of my brief time in the wonderful Daintree Forest:

The beautiful beach – also, yogacam, as this is where I did it most days… 🙂

Me and Chirples.

More Chirples, this time on the beach – how cute is he/she?!

Mangeove tree with its bizarre root system (designed both for support and maximising drawing oxygen out of the soil).

Retro signage.

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The centre kitchen, post bottoming-out.

One rather fine apple and sultana cake, made without a recipe.

And for all you spider-lovers out there, here’s just one more picture of the awesome golden orb spider – this one was in the communal area.

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6 Responses to Trials in Tribulation

  1. ambulavitz says:

    What a picture you paint! What fascinating wildlife! Did you manage to get a photo of the Hannah?

  2. charl says:

    SSSHHPIDERR!!!!!!!!!!! AGGGGHHHH!!!!!!

  3. Isobel says:

    Awww I’d love to meet Bratsky and Chirples too. But errrr HOW BIG IS THAT SPIDER? (not as big as the huntsman I assume…….). Quite apart from the gut-wrenchingly scarey arachnids, Becky, it sounds like such a fantastic trip and it feels like I’ve been travelling alongside you (except with the luxury of my own bed, hair straighteners and no huntsman or spiders on my FACE!!!). What more fabulous adventures await…can’t wait for the next installments 🙂 xxx

    • beckymayhem says:

      Hi Isobel – glad you’re still following my movements from afar! Yes, I think you’re best off experiencing the wildlife from a distance – not sure it’d be your cup of tea! Hope you’re doing OK – would love to chat very soon – and did you say you’ll be in the UK around the time I get back? Hope so! Big hug, m’love xxx

  4. Pru says:

    Ha! I second Charl and Isobel… am still feeling itchy thinking about your spider meetings but good on you Becks! So proud of you and it really sounds like you have given a lot whilst volunteering and by the sounds of it have reaped much too! Where are you off to next I wonder?…. Look forward to the next installment. xxxx
    PS On the homme ( teehee, will leave the spelling error- was that a freudian slip I wonder? Mind elsewhere perhaps?!!!) front, we have mostly been dealing with torrential rain and flooding in Priors MArston- thank god the build has been delayed by a week or so! x

    • beckymayhem says:

      Hi Pru – yes, I always particularly think of you when I have an insect encounter. I can somehow imagine you hyper-ventilating next to me! I’m in another forest location right now, and Australia’s biggest moth just flew through the common room – it was beautiful, honest! Hope the flooding recedes soon – sounds a bit scary… Lots of love xxx

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