Winds of Oz
A Travel Story
The winds had picked up again whipping the ocean into a frenzy. It had been zipping through the area for a week previous to my arrival, brought a cyclone slamming against the coast pulling coral from its reef bed. A cyclone is an inward spiraling wind. The word itself, auspicious enough, means the coil of a snake. A force of nature often referred to as a meteorological phenomenon and being caught at that particular instance paddling against the remnant winds spun my mind over with doubt. We had taken the kayaks out to sea to spice up a lazy afternoon. Our whim was proving the ocean a far more adept adventurer than us. The waves came sideways in quick choppy bits splashing over the front tip of the kayak blinding us with salty spray. The wind booted us forward nose diving, rocking in the dips and valleys of the waves, falling backward and fighting to stay on course. Solid and forbidding, land jutted out sharply with rock. It was this outcropping we were attempting to avoid while simultaneously turning around and praying for shore. A mate’s boat tipped losing paddles and picnic paraphernalia. That was our cue to ditch this grand discovery, but the water was a heavy weight champion and we were out in open ocean. The plight to make it over rough skipping waves took near an hour and threatened us all the while with strong currents. It was just the night before we told jokes about the salties, a crocodile that can swim in fresh water rivers as well as the ocean. I learned of the water snakes that swarmed the little land mass to our north, close enough to throw a pebble and be half way there. We weren’t laughing now. I grappled with the risk of jumping in with whatever lurks in the deep to kick our kayak back to the beach or grow old at sea.
Set like an emerald stone in a delicate strand of seventeen other islands along the tropical Capricorn coast, this dollop of land was once home to the Whoppaburra people. The sands are painted with its histories, reds to brown, deep and dusty, orange and pink to near purple. The hills teach traditions offering secrets of lost cultures. You can see the ocean wrestle with color fading from deep blue to a gorgeous turquoise. These islands freckle the Great Barrier Reef and make up a protected marine park that teems with wild noises and vibrant life. Butterflies swarm the islands this time of year filling the sky just above your head with spotted black and blue creating clouds of wing and shadow. Crows fill the trees like giant black berries and bats the size of hawks hang upside down to watch you wander. One might spend entire weekends hiking the islands interior eying the odd birds and sitting with the rich scenery, a pleasant appetizer for starving eyes. Australia has a strange magic and Great Keppel island a particular pull.
One evening after a mainland trip to the market, we had missed the before-dark deadline and watched the sun cozy up on the under side of the earth. By the time we had gotten the tinny beyond the cove darkness had turned the water to ink. Only the ocean spit knew where to find us. Being in a boat made of aluminum without seats to safely buckle in or any immovable object to hold onto I would have preferred to sleep in a tree. Remembering the afternoon paddling against the winds of Oz, I was barely able to pretend the quiver in my knees was from the cold. But the moon shone brightly and burst above the hills providing a path of light on the water that gently guided the nose of our tin can, a pale yellow like the gold road that led Dorothy to the wizard. I had followed my intuition up the Eastern coast of Australia having arrived in this country on accident, but was now sure the cyclone had brought me. It was a fitting theme for my life just then; a graduate student set on the precipice of publication with a vacuum for a future. Ready with degree in hand to join the masses in the mediocrity of adulthood. I had come without direction and the swirling winds of chaos had become a homeopathic to my own. Travel does that, puts the restlessness to rest.
Here the heat slides in on the morning at 9am sharp so intense it will set your bone marrow to a boil. This island with no cars, magazine quality beaches and the eerie midnight bird song of the curlew had become my home. It hides a woop woop (Australian for really small) village of twenty or so tents set up on platforms with roofs, furnished with amenities to keep travelers from wandering to the resorts back on the mainland. A twin bed, a fan, a lamp and a chair on the front ‘porch’ of the platform make a tent feel like a palace. The shared kitchen brings a gathering every morning and most evenings when the village air fills with boisterous Australian lingo.
On a ridiculously cheap ticket, I flew to Oz and volunteered to help clean up the aftermath where I found stretches of afternoon silence that yawned for kilometers and offered ample space to reflect, snorkel or nap in the hammock under bat-free trees. We say we spend time like its currency, but sometimes we can let go and get caught in the currents of wind and waves and collect stories about how we almost became salty food for the salties. I didn’t stumble upon an epic life plan, but I did learn that islands are a sweet spot to pause.