The morning of my last day in Western Australia, I watched the sun rise from the top of a water tower. Pulling dusty metal bars hand over hand, I made my way up the metal chute just like I had two and a half weeks ago my first morning at the Two Moons Whale and Marine Research Base.
It was 5:30 a.m. and the big, burning eye of the sun oozed over the horizon line and melted outward, coloring Pender Bay’s turquoise water a deep orange. As I reached the top, the sun was high enough to give shape to an expanse of scrubby bush stretching as far as I could see down the Dampier Peninsula coastline.
To the left, I spied the tops of the four buildings that comprised the research base — their roofs poking above the bush like blades, sharp and shiny from the sun. My home, a tent about ten minutes walk from the base, was hidden by the trees, but I imagined the view from my sea-cliff door step.
Before this, my journeys around Australia had stayed within a thin, green line of eastern coast, which my program group and I had toured extensively — from the damp rainforests of Queensland down to Tasmania’s towering old growth gum trees.
I went out West to find a new adventure, working as a volunteer at a small, indigenous-run research base in the heart of the Kimberley — one of the last pristine environments in the world. The area has been occupied for thousands of years by Aborigines, but has yet to feel widespread destruction from modern developers, eager to suck money out of the ancient landscape. Until now.
With natural gas deposits discovered off the Kimberley coastline, companies have already begun pressuring the government to construct liquid natural gas (LNG) hubs and to access this untapped resource, no matter whom or what it disturbs.
The role of Two Moons is to gather baseline data on Kimberley’s marine life, particularly that of humpback whales, to counter the LNG invasion. With southern hemisphere humpbacks visiting Pender Bay, the base’s location, more than anywhere else in the world, Two Moons has a case for conservation. However, its small, family-run existence, with a “staff” of intermittent international volunteers, leaves the base in constant need of assistance.
My advisor at the base, Andrew, is an Aboriginal man born in the Kimberley, who started Two Moons as a way to maintain connections between his people and the land. I found a posting for Two Moons in a volunteer directory, called Andrew up, and asked if I could come help him. He told me that I not only could, but should come spend some time out there, encouraging my journey to his “country” to help Two Moons implement an education program aimed at opening doors in marine science for Aborigines displaced from the workforce. I tentatively asked about the living situation, trying to paint a picture of Two Moons in my mind. Sensing my trepidation, Andrew called for a woman named Sandra, whom I would soon learn was one of Two Moons’ longest running volunteers. Through a thick French accent, Sandra gave a pretty convincing pitch.
“You will love it here,” she told me, “we even have showers now!”
I could hear Andrew laughing in the background.
“Just come and see what you think.”
An anthropologist by trade, it was Sandra’s seventh visit to the research base to help Andrew’s whales. I asked about the environment and its dangers.
“Well,” Andrew said with a sigh, “they’re out here. But so are we. And we’ve been living out here for a long time. To us, this is paradise.”
I thanked them both and booked my flight to the “Kimbo.”
The research base is situated on a remote peninsula, almost entirely designated as Aboriginal Land. For rations and equipment parts, the members at the base commute two hours south to Broome, the closest city to Two Moons. Broome became my jumping off point too, as I touched down on the red dirt of Broome International, the smallest airport I’ve ever seen. The flight crew wheeled stairs to the side of our plane, and I stepped out into a blanket of heat. The ground was flat and red, dust swirling over the runway, and the cabana-style baggage claim building across the tarmac swayed behind a wave of heat.
Looking like a lost tourist with a backpack for a seat mate, I bumped down the road on a bus into downtown Broome and got off in Chinatown. I parked my backpack in the corner of a bait shop parking lot and sat, waiting for a man I’d never seen before. Nose buried in my book, I pretended to read while furiously trying to imagine what might be in store for me.
A lurch of a car and a cloud of dust woke me out of my daydream as a single dark brown foot came into view. A bush blocked the rest of the person’s body, but for some reason I knew it was Andrew. Standing awkwardly with my hand outstretched for a shake, I met his eyes and introduced myself. Andrew seemed surprised at the handshake, but said hello and introduced me to Sandra, who’d also come down for the ride.
We loaded the car with my belongings and set off to prepare for our drive north, buying the next two week’s worth of rations, and paying our respects to Andrew’s sister. Right away, I could sense the strong sense of family, even between Andrew and Sandra who were unrelated. We met Andrew’s sister at her home and connected with Dorothee, another volunteer from France, before loading the car again and finally departing for Two Moons.
With Andrew’s red Hilux pickup fully loaded with food, fuel, and duffels of clothes, we waved farewell and hit the road. Before pulling out of the driveway, though, Andrew picked two Frangipani flowers off a tree and handed them to me, informing the car that, “wearing a flower like this in your ear means your single.”
I wore it anyway and rolled my window down as we got on the highway. Sandra, a pro at stick-shifting through the red sand, sat in the driver’s seat and I rode shotgun. In the back, Andrew — clearly not a fan of Sandra’s music choice — sat with his headphones on, blasting American blues. Up front, I smiled in the rear view and listened to Sandra belt out Portuguese along with Manu Chao. Maybe this was paradise.
Halfway to the base, the sun went down and darkness engulfed our little red pickup. The landscape changed from orange to pink to purple, before everything but the sky went black. We stopped the car to admire the stars. The Milky Way looked as though someone had dipped a paintbrush and waved a white line across the sky. Absolute silence, apart from a click from Sandra’s lighter as she hand-rolled and then smoked a cigarette. I thought about how far away I stood from home.
Back in the car, we drove on until the sand got deep enough that Andrew had to take over. Still riding shotgun, I flew back as Andrew gunned the pickup through the sand and swerved to avoid a black snake in the road. It looked two to three meters long. My first animal sighting. Andrew then launched into a story about saltwater crocodiles that frequented the coastline near the base. He cautioned us against becoming victims, and I took my cue to speak up.
“Um, Andrew? How exactly do you avoid being a victim?”
He was quiet. I instantly regretted revealing my fears. Apparently, fifteen-foot saltwater crocs in our backyard were normal.
“How do you avoid being a victim? You don’t let ‘em think you are. Even if you know you can’t take on a croc, you gotta let ‘em think you can.”
I decided not to ask any more questions, but Andrew continued.
“Or, there is something else you can do.”
Dorothee in the backseat, another newbie to the base, took her headphones out and leaned forward.
“Our people have a tradition when we get to a new place. We introduce ourselves to the land we’re on. You don’t have to say it out loud or anything. You can say it inside your head, but introduce yourself and acknowledge the place you are in. The animals, the people that came before you, the living and the dead. We find that most people,” Andrew chuckled a little, “have better luck if they do.”
As if he’d timed it, our headlights illuminated a painted steel drum with “Two Moons” written on the side. We had arrived.
About two days later, I went for my first swim in the Indian Ocean. With the go-ahead from Andrew when I asked about crocs, I felt safe floating in the shallows. All alone, I remembered what Andrew had said in the car that first night. Swallowing my ego, I introduced myself to the land out loud. Floating in the water, I said my name and thanked the land for welcoming me and told it why I was there. I assured it I was not there to harm, but to learn, and hoped to take a lesson or two away with me. I asked for protection and insight, then dunked my head down and swam back to shore.
I worked for Two Moons for two and half weeks, wrote a brochure, designed a sign board, built a model of a baby whale, taught four primary school classes, had meetings with local rangers, fished for my own dinner, harvested wood, weeded a watermelon patch, baked bread, and interviewed every volunteer at the base spanning four different countries and five languages. I learned from Andrew and the other volunteers, experiencing what it feels like to be American and a minority (what a concept), and successfully lived out of a tent at a solar-powered community. But nothing during my two and a half weeks taught me more than Andrew’s simple message in the pickup.
I encountered pythons, dingos, Huntsman spiders the size of a dinner plate, frogs, mosquitoes and flies day and night, but nothing ever harmed me.
And as I climbed the water tower to say goodbye, I looked out over the Kimbo to where I’d first said hello. Smiling as the sun rose higher, I waved and climbed back down.