Retreating, Reef-Style

Trip Start Dec 03, 2004
Trip End Nov 31, 2005

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Friday, July 15, 2005

My first day back from the retreat, in "civilized society," I stared in consternation at the toilet.

"What is this business of flushing that you speak of?"

While that's a slight exaggeration, three weeks spent living away from all the normal things (flushing toilets, walls and roofs, cars and telephones) do make one a little stir-crazy, but at the same time a little more peaceful. I got used to the "Nature Loo" (a pleasant euphemism for an outhouse), having all food and supplies shipped in, sleeping under the stars, using kerosene lanterns to find my way after dark, and the only vehicular roar being that of a solar-powered golf cart.

I also got used to cooking, quite successfully I must say, for the guests, as well as doing round after round of dishes, leaving my hands wrinkly and pruny. I also got used to swimming in the company of sharks. "Oh, hello, little fellow. How's the hunting today? That yellow fish looks tasty, wouldn't you agree? Nooo, I don't think you'd find me a tender mouthful, thanks."

Time-travel: three weeks ago . . . after the bus ride down from Port Hedland I was picked up by the reef retreat bus. There was going to be another camp assistant joining me in a couple days, but for the first few days I was on my own with the dish work and such. I must have seemed like a bit of a zombie that first day, going through the motions, thinking only about the possibility of finding somewhere to bunk down as soon as the sun had sunk and I'd gobbled dinner.

The first two nights the guests were not the usual bunch of tourists, but instead two groups from the tourism industry up from an expo in Perth. They required a bit of pampering, to butter them up, and they also got quite drunk. For those first couple days it was also extremely windy and rainy and I was upset at the news that, no, there were no showers for the camp assistants, and we'd be expected to keep clean solely through the scrubbing power of the ocean through our wetsuits when we were snorkelling.

But after that we mainly had touristy guests, a lot of Australians and central Europeans, and a run of pretty good weather except for two nights where it simply bucketed down rain. When it was raining we would pull our swags into the old communal building out behind the dunes for shelter and have to put up with the squeaking screams the old canvas made against the wood in the wind. During the middle week we had only a small family as guests so things, in the dish department and cleaning department, became fairly lax. I was living the good life with great food for free.

The ability to go out on the snorkelling tours whenever I wanted, as long as it wasn't an overly busy day, was a great bonus. I saw too many sharks to count, up close and personal; lots of turtles, some timid, some friendly; a large sting-ray "flying" across the sandy floor of the lagoon; and the zillions of colourful fish and corals that are the hallmark of a reef: parrotfish, batfish, triggerfish, catfish, angelfish, damselfish, anemonefish, in shades of blue and green and yellow and black and spotted and dashed and purple and crimson. I saw octopus hiding in their holes and eyeing us warily, and tiny turquoise fish that came shooting off corals whenever we approached; I saw a foot-long sea-snail and the strangest of fishy beasts, the sand-camouflaged flounder with its eyes both on one side of its body. A porcupine fish, with its face of shocked outrage, stared at me from under a coral overhang. I learned how to duck dive down and simply hang about upside-down in the water, eye-to-eye with a leopard spotted cod. I saw fish bigger than my torso.

I'd been a little worried about the social contact levels at the retreat, as backpackers usually can't afford to visit except for the day and I hadn't been sure if there would be another camp assistant. It turned out that I needn't have fretted: I made some of the best friends of my trip while I was there. The staff were all young and friendly.

Stuart, the other camp assistant, is getting his degree in eco-tourism and was at the reef retreat as a month long placement for a part of his degree. He's a talker: goes a mile a minute and doesn't seem to have a brake on his mouth, which makes him an amusing and useful person to wash dishes with. They're not slow or dull if Stuart is there.

Dani, one of the two blonde girl tour guides, is obsessed with sharks and her pearl-diver boyfriend. We got the low-down on both these things anytime it was her turn to do an overnight stint. The least silly of the guides, she sometimes seemed a bit weirded out by how wacky long-term time at the retreat could make Stuart and I go.

Bec, the girl who was the guide when I was at the retreat as a guest, was more able to play along with our strange time-passing games and on one memorable night the three of us scared a whole family of guests by getting an impromptu karaoke session going with Stuart's iPod. Stuart whipped out the falsetto and I whipped out the bad dancing and out-of-tune howling for a stunning duet on "Build Me Up Buttercup". Bec was always the nicest of the guides, always wanting to make sure that we were having a good time and that we weren't being worked too hard. When it rained she was always the first to suggest that we all bunk down in one of the empty safari tents: "It's gonna be cold, guys! We better get undercover! Don't do those dishes, I'll do them! Excellent!" (She said "excellent" every second word).

Campbell, the guide who was on for my first three nights and helped my introduction to the world of working as a camp assistant, might not win the vote for "nicest" guide---but I can let my bias show a little bit and say that I still liked him the best. For being silly and smart and helping me do a lot of dishes. And driving me to Perth and taking me to his family vacation home.

Three weeks at the retreat was just the right amount; any more and advanced cabin fever might have set in, plus my hands might never have recovered from the dish washing. But while it lasted it was a great three weeks.
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