Time travel

I tried hard to make you anxious to see what the next stop on our amazing trip is going to be, and I will stop teasing you now. From Saipan we are going to Midway. Located 1,200 nautical miles from Honolulu at 28º12’N and 177º22’W, this archipelago is at the Northwestern end of the Hawaiian chain of islands and is probably the most amazing seabird reserve in the entire Pacific. I will spare you the copy-pasting of the scientific facts that can be found elsewhere on the web and only share with you the impressions from our visit to the island. I think I will not exaggerate if I say that Midway is the highlight of the trip for us.

So, today we will get back that poor day that we lost forever when we flew from Rarotonga to Christchurch. We took off on July 6, and landed in the evening of July 5. Tomorrow we will have another July 6. Try to explain that to your travel agent or, worse, to your company travel office who try to understand what happens only after you send them a stack of receipts from your travels. But never mind them; what we are here all about is today’s flight.

Weather along the way
Weather along the way

On this 6.5 hour flight we saw it all. It started with the calm blue waters and puffy popcorn cumulus, as appropriate for a self respecting tropical location such as Saipan. We flew over these blue waters, reflecting the white puffs of clouds, raining back into the ocean that gave them birth, for a couple of hours, and then the picture has changed dramatically. At about 22ºN we have entered a large weather front, with associated multiple cloud decks including some at probably 40,000 feet plus, rain showers and finally tall convective towers that reached in excess of 45,000 feet, from our humble estimates. The towers penetrated the lower and middle stratus decks like mighty trees penetrate the fern undergrowth and then the shrubs in the forest, with their tops lost somewhere above us and hiding from view behind the upper cloud decks. A lot of time we flew in the clouds with no visibility, the pilots flying the airplane by the instruments.

Sunset at 25ºN
Sunset at 25ºN

And then, without much warning, we came through the frontal system and into the open, and then came the sunset. The puffy cumulus on the Northern side of the front got hit by the incident light from the setting sun, and the clouds lit up along their edges in changing orange and pink colors like fantastic candles. There are millions of pictures of sunsets on the internet, and many are very good, but I don’t think this should stop one from taking a few more that you get to see in person, or even better than that – watching the nature’s great show, performed right in front of us, with eyes wide open and breath held up so that not to miss a single moment of it. Every time we see something this magnificent I think to myself how lucky we are to be on these flights and to see these sights. Yes, we are tired and keep one eye on the instruments even during such sunsets but we have learned to enjoy the short but so memorable moments that nature keeps sending our way.

Sun breaks through clouds for the last glance at the ocean
Sun breaks through clouds for the last glance at the ocean

And then, really quickly, the day ended. Oh well, we will have the same day again tomorrow. The pilots brought the airplane down to Midway from the 45,000 foot final ascent, and landed softly on the dark runway of the island just long enough to accommodate that very runway.

The adventure started right away. We have heard the tower on the radio, and a fire truck came out to guide us to the parking area. All was as usual until we heard “we will stop to move some birds, there are more than usual today”. And we saw the chase vehicle stop, people jump out of it and start picking up large albatross birds from the taxiway and carrying them off to the sides, where hundreds more of the same birds were sitting, resting for the night. Once we could proceed without the danger of running over the birds we parked the aircraft and finished our work.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Reserve Manager and logistics people met us and, navigating between hundreds of albatross sitting everywhere, on the grass and on the roads, drove us carefully to the hotel, where a late meal was awaiting us in our rooms. After a short introduction to the island rules we retired for the night, ready for the major exploration to start tomorrow morning.

Part seven: Saipan

Older people know Saipan from first hand experiences as it was a major troops transfer base during the World War II and thousands of recruits transited through Saipan. The battles fought on Saipan were bloody and many lives were lost on both the Japanese and American sides. Sadly, with the way history is taught these days the younger generation may never even hear about this island, which is too far out of the typical tourist ways and, like its neighbor Guam, is frequented more by the Japanese tourists. Major chain stores, hotels and malls curiously coexist with the third-world-country looking buildings, small shops and dilapidated barracks, creating a strange look, which is somewhat of a cross between the Solomon Islands and more Americanized Guam.

Getting better at our routine every day, we have finished our work on the airplane today at noon and had a half a day to explore Saipan, the place where we may or may not come again for our projects in the future but that for sure is not a routine destination for any of us. A half a day is a lot of time! Later that evening a friend thoughtfully noted that our global projects are really unique in yet another way, that we are really learning to switch quickly between work and touristing on these trips: you lay out your plans, focus very intently on work in the morning and really use your skills to quickly complete your tasks, and then you are done, and in the next 15 minutes we turn into tourists, ready to absorb everything that the remaining daylight hours are willing to afford us. At the beginning of our journey this was not as smooth as now, we have come a long way in learning to use our time as judiciously as a traveler in the desert uses his water. But today we had a lot of time, and we were on a mission to see Saipan.

Remember forever
Remember forever

I generally prefer to see natural beauty than the traces humans leave on the planet, and who can blame me? What we saw today can’t be described in any other way than very, very sad. To see the beautiful cliffs overhanging lush tropical jungle was exhilarating at first, but the next thing you learn was, during the war the Japanese people jumped off these cliffs to their death to avoid being captured by the advancing American troops, for they were lied to and believed they would be tortured by them if they were captured alive. Who and why would tell their people, including families with children, a lie that would make them jump off 300-foot cliffs? What benefit would that bring a leader?

This is why flame trees bloom in red
This is why flame trees bloom in red

Fear. That would bring more fear. And if people are afraid you can lead them where you want if they think you will make them safe, that is as much as I can figure out. Cruel satisfaction that you can outwit the people that you, as their leader, are responsible for, and can keep manipulating others, standing in the blood of those you swore to protect. I am not particularly religious but if there is something I’d send souls to hell for, that would be one of those sins.

I can’t really describe the feelings from seeing the memorials on Saipan. Enormous sadness and anger for what had happened, and imagining how the cliffs could have echoed the laughter of people, just like they do today – both Japanese and Americans together, alive with their children, and instead they heard the cries of agony and gun fire, and more of the same, until the sky turned black and the ground turned red. Truly the human history is built on blood and bones. I hope we have learned from that.

I want to show no other photos from this heartbreaking part of our tour of Saipan than the blossoms of the flame trees against the Suicide Cliffs and the inscription that I hope people will read and remember forever.

It is rather difficult to shift your mind from these tragedies onto something else but the time moves on. Everything is a balance, even if a fragile one, and the revitalizing natural beauty helps you get over the sadness and hopelessness of what people do sometimes. We moved on, and Saipan had more to show us. Our next stop was the Grotto, a large cavity connected to the ocean by an underground natural tunnel, which apparently the destination of choice for technical scuba diving. Having no skill nor time for that, we nonetheless enjoyed watching the Grotto as the surges of water from the ocean passed through the underwater tunnel and burst into the opening of the Grotto, turbulent but crystal clear and blue, just to subside and run off the razor sharp rocks in foamy cascades just a few seconds later.

The Grotto
The Grotto

When I say “razor sharp” I mean it; I now realize that the abrasive basaltic lava of Mauna Loa was simply smooth compared to the cruel jaggedness of the high-silica rhyolites on Saipan. Worn down to razor blade sharpness by the constant work of the tides, the ragged spires of the volcanic rock are truly wicked, which I found out in a hurry when I grabbed a hold of one of them, trying to keep balance. That I did, but numerous pinpricks, small cuts and abrasions just from that momentary handhold will remind me of this for a while. I hung my photo backpack on one of the spires and it clung to it like to a giant Velcro made of barbed fishing hooks, with a scary tearing sound that the strong nylon made when it took the bites from the rock. I think the divers going in must be ultra careful getting out of the water, for being thrown by a wave against these walls would be at least the beginning of a very painful trip to a hospital, if not worse.

A long time later and far away from here, I will remember this place and think that as I am busy with the daily hustle and bustle, at that very moment, thousands of miles away, the ocean surges into the Grotto on Saipan, continuing its perpetual work that we possibly will never be lucky enough to witness again.

Bird Island
Bird Island

We saw the Bird Island, a white-walled cliff with lush vegetation on its top, and it was impossible to not stay there for a while, watching the waves run ashore two hundred feet below us and just absorbing the beauty of the scene. Regretably I could not take any pictures that would do the Bird Island justice so you will have to settle for what I have got.

Saipan's Red Carpet trail
Saipan's Red Carpet trail

From the Grotto the pavement turned into a single track dirt road with abundant potholes and mud puddles but easily navigable, with certain care, to a passenger car. Following it for a few minutes brought us to a short trail leading a cavernous cave, whose end was hiding in the darkness and even the entrance to which looked pretty gloomy as the sun was beginning to settle to the horizon. The path to the cave was all covered by the red blossoms fallen off of the huge flame tree growing nearby, so that it looked as if you are walking on a red carpet spread in front of you by the welcoming hand of Saipan’s forest.

The sun was setting into the ocean as we pulled over on the side of the road by the Wings Beach, not far past a sign denoting the nesting area of the endangered green sea turtles. We did not see any of these wonderful animals but the view of the sunset rewarded us sufficiently and was a worthy finale for our very long, but full of impressions and memories, day.

It was on the way back to the Hyatt hotel where we stayed when we talked about how our global travel changed our ability to do our work, yet still enjoy the sites we are so fortunate to visit, even in the time frame of just a few hours. If one were to come here just to see the island they would spend probably at least two or three days seeing all that we tried to cram into a half of one. I am sure their impressions would be different from mine. In retrospect I think about how a tourist visits places vs. how we do it akin to what suntanning vs. branding with a hot iron would be: unlike the gradual and casual soaking in of the impressions we get ours via this rapid and sometimes painful process, but unlike the suntan that often fades pretty soon, the burned in brand of memories we get tends to stay with us for a very long time.

Good bye Saipan...
Good bye Saipan...

Tomorrow we will move on to the next location, the one I have been tempting you with for the last few days. This is going to be a totally unique place that some people wait for many years to visit, and we are very lucky for our work to take us there.

Northern Hemisphere, we are back!

Heading North from Darwin
Heading North from Darwin

Today is the Independence Day in the U.S.

We had a lot of work in the morning, and we had the right people for it. Our ground support crew who flew all the way from Colorado provided the necessary services to obtain the cryogens for the instruments, shipping and other miscellaneous help that we needed on the day of departure. The Pearl Flight Centre provided transportation and a person constantly available to us in case we needed help; they were great, I would call them any time I needed help in Darwin. Before too long we were ready to go and took off from Darwin, leaving behind the wonderful Northern Territories land and estuaries with salties waiting for their next hapless tourist for a meal.

And then came a disappointment: the Indonesian airspace controller did not allow us to do the profiling required for our sampling. Frustrated, we chugged along (at .8 Mach that is) for more than two hours until we finally were able to start vertical profiling in the U.S. controlled airspace. The purpose of this flight was to see if we can detect the convective effects of the warm pool, and even the few profiles that we completed North of 4ºN will give the scientists some information on that. It would have been so much better if we were able to do the profiling all the way along the track. The air traffic controllers do not exactly see the attentive support of strange requests from airborne research aircraft as an important part of their job, which is a pity.

Diffraction halo around the airplane shadow on cloud tops
Diffraction halo around the airplane shadow on cloud tops

At one point we flew over some thin dispersed clouds with the sun above and slightly behind us, and a curious effect, which I had seen many times before but never really described, was visible again: the Gulfstream cast a shadow onto the clouds and the diffraction around the airplane caused a rainbow-like halo to appear on the clouds below. Thanks to the fast response of a SLR camera that I grabbed and fired in a split second once it occurred to me that I should not just stare at it in awe with my mouth open but also capture it for you, you can see what that looked like.

Popcorn cumulus near the equator
Popcorn cumulus near the equator

The NOAA forecasters promised that we will encounter “convection like you have never seen before” on this flight, and we were waiting by the windows with the cameras warmed up, ready to take the incredible pictures of 60,000 foot thunder towers and hundred mile anvils. Ha ha! The most we have seen were the 20-foot in diameter puffy cumulus clouds that were not reaching any higher than grandmother’s attic (well, they were probably 2,000 feet in diameter and 5,000 feet high on occasion but still nothing like promised). The most exciting clouds on this flight were the featureless overhanging cloud deck all along our track that we got immersed into on the high ascents, with visibility of zero and almost no turbulence, meaning the clouds are just hanging there with nearly no convection going on, and some silly “popcorn cumulus”, the happy-looking maritime convection that builds quickly, bumps you a bit when you fly through it, rains warm rain and reappears in the same places nearly every day. The lack of tall major convection was a bummer for our anticipated photo op. Oh well, on the other hand the pilots didn’t have to worry about finding a safe passage through the thunderclouds to bring us into Saipan.

Saipan was overcast, warm and humid. Did I mention humid? That would be a sauna-like humid, once the cabin door opened everything in the cabin fogged up, including all metal parts, instruments and even my eye glasses. That was right on par with Honiara and I have to admit that Rarotonga mow holds the third place. It is not surprising that we usually start experiencing “tropic-itus” after a few weeks of operations in the tropics: condensation causes slight corrosion inside computers and on other electronic contacts, and instruments start having intermittent failures that are very difficult to localize and repair. All of our clothing that was so welcome in the 65-degree cabin immediately stuck to our bodies once we walked outside, reminding us that people can never be happy: it is either too hot, or too cold, or too humid or too dry. Poor nature just can’t suit the picky people. It is a good thing the nature doesn’t care.

Periodically turning on windshield wipers instead of turn signals (you will know why if you drove on both sides of the road in different countries interchangeably for a while), our caravan of rental cars made it to the Hyatt Regency in the dark and we crashed in our Barbie-doll-pink rooms. Tomorrow we will meet at 7:30 am to go to the airplane to work on the instruments. The arrangements for the next flight are in place, and the next destination is not just interesting, it is unique so we are all very much looking forward to it. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves here. You will know what it is in a couple of days.

Tracks in the sand

The beach at the Casuarina Coastal Reserve was very long, and people who left their snorkel-equipped Landrovers in the parking lot only wandered in the nearest quarter mile of it. For the rest of the shoreline, as far as the eye could see, there was nobody. The Pacific chose to be calm, and small waves ran ashore, at an angle this time, filling the air with the rhythmic whoosh of the gentle surf.

I was walking along, with my camera in my hand and my scattered thoughts in my head, and it seemed not to matter where to go. The cynical ones of us might sarcastically note that it is easy not to worry about where to go if one is well fed, has a car waiting and a hotel room to go back to. I would reply that I actually forgot to eat in the last 12 hours, and wasting time for that now seemed sacrilegious in this last hour before sunset. At the moment none of that really mattered. I was alone on an endless Australian beach and I had all the time in the world. All two hours of it.

Have you ever had a split second moment when feelings and emotions all of a sudden seem bright colored, vivid, and you get a glimpse at something quite common as if it is brand new to you, never seen before, or as if you are seeing it from a new, different angle?

The sand was light brown and very fine, dry and leaky, and it formed tiny dunes all of two inches high. There was a track on the sand, a small series of dimples and dashes, angled after each other in one direction, weaving through the tiny dunes. And at the end of it was a small hermit crab. I stopped and lowered my backpack to the ground, then kneeled in the sand. The tiny creature was hiding in its shell, content and safe, and did not move. Neither did I. The tracks it left in the sand all of a sudden connected with the open ocean, with the sky above, with the trees along the shore, and with me.

The constant feeling of hurry, pressing obligation and lack of time fell off like the wall of water from a broken aquarium glass. I for the first time in ages saw the sun, and the beach, and the surf, and it all was different than before, even though nothing has probably really changed. The little crab still lay motionless in the sand, attached to the end of its track, just like we all are attached to the invisible track we leave behind us in our lives. Is that track good? Is it bad? Does anyone care to see our track and to kneel over it, and will it flash back their memories if they did?

Who knows. The moment was fleeting, and it passed. I tried to hold on to it but I couldn’t.

Here it is, the hermit crab that can help the life to regain the meaning. I sincerely hope you find yours.

Tracks in the sand
Tracks in the sand

Part six: Darwin

Darwin is located at 12.5ºS, and it shows. In the morning and evening walking around can be “quite lovely actually”, a favorite saying of New Zealanders.  During the day the temperature, even though it is technically winter in the Southern hemisphere, is about 30ºC and humidity is about 85%.

We have worked hard the last week, and today we are having another day off. During our 24 day expedition we will have just four such days off – one can’t really say that all we are doing is relaxing on our trips. But today is a different story: there is no ash cloud to track, no schedules to change (knock on wood) and for the first time in the last two weeks I did feel actually relaxed. What lies ahead is just regular work, not hectic modification of a network of project connections by events that may or may not happen in the near future. From Darwin to the North we have the work pretty well defined. So, today we can relax for real.

We slept in until almost 7 am, and went for breakfast at 8 am. There is nowhere to hurry! What a feeling. The pressure of the last weeks does not want to leave though and I couldn’t help but think I am forgetting something and kept on checking the phone – why is it not ringing like crazy, as usual? Well this time it is because there are no issues! How can that be.

Litchfield Park location with respect to Darwin
Litchfield Park location with respect to Darwin

After discussing our options leisurely at 9 am in the hotel lobby we have decided that we must see the Australian natural parks, and since the Kakadu National Park with its 20,000 square kilometers is way too big, we decided to go to Litchfield National Park. Located just some 2 hours from Darwin and famous for its waterfalls and plunge pools, the park sounded like a great place to look at Australia’s Northern Territories’ nature.

Our rental car, large enough to carry the luggage and five people from the airplane to the hotel, afforded even a 4wd, so we felt quite empowered when the locals told us that we could take a Berry Springs loop road through the park if we had a 4wd. Jumping ahead, it turned out that since there were no rains lately any vehicle with enough gas could have made it across the 30-40 km section of gravel road without any problems. I would advise to watch out for occasional dips, washouts along the sides and quite severe washboard on occasion but when dry the road poses no problems to cars. In wet weather I would strongly recommend to stick to paved roads, as this one had several quite long sections that clearly would be a lot of fun if wet, with their glossy clay surface and washouts on the sides.

Your drive on the left side of the road can be quite fast, with speed limit of 130 km/h (81 mph). Time flew as we drove and talked, and we were at the park in what felt like very little time. On the way we had to stop, of course, in Batchelor, which won the Australia’s Tidiest Town award in 2000. We visited the Rum Jungle Tavern, which had three customers, drinking beer, at 11 am already, and the general store, where we stocked up on lunch food for the day ahead of us. It was quite expensive, as it is in the Darwin area in general.

Florence Falls, Litchfield Park
Florence Falls, Litchfield Park

The next stop on our way was Florence Falls. This place is very popular and there were a lot of people in the plunge pool of the falls, swimming around, fighting the current, climbing on the cliffs around the pool and falling off back into it, young men trying to impress ladies by doing somersaults from the rocks and landing with thunderous belly-flops most of the time despite the stern warnings on the signs on the dangers of doing so. As an aside, do women know that most stupid things men purposely or subconsciously do are aimed to impress them, and that women could prevent men from doing many of these things if they just showed a bit of interest and encouragement? Back to the subject on hand: the water was very comfortable, not nearly as cold as I have seen in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, even though the waterfall looked like a mountain river. The shores and the bottom of the pool are very rocky and most people, barefoot, balanced precariously when trying to walk around, with their towels in one hand and cameras in the other, looking rather silly and pitiful, like penguins might on an icy slope covered with olive oil. I wondered for a minute what would would the aboriginal people, able to run through these rocks barefoot without even slowing down, think about this? The modern people, proud of their technology and accomplishments, would have probably appeared so useless and clumsy to them. Did we happen to lose some of our former abilities along the way of our progress? Anyway, we returned from the waterfalls by the way of the Sandy Creek Walk, a cobblestone-paved trail devoid of any dangerous challenges to a modern man and some 950 m long. The walk led us back to the parking lot along a beautiful little creek with tiny cascades of waterfalls, followed by deeper quiet pools, so warm and inviting that I even dipped into it at one time.

Tolmer Falls, Litchfield Park
Tolmer Falls, Litchfield Park

The next stop was the Tolmer Falls. Taller and more secluded, the waterfall was beautiful and the plunge pool deep and green. Thinking that wallabies hide around it somewhere in the rocks and orange bats fly out at night made this place mysterious and fascinating. I wanted to stay, go down into the canyon and observe all this amazing wildlife but, again – we only have so much time for a visit to this place they call home. So I quietly wished well to the inhabitants of this small opening to the fantastic world of the Australian wild, and we moved on.

Of course, on the way through the Litchfield Park one should not miss the Wangi Falls. The swimming area here is closed during the wet season (which is now) because salt water crocodiles occasionally make it up the river to the waterfall’s plunge pool, probably looking for tourists to eat. Fresh water crocodiles live there all the time but apparently those are small, fish eating, don’t like people for food and in the worst case only would bite you slightly to scare you a little, so no worries about them. We did not see any crocodiles but the waterfall and the pool, without dozens of people swimming in it, were beautiful (disclaimer: I don’t dislike people in general but you have to admit that as much as it is enjoyable to swim in such a place when you are a participant, the presence of bobbing heads and splashing bodies everywhere does take some of the charm and wilderness impression away from the pictures you may try to take there when you are just an observer). So, even though a swim in the Wangi Pool would be very inviting, I was totally willing to trade that for being able to see the falls without the swimmers.

Wangi Falls in Litchfields National Park
Wangi Falls in Litchfield National Park

Moving on, we drove North on the Litchfield Park Road. Just as I made a comment that, sadly, we did not see any wildlife on this trip, not even 10 seconds later a wallaby appeared sitting in the middle of the road 100 yards in front of our car. We slowed down and prepared all the 5 or 6 cameras we had for the four of us but the wallaby did not wait, she bounced into the burned trees on the side of the road and disappeared before we could press the shutter button.

On the burned trees: in the Northern Territories people apparently understand the balance of nature and the importance of fire as the force controlling the vegetation overgrowth. Unlike the U.S., where every wildfire is put our with determination suitable for a better cause, promoting the buildup of biomass and even larger fires eventually, in Australia they let the fires burn. This helps maintain lower amounts of natural fuel resulting also in the lower fire intensity, which allows the trees to easily survive the fire. Such fires recently burned in the area we drove through, and we saw some stumps on the roadside still smoldering. Sadly, my white pants did not benefit from the charred surroundings nearly as much as the the fresh new vegetation does when we stopped on the side of the road to take pictures of the magnetic termite mounds.

Magnetic termite mound, Litchfield Park
Magnetic termite mound

These fascinating structures could be seen along the main paved road into the park but here on the back side of it there were more of them and they were much larger. The rough surface of the mounds resembles concrete but you can see on the broken edges here and there the intricate internal corridor structure that the little creatures have built. As small as they are it is amazing that the termites can be so well organized as to create these “buildings” thousands of times taller than themselves, plus orient them accurately North to South, or at a certain inclination, like 10º to the East. A quick comparison in sizes tells me that humans would have to construct a building 1,020 m (3,350 ft) high to compare to the termite mounds. I don’t think we are quite up for that yet, however advanced we think we are, even if the comparison is not quite fair from the structural and materials standpoint. A small lesson in humility, found alongside an Australian road.

Another interesting observation is that the park is free. There are no entrance fees or parking fees, yet the boardwalks use metal framing and quality planks, the buildings are in good repair, and the toilets are flush type, not pits. Roads are in very good condition and the trails are well maintained. The fact that similar scale parks in the U.S. all charge a substantial entrance fee must have to do with how the public money is spent, and since everything in Australia is more expensive one could not say that maintaining the park would be cheap in comparison. Sad that the U.S. can’t figure out how to make its parks affordable to everyone. I know that $20-40 access fees stop many people from visiting, and public national parks should be accessible to all regardless of their income level.

Looking back at today, it was a great day off. Totally different scenery from anything I have ever seen, red soil, sparse trees, parrots making loud sharp noises and road signs giving a distance of 1,464 km to the next town – there will be more than enough to remember about our short visit to the Northern Territories to make me want to come here again some time.