Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Badu Island, Australia: Sun, fun, fruitful fishing

The temperature was in the low 90s and I was standing on the most perfect, palm-lined, white-powder tropical beach I could ever have imagined. And yet somehow this island, 10 degrees south of the equator, reminded me of Alaska.

As with many Bush villages back home, it took two flights in successively smaller planes to get here from Cairns, Australia’s gateway city to the Great Barrier Reef. Both places represent the most northern reaches of each country – although the farther north you go in the southern hemisphere, the warmer it is.

Like most remote Alaska communities, the indigenous population, here a mixture of Australian Aborigines and Pacific Islanders, maintains a subsistence lifestyle. Instead of harpooning whales, the locals hunt dugongs (manatees) and sea turtles.

And like Alaska, humans are not at the top of Badu’s food chain. Instead of bears, sharks and saltwater crocodiles are the baddest beasts around. Bruins have never kept me out of the wild back home and I often couldn’t resist the calculated risk of diving in Badu’s warm and sparkling clear water.

But the most obvious connection, and the reason I was here, was David and Julie Maddock-Jones. This Australian couple came to Kenai in the early 1990s when Dave exchanged teaching jobs for a year with Dorothy Besch, a third-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary. They eagerly participated in any outdoor experience our Alaska staff offered up, and now 15 years later, I was ready for any adventure David and Julie had in mind.

It was October and their school had just released for a two-week break. We were to spend eight days camping at Gaubuth, a deserted beach located across the island from Badu’s only town. Julie drove out with the gear and provisions while David and I took advantage of the early morning calm to motor around in the boat.

“Glad you’re here, mate,” David told me as we left the harbor. “Julie and I get a lot of pressure from our friends and family to go visit them during holidays. No one wants to come to Badu because it’s so remote, so we don’t get enough opportunity to just relax and enjoy what we have right here.”

I couldn’t be happier to oblige. We anchored the boat off of the shallow and sandy bottom about 300 feet from the shoreline and swam to the beach. The wind was beginning to pick up as it would every midday for our time on Gaubuth; no sense being wave-tossed in the 20-foot skiff. We took advantage of being land-bound by setting up camp and gathering firewood.

Go off in any direction in this part of the world and there are a hundred animals, insects or plants that can kill or cause pain. Since we were all in shorts and sandals, once off the beach, we had to watch for snakes with every step. That didn’t help me much when I brushed against a nest of flaming needle wasps.

Yep, they have that name for a reason. While the burning sensation lasted for only a few minutes, the needlelike stingers felt like they were 4 inches long and the swelling on my arm didn’t go away for nearly a month.

To beat the high cost of bringing beverages to the island, David was perfecting a home-brewing operation and his beer now fulfilled a much-welcomed medicinal purpose. A few hours later when the wind died down, we began our twice-a-day fishing ritual to provide our food for the day and restock their freezer back in town.

The waters here are very productive. Unpredictable shallows, extremely strong currents and uncharted reefs don’t allow for commercial netting operations. There’s not a developed sportfishing industry and the island population is too sparse to have a big impact on sea life. Consequently, we had the most prolific ocean fishing I have ever experienced and we had it all to ourselves.

When we got too hot or needed a break from cranking reels, we anchored off a reef, donned masks and fins, armed ourselves with rubber band-powered spears and dove in to hunt for crayfish. We tossed each day’s catch in the eskie, short for Eskimo, Australian slang for ice chest, and eventually found our way back to our beach before sunset.

Are there many things finer than sitting with great friends on a lonely tropical beach, watching the sun go down while sipping a cool brew as fresh-caught fish sizzle over the fire?

David and Julie will stay on Badu for just one more year and I already began to plan for another visit the moment I climbed aboard the four-seat plane headed back toward the mainland.

James Bennett is a semi-retired teacher from Soldotna. He supports his international travel habit and outdoor adventures by working as a long-term substitute in Alaska villages.

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