An unlikely refuge above the trees

Although dwindling in number, thousands of fire towers still dot forests across the US. Stay in one during off-season for unparalleled views from high above.

When Joey and Shannon Hodgson used their last match to burn the pages of a book titled How to Take Six Months Off, they didn’t know if they’d survive the night.

The couple had been hurrying home from a winter weekend getaway at Warner Mountain Fire Tower in Central Oregon, but the storm moved in fast, dumping 3ft of snow on the trail. Frostbitten and scared, they were eventually rescued by a search party just a mile from their car after spending a long night in sub-freezing temperatures.

Some might be deterred after such a dangerous experience, but the adventurous couple were spurred on to fulfil a dream that Joey had been entertaining since he first stumbled upon a fire tower while hiking when he was 12.

The fire tower in Pickett Butte (Credit: Credit: Britany Robinson)

The fire tower in Pickett Butte (Credit: Britany Robinson)

Passionate about protecting the nation’s forests, they quit their jobs and for six months each year they work as fire lookouts, taking up residence in basic structures perched on stilts or peaks and surveying thousands of acres of forest. Joey reckons he reports an average of 100 forest fires per season.

“Lookouts are our life,” he told me over a static-y cell phone from his current lookout position at Lava Butte in Central Oregon, 19 years after that frightening night.

First appearing in the early 1900s, around 8,000 fire towers once dotted forests across the United States, from busy state parks to secluded mountains, manned by paid lookouts and volunteers who spent their summers with a bird’s eye view of the surrounding trees. It was a profession romanticised by the likes of Jack Kerouac, who wrote a fictionalised account of his time as a fire lookout in the book Dharma Bums.

Light over Oregon's forests (Credit: Credit: George Rose/Getty)

Light over Oregon’s forests (Credit: George Rose/Getty)

Fire towers and lookout positions have dwindled in number in recent decades, mainly due to budget cuts, but the 2,552 surviving towers (of which only 826 are staffed) are often available to rent when they’re not in use. Built for optimal vantage points of the surrounding wilderness, they offer an inspiring escape for adventurous souls.

Wanting to experience the solitude and thrill of a fire tower without the responsibility, I decided to escape the daily grind as a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon, for a weekend above the trees. I was looking forward to channelling Jack Kerouac and feeling the freedom from civilisation that might allow me to write, or simply relax, more so than I could in my busy city life.

Pickett Butte, approximately 200 miles south of Portland and my home for the night, was originally constructed in 1934 and a paid lookout still lives here from July through September. But from October through June, when forest fires are extremely rare, it’s a coveted campsite for families, couples and solo sojourners like me. I reserved a night in early May, with reservations booked solid for weeks on either side.

Sleeping above it all (Credit: Credit: Britany Robinson)

Sleeping above it all (Credit: Britany Robinson)

The prospect of spending a night alone in the woods was a little unnerving for my city-minded senses, but when I reached theTiller Ranger Station in the Umpqua National Forest the warm sunshine gave me courage. My dog, Jackson, eyed me from the passenger seat as we bounced along the dirt road past the station. He seemed to understand that my Hyundai Elantra was not meant for off-roading.

A slow seven miles later, I pulled up to the sign for Pickett Butte. Faded and pockmarked with bullet holes, it did nothing to ease my nerves, and I looked back at the long, quiet road we’d just covered. One bumpy mile later, the 40ft-high tower — a wooden box balanced at the top of three flights of steep, slatted stairs — revealed itself in a clearing of trees, looking astute against the baby blue sky.

Jackson and I surveyed the grounds, which included two picnic tables, a fire pit and an outhouse. We snacked and lounged in the grass. Then, it was time to climb.

The climb to the top (Credit: Credit: Britany Robinson)

The climb to the top (Credit: Britany Robinson)

The steps were too steep for Jackson’s liking, so I clutched 40lbs of trembling dog against my chest while slowly making my way up. When I released him on the final platform, my arms ached with relief.

A line from Kerouac came to mind as I slowly absorbed my surroundings.

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple,” he wrote in Dharma Bums.

This was how I felt as I took in the landscape below: layers of rolling hills in a palette of green and gold spread out in all directions. A narrow porch wrapped around the square structure, and I circled it once, twice, three times, trying to soak in the bizarre sensation of being surrounded by so little, yet so much.

A view from the top (Credit: Credit: Britany Robinson)

A view from the top (Credit: Britany Robinson)

There were sounds; a snapping twig; a singing bird; a strange, hollow drumming in the distance. But there was also a silence in the air that was completely new to me. I was alone.

Inside the structure was a single cot, a desk and a stove. In the centre of the room was a topographical map of the area enclosed beneath a circle of glass. Joey would later explain that this device, called an Osbourne Fire Finder, is used to pinpoint the location of a fire within 50ft. Lookouts line up a sighting aperture on the map with the smoke in the distance, and note the degrees on the edge of the glass circle, which gives them coordinates on the fire’s location. Luckily, I would not be responsible for watching the forest or locating fires during my stay.

The Osbourne Fire Finder (Credit: Credit: Britany Robinson)

The Osbourne Fire Finder (Credit: Britany Robinson)

It was only 2 pm when we settled in. I’d anticipated a need to fill the afternoon with some activity, but now that I was here, it seemed more fulfilling to do as the fire lookouts do — watch and enjoy. I’d barely cracked the pile of books I brought along when the sun started setting. Jackson and I sat on the cot, watching the greens and golds slowly transform into pinks and blues. I thought about how a sudden plume of smoke might jolt me out of my dreamy state. But the sky stayed clear as the sun disappeared behind the furthest mountains and dark purple seeped across the skyline.

That evening, I heated a can of soup over the little gas stove. The night sounds seemed louder as darkness surrounded us; the owls’ hoots bouncing between stars.

The little gas stove (Credit: Credit: Britany Robinson)

The little gas stove (Credit: Britany Robinson)

I woke with the sun’s return at 5:30 am, the blood-red orb casting streams of light through the picture windows. I’d never get up that early at home, but here it felt natural to rise with the day. Jackson, stretching next to me and wagging his tail, agreed.

Jackson enjoying the blood-red sunrise (Credit: Credit: Britany Robinson)

Jackson enjoying the blood-red sunrise (Credit: Britany Robinson)

I spent the morning wandering around the campsite, taking breaks to read or toss Jackson’s ball, or simply stand on a rock and stare at the peaks and valleys below. It’s amazing how doing nothing at all can feel so fulfilling when you’re enveloped by nature at its most raw, yet inviting state.

I wasn’t ready to leave that afternoon. But I also knew, thanks to the men and women who watch over these sites and the surrounding trees each summer, I could always return. Back in Portland, I immediately booked a second weekend at Pickett Butte in October, with confidence that Joey, Shannon and the rest of the lookouts would be keeping the forests safe for another season.

In the meantime, I’d find myself a copy of How to Take Six Months Off.

The abandoned mansions of billionaires

While most of Shekhawati’s havelis have crumbled and remain abandoned, a small window into the world of these painted mansions is being preserved.

A former home of opulence

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A former home of opulence
Forgotten in the barren landscapes of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, the Shekhawati region was once home to the unabashed opulence of India’s billionaires. Today, many of the billionaires’ grand havelis(mansions) are crumbling – the fading frescoes marking the only vestiges of the area’s vanished glory. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Drenching the dusty towns in colour

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Drenching the dusty towns in colour
With paintings covering nearly every inch of the grand havelis, the towns and villages of Shekhawati encompass the world’s largest concentration of magnificent frescoes in a single region. To protect these once grand estates from crumbling further, two districts within Shekhawati have banned the sale of the havelis to anyone who could harm their heritage look. Their aim is to conserve and promote Shekhawati as a tourist destination. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Modest merchant homes gave way to grand mansions

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

The rise of merchant success
Founded by the eponymous Rajput chieftain Rao Shekha in the late 15th Century, Shekhawati prospered immensely at the turn of the 19th Century. The region reduced taxes to lure merchants and diverted all caravan trade from the nearby commercial centres of Jaipur and Bikaner. Merchants belonging to the Marwari and Bania community, a renowned ethnic trading group in India, moved into Shekhawati from the surrounding towns, and amassed great wealth through a  flourishing trade in opium, cotton and spices. Modest merchant homes started giving way to grand mansions by the end of the 19th Century. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Havelis acted as lavish displays of wealth

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Where wealth melds with artistic expression
When trade moved from caravan routes to sea routes and railways in the 1820s, Rajasthan’s trade centres were on a steady decline. However, the enterprising merchants of Shekhawati followed the money trail and moved to the fledgling port towns of Bombay and Calcutta on the Indian coast, sending back enormous amounts of money to their homes in Shekhawati and thus heralding an era of uniquely painted havelis that acted as lavish displays of wealth. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

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Many courtyards and elaborate designs
Most Havelis were built in a similar architectural style – usually two storied buildings with two to four open courtyards arranged within a rectangular block. Each courtyard and the corresponding rooms were designated for specific purposes. The first courtyard after entering the house was for men and their business dealings, the second was for women and the other two were for cooking and animal stables. But the merchants left no stone unturned in giving their mansions a distinct look, with ornately carved wooden entrances, pompous mirror work and the defining differentiator: ostentatious paintings depicting daily life and mythology. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Frescoes adorn every surface

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Frescoes adorn every surface
Inspired by the 17th-century ochre frescoes introduced by the Rajput kings of Jaipur in Amer Fort, the merchants commissioned intricate paintings on every inch of the mansion walls – including exteriors, interiors, ceilings and even the spaces under the arches and eaves. Scenes from the ancient Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana – along with plenty of decorative floral designs and patterns – were the most common motifs featured in the frescoes for a large part of the 19th Century. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Painters were commissioned to paint havelis

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A wide range of colours
Painters were first commissioned from the city of Jaipur, but after noticing a rising interest in frescoes, members from the potter community in Shekhawati started learning the craft and created a proliferation of distinct styles across different villages. It is not entirely clear if the artists had full reign over the designs or if they were given specific instructions in choosing patterns and mythological scenes.

Before the mid-19th Century, traditional pigments made from minerals and vegetables dominated the colour palette, with intense shades of reds, maroons, indigo, lapis lazuli and copper blue along with bright yellow supposedly made out cow’s urine. Starting 1860s, synthetic pigments came into use, which were cheaper and offered a wide range of new colours. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Frescoes in havelis began depicting European influences

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Mixing myth and the modern
By the early 20th Century, the frescoes began depicting European influences and modern advancements – recollections from what the well-travelled merchants had seen in the big cities. In some rare cases, the painters were sent to observe and recreate the scenes. Among the traditional motifs, there are frescoes of Queen Elizabeth, Jesus, cherubs, steam engines and gramophones, as well as whacky creations mixing mythology with modern inventions, such as Hindu gods in chauffeur-driven cars (pictured). (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Havelis were abandoned for good after the 20th Century

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Abandoned for good
The havelis and frescoes of Shekhawati blossomed until the early 20th Century; after which, the rich business tycoons left the desert wasteland for better opportunities in bustling metropolises like Bombay and Calcutta and even abroad. After the trade moved elsewhere, there was little development in the arid lands of Shekhawati, and the havelis were abandoned for good.

Some of the biggest names in the Indian and global business scene today – including the likes of the steel baron Laxmi Mittal, Kumar Birla of Aditya Birla Group, pharmaceutical billionaire Ajay Piramaland Nepal’s only billionaire, Binod K Chaudhary, had their origins in the villages of Shekhawati. In fact, according to Forbes, almost 25% of India’s 100 richest were from Shekhawati. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

By the 1950s, havelis were falling into steady despair

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

The high cost of upkeep
By the 1950s, the thriving towns that had raised these billionaires were falling into steady despair. Selling or renovating these rural family bungalows – some of which could house up to 50 families at once – is a difficult job. The cost of upkeep is high and many of the properties, usually shared between multiple heirs, are embroiled in legal disputes. But since havelis are private properties, the government cannot do much to preserve them. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A new life for the Shekhawati mansions

(Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

A new life for the Shekhawati mansions
Luckily, the beauty and cultural significance of these painted havelis is not lost on everyone. In 1999, French artist Nadine Le Prince bought the 1802-built Nand Lal Devra Haveli (now called Nadine Le Prince Cultural Centre) and painstakingly restored it to its former glory in the town of Fatehpur. In the neighbouring towns of Dunlod and Nawalgarh, Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli and Shri Jairam Dasji Morarka’s family mansions have also been restored and turned into museums for public viewings. A few other havelis-turned-museums are scattered in the hinterlands of Shekhawati, and some like Malji ka Kamra, Koolwal Kothi and Castle Mandawa have been turned into heritage hotels.

While some of the havelis may crumble and fall apart – their glory lives on in others. (Credit: Neelima Vallangi)

Rare access to an Australian wonder

A live-aboard boat affords travellers a much closer look at the country’s psychedelically beautiful Great Barrier Reef – without any of the day-tripper crowds.

Standing on the sun deck of the Spirit of Freedom, a live-aboard tour boat on the Great Barrier Reef, I noticed something was missing: land. The shoreline had disappeared overnight and now there was just sky and sea – nothing else – for 220km in every direction.

Also missing were the crowds, a nearly unavoidable part of the more popular day trips that launch from Cairns, the gateway city to Australia’s most popular natural attraction. Every day, tour boats bring hundreds of holidaymakers to the mega-pontoons stationed on the reef, offering a Disney-fied experience of the world’s largest living structure.

I chose instead to board a live-aboard boat and tour the Coral Sea over a number of days and nights. It’s a holiday that evades the day-trip crowds, allows for more than a day’s diving on the reef and affords travellers a much closer look at the pulsating, psychedelic-looking, 2,300km-long ecosystem that scientists predict could be overrun by seaweed by 2050.

After a three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns, and an hour-long flight to Lizard Island (so named by Captain Cook for its suitably large population of monitor lizards), I motored out to my new home for the next four days, joining 26 other passengers and 10 crew on the decks of the 37m-long Spirit of Freedom.

Lizard Island, home to a large population of monitor lizards (Credit: Ethan Teas)

A large population of monitor lizards earned Lizard Island its name. (Ethan Teas)

Once we settled in, the small cabins didn’t matter. Days were spent on the deck, with passengers draped over every available surface, napping or holding up a book to shade their eyes. The boat’s close confines meant making friends was inevitable.

Three Chinese students, a German veterinarian, an elderly Kenyan free diver – our group came from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures.

Of course, the one thing that most of us had in common was a love for diving and a desire to see the Great Barrier Reef like no day-tripper ever would. We got below the surface nearly five times a day.

Rarely did we dive in the same place twice. More often, each excursion explored a new section of the reef’s coral-covered walls, which dropped off into to unexplored shadows, the sea floor resting 2,000m below.

There was always something new and exciting to see – blue spotted ribbontail rays, clownfish nestled amid the noodle-like tentacles of their anemone, mind-bogglingly big manta rays and bursts of colour and light from schools of iridescent fish suddenly changing direction. Four dwarf minke whales appeared during a dive on our second-to-last day and lingered for two hours, passing improbably close to those of us who were suspended in stillness, staring.

Schooling trevally (Credit: Spirit of Freedom)

Schooling trevally at the Great Barrier Reef. (Spirit of Freedom)

With the right currents, divers could drift along the wall, passively enjoying the changing scenery while surrounded on three sides by the unbroken blue of open ocean. Closer to the surface, sunlit pinnacles of coral pierced the gently sloping beds of sand.

Eventually, when our eyes just couldn’t take anymore beauty – and our tanks ran low on air – we would kick towards the light and climb back aboard the only dry surface for miles. After a shamelessly lazy hour on the sun deck, I was always ready to do everything all over again.

Practicalities
Spirit of Freedom and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer four-day live-aboard trips to the outer reaches of the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea year round. They also have the permits needed to bring divers close to dwarf minke whales – the whales migrate to the area between June and July to mate and calve in the warmer reef waters.

Cyclone season lasts from November to May. The wet season is from December to February but can offer up great visibility and calm waters because of low winds and warmer water temperatures.

Peak season is during the dry months of June to October. June to August is the winter season with cooler air and water temperatures (bring a jumper for brisk nights).

An exiled nation turned private Eden

While its former population fights to return home, the Chagos islands are experiencing a remarkable rebounding of wildlife on a reef that’s considered the most pristine in the world.

By the time the moray eel slithered toward me, my walk around Ile Takamaka was already wilder than expected. The eel had been chasing a fast-moving crab out of the water and up the beach when it spotted my toe. I quickly scrambled onto a tree trunk to escape and tried to hide my tender toe from view. Happily the eel settled for the crab, and I went back to contemplating my way forward: through the ocean over jagged coral, or back inland through dense jungle.

A friend and I had set out on a morning stroll to bird watch and check out a boat wreck at the far end of Ile Takamaka in the Indian Ocean’s Salomon Atoll. Along the way, we hoped to catch site of some of the feral roosters we heard crowing each morning of our nearly month-long stay. I have no idea how they’ve survived (and seemingly thrived) in the almost 50 years since the local human population was expelled from these islands.

Visitors to the Chagos Archipelago are rare (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Visitors to the Chagos Archipelago are rare (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Salomon Atoll is the kind of fabled stop that travellers sail halfway around the world to reach. It’s found south of the Maldives in the north eastern part of the Chagos Archipelago, a region of the British Indian Ocean Territory that encompasses seven atolls and more than 60 low-lying islands. Off most people’s radar, the best known island in Chagos is Diego Garcia, a US military base 100 nautical miles south of Ile Takamaka.

To visit Chagos, sailors (like us) need proof of medical evacuation and boat-wreck removal insurance, and then for £200, you get a 28-day yacht visitors permit. It’s not a long stay considering you’ve sailed thousands of nautical miles to get here, but it’s a better deal than the one the archipelago’s long-time former population got.

In the 1960s, Britain and the US made an unsavoury arrangement to depopulate Chagos in order to build the base at Diego Garcia. Over the next decade, the archipelago’s entire population, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Chagossians, were uprooted from their villages – where they had worked on coconut plantations since the 18th century – and moved many hundreds of kilometres away to either the Seychelles or Mauritius. There, the vulnerable population began their decades-long struggle to get home.

Snorkeling through the lush coral reef (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Snorkeling through the lush coral reef (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

It’s a strange thing to be permitted to use the nation of an exiled people as your private tropical playground. And as we made our way around Ile Takamaka, scrambling over trees and wading through the warm ocean, I was struck by the lushness of the place. In 2010, the UK government created a marine protected area that turned the waters surrounding the Chagos Archipelago into the world’s largest marine reserve. The reason for its creation was, in part, a cynical one, as the highly regulated “no-take zone” means that Chagossians can’t fish commercially and acts as yet another hurdle to keep them out.

But while the Chagossians continue to fight in international court rooms, Chagos itself is experiencing a remarkable rebounding of fish, shark and seabird populations on a reef that’s considered one of the most pristine in the world.

At one point during our walk, we waded through a blacktip reef shark nursery. In a shallow tide pool, newborn pups swam in lazy circles near my ankles, looking comically small next to my feet. Further on, we found a lagoon with a half dozen green turtles and were dazzled when huge schools of turquoise parrot fish darted in and out of the shadows. Where the jungle met the sea, there were dozens of seabird nests with endangered red-footed boobie babies, sooty terns and noddies perched haphazardly in the trees.

As the waves churned higher, we were forced inland. Unlike nearby Ile Boddam, which was the atoll’s main village site and holds the crumbling ruins of a church, a jail, a hospital and a graveyard where time has rubbed away most of the inscriptions, Takamaka was a lightly populated coconut plantation; it has no trails through its interior.

Even with sturdy shoes and a machete, it would have been hard to cut across island. But dressed in flip flops, we cautiously sidestepped thorny bushes and palm-sized spiders while keeping an eye out for the atoll’s belligerent coconut crab, which grow large enough to hunt and crush rats. At one point, we rested under a gorgeous old banyan tree and pondered the only open grove we’d seen on the island – imagining it had once been part of the workings of the island. Several times we found our way back to the beach, and in the distance, I could see our sailboats. But then the shore would recede into deep current-tossed waters and we’d plunge back into the jungle.

Relics of the abandoned island's past (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Relics of the abandoned island’s past (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

While Chagos thrives, the Chagossian people continue to struggle. In previous years, positive court judgements raised the possibility of resettlement – only to have the UK government counter with arguments about the expense and difficulty of sending the people back. However, after finally acknowledging the Chagossians had been treated wrongly, the UK now seems to be leaning in their favour.

In the months to come, the US, UK and international courts will finally decide the fate of the displaced population, including their possible resettlement over several years. With this British Indian Ocean Territory relocation proposal, the world’s largest uninhabited archipelago would not only get its population back – it would also get some very lucky tourists. Coconut plantations are no longer viable, and eco-tourism is one of the only industries that can meet the criteria set by the marine protected area.

Sailors come thousands of nautical miles for a look inside the fabled paradise (Credit: Credit: Diane Selkirk)

Sailors come thousands of nautical miles for a look inside the fabled paradise (Credit: Diane Selkirk)

A few hours after we started our hike around tiny Takamaka, we finally emerged from the jungle close to our boats. Later, when watching sharks swim in the clear blue water under our hull while manta rays and dolphins surfaced nearby, I was struck by the realization that Chagos is as pristine a tropical paradise as it gets. But it’s also a fragile place that’s slowly being engulfed by rising seas, and has a prospective population who’d have to make a huge, collective back-to-the-land transition just to survive. It’s a place that’s unspoiled – but not uncomplicated.

Some of the world’s oldest cave art

Only a fraction of the country’s estimated 100,000 rock art sites have been documented, and as one traveller discovered, protection is patchy.

Away from the sun’s glare, my eyes needed a moment to adjust. I heard my daughter and husband making their way up the rocky trail behind me through the oppressive heat. “This better be worth it,” my daughter Maia called out.

I peered through the dim light of a shallow cave and spotted an array of centuries-old paintings. There was a red ray with white dots overlapping a crocodile. Nearby, I puzzled over sea creatures with feathery fronds. Then I saw the sailing ships: painted one on top of the other in shades of yellow, red and orange, they evoked old European galleons and Indonesian sailboats. Oh, it was worth it, alright.

Spotted ray and crocodile (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Spotted ray and crocodile. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

And yet, I was perplexed. We’d come to Stanley Island, off Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, to learn about the Aboriginal Australians who once resided here. But we found the main sign marking Flinders Group National Park concealed by mangroves and the guestbook had recorded only a handful of visitors each month. This place attracted thousands of visitors in the early 1980s. Where were they now? Why wasn’t anyone here to keep an eye on the artwork? And how had this 75-year-old park, with its historic rock art, faded into obscurity?

I suspected part of the answer had to do with the remote location. We were in a small, uninhabited island group 340km north of Cairns. Getting to Stanley Island – or Yindayin, as it’s called by the local Aboriginals – isn’t easy. While some visitors arrive here on small coastal cruise ships out of Cairns or on coastal ferries, we travelled up the coast on our own boat and anchored in Owen Channel near the spot where we thought the rock art might be. Rather than hire a tour guide through theCooktown and Cape York Peninsula Information Centre180km south, we explored the island on our own.

After landing our dinghy, we headed up a designated trail through a fragrant orchard, past metre-high termite mounds and rugged cliffs. When we finally reached a beach on the other side of the island, I searched for the trail leading to the rock art.

Coming ashore on Stanley Island (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Coming ashore on Stanley Island. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

“There might be salties!” my husband Evan called to Maia each time she strayed close to the water’s edge. He was referring to saltwater crocodiles, of course – the kind that eat humans. Fortunately, we didn’t see any.

Once I found the trail, we trudged into the bush to find the artwork. The wind dropped and the humidity increased, and I began to wonder if the park had been forgotten for a reason. Then I stepped under the overhanging rock ledge and entered the shallow cave.

I couldn’t believe what I saw. There had to be hundreds of  paintings on the rock face: images of ships, canoes, birds and turtles. Each time I turned my head, looking up to the ceiling or deeper into the shelter, I spotted something new. The cave, which was almost big enough to hold one of the ships painted on its walls, was like a window into the past. Gazing at the white and ochre paintings, I was filled with wonder.

Ships on the wall (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Ships on the wall. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

The Aboriginal Yiithuwarra, or “saltwater people”, lived throughout the Flinders Islands for more than 2,900 years, until about 70 years ago. We don’t know how many people there were, exactly, but at one time dozens of multi-family settlements dotted the small islands. I thought about the Yiithuwarra who painted these ships. Each image was so detailed. Had the artists seen the ships from up close? Or just from afar? The only solidly identifiable image of a European ship was from 1899, but most of the images probably pre-date that.

We know that some ships landed on the island and carried people away. Even before the first European ship sailed past in 1606, a number of fit young men were coerced aboard Indonesian sailboats to fish for sea cucumbers in the rough local waters. In the 1880s, still more young men were recruited to work on small luggers, or fishing boats, in the highly lethal pearling and fishing industries. Records indicate that some local women were even traded for goods with those aboard passing boats.

And then it all came to an end. Details are sketchy, but by the late 1930s, Yindayin was nearly empty of its traditional people. Authorities soon removed remaining Yiithuwarra, taking them to missions on the Cape York Peninsula for fear they might lead an invading Japanese force to food and water.

As Evan and I studied the ships, Maia searched the walls and overhangs for the last image that was reportedly painted here: a dugong, the endangered sea cow that was once central to this Aboriginal culture. It was painted roughly 60 years ago by the last Aboriginal man born on the island. Then she spotted it: a bulbous, deep red creature with bright white stripes. She seemed to meditate on it for a moment.

“They’re almost all gone now, too. Aren’t they?” she asked.

My initial excitement over seeing the art faded to sadness. We still took turns pointing out images that captured our imagination: a bird’s single footprint, a kangaroo (on an island that has none), a boomerang (I guess they really did use them). But the thrill of discovery was overshadowed by the reality of the situation. Not only were the artists missing, but the seascape they recorded was also disappearing.

After an hour or so of studying the rock art, we wandered deeper into the island, noting former indigenous cooking sites, sleeping locales and other sacred places filled with yet more art. Despite the boardwalk that had been constructed under our feet, it was hard to shake the feeling that the inhabitants had just stepped out for a while. If only.

I thought about all of the extraordinary paintings out here, unprotected. They’re hardly alone, unfortunately. Only a fraction of Australia’s estimated 100,000 Aboriginal rock art sites have been documented, and protection is patchy.

Noelene Cole, an archaeologist and rock-art specialist, points out that many sites in northern Australia are endangered because rock art concentrations tend to be found in regions with mineral deposits, making the areas targets for mine developments. Even Yindayin is at risk. An underground coalmine and port facility has been approved for Cape York’s nearby Bathurst Bay, located on the mainland just a couple of kilometres from the islands. When the mine is built, the island could see more visitors, including miners out for recreation. They may not all appreciate the area’s cultural heritage.

Cole points to the well-publicized and recurring graffiti and vandalism damage that’s occurred to ancient artwork over the past several years after a gas processing plant, port and other industrial facilities were built on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia.

To date, officials have focused more on promoting economic development than  protecting cultural treasures, she said. But she hopes that will change.

Tranquil Australian waters (Credit: Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

Tranquil Australian waters. (Evan Gatehouse/Diane Selkirk)

The risk to the irreplaceable rock art was on my mind when we sailed away from the islands the next morning. There is, I realized, cause for hope. In recent years the Cape York Peninsula Aboriginal Land and national park system began including the traditional Aboriginal owners in the care and control of national parks where they have resided.

Resources tend to be scarce, and in places like Yindayin, where the traditional people haven’t lived for decades, it’s difficult for them to find a role for themselves.

But perhaps in time, decedents of the Yiithuwarra will again greet ships that arrive on their island – and care for the ships that their ancestors painted so many years ago.

These cars are seriously adorable

Driving past towering icons like Big Ben and the Matterhorn, these tiny cars are taking on some proportionally epic adventures.

Travel photographers often strive to capture wide-sweeping landscapes or aerial city shots that showcase a destination at its most grand. But Swiss artist Kim Leuenberger is turning that idea on its head: photographing icons like Big Ben and the Matterhorn at a micro level and using tiny toy cars to change viewers’ perspectives.

Leuenberger’s first tiny-car-photo was shot for an autism awareness project in Switzerland four years ago – and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Commenters said the little blue minivan brought them joy, so Leuenberger decided to turn photographing tiny cars into a bigger, personal project.

Behind the scenes of the tiny car adventure in the Isle of Skye (Credit: Credit: Alexandra Lhermitte Schwass)

Behind the scenes of the tiny car adventure in the Isle of Skye (Credit: Alexandra Lhermitte Schwass)

“I started buying more cars and taking them to different places. Now I always have a little car in my bag, just in case the occasion comes up,” Leuenberger said. “When I travel, I go with five different cars, finding the right car for the right place.”

In her photos, Leuenberger only hints at the destinations her cars travel to, subtly showing landmarks in the background. She prefers to highlight the more adventurous side of the vehicles’ personalities, positioning them as though they are splashing around in the water or off-roading in the mountains.

The tiny cars have journeyed to destinations like Greece, Spain and England, where Leuenberger studies photography at the University of Arts in London. She hopes to take them further north to Iceland soon, and her dream is to photograph her classic vans on the California coast.

“I keep taking these pictures because I have fun doing it,” Leuenberger said. “People say it makes them happy, and I love making people smile.”

Catalonia, Spain (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Catalonia, Spain (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

London, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

London, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Graubünden, Switzerland (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Graubünden, Switzerland (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Durdle Door, Dorset, England (Credit: Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Durdle Door, Dorset, England (Credit: Kim Leuenberger)

Where people were sent to disappear

With venomous snakes and shark-infested waters, this desert island had no hope of escape.

Panama’s Isla Coiba bears all the hallmarks of a perfect desert island: gin-clear water, powdery white sand, a fringe of palm trees against a backdrop of dense, unexplored rainforest. When I arrived on the island, the peaceful beach was scattered with a handful of travellers bobbing in the bath-warm water or taking lazy afternoon naps on the salt-encrusted hammocks.

It was hard to imagine that this island paradise harboured such a dark past – or has such an uncertain future.

A dive boat arrives at the ranger station on Isla de Coiba (Credit: Credit: Sarah Shearman)

A dive boat arrives at the ranger station on Isla de Coiba (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

For almost a century, Isla Coiba – which along with 38 other protected islands forms Coiba National Marine Park – was home to a notorious island prison, rumoured to be where the country’s most dangerous criminals were sent and where political prisoners disappeared. With the island home to various venomous snakes and insects and surrounded by shark-infested waters, there was no hope of escape for the thousands of prisoners, known as Los Desaparecidos (The Missing).

Over the last century, Panama has undergone – andcontinues to undergo – enormous environmental change. But in Coiba, a lack of human interference means that nature has been able to thrive. About 80% of Coiba’s rainforest, which is Central America’s largest at 194sqkm, is virgin, and in 2005, shortly after the jail was shut down, the national park was declared a Unesco World Heritage site.

A lack of human interference means that nature has been able to thrive.

Coiba’s biodiversity is a huge draw for both scientists and nature-loving travellers. There are a high number of indigenous mammals, birds and plants, and the island is a last refuge for some endangered species, such as the crested eagle and scarlet macaw. Situated on the same underwater mountain range as the Galapagos Islands, Coiba also has very diverse marine life. Coral has formed reefs on top of volcanic rock, and the waters serve a migratory corridor for rays, turtles, pelagic fish, dolphins, whale sharks and humpbacks.

I was drawn to Coiba because of its reputation as one of the world’s most thrilling places to dive. Unlike the Galapagos ­– or Malepo in Colombia or the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica, both renowned diving destinations on the same underwater mountain range – it is possible to take day trips to Coiba, with most visitors setting off from Santa Catalina, a small mainland fishing village about 20km away. In order to explore more of the marine park’s dive sites, I arranged a three-day excursion with the Panama Dive Center, staying in basic accommodation in Coiba’s ranger station.

Basic accommodation at the ranger station

Basic accommodation at the ranger station (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

The first day’s diving did not disappoint. In addition to a dazzling array of fish that included parrot fish, trumpet fish, frog fish, moray eels, jacks, groupers, barracuda and white-tip reef sharks, we also saw bottlenose dolphins and a school of pilot whales. We saw a colourful display of local wildlife on land, too. While eating lunch, a menagerie of animals assembled nearby, creeping out from the forest. As well as orange-coloured iguanas, cappuccino monkeys and vultures, I also spotted a creature that looked like a cross between a beaver and rabbit. My diving instructor David said it was a ñeques, one of the island’s many endemic mammals. With such an abundance of nature, I wondered if Isla Coiba was like Dr Moreau’s, with all sorts of beast folk lurking within the unexplored rainforest.

Dense, virgin rainforest

Dense, virgin rainforest (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

The second day was a touch more dramatic than the first. Looking out to sea early in the morning I spotted an enormous cruise ship – an increasingly common sight in the park. Coiba’s sleepy beach quickly became a hive of activity, as dozens of cruise staff set out sun loungers, shades, towels, water-sports gear, a barbeque station and a bar. Speedboats then ferried about 150 guests from the ship to the island for the day. Little did the guests know that their advertised “desert island experience” would turn into more of a Robinson Crusoe-style affair after they left.

Returning to the island for lunch after a couple of morning dives, I learned that the Star Pride cruise ship wouldn’t be leaving mid-afternoon as planned. It had in fact run aground on the reef that morning and had holes in its hull.

The sinking Star Bright cruise ship

The sinking Star Bright cruise ship (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

As the day progressed the cruise ship was noticeably tilting, and over the series of several huddles the captain explained to the guests they would be picked up by another ship that night. I decided to do a light trek into the rainforest to escape the furore on the beach.

After a sweat-drenched ascent, I reached a vista point where I was able to take in the vast scope of the marine park and its many islands. The line between the sea and hazy sky was barely visible, making the sight of a leaning cruise ship plonked in the middle of it all the more incongruous.

Back on the beach, some guests made the best of the situation, enjoying the resulting free drinks and food. But some tempers frayed and others worried about valuables and medication they had left on the boat. In an attempt to placate the situation, one guest strolled up and down the beach singing along with his guitar. I’m not sure at this point if the guests knew about the sandflies that descend on the beach after sunset, or the crocodiles that patrolled it.

Guests from the Star Bright cruise ship

Guests from the Star Bright cruise ship (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

I left the chaos again to do a night dive, plunging into the water at dusk when the sky was a milky lilac and emerging almost an hour later to complete darkness. As we returned to the island, the saviour ship was picking up the stranded guests, its lights twinkling like Panama City’s flashy skyline.

The guests were gone by about midnight; the original ship was left behind, I learned, for the next couple of weeks. Staff came the following morning to pick up the rubbish that covered the sand and was being picked at by vultures. It was a relief to return to the tranquillity I’d experienced the first day.

The island’s growing popularity on the cruise-ship circuit is a concern.

The island’s growing popularity on the cruise-ship circuit is a concern for many. With a limited water supply and waste disposal, the island cannot sustain such large volumes of visitors. Camilo Consuegra, owner of Panama Dive Center, explained that there are no restrictions on the number of guests that can visit the island. While permits are required for an overnight stay, anyone can come here on a day trip. “At Coiba National Park, the responsibility to handle or control the activities has been deposited on the tour operators, which, I think, is a complete mistake,” he said. Maintenance of the island’s facilities, fishing control in remote areas of the marine reserve and tourism education for the rangers “are crucial for the sustainability of this beautiful park”.

Isla Rancheria, an uninhabited island in Coiba

Isla Rancheria, an uninhabited island in Coiba (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

On our last day, we took a break on another one of Coiba’s picture-perfect islands: Isla Rancheria, a Smithsonian Institute outpost for scientific research. There was a sign warning about crocodiles, but the most menacing creature I spotted was a hermit crab, crisscrossing the sand. Under a canopy of trees, which threw finger-shaped shadows on to the sand, I rested, eating a freshly fallen coconut.

Even with the growing crowds and the abundant wildlife, it was easy to find solace in this special park.  While it’s the past lack of human interference that has enabled the park to flourish, it is now up to the visitors, local businesses, scientists, conservationists and Panama’s parks authority to ensure it remains this way for future generations to enjoy.

A view of Isla de Coiba from Santa Catalina

A view of Isla de Coiba from Santa Catalina (Credit: Sarah Shearman)

Five unforgettable rail journeys

Mountain sunsets (Credit: AFP/Getty)

From a luxury odyssey through the Australian outback to traversing the peaks of the Ecuadorian Andes, here are some of the best ways to get on board.

There are few more memorable ways to travel than by train. From rail odysseys through the outback to day trips in Britain, here are five ways to get on board.

The luxury one: The Ghan, Australia
The Australian outback is a place that’s hard to grasp: a vast, ill-defined area mapped by Aboriginal people not on paper but in song. It was a mystery to European settlers until they started crossing it on camel, and its loose demarcations – the Red Centre, the Never Never, the Top End – still sound mysterious and remote. That it’s now crossable by train is something of a marvel; that the train navigates this extreme, other-worldly land in a degree of luxury is the icing on the cake.

The train is the Ghan, a long-established service that runs up (and down) the centre of Australia from one coast to another on a three-day trip of almost 2,000 miles. Though named after 19th-century outback camel drivers who hailed from Afghanistan, it’s a far cry from their tough desert treks. Dinners in the smart onboard restaurant have an unmistakably outback flavour, with kangaroo fillet on the menu, while Platinum Service passengers can order 24-hour room service and breakfast in bed. They could, in theory, never leave their cabins, which are decked out with en suites and oversized windows framing the passing landscapes.

The scenery is worthy of large windows indeed. On the northbound route from Adelaide, plains and russet mountains cede to the arid Red Centre, the outback’s heartland of cobalt skies, rust-red earth and haphazard fistfuls of scrub. For its first 75 years, the Ghan ended in the desert city of Alice Springs. It now continues on to Darwin on the north coast. The journey’s periodic stops are a chance to get off the train and into these landscapes, from guided walks to helicopter rides. There’s even the chance to go right back to basics on the original Afghan Express (as the Ghan was once called) – a camel trek through the desert.

The traditional one: The Orient-Express, Europe
‘Railway termini… are our gates to the glorious and the unknown,’ wrote novelist E M Forster in 1910, capturing a sense of the romance of train travel that the average peak-time commuter may struggle to relate to. But once upon a time train travel was a luxurious prospect that came with a frisson of glamour and adventure, not to mention fine dining, grand surroundings and impeccable service.

It’s this Golden Age of rail travel that the Orient-Expresscompany seeks to evoke on its train services, most famously in its namesake Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) service that runs from Paris to Venice, and once a year as far as the traditional terminus of Istanbul. The same group also runs day trips in the UK on the sister trains of the VSOE – the British Pullman and the Northern Belle, which recreate the same Agatha Christie-era atmosphere without the need for a pair of £2,000 tickets.

Some of the Pullman’s ’20s carriages were used by the royal family, including the present Queen in the 1950s, and its steam-hauled signature journey is suitably stately. Within Art Deco interiors kitted out in wood panelling, mirrors and mosaics, guests are served a five-course dinner with wine and champagne; beyond the window, the rolling downs of the Surrey countryside speed past. On the steamless alternative, the train winds instead through the countryside of Kent to Whitstable and the sea before returning home.

The 1930s-style Northern Belle, which tours the north on a varying schedule of routes, offers a similar experience, with the addition of strolling musicians who serenade passengers as they dine. As well as food-based signature journeys, both trains run day trips to specific destinations, from a visit to Loch Lomond to a day exploring Bath. And there’s one trip that goes even further in conjuring the spirit of the Orient-Express – a murder mystery lunch on the British Pullman.

The pioneering one: California Zephyr, USA
There was a time, less than two centuries ago, when the only trains heading west from Chicago were composed of wagons carrying groups of traders, prospectors and missionaries seeking their fortunes or their freedom in frontier outposts. The terrain they faced was formidable: canyons frothing with white water, vast, scrub-dotted deserts and the steep, snow-streaked ranges of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada.

Then, on 10 May 1869, came the opening of the first transcontinental railroad across the US, which finally helped to forge fast routes through to the west, drawing settlers and, later on, sightseers. The California Zephyr was launched in 1949 to lure the latter, taking them on a 2,500-mile journey between the Windy City and the Californian coast in three days. The landscapes that the train crosses along the way remain as dramatic as they always were, ensuring that the longest rail journey in the US is perhaps also its most beautiful.

The Zephyr passes through seven states and some of America’s most famous scenery on its historic route, departing daily in both directions. Travelling westbound, the first eye-widening moments come over what must be one of the most scenic breakfasts in existence, as the train moves from wide-open plains and into the Rockies. The train’s Sightseer Lounge has near-panoramic windows and revolving seats from which to watch as the train ascends, rising over Denver past mountain lakes, pine forest and slopes mottled with snow. The impressive views continue as it speeds alongside the cliffs and canyons of the upper Colorado River, before descending into the deserts of Utah and Nevada. The mountain passes of the vertiginous Sierra Nevada are one final highlight before San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean – a worthy end for cross-country adventurers.

The new one: Tren Crucero, Ecuador
The Ecuadorian Andes are a fiendish proposition for any transport planner: a three-mile high spine of mountains that runs down the centre of the country, unfolding into high plateaus, fissuring into canyons and sheltering mist-shrouded old towns. When a railway was built here a century ago, it was hailed as a technological wonder. One of the world’s steepest, it snaked past snow-capped peaks and inched down precipitous slopes on its way to the Pacific coast – until it fell out of use in the late 20th century. Following a massive restoration project, as of this summer the Tren Crucero(Cruise Train) will ply the route.

It’s a fitting name – pulled for much of the journey by the original steam engines, the train proceeds at a leisurely pace on its four-day, 280-mile journey from the mountain capital Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil. Elegantly decorated carriages are lined with armchairs, and the last has panoramic windows and an open-air terrace for unmediated views. From the gold and green grasslands of Cotopaxi National Park to the desolate, glacier-capped Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest peak, there are plenty of dramatic moments. But the undoubted highlight, vertigo notwithstanding, is the Devil’s Nose, a half-mile descent of zigzags down a rocky slope, bridging the uplands and the coast.

The journey also incorporates time off the train to encounter the cultures, food and people of Ecuador a little closer at hand. In the uplands, there’s a trip to the colourful Thursday market at Guamote, a maze of brightly painted adobe houses, while the cloud forest near Guayaquil hosts a meeting with a community of Amazonian Shuar people. As evening descends, passengers disembark the train for traditional haciendas and a local dinner before heading to bed.

The trans-continental one: Trans-Siberian Railway, Siberia
Some railways win fame puttering their way through cutesy landscapes. Others earn affection merrily chuffing up and down snowy peaks. But few would dispute that the Trans-Siberian is the supreme king of all things straddling two rails – a leviathan of a railway journey, traversing distances big enough to bring on a headache just thinking about them. By the time passengers step off at the last stop, chances are that their train will have clanked and jolted its way round a fifth of the circumference of planet Earth.

It’s less well known that there’s not just one Trans-Siberian route, but rather a number of sub-species. The original Trans-Siberian route takes passengers from Moscow to the seaport of Vladivostok, but one of the most colourful alternatives is the Trans-Mongolian route – a trip connecting three capital cities and a world of changing landscapes. Beginning in the Russian capital, trains trundle their way through birch forests across the Ural Mountains to the town of Yekaterinburg. Within a few days, services swing round the brilliant blue waters of Lake Baikal, before plunging southward into the gently sloping grasslands of the Mongolian steppe, dotted with yurts and grazing horses. The last leg from the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar to Beijing is a fitting finale, quickly skipping between the arid expanse of the Gobi Desert, industrial sprawl and green mountains – squint and you may even glimpse the Great Wall itself.

For much of the journey however, the appeal lies inside the carriage rather than outside the window. Expect to idle away days making new friends in the dining car and staging bitterly fought card games in your cabin – experiences all swept along on a tide of freely flowing vodka.

A desert’s once-in-a-decade super bloom

Thanks to strong El Niño activity and heavy autumn rains, Death Valley – one of the least hospitable places on Earth – is experiencing its biggest explosion of flowers since 2005.

The desert was aglow with flowers. As I descended California’s Panamint Mountains, the familiar landscape turned my windshield into a movie screen. Vast swaths of yellow carpeted the once barren ground, the desert gold booms resting high on their stalks with vivid petals that radiated in the morning light. Other flowers with names like purple mat and gravel ghost peppered the landscape with fuschias and ethereal whites. I got out of my car, breathing in the sweet, lilting florals. This once-in-a-decade super bloom of wildflowers was why I and so many others had come to Death Valley National Park.

A patch of desert gold (Geraea canescens) flowers along the roadside (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

A patch of desert gold (Geraea canescens) flowers along the roadside (Credit: Sivani Babu)

“I was asleep, and I woke up, and there were flowers everywhere!” The bubbling voice that spilled into the morning belonged to a young girl of about six who wore fine pollen, the colour of a canary feather, like face paint. Her parents and she had driven all night from the lush redwoods of northern California to see the desert blooms. The largest national park in the contiguous United States, Death Valley stretches from California into Nevada and draws an international crowd of roughly 1m visitors each year, but seldom do people visit with so much urgency. Such is the power of a phenomenon that is both rare and transient.

Tangled stalks of desert gold (Garaea canescens) flowers (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Tangled stalks of desert gold (Garaea canescens) flowers (Credit: Sivani Babu)

The recipe for a Death Valley super bloom appears simple: heavy rains, followed by warm temperatures and lighter rain showers. If it is too hot or too cold, if the wind is too dry or if there is too much or too rain little, the wildflowers might still bloom, but not with the synchronization and density of a super bloom. The great complication, of course, is that Death Valley is the driest place in North America and the hottest on Earth. Rain is rare. Unmerciful heat is not.

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) and purple mat (Nama demissum) flowers along Badwater Road (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) and purple mat (Nama demissum) flowers along Badwater Road (Credit: Sivani Babu)

 

Much like the previous two super blooms in 2005 and 1998, this year’s bloom is the product of strong El Niño activity. Heavy rains fell last October, stimulating millions of seeds that had been lying dormant in the soil for years. Autumn and winter then brought the right amount of warmth and rain to trigger the mass sprouting of seedlings.

Visitors to Death Valley explore an expanse of desert gold flowers during the super bloom (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Visitors to Death Valley explore an expanse of desert gold flowers during the super bloom (Credit: Sivani Babu)

If conditions hold, the super bloom could carry through the month, but there are no guarantees in the desert. A change in the weather could return the land to barren rock and soil, rapidly turning the blossoms to seeds that might not sprout again for years. This is life in Death Valley: hard-fought and short-lived.

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blossoms in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blossoms in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms along Badwater Road (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms along Badwater Road (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Dramatic stretches of desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms flank Badwater Road (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Dramatic stretches of desert gold (Geraea canescens) blooms flank Badwater Road (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Notch-leaf Phacelia flowers during Death Valley's super bloom (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Notch-leaf Phacelia flowers during Death Valley’s super bloom (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

A short walk into a canyon reveals the diversity of Death Valley’s super bloom (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

A short walk into a canyon reveals the diversity of Death Valley’s super bloom (Credit: Sivani Babu)

The ethereally pale blossoms of gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla) along Furnace Creek Wash (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

The ethereally pale blossoms of gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla) along Furnace Creek Wash (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys) blossom in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Credit: Sivani Babu)

Popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys) blossom in Death Valley National Park (Credit: Sivani Babu)

Death Valley's super bloom awash in gold (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Death Valley’s super bloom awash in gold (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Notch-leaf Phacelia growing along the roadside (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Notch-leaf Phacelia growing along the roadside (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Swaths of flowers south of Badwater Basin at mile 27 (Credit: Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Swaths of flowers south of Badwater Basin at mile 27 (Credit: Tom Wittwer)

Utopian days in a murder capital

Crime may plague other parts of Honduras, but on Utila, a Caribbean island with a population of just 3,500, the biggest problems are invasive lionfish – and getting a restaurant table.

I felt like I had been shocked; a surge of electric pain seared my thighs. Distracted by a pair of blue-and-white dappled eagle rays, I hadn’t noticed the tumbleweed-sized fire coral I was now practically straddling. Meanwhile, without slowing, the snout-nosed rays glided into the shadows of the Meso American Barrier Reef.

I was skin-diving in Utila, a Caribbean island located about 29km north of Honduras’ mainland port town of La Ceiba. At 18km long and 6km wide, with a population of approximately 3,500, Utila is the smallest of the three major isles collectively known as the Bay Islands, which sit along the Meso American Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest. Utila’s year-round whale shark sightings, bargain-priced open-water certification packages and laidback party vibe have made it a gap year destination par excellence, though the normalising of dive prices in recent years has begun attracting older adventure travellers who seek personalised attention over cattle-boat experiences.

Colourful island of Utila (Credit: Brad Ryon)

Travellers are drawn to Utila’s Caribbean colour and laidback lifestyle. (Brad Ryon)

And so here we were. Coral stings notwithstanding, my partner, 11-year-old daughter and I followed our dive master, nicknamed “Kelly The Lionfish Hunter” (also known as Kelly Ash, head of the World Lionfish Hunters Association), checking reef overhangs for lionfish – the aggressive, invasive species tearing a swathe across the Caribbean. Thanks to the venom within its feathery orange, white and brown plumes, the voracious lionfish has no known predators. The plan was to spot lionfish, Ash would slay them (only locals qualify for a spear fishing license) and later: bon appètit! The lionfish would be our dinner.

Lionfish (Credit: Brad Ryon)

The lionfish is as menacing as it is striking. (Brad Ryon)

But as any casual follower of the news knows, Honduras’ problems extend beyond a lionfish invasion. Vast waves of economic and humanitarian refugees have been fleeing mainland cities for tenuous opportunities in Mexico and the US, driven by the violence and extortion of narcotics traffickers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate at 90 per 100,000.

But on Utila, the fear isn’t gunfire: it’s worrying about getting burnt while sunning on the Coral View Beach Resort’s dock. Or whether you can get a table at the Jungle Café, a new fusion restaurant only open on Saturdays, providing an ambitious alternative to the island’s hyper-casual food scene.

Some islanders say that Honduras’ crime is more nuanced than statistics indicate, and not only because it’s so much safer on Utila than the mainland. “The crime on the mainland is not worse than in other Third World countries. As long as you follow logical travel advice, you are safe,” said Luzia Bodden, an Swiss-Austrian citizen who arrived in 2000 to obtain dive master certification, then met and married a local and has been on the island ever since. “I don’t worry about safety on the island; it is small and everybody knows everybody,” she added. Of course, locals said, travellers should follow standard safety procedures: don’t walk alone at night, don’t flash expensive electronics or jewellery and don’t engage in drugs.

A murder capital? (Credit: Brad Ryon)

In Utila, visitors find a relaxed, peaceful way of life. (Brad Ryon)

And so, even with the spate of Honduras’ bad publicity, I found myself 9m underwater off the coast of Utila, rubbing my still-pulsating leg and running low on air – happy to not have experienced any crime, but cursing the fact that I hadn’t gotten sight of the country’s other problem – the lionfish. Immediately I felt guilty; from a conservation standpoint, no lionfish is better than ample lionfish – no matter how much we were anticipating that sashimi.

We’d have to settle for grilled-tuna sandwiches at Munchies Café instead. Nursing limeade on the veranda of the circa-1863 island house overlooking Utila’s main drag, we saw a man walk by with a bucket of mangoes and asked to buy a few. “I’m not selling them,” he said. “I’m bringing them to a friend. But he won’t miss these.” And with that, he handed us three.

Just another morning in the country dubbed the world’s murder capital.