Australia: WWOOFing Again

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It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. This is Thompson’s Farm at Batchelor in Australia’s Northern Territory. The last time I was WWOOFing, I was picking buds off vines. This time, I’ve been picking watermelons off vines. They’re slightly heavier. 12kg heavier in fact.

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The trick is to look for one that’s already caught the sun. There should be signs of a yellow patch on the skin. You then give it a tap. If it makes a noise like a ‘ping’ or a ‘bounce’, it’s good to go. If it’s dense, it’s overripe. If it’s hollow, you have to turn it around for a closer look because something else has obviously got there first. Watermelons are a delicious feast for white ants, cockatoos and wild pigs. I’ve had to chase off wallabies who love the shoots.

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You can understand why these ‘sugar babies’, (as they’re affectionally known) are so popular. There’s nothing better than sitting on the back of a truck after a hard morning’s work and eating a slice of sweet, juicy melon warmed by the sun. We’ve called it ‘testing’ although that doesn’t really make sense, because the rest of it can’t be used. Do you see the cunning nature of our work?

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We’ve also been picking bananas. They’re covered in plastic to keep the moisture in and the moths, rats and spiders out. The first step is to feel for a full fruit. Then, if you open it up and it looks like some of the bananas are turning yellow, it’s time to cut off the bunch.

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You leave a few inches on the stem so that there’s enough room to hang them and get the bananas fully ripe.

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Once the fruit is picked, it’s time to cut down the entire tree. This is because one tree can only produce one bunch. It’s surprisingly easy – the trunk is fibrous and mushy. You just have to get out of the way when it falls.

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Laying down irrigation lines is dirty, dusty work on a hot and windy day – and it has been hot, with an average of 34c. I love the rich red colour of the soil but up until three years ago, some of this couldn’t be used. Years of chemicals had taken their toll. That’s why the Thompsons started using organic farming methods instead. They now use soil enhancers like gypsum, agralime and chicken manure. The main pesticide is neem oil. They also use potassium silicate, which feels like small shards of glass. The results are good. The watermelons can now grow up to 12 or 15 kilos. Five years ago, they only reached 8. The yield from courgettes has tripled.

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They’re a favourite with the cows here. Any bad fruit or vegetables that we’ve picked has gone straight to them. They’re the happiest beasts you’ll ever meet.

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The farm shop has been another satisfying part of the volunteering – proudly displaying the produce you’ve carefully planted, picked or packed. Customers talk about how much better they taste than the fruit and vegetables they buy in the supermarket.

The farm manager and his wife are expecting their first baby in November. He wants the soil to last long enough for his own children to grow vegetables here. That’s why the organic way works for them.

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Island Hopping in the Galápagos

image For somebody who get’s seasick, it was an ambitious task – taking photographs whilst sailing around an archipelago. In a quiet moment, I wept into my lifejacket.

But it was the Galápagos Islands and I’d wanted to go there since I was a little girl. Here’s why:

image When you meet a giant tortoise, it’s very clear who’s in charge. As they plod down the path, you soon realise you’re in their way. If you accidentally get too close, they hiss at you. It takes you by surprise, especially when they’re hiding at the side of the road. This picture was taken on Santa Cruz. I was told that the females here walk 15km down to the sea to lay their eggs.

image This tortoise on Isabela was one of many rescued by helicopter when the Cerro Azul volcano erupted in 1998. It’s housed at a local breeding centre. They’re trying to get the numbers back up and successfully bred 200 in the first couple of years. The new generation have gradually been released back into the wild. image With their funny little dance and bright blue feet, you can understand why the blue-footed booby is a star attraction on the Galápagos. I spotted this one at Academy Bay. Conservationists here say the population has decreased by two thirds since the early ’90s. They believe it’s partly due to overfishing in Peruvian waters.

image As you wouldn’t expect tortoises to give you the right of way, don’t expect sea lions to give up their seat for you either. Here at San Cristóbal I learned just how cheeky they can be. After finishing the vounteer project, I went down to La Lobearía for an early morning swim. Suddenly, a sea lion pup popped up next to me as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” He then started to roll around in the water. He did it a few times and I copied him. His Mum then appeared, which made me a little nervous, but we played for a short while and the two of them swam off.

image They’re usually the first thing you see when you arrive at any of the islands – a wonderful welcome party. Sadly, the El Ninos in 1988 and 1998 have had a drastic affect on their numbers. Conservationists say about half the population was lost and has yet to recover.

image The Galápagos penguin has also been affected by weather events. The species is endangered – there are now fewer than 2000 living on the islands. That matters, because they’re the only penguins who live north of the equator. I found these ones at Floreana. I was surprised by how small they were – about 49cm long.

image Charles Darwin described marine iguanas as ‘hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in their movements’.

image This little family at Santa Cruz certainly look quite sinister, don’t they! Their white faces look ghostly. At Las Tintoreras, they were overtaking me in the water. It seemed strange to see these reptiles swim.

image I came across yellow land iguanas on a hike up to the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela. Pink ones live in the northern part of the island, but the area is closed to travellers.

image I love these Sally Lightfoot crabs. You can spot them out at sea because their red shells are so bright against the black rocks.

imageThey crawl all over the marine iguanas, who don’t seem to mind.

image I was so busy watching the wildlife, that I almost forgot about the beaches. This is Tortuga Bay, about an hour’s walk from the harbour at Santa Cruz. It was a great place to relax. There were more iguanas sunbathing, than people.

image Getting from one island to the other is easy to do. There are plenty of tour companies around the harbours who sell tickets. Some of them offer last minute deals. The average price is about $100. Allow yourself time for the authorities to search and tag your bag – they need to check that nothing organic is transferred from one island to the other. Theoretically, once sealed, you can’t get anything out. If you do have to break in, make sure you keep your tag to show them at the other side. It’s best to put a rain cover over your bag, because it will get wet on board.

image Once on the islands, you can find these white taxis everywhere and they’re inexpensive. The most I paid to get to a local hotel was $2.

image I was very sad to leave the Galápagos. One day, there’ll be a tablet strong enough for me to enjoy the manta rays and dolphins out at sea, instead of quietly acknowledging them out of the corner of my eye!

Cute Crawlers and Creepy Crawlies

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They’re famously slow, but it’s surprising how quickly Giant Tortoises can move once they’ve spotted their breakfast. This was feeding time at the Galápagos National Park and I was lucky enough to volunteer there as part of a conservation project run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation on San Cristóbal. I like this picture. With that backpack on, I look like a tortoise myself.

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The volunteer work has been one of the toughest on the trip so far. It’s based at a biological station in the middle of the forest. Mosquitoes are rife. There’s 90% humidity too. Using a machete is like trying to swing a golf club in a swimming pool – but it’s necessary. Conservationists here say some birds are extinct or endangered because trees like Scalesia have gradually disappeared. So, we’ve been cutting down invasive plants like mora (blackberry bushes) so that endemic trees can be planted instead. The only problem is that these thorny thickets tower over your head. It’s a challenge. Another challenge is getting up close and personal with all the wonderful creatures that nature has to offer. Let me introduce you to my roommate:

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It was the largest of the little gang that was awaiting my arrival. I asked another volunteer if there were any poisonous spiders at the station. “No,” she replied, “although they did find a type of black widow in somebody’s boot.” That would be a ‘yes’ then, surely?

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The conservation project also works with local landowners to help them develop organic farming methods, so that they can sell their produce to restaurants and hotels. It also promotes sustainability by growing its own fruit and vegetables. We’ve been picking pineapples, passion fruit, oranges and bananas but some fruit is best left alone.

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This is one of the smelliest you’ll ever find. Its called noni fruit and it smells like rotting cheese. Despite it’s aroma, it’s loved by many. It’s said to have medicinal or anti-ageing properties and this little specimen apparently costs $60 in the shops.

So, in the middle of a forest, with no shops and temperatures of 80f, how did they manage this?

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It was my birthday last week. It may have been one of the hardest projects so far, but I felt very lucky indeed.