Travel Writers: Dispatches from the Red Planet

by Steve Dunn

Location: Sydney, Australia

LOG ENTRY 1: I began to notice the subtle differences as soon as my craft landed. Shadows that fell directly underfoot, strange plant life, deep red soil and animal calls that were incredibly foreign. Perhaps it was my weary brain playing tricks on me after the mind-numbing journey. With my reality slightly bent and the beads of sweat busting out on my brow already (this place was hot), my co-pilot and I set out to discover this strange and wonderful new place, with surfboards in tow. Our mission: to boldly surf where few pasty Canadians have surfed, and live to tell about it.

LOG ENTRY 9: We successfully navigated into the heart of the populous central city of Sydneywhere we rendez-vous’ed with a comrade from our world. He imparted unto us his collected wisdom as we gathered our supplies and readied our excursion module, a 1984 Ford Falcon wagon. In this fashion, we could explore in a relatively unassuming manner. We departed Base Camp in the city and proceeded north along the shore of a great, green sea. It was difficult to convince myself that we were heading north as the sun was constantly in the northern sky, but as the chief navigator for this expedition, I had to trust my maps and my instincts; this was no easy task, considering the unrelenting heat had me on the verge of cracking every afternoon at around two. The ’84 Falcon Excursion Module was little comfort; it’s antiquated cooling mechanisms having long since expired.

LOG ENTRY 13: It occurred to me that the heat must have been affecting the atmosphere in such a way that it was bending the sounds around us. As we began to have more encounters with the inhabitants, they appeared to be speaking English, yet it was somehow subtly different. “G’die, mite! Wilcome t’Austrailya! Have y’silf a beeya!” We interpreted these as friendly gestures and joined the inhabitants for copious amounts of what seemed like beer, only worse, Fosters.

LOG ENTRY 16: I began to understand the native tongue with great clarity and even found myself speaking it. At this point, I confided in our new companions and told them of our plans to surf the great waves of this strange land. This was met at first with profound silence, followed closely by hearty belly laughs. “But, yir frim Canadir, mites. And this is Austrailya!” Thanks for the geography lesson, Tips. It was clear that our mission would have to proceed without the blessing of the local surf cognoscenti. We weren’t worried, with the ’84 Falcon Excursion Module chocked full of peanut butter & jam and a copy of ‘The Australian Surfers Guide’ we were on our way. One part Lewis & Clark, one part Ren & Stimpy.

LOG ENTRY 21: Today we reached our first waypoint of this leg of our journey with little fanfare or pageantry. Seal Rocks appeared to be a tiny encampment near a rocky headland where the inhabitants lived in large metal boxes on wheels. Their response to our queries about the metal boxes was “We’re campin’, mite.” Strange creatures live here. They seemed harmless enough so we turned our attention to our mission and set out to find waves fit for pasty Canadian surfers.

LOG ENTRY 23: Our guidebook stated that this surf break “has a gentle take-off that is rarely steep.” “The shallow reef is easily avoidable by surfing at high tide.” Lady Luck was with us today as not only did she present us with “rare” steep waves, but she also let us explore the shallow reef below them, in great, painful detail.

LOG ENTRY 25: With a slightly diminished curiosity for coral reeves, we continued our first foray into these strange waters, unburdened by prudence or intelligence it would seem. Trusting our guidebook with our tender, bruised and pasty hides, we decided it was time to find the “perfect wave”. We returned to the beach where we were greeted by much pointing, gaiety and clapping from the onlookers. Friendly creatures.

LOG ENTRY 29: As the mission’s Payload Specialist, it was my duty to re-pack the ’84 Ford Falcon Excursion Module for the long journey to our next waypoint. Specialized equipment had to be packed in advance for a mission of this magnitude to the Red Planet. Sunglasses are a crucial tool as well as sunscreen with an SPF of at leas 195, because the Red Planet is apparently only a few hundred feet from the sun. A miniature combustion surface, known to the natives as a “barbie” is the preferred equipment for meal preparation here. “Prawns on tha barbie” is quite a useful phrase to know. Finally, our most valuable pieces of equipment for the mission are the surfboards. Long and floaty is the optimal board shape for pasty Canadians who reach these shores.

LOG ENTRY 32: Our guidebook listed Lennox Head as one of the toughest places within its pages; not only for the waves, but the square-headed local inhabitants as well. Having received nothing but good tidings from the local inhabitants thus far and suffering only a mild spanking from the “rare” steep waves, we pointed the ’84 Falcon Excursion Module towards Lennox Head and engaged all thrusters.

LOG ENTRY 36: “Hormones in the beef”, I replied when my mission partner asked how the locals got so big here. The “hairless Australian Surfing Gorilla” was one of the most bizarre and intimidating creatures we had met on our journey. “Sty off moy wive, wanka!” it bellowed. Even these creatures spoke in that same strange tongue we had become familiar with. “We come in peace, friend,” I said, as I paddled out next to him to wait for my wave. “Yil come in pieces when I’m done with ya, wanka.” I think I got the gist of that the first time he cam tearing down the face of a wave with his pointy little surfboard aimed right at my head. We both knew it was no accident. He was un-repentant and I was unwilling to show my fear. As the kamikaze Surfing Gorilla continued to buzz me with his death board, I realized that our mission, not to mention my health, was in jeopardy. I could not let our goal of surfing the great waves of the Red Planet slip away.

I signaled to my partner on the beach to warm up the ’84 Falcon Excursion Module and keep it in gear. I saw the wave coming and I knew the Gorilla saw it too. Just as he was ready to power onto it, I nosed my big, floaty board into the wave a fraction before him and dropped into the gaping green void with a barbaric shriek. My adversary was poised on the lip of the wave, unsure of what was unfolding as I zipped by shrieking, half in utter defiance, half in terror with arms flailing like a Grover doll on acid. As he pitched over backwards, his board made a near perfect arc through the sky, gleaming in the bright, mid-day sun. I, on the other hand, had the ride of my life. It was the most exhilarating four seconds I could ever remember. I managed to stand up in what felt like a towering victory stance, but was later recounted to me as a “cowering hunch-back” sort of pose. Either way, I knew I would be getting a close-up look at the reef very soon, at the hands of the Gorilla or the wave, and it would come complete with the usual salt water enema.

I quickly made my way into the beach, displaying my near perfect knee ride on the whitewash. As a veteran of several missions such as this, I could sense grave danger bearing down on me from behind. I hit the beach running and made it to the ’84 Falcon Excursion Module just in time, leaving the Gorilla dancing in the dust. Exploration is no easy job.

LOG ENTRY 41: On the return trip to our craft, my partner and I were already calling the mission a success. We had succeeded in riding the great waves of the Red Planet, but had also collected vast sums of knowledge of this wonderfully strange place and its inhabitants. In so doing, we had pushed the envelope of human understanding and courage. The Red Planet was like an eccentric, utopian mirror of the civilization we know. Reaching it was a large leap for this man and larger leap for his logic to grasp all of its intricacies.

Had I known this mission would be fraught with so much peril, I may have chosen not to go. However, I could never look myself in the eye again. Thankfully, I listened to that voice inside, that primal voice which is part of man’s instinct that compels him to see what is over that next hill or on that distant planet.

About Steve Dunn

image: Steve goes snorkelling in Northern Canada

Steve goes snorkelling in Northern Canada for the TV series ‘Treks in a Wild World’

My name is Steve Dunn. I was born and reared on Cape Breton Island, a rocky socket on the far east coast of Canada. I am the youngest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family not unlike a Roddy Doyle novel. Growing up in such an atmosphere, rife with sarcasm and wit, I apprenticed in humor at a young age. Breakfasts in our house took place with military precision to ensure that all made it to school on time. One of the family mottos was “first up, best dressed”. I generally slept late and was the runt of the litter to boot; as a consequence I would arrive at school in somewhat less fashionable clothes. Because of this, there soon evolved within me an unparalleled sarcastic defense mechanism, a porcupine’s quill of sorts; a trait that is still with me today.

I was an extremely average student throughout my academic life; however, for as long as I can remember, I excelled in geography. This is no coincidence, as I spent the greater part of my youth with my nose buried in a world atlas. “What’s it look like in that purple country over there?” “What’s on that little dot in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean?” I could never quench my thirst for knowledge about the strange and wonderful places in my old Rand McNally World Atlas. When I’m not pointing out obscure peak names in BC’s mountains, I enjoy daydreaming about places most people have never heard of. I still can’t walk past a map or a globe without being tempted to stop and daydream some more.

My formal schooling complete, it was time for my known world to expand. With a love for the wild mountains and coast already deep in my bones, I found myself living 7000 km away, in beautiful British Columbia. It’s here that I now make my home, and it is here that I stage my countless mini adventures into the mountains or along the coastline. Rock climbing and mountain biking are my two main passions that brought me to this part of the world and I am reminded just why that happened every time I get out to play.

Perhaps the thing I love the most about my life is that I am a great lover of adventure and discovery, something that has changed little since I was a kid. My latest discoveries have not been in the world around me, but within myself. Tapping into creative reservoirs and watching something develop before me is something I am finding extremely satisfying. I recently wrote and published ‘Mountain Biking British Columbia‘ which was my first book. I’m working on a second now as well as continuing to write about and photograph my experiences of traveling through this amazing world. As a songwriter, guitarist, photographer and old school conversationalist (a lost art form), I feel most alive when I create and learn. These are the two things in my life that I hope will never cease.

Steve’s book Mountain Biking British Columbia is available from www.simonsbikeshop.com.

Steve is a presenter of the Pilot Productions outdoor series Treks in a Wild World.

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