Wonderland?


I think it’s important that I establish some sense of proportion here – not everything I see interests me.  There, I’ve said it.  I pay attention to some things that many people ignore, and ignore many things people find fascinating. That’s the way of the world.  Some things I return to time after time, never finding them dull or tarnished by familiarity.  Some things I cross the street to avoid.  And there are some things that don’t hold my attention in any way whatsoever, but I can’t avoid either.
This, in no significant order, is the current list of things that fall into that last category – the unavoidable and the annoying:
·      Days over 100 c
·      Dusty winds (especially on hot days)
·      Large cities (especially on hot days with dusty winds)
·      Sand (especially when blown into large cities on hot days)
·      Going shopping (books and cameras excepted)
·      Tony Abbott (on any day, in any weather, in any form of human habitation, even bookshops (which I doubt he ever visits))

So a planned visit to anywhere that combines most of these things into a single package does not, on the surface at least, seem to appeal. And this was Dubai. And this is of course basic prejudice – a belief that you know what a thing will be like based on little or no evidence and less experience.  Now some people, Tony Abbott being a significant example, seem happy to base their life on prejudice; but when I find it happening in my own head, it upsets me.

Experience should be the enemy of prejudice, and in the absence of experience, knowledge.  So I did what I always do – I read; books, maps, pictures.  I tried songs, but that proved a step too far.  And I started to find things that surprised me; there were flamingos within 15 minutes of the city centre, Dubai has a beach and the tallest building in the world and the wearing of traditional clothes was as much (and possibly more) a marker of nationalism than religion – although it still is about religion in many cases.  How could I not really be excited about going to somewhere so new and so very different?  If I could get to the beach – and this was an activity that was to prove harder than I expected – I could look across the water into the cradle of modern civilisation.  I’d be walking in a part of the world that has known human footprints for much, much longer than most of the world I knew.  There were cities, trade, universities, hospitals and astronomy here when most of the rest of the world had yet to discover the wheel and were wondering if fire really was all that useful at all. Much of what we think of as modern was invented in the Middle East and brought to other parts of the world on the wings of trade.  For all of this area’s history some of the cites on the in-flight map have a modern connection that is less than welcoming, if no less important in history  – The Riyadh and Nasiriyah tourist boards have their work cut out for them before their cites are included on “must visit” lists.



But beyond the history of this region, its geography should be enough to excite a biologist. The Middle East sits at the junction of Africa, Asia and Europe.  Its biology is drawn from all of these places – it’s a melting pot for east and west, north and south.  A short glace at a bird guide – bought early on in the trip to the amusement of my companions – shows that some birds stray here from Africa, others from Europe and a few occur nowhere else.  Bring me your poor feathered masses. As weather systems from north and south punch and counter punch over the Arabian Peninsula, birds are brought from all over and left to find a living in the heat. You never know what you may find. How could such a place not quicken the pulse?

I arrive in Dubai airport at about 4 in the morning.  It’s all bright lights, kilometre long “travelators” and flat screen TV’s.  A raffle is being run in the duty free section for a McLaren sports car – about $½ million worth of vehicle.  They sell gold bars in shops and have wrist watches that cost more than my annual salary. The airport goes on and on.  Within seconds it’s clear this country is not short of space, money or ambition.  It’s also clear that the neither east nor west, neither Africa nor Asia issue applies to the people as well as the birds.  Even in the air port the mix of people – the mix of clothes – is remarkable.  Also, given the fact that it’s 4 am here (and who knows what time inside my body) it’s remarkable that I can notice anything at all. Sleep beckons, exploration will have to wait.


Six hours of sleep re-sets the body clock, but the brightness outside the window is a shock.  I can see the sea, but the air is thick with dust, so the view is not clear. The line between the sea and the air fades into a graduation rather than stands as a line.  The world music of a boiling kettle draws me away from the window to make sweet black tea; my traditional pick me up in foreign fields.  A disc and arrow on the ceiling points towards Kaabah.  It’s the only hint of the exotic in a room of manufactured, and deliberate, functional, ordinariness.  I could be anywhere; well any four star hotel, with clean sheets, potable water and shower that is.  The tea has thickened to its required level and I sit and look out of the window; the inside outside transformation is remarkable. Between me and the sea the houses are laid out in regular patterns, reflecting their boxy form.  But here and there are little flourishes that split each from the other.  The light and the stone seems to give everything a pale salmon pink wash, even the dusty open spaces of car parks and the bare baked roadside that could never be called a nature strip.  In the distance tall cranes, swinging with national flags, stake claim to new lands and new buildings.  The wavy Dubai creek, tidal and clear, shows up as line of older houses, hugging the water side.

I balance the tea on the arm of the chair and look out of the window, charged with the birdwatcher’s hope that in the next few minutes something exotic, obvious and new will fly past.  It doesn’t.  There are only pigeons and myna birds, which may be exotic to some (well maybe not pigeons!) but it’s a little bit of a letdown.  So, I grab a hat, and like a good Englishman I go out into the mid-day sun.   The heat is like an open handed slap to the face; it hits you with an intensity that could cause blunt force trauma and internal bleeding – and it’s not even high summer. This may account for why I walk in the wrong direction – away from the sea rather than towards it.  These streets have clearly not been designed with pedestrians in mind; finding places to cross the roads is time consuming and even in the quieter back streets still a little dangerous.  Instinctively I look in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic; it’s like learning to cross the road all over again. 


Eight, or possibly ten, lanes of traffic separate me from where I want to be, so I cross on an overpass by the train station.  The station is a golden bronze tube that tapers at each end; it looks like a roll of high quality Christmas paper wrapped around the rail lines. It has a sleek modern feel to it, an architecture that goes beyond the mere functional to become attractive in its own right.  Later, when I see the same shape isolated from other buildings, in the open dusty spaces between freeways, it looks more indulgent, more of a designer’s whim.  But the overpass is air-conditioned (as are the bus stops) and it takes me across the road.  The buildings on either side of the road really do soar; it feels like you are walking in a canyon of glass and steel.  Twenty and thirty storey buildings look vaguely squat, as if they are waiting to spring to their full height.  It’s a world of receding parallels, where buildings are contorted by the impossibility of perspective. The straight edges of the buildings come together, moving towards a distant point where, if the buildings were tall enough, we would find an architectural singularity – a point where design, function and ambition all come together at the impossible apex of a tall building.

At almost 830m the Burj Khalifa comes close to achieving this – a stepped spire of blue glass and hardened steel.  I choose not to go to the observation deck – the light in the day is held back by the desert dust, and watching the evening lights of tall buildings from another tall building does not really appeal.  There is an artificial lake at the base of the building where each night fountains of water dance to loud amplified music.  It’s interesting enough, in a synthetic kind of way, but I don’t think I would fly for 16 hours just to see it. 

The streets are spotlessly clean, except for rings of cigarette butts cast into the exposed sand at the base of the infrequent street trees.  Small dust devils kick up behind the wheels of a remote controlled car dashing around an informal car park.  A small lizard slithers, scatter footed, over the piles of sand heaped at the edges of a building lot.  It is only in the small, unmanaged fragments of land that you can see the desert reality of Dubai. Bright orange machines dig in the street to lay cables or fix broken pipes and build sand castles on the footpaths.   In the modern city the sand has been smoothed and capped with concrete, steel and glass; it’s only where the city breaks down that can see the older face of this area.

Water seeps from a hose to form a short lived a puddle by the side of the road. The premium of water brings small birds down from the trees to drink.  Anonymous pigeons and smaller, thick set birds, with white ear patches, upend to drink the leaking water.  The heat fries my brain and I make some poor photographic decisions. My mind clears when I stand in the shade, and the pictures get better.  The chunky birds are White-Eared Bulbuls – a common species but attractive none the less.  Taxi drivers slow down and wave, knowing better than I do about how to travel in the heat.  Their motives may not be entirely driven by a concern for my welfare, but their persistence makes a valid point.  It’s too hot.  I head back to the hotel.




















That evening I watch the sunset, the sky orange, yellow and hot.  Tall glass buildings – modern stalagmites - flare in the low angle light.  Martin’s and swifts flash around the edges of the buildings, chasing insects in the slightly cooler air. Their sickle, maybe scimitar, wings buzz as they pass close overhead.  Our concrete and steel pillars may push higher and higher into the air, but only the birds own this space. I watch the sky swimmers until the heat of the day and battered hands of my body clock push me towards sleep and the prospect of a new day tomorrow.

The next few days are dominated by the necessary evil of work.  But in the middle of one day an event occurs that I will remember for many years.  I find myself sat at a table with three other people – one other biologist and two chemists – explaining some fine point on genetics.  Most of the discussion occurs in Arabic – I can’t join in here – but when the conversation flows into English I can contribute.  As I always do, I talk and draw at the same time – explanation without diagrams is an unknown to me.  And then I notice that I have drawn the same diagram as the other biologist.  At that moment our different life paths intersect. The list of differences that brought us to this shared point in time and knowledge would be as long as each of our separate life stories, but this is a clear moment of sharing.  It’s a time when a shared knowledge of DNA brings a greater understanding of the DNA we all share.  I think many things in the world would be better if more people came to understand these things.

Sometimes unexpected things work in your favour.   We have to start work very early, the kind of early that means you need to organise a special breakfast, but also the kind of early that means the day ends before it has normally got going.  It’s a day to go and look for that most surprising of discoveries, Dubai’s flamingos.


I feel cut off from the driver by a shared language that does not quite work:  we circle the city looking for the salt pans – I don’t know how to explain what I’m looking for and the driver seems confident that I am a madman.  But eventually we find a helping hand and we head in a different direction.  Suddenly, where before there was only open space and built roads, there are bushes of some sort and behind them I can see birds – lots of birds.  They don’t really look like birds; they look more like a whitish pink line, a heat haze product.  But they are birds, and there is a freeway between them and me.  After more driving we manage to loop back onto the other side and we pull off the road into a patch of pale dust.  A path leads to a hide that overlooks the salt pans.  It has a security guard and a Zeiss telescope!  I really am in a different world.


Most of the birds are grouped along a channel in front of the hide.  They are not the classic Alice in Wonderland shocking pink, rather a grey with a deep pink wash – only the legs are brightly coloured.  These are Greater flamingos, the bigger member of this eccentric group of bird.   Somewhere in the evolutionary history of the flamingo the top and bottom halves of these birds seem to have become disconnected.  The upper part – especially the neck – is all the sinuous curves, and snaky elasticity needed to invert the strange beak into the water.  The legs are all reverse angles and sharp jutting points.  A juvenile bird feeds closer to the hide and even at close range the structure of the bird seems to make no sense.

I keep watching and find a few other birds, but I keep coming back to the flamingos -an unlikely bird in an unlikely place.  Maybe it’s a kind of wonderland? 


........... and out to sea.



The egrets had left the roost and were pecking at the feet of morning feeding cattle, riding on their backs seeking insects flushed from the long grass.  Beams of soft light slanted across the road, highlighting the patches of mist that hung around the edges of the trees and in slight hollows; there was a coolness in the air and for once it was not raining.  A cassowary and its following chick walked across the road ahead of us and did its magical disappearing trick into the bush.  We arrived at our destination on time to find out that really we were early, and that nobody else was there yet. Elastic time. North Queensland time. 

Eventually other people arrive in car, vans and on foot. We fill in forms and order  coffee.  We take the deep breaths of air full of nothing and promising everything. With less relaxation we pull on the wet suits, regretting the coffee and wondering why we gave up yoga.  Nobody looks thin in a wet suit we tell ourselves, but as we look  around we find this not to be true.  Oh well.  The kids giggle as they force (unsuccessfully) a leg into the arm of a wet suit; they hop around in circles struggling for balance, they fall over.  And once they have got the suit on and zipped up they need to go to the toilet, so the whole thing starts again.  Finally we are all clad in neoprene and ready to listen to the safety brief; we laugh in all the right places and wonder if the stories of turtles, sharks and whales are really true. We walk down to the beach where, we are told, the boat that will take us to the reef that awaits.


The water that the evening before slipped grey and silent beneath our boat has reached the sea.  Fresh to salt, land to sea, rolling back downhill after a long time away from home. Crabs and worms build sand sculptures and holes in the tide packed sand, delicate patterns of sand balls and claw scratches; seaside Zen gardens. A few gulls glide overhead, a tern skims low over the wave tops and high in the sky a Frigate Bird flies straight out to sea.  An Osprey quarters and sweeps a path from one side of the bay to another.  Everything seems to be watching everything else, hunting for food, looking for a chance, hoping for a change, damp with the memories of rain, getting ready for a new day.

The boat grounds on the beach and we splash out, knee deep, to the steps that fold over the bow.  Bags are passed, children are boosted , helping hands reach down; gulls circle the boat in a knowing kind of way, waiting for scraps that never come.  The gentle, rehearsed efficiency of the crew separates them from the rest of us as we fumble with bags, cameras and the self conscious desire to hide our wet suit stomaches.  Sitting on the front seats of the boat was described as being like a roller coaster ride, so, clearly, this is where H chooses to sit. At first this seems like an exaggeration, but as the throttle is pushed forward, the drone from the back of the boat changes in tone and we come to know what they mean.  The smile on H’s face is as predictable as his choice of seat.


The twin engines spin through the miles as we head away from the shore.  After a while – it’s less than half an hour from shore to reef  – a pale shadow line appears on the horizon; it grows in thickness and clarity as we move closer, a boat grows into view at the end of the line and I feel a wave of disappointment.  If there are people there already how many birds will there be?  Slowly the pale line takes on a firmer form, and the line between air and sea truly becomes land. I can see people walking on the sand and what seems to be a tree is growing from one end.  When MacKay’s Reef shows itself fully the people have gone and the tree is a piece of drift wood lodged in the sand.  The reef – or at least the island at its heart – seems small and unlikely; just a spot in the ocean.  But this is the reality of the place.  This is not the deep ocean, but a shallow sea, where the bottom is near the surface and safe navigation a skill beyond prize.  Some of the ships that pass between the land and the reef are huge, and the consequence of miscalculation, misfortune or idiocy don’t really bear thinking about.   I can’t help but wonder where the drift wood came from – probably the forests on the shore, but that’s no certainty; and did it bring any visitors to the island, hitch-hiking plants or animals from another place, clinging to their wooden life raft, part of the chance by chance colonisation of new land.  There is no evidence that it did, but you never can tell. 


The water below the boat, above the reef, ripples with colours; dark, almost purple where the corals grow, light and yellow over the banks of sand.  An out of place looking floating ring bobs in the water – a “resting station” we are told –, white above and algae green below.  Brown Bobbys, gannet like birds of committed angularity, squabble over ownership.  Perhaps they have been pushed from the island by people who should not have been there, perhaps they are just argumentative. 

The plunge into the water is cool enough to make you glad of the neoprene, but not so cold as to make your head ache – I’ve had colder showers, but not, thankfully, within recent memory.  I’m teamed up with H, while P is looked after by Sal.  H transforms back into Marine Boy and swims strongly away from the boat.  P on the other hand is new to this experience, and despite the snorkel, keeps talking.  
Entering the water is like watching colour  TV after years of black and white.  It’s not that the above reef world is dull, it’s just that the reef explodes with colour and form.  The colour scheme is drawn from kindergarten walls, or maybe it’s the other way around.  There are blocks of colour, walls of shades, interlocking shapes in hues that will never grace the cat walk – it’s a DNA driven Jackson Pollock art work, and it stretches as far as the eye can see.  Fish fill the fluid space between the solid of the floor and the gas of the air; they seem to transfer the energy of waves and particles to the world around them, adding the same strange sense of peaceful urgency that birds bring as they fly over land.  


You never feel still with fish around you, their movement too hypnotic to avoid, too beautiful to ignore.  The water world swirls; and one fin flip, one tail sweep at a time it pulls you into a world of motion.
Then one point of colour, or one half glimpsed form, anchors you in space and the motion, briefly, ceases.  A star fish, poster paint blue , the colour of unwashed cheap jeans, emerges from the living stone that builds the reef.  It can’t be real, it’s a bath toy, it must be a cheap plastic parody of a living thing.  But it’s not – it really is real, and it really is that blue.  Such colour is not uncommon in small patches; tiny glitter marks on the wing edges of butterflies, small patches of feathers, the star light reflection of a bird’s eye.  But this is a whole creature of vivid blue and despite the abundance of life around it this starfish comes to stand for the beauty and mystery of the place.


You hear words like “biodiversity”, “abundance” and “ecosystem” all the time these days, often to the point where they lose their meaning.  Politicians take the words from biology and use them to appear knowledgeable, but end up soiling them, spoiling them, in sound bites and radio grabs. They become a cliché of apparent concern, used to greenwash the bottom line.  But here, floating next to a tiny speck of land, startled but the blue of a starfish, the words regain their old wonder and power.  They were invented because people saw places like this and needed a new language to describe what they saw. In places like this you can feel the invention of wonder.


The canvas of evolution is only matched by the diversity of names we have invented to catalogue it . Dusky Dottyback, Emperor Sweet Lips, Swarthy Parrotfish, Striped poison-fanged blenny, Pike, name after name, fish after fish; some borrowed from other places to link back to another time, some pure invention, some possibly chosen with a tongue planted in the cheek and others defying reason.  I can name very little apart from the wrasse with their sharp teeth and bright colours.  Even the way fish swim has been played with by the changes wrought by evolution – some swim with tail power, others use their other fins, some glide over the bottom as if powered by magic.  A small shark bends its body into S shapes as it glides along. For the first time I know of I have photographs spoiled because there are out of focus fish between me and the landscape.  When I look at the pictures later, they look like ghosts – brightly coloured ghosts, but ghosts none the less.  They remind me of those half formed people that shadow early photographs when film was slow and a snapshot took half an hour.  Here the opposite is true: the camera so fast and responsive that you can replace looking with shooting, you don’t look to see, you look to frame a picture and in doing this you lose some part of the experience.  Like people taking pictures of street signs and information boards to prove they were there, the quest for that “single” picture can become so strong that you stop looking for anything else.


H taps me on the head and points at a huge clam.  He has no camera, so what he wants to point out must be good in its own right, not just a photo-op.  I let the camera dangle on my wrist and we swim side by side, following the pointing of each others’ arms and fingers.  Look there. Look here. Look that way.  I’m rich in a way that defies the logic of talent or ability; I was born into a world where, on a global scale, each and every one of us is rich. Rich in a way that would be beyond the comprehension of our grandparents and most of the people alive in the world today. But as I float with H, knowing P is only a little way away, I know this is money well spent, that this the kind of richness, rather than money itself, is real and valuable and that anybody who has ever had kids would know the power of moments like this.  P’s face lights up when she tells me that they saw a turtle.  We both agree that the blue starfish were special.  We climb back aboard the boat and notice that everybody is smiling; families help each other out of adhesive wet suits, sea flattened hair is ruffled with towels.  Snacks are passed around – fruit is good, chocolate much better. We turn and head back towards land.  But the day has more to offer.

About half way back from the reef to the shore arms start to point from the left side of the boat.  The conversation flips in an instant from quiet family conversations to excitement.  “Look there! Past those white horses!  In line with that island.  Whales!” And there they are. Two whales – possibly a mother and this year’s calf, returned from the cold waters of the Southern Ocean to grow and feed in the warmth of a tropical winter. The larger whale slaps its tail hard on the water for a purpose we can imagine but never really know for sure.  Communication?  Itchy skin?  Excitement at the recognition of some feature of ocean and shore? Whale laughter at some crazy question sung from child to mother?  Who knows?  A large front flipper waves in the distance as the mother whale rolls on her back. On the boat, hands with the same bones wave and point too.  Homology connects across the millions of years of separation; would the excitement be the same if these were just very, very large fish?

Whale song, sea song, and heart strong we continue back to the shore.