In this dark, the heat hanging from the stifling, still air of the camp tent feels incomprehensible. Remember: I’m a northern boy – the dark is supposed to be a cold place.

There’s a soundless motion from the cot next to me – Devon’s up. Everything is mostly soundless, at least to me, because I’ve taken to stuffing foam earplugs in to help muffle the cacophony that rises from this jungle* each night as the sun sets. But I can hear/feel the zipper of the mesh flap open, then close as she slips out wordlessly. God, is it already time? My watch is tucked somewhere beneath my own cot; I fumble and grope sideways until I find it, bring it too close to my face before tapping the button that blinds me with its tiny illumination. No I can’t read it, and now I’m doubly sightless, but I know it’s time.

Meet at 5:15, Mac said. Down by the boats. It’s an incongruous sensation, unable to sleep, sweating, twisting on the tangled sheet, straining the air for a clean, cool breath, and yet somehow being convinced that it’s better to lie here than follow in her footsteps.

No, I’m going to do this. I roll to my side and swing my feet to the ground. Shorts are here somewhere, t-shirt, too. There’s a trick I use of imagining myself on the other side of whatever it is I’m trying to get myself to do. I know it’s out there, somewhere, but my mind is too fogged by the heat to remember what it’s supposed to feel like. Still I go.

Mercifully, it doesn’t take long to tip across the inflection point this morning; by the time I’ve re-zipped the tent from the outside and stood to face the murky, not-quite-black, not-quite-blue of the sea and western sky, I can feel the tug. The air is lighter out here, even cool. The sand under my feet, the smell of salt and low rumble of distant surf. The ritual beckons, and I follow.

Approaching the boats, I can make out the others ahead of me. We move wordlessly, picking out our paddles, padding hands in the gloaming for the right kayak and pulling it through cotton candy sand into the flat of gently lapping waves. Orion is too high in the sky, gone sideways like a pole vaulter over the bar on his back; you know he’s going to land on his head when he comes down, but even now he’s beginning to fade.

It takes no more than two or three minutes before we’re all on the water, moving south in silent formation. To our left, beyond the shore, there’s a hole in the sky where the eastern ridge of Ngeruktabel Island rises in an impossibly steep wall. The land here, everywhere, is impossibly steep, always starting upside down, hanging out over the water before launching straight up into a nearly-vertical tangle of branches, roots and vines.

It has always startled me how quickly night falls at the equator; this morning dawn leaps from beyond the horizon with equal speed – we’ve gone less than a quarter mile before the sky is light and the sea and mountain come into their respective reliefs. There’s a flurry of activity just short of the sand, a thrashing in the water, and hundreds of small fish leap at once in all directions like some conceptual aerial-aquatic starburst. A pair of juvenile black-tipped sharks churn at the center of the commotion, rolling, roiling, turning on their tails in pursuit of breakfast. We point, still wordless, and paddle on. They’re here, somewhere along the beach, every morning.

By now, the sky tinged blue, then red and yellow, and we are alert to another sound: the now-distinct, but still dull, insistent crash of ocean waves on the outer reef. The water is deceptively flat here in the shallows, but ahead to our left, an untamed ocean batters the barely-concealed shoals, demanding passage.

Later this morning, once the sun has risen, Mac will paddle to a spot where bamboo poles mark a passage through the rocks, to where a narrow column of swells intrude. They’ve come thousands of miles, these waves. Aside from a smattering of sand-speck Polynesian islands two time zones away, there’s been nothing to stop them between here and the western shore of South America. Mac will lead and, wordlessly as ever, the more foolhardy among us will follow, paddling out, trying to keep our noses straight into breakers. Then, when we’re as far as our nerves will carry us, we will wait for a lull and turn tail, waiting for the next swell to catch us and carry us back in on a rush of adrenaline and pent-up kinetic energy. We’ll paddle furiously to stay with the wave, to fight its yearning to turn us sideways and roll us, spill us onto the rocks just below. Once will be enough for me before I retreat back inside to the calm inner waters.

Later still, a few of us will paddle farther out from the shore, still inside the reef, to the strangely-shaped marker standing alone in the shallows. It’s the propeller of a sunken Zero, ditched here three quarters of a century before. We will circle the coral-encrusted wreck, surprisingly intact, and I’ll contemplate slipping from my kayak and settling into the open cockpit, gripping the control stick and posing for a picture. The condition of the plane will convince me that this wreck was not its pilot’s tomb, but still, somehow, it will feel a little too undignified, and after circling three times, we’ll turn and paddle back to join the others, already nearing camp, already pulling their boats back out onto the sand. There will be bacon, fruit, eggs, waffles and each morning some new treat that Ludy and her crew have conjured from the camp kitchen. We will exchange thanks, and banter about the night and pictures from the day before before talk turns to what lies ahead – where we will paddle, where we will snorkel, where we will make camp tonight. 

All that will be later this morning. Not much later, but not yet now. For now, we all face the outer reef together, fewer than a dozen words spoken since we left our beds. We point at the billowing clouds, at the birds that wheel and dive. We smile in silent appreciation and step within ourselves, within this single point within this enormous world and the space beyond. We feel the heat on our face, the wind, the gentle rocking of the boats. And we wait. The sun is coming.

*(Yes, “jungle.” It’s a term that has been largely replaced by “rainforest” among the conservation-minded. But a jungle is its own thing, differentiated from other rainforests by a thick, impenetrable understory. I defy you to make it more than fifty yards inland from Ngeremdiu Beach and tell me it’s not a jungle out there.)

3 responses to “Dawn

  1. Thank you for this plunge into shark-infested waters and jungle life. I feel I ought to get a malaria vaccine to make it through your vivid description.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like scenery worth the efforts.
    You’ll have plenty of cool weather upon your return.
    We’ve had frost the previous two mornings with sunshine following.
    More the same tomorrow.
    It’s been warmer than usual.

    Liked by 1 person

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