Secluded island offers break from hectic pace

Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Editor's note: Ann Ostendorf of Cape Girardeau is taking a year to travel abroad. This is one in a series of articles about her journey.

By Ann Ostendorf ~ Special to the Southeast Missourian

After seven months wandering around Asia I needed a vacation. The vendors' shouts, blaring bus horns and roaring motorbikes began entering into my dreams at night. I found myself heading back earlier every day just to escape the intensity of the crowded streets. I knew just the cure for my sensory overload -- a tropical island getaway.

There is no better place for such a respite than Thailand. The long arm of the south is dotted on both east and west coast with hundreds of islands. No matter your taste, there is an island here to suite your fancy. You can watch the sun set from the balcony of a five-star hotel while enjoying a gourmet meal, or you can spend your time waiting for a coconut to fall or the fishermen to come home.

I chose Ko Tarutao National Marine Park as my escape. These are the most southerly islands in the Indian Ocean just across the border from Malaysia.

Ko Tarutao seemed far removed from civilization and promoted opportunities for camping, hiking, peace and quiet. I planned on staying at least two weeks. I wanted to be able to cook for myself, so I stocked up on supplies at the local market, bought fuel for the stove and headed to the ferry launch.

Forest alive with sound

The ferry docked on the north end of the island at park headquarters. There was a restaurant, lodgings and a beach full of tourists. This still seemed a little too populated for my taste, so I decided to walk to the southwest corner of the island. Here I could camp near where a freshwater stream emptied into the ocean. It was about an 8-kilometer walk through dense jungle. Occasionally a monkey or two would pause in the road to look at me. The forest was alive with their chattering, and I could almost feel a vibration in the air from the hum of so many bugs. It's like when the locusts start to sing on a summer evening.

The only sign of civilization along the way was a small coconut farm in the middle of the island.

When the road reached the sea I was a bit disappointed to see a ranger station and refreshment stand in a nearby clearing. Afraid that the family living here might in some way disturb my retreat, I headed south along the beach to set up a secluded camp. I wanted to have a romantic Swiss Family Robinson-style life for a while. I might have been successful had it not been for the wind.

This stretch of sand jutted out into some tropical wind tunnel that I failed to notice until after I had set up the tent and the sun had set. I cooked my dinner in the dark. While eating my vegetable noodles, I noticed an odd crunchiness -- sand. The wind was picking up by the minute sending sprays of sand against my skin like tiny bullets. I could feel the trace of a sprinkle in the air as it pelted my face along with the sand. I hung my food up from a low-hanging tree branch and headed for the shelter of the tent. I soon discovered that a mesh tent, even with the rain-fly staked over it, does not prevent sand moving horizontally at high speeds from entering all around the bottom edges. As the wind continued, I found myself being slowly buried in sand.

Since there was nothing I could do, I faced away from the onslaught and got what sleep I could. It was a rough night but by morning the storm had almost passed. I dug myself out from my sand dune of a tent.

My ears and scalp were screaming to be washed. Every time my upper teeth touched my lower ones, a gritty sensation sent a chill down my spine. The sand hadn't even respected the parts of me that were covered, penetrating my clothes to create a full body crust.

Better lodgings

I rinsed off as best I could in the ocean and realized my idyllic life was not going to happen on this beach. I packed up and headed back to the ranger station desperately wanting to shower and brush my teeth. Behind the station I found the perfect camp site in a cove out of the wind where the rangers kept a small section of the jungle floor clear for tents. They even provided a picnic table and a generator-powered fluorescent light for my evening reading pleasure. This was more like the easy life I had in mind. The stream just behind the tent had tasty cold water. This supposedly flowed out of a cave which housed killer crocodiles many years ago.

Now that the crocs are gone, it served as a bath and the magic water made my hair as soft as a baby's. I spent the next few days fully relaxing. I moved from tent to table to stream to beach.

My only activities were sleeping, reading, cooking and swimming. Actually, once I did wash my clothes in the stream, but it wasn't really work, just something to do after getting bored with doing nothing. The rangers recommended a walk to the waterfall, and I was ready for some exercise. I followed the little red and yellow arrows tacked to the trees. The path followed the stream but jumped from side to side forcing some daredevil leaps and balancing acts across fallen logs. The forest was leafy green and huge vines swayed in the path.

The path ended at a clear blue pool beneath the 30-foot waterfall. It was deep and inviting, so I ventured in for a swim. The fish surrounded me in the pool as hundreds of white butterflies swarmed overhead. It was a peaceful display of the simple wonders of Mother Nature.

Once you get passed being bored, it's amazing what a person can do with an infinite amount of free time.

Finding the best trees

I filled my days comparing the comfort of sleeping on the sand to sleeping in a hammock. I attempted some gymnastics on the beach but decided to stick to my nightly sunset yoga hour instead. I watched to see how long it would take dead palm branches to break loose from the tree and come crashing down. These things have been known to kill a man sleeping in the wrong hammock at the wrong time, so I needed to stay aware of my surroundings. I became an expert at knowing which trees would be safe for another day or two.

Another time-consuming activity was monitoring the local marine life. When the tide was out a vast sea bed was exposed. Starfish, some as big as a dinner plate, lay half-buried in the sand. Perfect live sand-dollars with their purple centers were as common here as ordinary seashells are on some beaches.

Once, along a rocky cliff edge, I could have sworn I even saw a fish walking in the shallows using his fins like legs.

In some places at low tide sections of coral reef were visible just under the water's surface. Spherical black spikes mingled with flesh colored brain coral attached to living fans and ribbons creating a colorful mosaic in this underwater world. Fluorescent fish swam in and out of the patches, sometimes striped and sometimes spotted, but always in search of food or shelter. Soft black sea slugs hid in corners under rocks and only the slightest movement made it perceptible they were alive.

The sea around the Ko Tarutao Islands is also home to the endangered leatherback turtle. These turtles return to this beach every year to lay their eggs. Because of poaching and humans disturbing their habitat, each morning the park rangers check the beach for tracks. They carefully remove any eggs to an caged secluded area until birth when they are returned to this beach to make their first march to the sea.

Entertaining crabs

The beaches here are also home to millions of tiny crabs. Everyday as the tide retreats each crab must rebuild its home in the wet sand. They roll the sand into balls as they push out of their tunnel homes. Millions of minute balls of sand form piles along the path leading to the crab's entranceway.

These amazing creatures offered me hours of entertainment. The entire beach was covered by evening with their intricate network of paths and balls. It seemed sinful to walk across such a piece of art, but as soon as a footfall clogged their threshold, the busy little housekeepers were at it to clear their stoops. Sometimes I would see the bigger blue and orange crabs on the upper shore after dark.

After two weeks on Ko Tarutao of eating, drinking, and sleeping in the island style, I was ready to move on, but not quite ready to return to the hectic world. Maybe I would stop on another island on the way back to shore. There were plenty to choose from. Then I could check up on the animals there and see what they were up to. Or maybe I could compare the strength of palm branches on various islands or the abilities of different crabs at sand-ball rolling.

I knew I could find plenty to keep me occupied.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: