Day 6: Thongs beyond belief

I’m being guided by a died-in-the-wool celebrity.

Tim Low is, according to the blurb is his latest book, a ‘highly regarded biologist and a prize-winning author of seven books.”

He also knows Christmas Island biology every bit as well as our previous guides, having done this trip for many years.

On this last day of arranged tours for Bird and Nature Week, he’s taking us from the sublime to the ridiculous, from Oh My GOD to Oh…. My…. God.

Its raining again but, with sunshine in the distance, we head off to the other side of the Island, stopping briefly en route to look at a flock of Java Sparrows, a species of finch in reality, with a bold seed munching red bill and coordinated blue overcoat. They were introduced from Java, Tim says, where they are now almost never seen, whereas here people throw out rice for them and they seem to be doing OK.

Then its on to the Dales and a trek down an interesting road to a jungle clearing and a long walk up a boardwalk to a most spectacular waterfall, where crystal clear water flows over ancient basalt rock, spilling down to a forest of gigantic Tahitian chestnut trees. Trying to describe the complexity of the buttress roots of these trees is near impossible, finding a beginning or an end an exercise in futility.

Blue and red crabs dominate the environment, scuttling across the jungle floor in numbers to large to count, reds inoffensive and nonchalant, blues, waving their claws in the air like crotchety old men with walking sticks. The ground is bare of most leaves and debris, silent testimony to the reds efficient janitorial services.

The light is soft and the mosquito population quiescent. Without thinking, we all lower our voices; to speak too loud in this natural cathedral would just be wrong. The long, humid trek up the boardwalk is forgotten and for a moment, you can almost believe this island is as pristine as the day humans first set foot on its virgin shores.

Inevitably, that’s not the case.

Greta Beach is where thongs go to die.

The tiny cove, barely bigger than a soccer field, catches more rubbish than I have ever seen, piled up on the beach in drifts of detritus, victim of ocean currents and its own geographic space.

Green and Hawksbill turtles nest here although I don’t know how they manage to find a spot on the sand which is not carrying a load of bottle tops, toothbrushes, combs, plastic bottles and thongs unending. Tim hands round a laminated news article, reporting the efforts of a group of young volunteers who removed 120 bags of garbage in one superhuman effort to clear the beach before the turtles arrived. Apparently within a few months, the beach was in exactly the same condition – just the rubbish was new.

Where does it come from? Studies have shown that some of the seeds washed up among the rubbish have DNA or species origins in Java, and that they ride to Greta Beach on the currents. It seems likely the rubbish has come the same way, many of the bottles sport Indonesian language labels and the thongs bear unfamiliar band names. What I find disconcerting is the huge amount of children’s footwear, and I wonder how many kids are waking round with only half the number of slippers or thongs they used to have.

And the number of plastic bottle tops bears silent witness to our obsession with liquid enclosed in plastic. I’ve done my share of bottle buying but looking at the cap-studded sand, I find myself examining my own conscience and coming up short.

The sheer volume of garbage on this remote beach on this remote island, and especially the billions of tiny polystyrene balls, is appalling, a graphic illustration of the apathy of Earth’s children to their environment.  Do we need this amount of stuff for which we have such little regard? Are there better answers than polystyrene for packing our consumables? Humans are clever in a myriad of ways, surely we can come up with packaging that doesn’t persist, doesn’t pollute, doesn’t wash half way across the world to land in someone else’s backyard.

We have a long way to go before we can call ourselves responsible stewards of our planetary mothership.

All of us should be ashamed.

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