Outside Online Archives

The Songline Quest: Australian Outback Mountainbiking Expedition 2000

Shark Baiting

By Stephanie Gregory

David McLain/Aurora
Swimming with the fishes: Biologist Sherri Hitz with a giant Rass on the Great Barrier Reef
It's not often I find myself bathed in ketchup on the back of a 55-foot dive boat in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. But there I was, smelling like a foot-long frankfurter and getting filmed.

This is the last week of our biking expedition, which has taken a team of nine reporters, biologists, anthropologists, explorers, and videographers 1,500 miles across the outback, from Adelaide to Alice Springs, exploring the role ancient songlines play in modern Aboriginal life. But for this final week we're veering off on a detour: a five-day dive expedition in the Coral Sea, a few hundred miles northeast of Cairns. Life doesn't suck.

Eating gourmet food, sleeping, diving, snorkeling has been a tough mission to execute, especially after four weeks of baking in the sun on a bike and forcing myself to eat live witchety grubs and charcoal broiled kangaroo tail for my weekly "Gross and Disgusting" column ( www.classroom.com ). But this week is by no means a vacation. Especially since my teammates decided to make me the star of our own little Jaws episode, which we'll beam out to classes everywhere, doing our part to ensure kids will remain terrified of going into the ocean.

To entice the 15 or so sharks circling my feet—all of which are white-tips, a species that has been known to attack and even kill divers on occasion—I' m flailing and kicking and screaming and whooping it up for the camera, repeatedly dunking myself underwater. I look and feel like a b-movie star, but even with my quite accurate overdramatization, I can't entice the sharks to bite me.

Enter the ketchup. It's a sad substitute for blood, but it looks good on film. Plus, losing appendages is a steep price to pay for educational entertainment. So, I humbly go about my faux shark encounter, empowered by this pinnacle of a teaching moment.

In about three days, the team is catching a plane back to Los Angeles, and fanning our way across the States to re-enter our own versions of reality. From my sunny perch in Cairns, that sounds like a more daunting adventure than the deadliest mulga snake we encountered in the outback. But as we've zigzagged our way across Australia, attempting to glean wisdom and understanding from the songlines, I've had a few major epiphanies of my own:

First, always carry a hacky sack. You never know when you'll be stranded for hours on the side of the road, with nothing better to do than pick your nose. Second, bike at least three times around Ayer's Rock It's only a six-mile ride and the light changes with every passing moment. And last, log off now and start surfing for bucket shop airline seats to the exotic biking location of choice. Virtual reality works in a pinch, but there's nothing like tweezing 45 thorns out of your bike tire to make you feel like you're really living.

This expedition is part of   

More Adventure