Here is a brief report on our experience (CU BIO-370, Field Biology class) in Australia in August 2009:
(Editing of pictures will take time, so now – very briefly, with some short videos)
After changing four planes we are on the northern Australian coast in Darwin – subtropical city with ibises on the street lights, and blue waters of the Timor Sea.
Right wheel, left side of the road, sun in the North at noon, moon is tilted 180 degrees; every day student on duty writes field journal, others cook dinner, professor washes dishes – we are far from home, and on the road to the Kakadu National Park (the biggest one in Australia), moving through different types of savanna, crossing murky rivers, and observing new birds.
Park is covered by enormous flood plains, flooded by monsoons and not passable in Wet (November- March). Now, though, in Dry, there are separate lakes (billabongs), and wetlands in the forest and savanna. Visiting every one of them requires attention: two species of crocs are spread unpredictably in high water. Impressive landscapes, subtropical vegetation, blue-winged kookaburra, aboriginal painting on the rocks, jabirus; not extremely rare, but inhabiting only very small area in N. Australia Black Wallaroo, etc, etc – there is more around than you can possibly observe and protocol.
Then – hit the road to the South, crossing several famous and world biggest deserts; visit to the legendary Uluru Rock, an iconic symbol of the Outback crowded with tourists. But when watching it during sunset, nothing matters. Not so popular, but no less unique Kata Tjuta mountains (The Olgas) -- nice contribution to the impression of the Australian “Red Center”.
Then several days of driving across diverse open landscapes from different types of savannas, shrub-lands and grasslands to extreme deserts like “Moon plains” (actually looking more like Mars). Day trip to the lake with simple memorable name Cadibarrawirracanna -- surprisingly not entirely dry (with camels’ carcasses in bitterly-salt water).
The small town of Coober Pedy is the world capital of opal mining (producing not the well-familiar milky opals, but more expensive red-blue ones). In summer temperatures here can go two months without ever dropping below +105F even at night, reaching +125F day time (in some years +133F). Life is questionable under such heat, so 2/3 of houses are underground (dug inside of the hillsides), where 3-5 yards deep under the ground temperature is stable and always is between +70F and +78F.
Further South – cooler and cooler; day time +80F instead of +92F, at night +55F instead of +80F. New types of landscapes; emus and kangaroos here and there (almost like on the Australian emblem).
After reaching the South coast, decided to make a 1200 mile loop to the West along the coast of the remarkable Nullarbor Plain to see reproducing whales in waters of the Great Australian Bight. The coast here is a 60 foot cliff facing the Southern Ocean and it is a very last land until Antarctica. The whales (Southern Right Whale) look almost surreal: 35-40 females with young within view, assembling here for reproduction and feeding young not eating anything themselves (there is nothing to eat in these too warm waters). Mothers often turning upside down, exposing black and white belly, lifting fins above the water and letting many-toned babies play, sliding over them; sometimes assembling in small groups about 20 steps from the shore and observing the very people who come to watch them.
Along the road there are many stump-tailed lizards. It is the biggest skink in the world with everything unique about it: head and tail look the same to mislead the predator; tail is used to store fat to get metabolic water; young is delivered alive, and it is huge (equivalent of human giving birth to 7-year old). If grabbed by tail, rejects it to escape, but being harassed to the head tries to scary you demonstrating bright rose mouth with blue tongue (looks like exotic tropical orchid).
Further South, the York peninsula, stop at the motel owned by the couple of Newzealanders deciding to move from farming in New Zealand to the tourist business in Australia. When saw Russian name on a credit card, told that in 70-th accidentally met some Russians from the cruise ship (accompanied by the Soviet military submarine...), started to think about Russia; three years ago finally visited Moscow and St.Petersburg… Asked me a lot of questions, offered nice discount for the best accommodation; introduced to a young kangaroo pet (fed from the bottle after mother killed by the car), who is very shy, hiding behind of the huge dog sleeping on the front yard.
Then Adelaide – wonderful city with a lot to see and not enough time to do it. Both new rare tires on our car should be replaced: they are worn out to shining-bald (mystery, nobody can explain). Further South – famous Coorong National Park – the only place in S. Australia comparable with tropical north in terms of biodiversity and concentration of life. But winter is almost over, spring is coming, and majority of the wintering birds is already departing back to the reproductive grounds. Instead we saw remarkable courting of echidna (deserves a separate story).
Next – small town Portland (yes) with the only mainland nesting colony of Australasian gannets; in the shrubs directly beneath of huge wind generators so popular in Australia -- western grey kangaroos in 200 steps from the ocean coast.
Along Great Ocean Road – popular images of Australian scenery, where you can stop on every corner to appreciate one more amazing view, exotic wave erosion form, sun, air, sand and water, or to run into a new example of the relationships between nature and human .
Everywhere here – Southeast Australian temperate forest of different types: wet with dense understory of woody ferns, or more dry, with koalas on every third eucalyptus tree. Koalas are busy 20 h per day, only shortly being interrupted to eat some leaves or to take a look at the fool jumping with camera under the tree… If you are lucky sometimes you even can see them moving…
After covering 5800 miles, dozen of major bio-geographical regions we are back to Portland one day prior to the beginning of the fall semester and starting classes even before adjusting to the local time. Thank you to CU students, Michelle, Jeanne, and Jason for keeping cheerful spirit even when in a “rescue position”… :).