Monday, May 23, 2016

Pics from Alice and Outback

Royal Flying Doctor's Service

The group at Watarrka, after conquering Heart-Attack Hill!

Kata Tjuta

Uluru - "The Rock"

Our awesome, fun, knowledgeable guides, Matt and Sky

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Day 24 and 25 - May 19 and 20 - On our way home

It's the morning of our departure and we are assembling to leave for the airport. We have had a remarkable journey but it's probably safe to see we are all looking forward to being home.

See everyone soon!!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Day 23 - May 18th - Alice Springs to Sydney

We left Alice Springs this morning and are en route to Sydney.  Most students have been busily working on their journals on the flight which is about to end, since they hand in their journals when we check in tonight at the YHA. 

Tomorrow the students have a free day while the professors grade journals : )
Then it's back to JFK on Friday.  

We have just arrived in Sydney and are checked into the YHA. Will post an update before we leave.

Days 19-22 - May 14-17- The Red Centre

We started our adventure bright and early with a 5:30 a.m. departure. Our two guides Matt and Skyler "Sky" are perfect for the group - young, hip and with a great sense of humour. Matt is especially knowledgeable about many different aspects of the land and the original inhabitants of the area - the Anunga. Students are getting schooled in the geology of the area and how the different rock formations like Kata Tjuta and Uluru have been formed by processes over millions of years. 

As we hike around and visit different parts of the national parks, we are also learning about the many stories that are attached to places of significant for the Aboriginal people. It is fascinating to contrast the scientific explanations with the creation stories that surround them.  The stories illustrate beautifully the close and intertwined relationship that the Aboriginal people have with the land, their respect for it and the sense of spirituality that permeates that bond as well. 

Day 1 camping - A long drive brought us to Watarrka or King's Canyon as it used to be called. After an initial steep climb up the aptly named "Heartattack Hill", we hiked for a couple of hours around the rim of the canyon.  Matt taught us about the three main plants found in the desert and what their uses were - spinifex grass,  the mulga tree and desert oak.

The first night of camping involved teamwork and we had a chance to experience a genuine bush camp. We first stopped to gather firewood where the whole group pitched in to make sure we had enough for the fire which was not just for cooking but also our heat for the night. Our campsite was literally out in the bush, not a campground, so with no lights in the vicinity the night sky was spectacular. The lack of plumbing was more than offset by being able to see the Milky Way the whole night while we slept under the stars. Dinner was cooked over the fire and included kangaroo tail which was roasted by burying it in the sand with hot coals. Personal note - it tasted like the dark meat from a turkey.  It was a memorable experience, probably in different ways, for many of us.

Day 2 camping - Matt woke us up the next morning at 4:30 a.m. to begin our day. Waking up to the Hobbit theme music from Lord of the Rings in the middle of the Australian Outback before dawn - probably left some of us feeling a bit disoriented!  We then drove on to Kata Djuta-Uluru National Park to see the two most famous rock formations there. 

Kata Djuta means "many heads" in the Ptijanjanjara language. It consists of 36 domes formed from conglomerate. The domes are of different shapes and sizes and are inclined at a slight 15 degree angle. The formations encompass an area of 36 square km and are remarkable to look at from any vantage point. We had the opportunity to hike on one of the trails going through them, the Valley of the Winds, and were able to see the different colors, striations and textures of the rock up close.

After that it was time to head to Uluru or Ayers Rock as it used to be called.  Uluru is a sacred place of great significance and meaning to the Anangu. Many of the stories surrounding Tjupurka - their creation story - center on Uluru. It is the world's largest monolith - to give a sense of its scale, the walk around its base is over 7km long.  Made of sandstone, it is actially a greyish colour but the presence of iron expoed to air and water over several millennia, gives it that distinctive rusty hue.  

We started our journey with a visit to the cultural centre where we learned about the Tjurkupa of Uluru.  We then went on a short walk known as the Mala walk where our education on the meaning and relevance of many of the stories continued.

We saw some cave paintings which were likely at least 5000 years old depicting various images of significance to the Anangu way of life. We even sat in what is speculated to be used as a kitchen with little round niches in the stone used for storage, smoothed out from thousands of years of fingers reaching into those spaces to grab ingredients (including ours). 

I have to digress for a minute to talk about something that we all noticed almost as soon as we started the walk. All over the Centre there were signs explaining the significance of Uluru to the Anunga people and why it was considered sacred, asking people to not climb the rock for those reasons. Yet the first thing we saw when we got to Uluru was a line of people, looking like ants because of how far they were, walking on sacred ground so they could say they had 'climbed The Rock'.  Needless to say this was upsetting for many of the students and we spent some time deconstructing that experience.

After the Mala walk we watched the sun set over Uluru while Matt and Sky whipped up a delicious stir fry dinner and then it was time to set up night two of bush camp. This second camp was at a campground in Yulara near Uluru which is utilised by other tour groups as well. I have to describe our entry as it will likely be one of the most memorable moments of the trip for many of us.

Our guide Mattt was combination disc jockey/chef/driver/geologist/anthropologist and everything in between. He has an incredible playlist of songs on his phone that he played the entire time we were on the bus. He had a unique talent for picking songs that were suited for the moment. There is a healthy competition amongst the different tour guides and Matt wanted us to make an entrance when we arrived at the camp grounds where the other groups had already set up. So we blew by the other groups in our bus (whose name was Sheila), windows rolled down, music blaring, everyone on the bus singing as loudly as we could to the music of Queen's "We Will Rock You" followed by "We are the Champions".  If I had to pick a single memorable moment from the entire trip - that would be it.

Day 3 camping - The next morning we woke early again to watch the sun rise at Uluru which was even more magnificent than sunset. Warning - we saw many sunrises and sunsets so be prepared and suitably impressed when the students want to share them with you.

We then commenced the remainder of our walk around the base of Uluru. Matt told us some more creation stories and we got to see some of the rock formations and markings that corresponded to those. We also saw another amazing set of cave paintings depicting symbols and objects from Aboriginal life.

From Uluru we started our long journey back towards Alice Springs where we stopped for more supplies and then headed out for our last night of camping at Glen Helen Gorge in the West MacDonnell ranges.  The West Macs as they are known, are a mountain range that once used to be as high as the Himalyas but have been eroded over time to where the tallest peak is now about 1500m. 350 million years ago, an upheaval in the earth's crust caused many of the layers of different minerals and rocks that had been compressed over time, to rise closer to the surface horizontally so they they are visible and distinct in the rock.

Day 4 camping - After our last night of camping under the stars, we started our exploration with a pre-dawn breakfast to watch the sun rise over the West Macs. We then took a short hike through Ormiston Gorge.  Perhaps the most meaningful part of that was a 30 minute discussion we had with Matt at the top of our hike on various questions the students had about Aboriginal issues. Matt had the opportunity to spend some time hunting with 4 Aboriginal men and had a deep appreciation, understanding and insight into their culture that he was willing to share with us, even on topics that would normally be considered difficult.  We were so fortunate to have him as our guide.

After lunch and an opportunity for a refreshing dip at a water hole we stopped at the Ochre Pits. This area is of significance to the Arrente people of the region and there is a hefty penalty for ignoring the warning signs and touching or removing the ochre from the area.  Ochre is a soft chalky substance that was used by Aboriginals for painting. The cave paintings that we saw at Uluru were done using ochre, possibly from this area.  Since there are only a few sites in Australia where ochre is found it was a valuable commodity and was heavily traded as well.  Most of the colours ranged from a rust coloured orangey red to yellow and white. 

Our last stop was the Standley Chasm which is a spectacular rock formation carved out of the mountain where we spent time inspecting the geology of the rocks and taking many photographs. 

Then it was time to head back to Alice and our four day adventure was complete.  It was a bitter-sweet return; Matt appropriately played Green Day's "Time of Your Life" but we got to see Marr and Sky one more time. After getting cleaned up the whole group met for dinner. Our guides had prepared a quiz for us which we took in groups and I'm proud to say we all did well.  Woven into the adventure and fun there was a lot of learning that took place. It was a fitting and satisfying ending to this remarkable experience.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Day 18 - May 13th: Alice Springs

Today our guide Miles took us to four places in and around Alice Springs. Our first stop was the Royal Flying Doctor Service where we learned shout the history and purpose of the organization. It started in the early part of the 20th century as a means to provide emergency medical help to people living in the vast reaches of the Australian Outback. Without this, it would take hours sometimes days for those living in large cattle stations and in remote Aboriginal communities to receive medical attention.  In addition to saving lives, the RFDS currently makes it feasible for families to still live in the Outback and raise their children there.

Next we visited Desert Park which is a combination zoo and botanical garden in a natural setting nestled at the foot of the MacDonnell ranges. The park is beautifully integrated into its surroundings and it really does feel like one is walking through the desert.  In addition to plants, aviaries and the requisite kangaroo enclosure there was an excellent nocturnal house where we got to see the the shy and highly endangered Mala (a small wallaby) and the antenna eared bilby.  A few students also attended a presentation on Aboriginal medicine and plants.

After lunch we headed to Telegraph Station where we were on the sight of the original Alice Springs and saw the 'spring' which gave the town it's name.  The town actually started as a stop on the Overland Telegraph until the gold rush brought more people to the area.

Our last visit was a favorite of many in the group - the Alice Springs School of Air.  Like the RFDS the idea behind the School of Air, which began in the mid twentieth century using radios to communicate, was to bring educational services to children of families living in the Outback.  At the start of the 21st century the School began using the Internet to conduct lessons, a huge leap in technology which allowed for real time communication and more importantly feedback. It also allows students to see the teachers and other students in their virtual classroom. The whole endeavor is funded by the Australian government. Each student that is enrolled in the school receives supplies, computer, scanner, printer and a satellite connection so that the communication is reliable. 

The area covered by Alice Springs had 120 students currently enrolled from pre-K through 9th grade. After 9th grade the students have to either attend a boarding school or complete the rest of their schooling through a correspondence course.  Twice a year all the students get together for school week where they get to physically meet their teachers and the other students in their classroom. We saw examples of the students' work and the classroom in which the lessons are recorded and relayed. 

What an awesome idea. After visiting this and the RFDS I couldn't help but wonder how these concepts could be replicated in other places, especially developing countries. Of course that would require stable, uncorrupt governments and resources including a substantial tax base but that's a topic for another time.  

Tomorrow we leave for the Red Centre at 5:30 a.m. and four days of camping. A lot of excitement and perhaps a little apprehension is in the air.

Day 16 and 17 - May 11 and 12

Yesterday was our day of rest in Cairns and students had the chance to catch up on journals, do some exploring on their own or relax. 

Today we flew from Cairns to Alice Springs in the heart of Australia to begin our adventures in the Red Centre. Alice received an unusual five straight days of rain before we arrived so it was interesting to watch the landscape as we flew over - a lot greener than usual!

Tomorrow we spend the day visiting various sights in and near Alice Springs before our four day camping starts.

Note: As I re-edit this - Internet has been sporadic at best so a whole series of blog entries will be posted in a row.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Day 15 - Daintree photographs

15 seconds in and we saw our first crocodile 


Daintree River

Our second crocodile sighting 

View of the trees from the boat

The largest ferns in the world grow in the Daintree

A lizard sighting while on our walk 

Students had a chance to feed wallabies where we stopped for lunch 

And go swim in a freshwater hole

And to taste tropical fruits like dragonfruit, soursop, startfruit, jackfruit and the more conventional pineapple and bananas (although the latter were much smaller and sweeter).

Day 14 - Kuranda and Tjapukai photos

Looking back towards Cairns while driving to Kuranda

At the butterfly sanctuary 

View of the Barron River from the Skyrail 

Barron River Falls

The rainforest canopy from the Skyrail 

Giant spider encountered during our walk in the rainforest

View from the boardwalk 

Playing the digeridoo 

EC students join the dance

Learning to throw spears 

Day 15 - May 10, Into the Daintree

We began our adventure today with a 2 hour ride up the coast and into the rainforest. On the way, we observed a field of hundreds of wallabies grazing, just like our white- tailed deer. We passed through Port Douglas, and Mossman, arriving at the Daintree River.  The Daintree is truly a special place, as it is a World Heritage Site of great significance. It is the world's oldest rainforest, containing over 1500 species of tree (not counting any of the vines, ferns, and other plants of the understory).  For reference, our guide explained that the average forest back home might have 50 tree species. The vast diversity of plant and animal life is just staggering!
  We embarked on our river cruise in search of crocodiles. A few meters from the boat landing, we spotted our first wild crocodile!  Before the day was done, we counted at least 5 crocodiles, including a hatchling that was less than a foot long. They were mostly sunning themselves on the riverbank, with their mouths open to help them thermoregulate. Signs are posted all over Northern Queensland warning people to stay away from river edges and beaches because of the danger of crocodile attack.
     The trees of the Daintree are enormously tall, and often have epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants. We saw pods of the matchbox bean, the world's largest legume, and flycatchers, orchids, Apple mangroves, cycads, fan palms, vines, basketferns, and the spiny "wait a while" plant that is named for the large spines that can tangle you up and make you " wait a while " until you can extricate yourself. We saw King Fern, the largest fern in the world with fronds over 6 feet long and dating back 300 million years. Students were pleased with the photogenic lizards that posed for them, and not so enamoured of the giant orb-weaving spiders that also posed for pictures. The tensile strength of their webs is unmatched by other spiders.
  Moving on, we crossed the river and ended up at a small place where we had a delicious BBQ and interacted with 2 populations of rescued animals; the swamp wallaby and the agile wallaby. After lunch, we drove deeper into the rainforest and stopped at a high mountain stream for Billy's tea, damper bread, and fresh tropical fruit. We sampled fruit that you just don't see at home, at it doesn't travel well. We sampled dragonfruit, custard apple (soursop or guanana), star fruit, pineapple, tiny, extra-sweet bananas, among others.  We drove along Cape Tribulation where Captain Cook had some troubles back during his coastline mapping days. One of our last stops was a chance to try unusual tropical ice cream flavors. Today, there was a selection of macadamia nut, plum, passion fruit, and wattle seed ice cream. Wattle is another name for acacia plants, and this particular wattle had a very interesting vanilla/coffee flavor that was really nice and different.
  One student was lucky enough to glimpse a rare, flightless rainforest bird that stands around 5 feet tall and has powerful talons; the cassowary. All these experiences made today one of the best days we have spent in Australia so far!  Tomorrow is a free day for students to explore and have their own adventures, so stay tuned.

Day 14 - May 9th - Over the Rainforest

Today was a packed day with a variety of different activities in which we learned about different aspects of the rainforest. 

We started out with an early morning bus  ride to the rainforest village of Kuranda where we visited a butterfly sanctuary. We learned about the lifecycle of butterflies and were able to see examples of the different stages in their lab. We also managed to spot a couple of pairs mating which we learned could take up to 14 hours. The female essentially sedates the male during the process. 

We saw many of the beautiful species that exist in AustralIa although it was hard to get photographs because they are almost never still. We also learned that the largest moth in the world - the Hercules moth - was recorded in Australia with a wingspan of 14 inches.

We then had some time to wander around the market place and grab a bite to eat. Vendors were selling a variety of handmade crafts and cheap souvenirs so it was hard to sift through the choices and find something that was more authentic.

Next came one of the highlights of the day where we traveled over the rainforest canopy in a gondola (the Skyrail). Apart from the incredible views, we saw the rainforest from a perspective that very few get to experience. We could identify many of the different types of trees and ferns, especially the basket fern which establishes itself high up in a tree. We had our eyes peeled to spot fauna and some of us caught a fleeting glimpse of the electric blue Ulysses butterfly and even a wild kangaroo!

There were two stops along the way and we got to get out and walk around the boardwalk that was built into the rainforest. At one point we were lucky enough to catch up with a ranger giving a talk and we learned about many of the plants and trees that inhabit the area. 

Our last stop for the day was the Tjapukai Cultural Center. The Tjapukai are  an aboriginal tribe from the Daintree rainforest and the cultural center gives visitors a chance to learn about the original inhabitants of the region.  As with all such experiences there is a fine line between watching and participating in performances that are clearly marketed towards tourists and wondering at the authenticity of the experience. On the other hand, given that the 'authentic' lives of the aboriginal people exist in only the remotest parts of Australia, if at all, this is a way of passing on traditions so they they don't die out and allowing others a glimpse into a rich and vibrant culture. 

We learned how complex and difficult it is to play the digeridoo, a traditional musical instrument made from a hollowed out tree trunk. We watched traditional aboriginal dances and some of our students even participated in them. We learned about bush medicine and the variety of plants used for many purposes. The students had fun leaning about weapons and hunting and trying out spear throwing and boomerangs. Lastly we saw a multimedia performance of the creation story of the Tjapukai. Each tribe has its own version of this known as the Dreaming and it explains the story of their ancestors and how the world began. 

So many experiences, so much to process. Students should have a busy night writing their journals this evening!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Day 13 - May 8th - Happy Mother's Day!


Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there! Your students were so sweet and gave us both a Mother's Day card signed  by all of them (which they are holding in front). Hope everyone had a wonderful day!!

Today was a rest day after our snorkeling adventure so everyone relaxed and explored Cairns. There are many interesting shops and restaurants and a lovely walk along on the sea front. No swimming in the sea though due to the salt water crocodiles!! 

Photos from Day 12

We don't have any underwater photos of what we saw in the reef but several students either had or rented underwater cameras so they'll be eager to share those with you.  However we do have a few pictures so you can see where we went.

From our boat while we were headed to the reef

Getting the stinger suits on before going out to snorkel 

The second place where we stopped to snorkel - Michaelmas Cay

As we were leaving, the crew threw in some food for the fish (they are allowed to feed them 1kg per day) and we got to see a whole bunch of them from the boat as they came for the food

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Day 12 - Saturday 07 May. Great Barrier Reef

 Today we put our new knowledge gained from Reef Teach to use with a snorkel trip to the Great Barrier Reef!  It was approximately a 2 hour boat cruise to the outer reef, far enough from shore that it should be healthy, although one guide earlier in the trip predicted that we might see more damage compared to past years. Thankfully, we didn't find this to be the case.
    The first dive site was spectacular!  There were so many species and colors and shapes of coral. Giant boulder corals that had to have been hundreds of years old, and sharp, fast-growing stag horn coral, and great, huge plates of coral, and mountains of soft corals waving in the currents.  A closer look revealed fish all over the reef; incredibly abundant, colorful, and busy. It looked like a living scene from "Finding Nemo."  Students saw black-tipped reef sharks, anemone fish (Nemo and relatives), dozens of colorful species of large parrotfish crunching away at the algae and corals, and tiny butterflyfish darting around the reef.  Those who took it slow were rewarded with sights of fabulous blue and electric green Giant Clams, slowly opening and closing the siphons and the scalloped edges of their enormous shells.  We happened upon a sheltered spot where sea cucumbers gathered. Each was as large as a person's thigh, and they were black and warty, or pale with bumps, or covered with spiny-looking projections, or spotted like a leopard.  Looking even closer, students discovered the unusual feeding tentacles of Christmas tree worms. These are polychaete annelid worms (related to earthworms, but distantly) that have a feeding structure that spirals up from their mouth like a Christmas tree. They are sedentary and live in tubes, and will withdraw their heads if threatened or if they detect shadows or water currents. Students were delighted to play with these colorful creatures that many people overlook.
    The sheer diversity, abundance, fragility, and beauty of the reef was breathtaking, and the need to protect the world's oceans obvious to any who visit this World Heritage Site.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Days 10 and 11 - May 5th and 6th

Yesterday (May 5th) was our last full day in Brisbane and students and faculty got to spend a free day with no official class activities. Well, students got to roam around the city and faculty got to grade journals : )

We left this morning for Cairns and are now comfortably settled in our new accommodations. This evening we attended a two hour lecture on the Great Barrier Reef by a marine biologist. The lecture was one of the best talks I've ever heard; so informative and the presenter was incredible. I don't think students have ever sat with such rapt attention through any two hour class. 

Tomorrow is The Big Day - a full day of snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. Stay tuned tomorrow night.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May 4th - Photographs from Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

Class photo at Lone Pine

Students feeding kangaroos 

Day 9. Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary

Today was another opportunity to learn about the animals of Australia during our visit to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary.  It was named after the Lone Pine battle during the Gallipoli campaign of WWI, an important event shaping the Australian identity. The sanctuary is always a favorite stop for the students. After considering several possible bus stops, we made it to the sanctuary.  We had several objectives today. One was to learn more about the native animals that are unique to Australia, the other was to interact with the more glamorous megafauna. The students attended keeper talks and demonstrations about the koalas and the platypus. Koalas feed on 15 species of eucalyptus leaves, out of over 600 species. This reliance on a narrow range of food types can be devastating to the population if habitat destruction occurs. They are adapted to make the most of their low energy, low nutrient diet by moving slowly and spending much of the day sleeping. Each koala enclosure had a faint aroma of cough drops or eucalyptus oil. There were separate enclosures for "retired" koalas, male koalas, and mums with babies. One joey was a few months old, and was enjoying its first taste of eucalyptus.  Students had photos taken while cuddling koalas, and that was a definite highlight.

We had attempted to observe platypus at 3 other zoos or aquariums with no luck. Today was great, as we were able to see platypus swim and feed while the keeper gave a great talk about their biology.  They are smaller than you might think, perhaps a foot long, with dense, short fur and webbed feet.  Males have a venomous spur on their hind feet (one of only two venomous mammals in the world; the other is the short-tailed shrew). They are endangered through habitat loss, and are incredibly difficult to breed in captivity. The first ever to be born in captivity had to wait about 13 years before it was joined by another captive bred individual. They detect electrical currents of prey items with their bill.

Another stop was the sheep herding and sheep shearing demonstrations.  The working dogs were incredible.  The sheep shearing looked uncomfortable for the sheep, but was fascinating to learn about.

The kangaroo paddock was especially interesting because the animals were much more interactive than koalas. Students fed roos, and took selfies. The term "mob of kangaroos" comes to mind as they jostled for position during hand-feeding time. The wallabies were not interested in these goings-on and preferred to wait along the fenceline by themselves.  After many chin rubs and handfuls of kangaroo chow, it was time to say goodbye.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Days 7 and 8 - photos

We kayaked/swam out to the wrecks that are visible in the back to look at the coral 

Getting ready to launch the kayaks

Watching the sea life through the bottom of the boat 

Getting ready to sand board