25 February 2016

Wonderful

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever."
-- John Keats



*** As you cruise along the Indian Ocean Drive (which is actually a highway), north of Perth massive white hills materialize and juxtapose against the dark-colored shrubs.  However, they're not hills.  Scattered along the Coral Coast are enormous, shimmering white sand dunes.  Aside from their commanding size, Mom & I were more impressed by their distance -- easily 10 kilometers -- from the shore.  Can you imagine the force needed to deposit all those tonnes a.k.a. tons of sand inland?

***   The village of Monkey Mia offers a serene evening catamaran cruise where the ocean reflects the watercolor sky. It is the only location in the entire state where you can watch the sun set behind land.



*** The seaside city of Busselton boasts the longest jetty in the southern hemisphere.  Originally this wasn't the case, but due to sand drifts more extensions followed over time.  The wind was fierce and nippy as Mom & I stepped out of the squatty lighthouse next to the Visitors Centre and set off on foot toward the jetty.  At the site's entrance, the wooden pier curved right, disappearing into the horizon.  That's how long it is!

*** I hate beer.  I sipped it every semester throughout my college career, hoping it would grow on me, but it never did.  However, at Sail + Anchor in Fremantle's hopping market district, Mick a.k.a. Michael, my long-time Australian buddy, introduced me to Matso's Mango Beer. I was hooked!  Over the course of a few drinks [& one nasty local Custard Cider that looked more like lemonade] Mick and I poked fun at each other and attempted to catch up on our last 6 years living on different continents.  Brewed in Broome, WA, Matso's makes other flavors -- like Lychee or Chili -- though nothing was a tasty as Mango!

*** Residents of Western Australia's southwestern horn were buzzing, particularly fishermen and surfers, because a perfect storm situation was producing the largest swells in the past 10 years on the unhindered Indian Ocean.  Mom & I ventured from the one-roundabout town of Yallingup a.k.a. Place Of Love, to Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park and explored a few of the peninsula's trails.  Though we hiked at least a kilometer from the shoreline & couldn't view the sea, we still heard the thunderous Indian Ocean vanquishing the helpless beach.  It sounded like a battering ram repeatedly striking something. Enraptured by the ocean's newfound power, we sat on a stone platform at Sugarloaf Rock and watched the massive swells swallow [what we referred to as] Cubical Rock as we ate a packed lunch.




*** There's something about sand that equates to beaches.  Adults lay on it and mush it between their toes.  Kids bury themselves in it.  Now, imagine a beach lacking that.  Instead of a tan shoreline, there was only blindingly white cockle shells that caused every photograph to overexpose, though it looked like a pristine white-sand beach from afar.  Shell Beach -- near the town of Denham, WA's westernmost establishment -- consisted of billions upon trillions of seashells.  A few were rose-colored and some featured bands of faded yellow or orange, but most were stark white, probably bleached from the searing sun.  And at some point throughout its lifetime, each and every one of the shells may have been a creature's home.

When waves rushed in, they dredged up a sound like a rain stick suddenly tipped vertically.  Frolicking in the shallow waters proved quite uncomfortable since I stepped on tons of hard, broken shells.  On the contrary, the real benefit was I didn't have to worry about sand getting into my body's crevices or shaking off before I entered the campervan.



***
Recently, I read a gob-smacking fact about Australia: in the best conditions, on any given night one can observe 5,780 stars from the country's outback.  Deep in the Pilbara region at Karijini National Park, there was scant light pollution.  A school bus outfitted with faux fur-lined seats (to ward off the desert cold) transported a dozen tourists down an unsealed road to the top of a hill where rows of folding chairs were set up.

  
Though lofty in price, the two rotund telescopes front and center gave visitors a glimpse into the heavens.  Despite the uncooperative clouds, Mom and I were fortunate to see Jupiter & its four moons in alignment, my star sign (Libra), the colorful Jewel Box (with a yellow, blue and red star), Eta Carinae (a star that could explode into a supernova at any moment), the mind-blowing Mega Centauri Globular Cluster that reminded me of a Petri dish jam-packed with glowing specimen, and -- my favorite -- a sideways Saturn with its rings bisecting the planet vertically.

However, the most interesting segment of the astronomy show was Australia's staple constellation, as seen on the national flag: the Southern Cross.  Once you identify it, the Southern Cross easily stands out at night.  I first saw it while living in Australia in 2009, and six years later it was still a cinch to find, but beware, there is a fake Southern Cross too.  In reality, the true Southern Cross and its imposter are light years apart, but to people in the southern hemisphere, the two are close in proximity.

To find the genuine Southern Cross, one must use the methods of the ancient wayfarers.  The two "pointer stars" [when connected], led explorers to the Southern Cross to the right.  The Southern Cross itself is comprised of 5 stars: the 4 that mark the endpoints of the cross, and a straggler in the bottom right quadrant.  Now, bisect the two forms (the Pointer Stars and the Southern Cross), following a straight line down to the horizon, and you have found the directional meridian running all the way to the celestial South Pole.  I have long been fascinated that civilizations navigated the world by studying the sky because it was ever-changing based on the seasons, latitude, and time of day.  I imagined Aborigines crossing hard desert plains with the sky as their guide. While the planets made me contemplate the outer reaches of our universe and Earth's future, reading the constellations felt so relevant and like a connection to the past.


*** Finishing up the series: "Wild, Wonderful, Weird, Western Australia."  You won't be disappointed!

18 February 2016

Wild

"When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound...
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the silence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."

-- Wendell Berry, The Peace Of Wild Things.



Inside my climbing gym is a poster with jagged Seneca Rocks and the state's slogan "Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia."  By the end of a 5 week road trip through Western Australia, the phrase seemed more fitting for Australia rather than the U.S.A... with one twist. 

I propose WA's motto should be "Wild, Wonderful, Weird, Western Australia." Appropriate for the country's largest state, it's the only one to touch the exotic Indian Ocean and dominates a third of the continent.  It is so large you can fit Texas and Alaska inside, with room to spare.  Let's start with the "Wild" side.


*** From atop Eagle Bluff, it seems plausible that the protected Shark Bay UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the largest sea grass population in the world.  Amazingly, 10% of Earth's Dugong population thrive here.  I saw so much in the week I camped at Monkey Mia (docile sharks, Loggerhead Turtles, rays, a Tiger Shark, Dugong, a hundred dolphins, all sorts of birds, Green Turtles, a whale, butterflies, and various fish that I cannot fathom how much life is supported in the open ocean.


  


*** There are a multitude of karstic caves underneath Exmouth's peninsula, though no one quite knows where many of them finally -- if ever -- unite with the sea. In Cape Ranges National Park around 400 caves have been catalogued and some surmise many more elude speleologists. As such, blind fauna inhabit many of the caverns.  One cavern shrouded beneath fig trees can be accessed only with SCUBA equipment while another is home to the rare Black-footed Rock Wallaby.  In fact, the oldest bead necklace in the world was excavated in a cave here.



*** Dolphins must take conscious breaths so how do they sleep?  They are equipped to let half of their brain rest, while the other half and eye is open at the surface.  In this clip you can hear the female, Surprise, take purposeful breaths from her blowhole.  As the Monkey Mia rangers always joked, "If I lived in a place named Shark Bay, I'd sleep with one eye open too."

Yet, that's a trait all dolphins possess.  What's mind-boggling is that Shark Bay is the only place on the planet where the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins are observed regularly using tools.  The tool in this case is a sponge from the sea.  The dolphins of the area capture a soft sponge on the end of their rostrum a.k.a. beak and use it as a protective barrier while shoving their nose into the sharp coral, foraging for food. How smart!


*** Australia is practically synonymous with marsupials, but did you know there are many more than the familiar Kangaroo, Koala Bear, and Opposums (not to be mistaken with Possums)? There are Quolls, a type of wallaby with eye-catching white polka dots; Pygmy Possums that fit in your hand & look much different than typical Possums; adorably chubby Quokkas (pronounced "Kw-ah-kuh") who can survive from fat in their tail; and the lecherous Antechinus.  The males resemble Chipmunks and have a non-stop sex when mature, then promptly die as a result of their out-of-control testosterone levels.

Only an hour drive southeast from the state capital of Perth, is a tiny national park tucked away in the foothills.  In the interior Wheatbelt region, Dryandra Woodland is entered by vacant, country roads set upon rolling meadows with farmhouses in the distance.  Not much warrants a visit here unless you prefer isolation, simple hikes, and -- the main draw -- wildlife.  Particularly, marsupials!
During the day keen-eyed visitors can spot Numbats, a small critter resembling a squirrel with white bands.  Since the park was deserted this Wednesday, our campervan startled an Echidna the size of a boulder crossing the gravel road.
Even better, in the frigid winter night, Dryandra Woodland came alive!  Dryandra is one of only three places on the entire continent that has retained its natural population of marsupials. Mom & I passed a statuesque Grey Kangaroo standing with its thick fur made for the highland winters.  At Barna Mia (mia, the aboriginal word for a shelter) inside the park, conservationists were attempting to help endemic wildlife recover from predators introduced to Australia from settlers.  Most threatening to Australia's fauna are feral cats and foxes.  Believe it or not, Dingos may actually have to be reintroduced to this area of the state to allow small marsupials to build up their numbers.

A friendly park ranger, with a confusingly thick Australian accent, handed out two infrared torches a.k.a. flashlights before Mom, a husband & wife from Sydney, and I accessed an enclosure with its electrical fence temporarily disarmed.  As our eyes adjusted to the pitch black, only the next few steps were highlighted in an eerie, blood red light. Whenever there was a pause in the tour, I heard twigs snap or bushes rustle.  As we walked in the night, I heard animals scurrying very close to my legs. I was being stalked.
The ranger warned the four of us that seeing certain types of marsupials may not be possible due to their sensitivity to noise.  However, as soon as two dishes of fruits and mushrooms were put out, curious Woylies a.k.a. Brush-tailed Bettongs emerged from the fringe. They hopped in silent stealth on their powerful lower limbs producing only a muffled "swoosh" sound as they passed.  I squatted to snap some photographs and one of the many Woylies approached me, then nipped the tip of my boot twice.  They proved to be bold rapscallions.
 
Similar to Woylies -- but with faces looking more rodent -- were the Boodies a.k.a. Burrowing Bettongs.  Most Boodies displayed execrable traits: they hissed, yanked the platter out of another's grip, or started fights by laying on the dirt and ferociously kicking its peer.

Woylies and Bettongs sated, the group continued to another feeding bay deeper in Barna Mia's enclosure.  It was here I observed my favorite marsupial of the evening: the Mala a.k.a. Rufous-hare Wallaby. The two Malas featured chubby cheeks and rotund bodies -- besetting an appearance less like rodents -- and feet nearly the length of their body, like a Kangaroo.  They looked along the lines of lovable teddy bears with their fuzziness, dewy eyes, and plump torsos.  One settled a mere arm's reach in front of me. These critically endangered (basically, almost extinct) creatures are of great importance to the Aborigines, as they symbolize the cultural law of the people and had medicinal value.


In my crouched position, I watched a Mala devour food, more Boodies chase each other, and Woylies surround my mother.  According to Mom, a fearless Woylie hopped laps between my legs, though I never heard nor felt its presence. Eventually, to my delight, a Possum descended from its tree!  With eyes the size of saucers it could certainly pass as a relative of an African Lemur, and the last half of its thick tail looked like it had been dunked in white paint. The Possum doubly outweighed every other marsupial here and used its weight to scare the smaller animals away from the fruit offering.  A few of the Possums would need to be relocated into the wild soon because they acted territorially & Barna Mia was running out of acreage for them.  Not to mention, they had become too smart for their own good.  The Possums had learned (probably through painful trial & error) the crucial timing of the electrical fence and mastered escaping by counting clicks between zaps!

Soon after the arrival of the shy Possum, the jittery Quenda a.k.a. Southern Brown Bandicoot appeared at the buffet.  Up to this point, I had forgotten playing a video game from my childhood called Crash Bandicoot, whose namesake was animated, bright orange, muscular and sported jean shorts -- certainly nothing like the critter before me.  The real Bandicoot bore an elongated, almost pointy, snout and its coat looked sharp like a Hedgehog's.
We humans proceeded to the last station within Barna Mia.  Now that my eyes were accustomed to the darkness, I watched the marsupials mirror our path.  Some kept pace, hopping alongside Mom, then darted erratically between our moving legs like a crazy driver frequently changing lanes amidst rush hour traffic.  The ranger pointed out the unique tracks belonging to and the ground burrow constructed by a Bilby, though we had yet to lay eyes on one.  Bilbies' two front legs move independently and aid in eating, while the two back legs move simultaneously, leaving large Vs in the red soil much like a Rabbit's prints.

Both humans and animals gathered round the clearing.  The tip of my nose & fingers were numb, but this was the last chance to find an elusive Bilby a.k.a. Rabbit Bandicoot, virtually impossible to spot in the wild.  Mom & I specifically got on the road at 07:00 that morning to complete the 10 hour drive from Mount Magnet to Dryandra Woodland -- skipping lunch -- for this marsupial!

A nearby Woylie stood on its hind legs and punched me in the calf.  To my right, entering from the leafy background, a Bilby cautiously made its way to the mushrooms! I was so ecstatic I didn't dare exhale and risk frightening it! Now, the signs I saw outside of Denham -- in the northwest corner of WA -- made sense. With extensive, straight ears like a bunny (for cooling itself in the outback's heat), the Bilby was surprisingly much smaller than I anticipated.  Its snout was weirdly-shaped and the closest thing to an Anteater's.  Then, a stockier Bilby (identified by the ranger as the father) hopped into the clearing and I could clearly identify the backward-facing pouch characteristic of digging marsupials.  Family in tow, two more Bilbies joined the scene and at one point I counted 14 indigenous animals altogether!


*** Next in the series: "Wild, Wonderful, Weird, Western Australia."