Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pademelons and Bush Dances: Travels in Lamington National Park

I spent four days this past week in a beautiful rainforest.  Technically, this is the rainforest that "Fern Gully" was based on, but since I haven't actually seen the movie, I can't verify how accurate the comparison is.  We were staying in Binna Burra, which is a few minutes' hike outside of Lamington National Park (you can't stay in the park for conservation reasons), in a rustic bunkhouse.  Out in front of the buildings was a nice sloping lawn, where we could spot pademelons grazing at dusk.  I had never heard of a pademelon before this trip, but I saw a LOT of them.  They are marsupials, and look rather like small wallabies - very cute, though skittish.  We also saw a bandicoot, which looked more-or-less like a large rat, but is also a marsupial.

A large portion of the week was spent hiking and doing fieldwork.  I think I totaled about 45 km over the course of the 4 days, even though I didn't go on the 12 km waterfall hike on the last day due to rain, leeches, and being tired.  We hiked through areas of wet sclerophyll, dry sclerophyll, sub-tropical rainforest, warm temperate rainforest, cool temperate rainforest, and heathland - I bet you didn't know that vegetation in a relatively small area could have so many different classifications!  One morning, my group got up at 4:30 a.m., hiked to the top of a cliff, watched the sunrise, and counted the calls of specific species of birds.  It was cold, but worth it.

Sunrise from the cliff top - beautiful!

The trip included many educational opportunities, and I have now learned that:
1. Strangler fig ecology is pretty neat.  They have a weird symbiosis (mutualism) with a specific species of wasp.  If you are in need of some more procrastination after reading this blog post, you should go look it up.

2.  Bower birds make interesting nests.  The male builds a mating platform (those upright twigs in the picture below), and then attempts to lure the female in with a carefully arranged selection of bright blue objects.  He also dances for her.  The male with the best platform, blue objects, and dancing abilities wins.

3.  Many things in the rainforest try their best to painfully stab you with nasty thorns or spikes.  These include caterpillars, plants like the stinging tree, and the ever-present wait-a-while vine (a wall of which is pictured).  Even a slight touch can cause a large amount of pain.

4.  Scrub turkeys will gladly eat leeches, if fed them.  This is useful to know when you are very tired of being bitten by the leeches.

5. Allowing college students to use play dough during lecture is great for keeping people awake, and is a good teaching tool for kinesthetic learners.  However, there is a good chance that the models of plants and volcanos that you were hoping for will instead devolve into collaborative creation of penguins and ichthyosaurs eating fish.

6.  Even when you see the venomous creatures that Australia is famous for, they probably aren't interested in hurting you.  We saw a Red-bellied Black Snake (creatively named, of course, for its black back and red belly), which is on those lists of Scary Venomous Snakes, but really only bites if provoked.  It was just on the path in front of us, hanging out in a patch of sun, and let us get a few pictures before gliding off into the vegetation.  

Overall, we spent a lot of time looking at waterfalls, buttress roots, epiphytes (ferns, palms, mosses, etc. that grow in trees), spider holes, and glow worm threads, among other things.

[Side note: I hope to never have to hear the glow worm poem again on this trip, but I doubt I will be so lucky.  It is from a card that was found at a rest stop on a previous field trip, and has been recited numerous times in my group.  It goes:
"I wish I were a glow worm
A glow worm's never glum
'Cause how can you be grumpy
When the sun shines out your bum?"]

Three tall waterfalls, viewed from an observation platform over a cliff edge

On the final night of the Lamington trip, our group participated in a bush dance, led by one of the staff at the Binna Burra resort (which is across the road from the bunkhouses we were lodged in, and is where we ate all our meals).  This involved simple group dances, such as the heel-and-toe and strip the willow, and one where you had to hop around like kangaroos.  There was a fair amount of crashing into one another and not dancing in time with the music, but it was still fun!  I did miss being able to co-teach lindy hop at UQ for a second week, but had an enjoyable time anyway.

Friday, May 13, 2011

10 Things I Have Learned In Australia (Thus Far)

1.  Bus drivers in Brisbane carry DNA kits to help identify and prosecute people who spit on the bus.

2.  The Australian concept of personal space is much different from the American concept, particularly on the dance floor.  Dancing in a standard close-hold ballroom position is considered very intimate.

3.  There will likely be ingredients in your food that weren't listed on the menu.  For example, they may put mustard in your mac & cheese without telling you.  Australians also put butter on everything, including PB&J sandwiches (perhaps they mentally insert a comma: peanut, butter and jelly?)

4.  Australian birds are loud.  As a whole, they are much more noisy than American birds, and are great alarm clocks as they get up at about 6 a.m. every day.

5.  Australians shorten both words and phrases.  For example, a mosquito is a "mozzie" and Brisbane is often shortened to "Brissie."  In terms of phrases, a common one is "sweet as" or "fun as."  As in, "that's sweet as!" - without mentioning whatever word was originally at the end of the phrase.  It is kind of the equivalent of saying "that's awesome!"

6.  Kangaroos and koalas really are amazingly cute.  I have seen plenty of kangaroos in the wild, though have so far only seen a koala at the RSPCA (animal shelter).  One of these days, I will make it out to Lone Pine Sanctuary and possibly get to cuddle a koala.

7.  Scaridae (parrotfish), Siganidae (rabbitfish), Pomacentridae (damselfish), Acanthuridae (surgeonfish), and Blenniidae (blennies) are all important grazers in coral reef communities.  Surgeonfish and blennies stay the same gender their entire lives, while parrotfish and damselfish change gender (parrot fish go female à male, and damselfish go maleà female).  Yes, I have been learning things in my classes, too.

8.  Vegemite is an acquired taste (I find it unappetizing).  Tim tams are great.

9.  The gender gap in economic earnings is larger in Australia than in the United States.

10.  Sports are a very common pastime, both to play and to watch.  Australians seem to get very competitive on the subject of their favorite teams.  I need to remember to not wear blue to school in a week and a half (when the state of origin game occurs; the team I am automatically supporting is maroon, where the other is blue) - I am under the impression that the competition may be fiercer than the Stanford/Cal game.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Byron Bay + Back in Brissie Again

I haven't written in a while, I know.  Life is sneaking up on me here, as is school work!

This past Monday was a holiday (Labor Day), so it was a three-day weekend.  Our teachers surprised us by canceling classes on Friday as well, which made it a four-day weekend.  As I had spent the 5-day Easter weekend in Brisbane at home, I decided to travel with some of my fellow classmates this last weekend.  Half of the class decided to go to Sydney, and the other half chose Byron Bay.  I went with the Byron group, as it was much cheaper and closer.

Byron Bay is a laid-back town about two hours south of Brisbane by bus, popular for its great surfing and other water activities.  My group went down on Friday afternoon, ready for some time on the beach, and arrived in a torrential downpour.  It rained off and on both Friday and Saturday, but cleared up for the rest of the weekend.  The rain wasn't too bad, overall.  All of the companies that specialize in water activities (diving, kayaking, surfing, etc.) canceled their trips Friday-Sunday due to the weather - mostly the wind and the swell - but there were other things to do.  I spent a lot of time on the beach, reading when it was clear and huddling under my raincoat when it was pouring.  Others in my group went boogie boarding, though the waves were a bit rough.

Monica (one of my group members) and I hiked up to the lighthouse on the hill/mountain overlooking the bay.  It was a nice hike with beautiful ocean views.  We reached the lookout where we were able to stand at the Easternmost point of mainland Australia, which was pretty neat.  It's the closest to California I'm going to get until this program is over!  When we reached the lighthouse, the rainstorm on the way up had left us a gift: a beautiful, full double rainbow over the ocean.

Staying at a youth hostel allowed us to meet a lot of interesting people from all around the world.  We hung out with a group of them (from Australia, Holland, Canada, and elsewhere), and spent several enjoyable nights exploring Byron in their company.

On Sunday night, Monica and I found a bar that had live music, and decided to go check it out.  There was a really awesome guitar player.  He played a 12-string guitar, which he also used as a drum while he was playing it, and he was an absolutely fantastic musician.  Local live music is always a good thing to support!

On Monday, Monica and I decided to go for a kayaking tour in the ocean.  The kayak company said they were running, and they picked us up, dropped us at the beach, suited us up (wetsuits, lifejackets, helmets), and gave us instructions.  There were about 15 2-person sea kayaks.  Monica's and my kayak was one of the first in the water.  It was very challenging to get over the breakers and out to the calmer water, but since I've never been sea kayaking before, I mentally put it down to my lack of experience.  We were out there for a long time, waiting...  waiting...  We met up with two other boats of people, and waited some more, trying not to get capsized by the farther out (huge) waves that we kept drifting towards.  Eventually, one of the guides from the company made it out there.  Once he got there, he basically had us just head back in to shore, giving us instructions on how to surf the waves.  Getting back in past the breakers was just as challenging as getting out!  Monica and I perfectly surfed one big wave, and then were promptly capsized by the second.  Fortunately, we were in shallow enough water that we could stand and drag the boat the rest of the way in.  Because the other ~12 kayaks didn't even make it off the beach due to the crazy waves (which had picked up since our boat left shore), the kayak company gave us all our money back.  Free adventure!

That afternoon, Monica and I rented bikes from the hostel and pedaled about 3km out of Byron to a quarry that the woman at the hostel front desk had recommended.  It was just off the main road, and it felt like stepping into a different world.  The quarry was long since abandoned, and was filled with water.  It had become a lovely lake, with water lilies (purple and white flowers) covering most of the surface.  It was incredibly peaceful, and I spent a lot of time acting like a biologist, wondering what various plants were.

I was sad to leave Byron.  It was a wonderfully fun and relaxing weekend.  Now that I am back in Brisbane, I have 2 assignments and an exam in the next week and a half - and after that, I leave for another field trip.  This one is to a rainforest: Lamington National Park.

Tonight, Monica and I decided to check out the on-campus social dance club.  It meets outside one night a week, and I've been wanting to go for several weeks now.  The lesson tonight was bachata, which is a form of latin dance (basic: side-step-side-touch, repeat other direction).  Apparently, latin dance is the big social dance scene in Brisbane.  There's not much else.  I did, however, meet several good swing dancers.  I danced lindy with one of them, an exchange student from Iowa/Purdue of all places, and he was quite good.  We figured out that we both blues danced, too.  He got the DJ to put on a blues song, and we started dancing blues/fusion.  It's a style that no one else knows, though, so it was funny to look around and realize that we were the only people on the dance floor and everyone else was watching us! (They clapped when we were finished.) We were commiserating about the lack of swing dancing in Brisbane, and he mentioned that he's teaching a beginning lindy hop lesson next week for this club.  He asked if I wanted to teach it with him (he was in need of a follow), and I agreed.  Should be fun!