Exploring Australia From The Left


For those Despicable Me! fans out there!

On the fifth day after entering QLD, we finally arrived in Mount Isa, in time to restock before we continued on.


The smoke stacks from their mining operations are huge!



Long way from anywhere.
 
Outback Queensland

Our next stop in QLD was Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park. This park is fairly remote, requiring a day's drive on gravel roads from the nearest town.

Entry into the park is past a permanent river (spring-fed) which flows quite vigorously all year round.


Don’t get washed away!




What this park is really known for is its fossils. This area was a series of spring-fed lakes and swamp tens of thousands of years ago. The calcium content caused the silt at the bottom to turn rapidly into limestone. Bones from animals which died or drowned in the water were extremely well-preserved. Many are easily seen from a leisurely walk.




Below you can see the cross section of a turtles shell. A fossilized turtle found here was thought to be extinct. However, a few years later, a population was found hundreds of km away virtually unchanged after nearly a hundred thousand years! Talk about a throwback.



Below is a cross section of a crocodile leg bone. Fossils found here show many species of crocodile that have since gone extinct. Including a terrestrial (land-dwelling) crocodile that hunted in the open grasslands!




One of the more interesting fossils is that of an enormous flightless bird. Weighing between 500 and 650lbs, this monster stood up to 8ft tall!
 
You can see part of a leg bone below, as well as the “gut stones” it swallowed to help with digestion.




We then made our way north on the Gulf Developmental Highway.

Stopping in Normanton we got to see an artist's rendition of Krys the “Savanna King”. Krys was a saltwater crocodile shot in 1957 by a government croc-shooter named Krystina King. He was 28ft 3in long (8.6m) and weighed over a ton. He was probably over 70 years old.




At some point the Australians realized that killing the apex predator in a ecosystem was not a good idea. So in the 70s, crocs became protected, and the hunting ended.

We also stopped by Undara NP. This park has a number of volcanic craters and cones, as well as one of the longest lava tubes in the world.


The dark line of vegetation in this photo is where the roof of the lava tube has caved in. The eruption that created it started around 190,000 years ago. It produced 1,000 cubic meters of lava per second, covered over 1500 square kilometers with molten lava. Total volume ejected was 23 cubic kilometers.
 
Northern Queensland

After deciding to skip the tortuous drive up the Cape York Peninsula, we headed east towards the coast and Cairns. Bordering on the coast is the Atherton Tablelands. This area is at about 2000ft of elevation, and has a unique weather and biosphere. As you approach the coast, the yearly rainfall continues to increase until it becomes full-on rainforest. Sadly the vast majority of this highly unique forest has been cleared for livestock and sugarcane.

The terrain and rainfall make for lots of great waterfalls.










Some local wildlife.


It was also a fowl day. First we found this. This is a Bush Turkey, they are native to most of the wet tropics. Surprisingly they are not related to North American Turkeys closely.


Then some introduced wildlife came to find us (for a meal, presumably).


Lastly, we found their scrub fowl.


 


One of the more interesting trees in the rainforest is the Strangler Fig. Starting life as a poppy-sized seed, a bird drops it on an upper tree branch. Slowly growing its roots down through the air, it hits the ground. After decades pass, it completely encircles its host tree and strangles it. After 500 years or more it may become the biggest tree in the forest.







This fig tree is over 72m (150ft) around its base. It’s canopy covers over 2000 square meters (20,000 square feet). It is at least 400 years old.


This region also has a number of crater lakes formed in the caldera of extinct volcanos.




 
Daintree Rainforest



By Jen.



Leaving the cool Atherton Tablelands, we descended into the warmer coast and into the Daintree Rainforest near Cairns.











Walking through rainforest is truly a different experience. While completely absent of grass, the forest below the canopy is entwined with living things. It truly is a plant-eat-plant world there, where everything uses its surroundings, including other plants, to get its essentials. Some plants, like epiphytes, form a symbiotic relationship. Others like vines and strangler figs are harmful and parasitic. Many plants form vicious thorns, needles, and poisons to fend off others doing like themselves. Mosses, fungi, and lichen cover nearly everything. What surprised me most was how few bugs were actually interested in us. In a rainforest, I expected mosquitos and other life-sucking insects to be plentiful and swarm, but we actually never even had to use DEET to get the bugs to avoid us.







An (I believe “elkhorn”) epiphyte on the limb, trying to get sunlight through the leaves. It also uses its own leaves to funnel dead leaves, water, and other nutrients to its core, which in turn also benefits the host tree.







We hiked through Mossman Gorge to get a taste of the UNESCO World Heritage Daintree Rainforest.







Apparently some trees in the forest bloom from their trunks!













Ever since Mossman Gorge (so several days by then), we had been searching for this beauty. It is a Boyd’s Dragon. For such a remarkable creature, he blends in really well. We only spotted him because some tourists ahead of us did.







Even the fungus here is different!







Jonathan found this large Cane Toad in the nook of a tree, right along the path where he was about to step. He was probably about 4-6 inches from back to front. Another invasive species, cane toads were introduced to eat cane beetles. It turns out they don't really like the beetles, and since the toads are super poisons, they have pushed out native frogs; poisoning many predators in the process.







Sadly, nearly all the rainforests in the lowlands have been logged to grow the crop that is the bane of the first world: sugarcane.



Equipment Update: Apparently being in the humid north put another nail in the coffin for my camera. Something either liquid or dust, got on the inside and brought out that nasty purple smear you can see in most of these images. The motor drive (for the zoom) started shuttering seizing a bit when you turn it on. Apparently I am too tough on cameras. I had planned on getting it fixed while I was in the states and didn’t need my camera, but I didn’t realize that authorized dealers can’t work on “gray market” (bought in another country) cameras at all (even not under warranty). So, I will be looking for another (cheap) camera when we get back to Cairns.
 
Taste of Cape York Peninsula



By Jen.



After the rainforest, we figured we would head just a bit further north into the Cape York Peninsula. It really doesn’t take long before the rainforest turns into dry eucalypt forest. Literally, after the first range of “mountains”, the land is too dry to support a rainforest.







You can see how the first hill is covered in rainforest, but the ones in the background are much drier.



First up was the Black Mountains. There are 2 mountains standing next to each other that have very little vegetation and are covered in large black rocks. They give off a very strange feeling, which is accentuated by the loud bangs and “mournful cries” that you can hear if you get close enough. Apparently the crumbling rock has created pockets and tunnels and there is water running under the rocks. Definitely creates prime conditions for mystique and intrigue.







We then made our way to Cooktown, where Captain James Cook and his crew spent a while, repairing his vessel and trying to find a way out from the reefs.





An odd-looking bug there.







View from the hill where James Cook looked out to find a way out. His conclusion was to sail north along the coast.



After that, we swung back and went to the Split Rock Art site south of Laura. It is the only rock art in the peninsula that you can see without a guide.















Then we returned to Cairns area.
 
Research and Rainforest



By Jen.



In Cairns, first on the list was to get me a new camera. I would really like to upgrade to something with higher dynamic range and more manual controls, but that pretty much means going to a dSLR, which is expensive. And, since I found out you can’t get cameras worked on in other countries, I decided I should just get a cheapo that should last me another 6 months (seems to be the about the max before they need repaired or cleaned), focusing on the major thing I need to take pictures on walks (good zoom). There weren’t a lot of options in Cairns, so I just bought the cheapest point-and-shoot they had decent zoom (above 20x). Turned out to be the Nikon B500 at the Camera House. I was really hesitant about it, mostly because it is such a big camera. I mean, it isn’t massive, but is about twice the depth than I am used to with the compact, superzoom point-and-shoot cameras that I normally own. I couldn’t go smaller without losing a lot of zoom or spending several hundred dollars more. As a plus, it has less moving parts, which should make it a bit more robust. This should also help me figure out whether I can actually handle a camera with a removable lens (as opposed to the retractable, built-in ones that I normally have), since, similarly, I won’t be able to put it in my purse or pocket. The plan was to see if I liked it during the next event (Skyrail), which was also in Cairns area, then if I didn’t like it, I could return it.











Next day was the Skyrail. It is a gondola ride above the canopy of the rainforest. It was really well-rated so we thought we would give it a try.







While we were passing over the river, we saw bird of prey swoop down and grab a snake off a dead tree. It was pretty cool.







We upgraded to the glass bottom for the first half.







At this point, I am just thankful to have that annoying purple smudge out of my photos!



























While we were in the area, we decided to do research on how we were going to visit the Great Barrier Reef. We didn’t really feel like trying to learn how to dive, so we focused on finding a snorkeling tour. I had been kinda hoping to do it somewhere outside of Cairns, but I was having a hard time finding information on most of the tours. Then, the few that I found ended up being more expensive, or not as good a place to snorkel. By the end of research, I had narrowed it down to these three, based upon reviews, snorkeling location quality, and price: a Green Island visit ($93pp), Seastar Cruises ($195pp, visiting Michaelmas Cay and Hastings Reef), or Wavelength Reef Cruises ($239.50pp, visiting Opal Reef). We decided that since we really only wanted to do this once, we would go on one of the more expensive cruises and avoid the larger, not-directed crowds at Green Island. I checked both, but Seastar was already booked for the next day. Wavelength had only 2 spots available, so we took them! Time to knock that one off our bucket list.
 
Great Barrier Reef



Arguably, the most famous tourist attraction in Australia is the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Varying from 5 to 75 miles off Australia’s east coast, it extends thousands of miles from Cairns to near Sydney. Really a collection of reefs, this massive organic superstructure is easily visible from space. (Jen Note: Until coming here, I imagined the reef as one big underwater wall, which is definitely not the case.) It is called a barrier reef because it blocks the majority of the surf coming from the Pacific Ocean. This creates the long stretches of calm beach, which are present all down the east coast.

The basis for the GBR is the coral. These colonial organisms build skeletons of calcium carbonate in their pursuit of sunlight. These skeletons, both living and dead, provide the base upon which an enormous interconnected ecosystem rests. The GBR is so large that is has a very real impact on the coastal weather. For example, the Daintree rainforest gets over 30% of its rainfall from cloud systems generated by the GBR. During hot days, the coral in the GBR releases sulphur-gas compounds into the water. These create low-lying cloud cover, protecting the coral from overheating in the shallow warm seas. So the rainforests on the mainland may not exist without the living coral reefs!



We took a day cruise to snorkel a few sites near Port Douglas, Queensland. Before I get to the cool wildlife pics, I need to get a few things out of the way.



First, I have a terrible farmer's tan. No, I don’t sit out on beaches trying to crisp my skin. The UV here is ridiculous.





Second, Everyone (and I really mean everyone) looks ridiculous in a snorkel and mask.





Third, It is hard to get a feel for the scale of things with underwater photos. Many of these corals are hundreds (if not nearly a thousand) years old. The large coral in the photo behind Jen is almost 10 feet across.





Fourth, the GBR is dying. Corals are very sensitive to water temperature. The aggressive and never-before-seen warming of the planet due to greenhouse gas emissions has pushed many of these reefs to the limit. Just two degrees Fahrenheit increase in water temperature causes mass bleaching events. If the temps don’t go back down in a week, the coral will die. It can takes decades, or hundreds of years, for reefs to recover.



To start out, the great fear of mean, sharks. Sharks are really not dangerous at all, even the great whites. Of course, Jaws would have you thinking differently. This is one of several species of reef shark, which is about 5 feet long.





















Hey, look, its Nemo…. One of a large variety of anemonefish. The biggest one is the dominant female. So Nemo’s dad, actually turned into his mom (they are hermaphroditic). They have also started being hunted agressively for aquariums since that movie came out.





 
This is one of many species of parrotfish. They graze on algae which grows on corals, but also on the dead chunks of corals themselves. The leftover coral skeleton is excreted. Those beautiful white sand beaches in the Caribbean? Yep, they are fish poop.





Corals get most of their energy needs from symbiotic algae which they host inside their bodies. This means a healthy coral is a dull brown/green color. When corals are stressed they produce extra antioxidants to protect against the algae's oxygen production. This makes them a vibrant blue, orange, or purple color. The early stages of bleaching also look this way, before fading to a chalky white, and finally a dead coral. The coral in the photo below is recovering from a stress event, probably high water temps, or similar.





The variety of coral shapes and sizes is staggering.









These are younger giant clams. Only about a foot across, they are anchored to the coral base, filtering water for food. They never stop growing, and can exceed 4ft in diameter after a hundred years or more.





This is a sea cucumber. The vacuum cleaner of the reef, they slowly crawl over the sandy bottom, sucking up the sand, and eating any organic material it contains.





This is one of the more common species of sea turtle, known as a Green Turtle. Interestingly they are not green on the outside. Instead it is their green fat which gives them this name. Diving for over 30 minutes at time, they often migrate thousands of miles a year for feeding and breeding. This one is about 30 years old, and has a 30 inch long shell.







This is probably the smartest creature on the reef, the cuttlefish. A distant relative of the squid, they can change the color and texture of their skin at will, making them nearly invisible. They can also swim forwards or backwards if they so desire.