Friday, October 30, 2015

Australia's Red Center

Australia is an exotic land with unique animals and plants, and a rather quiet recent tectonic history. It has the lowest average elevation of any continent at about 1,000 feet. To say that the trip is something completely different for me would not truly convey the sense of discovery I have experienced thus far. So it was with great anticipation that that our next stop was to Ozzie's Red Center - the heart of this island continent. It was a dot on the map that our aircraft successfully darted.

Leaving "green" Australia and the city of Cairns. View is to the north along Australia's Pacific shore, known also as the Coral Sea.

Two hours later a much different scene was laid out below Row 17, Seat F - Australia's Red Center and the town of Alice Springs, barely visible the distance where the green ribbon of the Todd River funnels into the gap of the rocky ridge. A series of upturned ridges form the Macdonnell Ranges in the center of the Australian continent.

A closer view shows an obvious water gap (cut by the Todd River flowing from top right to bottom left) and the heart of "Alice" as it is often called here in the Northern Territory. Rocks within this ridge were upturned in the Alice Springs Orogeny, a 400 to 350 million year warping event that folded strata much like the Valley and Ridge province was folded in North America's Allegheny Orogeny. The water gap is called Heavitree Gap and gives the name to the quartzite, the Heavitree Quartzite, a Proterozoic deposit between 1,000 and 820 Ma, making it similar in age to the Grand Canyon Supergroup.

A view from the ground in Alice of the Heavitree Quartzite and the ridge in the previous photograph.

ANZAC Hill in Alice Aprings commemorating the many wars that Australia has been involved in

View to the south from ANZAC Hill with the Heavitree Gap in the far distance

Close-up view of the Todd River riparian zone and the Heavitree Gap.

The official flower of the Northern Territory, Sturt's desert rose (Gossypium sturtianum)


The Northern Territory is the least populated of Australia's six states and two territories. The distances are vast and remote and so, in 1929 the Flying Doctor Service was initiated to help those living out on remote cattle stations. It was a few years later given the appellation Royal. The museum here was fascinating telling the history and growth of the service, now with 63 airplanes in service.

Another innovation necessitated by remoteness is the School of the Air, started in 1951. Many kids in the Outback receive their schooling over the airwaves with teachers talking with far-flung public over the radio.

A type of wallaby (kangaroo) called a Euro

This is where Alice was begun with the completion of the telegraph line from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south. An outcropping of granite in the Todd River causes groundwater to surface behind the old station shown here.

We enjoyed a nighttime barb-b-que and handling some of the strange reptile life to be found here in the Simpson Desert.
This animal is related to our horned lizard and is called a bearded dragon (genus Pogona)

The next day we headed out to explore the western Macdonnell Ranges and drove through Honeymoon Gap.

The eucalyptus trees that grow in these river bottoms are impressive specimens

Next stop was at an Aboriginal reserve called Standley Chasm

These mountain recesses form a fire shadow that acts as refugia for ancient plants, now extirpated by bush fires from the open lands surrounding the Macdonnell  Ranges. Shown here are cycads.

Relatives of these plants are reported from Jurassic fossils!

The chasm narrows about one kilometer from the car park

With the current El Niño in effect in the eastern Pacific, Australia can expect drought to occur this summer. But when it does rain in this part of the continent, the floods are extreme and these gorges have recorded stupendous floods in historical and geologic times.

Ghost gum tree in Standley Chasm

On the road in the Outback with the Macdonnell Ranges looming ahead

Last stop of the day was at Simpsons Gap, another water gap cut into an upturned ridge

On the trail into the gap

Here is the waterhole at the end of the trail. These watering holes are obviously very important to wildlife and people in this part of the world.

Spectacular gum tree in Simpsons Gap

I was happy to have a full day exploring this area west of Alice. Next - on to Ayers Rock!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Green and Blue Australia

Tonight, as I was looking over two days worth of photographs from here in Cairns, Queensland, I realized that there is a distinct color theme running through them. Yesterday the major color was green as we traveled into the Daintree Rainforest. Today, it was blue as we snorkeled and swam at a small portion of the Great Barrier Reef. Tomorrow we will head out to the Outback and the next posting may very likely be called Red Australia. But I get ahead of myself....

Green Australia


Green Australia begins at the Freshwater Station of the Kuranda Railway. This is now a tourist railroad of 23 miles length but was originally conceived in the 1880's as a way for the tin miners in the Macallister Mountains to get their ore out to the port at Cairns.

Train pulling into the Freshwater Station

There were 12 passenger cars in the train's consist pulled by two diesel engines that took us up the 2,000 foot incline to the Atherton Plateau.

The bridge over Stone Creek

Stone Creek Falls. This is the end of the dry season with the wet season beginning in a few weeks. With over 80 inches of rain annually, these falls become huge in February.

Looking to the rear of the train whilst on the Stone Creek Falls Bridge

Close-up of the train through the forest

Looking to the south across the coastal floodplain as the Kuranda Railroad winds upwards into the mountains.

The Daintree is one of the oldest rainforests on earth considering that this part of Australia has not experienced an Ice Age since the forest was first established in the Cretaceous time period. It thus may be as old as 100 to 140 million years.

Barron Falls during the dry season. Imagine the entire rocky area running with water

This is an obvious knickpoint on the Barron River, where the gradient undergoes a substantial change from that found both upstream and downstream. It was interesting to see that the river had a low gradient both above and below this point but that the falls (at over 600 feet high) were placed in the middle of this. I know of no obvious faulting downstream from here or uplift upstream. Perhaps rock type has determined the presence of this knickpoint?

At the Kuranda Station where numerous tropical plants line the platform

The Barron River Gorge slices through the Atherton Plateau

Note the relatively flat top above the gorge. Superposition? Antecedence? I was struck by how the river seems to have been "let down" into the plateau here.

There is a gondola called the Skytrain that takes visitors down from Kuranda to the coastal plain and this photo was taken from that gondola.

I got into a gondola with a glass-bottomed floor and took this picture of the pattern of a tree fern, growing near one of the gondola towers.

At the end of the day we were invited to a presentation by a biologist about koala's. Everyone got to hold this two-year old female named Nellie.

She was quite calm during the whole event, which lasted about an hour. Nellie, as you can imagine, charmed the daylights out of the people in our group.

They eat the leaves of the gum tress (eucalyptus)

A little less attractive but no less interesting was this giant crocodile within an enclosure. This concludes the photos I took from Green Australia.

Blue Australia


The next day we boarded the Ocean Spirit for a two hour ride out to Michaelmas Cay

The skyline of Cairns recedes into view

Approaching Michaelmas Cay. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Original Seven Wonders of the Natural World - the other six are Grand Canyon, Mt. Everest, Victoria Falls, the Northern Lights,  the harbor at Rio de Janeiro, and Paracutín Volcano (Mexico).

Remember that ride at Disneyland? Well, there is a submersible craft at this cay that we were privileged to ride in.

The view from the inside of the submersible

And the view outside

This spaghetti coral waves back and forth in the water currents

 Boulder coral

"Sam" has been working on the Ocean Spirit for about 6 months and here she approaches a noddy sitting on the egg.

Close-up of the noddy

There are as many as 16,000 birds nesting on this coral sand island

A view of the egg

I had one of my best days ever snorkeling over this part of the reef. Here a giant clam rests on the sandy bottom.

Close-up of branching coral

Colorful branching coral. I was using my Panasonic underwater camera for the first time in water and was pleased with the results (although after having looked a the photo's, I know I could do better a second time). My mustache made the mask leak water and I was constantly fighting the intrusion of salt water into my eyes.

The great limestone factory of the barrier reef

These all have names but I never heard what there were and would not remember them if I had

Blue branching coral on a boulder coral

Canyon and monuments of coral

Corals are tiny soft polyps that secrete a calcium chamber for themselves, one on top of the other

I chased this guy for good while through the canyons

Or was he leading me away from the rest of them?

I have always told my geology students that if they wanted to attain a certain kind of immortality that they should write in their will that they want to be "buried" at the the Great Barrier Reef. Then when Australia drifts northward and collides with Asia sometime in the future, their fossilized bones will be uplifted in a Himalayan-type mountain range and might become exposed on a high-standing ledge of limestone. And then, here I was snorkeling on the reef! Magic...

Michaelmas Cay

The ride back into the city of Cairns was fantastic. I had never been on a catamaran before and the experience was quite pleasing.

The sail was hoisted but we never did turn off the engine

Returning to the harbor in Trinity Bay. We are now going to travel into the heart of the Australian continent to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock (Uluru). Stay tuned!