Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bula! It's Fiji time . . .

What better way to end our adventure Down Under than by relaxing for a week at an island paradise? The Octopus Resort on Waya Island, part of the Yasawa Islands in Fiji, was exactly what we needed to wrap up our 4-month long adventure in the South Pacific. The resort offered just the right mix of pampering and relaxation without the pretentiousness of some of the other resorts. We reached Octopus via a 2-hour boat ride from Nadi on the mainland and were welcomed onto the beach by the Fijian staff, who sang a welcome song and greeted us with friendly bulas (the Fijian equivalent of aloha). After a fruity welcome drink in the dining room we were escorted to our bure, a traditional Fijian hut consisting of a wooden frame woven with branches and a thatched roof. Ours had an en suite bathroom with a fantastic open-roof shower and our very own hammock right outside our door. It was perfect . . . almost. Our first night we were awoken at 3 a.m. by drops of water falling on my face. A massive rainstorm during the night had soaked our roof and water was pouring down the walls and through various spots in the ceiling. After arranging our heads to avoid the dripping water we went back to bed, and the next morning arranged for a tarp to cover our roof in case of future storms. Problem solved!

Octopus Resort consists of a public dining area/bar/poolside deck (all open to the outdoors); an assortment of bungalows, bures, and dorms; beachside hammocks and lounge chairs; and a dive shop for renting snorkeling and diving gear. Octopus is staffed by Fijians from nearby Nalauwaki, a small village on the other side of the island. The resort has a very close relationship with the village and offers guided walks to it once or twice a week. We were able to visit the village on two different occasions: once for an Easter Sunday church service, and the other for a tour of the village with the mayor that ended with a kava ceremony (kava is a drink made from the root of the pepper tree; Andy loves it!) and a craft market. It was an amazing experience to visit this place that had not been "cleaned up" for tourists. The service was filled with beautiful singing, a rather intense sermon, and rows of children who, by the way, are impossibly cute and friendly.

Most of our days in Fiji were filled with exactly what we needed: wonderful food served either poolside or in the sand-floored dining room, reading on the beach, swimming in the pool, snorkeling the beautiful coral reef just a few meters from shore two or three times a day, and floating for hours in the warm waters of the ocean. Basically we slept, ate, and swam . . . it was a rough week!

One of the highlights of our stay in Fiji was meeting our wonderful new Italian friends: Lucia, Terence, and Marina. Terence and Marina have been traveling for 6 months through South America and New Zealand and are headed to Australia after their stay in Fiji. Lucia lives in Sydney and is working temporarily in Suva, a city on Fiji's main island. We all bonded instantly, eating every meal together, playing scrabble at night, and chatting for hours while floating in the ocean.

Fiji was the perfect ending to our trip, full of sunshine and great people we'll always remember. Now it's back home to Portland, where I hear it's almost summer . . .


The dining room

Poolside bar and deck

Our beach

Inside our bure

Our bure

Open-roof shower

Kava ceremony

Lucia, Andy, Matt, and myself after
church services


Kava ceremony at the village

Watching the volleyball game


Lucia, Marina, and Terence trying to
gesture like real Italians

Our beach

Hanging out by the pool

Terence, Marina, Andy, Lucia, Roberto,
and myself

Marina and I floating in the ocean
at sunset
The goodbye photo

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Our Final Days in Oz

After leaving the Great Barrier Reef—without injury, I’m happy to say—we headed to the Lamington Rainforest, south of Brisbane. Most Australian forests are filled with eucalyptus trees, which are well adapted to heat and fire, so it was quite a change to enter a subtropical rainforest thick with ferns, epiphytes (plants that make their home high up in the crooks of trees), and—our favorite—strangler figs. The figs start as modest vines that wind their way around a host tree, but eventually they grow so big that they strangle the poor host to death. Over time the host rots away, leaving a tree formed of trunk-like vines surrounding a hollow center. The strangler figs can be huge, as you’ll see from our pictures.

Upon arrival at Lamington we hastily pitched camp, finishing just before rain began to fall. We were bummed about the weather, but hey, there’s a reason the place is called a “rainforest” and not a “perfectly-blue-skies-all-the-time forest.” That evening we crowded under a tarp to eat dinner, and it’s fair to say there wasn’t one of us who longed to return to Heron Island. Fortunately the rain cleared in the morning, and we were lucky enough to have fair weather until the morning we left Lamington, five days later. In between, we learned all about rainforest ecology, which involved surveying vegetation and trapping insects and mammals (most of them bush rats and tiny marsupials that look like mice). One student, Rebecca, had the good luck to find an insect rare enough that our entomology tutor pinned it for display at the museum where she works. Rebecca’s name was written on a piece of paper below the insect (sorry, I can’t remember what the critter is called) so she could be given credit. Needless to say, Rebecca was pleased. Another high point of our time at Lamington was our nighttime hike to see glowworms in a small gully deep in the forest.

On the morning of our departure, rain once again started to fall, but this time gently. We managed to pack up our gear without getting too wet, then took a small bus to the Glasshouse Mountains, just a bit north of Brisbane. There we stayed at a quirky retreat consisting, in part, of an old tram converted into a kitchen and dining room and an old church transformed into a library/lounge with a sleeping loft above. Philip and I were given our own bungalow, which was so nice that we referred to it as our “villa.” We had the students over for a little celebration after they finished their last exam of the program (on terrestrial ecology). No one seemed to mind that it rained the entire three days at the retreat, which were spent relaxing in our cushy surroundings and reminiscing about our less cushy (but well loved!) travels. It was particularly gratifying to watch the students spend time playing the Australian version of Trivial Pursuit. The professor in me was proud as they enthusiastically yelled out the names of people, places, and events that none of us had heard of just months before.

From the Glasshouse Mountains we headed back to Brisbane, where we spent a day doing laundry and otherwise preparing for our departure from Australia. At our farewell banquet the students presented a slideshow of photos taken during the program. They also distributed “paper plate awards.” I’d taken so many notes and group photos over the course of the program that the students gave me a plate reading, “Never noteless, picture-taking Papa.” Philip got “Hot and dangerous.” Hmmm . . . At the end of the dinner, Nat, Philip, and I gave emotional speeches, and after a big round of hugs, we all headed back to our motel for one last night of sleep before heading our separate ways in the morning. Philip and I went to bed looking forward to our trip to Fiji, but we also felt a bit sad to leave our “mob” (the term used by Aboriginals to refer to a tight-knit group). Yes, everyone had a bad day now and then, and there were times Philip and I got tired of spending every waking hour with 19- to 21-year-olds, but mostly we felt lucky to travel with such an enthusiastic, hardworking batch of students. We will miss them . . . but not so much as to spoil our time in beautiful Fiji! More on that in our next post.


Lamington vista

In front of a strangler fig

John measuring the distance between trees

Emily going for a climb

Can you spot the epiphytes?

Students presenting forest survey results

Resident bush turkey walking through camp

Bush turkey close up

Students reading

Our retreat at the Glasshouse Mountains

Path up to our "villa"

Villa bedroom . . . what a change from our tent
at Lamington!

Celebrating with the mob

Alison, John, Sara, and Jared

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Look but don't touch! Our time at the Great Barrier Reef

Last week was spent at the Great Barrier Reef on a coral cay called Heron Island. It’s located off the Queensland Coast right on the Tropic of Capricorn. If we were on the north side of the island we were in the tropics and if on the south side the sub-tropics. Either way, we were in paradise.

Getting to paradise wasn’t easy. We took a two-hour catamaran ride through stomach-churning seas. Philip and I came through OK, Philip because he took a couple of Dramamine tablets. Me? Well, I think I’ve got my Swedish sea captain lineage to thank. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy to reach shore, but at least I didn’t need a barf bag at the ready the way some of the students did.

After arriving at Heron Island we had a quick lunch and then attended a lecture on venomous and poisonous marine organisms. (Venom is injected while poison is not. Yes, I had that question too.) What should you never, never touch? Cone shells and stonefish, for starters. The innocuous looking cone shell can fire a dart-like protuberance into its victim, causing respiratory paralysis and possibly death. The camouflaged stonefish hides out in sand and coral, waiting for unsuspecting victims to touch one of its 13 venomous spines. What happens if you do touch one? You can expect excruciating pain, paralysis, shock, and, yes, the very real possibility of death. Anti-venom is available in the case of stonefish stings. If you have a run-in with a cone shell? You’re on your own, mate . . . Let’s see, what else can we add to the catalog of nasty stuff that can kill you? Ooh, there’s the blue ringed octopus, lionfish, box jellyfish, and irukandji jellyfish. The fact that you could be minding your own business and inadvertently swim into a colony of potentially fatal jellyfish is cause for concern, wouldn’t you say? According to our lecturer, Derek, stings from the box jellyfish can kill within 15 minutes; the pain is so intense that victims go into a delirium and drown as a result. Which brings us to the irukandji—particularly terrifying because it’s miniscule and therefore difficult to detect. The sting of the irukandji can cause pain so intense that, even after a victim has been rendered unconscious with morphine/anesthesia, he or she will go on screaming . . . and screaming . . . and . . . By the way, you might be wondering about sharks. The vast majority of them go about their business without paying humans any mind. Just don’t harass them and you’re OK. (Of course, encountering a Tiger Shark is a different story.)

At the end of his hair-raising lecture, Derek assured us that the chance of coming across and being killed by one of the aforementioned beasties was extremely small, smaller than getting run over by a truck while crossing a busy street. Philip and I decided his logic was faulty, given that far more people cross busy streets than swim at the Great Barrier Reef. Nevertheless, we and the students put our trust in Derek—and our full-body stinger suits!—as we snorkeled around the island for the rest of the week. The stinger suits left our chins exposed, but only one student got stung by a jellyfish—fortunately only a blue bottle, whose sting hurts but isn’t fatal. After overcoming our initial fears, all of us came to love snorkeling above and around the coral—not only during the day but also at night (courtesy of underwater flashlights and glow sticks attached to our snorkel tubes). It’s hard to convey the beauty of the reef, which teems with life of every shape and size, from sea cucumbers to sting rays. We were especially excited to see reef sharks and giant turtles. Stunning!

The turtles were a treat on shore as well as at sea. We happened to catch the tail end of the egg laying and hatching season, which meant we were able to watch heaps of unbearably cute turtle hatchlings make their way across the beach and into the ocean. They tend to do this at night, when the temperature cools, and they find their way to the water by the reflected light of the moon. The little turtles have trouble distinguishing between natural and artificial light, so if you use a flashlight to spot them, you have to wade into the water and then shut off your light before walking back onto the beach. Otherwise you’ll have a train of baby sea turtles reversing course and following you back onto land. Sadly, turtles that happen to hatch near the resort often head toward the light streaming from patio doors instead of the ocean. There’s nothing more pitiful than a baby turtle bumping its head repeatedly against a glass door. Of course, even if a turtle makes it to the water, it can still get picked off by a host of predators. Our group cheered on a baby turtle as it crawled to the water’s edge, only to see a sea gull swoop down and carry it off for dinner. On a happier note, Philip and I were also lucky to see several enormous turtles (about four feet long and three feet across) digging nests in the sand. There’s nothing like being hit by sand propelled by giant turtle flippers.

I can’t end this post without mentioning one more inhabitant of Heron Island: the mutton bird. This homely looking thing is so clumsy that it sometimes smacks into buildings when trying to land. Worse, its cry sounds like a wailing human baby—not exactly what you want to hear between 2 and 4 in the morning, as we often did. But despite the mutton birds—as well as the jellyfish, untimely deaths of baby turtles, and occasional squalls of wind and rain—we fell in love with Heron Island. The pictures below will show you why. Tomorrow we head to the Lamington Plateau to study rainforest ecology. We hear there’s a plant with a big, heart-shaped leaf full of tiny, hair-like stingers that can remain embedded in your skin for years should you brush against them. We’ll keep you posted!


Shipwreck in Heron Island's harbor

On the beach

Sting rays!

Coral reef flat research

Reef flat photo op

On the boat to our snorkeling site

Can you tell Nat's pregnant? :-)

Suited up and ready to snorkel!

Ready for our night snorkel

More students ready for our night snorkel

Entering the watery darkness

This baby turtle has only a one in one thousand chance of making it to adulthood. 

Turtles on the march--and a hungry seagull

We wished them well . . . 

The "it's safe to touch these things" tank at the research station

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Crossing the creek at Carnarvon Gorge

I’ll start this entry out by telling you that we lasted exactly one night in the tent that Andy mentioned in his last post. The second day at Carnavon the rain kept coming down, so we decided to upgrade to a self-contained cabin with an en suite bathroom and actual walls, windows and a door! The guilt we felt for spending the extra money quickly subsided as we settled into our warm and mold-free accommodation.

We woke up on our third day to sunshine and perfect hiking weather and were out the door by 7:30 am, with lunches packed, for our day hike on the main trail up the gorge. The hike up Carnarvon consists of a main trail that follows Carnarvon Creek upstream with several branching trails that lead to smaller hikes up some of the side canyons. As we left the visitor center we were told that, due to the recent rain, all of the creek crossings were washed away, and that we might “get our feet wet.” As we approached the trailhead we noticed that a 30-foot wide, 12-inch deep creek stood between us and the trail on the far bank. I guess that’s what the ranger meant by getting our feet wet. The crossings were actually pretty fun, and by the time we reached the "Art Gallery," 8 crossings later, we were pros.

The Art Gallery is a massive sandstone cliff off the main trail that contains a large number of Aboriginal rock paintings and has been a special spot for Indigenous people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Andy and I both felt that we were in a very special place as we sat and absorbed the history and imagined the people who created these images so long ago. Almost all of the paintings were actually stencils, made by placing objects (hands, boomerangs, stone axes, etc.) on the rock and then blowing ochre around them. We both felt lucky to have had the lectures and stories from the Aboriginal people we’ve met here in Australia so that we had at least a very simple understanding of some of the images. We stayed for about 45 minutes just soaking it all in and enjoying the fact that we were the only two people there, which made the experience all the more special.

On our way back down the trail we stopped for lunch (and a swim for me) at a deep pool in the creek, and then took some of the side trips that we’d passed along the way. The first was Ward’s Canyon, a beautiful narrow canyon that’s home to the last mainland community of the King Fern, a living fossil left over from prehistoric times, with fronds measuring up to 15 feet long. We also took a trail up a series of ladders and through a narrow crack in the canyon wall that opened into the Amphitheater, an enormous space surrounded by high canyon walls and open to the sky about 10 stories above our heads. On our way out, we startled some bats and gave the one person behind us on the trail a good laugh as we ducked and ran for the exit.

On our last night at the gorge we were treated to night-spotting by Simon, one of the rangers at the park. He picked us up around dusk, and once it was dark, took us back on to the trail to see what kind of wildlife we could spot. Our main goal was to spot some of the species of gliders that live in the park, and thanks to Simon’s spotting skills, we were successful! We ended up seeing a greater glider, the largest species in the park, in mid-glide, and then later spotted a smaller yellow-bellied glider. The gliders are similar to flying squirrels, except marsupial, with skin flaps that allow them to jump from a tree, spread their limbs, and glide across the forest. It’s an amazing sight. We were also able to check another animal off our must-see list: the echidna! Echidnas are unique to Australia and have quills like porcupines as well as a long snout and tongue for feeding on ants. They are also "monotremes," which means they are mammals that lay eggs (like the platypus.) We were able to sit inches away and watch one thanks to the red filter on Simon’s light.

All in all, Carnarvon was a fantastic experience even though it started out a little rough with the rain and worries about getting the rental car into the park. Just like everything else we’ve done in Australia, it was full of fantastic memories.

We’re now sitting in our dorm room at the Univ. of Queensland Research Center on Heron Island at the Great Barrier Reef. We’ve had a fantastic couple of days here so far, but I’ll leave that for Andy to tell you about in his next post. Hope everyone back home is well!


It looks nice, but add a downpour and some
mold and it loses its charm quickly!

Much better . . .

Andy next to a huge ghost gum. This type of eucalypt
is my favorite. It's beautiful!

One of the 9 creek crossings. Good job Andy!

Andy at the entrance to the
Art Gallery

The Art Gallery

Boomerangs and handprints at the
Art Gallery

More Art Gallery . . .

A view of the sandstone walls of the gorge
taken from the trail

This beautiful creek carved out Ward's Canyon.

Entrance to the Amphitheater . . . watch out for
the bats!

A king parrot in front of a ghost gum

Mama kangaroo with her joey in her pouch