Friday, February 25, 2011

Kangaroos, emus, flies, and mozzies (mosquitoes)

After our first night at the Palace Hotel, we headed out to a park called “The Living Desert” to learn about desert flora, fauna, and Aboriginal engravings from a park ranger who happened to be the cousin of Uncle John, one of our uncles from Aboriginal camp. Uncle John was there too, to the delight of the whole group. After lunch we stopped in Silverton, an old mining town where the first three Mad Max movies were filmed. Mad Max 4 is apparently in the works, but we learned that filming in Silverton had to be postponed this summer because recent rains had made the desert too green. After we said goodbye to overly vegetated Silverton, we headed to an art gallery devoted to the popular, prolific, and stylistically eclectic Australian artist Pro Hart. Here’s a link for an amusing commercial he did back in the late 80s: We then visited the Royal Flying Doctors Service, established in the 1920s to serve people living in the outback. Today the service (the only one of its kind in the world) has 53 planes ready to fly doctors and nurses thousands of kilometers at a moment’s notice. It takes a maximum of only 15 minutes to get a plane up in the air after someone calls in with an emergency—not bad.

The next morning we checked out of the Palace to spend the day learning about the management of the Darling River and the adjoining Menindee Lakes, now flooded with water due to heavy rains but in many years nearly or completely empty. It doesn’t help that cotton farmers have been diverting more and more water upstream, making the dry years even drier. But again, we’re here in a wet year, meaning lots of green—and plenty of flies and mozzies! After traveling around the lakes, and at one point having to drive along a flooded road, we arrived at Kinchega National Park, which was an enormous sheep station for much of the 20th century. We bunked in the old sheep shearers’ quarters, and on our walks found rusty shears and other equipment lying about. Best of all, the place was rife with emus and kangaroos. Another of our uncles from Aboriginal camp who’d decided to rejoin us, Uncle Rob, showed us how to track them. Seeing tame kangaroos in a petting zoo is one thing, seeing wild ones bounding through the outback quite another.

During our two days at the park, the students broke into four groups to conduct research on local plants and insects under the supervision of Derek, our visiting field biologist. Philip and I moved around from group to group to see what they were doing, which ranged from observing the highly antagonistic relations between male and female Orb Weaver spiders (the females attack males who try to steal their food and end up eating them after mating—yikes!) to measuring the girth of certain tree species at different points in the flood plain. On our second day at Kinchega, the students presented their findings in formal presentations, after which we took the bus back to Broken Hill and spent one more night at the Palace Hotel.

The following morning we paid a fascinating visit to the “School of the Air,” which was begun in the 1950s to educate children living in the outback. The school originally took advantage of the radios used by communities to contact the Flying Doctors Service, but now uses computers hooked up to a satellite relay. We were able to watch two kindergarten teachers lead about ten logged-in children through a lesson focused on the letter a. Very, very cute. The school also occasionally flies teachers to remote locations for home visits and brings children together twice a year so they can experience what it’s like to learn in a classroom. All of this is provided by the state free of charge. We left impressed.

Next we learned about the mining history of Broken Hill from Barney, a local geologist, who led us through a defunct silver mine. After donning helmets with headlights, we explored the old tunnels and learned how the mine was created and operated. The main lesson? It sucked to be a miner. If an accidental explosion didn’t kill you in an instant, the mica-filled dust would eventually destroy your lungs.

On that note, I’ll pass things off to Philip, who’ll talk about the sheep station (this one operational!) that we visited in Renmark, a 5-hour drive from Broken Hill.


Another interior shot of the Palace Hotel

Ranger explains contemporary Aboriginal sculpture
at the Living Desert

In Silverton with the Mad Max cars

View of Broken Hill from the Living Desert

Café on rim of mine at Broken Hill

Geared up and ready to descend into
the Daydream Mine

Some of our students on the way to Kinchega
National Park

Flooded road on the way to Kinchega

Students observe the fascinating world of ants--for three hours!

Can you spot the roo?

Our sheep shearers' quarters at Kinchega

Andy's office at Kinchega

Sunset over Emu Lake at Kinchega