Experiencing Australia the Australian Way
I don’t know how another week has already passed. These next few months are going to fly by, I’m afraid. But I’ll make the best use of them as I can. So onto the goings on for this week!
The beginning of the week was basically, and
most notably, Australia Day. Being from America, the best I can describe the atmosphere is like that of the Fourth of July. Australian flags everywhere. But one difference I got from our two cultures is the perception of the country itself. I don’t think that there are many Americans who can disagree with the Fourth of July being a moment of hyper-patriotism sprinkled in with a healthy dose of “America is the greatest country in the world.” This is not how Australians celebrate Australia Day. Rather, it’s certainly quite a bit of patriotism and celebrating all things Australian, but the general mentality as I perceived it was “Isn’t it awesome that we’re all Australian.” It’s a subtle difference, but it’s one I appreciated. But Australia Day isn’t Australian independence day, but essentially like Australian Columbus Day. It makes the day when the Australian continent was discovered by the English. And just like Columbus Day, it is heavily criticized because, like the Native Americans, the Aboriginals were treated horribly by colonists. And today, while things are much better for Australian Aboriginals, they are nowhere near perfect or equal for them. So there has been mounting criticism about the holiday. There, too, has been an increased push by Australian republicans (not to be confused with the American GOP) to have Australia be a republic. Currently, Australia is a constitutional monarchy, which essentially means it still holds ties to the UK because the Head of State for Australia is Queen Elizabeth II. Australian republicans want the Australian Head of State to be an Australian. There seems to be an increased movement for Australia to sever these ties with the UK and become independent. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next decade or two, it came to fruition.
I spent the day in Sydney as there was much to do and see around the Harbour. Perhaps it’s the case in the US with analogous cities on the water, but one of the coolest things I saw was that they had multiple concerts going on around the Harbour. But the bands were on barges and would drift along the coastline as the bands played. It was quite a cool experience to see that as I made my way around the Harbour. But in addition to that, they had planes flying overhead (including a massive Qantas jet!), and even had a parade of ships go through the Harbour including some replicas of the 18th century twin-masted ships (i.e., pirate ships). Much of the day was spent in Darling Harbour at Cockle Bay because that, ultimately, was where the fireworks would happen. Come evening, Cockle Bay became a large, outdoor arena where there were dragon boat races, citizenship ceremonies (celebrating new Australians), and a concert (on a boat that went all around the bay) with Sneaky Sound System. I’m not really one for music, so I don’t know much in the way of bands or people in those bands, let alone Australian pop idols, but given the reaction of the crowd, I’m guessing I should feel privileged that the woman known as Sneaky Sound System passed within 20 feet of where I was. And then came the fireworks, which was pretty impressive. I have not really seen fireworks shows in cities before, so I can’t really say with any sort of confidence if this was better or worse than other shows, but compared to the smaller town shows I’ve seen on the Fourth of July, it was quite impressive. You know how on those shows, there’s always a finale which seeks to overwhelm you with the amount of explosions happening in the air? Yea, Australia Day in Cockle Bay was like that for 20 minutes straight. And with the backdrop of Sydney, it was a pretty cool experience. Definitely something I’d recommend for the wandering traveler.
The weekend was quieter than I would have liked, but that was largely because of track work on the trains that go out to the Blue Mountains, which would have put on hours of travel time for me. So instead, I went to Royal National Park to hike some of the interior of the park. This park is about 45 minutes south of Sydney and it actually quite a large park. It is most well-known for its Wedding Cake Rock, but I did not see this famous site. Instead, I went in from Waterfall (yes, there’s a town called Waterfall) and took a 6km hike to Uloola Falls. There is something about the Australian landscape that is so difficult to describe because it is so different from any other ecosystem that I’ve seen. This particular part of the park was dominated by shrubs and grasses, but on occasion, there would be clumps of Eucalypus trees. I think the best way I can describe this ecosystem and many of the Australian ecosystems is open. The forests are open. There is a great deal of light penetration that I’m not really used to in forest habitats. So when it gets particularly hot out, shade is not necessarily the easiest thing to find.
Australia, though, is truly the land of Dragons.
Many of the lizards in the Agamidae family are referred to as dragons here (think Bearded Dragon or Water Dragon). I saw a number of new species for me, and many of them were dragons, including some absolutely adorable hatchlings (or at least I so assume). And by and large, they were pretty tolerant of a photo-happy yank taking their pictures. I cannot say the same of the skinks here. There were several species of skink that I saw as well, but I could not get real close to them to get more posed photos that I was hoping for. I ended up having to settle for using my telephoto and getting in situ shots. But seeing so many of these lizards really got me excited.
The falls were, as best as I can tell, a stereotypical Australian water fall. They generally do not have a ton of water flowing over them. Like the forests, this, too, is difficult to describe, but in seeing several Australian waterfalls, there does seem to be a thread of commonality among them. They actually make for quite picturesque scenes. And despite being a hot day and a decent hike away, the falls were surprisingly popular. I can understand why, though, because it was pretty much a perfect waterfall to spend a lazy Sunday under. Cool water on a hot day was incredibly refreshing. But despite this, a little patience, and I could get the shot that I wanted. This is definitely a spot I wouldn’t mind hiking to again in the future. And that was pretty much the week. But I do have some news (finally) on research. The lab here has a project examining color evolution in the Corroboree Frog which is a critically endangered species (one of the rarest frogs on the planet), so when asked if I was interested in helping out, I had to say yes. I think every scientist wants their work to make an impact on the world. For some, they are quite content describing the function of a gene. For others, they want to describe a new species. For me, understanding diversity and conserving that diversity is very important to me. And this is the first real opportunity to get my foot in the door to have a tangible impact on the recovery of a critically endangered species. For this research, simply, we want to know the function of the conspicuous coloration of the Corroboree Frog. This will give us insight into its evolution, but from a conservation angle, it tells us what risk there is for reintroduction (and what sorts of predators pose that risk). It’s quite a basic question, but it allows us to start asking more questions. Like, can we train the predator community not to eat Corroboree Frogs? Or why yellow and black stripes, why not solid yellow? Or is yellow important, or is it the pattern? It’s the first step to really getting at understanding the risks of a reintroduction program for this species. This will potentially have long-lasting impacts here. We start on the 7th and will go for a week, then we’ll have a third trip (I missed the first) in mid-March to round out the breeding season for the Corroboree Frog. After that, I head to Tasmania to find a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger for those who don’t know). Shouldn’t be that difficult, right? Okay, I’m really going to attend the Australian Society of Herpetologists’ annual conference, which sounds like it’ll be a good time. I’ve been warned about ASH meetings as they can be “interesting.” Not sure what to expect, but it should be fun regardless. After ASH, I’ll have a few days to explore around Tasmania and scout some sites for species collection. Ideally, I’d be collecting this trip, but I doubt I’ll have permits to do the collecting. Instead, I’ll scout and find the species I’m interested in so that I can come back later. That said, even if I did have permits, I may not be able to find frogs. It has been incredibly dry in Tassie for a while and they’re dealing with bush fires throughout the state. It might not be wet enough yet to count on finding frogs. We shall see, but regardless, I’m excited to be able to visit! Given how busy I will be the next couple weeks (and I may be with limited internet), I might not be able to keep to the weekly streak. I will certainly try, however. This week’s update may come a little early and next week’s a little late. We shall see. One way or another, I’ll definitely keep you updated on the Adventures in Oz!