Australia in Black and White (Part I)

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Spending a summer abroad was a great excuse to put my limited photography skills to use.

My first weekend in Australia involved a mini-adventure in Sydney.  A friend and I bundled up against the June cold (the reversed seasons here never stop confusing me).  We made our way to the ferries, and the ride to Manly Beach provided some fantastic views of the sailboats foresting the harbor.

Now, I’m not a city person.  Glass-and-steel canopies and helicopter birds always struck me as poor substitutes for a natural landscape.  But Sydney is an exception.  With a harbor like that, no wonder everyone in Sydney migrates to the waves on weekends.

 

These other photos are from my trip to the Atherton Tableland, just inland from Cairns.  They’re a great chance to explore some of the more rural tropics of Australia.  The drive reminded me a bit of New York’s Finger Lakes–winding drives through farmland–except with different wildlife.  Very different wildlife.

Termite mounds in the Atherton Tablelands

Take these guys, for example.  These seven-foot “rocks” immediately grabbed my attention–they obviously weren’t weathered from the bedrock, like most of the rocks in this area.  Instead, it looks like they grew here.

Which is exactly what happened.  These “rocks” are actually the work of mound-building termites.  These are termite species that build cities of soil, dung, and their own saliva, and  construct chambers within to funnel air in a clever ventilation system.  The shape of the mound depends on 1) the termite species, and 2) the environment.  Certain species will build mounds in alignment with Earth’s magnetic field, producing structures that look eerily like the monolith from 2001.  The amount of rainfall and type of soil also limit the height, shape, and lifetime of these miniature cities–some are narrow and tall, while these are round and stubby, not unlike the corals I’m working with.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell the age of these mounds.  They don’t form layers, like corals or tree rings, and termites continually rework the passages and chambers, which makes dating difficult.  But some reports show that certain mounds could be 2000 years old.

These mounds show that even the tiniest organisms can noticeably alter their environment.  If a few thousand organisms, each barely visible to the naked eye, can rework a landscape into a series of soil skyscrapers, then imagine what humans could do!

Actually, you don’t have to imagine.

 

Fig tree

Behold, the glorious Curtain Fig Tree as captured by my humble iPhone.  Apparently it’s one of the largest trees in North Queensland.  It began as the seed of a strangler fig, deposited in the canopy of a host tree.  The strangler fig grew, and (surprise, surprise) strangled its host tree.  This shell of a tree then fell against another tree, where new roots formed and dangled down to form the Curtain.

 

Platypus in a pond

I had a few Bucket List items to cross off in Australia.  “See wild platypodes” was one of them.  They’re notoriously difficult to spot and photograph, which makes this whole endeavor a lot like hunting for Nessie.  They are small (around one foot long), spend 80% of their time underwater, and some of the oddest creatures on the planet.  In fact, the first scientist to examine a platypus specimen shipped from Australia proclaimed it to be so bizarre that it must be a hoax.  That’s understandable.  With the eggs of a reptile, the electroreception of a shark, and the swimming habits of a spastic beaver, the platypus seems less like a real animal and more like a hodgepodge of weird traits grafted into a cuddlier Frankenstein’s monster.

Which is why I love it.

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