Carol Rist, 1999
In the middle of September, 1999, Hurricane Floyd was bearing down on the east coast of the United States. We weren’t eager to desert our house with a hurricane approaching, but knowing that Curtis and Julie had had ample experience in post hurricane clean-up and repair, we put on our hurricane shutters and climbed aboard a plane bound for Australia. After a long, long flight we arrived in Melbourne. The first thing we wanted to know when we arrived was, “Where did Hurricane Floyd hit?” The best we could learn was that “it was headed for Florida.” That night, the banging of the shutters outside our hotel room woke me up. The wind was howling. Was I hallucinating about Hurricane Floyd? When we woke up it was calm outside. But then we turned on the TV and learned that a storm had raged through Melbourne, knocking down numerous trees and leaving many residents without power. As it turned out, Floyd bypassed Florida. Melbourne had more storm damage than Miami!
The original inhabitants of the area where the Yarra River empties into Port Philip Bay were Aborigines. English settlers arrived in 1835. Fifteen years later gold was found in the interior, and soon Melbourne was a prosperous city. Lavish buildings were built which today present a nice contrast to the skyscrapers which have been built in modern day prosperous Melbourne.
After two days of seeing the sights of Melbourne and ridding ourselves of jet lag, we ,flew west to Adelaide. From Adelaide it is a short hop to Kangaroo Island. The airline which took us from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island was Emu Airlines. We were too excited about our upcoming adventure to worry about the fact that our airline was named for a flightless bird. At the Emu Airlines Terminal we met two Earthwatch volunteers, Steven, a middle school teacher from Melbourne (originally from Scotland), and Christina, a retired woman from New Zealand (originally from England). We and four other passengers squeezed into an eight passenger airplane for the short hop over to Kangaroo Island.
Kangaroo Island is located just off the south coast of South Australia. When Europeans arrived 200 years ago, there were no Aboriginals living on the island ; today the population is only 3,800. National parks and nature preserves cover much of the island, and the plants and animals are much as they were 200 years ago. Peggy Rismiller, the “principal investigator” of our expedition, was at the airport to meet us. After a short drive we found ourselves at the Pelican Lagoon Research Centre, located on a peninsula at the eastern end of Kangaroo Island. The research centre and an Australian conservation park occupy most of the peninsula, facilitating research on the local echidnas and goannas. At the research center we met Mike McKelvey, a nature photographer and biologist who is Peggy’s husband and partner. We also met two volunteers who had arrived before us, Liz, a student from Birmingham, England, and Dave, a student from Adelaide.
At the Research Centre sustainability is not just a word; it is a way of life. All the water consumed is rain water. Solar power provides lights and runs the computers. Propane gas is used for cooking. Hot water for showers is provided by black bags hung in the sun in summer and by a wood burning boiler in winter. Since we arrived at the beginning of Spring (remember – the seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere) shower water was heated by wood. In order to conserve water, showers were available every other day. One volunteer was assigned each shower day to collect wood from the forest, go to the water tank and fill up buckets with water, put water in the top of the boiler and make a fire. Outside the shower house was a bucket on a pulley. When the water was hot, you filled the bucket on the pulley with hot water, pulled it up to the top, and VOILA!, an elegant shower was available – as long as you didn’t want more water than the bucket would hold.
Heating shower water wasn’t the only chore performed by the volunteers. Each volunteer had to spend one day cooking and cleaning. The drudge of the day had to get up before everyone else and blow a conch shell to wake everyone else up. What I most objected to was not that I had to wake up before the others and learn to make a noise out of that infernal shell, but that they pronounced the “ch” in conch like the “ch” in “chum”, not like the “ch” in .’chorus.” They’ll never be sworn in as citizens of the Conch Republic!
The drudge of the day also had to clean the kitchen, the eating/meeting area, the classroom and the bathroom. Then you prepared a gourmet dinner. I have to admit the food was good, even when Karsten was the chef du jour our, but Peggy and Mike provided good ingredients and good recipes and even a little help in the kitchen when it was Karsten’s turn.
Volunteers are accommodated in a cabin and two tents. Liz and Christina stayed in the cabin (a luxurious place with electric lights), Steven and Dave had one tent, and Karsten and I shared the other tent. You could stand up in the tent, which was equipped with two bed-sized platforms with foam pads on top. We were quite comfortable in our sleeping bags. The first few nights I was happy that I had gotten a sleeping bag that is designed for 32 degree weather. I even used the wool blanket which was on the bed. Outside the tent we had a table with a wash pan on it, and hanging in a nearby tree a former wine bladder filled with water for washing – that is to say the bladder was filled with water IF one of us had gone to the water tank to fetch a bladder of water.
Our bathroom had a real flush toilet and a faucet. There was no sink, but just a wash pan. When you finished washing your hands, you emptied the water into a bucket (One of the chores of the drudge of the day was to pour the waste water bucket onto a thirsty plant). The bucket was equipped with a stick made from a tree branch. It seems that at night pygmypossums come into the bathroom to get a drink. The bucket would be a death trap if they couldn’t climb out of the bucket after getting a drink. The toilet is also a potential pygmypossum death trap, so one of the strictest rules at Pelican Lagoon is that except when the toilet is being used or cleaned, the lid must be down.
During our first two days at Pelican Lagoon Peggy taught us a lot about echidnas and goannas, showed us how to use the monitoring equipment, taught us how to identify the plants in the study area, and coached us on the proper technique to use when picking up an echidna. We began to feel very fond of this gentle egglaying mammal whose ancestors roamed the planet with dinosaurs. We didn’t get terribly fond of the goannas, but did learn to admire their parenting skills. The female lays her eggs in a termite mound. The termites keep a constant temperature in their mound and so incubate the eggs. Then when the goanna eggs hatch, the young have plenty of food – termites. When the baby goannas decide it is time to go outside and catch a few rays, they make a hole in the side of the mound and go out to sun themselves, returning to the mound when they need shelter or food. One of the reasons they might need shelter is that their dear parents, who fulfilled their parental duties by conceiving them and placing the eggs in the termite mound, might come around and consider their own offspring as a tasty treat!
We had about twenty echidnas and seven goannas who had been fitted with transmitters. Every morning and evening volunteers went to Signal Hill, the highest point near our camp, and listened to each of the twentyseven frequencies to see if they could pick up the signal of each animal, and if so, how strong the signal was and from what direction. Peggy then made our daily assignments based on which animals she wanted to locate. We were sent out equipped with radio receiver, thermometer, compass and burlap bag and given three or four animals to track. Tracking an animal was not always easy. Sometimes its signal was lost. Perhaps you were in a low spot and it was beyond a ridge in another low spot. Perhaps it had gone into a cave. Sometimes the vegetation was very thick and the going got tough.
We tried to take paths made by the ubiquitous Tammar wallabies (more about them later), but Tammar wallabies are only about two feet tall and sometimes their trails are of limited use to humans. Sometimes the echidna is unbelievably well hidden. Once my radio receiver told me that I was practically on top of an echidna, but all I saw at my feet were leaves. Then I saw a piece of rubber covered wire sticking out from the leaves. I knew I was looking at a transmitter antenna. Assuming that the transmitter had become unglued and had separated from the echidna’s back, I reached down and grabbed the antenna so I could take it back to be recycled. To my amazement, the antenna was stuck fast to something under the leaves, something which began to dig furiously deeper into the soil. I had been told that an echidna can use its spines to rearrange the leaves above it after digging into the soil, but I didn’t expect it to be able to rearrange the leaves to look as if they had been lying there like that for weeks!
If it was a goanna we were tracking, we were not to attempt to pick it up. Peggy and Mike have scars to show how sharp a goanna’s teeth are. We simply noted its location (using known locations such as “The Thrashing Floor”, “Elliot’s” or “Lola’s Tree”, estimating the distance to that location, and recording the compass heading) and recorded the weather as well as the temperature of the soil, of the air at animal height and of the air at “human” height in both the sunshine and the shade. We also noted what kind of vegetation the animal was in. If it was an echidna we were tracking, we sometimes left it alone and just recorded the same kind of information as we recorded for the goannas. Peggy just wanted to know where they were hanging out. Certain echidnas were to be picked up, placed in a burlap bag and returned to camp. Peggy wanted to check their transmitter or to check on whether or not they had a puggle (baby).
We knew that echidnas, like platypuses, are members of the monotreme order, mammals who, like marsupials, have a pouch, but unlike marsupials, lay eggs. The female lays an egg into a pouch where the egg incubates. After the egg hatches, the puggle stays in the pouch until it is too big for the pouch. The mother then digs a nursery burrow where the puggle is sheltered while the mother goes out to forage for food. She returns to suckle her puggle only every five or six days, but during the two hours the puggle is suckling it ingests up to 40% of its own body mass. Usually the mother carefully closes up the entrance to the nursery burrow when she departs in search of food. But when she determines that the puggle is ready to be weaned, she does not backfill the burrow entrance. Her job is over. When the young echidna leaves the burrow it is on its own.
Since June through August is the mating time for echidnas, we expected many of our females to have a puggle. When an echidna with a puggle was brought in, we watched eagerly while Peggy and Mike placed the echidna on her back. She was rolled up tight as a ball, and Peggy and Mike had to pull her front and back legs apart to get at the pouch. Their hard work was rewarded when a pink little transparent glob no bigger than a baby’s fist was removed from the pouch. The puggle was weighed, measured and photographed and then carefully placed back in his mother’s pouch.
While out in the field we were always on the lookout for echidnas and goannas that did not have a transmitter. We recorded any goanna sightings on our goanna map. A brand new echidna was a real find. If Peggy decided to put a transmitter on it, the proud volunteer who brought it in could give it a name. One day I was out with Christina when she urged me to stay quite still and listen carefully. Sure enough, she had heard an echidna rustling through the leaves. We spotted the echidna, pried it out from between two tree trunks (leaving numerous spine pricks in my hands) and proudly returned to camp with our find. Christina gave the young echidna the name, Mokopuna, which means “grandchild” in the Maori language.
Liz, the British student, was at Pelican Lagoon to study goannas. Peggy showed her how to make a baby goanna trap out of a pipe and a plastic gallon milk jug. The baby goannas literally fell into Liz’s trap. We put numbers on them so she could identify them after they had been put back into the termite mound. She sat in the sun for hours watching the activity of the baby goannas.
Although the only animals which were being studied at Pelican Lagoon were echidnas and goannas, we were surrounded by a wonderful assortment of animals. The kangaroos thought they owned our camp. This is probably because several years ago, a neighbor found a dead kangaroo on the road with a live joey in its pouch and brought the joey to Peggy, asking her to raise it. Peggy took out an old sweatshirt, tied the bottom together, tied the arms around her neck, and had a pouch for her new baby, whom she named “Ruby”. Ruby is a grandmother herself by now, but she still thinks Peggy is her mother. Ruby loves to be scratched by Peggy, Mike or anyone in their “family.” Since we were in the family, Ruby was eager to have us scratch her too. But we were warned not to touch any other kangaroos, as they truly are wild animals. Wild but very inquisitive. Often it was necessary to carefully slip out the front door of the main building in order to keep them from going in. We were warned to zip our tent flap from bottom to top rather than from top to bottom because the kangaroos have learned to unzip the flap from the bottom. Watching the kangaroos was an unending source of enjoyment. I think they felt the same about us. Ruby’s joey, Thumper, sometimes had his head sticking out of the pouch, but often it one of his legs, his tail, or all of the above. When Thumper got out of the pouch he looked like a drunken sailor.
All edible kitchen wastes (with the exception of orange peels) were saved until after supper and then tossed out in an area beside the main building. At that time the kangaroos were joined by as many as twenty Tammar wallabies, who were much more shy than the kangaroos, but they couldn’t resist the free handouts. The wallabies must be far more numerous than the kangaroos at Pelican Lagoon, because we often came upon wallabies as we were tracking echidnas, but seldom came across kangaroos. The wallabies were in large groups; the kangaroos were solitary.
The birds were a real pleasure. Because we were surrounded on three sides by water, we saw pelicans, black swans and many shore birds. Karsten was happy that his first purchase in Melbourne had been a book about Australian birds, because we were surrounded by many birds found only in Australia.
A week after our arrival on Kangaroo Island, we had not left our sustainable paradise. Mike decided to reward our hard work by giving us a tour of the western half of the island, ending up with a trip to the laundromat (Could it be we were beginning to smell?). We went to the south shore of Kangaroo Island and stood on the rocky shoreline, looking south. There was nothing between us and Antarctica but open water. We visited Seal Bay and walked on the beach, sharing it with hundreds of sea lions. In the middle of the island we went to a billabong surrounded by eucalypts and saw several koalas, a kookaburra, a crimson rosella and many other brilliant birds . In the evening we walked along a dimly lit path in the village of Penneshaw where we watched as penguins returned from fishing at sea and came up on shore to feed their babies who had been hiding in caves and niches along the shore.
By the end of our second week at Pelican Lagoon, we were becoming effective volunteers. We really knew what we were doing! That meant it was time to go home. We were sad to leave our new friends, the sustainable lifestyle of Pelican Lagoon and the challenge of actually being helpful with research on a truly unique animal. But we were also looking forward to the rest of our Australian adventure.
When we arrived back in Adelaide we had on dirty clothes, hadn’t showered in two days, and Karsten hadn’t shaved in a week. As the taxi delivered us to our posh high rise hotel overlooking the South Australia Parliament Building, the Adelaide Festival Centre and the Torrens River, the contrast was a shock. But we soon got used to such amenities as having a shower with unlimited hot water available on demand.
Back in 1842, immigrants from Prussia and Silesia settled in the Barossa Valley, which is northeast of Adelaide. The Barossa is Australia’s best known wine producing district. One morning we walked across the street from our hotel to Adelaide’s beautiful 19th Century train station and boarded a “wine train” for a tour of the wineries of the Barossa. Karsten says it is no wonder all those Silesians settled there. The Barossa Valley looks just like Silesia.
One afternoon we took a taxi up to the Warrawong Sanctuary in the Adelaide Hills. Thirty years ago, Dr. John Wamsley, a professor at Adelaide University, bought a dairy farm and began to transform his land into a nature sanctuary. He built a fence around the property to keep out feral cats and foxes and reestablished native vegetation. Many of the animals which had been wiped out by predators not native to Australia were reintroduced to the sanctuary. They say it hardly ever rains in South Australia, but that evening it poured. We put on the rain gear which had stayed dry on Kangaroo Island and joined a hearty band for a sunset walk around the sanctuary. We saw all kinds of “roos” from big to tiny – kangaroos, wallabies, bettongs, bandicoots, potoroos. After the walk we had dinner. Our table was located next to a plate glass window. Outside the window it must have been marsupial dinner time, because all sorts of little roos were hopping around and looking for tidbits.
Our next stop was Alice Springs, located in the center of Australia, and described by the guide book as “a fairly small rural town in a beautiful but harsh environment a bloody long way from anywhere.” The population of “the Alice” consists of the local Aboriginal people, people whose families have been in the outback for generations and people who have moved there because they hate living in a big city. Running through Alice Springs is the dry river bed of the River Todd. The people of Alice Springs have decided that anybody with a self respecting river should have a regatta, and so every year boat frames with canvas hanging down the sides are dragged out into the river bed. People stand inside, hold on to the frame and run down the sand to the finish line. We were sorry to have missed the regatta by a few days.
We spent three nights on the Bond Springs Cattle Station just outside Alice Springs. Bond Springs runs about 7,000 head of cattle on 546 square miles. It takes a lot of land to provide feed for cattle in that and climate. Since the cattle stations are so large, the people on them are isolated. Medical care comes via the Royal Flying Doctor Service and schooling comes from the School of the Air. Children all over the outback sit in a classroom set up on their station and talk over the air to their teacher who is in Alice Springs. The Bond Springs cattle operation is run by Mr. Heaslip. The bed and breakfast is run by Mrs. Heaslip. Son Ben, an alumnus of the School of the Air, entertains the guests. One night he took us out “camping” in the bush. We drove to a spot beside the Todd where Ben provided a delicious dinner complete with wine and served on a table with a table cloth. He even pulled out a guitar and serenaded us with songs about life in the outback. After dinner Ben produced a “swag”, a comfortable sleeping bag with a foam pad, and placed it in the middle of the river bed. Sleeping under the southern stars was an unforgettable experience.
From Alice Springs we flew to Cairns (pronounced “cans”). We went by way of Ayers Rock and so got a glimpse of it out of the airplane window. In Cairns we rented a car. By now we had been in Australia for three weeks and had gotten more or less used to seeing other people drive on the “wrong side of the road.” But driving on the left proved to be a challenge. We divided driving time equally, leaving each of us terrified only half the time. From the airport we headed straight up into the mountains which rise up just west of the coast. Our destination was a lodge located in the rainforest up in the Atherton Tablelands. The birds and mammals of the rainforest entertained us. On our balcony we fed catbirds (green birds whose only similarity to our catbird is the noise they make), honeyeaters, bush turkeys (They were pushy. We had to chase them away to give the other animals a chance.), honey gliders (little marsupials who fill the niche of squirrels, which are not found in Australia) and possums. In a stream just below our lodge was a family of platypuses. It was especially thrilling to see the echidna’s only relative!
The tablelands have beautiful waterfalls and crater lakes. One former crater is now a swamp. We went to the Bromfield Swamp one day just before dark to watch the Brolgas and Sarus Cranes fly in to roost for the night. Luckily for us the Northern Queensland birdwatching society was there to count the number of Sarus Cranes who flew in. Even though we were freezing, and even though it was getting harder and harder to see the cranes as it got dark, it was fun to help in the count. We counted over 400 Sarus. Conservationists are worried about the future of the Sarus because this very important roosting spot is owned by several farmers and there is no regulation preventing them from filling in the wetlands.
We made our way down the twisting mountain roads to the coast and headed for Palm Cove, a small beachfront community just north of Cairns. We arrived to find swarms of people on the beachfront road We thought we were back on South Beach. It turned out there was a barrier reef festival that day. By evening the crowd was gone and Palm Cove reverted to being a sleepy little seaside village. From Palm Cove we spent two days snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. What a great way to wind up a trip to the Land Down Under.
We flew across the Pacific to San Francisco and spent a few days with Andy and Karen before returning home. During our absence one hurricane (Floyd) had threatened to blow our house away and another one (Irene) had made a surprise appearance. But except for a few downed tree limbs, our property was in good shape. It was good to be home.