Rain Forest Without Rain?

Yes! It not only is an ecological possibility (the definitions of rain forest, it turns out, have more to do with soil conditions and a greater than 70% canopy cover than with actual precipitation) but also the makings for a lovely week to one of Australia's national parks (as in Queensland's...since national parks are managed individually by the states). While there was threat of rain one afternoon, we felt only a few tiny drops the entire week.

I should straight off tell you that my photos are neither terrific nor comprehensive of our time. There were several factors that made it difficult to remember to pull out the camera or be able to take good pictures:
  • The sheer awe of wandering through the rain forest, with the theme music to Jurassic Park playing in your head
  • The low light conditions (remember the 70% canopy cover) and difficulty of exposure times and stability
  • The rain forest is so dense, that framing it becomes an exercise in futility - for each detail in frame there are countless other details, never mind the overpowering green of everything
  • The pace of our hikes, punctuated with details brought up in mini-lectures on the trail in which it is best to take notes (reminder to self: get a pocket-sized flip notebook to jot down details on the trail) and grab a sip of water, dropping photo opportunities on the priority list
We got to mosey (and sometimes scramble) through sub-tropical, warm temperate, cool temperate, and dry rain forests in addition to wet and dry sclerophyll and montane heath ecosystems.

"Wow..." you must be saying. "That sure is interesting." Why thank you. It is. "But didn't you say something previous about coconut coated, chocolate dipped angel food cake?"

Yes, I did! And it turns out they are connected. Dr. John told us about how the park was named after Lord Lamington (Governor of Queensland at the time) rather than the aboriginal name for the place. There is a story where his wife was hosting a tea and did not have any fresh cake. So, a resourceful cook dipped them in chocolate and rolled them in coconut and served up the delightful new treat. Being the legend that he is, Dr. John backpacked a box of fresh lamingtons on our hikes to share with us in the rain forest.

Lamingtons in Lamington:
The Lamington has no defense in such an unforgiving ecosystem

Ryan enjoys his Lamington greatly

Succumbing to predation

We were lodged in a bunkhouse (9 bunks, 3 deep per wall, per room) behind a cottage on a hill. Before us spread a massive lawn and the rolling landscape to the Gold Coast and the sea. At night, you could see the lights of Surfer's Paradise and, on one evening, an amazing electrical storm over the ocean.

Anyways, we arrived left UQ Monday morning on the Special Bus:

We stopped at a look-out to receive a quick run-down on the geologic history of the area. The whole area is the caldera of a once massive (more in girth than in height...) volcano that went extinct millions of years ago. The central peak, Mt. Warning, is the solidified lava tube of the main conduit from that ancient volcano. The Mountain was named such as the visible landmark used on maps made by Captain James Cook to identify the choppy and sand-bar heavy section of the Australian coast. The rest of the landscape was created as the volcano eroded away.

The caldera
The ominous Mt. Warning
Dr. John inspecting the troops and pep-talking some geology and ecology.

Our arrival was greeted by an apparently rare sight, a male rifle bird. This bird was perched outside the bunkhouse. He has a metallic blue throat and tail, and evidently puts on an amazing mating display dance for the ladies of his species, which was demonstrated in human form during one of our lectures (sadly/fortunately without any photographic evidence). The display involves flipping its wings back and forth so fast as to create a sound similar to a rifle firing.

The 30 of us were split into three groups: alphas, deltas, and omegas. No allusions to Brave New World were made, and the alternate selections of Greek letters may have been an effort to avoid such. Each day, one group would go with John, one group would go with Toby and Nicki (the tutors), and the third group would have a "free day" in which to do any one of a number of local hiking trails for independent explorations. Fortunately, in my opinion, we deltas had our free day on the last day, so we could gauge which hike to take based on how we felt after the two compulsory 12k hikes.

Over the course of our educational walks, we learned to spot the signals that helped us deduce the transitions between different types of landscape (such as the evidence of soil types, leaf litter build-up, and the presence/absence of different morphological structures on plants). We surveyed the species diversity and richness using the Simpson's and Sorenson's Indeces. We even found a plant with a genetic mutation in one of its leaves:

We walked down into ravines with waterfalls (although it has been a dry winter, so none that I saw were exceptionally dramatic), rock overhangs (caves, as it were) that aboriginals used for shelter and cooking locations throughout the millenia, and lots and lots of green. As accustomed as I have become to living in the desert (not just Joshua Tree, but the rest of Southern California in general), I grew incredibly nostalgic for the boonies of Guam during this trip.

On our second morning, we had to be out of bed at five to go on a birding survey. Instead of bird watching, however, we were bird listening. There are numerous hypotheses why birds sing so much more during the morning (surviving the cold of night as high energy-need organisms, or a social interaction while waiting for it to warm up for insect prey to emerge), but the one that felt the most ironic was that birds take advantage of the relatively still air in which sound can travel most effectively. During that morning, the wind was fierce, and we could barely hear any birds. We sat huddled on the cliff, watching the sunrise and some very very silent birds.

When we gave up to just sit and have a talk about bird songs and other topics, a pied currawong (one of the birds whose song we were going to count) decided to alight next to John and watch us talk, prompting him to remark "Never work with children or animals."

The walk took us through the various ecosystems of the park up to the top of heath-covered mountains from which we enjoyed lunch, some spectacular views, a letter-writing session, and even a couple of good falls (sadly people, rather than water...the swelling in my wrist is finally going down).

Dr. John and I are high-fiving, not dancing the tango.

Surfer's Paradise in the distance.

Walks were long, with lots of uphill and downhill, and almost every one of them resulted in our return to camp well after sunset, trudging through the rain forest with headlamps on, pondering what will be served up for dinner (not a bad meal was had).

On our free day walk, Arizona and I went on the gentler cave-circuit hike that allegedly provides excellent opportunities to see wild koalas. Our conclusion: Koalas are a myth invented by the Australian people to soften the image of their local fauna, balancing the preponderance of "World's Deadliest..." Not wanting to return home empty-handed, we found a visitor's centre and was able to take a lovely picture of a koala (actually a picture of a picture, but it fooled many of our classmates).

The two of us were able to return to camp quite early and enjoy a quiet afternoon of sitting on the lawn in the sun and working on our field books. We also were able to position ourselves to watch, as the sun set, to watch the emergence of the cutest thing on planet Earth: the pademelon. One of the smallest members of a family that includes kangaroos and wallabies, these little bundles of "awwwww" hide in the rain forest by day, browsing on low hanging leaves, and then emerging onto the grass to graze under cover of darkness. Better photos exist in the world, and my camera is not the best at a distance in the growing gloam, but these are some of the clearer ones I took:

It was really cold laying in the grass, belly-crawling to get closer without driving them off, and we struggled to swallow back the urge to exclaim how cute each one was as it hopped out of the forest.

On the last night, there was supposed to be a bush dance, but the sound system was on the fritz. Instead of succumbing to disappointment, a few pulled out ipods and some tiny speakers rigged to an empty can of Milo (Australian powdered-chocolate drink) for acoustics, and we created our own little dance party, complete with terrible (and crowded) line dancing, some bizarre dance-offs, and attempts to re-enact through dance some of the events of the trip (my interpretation of the mid-trail collision between Bianca's face and a low-hanging tree branch was exceptionally well-received). This culminated in a gathering around the fire pit for some terrible singing and scary stories. When I mean terrible singing, I mean it would elevate the renditions of "Happy Birthday" sung at some meetings I attend to the status of operatic virtuosity. There were times when it sounded as though everyone was attempting to sing each note on the scale simultaneously.

I should touch upon the Vegemite Challenge. At each meal on this trip, two members of our troop would stand up, empty a packet of Vegemite onto their spoon, and together consume it. There are only three or four of us on this program who are not completely repulsed by the bitter/umami taste of the unappealingly brown paste (I was packing Vegemite/butter sandwiches for trail snacks). Much entertainment was drawn from the facial expressions of contestants as they tried to swallow it back without letting it stick to the roof of their mouth or get stuck in their teeth. Sadly, I did not have my camera handy, although each spoonful has been photo-documented somewhere. Before the spoonful, each person nominates the next lucky contestant. Some would decline, but most stepped up. On the last night, Mark (the other UCI participant in this program) was up on his own, the other contestant having stepped down. In a moment of Anteater solidarity, I stood un-nominated to go through it with him. While I like a small amount spread with butter on toast, a large spoonful in one go is a bit much. While I kept telling myself it was not bad, the intensity lingered and would not go down as readily as I had hoped. It was a massive strain to keep a straight face.

Then, on the last morning, Dr. John stood up to do his part. He LOVES Vegemite. However, he does not comprehend the American obsession with peanut butter. To give you an idea, when preparing lunches and trail snacks, this mob would snatch up the packets of peanut butter, eventually draining the supply on the entire Lamington Plateau! I dare say toward the end that peanut butter took on the value of such commodities as cigarettes in prison or diamonds. John had managed to keep a packet of peanut butter so that he could participate in the challenge. As soon as the link to the video is available, it will be posted. If we thought the faces of Americans gagging on Vegemite were great, they paled in comparison to the face of our beloved ecology lecturer gagging on peanut butter. He couldn't even get it down, and had to spit it out.

Another contest we established was to see who would pick up the most bloodsuckers in the rain forest. No one picked up any leeches. The ticks, however, are tiny and active. Before anyone freaks out, there is no Lyme disease in Australia, and the ticks are more of a nuisance than any actual danger to one's well-being. While I initially formulated the opinion that Australia's ticks must be homophobic, I eventually came in second with four.

On the last morning, we went on a gentle bird-watching walk (during which a great variety of bird-life decided to make itself visible, including three varieties of parrots and a rain forest pigeon). We packed out and then headed to Burleigh Heads. We performed a quick survey of a coastal (or littoral rain forest. Lots of puns about it being littorally a rain forest were made. We then were given an allowance for lunch and a designated rendezvous point on the beach.

Mt. Warning in the distance

Corinne, Mia, Jennifer, and I found a fish'n'chips place that was terrific. I've been eating vegetarian on this trip. While it has been very healthy and delicious, I have been desperately craving something fried. While we all looked a little rough from the week out, the massive piece of fish and french fries were a delight to our taste buds.

We then went down to the beach and enjoyed an hour of frolicking in the surf. The water was a little cold, but none of us cared. Also, the cold water made any of our lingering ticks very unhappy and easy to remove.

In the end, we got back on the Special Bus for Brisbane. I was just able to get my camera out to catch That Feeling: