Thursday, August 19, 2010

Australian Road Trip! The Pinnacles, Cervantes, Stromatolites, ADVENTURE

I always thought of Australia as America's reversed counterpart. We share so much: British heritage, love of bland deep fried food, oppression of native peoples, a deep stock-raising tradition, a curious affection for ridiculous hats. But I think that Australians and Americans share their deepest cultural affinity in the matter of space. Both Australia and the USA are new countries, new countries that had an inordinate amount of space, space that could be settled, tamed, and made profitable by immigrants with the right mixture of gumption and foolhardiness. America had its manifest destiny and Australia had the same: the image of a dry, sparse, and, uh, inadequately inhabited land that might be made verdant, beautiful, and vaguely British, just enough to keep you comfortable. We have cowboy movies, Aussies have Jackeroo movies. And Australians love to road trip just as much as we Americans do, have elevated the road-trip to a bona-fide icon.

Of course, an Australian road trip is often a more serious pursuit then its American counterpart. Even in darkest Nebraska, drivers can usually find water, semi-edible food, and a place to sleep blissfully free of wildlife that will kill you. This is absolutely not the case in Australia's Red Center, in the very middle of the real-deal Outback. Out there, you bring along your water, you bring along your food, and you watch out very carefully for the world's most dangerous and aggressive snakes. Let's not even get into the crocodiles. You don't take fun-loving dips in waterholes in Australia's northern regions, unless you are keen on being eaten. There are various entertaining accounts of such attacks, if you're interested. (EVERYONE IS).

My Aunt Lyn decided, on this particular Australian road trip, to take me through northern Western Australia. Due to the down under nature of Australia (shocker!) going north means you're heading into the warmth, and away from the surprising chill of Perth in winter time. Furthermore, the North has that wild untouched antediluvian wilderness thing going on, and that's something me and most of my family members find impossible to resist. Opportunities for unabashed and abundant science geekery aplenty, in other words. To get a sense of the extent of this, stromatolite viewing was one of the major highlights of our itinerary. We'd spend the first night in the little town of Cervantes, about four hours or north of Perth on the Batavia Coast, then spend the next two nights in Kalbarri, about five hours north of there. En route, we'd go to the eery Pinnacles desert, pass through the port town of Geraldtown, ogle a pink lake, and finally end up at Kalbarri National Park, one of the major scenic wonders of WA. Not a bad deal all around.

We started reasonably early on Tuesday morning, and bundled all of our stuff into the car, including a very optimistic full picnicking set. The weather in Perth was cloudy and cool, and we made good time out of the city - Lyn was happy she managed not to get lost, like the last time she attempted this whole "going north" business. I appluad her. There was nothing really resembling traffic. What Perhians consider deadly and totally unbelievable traffic, most Americans consider "Sunday afternoon." Wusses.

The road outside Perth passes through the Swan River Valley and quickly descends into that grey, bushy, and slightly weird landscape affectionately referred to as "scrub." It's a landscape that's host to most of the iconic Aussies beasties, including grey kangaroos, kookaburras (in wet places), wallabys, emus, and even the occasional dingo. If you can tell dingos from standard issue dogs, you're a hell of a lot cleverer then me. There is also a whole lot of nothing, a totally inordinate amount of nothing - definitely approaching or exceeding Nebraska levels of nada, which is impressive about two hours out of a huge metropolitan area. Road signs helpfully inform you how far it is to the next patch of something approximating civilization, and warn you in pleading tones to FOR GOD'S SAKE GET WATER AND GAS YOU'LL REGRET IT IF YOU DON'T. Dingos eating babies, attacks by emus, you can imagine the possible ramifications.

We stopped for lunch at a totally authentic Australian roadhouse, which meant that it was 1. elderly and constructed mostly of tin siding, 2. had bathrooms marked for "Sheilas", 3. had an outside exhibit of depressive looking parrots, and 4. had a menu that revolved entirely around fried meat pies and beer. Lyn decided to take an extreme risk and ordered a roast beef sandwich, which looked as it had actually been vomited upon by the proprietor and tasted like all of Australia's erstwhile culinary sins condensed into a single packet of evil. Should have chosen the fried thing with a side of fried with fried crumblies on top.

I stuck with pumpkin soup, which was perfectly acceptable. Australian pumpkin soup is always perfectly acceptable. That and Violet Crumble will never, ever, let you down.

We forged onwards into the Cervantes area. Dead kangaroos began to appear by the side of the road. Apparently the carnage only increases the further north you go. Are northern kangaroos inherently more suicidal? Do truck drivers use them for target practice as a way of desperately alleviating the incredible boredom of driving through millions of miles of scrub scrub scrub. Fuck if I know. My paleontologist, dead-things obsessed cousin would be absolutely thrilled and would drag them all home to her den for cleaning, articulation, and adoration. I'm sorry we can't ship you a really nice carcass, Laura.

Just prior to Cervantes, we turned off to Lake Thetis, to indulge a very particular and long term nerd fantasy of mine. The salty and unimpressive looking Lake Thetis happens to harbor an, um, vibrant community of stromatolites and thrombolites, which are the planet's most elderly "living fossils." Stromatolites have soldiered on virtually unchanged since the very dawn of life, and exist only in a few rare and remote places. Western Australia features the largest concentration of them on the planet, and they occur in remarkable numbers in Hamelin Pool in the Shark Bay region, further up the coast. Our Stromatolite Friends are created by the conglomeration of cyanobacteria. Stromatolites are formed as this bacteria deposits deposit calcium on the lake bed, which glues cement into the rock-like structures we view today. "Blister mats" of cyanobacteria also form around the lake's rim, and these nascent stromatolites are very delicate. Don't poke them. Dark regions on a stromatolite indicate where bacteria is alive and laying down sediment. Thrombolites differ from stromatolites in that they clot sediment instead of layering it. This is extremely useful information at cocktail parties, let me tell you.

Stromatolites don't do a hell of a lot. In fact, they resemble cow patties to a truly remarkable extent. The thrill in viewing stromatolites really lies in the symbolism of the thing. Organisms that looked exactly like them were around right after the "primordial soup" stage of life on this planet. The fact that we can view them, unchanged and living today, is truly remarkable, and is extremely pleasing on a quite deep seated level. The stromatolite and thromatolites at Lake Thetis are around 3,000 years old, which is not superlatively elderly by stromatolite standards, but is deeply impressive for everything else living. The lake was cut off from the very nearby Indian Ocean a while back in time and has merrily created its own chemical environment, one that makes stromatolites very happy indeed. There are plenty of them: a boardwalk has been conveniently set up for your viewing pleasure, and this handily facilitates deeply introspective walking-and-thinking about the Origins of Life.

I would not recommend a special stromatolite trip to the action inclined.

Finally, we got to Cervantes. Cervantes is about as small as small towns get, which translates into a couple of roads, a few wind-worn and perfunctory houses, a single general store, and the inevitable pub. Also, a golf course and an RV (excuse me, caravan park. There is always a golf course and a caravan park in Australia. The country is presumably populated almost entirely by golf loving caravan dwellers who enjoy fried pies with gravy and horrible techno music. Bless their little cotton socks, every one of them. Cervantes was founded in the 1960's as a crawfishing settlement and was apparently even rougher now then it was back then, consisting mostly of shacks populated by sunburned and smelly men and a single general store with a focus on beer. It's come up in the world now since, of course. Will totally turn into a tourist mecca once the big mine comes in, or once the crawfishing industry becomes ultra glamorous via some magical alteration of the universe as we know it.

Our guesthouse was run by a chilled out looking man with a beard and glasses, who regarded our appearance with vague interest. Lyn had in fact chosen the guesthouse because of his website: at the bottom of his perfectly normal looking personal site, there was a small disclaimer. The disclaimer explained that the owner had experienced a considerable number of extaterrestial viewings and experiences in the region, and that guests who might be unnerved by such phenomena might find it wisest to stay elsewhere.

We asked him about a good place to get a local spiny lobster, which I was eager to try. "I used to love them," he said, with a bit of a reisgned sigh, "back before I started my raw diet. But try this place." He handed us a voucher for a low price on a special seafood dinner, put on by the Country Club.

The room was extremely pleasant and had a nice view of the sea and the scrub-lands that led up to it. There were a profusion of paranormal themed magazines in the room, discussing such topics as the mafia's secret takeover of Australia, uranium enrichment on the moon, and the usual assortment of anal-probing experiences and Things My Dead Mum Told Me. I discovered that New Zealand produces its very own, very thick conspiracy theory and paranormal themed magazine, which is impressive for a remarkably tiny country. Lyn posits that Kiwis just go funny out there in their incredibly beautiful and incredibly isolated country: this may indeed be the case.

Then, it was time for the Pinnacles. Ah, the Pinnacles. Haven't heard of them? Color me unsurprised. These geological oddities happen to be out in the bona-fide Middle of Nowhere, which probably has saved them from being coated with graffiti. The limestone formations occur in staggering numbers in this small, sandy expanse, and range in size from big guys as tall as myself to little squirts about as high as my ankle. No one is entirely sure how the Pinnacles happened, and there are three primary theories on the matter. Allow me to a bit of a hussy and quote Wikipedia:

" 1. The Pinnacles were formed from lime leaching from the aeolian sand (wind-blown sand) and by rain cementing the lower levels of the dune into a soft limestone. Vegetation forms an acidic layer of soil and humus. A hard cap of calcrete develops above the softer limestone. Cracks in the calcrete are exploited by plant roots. The softer limestone continues to dissolve and quartz sand fills the channels that form. Vegetation dies and winds blow away the sand covering the eroded limestone, thus revealing the Pinnacles.

(yes they look like dongs let's just get that out of the way)

2. The Pinnacles were formed through the preservation of casts of trees buried in coastal aeolianites where roots became groundwater conduits, resulting in precipitation of indurated (hard) calcrete. Subsequent wind erosion of the aeolianite would then expose the calcrete pillars.[1]

3. On the basis of the mechanism of formation of smaller “root casts” occurring in other parts of the world, it has been proposed that plants played an active role in the creation of the Pinnacles, rather than the rather passive role detailed in 1 and 2 above. The proposal is that as transpiration draws water through the soil to the roots, nutrients and other dissolved minerals flow toward the root. This process is termed "mass-flow" and can result in the accumulation of nutrients at the surface of the root, if the nutrients arrive in quantities greater than needed for plant growth. In coastal aeolian sands which have large amounts of Ca (derived from marine shells) the movement of water to the roots would drive the flow of Ca to the root surface. This Ca accumulates at high concentrations around the roots and over time is converted into a calcrete. When the roots die, the space occupied by the root is subsequently also filled with a carbonate material derived from the Ca in the former tissue of the roots and possibly also from water leaching through the structures. Although evidence has been provided for this mechanism in the formation of root casts in South Africa, evidence is still required for its role in the formation of the Pinnacles.[2]"

Now that that's all entirely clear!

Oh, those crazy tourists.

The Pinnacles are officially part of Nambung National Park, and a surprisingly excellent interpretative museum has been set up at the site. You're allowed to take your car out among the Pinnacles - I don't know what happens if you hit one - so we did that after we took a long and contemplative walk around the center. It's a truly bizarre landscape, and I imagine goes quite quickly from whimsical to downright eery at night. I understand why UFO enthusiasts might choose to settle down here: it is entirely easy to imagine alien beings feeling perfectly at home around here.

The Aboriginal people of the area naturally have an origin myth about the formations. Supposedly, young men were repeatedly warned not to go out to the sandy expanse outside the village and did so anyway. They were sucked into the sand and promptly calcified, and their fingers make up the Pinnacles. Must have been big fingers. But regardless. I can see why the locals would be less then chuffed about staying here at night. They doubtless all turn into looming figures when the lights go low.

The area surrounding the Pinnacles was first recorded by European in 1658, but there is, oddly enough, little mention of the Pinnacles themselves. The formations seem to appear and reappear in explorer's accounts from that time onward, leading some to speculate that they have been covered and revealed by the shifting sands multiple times in history.

A detail of a rock, primarily taken for the geology types. I have no idea what I'm looking at but I dearly hope you find it totally thrilling.

There's a lot of wildlife in the PInnacles, despite the remarkably unfriendly appearance of its surroundings. We spotted grey kangaroos, brown kestrels, and incredibly large and unnerving wild emus. We spotted this particular emu silhouetted dramatically on a hill on the way out of the park, and were pleased to discover he had the kids with him - a bunch of little emulets stalking about. Male emus watch after the young, presumably allowing the female to wildcat around. I am not entirely sure how an emu parties but it probably involves a lot of deep-throated thrumming. And blue stuff. Emu babes go wild for blue stuff (as I discovered while wearing my blue coat at the wildlife park).

We headed out to the beach with a bottle of wine to engage in the requisite Sipping Wine and Watching the Sun Go Down activity. The beach was incredibly lovely, if a bit chilly. This was also the first time I'd really been on a bona-fide beach in quite a long time, and it turned out I had entirely forgotten how sand works, ie, that if one buries your wine glass in aforementioned sand then removes it really quickly and forcefully, it gets all over you. I had also forgotten the whole "don't track sand onto the beach towel, you damned idiot" clause. There were, as always, a couple of healthy looking European tourists taking a doubtlessly fiber rich dinner in their RV in the parking lot above us, but otherwise? Not a soul around. Rural Australia is bloody fantastic for the antisocial.

This is self explanatory I think.

The restaurant turned out to be the local community center, and was in fact housed in a room that could be easily and snappily converted into a basketball stadium and bingo parlor at short notice. Everyone else in the place was eligible for AARP and wearing baseball hats, and had that sun beaten and exceedingly skin cancery look that old timer Australians always have. (There are skin cancer clinics in completely unnerving quantities all over Perth. As an Aboriginal guy said in a video at the art museum, "Why did the English people stay? They just get skin cancer all the goddamn time! All over the place!" Well, yes. Australia and its paler residents are indeed hotbeds of vibrant melanoma. God help them). Lyn and I were both just a teeny tiny bit inebriated (just like everyone else in the surrounding area insofar as I could tell), but I refrained from having another class of wine, though Lyn partook.

The seafood platter, to our surprise, was really well executed. The primordial-insect looking spiny lobster was sauteed with butter and spices and had a lovely, delicate flavor, which was brought out by the veg. Lyn has a tragic allergy to shellfish that turn pink when cooked so I had it all to myself, and I derived considerable carnivorous pleasure from going eye-to-eye with my supper.

Look at the picture. The poor little sucker is beseeching me. Too late, friend. Too late. The fried roe-on scallops were nice little bites, and although the fish was a spot overcooked, the batter was crispy and had a good, rich flavor. The salad bar was completely randomly set-up but was quite good as well: beet salad, Greek salad with real actual feta cheese, corn and pepper salad, and Caesar salad with inexplicable but completely addictive deep fried croutons. No one else in the room had in fact ordered anything other then the Special Seafood Platter. We messily devoured it and repaired to our room. No aliens visited me in the night with probes and malicious intent.

I was a bit disappointed.

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