Thursday, May 22, 2008

Into the Wild

Well the time had come for me to make my first venture into the Aussie bush. With my brave field crew - Dominic from southern California and Stephen from Brisbane - we left the city on Sunday and drove 22 hours north to Cairns (population ~ 100,000, pronounced Cans). Laura made the trip up with us and flew back to Brisbane. On the way to Cairns you travel through serious sugar cane fields, as far as the eye can see. Cane harvest is about to begin, so we'll get to see that process on our next trip up.

Cairns itself is a major tourist mecca, with the Great Barrier Reef just offshore and World Heritage Rainforest in the surrounding hills. Plenty of backpackers accommodation and internet cafes, the telltale signs of a city catering to drifters and adventurers. From Cairns we parted ways with Laura and crossed over the watershed into the Mitchell River catchment, a river that I will be studying for the next three years. It's a little bit larger than the St. John River in New Brunswick (72,000 km2 vs. 55,000 km2). In the Mitchell, from the lush hills of the headwaters you quickly descend into tropical savanna and mining country near the town of Chillagoe (current population ~250, population from 1910-1917 ~10,000). It is real cowboy country out there, every village has an annual rodeo and anything further west from there makes Chillagoe look like a metropolis until you reach the Aboriginal community of Kowanyama (population ~ 1100) near the mouth of the river about a six hour drive away.

In the middle and lower stretches of the river 150 years of intense cattle grazing has turned the countryside into flattened, cement-like earth. Yet despite the dry, dusty landscape the savanna is overrun with life. Flocks of startled galahs, awkward emus, occasional goannas and dingos, not to mention the suicidal wallabies waiting at the roadside at dusk to dart in front of oncoming vehicles. All of these animals were a sight to behold. What we were really after, however, were the waterholes, permanent sources of water that have been the object of human and animal desire on this dry continent since time immemorial. Australian rivers are very unlike those in Canada; here there is a lot of water during the wet season (Dec-March), everything floods, then there is no rain for months (May-Oct) and the rivers stop flowing, instead existing as a series of disconnected pools. These pools (also called waterholes or lagoons or billabongs) are important for cattle grazers, fishers, and Aboriginal people who live traditional lifestyles. Our job is to find out where the waterholes are, how long they last during prolonged periods of drought, and what the animals are eating that live in them. That means plenty of reconnaissance followed by collections of algae, crayfish, shrimp, crabs, insects, fish, and hopefully bird feathers and crocodile tissue.

We had a few interesting moments on this trip, which was mainly an introduction to the landscape. First a helicopter landed at our campsite. I must say that was a first for me. We were enjoying some breakfast, getting ready to pack up for the day when we saw a chopper overhead then realized it was turning around to land. We thought we were in for it, since just about any land off the main road is private property and some of the station managers can be a bit nasty (we're talking standing on the front porch with shotguns nasty). Surprisingly the first thing the guy said after getting out the machine was "sorry about the dust." He was a really nice guy and had only dropped down because we happened to have the hood of the truck up. After brief introductions and some talk about our project, he was on his way.

After a few days we made it to the far western end of the peninsula near the mouth of the Mitchell at the Gulf of Carpentaria. We stayed for a day and a half in Kowanyama, looking at waterholes around there with the help of local Rangers, who are in charge of issuing fishing licenses, policing poachers, and working with researchers like us who constantly pester them for information about the countryside. While we were there, our second interesting moment of the trip happened when we drove past a large, nasty looking snake. The Aboriginal Ranger who was with us at the time told us it was a taipan. He would know one to see one, but I think he might have just been trying to scare us. Later on, we had a black snake slither through our campsite, but it was minding its own business so we weren't too worried.

On our way back up the "beef road" to Cairns we pulled some pig hunters out of the bog; they had been stuck for about four hours before we came along. Apparently word travels fast in the bush because after it happened, we drove about 2 hours up the road and the guy at the service station had heard about the blokes from Griffith Uni helping out the pig hunters. The pig hunting is pretty good around those parts (see photo below), we saw a dozen or so along the road during our travels. Everyone likes to blame the pigs for messing up the waterholes, they get in there and roll around pretty good, but by my calculation there's about 100 times more cattle up there than pigs, and the cattle don't tread lightly themselves. It's part of the reason some people are advocating Aussies switch from beef consumption to kangaroo consumption. The roos have padded feet and as a result are far less devastating to the landscape. Of course they also compete with cattle for grazing, so they are considered a pest.

So our field work officially ended with a reunion with Laura in Cairns, who, trooper that she is, flew up for the drive back. The first question I've been getting from most people upon return is: Any crocs? Surprise, surprise, we had no croc sightings, although they probably saw us. We're heading back up in about two weeks for some more extensive sampling, so no doubt we'll spot them soon. Wish me luck (avoiding them that is).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Well, first off, apologies for the delayed entry. I haven’t been keeping very good track of days lately, but I think I’ve probably missed about 2 weeks of entries? Either way, Tim and I had the idea of getting an entry in every week when we started this thing and I’ve been the first to officially “miss the deadline”. I spoke with him last night and got a mild scolding for not having written anything lately. Talk about pressure.

So, lots has been going on since our last entry (which has led to my inability to sit and write this, thus far), a couple of major things. Tim left for Darwin at the beginning of the month and has been gone since then (minus 2 and a half days when he returned from Darwin and then left for Cairns). He’ll be back home this Sunday (May the 18th). I’m sure he’s going to have scads to write about when he actually gets settled in. It’ll be news to me as well as he and his mates have been camping in the bush…Serious camping…No phones, no showers, just them, a 4 x 4 (which they used to help someone out of a bog the other day), and a swag each…In the rainforest. I’ve talked to Tim twice since he’s been working near Cairns, both this past weekend when he and the guys were able to stay in a hotel. Their weeks are pretty much spent in the bush. He’s doing well, hasn’t encountered any crocs yet but has seen lots and lots of wildlife. He mentioned that one night the guys woke up to wild boars rooting through their camp. Because I’ve got a bun in the oven, I’m glad to be in a house in the friendly suburbs for now, but there’s a part of me that wishes I could be there experiencing the fun stuff too. Maybe someday…But there’s also a part of me that’s a bit jealous that he’s got so much adventure happening everyday. I think it makes it easier for him to be away then it is for me to be home. It’s selfish, but I always like being on the adventure end of being away from Tim. I’m not so content staying home and occupying my time, although with work these days it’s not been so hard to do.

What’s probably made this time away from Tim harder is a) that I’m a pregnant woman in a foreign country but especially because b) my grandfather, Albert King, passed away the week before last. His passing wasn’t a bad thing, he was getting up there in years and had spent the last two years of his life in a wheelchair, which was really rough on his head. He and Gram were very close to all of us (there are scads of grand and great grand children), so it wasn’t that he’d died that affected me as much as just not being able to mourn the loss and celebrate his life with the entire family. It’s been, and still is hard…We’re so stinking far away from home. And then there’s the glass case of emotion (for all you Anchorman fans out there) which is pregnancy. Thankfully for me, the 2 ½ days that Tim was home were perfectly timed, he is a good husband ('upstanding' according to my sister Heather), and I was so glad to have him here. My dad, over the years, has stuck by a few choice sayings that he likes to bring up on appropriate occasion, “keep your nose to the grindstone” is one, (got me through undergrad), “always gargle with salt and warm water”, is another (key to my good health), but when Tim and I left for Australia he told me “look around and take things in because they will never be the same”. Sadly, I knew that this would likely apply to my grandparents (of which there are now 2 incredibly strong grandmothers remaining). Boo. Dad is right far too often.

So, to make everyone feel a little better (I wear my heart on my sleeve, even in a blog), the time I would have spent writing a blog entry, I spent writing letters to my grandmothers and other people in my life that I appreciate but don’t talk to nearly enough. Alrighty. New topic.

I don’t think that I’ve spent nearly enough time talking about the huge elephant in the corner of our lives that’s been there since December. We’re having a baby. We’re going to be parents. A little human will call me ‘mother’ and Tim ‘father’ and it will have been correct in saying that. While January’s news a month prior to departure for Australia received mixed reviews at the time (I was the worried one, Tim was ecstatic), we’ve both warmed up to the idea over the past 5 months (we’re almost at 6 months now…crazy). There have been some milestones in there, buying a parenting book was one of them which threw us for a whirl, but the 21 week ultrasound was maybe the time where we both were thinking “Wow, this is happening and we’re really excited about it”. Of course my paunch doesn’t really allow much indifference about being pregnant anymore either. Actually, the little critter, which we’ve secretly called the Goob since we knew she/he existed (after the goober pea, which our friend Baxter liked to feed us when we visited him in Fredericton), kicks and rolls like crazy. Seriously, it’s been amazing. Actually, the whole pregnancy has been amazing. I could do this at least 10 more times if it’s this good every time (the stork delivery will be the icing on the cake). But lately, it’s been comforting to have so much activity (kicking mainly) happening that I can feel and see, it makes me feel like I’m not home alone these days…and I’m not I suppose. I should really cherish these times that I know the Goob is alive and well without having to worry about what the world might be inflicting on our vulnerable little person.

So we did have our 21 week ultrasound a few weeks ago. For all of the men out there, and women who’ve not gone through an ultrasound, the standard protocol is to drink 1L of water within the hour before the ultrasound. That way your bladder is full and they are able to get a better picture of the uterus (or ‘ute’ as I like to refer to it) and all that resides in it. So here’s my beef. Can one person out there name a time that they went to the doctor for a scheduled appointment which ended up being on time? I didn’t think so. So picture Laura, sitting in the waiting room having drunk 1 L or more of water (since I had already drank water earlier in the day) for a 2 o’clock appointment, at 2:35. And then picture poor Tim who has had to listen to my ranting for those 35 minutes. I can understand that doctors and technicians can get held up, and that’s probably a good thing in the long run. But for something where you have to hold your pee? It’s asking an awful lot I’d say since the bladder is of a finite capacity and you’re only building up more fluid and pressure over time. And every mother has told their daughter that holding a pee when you really have to go is really not a good idea for overall urinary tract health (or maybe they haven’t, but they should!). So, the dilemma. Does one hold off on that 1L drink to compensate for how long they think that they’ll be waiting to see the doc? The big gamble.

So, once we actually got in to our ultrasound my back teeth were floating, as my mom would say. Thankfully, the technician got right down to business, and well, suffice it to say that I didn’t end up wetting my pants, which I wasn’t entirely sure wouldn’t happen before I got in there. In Brisbane, they do all ultrasounds in 4-D (the 4th dimension is time, which I don’t really understand yet). There is the standard 2-D black and white picture for part of the ultrasound, but the cool part was when they get the 4-D wand out and we could see a little 3-D person hanging out in my ute. And we discovered that, surprise, surprise, Tim and I have a stubborn little person that does not like being pushed around by an ultrasound wand. Goobie rolled and kicked and moved into what seemed like every position possible in order to prevent the technician from getting the picture/measurement that she wanted. It was pretty hilarious, and made for pretty shoddy images in the end, and here’s the kicker, it took half an hour longer then a normal ultrasound should have taken. So, as I was lying there on the table I was thinking “this has got to go faster, I know what it’s like to be in the waiting room with a full bladder! I will keep the next person in mind”. I expressed my concern to the technician and she didn’t seem to be too worried. Maybe she’s the problem.

So, all told, our ultrasound results revealed a solitary live intrauterine pregnancy with no gross abnormality of fetal morphology seen at the time and an estimated due date of 02/09/2008. Pretty neat. We saw all kinds of stuff. A spine, huge feet, arm and leg bones, a beating heart, a huge noggin and brain (the large cranium being of the King side of the family, I’m sure my grandfather would have said). So we were pretty happy with all of that. Since that time, my belly has really popped out, hard to believe that it will get lots bigger, quickly. And for those of you thinking that it’s just the cheeseburgers, I’ve only actually had 4 throughout this whole pregnancy…4 cheeseburgers over 6 months, it’s nothing! And I think that there’s been a shift in food preferences…I happened across some fair-trade chocolate on sale the other day at one of my favorite little places, and bought copious amounts. And, my neighbor, as a gesture of good will for some food that I had dropped off at her place while she and her husband were re-cooping from the delivery of their first child, dropped off a HUGE chunk of chocolate last night. Needless to say, I’ve eaten far too much chocolate in the last 3 days (more probably than I’ve consumed in the past 2 years), and there is so much left. I sit at my computer working away and chocolate images dance through my head. What a weird state.

One last story to get you through until Tim entertains you next week. Today, 2 Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on my door. I’ve never actually had this happen to me, and I had no idea who they were, I just knew that they were asking me questions about my faith. I like talking about everything, and with my lack of social interaction over the past couple of weeks, I was happy to discuss faith vs science, which they seemed to harp on. I wasn’t about to stand there and listen to what they were telling me was true and what their interpretation of the Bible was without discussing it further…And it dawned on me when the man said I’ve got this pamphlet about why God allows suffering that can answer your questions (I didn’t actually have questions…I was merely expressing my opinions). By that point they knew that my name was Laura and that I was from Canada, and where I lived. And as they were leaving my front step the woman said “I’ll see you next week”. And all I can think is, it was nice to discuss this for 10 minutes on my doorstep, but I don’t think that I want to do this every week, or make it a habit of sorts. I don’t really think that they were actually listening to my points either way, so it wasn’t as much of a discussion as a rehearsed script on their part…Not my cup of tea. But I was later reminded of my Grandfather or Grandmother (pregnant woman can’t remember), who was telling Tim and I at Christmastime that they had Mormon Elders (young, fine looking chaps according to Gram and Gramp) come to their doorstep and asked if there was anything that they could do for them. This is where cold-calls are all wrong. If they knew my grandparents at all, they would have never offered free help. Gram asked them to come over the next day to help her either re-shingle a roof or paint the barn…something like that. Funny, they never showed up. I’m sure whatever it was that she had been asking them to help her with, she accomplished herself. She’s a trooper, that one. The first time that Tim met Gram King they ended up cleaning out the barn together. There was actually a point where he looked up from what he was doing and noticed her chucking fence-posts from the corner to the middle of the room. I tell you. I come from a line of some-kinda women. I won’t get started on my Dad’s mother, another fine piece of work. Knowing that I’ve got something of what they’ve got makes me very happy.

Love to everyone. Again, sorry for the delay!