Monday, February 10, 2014

Townsville in Northern Queensland, Australia

After leaving New Zealand, I wanted to explore a little more of Australia so I went to visit my friend Nathan English in Townsville, Queensland, in northeastern Australia. This gave me the opportunity to see much of the eastern coast of Australia by spending time in Melbourne and Townsville, with flight stopovers in Sydney and Brisbane. Townsville is much more tropical at 19 degrees South Latitude (Melbourne was 38 degrees South Latitude).

Steve Leavitt and Irina Panyushkina from the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (LTRR) were also visiting with their son Eric. Many of the houses in Townsville have a view of the ocean such as Steve and Irina’s place that they rented from Airbnb. The campus of James Cook University (where Nathan works with his wife Christa – See a later post about their lab) is located in what was naturally a Eucalyptus woodland and still maintains that vegetation on campus. It is a very pretty landscape and nice to see the breadth of eucalyptus species in their native habitat (there are 709 documented Eucalyptus species and they apparently all hybridize – so it is complicated).

I was lucky enough to be in Australia for Australia Day on January 26th. Nathan invited us over to a friend’s house for an authentic Australian barbie which even included an ice luge which Nathan and Christa were kind enough to demonstrate.  

We went for a hike at Paluma which is a rainforest on a mountain about an hour drive north of Townsville. This was a beautiful forest and graded up through eucalyptus woodland, through dry rainforest, to a wet rainforest site at the top of the mountain. Townsville was quite warm, but we could feel the temperature cool as we moved up the mountain. Nathan demonstrated that one could actually swing on the local lianas (wood vines) like Tarzan. 

We decided to drive to the Tall Flooded Gum Forest that we saw labelled on the map to see what it was like. It was a nice stand of mature Eucalyptus grandis which has not been worked with using dendrochronology before to our knowledge. Some of these trees were fire scarred. They were all very big with nicely developed canopies.

On the way back, we stopped at Crystal Creek to swim in the waterfalls and pools. This was a very nice site that also had a lot of wildlife. We saw a Sapphire Rockmaster Damselfly (Diphlebia coerulescens). We also saw a Ulysses Butterfly (Papilio Ulysses) that was attracted to a similarly colored beach towel.

We decided to visit Magnetic Island (locally called Maggie Island) which is considered the southern anchor of the Great Barrier Reef. We found out that Magnetic Island was named by James Cook, because it seemed to draw his compass when he sailed by. Subsequent research that has searched for this magnetic field has not been able to replicate this phenomenon, so it is mainly a historical name. We took a ferry across to the island and spent the day exploring, snorkeling, and hiking. The beaches were beautiful. We were determined to get in the water and try some snorkeling, but Cyclone Dylan (which developed to a category 2 cyclone) was brewing off of the shore to hit Townsville in two days, so the water was rough with about three foot waves and a lot of the sediment was churned up in the water. I could not see my hands with my arms fully extended. So in the end, we had a good swim with some body surfing, but did not get to see any fish or corals. We needed to get stinger suits to swim in the water because of the prevalence of jelly fish in the waters. Many of the local jelly fish are very poisonous and could be lethal especially for kids that could get wrapped up in their tentacles. The thin nylon suit protects against the stingers and apparently vinegar works to neutralize them as well.  We did not run in to any of the jelly fish in the water, but we did see five of them washed up on the shore when we got out of the water. Nathan is standing in for scale next to the largest one that we found. He said that it would probably have had 10 feet of stingers stringing behind it which could still be buried under the sand.

After swimming on a number of beaches and having some lunch in town, we went for a hike at the forts at Magnetic Battery. This was a nice hour-long hike, although it was on a dry and hot location. It made me think of a number of hikes that I had taken in the desert around Tucson. The forts where left over from WWII and became an important base for soldiers from Australia and the United States in 1943. We had some great views from the top of the fort and I most enjoyed the chance to see four koala bears in the wild.

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