Monday, February 29, 2016

Western Australia, Part 1: Augusta, Yanchep National Park, the Pinnacles, Murchison River Gorge

Murchison River Gorge, Kalberri, Western Australia
Recently, I was cleaning out and found my diary from our trip to Australia in 2007, when we toured the west coast with our friend Mike in his camper van, traveling from Augusta to Shark Bay and back to Perth. As I read through the entries I was reminded of the uniqueness of that landscape–different from anything else we had seen in Australia. Here is the first installment of some highlights from the trip.
Jewel Cave, Augusta, Western Australia
We spent the first few days in Augusta (about 200 miles south of Perth) getting ready for our trip and seeing some of the local sights including the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse (see my post of March 31, 2014), Jewel Cave, with its curtains of stalactites, a tour of the Leeuwin Winery, where we tasted and bought some excellent wine, and hikes to see the local flora and fauna, including various colorful parrots. Mike studies parrots, so he was the perfect guide.
Black Cockatoo, Yanchep National Park
On our first day on the road we drove north to Yanchep National Park, about an hour north of Perth, where we camped in a caravan park near the beach. It was raining when we arrived, but the following morning was sunny and we went to see the koalas displayed in the park (Koalas don’t live in Western Australia so these had been imported from eastern Australia.) A flock of rare black cockatoos had settled in the trees above the koala enclosure.
Looking at Stromatolites at Lake Thetis near Cervantes
We then continued north to Cervantes, famous for its stromatolites. Stromatolites are the oldest known living organism and grow only in shallow, super salty water. The tiny organisms grow very slowly and form clusters (they are extremely fragile.) A boardwalk allowed us to see them up close without causing any damage.
The Pinnacles, Nambung National Park
Also near Cervantes are the Pinnacles, in Nambung National Park, an assemblage of conical rocks rising out of the sand like an army of stone soldiers. They reminded us of a giant chessboard with odd shaped pieces or something from a science fiction movie. We stayed until sunset, fascinated by the strange shapes and shadows.
Banksia flowers
Our third day on the road in Western Australia took us from Cervantes back to the Brand Highway and on to Kalberri where we stayed the night before setting off to visit Murchison River Gorge in the morning. The sand road into the gorge was a bumpy giant washboard lined with yellow-flowered Banksia bushes.  Signs warned us to watch out for bilbys (a marsupial with long, rabbit-like ears) and we were hoping to see one. We didn’t, although we did spot a flock of emus.
Few other people were at the overlook when we arrived at Murchison River Gorge. After taking pictures of the impressive view, we hiked down to the bottom of the gorge. As we were leaving, a thunderstorm rolled in, making the view even more dramatic.
Murchison River Gorge with storm approaching
The rest of the day was spent back on the road, driving to our furthest destination, Shark Bay.

Monday, February 22, 2016

BIKING THROUGH FRANCE: from the Memoir of Carolyn T. Arnold

Old Roman Bridge, Along the Riviera, France
My husband’s Aunt Carolyn bicycled in France in the summer of 1951. The following is an excerpt from her memoir about the trip.

Following my pleasant experiences bicycling in Ireland (see post for 7/29/13), I decided to try France, Italy, and Switzerland in the same way the following summer. The hostel group landed at Cherbourg, and after preliminaries at Customs, we began our journey through Normandy and quaint Brittany.
American Memorial Cemetery, Normandy, France
From the city of Avranches, we saw Mont St. Michel, perched high on a granite rock, an island at high tide. We crossed the causeway at low tide to the village at sea level. Then we began the climb up the rocky trail to the church at the top, rising 500 feet above the village. Later, back at the village, we paused for the famous omelettes at Madam Poulard’s, cooked over an open fireplace.
Two French boys in grain field
Along the beautiful Loire Valley, we saw many famous old chateaux: Amboise, Chenonceaux, and Chaumont. I lost the group in Amboise and found my college French was not adequate to communicate. I did get the attention of a gendarme directing traffic, mainly, as he pointed out, because I was riding the wrong way on a one-way street! I soon overtook my friends.
Amboise Cathedral
From Tours, we took a train to the Riviera. Riding along the beautiful coast road was very warm, so occasionally we stopped for a quick change and a dip in the sea.
Beach at Cannes
We continued on from Cannes to Nice to Monte Carlo, where again I got lost, but my French had improved by this time. Finally, together again, we crossed the French-Italian border–all downhill riding. We checked our bicycles to Venice for storage and continued by train to Rome.
Boarding the train
After touring Rome, Florence, Venice and Switzerland, we returned to Paris. Joan, my roommate, and I bought a paperback, “Paris on Foot.” That was a lucky purchase as it divided the city into areas which could be seen by foot in one day. We covered every area of the city during the week and also learned to ride the Metro.
Boulevard St. Michele, Paris
We met another hosteler one evening, and he escorted us to a bistro where we joined in the singing with the locals. We were wide-eyed at one middle-aged gentleman (probably an American) who had too much wine. Two French girls, who had been playing up to him, helped him stagger from the room. The girls came back a short time later, and we felt sure they had his bank roll.
Flower seller, Paris
Can you imagine riding a bicycle across the Place de la Concorde? Traffic was with an “I don’t care attitude,” whizzing around the great circle. The traffic gave me pause for a minute, but we were on our way to the boat train and home. We made it.

Perhaps the original intrepid tourist was Carolyn Arnold, my husband’s aunt.  A single school teacher in Des Moines, she began traveling abroad when she was in her forties, beginning with a bicycling trip through Ireland in 1950.  She went on from there to spend a year as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in Wales, to more trips to Europe and beyond, and eventually became a tour leader, taking all her nieces and nephews (including Art) on her travels.  When she retired from teaching, she wrote of her experiences in a memoir called Up and Down and Around the World with Carrie.  Today, as I read of her travels, I marvel at her spirit of adventure at a time when women did not have the independence they do today. 

All photos by Carolyn T. Arnold.

Monday, February 15, 2016

THE GREAT BARRIER REEF: Australia's Underwater Wonderland

Heron Island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef rises above the surrounding reef.
The Great Barrier Reef, stretching for 1250 miles along Australia’s northwestern coast, is one of the world’s most remarkable places. I have visited the Great Barrier Reef twice, first in 1983 when I went with my family to Heron Island (see my blog post for September 23, 2013) and again in 2002 when I stayed at an eco-resort in the Whitsunday Passage. Both times I had a chance to experience the wealth of wildlife that lives on and around the reef, both at low tide on the reef flat and by snorkeling in deep water. Not surprisingly, we took hundreds of photos!  Here are a few from our visit to Heron Island when we went out to explore the reef at low tide.
Heron Island is one of the few islands on the outer reef with trees. The trees and plants on Heron Island provide a rare refuge for ocean going birds, including the herons after which the island is named. Many nest in the tall pandanus trees. Small crabs, fish, and other sea life are plentiful on the reef and provide food for growing chicks.
Staghorn Coral
Despite its plant-like form, coral is actually clusters of tiny animals that live inside hard calcium skeletons. Staghorn coral gets its name from its antler-like projections.
Cone Shell
Beware of cone shells! A sting from some species of cone shell can kill a person.
Sea Cucumber
Sea cucumbers are also known as beche-de-mer. Hundreds of years ago, Chinese sailors came to the Great Barrier Reef to harvest sea cucumbers, still considered a delicacy. Sea cucumbers are in the scientific group Echinodermata and are related to starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, as well as the sea lilies or "stone lilies"
Underside of a reef rock
Like a colorful abstract painting, tiny sponges and algae grow on the underside of a reef rock. Reef rock forms from compressed calcium carbonate.
Sea Hare (Aplesia)
Inching along like a giant slug, a sea hare is so well camouflaged that it can hardly be seen.
Sea Star
A variety of sea stars live on the Great Barrier Reef. Their arms break off easily, helping them to escape predators. Gradually a new arm grows and replaces the old one.

The Great Barrier Reef is one Earth's richest environments. These are just a few of the millions of amazing creatures that live there.

Monday, February 8, 2016


Aquarium Exhibit, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
We had come to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, to see the special exhibit of the Passenger Pigeon (see my post for 11/10/14) and with a limited amount of time afterward, we had to make a choice of where to go next.  We started in the Ocean Hall and were so engaged that we spent virtually all of the rest of our time at the museum in there.  From the huge whale skeletons hanging overhead and an aquarium with live fish, to a preserved giant squid and cases with fossils of prehistoric ocean life, we had more than enough to look at.
Trilobite fossil

Panels accompanying the whale skeletons explained how whales had evolved from land dwelling mammals. One panel showed how some prehistoric species had both teeth and short baleen that helped them filter feed.  One of the most intriguing whale skeletons was of a species called Basilosaurus which had such an elongated tail that it was incorrectly thought to be a giant sea reptile when it was first discovered. Small hind limbs show that it was descended from land-dwellers.
Section of spinal column of Basilosaurus
The fossil cases were filled with the remains of creatures that lived in ancient oceans. In many instances they have been preserved in incredible detail. Crinoids, trilobites, starfish, and clams are just some of the fascinating fossils displayed.

Crinoid Fossils (Cretaceous)
I couldn’t resist having my picture taken looking through the jaws of megalodon, the now extinct giant shark that is an ancestor of the great white shark. I wrote about another megalodon jaw at the Raleigh, NC,  Science Museum in my post on this blog on Dec. 2, 2013.  Megalodon is also the subject of my book Giant Shark: Megalodon, Super Pre-Historic Predator.
Jaws of Megalodon
As we left the Ocean Hall we passed the elephant mounted in the rotunda at the entrance to the museum.  Next time we visit we need to allow more time so that we can visit the many other exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
African Elephant

Monday, February 1, 2016

SICILY: VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES, Guest Post by Tom Scheaffer

Tom at the re-assembled remains of the Temples of "Castor and Pollux".
My brother Tom loves to travel and Italy is one of his (and my) favorite places. Here is another report from his most recent trip, in December 2015 and January 2016, when he went to Sicily.
Temple of Juno
A highlight of my trip to Sicily was going to the Valley of the Temples located on a high ridge on the outskirts of Agrigento. I drove with three friends from our resort in Sciacca south to Agrigento on a sunny and warm January day.
Temple of Concordia
This World UNESCO Site includes remains of seven temples, all in the Doric style. The best preserved, Temple of Concordia, was built in the 5th Century BC by the Greeks. Due to its good state of preservation it is ranked amongst the most notable edifices of Greek civilization existing today.
Remains of the Temple of Heracles; it is the most ancient in the Valley
We walked downhill two kilometers from the top of the site, taking many photos and admiring the remains of the temples and imagining what life was like centuries ago in this beautiful location high above the Mediterranean. The Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world with 1,300 hectares (3212 acres).
In Sciacca we stayed at the Torre Del Barone Resort. It is a beautiful resort right on the sea and all rooms had a view. The weather was great and I even went swimming in the Mediterranean [with a wetsuit]. Sicily is beautiful with lots of orange trees and olive orchards.