Plumbago Outback Expedition

It wasn’t as hot as we had hoped it would be. The temperature didn’t exceed 40°C which is strange for this part of the world this time of year. But that’s not all: it also rained. It rained on us while camping in the desert where the average rainfall is a scant 230mm a year. Go figure.

My friend Carl, who was heading the trip, invited me to join the five-day backpacking trip in the semi-arid Australian Outback as a wilderness guide. The trip is organized by a private school near Melbourne for their Year 11 (11th Grade) class. It is the last installment and the most rigorous of their Outdoor Education program. In previous years these students have visited mountain, marine and forest environments and now they must face the most famous, and harsh of Australian environments – the desert.

We drove over 1000 km north from Melbourne past the town of Broken Hill to cross the border into South Australia and onto Plumbago Station. From here the kids, nearly sixty of them, split into two groups to walk the loop trail in opposite directions.

I was assigned to the clockwise group and once we had picked our navigators for the half-day trek to our first camp we were off. The red dirt, of the Australian Outback, soon coated our boots and legs. (Over the week that red dirt would lodge itself in various unexpected places on our bodies and in our packs).

The Mighty Muddy Dusky

Ah, the Dusky.

That, with a wistful look off into the infinite, seems to be a common reaction among those who have experienced the Dusky Track buried deep in Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island.

The floatplane touched down with only a gentle whoosh on the glassy, silky smooth surface of Supper Cove. Steep, massive tree-covered slopes surrounding our little landing cove looked like they had been jettisoned from the seabed into the sky. The tide was out and the sandy estuary of the Seaforth River glowed golden touched with green where sea vegetation was starting to take hold. The gentle flow of the river braided across the sandy surface, finally ending its journey from the staggering peaks above.

Hills and Huts

The Routeburn Track on the South Island of New Zealand is designated as one of the “Great Walks” in New Zealand. That means beautiful terrain, awe-inspiring views and luxury (by camping and trekking standards) style accommodation. It also means it’s guaranteed to be expensive and crowded. Ah well. It’s ultimately worthwhile sharing earth’s beauty. And it’s certainly tolerable the way the New Zealand Department of Conservation manages the number of people that come up.

The Buckly Transport shuttle picked Derek and me up right outside our hostel the same morning we called and took us from Queenstown directly to the trailhead. Not 20 meters in we crossed a span bridge over some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. Further up the stream, pools of sunlit water glowed bright blue against the pure white of bubbly, churning water flowing into them. The stark dark shadows of trees spilled in creating a frame with the sparkling rocks around the whole scene. This was a good start.

Once in the woods the wide, well-established trail made for easy walking and allowed us to gawk at the surrounding beauty rather than where we placed our feet. An endless carpet of ferns and small lush shrubs covered the forest floor, split only by the meandering white rocky path. Criss-cross patterns of sunlight and shadows floated down from the canopy above.

Pole Out

Returning to the vibrant land of color was a re-awaking process like I’ve never experienced before. It all started when I deplaned in Christchurch, New Zealand. I had stepped onto a massive C-17 Globemaster III military transport aircraft in the stillness of McMurdo Sound on the Antarctic coast and off it into a foreign world of warmth, darkness, sweet aromas and a light spattering of rain.

Knowing it would be warm when I arrived, I wore shorts under the heavy Antarctic clothing. Peeling off the layers as soon as I was on the tarmac waiting for the shuttle bus to the terminal felt glorious. The warm moist air enveloped me, light drops of rain tingled my skin and my sense of smell felt keener than ever. Even darkness took on a new fascination. The stars, having been hidden from me by 24 hours of sunlight a day at the pole, were partially obscured by scattered clouds and the light pollution of the city, but they were more beautiful than I could have imagined. It was approaching midnight but I was totally wired with all these sensory stimulations that had lain dormant since I flew south three months ago, all the way south.

Origin of Life Discovered

It’s a pretty long photo essay, but then what did you expect after I covered over 3,000 Km heading up and down the Western Australian Coast!

I went north first, departing around 4.30am expecting the drive to Shark Bay to be around 12 hours. I wanted to be there by sunset. It turns out it was only about 9 hours and the direct overhead light proved to be much better for photographing the Stromatolites. They are the colonies of cynobacteria (or cyanobacteria) believed to be the first oxygen producers on Earth when they dominated the landscape for 2 billion years, starting around 3.5 billion years ago. They are the origin of the air we breathe today.