Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Jurassic Car sinks again

Termites are the stars of northern Australia.  Grass-eating termites are the primary grazers here and their massive cathedral mounds dominate the landscape.  Rinyirru is no different, and its termites were part of the reason we traveled here.

We spent a couple days exploring Rinyirru’s savannas (photo by Christina Kwapich)

Flocks of red-tailed black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii) inhabit the park’s Eucalyptus woodland

Rinyirru’s flat coastal plains turn into vast marshes during the wet season.  The extreme wet and dry conditions are too much for most tree species to handle, and the plains are covered by tall grasslands and mound-building termites.

Rinyirru’s Nifold Plain is a vast seasonally flooded grassland dominated by termite mounds

During the dry season the plain’s water retreats to isolated marshes

Tall mounds allow termites to stay dry during floods, permitting mound-builders to colonize areas impossible for subterranean species.  Among the most spectacular mound builders are the magnetic termites who align their mounds in a north-south direction.  There are two species in Australia, one endemic to the Top End around Darwin and the other endemic to the Cape York Peninsula.  I’d already experienced the first a few years ago, and now I finally got to see the second.

Magnetic termites (Amitermes laurensis) align the ridges of their mound tops along a north-south axis

Of course, we paid a misery tax for our discoveries.  We cracked a side mirror driving too close to a Eucalyptus.  And we got stuck again, this time sinking in roadside mud, and had to be rescued by a passing truck.  Did I mention our truck was painted like a Jurassic Park car?

Our rental truck, Jurassic Car—painted like a vehicle from the movie—never ceased to embarrass me, but it got us where we needed (Photo by Buck Trible)

You’ll never totally fit in when you travel, but I like to stand out as little as possible.  Jurassic Car got us where we needed but a part of me always felt like an idiot.  Wherever we went Australians would shout “Jurassic Park!” as they drove past.

Getting stuck and asking strangers for help is embarrassing enough.  Having a truck with dinosaur stripes adds a whole new level of humiliation.

Somehow, explaining that it’s a rental doesn’t make it feel any better…

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Misery tax

I left Cairns with three companions—Christina, Buck and Clint.  I met Christina last year during my work in Florida where she studies ant foraging ecology.  Buck was with me at Ant Course in Uganda in 2012 and he now studies ant genetics in Manhattan.  I just met Clint—a post-doc in North Carolina who studies ant behavior—on this trip.  Together we would explore the Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland.

The world’s largest remaining tropical savanna stretches across northern Australia from Queensland to Western Australia.  I explored parts of this sprawling grassland in 2011, around Mount Isa and Darwin.  The Cape York Peninsula—Australia’s horn that projects towards New Guinea—is one of the more remote parts of this wilderness.  The few people who live north of Cairns are centered on the coast, with the interior population mostly limited to a few cattle stations and tiny towns.  I’d been eyeing the area for years but because of my limited means the peninsula eluded me in 2011.

The sparsely inhabited Cape York Peninsula juts from the northeast end of Australia.  Aside from a narrow band of dark green rainforests along the coast, the peninsula is mostly tropical Eucalyptus savanna.

So when Christina proposed a trip north I pounced on the opportunity.  Now that I had a job and friends to split the bill, the Cape York Peninsula was finally open to me.  We rented a 4WD and left the city behind…and I got to drive!

Cairns lies in a small belt of coastal rainforest.  As we climbed onto the Atherton Tablelands to the west we left the rainforest behind and entered the savanna.  The mangroves, palms and strangler figs gave way to grasslands, eucalypts and giant termite mounds.  I was happy and in my element—behind the wheel headed toward discovery (but this time on the left side of the road).

We crossed hundreds of miles of dry savanna on our way north

Our goal was Rinyirru National Park 200 miles to the north.  The second largest national park in Queensland, it protects over 2,000 square miles of coast, estuaries, savannas and seasonal wetlands.  Rinyirru, in other words, is an ideal place to start a far north adventure.

Saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) inhabit the park’s wetlands, making it dangerous to approach muddy water

After reaching the town of Laura the pavement ended.  From here to the cape the peninsula is traversed only by dirt roads.  We turned onto an unpaved road to the park, racing past herds of grazing agile wallabies in a rush to get to our off-road campsite before dark.

Agile wallabies (Macropus agilis) were common in the park’s savannas

The sun set and the rutted dirt road got deeper and narrower and sandier.  Just short of our campsite we dipped into a creek crossing and crawled to a stop in deep sand coming up the opposite bank.  It was then we found out the rental company had given us a flawed vehicle.  The four wheel drive—crucial on the peninsula’s dirt tracks—didn’t work.

We were stuck in the savanna in the dark, miles from the main park road.

Lacking functioning four wheel drive, our truck got stuck on the track to our first campsite

A campfire burned a couple hundred meters away.  We left the truck and followed the light to a Tasmanian family camping along a river bank.  They agreed to help us out, drove us back to our truck and pulled us out with a tow rope.  We camped with them that night since we couldn’t reach our original campsite.

We camped in the savanna with our Tasmanian rescuers

Vehicle trouble, night time rescues, and camping with Tasmanians were not part of our plan.  I may have changed in three years, but Australia was still as unpredictable as ever.

My first trip to Australia tested me.  It was one of the things I loved most about the country—there was a lot to discover, but never easily.  I remember semi trucks spraying me with dust as I walked miles along sunny highways; running low on water hitchhiking across the Top End; and accidentally chugging a bottle full of stinging ants…among other miseries.

This time, with money, friends and a vehicle, I had lulled myself into thinking it would be easy.  That first night in my tent I reminded myself that this continent takes as much as it gives.  I think of it as a misery tax—for every discovery Australia exacts a price in misfortune.  Something must go wrong.

Australia was hard three years ago and this trip would be no different.  That’s how a proper adventure should be.

It’s why I love Australia.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Return to Cairns

I’ve spent the past six days in Cairns, Queensland, and things are a little different than when I first visited in 2011.  Back then I was trapped in town by torrential monsoon rains.  This time it’s the dry season and the weather is beautiful.

But my circumstances are also different.  I first visited as part of my personal travel before starting grad school.  Now I’m here to present my research to other scientists.  A lot has happened in three and a half years!

Every four years hundreds of people gather from all over the world at the International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI) meeting to discuss the latest in social insect biology.  This time the meeting is in Cairns.  It’s a week of meeting people, planning new projects, catching up with old friends, and learning about the latest (often not yet published) findings in the field.

I’ve seen a lot of interesting talks ranging from the large scale—ecology, biogeography, and conservation—to the small—physiology, neurobiology, and the genes that determine ant social organization.  There was even a talk about the effects of cocaine on honeybees.  Turns out, it makes them dance more and eat less.

Last night was movie night.  Christian Peeters, who I joined in the field in Madagascar last year, has spent the past four years making animated movies to teach kids about ant biology.  I had seen some of the earlier episodes when I first met Christian in Uganda in 2012.  Here in Cairns I got to finally see his movies on the big screen.

Today I presented some of my flight work.  I talked about my first paper and some unpublished findings, including the first preliminary results of the work Aaron and I did in Florida last summer.  I was excited to present to new people and I think it went well.  At any rate, tonight is the last night of the conference and events are drawing to a close…just in time.

City life is getting old and I’m itching to enter the wilds of Northeast Australia.  Tomorrow I head out with some friends to explore the grasslands and rainforests of the sparsely populated Cape York Peninsula.  Containing part of the world’s largest remaining tropical savanna, the peninsula has been one of my dream locations for a while.  But I was unable to explore it during my first Australia adventure.

It’s time to fix that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kidepo Valley

This week is for traveling.  I drove back to Oklahoma from Ohio, and today I leave for Australia to attend a meeting.  So, I figure this week is a good opportunity to continue the Uganda series from 2012.  When I last left off I had just crossed the Nile into the north with a driver named Nicholas…

Our journey to Kidepo Valley National Park involved a lot of breaking down in the middle of nowhere and getting stuck in mud.  Not long after crossing the Nile we passed through the town of Gulu.  A half hour beyond we hit a ditch and our front right tie rod end came loose, making our truck unsteerable.  Nothing around but mud and thatch huts.  A few helpful villagers with a pickup truck brought some tools from a nearby village and did a hasty repair.  We hobbled back to Gulu at 15 km an hour and stayed the night.

Gulu is one of the areas formerly terrorized by the self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony.  Today the city is peaceful and filled with NGOs, American aid workers in flowery skirts, UN trucks, and signs warning villagers not to step on land mines or pick up hand grenades.  But a new generation of self-proclaimed prophets has moved in.  The Uganda Gospel Jubilee was in progress, with evangelists and witnesses blasting sermons and testimonies over loudspeakers throughout town, and public exorcisms on show for free.  Apparently an American pastor was going to cure cancer.

As much as I would have liked to see someone single-handedly defeat cancer, the next day we repaired our truck and moved on.  The road was just a single lane of red dirt for hundreds of kilometers, often muddy, and with just the occasional cluster of mud and thatch huts.  We stopped for the night in the town of Kitgum and arrived at the park the next day.

The roads beyond Gulu were just single lanes through grassland…

 …with occasional villages and cornfields

We broke down a few times, in this case due to battery trouble

Although it took three days of travel to get there, Kidepo Valley was worth the trip.  I ran into two fellow travelers who had also made the long overland journey—Sasha, an Australian/Italian freelance photojournalist and documentary film-maker who had recently returned from filming a WWII documentary in Libya and Egypt, and James, a British Economics student who had just spent a month teaching English and Math at a primary school in Tanzania. They hitched a ride to the park in the back of a pickup truck filled with locals, chickens, goods for sale, and with a live goat strapped to the side.  But since they had no vehicle of their own they were unable to explore the park they had worked so hard to get to.  So they joined Nicholas and me and we explored together.

Kidepo Valley National Park protects an area of grassland on the border of South Sudan, and not far from the Kenyan border to the east

Lions rest on islands of bedrock jutting up from the sea of grass

The park is one of only two places in Uganda where giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi) can still be found

The park is named after the Kidepo River, shown here a few miles from where it flows into South Sudan

A local Karamojong guide named Bennett led us on a hike along and over a rocky ridge during a thunderstorm.  It was surreal, walking through an East African grassland, thunder and rain and dark clouds everywhere, and buffalo, zebra, and oribi, shivering and wet, fleeing as we approached.

Rain clouds built up over the savanna as we hiked along a ridge

With the rains came floods, and that afternoon our truck got stuck in a marsh.  Nicholas, Bennett, Sasha, James and I spent 3 hours digging in the mud to no avail.  Night approached, and I worried (hoped?) that we would have to walk back to camp in the dark, through a marsh, with lions and buffalo and elephant nearby, with only two flashlights and an AK-47 between us.  But eventually a rescue vehicle loaded with park staff and a helpful German tourist arrived just before sundown and towed us out, and we drove back to camp.

The sudden rains flooded the grassland and trapped our truck in mud

As I settled into my hut for the night I heard James’s voice outside my door.

“There are zebb-ras outside."

Hurrying outside to join Sasha and James, I stood shirtless and quiet as a herd of Burchell's Zebras passed through the center of camp.  A steady stream of them stepped from the tall grass into the clearing, and disappeared into the bush on the other side.  They followed each other around huts and outhouses, hooting to each other to maintain contact in the darkness.  And then they were gone, as suddenly as they’d arrived.

Everyone in the park had experienced the rough overland journey.  Now with the unexpected rains our minds turned to the roads.  More rain would make them impassable, if they weren’t already, trapping us.  It was time to escape.

We joined a convoy of trucks headed south, staying together to help negotiate the mud.  We hoped to reach Gulu, a few hundred kilometers away, before the afternoon rains hit.  But our fears were confirmed—after struggling for hours through mud we reached a bridge we had crossed only two days prior.  Today the river was flooded and the bridge was in the center of a wide fast-moving lake.  We were cut off from Kitgum.

On our return the river had swollen, isolating the bridge to Kitgum in the middle of a wide flowing lake…

…and trapping people on both banks

Crowds of locals stranded on each bank decided to make the best of it and were bathing, swimming, and having a general festival.  Two boys roasted corn over a small stove.  We enjoyed the moment, bought a couple cobs, and pondered our next move.  In the end, one driver led us around on an alternate path.

We made it to Gulu and in the evening re-crossed to the south bank of the Nile at Karuma Falls. I was out of money and in the mood for a dirtier, more down to earth mode of travel.  The truck would have to go.  Sasha and James and I said goodbye to Nicholas and his Land Cruiser and prepared for our next adventure.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Rediscovering Elyria

I’ve mentioned my hometown on M2M, but have never written about it.  In fact, I’ve barely written about Ohio.  For a blog that’s supposed to follow my professional trajectory, it’s odd that M2M doesn’t yet have a beginning.  Not that I’ve ever limited myself to chronological order.

For the past week I’ve been rediscovering my old stomping grounds in Elyria, Ohio.  I do this a few times a year.  I’ll probably never move back, but it feels like home.  This is, after all, where I developed.

I’ve been revisiting my hometown near Cleveland, Ohio

As usual, I get reflective here.  I spend more time in the past and future and less time in the present.  It’s a reminder of how I’ve changed, and an opportunity to think about where I’m going.

Eleven years ago I left my driveway on what I thought a temporary adventure.  A Marine, a young Lance Corporal on recruiter’s assistance, picked me up to drive me to the Cleveland airport to fly to boot camp.  My family, friends and girlfriend stood on my front lawn and waved goodbye as I disappeared down the street.

I knew I wouldn’t see any of them for months and that things would be different when I did.  What I didn’t realize was that I wasn’t really ever coming back.  The adventure didn’t end with boot camp.  It didn’t end with Iraq.  It didn’t even end with the Marines.  After that there was travel, and college, and more travel, and grad school…  Marine to Myrmecologist is an open story that I write as I live.

And I suppose that’s the template for life in general.

Now I live a thousand miles away in Oklahoma and work all over the world.  But though I’ve been privileged to explore far corners of the planet, and tramp around exotic-sounding places like Borneo, Uganda, Madagascar, and the Amazon, that’s not where I started.  I’ve always been a wanderer, a quiet thinker, an explorer, and that was no less true as a kid in Northeast Ohio.

So now I revisit this corner of the world and check up on my favorite natural areas—quiet places tucked into a sprawling urban carpet that gave me opportunities to escape and explore.

A spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) suns itself in the Black River in the middle of Elyria. Cascade Park, which protects a section of the river’s floodplain, was my favorite childhood refuge.

Far from wilderness, Northeast Ohio is an urban and industrial landscape of converging cities crisscrossed by highways.  What’s not city is mostly farmland.  But there are pockets of nature—secondary forest regenerated after the logging and farming of the destructive 19th century, and ribbons of green along north-flowing rivers emptying into Lake Erie.  Many of these natural areas, green blotches and lines on a brown and gray landscape, are now protected.

Waves crash over a sandbar at the mouth of Porter Creek in Huntington Reservation a few miles west of Cleveland

Eastern cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) grow from shale cliffs on the Lake Erie coast

A fungus feasts on chironomid midges that died on the mossy cliffs after emerging from the lake

The Rocky River flows over riffles and under shale cliffs in Rocky River Reservation before emptying into Lake Erie

I will always be grateful for the foresight of those who came before and protected these areas.  They gave me a chance to live and find myself in a sea of humanity.