Bouddi National Park

When a beautiful Argentinian man invites you to hop on a train and go to an equally beautiful national park, you do it. And that’s how I, a hardworking grad student, skipped my responsibilities and spontaneously went up to Bouddi National Park. 

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The cliffs of Bouddi National Park. PC: You know who 😉

The train ride lasts an hour and costs only $4; the journey north of Sydney through Kurringai-Chase National park was a scenic adventure in and of itself. The train zoomed past pristine national parks with forested hills sloping down to meet deep blue rivers. This was pretty much the same terrain found within Bouddi National Park.

Given that renting a bike costs $50 and an uber to the park entrance from Woy Woy train station cosst $30 (the bus from Gosford would have taken over an hour), it made logical sense to take the 20 minute Uber to the park. Stopping only at a cute cafe with chic art and Phoebe Bridges playing on the sound system, we set off for the park.

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I’m sorry to break it to you, but the entirety of New South Wales has similar coastlines

To start the hike we landed at Putty beach, a bay protected by the surrounding cliffs. Any given Tuesday it was nearly empty, and if the November waters were warmer I would’ve been tempted to go for a swim. The hike began up the stairs from the beach over the sandstone cliffs. 

The sandstone cliffs are easily sculpted and molded over millennia by the waves and strong winds to create some fascinating formations [see first photo]. My favorites included a perfectly isometric lattice, swirls of orange in a grid of squares, and some naturally occurring benches!

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Actually in Sydney/Little Bay but you get the point. Sorry Kevin for wearing the same bathing-suit PC: Kind Stranger 😉

I am in awe of the ways in which these cliffs can be sculpted to resemble patterns that are familiar to man, and it was so much fun hiking through them with the beautiful view of the pacific, to boot!

Beyond these formations, I remember beginning to struggle up and down stairs that covered the sand dunes, making them easier to hike up. However, with the sun rising higher in the sky and the stair sets getting steeper, I struggled to keep up pace. 

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I think I had my first ever asthma attack somewhere just before getting to this beach

The only reprieve was in a thick patch of forest, offering shade and the calls of a whipbird (sounds just like a whip being cracked [actually a duet: comment for more info]), almost like an oasis. Skinks slithered through the leaf litter as I stepped by, and butterflies swarmed the clearings. Hiking through the thick forest right by the sea is very enjoyable, and I made a vow to do more forest hikes near water! (Update: I have)

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Hibiscus Harlequin Bugs (Actually in Feb in Sydney but you get the idea) PC: iPhone 7 (that my mom argued for over an hour with the apple store [so I wouldn’t have to go to Australia with a dumb] phone).

We came down to another beach for a quick picnic before heading back up the stairs to finish the trek. There were times when we could’ve given up, but kept pushing on until we came to the final beach. Here, our reward awaited us and we took a nap in the shade, exhausted from a trek that was well worth the effort. (Update: This post was written in November, 2019. Happy Thanksgiving to my friends and family back home!)

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We probably should’ve just gotten Reyna’s arepas in Newtown. Oh well

Stuck in the mud

As we scooped away mud at the bottom of the tires, the rain started pouring down again, filling in all our hard work. I began to get discouraged and wonder how I ended up digging out a car stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere in Queensland, Australia?

I chose to go volunteering for my friend Aly’s project instead of doing the responsible thing and working at the university, tackling my upcoming deadlines head on. I was hoping to escape my problems and see some bridled nail-tailed wallabies, of which there are only 500 left in the wild. To aid in their conservation, a fenced area that keeps out invasive cats and foxes was established to protect juvenile wallabies until they are big enough to survive in the wild. Aly is studying the effectiveness of this strategy for her PhD.

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A bridled nail-tail wallaby in Avocet nursery, an enclosure that keeps these endangered species safe from predators

Her car has been with Aly through thick and thin, surviving 18 hour road trips from Sydney to Emerald, Queensland, driving past emus, bustards, and plenty of hawks. Some of the strangest trees can be seen on this journey, including orange-barked eucalypts and bottle trees which look like something straight out of Dr. Seuss.

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A several-hundred year old bottle tree. These trees were cultivated by the Traditional Owners of this land and carried across Australia.

Cyclone Trevor came for us that first night, the tailwinds drowning the campsite as we set up camp and through the night. The muddy roads made driving to the nursery tricky, and one wrong turn led us to getting stuck in the mud, literally. After trying all afternoon to get the car out, we gave up and walked back to the campsite, defeated.

The next day, we began by shoveling mud, collecting and shoving sticks under the tires, and laying out carpets for traction. Aly drove the quad bike connected to the back of her car with a rope, and I pushed on the car while her friend tried to reverse. Somehow, it worked and the car broke free from the mud. The feeling of getting the car out was probably one of the best in the world, second only to the bucket shower I took back at the camp when we drove back. A shower, which I might mention, was shared with a redback spider, one of the deadliest in the world.

The campsite is rustic but well-equipped, with water collected from rain buckets and a latrine decorated with Dreamtime stories.

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Dreamtime Story on the side of the latrine. Text reads: “Near a dry creek bed where the everlastings are just starting to flower under the shady gum trees the black fellas have gone hunting dingoes.”

Finally, after three days I got the chance to see a bridled nail tail wallaby. Right as we entered the nursery one bounced up to greet us. This little marsupial was raised in a reserve free of predators, making it completely naive towards the danger I posed as a 5-foot-five predator walking around. The wallaby, none-the-wiser, was happy to nibble at some spare sweet potato and was incredibly accommodating to photos. These wallabies hold their arms out to the side like a T-rex, and watching them bound off into the shrubs is incredibly entertaining as their arms sway from side to side. However, these individuals would likely not survive in the wild, which is why research like Aly’s (and mine!) is important to develop strategies to improve their wariness towards predators.

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Captive-bred wallabies–great for selfies! Not so great for surviving in the wild.

You can follow Aly’s adventures and find out more about the plight of the bridled nail tailed wallabies by following her IG @eco.aly or on twitter

 

 

Blue Mountains

A journey back in time to pre-colonial Sydney began with a 2 hour train west to the mountains. The eucalyptus trees, an iconic symbol of Australian forest, grew tall over steep sandstone cliffs, which towered over a sheer 100m drop to the valley floor. I hiked down the steep trek down the cliff face to find a shimmering waterfall tumbling down from above. The water cascaded over the cliffs like a giant crystal chandelier, with mists gently spraying us from above. The light glimmered off the streaky trickles spectacularly, and it added some color to the otherwise brown cliffs.

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Wentworth Falls. This view was definitely worth the steep hike back up over a hundred stairs!

Cockatoos fluttered across the deep canyons of the Jamison Valley, with steep sandstone cliffs eroded over the millennia to form neat formations like the three sisters pictured below. The blue mountains are named for the hue of the eucalyptus trees, whose leaves have an oil that makes the surrounding air fragrant and a somewhat hazy blue!

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The Three Sisters, the iconic rock formation of the Blue Mountains. My companion, Heloisa, sits next to me in the office and is doing her masters on seeds that are adapted to fire-prone landscapes, like this one.

The vegetation changed rapidly from towering tree ferns around my height to dry eucalyptus forests just hundreds of meters down the cliffside path. It’s easy to imagine all of the giant beasts of ancient Australia that I’ve been reading about wandering around this landscape, like the giant kangaroos nibbling at the tallest trees and marsupial lions hunting along the cliffs.

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Look at the huge drop from those sandstone cliffs!

 

This spectacular day-trip was followed by two weeks of rain and preparations for my first field expeditions. The dreary weather has me feeling kind of glum; however, when I look up and see a flock of parrots overhead or flying foxes beating their large bat wings across a starry night sky I am reminded how lucky I am to live in such a unique part of the world!

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View of the Sydney Harbor from Lady Macquarie’s Chair, a scenic spot at the Royal Botanical Gardens with trees full of flying foxes

I have been busy making preparations for my first field expedition up to the mountains! I have met with the team I am collaborating with on my project at the Australian Reptile Park, where lots of crocodiles and other reptiles draw thousands of tourists each week. I also saw a couple baby Tasmanian devils and a platypus swimming around in a “platypusary”! It was exciting meeting the folks that I will be collaborating with over a morning tea and tossing around exciting ideas and getting the project started. Stay tuned for stories from the first field expedition!

Settling In

Slowly but surely I am adjusting to my new life in Sydney. I am truly in the best location with easy access to the city and beautiful coastal beaches. I love being able to walk down to the south along the cliffs, with the city off in the distance and the pacific ocean as far as I can see. The huge waves and beautiful birds never fail to put a smile on my face, and to the south (as opposed to the walk North, ranked the #2 thing to do in Sydney) there are much fewer crowds!

I am already learning lots through my readings and experiences, such as through the Royal Zoological Society’s forum on conservation and technology. Taking place at the Australia museum, much of Australia’s natural history that I have been reading about sprung to life as I was able to walk amongst replicas of the extinct Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) and Diprotodon (the largest marsupial–about the size of a small car). The museum featured lots of taxidermy of living Australian animals too and lots of exhibits on the local Aboriginal tribes. The conference explored the use of technology and citizen science in promoting conservation, with exciting developments like dogs that can detect koala poo and fancy cameras that can capture kangaroo behavior all day long.

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What a great spot for an office retreat!

I also participated in a work retreat at Royal National Park, the oldest protected land in Australia and 2nd oldest in the world! The getaway took place along the cerulean waters south of the city, featuring lots of shrieking cockatoos on the grounds. While beautiful, they woke me up at 6AM after a late night of socializing, which made me like them a bit less.It was great to meet more people in my Department and learn more about the centre and throughout the planning session. Additionally, it was fun being in a camp setting to bond with my new colleagues and learn about their exciting conservation projects.

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Waratah, the state emblem of New South Wales, spotted just outside Royal National Park

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A lookout on the way out of Royal National Park.

 

I certainly feel welcomed and am integrating well with my new friends in the department, and one of my work colleagues invited me over for her birthday party! I’ve noticed the music features a lot of 80s, 90s, and early 2000s music, which is a nice reprieve from all the modern-day dance tunes. I also met up with an alum from my university and visited a synagogue for several holiday dinners, which have led me to even more friends!

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An Aussie Sukkah. Jews from around the world, including the UK, Canada, America and South Africa, can always get together to celebrate the high holidays!

I am very excited to continue exploring Sydney and to start preparations for my first expedition next month: Details to come soon!

Tufa

A long-tailed weasel darts out in front of the path, brown-orange fur and a pointed tail flashes quickly across the boardwalk trail. The scent of sage fills the air as I walk through the sage bushes to the lake, sun shimmering off the ice capped mountains in the distance. Flies swarm along the puddles of water and brine shrimp float at the water’s edge.

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Yosemite National Park lies on the other side of the mountains

The pillars of calcium carbonate salt known as tufa look like they belong on another planet or in a Dr. Seuss book. Similar to mini skyscrapers sprouting from the beach, the stacks of rock rise out of the lake like no other structure on earth.

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Tufa pillars!

The lake has a unique chemical composition, heavy in salt and calcium carbonate, the main ingredient in baking soda. The water feels thick and briny, leaving a sticky residue after I dip my hands in the water. The minerals mix with the freshwater that bubbles up from springs underneath the lake and calcifies, forming the big tufa stacks that form year after year.

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These tufa pillars are jutting out of the water now because the lake was drained a bit to provide water for the surrounding cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This lake is not only physically fascinating, but it also is an important stopover site for migratory birds. Many birds rest and feed on the many brine shrimp that fill the waters of the lake, refueling on their long journeys across the continent. Supporting this idea, I even saw an osprey and her chick nesting on a tufa!

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Visiting Mono Lake up in the mountains not only made for amazing scenery, but it was also a great place for seeing wildlife! It made for a great last stop on the trip to Yosemite National Park.

Not Taking Yosemite For Granite

There is nothing quite like waking up in the morning in the valley of Yosemite National Park. The campground is nestled in between two giant granite cliff faces, constantly towering from above.38030583_10214752920410270_2861554538286940160_n.jpg

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The beautiful granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley. For all you Game of Thrones fans, it was like living beneath The Wall!

In the valley, I hiked up a somewhat challenging trail to see beautiful cascades tumbling down hundreds of feet, featuring a rainbow! A bit outside of the valley, a trail took us up the mountainside to a blue alpine lake.

 

Each afternoon, the smoke would blow in from the wildfire south of the park and make the descending hikes quite difficult. Only on the final morning in the valley the smoke cleared and I was able to witness the grandeur of the mountain landscapes. On the way out, there were many pit stops at beautiful lake lookouts and meadows! One meadow even featured a couple of mule deer!

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Olmstead lookout

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Check out the rack on those mule deer!

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A beautiful meadow pit stop

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The beautiful Tanaya lake. The smoke and rain made it invisible the day before, but now the smoke had cleared—and what a view!

The final lake hike was my favorite, with mountain landscapes that reminded me of the rainbow mountain in Peru. Even though the high altitude made me need to stop to catch my breath, there were many perfect pit stops to take in the views.

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The hike up to Gaylor Lake

Just as I reached the top, the heavens opened up and let loose a downpour. Unfortunately, while alpine habitats are super cool and have lots of gnarly looking trees, they don’t offer much protection from the rain. I found a couple of pine trees bent off at an angle and took shelter underneath them to wait out the storm, but I still ended up getting soaked.

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The intimidatingly large valley we drove through on the way out of Yosemite

As we left Yosemite National Park to visit Mono Lake, we drove through an intimidatingly large valley with glaciers and a stream flowing down the mountain side. The valley was beautiful when the sun was shining, but as a rainstorm came in on the way back out the valley turned sinister. The rain changed to hail as we winded our way up the cliffs, and we even pulled over to wait out the storm. Driving slowly and carefully, we eventually made our way through the layer of ice and water gushing down the roads, but during the drive everyone was on the edge of their seats!

 

A Walk Amongst the Giants

Light ash swirls around me as I look up at the immensity before me. The wildfire to the south of Yosemite National Park in central California has left smoke lingering around the forest, creating a mystical feel. The enormous sequoia tree before me is nick-named the “Grizzly Giant”— and with good reason. The giant tree is 92 feet around and 209 feet tall, which is about as big as the Leaning Tower of Piza! Some experts estimate that the tree could be up to 2800 years old, sprouting its first leaves around the time the ancient Greeks had their first athletic contest in Olympia.

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“Grizzly Giant.” The giant sequoia trees of Mariposa grove helped inspire conservationists to proect the park!

I feel a sense of awe—mixed with slight intimidation— as I stare up at the thick tree branches, which round off at the top. The trees are often struck by lighting, given their enormous height, which prevents the tops of the trees from growing too tall and narrow. The bark is tinted a nice red color, as the smoke scatters the sunlight to give off an ever-present reddish hue.

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A mule deer passing across the trail, paying no mind to the tourists.

Wildlife is abound in this forest, called the Mariposa Grove. I fight my way through a swarm of bothersome beetles clustered on the dirt trail. I am quite irritated by them until one lands on me and I notice its yellow back and black spots. The beetles are a kind of ladybug, and suddenly they appear kind of beautiful. Other animals seen include a doe and her spotted fawn running alongside the opposite trail. Chipmunks and California ground squirrels pop up out of their burrows along the trails to check me out as I walk past.

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A Douglas Squirrel snacking on the side of the trail in Yosemite Park. 

Signs along the path tell the history of the park; legendary conversationist John Muir convinced Theodore Roosevelt to protect the forest at this very spot! And none too soon, since many of the trees faced immense pressure from loggers. The giant sequoia trees play an important role in the forest, providing habitat for many forest critters and even help to control the flow of water. Sequoia roots absorb tons of water, slowing the melting snow that flows down from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and slowly release it over the course of California’s drought-prone summers. This helps prevent flooding and erosion to the landscape and helps protect the water supply in the surrounding area. The huge Driscoll’s© berry farm I drove by on the way in depends on extensive irrigation, which is aided by a healthy sequoia forest!

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Thank you giant seqouias for all the work you do to keep the forest healthy!

I am so thankful for the opportunity to walk amongst the forest giants and witness their immensity in person!