“Storm in the Outback”: An Essay

Gasp! A blog post! Okay, yeah, this has been the longest dry stretch since I started this blog four (!!!) years ago, but I’m resurfacing long enough to share with you a piece of writing that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while now. This is a story from the three months I spent in Australia back in 2009, which I’ve posted about previously (specifically regarding echidnas and a giant dust storm). I fiddled around a bit with the idea of submitting this piece to a literary magazine or several, but ultimately decided to just post it here. It’s around 1200 words; let me know what you think. Continue reading ““Storm in the Outback”: An Essay”

Photo of the Day: Flying Foxes

At the botanical garden in Sydney, Australia, near the famous opera house.

(I will be back from a trip to California and Oregon on August 11 – until then I’m sharing a few photos of previous travels.)

Photo of the Day: Kangaroo Mama

Me with one of the many semi-tame kangaroos that hung around the research station I was staying at in Australia.  She actually has a joey in her pouch, though he isn’t visible here.

(I will be back from a trip to California and Oregon on August 11 – until then I’m sharing a few photos of previous travels.)

Australia Flashback: Echidna Encounter

When I was preparing to go to Australia, I tried to keep realistic expectations when it came to the wildlife I’d see.  Kangaroos and emus?  Probably.  Koalas and platypuses?  No – I wouldn’t be anywhere near the right habitat.  But despite my lack of platypus-viewing opportunities, there was another monotreme that, with just a little luck, I might run into.

The first time I saw an echidna, I had only been there a few days.  I didn’t have my camera with me (yes, I was dumb enough to go for a walk in the Australian Outback without my camera), but if I had seen one that quickly, surely I’d see more, right?  Then weeks passed.  Weeks and weeks.  I started to lose hope.  Had I missed my one opportunity to get some photos of a real live monotreme in its native habitat?  Nearly two months later, I finally saw a second one, and this time I had my camera on me.  Thank heavens.

The great thing about echidnas is that they can’t really move any faster than a waddle, so when they see you they don’t even bother trying to run away.  When you get too close they just curl up into a prickly ball and wait for you to leave.  You can get as close as you want to take photos, and I admit I couldn’t resist reaching out to touch one of its spines!

Near the beginning of this video you may be able to hear me over the wind, softly saying “Echidnaaaaaa!”  I was completely alone at the time.  I was just a little excited.  :)

Updated to add: I showed one of my echidna photos to a coworker, and she said, “What the heck’s an echidna?”  So in case you’re not in the know, an echidna is a monotreme, or egg-laying mammal.  There are actually several species of echidna in Australia and New Zealand, and they’re the only close living relatives of that other, more famous monotreme, the platypus.  This is a short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus.

Australia Flashback: Dust Storm of the Century!

When I started this blog I knew that if I ever ran short of ideas for posts, I had plenty of material saved up from my time in Canada, Costa Rica, Australia, etc.  Well, that time has come.  I’m not so much running short of ideas as I am of time and energy to go out into the woods for inspiration; temperatures this week have climbed into the nineties, which, when combined with the godawful humidity of Ohio summer, feels like living at the bottom of a warm, sticky lake.  Add to that a demanding job, and it’s just been a while since I’ve hit the trails by myself with my camera.  It’s on my to-do list for this weekend.

So.  Let me tell you a story.

I spent last fall in the Australian Outback, working as a field assistant for a PhD student studying bird behavior.  (Little brown birds, not anything exciting like Emus or Wedge-tailed Eagles, though both of those were fairly common at our field site.  One thing I learned was that Emus are not particularly enthusiastic nest builders, as you can see from the Emu “nest” below, with my feet for scale.)

Because it was a desert ecosystem – one that made southern Arizona look almost lush in comparison – it was fairly common on windy days for a certain amount of dust to be whipped up into the air.  The first time I saw the horizon go brown with dust I was deeply impressed.  A real live dust storm!  How exotic!

I had no idea what was in store.

One afternoon it started to get dusty, and then it just kept getting dustier.

And dustier.

I somehow missed getting any photos or video of the absolute blackest part of the storm, but a quick YouTube search for “dust storm in Broken Hill” (Broken Hill being the nearest town) yields endless clips taken around 3:30PM by bamboozled locals.  Yes, that’s right, this video of what appear to be car headlights in the middle of the night was taken at three-thirty in the afternoon.

We put cloths along the bases of all the doors to the outside to keep the dust out of the house, but with limited success; during the worst part of the storm the air was pretty thick with it even inside, and it was just lucky that none of us had respiratory problems.  It was fun to clean up, too.  Here is our partially swept bathroom floor the next day (our bathroom had an outside door for some reason).

This dust storm went on to hit Sydney, which according to my parents actually merited a small mention in the news in America, and even made it all the way across the sea to New Zealand.  People told me afterward that it was the worst dust storm Australia had seen in seventy-some years.  It has its own Wikipedia article.

All I know is it was like the apocalypse, or being suddenly transported to Mars, or something.

Never let it be said that I don’t have an interesting life.