Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thanksgiving Swim

I spent Thanksgiving with one of my favorite aunts, Sara, at her home in Paradise, just to the east of Chico, California. Paradise sits on a lower Sierra Foothills plateau underlain by Tertiary lava flows. These thick layers, gently dipping to the west, are clearly visible on both sides of the road on the drive up and into town. On a clear day, Paradise looks to the west across the Central Valley. The town is constrained on the north and south by the canyons of Butte Creek and the Feather River, respectively.

Thanksgiving was a two person event. Lacking a fixed schedule, Sara suggested a morning walk along the margin of the Feather River Canyon. The canyon itself is steep and rugged. The Feather has a high gradient cataract and pool structure, and is full of large boulders. These conditions indicate rigorous hiking: too much for Thanksgiving morning. A more accessible and less aerobic alternative was to walk along one of the numerous flumes which parallel the canyon walls. Sara wanted to find one on the north side of the river, which was accessible from the local hospital parking lot. She’d been there once before.

It was a decent scramble to find the trail to the flume. The hillside was crisscrossed with paths leading downhill at different angles. Pine needles, bushy secondary growth, and deadfalls guaranteed no obvious route. We made our way, carefully marking our route for later ascent. I wondered at the origin of these paths and roads of varying width. I sensed that I was traveling on routes of varying history, ranging from the Gold Rush to logging operations to flume construction to current recreation access.

We eventually came to the flume. This man-made and lined channel was carved out of the hillside. In most places; the waste rock had been shaped into the outer wall of the flume. The trail on top of this was our route. I don’t know the source of the water, other than it was east and uphill. The flume’s destination is a reservoir just to the west of Paradise. The flume channel looked to be an average of eight feet in width. The current was fast, at least 4 mph, certainly quicker than a walking pace. It was fast enough that the bottom and sides of the chute were bare of any loose sediment, plant growth, or other obstructions.

The flume wandered downhill along the margin of the canyon. In places, the secondary growth canopy completely enclosed us. A few outcrops showed that we were below the level of the lava flows, and into the metamorphic basement rocks: some kind of schistose metasediment. We walked downhill for a good hour. Eventually, it seemed like time to retrace our route and check on the turkey. The flume took a sharp right just ahead; it seemed an obvious turn around point. An outcrop of metamorphics formed a rock fin that defined the bend in the flume. This promontory provided a great view. The sun had largely burnt off the mist. We got our first genuine look into the Feather River Canyon. A classic V-shaped valley; a mixture of firs and just turning yellow deciduous trees covered its hillsides. The stream poured downhill several hundred feet below us. A deer came out of the brush and slowly crossed a large pool.

The metamorphic fin marked the beginning of a stretch of fairly sheer metamorphic rock: maybe an old landslide scar. The shaded canyon side we had been following disappeared. This was not a good place to excavate a channel. Instead, the next few hundred yards of the flume comprised a galvanized steel chute supported by a metal framework. The chute was a little narrower than the excavated channel; the water was thus a little faster. It greatly resembled the flume rides I’ve been on at amusement parks. The “trail” morphed into an eighteen inch metal grate down the center of the flume supported by thin metal cross beams. I’d seen short stretches of flume like this before; they were common where there is a lock or some such mechanism. This stretch was different in its length and exposure; it was like walking on a long narrow and very exposed bridge with no side rails. I had to go out on it.

At first I just enjoyed the sensation of exposure. I was out of the woods and in the sunshine. It was not windy. Once my mind grasped the perspective - a vague sense of walking on a balance beam – I was able to enjoy the feeling of floating above the canyon walls. I started examining the grate. It was the same type of walk way that surrounds the radio towers on Mt. Diablo’s North Peak. Up there, at around thirty-nine hundred feet, a number of rusty melted holes pock the grate: lightning damage.

I found a rusty spot on the flume walkway, and knelt down to examine it. It was ambiguous. I remembered that I had my Nikon. The gray linear steel of the flume provided interesting textural contrasts with the hillside behind it. At water level, the channel walls were stained a variety of interesting colors. I discovered if I lay on the grate and hung my camera down towards the water, I could get shots from just above stream level. I couldn’t see through the view finder as I did this; I liked the randomness of the resulting pictures.

I was shifting around to take more pictures when my sunglasses fell out of my jacket pocket and into the water. I must not have velcroed them securely. Crap – this was my favorite pair, not cheap. I quickly got up, carefully put my camera down, yelled to Sara what had happened, and ran after them. The flume water was very clear. My sunglasses were the only visible sediment particle in transit, gently saltating along the bottom of the flume. They moved at just faster than a walking pace. I ran ahead. I lay down prone on the grate, pulled up my sleeve, and plunged my arm in to the water just as my sunglasses came by. My reach was about four inches too short.

What to do? I ran on, trying to gauge my speed relative to my sunglasses. I came to the end of the steel chute; the flume returned to a channel carved from the hillside. The water slowed slightly. It seemed a good place to wait for my glasses to appear. I lay down on the flume again and watched. Nothing happened. I began to worry that maybe I had misjudged speeds and missed my glasses. Feeling some dismay, I walked off the grate onto the path. I figured, oh well, sunglasses are replaceable.

I kept looking at the channel. I came to a point where there was a small rock fall. A small basaltic boulder had landed in the center of the channel and stayed there. It was too big for the stream to move. Sara caught up to me. I told her my mishaps. I assumed that my sunglasses were on the way to the reservoir. I looked back at the water. There were my sunglasses! I had gotten further ahead of them than I thought. They came to rest against the boulder at the bottom of the flume – the one obstacle I’d seen in three miles of walking.

My course of action was clear. I stripped down to my underwear and jumped into the flume. Just as I got my pants off, the glasses began to dislodge from the upstream side of the rock. Once I landed in the water, I bent down and quickly grabbed them. Mission accomplished. I then noticed that I was freezing – the flume water was cold! I waded back towards the bank. My legs were signaling: icy pain, icy pain. I dragged myself out. I appreciated having built upper body strength at the gym. My clothes were in a patch of sunlight. I warmed up and dried off. We hiked back to the car. The turkey was not overdone.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Field Food Failure

Field work can create many kinds of failure. Most crucial to the research, in the case of my work on spherule layers, has been an inability to find outcrops of the target strata. This is usually a matter of poor exposure. It’s hard to find a thin layer of tiny round particles in a rubbly hillside, especially when one is not sure where it’s supposed to be. There are sometimes other extenuating circumstances, such as the troop of angry baboons I encountered once in South Africa, but these are rarer. My personal research shortcoming is failing to take copious notes or photographs. It all seems so obvious when I’m looking at the rocks.

Other field failures are the common malfunctions of travel: missed connections, lost luggage, or faulty reservations. I’d add three Outback Australia-specific hazards to this list. First, flat tyres. Our trucks have had a range of brand new to badly worn tyres, sometimes both on the same vehicle. Regardless of condition, I have gotten two or three flats on every trip. This is mostly inconvenient; we always carry two spares, and tyre repair is easy at the mining towns. Crawling under a 1.5 ton vehicle on a dusty road to place a tiny jack on the axle is a bit dicey. This is what field assistants are for. Second, getting stuck. I’ve only gotten the truck bogged – in mud – once. That was enough. Escape was a 40 hour project. Finally, road kill. Kangaroos often graze by road verges at dawn and dusk. When they are startled by the truck there’s an even chance they’ll jump in front of the vehicle rather than into the bush. Our expeditions have hit an average of one animal per trip. It’s hard to avoid an animal leaping in front of your truck when it’s going 80 kph. I’m glad that cattle, the other main road kill opportunity, tend to graze during the day. It’s easy to slow down when approaching them.

While I know this inventory of recurrent failures very well, Australia Fourteen served up my first food failure. When Bruce and I first worked together in 1982, he quickly discovered that I liked to cook. This was good: he can’t. I’ve been in charge of the kitchen on every subsequent research trip. This has suited us both very well. Bruce likes my meals, and I enjoy both the cooking as well as control over this domestic part of field work.

On Australia One, I developed a series of field recipes, which I’ve refined over subsequent years. Chernobyl Potatoes is one of these. Another is pan-baked, baking soda-raised bread. I’ve always tried to include a meal or two that features cornbread, dessert bread, or a savory wheat bread.

Louis and I purchased a set of pots in Perth. This has been protocol for many field seasons; to buy cheap, basic equipment which we can use and wear out, to be abandoned in the appropriate refuse or recycling bin at the trip’s end. The set we found was thin metal, but seemed sufficient for two weeks. The non-stick coating on the frying pan was a plus.

I bought staples for bread in Newman. Eventually, a night occurred when I was cooking, and had enough time to make a batter – cornbread this time. To compensate for the hot gas flame, I have always added extra oil to the mix. I heated the pan, and made a small test cake. It stuck a little bit, but came out satisfactorily. I put more butter in the pan, and poured in enough batter to form a layer about half an inch thick throughout the pan: standard procedure. I watched the cooking mass closely. I knew from previous dinners that I needed to constantly move the pan over the flame so that the bread cooked evenly and did not burn. Presently the bread seemed ready to flip. It held together at the edges, and tested to be cooked three-quarters through. I pried up one edge using a knife, and slid my spatula under the bread. It stopped. Crap. In spite of all the oil and butter, it was burned firmly onto the pan. I pried it loose. It broke into many pieces, and was burning rather than cooking. The damn frying pan was just too thin.

I tossed this first failure away. I modified the batter, making it drier. The same thing happened; a burned crust, a raw interior. I got increasingly annoyed. Eventually, it was clear that my efforts were futile. I gave up and made rice. I burned the partially cooked bread in the camp fire, and we disposed of the rest the next day in a rubbish bin. I’ve made dinners in the past that were a bit too spicy, but never have I had to abandon a meal plan. I should have bought a better frying pan.

The frying pan became increasingly difficult to use. Vigorous cleaning progressively removed the non-stick coating. Our meals became slightly greasier to compensate. I became annoyed at the pan for being so useless and at myself for buying such a cheap piece of equipment.

I decided to achieve retribution at our final swag out. After the final field dinner, I took the frying pan away from camp, and tried to crush it with large rocks, dropped from chest height. This was unsatisfying; the rocks were too small, and the ground was soft and absorbed too much of the impact. So I got my rock hammer and punched the pan full of holes. I felt much better.

We recycled the cook set in Newman.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quantitative Reflections

I've written a lot about Australia 14. Here are a few numbers to go with my words. Pictures in a few weeks...

1. Kilometers flown: 33,537
2. Number of flights: 7
3. Kilometers driven: 3,951
4. Kilometers walked: ~75 horizontal, ~8 vertical
5. Trucks and cars rented: 4
6. Rock samples collected: 28 for research, 14 for my collection, 2 for gifts
7. Kilograms of sand collected: 1.1
8. Photographs made: 2479 (this includes bracketing, so call it ~1300 unique images)
9. Videos shot: 9, 17 minutes total
10. Blog Entries: 22
11. Blog words: 17,544
12. Spherule layer sites studied: 7
13. Impact craters visited: 2
14. New places explored in the NT and WA: 17
15. Probable scientific publications from this trip: 3
16. Nights under the stars: 19
17. Nights under a roof: 10
18. Grant money expended: $12,054
19. Personal money expended: well, enough to buy 14 books, 16 postcards, 5 notepads, 4 meters of fabric, 2 t-shirts, 42 minutes of mobile phone time, and hours of internet
20. Time till next trip: too long

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reflections IV: The Personal Stuff

Close to final comments before the force of daily life entices me fully back into the fray. I still have quantitative and photographic posts yet to come.

The Places

Australia Fourteen was really two trips. The Northern Territory loop was an adventure into wholly new terrain. We moved through the unknown land quickly. Almost every place the three of us stopped begged for more time. I want to climb Mt. Sonder some day. This is not to indict our time as superficial. Hiking, driving, and photographing – all different observational facets – provided me with much information beyond the snapshot level. I enjoyed being with Paul on another long trip, and getting to know Louis. Our dynamics made this leg of the trip more social than I normally choose when I’m on my own. This provided a good transition from North America.

I liked the NT quite a lot. In spite of transience, I came away with deep regard for the place. It helped that the rocks were well exposed and interesting. This always gives me a solid context for a new area. If I have a sense of the geology, I know where I am. Plus these rocks were both pretty and dramatic. The diversity of flora and fauna was refreshing. Similar but not the same as Western Australia; I had to keep my eyes open. Soft spinifex was a bit strange.

On a larger scale, I now have a mental geographic map of the Red Centre. I visualize it as a very broad plain, interrupted in places by low mountain ranges, isolated blobs of bedrock like Uluru, and the rare impact crater. It’s largely coated by linear red sand dunes, desert pavement, dry lakes and alluvium. I could build this map only after traveling the area.

The Centre is vibrant in the way of stark and arid lands. It’s odd, but its harsh environments felt emotionally and spiritually hospitable. I’d return without much hesitation. I’d even visit in summer. What does 50 degrees Celsius feel like?

In contrast, the work in Western Australia was a return to an important place in my life. Western Australia and the Pilbara are one of my homes. I’ve lived there for a good 10 months of my life. Almost every past trip was an important step in my intellectual and personal maturation.

WA is always different. Perth has new buildings and different stores. Fashion change, most noticeably in food and clothing (black was in fashion this year). The Pilbara has new mines, better tracks, and regretfully, more people. Seeing these changes, and how I have changed concurrently, are touchstones in the course of my life.

This visit felt – consistent. Landing in Perth and later Newman, I reinserted into the flow without dissonance. This may have been a function of being trip leader. I focused on necessary actions and tasks. On more recent trips I’ve flown in late, after Bruce had already done much of this work. In addition, it’s only been two years since my last visit. My memories of place were less distant than in previous trips. Finally, my ongoing training in Aikido and qi gong make me both fluid and present. It becomes continually easier to blend.

For the thirteenth time, Perth struck me as a lovely city. How do you beat the western margin of a continent, a Mediterranean climate, and a very large fresh air reservoir? And of course, friendly people? It’s physically about the most isolated large city in the world, though less so as the internet has become ascendant. It seems to have just enough critical mass to achieve a satisfying spectrum of culture, be it the arts, food, and sport. I could well imagine living in an apartment off Kings Park, with a view of the Swan River, for a few years.

Time in the Pilbara was equivalent to a long spa retreat. It was going someplace where I could thrive and recover from the warpings of daily life. It was familiar, but different enough (rain?) to refresh and restore me. I suppose any place could be like this, given sufficient attention. For me, the Pilbara is one of the desert places where this has and continues to happen.

Writing on Web 2.0

I’ve written post-trip pieces and syntravel mass emails for years. This is my first blog. The method was similar to those earlier works. When an idea popped in my mind, I turned it over for a while, while driving, before sleeping. By the time I was able to boot this laptop, my observations and thoughts flowed onto the screen pretty readily. A good edit or two later, each post was good enough to go. The change on Australia Fourteen was my sense of audience. In my earlier work I wrote to my family, my friends, and myself. The blog has a much broader reach. I knew this before I started writing, but the impact of such vulnerability dawned on me about halfway through the trip. The audience now ranges from my loved ones to anyone who sees my posts on Facebook to anyone who finds this through keyword searching. .I’m fine with being public, in fact I am very curious to know who reads this, who enjoys it and why (this is a hint). I have this sense of writing words and casting them out into the world. This effort without return feels deeply right. I’m writing because I have to, to realize and release the tension of my inner life. I wonder what if anything comes back.


A goal of Australia Fourteen was to refine my photography. I’m ambitious to produce meaningful and beautiful imagery of places I like. Attempting to do this caused me more tension than any other aspect of the journey. I felt rushed, which I am sure ruined some pictures. I could not full prioritize this; the work came first. I knew this before the trip. In the moment it was frustrating. Not enough time to wait for ideal light and the like. Well, this is the contrast between being a professional – in geology – and learning professional skills.

The pictures? Too soon to tell. I need a month to sort and optimize. Stay tuned.


I was a geologist for a month. I presented myself and was accepted this way by the world. I rarely get to embrace this persona, much less live it externally. It took me at most two days to get back in the field work groove. The methods and knowledge for the work are imbedded in my long term memory.

This was a pleasure. It felt strange and wonderful to do something that I loved for a month. I regularly lost myself in the work. This is a comment on my normal work; a compromise I’ve known for a long time. It’s a tough issue to resolve; part of the ease of geology is doing it while I’m on a voyage, as described above. In other words, I’m not convinced that a job at Rio Tinto would make me any happier. It would be fun to find out, though.

When I was in the Pilbara, I received uninvoked mental odors of my past self. A strong one took place in Tom Price. As I waited for the rain to subside, I sensed my 1986 self walk by in the pair of baggy army surplus pants that I wore then. This younger me seemed more tense and uncertain, but as thin as I am at present. I felt his open future; so much life ahead. I could also feel the trails of choices and events that led to me. Ghosts like this were initially disturbing. I felt twinges of regret for the careers and lives that I did not have. With time and acceptance, these visits became touchstones; my life was there then, I’m here now.

The Inner Trip

Traveling and doing my work in Australia was like voyaging in a small sailboat. Or on Australia Fourteen, a truck. I carried my possessions, my consciousness, and my focus with me. All were simplified versions of “normal” life. This self-containment and decrease in complexity created distance from the usual and thus made space for observation, epiphany, and reflection. In addition, by moving from place to place, the truck, the work, and my companions became the only constants. This again differs from daily life, where I travel in a familiar milieu. Here, I must seek out unknown and different experiences. On Fourteen, the unknown was almost everything outside the truck. I attribute some of this to a“beginner’s mind” attitude, learned in Aikido. The external world always changes, if I let it.

The continual motion of the trip required focus on the present. I dipped into the past, but in ways related to now: finding tracks, telling stories, analyzing outcrops, and choosing photography sites. The conscious burden of my personal history was lighter than normal. I also planned the immediate future, but my connection to the imagined long term future subsumed to the requirements of motion. It took a week and a few emails to achieve this perspective. In result, I worried less about the aspects of life beyond my control. Each day was too rich with events, ranging from the pleasure of waking before dawn to the tension of photography to the tedious fun of dirt track driving. This balance – being mostly in the present – made me feel genuinely alive and whole. It seemed appropriate to field work, where I am outdoors most of the time, under the sky, far from the rooms and computers that dominate too much of my normal life.

In the unlikely case that it was not clear from earlier posts, time outdoors was deeply healthy for my soul. I need extended time, generally in arid environments, to maintain my inner equilibrium. At some deep level I suspect that this is a nod to my hunter-gatherer ancestors. It’s also aesthetic. Red deserts move me more deeply than any other place.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Reflections III: Seeing with the Natives

The picture: Petroglyphs at N'Ghala Gorge. See previous post for more info.

A fresh and unexpected result of Australia Fourteen is my greater sense of Aboriginal culture. I’ve of course been aware of Aboriginals and their history since my first visit in 1985. I even went to a show of Aboriginal art at the state gallery that year. On previous trips I made little effort to explore or learn about Aboriginal culture. I kept looking at art, which resonated in some inchoate way, but I did not reflect on it deeply. I didn’t interact with many Aboriginals. This is a mixture of where I spent most of my time: in remote areas looking at rocks, and my innate natural reticence.

Nonetheless, preFourteen I’d built an impression of Aboriginals, their culture, and their experience. Three strong memories epitomize this. First, in 1987 I went to the Fremantle Markets, probably to buy cheap produce for the field season. There was an Aboriginal sitting at the entrance playing a didgeridoo. He was busking rather successfully. I stopped and watched. At some point we made eye contact. From the glimmer in his eyes, I intuited that I was seeing another human whose life experience and world view were radically unlike than mine. It was a feeling of utter dissimilarity. This profound difference was far greater than I’d ever felt in other places: Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Costa Rica. The moment was disturbing. It challenged my comprehension of the breadth of humanness.

This experience fit into my evolving appreciation of the Australian land. The outback feels quite different from anywhere else I’ve been. The great age of the deeply weathered red rocks, the acacias of all sizes, the hopping animals, and the frequently harsh conditions create a unique environment. It’s matchlessly beautiful. This man was from a different and separate landscape, which had influenced his distinctive and rich culture. This is what showed in his eyes. I’ve sensed a similar heritage and power of place in the Aboriginal paintings and artwork.

My second experience is uglier. I was visiting friends in Karratha in 1990. At some point we drove through the old town of Roebourne on the Pilbara coast. Roebourne had a wide, arched main street, probably for drainage during cyclones. I though, geez, this town is filthy: the main street gutters seemed to be full of trash. As we got closer, I saw that some of this apparent debris was moving. It was literally piles of drunk and sleeping Aboriginals. This reminded me of seeing inebriated Native Americans in Arizona. Yet there was a sense of conformation here that was different. If I’m right that these were Aboriginals recovering after a drunk, it was like their bodies melded with the ground. They seemed to belong, to fit into the landscape; not or accidentally fallen down. My emotional memory of this scene is this sense of belonging. As with the busker, I felt that these people were of this land in a way that was across a very wide gap from me.

Finally, Newman 2003. In the early 21st century, Aboriginal settlements were established near most of the Pilbara mining towns. I don’t know the politics of this. I am pretty sure that the Aboriginals were the descendants of the pre-white inhabitants of the local areas. I suspect the new settlements are part of the ongoing race reconciliation process through which Australia is going. Many of the mining areas were originally Aboriginal places, taken away by Europeans. Now they’ve been somewhat returned.

We flew into town, and set about the usual assembling of gear for the field season. I was in the town centre shopping area. Newman was originally a one company mining town. Most of the workers were white. The population was a mixture of families and single males. Being the shopping centre felt like entering an excised chunk of Australian suburb: lots of consumer goods, clean people. The new Aboriginal settlement across the highway had changed this. Clusters of Aboriginals wandered the centre. A group of men waited for the liquor store to open, chattering in the local language: rapid, guttural, clearly expressive. I called home; it was hard to hear my parents in America because of another loud Aboriginal conversation going on behind me. There was trash in the streets and on the sidewalk. This seemed to correlate with the density of Aboriginals. I watched white shoppers walk by. Their faces showed distaste, resignation, and even fear.

I was watching a cultural clash in action, certainly. It showed the reverse of what I’d seen before; the unconformation of the Aboriginals to norms of white Australia. At the time, no one seemed happy with this. To be fair, Newman was already changing; the one company town had become a base for a diversity of businesses as the iron ore business expanded. I should note to; the situation did seem more resolved this year.

I didn’t make much effort to understand or integrate these experiences or the many others that took place over the years. The events were transient. Aboriginal culture seemed so far away from my experience. It was not my primary interest about Australia. My eyes and heart were for the rocks and the land. I was content with a cryptic sense of Aboriginals and Aboriginal cultures.

Australia Fourteen was different. Tnorala, which I’ve written about, was the crux. At the crater, my sense of the land aligned with the Dreamtime origin of the place. I could finally sense a bit of what I’d seen in the busker’s eyes back in Fremantle. Uluru and Kata Tjuta had similar although less overt affects. Relaxing and feeling these places was more difficult.

As I wrote this, I realized that Aboriginal art has moved me since I first saw it. This is a gut resonance about place. I didn’t intellectually attempt to figure out the paintings and other works that I saw, but some part of me understood. During Australia Fourteen, Paul was on a quest to buy art in Alice Springs. At some point on this traverse I found a decently sized introduction to Aboriginal art. I read it in the Pilbara. It gave me a basic appreciation for the diversity and breadth of Aboriginal culture and modern art. I don’t pretend to get Aboriginal art, but I do appreciate it more richly. It comes back to place. Fifty centuries have rooted the native culture on this continent. My fifty weeks here have given me appreciation of the land. This is where I can truly meet and understand the people of the place.

Reflections II: Wetness

The pictures are: 1) Fortescue Pool, Karijini NP, 2) Splash Pool, Karijini NP, and 3) Weeli Wolli Creek

This field season had the most water in it of any I can remember. Before the trip, I think I told Louis that surface water would be rare. During Australia Fourteen, we saw a stream or a pool every day, in both the Red Centre and the Pilbara. Two days of rain in the latter is unprecedented. Perhaps it was predictable. The Pilbara does have a few more millimeters of rainfall in June than it does in July or August, when I’ve usually worked there. In any event, the centimeters of rain we experienced made for drama, ranging from our epic Bee Gorge-Tom Price dirt road commute to finding the missing layer just as rain began. The potential of crisis – becoming trapped off road by mud, for example – added to the adventure.

Water was also abundant on and in the ground. Pools and streams in Karijini were fuller and higher. Better swimming. Better light reflections off the cliffs. Groundwater made a special appearance during Fourteen. The swag out at Palm Springs was unique: an actual pool created fed by groundwater. It was lush, verdant, and unexpected. Moreover, the former presence of groundwater at the “undisclosed location” is probably what attracted Aboriginals to the area. Their time there resulted in the petroglyphs we discovered. This was also true at Uluru and at N’Dhala Gorge in the Northern Territory.

Postscript - looking over previous entries, I see I did not write about N'Dhala Gorge. This was a stop in the NT, on our last day. A recommendation by the truck rental company. N'Dhala is east of Alice along the MacDonnells. Another wet gorge: rock holes close to year long. It's known for petroglyphs. Like many such sites in the NT, it remains active and sacred in Aboriginal culture.

My impressions. An hour plus east of Alice, a nice bit of 4WD at the end. Much to explore, little time. Good track, petroglyphs hard to find for a couple reasons. First, I think many are still in use as it were. Second, I was tired. Third, high fly density. Not epic levels, but enough that I kept inhaling them. Distracting. What was interesting with respect to the subject of this post was an observation of Paul's, and maybe the signage. The visible petroglyphs were concentrated on the flat rock surfaces around the waterholes. It was easy to imagine Aboriginals having the time and energy, via abundant water and probably food (via water), to create carvings in N'Dhala. More likely than a random rock among the dunes. Another bit of information about place.

Reflections I: The Work

Australia Fourteen achieved almost all of my scientific goals. I felt charmed. The route through the basin fell into a fairly logical counterclockwise loop; I was able to follow this with little deviation, anxiety, or frustration. Past trips have felt more erratic. The many new tracks, largely from minerals exploration or existing mines, made access to my target sites almost too easy. I had anticipated driving on the archetypical abandoned outback road; a barely visible track covered by spinifex, brush, and trees, visible only from faint wheel tracks and the berm on each side of the road. I was also hoping for a serious washout or two: somewhere to actually put the Cruiser through its low range 4WD paces. This happened exactly once during the field season. I missed the adventure of such challenging slow driving, and to some degree the risk of getting bogged, just a little. I’m happy to trade this feeling for the excitement and joy of spending more time doing the work: hiking, looking at the rocks, seeing new and familiar places enjoying the flora and fauna, and making pictures. Nor is my persistent back injury from Aikido isn’t complaining about good roads.

In addition, Louis and I were able to find the impact layer at every target site. This was a challenge when the outcrop was new to me, or physically steep and rubbly. This was the only situation where I felt any consistent anxiety. Would we find the layer? Did I pick the wrong place to look? Am I too high in the section? Too low? Will the exposures, if I find them, be good enough for lateral measurement? Again, it was almost too easy. As I wrote in an early post though, this is the magic of the Hamersley Basin strata: consistent stratigraphy, good exposure.

Louis did very well. I made him start working independently on the second day in the field, and he consistently improved with practice and spontaneous quizzing. He continually asked me intelligent and curious questions about the geology and natural history of the Pilbara. Many made me think. I could answer maybe two-thirds of them. I also give him credit for putting up with me for a couple weeks. Getting out in the field is one of my sources of escape from society. If I could, I wouldn’t talk much if at all for the whole time.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Some Places To Stay

I have frequently imagined writing travel literature, but never reviewing travel destinations. Nonetheless, this post seemed right.

1. Alice On Todd – Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Four nights Nice, clean, well-appointed two bedroom self-catering unit. Quiet with a decent view of the Todd River (dry) off the balcony. Reception was efficient, friendly, and easy to communicate with via email. Good kitchen with ample cutlery, utensils, plates, pots, etc. The small pool might have felt good in summer. About one mile from downtown: a nice walk, although a bit chilly at night. Only problem: this was a second floor unit, and the staircase too it was a bit narrow and long to carry with luggage.

2. Mounts Bay Waters Lodge – Perth, Western Australia. Three nights. Another two bedroom self-catering unit, in a complex of multistory apartment buildings. Only one block was a hotel. Overlooks the Stirling and Graham Farmer Freeways, but quiet. The unit was recently upgraded in inconsistent ways. The new cabinets looked nice but did not open properly, jamming on the floor. The water closet had a new toilet, but the wall opposite it needed patching. The kitchen was well equipped; a dishwasher was a nice touch. There was only one small trash bin in the five room suite. The hotel is adjacent to Perth city centre and Kings Park, which was great for access to services, shops, and nice walks. The 24 hour reception staff was always courteous and helpful. Underground secure car park worked well once our key card was reset.

3. Karijini Eco Retreat Campground – Karijini National Park, Western Australia. One night. This used to be the Park’s Savannah Campground, where I’ve stayed several times. It’s now run by an Aboriginal-owned concessionaire (this confuses me a bit; all the staff seemed to be young Canadians). It’s been upgraded with cabins, a pub/restaurant, and showers, water, and flush loos in the campground – all solar powered. It was disappointing. The campground is dirtier than previously; our site had swarms of ants, clearly attracted by the food people had tossed into the bush (all trash is supposed to be carried out of the park) and maybe the toilet paper just out of the site. I guess the toilet seem too far away after dark. The solar hot water showers were a great idea. However, they only work when the sun has been out: unlike during my visit. The campground loop is poorly signed; more than once I drove into someone’s campsite instead of staying on the dirt road. Previously, campers and caravaners where given separate areas; we were between two caravans; luckily the generator on one side drowned out the Balkan music on the other. The pub sells beer and wine, and has powerpoints for recharging batteries, for an extra charge. The staff was helpful. Astronomy “tours” are available at night – a very cool idea in this part of the world.

4. The Seasons Lodge – Newman, Western Australia. One night. This series of former SMQ blocks has been a motel for over a decade. It’s largely occupied by short term contractors, based on the vehicles in the parking bays. Given its heritage the rooms are fairly spartan but adequate. They have been refurbished since my last stay here in 2003 (I found my name in the guest book). It’s within walkable distance of the Newman town centre shopping complex. The staff was great; of all the places I’ve stayed, they showed the most genuine interest in what I was doing in Australia. The brick walls between units were a bit thin; I was kept awake by the Wimbledon matches on the TV in the next room.

5. City Waters Lodge – Perth, Western Australia. Three nights. This is a basic self-catering motel – yet another block of converted flats – in downtown Perth. It’s basic, but convenient. Each unit has a basic, barely stocked kitchen and a small restroom. I’ve stayed here since 1986, so I’m fond of the place. The staff is friendly as always.

6. In Bush – the Red Centre, Northern Territory and the Pilbara, Western Australia. Eighteen nights (never enough). No rooms. Quiet except for occasional brumbies, camels, crickets, birds, frogs, cows, road trains, and iron mines, depending on location. Self-catering, all services available from rear of the truck. Toilet with a view. Rarely damp. Sublime at all times. Not close to any services, shopping, or other amenities. Any review of staff would be biased if not self-serving.

The Second Week in the Pilbara

25th June – The rain continued intermittently through the night. I woke up around 3 am and saw faint stars. I hoped the weather was changing. The blue plastic tarp that I was using to cover my swag was definitely waterproof. No rain got in, but none of my respiration or perspiration got out. My bivy and sleeping bags were wet. Oh well, I was still warm enough.

At 5:30 I was ready to worm my way out into the cool morning. The sky was clear. My damp gear would dry. I walked down a track from camp. I hadn’t seen Pilbara bush that was this wet before. The desert pavement was almost black. The puddles of mud were bright orange-red. The flora glistened; there were droplets on many branches, twigs and leaves. It was strange to see so much water in this semiarid place. As the sun rose, ground fog began to fill the lows. Mt. Nameless turned orange as first sunlight struck it. I hoped that the outcrops would be dry.

We drove to Tom Price and met Jim Gordon, who’s one of the chief exploration geologists for the Rio Tinto TP operation. We’d been in email contact about accessing a section that was technically on the mine site. We met Jim at the TP Shell station near town. Accessing the mine site required acquisition of visitor IDs, a safety induction session, and an escort. It was no dramas. Jim seemed happy to be our minder. The section was on Mt. Reeder-Nichols (whoever this was). I’ve worked there before. We drove up a muddy track, parked by the mine water tanks, and parked.

Jim was immediately curious about the rocks. The climb up the usual steep rubbly spinifex-covered slope was slow, as we talked the whole way about stratigraphy, Hamersley Basin geology, mining geology, life in Tom Price, and all the other facets of conversation with geological kin. It was a blast. I rarely meet anyone who knows the rocks and is interested in the stories they tell. He’d been a lot of places I haven’t and vice versa. I got to be a geologist with another geologist.

The measurements were quick. The spherule layer was simple here; ripples (maybe tsunamigenic) and some overlying argillite and carbonate. Samples taken, we headed to the mess hall for lunch. I’d been promising Louis an endless feast. He got it. I ate lots of vegetables. Jim and I talked and shared info for another couple hours. A nice break and intellectual airing from the norm of field work.

The mess hall closed. Time to head back into the field. I secured a pass to drive on the Pilbara Rail access road: a time saving shortcut and a nicer drive, in terms of scenery. We drove to north to Hamersley Station. This is one of the earliest cattle stations in the Pilbara. It’s still a working station: however, helicopters, utes, and quad bikes have replaced horses when it’s mustering time. Permission to work on station land secured, I drove the Cruiser across the station airstrip, in search of the track heading west through the Serpentine Creek drainage.

It was easy to find. Rio Tinto is doing a lot of iron ore drilling in the area. The road had been refurbished. The speed limit sign read 60 kph. I thought to myself: this is too easy. The track kept going. It wasn’t even muddy. 50 kilometers rolled by. The sun began to set; hard to drive directly into it. Dangerous on dirt too. 80 kilometers. We wanted to camp early; tonight was Chernobyl potato night. We needed a lot of coals in the fire.

95 kilometers. A track turned off to the south. I took it. It ended in a turnaround about a kilometer off the road, just north of the Serpentine Creek drainage. There were palm trees beyond the turnaround and – a large pool. Wow. That explained the palm trees. I figured it must be a spring from the cave system that likely underlies the valley. A sampling pipe at the edge of the pool was labeled “Palm Spring”.

There was a lot of dead wood from past bush fires and floods. Coals achieved, we roasted potatoes, onions, apples, and carrots. Bruce labeled this the Chernobyl process years ago as the one potato that gets lost ends up as a carbon ball with a core of baked potato. Haw. A clear night.

June 26th – A dew-rich morning near the spring, well worth it for the light on the cliffs to the north. It’s such a joy to wake up in the Pilbara. The light is always red and beautiful someplace.

I had two research targets for the day. We’d camped near the first: Mt. Farquhar. A short drive, then a long walk across minor drainages and spinifex, followed. The usual climb up steep slopes and stumbles on loose rubble. The commute was made more anxious by an abundance of large spider webs hosting very big spiders. Hard to see them; I jumped spastically when intersecting one, usually face first. I’ve never liked the feeling of spider webs. In addition, almost every spider here is toxic in some way. No need to find out if these bugs were on the list. After the climb and much searching, the spherule layer appeared. It was thin, and poorly exposed. I had forgotten my hammer. Crap. I sent Louis back to get it and fetch some lunch. I found some decent outcrops. The now familiar process commenced: measure, sample, photograph, and scoot.

Target number two was Mt. Delphine. This isolated peak at the western end of the Serpentine Creek drainage has intrigued me since I first sorted it out on the geologic map in 1992. The section looked promising. My Google Earth reconnaissance was enticing.

Bruce has always been dubious about Mt. Delphine; he rightly pointed out that it’s a long drive to a site of unknown quality; we know the spherule layer does thin to the west. I wanted to go look at it, driven by both curiosity and hope. This was the time. Ninety minutes of driving on progressively degrading roads brought us to the base of Delphine. Park, assemble gear, climb. Hmm, the Paraburdoo Member was pretty deformed. Not a good sign. We climbed. The rocks showed more folding than usual. They were also cleaved, showing a regular fracture pattern caused by deformation. Another troubling sign. It also made smaller pieces of rubble underfoot: more slippery. A place to fall on spinifex for sure.

We scoured the available outcrop. Louis and I both picked the same bed as the impact layer, but could not find any spherules in it. Damn. We climbed most of the way up Delphine as compensation, and watched a wedge-tailed eagle soar.

Driving back east in search of a swag out spot, I thought that Bruce and I were both right about Mt. Delphine. He was right; the spherule layer exposure was cryptic at best, and probably not worth the time and effort to get there. But I was happy to have looked. My inquisitiveness - scientific and personal - was satisfied. My sense of place was expanded; another hill visited. New vistas seen. Now I want to go west and south from Delphine. It would be a cool loop down to the Paraburdoo access road through some neat rocks and the spherule layer might be there...

June 27th – Time for a break. Jim had told us about a tiger eye locality near Hamersley Station. This semiprecious gemstone forms when quartz and a couple minor minerals replace some of the asbestos minerals in iron formation. Toxic, like at Wittenoom. We fond the locality. There were asbestos warning signs on the entry road. Clearly, a lot of geologists and rockhounds had been here already. The informal parking area was well defined. The original mine, more of an odd little quarry, had been picked over pretty well. Many of the large pieces of waste rock had been bashed on. I gave Louis my hammer (his remains somewhere on Mt. Reeder-Nichols). He had a good go at the rocks and found some decent tiger-eye.

The real break was Karijini National Park. I’ve written about this in previous years. In a nutshell, a number of streams have cut very narrow and deep gorges through the iron formation. In the local Aboriginal mythology, the gorges are the trails left through the rock by large snakes. There are streams and pools in most gorges. Good hiking, swimming and photography. I’d been here enough times that I had sites in mind where I thought I could compose good images.

Two hundred and forty kilometers later, we reached the Park boundary. I was done in. A long way on dirt. After a stop at Hamersley Gorge, we checked into the Eco Retreat campground on the west side of the park. This used to be a Park campground; it’s now run by an Aboriginal corporation. I’ll review the campground in another post. For now, it gets 8 out of 15. The abrupt change from being with one other person out to the west, with no one else around to a campground was awful. I hated the noise of generators, music, and just the sight of so many people. It took me out of the sacred of the Pilbara and back into a human reality. I did not need this yet. I slept, somehow.

June 28th – At least the sick baby across the track did not keep me up. Time to play. I made my first descent into Hancock Gorge: steep, narrow, and wet. I took multiple exposures of the same scene: definitely a place to see if the HDR function in Photoshop really works. Louis did what seemed like a lot of risky bouldering. I was worried, and then he told me he teaches rock climbing. I worried less. Hancock is a place to come back to: the full trek requires warmer weather, a wet suit, ropes, and inner tubes. Sign me up.

More gorges. A tragedy; my Nikon lens committed suicide, via the truck hood, a slamming door, and my right shin. I almost caught it, I swear, but it’s nonrepairable. Crap. After a minute of agony, I realized that it was a done deal. Attachment wouldn’t change the scenario. I felt relieved. Not due to detachment, but because suddenly the burden of taking pictures was lifted. I’d shot a lot in the morning and been trying too hard. This was holiday, right? Now I could fool around with just my ultrawide zoom. Joffre Gorge, Knox Gorge, and then time to head east to the Visitors Centre.

June 29th – see my earlier post, Pools, A Roo, Spherules

June 30th

Morning Chores List:

1. Drive to Newman
2. Fill Cruiser with diesel
3. Go on BHP Billiton Mine Tour (Louis)
4. Scott, while Louis is on tour:
a. buy boxes and packing material for mailing rocks
b. get back door of truck fixed
c. chat up CoreFleet (truck rental agency)
d. finally have a good cup of coffee (Macchiato)
e. pack rocks
f. mail rocks
g. resupply with food and ice
h. fuss with gear
i. pick up Louis

Afternoon Chores List:

1. drive back to the new spherule layer site
2. find more exposures
3. sample the limestone above and below the layer
4. drive back to the east of Newman
5. camp someplace near the Jimbelbar mine; a second post-twilight camp
6. sleep

July 1st – A final night in bush. I’d hoped it would be someplace scenic if not special. However, the run back the new layer forced a camp after dark off the Newman-Port Hedland road. At least it was warm and dry – no dew in. After the moon set, the Milky Way was fantastic. I said farewell to the Magellanic Clouds and the Southern Cross for another year or two. I watched the sunrise on my morning walk. It was especially good. The full spectrum of visible light crossed the sky. High and low altitude cloud layers added to the drama.

On this last field day, I wanted to look at the easternmost exposure of the Wittenoom spherule layer. It’s on a BHP leasehold. I’d arranged another round of induction with a mine supervisor in order to get site access. After some pitching around, I read my notes correctly and arrived at the right remote gate: Orebody 18. I rang the buzzer as instructed. My contact had gone on long service leave. He didn’t tell anyone about my visit. They were all in meetings. They wanted me to refax my site access request form. Hello, the nearest fax was in Newman 40 kilometers away. Stonewalled. My cell phone had service. I left my number. We sat by the gate for 2 hours. A grader, a new Haulpak, and a water truck drove by. No response. I took it as a sign.

We went to Newman, checked into hotel, and started the clean up process. This took much of the day. In the evening. Fish and chips rarely tasted better.

July 2nd – Up at 5 am. Hard to see the sunrise over the houses of Newman. To the airport. South to Perth. A successful field season.

Friday, July 3, 2009

On the Fortescue Side

June 22nd – As described in an earlier post, last night’s swag out was along the old Wittenoom-Port Hedland Road. I’d driven north of the Hamersley Ranges, across the Fortescue River Valley. The work plan was to search for outcrops of one of the other Hamersley Basin impact layers, which should theoretically be exposed here. As I described, it wasn’t.

The rocks exposed on the north side are largely the Fortescue Group. They underlie and are older than the Hamersley Group strata on the south side. We’ve been looking at the latter on this trip. Most of the Hamersley Group comprises rocks deposited in the ocean. The dominant Hamersley lithologies are iron-formation, chert, limestone, and argillite (formerly mud). In contrast, most of the Fortescue is composed of terrestrially erupted basaltic lavas and surface sediments, such as sandstones deposited by streams.

The iron-formation and chert in the Hamersley resist erosion. As a result, the Hamersley Ranges are several hundred meters high and the gorges in Karijini National Park are deep and narrow. The Hamersley rocks wear a stain of orange-red from iron weathered out of the rocks.

The lavas of the Fortescue create a different landscape. They aren’t as resistant as the Hamersley; this makes for rolling hills rather than steep layered cliffs. The lavas weather to a rich brown-red; they look burnt. The rocks are shaped into lumpy, rounded to blocky outcrops. There’s a dolmen-like quality to them; they form vaguely linear, elongate bands, like teeth rising out of the ground. They look almost, but not quite arranged.

Beyond this surface appearance and what science tells me, the Fortescue Rocks feel older than the Hamersley. Their color and toothy appearance feels – deeper. If the Hamersley is the skin, this is the muscle underneath.

I actually meant to write about botany. Like much of Australia, the Fortescue area is very clearly an ecology controlled by fire. If you know me, you know that in the States I only look at rocks. In Australia, I diverge. I have at least four bird books, and three times as many on flowers and plants. I’ve resisted the urge to get a reptile book (maybe because all the snakes are deadly). The differences from North America intrigue me; I also simply love this area and want to know it better.

We camped in a broad valley several hundred meters wide, underlain by lava and argillite. It was punctuated by low mesas capped by the Marra Mamba Iron Formation – the bottom of the Hamersley Group. The swag out site was in a recently burned area. There was little spinifex remaining; all the other ground cover was gone. I slept on a coarse red-brown desert pavement of angular blocky rocks of chert, ferruginous chert, and iron formation. Pretty poky, I had to keep reaching under my swag at night and moving rocks away from tender places. I didn’t miss the spinifex. It was easier to walk around in the morning to take pictures and to look at outcrops.

Grey, black-charred trees were scattered across the desert pavement. Burned limbs littered the ground. Most of these were pretty big; all the smaller twigs and branches must have burned in the most recent fire. This made for easy firewood collection. This was our campground; bare rock and burned trees. It was windy.

I’d picked out an early morning photography site several hundred meters from camp, part way up one of the mesas. The flora here showed more signs of post-fire recovery. Mulla-mulla, a couple of cassias and a variety of peas were about ready to bloom. Wild tomatoes were fruiting (they are edible, according to my newest plant book: after you, Louis). I stepped on a number of baby spinifex in my haste to get to my site. A few surviving gum trees provided a bit of white and grey-green to the landscape. Many more plants I don’t know or have forgotten. The signs of regrowth weren’t surprising; I’ve seen the pattern many times further south. But on this cold morning, about halfway through the field work, it cheered me to see some color: evidence of resilience.

Later in the day, the spherule layer hunt took us through an unburned area. Very different. Dense brush: four meter high mulgas and corkwood, gum trees twice as big, mature spinifex knolls (too big to jump over), and lots of wattles. The ground flowers weren’t present. A few charred stumps were visible: evidence of previous fires. It felt more closed in to me. This is the turf I avoid when looking for rocks or tracks. I’m sure it’s better for everyone else birds, roos, and other fauna. I bet it excites biologists too.

Regeneration: I appreciated being reminded of this. It took a change of place for me to be able to feel it clearly.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pools, A Roo, Spherules

Today was unusually intense and interesting. After a day of hiking and photography in Karjini National Park, we had to swag out last night in the overflow camping area near Dales Gorge. Who knew that June was the busy tourist season? It’s not as full later in the winter. The area was promiscuous: a stereo pair of banal late night conversations kept me up.

I woke up severely crabby. To compensate, I got up pre-dawn as always. I resisted the temptation to 1) slam the Cruiser doors, 2) rev the engine, and 3) set off the reverse gear, parking break, and headlight beepers (they are each loud, and not sonorous). I walked down the old Yampire Gorge road. It washed out in the mid 1990s. Like Wittenoom Gorge, Yampire had asbestos mines, so the Park never repaired the track. Fine by me. Nice sunrise, partially cloudy, so the scarlet-pink-orange-lemon-yellow transition of the sky made me smile.

I love watching the bush warm up in the early light. The spinifex glows a little greener and a bit yellower. It’s been damp enough that the desert pavement is covered by light dew. The purple-red sand gravel sparkle; this fades as the water evaporates.

Dales Gorge. This is one of the best sites to see banded iron formation. Here, the Dales Gorge Member of the Brockman Iron Formation is exposed. It includes one impact layer. I wanted Louis to see this. It’s also a really nice place to hike.

The gorges in Karijini aren’t that deep, maybe 50 to 70 meters, but because iron formation is so resistant, they’re steep and narrow. While this might sound like the slot canyons of the American Southwest, the gorges differ in several ways. First, there’s so much iron in the rocks that everything is stained various shades of red, orange, and steel-blue. Pretty. Second, the iron formation breaks out into meter-scale beds, so the sides of the Gorges have a pleasant layered look. The softer layers form benches covered by spinifex, gum trees, and a rare type of endemic pine, to name a few plants. Their yellows and greens offset the color of the cliffs. Third, the thin bedding also makes for abundant hand and foot holds when climbing. Fourth, most of the gorges are wet. I don’t know where the source springs are, but all the main tourist gorges have pools, intermittent streams, and waterfalls. Pretty pretty. Finally, given the water, there are lots of eucalypts and other acacias along the gorge floors. Not a cholla in site.

We descended into a side gorge. This was the first place I ever saw iron formation in the raw, so to speak. The steel ladder on the trail - bolted to the rock - was still there, and still a necessary part of descent. Wow, there was a lot of water in the gorge. I pulled out the camera and tripod and got to work. It was overcast, so the contrast was fair, the light a little bland. It’s so hard to be in a place and observe it as needed to take good pictures. Emotionally, I needed both states of mind. I generally caved in to picture taking. This made me sad. The time here goes so fast, hard to savor it enough.

I slowly made my way to Circular Pool, a large waterfall splash pool. By the time I got there, Louis and a bunch of twentysomething Europeans were already swimming in it. I declined the invite to join in favor of photography. Big boulders, seeps with ferns (wow), and the gorgeous iron formation bedding.

The trail weaved upstream through the main part of Dales Gorge. So many images popped in front of me. I ended up carrying my camera attached to folded tripod, which was attached to me via its neck strap. Quicker than setting it up fresh at every opportunity. The brush was thick. The air felt vaguely tropical. I don’t like this landscape as well as the open bush. It is pretty in its own way, but open space and abundant rocks make me more at ease. Harder for me to see pictures in this. We found the impact layer; I made Louis search for the spherules in it.

Finally, I heard rushing water. We came around a bend, and reached Fortescue Falls. This is a cascade more than a waterfall, with a great pool at the bottom. It was definitely time for a swim. I put my gear down. I removed my crusty field clothes (I was wearing swim trunks, no fear). I climbed to the jump off point. I tried to encourage the Swiss girl in a bikini to go in too. Her boyfriend would not pay me to give her a push, oh well. I jumped. Ah, colder than expected. I swam. I got cold, and climbed out. I was refreshed, but still dirty. Maybe it was the multiple laminae of sunscreen and dirt. The Swiss girl finally jumped in. She screamed.

We climbed out of Dales and took a rim trail back to the Cruiser. It was only 11:30. I’d already shot a couple hundred pictures, walked five or six kilometers, and had a swim. Time for a sandwich and escape from Karijini. I wanted to get back toward Newman before night fall. Louis was booked for the BHP Billiton mine tour in the morning.

There was still time to work. For years I’ve had mild lust to get to Mt. Windell, a peak just east of Karijini. I’d seen the rock section on its northern face for years. Good chance the spherule layer would be exposed there. I spied a track heading off the bitumen in the right direction. Hmm, it degraded quickly. I was happy for Louis to see a really bad Pilbara road. So many of the tracks we’d taken were easy, courtesy of all the ore exploration going on. The grass grew fender high. We drove through a two meter wide spider web. I couldn’t see the track. Branches scraped both sides of the Cruiser. The track turned parallel to the bitumen. Bugger. Not enough time to park and hike over to the outcrop. I’ll save Mt. Windell for a future visit.

My second area of interest was the mythical missing spherule layer. I was tired. I was drained from bad night’s sleep, the morning hike, and a cold swim. I was also weary from ten days of intense work (geology and photography). Driving the Cruiser for too long on too many bumpy dirt tracks had dulled my edge. Sometimes the Hamersley Range is too big.

We got to the turnoff. More bumpy dirt. At least it was a track I knew. We parked. I had to sit in the truck for a minute to collect myself and try to focus. I figured the odds of finding the layer were low. The weather had degraded; oh brother, more rain clouds to the west. Anticipating a quick look and disappointment, I took just my field vest and hammer. To heck with the camera, water, and hat.

It’s hard to search in this limestone. I don’t know the rocks that well. They often look monotonous, especially when I lack motivation. This section was badly faulted and folded. I picked a drainage that looked like it had maximum depth of exposure. I dispatched Louis up the east side. I took the west.

I wanted to sit and zone out. I was tired of spinifex and loose rocks. My back hurt. The outcrop was chopped by folds. Pretty rocks though, nice ribbon like beds of tan and brown, reflecting differing iron abundances. I bashed at suspicious looking layers. They were all carbonate. This was annoying. I kicked a rock down the hill. I thought, I should keep going, at minimum I’m a role model. Another two meters of ribbon beds. I grabbed a dead cordwood tree and pulled myself up on a ledge. I looked down.

There it was. I thought to myself, no, it can’t be this easy. I pried a piece off the outcrop. I can’t repeat what I said next in a public forum. There they were. The little bed was pure spherules. Unbelievably, I’d found the damn thing. The rain began.

Fatigue, what fatigue? I yelled for Louis to come over. I traced the bed laterally. It ran about six meters before disappearing under debris and travertine. The rain let up a bit. What to do? It would be dusk in one hour. More rain was imminent. We had to be on the bitumen before either of these conditions occurred. Louis arrived. Crap, I didn’t bring my camera: we used his. So much for being a role model. Where the hell were we in the section? I measured a quick stratigraphic column up to a known marker layer. That took thirty minutes. As we finished, a giant red kangaroo jumped out from behind some brush. He looked at us. I chased him towards Louis, who had enough time to get his camera out. Twenty four years, and finally, a cooperative roo and a good camera.

Back to the layer. Did it change laterally or stay the same? I traced it; no change. What was the rock above and below it like? I needed spherule samples, and lots of them, quickly. I sent Louis to trace the bed around the hill. I found a good spot, and went at the outcrop with my hammer. The wind picked up; it looked wet to the west. Dolomite is tough. I spent twenty minutes quarrying away the beds above and below the layer. In the end, I got about a fist-sized amount of material out. It will be enough to work with.

Time to scoot. I stuffed everything in the pockets of my vest. I almost ran down the hill to the Cruiser. Louis arrived a couple minutes later. I couldn’t see the hills to the west: too much rain. Driving a shade too fast, I got us back to the bitumen.

Where to camp? It was dusk. I was reassured to be on the main road, but it was hard to see tracks that might lead to swag out spots. In any event, where to go, given the rain? We were still several dozen kilometers from Newman. I kept driving. I was tiring, makings it harder to stop. It was almost dark. Finally, a turn off, the old road to Rhodes Ridge. We drove a few kilometers, and pulled off.

I could see rain bands all around us. I’d bought a large tarp in Tom Price. Louis rigged it to the side of the truck as a cooking shelter. It was great, except for the small termite mound that shared the space with us. Oh well, we were too tired to move anything. It was the night for Tastee Bite Indian food and cous cous. I boiled water. We crouched under the tarp and ate. . The wind picked up. It blew an empty pot into my nose. Nice bruise. It finally rained.

Ten minutes later, the rain stopped. What a day. A long hike, lots of photography a swim, a kangaroo, and another spherule layer. I had a lovely swag out under broken clouds. I was happy to see Venus at 5 am.

The First Week in the Pilbara

18th June – Up at 4:30, out of the Mounts Bay Road Lodge after three nights in Perth. A 2 hour QantasLink flight to Newman: one of the three major iron ore mining towns in the Pilbara. After a bit of a wait due to crossed emails, CoreFleet arrived with our Toyota Landcruiser. It lacked spare tyres. Whoops. Off to the CoreFleet motor pool, where a rather embarrassed mecho put a pair of extras on the vehicle. Back to “downtown” Newman, iso a week’s worth a food, camping supplies, and most importantly, a key multi-use tool: the shovel. A Chicken Treat lunch, a gear sort on the footie oval, and off we went into the field.

My first site was the Weeli Wolli Creek area. Bruce and I were first there in 1985: we tried to access the same area in 2007, but the road we’d used to get to the area of interest was almost fully overgrown. I kind of knew where it was, and worried that we would not be able to find it. The dirt road weaved past the Rhodes Ridge exploration camp; a relic from the 1960s. We crossed Weeli Wolli Creek for about the eighth time, and came to the area of the track. There it was; fresh tyre tracks indicated recent use. After a rough bounce, we arrived right at the section I wanted to look at.

First swag out in the Pilbara. Rocky ground; blocky chert talus from the hills I wanted to work on. Sundown, and the stars appeared. Oh, to be able to see this full sky of stars for more than a couple weeks per year. A joy to see the Southern Cross, Scorpio, the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds. Chilly, not too cold.

19th June – Up at 6, time to photograph the sunrise. My numb fingers fussed with the tripod and other gear, but I was in plenty of time to make some good exposures. Shoot and learn. My usual breakfast: fruit, more fruit, soy milk, peanuts, a bit of muesli.

Up the hill to the impact layer. Wow, not what I’d expected from a quick look the day before. A thick spherule zone at the base, overlain by a good meter of mass flow (underwater landslide) deposits. Time to start training Louis. Here is how to take my dictation. No, don’t wind up the tape between every section, it wastes time. Please keep me honest when I confuse planar laminations and parallel laminations.

Descending the hill after measurement. I always forget that Hamersley Range hillsides are bloody steep and rubbly. It would be too easy to take a dive off ledge, courtesy of the wrong chunk of loose rock, and fall three or four meters. And probably land in spinifex. I never forget how spiny this grass feels when it sticks me in the hands, legs, knees and butt. I’d never climb a hill like this at home; I guess I’ll do anything for rocks. I look for wallaby trails, they pick the good lines.

The view is worth the treachery of steepness and poky plants. The Weeli Wolli drainage forms a broad valley, punctuated by small buttes of dolomite and the winding course of the stream, outlined by white gum trees.

20th June. I wanted to take Louis to Weeli Wolli Spring, one of the few places in the Pilbara with consistent surface water. It’s about eighteen kilometers north from yesterday’s work area. More dirt road. I like being back in a Landcruiser. It has a tighter suspension than the Nissan we had in the NT. It’s geared lower, and the engine seems to have more juice. A better field vehicle. More fun to drive.

I have also been meaning to comment; this truck, the NT Nissan, every other field truck I’ve had in Aus, and all the mine vehicles have tyres with a narrow tread width. The Cruiser’s are 235s. This is a stark contrast to standard SUV tires in the US, which are much wider. I wonder why – practicality of use vs. appearance? There’s plenty of dirt, mud, rock, and so forth to drive across here, much tougher than asphalt in any country.

We camped at Weeli Wolli Spring last night, by the water. The natural flow has been subsumed by groundwater pumped out the Hope Downs mine; the stream literally roared just a few meters from the campsite. Its good for flowers; I see a new type of creeping violet. It’s not in my plant book.

In the morning, a brief walk along the drainage, above the mine water input. Scattered pools appeared amidst the rubble of the otherwise dry drainage. Weeli Wolli is home to lots of kajput paper bark gum trees. Like most eucalypts, this tree sheds its bark, but instead of coming loose in sheets, it peels away in delicate, paper like layers. They’re white, and look perfect for writing till you touch them and they dissolve. I take some close-ups of peeling bark. My eye is also attracted by the abundant flood debris – from last summer’s cyclone? The broken ruptured shapes of small trees and shrubs wrapped around larger trunks cheers me up. I’m not sure why.

Later in the day, a second work site, at an undisclosed location. See my earlier blog.

21st June. A cold swag out, enhanced by some star track photography. I somehow managed to get the south astronomical pole in just the right place. Good dawn photography on the hill.

Today was ninja day. I knew exactly where I wanted to work, but getting there required either crossing a mine lease without permission or taking an unused road in Karijini National Park. We headed up Route 95. The mine lease road turned off to the left. I equivocated. Intuition said keep going; don’t risk the wrath of Rio Tinto or their surrogates. Another hour in the truck, into Karijini. The park road I wanted to take went past the ranger HQ. I figured what the heck. As we drove in, a ranger was driving out. We waved to each other. I kept going.

Another track in excellent condition. This was formerly the main drag from the Wittenoom-Roy Hill Road through to Newman. It passed several stations and mining camps; Juna Downs, Packsaddle, Rhodes Ridge. We used it extensively before the sealed Rt. 95 came into existence. Again, a track in great shape. I kept expecting washouts, trees growing in the road, or some other hazard. But the track was great. I’d given Louis responsibility for keeping track of our progress on topo and geologic maps. He slowly gets the hang of it.

The road turned east. On our left, a promising section appeared. We parked off the road, geared up, and climbed another hill. After some casting around, I found spherules at the base of a three meter bed. Wow, very thick! Usually it’s about a tenth of this. A cool variation; much of the thickness came from a massive, very muddy bed, probably the settle out of a cloud of mud on the sea floor.

I was happy. We’d snuck into the section, and it was a good one. The work finished, we headed back up the Juna Downs road. I made Louis practice driving a manual transmission. He did fine. Just past the ranger station, the pieces of a wrecked airplane were laid out by the side of the road. It must have crashed and burned nearby, and been reassembled as such here. The light was good; I backed up to take a picture. As we got out the truck, a familiar hiss sounded. Crap, the left rear tyre was going flat. I taught Louis how to change a truck tyre. He did fine. Unfortunately, the spot where we had to change the tyre was about the dustiest area of the road. We were both coated in red dust by the time the new tyre was on.

22nd June - The combination of a flat tyre and personal red dust layering dictated a night at the Auski Tourist Village. Sigh, I’m glad that Auski exists; showers, a mechanic, and clean campground and facilities are nice luxuries. But it’s not the same as camping in bush, with no one around. Auski is also a stop for road trains en route to Newman or Port Hedland. So it’s noisy, bright, and loud. I wasn’t ready for civilization yet. But the shower felt really good.

In the morning, after the tyre was declared healthy, I pointed the Cruiser east towards Roy Hill. I wanted to go to the eastern edge of the outcrop area, where I hoped we could find the impact layer before it dived below the surface of the Fortescue River Valley.

Into the morning sun. A broad, dusty road, fairly dusty, but virtually no traffic. Again, I had a destination in mind: Koodaideri. I have no clue where this name came from; it could be Aboriginal, or butchered English of some sort. Bruce and I were last here in 1986. We drove as far as I could stand it before turning south to the hills. Another quick walk up a steep, rubbly hill. The spinifex was longer here. More time had passed since a burn.

I spied a promising bed above me. It looked like the Juna Downs impact layer; intriguingly and anomalously thick. I climbed straight up the slope at it, over low cliffs, through bushes and spinifex.

The bed was not what I expected. Wow – it was full of boulders! This very unusual in the Hamersley Basin, where mud is the fashionable grain size. I was mesmerized. Oh yeah, look for spherules. Bugger, could not find any in the bed, at all. I looked carefully. Louis looked carefully. None, none at all. Oh well, it was still cool. Many of the boulders in the bed were limestone which showed evidence of forming in shallow water: stromatolites and evaporites were common. Very, very cool. I’d never seen this stuff here before; it outcrops 250 kilometers to the northeast (where the shallow water was 2.5 billion years ago). A couple of the boulders were the size of the Cruiser. Very, very very cool. I am a sucker for giant clasts. This bed had to be a debris flow deposits; a type of cohesive, mud-rich underwater landslide. Looking at these guys is some of my favorite geology. Now if it had only contained impact spherules. Still, a fun discovery.

Late morning, still time to investigate the Koodaideri area. A bit further east, and another track towards the hills. It ended amid the ruins of a good half dozen buildings. Maybe this was the original Koodaideri? It could have been an outstation for one of the grazing operations that were here before the mines came in. All the remained were concrete foundations, bits of wire, and trash. Louis found a broken bottle from a brewer in Wittenoom, the old asbestos mining town sixty kilometers to the west. Wittenoom has been gone for over fifty years. I tried to feel this place. Who lived here? Did they like it? Did they enjoy the lovely Hamersley Range? Did they go to the Fortescue Hotel in Wittenoom to relax on days off? Where are they now?

It was 3:30. No sign of the impact layer, but a good day for seeing cool rocks and touching a bit of the recent past.

The most elusive impact layer in the Hamersley basin is located at the very top of the Jeerinah Formation, well below the spherule layer that’s the focus of this trip. Having given Koodaideri our best look see, I thought it worthwhile to run north across the Fortescue River Valley from Auski, to where the Jeerinah crops out.

Route 95 crosses the very broad Fortescue River valley as it heads towards the equator (it doesn’t get there, to be clear). The Fortescue flows only during floods, I suspect. I’m not even sure when we crossed the drainage per se. All the mulga, gum, and spinifex had a bathtub ring of mud from the last flood; no way to tell exactly where the drainage was.

We ascended out of the valley; a severe climb of at least 15 meters. The landscape here is different. Most of the rock is volcanic; the land looks burnt to a deeper shade of orange than I am used to from the Hamersley Ranges. It looks to support a more meager plant community as well. This might be because it makes for poorer soil, worse drainage, or something else I have not thought of.

It was 5, getting close to time to camp. Louis spied the old dirt road from Wittenoom to Port Hedland; another route supplanted by progress and bitumen. We turned off on it, drove far enough to not be able to hear road traffic, and swaged out.

23rd June. The Jeerinah outcrops were poor. I was able to identify the right stratigraphic interval and locations pretty easily, but the key areas were covered by scree and spinifex. Oh well, we looked. Time to head back to the Hamersley Ranges and the real project.

Lunch in Wittenoom Gorge. As I have probably written in previous years, Wittenoom was an asbestos mining community from the 1930s to the 1960s. It withered once the asbestos market died. The Australian government has been killing the town off since then to discourage visitors. There are no services available, save for a pay phone two kilometers east of town. Almost every building – including the source of the bottle Louis found at Koodaideri – has been torn down. A few holdouts and their private property remain. It’s eerie; I remember when the main street was lined with buildings.

I drove up Wittenoom Gorge to find a nice lunch spot. It’s still beautiful, although the asbestos fibers in the road and chunks of ore in the stream reminded me that it was not a place to linger. The water level in Cathedral Pool, my favorite spot, was quite high. The best lunch spot there was covered in lemon grass. No room to sit; no one had been there in a while.

A partial compensation for the lack of a spherule layer at Koodaideri, we measured a beautiful version of the layer adjacent to Wittenoom’s rubbish tip. Besides a great section, this area had the longest spinifex I’ve seen this trip. Louis hadn’t really had the pleasure of spinifex yet; this was his unavoidable introduction. The only way to move forward was to crash through the spinifex tuffs, take the pain of continual punctures, and wait for one’s legs to go numb.

Wittenoom Gorge is not place to camp. We headed further west to Bee Gorge to swag out. This is another favorite spot. It was a bit challenging this time. While there were plenty of all the usual items needed for a good camp: wood, flat only semi rocky spots to sleep, space to spread out, and a view, there were a couple distractions. First, the ground was alive with small insects. They did not seem interested in our food or in us, but they inevitably crawled onto whatever gear was in contact with the ground. That would be everything. Second, the sky became ominously cloudy. The light dimmed; I knew this meant rain was possible.

24th June – We slept through the bugs. The sky stayed gray. Intermittent drizzle began in the morning. It was a damp breakfast. I did not want to be stuck on a dirt track in any sort of rain. It was time to go to Tom Price.

As we headed out the track to the main dirt road, the showers began. The windshield wipers worked; that was a relief. I drove carefully west and then south through the range front. The rain got heavier, but was still intermittent. It was noticeably cooler; low clouds hit the landmarks I expected to see once we cleared Rio Tinto Gorge. The track was still fairly dry. I was glad to see that we were leaving a dust cloud behind us. Finally, bitumen 60 kilometers from Tom Price. The rain was steady but light.

Tom Price in the rain: another new experience. The Tourist Information Centre predicted rain all day. We shopped. I called my contact at the mine and set up time the next day to work on site. We did internet. One of the Cruiser’s back doors froze shut: probably dust in the mechanism. I pulled the plastic panels off, moved all the wires and stuff around, banged on it, but could not get it to function. Annoying. It rained really hard for 30 minutes – a real downpour. Wet schoolchildren wandered by.

It was time to swag out. Where to go? It was going to be wet wherever we went. I know it would be lower south of town. We drove a bit, found a track, and eventually came to a spot big enough for the truck, two swags, and a cooking spot. It rained. I sat in the truck and read. Louis built a shelter using our tarps and read. It got dark. I cooked. We slept in the increasingly intermittent rain.

Now I’ve seen rain in the Pilbara three times. This was certainly the most intense. Luckily it was congruent with my plans, and more inconvenient than anything else. All my gear is plastic; it dries fast. I discovered that spinifex is quite lovely when it’s wet.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A List of Things I Do Not Do at Home

1. Wake up before dawn
2. Make sure Venus still exists
3. Do my daily ablutions outside
4. Drive on the left side of the road
5. Navigate using GPS, topographic maps, and geologic maps
6. Use a phone card
7. Walk on desert pavement
8. Wade through spinifex and get punctured
9. Look at rocks and sedimentary strata
10. Use a rock hammer
11. Identify grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees
12. Peer through a handlens at tiny round things
13. Watch wedge-tailed eagles, kestrels, galahs, willy wagtails, magpie-larks, spinifex pigeons, and kestrels
14. Climb steep rubbly hillsides
15. Wear a watch and keep track of multiple time zones
16. Sit on the edge of a cliff and eat lunch
17. Calculate the number of tyres on passing road trains
18. Say “no dramas, mate”
19. Enjoy all the scenery
20. Dig a fire pit, collect and burn wood
21. Cook by headlamp
22. Hear bats echo locate and fly overhead
23. Eat Tim Tams
24. Sleep outdoors in a different place every night
25. Sleep in a tube of cotton, plastic, and Goretex
26. Watch shooting stars at night
27. Count the number of stars in Scorpio (19) and study the shape of the Milky Way
28. Fall asleep at 9 pm
29. Be in the present for hours at a time

Undisclosed Location

June 20, second day of field work. After a warm swag out at Weeli Wolli Springs, we headed west and somewhat north to my next target site. After 35 kilometers of corrugated dirt track and a several times that on the Great Northern Highway (all of two lanes), the site came into view. It's a nice steep hill of strata .

I’d been to this location before. The plan was similar to much of the research emphasis of this trip: make repeated vertical measurements of stratigraphy (sedimentary layering and its characteristics) at regular intervals along the outcrop zone and to study the spherule-rich zones in particular. I’m trying to do this all over the Hamersley Range, as I described in an earlier post.

I knew from satellite imagery that there was turn off from the main road onto a dirt track that would pass close in front of the hill. The road looked familiar from space; it seemed to be the same track I’d traveled on in 1989 and 1996. The turn appeared as expected. I hauled the steering wheel left and the Landcruiser headed onto dirt. The track was new. Same exit point off the main highway, but it cut at a different angle across the bush. A sign appeared: “Warning Buried Fibreoptic Cable”. Hmm, must be a communications line for the West Angelas iron mine. No worries, the track was in good shape and headed where I wanted to go.

Eventually we reached the point of closest passage to the hill. Another left turn, over the berm at the edge of the track. A short cross country bounce, till I felt we were close enough to walk, climb the hill, find the layer, and still get enough exercise to feel virtuous.

I was pleased to see an extensive outcrop of limestone at the base of the hill. The geologic unit which I am studying at present is the Wittenoom Formation. It’s named after the Wittenoom family, who were early Dutch homesteaders or the equivalent in the Pilbara. The Wittenoom has two parts. The lower part is the Paraburdoo Member. It’s basically all dolomite – a type of limestone containing magnesium in addition to calcium. This dolomite also has lots of iron in it. It is thus a pleasant yellow to brown colors in weathered outcrops. It’s named after the mining town of Paraburdoo; I’ve read that Paraburdoo means “meat feathers” in the local Aboriginal language. The Paraburdoo is what I was seeing at the base of the hill.

The upper part of the Wittenoom Formation is called the Bee Gorge Member. It’s named after Bee Gorge, and I haven’t a clue who or what “Bee” was. There are certainly plenty of bees around here when wildflowers are blooming. I know the Bee Gorge Member very well. Not only does the impact layer occur in these strata, but the rocks on which I did my PhD research occur here.

The Bee Gorge sequence is like an old friend I visit regularly, who always shows me new and exciting things. It’s a diverse suite of rocks. The basic framework is shale, limestone, chert (very fine grained quartz), and ferruginous chert that represent the slow accumulation of fine grained sediment in the ocean through time. Intermixed with these are volcanic sandstones, the impact layer, sandstones, and other limestones that were deposited suddenly and episodically, interrupting the normal quiet conditions. This is the part that attracts me; the abrupt events when something exciting happens. Puzzling out what happened in these events is fun and creative work. It’s also rewarding to look at the Bee Gorge because it’s never the same in two places. The general sequence of rock types and units is constant, but the details - the charming part - keep changing.

We climbed the hill. After some casting about, I found a bed that I thought should be the impact layer. Louis eventually found spherules at its base, confirming that we were in the right place. We did our work. The spherule-rich part of the bed – the five or so centimeters at its base – also contained lots of small platy particles about the size and shape of a fingernail. These chips were bits of the sea floor under the impact layer that were eroded when it was deposited. They’re badly rusted; they were probably pyrite in the seafloor at the time they were eroded. The layer was just crammed with them. It was really unusual, and a challenge to try and understand how the cramming happened. I am still working on it.

We were done by late afternoon: time to head back to the truck and camp. I pointed us down through the Paraburdoo Member. One narrow drainage looked to have close to 100% exposure. It was a good place for a quick scan in search of a mythical missing impact layer. It was hard to walk down hill through steep, rubbly outcrop and look for tiny spherical particles.

I carefully descended a steep smooth face of delicately brown and tan banded limestone. I thought, great photograph; the light was good. I stopped at the base to get out my camera. As I turned, a loose slab of rock caught my eye. It had petroglyphs on it! Almost the whole surface had Aboriginal imagery: whirls and what I think were representations of throwing sticks. Time indeed for a few pictures. This was exciting; I’ve found petroglyphs only once before in the Pilbara. It was a natural place for Aboriginal art; there was a spring in the middle of the drainage, and actually a couple tiny pools of standing water. Spring fed pools were new to me in this area. It made sense that they would be here. Being limestone, the Paraburdoo Member would be dissolved by rainwater and form caves, i.e., underground plumbing systems for groundwater. This spring was a spot where groundwater was leaking onto the surface. The other Aboriginal site I have “found” also showed signs of springs.

We searched around the drainage looking at all the flat rocks, but could not find any additional art. It’s a place I could well imagine Aboriginals using. In addition to surface water (a rare commodity), there was food, evidenced by plenty of wallaby scat and a couple of plants that could provide small berries and fruit.

Further down the drainage, I found a piece of nautilus shell. I can’t imagine how this piece of a sea animal got here. It was not a fossil. In any case, the rocks under it are a factor of ten times too old to have such fossils in them. It’s of course exciting to imagine an Aboriginal transporting the shell here hundreds or thousands of years ago. It’s also possible that some Westerner dropped it in the drainage recently. There were some test bore holes nearby. Still, another exciting discovery.

So, for the second time on this trip, I’ve had an experience which has brought me a step further in knowing Aboriginal senses of place. Tnorala was explained; this site, as far as I know, is unreported. I’ll investigate that back in Perth.