Thursday, January 23, 2014

That One Weekend in the Blue Mountains…

January 17 – 19, 2014

By Sierra Enright

On Friday, following a lecture on the terrestrial biota of Australia, we took a ferry from Circular Quay to the Taronga Zoo. A knowledgeable, friendly staff member told us about the uniquely adapted Australian fauna. We were able to pet an echidna, a possum (cuter than the North American opossum), a non-venomous snake, a tree frog, a quokka, and a kangaroo. From our tour of the zoo I picked up a few interesting facts: Australia is home to the 11 most venomous snakes in the world; koalas have upside-down pouches because their young need to be exposed to the mother’s fecal matter in order to develop enzymes specific to digesting eucalyptus; and a female kangaroo is able to pause a pregnancy at 100 cell divisions until she is no longer nursing her other joeys. Walking around the zoo, it was interesting to look at all the animals and to do some people watching. A number of us were quite horrified to see people throwing chips (French fries) to the spider monkeys. You’d get kicked out of most zoos in the US for doing that! 
This is a quokka! (Photo by Becca Zilk)

On Saturday, we left Sydney and headed west for a weekend excursion to the Blue Mountains. On our way to the mountains we stopped at the Mount Annan Botanic Garden. The best story from the walk around the garden is about the wollemi pine, a species believed to be extinct until it was found in a remote valley in the Blue Mountains about 20 years ago. Today it is considered a “living dinosaur” because the species is so ancient (fossils indicate at least 90 million years old). At Scenic World, a tourist attraction in the mountains, we rode a railway with a 52-degree incline, the steepest passenger railway in the world. We had an excellent view of the Three Sisters, which tower several thousand meters above the valley floor. The Three Sisters carry significant cultural, social, and historical value to the traditional custodians of the land. According to the Gundungurra people, the lore behind the Three Sisters is that three Gundungurra sisters fell in love with three brothers from the neighboring Dharruk nation, though tribal law forbade marriage between the two groups. War broke out between the tribes when the brothers took the girls by force. A Gundungurra medicine man turned the girls to stone to keep them away from the brothers and out of the violence. He would have restored the sisters to their natural form but he was killed in battle. The sisters remain in stone to this day. The story reminds people to do what is best for their family clan and warns about the consequences of not following tribal laws. 

The Three Sisters
 On Sunday, we rode the bus to the Jenolan Caves, about an hour drive from where we were staying in Katoomba. We took a cave tour that led us throughout the complex cave system. We saw underground rivers that cut through the caves, stalactites and stalagmites, sparkling areas that had been dry for decades, and chambers with cathedral-like ceilings. One of the stalagmites we saw was almost as tall as me, and close to a thousand years old… mindboggling! 

Limestone formations in Jenolan Caves

Upon finishing our tour of the cave, we walked to a lovely little pool and waterfall for a picnic. Many in our group jumped from the cliff face into the pool and some of us just went swimming. On our walk back to the bus, we could just make out a platypus diving in the lake. It’s rare to see platypus in the wild, especially during the day, so we were quite lucky. Sunday was an exciting day of wildlife viewing; in addition to the platypus, we saw three adorable wallabies hanging out by the road on the way back to Katoomba. Our busy weekend in the Blue Mountains was the perfect complement to our first week of classes in Sydney. It is so exciting to be in a place with such amazing plants and animals.   


Feeling refreshed after swimming in the rock pool 
Photos by: Sierra Enright

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