Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Antipodes

The word antipodes comes to us from Greek. It literally means “against the feet” or “with feet opposite our feet.” That is, it was the folks who were on the opposite side of the world from where you were standing.

For the British, that meant Australia and New Zealand, and Australia and New Zealand are still often referred to as the antipodes, even by people whose feet aren’t opposite them.

Australia never fails to present those who visit with delightful “opposites” that make it seem only natural that it would seem “opposite,” or at least startlingly different, from what Europeans knew and expected. Back on October 15, 2008, I showed you the kangaroo paw, a wonderfully “opposite” flower with red stems and green blossoms. In the book, I wrote about Babakin’s famous underground orchid—an orchid that does, in fact, grow underground. There are, of course, the famous monotremes—egg-laying mammals—the platypus and echidna. And to top things off, in Australia, the swans are black.

Perth perches on the banks of the Swan River, a river named for the myriad swans gliding on its waters when the site was first explored and chosen for establishing a settlement. And all those swans were black swans. Just one more reason to love Australia, I reckon.

Black swan near Perth

Black swan near Perth

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Sunshine City

Though Queensland is called the Sunshine State, Perth apparently holds the record as sunniest capital city in Australia. Despite a mild rainy season, Perth manages to score an average of 8 hours of sunshine per day for the whole year. Certainly, there are a few rainy days, but there are few that offer only rain, and those days are balanced out by days with 12 hours of sunshine, giving Perth that impressively sunny record.

Note: we are speaking of capital cities here, not all of Australia. There are definitely remote, inhospitable stretches of desert that get more hours of sunlight (and fewer of rain), but Perth is in a charming, attractive area that actually supports life quite comfortably. However, among the biggest cities in Australia—and, unlike the United States, the state capitals in Oz are also each state’s biggest city—this one wins the sunshine contest.

One thing that delighted me in Perth was seeing how drivers accommodate such relentlessly cheerful weather. Granted, I saw these in other parts of Australia, but never so commonly as in Perth. And I haven’t seen them in the US (though granted, Chicago is not known as a place of endless sunshine—perhaps sunnier locales have imported them by now). But whether they ever make it over here or not, I did love these auto-blinds.

Car Blinds

Car Blinds

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On to Perth

We ended the wildflower tour in a frenzy of collecting, photographing, labeling, and, as evening approached, saying farewell. We rolled into Perth at 6:15, and I grabbed a taxi to my hotel. When I awoke the next morning, it was time to discover Perth.

Perth is a great town for walkers, with a number of pedestrian malls in the central downtown area that make wandering about easy and delightful. These “malls” are streets that are blocked off and available only to foot traffic. It was a work day, so most of the folks around me were in suits and dresses, but even on a work day, there were a few musicians, groups of teens just hanging out, and others simply enjoying the sunshine and delightful surroundings (as well as, no doubt, others like myself who were just there to look).

Among the pedestrian malls I visited that first day were the Tudor-styled London Court, on the left below, and the larger Hay Street Mall, which is lined with a blend of traditional Aussie architecture and modern chrome-and-glass constructions. In the picture of Hay Street Mall below, you can see the carillon rising above bright, glass-faced Carillon Center.

Perth's London Court

Perth's London Court

Hay Street Mall

Hay Street Mall

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Featherflowers and Grevilleas

Though I have photos of hundreds of flowers from the botany tour, I’m going to spare you from having to see them all. (Though I do hope you get to see them all in person someday.) But I thought I’d show you a couple more before moving on, out of the splendid wildflower fields of the southwest corner.

Among of the most stunning of the flowers we saw were the Verticordias, also known as featherflowers. It’s not hard to see how they got their common name, when you look at their delicately feathered blossoms (see the photo on the left, below). These flowers, which come in a wide range of colors, grow in luxuriant masses, like large, dense bouquets. They are a delight to the eye from a distance, but they are better appreciated up close, where you can see the feathery structure of the small blossoms.

The bright, red Grevillea on the right is just one of more than 300 species (some estimates top 360 species) of this flower. Though wild specimens are abundant, Grevilleas are widely cultivated, as well. Aside from being visually appealing, their abundant nectar attracts members of the large and diverse group of birds known as honeyeaters. (The nectar is so abundant, in fact, that some species of Grevilleas were traditionally gathered by Aborigines as a sweet treat.)

Grevilleas exist primarily in Australia, but can also be found in Papua New Guinea and a few other islands to Australia’s north. The plants occur in a wide range of shapes and sizes, and the flowers come in numerous colors: red, pink, orange, gold, white—and probably others I didn’t see. Grevilleas were named for Charles Francis Greville, who in 1804 helped found the Royal Horticultural Society.

Featherflower (Verticordia)

Featherflower (Verticordia)

Grevillea

Grevillea

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The Stirling Range

On the move again, we headed northeast from Albany, bound for the Stirling Range. These low, rolling mountains are the location of flowers that are astonishing even for this astonishing corner of Australia. Here, there are flowers that grow nowhere else—some of which, in fact, won’t grow anywhere else. One species, the Darwinias, or Stirling bells, are so specialized that each variety of the species has its own specific mountain in the Stirlings.

But it is not just the rarity of the flowers that is remarkable—it is the abundance. The flowers spread in unbroken blankets for miles around us, on all sides. In places, they were waist deep, and in others, they actually reached overhead. The scarlet Banksias (see the Oct. 22, 2008 post for more on Banksias, including a photo of the scarlet Banksias) were present in stunning numbers—miles and miles of them. Color undulated in waves across the landscape, breaking at the foot of the dark mountains. It was intoxicating.

All the flowers delighted me, but the one I thought I’d share with you today is the smokebush. The puffs and clusters of smokebush shimmered amid the dense, dark foliage surrounding me. The smokebush I was admiring was the Conospermum distichum variety, which grows to about three feet in height and has fuzzy, blue-gray flowers that don’t look much like flowers.

Smokebush

Smokebush

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Albany Coast, Torndirrup Peninsula

In many places, the face that this corner of Western Australia presents to the sea is a hard one—great walls of ancient granite and even older gneisses.

The oldest rocks, the gneisses, pre-date almost all life on Earth. Scientists estimate that these rocks were formed between 1300 and 1600 million years ago, shaped by incredibly high pressure and temperatures. The granite, on the other hand, was formed when the Australia and Antarctica tectonic plates collided about 1160 million years ago. The collision caused such immense friction that the Earth’s crust, between the two continents, melted and rose slowly, cooling into the masses of granite visible through this area today.

The Gap and Natural Bridge, in Torndirrup National Park on the Torndirrup Peninsula, is considered an ideal place to view this astonishingly ancient rock. This area was one of Western Australia’s first national parks, set aside in 1918. It took it’s name from an Aboriginal group that lived on and near the peninsula. The area is as rich in wildlife and botanical specimens as any other in this region, but it is the rocks here that are most remarkable.

I’m always delighted by impressive statistics, but here, it was the beauty and drama of the location that captivated me. Wind and waves both beat relentlessly against this geological fortress, but the walls hold, though they are wonderfully carved in places by the endless attack.

I read later that when the Bridge eventually collapses, it will form another wave trap like the Gap. I have encountered two different collapsed natural bridges in Australia since my stroll out onto the Bridge at Torndirrup, one of which collapsed only shortly before my visit, but of course the possibility of collapse didn’t even occur to me on the day I visited the dramatic, windy coast near Albany.

If you read the story of Jimmy Newhills in my book, you may have wondered how unlikely his survival was. The photos below show Jimmy Newhills Inlet and the nearby Gap, and I think the contrast illustrates why it was reasonable for everyone to assume Newhills could not survive the storm. After all, most of the peninsula looks like the Gap, not the inlet.

Jimmy Newhills Inlet

Jimmy Newhills Inlet

The Gap

The Gap

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Happy 2009

Well, it has been a busy couple of months. I spent a couple of weeks in Japan over Thanksgiving and into December. Then I headed off to mom’s for Christmas for a week. But now I’m home, so I can get back to serious blogging, and posts will be more regular again.

The wildflower tour had stopped for a few days in Albany, Western Australia, where we enjoyed history as much as botany. But we had not left the flowers behind. This entire corner of Australia is blanketed in wildflowers in the spring, so no matter where we went, we were still accompanied by the beauty of the myriad and often-unique botanical offerings of this corner of the country.

Many of the flowers that we saw originated, and often only grow, in this corner of Western Australia (that became a recurring theme, actually—not just flowers unique to Australia, or even unique to Western Australia, but flowers unique to tiny, specific areas within this southwest corner). Among the local delights we encountered was Boronia, shown below. It is actually a small evergreen shrub, with needle-like leaves. Not only is Boronia attractive, it is wonderfully fragrant—actually a flower from which perfume is made. It has been successfully grown in gardens in other parts of Australia, and even outside Australia where climates are mild enough, but this is where it got its start.

Boronia

Boronia

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