Saturday, December 29, 2012

Great Southern Land (Part 3)

After a few very hot days in the Warrumbungles, I felt like finding somewhere cooler to pitch my tent. Mt Kaputar, only a few hours north, fitted the bill. The mountain's about 1500m high and has a campground at 1400m. Because of the elevation, the days were no more than mid-twenties - wonderful after the high thirties days in Dubbo and the Warrumbungles. The campground was surrounded by Snow and Mountain Gums, with plenty of walking tracks, curious kangaroos and very few other campers. It was the perfect place to chill out while the rest of Australia got on with its Christmas shopping.

Mt Kaputar is, or was, a shield volcano similar to the Warrumbungles. The various bluffs and outcrops are mainly basalt, with plugs forming massive, cliff-edges plateaus that stick out of the forest.

Sunset from the summit of Mt Kaputar

One thing I quickly found is that early summer is thunderstorm season in NSW and Queensland. Many thunderheads seemed to go around Mt Kaputar rather than over it, and as I walked along various tracks,  the forests and bluffs echoed to the sound of thunder away over the plains. The summit did get smited on two days though, and my tent proved to only be 90% waterproof.

Hmmm, those clouds look a bit dark. I wonder what's coming?

Surely that storm's going to pass us by?

But not that one. Damn.

After the storms had cleared, the sunset showed up the silhouette of the Warrumbungles, 160km to the south. It's said that you can see 7% of NSW from Mt Kaputar.

There was a surprising amount of wildlife up the mountain. I saw my first fox in the wild, the kangaroos always showed up at mealtimes, and as for goats... I counted 18 in one herd.

At the northern end of Mt Kaputar National Park is Sawn Rocks. They're a single thick lava flow that has cooled slowly. When rock cools it shrinks and cracks, and the cracks run perpendicular to the surface. In most cases the result is like Sawn Rocks, with columnar jointing. The same thing is famously seen in the Giant's Causeway in Ireland.

After a few days walking through forests, standing on cliff edges and watching the wildlife, it was time to head home. I had to stop at one more geological attraction though - Rocky Creek Glacial Area, near Bingara. The glacier's long-gone now - it was gone before dinosaurs evolved. But the rocks remain - conglomerates of granite cobbles picked up by a glacier, as well as interbeds of fine siltstone. The cobbles were deposited in summer, when the glacier moved rapidly, while the fine sediments were from rock flour, deposited in winter when the glacier had ground to a halt. I counted about seven different source rocks that have contributed to the conglomerate. It was, in every sense, cool.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Great Southern Land (Part 2)

The first National Park I wanted to check out was Warrumbungle National Park, near the New South Wales town of Coonabarabran. And right on the park border is the Siding Spring Observatory. As a life-long geek, I had to check it out. One telescope at Siding Spring, the Anglo-Australian Telescope, has a viewing gallery where you can see a state-of-the-art instrument that's discovered planets, observed far-off galaxies and watched the birth and death of stars. Siding Spring also has a great information centre and gift shop, and while I tried to keep my hands in my pockets, I ended up buying a telescope! The next few nights were spent spying the moon, Jupiter and its moons, various stars and nebulae - outback Australia has wonderfully dark skies, as spectacular as the countryside itself.

And so to Warrumbungle National Park. The Warrumbungles, as they're commonly referred to, are a range of eroded volcanic deposits. When most people think of volcanoes, they think of Mt Fuji-like towering peaks. Australia's volcanoes, on the other hand, tend to be formed by basaltic hot spots in the crust. Instead of tall, conical shapes, basaltic volcanoes form broad 'shield' shapes. 

Many of the Warrumbungle walks are up and along a range known as the Grand High Tops. It's a cool name, and the views lived up to the billing. During the climb up, the first rocks seen in the creek beds and track cutting are the sandstones that existed before the volcanoes sprouted from the plains. The overlying volcanic rocks include solid and bubbly basalt, often exposed in cliffs. Tuff layers, from deposited, solidifed ash, show up as softer layers in the cliffs. Tuff sometimes has cliffs eroded into it by wind and water.

Volcanic breccias are common. They're caused when debris flows down the sides of the volcanoes pick up rocks and boulders, and redeposit them further down the mountain. It's a violent process, and the rock fragments end up in an unsorted mess.

The dykes and plugs are made of a rock called Trachyte. It's chemically the same as the basalt, but it cooled and solidified within the mountain instead of being erupted. Because it cooled more slowly the crystals are larger, and the rock is harder.

From the top, you can see how the Warrumbungles rise from the flat plains of central NSW. To the north, west and south, it's flat as far as the eye can see.

The most distinctive peak in the Grand High Tops is 'The Breadknife'. It is the coolest dyke I've ever seen.

On the last day, I trudged up is Mt Exmouth. At 1200m it's the highest point in the National Park, and the 360 degree views made the climb very worthwhile.

The view from Mt Exmouth, looking east towards the Grand High Tops.

A panorama from Mt Exmouth.

The Arch, near Mt Exmouth.

I'd like to go back to the Warrumbungles, but may choose a time when the weather's cooled off a bit. Each day was fine and sunny, with temperatures of 35 - 38C. Each day I drank as much water as possible before setting out, and carried two litres with me. And each day, I drank it all and was looking forward to an iceblock at the Visitor's Centre when I got back! 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Great Southern Land (Part 1)

The geology business is a funny one. One minute the industry can't get enough geologists to help them explore for coal, gas and minerals. And then commodity prices drop and the first thing to be shelved is exploration. The result is a lot of unemployed geologists, quickly. I still have a job, but the company I work for hires out geologists. Right now the demand has dried up, so my boss sent us off on unpaid leave for a few months. I got to keep my company car though, so hatched a plan - go camping!

First stop was Sydney to drop off some mining gear to a colleague. That done, I spent the next two weeks meandering northwards through rural New South Wales. I mainly camped in National Parks. As always, if a spot looks interesting or unusual on a geological map, it's usually pretty spectacular in real life.

Sydney Harbour

The road west from Sydney weaves through the Blue Mountains. Two things to note: they aren't mountains but gorges. And they aren't blue, exactly, it's an effect of haze and distance. Other than that, it's a perfect name.

I may have gotten a bit close to the edge here...

Next stop was the town of Bathurst. Most of the year it's a quiet rural town, but every October, a 1000km race is run on the nearby Mount Panorama circuit. You can drive around it at 60km/h (and yes, the speed limit is policed!). Driving around gives a good idea of the steepness of the climb up and down the mountain. It certainly isn't your average flat race track. One day I will be back in my Triumph Herald or GT6.

There's also a great museum near the start-finish line, which has a pretty good cross-section of cars which have raced at Mt Panorama, as well as other famous race cars. The only Triumphs were motorbikes, all impressively restored and waiting to roar off into the sunset.

Not sure our fleet-manager should see this one...

West of Bathurst, I found a place called Wellington Caves. Being a geologist, anything with the word 'cave' is irresistible. So I pitched my tent at the caves' campground, and next morning took tours of all three caves. The rock's a Devonian limestone or marble (marble is just baked limestone) with some impressive fossils and formations. It was also a nice cool 18C, instead of the high thirties outside.

One cave was mined for phosphate during WW1. The phosphate was from bat droppings and coated the cave floor and walls. How much phosphate was produced isn't known, and it was suggested that the mine was a good way for a few chaps do do their bit for the war effort without having to go France for target practice. Who knows if that's true?

The best formation in Cathedral Cave, naturally called 'The Organ'.

After the cave tours it was early afternoon, so I set off for the town of Dubbo. The town's most famous attraction is the Western Plains Zoo, which is a part of Sydney's Taronga Zoo. A zoo visit takes most of a day, so the next day was spent watching animals. Elephants, bison, giraffes, hippos, tigers, lions, all sorts of Australian animals (most of which I've met in the wild), lemurs.  I hired a bike and cycled around - a brilliant, green plan that seemed a little less clever as the temperature neared 40C!  Most of the African animals were happy to be out in the summer sun, but some were happier spending their time snoozing under trees. They were obviously the smarter ones. Of course animals can't stop for an iceblock, but I certainly could. Phew!

The end of a memorable, fun day was marked with a beautiful sunset. Australia does sunsets well.

The next day I headed north-ish again. Here's a taste of the next stop:

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Philippines 2012

Until now, my overseas holidays have been to 'comfortable' countries. Australia, England and Scotland, Germany, and the Cook Islands. Places where people speak English (or Scottish) and life is predictable and well organised. Last week, I travelled to the Philippines to attend my brother's wedding to a Filipino lady. The trip was definitely out of my 'comfort zone', and all the more enjoyable for that.

Butterflies at Changi Airport

The trip from Australia took nearly three days. I stayed overnight in Singapore Airport's Ambassador Hotel - which I can recommend - and another in Manila - which I can't - before flying south to Tacloban, on the island of Leyte. Tacloban's a nice town, much smaller than Manila but still with the mad traffic that characterises the Philippines.

Sunset at Raphael's Farm

The wedding was held at a function centre called Raphael's Farm, just north of Tacloban. The day after, we headed over the San Juanico Bridge to a resort on Samar.

The resort was surrounded by small basalt islands, and had black basalt beach sand. Beautiful!

The day after I flew out, Typhoon Bopha hit Mindanao and killed over 300 people. While Tacloban had a lot of middle class homes, the town and surrounding countryside were also dotted with small clusters of houses, called Barangays. Built on any available flat land from river mudflats to the sides of the road, many of the homes are built of bamboo, thatch and recycled corrugated iron. Small wonder that in a Typhoon, they get swept away. It's only because the authorities moved thousands of people to higher ground that more weren't killed.

Roadside houses and food stalls.

 But, my lasting memories of the Philippines will be of amazingly friendly and cheerful people, copious yummy seafood, and a beautiful warm, green, vibrant country. Mabuhay!