Saturday, January 19, 2013

Wait... Is it poisonous?

By Jasper Dean

Our weekend adventure began with our first actual taste of Aboriginal culture, pun intended. A short walk from our humble abode sits Gardener’s Lodge, an endearing breakfast-lunch cafe dedicated to re-creating Aboriginal dishes, with a modern flair.  The joint is run by a hush-toned, yet talkative, Aboriginal elder. Her passions appear to be in the right place: the connection between her people and their native land, and the café’s use of original ingredients and techniques. Though surrounded by a handful of other seasoned professionals, she commands an air of respect around, and away from, her café. Breakfast was served sampler style, and consisted of a pair of dishes: wattle seed pancakes served with syrup and berries from the bush, and a corn-based fritter topped with what avocado, and filled with a savory sauce.
Brekkie, Aboriginal style
Bellies filled and culture meters looking healthy, we piled onto the bus for the first leg of the trip. I should note now that, having spent most of my time on the bus curled up and passed out, we may as well have driven through a magic closet to arrive at our destinations, and I wouldn’t know any better. Lo and behold, I awoke to delicate botanical gardens mixed in amongst what appeared to be vast untouched fields of natural Australian land. (I would later be informed they call this place Mount Annan).  While there, we learned about the ‘stolen generations.’  This era of Aboriginal children, as we would learn, is so-called due to the effects of the Aboriginal Protection Acts, in effect from the late 1800s until the mid 1950s (and sometimes even longer), which allowed the Aboriginal Protection Board to seize children from their families without having to establish any justifiable legal cause. Our guide’s work to proliferate awareness on that subject, (as well as others concerning social and environmental matters about Australia) qualified him as a knowledgeable guide for our ravenous minds. He led us down a short but emotionally heavy path into the bush on a sort of memorial walk dedicated to the stolen generations. Plaques inscribed with quotes describing the difficulty of the experience and its’ traumatic after-effects lined the path. This divulgence from historical records and statistics gave tangibility to the situation people still alive today had undergone. The walk culminated in a rock carving of an Aboriginal mother and father with their child.  The stepping-stones leading away from- and to- the carving had the footprints of the child being taken away and returning to their community as an adult, respectively. A niche had been carved into the upper portion of the rock, in which sat a small wooden bowl.
Memorial statue for the stolen generations
 As our guide described to us, there was an annual ceremony in which Aboriginals would come to take a bowl full of water from the nearby creek, and from its original perch, pour the water down the face of the statue, symbolizing the tears of the family.

The entirety of Mount Annan serves as a sprawling junction for environmental preservation and research, and the botanical garden, its trophy room. Pristine from clearly immaculate care, different native Australian plants with ancestry as far back as the dinosaur era line the paths.

A section of the botanical gardens 
We learned about a tree with poisonous seeds that used to be eaten by Aboriginal people. Thorough cooking and preparation led them to believe any toxins had been killed off, but later research connected large numbers of Parkinson’s disease cases with long term ingesting of the seed, and the younger generation fortunately dropped the dish cold turkey. Another fact pointed out was that flowers in Australia tend to be much smaller than ones Americans are used to. This is a result of unpredictable and often harsh weather stretches endured over millions of years by Australian plants, which adapted to exist more frugally. This pattern continues across most every breed of plant still thriving in Australia, and would become an oft-cited theme of the weekend.
Being the Americans we are, walking around leisurely and staring at plant life had left us all hungry again, so it was a good thing we brought our sandw-ohwaitnope. We were never in true danger though, as our great leader and savior Yuuuuuueping the Courageous bought us all hot chips (ie. freedom fries).
Another bus ride magically transported us to Scenic World. The name is undoubtedly cheesy, but they really weren’t joking. Stepping out onto the platform, the scenery quickly falls away into a vast rainforest, snaking through a gigantic valley, finally out of sight. The entire valley is hugged by towering cliff faces. The entire layout allows the human eye to see, uninterrupted, for 70 km. The sensation of looking over the ledge for the first time is akin to watching a movie filmed from a helicopter flying over a cliff, when suddenly, the chopper finally clears the edge and close up turns into panoramic scenery, and though the speed of the helicopter never changes, time feels temporarily paralyzed.
I just wish I could fly
Scenic World is also home to the worlds’ steepest incline railway, measuring in at an Indiana-Jones-esque 52 degrees. Those hoping for an action-packed, death-defying 8 seconds of breakneck speed would be sorely disappointed however, as the train car inches down the cliff face in a tempting fashion.
The world's steepest railcar, in all its rickety glory
After arriving at the bottom, Howard, our personal all-knowing of all things Australia guide, led us on a pair of successive hikes, explaining the different ecological importances of different ferns and trees, as well as some of the ancient history regarding the rock valley formation, and more recent history on attempts to mine in the area.

Ze gondola
Our short trek brought us to the base of a gondola, this one carrying us up and over a section of the valley, offering a final breathtaking view.
Mira the Silent and Yueping the Courageous
View from the gondola
But the excitement was not over yet! What should have been a simple Ashley-acquisition from the train station turned into an escapist fiasco. Julie had rendez-voused with Ashley earlier to finally bring her into the program, but at the meeting location, our two heroines couldn’t quite reach the train doors in time. Fearing they may be gone forever, we got them at the next station, and all was well.
With the group at full force, we finally headed for our lodging for the weekend in Blackheath. Located somewhat remotely out in the Blue Mountain area, our accommodations were a deluxe restaurant and resort, all connected in a sort of tree-branch fashion. The accommodations were nice upon arrival, but we didn’t really comprehend how good we had it until we sat down to dinner. Cloth napkins, real glasses, wine for the table, elegant food…the whole nine yards. 
The fabulously named Jemby Rinjah resort
Arriving at Jenolan Caves
The next day’s activity was exploring the Jenolan Caves. Like most places in Australia, the Aboriginals had found and utilized the caves first, but in a more hands-off approach—in fact they feared the caves and stayed away. Dark, slippery, and dangerous, the cave was largely unaltered until the mid 1800’s rolled around, when the cave was first recorded by the Whalan brothers in search of a rogue horse thief. Over the following decades, crews have made the massive network of caves available to the public for tours, adding in pathways and powerful electric lighting. Scientists working on the caves have used potassium to argon ratios to date the cave at 340 million years old, making it the oldest known cave system in the world.
Batman?  You in there?
Walking through, the age becomes visibly tangible. The caves themselves are made of  limestone which is composed of decayed shellfish remains compacted over millions of years.  Stalagmites, which are made of deposits of calcium carbonate, and extend from the floor upward, supposedly grow at approximately 1cm for every 100 years. In the second room of the tour, we met Hercules, the single largest stalagmite in the caves. Standing in a room with about 40m from floor to ceiling, Hercules reached from the floor to about a 1/3 of the way up the room.    
The Roman demi-god himself
Aside from the aforementioned stalagmites and commonly known stalactites, a limestone formation called helictites exists in the Jenolan Caves. Instead of protruding from the floor or ceiling, these smaller structures extend from the cave walls, twisting and contorting seemingly randomly. Helictites, however, are largely a mystery to scientists. Over 20 significant theories have been presented as to how they form, but there is no singular accepted truth.

The mysterious helictites
Deeper into the network we came across a massive underground lake. Our guide informed us that professional divers had attempted to fully explore the depths of the lake, but somewhere around 90m down, had to give up. In the past, a small boat had given tourists a short ride to the other side of the walkway, but so many sank over the years that those in charge of the cave had given in and constructed a concrete path over the lake. Right as the project was being finished up, the concrete mixer had died. Instead of lugging it all the way back up to the surface to be thrown away, the mixer was given a proper burial and plaque, and affectionately named Bertha.
Continuing through the cave, our guide pointed out a handful of markings made by some of the cave’s first explorers, warning of unstable rock and other dangers.
Near the end of the cave, we came to a room beneath the legendary ‘cathedral,’ which has such incredible natural acoustics that groups have traveled from around the country and world to perform there. The room we were in was more recently outfitted with zeitgeist-y red and blue lights, highlighting a central ‘stage’ upon which the remains of a wombat were prominently displayed.

Disco room
Now, that actual wombat was taken from a local highway, but it illustrated the story of hundreds of animals who had, over the years, tumbled from the upper room, through the connecting tunnel, and fallen to their final demise in this room.

The entirety of our cave exploration took 3 hours. Afterward, we hiked down to a tiny little waterfall for lunch, narrowly avoiding death-by-snake on the way there. Not satisfied with only near-death, Justin ‘Adventure Man’ Gallen leaped tens of feet from the top of a rock face into the natural pool, much to Yueping’s chagrin. Needless to say, he still walks among us.

Adventure Man and his loyal subjects
Back at the lodge, dinner was equally as fancy, but the wait staff just had to out-do itself. One of the male waiters first serenaded us with multiple classics on the guitar, including an Elvis hit. Ever the performer, he then put on a juggling show, highlighted by a 4-ball-behind-the-back juggle, while on fire. Ok he wasn’t on fire, but the rest stands true.  Later that night, we watched The Edge, a documentary about the unique landscape and vegetation of the Blue Mountains, including a patch of Wollemi pines, trees from the age of the dinosaurs thought to be completely extinct, only recently discovered and studied.

For our final day in the Blue Mountains, Howard the Knowledgeable led us on a 4-hour expedition/hike through the massive valley of the Blue Mountains. The path had clearly been pioneered and fitted with implements for ease of use, but definitely had a nice unfinished element that made the hike still feel like a genuine trek through nature.

Plunging into the wilderness
Team Nature wassup
The path repeatedly snaked up and down the steep valley walls, a couple of times crisscrossing the stream that ran through it. With each significant altitude change, the forest literally shifted from wet to dry eucalyptus, and temperate to subtropical. Certain areas displayed aspects of central Australia, featuring dry, brownish plants and red-rock, while others were lush green, condensation seemingly dripping off every surface.
Um, ferns
At one point, Howard stopped the group to show us a small, pink flower that, when touched, triggered a ‘hammer’ petal that (ironically) delicately dabbed pollen on the back of whatever insect drank from it’s nectar. The entire hike continued the theme of Darwinian survival in the Australian wilderness. Australia is infamous for drastic swings in weather, inconsistent seasons, and natural extremes. Plants and animals still existing in this unique habitat are highly evolved, and tend to contain a number of unusual evolutionary features.

Back to our story, after stopping for lunch, we embarked on the final, and what we figured would be shortest, part of the journey. Ohhhhh how we were wrong…this final stretch took us from the valley floor to the very tippy top of the cliff faces. This last surge (and for some, very nearly last act on earth) ascended about 1,000 feet, more or less vertically. But man, was the view worth it. Locals have nicknamed it the Grand Canyon, which we laughed at earlier, but quickly bit our tongues as we looked over the edge of the cliff, all 40 km wide and 100+ km long of the valley. I’ve never wanted a squirrel suit so badly.

Pure awe
We bro-nquered the mountain
Parting shot of epic-ness
The hike was the exclamation point to an all-around exhausting but interactive and educational weekend. Compacting years’ worth of nature exploration into a weekend has a way of leaving you wanting so much more, but also lacking the willpower to lift a finger to say otherwise. Climbing on the bus one final time, we were bummed to leave, but only as long as we could stay awake. Magically, when we awoke fleeting moments later, we were home.

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