Sunday 30 September 2012

The Blessings of Limestone – Part 2

A collapsed roof (doline) allows entry to Lake Cave, WA

Those with experience of cassette players will recall that moment when the tape got warped or stuck. The flow of the music was suddenly replaced by something comically tuneless or wobbly; or else by unwanted silence.

That was the experience some student friends and I once had on a guided tour of a limestone cave. Fresh-faced earth science students, we were keen to learn of the mysterious processes that shape our earth. The guide was at the other end of the freshness spectrum.

And on your left, you will see seven stalacmites … remembering that stalacmites might grow tall, as opposed to stalactites, which … hah hah … stick tight to the roof. And these formations are known as the Seven Dwarves .. hah hah … they’re certainly not tall … (moves forward five paces.) And right behind them (shines torch in direction of a larger flowstone formation), is of course Snow White .. hah hah …

And so the commentary ran, literally monotonous, and uninterrupted save for the guide’s own interjections of simulated mirth. He had learned the tour so well that he may as well have been a tape recorder. That is until we asked our first question. Then his voice suddenly wavered, wobbled out something wordless, akin to urr or umm, then stopped. He looked at his watch, despite the near darkness, and shuffled his feet. Then, as though it might get his stalled tape recorder going again, he walked on a few paces, and shone his torch on a new formation.

Umm … and here you will see a large number of stalactites, sticking tight … hah hah … to the ceiling. And if you count them you will see that there are twelve of them, so this formation we call the twelve apostles … hah hah … and they stick tight to the ceiling, of course, because they have ascended into heaven .. hah hah …

Formations reflected in Lake Cave, WA 

We ventured one more question, with similar results, before surrendering to the flow of pre-recorded similes: The Ten Commandments coming down from on high; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves sneaking up behind us; The Three Musketeers, with their rapier swords held erect (and here a genuine snigger).

Our guide may have been a crass example, but it is is true that most of us seek out the familiar when confronted with the strange. When it comes to caves, according to Kathleen Jamie, “it’s reassuring, in this gallery of uncanny forms, to map them onto things we know in the world outside. … We are deep in a hall of similes.”  (Sightlines, p 166)

In the caves of Western Australia’s Margaret River region, we found some restrained echoes of this urge. Certainly the similes were not as crass as those of my student experience. Yet it still felt as though the beauty of some limestone formations had to be adorned with names, or with artificial lights, in order to make the “accessible”. In one cave the formations were given a coloured light show, changing them from cream to red to green to blue to purple. It was akin to seeing the Mona Lisa turned into a red-head, then given a blonde look, and finally a blue rinse.

Gladly our experience in most caves was more natural and positive. We were given the space and time – and sufficient information – to be mind-boggled by the strange-but-true processes that lead to the incredible beauty beneath the region's forests and vines. To see, for example, karri tree roots deep inside a cave, and in the process of allowing water to penetrate, and create formations, was more wondrous than any light show.

Twined karri roots reach into Jewel Cave, WA

Sometimes the blessings of freshly baked bread are sufficient in themselves. Sometimes we don’t need spreads. Just plain bread, perhaps with a glass of wine – that other blessing of Margaret River limestone – can be the taste of heaven on earth.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The Blessings of Limestone - Part 1

Limestone formations, Mammoth Cave WA

Chemistry was never my strong suit at school, although it caught my attention periodically, so to speak. That was particularly the case when chemistry leaked out of its beakers and into the real world. Calcium carbonate (CaCO3), for instance, could become limestone. And to me, back then, that meant caves and adventure and beauty and wonder.

All that and more came to mind during our visit to the Margaret River region. Anyone familiar with the area is likely to think of wine, or forests, or surfing, perhaps even caves. Each of these, in its own way, owes something to CaCO3. For a start much of the area between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin is underlain by a thick layer of limestone built up from the reprocessed remains of shells and other sea creatures

Limestone outcrop, Hamelin Bay, WA 

The boon for surfers is that the limestone can form offshore reefs. When the consistent Indian Ocean swells hit the reefs and bomboras at places like Prevelly and Redgate, they become long breaking waves that attract surfers from around the world. It's a perfect blend of physics and chemistry

We spend a couple of hours at Gnarabup Beach, a relative nook compared with the long open strands that characterise much of this coast. It's mid week and there are only a few surfers about. Most are trying out "The Bommie" or Margaret River Main Break at nearby Prevelly. We're just casual swimmers intent on a warm loll-on-a-beach, so we head for Gnarabup. Its golden limestone sand, twice-recycled shell sediment, gleams and glares between thick wadges of sea weed. The water is a translucent azure.

As we settle on the sand a surfer starts paddling out from the beach. He stands up on his board, using a long paddle to propel himself. We're intrigued. It's the first time we've seen a stand up paddle board close up. The wet-suited rider - part gondolier, part surfer - poles his way around the smaller in-shore waves. With each stroke he lifts the end of the inverted heart-shaped paddle clear of the water, taking nearly twenty minutes to negotiate his way out to a reef break at least half a kilometre offshore.

By that time most of us would have collapsed from exhaustion, but he stands on his board patiently. Occasionally he paddles calmly this way or that, all the while checking, Ahab style, for the signs of a good swell. He sees one, pivots his board, paddles hard. His speed surprises us, as he poles his way from the foaming crest of a 2 metre wave onto the clean curve itself. For a few seconds he cruises diagonally down the wave, the paddle his rudder. He is on the wave for maybe ten seconds before he runs out of wave. He eases up and over the left shoulder of the spent wave, and paddles back to watch for more.

Stand up paddle board rider, Gnarabup, WA 

We return to Prevelly and Gnarabup a few days later. It's high tide and the swells are larger. Only a few brave souls are trying out the main break. This time we watch a sea kayaker getting ready to launch from the beach at Gnarabup. He leaves his kayak high on the sand and goes back to his car to leave some gear.
We've been watching large sets coming through at intervals, and one comes while he's away. It surges up the beach, lifts and turns his white kayak and sucks it seaward. I rush down to stop it travelling any further towards Africa. The owner returns and thanks me, and we chat about his plans. He intends to paddle around the breaks and head towards Prevelly before returning.

I watch for some time, wondering which way through he will choose. He heads towards the same bombora the stand up surfer used the other day. Today its mood is different. One minute it is calm, the next it throws up ferociously steep, curling waves. He sees it in time, jags left and rises over non-spilling section of the swell. I sigh with vicarious relief, then watch as he patrols the deep waters beyond the reef.

Thinking about surfing: Margaret River main break, Prevelly, WA 

I wonder whether he, or any of the region's wave riders, think of the mashed molluscs and crushed crustaceans that have left him this delectable legacy. Watching these men, mere motes in a vast ocean, I can understand why neither falls from or otherwise leaves their vessel. They are far more likely to be pondering sea creatures of the large and finned variety.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Somebody Turned on the Lights!

[Silver wattle and eucalypts, near Underwood, Tasmania] 

Sometimes I feel like that goldfish. You know the one: he’s supposed to possess such a minuscule memory that every time he swims round the fishbowl, he is freshly surprised to see a feature – say a water plant – that is actually there every time.

For me it’s the blossoming of the wattle. I shouldn’t be surprised, it happens every spring without fail. Yet somehow my delight and surprise remain as fresh as the first August/September that I witnessed it. And certainly this spring must go down as a stellar one for the flowering of our silver wattle (Acacia dealbata).

The sheer extravagance, the staggering profusion of blossoms –inflorescences if you want to be technical – is hard to credit. One month the trees were standing drab between and beneath the elegant eucalypts, their grey-green foliage graced only by its fern-like appearance. The next they were covered in brilliant bright yellow flowers.

[Silver wattle: blossoming from top to bottom] 

In a good year, if autumn and winter rains have been just right; if spring hasn’t been too windy; and if borers and biters haven’t been too profuse, the blossoms can completely cover a tree. When the trees are widespread, the effect is spectacular. It’s as though somebody has suddenly turned on the lights in the forest.

It was early September, thirty six years ago, that I first witnessed this. Lynne and I were on our honeymoon. It was our first visit to Tasmania (and the rest is history, but that’s another story.) I remember driving over the Sidling, a thickly forested, motion sickness-inducing road near Scottsdale. I also remember braking quite suddenly, and getting out to take in the jaw-dropping scene: a forest full of blooming wattle, the like of which I’d never seen.

Forward to this spring. We are up north, driving through the same country with a daughter and grandchildren in tow. We’re curious to see whether the wattle up north is as amazing as it has been in our valley. I’m also wanting to see if honeymoon-tinted glasses have exaggerated how beautiful the sights and scents of these wattle forests were.

[Blooming young: a silver wattle doesn't take long to bloom]  

A simple drive, in part a distraction for grandchildren, in part a trip down memory lane, turned into a pilgrimage. Road after road, mile after mile, I oohed and ahhed, resisting the urge to stop and photograph everything, but still stretching the patience of the little ones with the number of photo breaks.

[Wattle blossom spreading towards Mt Wellington] 

Back in our valley the slow tide of gold is now past its best, at least in the lower forests. Further up the mountain slopes it is yet to peak. That sounds like a good excuse for a Father’s Day jaunt up the mountain. I’ll try not to be surprised, but I don’t like my chances.