Monday, May 24, 2010

From the Southeast (of the U.S.) to the Southeast (of Australia)

Traveling to Melbourne, Australia from Atlanta, Georgia is both easy and not easy. I say this now after having just completed my seventh trip here, so the voice of experience may sound a bit weary, yet is still filled with excitement about having made my way here again.

Atlanta is a major hub for commercial air traffic, and in fact Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the busiest in the world when measured by number of passengers that pass through it. (The old joke in Atlanta is that after you die, before you go to heaven or hell, you change planes in Atlanta.) So it was easy enough to take a direct flight to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) from Atlanta and arrive there in five hours. The “not easy” part of every trip to Australia starts as soon as I step off the plane and enter LAX.

I strongly dislike this airport. It is a very unfriendly place, with few personnel available to direct or otherwise assist people, no signs guiding people to the international terminal, and no people movers (such as light rail) to ease the transition from domestic to international travel. No one seems happy here, and few smiles are seen, nor are many laughs heard and exchanged.

This time was no exception, and the tardy domestic baggage-claim, an uncertainty of where to check in for the connecting flight to Australia, and the Rube-Goldberg maze called “security” at LAX, all led to an unnecessarily anxious and stressful time between flights. What seemed like a last-minute check-in at the Qantas gate did not result in my boarding an aircraft, either. Instead, similarly nervous passengers and I were directed to a bus that stood motionless on the tarmac well past the time the plane was supposed to leave. The silence on the bus spoke of everyone’s wondering if we had already missed our flight, and weighing our options if we had.

Once the bus was full, a driver appeared and took us for a long ride through lonely expanses of airport concrete, a stark emptiness punctuated by runway lights, hangars, large passenger planes, and occasional vehicles. After nearly 15 minutes of riding, we arrived at an isolated building next to our plane, the latter recognizable through the Qantas logo, a crimson-kangaroo silhouette. After walking up several flights of stairs in the building, we finally boarded our plane, and sat in our seats for another 45 minutes or so before the long taxi and take-off, more than an hour past our scheduled departure. It was 12:40 a.m. Los Angeles time, and 3:40 a.m. back in Atlanta.

About 15 hours later, we landed in Brisbane, Australia. Attentive readers will note that Brisbane is not the same place as Melbourne, and is actually halfway up the east coast of Australia. Melbourne is located in the southeastern part of Australia, just north of Tasmania.

You are here and not here: locality map for Brisbane and Melbourne in Australia.

Strong winds from the west had impeded our flight enough that it needed to refuel before continuing to Melbourne, and Brisbane was chosen as the place to do that. We stayed on the plane while it refueled for nearly an hour, and took off again for an additional two-hour flight to Melbourne. All told, about 18 hours were spent on the same plane.

Once in Melbourne, though, it became easy again. Immigration, baggage claim, and customs took all of 20 minutes. In the Melbourne International Airport, you feel welcomed to Australia. A bus ticket took minutes to purchase; another minute was needed to walk outside to the bus that drove directly to downtown Melbourne; another minute to catch a quick taxi ride to the Melbourne Museum.

Exhibition Hall of the Museum of Victoria.

So less than an hour after landing on that cloudy Monday morning, I was shaking Tom Rich’s hand and chatting amiably with him and other friends at the museum about all things paleontological. Later that same afternoon, I looked in museum collections at fossil insects from the Koonwarra Formation, an Early Cretaceous sedimentary deposit east of Melbourne. LAX was now an errant bad dream, fading into insignificance as I stared at the remains of mayfly nymphs preserved on a lake bottom from more than 115 million years ago. Perspective helps.

This is the surreal part of such travel, informed and motivated by paleontology. After all that transpires, you are back in a familiar world, one where hours and minutes are meaningless, and the fossils and rocks give you reason to understand that it was all worth the hassle. Because ultimately it is much easier for you to go to the rocks and fossils than for the rocks and fossils to come to you, and your time spent to greet them diminishes when viewed in the light of what brought you there.

That evening, walking with Tom through Carlton Gardens outside of the museum, I spotted a mother brushtail possum ambling along, carrying an ample-sized youngster on her back. They were startled when I stopped to look at them, and the young possum reacted by jumping off momma-possum’s back. They each ran a short ways before turning to stare back at me, this odd person who is curious about them. Like squirrels in the U.S., they are more used to people ignoring them, urban wildlife that becomes as much a part of the local background as a traffic light. I smile and delight in having this brief connection with these commonplace animals that so much define this place, despite the bemused reactions of Australians to my interest.

That was yesterday here, Monday, May 24. Today holds more museum time, more settling into this place and time, and preparations for field work starting on Thursday, the unofficial start of The Great Cretaceous Walk. Look for an entry that continues a story of a previous time here, titled Luck, Preparation, and Opportunity: Part II.


  1. Dearest Chiboogamoo! I am pleased that your "harsh" travel experience dissolved once you were reacquainted with your beloved fossils! Nothing like geological time to put one's perspective back in proper order!

    Hallelujah loves the map you used to illustrate your surprise stop in Brisbane and its seemingly long distance from Melbourne. Australia is an amazingly huge continent! I would have been overjoyed to have seen a photo of mama possum with her offspring....

    Thank you so much my LOVE for your beautiful writing! I treasure your every word!

  2. Thank you for your comments and accolades, Hallelujah! Saw another brushtail possum tonight as Tom Rich and I walked through the park, which I somehow tried to reconcile with a dinosaur track only 100 meters away from us, inside the museum. The marsupials that descended from their Cretaceous ancestors are still here and thriving, but the dinosaurs are gone, leaving only their tracks, bones, and their even more rare burrows. What does it all mean? And won't the lorikeets object to my saying that the dinosaurs are "gone"? We'll see...

  3. Well, if this don't beat all! I'm real excited about this, not just the walk back into Deep Time, but what promises to be an on-goin' narrative with the poetical eye and lyrical bent which befits the subject. I'll tell ever body!!!