Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great Ocean Road(cuts)

After three days of rain, high winds, and waves, a break this morning (Saturday) in at least one of those three impediments – rain – meant that we could get out to see a few Cretaceous outcrops and look for trace fossils.

Just a little bit of white water along the coast: no worries, mate.

To avoid waves and wind, though, the outcrops would have to be along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. The Great Ocean Road is the Australian answer to Highway 1 in California, as both roads are famous for their fantastic views of where rocks meet the sea. The Great Ocean Road was begun just after World War I as a tribute to the men who served in that war, who were rewarded by being given the job of building the road. (Not to worry, they were paid for this work, and I’ll bet it was a vastly improved experience over fighting in the trenches of World War I.) The road was started in 1919 and finished in 1932, an amazing feat of Australian engineering and hard work that should not be neglected in your thoughts as you turn corners while driving and gasping at the amazing scenery along the way.

Perhaps the most spectacular geologic site visible off The Great Ocean Road is The Twelve Apostles, a series of seastacks eroded from Miocene marine limestone, located about a 1.5-hour drive west of Apollo Bay.

The Twelve Apostles, now more like the 7.5 Apostles, subject to further revision as long as shoreline erosion continues (which it will).

These seastacks and others in the area comprise a major tourist attraction, with day tours from Melbourne taking people there daily so they can take pictures of one another in front of vertical pillars of stratified Miocene limestone. (I mean, when you put it that way, who could resist?)

Nonetheless, we went east of Apollo Bay this morning, and pulled off into small roadside parking areas wherever a tasty roadcut beckoned. After about 11 days of field work on coastal outcrops in Victoria, this roadside geology felt more like home to me. Much of the geology I have done in the Appalachians, including for my Ph.D. dissertation in the late 1980s, has been on roadcuts. The mud puddles, grassy areas separating me from the rocks in places, random spider webs, and paranoia about getting hit by a car, all while staring up at an expanse of rock, all felt cheerfully familiar.

A Great Ocean Road(cut) of Cretaceous shale and sandstone, inspiring memories of Appalachia, but not quite the same.

A few big differences popped into my head, though, reeling me back to this place and time. One was that I could hear the roar of ocean waves below the road, a sound I have never heard anywhere in my field work in the southeastern U.S., and you would not have been likely to hear in that area since the Eocene Epoch (more than 50 million years ago). Just a few minutes ago, while writing this, I heard a kookaburra let loose its distinctive loud, raucous call, which you are most likely to hear in the southeastern U.S. by watching an old Tarzan movie.

Also, and most strangely, while I scrutinized the outcrops for trace fossils, not a single disparaging epitaph was shouted by passing motorists, nor did anyone honk a horn, let alone throw a half-consumed bottle of Bud Lite at me. Even the bicyclists who rode by smiled and cheerfully said “G’Day” before peddling on, instead of grimly ignoring me as they no doubt fantasized of being Lance Armstrong (or fantasized about Lance Armstrong, with the distinction thus made). This country is very nice to geologists, although I’m sure a few people driving by privately thought I had a ‘roo loose in the paddock.

Oh yes, one more important point to keep in mind was the message of the following sign:

This sign is clearly intended for American visitors who are driving their rental cars straight from the Melbourne airport to the Twelve Apostles. Sadly, it suffers from the fatal flaw of assuming that these Americans: (a) read; and (b) care. For me, I required constant reminding about this reversal of expectations for the directions of oncoming cars alongside this narrow road (“Great” refers to the gorgeous sights along it, not its width). Three quick turns of the head – right, left, then right again – followed by a mad dash across the road, was the best way to safely accomplish this sort of field work.

By mid-day, the rain began again, but six extensive outcrops had been surveyed. Almost no trace fossils were seen, but it was well worth the effort. After all, the best geologist is the one who sees the most rocks, and it was a privilege for this Yank to get a closer look at the rocks along the Great Ocean Road.

At the end of the rainbow is a Cretaceous trace fossil of unparalleled beauty and exquisite charm. Problem is, it’s underwater.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Being underwater is only a minor obstacle and surely not a significant one to a fearless leader like you :)

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