Wednesday, June 7, 2017

On a Bicycle

“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” 
― Edward AbbeyDesert Solitaire

I fell in love with the beauty of the desert a mere seven years ago while conducting breeding bird surveys along the Lower Colorado River. With so much love already in my heart, I didn't anticipate the immense joy I would feel at seeing the desert all over again... on a bicycle.

Day 1 (October 31): Boulder City, NV to Nipton, CA (58.3 miles)

Cypress delivered us on Silver Line road, just south of Boulder City, Nevada. Zoe and I would take Old U.S. 95 for a few miles before breaking out onto the newer, busier NV-95 heading south toward Searchlight, CA. Gravel trucks rumbled by, kicking up dust (and probably some asbestos) as we affixed our panniers and neon orange flags to K-Rat and Nomad (Nomad was a rental since my trusty old bike, Reno, lacked braze-ons). I felt brief pangs of guilt for stepping away from my thesis for seven whole days, but forced myself to forget about school for now. Besides, life is short and who knew when I would get the chance to do something like this again.

We stumbled along the dimpled old road, finding our balance with 40-pound loads. After a short mile we were met by the 95. Zoe and I had spent the last 3 months planning and anticipating this trip and I couldn't help but picture Maya Rudolph pooping in her wedding dress in the middle of the street saying, 

"It's happening... it's happening". 

We had a very wide shoulder and the road was now smooth. Cars and trucks gave us a wide berth, and the Winnebagos and Bounders tried their best. The majority of the time we were climbing. We had trained for weeks but still I was unprepared. I wasn't used to carrying all of my food, water, and camping supplies on a bike and my muscles revolted, but I hurt in a good way. I was elated to finally be on the open road.

We made it to Nipton, CA by 6 PM and rested our bikes one against the other on the deck of Nana's Railroad Café. We could see Clark Mountain in the distance, beautifully dappled in the late day sunlight. We promptly stuffed our faces with fat burgers and greasy fries before crawling into our cozy little 2-person tent. I began to drift off to sleep when a train thundered through town, it's i
ron body whined, the steel wheels squeaking and straining under it's immense weight, shaking the earth - a mere 100 ft from our tent. This would happen a dozen or so more times but I stuffed earplugs into my ears and slept like the dead.

First snack break on our way to Nipton, CA
Coasting into Nipton CA after a long climb 

Nomad and K-Rat rest against a Joshua Tree

Huge burgers at Nana's Railroad Café!

The cats guard our bikes while we eat inside

Welcome to Nipton, CA

Our breakfast buddies

Day 2 -  Nipton, CA to Kelso Depot, CA (43.4 miles)

The next morning Zoe and I cooked oatmeal and made coffee on the porch of the restaurant. The sky was gray, the air cooled by the fall breeze. The owner of the Nipton Trading Post came out to chat, peppering us with questions about our trip. "Be careful out there - watch out for the crazies", he warned before heading back into the store. Honestly, I was a little more concerned about getting hit by a car. But, he was right to warn - we were traveling 290 miles through the Mojave Desert, and like all deserts it tends to attract a colorful crowd. There was a good chance we would meet some strange folks along the way. As David Darlington, author of "Mojave", put it, the desert is indeed "a convenient place for the unwanted."


By the time we broke camp, packed and organized our gear, it was 10:30. A little late but we weren't in a particularly big rush. We took care to apply sunblock on our faces, arms, and legs, then homemade butt-butter on our rears, and put rubber side down. The road out of Nipton was flat and easy but once we turned left onto Morningstar Mine Rd. we started to gain elevation. We would gain 15 miles of it. My legs ached all over again and my tender bottom protested each time I attempted to shift the weight from my legs to my saddle. As we climbed higher and higher into the Mojave Preserve the Joshua trees grew more dense, their trunks thicker, their crowns wider with each pedal. 

The morning was a lovely slog, but I hit my low point around 1 PM. When I looked down at my odometer it read 2.7 mph. "I could hike faster than this!" I yelled to Zoe, ahead of me. "I'm the tortoise", I thought, and repeated a personal mantra over and over again as we made our way up one of the steepest grades of the day. I rejoiced when we spied an old wooden corral at the top of the hill, no doubt once belonging to the Oversons, a previously prominent ranching family who controlled a large percentage of the area before it was acquired by the BLM. It was a perfect spot to lunch. We sat in it's shade while we boiled water for our 3-minute ramen, and excavated spoonfuls of Skippy peanut butter straight from the jar while we waited for the noodles to soften. The uphill climbs were painful but the juxtaposition of stopping and sitting (and stuffing our faces) was absolute bliss.

After lunch we coasted downhill for 19 glorious miles. We sailed into Kelso Depot around 4:30 with enough time to grab snacks, a Mojave Preserve pin, and a can of Coke form the gift shop before it closed. We spoke with two park rangers and met a spunky lady on our way down to the restroom. She inquired about our ride and joyfully reminisced about her own bicycle trip across the U.S. over ten years ago.  While talking with the rangers we inquired about where we might set up our tent. We had read that camping closer than 400 ft from any main road was prohibited. The ranger told us the rule was mostly for car campers and RVs. Because we were on bikes we were allowed to camp close to the road, so long as we were out of sight. Good news - we didn't have to walk our bikes 400 ft through the sand!

We rode a little farther south and spotted a large sand berm that we could easily hide behind. We walked our bikes only 50 ft from the road and made camp just as the sun sank below the Kelso Dunes. I took dinner duty while Zoe set up our tent. Tonight we would be having "Bear Creek's Darn Good Chili". When I planned our bike meals I had targeted dried soups and side dishes that required simply the addition of water. Bear Creek made some pretty awesome meals. I added a few small chunks of pepperoni to complete the dish. We put the small scraps of refuse wood we scavenged along the 50 ft of sand to good use by making a small fire. I sacrificed some precious iPhone battery life and played a little music while we ate. It was a downright fantastic evening beneath the stars. 

After dinner we crawled into the tent, recounting the events of the last two days. We could hear a train rumbling in the distance on it's way from Nipton, and we were happy to be a little farther from the tracks tonight.

The Cima Store (Cima, CA)

Unfortunately it's been closed for a few years... 
Our Kelso Camp on the other side of the berm

Zoe and K-Rat pose in the waning light

Enjoying some chili by the fire

Day 3 -  Kelso Depot, CA to Amboy, CA (51.1 miles)

Back at the Kelso Depot Visitor's Center we made breakfast on a picnic table and perfected our instant coffee technique just as the sun's rays reached up over the Providence Mountains. We washed off accumulated road grime in the restroom sink and warmed our hands beneath a hand dryer. After breakfast we headed back to camp to break down the tent and load up our bikes. 

The morning consisted of 15 miles of uphill climbing - I could sense a trend developing. All the while the Kelso dunes shimmered in the distance. 8.5 miles into the trip, a car slowed and the driver asked us if we needed anything. Zoe tried her luck and asked if they had a bike pump. During all the organizing and packing she had forgotten to fill her tires before we hit the road. Mine could use a top up as well. Not only did they have a bike pump, but several snacks and giant body wipes. Rick and Amanda were on their way to a bike race in Anza Borrego - he was a photographer and film maker, she was the coordinator of Race Across America. We chatted excitedly while they filled our low tires and handed us strupwaffles. As they drove off we beamed at the kindness of strangers.

When we reached the top of the pass that separated the Providence and Granite mountain ranges we were greeted by frigid winds and a grove of giant Joshua trees. We took a break to eat salami and cheese before coasting downhill toward I-40. Strong sidewinds blew us into the road and I might have been terrified had I not been preoccupied instead with feelings of intense regret at having eaten too much salami. It sat like a brick in my stomach and I burped up salty meat for two hours. From here on out I would stick to simple carbs during the day and save my meat sticks for dinner time. 

We took our lunch break at the Mojave Preserve sign at the south entrance of the park and basked in the warm sunlight at this lower elevation, watching 18-wheelers as they crawled west and east along the highway in the distance. The rest of the day would be pleasant. Gravity pulled us south toward Amboy via Kelbaker Rd. and we made it to the old town earlier than expected. We decided we would cut out 10 miles from the next day's ride to Twentynine Palms. 

There was no potable water in Amboy so we bought sixteen $1 bottles of it. The purple-haired woman working the cash register took pity on us and donated a few extra bottles to our cause. We sipped root beer and orange soda, ate cheesy Pringles (another mistake I would not make again) and watched as tourists from Los Angeles marveled at the gas pumps. "Are these real?" one girl exclaimed, incredulous. 

We continued south along Amboy Rd. riding through the salt fields of Bristol Dry Lake and wondered at Amboy Crater, an extinct volcano that last erupted about 10,000 years ago. We made camp in a random wash along the highway, hidden by creosote bushes, the enormous crater still in view. The wind howled across the open landscape like a Banshee so we cooked behind the tent, using it as a wind break. We digested our Knorr thai noodles and tuna and stretched our sore limbs while listenng to the Dirtbag Diaries. Later in the evening we witnessed strange lights hovering over the mountains. We thought they were UFOs then realized they probably originated from Camp Wilson, a military base 25 miles southwest. 

I slept fitfully.

Cooking up some breakfast back in Kelso Depot

Instant coffee, perfected

Rick and Amanda - the best folks we met on the road

Easy riding (sort of) with full tires!

It's all downhill from here!

Enjoying chips and sodas at Roy's in Amboy, CA 

The Amboy Crater!
Refueling after a 51-mile day

Our campsite 10 miles out of Amboy, CA
UFO or military flare?

Day 4 - Amboy Camp to Twentynine Palms, CA (38.9 miles)

Despite tossing and turning all night, we were still up before the sun. The day began like all the the others - with a climb. We climbed nearly 15 miles to the top of the Sheephole Mountain pass but were again rewarded by gravity on the other side. The remaining miles were rough with a narrow shoulder, and full of potholes. South Amboy Road was now my least favorite road in America. The surrounding desert was dotted with jackrabbit homesteads and abandoned jojoba farms. We were surprised by the blistering 95 F heat on the other side of the mountains and finished our 16-dollars worth of water before we made it to our final destination. Our spirits rose as Twentynine Palms came into view, but we made the terrible mistake of taking Adobe Road and had to climb the steepest grade of the trip. Cars and trucks whizzed past us at 60 mph and approached so close they rustled the hair on my arms. When we reached the top of the hill I could barely breathe between sobs of sheer terror and exhaustion. 

Twenty minutes later we dragged our tired bodies up the packed dirt driveway of the 29 Palms Inn. A bubbly receptionist named Julia greeted us warmly despite our bedraggled appearances. She was impressed by our cycling adventure and, like the purple-haired cashier in Amboy, took pity on us. In exchange for a review on Trip Advisor, she gave us a generous deal on a 2-bedroom guesthouse with a courtyard in which to hide our bikes. It was a jubilant turn of events. 

I can not express the magnitude of joy I felt standing under that stream of warm water, layers of dust and sweat and anxiety dissolving down the drain of the roomy shower inside the cute adobe cottage. After Zoe and I were squeaky clean we scrubbed our stinky bike shorts, jerseys, and crusty socks in the bathroom sink and hung them to dry in the waning light. Our next order of business was food and beer. We wandered over to the 29 Palms Inn Restaurant, located next to a large, heated pool, perched ourselves next to the bar and promptly ordered beers. I gulped my cold, delicious Stone IPA with gusto while carefully examining the menu. It was hard to choose only one dish so Zoe and I decided to share two. We ordered more beers and developed a warm buzz while a pair of fiddlers entertained the patrons that trickled in. It felt weird and lovely to be part of society again after four days mostly alone on the road, our only thoughts consisting of food, water, and getting from point A to point B in one piece. 

After gorging on steak salad, pasta and cheesecake, we waddled back to our room and slept soundly in our real beds.

Old tires make great toilets! (#1 only, obviously...)

Nomad and K-Rat resting at the top of the Sheephole Pass

A literal desert oasis! The 29 Palms Inn was a fun change of pace
190 miles in - Cheers to steak and pasta and cheesecake!

Enjoying a hot cup of tea on our porch swing at the 29 Palms Inn

Day 5 - Twentynine Palms, CA to Cottonwood Springs Campground, Joshua Tree NP (40.3 miles) 

We left our adobe guesthouse by 9:30 and rode through the beautiful cholla and ocotillo forests of peaceful Joshua Tree National Park where we chased after tarantulas, examined rocks for petroglyphs, and feared some thirsty bees. We stopped to make lunch in the only shade we could find at 1 PM - a large interpretive sign in a parking lot. I suppose we did look somewhat strange, and maybe even a little pathetic, as we hovered over our small pot of boiling soup in that small rectangle of shade during the hottest part of the day in the middle of the vast Pinto Basin. A handful of tourists stopped to read the information on the sign, startled to see two girls hiding in it's shade. They offered us food and I couldn't help but feel like a desperate little rodent as I took clementine wedges and gummy candies from their hands.   

Around 3 PM we rolled into the Cottonwood Springs campground. Being Friday, the last sites were quickly becoming occupied by LA hipsters and miscellaneous weekenders. I threw our panniers on a picnic table of the second to last available site in the entire campground, as Zoe dashed off to pay. Cottonwood Springs was a vibration of excitement, it's inhabitants letting loose now that the work week was over. We were indifferent to the day but the mood was infectious and soon I felt like I too had escaped a long, grueling week. We relaxed, spread over our large concrete picnic table and basked in the sun, attempting to even out our ridiculous bike tans. Cypress arrived around 7 PM with a cooler full of beer. We made gumbo and rice and regaled him with tales from the trip as we savored Left Hand IPAs by the fire. 

I slept very well beneath the stars but felt a creeping sadness at the encroaching final day.

Cholla forests in the Pinto Basin

The appearance of ocotillos tells us we're transitioning from the Mojave to the Sonoran Desert

We couldn't help but wonder if bees were partial to vehicles...

Day 6 - Joshua Tree NP to Bombay Beach, CA (50.3 miles)

Today was bittersweet. It was the last day of our trip and my heart simultaneously ached and beamed at the astounding beauty of the desert - the incredible box canyons, brilliant blooming ocotillos, the view of the Salton Sea shimmering in the distance. As we descended toward the sea there was a perceptible shift from the dry heat of the desert to the warm, humid agricultural region surrounding it. Soon we were rolling through the sweetly-scented steam of the citrus groves and date palm plantations. Once on CA 111 we coasted alongside the massive inland sea and felt like we were in a different country. We stopped and lunched beneath an enormous Athel tamarisk before popping into the International Banana Museum for frozen chocolate-dipped bananas. 

Sun-soaked and happy, we peddled along the highway, the sea always in view. We made it to Bombay Beach around 4 PM and stepped into the darkness of the Ski Inn tavern, ordered some Balast Point IPAs and clinked our frosty pints to a successful trip. We had made it 287 miles through the Mojave desert. Shortly thereafter Cypress met us and joined in the celebration. We relocated to Glamis Hot Springs, a few miles east where we rewarded ourselves with more burgers, more beer, and hours of soaking in the warm pools. 

That evening we camped at Mecca Beach accompanied by a silver moon, slung low over the sea. The following morning we drove back retracing our bicycle route but could not appreciate the land like we could on our bikes. Each time we approached a hill my muscles tensed in anticipation. I can't say I was too bothered to remember that we were now in a vehicle and the uphill climbs were obsolete. In Yucca Valley we stopped at the Frontier Café for breakfast sandwiches and Americanos. In Joshua Tree I bought souvenirs for Zoe and myself to commemorate our trip - two trucker hats with Joshua Tree silhouettes. 

We fueled up in Amboy and as I got out of the truck a familiar voice called out - "Hey ladies!" It was Rick! We squealed with joyful surprise, happy that we could introduce Cypress to one of the most memorable folks we met along the way. We snapped a quick photo to commemorate the marvelous coincidence before setting off in opposite directions.

Winding through the Mojave Preserve at dusk was magical but once we hit the I-15 my heart sank. Soon we would be back in the city, back to the daily grind. I didn't want to face it all again. I wasn't ready. We had covered 287 miles, gained 13,000 ft of elevation, and I was just beginning to feel strong. I wanted to stay on the road, on my bike, for a few more months at least.  I now had a taste of what life was like on a bicycle and I was hooked. The simplicity of it all. I loved the weird, generous people we met, I loved how delicious tuna could taste after a long day, I loved thinking only about the road ahead, anticipating the small yet enormous pleasure of Sour Patch watermelon candies. Yes, we would do this again and next time we'd go even farther. 

Winding our way through beautiful Box Canyon Rd.

Entering the tropical date palm plantations north of the Salton Sea

Hugging the unhappy mascot of the "World Famous International Banana Museum"

Sooooooo many bananas...

Frozen chocolate-dipped bananas!!

We learned that corvina are saltwater fish, one of only a handful of species able to tolerate the high salinity of the Salton Sea

I think this was my favorite section of our trip...


Celebrating with enormous beers

Our last campsite...

Reunited with Rick

Friday, September 9, 2016

Twelve Days in the Sun: A Search for Fairy-wrens Across Queensland

In addition to my paltry journal entries, I am forced to consult an atlas to help me remember our journey. The experience exists in my head like a lovely dream, all at once so real and just beyond the grasp of recollection. I should have written it all down as soon as I returned to our field station, but I was too exhausted and elated at being in the presence of the certain comforts which we lacked during our time on the road. The details come back to me slowly when I encounter the names of certain towns on a map. Mary Kathleen: a town square with no buildings. Richmond: silly dinosaur statues. Camooweal: hot.

We spent twelve days exploring the Australian outback and covered 2,663 kilometers of mostly empty road, but I can only recall the memories in small, colorful bursts - the pounding hot sun, loping giant red kangaroos, a vast salty desert, an abandoned stone house, and many, many birds. Above all I remember a feeling of all consuming awe at a world I feared I would never see again.

Our Route

Day One 

November 22, 2009

We left Herberton, a small town in eastern Queensland where I was volunteering as a field technician for Cornell's ongoing study of red-backed fairy-wrens with four other hardworking young women. Dan, our boss, was now leading the project as a new PhD student. His research was focused on determining the role that ecological variation had in driving the divergence of sexual traits in these charming little birds. He needed someone to accompany him on a twelve-day collecting trip across Queensland to obtain blood and feather samples from 100 male fairy-wrens. I embraced the opportunity, excited at a change of scenery, more banding experience, and the chance to see new species of birds we couldn't see in the tablelands. The rest of the crew stayed behind at the field site - a donkey farm owned by a pack tour operator - to continue the important work of searching for new nests and banding young and rogue fairy-wrens.

The Atherton Tablelands
The Kennedy Highway took us west through the wind turbine-dotted verdant hills of Ravenshoe (pronounced "Raven's Hoe"). The tropical forests of the Atherton tablelands soon gave way to dry savannah and eucalyptus scrub. Two hundred and seven kilometers southwest of Herberton, Dan and I made camp at the Bedrock Village caravan park in Mount Surprise. We set up our airy tents and canvas cots in the waning heat. It was November and the beginning of summer in Australia. Air temperatures reached over 100 F, but night descended quickly providing some relief from the heat. After a quick dinner, we  retired to read by the light of our headlamps inside our respective tents.

No longer in the tablelands!

Day Two

Sick. I woke up drenched in a cold sweat. My throat was on fire and I realized that my tonsils were the size of ping pong balls. My forehead burned with fever as I lay on my stiff military cot. A less than ideal way to start the trip.

Dan an I ate a breakfast of black tea and granola soaked in hot water.  The tea temporarily soothed my throat but the cereal was hard to swallow.  I sat silently chewing my food into the smallest possible bits, swallowing little by little in utter agony.  Dan asked if I was okay but I could only produce a withering, “un-huh”.  I wanted to cry. I was indignant at the failings of my immune system. I didn't want to hinder Dan's research goals and I cursed the timing of this illness. I managed to hold it together and choked down a pair of extra-strength Advil chased with a warm cup of water. I focused my attention on the pink corellas playing behind the outdoor kitchen, waiting for the pain killers to take effect. Tonsillitis (?) or no tonsillitis, there was a lot of work to do.  We cleaned our dishes, packed up camp, and set-off for the field.

Our first attempt to trap Dan's male fairy-wrens took place in a dry, shrubby savannah on the west end of town where emus made themselves invisible through immobility and double-barred finches darted about in acacia trees and bunchgrass. We split up and walked around for half an hour trying to locate a group of fairy wrens to capture. We each found a few lone individuals but ended up targeting a larger foraging flock in the center of the site. We set up two mist-nets in the shape of a "V" and circled back around the group of twelve birds.  Together we set in on the fairy-wrens, driving them toward our nets. It took multiple attempts, as the birds were nervous and dispersed around our setup.  We hiked back a ways, squatted down and waited for them to return.  

As we sat like statues an emu made his way toward our gear.  The unwelcome guest, if frightened, could put a large hole in our net and we had few back-ups. Dan slowly walked toward it and drove it in the opposite direction. Eventually the foraging flock made its way back around and this time, without hesitation, we bolted toward them. Six individuals hung upside-down in our trap and we plucked them out with great enthusiasm.

Intermediate male red-backed fairy-wren: pure gold after a long day of searching

Ninety-four birds to go.

By the time we had banded, gently plucked and bled our last bird, the sun had reached its zenith and it was time for a top-up on my pain medication. Dan spoke to a few residents around town in an attempt to gain access to their property and all of them were surprisingly friendly and accommodating. I wasn’t used to the welcoming attitudes. Back in North America people were quick to shoo biologists off their land. But not here. Neighbors made small talk, asking us where we were from and what we were looking for. When we told them about the fairy-wrens they grew excited and recalled their own stories of the birds they knew colloquially as "red potbellies".

Cheeky apostlebird

Regardless of my inconvenient illness, we chase birds through the dry savannah all day. Afterwards, we drove towards Blancourt Station. We stopped for a lunch of cold meat sandwiches on a pullout on the side of the highway.  Apostlebirds gathered in the trees and scolded us as we ate. We used our cooler as a table and watched warily as the cheeky black birds flew closer, growing bolder in greater numbers.  Soon they were above our heads, squawking loudly. I can't figure out if they want our food or are defending their territory. We hit the road before we find out what these little devils are made of.

Cattle station camp

The dry forests along the highway seem devoid of bird-life but we lucked out after some hours of searching. We set up a few nets on the property of a large cattle station after being given the go-ahead by one of the owners (wife). She even invited us in for supper and a shower! but we didn't have time and opted to camp and remain dusty for the evening.

Cooking rice at the cattle station

We managed to trap a few wrens, collected blood samples, released the birds and called it a day.  We cooked rice by lantern light and camped on the side of the long driveway.  At 10 PM the station manager (husband) approached in a large, loud tractor and warned us of an encroaching wildfire which forced us to leave early the next morning. 

Day Three

After a seemingly short night of vivid, fever-induced dreams I awoke, again soaked in cold sweat and with large tonsils. The smoky dawn was filled with the surreal cries of currawongs. I heard Dan unzip his tent but I remained on my warm, sweaty cot listening to the large corvids and praying for a few more moments of rest. I eventually had no choice but to do the same. A fire was approaching, not to mention there was much work to be done, so much road to cover, and we had less than two weeks to do it. With great reluctance, I too emerged from my tent.  

A single-lane highway unraveled before us while the hot Queensland sun beat down upon our rental.  "Ventura Highway" by America filled the Mitsubishi and the song, as it always does, pulled at my heart. Dan and I chatted excitedly when we realized that we shared affection for a certain 1980s cartoon whose soundtrack featured music from the same band.

Careful on those single land highways. Road trains rule the roads.

We continued west and stopped for lunch at a park in Georgetown. Dan surprised me with a cold (!!!), fizzy mango soda to sooth my swollen, burning throat. Apostlebirds took on a different attitude here. Rather than ganging up on us they begged for food around our ankles like stray cats. Magpie larks bobbed their heads as they picked their way through fervent green lawns fed by sprinklers. We napped on the benches of our picnic tables before setting off toward Croydon.

I don't remember much about Croydon except for an old, lone smokestack in the middle of nowhere (probably an old copper smelting plant), and a small reservoir with many new species of birds. My favorite was the Australian pratincole, a curious leggy shorebird that resembled a mix between a seriema and a plover.

Later that day we drove ourselves into a giant salt flat devoid of life.  There were no trees, little grass, and absolutely no fairy-wrens. We had to drive another 160 km to Normanton before seeing any form of desirable habitat, and thus any chance of catching birds.  

No fairy wrens out here!

In The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds, red-backed fairy-wrens appear to sprawl all over the northern portion of the country from east to west.  However, Dan and I quickly learned within the first day of our trip that they would not be so easy to find. Fairy-wrens seem to prefer some form of understory, especially tall grasses, intermixed with larger trees where they can cluster in groups and sally for air-borne insects. Much of Queensland, save the coastal portions, consists of desert scrub and open savannah. The outback is an immense place and we had to drive hundreds of kilometers between patches of suitable habitat in order to locate the birds. Even when we found seemingly ideal locations, there was no guarantee that they would be there.

Day Four 

The Australian outback spread before us like a shimmering mirage. We kicked up dust as we drove north towards Normanton and could barely see the ribbon of dirt we left behind.  There was nothing to look at out here besides the grandeur of the desert. There was nothing but incredible space and slow time. When we reached Normanton I could smell the Arafura Sea, twenty miles to the west. We camped at a caravan park, dejected at finding no fairy-wrens in the surrounding area, but all woes disappeared when we discovered a swimming pool.

After a long, luxurious swim we relaxed around camp. I spied a bowerbird in the parking lot behind me while I strummed at my cheap guitar. I was beginning to feel healthy once again.

Freshly showered and strumming in the Normanton caravan park

Red dirt road

Day Five

We head further north on the Burke Developmental Rd. but the salty land is flat and dry and devoid of fairy-wren habitat. We turn around and head back south. Onward to Cloncurry!

As we bridged the 230 km gap between Normanton and Cloncurry we noted something very strange.  For the first time on our trip the highway was full of activity. Clouds of grasshoppers filled the air and smacked against our windshield as we drove through the swarms. The grasshoppers also attracted a myriad of bird species that unfortunately followed the insects into the highway. Willy wagtails bumped off the top of the windshield and our grill was full of insect carcasses. I slowed down in an attempt to spare the birds but we had a long way to go and we would never reach Cloncurry at this pace.  Dan urged me to speed up - hitting the birds, like the insects, would be inevitable.

When we reached Cloncurry we climbed out of the car and stretched our tired bodies.  I walked to the front of the vehicle to survey the damage. Hundreds of grasshoppers filled the front compartment. I picked a diamond dove out of the grill and held it up to show Dan. I placed the dead bird on the side of the road and whispered an apology.

Grasshoppers all up in our grill!

I can't remember much else about the town besides brolga cranes strutting along the sidewalk, and a billboard guaranteeing “a warm welcome”.  Apparently back in 1889 the town experienced a record high of 127 F. Today it was only a little over 100.

Day Six

We take the Barkly Highway west toward Mount Isa and visit Mary Kathleen, a ghost town with a terrible secret. Originally settled in the 1860s, the town didn't boom until uranium was discovered in the 1950s. The area was eventually abandoned in the 1980s when mining became unprofitable and the land was "rehabilitated" for grazing. A failed $19,000,000 radioactive cleanup attempt left seeping uranium tailings to poison nearby evaporation ponds. Nothing remains here but a grid of old roads and stop signs but no cars, a town square with no buildings, and steps that no longer lead to homes. Probably a good thing.

Camp outside of Mt. Isa

We made it to Mount Isa! A bustling copper town in the middle of the harsh Queensland desert.  A local birder took us around to search for wrens. During our wanderings we found a midden full of aboriginal artifacts, stone tools, flint, and arrowheads. Saw several new birds. Found wrens near a copper mining site and caught a few. An angry mother wren perched on Dan’s hat while he processed her two fledglings. For dinner we headed back to town and eat surprisingly delicious fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. We spent a long time searching for the turn-off road that leads to our camp. We found it after several sweeps back and forth along the dark highway. I am so happy to collapse inside my tent. Utterly exhausted. I am too tired and too sore to set up my cot. The ground is hot and hard but I fall asleep easily regardless. 

Mad mama trying to protect her babes

Day Seven

Mount Isa again. We did some more serious work today running through the harshest environment I've ever experienced. Spinifex grass has painfully embedded itself in my legs but it was worth it. We caught several wrens (and a spinifex bird to boot)! I also got to untangle a fat blue skink from the net and we nearly caught a rainbow bee-eater (bounced out).  I took a bucket shower behind the truck and pulled spinifex splinters out of my legs all evening. Feeling annoyed at the existence of fairy-wrens and Dan's need to study them... 

Excellent fairy-wren habitat

Rocking the dirt tan with a female red-backed fairy-wren in-hand
Day Eight 

We made our way further west to Camooweal, the last town at the edge of Queensland. We wandered into the surrounding savannah and were happy to quickly hear the twinkling twitters of fairy-wrens. Cockatiels whistled from the trees and thousands of bright birds colored the sky neon green. We focus our binoculars on them and realize they are budgerigars!

By noon it is too hot to work so we head to the car and drive back into town. We stopped at a gas station to fuel up and the thermometer reads 110 F in the shade. 

Quittin' time!

Back the caravan park I took a very long, cool shower. I felt a little guilty at using so much water in such a harsh, dry environment but it was just so heavenly. I stood there soaking in the coolness knowing it would be a while before I had a chance to do this again.

It was very hard to sleep that night. The road trains (think 18-wheelers on steroids) came and went at all hours of the night, their thunderous engines causing the earth to quake, their enormous dust clouds choking our airways.

Road Train

Day Nine

Camooweal again. Dan and I split up to scour the scrubby outback for new fairy-wrens. Instead I found a dead bustard on the side of the road. I collected a few of it's large and lovely feathers and enjoy the alone time to reflect on the last few long, hot days. Only one more day in the field before we began the long trek back to Herberton.

We eventually find two groups of fairy-wrens and try for both with some success.  Later that day we drove the short distance to the Northern Territory.  We took photos standing atop our rental and waved at passing road trains.

We made it to the Northern Territory!

Day Ten

We are headed back east along the Flinders Highway and stop just east of Julia Creek. Dan and I split off again in opposite directions. I drifted through a scrubby meadow with outstretched hands, grazing the tips of the dry grass with my palms.  I found fairy-wrens but they were the wrong species (variegated) and I watched them for a while as they sallied for insects. The ground suddenly began to shake and a flock of giant red kangaroos appeared. My heart pounded as they bounded through the crunchy grass only a few feet away. Bustards snuck through the trees, but no red-backs are to be found here so we move on.

Variegated fairy wren. Cool bird but not what we were hoping for.

In Richmond we made a visit to a museum filled with cheesy dinosaur sculptures and fossils of footprints of long dead beasts. We spent the night in the Lakeview Caravan Park. I marveled at how thick and lush the grass was and walked around enjoying the sensation on my bare feet. Hundreds of fat cane toads soon litter the lawns like ornaments as night descend and we hit a few with golf clubs. Dan hates them (they are exotic and highly invasive) and he makes them fly especially far. Tree frogs live in the showers but they are native and I welcome their quiet presence. 

Argh! A quick visit to the dinosaur museum in Richmond, QLD

Cheese! Posing inside a liopleuradon

Day Eleven

We headed east toward Hughenden and took the Kennedy Developmental Rd. north past Porcupine Gorge National Park. We are back in the tablelands and huge gymnosperms and eucalyptus trees line the red dirt highway. There were large reservoirs, lots of wise old cows, and weary loggers - but no fairy-wrens. We camped out alongside the road, our last night afield.

Day Twelve 

We made it back to the donkey farm absolutely exhausted. Our legs full of spinifex splinters, and our hides falsely tanned with several layers of outback dust, we are happy to be home. Dan and I spent twelve days scouring the state of Queensland and came back with samples from 76 birds. We hadn't anticipated that finding 100 male fairy-wrens would be so difficult.

We decided that we were awesome, and high-fived. Best collecting trip ever.

Our friends are happy to see us

Home sweet home in Herberton,QLD

An early Thanksgiving celebration with the RBFW Crew!

Photo credits: Dan Baldassarre