Rachel Down Under!

Happy Holidays…

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on December 26, 2010

….from the land down under!

From the merry Johnston Lab….

(photo credit to Katie)

From my lovely housemates….

Ziggy caught a fish for our Christmas Eve dinner- straight from Tamarama Beach!

Our apartment is decorated for the holidays!

Mmmm dinner!

From welcoming Australian friends…

Look at this feast- did I mention its all vegetarian? mmm!

Does it get any better than this?

Haha, well, it just might, with tea and pavlova, a classic (and delicious!) Australian dessert! So good!

And finally, from the grand city of Sydney….

Today, Boxing Day, was the start of the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race. I ventured out to South Head at Watsons Bay to take my place among the hundreds of other spectators to watch the start of this epic holiday race.

Boats at the starting line…

…and they’re off!

All the way around South Head, past North Head…

(look at all of the helicopters!)

…and finally out into the Pacific Ocean on the way to Hobart!

Even though we didn’t have a White Christmas (as did Chester, VA!)  I have to say that I had a wonderful Christmas holiday away from home. Thanks to my lab, housemates, and new Australian friends. Cheers!



Posted in Australia, Tasmania by rssmith218 on December 23, 2010

Greetings from Tasmania, the “island of inspiration”, and a natural wilderness that is truly A World Apart, Not A World Away.

Aisha and I just returned from a 5-day roadtrip around this magnificent and incredibly beautiful island. Our ambitious itinerary took us from the great mountains of the wild west to the quaint capital of Hobart, then back in time to experience the convict life at Port Arthur, and finally up to the east coast to see some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

Our track around Tasmania:

Whew- what a busy but amazing trip! I will try to be brief in recounting our adventures, but there was so much to see in Tassie! Credit to Aisha for many of these photos.

Day 1: Launceston to Cradle Mountain

A smooth flight from Sydney and we were ready to start our adventure from the historic town of Launceston. After a (not so) Fresh lunch, we stocked up on peanut butter, bananas, and honey- our staples for the next few days- and began a rainy drive west to Cradle Mountain.

Just picked up our rental car and now we’re ready to go! Wait, which side of the road do we drive on, again?

Upon arrival in Cradle Mountain, we checked into our cozy cabin, and began to see the sights…

1. Enchanted Walk

One of the “60 Great Short Walks” in Tasmania, this walk truly was enchanting!

2. Wombats

We went wombling for wombats!

See any, Aisha?

No? Wait, there’s one!

And another- so cute!

3. Cradle Mountain

Our hike around Dove Lake at the base of Cradle Mountain was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Despite the rain, the cold, and clouds that covered the iconic “cradle” of Cradle Mountain for most of our walk, this hike was stunning!

The cradle is hiding behind these clouds…

Do we look cold and wet or what? And do you think I’m wearing enough layers?

One of the most beautiful parts of the hike- the ballroom forest! Aren’t I a good dancer?

Now where is that elusive cradle? Can you spot it?


Yes! There it is! We saw the baby in the cradle for a few glorious minutes- can you see the “baby” nestled between the two upper peaks of the mountains?

Day 2: Cradle Mountain to Hobart

We were sad to leave our cozy cabin…

…but we soon got on the road to Hobart! A supposedly 5 hour drive quickly turned into a 8 hour affair with Aisha and I behind the wheel…but look at all of the neat places we stopped along the way!

1. Queenstown

Queenstown is a mining town with a booming copper industry. One look at these mountains will show you why!

These rocks look like they are full of minerals…beautiful, huh?

I love these mountains!

2. Lake St. Clair

Another treasure hidden in the western mountains- couldn’t you just stay here all day?

A great place for a walk…

…just don’t fall!

3. Views from the road

How empty are these roads? Definitely a good thing for us drifting American drivers!

The roads may have been empty, but the roadsides were full of SHEEP!

Day 3: Hobart to Port Arthur (and back to Hobart!)

1. Walking Tour around Hobart

We started our morning with a brisk tour around Hobart. It was a lovely morning for a walk and we saw all of the sights, including

Salamanca Place, home of the famous Salamanca Markets (which, unfortunately, we missed!),

the shining Hobart waterfront,

and the historic neighborhood of Battery Point

2. Richmond/Sorell

We moved on from Hobart and quickly passed through the historic town of Richmond- very different from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia!

Here you can see the famous Richmond Bridge…

…and little Richmond tucked into the hills overlooking the bridge!

I was excited for our trip through the tiny town of Sorell, as I had previously read that this town has a reputation for growing delicious berries! We stopped at a Sorell berry farm to pick up some berries (these are tay berries), which I promptly ate for the next stretch of our drive.

Mmmm berries…

…or maybe not?

I quickly regretted the enthusiasm with which I had gobbled down the berries, as I spent the following night sick with food poisoning from these apparently bad berries! Thank goodness Aisha wisely avoided them!

3. Port Arthur

Over the course of our trip, we passed many amusing signs on the road, including this fairly gruesome one,

in addition to signs warning us of the various critters that we may come across:

However, it wasn’t until our drive to Port Arthur, that we actually saw some of the wildlife we had been warned about- look, its an echidna!

So cute!

Port Arthur was also a highlight of the trip. Port Arthur is a historic convict settlement that once operated as Australia’s largest penal station. It was a supposedly “unescapeable” prison, although three people actually did manage to escape in the almost 50 years that the prison was active. Port Arthur is also famous as the site of a 1996 mass murder in which 35 people were killed and 21 people were wounded. As a result of this tragedy, Australia created a national ban on semi-automatic shotguns and rifles that is still in place today.

Despite its dark past, Port Arthur was a lovely place to visit. I just loved these old buildings!

Here is the iconic penitentiary,

a guard tower,

and the convict church

As eerie as it sounds, my favorite part of Port Arthur was the Separate Prison. Here, prisoners were placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, with one hour of mandated exercise per day. In this “Silent System” prisoners wore hooded masks and were not allowed to talk- the guards even spoke in sign language to avoid breaking the silent contemplation of the prisoners. Talk about pyschological abuse!


Day 4: Hobart to Freycinet

1. Mount Wellington

Before leaving Hobart, Aisha and I ventured up to the top Mount Wellington on a careening and supremely scary road. At times, I thought we were going to fly right off the mountain, but it was worth it for this view!

First, view of Mount Wellington from the wharf in Hobart- you can see that it is always in the background of the city-

And now the view from the top-

Don’t we look ice cold?

2. Wineglass Bay

Following our descent down Mount Wellington, we continued north of Hobart to Freycinet National Park on the eastern coast. In the park we hiked to Wineglass Bay, one of the “top ten beaches in the world”. I would say that Wineglass Bay lived up to this reputation- just look at these pictures!

View along the hike-

We began our hike in rain and clouds, but by the end, the sun was shining and the beach felt almost tropical- see how different it looks?

And now down at the beach…

…far away…

…and up close!

Look at that water!

Not just gorgeous sands, but check out these rocks-

And as usual, we had an unexpected visitor!

Get away from my coat, wallaby!

3. Lighthouse

Our day in Freycinet ended with a sunset trip to the Cape Tourville lighthouse. Yet another gorgeous view from this vantage.

Check out Lemon Island on the left hand side of this picture!

Day 5: Freycinet to Launceston

1. Friendly Beaches

Our last day in Tasmania and we left Freycinet early for our drive back to Launceston. However, we did stop to check out the Friendly Beaches on our way out of town.

2. Launceston

We spent a laid-back afternoon in Launceston, catching up on our sleep, and visiting the Cataract Gorge.

Whew, finally a nap!

…even if it is interrupted by peacocks!

Overall, our trip to Tasmania was full of adventure and good times (other than the food poisoning!). I’m so glad I had the opportunity to explore this wild island and to enjoy its incredible beauty.  What a wonderful way to spend the summer holiday- Happy holidays to everyone back at home!

Panel Time

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on December 16, 2010

..better than hammer time?

My last batch of experiments is finally out in the field- check it out!

Grooves + Pits = heterogeneity and complexity!

Now, let’s get those panels assembled…

All done!

Time to head to Chowder Bay to hang them up…

…panel prep…

And finally they’re all tied off and we’re ready to let them go!

Hang tight, panels- I’ll be back to check on you in another month!

Catch this

Posted in Australia, Melbourne by rssmith218 on December 15, 2010


Greater things than frisbees went flying this past weekend, and my ultimate-enthused companions and I made our way down to Melbourne for the weekend. There, we took part in the Melbourne Hat, an ultimate frisbee tournament in the backdrop of Victoria’s beautiful capital city. It was a weekend full of frisbee, sore muscles, Irish dancing, twins, and as always, a bit of sight-seeing.

And now for the highlights…..


First of all, what is a hat tournament, exactly?

Basically, it’s a frisbee tournament where players don’t enter as part of a team, but instead each person registers as an individual. Teams are then drawn “out of a hat” or in the case of the Melbourne Hat, based upon experience level to allow for the creation of fair teams. Such tournaments are a great way to meet new people, and in my case, to gain more experience with the game by playing with more advanced players.

I am a relative newcomer to ultimate and my limited frisbee skills definitely place me in the “beginner” experience category. Thus, imagine my surprise/horror when I heard my name called out as captain of my new randomly-selected team. Yikes. As the only beginner on a team with many Worlds and Nationals ultimate players, I clearly did not have much to contribute in the way of leadership or expertise, but I did yell out some spirited “hip-hip hoorays” in my unfortunate end-of-match speeches.

Captain material…really?

Despite my inexperience, my team, Grape Shots, was patient and kind with me, and we played hard through ten 70-minute games over the course of two days. We went 4-1 the first day, but after a loss during our first game on the second day, we were out of the formal tournament competition, and our games became increasingly more fun and light-hearted as the day went on.

Go Purple!

Team Grape Shots!

By the end of the second day, I embarassingly was still the only one on our team who had not caught a goal in the endzone, so my team rallied hard for me to catch the final point of our final game. Maybe not as epic as this catch, but it was pretty exciting for me!

Awesome catch, huh?


Most of our time in Melbourne was admittedly spent on the frisbee field, but we did have time for some quick city explorations.

For example, here is Federation Square, Melbourne’s controversial cultural center and an architectural curiosity. Pretty neat!

But of course, there’s always time to live up the Melbourne Night life.

We went to several Melbourne pubs, including the Bull and Bear Tavern, which hosted the official Melbourne Hat twin-themed party. Unfortunately I left my camera at home so I couldn’t document the amazingly creative costumes we saw there, but you can see that Jonny, Kim, and Zac made a pretty convincing Mario, Peach, and Luigi!

We also enjoyed a rowdy dinner at an American-themed diner…they had everything American, from Elvis to Reese’s cups (a rare find here in Australia!) to Bazooka bubblegum to “exclusive” Sam Adams Boston Lager (for $10 a piece, if you can believe it!). They even had Twinkies!

My Australian friends were overwhelmed by the sheer number of greasy options…

….and our table was soon filled with milkshakes, tater-tots (!), buffalo wings, burgers, chili-dogs, and even a bloomin’ onion! We quickly became friendly with our waitresses, “Peggy Sue”, “Misty”, and “Debbie”, and they joined us on a bar hop around Melbourne’s finest Irish pubs. Needless to say, we partook of a fair bit of Guinness while enjoying some good Irish folk music and dancing.

And finally, it wouldn’t be a weekend in Melbourne without experiencing some of the city’s famous coffee culture. Our walk (and tram ride!) along the hip and happening Chapel Street culminated in delicious  flat whites at a local cafe.

Mmmm is that good coffee!

The weekend flew bye (along with the frisbees!) and I am left with good memories and supremely tired legs. I can’t wait to go back to Melbourne- there is so much more to explore!

The world looks fine

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on December 8, 2010

A check of the weekly weather forecast for this past week will show that our fourth and final week of spring fieldwork was doomed from the start.

Really, Sydney, more rain?

According to the weather bureau, this has been Australia’s wettest spring on record (that is, within the past 111 years), with an average of 160 mm of fallen rain in Australia thus far. Compare this to last year, when the national spring average rainfall was only 56.8 mm. Pretty big difference, huh?

This rain overload can primarily be attributed to the domination of La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean. La Niña and El Niño have always been a bit of an enigma to me, but my recent discovery of this great animation has definitely cleared things up, even in the face of cloudy weather. Check it out!

During our week in the rain, we navigated the estuaries of Broken Bay, Brisbane Waters, and, when Brisbane Waters proved to be too shallow, also Middle Harbour. See the map below.

I didn’t take pictures at either Brisbane Waters or Middle Harbour (our final two “modified” estuaries) because of the rain, but here are some quick shots of Broken Bay, a lovely “unmodified” estuary. If these pictures don’t do it for you, you can also check out this panoramic website of the nearby Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Pretty amazing.

We love our experiments!

You too, Katelyn?

Our day in Broken Bay was full of Australian wildlife sitings! To name a few….

1. Jellyfish

These guys were everywhere- not just in the water, but as you can see, they were also piled up on the shore. Funnily, according to Wikipedia, they are called “Jelly Blubbers.” Unlike most other Australian jellyfish, these guys are happily harmless.

2. Sea Eagles

This eagle led us to all of our prime sites!

Here’s a close-up picture so you can see how beautiful they really are.

3. Bush Turkey….not as pretty as the sea eagle, is it?

4. Lions.

Wait, lions? What?

Oh, I meant islands that look like lions! Welcome to Lion Island!

Despite the rain, this past week was a great conclusion to the spring fieldwork season. I have another separate experiment that I am going to set out (hopefully!) next week, and then I’ll be waiting for February when we return to the field to collect our experiments. Can’t wait to see what communities I’ll have growing by then!

In the wake of the field season, I passed a pretty low-key weekend full of baking, relaxing, and (embarassingly?) watching the full season of the Australian TV series Summer Heights High. It was nice to have a quiet weekend, especially considering how busy the next couple weeks are going to be. Looking forward to my upcoming travels!