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Down Under!

Wondering, Naturally

Submitted by Lindsay, Melbourne, Australia!

Everyone's heard of the seven wonders of the ancient world, although most of them have long gone - except for the pyramids of Egypt, which are as iconic as icons can be.

Many of us have also seen one or more of the seven wonders of the modern world, especially the mighty Grand Canyon, and gasped in awe at its vast depth and length, while recognizing that nature outdoes man every time when it comes to Big and Awesome. Nature's storehouse of amazements is so great that we can never hope to see them all, but of the wonders considered to be worthy of inclusion in the seven, I can say with true Aussie lack of humility that most are here, downunder.

The most spectacular is the Great Barrier Reef. First reported in the journal of Captain James Cook, (the Yorkshire man who 'discovered' Australia for the British), it is the largest living organism on earth. Easily seen from space, it is 1600 miles long, up to three miles wide and averages 100 yards deep. Its present form is about 6000 years old, although its origins go back half a million years. Billions of tiny polyps make their home from silica, which can take quite bizarre shapes and be wonderfully colored. A magnificent ecosystem, the home of so many fish that they're still counting, and naturally a premier tourist attraction. The water is tropically warm and our visit some years ago saw the dive captain frantically trying to get my wife's attention to return to the boat. She did so reluctantly, saying it was all so enchanting that it was a real effort to remember there were other things as well. I proved a hopeless snorkeler, but managed to catch enough coral trout to feed us and our friends for three days.

Then there's Uluru, the largest single rock in the world. Some 600 yards high, with a circumference of about seven miles at ground level, its homogenous and fault-free composition has allowed it to withstand significant erosion. It is a sacred Aboriginal site, jointly managed by the local tribe and the government, and attracts close to half a million visitors each year.

There's also Fraser Island, (the largest sand island in the world), loved by naturalists, eco-sustainers, and the public. And the Daintree, part of the tropics in North Queensland, where one of the oldest species of ferns is still going strong - only a couple of million years old; and the wave, 150 yards of solidified rock that is simply waiting for an intrepid surfer to catch it to the shore 100 miles away; the bungle-bungles, hundreds of 350 million-year-old multicolored domes of fragile silica and sandstone; and the pinnacles, thousands of limestone spires ranging in size from a truck to a water pipe scattered across a sandy plain.

But the most bizarre and intriguing natural sight you can find anywhere in the world are the homes of the magnetic termites, commonly called white ants due to their almost non-existent skin. Mile after mile of jagged mini-mountains, all lined up in parallel rows, all pointing unerringly to the magnetic north and south. Millions of the little critters all sensing which way is up, the only insect with a compass.

It took years of outback science (the kind that tries improvised variations, hoping for a good time) to come up with the answers. This area in our Northern Territory is semi desert, with daytime temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius and zero at night, yet they require a steady 30 degrees to stay comfortable, and no more than +/- 2 degrees to stay alive. Other termites solve this by burrowing into the ground, but this site is also subject to tropical flooding, and drowning is no option for them. So the alignment allows the sun to heat first one side to the needed temperature, then the other, and voila, Air Conditioning! It's estimated they evolved this over many thousands of years - but in most places the earth's magnetic field has swung pretty wildly over this time, except… not in Australia. This place is so old, geologically, that it can't be bothered keeping up with the new-age swings (just kidding).

If you crave novelty, bizarre, SF scenarios, come down and see this stuff. If it matters that the site is miles from anywhere, no accommodation or human comforts, then go to one of the other places, or even Dinosaur cove (another world heritage listing - there's some thirty in all) and marvel.

The cities are fairly civilized and most of the humans are normal.

With north-south wishes,


Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker