A view from the top – looking down as we descend into Bromfield Swamp, one of the many swamps we visited.

By Will (guest blogger)

On the 30th June I boarded a plane to Cairns in far north tropical Queensland for a field trip for a Global Summer Programme (GSP) Course, ‘Biodiversity and Climate Change in the Asia Pacific Region’. The GSP is an initiative by the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) to offer students a chance to study intensive courses abroad. Courses are hosted at numerous universities around the globe covering topics from global development to Chinese culture.

I had the smart idea of applying for the course hosted by my own university meaning I missed the chance to travel abroad. Though while the humour of the phrase ‘Global Summer…” was not lost on all of the programs international students, in Canberra I must admit that the chance to travel up north during the bitterest month on the calendar was well appreciated.

From Cairns we travelled inland to the Atherton tablelands. The region itself was once volcanic and plays home to a number of crater lakes and swamps. While the former provided an absolutely stunning place to swim, the latter provided a chance for us to get our hands, and our feet, very dirty.

The fruits of our labour, one of eleven cores taken from Cairns mangrove.
The fruits of our labour, one of eleven cores taken from Cairns mangrove.

The aim of our trip was to study what causal factors has shaped vegetation changes in the region. We collected and analysed the make-up of sediment cores from the aforementioned swamps in the region. By looking at the content of certain pollens, charcoal and sediment types in the cores we can identify where large scale changes may have occurred, and these can be linked with other records, such as the known time of European settlement.

Mungana rock art site III 2013-07-04_SH
An Aboriginal rock art site in Mungana, North Queensland

Another of the true highlights of our trip was the chance to gain cultural insights into the region. We were given a tour of a rainforest by an Aboriginal guide, who spoke at length about the traditional practices employed in the past by the Aboriginal people in the region. More interesting was what was left unsaid, the implication about how these practices were becoming more and more distant, and perhaps how that was affecting their community now.

We were also given a tour through a mining museum and the surrounding area in Herberton. The guides spoke about how the vegetation in the region had been shaped by human activity such as mining and logging, and the follow on effects they were still seeing. Yet the most memorable finding was that the museum was curated almost entirely by volunteers from the local community, one of whom served as our guide. It was truly fascinating sharing in their knowledge and understanding of the local region.

Coring Mangrove
The trip was a great chance to get your hands dirty for science

The final weekend saw us descend from the tablelands into Cairns itself, from there a team of us descended slightly further, about a foot to be precise, into (literally) Cairns mangrove to collect further cores. We hoped through studying these course to speculate about the development of the mangrove over the past few thousand years.

The D-section corer could be extended on the go, this was Mallory Barnes aiming to collect core about 2 meters deep at Bromfield Swamp.
The D-section corer could be extended on the go, this was Mallory Barnes aiming to collect core about 2 meters deep at Bromfield Swamp.

After spending a few hours ankle deep in mud, we returned covered in bites (tropical strength fly-spry be damned) and carrying 5 ½ meters of mangrove mud; who said science isn’t fun?  While this may be a personal thing, there is something to be said for pushing a metal bar 5 meters into mangrove mud to collect samples that could be thousands of years old, I for one definitely enjoyed it.

scuba
A welcome change from swamps and mangroves

After scuba diving, shopping the local markets, spotlighting possums in the rainforest, trying to recreate picnic at hanging rock and watching the Aussies lose to the Lions it was back to Canberra where we were greeted by the sight of our own breath in front of our face and our carefully cling-wrapped samples. It was truly an insightful and enjoyable trip, I definitely recommended anyone enrolled in an IARU university to consider taking a GSP course. The memories and friends made will last a lot longer than any mangrove bites received.

Back in Canberra we were reunited with our mangrove cores and could begin analysis. Clockwise from top Right: Freya Bossard (ANU), Lê Nguyên Phương Thanh (University of Copenhagen), Oliver Green (Oxford), Will Bonney (ANU)
Back in Canberra we were reunited with our mangrove cores and could begin analysis. Clockwise from top Right: Freya Bossard (ANU), Lê Nguyên Phương Thanh (University of Copenhagen), Oliver Green (Oxford), Will Bonney (ANU)

I would like to sincerely thank of Prof. Simon Haberle, Dr. Alistair Seddon and Dr. Ulrike Proske for their efforts through-out the course and the field trip. Each of you made the entire trip worthwhile.

Photo Credits: Prof. Simon Haberle, Maise Jenkinson and Lê Nguyên Phương Thanh

So it's this way right
So they went this way right…? From left to right; Will, Freyja and Mal, all from ANU.