By Jen

Last year myself and fellow PhD Jessica Lowczak organized a geological field trip for 19 students through Central Australia. This was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, and despite there being many a stuff-up along the way, I am quite proud of the experience as a whole. It is nearly 2016, and therefore time for the new cohort of students to start thinking about where they want to go on the next trip, and how they are going to organize it.

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The student field trip traditionally occurs every two years and is a great way for the PhD cohort to bond while learning the regional geology of an area decided by the students, including subject matters outside their own areas of expertise. The students who attended the trip in 2014 spent two weeks together knocking knees in the back of troop-carriers, and snoring loudly next to one another in tents. All in the 35 degree heat of the Australian desert. They each had to research one area of the region we were travelling to and write a short report that was turned into a field guide -special thanks to Morgan Williams for putting this together.

Challenge: Deciding where to go. We decided on Central Australia for three reasons, the first being that Jess had been there on a geological field trip during her undergrad, and secondly the region showcases many different types of Earth Science, including igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary processes, palaeontology, economic and structural geology, meteorite impact zones, tectonics, and climate change. The third reason is that Central Australia is a beautiful part of the country that most of us had never seen.

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The night sky of Central Australia*

Challenge: Transport. How to economically carry 19 people and their luggage through the desert which sometimes does not have roads? We decided that troop carriers would have the lowest cost per person, while providing us with the option to go off road if needed. We had a large trailer attached to the back of each, one carried the luggage, and one was stocked with two weeks-worth of food.

The only down side to that was we had to get six students to be 4WD trained, so they did an intensive two day course and gallantly drove the whole 1500km from Adelaide to Alice Springs.

The trusty steeds

Win: No animal Deaths. Not one kangaroo was mown down while we were at the wheel, although ironically the hire company destroyed the vehicle that did not have a bull-bar, just hours after collecting the vehicle from us. They made the mistake of driving back at night and hit a fully-grown, red kangaroo.

Win: Competent mechanics. How many geologists does it take to change a tyre? One. Special mention to Phil Brandl who went full survival mode and conducted a flawless mid-desert tyre change near Lake Eyre.

Win: Famous! We got to be on TV for a 4WD show that was being filmed at Arakroola Wilderness Sanctuary while we were there. Special mention to Patrick Goodarzi for being on TV while wearing an improvised orange-bag fly-guard.

Improvised orange-bag fly guard
  • Fun fact: petrol costs an astounding $2.50/L in the desert, but more disconcertingly a Magnum ice-cream costs $6.

Challenge: Food. We were faced with the daunting prospect of having to feed 19 people on a budget, using nothing more than a fire or camp-site barbecue. We decided to divide people into groups and each group would prepare three meals. They had to provide us with a list of ingredients that we would pre-buy, for a main meal and a dessert.

Win: Campfire Chinese food. Special mention to Mimi Chen and Fang Fang who provided us with the unexpected delight of campfire Chinese noodles and fried rice with shrimp! A further special mention to Kate Holland who ensured that the Cake Friday tradition was kept alive and well in the desert.

  • Fun fact: we fed everyone for approximately $7 each per day! Apologies for all the Corn Flakes and sandwiches you were forced to consume..

Challenge: Actually finding pieces of relevant geology. Although we knew which areas displayed which geologic features, it was sometimes difficult to pinpoint a precise location or a precise rock that everyone could physically see so that we could talk about it. There was one point where we had everyone searching for an Ediacaran fossil for a good hour or two. We found it in the end (Thanks Jess Amies).

There was another point where we wanted to find some shatter cones associated with the Gosses Bluff meteorite impact crater. It turned out the area was on sacred Aboriginal land and we were forbidden to enter, so we performed one of the many U-turns of the trip and left disappointed.

Win: Uluru is quite hard to miss. Thank God. Some of the other cool features we did find included glacial tillites, fossils, structural slicken lines, S-C fabrics, carbonatites, apatites, and lots of garnets.

Uluru at sunset

Challenge: Safety. Jess and I had to take a one day remote first aid course so that we could be on hand if anyone hurt themselves. This involved learning how to treat snake and spider bites, how to do CPR, and how to make improvised splints and stretchers.

In the end Jess and I were probably the two who suffered the most on the trip, but those issues were solved by chugging litres of Hydralite and Metamucil.

Challenge: Preventing a Lord of the Flies Scenario. We severely underestimated the number of hours we would all spend cooped up in those vehicles; needless to say tensions began to arise within the group. Those in the front car (named Full Frontal – the best car) were pitted against those in the back car (suitably named Rear End) when an incident involving a stolen Toblerone sent shock waves through the group.

There is no happy ending to this story. War broke out, the chocolate was never recovered, and the relationship between the groups remains tense to this day.

  • Fun fact: In the desert, chocolate is a serious matter. Stealing someone’s chocolate is an intolerable act of war.

Win: Desert aerobics: Special thanks to Jo Stephenson, Laura Crisp, and Liane Loiselle for running road-side aerobics classes to prevent us from all getting DVT, going mental, and killing each other.

Win: Everyone made it back alive.

Except perhaps Chris Renggli?

Thanks to the 19 people who came on the 2014 trip, you made it one of my most treasured experiences that I will never forget. With all that in mind, have fun organizing the next trip!

*Images courtesy of Philipp Brandl and Christian Renggli