Tuesday, 11 March 2008

This morning as I walked to the bathroom in my pajamas, I once again pondered how strange it is to see so many adults who are strangers walking around in their pajamas. An older man stumbled to the bathrooms in his boxers, a woman appeared in her robe, a toothbrush in her hand. It is all so strange, and yet so familiar.

I was up at 6 this morning, and shortly the rest of the family roused. We all shook ourselves awake and got moving. I did a load of laundry, we got the kids going on school, and we checked out by 8am. Since it’s still so windy on the coast, we decided to move to the interior of Australia for a couple of days. We had a long day of driving ahead, heading into the hinterland a bit to do some exploring in a different neck of the woods. Our plan was to drive to a town called Charters Towers, an old gold mining boom town that still has miners excited about mining the nearby hills. Then on up the road to a place called Undara, where lava tubes can be explored with a guide. It was advertised as being at “the edge of the Outback”, and we’re ready for some new experiences after spending so much time on the beach.

We decided to stop at the Venus Gold Battery just outside Charters Towers, the guide book said we’d learn about how the gold was once extracted from the ore back in the heyday of mining in the 1870’s. The battery was actually used all the way up until the 1980’s. As we walked up to the main office we were greeted by a friendly lady named Julie, and her affectionate black cat that curled himself around our ankles, begging for attention. The place seemed deserted, she said the tour took about an hour, so we followed Julie outside to take a look around. There were printed signs along the way, telling the story of the men who started this battery/mill (they are similar terms), and about the kids whose families moved here in search of gold. The kids would slide down the “tailings” piles, discarded bits of rock that had been sucked dry of gold. My hungry eyes took it all in, I was getting all sorts of story ideas.

We walked into the main part of the mill, it was full of giant wheels and belts and large steel pieces, all on a grand scale. They criss-crossed the building, it looked like it was once a very busy place. Julie explained that she’d only been doing this tour for about two months, that when she began she was only given part of the story. She’d been doing research on the web, and talking to lots of people, trying to piece the whole puzzle together. That’s the kind of guide I love, someone who is fascinated by their subject, someone motivated to find the interesting bits out. We were joined by one other couple as we started our tour.

We were shown a short holograph film about the beginning days of the mill, a great story. Two men were looking for gold, and when they got to the Charters Towers area, they actually found bits of gold just lying around, there was that much of it. Before the news got out, they searched the area around Charters Towers for a place that would always have water. Water is an essential ingredient to process the ore to get out the gold. When they found the best source of water they staked their claim all around it. It was easy enough to claim the land, just put down the stakes and write for your legal paperwork. They built their battery in just two months, it used pretty basic principles, like pounding rocks with heavy weights and grinding with a mortar and pestle, just bigger. Three months later they had made 1,200 Pounds, the equivalent of seven years salary. Six months after they bought the land, they sold the battery to avoid irritated customers. Seems they kept raising their prices and were becoming rather unpopular.

The main purpose of the battery was to pound the rocks until they were very fine, this had to be done before they could get to the gold. So, they dumped cartloads of ore into chutes where big, heavy weights dropped on top of the rocks, grinding them into smaller pieces. They had a sample weight sitting on the ground of the mill, and the kids couldn’t budge it. The total weight of a rod was 400 kilograms, and it pounded the rock seventy times in one minute. After three months of this relentless pounding, the weight cap was worn down to a mere nub and had to be replaced. Water was used in these vats to keep the heat down from all that friction, it took seven tons of water for every one ton of rock milled. Julie played a tape of what the mill sounded like when it was running, it was really loud. So loud none of the workers could have heard each other, they all had to know exactly what they were doing and must have been half deaf at the end of the day.

The owners of the gold, that had brought their rocks in to be milled, stayed for the entire process, sleeping on the floor if they had to. They made sure every bit of rock dust made it through the mill before another man came along to dump his rocks down the chutes. They didn’t want to lose a smidgeon of what they had mined.  Julie said the gold fever made people crazy, mostly paranoid and very territorial over “my precious” gold. Even today, Julie said the privateers who are still mining the hills are very quiet about what they find, very vague when asked where they were mining. When one man was asked how the mining was going, he replied, “Oh, all right,” and then pulled a nugget bigger than his fist out of his pocket. He wasn’t letting that chunk of gold out of his sight. I speculated that he probably had a gun in the other pocket.

 Once the initial grinding of the rock took place, the smaller pieces were ground still further, and then mercury was added to the mixture, forming a substance they called slime. Gold is attracted to mercury and adhered to it. We were learning about electromagnetism in a most attractive way. Once the slime was fine enough, it was passed through a wire mesh screen, and spilled out onto a copper tray. Now mercury is attracted to copper, and the gold was already attached to the mercury, so the gold was drawn towards the tray while the rest of it passed away. The first pass of capturing the gold from the rock had taken place as the copper plate was scraped clean (all under the watchful eye of the gold owner), all that was left was to remove the mercury from the gold.

To remove the mercury, they fired the gold up in a super hot pot, mercury turns to gas at a fairly low temperature, while the gold stayed liquid. Then that mercury gas was cooled in a separate tube surrounded by cold water. Once cooled, it turned back into liquid, and could be used again. If any mercury was lost during the process, the gold owner had to pay for it, another reason they stayed so close to the mill during their processing.

The remaining mixture went through two more processes to remove more gold that didn’t get taken in the first pass. It was placed in a giant mortar and pestle contraption, where it was ground fine as flour. Once again, mercury was added, and while the bowl spun, the gold and mercury, which was heavier, sunk to the bottom while the lighter material spilled over the sides. The gold and mercury were taken to the heater to remove the mercury, while the remains were transferred to a huge wooden vat. Cyanide was added, the very fine gold particles that wouldn’t adhere to the mercury would stick to the cyanide and sink. The mixture had to be continually stirred to keep it exposed to oxygen. Cyanide exposed to oxygen is less dangerous.

I can’t imagine the numbers of injuries and deaths among the battery workers using all those dangerous chemicals and heavy equipment. Julie said the average age in the first town cemetery was 35. They said the dangers of mercury and cyanide were pretty well known then, but the lure of the gold was too strong. We checked our watch and had to head out before our tour was entirely done. I got Julie’s email address, I think I might have some questions for her if I decide to pursue a story idea about what we’d learned.

We got on the road again, heading for the Undara Lave Tubes. We’d already booked a tour for the evening, and another tour tomorrow before we head to Cairns. As we got back on the road, we experienced the most dangerous part of our trip so far. More dangerous than anything we experience in Morocco, Kenya or Cambodia, more dangerous than snorkeling with sharks, we encountered a one lane road littered with road train trucks. That’s one lane total, not one in each direction. They call it a “developmental” highway. A road train is a truck that can have up to four trailers attached to it and be up to fifty meters (150 feet) long. Clay counted 106 tires on one of them. When we saw one coming, we had to pull our large campervan off the side of the road while it passed, they had the right of way. Sometimes pulling over was not easy, the shoulder was a drop off, maybe a ditch, and I was always concerned we might tip over in our top heavy vehicle.

The big problems were the blind curves. Or the blind hills we crested. It was like playing Russian roulette, you never knew what might come barreling down on you. Our hearts were in our throats and our shoulders were around our ears as we made our way down the road, muttering prayers and curses under our breaths. We couldn’t believe a road like this existed. As we drove, we listened to songs like “Freak Out” and “I Will Survive” off a bad CD full of dance songs I’d bought at a gas station. I was desperate for some music, in the land where no radio would reach. The lyrics were appropriate.

Our tour would commence at 5:30pm, and we weren’t sure we’d make it. But we pulled into the campervan park at 4:45, exhausted and stressed out. We all breathed a big sigh, and I went to register while Clay and the kids made friends with the local kangaroo population, which was jumping around the parking lot. At the campsite, Alayna sat very still and took pictures of several kangaroos nearby. One had a little joey in its pouch that jumped out, and then jumped back in when Nate came too close. It folded itself up in the pouch so that its head, and its feet, were both showing. I saw a joey, too, as I walked back from the office. It was really adorable, big brown eyes and the softest looking face, I wanted to touch it but knew it wouldn’t stay still. This was the first time we’d really seen kangaroos in the wild, other than the ones dead on the side of the road.

We unwound, found the bathroom, and coated ourselves with bug spray. Forty-five minutes later we met Levi, our guide for the nighttime bat tour. We proudly informed him that we were from Austin, Texas, home of the million-strong Mexican free-tailed bat population. He proudly informed us their bats were better. Ha!

Levi was a great guide, the kids loved him. He said the best seats were up front, and Benji and Nate immediately moved to the front two seats. Benji sat right beside Levi, his legs straight out in front of him, he looked really small. Levi was a crazy driver and the boys got a front row seat, speeding down the rutted dirt roads, splashing through puddles and heaving our four wheel drive bus over bumps in the road. When someone asked him what the difference was between a wallaroo and a kangaroo, he replied, “Wallaroos need more tomato sauce.” What? He had a heavy Australian accent and got really excited over animals we’d spot, whether it was a bird of prey or a lizard. He was a wacky Australian with a shark tooth necklace, a felt cowboy hat with a feather in the hatband, and a quick tongue. After exploring the “swamp” we planted ourselves on a bluff to watch the sunset, then hustled to the lava tube to watch the bats emerge.

Levi informed us that 750,000 bats live in the tubes, and they come out each night to search for insects. Nearby the lava tube were some snakes, hanging from the trees, hoping for a little bat snack. No sooner had we sat on some wooden steps than we saw our first few bats appear. I ducked. I had a terrible image of a bat swooping into my mouth, its hairy body all crammed in there and its leathery wings poking my cheeks out. I kept my hands over my mouth while I watched, crouching behind Benji. The bats came more quickly, soon they were streaming out. We could hear their wings beating as they passed just inches from our noses. Thousands and thousands of them. It was getting pretty dark, and Levi used his flashlight to illuminate the brown tree snakes and carpet pythons that were hanging around. He convinced our family to get our picture with the bats streaming out behind us. I’m the one in the middle, with my hands over my mouth.

Levi tried to convince me that the bats would not collide with us, due to their excellent echo location. He waved his hands in the air and sure enough, the bats didn’t hit him. But he’d told us about how his bus sometimes hit bats in the dark, and nothing he could say could take away my creeps.

The snakes were slithering up and down the trees and hanging from the top of the lava tube, their bodies all sinewy and unpredictable. What if they slivered up my leg? I was getting really creeped out, but the kids and Clay were loving it. I had to admit, it was pretty amazing. We watched the whole thing, and never once were we attacked by a snake, and a bat never made its way into my mouth. We took another wild ride back.

Levi likes to sing loudly while he drives. He asked Nate what he thought of it and for some reason Nate replied, “I prefer Prince.” Prince?!? Maybe Nate was remembering the “Party Like It’s 1999” song we’d listened to on that bad dance songs CD. Levi chastised him severely and asked for another name. Nate said Michael Jackson. By this time the whole bus was laughing and booing. Clay and I were laughing, but also mortified as Levi was questioning Nate’s manhood. Nate thought this was all really hilarious. Levi asked for the name of a band he likes and Nate came up with Green Day (it was my turn to be horrified, but I think he’s just heard one song he really likes) and Levi said, “Okay, now we can be mates.” Nate beamed.

We tucked into some ‘roo steaks and gigantic sausages in the cool dining area, it was decorated like a train station. The cabins in the area are all converted railway carriages, Levi said it’s because they were narrow and fit between the trees nicely so none had to be cut down. It’s a cool place, with the kangaroos hopping around freely and kookaburras perched on the fence around the pool. It’s only a little disturbing that we ate kangaroo for dinner, and admired kangaroos earlier that day. I guess they’re a little like cows, and I wondered if somewhere in Australia there were kangaroo cowboys, herding them on horseback and driving them to ‘roo sales, just like cattle sales. I could just see a hundred kangaroos bounding across the open plain . . .


Wednesday, 12 March 2008

This morning our tour started at 8am. According to our watches, we arrived with three minutes to spare, but the tour had already left without us! Apparently these laid back Australians are very punctual, they were waiting on us the night before as well, and we were only a few minutes late. The lady in the office used her CB to call Levi, who pulled the 4WD bus back around to pick us up. I felt like a kid late to school as we slinked onto the full bus.

Levi came up with a great description of how the lava tubes were formed. Millions of years ago, there were many volcanoes in the area. Some were called cone volcanoes, these had an underground lake beneath the mouth and when they exploded they made a huge bang and sent steam high into the air, but these didn’t have nearly as much lava as shield volcanoes. The Undara volcano was one of these, when it erupted it sent enough lava out to build a wall one meter tall and one meter thick (a meter is about three feet) that would stretch around the entire perimeter of Australia, with some leftover. That’s a lot of lava.

The lava didn’t explode, it just flowed. The top part of the lava “river” was exposed to the air and cooled more quickly, forming a crust, but the lava underneath kept flowing down the path of least resistance. As it flowed, it melted the rock around it (often older lava flows), wallowing out tunnels that stretched for miles and miles. Levi had a great illustration. He said, “Imagine you have a big block of chocolate, and then you drill a little hole and pour bubbling hot caramel inside. Imagine what that would do inside the chocolate. The chocolate is rock, and the caramel is lava.” Mmm.

These tubes are amazing, they are huge. Most tubes go unexplored, and even undiscovered. They are covered in grass, up above all we could see were fields of waving grass. Often, the only way to locate a lava tube is to see where the roof has collapsed. In these areas the rain forest springs up. The soil all washes out, trickling down the broken layer of rocks and into the tunnel, so grass can’t grow roots. The trees and other plants of the rainforest do quite nicely in this environment, they thrive. We encountered enormous trees, some banyans that reminded me of the huge trees growing around the temples in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. We also encountered a rock wallaby, a cute, shy little creature all huddled in his rock cave, it looked like a little kangaroo.

Levi informed us that the lava tubes never have water in them. Never. Except now, that is. That’s why our visit to them was so unique. Just about a month ago, due to all the rains they have had recently, the water table began to rise and actually began to fill the tube. It hadn’t happened in at least twenty years. This would possibly be the only chance in our lives to wade into a lava tube. Of course everyone had to take him up on it, how could we refuse? We rolled up our shorts, which didn’t matter once we ventured inside. The water came up to top of the handrails as we slipped down the boardwalk and a little deeper into the gigantic tube. It was so different from a cave, full of stalactites and stalagmites. These walls were rounded and smooth. As Levi said, these are unique because they were created in one massive feat of nature, fast and violent.

I asked if there were any water snakes. He said no worries, the only thing we may encounter was a little wet bat guano. After wading in a ways and getting soaked, we all waded back out and settled into pulling our socks over our wet feet. Alayna spotted a skink, and Levi was delighted. He turned on his laser pointer and shot a green light onto the rock the skink was sitting on. The skink chased it while he moved the laser light around, it thought it was something to eat. The poor guy was very persistent, and never did catch that elusive green bug.

We met some of the people along with us on the tour. One couple was from England, and on a five and half month trip. We compared notes and routes, and got ideas for future journeys. We had to check out of our campsite as soon as we returned from our lava tube tour, so we hustled around getting homework going and packing up the campervan to be “drive-ready”. This is always a bit of an ordeal, everything has to be secured, all the cabinets have to be packed so that stuff doesn’t slide around too much, the buttons on the drawers have to be pressed in so they don’t open, and the TV cabinet has to be locked. We finally pulled out about 11, praying for better roads along the way.

God must have wanted us to work on “relying on him for everything” a little while longer, because we found lots of those one lane roads as we headed north towards Cairns. We passed many road trains, but we never did die. We stopped along the way in a little town, known for their hot springs. The springs are located in a campervan park, and for a small fee we were able to take a dip in the “healing waters”. It was a gray day and it threatened rain. Sitting in the hot springs felt lovely. They were a series of little pools, each a different temperature depending on how much cold water they mixed into the naturally scalding water. Three of the pools were off-limits to kids, one was so hot I could barely dip my toe in. One was too cold, one was too hot, but one was just right, in the words of Goldilocks. It was a great side trip, well-worth our time and twenty bucks.

We worked out the tight shoulders and aching muscles that had been stressed out from the driving, then hit the road again. Our road widened out to a nice two lanes, we felt much safer. Until the rain began in earnest, and the road began to curve. And curve. And curve some more. Clay declared it was the curviest road he’d ever been on in his entire life. A few minutes later, he declared it was the curviest road anyone had ever been on. Those one-lane roads weren’t looking so bad. We found out we were winding our way through some impressive mountains . The rain was terrible, the roads were slick and dangerous. We passed a terrible wreck, the car had slammed into a rock wall, it was upside down in the road, the cab was entirely smashed, and toothpaste and tennis shoes were strewn across the road while the police directed us past it. It was horrible, and sobering. I prayed for whoever was in the car, I prayed for us, I prayed we’d arrive safely in Cairns.

We did. We pulled into our next campervan park ten minutes after they had closed the office. It was dark and wet, very wet. We drove around looking for a good spot for our camper, finally settling on one that was under a tree and across from the bathrooms. Clay plunged into the downpour and plugged us in. We sploshed across to the bathroom. We were soaking and dirty and we discovered that being under the tree made things really loud. Big, giant drips dropped directly above our heads, we had to yell to hear each other, and we turned Gidget up to the highest volume, level 100. We were blessed to be there alive, to have a roof over our heads, no matter how loud that roof was.