Earth Science Explorations Down Under

GISetc (Anita & Roger Palmer) and Geological Society of America education (Gary Lewis) decided that taking educators to Australia would be a tremendous way to learn about the physical geography and geology of this far away continent.  So we did!  On July 18, we took off from Los Angeles at 10:00 on Saturday evening, flew for fourteen hours and crossed the International Date Line (180 longitude), and landed in Sydney at 6:30 Monday morning.  After having “lost” Sunday while on the plane, nineteen educators and their family members converged on Sydney, Australia.   

The first thing we all noticed when we left the airport was that it was cold!  All of us were traveling from North America, where typical northern latitude temperatures were very hot, and we needed to switch our thoughts and bodies to the southern latitude winter of Sydney.  At 26 S, which U.S. city would be a best comparison in winter?  (You can check out or to verify your answers.)  

After adding another jacket layer and some gloves, we ventured out and were transferred to our hotel right in the heart of Sydney, near the beautiful downtown Hyde Park.  Hyde Park is a wonderful public space in the heart of the city where residents walk and play.  In Hyde Park, Gary did an introduction to GPS use and geocaching (, and the participants proceeded to search for three geocaches in the park.  They learned what a “taperline” in Australia is, which helped them find one of the geocaches.  (Look up “taperline” and “Australia” in Google to find out for yourself!)

Looking down into Hyde Park
from 45 stories above Sydney

IMG_5587_HydePark.JPGAfter the fun of geocaching, our GPS walk continued to Sydney Harbor, which, historically, served as a working port for exporting Australian manufactured goods.  Sydney Harbor has been undergoing a metamorphosis to become an urban center housing fantastic hotels, dwellings, and world-class displays of all Australia has to offer.  The Circular Quays and Sydney Harbor area is a wonderful amalgamation of botanical gardens, ocean aquaria, Australian animal encounters, harbor tours, and the iconic Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point.


Sydney‘s Harbor
Bridge lends its
signature architecture to the harbor skyline


We also walked along the area known as The Rocks, the first white
settlement in  Australia, whose name was derived from the rocky
sandstone soil found in the area.  We weren’t sure which picture to
take first with the breathtaking and iconic vistas at every step, but
we did the best we could.  Winter night came early and we walked up
George Street to partake in our first really Australian meal in the
lovely, historic Queen Victoria Building (meat pies and sausage
rolls).Then we went back to our hotel, where I believe we were all in
bed and asleep by 7:00 p.m.!

Below: Pascal, measuring gravestone
erosion to enter later into the inaugural start of the EarthTrek project

IMG_5739_WoronoraCemetary.JPGOn day two, after a typical
Australian breakfast complete with grilled tomatoes, we boarded a bus
to begin our exploration of the Sydney Basin geology.  Our first stop
was at Woronora Cemetery, where we were all schooled in The Gravestone
Project, one of the investigations in GSA’s new worldwide Earthtrek
program ( We were all given calipers, which we used to
measure unique gravestones with lead lettering to monitor the rate of
erosion on the marble headstones.

Below: Eucalypts and coniferous
forests south of Sydney fill the Royal National
Park’s landscape

IMG_5752_RoyalNatlPark.JPGAfter our work in this
amazing cemetery, we continued on down the road to explore the bedrock
of an extended part of what was once the Australian Shield.  As a result of the release of exterior pressures on all sides after the break up of Gondwana,
Sydney sits in a geologic basin that has been filled in with
sediments.  Some of these sediments include the few available coal
seams of the continent.  The great Western Range raises the landscape
off in the distant west, and our trip to the edge of the basin required
us to travel through the Royal National Park forests that hem Sydney’s
growth to the south.  These beautiful hills contain thick stands of
Eucalypt, or “gum” trees, and a good mix of southern hemisphere
conifers.  As we drove up the sides of this gently climbing landscape,
the smells of eucalypt oils in the air provided a fresh, crisp sense of
the ancient continent around us.

Below: Bombo Beach,
between two basaltic headlands, collects sands pushed along by long shore drift
from South Australia

IMG_5827_Kiama.JPGAn hour or so into our
southward journey we emerged out of the forest cover to glimpse Bombo
Beach.  We stopped to do an EarthCache ( at Kiama Little
Blowhole, which was part of a massive volcano approximately 260 million
years ago. Unfortunately, the tides were out and we didn’t witness the
blowhole at its best, but we did, however, see a pod of whales right
off the shore!  From this vantage point we could see the layers that
had filled Sydney basin, which are steeply eroding into the sea.

south we could see the edge of Wollongong and its great industrial
port, which still uses the coal seams exposed at ocean’s edge to fire
the historic furnaces of iron production.  Looking off towards the
far-reaching horizon revealed dozens of supertankers taking their
production to its final market destinations.

On the edge of the Jamison
valley on Echo point, the Three Sisters formation watches over the river’s
eroding advance into this high plateau


IMG_5896_BlueMts.JPG IMG_5916_3Sisters.JPG
Day three took
us back on the road traveling to the historic city of Katoomba in the
breathtaking Blue Mountains.  We stood on Echo Point overlooking the
Jamison Valley, where we witnessed incredible vistas as well as the
Three Sisters rock formation.

IMG_6010_GreyKanga.JPGIt didn’t seem that we could
possibly see anything more that day that could top our time in the Blue
Mountains, but our next stop was to a field tucked off the road and–lo
and behold–there was a mob of Australian grey kangaroos! As we sat in
the field, several of the kangaroos dared to come very close to our
group.  It was a powerful moment to witness, yet again, another of
Australia’s mythical down-under marsupials.

Above: Ruslan looks on as a nursing grey kangaroo forages for

Our final
destination for the day was the Jenolan Caves, which are the world’s
oldest “discovered” open caves.  These limestone caves might be as old
as 340 million years!  Armstrong Osborne, a world-renowned karst
geologist, accompanied us on this day, and he explained the formation
of the immense and colorful stalactites, stalagmites, columns,
flowstone, shawls, pore and pool deposits with travertine edges. The
day ended with a delightful realization that such a wide variety of
landforms can be composed from sedimentary processes.  We will long
remember Sydney Basin, formed and sculpted from the deposits of time.

Group descending into a great
opening of the Jenolan Caves of the Blue Mountains

Our next installment will take you to the wet tropics and Great Barrier Reef.

One thought on “Earth Science Explorations Down Under

  1. A nice description. Latitude of Sydney is 34 S, not 26 S. A US equivalent (on the east coast) would be south of Baltimore.

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