Creatures From the Land Down Under

Life in the Australian Rainforest

THE yellow-bellied robin is always the first bird to wake in the mornings in the rainforests of northeastern Australia. Its singular call is soon echoed by a chorus of others--the screech of cat birds, the gunfire of Macleay's honeyeater and sometimes the eerie laugh of the kookaburra.

The raucous clamor is soon followed by the rising of the sun. It comes up quickly on the southern continent, since it is so close to the equator. Under the dense canopy of rainforest, it is hardly noticed--just a gradual lifting of the grey understorey dimness.

However faint the sunrise was, I appreciated it. I have not seen too many sunrises in my life--certainly not many sober, or after just waking. And I had never watched one while taking an exam at five in the morning.

But this morning, 23 students crouched together on the floor of the rainforest, listening for the different birds we had to identify by call for the quiz.

"That bird has got to be the only one on Earth with lips," said Meg in her soft Southern accent, breaking our own bleary silence amidst the din. The wompoo pigeon--named for its distinctive call--had just flown over our heads.


I laughed.

"I can't wait to write home and tell them about this one," Meg continued. We had discovered we had a mutual tendency to oversleep. "I don't know why I came all the way to Australia to miss out on sleep. I could have done that at home," she muttered into her exam.

In fact, I had been wondering the same thing. What in the world was I doing there? The question came to my mind many times in that first week of classes last semester--as I adjusted to living in a tent, showering outdoors and attending lectures on a sand bank.

AS an English concentrator, I couldn't help feeling that my presence in the rainforest was a little random. The group of American students had gathered there through The School for Field Studies--based in Beverly, Mass.--to study forest ecology, population biology and to conduct research. Most were science or environmental studies concentrators. I worried at first that I had no business there.

But I quickly decided not to worry about the academic logic of my semester abroad and to just enjoy the beauty of the rainforest and the incredible opportunity that I had. I was enjoying myself too much to really care whether I had made a mistake in coming.

We lived in tents in an old fruit orchard, nearly surrounded by the school's own plot of rainforest and next to a national park. There was one building on the site, with a kitchen, and that was where the professors (from nearby James Cook University) lived. A tarped-off area next to it, filled with rickety green tables, served as our study area.

We collected rain and dew off the roof of the building to drink and bathed every other day in water from a little stream close to the camp. Clumpy, grey porridge was the standard for breakfast, which we quickly learned to dread. In the morning we attended lectures in the bush, while the afternoons were free for personal research.

One morning in the middle of lecture, Alex, another student in the program, noticed a muddy cloud in the stream. A few minutes later, a duck-billed platypus emerged from his burrow on the bank and swam slowly past us all, as he nudged the stream bed for food.

The class sat still and shocked.

Another morning, as we headed out to a new lecture hall--so as to not disturb the platypus--we found an amethystine python sunning itself on the path. Our professor picked it up, by standing on the snake's head so it could not strike at him, and we measured it. The opalescent-skinned creature was nearly 5 meters long.