Smokey sunny day in Hobart

I arrived yesterday afternoon in Hobart, where it has been unexpectedly hot and dry all summer. It looks shockingly like California in summer, with dry yellow grassy slopes amid the green eucalyptus, and it shouldn’t; it should be green and grassy, but the city had it’s hottest day on record this summer (42 deg C) and you may have read about the fires here in the news. A video went viral not long ago of three kids and their grandmother, taken by their grandfather, sheltering at the end of a long dock in the water as fire raged around them — not far to the south here.

So you can imagine my alarm when I awoke at around 3 am this morning to the intense acrid smell of fire. It was nothing to worry about, but the wind had shifted to carry smoke from a fire just over the mountain. I checked ABC for updates and went back to sleep.

With the smell of smoke in the air and a slight haze, I spent a leisurely morning, reading and drinking coffee on a restaurant patio near my housing at the university, and then met my friend and her colleague for a jaunt up “The Mountain,” more formally known as Mt. Wellington. We climbed into the geologist’s little red car and zoomed up the two-lane road, stopping abruptly at fine outcrops.

I took a ton of photos, but I forgot the cord to transfer photos from my camera, so you will have to take my descriptions and imagine the outcrops: of a giant butter yellow sandstone boulder pitted by salt and stained with iron oxides (rust); of layers of dolerite, which is a hard intrusive rock that does not erode easily, and so makes up a tough part of the landscape, including a strewn “boulder stream” that looks like a giant’s pebbles and the Organ Pipes, tall columns of rock that wall the mountainside, as well as these popsicle-shaped rocks taller than a person that are propped up in clumps at the top of the mountain; of peat (!) layers that soak up water atop the dolorite and send it flowing in seeps like waterfalls at certain points.

All of these rocks tell the story of how Tasmania was once sandwiched between Australia and the Antarctic, millions of years ago when a huge supercontinent dominated the planet: Gondwanaland. The plants that remain are remnants of that time too, a reminder of what it was like before Antarctica pushed south. The eucalyptus also tell the story of what is beneath, with different species favoring different soils derived from the rocks, some of which are more acidic. It was a great fieldtrip, filled with geology, natural history, and history.

Throughout it all, the smoke came and went, and smoke from a second fire joined the sky. Even so, we could see most of the city and got a bit of a history tour from the peak as well: on a clear day we would have been able to see to the convicts’ island to the south, where the worst were trapped, naturally barricaded by ocean and sharks to the south, and dogs and walls to the north. We could see the zinc smelter, old Cascade beer brewery, and more below, as well as remnants of the rock cairn above from the mid-1800s and photos of old Hobartians who made the ascent in snow and Victorian clothing.

Behind all of our geologicking was Darwin, who was first to figure out the rocks and their relationships here when the Beagle landed in bustling Hobart back in 1836, when it was still Hobartville and capital of Van Diemen’s Land. Darwin noted similarities between rocks here and in Tierra del Fuego — a sign of similar processes from glaciation — a weird concept to people back then, given the temperate climate here. He never published this and other geologic observations, fearing he would have been challenged by religious folk who could not stomach the idea of a very old earth, that changed a lot and was not created perfectly by God the first time around. Meanwhile, my modern-day companions marveled over his perceptive observations; he was pretty spot on.

After lunch at a cafe at the bottom of the mountain, my friend and I headed downtown to see the beautiful sandstone cathedral. She has been there for services, and despite the ornate wooden carvings and stained glass, the apse and the tiny towerlike pulpit, typical for preaching in any large beautiful English cathedral, the priest is down in the audience in jeans and playing his guitar, she said.

A quick trip to the Royal Society of Tasmania on the backside of the art and natural history museum, closed for renovations, sadly, but a nice employee snuck into the bookstore to pick up two copies of Charles Darwin in Hobart Town for us. Then back to Sandy Bay neighborhood to the local butcher. Supper included lamb sausages and wallaby burgers. Yum! I cannot describe the flavor quite, perhaps sweet and only slightly gamey — and delicious! So while I have yet to see a wallaby, I have eaten one.  And on a walk last night, we saw padimelons: tiny kangaroos that are about knee high.  I wanted to bounce up and down like a padimelon with excitement every time we came across one. I will never eat one of those, as delicious as their name might sound.

I will try to post pictures later. Tomorrow: MONA…

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