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On the Road: An Expedition to Australia

On-the-Road

The Pliomax team enters the Nullarbor Plains, about half way across southern Australia.

photo by Daniel Grossman

 

Expedition to Oz (click on the stars to learn more)

australia-map

Melbourne

The expedition begins

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Naracoorte Sand Mine

A day in a quarry

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Murray River

A cliff scramble

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Eucla

The first promising finds

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Madura Roadhouse

A Pliocene-era beach 87 feet above current sea level

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Perth

Back to civilization

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Exmouth

The search continues, on the west coast

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Norwegian Bay

A mysterious crater

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One-The-Road_Sink-Hole

Pliomax team searches a limestone sinkhole for fossils.

 

One-The-Road_Termite-Mounds

Termite mounds dot the landscape near Exmouth.

In early July 2009, 4 members of the Pliomax team assembled in Melbourne, Australia. They rented two 4-wheel-drive vehicles suitable for outback travel. They secured a gas-operated, hollow drill for cutting stone samples, and a super-precise GPS, nearly 100 times more accurate than consumer models used in cars. After visiting colleagues at the University of Melbourne, they set off on a road trip that would take them about 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) around Australia’s southern and western coasts.

The team spent a day exploring a limestone quarry in the town of Naracoorte, located in one of Australia’s wine regions. Later testing showed that fossils they found there predated the Pliocene by millions of years. They scrambled over an escarpment above the Murray River. This site also proved disappointing. They skirted the sprawling cargo hub of Port Augusta. Then, heading directly west, they reached the Nullarbor Plain, a 1000-kilometer (650-mile)-wide, nearly treeless prairie.

The researchers hit pay dirt on a flat, crescent-shaped region called the Roe Plains. There, in quarries and pits left from road building, they found shells and corals that they later dated as Pliocene. After several days of sampling, they proceeded to Perth, on Australia’s west coast, where they repaired and replaced malfunctioning equipment, and packed up their first batch of samples.

From Perth, they drove over 1100 kilometers (700 miles) north to the Cape Range National Park, a popular destination for outback travelers. There they explored an intriguing depression of mysterious origin, possibly a crater or a sinkhole. They hiked past tall termite mounts, up hills and bluffs overlooking the Indian Ocean. Far above sparkly cresting waves, they discovered fossilized corals, marking an ancient shoreline. One giant coral measured several feet across. They broke samples off with rock hammers and cut thumb-size plugs of rock with their power drill. They visited more stone quarries and pits left from road building. These fossils later turned out not to be of Pliocene age. After 3 weeks on the road, the researchers drove back down to Perth and flew home.