April 5 - Darwin

The American Museum of Natural History currently has an exhibit on show dedicated to the life of Charles Darwin. It is fitting that we are here, in Darwin in the Northern Territory, continuing his work, after a fashion. If you have yet to see the exhibit, it's certainly worth the time as it is peppered with both the doggedness of his intellect and the poignancy of his life.

We arrived on the morning flight having to change our clocks back a half an hour. There are several half-hour-off time zones in the world, Newfoundland and Darwin among them. One wonders whether the precision of a half an hour really means so much when the amount of daylight inches along from day to day. But then here, in the tropics it does not. And tropics it is. The hot, humid air grasps at your throat as you exit the plane. We'd rather walk naked in this sauna than have a layer of clothing between us and any breeze. We don't though.

The "Top End", as this part of Oz is known, was recently popularized in the "Crocodile Dundee" movies filmed in Kakadu National park an hour and and a half to the East. Without commenting on the verisimilitude of the movie genre, we'll admit that our thoughts are dominated by what we do know about the bush here. It is dangerously beautiful. Lush jungles, untamed expanses ("untamed" is a a lousy term - it somehow implies that the area should be tamed), and, quite frankly, just seething with crocdiles, adders, vipers, cobras, pythons and spiders.

After arrival we acquired our new 4WD vehicle (brand spanking new too, and gleaming white for the moment), sped off to Palmerston to the local government offices to get our permits. Though often beaurocratically laborious, permits are critical to our work. The average person off the street could probably get away with collecting leeches from their boots and take them home. Because we intend to work on them scientifically, because we must (legally and in our own hearts) respect the heritage of any country we work in, including its biodiversity... we jump through the thousand hoops to get expressed written permission to collect our targets. On top of this, we make sure we have export permits from the country of origin and import permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of this usually gets sorted out prior to the trip, but sometimes, like today, we pick it all up in person.

Our first locality here, and the most important, is Holmes Jungle, remarkably close on the edge of the ever-expanding Darwin suburbs. And yet there it is... the type-locality for Neoterrobdella australis. The rains only just stopped this morning, and those after several days. So into the bush we went. We were immediately struck by the contrast with the temperate rainforsts of the South. Here we are hot. Here we are pestered by mosquitoes. Here there are snakes. We see none in the flesh, but their skid marks in the dirt underfoot are unmistakable.

Throwing a little caution to the wind, we dispense with our concern for the snakes and leave the trail so as to kick over logs and debris on the wet forest floor. It's important, where there are snakes, to step on logs and then off them, never step over logs. Most snakes will slither away when they sense you are near. But the catch is, they need to sense that you are near, notwithstanding that their eyesight and hearing are lousy. Heavy footfalls and avoidance of large logs are the rule.

With no success, and throwing more caution to the wind, we work our way down intermittent streams to a d eepriver running through the center of the forest. The river is murky and green. Juli, presciently, intervenes with "You can't see the crocodiles under the surface. This isn't worth it. Back away from the edge. Now please!"

We were an hour into the hike, not expecting anything (it's been so long without leeches now), and heading out of the woods when Mark feels an itch on his left foot. We'd been munched badly already by mosquitoes so no one was really paying attention to itches. But Mark's wouldn't go away as we walked. There's a lot of stuff that gets down your boot in a jungle, and much of it can itch so there's a tendency to just ignore it and complete the task at hand. Still, Mark stopped just to scratch an old bite aggravated by socks rubbing. Prying aside the top of his boot, his sock was visibly soaked with blood, with a small leech reclined motionless like some gluttonous Tudor King after a huge meal. It had fed right through Mark's sock. Twenty minutes later he felt another on the same ankle. Fantastic! It's always best to have 2. One for dissections and one for DNA work.

Still, the two were small and neither might be mature enough to warrant the morphological work. We resolved to return here in a a day or two, piled our weary selves into the vehicle and aimed for Darwin.

Sweaty, hot, and tired, we drove back to town. The mozzies had done a number on us, finding every bit of exposed skin, and more. They'd even managed to pierce our shirts for a meal. For every real itch there was a phantom itch. And yet for at least one phantom itch, it was real. Barreling down the Stuart Highway, Mark leaned forward to allow a good scratch at that inacessible spot on everyone's back where you know you can't reach... but the itch got more intense. We surely looked ridiculous to other drivers as Liz reached up under the back of Mark's shirt at 80 km/h and plucked a nice sized Neoterrobdella australis off the top of his back!

We've been here less than a day and our objective is complete.

Lichfield tomorrow for species new to science we hope!.