When asked, “What’s the place that changed you?” most of my mind travels to a far off land – Australia. The place sometimes feels like it’s something I’ve dreamed up because it’s so different from home, but in January of 2016, I boarded a plane and, after three flights and more than 24 hours of travel, I arrived in Cairns, Australia. Disoriented from the intense time change, and sweaty and frizzy from the humidity, I met the 19 people I would be spending every waking moment with for the next three months.
My study abroad experience consisted of hands-on field research in the rainforest of Australia. We lived on a field station in the heart of the remote rainforest up in the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland. Our site was located off of the Gillies highway, which zig-zags up and down the mountains of the area, and was a 10-minute bumpy drive on an access road through cleared rainforest.
The land is a part of the protected Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and the traditional land of the aboriginal Mandingalbay Yidinji people. The closest town to our site was Yungaburra, with a population of a little more than 1,000. We became very familiar with the town through community outreach events, tree plantings and the Yungaburra markets held on the fourth Saturday of every month. This was the only place we could access the internet on our phones to call home. In addition, we stayed with homestay families for a short period of time and continued to interact with them at these events.
Research in the Rainforest
The day-to-day of life in the rainforest was action-packed with our classes, field trips and community engagement. Our classes included Rainforest Ecology, where we learned about the flora and fauna surrounding us and the dynamic relationships between them. Another class was Principles of Forest Management, where we learned theories and skills necessary for resource development and the restoration of the environment from human-induced damage.
There was also the course, Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values, where we learned the social complexities of rainforest resource management. A major project for this class was conducting interviews about ecotourism in the nearby town of Kuranda. In the area, we became very involved in the community through service. We acted as an engaged partner with many community groups committed to the wellbeing of the rainforest and its organisms. Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands Inc. hosted many tree plantings where we worked with community members and citizen volunteers under the grueling sun to restore and replant areas where the rainforest had been cut down for agriculture, which was always followed by a traditional Australian “barbie.”
Working side by side, we gained a local perspective of our environment and became integrated into the social fabric of the community. Furthermore, we worked with Landcare, Tablelands National Park Volunteers and the Tree Kangaroo and Mammal Group by doing service and attending community lectures.
The second part of our studies involved directed research projects under our professors. My directed research project focused on secondary succession in forests. My work in the field included measuring stand basal area, stem density and aboveground biomass. More specifically, my research was into the carbon storage dynamics and vegetation structure of secondary forests in the wet tropics of Far North Queensland. Translated into more basic language, I compared the amount of carbon stored in secondary forests, rainforests that have experienced regrowth after a destructive event such as clear-cutting, to that of old-growth primary forests, which have never been significantly disturbed. Other projects included observing the behavior or mapping the habitat of Lumholtz tree kangaroos. Another group did research interviewing people about indigenous tourism.
Snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef & Camping in the Outback
Beyond our site and the Atherton Tablelands, we went on many influential field trips. Most memorable was snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef. Learning about the coastal and reef management issues, and then seeing the impacts of the many threats to the reef in the bleaching of the coral, really gave our studies and efforts more gravity. It is hard to describe how amazing it was to peer into this underwater world full of vibrant colors and such abundant biodiversity where everything is alive and constantly changing.
Another field trip we went on was the opposite of the reef; we went inland to the Outback. We camped out in Chillagoe and explored the caves, rock formations and eucalypt savannas of the Outback. We also traveled to some of the oldest rainforests in the world in Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation. In addition, we learned about coastal management practices and visited the native Mandingalbay Yidinji country with Aboriginal rangers.
An Appreciation of the World Around Me
Though cliché, my experience in the rainforest of Australia forever changed my view of the world around me. While not the traditional “semester abroad” travelling throughout Europe and absorbing the art and culture that has been built there, I gained a deep appreciation of the natural Earth and the wonders that God has created. I deeply miss the spontaneity and adventurousness of exploring the rainforest and the sense of community I gained with the people I lived with there. My intense curiosity for discovering and learning about the world around me was cultivated and expanded through this experience. Most importantly, however, this experience perpetuated the values first instilled in me at Oak Knoll. While leaving the rainforest was sad, and reflecting upon it has induced a heavy nostalgia, my experience in Australia has left me excited for the adventures that lie ahead.
Allison Ricciardi ’13 graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine in the spring of 2017.