Category Archives: Travel

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond

Apologies for the temporary blog outage–the media coverage was intense and the attention it brought too personal for my taste.  Hopefully we can stay up and running now.

We’ve packed everything up, provisionally.  Most everyone from our team has left now.  I took a few days away up in muggy Darwin.  It was a pleasant diversion to see some colors other than red!  Some pictures below.

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Broadening Our Range

Spending too much time in the hangar can be stressful.  To maintain some perspective, we try to take one day off a week.  Today, we used our rest day for a Tour of the HebridesEast MacDonnell Ranges.  We piled in our vehicles around noon and headed east on the Ross Highway.  The weather was comfortably warm and the skies were clear, making for a pleasant day to travel.  Fly nets, however, were de rigueur throughout the day…

Our first stop, a mere 16 km out of town, was the Emily Gap.  On its sheer rock faces were well-preserved Aboriginal paintings.  With the recent rains, we found to our surprise that wading was part of the order of the day.

Fording the stream.

Emily Gap.

Aboriginal paintings.

Big rocks!

Alan is impressed.

Heading back out.

Not far up the road was Jessie’s Gap, a similar cut through the range.  (This one left me humming, though.)

Jessie Gap

Looking through.

I'm guessing this is often much drier...

Incredible rock layering.

Further afield, we stopped at Corroboree Rock, a strange outcropping sacred to the Aboriginal people.  Frequently we found ourselves wishing we knew more about geology!

Coroboree Rock.

Taking it in.

As we neared our final destination, the road became increasingly interesting.  The two-lane sealed road became a single lane.  (When encountering oncoming traffic, you have to drive with one wheel on the gravel shoulder, taking care that thrown rocks don’t break your windshield!)  After the turnoff to Trephina Gorge Park, the road was mostly gravel, and we had to ford a couple of (very low) streams!

The payoff was immense, though, as the hike through the gorge was magnificent.  After some initial confusion about trailheads, we established that the trail led right through the shallow river.  We once again peeled off our boots and waded in.  We took our time savoring the beautiful red and purple rock faces and the cool water before turning and heading back for home–only an hour’s drive!  Really, it was a spectacular experience of the Red Centre.

Trephina Gorge.

Gorge, us.

Hello, Alice!

Today was the last leg of the road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs–the longest by mileage (kilometerage?) and in some ways the toughest.  Word was this morning the Stuart Highway was clear to Alice Springs after last night’s rain, so we got an early start from Coober Pedy.  Rain showers slowed us on much of the way, though, and spray from the road trains made those frightening encounters even more intense.  The scrubby brush of the outback was much less interesting to my eye, although perhaps I was already anticipating our arrival into Alice Springs.

A full-sized, three trailer road train.

Rainy outback.

At about 3:30, we pulled up to the new CSBF hangar at the Alice Springs airport.  Some familiar faces from the New Mexico campaign were on hand to help us unload, and then Tony and I headed into town to settle in.  The torrential rains–some of the heaviest in a decade–are continuing, and the Todd River–virtually always bone dry–has actually flooded.  I learned that last night a man was tragically swept away by the river here.  There’s a chance the flood might cut off the airport tomorrow, which would complicate matters a bit.

Pulling up to the new CSBF balloon facility!

The Todd River flooding in The Gap.

Our container with the rest of our equipment is still en route–ETA early next week–and the other students and engineers will be trickling in starting Monday.  It feels like such an accomplishment getting the instrument here, but it’s just the beginning of our efforts!  For the time being, then, I’m going to rest from the journey and get settled in here in the Alice.

On the Road, Day Three: Into the Outback

Another successful day is complete, but there’s potential trouble on the horizon.  We got an early start today, topping off NCT with liquid nitrogen at sunrise in Burra.  The morning’s drive through South Australia was again quite pretty, with lots of golden rolling hills of harvested wheat.  I caught some cell and Internet signal again on the road into Port Augusta.  On checking the weather, I learned that tonight has potential for heavy rains and flash flooding near Alice Springs.

An early morning LN2 fill in Burra

More great fields.

With that information in hand, Tony and I stopped in Port Augusta and got tarps to cover the load.  After an early lunch break, we turned north and almost immediately were headed into the outback.

Starting our journey into the outback.

Even after the wide-open spaces we’ve seen thus far, the afternoon’s drive was an eye-opener.  We often drove for 20 minutes without passing a single car, and even the most minimal settlements were as much as 250 km distant–near the limits of our gas tank!  We met a number of the extremely intimidating “road trains”–semis pulling as many as three full sized trailers at 100+ km/hr.  Much of the scenery has been fairly unappealing scrubby brush, but there were some remarkable salt flats.  (One other interesting feature throughout the drive has been the rather emphatic signs encouraging drivers to rest and avoid accidents.   “Stop/Revive/Survive” and “Drowsy Drivers Die” certainly get one’s attention.)

Salt flats along the Stuart Highway

Rain over Coober Pedy.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we were eyeing rain clouds on the horizon, but we reached our stopping point without incident.  We’re staying in Coober Pedy, a funky little opal mining town that is somehow on the tourist track.  (Still no Vodafone reception, though, leaving me to pay extortion rates here at our [otherwise nice] Mud Hut Motel.)  It’s windy but not uncomfortable here today, but apparently it is often so hot that many of the buildings (motels, churches, etc.) are built underground!

The Underground Catholic Church

The Big Winch, Coober Pedy

We’ll check the road conditions tomorrow after the rain passes and proceed accordingly.  Hopefully my next update will have dateline: Alice Springs!

On the Road, Day Two

Another smooth day’s drive is behind us.  Today we left New South Wales, cut through a corner of Victoria, and ended up in South Australia.  Along the way there was some truly astonishing scenery–wheat fields from horizon to horizon, gently striped from harvest; vineyards and orchards; and seemingly endless expanses of purple scrubby brush.  Even driving back from New Mexico last year didn’t prepare me for the sheer scale of the openness here.  Quick snapshots out the dirty window of a moving ute won’t do it justice, even if they will help me remember the trip.  Still, if we stopped to take a decent photo of everything I thought looked interesting we’d still be in Sydney!

The truck at sunrise, South Hay, NSW.

It's hard to capture the magnificence of these great plains/planes.

We ended the day’s drive in Burra, a small mining town nestled among rolling golden hills.  The charming stone buildings of the central district date back more than a century.  We’re staying in a pub, which in the Aussie sense is a combination of restaurant, bar, and hotel.  The food continues to be hearty, tasty, and interesting–particularly impressive given we’re far enough off the beaten track that I don’t have an ounce of cell mobile reception.  (Hope I don’t regret going with Vodafone…)

A magestic old church in Burra, SA.

From the balcony of the Hotel Burra.

Tomorrow, we turn north into the outback.  Our target is Coober Pedy; if all goes according to plan we’ll reach the Alice the following day!

I’m Upside Down!

(Also, what happened to Tuesday?)

Today, the cryostat and I arrived in Sydney aboard the same United 747 from SFO.  After a brief pause in the airport to grab a mobile phone and a wireless broadband card, I took a taxi over to our shipping agent, Concordia International.  They had the cryostat already waiting for me, so I topped off the instrument with liquid nitrogen to ensure the detectors stayed cold.  Then we loaded the instrument crate and a spare cylinder of LN2 in a utility truck (or “ute”).  Then Tony, our driver, and I piled in to begin the four day drive to Alice Springs!

Harry from Concordia has managed the shipping to perfection.

Despite my jet lag, I really enjoyed the scenery today as we drove out of Sydney through New South Wales.  Beautiful green rolling hills gave way to vineyards and then to plains reminiscent of my home state of Illinois–although there we don’t have corn ready for harvest in February!  We’ve stopped for the night in Hay and grabbed a bite to eat at the local pub.

Rolling hills in NSW.

Corn ready for harvest!

Tomorrow: more driving!  Word is our sea container is already on the rail journey and will be there shortly after we arrive.

Wrapping Up

A few pictures and notes from the final stages of the balloon campaign…

Recovery

NCT landed upright on a steep hillside several hard miles from the nearest road, so CSBF’s normal recovery trucks were unable to reach it.  Thankfully, CSBF was able to locate a heavy-lift helicopter to extract the gondola, so McBride, Daniel, and Zhong-Kai worked with CSBF to remove the heavy batteries and solar panels so the gondola could be lifted out.  Daniel’s great pictures of the operation are here and here.  The landing bent several bars on the gondola and squished CSBF’s communication electronics pretty badly, but our detectors and electronics made it through intact.  Since the gondola landed upright, the detectors even stayed cold, as the liquid nitrogen didn’t leak out!

Packing

We launched on a Sunday and landed on Monday; due to the difficult recovery, NCT didn’t return to Ft. Sumner until Friday afternoon.  By that point we were all itching to head home, so after some frenzied bubble-wrapping and boxing we left the hangar for good at 5:00 pm on Saturday.

NCT's triumphant return!

NCT's triumphant return!

Unwrapping...

Unwrapping...

The skeletal gondola.

The skeletal gondola.

Ready to go home...

Ready to go home...

The engineers have left the building.

The engineers have left the building.

Returning to Berkeley

Daniel and I drove the two Budget trucks back to Berkeley over Sunday to Tuesday.  It was a pretty drive along 40, with lots of great Southwestern scenery and nostalgic Route 66 kitsch.  Highlights included stops at the Petrified Forest and the Meteor Crater.  Daniel got a flat tire and I saw a scary accident, but on the whole it was a smooth trip back.

On the road!

On the road!

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Holbrook, AZ.

Holbrook, AZ.

Old 66 Trading Post and Independent Baptist Church

Old 66 Trading Post and Independent Baptist Church

The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert

"Teepees," Petrified Forest

"Teepees," Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest

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DSCF6484

"Sleep in a Wigwam!"

"Sleep in a Wigwam!"

Lunch at a great 1930s railroad hotel, Winslow, AZ

Lunch at a great 1930s railroad hotel, Winslow, AZ

Meteor Crater!

Meteor Crater!

View from the Meteor Crater towards Flagstaff, AZ

View from the Meteor Crater towards Flagstaff, AZ

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Welcome to California!

Welcome to California!

Garlic trucks!

Garlic trucks!

Glad to be home.

Glad to be home.

Final Reflections

NCT's flight path.

NCT's flight path.

With some lucky wind shifts, NCT was able to ride what could have been a short 8-hour flight into one of the longest flights ever launched from Ft. Sumner.  We had some challenges with our pointing and power systems in flight, but problems are to be expected in any experimental program of this size.  We got a lot of great data and have improvements in mind.  Despite the difficult recovery, NCT came back in great shape, and we’re already preparing for the next flight.

On the whole, our time in New Mexico was a great success.  Hard work, experience, and plenty of fortuity produced a nearly ideal outcome.  Along the way, we learned some things about ballooning and plenty about ourselves, and hopefully soon we’ll dig into the data and learn a bit more about the universe.  It’s good to be home, but I’m glad to have shared this experience with such talented colleagues.

We are tremendously grateful for the support of all of the CSBF personnel.  Particular thanks are due to Bill Stepp, CSBF’s head of operations, and Frank Candelaria, the crew chief, for their calm and capable management.  Speaking for myself, I was genuinely inspired by the professionalism, skill, and good humor exhibited by the CSBF personnel throughout the campaign.