Ah, how the science of language confounds us. Three words, two feelings. At least that’s how it is for me.
The first word speaks of mystery, magic and a heart fluttering chemistry. Termites, meanwhile, tell tales of corrosion, erosion and an itchy sense of unease at the sound of scuttling in the night. And then there’s “mound,” which barely bothers to register as a word in its own right at all.
Magnetic termite mounds. This unlikely trio of words bounced around my head on the drive to Litchfield Park, Northern Territory.
I didn’t feel terribly excited.
But when they weren’t bouncing around, they were flashing past on road signs and gliding along beside me. Magnetic termite mounds, magnetic wormite clowns, magnetic marmite crowns…
I was jetlagged and tired.
The earth turned rust red while the sky scratched deep into the blue pools in my eyes. Grass scrubbed the land and burning dust scrubbed my lungs.
I walked from the car and followed the voices. Children, adults, bloggers, guides. All dwarf-like amid house-high cartoonesque mounds.
Yes, termite mounds. Solid, towering termite mounds.
But they weren’t the ones I was after. For while they were indeed termite mounds, they were not magnetic.
Nor, it turns out disappointingly, are the ones that carry the name.
When I found them, these slender grey tombstones that rise from the earth, my buzzing mental chatter fell quiet.
One after the other, knife edge to knife edge, flat shadow to flat shadow, they stretched across the ground, a graveyard of military ghosts. No wonder those early explorers called them magnetic, a field of upright needles aligned along a meridian of the sun.
But, as it turns out, magnets and magnetism have nothing to do with it. This arrangement is nature’s answer to the problem of termite air conditioning. By aligning themselves with the journey of the sun, these termites ensure that the temperature stays even over the course of the ferociously hot day and subsequent cold night.
Captivating. Beautiful. Cool. Dry
The words wriggled and raced no more. Instead, they fell into formation and fell into sense.
Magnetic termite mounds. One of nature’s greatest attractions.
Disclosure: I travelled to Litchfield Park with assistance from Tourism NT. As I’m sure you can gather from the way this piece is written, all views are my own.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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