All aflutter

There’s a lot of “mobbing” going on – noisy miners mobbing the local goanna as well as other birds, kookaburra tribes mobbing each other or snakes, and everything mobbing wedge-tailed eagles high in the sky. Well, it’s spring and nests need defending.

We have a couple of Torresian crows (Corvus orru) nesting in our big hoop pine. They seem to come back every year and are very chatty to each other whether they are together or apart.

A couple of days ago we heard them anxiously cawing, as well as the loud wing flaps as they zoomed back and forth. We dashed outside and saw them flanking a large bird that looked very much like a white version of themselves. They shepherded this bird for a few minutes, calling loudly all the while, and the three flew off over the paddock after a while.

I googled “white crow”, thinking it might be an albino, and came across this article from 2015: “WIRES says rare white crow has high chance of survival”

Apparently WIRES (one of the local wildlife caring organisations) was treating an underweight white crow that couldn’t fly:

At first the crow was thought to be albino, but due to some coloration on his beak and feathers it was later found that he was leucistic.

[A WIRES spokesperson] said leucism is a form of partial albinism.

‘They are very, very rare,’ she said.

‘We’ve never actually seen an albino or a white crow before and probably only once every few years would we see an albino anything.

‘It is a very rare event so we’re all quite excited about him.’

The local newspaper, The Echo, similarly reported:

[A WIRES spokesperson] said the young crow was actually ‘leucistic’ … that is, with blue eyes, pink beak and feathers that are not completely white.

‘True albinism is caused by a complete lack of melanin, the naturally occurring pigment that gives colour to the skin, feathers, hair and eyes,’ she said.

‘Vertebrates with albinism are not only white (or sometimes pale yellowish) in colour but they also have very pale eyes, often pink or red in colour as the blood vessels show through.

‘Leucism, on the other hand, is a partial loss of pigmentation, which can make the animal have white or patchily coloured skin, hair, feathers and so on, but the pigment cells in the eyes are not affected by the condition.

‘In this case, our white crow’s eyes are blue. Few albino or leucistic animals survive into adulthood in the wild, most often due to eyesight problems or harassment by other birds.’

The articles each have a photo but in case you don’t want to click on the links, this photo of a leucistic carrion crow (Corvus corone, an European crow) will give you an idea of the colouring.

Leucistic carrion crow (photo by Kanohara, Wikimedia Commons)

I like to think that it’s the same crow, seven years older and hale and hearty. WIRES weren’t the only ones to be excited.

While I’m on the topic of crows, ours keep bringing food to wash in our big birdbath – slices of bread, bits of chicken, even pasta, presumably sourced from one of the neighbours’ compost heaps.

I think our crows have also learned how to safely eat cane toads. Many other birds have learned to avoid the poison sacs on the toads’ backs by flipping them over and attacking the belly. We found this corpse on the ground near the crow’s tree.

Eviscerated cane toad

They even washed the internal bits in the birdbath.

Crows 1, cane toads 0.

Pigface – native and non-native hybridisation

Yesterday on Sharpes Beach, Ballina, I had one of the more interesting conversations I’ve had with a random stranger. Peter Hardwick, according to his Linkedin page ‘wild food researcher, consultant, regenerative forager, native food research, feral food, zero input food, food ingredient invention, bushfood regeneration’, was photographing native pigface. I’d read about the hybridisation threat with introduced pigface and it was nice to meet the originator of that information. I’d never tasted the native pigface fruit before – sweet and salty at the same time.

Peter’s Facebook post (reproduced with permission)

The non-native Carpobrotus aequilaterus, angled pigface on the left with red stems and dark leaves, whereas the native pigface, Carpobrotus glaucescens, with the lighter coloured leaves is on the right.

Non-native pigface (left) compared with native (right) (photo by Peter Hardwick)

There’s a serious risk to the native pigface throughout Australia from hybridisation with the non-native pigface that have escaped from peoples gardens and from council plantings.

It so important to only plant the local native pigface from locally sourced stock.

Native pigface, Carpobrotus, are one of the best coastal bushfoods in Australia. But unfortunately, there’s an unseen threat to the survival of native pigface that comes from peoples’ gardens – introduced ornamental pigface are escaping and hybridising with the native pigface.

The problem of introduced non-native pigface going wild is widespread. In some places in South Australia researchers found that half of the Carpobrotus in the wild were hybrids with the non-native pigface. Hybrid pigface can also be vigorous and overwhelm the native pigface in their habitat.

Ultimately this could drive local native pigface into a kind of hybrid extinction. It also represents a loss of culture – pigface fruit is an important traditional food.

In Bundjalung country the pigface has a superb flavour – somewhat like salty kiwifruit. It would be a tragedy to lose that wonderful flavour profile and cultural feature from hybridisation with introduced pigface.

There needs to be an active campaign to save pigface and encourage people to only plant the local native variants. Some regeneration style native nurseries make a point of keeping the local pigface in stock. But also be careful of mislabelled plants.

One of the most popular cultivated pigface varieties which is labelled as native Carpobrotus glaucescens, but based on a number of features including the purple colour of the petaloid staminoides going right down to the base, it looks more like non-native C. aequilateris.

Non-native pigface are also easy to remove, but just make sure it’s identified correctly before removal, and replace with cuttings of the local native pigface. Pigface are very important sand dune stabilisers too.

It can get complex identifying what’s native and what’s non-native in some locations in Vic, SA, Tas, WA and NSW because there can be multiple native species of the pigface family in the same location. Good to get know the local native pigface species before removing anything.

Identifying and removing hybrids is going to be difficult because they have a mixture of native and non-native features. But there’s the hope that we will be able to tune in to the species so as we can work out what to remove and what to keep.

Peter’s later answers to questions in comments on his FB post

  • If you have white at the base of the petals it’s probably fine. Pale pink, but not white, at the base of the petals it’s most likely non-native. Red stems can occur on non-native and native, but some non-native Carpobrotus have very distinctive deep burgundy red stems.
  • You can eat the pulp of the fruit raw, but discard the astringent skin. The leaves can also be eaten, but my experience is that the leaves are usually too astringent to be eaten raw. I cook them in simmering water with a change of water.
  • Here’s a pic of Carpobrotus glaucescens, the main native east coast species. See the white base of the ‘petals’. Also, the native bee working the flower. Both native and introduced bees are major pollinators and will aid in pollen dispersal between plants.

Both native bees (like this one) and introduced bees are important pollinators. (Photo by Peter Hardwick)

  • This is non-native Carpobrotus aequilaterus, angled pigface. See how it’s consistently pink coloured all the way to the ‘petal’ base. This plant is growing very vigorously in a council park at Lennox Head.

Non-native Carpobrotus aequilaterus, angled pigface (photo by Peter Hardwick)

  • Sometimes I find the non-native pigface don’t develop fruit because they are hybrids. Also, I find that the non-natives are generally not as flavoursome.

Further reading

Carpobrotus in Australia:

http://bio.mq.edu.au/…/Plant–of–the–week–Carpobrotus…

Carpobrotus hybridisation in SA:

https://data.environment.sa.gov.au/…/CarpobrotusBrochur…

Carpobrotus hybridisation in WA:

https://library.dbca.wa.gov.au/…/FullTextF…/C20329.a.pdf

The Top End (part 14)

Day 10 – The Tiwi Islands

I normally like a nice 80 km boat trip to an island, but declined once again for health reasons.

Our information blurb said (among other things):

The Tiwi Islanders are culturally and linguistically distinct from mainland First Nations people. …

 

The Tiwi people have lived on their land for more than 40,000 years. It is believed that they conducted trade with Macassan merchants who sailed from South Sulawesi from the early 1700s until the early 1900s, and who interacted with First Australians on the mainland. They brought with them seed of tamarind trees (Tamarindus indicus), which have since naturalised.

From Kath

Day 10 of ‘The Top End’ trip was a day to remember. It was also the last day of our planned tour. We headed to the Tiwi Islands to meet with the Islanders, experience their culture through song and dance, and to literally get a hands-on art workshop experience with the very experienced artists of Tiwi Design.

We took 2.5 hours in a high-speed catamaran to cross the Beagle Gulf separating Darwin from the Tiwi (two) Islands, Bathurst and Melville. Unfortunately, some of our group suffered sea-sickness, due to being confined indoors. Those of us who ventured outside on the very windy deck fared better. There was a large group of over-55ers on board, and I met a few of them and we shared stories on the trip, there and back.

After arriving at the Wurrumiyanga Dock on the smaller Bathurst Island, we were met by our very knowledgeable and articulate Islander guides, who ensured we were safely herded around the island for the duration of our stay.

Vivian, the guide, explains the layout of the islands (photo by Bruce Moore)

We were given a formal welcome to country and cleansing smoking ceremony, before enjoying an interpretation of songs and dances (signifying local totems), performed by a large group of the Islanders. I found this experience both fascinating and heart-warming.

Setting up the fire for the smoking ceremony (photo by Bruce Moore)

Greeting dance (photo by Bruce Moore)

We were promised damper and we got it! Yum! Then it was our turn to try our hands at making our own silkscreen art. Gently guided by the experienced artists who work in the open air workshop of the famous Tiwi Design workshop and gallery, we all produced amazing works of art!

Getting set up for silk screening (photo by Bruce Moore)

Vivian guides the process (photo by Bruce Moore)

Jerry is happy with his result (photo by Bruce Moore)

Thuan created a crocodile shirt (photo by Bruce Moore)

Bruce’s crab (photo by Bruce Moore)

Joy says: I regretted not attending the workshop, but Linda very kindly made me a tea towel with a turtle – one of my favourite animals. (How did she know? At some stage I must have told her.) What a nice surprise, thanks, Linda!

Turtle tea towel; artist Linda Yamada (photo by Bruce Moore))

Back to Kath: We put them out to dry in the hot sun, and were led off to lunch – which was a five-star take-away lunch box! Next, we were taken on a short tour of the local island attractions: Tiwi Design gallery … 

Tiwi Design shop front (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Some of the pieces in the Tiwi Design gallery (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Some larger works (photo by Bruce Moore)

… the Patakijiyali Museum …

Information at the museum on Tiwi seasons, plants and animals (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Front of museum (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Photo by Kathy Pearce

and the Mission church …

Bathurst Island church interior (photo by Bruce Moore)

Photo by Bruce Moore

As with most return trips, the 2.5 hours went faster on the way back because we knew what to expect. We arrived back at Cullen Bay Marina, Darwin, pretty exhausted, but full of memories of this amazing day with the Tiwi.

Back to Joy

While the others were cavorting and creating art, I rested a bit more, then walked to Parliament House – I thought I’d spend some time at the state library there.

After passing a security check, I had a coffee at the café (my taste and smell were finally coming back after I so carelessly lost them on the first day of the trip) while waiting for the library to open. Naturally there was a great deal of material on places we had been and the history of the Territory to pore over, and that kept me occupied for a few hours.

I appreciated the quiet time to contemplate where I’d been and appreciate that I’d seen so much. I’m pleased to report that my health returned to normal soon after I got home.

Day 11 – Home

I spent the last morning chatting with Kath as it was the last time I would be seeing her for a while. Then we all piled onto the bus for the trip to the airport and home.

Moi getting into the research straight away (photo by Bruce Moore)

I was struck by this passage from Steve Morton, Australian Deserts: Ecology and Landscapes (2022, CSIRO Publishing, p. 243):

Australian desert country can be tough indeed, yet it reveals softer sides of itself in unpredictable moments of transcendence. It is not a chocolate-box beauty available on demand, but a rare offering to those with patience, and made more expressive and affecting because of vivid contrast with the usual austerity of the landscape. Being open to such moments can be a beginning for anyone who chooses to experience the Outback with unhurried appreciation. In all their immensity, and in their smallest details of natural history, the deserts await your exploration.

The Top End (part 13)

Day 9 – Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk National Park) and Top Didge

Another long day but at least not much walking was involved (I normally enjoy walking but my continuing poor health held me back this time). Woke at 5 am to pack (since we were going back to Darwin at the end of the day), have brekky and load our gear and ourselves onto the troopie. We had to arrive at the dawn cruise site before 6:30 am.

Katherine campsite breakfast tent at dawn (photo by Jerry Coleby-Williams)

Katherine tents at dawn (photo by Bruce Moore)

Dawn was still breaking on the way …

On the way to the dawn cruise (photo by Bruce Moore)

Early morning start at Katherine Gorge (photo by Bruce Moore)

Photo by Bruce Moore

Katherine Gorge (Indigenous name Nitmiluk = cicada place) was certainly memorable. Here’s an overview of the geology.

Illustration of the structure of the gorge

The wet season hadn’t been as wet as usual (south-east Queensland and Lismore had pretty much stolen it for our devastating floods in February and March), so the water level was lower than usual. We started off in a boat, had to transfer to land where the water had dropped too much, then back to a different boat for the length of the gorge.

Normally the region of these pools is well underwater.

There is a lot of ancient art in the park …

… although we saw only a couple of examples.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Salties don’t generally come up this far inland unless washed in by high floodwaters, but there are traps – as in the photo below – to catch them if they do. They are relocated to crocodile farms (where they are sometimes turned into leather products).

Saltwater crocodiles are caught to protect swimmers and kayakers.

The guide (whom Kathy actually knew from the past in Sydney, to the surprise of both) said that the salties that do make it this far inland are males looking for females in the wet, then getting trapped in pools when the water recedes.

Here’s our first freshie of the day.

Freshwater crocodile (photo by Bruce Moore)

Photo by Bruce Moore

Freshwater crocodiles nest in sand (as opposed to salties, who make a vegetation nest) – this is a known nesting spot, where the sun will warm the sand and keep the eggs at the proper temperature. The sign says “Crocodile nesting area. DO NOT ENTER”. This is more to protect the reptiles than the humans since freshwater crocs tend to run away. A human walking on a nest could destroy it, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Freshwater crocodile nesting area

About breeding:

The female digs a nesting hole in a sandbank close to a permanent body of water and lays an average of 20 eggs. Clutch size can vary from 4 to 30 eggs.

As with estuarine crocodiles, the temperature of incubation determines the sex of the hatchlings. An average temperature of 32 degrees C (89.6 F) will produce male hatchlings, while a slightly lower or higher temperature will result in female hatchlings.

The female does not protect her nest during incubation, and many eggs are taken by goannas and feral pigs. An early wet season can also cause flooding of the nest site, drowning the embryos. …

About 2½ months after laying her eggs, the female again starts to take an interest in the nest. When the hatchlings start calling from within the eggs, she will excavate the eggs and carry her young to the water in her mouth. She then stays close to her young to protect them for a variable period of time. Even so, only about 1 out of every 100 hatchlings survives to maturity.

Here’s our second freshie. You can see tracks in the sand on the top right.

Photo by Bruce Moore

More croc tracks …

Freshwater crocodile tracks

It slipped into the water to hide from us.

There were fewer birds than I expected – our guide said the birds were still out on the land because the water had not yet receded enough to drive them to the rivers and gorges. There was a lone Australasian darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae) drying its wings.

Darter (photo by Bruce Moore)

The guide mentioned that the Rainbow Serpent, Bolung, lives in a whirlpool at a particular bend in the river. I found it interesting that the First Nations people (who co-manage the park) don’t generally go into that section of the gorge or fish there, but are OK about non-Indigenous people going there. We had picked up a Jawoyn man who out of respect spoke to the serpent for us. You sure don’t want to get into trouble with the spirits of the land. (I am not joking when I say this.)

Photo by Bruce Moore

The cliffs have interesting geological forms, but photos do not do justice to them. You really have to be there.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

We came back the same way we went in.

Saying farewell to the gorge, we drove back through the township of Katherine and on to the Top Didg Cultural Experience.

Storyman Manuel Pamkal is a cheerful fellow – obviously a very experienced speaker who seems to enjoy teaching and is very good at it. He recalled his tribal life and life in the bush, and demonstrated a few traditional techniques.

Manual starting a fire in the traditional way (photo by Bruce Moore)

Easy when you know how!

Photo by Bruce Moore

He also workshopped the crowd in how to paint using traditional techniques.

Manuel describing different pieces of art that the audience were going to make (photo by Bruce Moore)

Art materials …

Careful guidance by Manuel (photo by Bruce Moore)

Thuan, being the creative sort that he is, did something a bit different …

Photo by Bruce Moore

Then there was spear-throwing practice – that kangaroo looks worried that Linda will have it for dinner.

Photo by Bruce Moore

It should have been more worried about Bruce, who did succeed in hitting it.

Bruce eyeing up the kangaroo (photo by Linda Yamada)

While waiting for the group to finish, I rested in the grounds. Lo and behold, another TICK – a grey-crowned babbler (Pomatostomus temporalis rubeculus). It’s listed as  moving around in groups and eating invertebrates and seeds, but this one was on its own and definitely eating fruit. Those darned birds just don’t read the textbooks to know what they are supposed to do.

Grey-crowned babbler

I also chatted to an interesting English couple on bicycles – they were both hospital workers who had taken contracts in Australia, Nepal and New Zealand (so far), moving on when they felt like it. They’d ridden out to Top Didg from their digs in Katherine on their day off and were about to ride back.

Kath caught a bug in the shop, but I’ve been unable to ID it. We weren’t startled by it – in fact admired it – but someone else looking at that shirt might have been. The shop owner relocated it outside. The shop had an extensive collection of First Nations art and clothing with patterns designed by local artists for sale.

I couldn’t resist this echidna painted on slate.

Painting of echidna

After a picnic lunch in the grounds, we headed north, dropping into Pine Springs to pick up Wendy’s purse much to her relief. The road trains were out in force since Pine Springs is on the main (indeed only) highway south.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Then we began the long drive to Darwin, arriving at about 5:45 pm. We helped Candice and Tom unload our gear at the same resort we had stayed in at the beginning of the trip.

I think I speak for all of us when I say Candice and Tom were superb guides. Optimistic and with high energy, up early every day to cook breakfast for 16, pack the truck with us and our supplies, drive long distances every day, provide picnic lunches, cook dinner for 16 every evening, all the while keeping us informed, and they were last away at night – probably exhausted but not showing it to us.

Tomorrow – the last excursion, the Tiwi Islands.

Windswept and interesting

A fine spring day at the beach – although windy – can often bring pleasant surprises. If you don’t go, you don’t know.

This eastern osprey (Pandion haliaetus cristatus) swept in over Lighthouse Beach, Ballina, holding a large, wriggling, very much alive fish in its talons. It alighted on a dead tree and proceeded to peck at its lunch. The bird was struggling to stay balanced in the brisk breeze.

Osprey with freshly caught fish meal

We often see them scouring the waters for food at Ballina and raising chicks in nests they’ve built on tall poles specially made for them by the local council. We are lucky to have them – they are getting rarer in other areas. Their conservation status in NSW is ‘vulnerable’.

Happy snappering

Beachcombing is satisfying when you come across something unusual, isn’t it?

And you get a second dose of endorphins when you find out what it is. At least, I do.

So when Andrew found this strange thing on the sand at Ballina, I sent off photos to the Queensland Museum, who kindly identified it for me.

It was hard, but not as hard or cold as a stone, and smelt faintly of fresh fish.

It turns out to be the protuberance on top and towards the rear of the head of a large  Australian snapper (Chrysophrys auratus, previously known as Pagrus auratus). This one has separated from the rest of the skeleton.

Chrysophrys auratus (photo by Pengo, Wikimedia Commons). Note the distinctive “head hump”.

It is partially eroded on one side but you can see where it was attached to the skull on the basal stem, as illustrated in the two skeletons below.

Part of the skeleton of a large snapper, Chrysophrys auratus, showing the protuberance at the top and rear of the head. (Photo by Museum Victoria, Creative Commons licence)

Skeleton of snapper, Chrysophrys auratus (photo by Pengo, Wikimedia Commons). The protuberance at the top of this one is rather large.

The function of such a hump seems to still be a mystery. According to  Dr Ben Diggles:

The enlargement of particular areas of fish bones is known as hyperostosis, a fancy word that simply means “above normal bone growth”. The condition is not new; it has been observed in fossilised fish and was first described in modern times as far back as 1655. Today, hyperostosis occurs in at least 96 species of mainly marine fishes worldwide in 22 families, but for Australian recreational fishers it’s most commonly seen in snapper, trevallies, and threadfin salmons. …

       The location of the bones that are affected and how they grow appear to be fairly consistent and predictable within a species. …

      The cause of hyperostosis is unknown, mainly because it occurs mainly in older wild fish and has never been reproduced under controlled laboratory conditions. However, science has been able to rule out some of the possibilities, putting the most common of the urban myths to rest in the process. The condition occurs in both male and female fish, and is certainly not due to injury or repeated bumping of affected areas during feeding. I have examined several affected fish (snapper and king threadfin) and can confirm the opinions of other scientists that the hyperplastic bony tissue growth is not cancerous, nor does it seem to contain any pathogens which might indicate it is caused by a contagious disease-like condition.

Current thinking suggests that because hyperosteosis only occurs in certain fish species which display consistent and characteristic patterns of bone overgrowth, the condition probably has a genetic basis. Certainly it has been found that some sub-populations of Australian snapper are more likely to exhibit hyperostostis than others, which would be consistent with a genetic cause.

Hence, for those species of fish affected by hyperostosis, a genetically encoded hormonal or biochemical anomaly affecting calcium storage or bone remodeling, [which] may be triggered by certain environmental or nutritional conditions, cannot be ruled out. Alternatively, other scientists favour a purely genetic cause, pointing out that fish with prominent hyperostosis tend to be bottom feeders, and that increases in bone mass would be beneficial for these species by providing negative buoyancy, which would assist them during bottom foraging activity.

Which is a detailed way of saying “nobody knows”, but it’s fun to speculate.

Ballina is a fishing centre so my “hump” may have come from one of the boats, commercial or otherwise.

I must go down to the sea again, to look for more mysteries.

The Top End (part 12)

Day 8 – Edith Falls and Katherine

The end of our Kakadoing – we headed south to a new glampsite near Katherine, breaking the journey at the Pine Creek township and Leliyn/Edith Falls (Jawoyn Country) The Pine Creek servo is a magnet for people stocking up on coffee, alcohol, ice-cream, food, camping equipment, souvenirs, you name it – and petrol, of course. There was a display of about a dozen captive reptiles near the tavern.

Spotted python (Antaresia maculosa)

Northern Territory carpet python (Morelia spilota variegata)

Candice and Tom stocked up on petrol and what fresh supplies they could. Lettuces were sometimes impossible to get up here – this was when a lettuce was $8 a head even in the cities.

Candice stocking up at Pine Creek

Petrol was about the same price as at home – a surprise as I’d thought it would be a lot more expensive …

$2.229 per litre

Those green ants were everywhere …

Green ants

Because of COVID-19, locals were advised to avoid clan meetings. It would have been very hard on them to not be able to express their sorrow in traditional ways.

Protection from COVID-19

While we were having coffees, Candice took the time to explain where we had come from and where we were going.

Candice showing us the lay of the land.

It was either on the way to Edith Falls or on the way to Katherine that – panic stations! – Wendy discovered her wallet was missing. It had most likely been left at the Pine Creek servo. There was no phone reception at first, but eventually the servo was contacted and, yes, they would look after it until we could pick it up on the way back to Darwin in a couple of days. I’m sure this happens to many of the thousands of tourists who pass through.

At Edith Falls, I spent a couple of hours laying on the lawn, taking in the shade, cool breeze, sky and trees while the others swam or walked to the top of the impressive rock stacks. The large natural pool was very popular for a dip.

Edith Falls swimming hole

The information signs were attractive and informative …

A helicopter did a few circuits overhead – no doubt a joy flight. I bought a piece of textile art from the kiosk. I’m not that keen on the dot painting style but liked this one. I also like what is called the X-ray style, like one I bought from a local First Nations artist many years ago.

X-ray style painting, by a Bundjalung artist

Candice and Tom put together another excellent lunch, as they did every day, for 16 people …

Candice and Tom hard at work preparing lunch, as they did every day, for 16 people (photo by Bruce Moore)

… and then drove us to a privately owned glampsite. On the way we crossed the Ghan railway line, which runs from Darwin to Adelaide at the other end of the continent.

The Ghan railway line from Darwin to Adelaide (photo by Bruce Moore)

Note a gauge going up to 17 metres, showing how high the rivers can rise in the wet season.

Photo by Bruce Moore

The glampsite was quite close to the helicopter business, but did not bother us with much noise. Despite the smoke in the distance, we thankfully couldn’t smell it. The day was still hot.

Photo by Bruce Moore

This little buddy was desperate for water as there sure wasn’t any near the camp …

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

We enjoyed yet another of those marvellous desert sunsets. The evening really wasn’t cold enough for a fire, but it provided a certain ambiance.

Next morning – a very early rise for a dawn boat trip along spectacular Katherine Gorge.

The Top End (part 11)

Day 7 – West Arnhem Land

The others went off to West Arnhem Land – I didn’t go as I knew I’d run out of energy soon on what promised to be a long drive and then a long walk and a late return to camp.

While they were away, I rested, swam, and found the energy to walk to the reception shop to peruse the goodies. I ended up buying two books (of course): ‘Injalak Hill Rock Art’ and ‘Kakadu People’. If I couldn’t be at Injalak Hill, I could at least read about it. I also rummaged through Candice’s massive box of books – on the natural, social and Indigenous history of the NT – and was successful in finding useful stuff to occupy myself.

I also searched out and found another toilet block – a gaggle of teenage Melbourne schoolgirls had been clogging up the nearest one in the mornings and evenings. They (and the equivalent schoolboys) had apparently flown up from Melbourne to Darwin for school holidays and were being taken around in two large buses.

The East Alligator River is the eastern boundary of Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land is to the east of the East Alligator River, a boundary with Kakadu National Park.

You mustn’t go to the rock art sites without an Indigenous guide. They’ll take you to the ‘culturally safe’ sites and explain what they are culturally allowed to about some of the paintings. There are thousands, from millennia old to recent ones and touch-ups. A painting can be interpreted on many levels, depending on the degree of knowledge of the cultural knowledge holder. We white people get the basic level.

This is a living site, not a museum. There are also burials in the area, so you must stick with the guide to avoid serious cultural mistakes.

Kath takes up the story …

Our written itinerary was quite prophetic when it described our trip into Western Arnhem Land, Tuesday 14 June 2022, the 7th day of our 10 day outback adventure: ‘Today a once in a lifetime experience awaits’.

We were collected at the reception of Cooinda Lodge (in Kakadu National Park), at around 7 am and bundled into a slick grey 4WD bus. Today we were being guided into West Arnhem Land by a young man who had been given permission to speak about the cultural heritage of the sites we would visit during the day.

The First Nations guide talking about ochre used in the paintings (photo by Bruce Moore)

The entry point for West Arnhem Land is across the East Alligator River, at Cahill’s Crossing, located in Kakadu National Park, but a fair distance away from Cooinda Lodge.

The original crossing was the site where Leichhardt crossed the East Alligator River in 1845, on his journey from Queensland to Victoria settlement. The crossing is named after Paddy Cahill as he used the crossing to access his dairy lease at Oenpelli (issued in 1906). Why it’s called the East Alligator River is another story … apparently the early explorers mistook our crocodiles for alligators and the misnomer has persisted.

Cahills Crossing is classed as ‘permanently closed’. You need a permit from the Northern Land Council coming from the Kakadu side before entering Arnhem Land. The crossing is infamous, due to it being a narrow artificial causeway that lies across a river infested with huge saltwater crocodiles.

Cahills Crossing (photo by Bruce Moore)

When the tide is low, all-terrain cars and conventional vehicles can cross the causeway. Fisherman and sightseers can venture out on either end of it, but you would not attempt to cross on foot. It holds the title of ‘The World’s Deadliest Crossing’ according to one Youtube video.

When Roger and I visited Cahills Crossing in 2015, we were two of hundreds of people watching a spectacle of huge crocodiles tearing apart an intruder crocodile, as the rising tide of the river allowed these magnificent creatures to swim across the causeway. [The crocodiles also mass together to catch schools of fish swimming over the causeway.] On the Kakadu side of the crossing there is a viewing platform designed to get people away from the dangerous crossing, so they can watch the gory spectacle in safety. However, when we arrived on this recent trip, it was low tide, and the viewing platform was closed for renovations.

We crossed Cahills without incident. West Arnhem Land opened up around us as we ventured into this timeless place.

Arnhem Land long grass and escarpment (Photo by Kathy Pearce)

Like many outback open spaces, that ancient escarpment of sandstone could be seen edging the vast open spaces that we have come to identify as savanna. We arrived at an isolated place, where the predominant vegetation was woodland with stands of beautiful eucalyptus, forming open canopies up to 20 metres high, supporting an understorey of tall grass, growing up to 2.5 metres high.

Eucalypts and understorey tall grass (photo by Kathy Pearce)

We were told to keep together and not wander off from the group, for our own safety, because of wild buffalo – obvious from piles of fresh dung found in the sandy walking track. Then there were the crocodiles that were lazily lurking in the waters of the beautiful waterway, which we encountered as we walked tentatively into this idyllic yet somewhat scary landscape. Yes – beyond the sand is croc-infested water!

Buffalo and croc country (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Crocsville, Arnhem Land (photo by Bruce Moore)

We were warned to put at least 20 metres between us and the water, to have that starting chance in case a croc decided we were worth chasing for a feed! Some of us even chatted about the safest perch to jump up onto should a croc charge. This place was beautiful, but none of us relaxed completely, so out of our comfort zone was this experience.

The 4WD bus almost disappeared among the tall savanna grasses, which reminded me of sugar cane fields in Far North Queensland.

Next stop was an initiation site, where young males were expected to throw their spears and hit mandated targets on the ceiling of a massive rock.

Initiation rock (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Imagine the javelin throwers at the Olympics, having to hurl their javelins up into the sky and hit a specific spot within a few square metres. We could see pits in the rock where spears had hit their intended mark.

You can see old spear-tip holes in the rock (photo by Bruce Moore)

Next stop was a series of huge open caves halfway up a steep rocky incline, where we came across many rock art drawings that were in perfect condition.

Arnhem Land art site (photo by Bruce Moore)

Caves housing rock art (photo by Kathy Pearce)

European sailing vessel painted in the 1930s; the painting on the right is thought to represent a European’s lace-gloved arm (photo by Bruce Moore)

I identified a grinding stone rock nearby.

Grinding stone (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Next stop was lunch at a tranquil picnic spot, replete with interesting local flora, and rock art of a big red kangaroo that is not usually found in these parts, according to the guide: either someone visiting left the art, or someone who had seen a big red on walkabout had brought that image back with them.

Thought to be the oldest painting in the area (photo by Bruce Moore)

Photo by Bruce Moore

Lunch was excellent.

The guide provided lunch (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Lunch (photo by Kathy Pearce)

We saw more beautiful scenery on our return trip.

Last view of the rock art site (photo by Kathy Pearce)

Crossing Cahill’s again was a wee bit more hair raising: the tide was rising and some of the cars returning to Arnhem Land struggled to cross due to the water hiding potholes in the road surface.

Photo by Roger Wier

Thankfully, our guide stopped at the Injalak Arts Centre where we were encouraged to look at [and buy?] a very large range of arts and crafts produced by the local First Nations artists.

Thanks, Kath, and now back to me …

The next day was another big one – packing up and heading towards Katherine and a new campsite.

The Top End (part 10)

Day 6 – third day at Kakadu: Marrawuddi Art Gallery, Mamukala Wetlands and Ubirr rock art

Lorraine, was this the morning I met you coming back from the toilet block in the wee small hours when both of us got lost? You said you’d met another wandering woman, trying to find her way back to her campsite. It’s such a big campground that getting lost must be common when you’re half-asleep, there are no lights except for the toilet block and you’re trying to recognise familar silhouettes.

The ‘ambience’ of the night was quite striking – ‘the silence is deafening’ certainly applied, and the alignment of several planets with each other and the moon was impressive. The eerie cries of bush thick-knees in the distance added to it all.

Once dawn broke, I heard peaceful doves coodle-ee-dooking (Geopelia placida, TICK) and later saw, flying overhead, a small flock of black cockatoos – possibly red-tailed blacks (Calyptorhynchus banksia, which would have been a TICK if I’d positively identified them).

Peaceful dove (photo by Ginge1420, Wikimedia Commons)

Red-tailed black cockatoo (photo by Peter Campbell, Wikimedia Commons)

A healthy breakfast, then back on the bus. On the way to Mamukala Wetlands, we stopped off at the Marrawuddi Art Gallery , a First Nations-owned gallery where all the artworks are created by Bininj (Aboriginal people) from Kakadu and the wider West Arnhem region. They also had an excellent selection of books on the area.

Outside, Jerri was approached by two “Gardening Australia” fans – I’m sure this happens a lot. The men were biosecurity vets employed by the government, patrolling the Top End all day every day for weeks at a time, looking for signs for brucellosis, Japanese encephalitis and bovine tuberculosis. Their job is to sample maggots from dead animals to detect these diseases, working 6 am to 11 pm five days a week, covering all of the NT coast and islands. They warned us to take care in Arnhem Land (tomorrow’s trip) – not to approach dingoes as they can be aggressive, and to wear skin protection since Japanese encephalitis is rife there. The encephalitis virus is spread by mosquito bites – the mosquitoes in evidence here are orange, unlike those at home.

The Mamaluka Wetlands has an impressive hide from which to watch birds. On the walkway in, there are several warnings to keep away from any animals, not just crocs. Freshwater crocodiles are more passive than salties, but you don’t want to tempt fate. The more aggressive salties don’t usually come this far inland unless they are washed in by high water.

Water levels were dropping, the wetlands were in the process of drying out, and the vegetation, including the massive spreads of waterlilies, was dying off with it.

Drying wetlands

The hide was busy with human visitors, including a group of either birdos or professional photographers.

Hiding from the wildlife inside the hide

The information boards in the hide were detailed and informative. I think it’s worth reproducing some of the wording since it sets the stage for what we were seeing – water rules life and death here.

The six Indigenous seasons of Kakadu compared with the European ones

Water leads to dramatic changes

[The map on the wall] shows that Mamukala is a small part of the vast South Alligator wetlands. These wetlands are formed by floodplains, billabongs, creeks and rivers. The seasonal coming and going of water shapes the lives of the plants, animals and people.

       On the surrounding higher ground, woodlands escape the amazing changes that affect the wetlands. At their edges they provide important homes for some of the animals found in both habitats.

       In Guldjewg, the monsoon season, creeks spill into the floodplains covering the area with a vast blanket of water. Much of this water comes from Nourlangie Creek and the many smaller creeks from the woodlands. During times of really big flood, the South Alligator River breaks its banks. It spills huge amounts of water, up to three metres deep, over the entire plains.

        In Banggerreng, when the rains ease, the water level begins to drop. Water drains off the wetland through a network of drainage channels and creeks that flow into the South Alligator River.

       During Yegge and Wurrgeng [the season we were in], the early dry seasons, [the] drainage channels begin to dry up. Water left on the wetlands slowly evaporates. Although the deeper billabongs and swamps may hold water throughout the year, most of the floodplains and paperbark swamps eventually dry up. This leaves the ground hard and parched under the scorching sun of Gurrung and Gunumeleng.

Dabbling in the water and feeding on the vegetation underwater were green pygmy geese (Nettapus pulchellus, TICK), and several jacanas stalked along the lily pads. Some jacana chicks were around, too.

Green pygmy geese (centre) and jacanas (front right)

Jacana chick (photo by Bruce Moore)

An intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia, TICK) kept an eye out for fish …

Intermediate egret (photo by Bruce Moore)

… fish that scoured the algae at the edge for food.

We also saw a whistling kite and a channel-billed cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae, which is migratory and incidentally has just arrived at home in the Northern Rivers for its spring/summer stopover), and heard dingoes howling far off.

Channel-billed cuckoo (photo by Aviceda, Wikimedia Commons)

Back to camp for lunch, then our ever-energetic guides drove us to the Ubirr rock art site.

Ubirr information board

On the walk in, some of the eucalypts were seen to be painted with horizontal ochre bands, indicating recent ‘sorry business’ (grieving rituals). We wouldn’t have been able to go to certain places affected by that, but luckily for us Ubirr was open.

Markers of ‘sorry business’ (photo by Bruce Moore)

A small selection of the rock art …

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

There is also a painting of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), believed to have become extinct on the Australian mainland some 2,000-3,000 years ago.

Thylacine painting high up on a rock wall (photo by Jerry Coleby-Williams)

Photo by Jerry Coleby-Williams

Jerry takes his Daleks with him everywhere he goes. He has even imported them to the high Arctic and the Galapagos Islands (eek).

Photo by Bruce Moore

Smoke continued to fill the air of the ‘Stone Country’.

The views from the top of the rock stacks were very impressive – big country. Photos do not do it justice.

The next day was scheduled to be a visit to West Arnhem Land.

The Top End (part 9)

Day 5, afternoon of second day in Kakadu – Nourlangie and Anbangbang rock art gallery and shelter

Kath takes up the story from here since I was hobnobbing in the pool.

In the afternoon after the Yellow Water morning cruise, we took a bus trip to Burrunggui (Nourlangie Rock) and the Anbangbang rock art gallery and shelter, as a replacement for going to Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls, which I understand had been closed to visitors – not sure why.

This First Nations cultural site, situated in Kakadu National Park adjacent to Arnhem Land, had been upgraded considerably since Roger and I visited in 2015.

Anbangbang rock shelter

The interpretive signage is a standout, as seen in the photos provided here by Bruce.

Overview of the site

Rock art is found over some considerable sites here, and is accessible by well-built stairs and tracks.This link has a map and gives a really good explanation of what our guide covered:

 Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) is one reason why Kakadu is World Heritage-listed for outstanding cultural values. This famous site, with its stunning rock paintings, documents life in the region from 20,000 years ago to the first contact with European explorers. …

For the traditional custodians of this area art (kunbim) is an expression of cultural identity and connection to country. The act of painting is generally more important than the painting itself so many older paintings are covered by more recent works. …

The main rock art site along this walk is the Anbangbang gallery and shelter. Here, and nearby, you’ll find a concentration of numerous artistic styles spanning various time periods that capture an array of subjects. See representations of creation beings, such as Namarrkon (lightning man), intriguing depictions of European sailing ships from first contact with white people and X-ray art of animals and fish.

Interruption from Joy: According to this website, this artwork depicts ‘Namondjok, a Creation Ancestor, with underneath him Barrginj, his wife, and to his right Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, responsible for the violent lightning storms that occur every wet season. At the bottom is a large group of men and women with elaborate ceremonial headdresses. These Spirit figures were repainted between 1962 and 1964, the last major rock painting at the Anbangbang Art site in Nourlangie Rock’.

The plaque associated with the photo below says: ‘The art in this gallery is relatively recent compared with other paintings in Kakadu. Sometimes the subject of the art can provide clues to its age. For example, firearms have only been painted since Aboriginal people first had contact with Europeans.’

The plaque for the photo below says: ‘Art plays an important cultural part in Aboriginal life in Kakadu. While it has many roles, it is most closely linked to sharing of knowledge. Children would learn about culture, country and kinship by watching and listening to the artists while they painted.’

Back to Kath: We did not cover the entire site, or the lookouts, but saw the main gallery. Our guide told us that the horizontal ochre marking on the trees throughout the site were ceremonial markings, usually put there by those mourning their loved ones.These markings were recent and plentiful, and helped remind us of the ongoing significance of this site.

Bruce says: This was where Thuan got the Passiflora foetida shoots that he cooked for us that evening.

Thuan (second from left) inspecting the bush tucker.

The journey continues …