The Top End (part 6)

Day 3 (cont.) – Berry Springs and community gardens

Bruce and Linda kindly gave me their impressions and photos. I’ve added some comments in square brackets.

Berry Springs

Linda

Berry Springs Nature Park is a picturesque area 47 kilometres south of Darwin [about a 40-minute drive]. It has a series of natural deep pools fed by a large underground spring and is a popular daytrip destination for picnics and swimming in the dry season. [The park may be closed for swimming in the wet season if conditions are considered too dangerous. There are many walking tracks through the woodlands and monsoonal forests.]

Several people took advantage of the beautiful swimming holes. Even I was almost tempted to get in.

Berry Springs swimming hole; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Here, we had the pleasure of meeting Lesley, who gave us an introduction to bush tucker [food from plants and animals native to the Australian outback].

Bush tucker expert Lesley; photo by Bruce Moore

As her mob [cultural group] was not local to this area, she was unsure of what bush tucker she would find in the park and decided to play it safe with a smorgasbord of delicacies she had gathered elsewhere and a small library of books.

Wendy and Jerry perusing Lesley’s books on bush tucker; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

While she had several types of berries and a home-cooked magpie goose stew (a bit on the tough side), the star of the show in my opinion were the “longbums” (also known as mud whelks [possibly Telescopium telescopium or Terebralia palustris]). These molluscs are a type of mangrove snail with long, conical shells. Traditionally they are cooked with the pointy end of the shell facing down, shoved into some hot coals, with the shell opening pointing up and clear of the ash and grit. They can also be boiled. To eat, you poke a sharp metal object into the opening, snag the meat and slowly pull it out of the shell, remove the bright blue? (or was it green?) rubbery mouth piece and then shove the whole snail into your mouth. Quite a delicacy! Lesley also showed us the cone snail or longbums’ “cheeky” [dangerous] cousin. This snail looks very similar to a longbum but, unlike the longbum, its opening has a slit that runs across most of the length of the shell and it is venomous.

Lesley showing longbums; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

While we were sampling the various delicacies, Lesley explained the Aboriginal concept of seasons and how they are inextricably linked to the local flora and fauna and, in turn, the lives of the Aboriginal people. (See the Bureau of Meteorology’s website for a description of some Indigenous calendars around Australia.)

After lunch, we went for a short walk with Lesley pointing out various plants that are used in Indigenous cultures either as a source of food, fibre and/or medicine. She also gave us an introduction to weaving with some young leaves picked from the centre of the pandanus. Stripping the leaves into thin pieces ready for weaving is definitely a highly skilled art.

Lesley stripping pandanus leaves; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Bruce

For me the highlight was Lesley, who is a great teacher with lots of information about native use of plants – bush tucker, medicinal, weaving and dying of baskets and the like. I take more photos when I’m impressed – so I took lots of her with her books, food plants, “long bums”, preparing pandanus leaves for weaving. She cooked a magpie goose stew for us. It was reportedly a bit tough. She also took us on a walk through nearby bush, pointing out lots of useful plants.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Community gardens

Bruce

The first community garden was the best. Larger, more of a permaculture garden. Bringing back to life a desolate site on waste land. Very well organised, with defined garden areas and an emphasis on tropical food plants, also an impressive compost-making area, and a segment devoted to native vegetation restoration. All still very much a work in progress, but making good progress. A very happy, knowledgeable and devoted crew doing the job.

The second one was more along the lines of traditional UK allotment gardens, with each member having a specific area of their own to plant what they want, mainly vegetables. Some members more enthusiastic, others with less time available with a resultant weed issue.

Third one I didn’t look at and sat chatting with Kath (we solved the problems of the world!) in the morning tea area. I was a bit hot and tired by that time. But it did seem well organised. Run by a church group.

Joy still in Darwin

I don’t know whether Lesley talked about the ubiquitous green ants, but here’s a run-down on them and how they can be eaten. I recently saw the product below – riffing off tequila with worms, I suppose – in a bottle shop at home. I didn’t buy it because it was expensive, but if anyone else has tried it, I’d be interested to know what it tastes like.

Green Ant Gin

According to the producer’s website :

Award Winning Green Ant Gin – Green Ants traditionally favoured by the indigenous societies for their medicinal benefits and protein contect. The Green Ants are a unique bush tucker hand harvested in the Northern Territory by the Motlop family of the Larrakia People.

The Green Ants add a Kaffir Lime/Corriander flavour with a big lime burst on the palate.

After getting back from the museum, I dozed for a couple of hours in my air-conditioned room before the others got back, quite late in the afternoon, and then had dinner with Linda and Bruce at a Vietnamese restaurant. You know you’re in the right place when practically all the other diners are non-Caucasian. The paw paw salad was delicious and I could actually taste the dressing.

We all had to take a RAT that evening to make sure we weren’t carrying covid – this was a requirement of our next hosts, Walking Country, who were going to pick us up in the morning for the long trip to Kakadu via Litchfield National Park.

To be continued …

The Top End (part 5)

Day 3Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery

After the rest had motored off for their all-day trip, I took some painkillers, strapped on the borrowed back-support belt and sat in the park by the sea across from the hotel. Kath had leant me Penny van Oosterzee’s 2014 book, A Natural History and Field Guide to Australia’s Top End and I was determined to get in some research before Kakadu. The park was peaceful and I had never seen so many peewees (magpie larks, Grallina cyanoleuca) in one spot – there were at least 40 pecking for insects to eat.

Magpie lark; photo by SuperJew, Wikimedia Commons

The weather felt a bit cooler. Anglo folks currently name only two seasons in the Top End, but apparently the ‘build-up’ to the ‘wet season’ is soon to be recognised as a third season. The Aboriginal peoples sensibly recognise six seasons. We were in Wurrgeng, which spans early June to mid-August.

The Indigenous six seasons are marked by ‘calendar plants’ and events – for example, the blooming of certain flowers indicates other changes in the environment such as the availability of certain foods (plants or animals). This extensive and intricate knowledge has been worked out and passed down over more than 60,000 years and enables good living off the land. There are academic arguments over this figure, but it still means a couple of thousand human generations. The humidity is relatively low with daytime temperatures to around 30˚C (it was 33 to 36 while we were there) and night around 17˚C (it was mostly 23 for us). This is the period when most creeks stop flowing and the floodplains dry out. Traditional Indigenous burning, which starts in the previous season (Yegge), is continued. Birds and animals converge on the shrinking billabongs.

Birds gathering around a billabong; artwork at the museum

After a while, I felt able to go for a walk so I got a map from the hotel desk clerk and wandered to the nearby mall, where I spotted an independent bookshop called, well, “The Bookshop”. Here I bought Brock’s Native Plants of Northern Australia (2022), which gave me another overview of the ecosystems and a field guide to the plants.

Since I had the whole day at my own pace, I decided to go to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which wasn’t on our official itinerary. I normally would have walked there to get a sense of the city, and it’s amazing what you can stumble across, but decided that would be asking too much of myself. So I walked to the nearby Information Centre where a staffer gave me a bus map, told me to flash my Seniors Card, which would give me a free trip, at the driver, and directed me to the bus depot around the corner.

While waiting for the bus, I chatted to a very helpful local and a couple of other tourists (recognisable because of them clutching the same bus map). Having driven from Perth (4,000 km or 2,500 miles away), they were having their RV serviced before driving back, and using the time by going to the museum. This couple confirmed what I’d heard on the media – that very many people were travelling post-covid lockdowns (although we’re still far from post-covid). They said that they could usually be very flexible and book accommodation in the morning for that night, but now they had to book several days ahead and if they didn’t turn up at the hour they said they would, their room would be given to someone else.

As a former museum staffer (scientific officer, Marine Invertebrates, South Australian Museum) and sometime museum volunteer, I am still a museum enthusiast. This museum concentrates on Northern Territory and nearby birds and animals of the tropics. I avoided the Cyclone Tracy rooms – been there, done that, lost the T-shirt and most other things. I could hear the recording of the shrieking winds and it still gave me a shiver.

Model of a cathedral termite mound with Territory bird and fish taxidermies in the background

Model of nest of the great bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis); the male maker is on the left

The strange and unique Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)

Various kinds of box jellyfish – you don’t want to encounter any of them while swimming

Green turtle skeleton

Sawfish

The basement display of large wooden fishing vessels – local ones and some from nearby islands and Indonesia – was very impressive. You can tell I like boats and ships by the number of photos I took. It’s a shame I usually get so seasick – thanks, Dad, for not giving me your seasickness-proof gene (I love you anyway). The shop was better than the usual, with little of the plastic tat seen in most museum shops. I bought two books – the one that Kath had leant me and Lindley McKay’s 2017 A Guide to Wildlife and Protected Areas of the Top End. The latter was the most detailed book I’d seen, with sections on all sorts of invertebrates as well as the expected frogs, mammals, birds and reptiles, and I leapt on it with great glee. Research!

After a couple of hours perusing the galleries that were open – some were closed for refurbishment – I walked back to the bus stop where I chatted to a couple more tourists who had just finished a multi-day coach trip from Perth. They mentioned that covid was rife on the coaches, but fortunately their bus hadn’t had it. They were flying back later that day. I don’t think I could stand such a long bus trip, even without covid.

Back at the hotel, I took a rest and waited for the group to come back from Berry Springs and the community gardens. I’ll write about them next.

Top End trip (part 4)

Day 2 – Afternoon – George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens

In the early afternoon, we were picked up from the hotel by a minibus for a 2 km trip to the George Brown Botanic Gardens.

Who said, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”? That applies to me with plants, but I take the opportunity to learn whenever I can. Our two knowledgeable guides helped.

Our knowledgeable guides (right) from “Walk Darwin”

The gardens are very large – the 42 hectares (104 acres) were initially established in 1886 to test plants that would work economically and ornamentally in the tropical part of the new  British colony. Nearly 90% of the plantings were destroyed by cyclone Tracy in 1974. George Brown had started working in the gardens in 1969 and was curator from 1971 to 1990, so he oversaw the major replanting; the gardens were renamed in his honour in 2002.

The gardens concentrate on native tropical plants (especially monsoon flora), but have a selection of exotic ones as well. A current map is here.

Here’s a selection from my notes. The African baobab (Adansonia digitata) …

Baobab, an African species

… is different to the endemic Australian boab (Adansonia gregorii) …

Boab, an Australian species

There was a large undercover area with orchids and bromeliads, many of which were flowering. I can see why people get enraptured with orchids – they have such a variety of flower colours and shapes. Have we domesticated them or have they domesticated us? They’ve certainly trained us to grow them a lot.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Craig spotted this lovely rainbow bee-eater (Merops ornatus). I first saw one of these in my home town in country South Australia.

Rainbow bee-eater; photo by Craig Olive

Lurking in the undergrowth (and up trees) were various reptiles …

Not a real snake – it’s been there for years; photo by Bruce Moore

Honestly, Jerry, can’t you make him behave? 🙂

Delightful shapes, colours and textures held my interest …

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

I was astounded to see a coco de mer palm (Lodoicea maldivica). When I was a kid, I had a hollowed-out nut made into a container on my bedroom mantlepiece. Dad had brought it back when he visited the Seychelle Islands (the only place these palms grow) during his navy service in World War II. Sadly, I couldn’t find it in his possessions after his death. I’d really love to still have it.

Nuts developing on the coco de mer tree

Dad’s was a smaller version of one of these, sliced in half and with added hinges. They are the largest nuts in the plant kingdom …

Huskless coco de mer shells; photo by Pauk, Wikimedia Commons

Last on the agenda was the Mindil Markets, which are famous and apparently quite good. Although I love markets, it had been a long walking day and I was feeling pretty wrecked, so had decided to catch a cab back to the hotel. Another 13 of us decided the same thing so our guides summoned a couple of maxi-cabs to take us back.

After a rest, I felt I had enough energy to have dinner with Wendy, Toni, Jerry and Thuan at an Asian restaurant. Having lost my sense of smell and taste, I couldn’t pick up much except salt, but at least it was nutrition and the company was good. One of the things I regret missing out on was getting to know my fellow-travellers individually, but with the constant back pain and sleeplessness I just didn’t have the enthusiasm. Sorry, folks!

The next morning I was feeling very sleep-deprived and in pain, and it was going to be another big walking day where I probably couldn’t rest much, so the others went to Berry Springs and two community gardens without  me. I had a relaxed morning, then felt I could make it to the Northern Territory Museum – which wasn’t on our official agenda – with the help of local transport. I’ll write about that next.

The Top End (part 3)

Day 2 – Morning (cont.)

Still on Larrakia Country, after the street art tour, guide John dropped us off at Crocosaurus Cove. This tourist attraction is a combined zoo and aquarium, also functioning as an education centre about Northern Territory marine vertebrates (fish, rays and turtles) and reptiles (lizards, snakes and especially crocodiles). On the VIP tour, we were shepherded around by a knowledgeable guide for a couple of hours.

Wildminds says of Crocosaurus Cove:

… the place is home to the largest collection of Australian reptiles in the world. Their list counts over 70 species, most found naturally in the surrounding Northern Territory region. … Here you can find a large number of venomous snakes (including the deadliest in the world [the taipan]), along with the huge range of lizards, skinks, geckos, and more on display – most of these species being too elusive to ever see in their natural habitat … Another amazing attraction at Crocosaurus Cove is the 200,000-litre freshwater aquarium, modelled on a typical Top End river system. It houses an abundance of fish species, including the majestic whiprays (the freshwater equivalent of stingrays) and Darwin’s famous (and delicious) barramundi. The most impressive specimens are definitely the archer fish and their daily feeding shows in which they can show off how they shoot down prey with jets of water. … In another side of Crocosaurus Cove, the Turtle Billabong houses a colourful variety of adorable turtles, including red and yellow face turtles, pig nose turtles, and snapping turtles.

Our guide holding an “educational crocodile” while educating us about it

Saltwater crocodile skeleton

There are two species of crocodiles in Australia – the saltwater (Crocodylus porosus or ‘saltie’) and freshwater (Crocodylus johnstoni or ‘freshie’). We don’t have alligators at all.

We got the chance to gently handle a small crocodile, a python and a couple of lizards. The skins have interesting textures, and the snake was not at all ‘slimy’ despite its shiny appearance.

Python; photo by Bruce Moore

Salties

The saltie is the more famous of our two crocodile species, so let’s start with it. It’s the more infamous, too, since its rare attacks on humans, like those of sharks, are spectacular with somewhat gruesome outcomes for the humans.

Saltwater crocodile checking out whether we have any food – or could be food; photo by Bruce Moore

Saltwater croc foot; photo by Bruce Moore

The saltie is the largest reptile species alive on the planet. Males can grow up to around 6 metres (20 feet) and weigh upwards of 1000 kg (2,200 lb). Females are roughly half the size of the males. They live on the coast, in estuaries and in tidal rivers, sometimes getting washed further inland in the wet season when the land floods. Males are territorial among each other and the freshies that overlap their range.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Salties were hunted almost to extinction in the 1970s, but are now protected and have a healthy population of 100,000 to 200,000 adults. (It’s hard to get a precise number because of the remoteness of where they live and their tendency to lurk almost underwater.) Individuals considered a continuing threat to humans are trapped and taken to crocodile farms (where they can be made into meat and leather) or places like Crocosaurus, where they have educational value.

Salties are ambush predators, quite stealthy and yet quick-moving, and will go for anything that looks like it will make a decent meal. According to the Australian Museum:

Juvenile [saltwater] crocodiles tend to ‘sit and wait’ in shallow water for suitable prey to come within striking distance, although they may also chase small animals and can leap from the water to snare overhanging prey. Larger crocodiles actively hunt and are attracted to any movement that may represent a potential meal. When prey is detected the crocodile makes a stealthy approach under water, keeping any exposure to a minimum. Once in range the crocodile lunges rapidly and slams its jaws shut on the victim – the force of this alone may be enough to kill it. Small prey is simply crushed and swallowed; however, larger prey may be dragged to deeper water before being dismembered and eaten. If the meal is too big to be swallowed whole, the crocodile will grab hold with its jaws and shake violently or roll to tear off a manageable piece. Because the tongue and skull bones of a crocodile are not very movable, food is tossed around in the mouth to manipulate it into a position for swallowing. After eating its fill (a crocodile’s stomach is relatively small), the crocodile may store the remains in mangroves or underwater to feed on again at a later time. Estuarine crocodiles are also scavengers and will come on to land to feed on carrion or unattended catch.

The salties at Crocosaurus are displayed in freshwater – this does not harm them as it’s within their salinity range.

It was breeding season and one display featured a nest of vegetation. The females make the nest or bury the eggs in warm sand; the males do not help them incubate or raise the hatchlings at all. The temperature that the eggs are raised in determines the sex of the animal.

Crocodile eggs in vegetation nest

The crocs are used to being fed by the keepers, who get quite close but still need to be wary.

Yum, chicken! (Photo by Craig Olive)

We also were ‘treated’ to feeding a croc fairly close up, but still safely.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Moore

Freshies

Freshies are much smaller than salties: males can grow up to 3 metres and 70 kg and females 2 metres and 40 kg. They have a more slender snout and smaller teeth than salties. Freshies tend to be shy and don’t generally attack humans.

Again according to the Australian Museum:

Freshwater crocodiles inhabit various freshwater environments, including rivers, creeks, pools, billabongs, lagoons and swamps. During the wet season these habitats become inundated with flood waters which allow the crocodiles to move throughout the flood plains. As the water levels drop the crocodiles tend to congregate in the larger and deeper water bodies, where they prefer to inhabit the shallower waters at the pool edges. Despite the periodic flooding and drying of their habitat, freshwater crocodiles show a strong fidelity to their dry season water body, e.g. along the McKinlay River in the Northern Territory, 72.8 percent of marked crocodiles were found to return to the same water body in two successive dry seasons. …

Freshwater crocodiles may shelter in burrows among the roots of trees fringing the water bodies they inhabit.

Despite the common name, freshwater crocodiles may also occur in brackish waters up to 24% salinity (seawater is 35%). …

In the wild, freshwater crocodiles will eat a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate prey, including crustaceans, insects, spiders, fishes, frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes, birds and mammals. Insects (both aquatic and terrestrial) appear to be the most common food item, followed by fish. Larger crocodiles tend to eat larger prey items; however, the average size of prey for all freshwater crocodiles is generally small (mostly less than 2 cm²). Small prey is usually obtained by a ‘sit-and-wait’ method, whereby the crocodile lies motionless in shallow water and waits for fish or insects to come within close range, before they are snapped up in a sideways action. However, larger prey like wallabies and waterbirds may be stalked and ambushed in a manner similar to that of the saltwater crocodile.

Other reptiles

Let’s look at some of the other reptiles on display.

Blunt-spined goanna

Taipan, one of the world’s deadliest snakes; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

The Cage of Death

Jerry and Toni had been booked to go into “The Cage of Death”, which is a long, clear perspex tube that is lowered into an aquarium. A large croc is induced to go near with a bit of chicken. Jerry was in a natty old-fashioned bathing suit, with his iconic hat that he’s rarely seen without. This was Devin’s idea – I hate to think what he’ll come up with next.

Jerry and Toni enjoying (?) being in the Cage of Death

After watching Jerry’s hat (and the rest) not get eaten, Linda, Bruce and I had a snack at the Crocosaurus café and then walked back to the hotel for a quick rest. Next on the menu was a visit to the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens, which I’ll write about next.