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 …

The Top End (part 8)

Day 5, morning – second day in Kakadu, Yellow Water wetland cruise

Was it yesterday we encountered a group of cyclists while queuing for a ‘comfort stop’ after visiting the termite mounds? At the queue for the loo, I chatted with one of the men. They were being taken to tourist spots in a big bus in the mornings, then after lunch they took their bicycles from their support vehicle to cycle 80 km in the afternoons. Rinse and repeat for a couple of weeks. Such stamina in 33 degrees C!

Let’s hope they didn’t encounter the things that apply to this permit. Luckily we didn’t.

Issued by the Official Australian Un-dead Response Unit

Every day the very organised Candice and Tom provided us with plenty of cooked and uncooked breakfast options and prepared the troopie for the day’s activities. They provided lunches, too, and dinners every night. Such energy! On the road, we occasionally dropped into petrol stations that also supplied various kinds of alcohol to buy (this is not usual in the eastern states of Australia where alcohol must come from a separate store).

First up this morning was a two-hour boat trip across the Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba) freshwater wetland.

The whole of Kakadu is a Ramsar site, designated an internationally important wetland under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat. According to Wikipedia:

A wetland can be considered internationally important if any of the following nine criteria apply:

  • Criterion 1: ‘it contains a representative, rare, or unique example of a natural or near-natural wetland type found within the appropriate biogeographic region.’

  • Criterion 2: ‘it supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities.’

  • Criterion 3: ‘it supports populations of plant and/or animal species important for maintaining the biological diversity of a particular biogeographic region.’

  • Criterion 4: ‘it supports plant and/or animal species at a critical stage in their life cycles, or provides refuge during adverse conditions.’

  • Criterion 5: ‘it regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds.’

  • Criterion 6: ‘it regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterbird.’

  • Criterion 7: ‘it supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish subspecies, species or families, life-history stages, species interactions and/or populations that are representative of wetland benefits and/or values and thereby contributes to global biological diversity.’

  • Criterion 8: ‘it is an important source of food for fishes, spawning ground, nursery and/or migration path on which fish stocks, either within the wetland or elsewhere, depend.’

  • Criterion 9: ‘it regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent non-avian animal species.’

I suspect that Kakadu covers all of those criteria.

The place was drying out – water levels can drop as much as four metres from the heights of the wet season – and as the dry progresses, the birds and animals crowd together in or near the remaining water sources. There were lots of saltwater crocs resting on the river’s edges and flocks of birds of different species feeding in the still-soggy vegetation away from the river. All the wildlife is used to lots of human boat traffic, so didn’t take much notice of us. The captions on the photos below give the names. ‘TICK’ indicates the first time I’ve see the species in the wild.

Brolga (Grus rubicundus) (photo by Bruce Moore) TICK

Brolga pair

Juvenile rufus night heron (Nycticorax caledonicus) TICK

Little pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos)

Rajah shelducks (Tadorna radjah) at the back. TICK

Plumed whistling ducks (Dendrocygna eytoni) (photo by Bruce Moore) TICK

There may have been some wandering whistling ducks (Dendrocygna arcuata) with the plumed whistling ducks above, but it was too hard to differentiate them at the time.

White-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

Strictly speaking, we should call the bird below the black-necked stork since the common name ‘jabiru’ belongs to a South American stork, but all the birdos I know would immediately say ‘jabiru’.

Jabiru (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) (photo by Bruce Moore) TICK

The next bird is also known as the ‘Jesus bird’ or ‘lily trotter’ for its apparent ability to walk on water. It has very long toes that allow it to spread its weight on big waterlily leaves. We saw several very cute, fluffy chicks near the adults, too.

Comb-crested jacana (Irediparra gallinacea) (photo by Bruce Moore) TICK

Little corellas (Cacatua sanguinea) (photo by Bruce Moore)

Mostly royal spoonbills (Platalea regia) (photo by Bruce Moore) TICK

Pied heron (Ardea picata) TICK

Black kite (Milvus migrans)? A bit hard to tell, but certainly a raptor. TICK

There were numerous egrets – great, intermediate and little (Ardea alba, Ardea intermedia and Ardea garzetta).

The kink-necked birds are the egrets (great egret on the far right); jabiru at the back.

Great egret (left); royal spoonbill (right)

Australian white ibis (left, Threskiornis molucca) has a long, curved, black bill.

I’ve neglected the water plants. Apologies if I have the IDs wrong – let me know and I will change them.

Water lily (Nymphaeae violacea), looking somewhat Monet

Lotus lily (Nelumbo nucifera)

The humans weren’t the only ones feeling the heat. Crocs cool down by resting in shallow water and/or opening their mouths to let the body heat escape.

A saltie cooling off

We saw some natural crocodile feeding action, too – one of the crocs in the shallows curled its tail tighter and tighter to form a small pond around the fish. At the last minute the fish jumped! – and the croc snapped at it but missed. You won’t see this in a zoo.

Photo by Bruce Moore

I found it an altogether satisfying cruise supplying a lot of TICKS.

The Marrawuddi Art Gallery was unexpectedly closed so we couldn’t see that. A rock art gallery walk was scheduled for the afternoon but I chose to miss it. I had noticed there was a nice-looking (artificial) pool at the campground so decided to go for a swim to cool off and stretch my back. Next to it was a bar and bistro, open only at night, all terribly civilised but a bit incongruous considering where we were. In the pool I chatted with a woman from Melbourne. She was a lawyer and was really enjoying her first holiday in two and a half years – Melbourne had been in extreme lockdown for most of that time.

I’ll let others tell the story of Nourlangie in the next post.

The Top End (part 7)

Day 4 – first day in Kakadu National Park, via Litchfield National Park

After the earliest breakfast the hotel in Darwin could arrange, we were picked up at 7:30 am by Candice and Tom from Walking Country. They checked the results of all our RATs (tests for COVID-19) – fortunately everyone was in the clear. Then we helped them pile our luggage into the ‘troop carrier’ and headed south towards Litchfield National Park. I was once talking to an American tourist who thought I lived in the Outback because my place was an hour inland on the East Coast. Ha! This time we were going to the Real Outback, with many adventures to come.

Our transport (photo by Bruce Moore)

The photo below shows typical landscape on the way – flat with scattered eucalypts with grass understorey (the very definition of savanna) that was being burnt. With the wet season over for the year – and apparently it hadn’t been as ‘wet’ as usual, possibly because we in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales had stolen it – the whole place was rapidly drying out. Fire was on the ground and smoke was in the air, a constant smell throughout most of our trip.

Burning off of understorey grass (photo by Bruce Moore)

Just inside the boundary of Litchfield National Park, we visited a couple of sites with termite mounds scattered across the landscape. ‘Magnetic’ termite mounds, so-called because they align north-south to minimise the heat for the termites that build them and live inside them (Amitermes meridionalis), are very common. I’ve just been talking to Chris Jolly, author of a book on Northern Territory reptiles that I’m presently copy-editing, and he’s recently got back from field work in Kakadu, chasing reptiles in 38C (100F) – and this is Kakadu’s coolest season! So the termites have evolved a way to keep themselves comfortable.

The interior’s lower temperature and high humidity are kept stable by the orientation and many channels for air within the mound. You can see an explanation of how it all works and diagrams of the interior here. The site made me think of a cemetery of sharp, thin tombstones. The termites feed on the grasses and also store them in the mounds during the dry season so that when the grasslands flood in the wet, the ants are tucked up safely inside feeding on their accumulated bounty.

Magnetic termite mounds (photo by Bruce Moore)

I wonder how the grassfires affect the termites. Grassfires are natural events ignited from lightning strikes, so I guess the termites would have adapted to the human burning that is more frequent than that caused by lightning.

Nearby were a couple of ‘cathedral’ termite mounds, thicker, much taller and built by a different species, Nasutitermes triodiae. Cathedral mounds have been measured up to 8 metres tall, whereas the magnetic ones we saw might have been 1.5 metres at the most (they do get taller but not as much as the cathedral mounds).

Cathedral mounds, Litchfield NP (photo by W. Bulach, Wikimedia Commons)

Travelling on, we stopped at Florence Falls and Buley Rockhole. Since it was tourist season and these waterholes are popular day trips from Darwin, there were lots of tourists swimming, and a couple from our group joined them.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

I did not swim but walked around a bit to get a sense of the landscape once the crowd had moved away. I have to say that I did not immediately take to the landscape. Some places you feel an instant connection with, and some you don’t. Perhaps it would have grown on me with more time to absorb and reflect on it – I know many people adore that type of landscape. Perhaps it was because savanna is so different to the lush subtropics where I live – so diametrically opposite the rainforest. But my respect for the First Nations people who have made a living there and whose culture thrived for tens of thousands of years certainly increased many-fold.

Candice and Tom made a great picnic lunch for us at tables at Buley. There was a cheeky, medium-sized bird bouncing around the picnic area, very used to people and lurking for left-overs, and it was a TICK for me – the largest of our Australian bowerbirds, the great bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis).

Male great bowerbird (photo by Bruce Moore)

You can see from feathers on the back of the neck that it is a male.

After lunch, the long drive to Kakadu National Park began, finishing about 6:30 pm. Somewhere along the line, Bruce spotted a whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus). This species, like some other raptors, is ‘known to hover over the edges of grass fires in search of potential prey fleeing the flames‘. I wonder if this one was doing that. Some raptor species are even known to carry fire to new areas. Here’s a popular article and here’s a more formal, scientific one on just that behaviour – recognised by Westerners as, so far, the only animal besides humans that uses fire. Of course, First Nations people already knew about it.

Whistling kite (photo by Bruce Moore)

How come Ruth and I deserve halos? (Because we’re awesome!) (photo by Tom)

We finally arrived at the sprawling Aurora Kakadu Lodge and our ‘glamping’ area, where we picked a tent and unloaded our gear. Due to a mix-up – there were mistakenly thought to be not enough tents for the singles to each have their own –  I shared a tent with Kath but unfortunately kept her awake all night with my breathing difficulties – very sorry, Kath! She could move to her own tent the next day, leaving me not having to worry about disturbing anyone. Unlike Kath, I was not able to catch up on my sleep, but that was an ongoing problem together with the back pain and, regretfully, the cause of my choosing not to go on some excursions. Ah well, it is what it is.

The ‘glampsite’ at Aurora Kakadu Lodge (photo by Bruce Moore)

At one point, Bruce spotted a skink on a tent – it was the only wild reptile we saw, apart from freshwater crocodiles. According to the above-mentioned reptile expert Chris Jolly, ‘It’s a two-spined rainbow-skink (Carlia amax). Although it feels warm in the dry season, a lot of reptiles shut down because there isn’t enough food or water for them to bother being active.’ (Thanks for the ID, Chris.) The species name amax comes from a bauxite mining company, so an alternative common name is the bauxite rainbow-skink.

Two-spined rainbow skink (photo by Bruce Moore)

Other wildlife lurking around the campsite included a pair of bush thick-knees (aka bush stone-curlew, Burhinus grallarius) Their strange and haunting cries were heard at night – you can hear one here. The bush thick-knees didn’t count as TICKS because I’d already heard them at Mission Beach, far north Queensland. There are also beach thick-knees (Esacus magnirostris) at Mission Beach, but the ones I heard there were definitely the bush species.

The indefatigable Candice cooked dinner for us with the indefatigable Tom assisting, and, after some of us helped with the washing-up, there was a bit of chat and slow-down and we variously wandered off to bed, anticipating the next day.

Tom and Candice of Walking Country (photo by Bruce Moore)