The time had come to turn for home. The route would take us through the centre of the continent, a region that is generally dry. Alice Springs for example has about 28 cm (11 inches) of rain a year. This year has been different, La Niña has brought roughly twice the normal amount.
With a long road ahead we stopped for essential supplies at Katherine. The bottle shop wouldn’t be open until 2pm and we wouldn’t be served until our ID had been run through a Police Check. We didn’t wait.
We camped just north of Mataranka. The total distance since leaving home passed 10,000km. The bird list had reached 266. Bird of the day was Gouldian Finch.
Pine Creek was our furthest north on this trip. The locals were so thrilled that they let off fireworks to celebrate our achievement. Or, perhaps, it was merely the case that our visit coincided with Territory Day, Jul 1. There was an organised display on the oval preceded and followed by an informal celebration of the right to blow your face off. Fireworks can still be purchased for personal amusement in the Northern Territory.
A day’s drive from there took us to our furthest west on the trip, Timber Creek. Similar in size to Pine Creek but without the gold or railway artifacts. Just as interestiIng though are the Gregory Tree and the Nackeroo Monument. No rare parrots but instead this area is often called the Finch Capital of Australia. It had lived up to that title on a previous visit so here we were again.
At the caravan park there were bats in the trees and freshies in the creek.
The crocodiles are fed twice a week and we arrived on feeding day.
The birding spots are around the creek, the Victoria River, Gregory Tree and up the hill at the Nackeroo Monument. The Nackeroos were an army unit set up in 1942 as an observation and geurrilla unit on Australia’s northern coast. Travel was by horseback, resupply was irregular. It was a pretty tough gig especially in the wet. There is a poem on the monument, author not stated …
Somewhere in Australia where the sun is a curse,
And each day is followed by another slightly worse,
And the brick red dust blows thicker than the shifting desert sand,
And the men dream and wish for a fair and greener land.
Somewhere in Australia where the mail is always late,
Where a Christmas card in April is considered up to date,
Where we never have a pay day and we never pay the rent
But we never miss the money 'cause we never get it spent.
Somewhere in Australia where the ants and lizards play,
And a hundred fresh mosquitoes reinforce the ones you slay,
So take me back to good old Sydney where I can hear the tramway bell,
For this god-forsaken place is just a substitute for hell.
A right turn at the end of the Barkly Highway and we were then following in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart en route to Pine Creek. He got there in 1862, the route he pioneered was soon put to good use as the route for the Overland Telegraph which connected Adelaide with Darwin, Australia with the world. Along the line small settlements were established to keep the telegraph in working order. Pine Creek got off to a more auspicious start than most when workers digging post holes struck gold. A number of rushes and a railway followed. You’d have had to be pretty tough to make a go of it out here.
These days it’s a small town, population a little over 300, visitors come to see the mining relics, the residue of the railway, the water gardens and the Hooded Parrot. The parrot has a small population in a restricted range, this is the easiest place to find it.
We stayed at the Lazy Lizard, a very pleasant caravan park where someone has an excellent eye for design …
Should I be concerned about my new found interest in toilets?
Heading into the great outdoors the birdlife was quite abundant. A male Great Bowerbird had built his bower between disused railway lines in the caravan park. This is not a nest rather a theatre where he can perform for the ladies hoping that they will be sufficiently impressed to mate with him. The marriage is brief, they are soon left to be single mothers.
All of these and more were found within a short walk …
It was 1999, the 8th of November to be more precise. The afternoon sun was taking its toll, we’d been birding since just before sunrise around Broome, Western Australia. Gayle and I are fortunate to have some very good friends in Broome, they were making sure we got the most from a short stay. Relentless would have been another way of saying it.
We were on a lake shore. Gayle was sitting in the shade of a tree. The three boys were taking turns at the telescope. Something unexpected turned up, a single Flock Bronzewing. Not impossibly out of range but certainly unexpected, and you might guess from its name to show up on its own was also out of character.
“Hey, Gayle, come and look at this Flock Bronzewing.”
She passed a weary hand across her fevered brow and waved us away. She later claimed that we said Common Bronzewing. That would not have been a tick, when it became clear to her she said something along the lines of “Oh, Flock, you said Flock.”
Fast forward to 2022. We put Camooweal in the rear view mirror and shortly after crossed the Northern Territory border heading west on the Barkly Highway, Australia’s own Route 66. In the course of the next hour we saw half a dozen flocks of 20 to 30 heavy-bodied brown pigeons flying rapidly north to south across the road. It had taken 8,267 more days to add Flock Bronzewing to her life list than it needed to. And just like London Transport buses you don’t see one for ages then they all come along together.
It’s at moments like this that Gayle is likely to remind me that she has seen Magellanic Woodpecker (Argentina) and Victorin’s Warbler (South Africa) and the near disaster of the South Georgia Pipit. She’d ticked that on our first day on South Georgia. I hadn’t spoken to her for a week when I got it at the very last opportunity! I imagine that almost as many bird watchers talk about the one that got away as anglers. I have stood within half a metre of a Western Whipbird while it shouted its identity and location at me but not got as much as a glimpse.
The prize for the most elusive group, though, has to go to the Grasswrens. Thanks to DNA analysis the number of species seems to be growing faster than I’m ticking them off. I have seen a few but I think I need more Grasswrens now than when I started.
We made our way to Camooweal over a couple of days. Along the route we visited the Mary Kathleen mine site and Mount Isa and camped about 50km west of there.
Mary Kathleen is a retired uranium mine. It had a town attached, that’s gone except for some concrete slabs and some tile work. The mine site is 8km from the main road. The access track is utterly unsuitable for caravans and motorhomes. Something that Gayle pointed out repeatedly before fleeing from our motorhome about 300 metres from the end of the road. The pit is a spectacular hole in the ground.
Mount Isa is a bustling town with traffic lights and a Woolworths. It reminds me of Broken Hill. It sits amid vast deposits of lead, silver, copper and zinc. The surrounding country is also home to the Carpentarian Grasswren a bird that I have not seen despite previous attempts.
We camped at a place where the Grasswren is known to occur. Once again I did not find it. Maybe next time.
At Camooweal we camped near Lake Francis, another magnetic water body. Long legged birds were our companions again.
There are three species of long necked Egrets in Australia, identifying them can sometimes be a challenge. It’s much easier if you can line them up in a single field of view …
Nearest the camera we have Intermediate Egret, next is Great and the furthest is Little. Obvious, eh.
We left the next day. A few days later a downpour turned the black soil into a substance so magnetic that no one could break free for a day or two.
We woke at Gregory River. My diary entry for 24/06/2022 ….
Woke to the richest dawn chorus so far on the trip. Blue-winged Kookaburra led off, Whistling Kite followed and then the little birds had their say with White-gaped and Rufous-throated Honeyeaters prominent. Time for more photos, sadly the Buff-sided Robins would not pose and the Purple-crowned Fairywrens didn’t even turn up for the shoot.
Then on our way south. Saw four Bustard just out of Gregory. Flocks of Cockatiels and Budgerigars, one of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos, some Emu and flocks of Zebra Finches made the drive to Cloncurry a delight.
We are camped at Clem Walton Park AKA Corella Dam. Very crowded by the water. We are not by the water. The late afternoon birding has been superb.
Bird of the day is a challenge. Budgie, Bustard or Varied Lorikeet. Added Grey-fronted Honeyeater to the list today. On a quieter day it could have been Bird of the Day. No internet and I’m too lazy to do the list the old fashioned way but we certainly pushed the trip list past 250.
Indeed, we were not by the water, everywhere you could get by the water looked like that. It’s not only birds that are drawn to water. But the birding at Corella Dam was pretty good for all that.
The Tupperware birds were photographed at a wayside stop. According to Jan Wegener, a great photographer of Aussie birds, there are three elements in a bird photo, the bird, the perch and the background and there are five common mistakes that bird photographers make …
Yes, a full set! But hey I don’t get to see Grey-fronted Honeyeaters everyday.
This trip was planned a couple of years ago and then put on ice for some reason. In the original we would have stayed with the gulf all the way to Borroloola which would have taken us through some entirely new country and through Hell’s Gate which sounds exciting. However the wet overstayed its welcome this year and our bus would probably not have coped with the roads. We turned left at Burketown and headed to the Gregory River.
The Gregory River free camp is in a beautiful setting but a victim of its own success, very crowded. We’ve passed this way several times before on our way to Lawn Hill National Park. The river is lined with pandanus and far enough inland to be safe for a dip. The banks are quite birdy.
A couple of innocent pleasures are watching the launching of boats and parking of caravans. No boats on the Gregory, too shallow but there were caravans and not a lot of space. It’s often the case that Mum jumps out and waves her arms about, yelling instruction while Dad drives dutifully backwards and forwards. It’s a process that possibly leads to more divorces than does infidelity. There is a bridge at Gregory River beyond which there is no camping. Mum was determined to get as close to it as she could. “Back, back, a bit further …” as the wheels on the left reached the top of a shingle bank. Then the van slid sideways until it hit the bridge pier. It drew quite an audience, advice flowed freely. Eventually the van was retrieved. The damage was surprisingly light.
Normanton started out as a port on the Norman River servicing the cattle industry. In 1885 gold was discovered at Croydon which gave its growth sudden impetus. The gold has run out and the port has ceased operation. These days tourism is the main driver of its economy with lesser inputs from pastoralism and it is the main administrative centre of the region. It’s a great spot for the bird watcher, normal people enjoy the fine visitor centre, a replica of the largest crocodile ever shot and some fine old buildings. Train buffs, clearly as mad as birdos, can ride on the Gulflander which runs once a week between Croydon and Normanton. The public toilets are not a rival for Queensland’s Maryborough but are certainly above average …
When Burke and Wills reached the Gulf they found that the mangroves prevented them reaching the sea. The one place where you can take a walk on the beach is Karumba about 70km by road north of Normanton. Fishing and tourism are the main economic activities here and these days Barramundi is what drives both. The Barramundi Discovery Centre is well worth a visit.
The population is only about 500 residents in two settlements one at the point the other at the port. The bird watcher is probably better off at the point. They should also check out the Ferryman Cruises.
Wetlands and Savanna abound. Good for birds with long legs …
ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with it own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra
The crocodilians first appeared in the fossil record in the Cretaceous 95 million years ago. They include the crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials. We have two species in Australia popularly known as freshies and salties. They are confined to the tropics and particularly common on the front page of the NT News.
The Estuarine or Saltwater Crocodile is the largest crocodilian of them all. It’s range extends from the East coast of India eastward along the Asian coast, around Papua-New Guinea and northern Australia. It penetrates the larger river systems. In its realm it is the apex predator.
Amongst the things that nourisheth our salties are people and therein lies a problem. It is reported that in the 33 years 1971-2004 there were 62 definite, unprovoked attacks, 17 of which were fatal. That averages out to 1.9 attacks each year in Australia, 70% of victims lived to tell the tale, sometimes a rather gruesome one.
So, chances of getting eaten by a crocodile are not high. The chances of a crocodile being eaten by a human on the other hand are higher. Currently selling at $32/kg from Southside Quality Meats – tastes like chicken. Crocodiles are, after all, birds closest living relatives.
The Freshwater Crocodiles ha a longer narrower snout. It is mainly a fish eater, people are not on the menu but they can inflict a nasty laceration. Usually the culprit is a female guarding her nest.
Although risks are low there are ways to increase them. Have a read of the Crocodile Chronicles for examples. Jumping off the bridge at midnight into crocodile infested waters is definitely suboptimal. In Africa and Asia many people have no choice but to fish, wash and draw water from dangerous places. Figures are extremely rubbery but a thousand people a year taken by crocodiles is often quoted. In Africa it is the Nile Crocodile with the fearsome reputation.
I took the next photograph on an Adelaide River Jumping Crocodiles cruise …
These guys have learnt to jump out of the water chasing pieces of meat tied on a string. It passed me so close that I could hear it ticking. The only thing between me and it was air. Connie, our guide, said “If it takes a fancy to you there’s not much I can do with a pork chop on a string.”
Coming from the east on Highway 1 from Croydon you cross the Norman River a little more than 20km shy of Normanton. Leichhardt’s Lagoon is on the left soon after. It’s one of my favourite camp grounds. No streams run in or out. Flood waters from the river fill the lagoon in summer, the level drops during the dry but it remains a refuge for water birds until the next wet. It’s not a flash camp site but for ambiance and natural values it’s hard to beat and the manager is the most obliging man in the gulf.
Bee-eaters and Kingfishers plied their trade around the van while Egrets and Cranes wandered along the shore 25 meters away. Magpie Geese browsed in the shallows, Cormorants and Darters fished in deeper waters. On the far bank a crocodile sunned itself. The raptors patrolled overhead.