Camooweal …

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.

Brolga

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.

The Magnetic Properties of Water …

Someone had and the birds came

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.

Moving on …

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.

Our camp on the Albert River, Burketown

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 & Karumba …

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 …

Although they don’t have a monopoly …

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
A typical gulf country landscape

Crocodiles …

LEPIDUS: What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?

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.

Estuarine Crocodile

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.

Freshwater Crocodile, Norman River Qld.

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.

Young Nile Crocodile, Nile River, Uganda.

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.”

LEPIDUS: ’Tis a strange serpent.

ANTONY: ’Tis so, and the tears of it are wet.

Leichhardt’s Lagoon …

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.

Click on any of these photos for a closer look.

Time for a swim?

Heading West …

Our last night in the Atherton Tablelands was spent at Innot Hot Springs. The west side of the tablelands is drier, the forest in the uncleared areas tends to be eucalypt rather than rainforest and the birdlife slowly changes too but we were there mainly for the hot springs. You can enjoy the raw product just by wading into the creek. The disadvantage of that is choose the wrong spot and you could be on your way to the burns unit or you could be up to your knees in cold water wondering what all the fuss is about.

Somewhere in between is the place that is just right. It’s a shallow pool scraped out of the gravel. Goldilocks has already claimed it, she’s nowhere near as attractive as you imagined and she’s probably brought the three bears with her.

The better option is to stay at the campground and enjoy the nice man-made pools within. Entry is included in the price of your accommodation. The pools are deep enough to immerse yourself in and you can choose one at a temperature that suits. Some are outdoors but the hottest are indoors. It’s not quite up to Japanese standard, you would be out of place naked, but very refreshing and extremely relaxing.

As a bonus the campground is quite pleasantly grassed and treed and adjacent to a billabong. The birds like it here too.

Innot Hot Springs is on Highway 1. That is the gentler road across the base of Cape York which is the way we went this time, via Croyden to the eastern corner of the Gulf. The adventurous can take a more northerly route via the Burke Development Road – carry an extra spare wheel and don’t forget the jack!

The Gulf …

In the footsteps of giants.

The Dutch started the process of mapping the coast early in the 1600s as the Dutch East India Company sought to extend its profits and increase its influence. Willem Janszoon on the good ship Duyfken got the process started in 1606 sailing south of New Guinea and reaching the eastern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. He was followed in 1623 by Jan Carstenszoon with two vessels, the Pera and the Aernem. Their findings failed to impress the Company bosses who decided not to deploy further resources in that direction.

Notice that I always refer to mapping rather than discovery. That neatly sidesteps the fact that people had been living in the gulf country for thousands of years prior to Europeans showing an interest. There is an open question regarding the Macassan trepangers who sailed from Sulawesi in search of “edible holothurians” AKA trepang, sea cucumbers, bêche-de-mer or sea slugs. Interaction with the locals brought about some exchange of language, genes and perhaps germs and was underway before the poms began their colonisation. Did they tell the Dutch where to look or did the Dutch tell them where to go? None of the parties left a written record of how and when trepanging started.

Written history recommences when the English come on the scene and get antsy about the French poking around the remoter parts of the continent. Enter Matthew Flinders and the first recorded circumnavigation. In 1802 Flinders in the Investigator charted the Gulph shores. You can read his account on the Gutenberg Project website for free at https://gutenberg.net.au. He had the Dutch charts with him and found that he had a lot of tidying up to do. As well as the surveying he also took a keen interest in the birdlife …

Birds were rather numerous the most useful of them were ducks of several species, and bustards and one of these last, shot by Mr. Bauer, weighed between ten and twelve pounds, and made us an excellent dinner. The flesh of this bird is distributed in a manner directly contrary to that of the domestic turkey, the white meat being upon the legs, and the black upon the breast. In the woody parts of the islands were seen crows and white cockatoos; as also cuckoo-pheasants, pigeons, and small birds peculiar to this part of the country. On the shores were pelicans, gulls, sea-pies, ox-birds, and sand-larks; but except the gulls, none of these tribes were numerous.

A Voyage to Terra Australis Vol 2

By the end of the voyage the map looked like this …

and note the name “Australia”. The word first appeared in print on a world map in a German astronomical treatise published in 1545. It is unknown if Flinders knew this and adopted it or coined the word anew. Certainly he popularised it so either way it is to him that we should give thanks for our name.

The Gulf was left to itself for a while. Meanwhile King in HMS Mermaid surveyed the Kimberley region and also found a suitable place for a settlement north of present day Darwin. A colony was founded at the second attempt in 1838 at Port Essington. It would be abandoned in 1849.

In 1841 attention swung back to the gulf when J. Lort Stokes in the Beagle refined some of Flinders work and discovered the Albert River which he ascended in a longboat for a considerable distance. He was impressed with the grazing prospects on the banks.

With the seaside sorted it was now time for a land based expedition to find where to put the hotels and ice-cream parlours and establish a route for the cattle to reach the rich grazing lands. First out of the blocks was the enigmatic Ludwig Leichhardt leading a private expedition. He gets a mixed press. Sometimes portrayed as a hero sometimes as a bit of a nutter. He was from Germany via England. He had studied at university but never received a degree, continued a study of natural history and botany in England and France again without gaining formal qualification. He and his party with one exception had little or no experience in the Australian bush. He was volatile and involved in at least one fist fight in the course of the expedition.

At the last minute the party was joined by John Gilbert a distinguished ornithologist and collector who did know what he was doing. Unfortunately he died of a spear wound along the way.

The party sailed to Moreton Bay then set off overland in October 1844. Leichhardt arrived in Port Essington on 17 December 1845 after traveling roughly 4800km. The return journey was by ship. He received a hero’s welcome. He went on to lead two more expeditions neither of which was a great success. The second was quickly abandoned due to illness. The outcome of the third is unknown – no one returned to tell us. It may have ended somewhere in the Great Sandy Desert.

Next up was Augustus Charles Gregory. His party sailed from Moreton Bay in August 1855 around Cape York and west past the then abandoned Port Essington to the Victoria River not far from the present day town of Timber Creek NT and the WA border. After exploring south and west he headed east across the gulf pretty much retracing Leichhardt’s steps. Along the way he found a river that Leichhardt had misidentified as the Albert and was kind enough to name it the Leichhardt River. Gregory went on to a very distinguished career.

Gregory’s tree with the Victoria River in the background

There is a Boab at Gregory’s base on the Victoria river bearing an inscription. Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller, Australia’s most famous botanist described and named the species Adansonia gregorii in honour of his leader. So it truly is Gregory’s tree.

In 1861 Burke and Wills on their expedition north from Melbourne crossed the tracks of these parties on the east side of the gulf.

Lake Eacham …

Moving south on the Atherton Tablelands brings you in easy reach of the crater lakes and some fine rainforest remnants. Lake Eacham and its surrounding forest survived because of its scenic splendour when surrounding land was carved up for agriculture and is now preserved as national park in the World Heritage listed Wet Tropics. It makes a good base for exploring the region.

The lake originated when molten magma came into contact with ground water suddenly producing so much steam that an explosion ensued. In other words it’s a maar. Lake Barrine is another example. The Atherton Volcanic Province covers an area of 1800 square kilometers with 52 eruptive centres. It’s been quiet for the last 10,000 years which may mean it’s extinct … or perhaps not.

The avid bird watcher will want to visit both these lakes as well as other rainforest remnants, Hasties Swamp and Hypipamee National Park. One evening the sunset should be enjoyed at Bromfield Crater where hundreds of Brolga and Sarus Cranes fly in to spend the night. Spectacular but dress warmly!

Scarlet Honeyeater

Atherton Tablelands …

Macleay’s Honeyeater

The Atherton region is the richest birding hot spot in Australia. From mangroves and mudflats at the coast via lowland rainforest, wetlands, agricultural country to cool tropical forest at the top of Mount Lewis there is diversity every step of the way. Any budding birder would do well to make it their next holiday destination.

We stayed at Wetherby Station for a few days. It’s an old favorite of mine because it is handy for Mount Lewis and beautiful in its own right. It is a working cattle property which offers some accommodation options. It seemed to be just waking up from a covid induced slumber, hopefully it will be in full swing again soon. Without going out the gate you have three lagoons, some gardens, woodland and pasture. Just down the road along Rifle Creek there is some rainforest where you can find Pale Yellow Robin and Lovely Fairywren.

Some time in the garden was well rewarded. You’ve gotta love callistemon …

Along the entrance road I found something larger …

Squatter Pigeon