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 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.
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.
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!
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!
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 …