More than a few trees …

The Eyre Highway runs from Norseman, WA to Port Augusta, SA. It is very fittingly named after Edward John Eyre who was the first of the white colonists to travel the route.

He was just a young man of 25 when he accepted the chance to lead a party from Adelaide to the far west of Western Australia. Born in England Eyre had learned his bushcraft moving stock from Sydney where they were expensive, overland to sell in Melbourne and Adelaide where they were even more expensive. Following these trips he took cattle and sheep by ship to King George Sound – modern day Albany,WA, a fine natural harbour then overlanded them to the Swan River Settlement – now Perth. Whilst there he found considerable interest in the establishment of a stock route across the continent. When he got back to Adelaide he found a committee had been formed for that very purpose.

On 18th June 1840 Eyre set out as the leader of 6 white men including John Baxter who had frequently been overseer on Eyre’s previous ventures and two South Australian aborigines Joey and Yarry. A third aboriginal, Wylie, that Eyre had brought back from Western Australia subsequently joined the party.

The initial thrusts were to the north but were frustrated by lack of water. Progress, if it were to be made, would have to be nearer the coast. November found the party at Fowler’s Bay. Three attempts over the next few months won another 200 km to the Head of the Bight.

In February 1841 Eyre sent the majority of his party back.  He and Baxter pressed on with the three aborigines and 11 pack horses. It was to be do or die. In March they found good water at Eucla. By April the going was exceedingly tough. Their load had been lightened to the extent that they now had inadequate clothing. The aboriginal contingent had consented to the doing but had probably not been consulted about the dying clause in the contract and friction arose.

On the night of 29 April while Eyre was taking his watch over the horses he heard a gun shot. By the time he made it back to camp Baxter was dying from a gun shot to the chest and the two South Australian aborigines had decamped with all the serviceable firearms and most of the provisions.

A grave could not be dug in the solid rock. Baxter was wrapped in a blanket and left on the surface. Eyre and Wylie pressed on to the west. On the 2nd June they encountered a French ship near modern day Esperance and they enjoyed some relief from their hardship. Eyre insisted on completing the overland journey, accepted some supplies and the pair pressed on.

On July 7 Eyre and Wylie stood on a hill overlooking Albany, their journey just about over. Wylie was greeted by friends and family. Eyre was left to ponder “the embarrassing difficulties and sad disasters that had broken up my party.”

Eyre’s trek, Adelaide to Albany via the modern Eyre Highway is 2,695km (1,675 miles). The journey takes you across the Nullarbor Plain. Between Port Augusta and Norseman I don’t recall seeing any surface water whatsoever, a combination of dry climate (<250mm rain annually) and the limestone geology. Nullarbor comes from Latin and translates as No Trees but in fact much of the journey is through mallee and on the South Australian end there are even wheat fields by the side of the road. Only on the clifftop section near the South Australia border do you really have a barren landscape (although on foot that would seem more than sufficient).

Eucla
Telegraph Station ruins – Eucla
Bunda Cliffs

The entire highway is sealed (since 1976).

Norseman has a population of about 1000 people, Ceduna about 2,500. In between there is Caiguna (8), Cocklebiddy (19), Madura (18) and Eucla (53) for a total of 98 people spread over 1200km. Port Augusta is almost a metropolis at 13,500. Therein lies the challenge. This is not the place to breakdown or realise that you left your insulin at home.

There are two hills. Traveling west to east it seems as though it will be flat forever until the Madura Pass. Trucks are invited to take low gear and down you go. Off to the left now is a cliff that extends to the horizon, a reminder that sea level was not always what it is today. At Eucla you get to climb back up again.

Crossing the Nullarbor is on the bucket list for most Australians, it has an almost mythical appeal. Now that I’ve ticked it off I have to say

  1. it was nothing like I expected and …
  2. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

Low Tide …

There’s about 25 km of beach running from Gantheaume Point north to Willie Creek. This is Cable Beach, sun, surf, camels, tourists, very popular. But the further north you get the fewer people you encounter. The numbers would drop off faster if driving on the beach was forbidden, sadly it is permitted. There is some debate as to whether a full-time or part-time four-wheel drive is better on the beach. Personally, I think the best car for the purpose is somebody else’s car.

About 13 km up the beach from the Cable Beach Resort, or 25 km by road, is the suburb I know as Coconut Well, officially Waterbank. If you have a spare three or four million you can buy a nice home here. It won’t have mains electricity or town water but it will have a nice view.

At low tide there are some rocks exposed that are interesting to poke around in. Fish dart around in the tidal pools. There will be some migratory shorebirds about and perhaps a Frigatebird will fly over and if you’re really lucky you may see a Beach Stone-curlew …

Silver Gull
Beach Stone-curlew

The photo at the top is of an Eastern Reef Egret hunting through the pools. They often stand motionless, sometimes with their wings out to create some enticing shade. When a morsel presents itself the neck uncoils like a spring.

Roebuck Bay …

William Dampier made his first visit to New Holland in 1688. He explored this part of the coast on his second visit in 1699. Roebuck Bay is named after his ship. The sea is rich in invertebrate life some of which made a meal of HMS Roebuck’s planking. On the voyage home the worm-eaten ship was run ashore on Ascension Island before it could sink in open water. Dampier and his crew were marooned there for five weeks before being picked up and taken back to England.

There are two tides a day in the bay of about equal height (semidiurnal tides). The tidal range is massive exposing about 160 km2 of mudflat. The mud is rich in invertebrate life which provides food for the more than 100,000 migratory shorebirds that use the bay each year … HMS Roebuck’s revenge.

You can read just how incredibly rich <HERE>.

The north shore of the bay from close to Broome to Crab Creek is readily accessible. The Broome Bird Observatory is located close to the east end. The eastern and southern shore is a world of mangrove swamp and tidal creek more easily accessed from the water.

Tropical mudflats are a very different habitat than the tundra and steppes where the visiting birds breed. In summer the breeding grounds are so rich in mosquito larvae and other invertebrates that young shorebirds can feed themselves from the moment they hatch. On the other hand there’s no food available when the puddles are frozen or covered in snow so migration it is.

The migrants arrive in our southern spring and leave in autumn. They don’t all stay in the bay all summer, for some it’s just a staging post. Towards the end of their stay it is a great spot to quickly gain the weight that will be the fuel for the long flights ahead. Some birds do stay a year or two before making their first flight to the breeding grounds so there are some to be found all year.

The bay is Australia’s most important site for migratory shorebirds. The bay regularly supports more than 1% of the population of at least 22 different species. On any day during the wet season there are about 120,000 shorebirds out on the mud. The smallest is the Red-necked Stint. Much of the time it weighs about 25 to 30 grams (my little Fox Terrier weighs 10 kg, equivalent to 400 Stints). They will increase their weight by as much as 50% prior to departure on their 15,000 km journey to Siberia. The largest visitor is the Eastern Curlew at about 1 kg fuelled up and ready to leave.

Migration may seem like a very risky strategy but if a bird manages to make  the return trip once it is likely to do it many more times. Red-necked Stints have been known to live more than 20 years by which time they will have flown further than a return trip to the moon.

The bay is also home to the rare Australian Snubfin Dolphin.

At approximately 140 animals, the snubfin dolphin population occurring in the 100 km2 study area within Roebuck Bay is one of the largest reported in Australia to date and should be considered of regional and, indeed, national significance. Despite this relative magnitude, the population is small by conservation standards. We also provide preliminary evidence of fidelity to the study area for a majority of individuals …          <Murdoch University report>

Roebuck Bay is a unique place. It’s also a place under increasing pressure as Broome grows in size. Careful management is required if the natural values  are going to be preserved.

This post has been updated following discussion with my good friend Chris Hassell, a Birdlife International researcher involved in full time study of shorebirds in the bay.

Broome – the Bird Watcher’s Guide …

Every serious Australian bird watcher will find their way to Broome. The reason above all else is Roebuck Bay and the thousands of migratory shorebirds that visit every austral summer. Whilst the Bay is the main game it’s not the only game in town. There are a few hotspots around Broome itself that are easily accessible for the visitor and you won’t need to hire a guide to reach them.

Broome is situated on a peninsula and if we start at the southern end there is …

The Port

It’s well signposted. There are two spots to check out. As you approach the end of Port Drive turn right past Toll Mermaid Logistics along Kabbarli Road and follow it to the end. The beach here is good for waders and terns. Check the navigation structures offshore for Brown Boobies. Lesser Frigatebirds are regular. The scrub behind the beach has hosted some interesting species on occasion. All manner of goodies can turn up after a cyclone. Remember Indonesia is a mere 775 km away (485 mi).

The second spot is the cafe at the base of the pier. The garden looks out over Roebuck Bay, there are some scattered mangroves fairly close. Across the road you can look out on some rocks for Reef Egrets. There is a walkway along side the pier which may be open and it is worth walking a short way. Ospreys nest on the pier.

Sewage Ponds

Taking Port Drive back towards the town centre Clementson Street is on the right. Look out for a large water tower. The Sewage Treatment Plant is tucked away behind commercial properties on the south side of Clementson St. Access is via a dirt track very close to the corner with Port Drive, or a dirt track immediately east of the commercial properties. The latter is the better option after rain. The splendid new hide is on the west side of the main ponds and works best in the afternoon. There is also a small pond on the west side of a usually dry creek that is used to provide water to the golf course that is also worth checking out. Caution is required in the wet.

Mangroves – Town Beach to Streeter’s Jetty

If you continue east on Clementson to the end it takes a right angle bend onto Dora St. 2nd on the right is Hopton Street. Right again at the end of that takes you to town beach. Next to the carpark is a groin that runs out into the sea. Looking north from here there are mangroves stretching as far as the eye can see. Access is pretty good from Town Beach to Matso’s Brewery, opposite Bedford Park for example.

Streeter’s Jetty is behind Chinatown at the end of Short Street. If you stand at the base of the jetty and look to the right you will see some pipes protruding from the wall. Birds congregate here for fresh water, an excellent spot for photography.

Red-headed Honeyeater

Various Ovals

providing they are not in use are worth checking out for Yellow Wagtail, Golden Plover and Little Curlew, including …

Father McMahon Sports Field
Behind the Aquatic Centre, 2nd on the right heading NW on Cable Beach Rd from Frederick St.

Oval on corner of Frederick & Lyons Streets near the shopping centre.
There is a gate on Lyons St opposite Miller Way.

Derby Day …

Administratively Broome is part of the Kimberley but in terms of geology and biology it doesn’t quite fit. If you drive north to Derby you cross the Boab line and then the Fitzroy River. Now you’ve got one toe in the real Kimberley.

As you approach Derby the Prison Boab is off to your right. The tourist will want to have a quick look. The bird watcher will also want to stop. There is a cattle trough adjacent to the venerable tree that attracts the odd thirsty bird.

The next stop for the birdo is the sewage pond. On the left just past the speedway sign you’ll find a sign to Derby Wetland pointing down Conway Street. The road surface changes to dirt (dry season, mud in the wet). Don’t be tempted by the bitumen off to your right. At the end of Conway turn left, the ponds are now on your right, turn right again to keep them there. Shortly you encounter tracks off to the left both will take you to the wetland, the second one is usually in better condition.

The sewage plant may be the only one in the world to have a Boab tree within its boundaries. There was a fine White-bellied Sea Eagle sitting in it when I was last there. Good birds can be seen through the fence.

The wetland has been improved in recent years. The waste water used to run out the back making a very nice wetland where I’ve seen Ruff and other delicacies. The Golf Course coveted the water. So a pond was created to give the illusion of a wetland and the water was put to good use. It’s now an ideal place for Purple Swamphens and White Ibis. Whereas in the past every serious bird watcher in Australia found their way to Derby in the course of their career, maybe now every serious golfer treks here instead.

Then it’s into town, look out for Little Curlew on the ovals. I have even seen them on the median strip. The port is worth a visit. You can peer into the mangroves at the boat ramp. There’s a nice cafe by the pier.

photo – GHD

Someone in an air-conditioned office thought it would be nice to put a walkway between the port and town through the most desolate landscape you’ll find this side of the Sahara. If you’re planning to migrate to Mars you could train here.