Chris Watson

Darwin

The heart of the Never Never

TourismChris Watson

This piece was first published in Great Walks' Annual Bumper Edition in January 2016.

Mick Jerram from Gecko Canoeing &Trekking led us clear across the Top End's two famous national parks.

Great Walks spent a week hiking in Arnhem Land and came back the wiser.

Halfway up a precipitous scramble in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park, a foot slips somewhere above me.

“All good Mick?!” I call up the cliff face. A pebble bounces past and into the dark pool at the base of Motorcar Falls, 30 metres below. The reply comes quickly, “YEP! No worries. Come on!” Mick has found a way. Mick Jerram is the nuggety former Royal Australian Air Force PT instructor leading us on a walk that will take us across some of the most spectacular and rarely seen parts of the Arnhem Land Plateau.

We eventually strain and scramble our way to the top of Motorcar Falls to be rewarded with views across the entire region known to Jawoyn traditional owners as Yurmikmik – named in onomatopoeic homage for the call of the White-throated Grasswren which calls this area home.

From Motorcar Falls we trek along Yurmikmik ridge, stopping just once to evade an aborted charge by four Water Buffalo. We retreat to the safety of a nearby rock pile and the buffalo vanish into the scrub as quickly as they had appeared. Further on, a hiker’s boot disturbs a rock. From underneath, a harmless Children’s Python makes off to avoid the disturbance. Bird song surrounds us, and the trees are alive with movement. We count the number of different birds we can identify as we go along and the list tops fifty species before we arrive at our first camp on Kurrundie Creek.

Heading upstream

We can swim in the pools surrounding the falls here; we are above the level at which Saltwater Crocodiles may occur following the wet season.  Walking upstream takes us onto the terraced sandstone plateau. We pass bemused denizens of the sandstone like the prehistoric-looking Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon. Small groups of these plump, pin-headed birds scatter from the terraces as we approach.

We pause to scrutinise rock art galleries. Mick proves here to also be adept at interpreting the ancient daubs of Jawoyn ancestors. He identifies animals and ancestral beings for us, while leaving silence enough for our imaginations to travel. It’s impossible not to make comparisons between our journey, and the journeys of those people who have walked this country in eons past. The temptation to label such places as wilderness, denies the clear reality that, as wild as it is, this is a cultural landscape; a human place.

Continuing deeper into the sandstone country, the terraces erode to minarets and the fissured rock becomes a labyrinth capable of absorbing and disorienting the unwary navigator. We cross the watershed and camp by the flowing waters of Dinner Creek.

The landscape transforms here. Water cascades down sandstone falls every hundred metres or so. The sound of moving water is the constant soundtrack to life. This is remote country, and it feels it. By starlight we search the riverbanks for wildlife. Euros (bulky hill kangaroos) bound along the rocks. In a crevice, again adorned with ancient artwork, we encounter another endemic inhabitant of this region, a Northern Giant Cave Gecko.

Northern Giant Cave Gecko

Timeless landscape

Setting off in the morning it seems logical to assume it’ll be an easy walk from here on; a simple matter of following the watercourse down to its confluence with the South Alligator River. But walking in this landscape is rarely so straightforward. We skirt around ever larger falls until we’re stopped by the main falls on Dinner Creek; a 20 metre cascade with sheer rock on either side. We’re momentarily stupefied by the prospect of a lengthy walk to get around this barrier when Mick yet again finds a way. He spies a navigable scramble down a re-entrant to one side of the falls, and after a wary descent, we’re on the floor of a gorge straight out of Jurassic Park.

We pick our way along the river bed, and it feels as though few other people have had the privilege of visiting this magical hidden gem of a place. Ferns cover the water’s edge. Huge Black-banded Fruit Doves zip across the gorge overhead searching for ripe figs.

A regional endemic - Black-banded Fruit Dove

In due course we have to start taking care to avoid the dark waters that are now almost certainly home to salties. Having seen only 4 other hikers during our six day walk, it feels like we have emerged from a very special part, of one of the Northern Territory’s truly special wild places.

Just one of the extensive network of Top End routes that await discovery by keen hikers, Yurmikmik is only possible with permits and a talented, experienced and accredited guide. It connects the numerous trails within Kakadu NP with some of the lesser-known routes through Nitmiluk NP on its southern border. The walks here (the Jatbula Trail and many routes making their way up to the headwaters of the Katherine River) are rapidly earning a reputation for being among the best marked and “off-trail” walks in the country.

The permits required to complete these walks, far from being a troublesome barrier, should be seen for what they are: a welcome measure to protect an area of world-famous cultural and ecological significance and sensitivity. In every sense of the word, walking in such parts of the NT’s Top End is a privilege, and an experience never to be forgotten.

JATBULA TRAIL

The Jatbula Trail features magnificent waterfalls tumbling from the high sandstone escarpment. These feed into creeks surrounded by shady monsoon forests and the rock outcrops of the escarpment providing great opportunities to view ancient rock art, and cool off with great swimming spots. It’s a medium to hard walk and you’ll need to be able to carry a full pack over rough ground. The majority of people walk the trail independently however more people are starting to use guides. There are emergency call devices (ECD) and checkpoint book registers along the way. More info www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au

NEED TO KNOW

Kakadu National Park

Located 240km east of Darwin in Australia’s tropical north, Kakadu NP is Australia’s largest terrestrial national park. Kakadu covers almost 20,000 sq km and is a place of enormous ecological and biological diversity. It extends from the coast and estuaries in the north through floodplains, billabongs and lowlands to rocky ridges and stone country in the south. These landscapes are home to a range of rare and endemic plants and animals, including more than one third of Australia’s bird species and one quarter of its freshwater and estuarine fish species.

Nitmiluk National Park

This 292,800 ha national park is owned by the Jawoyn Aboriginal people and jointly managed with NT’s Parks and Wildlife Commission. Some of the park’s features include spectacular dissected sandstone country, broad valleys and numerous, significant cultural sites. The deep gorge carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River is the central attraction of the park. The park’s main entrance is 30km northeast of Katherine via a sealed road. Katherine is located 310km south of Darwin along the Stuart Highway. Leliyn (Edith Falls) on the western side of the park is reached by turning off the Stuart Highway 42km north of Katherine then following a sealed road for a further 19km.

Need to know

The walk was conducted by Mick Jerram from Gecko Canoeing & Trekking, Ph: 1800 634 319, gecko@nttours.com

 

Birds of the Darwin Region by Niven McCrie and Richard Noske

Review, birdingChris Watson

While it seems another El Niño is looming, the flow of good Australian natural history books is far from drying up. This is perhaps most true for books about our birds. In recent years we’ve welcomed Dolby and Clarke’s Finding Australian Birds, Fraser and Gray’s Australian Bird Names and the re-release of Alec Chisholm’s classic Mateship with Birds to name just a few. All of these are exciting examples of passionate advocates for Australia’s birds, putting their heads together and sharing accumulated knowledge with an eager audience.

This recent release from CSIRO Publishing, is no exception; it’s astonishing. It’s the sort of book that makes you excited about being a naturalist. For the many who are already familiar with the authors’ other work, this will come as no surprise. McCrie is perhaps best known as the author, with James Watson (no relation), of that other beloved Top End treatise, Finding Birds in Darwin, Kakadu & the Top End. A founder of the prime online reference for Top End birders, the NT Birds newsgroup, he has also been a well-loved tour leader for visitors to the Top End over many years. Richard Noske’s prolific scholarship of birds in northern Australia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific is well established. He was senior lecturer in biology at CDU for some 26 years, authored, with Graham Brennan, another work of great interest to northern birders, 2002‘s Birds of Groote Eylandt, and is the current chief editor of the journal of Indonesian ornithology, Kukila.

Laurie Ross' eye-catching Rainbow Pitta adorns the cover. One of the easier to see of this typically elusive family, and still relatively easily found around Darwin.

Happily, it’s a fairly common practice in Australia for local experts to work up a guide to the birds of their town, region, or patch. Such experts are, typically, deeply knowledgeable long-term residents, enthusiastic about recording for posterity all of the vagrant records, seasonal movements, and breeding ecology of the birds of their locality. You don’t have to look far to find self-published guides to this town or that shire. Sometimes these are simply brief pamphlets produced under the photo-copying budget of the town council, but range to more elaborate spiral-bound affairs produced with funding from local field naturalists’ clubs or Landcare groups. McCrie & Noske’s Birds of the Darwin Region, seems likely to become the yardstick by which such guides are measured.

The executive summary for this collaboration? If you’re a birder, ecologist, or you’re at all interested in the natural history of Australia’s north, you’ll want this book.

Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly a labour of love from two long-term residents of the region. Indeed, a book of this kind is only made possible by authors with the intimate knowledge of an area that comes from living in it year round. There are some noteworthy absences from the species list, which serve to remind you of the limited geographic scope of the book. No Variegated Fairy-wren (the treated area doesn’t extend as far as the sandstone country); no Chestnut-backed Button-quail; no Masked Owl; no Dusky Moorhen. Maybe some of these occur in the vicinity of Darwin but clearly none have been confirmed within the treatment area.

The species accounts are accompanied by seasonality charts, and distribution maps. The region is divided into a grid of 64 cells with explanatory notes at the front of the book detailing the number of surveys providing data for each cell.  

The research the authors have done in confirming or discounting records is, no doubt, all but exhaustive. There is an ‘unconfirmed species’ section toward the back for those few birds lacking sufficient substantiation for their occurrence to be admitted without question. Otherwise, the records in the list can be considered ‘gold standard’; thoroughly referenced… and what references. For keen NT listers the references pages of this book alone will be a crucial reference.

McCrie & Noske have done an extraordinary service to Australian ornithology, in compiling, organising, and vetting the observations and publications of the many naturalists who have studied Darwin’s birds in the past. To this end, there’s also a ‘history of ornithology’ section in the front of Birds of the Darwin Region, giving deserved acknowledgement to those who went boldly (recklessly?) before onto the mangals and mudflats, before the days of that great ruiner of lenses, Bushman’s Plus™ tropical strength insect repellent.

The species accounts are wonderfully in-depth without being academically soporific; authoritative while managing to be almost conversational in style. Each account is highly readable. Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly focused on the birds of this one defined area, but as many of these species occur across northern Australia, and even farther afield in some cases, it will have relevance far beyond the bounds of Darwin as well.

Without even going past the waterfowl there are numerous examples of what makes this such a valuable and readable reference. The species account for one of the Top End’s iconic species, Magpie Goose, runs over four pages. It not only contains the expected information about its life cycle and habits around Darwin, but some interesting insights into how local policy and community attitudes can affect a species. Recreational hunters, indigenous hunters and mango growers all influence the movements and site use of this species which, in turn, can influence the health of areas used by the birds.

NT waterfowl hunting season: Anger over 34 geese carcasses dumped near rural property

Still among the waterfowl, what about that most infuriating of ducks – Garganey? This ‘Artful Dodger’ of ducks has certainly eluded my Australian list as skilfully as the Dickensian urchin. I first lived full-time in the NT from 2006. In the 26 years preceding 2006, Garganey was recorded in 20 of them, including a staggering 125 birds at Leanyer in 1991. From 2006 to 2014 (the cut-off for entries in this book) it was seen by… no-one. Well, not quite. No-one except for my arch-rival in NT listing, Mick Jerram, who spotted 3 of the birds on the Katherine River in 2008. The perfect grip.    

Birds of the Darwin Region with some other familiar volumes for size comparison. There is a lot in this book. 

Birds of the Darwin Region boasts many truly enlightening factoids; things I’d never read anywhere else before. Take this sterling opening sentence to a species account for example: “Although among the smallest of the world’s swans, the Black Swan’s neck is proportionately longer than in any other, giving it a uniquely elegant silhouette.” My favourite though, is at the other end of the book, in the species account for Canary White-eye: “It has the ability to prise open small flowers… by inserting its somewhat wedge-shaped bill into the floral tube, then gaping, behaviour known as zirkelning.” In the landmark textbook of our pursuit, Ornithology (3rd edition), the author Frank B. Gill lists only four entries in the index under the letter Z: Z sex chromosomes; zeitgebers; zugunruhe; and zygodactyl. Zirkelning? Nowhere to be found. For this alone McCrie and Noske have my admiration.

Finally, Birds of the Darwin Region draws on records from a number of databases; the NT Fauna Atlas, Eremaea Birds (and latterly Eremaea eBird) and the Darwin Bird Atlas project among others. I suspect it’s highly likely that anyone reading this will have contributed observations to one or many such databases, and you can be justifiably proud in pointing to this book as the fruit which is ultimately borne by such citizen science projects.

Darwin is deservedly renowned as one of the top birding destinations in Australia, which places it high in the running worldwide. With Birds of the Darwin Region, Niven McCrie and Richard Noske have cemented their place in any future history of Top End ornithology to be written, and provided an indispensable reference for visitors and researchers for many years to come.

CBW

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