Chris Watson

Northern Territory

NIGHT PARROT FOUND IN NORTHERN TERRITORY

Research, Press ReleaseChris Watson

PRESS RELEASE

 

For Immediate Release

For additional information please contact:

Chris Watson

Mob. 0419 358 942

Email: birdscentral@gmail.com

 

NIGHT PARROT FOUND IN NORTHERN TERRITORY

Acoustic recording reveals call of probable Night Parrot in southern NT

In early 2017 zoologists Chris Watson and Mark Carter found a bird call in an acoustic recording that could not be positively identified. The site of the recording is a stand of very old thick spinifex (Triodia longiceps) surrounded by natural gibber firebreaks. The call recorded is a series of short constant frequency whistles at around 2.2kHz. The time of the call is roughly an hour after sunset. There had been rain at the site shortly before the call was recorded.

Two observers have since heard the call repeated at the site, in one instance coming from thick spinifex close to the observer.

No further recordings of the call have been identified (however, many hours of acoustic data from the site has been gathered which is yet to be analysed). 

The call is a similar frequency and tone to Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) calls recorded in Queensland and recently released to the public, but differs in its length (see sonogram image). In March it was announced that Night Parrots found in Western Australia have calls which differ from the birds in Queensland. After liaising with the ornithologists who found the Western Australian population we were able to compare our recorded call to other examples of Night Parrot whistle calls from WA. While there is not an exact match, the calls from WA Night Parrot and the bird recorded in the NT are very similar. 

The land system in which the call recording was made is extensive and hosts many locations which correspond with the known habitat requirements for this species elsewhere in Australia. 

We are proceeding on the basis that we have detected a probable Night Parrot in the Northern Territory. Work is now underway with the relevant statutory body to gather more data at the site and identify more locations in the wider landscape where this bird may occur.

We have deliberated for some time on whether to release this information into the public domain. We cannot access enough reference material to make this a fully confirmed record of the bird (or to dismiss it as another species). We have both been openly critical of the extreme secrecy and intrigue which has surrounded this species in recent years. Where practical, we will release information as soon as we can; particularly information that will assist others in finding the bird elsewhere. 

As the tentative identification of the call was partly reliant on acoustic data which is not ours to release we are limited to releasing the sonogram image of our call only, not that of the reference calls from Western Australia. 

We will not be sharing location data of this site under any circumstances in the interest of the bird’s conservation.

 

Press Release on Mark Carter's site including sonogram images.

The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia: An Early Account by A. E. Newsome

Review, EcologyChris Watson

by Thomas Newsome and Alan Newsome

CSIRO Publishing, July 2016

Paperback AU$39.95

“Desert lands have an appealing starkness and simplicity. The very grain of the countryside is exposed to all. Ancient mountain ranges plunge and rear from the plains. Rocks and boulders lie tumbled at their feet. Dry watercourses break through mountain gorges to meander and die in the desert. Stunted trees stand mutely enduring the heat.

Biological survival in such a land is not simple.” - p.15-16

 

It is just such a land, however, which is home to the Red Kangaroo Osphranter rufus; the largest extant marsupial on Earth and Australia’s largest terrestrial mammal. The Red Kangaroo is an Australian icon that ranks with Uluru and the Sydney Opera House for international recognition. The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia presents the gathered thoughts and findings on the species, from the early work of one of the great minds of Australian ecology.

Alan Newsome’s work was already familiar to me when I gained employment as an environmental consultant in Alice Springs in 2011. As it happens, Alan’s son, Thomas Newsome, was working at the firm which took me on, and I’d learn that he is a gifted ecologist in his own right. I’d been living in Central Australia for several years at that time and, being interested in the ecology of Central Australian fauna, Alan Newsome’s name was a regular feature on my reading list. Though I only worked with Thomas for a short time, my excitement at the publication of The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia comes, not only from my own affinity for the country and animals that it describes, but from an appreciation of his standing, and his father’s, in the Australian ecological community.

Alan began studying the Red Kangaroo in 1957 and it’s important to appreciate how rudimentary our understanding of the animal’s ecology was at that time. Alan was the first to discover many of the behavioural and physiological adaptations that have allowed the species to live so successfully in a landscape with such famously extreme and irregular conditions. Working on the beautiful plains to the north of the MacDonnell Range, Alan methodically uncovered the mysteries of the Red Kangaroo’s life. His book takes us through the challenges the kangaroo must overcome to survive in this country in chapters dealing with the landforms, climate and vegetation; distribution and abundance; reproduction (some of Alan’s most astonishing discoveries relate to the reproductive biology of the Red Kangaroo and these breakthroughs, and the methods by which they were revealed, are presented in considerable detail); food and water; sociology and a final chapter titled Ecomythology.

In addition to the main body of text there is an enlightening foreword by famed marsupial biologist Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe and a preface by Thomas Newsome in his role as co-author and editor. [Alan Newsome passed away in 2007. This book is the edited result of a mostly complete manuscript which Thomas discovered among Alan’s effects in 2010.]

In the intervening decades since Alan Newsome’s field work, another generation of ecologists has built on his findings and we understand the Red Kangaroo’s biology well. But perhaps the great story presented by The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia, and a thread running through the entire book, is Alan’s determination to also come to grips with the Aranda* understanding of kangaroo ecology.

Like few other outback zoologists since Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, Newsome allows room for Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) to be interpreted scientifically and considered alongside his own findings. The culmination of the book is in the final chapter titled Ecomythology in which Alan sets out the close alignment of his own hard-won knowledge with the traditional knowledge of his Aranda colleagues. The world has turned now and it is routine for IEK to be incorporated into scientific research and reporting, but we see the foundations of this practice in Alan’s work at a time when such considerations were by no means commonplace.

In addition to the book’s value as an important work of science and history, it is a beautiful piece of writing. As the brief excerpt I’ve used reveals, Alan's was an engaging writing style, as stripped-back and plain as the desert landscapes he describes. As an avowed desert-lover myself, Alan’s deep affection for the country in which he spent so much of his career, is instantly relatable from the way he writes about it. He also had that all-too-rare talent for rendering scientific writing enjoyable for the reader, without sacrificing any of its rigour. The ease of his style is such that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia reads more like a story than a scientific treatise at times. This is testament to his ability to render deep scholarship comprehensible to the lay-reader rather than any “dumbing down” or skimping on detail.

Ultimately, The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will appeal to an audience far beyond the ranks of biologists. It includes almost as much history and anthropology as it does ecology. It’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons with the writings of other prominent Centralian researchers like T.G.H. Strehlow, with whom Alan discussed his work at some length, and the correspondence of the aforementioned Spencer and Gillen.

As well as being a peerless account of animal ecology and scientific investigation in the desert, it is a postcard from Central Australia and the ecological adventures of a young scientist on a personal journey of discovery. There is no doubt that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will continue to inspire and inform future generations of Australian ecologists for a very long time to come.

CBW

 

*Also spelled Arrernte and Arunta, these are the Aboriginal Australians who are the traditional custodians of the lands surrounding Alice Springs and much of the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Grasswren Grand Slam in Record Time

Birding, TourismChris Watson

There’s a well-known saying among birders, particularly among those who live near the coast: seabirders are real birders. Anyone who has spent a day on the blue paddock trying to compare the bill dimensions of prions while dodging the sluicing chunder from birders of more delicate constitution as the floor rolls under your feet and the salt spray mists your binocular lenses will understand that it’s a claim not without some justification.

In Australia though, it’s arguable that there is one other type of extreme birding that may lay claim to also being the domain of “real” birders: grasswrenning. That’s a word now.

I’ve heard it said that any old duffer can notch up a list of a few hundred species in Australia if they simply do some pretty basic birding and visit a handful of different regions. International birding tours sometimes rack up Australian bird lists of 400 or even 500 species in just a few weeks of busy birding and a few internal flights. But a good measure of an Australian bird list, and of the true birding grit of the list-owner, is the number of grasswrens on the list.

The grasswrens in the genus Amytornis are a group of birds which are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. They’re among those bird species which can look drab or boring in a field guide but which routinely knock your socks off in the field when they are up close. If you’re lucky enough to get a prolonged look at any species of grasswren in the open, their plumage reveals all sorts of subtleties that you won’t have anticipated.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, adult female.

There are anywhere between 10 and 14 species recognised, depending which taxonomy you follow. None of them live in particularly accessible places and most live in decidedly remote and difficult terrain. Most of them favour the shin-ruining spinifex grasses; a group of plants with the distinction of being both figuratively and literally, a complete prick. The ones that don’t live in spinifex, live in clumps of similarly dense and unfriendly vegetation. They range from some of the hottest and driest deserts to the humid and monsoonal tropics. They’re mostly furtive, shy, and able to disappear from view in their chosen habitat leaving a birder feeling completely gormless in the infuriating knowledge that the birds are all around, at close range, but completely hidden from view and unlikely to reveal themselves.

A few species favour rocky slopes with either loose scree underfoot or large boulders that only a rock wallaby, and the grasswrens themselves, can safely negotiate. Some are endangered and disappearing from their already restricted ranges as a result of fire, feral cats, land clearing, or combinations of all three.

Grasswren habitat: harsh, beautiful and remote. Cane grass on dunes of the Simpson Desert is home to the Eyrean Grasswren A. goyderi.

So in summary: they’re small, rare, fast, furtive, superbly cryptic, hard to get to, hard to find, and hard to see if you do find them. And this is their charm. They’re a real birder’s bird.

Well-known South Australian ornithologist and tour leader Peter Waanders recently hatched a plan with two of my Northern Territory off-siders. It was a plan that was nothing if not ambitious and, frankly, had some questioning Peter’s sanity – to see all species of grasswren in a single tour. It’s audacious. If ever a leader was going to be able to pull-off such a feat of birding brilliance, Peter’s name would be near the top of the list. His guiding outfit, Bellbird Tours, is already best-known for running the regular 6- and 9-grasswren tours which plough through the dry interior of the country each year and only rarely miss any of their targets. His dry country tours also have an enviable strike rate with other highly-sought desert delicacies like Grey Falcon and Letter-winged Kite.

To cut a very long story short – they did it.

In an achievement which must be a historic first for Australian birding, Bellbird’s Great Grasswren Air Safari saw all 11 of the currently (widely-accepted) species of grasswren in just 14 days [and I think they may have seen one of the proposed splits as well which would take their total to 12 species by Clements taxonomy]. In fact, the news of their final tick, White-throated Grasswren Amytornis woodwardi, came through the day before the tour ended so they actually saw every grasswren species in 13 days.

For anyone familiar with traveling in outback Australia, you’ll understand what an extraordinary achievement this is. By car, aircraft (both fixed-wing and helicopter), and finally on foot, the intrepid band crossed the entire continent. With crucial assistance from Red Centre expert Mark Carter and Top End bird-finder and River God, Mick Jerram, they nailed the tricky central and northern species.

In under a fortnight, they found and saw an entire endemic genus; a genus of our most infamously challenging birds. I’d be surprised if there is anyone else who has ever completed this coveted full house in less than a month. Well done one and all and congratulations Peter, Mark and Mick – only other tour leaders will ever understand how nerve-wracking a tour like this can be.

A Short Digression

Amid all the back-slapping and the celebratory Darwin stubbies though, there’s another consideration. An important aspect of an initiative like this is that it demonstrates the productive symbiosis that can exist between research and tourism. This is a partnership which is well-established in numerous locations internationally but has yet to be widely-explored in Australia.

Some grasswren species are infrequently recorded and their distributions are imperfectly known. Many of the species which are seen each year are recorded at the same sites; well-known sites where public access is granted and the birds are known to be present. Tours like this don’t just provide an opportunity for birders to get difficult species on their lists. They also provide the means for experts (and all of the leaders on this tour are certainly that), to visit different areas, both during the tour and on reconnaissance visits during preparation. During these visits, birds are sometimes found at new sites. Breeding activity is sometimes noted. Previously occupied sites might be discovered to have been abandoned or habitat destroyed. Non-target species are also noted and atlas surveys are completed. All of this is crucial observational data which is coming from country rarely accessed by researchers from professional research organisations because visiting is prohibitively expensive.

Research and data collection of this nature being funded, directly or indirectly, by tourism is something we really ought to discuss more often and support wholeheartedly.

 

Well done again to all involved and particular congratulations to Peter, Mark, Mick and the team at Bellbird Tours for pulling off the grip of the year.

CBW

We Don't Climb

OpinionChris Watson

Nobody should be climbing Uluru*.

That’s what I thought when I first contemplated the dilemma – to climb or not to climb - in 2006 and nothing has changed.

DON'T PUSH THE RED BUTTON.

What did you just think of? There’s an interesting phenomenon in human psychology, closely linked with negative suggestion, called reactance. It’s that ugly, irksome little voice in your head that urges you to step on the lawn as soon as you see a sign that says, “KEEP OFF”.

We'll return to Uluru in a minute. I promise there is a point here. Stick with me.

In essence, reactance is a response to a perceived limitation or the threat of removal of choice, and it has the potential to make us act against our own best interests. In the clinical version of the experiment, a person, often a child but not necessarily, is sat in a room with a big, bright red button on the wall. The administrator of the test leaves the subject alone in the room with a single definite instruction – DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. In almost every case, the subject will press the button. Sometimes there is an incentive involved as well; a bag of sweets or a quantity of cash if they simply DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. They’ll still press it. Derren Brown upped the ante by leaving a subject alone in a room with a fluffy kitten in a metal cage that would be electrified, killing the cat, if she pressed the button. He even offered her a pile of cash, in addition to the fact that she’d be sparing the kitty’s life, if she would simply not press the button for 5 minutes once he left the room. I won’t spoil the ending. The point is that it can be a very strong response. It has been well-studied in relation to childhood development, parenting and teaching but it can even have relevance to international relations.

Blood & Guts: dispatches from the whale wars, is a fascinating account of the antagonisation of the Japanese whaling fleet by Sea Shepherd. In it, Sam Vincent concludes that Japan isn’t so much pro-whaling as it is anti-anti-whaling. The claim is that Sea Shepherd were pushing at an open door by going after the Japanese whalers. It was already an industry in steeper decline than the populations of the animals it pursued and the market for the meat was niche, at best, and dwindling. But when Sea Shepherd came onto the scene and started niggling at the last remaining vestiges of the dying industry, the whalers dug their heels in. Faced with overwhelming opprobrium from the West and the harassment by Sea Shepherd, they chose to keep on whaling. This was a move that was counterproductive, destructive and expensive, and it saw Japanese whaling persist long past the point at which it was no longer a profitable industry; pure reactance in action. The façade of whaling as research was always as thin as rice paper, and the continued whale harvest was really just a middle finger to those who were telling them to stop; specifically to Sea Shepherd. Sea Shepherd might have seen an end to Japanese whaling years earlier had they simply… not bothered. Sea Shepherd provided the big red button that invited pushing.

It’s an interesting example and I recommend the book. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty sure that this infantile response has a part to play in our bizarre reluctance to close Uluru to climbing, and certainly with some peoples’ fixation on climbing, especially once they’re told they shouldn’t.

Prohibition really does bring out the worst in us doesn't it?

Nobody should be climbing Uluru.

I sat and watched, troubled, as the line of tourists marched along the chain, up to the top, then back down the same way. There’s an inherent, generally harmless, futility in the human urge to climb things but the fact that so many people, particularly Australians, have no compunction about climbing Uluru is, for me, a phenomenon infused with ennui.

From the widescreen vantage point behind the steering wheel of my bus parked at the base of Uluru, a similar tawdry scene would play out before me for many years to come. Shifting tides of cars and buses would ebb and flow around my quiet and fly-free little sanctuary. People would scuffle past looking for somewhere to empty their bladder; asking their tour guide if they’ll need water (always); shoes (of course); a camera (dunno – do you want to take pictures?) or a jumper (shit – should we just ring your mum?) Eventually they’d either climb up Uluru or head off on the roughly three hour walk around its base.

The climbers always had a bit of theatre to go through.

We all do things we know are bad; either bad for us, bad for some other poor sod or perhaps even bad for society in some way. We drive like reckless idiots, eat bad food or drink too much or too often and we buy shoes, cars and countless other goods that almost certainly required the exploitation of more than a few hapless individuals before coming into our possession. We justify these behaviours to ourselves in one way or another. Generally, the degree to which we’re aware of the ramifications of our choices is in inverse proportion to the ease with which we can rationalise them. At the base of Uluru there is a single gate allowing access to the climbing route to the top. To get through that gate you have to walk past a wall of signage with the same information written out in sextuplicate, each time in a different language. On each panel the language is similarly polite. To paraphrase the precise wording: Anangu* don’t climb Uluru. This is a very special sacred place for Anangu. Anangu request that you choose not to climb also.

No prohibitions. No fist-shaking. No threats of any consequences whatsoever. Just a polite request that you don’t climb – both for your safety and Anangu peace of mind. For many, it’s the big red button they just can’t resist.

There can be few people who arrive at the base of the climb without already being aware of the Anangu wish for people to shun climbing. It’s prominently featured on the walls and signs in the information centre at Yulara where every tourist stays during their visit. It’s on the walls at the Cultural Centre inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta* National Park (UKTNP) before you reach Uluru. It’s written on the ticket that you have to buy at the entry station and it is written on the detailed visitor guide that you receive when you buy that ticket. If they’re doing their job properly, it will also have been related to every visitor by their tour guide, long before they reach the car park.

It may not be on the tips of the tongues of the international travel agents selling people Red Centre holiday packages, but somewhere between boarding a plane and getting all the way out to Uluru the news will have reached most ears: the Traditional Owners would like people to stop climbing Uluru.

For some, perhaps it’s the politeness of the request that throws them. We’re used to signs telling us things in definite terms – stop, keep left, no smoking. The situation at Uluru hands the choice back to the reader: walk around Uluru if you’d like to respect the wishes of Aboriginal custodians or, alternatively, gratify your own desire to climb up and disregard this polite request from your hosts altogether. Please yourself.

Some would scurry back for furtive chats of clarification with their tour guide. Some would pace along perusing each panel of the sign intently as if they actually spoke Mandarin, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Italian. Searching for a loophole. Others had clearly made their choice well in advance and marched directly from the bus, past the huddled groups still wrestling with the dilemma, to commence their scramble up the gentlest slope of the old inselberg.

But the glorious indifference of the sign at the base of the Uluru climb leaves no wiggle room for climbers to rationalise their choice. It’s a wonderfully binary proposition and any attempt to argue shades of grey into the picture can be easily refuted with any number of obvious analogies and thought experiments. At mosques, synagogues and chapels around the world there are entreaties and expectations regarding decorous behaviour, respectful reverence and various clothing prohibitions or stipulations. At most of these places, such conditions are not optional and, if it came to it, would be enforced. But what if they weren’t?

Surely a reasonable person wouldn’t kick a football around in a church or wear dirty shoes in a mosque would they? (Incidentally, I don’t have the slightest bit of respect for, or belief in, any of the vast array of closely held human superstitions that lurk under the misnomers of spirituality or religion. Whether they were concocted last century, last millennium or before the Holocene interglacial, none have any claims on truth and most are divisive, destructive and counter-productive to the aims of human prosperity and well-being. In 2016 you’d have to be wilfully ignorant of massive swathes of human history and scientific advancement to think otherwise. Not surprisingly then, given my opinion on religion and other spiritual hokum, it’d be hard to find a more strenuous critic of the Catholic Church than me. But I still know that it’s appropriate to sit quietly in a church. Mind you, my tour guiding career spanned the previous Papal visit to Australia and we were very busy running charter tours to Uluru for church groups from around the globe…. they all climbed. But I digress.)

My itinerary always brought me to the Mala car park (where the climb begins) straight after sunrise. I’d walk along the base of Uluru with my guests for the first hour, providing them with interpretive ditties on local flora and fauna, Anangu customs and of course the rock itself. After the first hour I’d leave them so they could follow the path around the rest of the base walk at their own pace and without me talking at them. More importantly, this meant I could go back to the bus, eat an orange in peace and maybe grab forty winks. Bliss. This was how I came to have a front row seat for all this climb nonsense a few times a week, for five years.  

Of course, some of my guests would double back to climb up Uluru if it was open. UKTNP regulations require that tour guides inform guests of the desire of Anangu Traditional Owners that their wishes be respected and guests choose to not climb Uluru. This was something I took seriously and I always went out of my way to help people understand all the relevant issues, but I had a wildly varied success rate. Even so, averaged over five years I’d say fewer than 10% of my passengers chose to climb Uluru.

Notably though, my success rate with Australian passengers was lower. Ask a Red Centre tour guide - you can’t tell Australians anything. During school holidays we would always get a lot of school trips; of the ones I guided 100% of students climbed up Uluru along with most of their teachers. Many had decided even before they departed school grounds that it would be the crowning achievement of the trip; the main reason for going. Many groups arrived with “Top-of-the-Rock” team t-shirts all ready for the occasion. Even when I worked through the teachers to try and suggest that the base walk was a better and more culturally sensitive choice, I was just spinning my wheels. Apparently, the “teachable moment” was not yet a thing.

It preoccupied me at the time and I still think about it whenever the topic pops up in the media.

How is this still a thing? A 50/50 result in a Fairfax poll with this many votes is arguably enough to say the country is still split on the question.

Recently, the question of climbing arguably Australia’s second most-famous icon (Sydney can have their opera house) and probably the world’s most recognisable rock, has been in the press again. A journalist friend, Jo Stewart, approached me for a few words about the topic after being approached herself by a shadowy young activist who had liberated ‘The Climb’ of a few lengths of its infamous chain. In her article for The Saturday Paper the man, speaking under the pseudonym John, stated that his main intention was to, “respect Uluru and bring it to the attention of Australians”. Sitting here barely two weeks after that story went to print, you’d have to say that he has achieved his goal.

Following Jo’s piece, the Fairfax papers ran a story following up on a statement from Australia’s own “Greatest Minister In The World”, Greg Hunt. Despite most of the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan 2010-2020 for the permanent closure of the climb being met, Hunt’s office decreed there were, “no plans to change current arrangements.”

Then The Monthly online ran a pithy piece by Sean Kelly, which covered off on a few of the obvious points that make the climbing of Uluru such an important issue for Australia to deal with if it’s going to have any hope of claiming even a modicum of success in its pursuit of reconciliation.

If The Apology was the low-hanging fruit of reconciliation politics, the closing of the Uluru climb is ripe for picking.

And to torture the analogy further, fruit left too long goes rotten.

It would be a simple ban to put in place. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, Uluru is unclimbable without gear around most of its circumference. The few access points that might be climbable are well-known and monitored; once an illegal climber reaches a certain elevation they stand out like a sore thumb. On a bare rock, watched and photographed by thousands of people every day of the year, you’d have to be The Predator to avoid detection.

Sufficient policing measures are already in place to enforce the ban; the climb is closed for a variety of ceremonial and meteorological reasons for roughly a third of the days in most years already. It’s also closed between sunset and sunrise. There have been numerous examples of individuals or small groups flouting these closures over the years, even trying to land a plane on top, and they have each been ably dealt with by the existing roster of Parks Australia wardens and NT Police from the nearby towns of Mutitjulu and Yulara.

The chains and existing signage could be removed in a single busy afternoon. Done. Climb closed.

Let's make it permanent. Pic. RichiH Wikicommons.

Waleed Aly has written superbly recently about some of the reasons why Australia has such a troubled (and troubling) relationship with its original inhabitants. There’s not a lot I can add to his keenly-observed analysis, but nowhere in Australia is the uneasiness and casual disregard of that dysfunction on more brazen and daily display, and more openly ignored, than the procession of climbers up the side of Uluru.

The most perfunctory Google search throws up countless images and galleries and blogs about climbing Uluru. If Australian people want to be fair dinkum about reconciliation, then we need to come to a national recognition of this behaviour, not as any sort of achievement to be celebrated and publicised but as un-Australian and aberrant; embarrassing even. I think the closing of the climb is inevitable at some point, but given the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan, not to mention the ongoing offence to Indigenous custodians, it’s already long overdue.

Stuff it, with a vote coming up, why not make it an election issue? We shouldn’t be settling for leaders who tinker with these matters as mere adornments to their careers and self-advancement. These matters affect whole communities and, in the end, shape our national thinking.

ANZAC Day will shortly come and go with huddled observances around the country uttering that eternal three word mantra in memoriam - Lest We Forget. There's another three word phrase which is deserving of inclusion in our national demotic, if not our national consciousness...

Nganana* tatintja wiya. With those words Anangu say “we don’t climb”.

Neither should we.

 

* - these Western Desert words contain a retroflex which is usually indicated by a line beneath the relevant letter(s) - my publishing software doesn't allow me to insert this.  Uluru should have a retroflex on the 'r', Anangu on the first 'n', Kata Tjuta on the third 't' and nganana on the third 'n'. You can learn more about Western Desert pronunciation at this link.

 

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