Category Archives: History

An Aside – Awed by Antiquity

As an aside, before continuing on with reporting on this adventure, I think it’s worth noting that this remarkable barrier reef, heaved up from the ocean floor to become the Napier Range, is not the only stunningly ancient bit of rock in this corner of Australia. It’s all mind-bogglingly old here. In fact, the Hamersley Range, a bit south and west of here, and which I visited on my first trip Down Under, is believed to be the first part of the Earth’s crust to have cooled after the planet was formed.

Here’s one of the posts I did a few years ago about my time in the Hamersley Range, after a visit to Hamersley Gorge, one of many breaks in the range, but one that is famous for showing clearly the effects of the tremendous pressure that formed and shaped some of these ancient rocks.
https://waltzingaustralia.wordpress.com/2008/07/20/hamersley-gorge/

Then, just a few years ago, on a sheep ranch at Jack Hills, not too far from the Hamersley Range, scientists found what they believe to be the oldest chunk of rock on the planet—a zircon crystal that they estimate was formed at the planet’s dawning.

Here’s an article with more details on this ancient zircon—and a photo.
http://www.livescience.com/43584-earth-oldest-rock-jack-hills-zircon.html

So I was traveling through a region where phenomenal antiquity is the norm. One more reason to love this remarkable place.

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September 2, Part 3

We headed back the 30 kilometers to where we had set up camp. We had no need to change clothes, as the hot weather had already dried everything after our wade through the tunnel, but we did drop off flashlights before walking the short distance to Windjana Gorge. Tall, mostly black, deeply striated walls, in places touched with red, rose before us, but a short cave in those walls gave us access to the main gorge. Wow.
approachingwindjana
The rock formations were wonderful, black, red, pink, and cream. Weird, knife-pleated stone covered parts of the wall and rose to peaks in some places. It was easy to imagine the formations being at the bottom of their original ocean.
windjana-ancientcoral
The gorge was remarkably beautiful, with clear water down the center, surrounded by pale sand, with paperbark trees and lovely green ivy adding a touch of color.
windjana-boulder-light windjana-reflections

Athena and I hiked for about an hour up the gorge, stopping to photograph freshies and a white egret, vines, trees, the rocks, and glassy water. When we met up with Belinda, we turned back toward the entrance of the gorge. Belinda and I stopped to swim, but Athena was worried about the freshies, so she sat on the beach.
windjana-longview-egret
The most astonishing thing was the cockatoos. There were hundreds upon hundreds of little white cockatoos (corellas). It must be the mating season, because we saw them exchanging “gifts,” rubbing heads, and flapping wings in little dances. They covered the beach, filled the trees, and stood on the cliffs. It was astonishing.

When we got back to camp, I headed for the shower–an outdoor affair, with walls but no roof and only cold water—but it was bliss getting cleaned up. (We got wet in the underground tunnel, but not clean.) Then it was have a cup of tea and circle the chairs around the cooking fire, for another friendly evening.
Butcher birds were very brave, and approached us to see if we might have food to offer. The willy wagtails were on hand, but they were skittish and never got close. Blue-winged kookaburras were nearby, noisy but out of sight. Wonderful.

Among the birds, only the crows are annoying. Two nights running, the crows have destroyed our garbage bags, tearing them apart to look for goodies. It’s not hard to imagine how the expression “Stone the crows” arose. I’m told the crows here will even kill newborn lambs. So not all the birds have endeared themselves.

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August 30, Part 2

The sky filled with clouds as the afternoon wore on, and then (as has been true every day) began to clear again. There were just enough clouds left to make a spectacular display as we drove into Mt. Elizabeth Station at sunset. Mt. Elizabeth is a working cattle station, but it also has facilities for visitors. This station has been in the Lacy family for two generations. Frank Lacy, subject of the book The Rivers of Home: Frank Lacy–Kimberley Pioneer, was born in New Zealand in 1899 and came to this region in 1923. He took up the lease on this station in 1945. He is the father of the current owner. Both Frank Lacy and his wife, Theresa, are buried nearby.

Frank’s son, Peter, now owns the station, but he is out with the stockmen, mustering the cattle, so we didn’t get to meet him. We were met by Peter’s wife, Pat Lacy, and her niece, Kim. We actually get to sleep in beds here, and Pat showed us to our rooms. After I dashed off to photograph the sunset and the gravestones of the first Lacys, I enjoyed a cold shower and then dressed for dinner.
mount-elizabeth-station-lighter mount-elizabeth-sunset-lighter
We were introduced to another “family member”—a pet wallaby. Pat explained that the wallaby had been hut by a car, and the Lacys nursed it back to health. This actually happens with some regularity, so Pat knows what to do—and what to expect. As soon as the mating season is on, the wallaby will return to the wild.

I was surprised to meet another American there: Will Chaffey from Boston, who is up here doing a story for Australian Geographic. He has had some remarkable adventures up here, getting stranded in the wilderness and being reduced to the point of eating grasshoppers–“going feral” as he put it.

Pat Lacy served us a lovely, civilized dinner, with tablecloth and china, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

We chatted after dinner, sharing tales of our own adventures around Australia (some of ours more amusing than Will’s, but he won for hardship). Then we returned to our rooms before the generator was shut down for the night at 9:30.

Nights get surprisingly cool, now, though not until about 2 a.m. It’s amazing that is still gets so brutally hot during the day.

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August 28, Part 2

We finally stopped at a remote spot where incredible rock formations surrounded us. We were here to explore Wanjina rock art. The Wanjina are mythical ancestral beings, elemental spirit beings that originated in the sea and sky. It is believed the older paintings are at least 4,000 years old, though some paintings in this region are made or renewed even today. The figures are alien-looking beings, with large eyes and no mouths.

Wanjina Spirit Figures

Wanjina Spirit Figures


After spending a fair bit of time examining and learning about the paintings, we continued exploring the area. The rocks are astonishingly shattered and worn, with roots prying open cracks and trees perching on ledges. One rock looked to me like a huge face. We saw a gigantic spider–bigger than my hand, even with fingers spread—and gave it wide berth. (We were later told that it was not a type we needed to worry about.) Everything else was fascinating and quite wonderful.
mitchell-rocks-1-lighter mitchell-rocks-2
Then on to our campsite, which was not far beyond, at a site on the King Edward River. Here, rocks jut up at one end of camp, and the river runs along one side of the small bit of flat area where our tents are to be put up. Pandanus and huge paperbarks cluster along the riverbanks, and rock slabs rise up from or slope into the water in various places. Large numbers of ducks sat on the far shore, watching us was we set up camp.
King Edward River

King Edward River


With camp up, it was time for a dip in the clear water. The submerged parts of the rocks along the water’s edge were covered with some sort of moss or algae that made them unbelievably slippery. If a rock was at a slant, you couldn’t stand, or even sit in one place—you’d just keep sliding. It made getting into and especially getting out of the water a bit challenging–though it was definitely worth the effort.

As the sun began to approach the horizon, more birds began to arrive and/or began singing. Butcherbirds, whistling kites, cockatoos, and myriad unknowns joined us in camp. Other than the heat and flies, this could be paradise.

The sunset was beautiful. The moon was the tiniest sliver in the darkening sky. The cockatoos have squawked good night. Mim is preparing damper for us to enjoy after dinner.
king-edward-river-sunest
The heat from our cooking fire drove a big spider out into the open, and it disappeared in the dark. Then a grasshopper jumped down the back of my neck. These generated a half hour of bug and spider stories. But then conversation returned to adventures in Australia–those we’d all had and those we anticipated in the morning. Nice evening.

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Trip 3:Friday, August 25 Part 1

Up at 5am–Northern Territory time. That’s 3:30am in the time zone we’re in. Hence, not only was it dark when we arose, it was still dark when we departed. The morning was delightfully cool and still, and as the stars faded, wonderful bird song started up.

We crossed the Ord Diversion Dam and headed out of town as the first light blushed across the horizon behind us. It was a beautiful dawn, offering another crystalline sky.

The scenery was spectacular, with red mountains rising on all sides, approaching and receding as we sped along. The mountains were higher than many we passed yesterday, but were still banded, worn, layered, undulating, and touched here and there with a haze of green foliage.

The gum tree savannah spread toward the mountains. The Victoria Highway turned south, and we followed it. Before long, we could see the sun rising over Lake Argyle, off to our left. Seeing a sign with the name Durack on it made me smile. Having read the classic book Kings in Grass Castles by Mary Durack, about the pioneering Durack family that settled this region, I was pleased to know that I was passing so close to this slice of Australian history.

Then out into the broad, ancient land. By 8:30, the brilliant day was already becoming uncomfortably hot. A few massive road trains passed us. They are so connected to Australia in my mind that even these pleased me. Morning break at the Turkey Creek Roadhouse in the community of Warmun, which offers a “last chance” of food, gas, and directions for those headed into Purnululu National Park—which was where we were going. A bit farther down the road, we turned east off the highway and headed across Mabel Downs Station, toward the park and the Bungle Bungle Range.

The sign at the turnoff said “Rough Road,” but that’s probably just because “Tortuous, rutted, rock-strewn gash in the hilly wilderness” wouldn’t fit on the sign. Weaving, dodging, jouncing, rocking, climbing, dropping, and fording streams made up the next two hours.

At last, the Bungle Bungles came into view. There were moments during the pounding, lurching drive that I wondered if it was worth the effort. Now I think it most definitely is.

And into Kurrajong camp.
Kurrajong Camp-lighter
We set up camp, had lunch, and then headed for the Bungles. We drove around the west side of the massive formation. The Bungle Bungles, which are the highlight of Purnululu National Park, cover about 173 square miles. The remoteness and difficulty of reaching the area are underscored by the fact that this formation was only discovered by Westerners in 1983. The area was named a national park in 1987 and was made a World Heritage site in 2003. Even now, there are extensive areas that are closed to visitors, as not everything has been explored.

The towering (600 to 900 feet tall), bizarrely eroded, banded range of rocks are made of sandstone, and Purnululu is the word for “sandstone” in the language of one of the region’s Aboriginal groups (Kija).
Bungles-Approach 1 Bungles-Approach 2

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August 24, Part 4

Well, wounded or not, I was ready at 5:30 for our sunset cruise. Glad I went, as it was brilliant. The huge, orange, fireball sun was setting behind the fringe of trees along the edge of Lake Kununurra when we arrived. The lake’s surface was patched with lily pads, and stark, dead trees stood in the water near shore, where the lake’s expanded border had drowned them. Flying foxes hung from trees near the water.
LakeKununurra-dead trees LakeKununurraSunset lighter
Our boat cut silently through the water as we glided out onto the lake. We were surrounded by birds—darters, egrets, pelicans, grebes, green-winged pygmy geese, and jicanas. The jicanas were particularly delightful, as there were so many of them, and because they were nesting, so they let us get much closer than would have been possible if they didn’t have nests to watch over. Wonderful.

Once the sun had set, the guide (a local guide, not John) turned on spotlights that were mounted on the side of the boat. The lights showed us crocodiles along the shore and among the lily pads, and even swimming under water, near the boat. We could see fish and underwater plants, too. It was fabulous.

The guide shared some interesting information about the crocodiles all around us. These crocs were the freshwater variety, so smaller than the massive saltwater crocodiles, and not as aggressive. Freshwater crocodiles (or freshies for short) need a warm day to digest a meal. If they eat, and then there’s a cold snap, they can die, as the undigested food will rot.

All crocodiles are capable of remarkable bursts of speed, but they do it anaerobically—that is, they stop breathing and stop pumping blood. That’s why they can only run for very short bursts. If they have to run for too long, the buildup of lactic acid can kill them.

Our guide then said that, while they eat fish, these crocodiles can actually do pretty well eating insects. He then tilted the spotlights upward, to demonstrate the remarkable density of insects over the water—and it was unbelievable. The air above the water was a veritable soup, but a swirling, fluttering soup.

Looking straight up was worthwhile, too, especially once the spotlights were turned back downward. With no branches or cliffs overhead, our view of the nighttime sky was completely unobstructed, and the stars were dazzling.

After our cruise, we headed back to camp, where Kate had a lovely dinner of grilled fish waiting for us. For dessert, we were offered wonderful melons, and it was explained that Kununurra is the melon capital of Australia. Yum. More lovely conversation, and then to bed, as we have an even earlier than usual start in the morning.

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Trip 3:Thursday, August 24 Part 1

(This time, part 1 of 4)

Woke to the caroling of butcherbirds and the harsh call of the blue-winged kookaburras (which are as raucous as laughing kookaburras, but have a different call—just noise, no laughter). The ground is littered with the orange flowers of the woolybutt gum trees that surround us.
Woolybutt Flowers lighter
The caroling of the butcherbirds increased as the sun rose and was joined by other bird songs. The sun coming up on the red rock walls around us was dramatic and beautiful. The air is fresh, and cooler than it has been. An all together delightful morning.

Then on the road again. The stark, magnificent beauty of this strange land draws me in again, deeper with each passing mile. I thank God for this trip–not just returning to Australia, but the opportunity to go farther out.

We drove to a parking area that identified itself as the access point for Nganlang, another Aboriginal art site. (I’m including a photo of the sign, because I’ve found that it is often spelled differently online—one site says “now known as Nganalam.” And yet Nganlang still shows up on some academic sites. So name change or just perpetuated error? I may never know.)
Nganlang Sign
Red-winged parrots fluttered nearby, as we hiked the estimated 10 minutes to where we’d see the art. Brilliantly weird, majestic, worn and shattered rock was so remarkable that it would have been worth the visit without the art. (Be sure to click on the thumbnail images, to see the photos at full size, or you’ll miss the details. These rock formations are worth seeing.)
Nganlang Rocks 1 Nganlang Rocks 2 sharper Nganlang Rocks 3
However, the rock paintings were wonderful, as well, strange and otherworldly. Trusting the information panels at the site, I feel fairly confident saying the two large figures with rays or feathers coming out of their heads are Gangi Nganan, said to be the very first of the Mirriwung, an indigenous group in this region. The second photo features many layers of paintings, showing that the site was used for a long time. Here, mythic creatures blend with everyday life and food animals. The first images were scraped into the rock, while the white, yellow, and red painted images were later (though still, in most cases, centuries and even millennia ago).
Gani Nangan figures Newer Aboriginal Art
Another delight was coming across a cluster of empty mud nests built by fairy martins. Fairy martins are members of the swallow family. They build their remarkable nests on vertical rock walls, though generally in protected areas, such as a caves. On my first trip to Australia, I had seen fairy martins dashing in and out of a cave in Katherine Gorge, but did not see the nests. This time, I saw the nests but not the martins.

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