Category Archives: History

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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Trip 3:Wednesday, August 23 Part 1

We’re leaving Menu Camp today. We were up early enough, and collapsed and packed our tents and sleeping bags swiftly enough, that we were all in time to photograph the sunrise. Then we had breakfast (toast and Vegemite, hurrah!–I’ve missed it), packed up the truck, and hit the road.

It’s winter, the dry season up here, so the sky was clear and brilliant. The scenery changed frequently, with varied plants, and animals punctuating the remarkable landscapes. Began to see boabs, those weird, bloated tree that you only see in this corner of Australia.
Boab
We traded eucalypt savannah for weird, lunar desolation and dead trees, then back to savannah. Smoke on the horizon again. Guessing it’s the annual burn-off that Aborigines have so long done in this region, and which more recent arrivals have learned to do, to prevent uncontrolled wild fires. A massive, ancient, red-rock escarpment rose to our right, the jumbled slopes and flat top covered with trees, but the perpendicular red walls, bare. So many grasses: short and golden, tall and red, like sheets of velvet in some places, rigid tufts in others, green, yellow, tan, from a few inches up to seven feet tall.
Escarpment sharper
Rapid-fire wonders: bustards, huge black cockatoos, clouds of corellas (small, white cockatoo species), “ant” hills (really termite mounds), kapok flowers, feral donkeys (one with a small, black foal), butcher birds, and bursts of small, dark swallows with white breasts. At a large waterhole, we saw cormorants and egrets, and the trees were filled with galahs. Melaleuka scented the air, though they were outnumbered by gum trees. Still, the constant background for these changing vistas was heat, dust, and rocks.

Into Bradshaw Station complex. Not a planned stop, but the trailer hitch needed to be fixed. We took advantage of the stop to photograph flocks of cockatoos, the imposing escarpment, purple-flowered wild tomatoes, yellow-flowered kapok, and pink-flowered turkey bushes.
Cockatoos

Kapok Flowers

Kapok Flowers


Hitch fixed, we were on our way—though only to the edge of the Angalarri River, which feeds into the Victoria River, the largest river in the Northern Territory. Joe Bradshaw, for whom the station was named, was the first white man to settle the far side of the Victoria River.
The only way across the Angalarri is by boat, but there is a barge here that is used for moving equipment, supplies, vehicles, and livestock, and it is plenty big enough for our 4WD and a bunch of campers. We crossed the river at an angle, which gave us the opportunity to see a considerable amount of wildlife or signs of wildlife. This is a tidal river, so there are saltwater crocodiles here, and we saw a fair number of crocodile “slides” down muddy slopes into the water. Kangaroos and wallabies watched us from the banks. I was delighted to see mudskippers hopping along the shore. Wattles, with their fragrant, yellow flowers, grew in large clumps. Birdlife included black cormorants, whistling kites, and a white-faced heron. We also saw a number of gorgeous white-breasted sea eagles, which prompted the gentleman driving the boat to relate the mating rituals of these impressive birds. To get the attention of the female (which is the larger bird), the male catches a fish, takes it high in the air, then drops it, going into a power dive and catching the fish again just before it hits the water. If the female is impressed, the two fly high into the air, lock talons, and spiral toward earth, letting go just before they crash. They mate for life.
White-Breasted Sea Eagle lighter

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August 21, PART 2

The earth became redder as we continued on, and the trees became greener. The road was rough, the weather hot, the flies, dreadful, the scenery, brilliant. In the distance, we could see smoke rising from a brush fire. It must have been a big one, as the smoke rose to the clouds from an area miles long.

We eventually rolled onto the historic Bradshaw Station, an area of roughly 3,475 square miles. The remoter areas of the station are now used by the military, and we had seen evidence of that back in Pine Creek, where a fair number of jeeps and gents in camo had also stopped.

This part of the station is known for the antiquity of its Aboriginal rock art, which apparently appears throughout this region, and the afternoon held a stop at a rock “gallery” where huge stone outcrops offered both shade and “canvas” for ancient paintings rendered in white and red. Clouds of butterflies heralded our arrival and pandanus lined our route as we hiked amid the rock walls. It was surprisingly cool in the shadow of the rock.

Pandanus

Pandanus

Butterfly

Butterfly


The paintings were, on the whole, less complex than many I’d seen in Kakadu National Park, on my first trip. However, they were still fascinating, and one could easily recognize many of the creatures depicted, along with the handprints that connect painters with the rock and their work.
Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal Art


Then back on the road, across the harsh and ancient land. My heart sang, resonating again to that special something that this land possesses that so touches me.

Pulled into Menu Camp around 5pm. This area was a spot where drovers used to stop to eat, which is how it got the name Menu. There was a nice campsite set up already. It is, in fact, permanently here, just for the camping outfitter with whom I’m traveling. It offers a screened dining area, a creek-water shower, and a dunny (outhouse/toilet) that faces the sunset.

This is a spot of great beauty—but also of many flies. After putting up our tents and getting our gear stowed in the tents, Athena, Belinda, and I set off to explore a little before dinner. We wandered amid trees and then down to the creek, which is narrow but clear and lushly surrounded by pandanus.

Menu Camp

Menu Camp


Dinner was great fun. This is an excellent group of bright, charming people, and Kate is an excellent camp cook. After dinner, we sat around the campfire, sipping coffee and admiring the dazzling splash of stars overhead. I was delighted beyond measure to see the Southern Cross again.

Then we headed for tents and sleeping bags, as we have another early start tomorrow. Alas, the coffee proved to have been a mistake, as despite what by now was full-fledged exhaustion, sleep evaded me for far too long. Sigh.

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