Long Range Excursion: Meetheena Conservation Park, August 2004

Twenty one members travelled independently to Marble Bar, arriving on Sunday 14 August and setting up camp in an old hospital building, now retired to private property on the outskirts of the East Pilbara township. Later, we were joined by Peter Kendrick, from CALM Karratha, our expert leader and guide to this part. He was accompanied by two volunteers from England and New Zealand. Peter, affectionately known to us as ‘PK’, explained that the large area, which now forms Meentheena Conservation Park, was purchased by the government and destocked, so as not to be an expensive inconvenience to the owner drivers of the huge Road trains which regularly carry Manganese ore along the recently built Rippon Hills Road to Port Hedland.

On Monday morning, we all decamped for our introduction to this vast park of ancient rocks and scenic grandeur. We shared the road with the vehicles of mine sites and transports carrying goods to the many mines further east. Though there are no cattle in the Park, a large male Camel, separated from his harem, did almost sit on our vehicle, after making a sudden decision to flee from us. We later saw very few large animals, a few dead donkeys and a couple which had avoided the shooters. Emus were not visible nor were kangaroos. After leaving the sealed road, we crossed a creek and passed through an abandoned ‘out-station’ to choose a campsite in the bed of the now quiet Nullagine River. This still flowed as a small stream between larger pools, all teeming with small fish, which in turn attracted cormorants and herons.

Some years ago, PK had set up numerous lines of pit traps, blasted 600mm into the rock with explosives. Some of these were now opened up, drift lines installed, augmented by a large number of portable Elliott traps. From then until Sunday 22nd, our time was divided between servicing these traps (and wondering at the frequent captures) and rather long, arduous vehicle treks to various points of interest within the Park. We had people recording birds, mammals, reptiles and plants, and also lonely graves. Detailed reports will no doubt follow.

Everyone had the opportunity to follow their own bent, and most were entranced by the furry little critters caught in the traps. It was explained that often the mammals were too clever to accidentally fall into the traps, but jumped in in order to devour smaller creatures which had previously fallen. The largest marsupial carnivore caught, Dasykaluta rosamundae, was a good example, as it shared its temporary prison with the half of a dragon it had been unable to devour. The animal was very attractive, other than its notorious bite, and its name suggested romance, Rosamund having been the mistress of a king of a bygone age. Hopping mice were frequently caught, also pebble-mound mice, desert mice, ningauis and others. Lizards were also caught, and besides the ubiquitous little ring-tailed rock dragons, and four kinds of Ctenotus skinks, the droppings of two or more rather larger species were noted, Egernia depressa, which uses its spines to wedge into a crevice just as the Echidna does, and larger Varanids or monitors.

I was saddened to learn that little study of invertebrates had been carried out, as these creatures do not provide so much useful information on the ‘health’ of the Park. Perhaps there will be more time for all the many other species in the future.

Back in camp various birds serenaded us, not all visible, but clearly heard, including Pheasant Coucal (a large cuckoo relative), Boobook Owl and Barking Owl, and common in the camp, Blue-winged Kookaburra. Among the smaller ‘bush birds’, were a regular visiting Western Bowerbird, coming to feast on the berries of a certain shrub, Rainbow Bee-eaters, little Red-browed Pardalotes and Songlarks. The common honeyeater here was the White-plumed, though several others were also seen, and along the waters edge were several Black-fronted Dotterels. At the other extreme, three Black-necked Storks gave some of us a dazzling display of aerobatics, and several different medium sized raptors patrolled the river.

Our intrepid botanists had checked on areas previously collected, and made a point of visiting new areas to collect and add to the botanical knowledge of the Park. We look forward to a more detailed report from Daphne and Gilbert later.

On the Sunday, when everyone left the Nullagine River camp, I left the party, for an early return to Perth, but most were conducted to an area to the north east where karst exists, and there is a large doline or sink hole. I quote Yvonne Broome’s report:

“The size of the sink hole was 140m across by roughly 80 to 100m deep at its deepest point. The wonderful rich colours on the wall of the hole were quite spectacular. The climb down was technically not difficult, but steady slow steps were the order of the day. The base was cool which was a welcome relief after the heat and windy conditions up top. Some of the group had a quick fossick which produced several very tiny jaw bones with teeth still intact. They were identified by Alex Baynes as a Little Rock Rat (Zyzomys argurus).”

The object of this move of camp for the last couple of nights, was to help Alex and his team, who had arrived separately, to collect some of the vast amount of ‘pre fossil’ bones to be found in this hole. Both terrestrial mammals and bats found here may give an indication as to the population existing here before western man came along to alter things.

I am quite sure that all participants in this year’s Long Range Expedition, both participated and enjoyed a very successful though necessarily short stay in this quite different landscape of the East Pilbara. I would like to thank all those who helped the planning for this trip, and especially our wonderful guide and mentor ‘PK’.

Gordon Elliott