Long Range Excursion: West Kimberley and Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, July 2003

Twelve people set off from Perth with Coates Wildlife Tours on a wet July morning. Three days later they were in sunny Broome at the Bird Observatory. Here they were joined by 2 others, who were impressed at how cheerful everyone seemed after the long stretch of 900 kms on their last day. The group was divided between an OKA driven by the leader Rick Curtis and a Toyota Landcruiser driven by Alex Mitic. The 11 tag-alongs generally made their own way to Broome and then played follow the leader from there.

Roebuck Bay is a beautiful spot with many birds, plants etc. so that one could easily spend longer there. The Observatory was officially opened by Birds Australia in 1990 and is one of four in Australia. It is a top area for migrant Arctic waders with as many as 150,000 arriving each year. Most had departed but there were still many water birds to see. A beautiful white egret shining in the evening light was a sight to remember, as was a White breasted Sea Eagle silhouetted high on a rock.

On 8 July John Dell conducted a bird walk at 7am. Pied Butcher birds with their pure varied tunes and Black faced Cuckoo Shrikes were distinctive. The bush was quite dry with lots of termite activity, trapdoor spider holes, flowering Bauhinia. There were many birds John identified from their calls. Alan Notley organised a walk to the beach to see two very vague dinosaur footprints, which would have been missed if they had not been pointed out. At 11am enthusiastic amateur botanists went with Daphne Edinger on a botany walk – it was already quite hot by this time. It was the Pindan Trail – ‘Pindan’ means waterless open bush and the vegetation type dominates large areas across the West Kimberley. Pindan woodland features a mix of grasses, creepers and soft herbs, an upper layer of trees such as eucalypts, hakea, grevillea, persoonia and a middle layer of wattles. A lovely very small pink hibiscus was noted and Gyrocarpus americanus, Helicopter Tree, named because of the spinning action of the fruit as they fall to the ground. On the walk a very elegant bower was noted with decorations of white shells, green glass and other oddments.

In the afternoon Tanya Compton, a PhD student doing research into the mudflats gave us an outline of her work and we had a look over the lab. – lots of minuscule bi-valves in labelled jars. A wonderful sunset was enjoyed.before everyone gathered for an excellent meal prepared for the whole group courtesy of Coates. This was followed by a talk from Inka Veltheim on Roebuck Bay as one of the world’s most important wader sites.

On 9 July.after a stunning sunrise, we packed up to leave at 7am, for Mornington Station. We saw lots of Boabs and termite mounds as we approached Willare Bridge Roadhouse where we stopped to fill up with diesel. The first 30-40krns of the Gibb River Road were sealed. After this we started on the gravel and dust! At our morning tea stop we found a Boab with leaves, nuts and flowers. Most of them are leafless at this time of year. We also noted a lovely Gomphrena flaccida, Eucalyptus miniata with its beautiful orange flowers and lots of Kapok bush (Cochlospernum fraseri). Contact between vehicles by radio was really important and enabled comments to be heard about anything of especial interest. At Lennard River we stopped for a salad lunch, then approached the sensational Napier Ranges followed by the Leopold Ranges made of metamorphose sandstone.

After stopping at the Imintji Store to fill up with diesel we turned off onto the track to Mornington – 95kms to go! There were glorious views of Mt. House in the evening light and groups of Boabs stood out starkly on the bare plain. We arrived at the campsite in the dark and Trish Gardner showed us where to park. In the morning we realised what a lovely campsite we had, between two creeks lined with pandanus and Eucalyptus bella. The shower block and toilets were approx. 500m away. Water was heated by a ‘donkey’ so the temperature depended on what sort of fire was beneath it. A waxing moon helped to light our way at night and save on the torch batteries! A meeting was held to plan activities for our five day stay at Mornington operated by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

We started by going next day to Sir John Gorge, a curvy rough 15km drive through termite mounds, acacia, pandanus in creek beds, white barked eucalypts etc. On arrival we saw the beautiful Grevillea refracta flowering profusely. We climbed down a rocky hill to a very inviting swimming area, which was part of the Fitzroy River and nearly everyone went in. Loisette Marsh had her snorkel and goggles and was busy collecting different algae and snails.

We inspected a small cave with a few aboriginal paintings and a ceiling covered in Fairy Martin nests. In the late afternoon we drove to Cadjeput where we had drinks and nibbles while watching the last rays of the sun on the nearby hills. Trish Gardner had her big torch aimed along the river and spotted quite a few orange glowing eyes of fresh water crocodiles – Crocodilus johnsonii.

A meeting after dinner became the norm and a speaker was organised for most nights. Some topics covered were the White Australia policy, Aboriginals and pearling, the Glenroy Station meatworks, the story of Jandamarra, the geology of the area, research into small mammals in the area, and Mike Fidler explained the work being done on Gouldian Finches over a period of 25 years. Meanwhile, in between organised activities, people were searching for the elusive Purple crowned Fairy Wren or the endangered Gouldian Finch. Many saw Scarlet Finches hopping about. Daphne Edinger and Gilbert Marsh were busy making plant collections.

On 11 July we were woken again by flocks of screeching corellas flying overhead. If they landed in nearby trees the noise was deafening. Canoeing at Dimond Gorge was on the agenda. Most people had a go and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. A couple was content to sit in the shade and observe the bird life around, especially Rainbow Bee-eaters and tiny Double barred Finches. A Red browed Pardalote said ‘wait a bit!’ and flew into a little hole in the sand. Around the water was a lovely Black fronted Plover with a bright red beak. Bright red dragonflies hovered around. A magic moment was being in the water with two Whistling Kite gliding low overhead.

The evening meeting was followed by a talk by Norah Cooper. She was very excited because she had found two rare female Pseudantechinus ningbing in two of her 150 set traps!

On 12 July many people went to Lake Gladstone (report below).

On 13 July Trish Gardner took us to a little water hole called Officer Springs and, although we tried to be really quiet, we saw few birds. Daphne Edinger conducted a botany walk along the creeks – she is always very informative and patient when repeating information -“remember the individual differences dear!”. Particularly impressive were the lovely yellow Hibiscus leptocladus, the Sandpaper Fig (leaves as rough as sandpaper), Ficus opposita and Eucalyptus cadophora with its enormous opposite leaves. The vegetation is decidedly different to any that one is used to in the SW.

In the evening we had our first campfire so that Rick and Alex could cook a lamb dinner in camp ovens. Yummy! Fourteen-year-old Steven Tuckey lit the fire and became our official fire- maker thereafter, doing an excellent job, and all agreed that it was delightful to have him along. His knowledge of reptiles, frogs etc was quite extensive.

On 14 July we set off to look for Maggie Springs but after 3 hours we gave up and went to Blue Bush instead where we had lunch and a refreshing swim. It was very difficult to leave it, but unfortunately our stay at Momington Camp had come to an end and we left early next morning for Windjana Gorge. We set off at 7am, walking along the road and the bus picked us up a short time later. An excellent idea which gave us some exercise before each day’s travel. Luckily there is still not much traffic on the Gibb River Road. because when a road train did pass, the dust was suffocating. Jennifer spotted and collected Hakea lorea subsp. borealis, which has only been recorded from the site near Mt. House. Highlight of the morning was seeing four Brolgas flying past. They landed on a muddy patch so we got out to observe them as they stalked majestically away.

Daphne Edinger & Gilbert Marsh arrived at Windjana Gorge first and used all their powers of persuasion to save us a camping spot because it is first come first served. Anyone hoping for a swim there was put off by the state of the water and the large number of very large fresh water crocodiles! However walking in the Gorge was a lovely experience with the sun shining on the huge rock faces. Windjana Gorge was gazetted as a national park in 1971 and covers over 2,000 hectares. The gorge was carved through the limestone of Napier Range by the Lennard River and this exposes the ancient reef system.

On 16 July we moved on to Birdwood Downs Station – a property of 2,000 hectares. Acacia tumida was flowering but apparently it is now like a weed due to overgrazing of competing plants. Our camping spot near the Homestead was under some beautiful Eucalyptus miniata. The big green frogs made a visit to the toilets quite an interesting experience. A fungus growing on horse dung was noted (Paneolus sp.). After lunch Robyn Tredwell, who is the General Manager and was 1995 Rural Business Woman of the Year, gave a highly detailed talk on their efforts to return Birdwood Downs to a productive, ecologically friendly property. In the evening we gathered around a monster bonfire (trunks of trees) to hear talks by John Lewis on tidal power, Pam Masters (Derby) on her environmental work and Jennie Jackson, a doctor who works for the RFDS.

On 17 July we tried to fit in as much as possible, so we walked the Joonjoo Nature Trail (Wanganut Reserve)near Derby which Pam had recommended. We saw the myriad water birds at the Water Treatment Plant and had a quick look at the Derby jetty and the Boab Prison Tree before heading to Broome to buy more food. After leaving Broome we passed through the Roebuck Plains where huge numbers of cattle grazed – mostly Brahmin. We arrived at Port Smith just on dark to find the caravan park crowded. Luckily they had saved a space for us and for the few tag-alongs left. We had a delicious fish dinner which was appropriate as most of the caravan people.were here for the fishing. I must say at this point how impressed we all were with the healthy, nutritious and tasty food that Rick and Alex prepared for us each day. They did not ask for any help but we gave a hand chopping vegetables etc. when necessary.

In the morning we walked on the mudflats because the tide was out. There were many crab holes and we saw a few scurrying about. Then we went to the ‘Bird Park’, and among their huge number of birds were many lovely Gouldian Finches. Thousands of wild Plumed Whistling Ducks were in the area nearby. Going south we stopped at Sandfire Roadhouse for lunch. There, a lawned area shaded by large trees provided an oasis in the red dirt and low shrub landscape. 196 kms from Port Hedland we turned left on to Boreline Road which was unsealed. We stopped at the bore 2kms along the road and decided to camp there even though the area was very bare. The bore pours water continuously and we had great fun and were very refreshed after splashing in it. Surprisingly there was very little growing along the course of the water probably due to the high mineral content.

On 19 July after our first windy night and before we left the bore site some volunteers collected 3 large bags of rubbish. As we walked out along the road we passed lots of lovely tinsel flower (Cyanostegia cyanocalyx). Two people were lucky enough to see a Jabiru flying. At the 2nd bore, which was not gushing as strongly as the first, we noted a dead shrub full of Zebra Finches. Later we saw two Bustards flying. The ‘scenery changed to ironstone hills covered in spinifex with occasional small white-barked eucalypts. Morning tea was by a railway line where we fossicked for interesting rocks.

In Marble Bar, where we stopped for diesel, the service station attendant very kindly allowed us to dispose of our collected rubbish in his bins. We looked at the historical Iron Clad Pub before going to Chinaman’s Pool. Amazing thousands of corellas are devastating the large eucalypts along the water’s edge. A Jabiru appeared on the opposite bank. At the Marble Bar (actually jasper), we were able to appreciate the.beautiful colours in the rocks because Margaret Phillips used considerable energy in throwing bowls of water over them.

We passed many spinifex covered hills and ranges drizzled with chocolate coating (according to Perdy Phillips), crossed many creeks (mostly dry) before finding a campsite recommended by Kevin Coate. This was an area of huge granite boulders about 10 kms before Hillside. Next morning some were up very early to climb the beckoning boulders to catch the sunrise. Missing out on breakfast was a small price to pay. We then continued through typical East Pilbara landscape, stopping to open several gates between properties like Hillside and Bonney Downs. Once on the Marble Bar/Newman road we started to see lots of Wedge Tailed Eagles on road kills.

Near Newman we stopped at Ophthalmia Dam for lunch. It is a large body of water formed when a branch of the Fortescue River was dammed and is a favourite spot with the locals. A sign warning about mosquitoes and encephalitis was not very reassuring. Our intended stop for the night was the south branch of the Gascoyne River but we pulled off the road an hour before this to be able to set up camp in the light. It was a nice spot with several species of Eremophila and the strange noise of donkeys braying in the distance. It was getting noticeably colder.

On 21 July we made two stops at a lay-by. One was particularly filthy which made us realise that we still have a long way to go in the Keep Australia Beautiful campaign. Between Meekatharra and Cue we pulled in to Lake Anneen to have lunch. There was a most unusual cactus-like plant growing there which is restricted to the area. It was Lawrencia helmsii, common name Dunna dunna, belonging to the Malvaceae family. We arrived at our last campsite on Wogarno Station in time to make a dash through the property to Wogarno Rocks to see the sunset. We were able to stay in the shearer’s quarters although a few hardy souls put their tents up. The station is still in the grip of a drought and 5,000 kangaroos had to be culled because they were dying in droves. This was particularly painful for the owner, Lesley-Jane Campbell, because she had spent a lot of time rehabilitating injured kangaroos. After dinner Rick entertained us with some lively tunes on his two tin whistles and an improvised drum from a cardboard box which seemed to be a fitting finale to a wonderful trip.

22 July was decidedly chilly as we entered the green wheatbelt country. There were very few everlastings in the Paynes Find area. We arrived in Wellington Street at 5pm safe and sound. I would like to thank all the people involved in organising this trip and in particular Rick and Alex for being so cheerful all the time and for preparing such delicious meals. It was my first experience of a long range excursion and it was a truly memorable one. The tick and sandfly bites are still itching!

Patricia Gurry

Lake Gladstone, Saturday 12 July

The corellas welcomed us to another bright sunny morning. We were eager to be off as we planned to visit Lake Gladstone which is situated on Mt. House Station, the owner of which had kindly given us permission to drive through his property. The Lake is a permanent waterhole on the Hann river drainage channel and it is a haven for different birds. It is approximately 1/2 km, in size, quite shallow – up to 2m in depth and fringed by rushes (Baumea articulata). As the lake is not well known and difficult to access some tag-alongs set off early to try to ascertain the route. Unfortunately there seemed to be some mix up with CB channels and the lead tag-along could not be contacted. This led to the OKA and other 4WDs taking a wrong turn and heading off on a wild goose chase along a mustering track which ended in a turnaround. We regrouped to study maps and GPSs and retraced our route. Again the trail came to an abrupt end, this time at some stockyards where Brahmin cattle looked in surprise and flapped their large ears and the stock horses whinnied with mirth at the antics of our convoy doing wheelies round their paddock. Three hours after leaving our Momington camp we finally arrived at our destination. It was worth it. A spotting scope had been set up by the first arrivals and was trained on three beautiful Brolgas at the water’s edge. We walked round an arm of the lake and saw many more birds. Frank Hann, the explorer, had apparently carved his initials on a Boab tree near the lake surrounds but we did not have time to hunt for it. Boabs, Eucalyptus flavescens, and mangroves are a feature round the lake. We later returned to camp without mishap. A list of plants and bird species observed is being compiled. As the lake is no longer in pristine condition it is strongly felt an urgent management plan is needed incorporating a perimeter fence to keep the station cattle from trampling the rushes and pock marking the lake-bed as the water recedes. In the evening Margaret Butterworth gave us an extremely informative and interesting talk on the Glenroy meatworks which was a huge success in its day but which came to a sudden end with the advent of road haulage.

Jennifer Young