Gibb River Road: crocodiles and flying foxes

11 September 2016. A world away from any memorial to the grim day fifteen years ago which influences us still.

Transferred the remaining water from my Sea to Summit six litre bladder to my MSR one. Sea to Summit simply can’t take regular use. It’s the forth inner-reservoir that’s failed. Fucking useless. I only fill it when I need, I mean need water. And they fail, slowly but remorselessly disgorging their contents into Zi-Biddi’s Big Black Bag. Infuriates me.

The road is very rocky in places, six to seven kilometres per hour rocky. Occasionally I find solace high on the shoulders wary of soft bulldust puddles. A perfect billabong for a dip turns up shortly after I leave Imintji. Am neither sweaty, hot or thirsty enough to need such welcome relieve. Imagine though, do I, having such a billabong in seventy kilometres time.

 

It’s stinking hot, 46oC down from the 53oC I had as I crossed Inglis Gap.

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King Leopold Views

I’m dreaming of cold water as I sip tepid water every ten minutes. Perhaps Gordon and Alana will come past and ease my pain when a large Troopy pulls alongside and a bright cheery face in sunnies asks if I’m OK for water. I suggest cold water. 600 ml later I’ve a Carlton Dry beer in hand, my water bottles are filled and as a parting gift, a Victorian Bitter which I enjoy in the shade of a tree. Thanks very much Chris (dad) and James (son).

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A VB delight! Thanks Chris and James. Legends

Tall savannah grass dominate the area. Not ideal camping ground. Every now and then it opens out. Wonderful for camping but no shade. I need shade, to get out of the relentless heat.

Donkey Creek turns up and there, there, to the left, not only an access track but trees under which is open ground. For sure, perhaps a bit too close to the road but fuck me man this is ideal.

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Donkey Creek camp. Shady and perfect

Seventy one kilometres. A good day. A good strategy. Juuust ride the road. No target. Started with fifteen litres ended with fifteen litres: 1.2 litres from Gordon and Alana, 600 ml for Chris and James + 2.25 litres top up. And two beers. Just over four litres for a day’s ride in high forties with a peak of fifty-three. Now time to set camp and chill.

12 September 2016

O550 cold spicy left-over pasta + soya sauce for breakfast. Yummy. Now I know I’m camping.

0600 riding on a road cut through dark grey rock, amphibolite, the heat radiating from yesterday’s, and all the other yesterday’s before it, baking. Road opens to a plain and the temperature drops. Explains the 53oC in the ranges.

It’s an easy ride, the road flat and in good condition. I’m making good time averaging 14 to 15 kilometres per hour. No wind. The dust from the few cars hangs as a semi-opaque cloud for kilometres along the road. As a car passes I blink out fine grit from my eyes. I wish they’d slow down.

Whilst stopped in the shade of trees in a floodway two Scottish émigré prospectors still with accents thick despite thirty years in the Australian bush try to tell me they can go places a bike can’t coz I’m “stuck to the bitumen”. I ask where the nearest bitumen is. “’bout forty kilometres that way” indicating the way they’d come. “And in the other direction” I ask indicating the way I’ve come. They struggle with the arithmetic. “Quite a long way for someone ‘stuck on the bitumen’” I suggest.

They try to point out that they go “off road, out there, in the back blocks” indicating the bush, “coz we’re gold hunters” with a certain pride. Hmmm, wonder if I should point out I too was a ‘gold hunter’ and I’ve been places their car could never go and looking at them neither could they: hiking the rivers of Papua New Guinea since the surrounding terrain was impassable, the Tulot Mountains in Kenya where I could only go with donkeys, snow-mobiles in Arctic Sweden checking on drilling rigs.

Instead I let it pass and they drive on.

A break at Lennard River bridge looking at Johnson’s Crocodiles in the pool before the Good Old Bad Old days after I turn onto the Leopold-Fairfield Road and make my way towards Windjana Gorge. Shoulder to shoulder corrugations.

I’m hugging the far left shoulder when I get somewhat alarmed as a large vaner is bearing down straight at me. Now What? I’m thinking when I see an arm out of the window holding, you guessed it, a cold bottle of water. No idea who they are but they enjoy my evident delight in downing the beautiful liquid and I thank them for their consideration.

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Wrecked Car. But who took the time to go into the vehicle strip it and spread all the bits around?

The last five kilometres are diabolical corrugations. I aim to bum a lift to Tunnel Creek rather than ride the thirty-seven kilometres there.

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Windjana Gorge campsite. I have the best place

Windjana Gorge is the “Premier place for the freshwater crocodile” according to the info boards. Gordon and Alana tell tales of hundreds of thousands of flying foxes exiting the gorge, some dipping into the pool in the gorge for a drink as one of hundreds of crocodiles tries to get a meal. Some crocodiles march across the sand to the other lesser pools hoping to improve their luck. It sounds amazing. I very much look forward to it.

As I go check on the gorge come mid-afternoon I find myself in front of that breed of tourist who tend to take mass-tourism options to simply tick-off the key items. They are loud talking about inane things oblivious to the world around them and in particular to nature not being particularly fond of brash human voices. If you do not want to see anything, let alone hear it, talk as if you’re in a noisy café in whatever inner-city grotto you call home. I lament my luck.

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The whole Napier Range is Devonian Reef

I hear motors as I enter the gorge. Someone’s driving a quad in the gorge along the dry sandy river bed. Boats are being deposited where the water starts, people milling about, my ‘tourists’ descend to join them. Nets are being laid out. Hmmm … there’s a prominent sign saying No Fishing No Netting.

I go check it out. Researchers and Rangers. My ‘noisy tourists’ are the very people charged with protecting the very nature they are now intruding upon in a way that is near universally frowned upon.

“What research?” I ask.

Each year a bunch of researchers and rangers perform an inventory of the crocodiles in the gorge. It’s becoming ever more important as the dreaded cane toad makes it inexorable way towards what may be one of the last unaffected strongholds of the freshwater crocodile.

Marquees are being set up on the sand. Boats and kayaks. Nets. Lots of people.

It is as obvious as the gorge is magnificent that any chance of a crocodile show tonight has just disappeared into the void of ill-prepared research, self-annointed and self-appointed ‘important’ people.

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The width of the river bed gives some clue as the volume of water during the wet season

Windjana is the “premier place for the freshwater crocodile”. It takes significant planning, equipment, time, effort and money to get here. And that experience is now seriously threatened. No one, I imagine, begrudges the rationale of the research. But there’s not a tourist who is not disappointed as we watch what amounts to a Keystone Cops pantomime take place in front of us. Their laughter jokes banter and voices echo around the gorge ensuring no respite. Not a shred of consideration to either the nature they believe they are helping to conserve nor for the very people they believe they are conserving it for: us, you me the consumer the public.

No notification, no warning, nothing in any of the innumerable brochures and publications extoling the virtues of Windjana, nothing in any of the ‘events calendars’. Nothing. I know Australia’s about twenty years behind international best practice in terms of environmental management but alienating the very public and consumer they need for their pet conservation projects to succeed is not folly it’s stupidity. As a professional environmental manager I am particularly incensed. It’s a text book case of How Not To Do It. Top down, no consultation, no information, no involvement.

One of the Rangers reassures me their presence will have “no affect” on the nightly show because “we finish before dark”. It’s pretty obvious he knows little about how human activity interferes with ecosystems functions. Oh Boy.

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Flying foxes. Invited to dine with pre-dinner drinks expected
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As dusk approaches the crocs take up position hoping their dinner invites come for that pre-dinner drink

Sure enough, later, when The Show is meant to begin the researchers have indeed stopped their work. Not really their banter. They are also lined up across the river bed right at the water’s edge, right where the crocodiles normally make their way to the other ponds, right where the bats exit from their swoop down at the water. They have large SLR cameras, powerful camera-flashes, powerful head-lamps and torches. They are a formidable phalanx in the very place all the action is meant to happen.

“Last night” Gordon tells me “there were crocodiles e v e r y w h e r e, on the rocks” indicating bare rocks “on the sand” now empty “through-out the water” where a lot of crocodiles can be seen but well short of “full of crocodiles. They were everywhere” he laments. As do I. As do all the tourists, all of which are on the south bank of the pool, overlooking the action but not in the way. Well in contrast to them researchers and rangers.

Make no doubt about it The Show is spectacular. Hundreds of thousands of huge flying foxes fill the sky for a good half an hour. The water glows to the eyes of a dozen or more patient crocodiles.

But … not a single crocodile attempts to walk to the other pools. Not a single bat attempts a drink. No crocodile tries his/her luck. It is a muted spectacle compared to what Gordon described the night before.

Thanks. Guys. Fuck you.

I have a great dinner and evening with Gordon and Alana.

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Gordon and Alana. Great people who I met on several occasions along the Gibb. Cold water on the road. Dinner, the odd beer and a good measure of rum in the campsites. Excellent. Thanks guys

Their neighbour gives me two beers “because you deserve it, riding a bike”. Nice people.

13 September 2016

Steven, a retired economics lecturer from Canada on a tour in Australia gives me a lift to Tunnel Creek. He’s a nice guy, smart, very well travelled. But he’s one of those guys I tend struggle with over time. A little bit lost in their own world, too lost in their own narrative, too used to being The Centre of Attention. Teachers, lecturers, police offices, senior bureaucrats often have this. And I struggle with it. Each question tends to be rhetorical. Even if I have the answer they don’t want to hear it. And I do tend to have an answer, which can also be quite irritating.

We are at the Lillimooloora Police Station ruins. He’s intrigued with the place and curious how they made the mortar, the cement to build it. No shortage of lime: the Devonian limestone from an ancient reef make up the Napier Range. Nope, it comes down to where they’d have got the clay necessary for it. I know nothing about the constituents of cement nor how to make it. But I know sure as shit stinks that the vast plain which extends west from Napier Range has clay in it. Not least coz I was riding on it for kilometres yesterday. Nope, I can’t be right. It is not until we are back on the road and I point it out to him that accepts, hmmm, maybe Max does know something.

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Lillimooloora Police Station, where the Aboriginal Freedom Fighter Jandamarra began his resistance campaign. Check out: http://www.jandamarra.com.au/jandamarratheman.html
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The Devonian Reef at Windjana Gorge

I keep my irritation in check for he is giving me a lift for which I am grateful.

At Tunnel Creek it all gets turned around. I have what all the info boards and the people returning from the site tell us “You’ll need a good torch”. Despite all the forewarning he doesn’t have a torch. Just a meagre solar-powered LED camp light. What was he thinking I think to myself.

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Entrance to Tunnel Creek

My monstrous LED Lenser is more than sufficient for both of us. It softens him a little bit and he starts to ask questions about the geology and the surrounds.

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It’s quite a place

Tunnel Creek as the name suggests is a creek which literally tunnels through the Devonian limestone of the Napier Range. It is phenomenal, two or so kilometres long and more than high enough to walk safely upright through. There are small pools in the tunnel. Some that need wading through. In one my LED Lenser reveals a freshwater crocodile a good metre and half long barely a metre away from us. Very impressive.

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1.5 m Johnston Croc right there, in the shallow pond

It’s photogenic and wondrous and I think my Olympus did an OK job of capturing bits of it.

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The entrance from the other side

We return to Windjana and go our separate ways.

I return to the gorge, cut across the sand and ask where they put the crocodiles they net. I’m directed up under the gorge wall, behind thick vegetation. I make my way up and find the guy I was told would be there and twenty-odd crocodiles blindfolded with duct tape, their rear legs secured along their tails and their snouts taped securely shut and tied by a short length of rope to another length of rope lying across the ground tied to stout stakes at each end. Evenly spaced, they are as docile as possible for a wild crocodile to be.

 

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The Johnston Crocodile population at Windjana Gorge is predicted to collapse once the dreaded cane toad arrives in about 24 months

“Owyagoin?” the standard Aussie greeting “Can I help you?” I’m asked by a wary man.

“I’m your target audience” I say combatively, “the public you need to engage for your conservation projects to succeed” as I eye up tied up crocodiles.

Dave changes tack, introduces himself starts to engage me and I change tack and start to ask the questions I’ve on my mind. For, whilst in one way I may miss out on the classic Windjana experience. On the other hand I doubt I’m going to have a better chance to really check out a wild crocodile and live to tell the tale and talk to an expert at the same time. It goes really well.

“I’ve never touched a wild crocodile” I muse.

“Well, now’s your chance though I’ll hold it in case it trashes about.”

Truly a beautiful animal as I run my hand across scales surprisingly smooth for looking so rough. He turns it over and tells me of its splendid adaptations to a world of life and death in water. It’s hearing is superlative, as is its sense of smell, there are tiny nodes to countless scales under its jaw to detect motion. Its webbed feet and flattened tail. Let’s not forget those teeth.

It is soft and gentle to touch, yielding. Hardly the prehistoric beast it seems to be when viewed from the safety of the shore as it lies mostly submerged in water.

No one is looking forward to the inevitable arrival of the cane toad and a population decimated by between seventy and ninety percent. Dave tries to reassure me that the University of Sydney are working on a potentially viable control and reduction approach using pheromones from cane toad tadpoles.

Alarm pheromones are released by frightened tadpoles to warn others who in turn get stressed out and either die or grow up stunted reducing the viability of the population.

Another is an attract pheromone which only affects cane toad tadpoles and draws them to traps reducing the next generation and hopefully contributing to their eradication.

I truly hope it works. And fast. I would like to see a ten million dollar prize to the team that came up with The Workable Idea(s) ASAP. Nothing better than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to spur the creativity of the private sector into action. As it is it is only the often slow moving academic world working on it. Bring in the Big Pharmaceuticals and I think there’d be a better chance.

I tell Dave about the debacle last night. He wasn’t here, he tells me. “Leave it with me” he says. “I’m in charge so they have to listen to me. I’ll make sure they are on the (south) bank with the tourists.”

I’m glad I made the effort to seek him out. It was a rewarding experience.

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Crocs are not the only things found in the net: Kimberly snake necked tortoise

For the rest of the afternoon I hike up the gorge and encounter pools of water into which crocodiles slide off the sand. I take a dip anyway. For now I am an expert on freshwater crocodiles.

Even though the show in the evening lacks the intensity Gordon described I am content. I wish Dave and his researchers every success. In two years, so he said, it will all be different.

Back at camp I find myself hemmed in by a fucking huge Landcruiser + caravan and three noisy kids. I am really annoyed. The campsite’s damned near empty and these motherfuckers have decided to invade my privacy and space when I know they would have given me a decent berth. If only I had a large 4WD parked there.

It’s 145 kilometres to Derby and I want an early start. But them fucking kids are kicking up a scene. And my totally inconsiderate neighbours have placed the door of their caravan and the subsequent patio are less than ten meters from my fucking tent. How on earth am I meant to get to sleep with all the racket on. I am so tired of this lack of empathy of Australians who just don’t see someone or something smaller than they.

I have no choice. I walk over … “Hi neighbour” I start in my most neutral diplomatic tone “I have a really early start tomorrow and are wondering when I can expect the, you know, noise levels to drop a bit” nodding my head to his three screaming kids. They are just being kids, tired and hungry after a long day. But fuck it why park smack on top of me? But I don’t ask this.

I think he gets it for he’s remarkably contrite and tells me they are due to be fed and put to bed “pretty soon”. It’s going to be a long night for me for the chicken hasn’t even been put on the barby yet. Oh Boy.

“Want a beer?” he asks with a wry grin. I give up “Sure, that’d be nice”. And they are a nice couple. As are the kids. I get several beers in fact. And quite a bit of that chicken.

I mention about being “insignificant on a bike” and they actually tell me “Yeah we pulled up and started setting up. Then we noticed, there’s a little tent there. And a bike”. Did they stop setting up and move? No. Why? Coz I am insignificant. Sigh!

Darren and Pru have taken the kids out of school and giving them something far more invaluable, experience of the difference. The kids seem to love it though the eldest does miss her school friends.

Nice people. Check out their facebook page if you wish: bitto’s aussie adventure.

Max

Windjana Gorge, 13 September 2016

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