Category Archives: 2017 Australia

Travel Report on Darwin and Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia, Aug. 26, 2017

I departed Tucson on August 12.  From locking my front door on Saturday afternoon to checking into my hotel in Darwin in the Northern Territory on Monday afternoon the journey consisted of a grueling 30 hours of travel, but included a day entirely skipped from crossing the international dateline.  Each of the three flights was crammed full with nary an empty seat.  A couple of drinks and food during the fairly long layover in the LA airport started my customization to Australian prices.

I stayed just one night in a small highway inn on the outer edge of Darwin, which was within walking distance of where I picked up my Britz campervan rental.  The van is a short wheel-base hi-top Toyota with built-in fridge, stove, microwave, sink, cabinets and bed with housewares and linens included. This will be my transport and lodging for the remainder of this trip, which will see me start in Kakadu National Park in the far North of the Northern Territory, and then head West wrapping around all of Western Australia before traveling East through South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales to Sydney.

I stayed at a nice Campervan Park near Darwin for 2 additional days to stock up on supplies, including a large water jug, sim card for Australian smart phone service, and initial supplies of foods, snacks, wine and beer.  I also did a little bird photography up north of Darwin at Lee’s Point and then south inside the Charles Darwin National Park.  Both are great for nature viewing, but also contain numerous historic WWII installations, including machine gun bunkers and multiple underground depots for storage of all of the bombs utilized from the nearby airbase.  Darwin was a major terminus for the Pacific battles, though only attacked by the Japanese by air once.  Early on in the engagement Japan controlled all the Pacific Indonesian islands almost to the shores of Darwin.

From Darwin I traveled southeast toward Kakadu and Arnhem Land, stopping first at Fogg Dam Conservation Area for some wetland hiking for water birds.  There I photographed the Forest Kingfisher and the hundreds of Magpie Geese.  Thursday night I stayed at the Mary River Wilderness Retreat at the edge of the National Park of the same name.  I had many fond memories from 8 years earlier when I visited the same place – the owners were avid birders and ran a wonderful boat trip twice a day up the Mary River for viewing all manner of birdlife, as well as Estuarine and Fresh Water Crocodiles. Here I had photographed rare completely white morphs of a breeding pair of Grey Goshawks.  I was hugely disappointed to find ownership had changed, and no one had heard of any boating up the Mary River.  I did an early morning long walk along the river, encountering a hard-to photograph Golden-crowned Cisticola and some Crimson Finches, always inevitably hiding within thickets.  Around the campsite were flocks of noisy Little Corellas, and in the evening dozens of Agile Wallabies came to feed on the watered grass.  Enjoy the photo of the joey sticking his head into his mother’s pouch for a meal.

I drove onward on Friday to the Aurora Kakadu Lodge near the South Alligator River, just inside Kakadu National Park, again to find no boats plied the river except for fishing.  Instead I spent almost 6 hours on and around the Mamukala Wetlands, where I found a number of interesting birds around the fringes, including the Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo and the Cicadabird surrounded by gorgeous red tree blooms.  I also encountered a wonderful lizard living in the water by running on the lily pads, half its body always submerged – I have been unable to find what it was.

Saturday I drove on to Jabiru, the small township at the heart of Kakadu, which exists to serve a nearby uranium mine.  I stayed three days at the Kakadu Lodge (all these “lodges” have both small cabins and caravan camping sites, as well as facilities such as restaurant, pub and pool).  Food at the bistros in these camps is generally quite good, though very expensive (plates running US $19-$30, with weak beers generally about $6).  One evening I had local sausages over mashed potatoes and green beans; the sausages were huge – three of them – one of buffalo, one of crocodile and one of kagaroo.

Sunday and Monday I visited the areas around two of the most famous aboriginal rock art sites in Australia.  Arnhem Land, which includes Kakadu National Park to the West, covers well over half of the Darwin Peninsula – about 100,000 square kilometers – it is the largest and oldest aboriginal land in Australia.  Other than the Park, it may only be visited by non-tribal members with special permits and accompanied by native guides.  I traveled into Arnhem 8 years ago on a day-trip and photographed the great rock art on Injalak Hill.  Kakadu National Park, to the west, also is owned by the aboriginals and leased to the Australia Government as the oldest and largest national park.  Both areas have been occupied by aboriginals for over 40,000 years, and much great rock art exists.  The two most famous sites are Ubirr, right on the border with Arnhem Land at the only road crossing, and Nourlangie Hill a little to the Southwest.

Ubirr probably is the best overall rock art site in the country (there are thousands of sites);  Ubirr presents a number of panels, or galleries, with images painted mostly in shades of reds and yellows, with some blacks and whites.  The largest panel contains dozens of large fish of different species, most painted “X-Ray” style, showing parts of the internal organs or bones. Along with the fish are images of several food animals, including long-necked turtles, goana (monitor lizard) and wallaby.  The entire panel, some 35 feet long and about 3 feet high, seems to contain nothing but wild animal food sources.  A nearby panel contains the Namarrgarn Sisters, two figures of spirit characters who permanently changed into the deadly Estuarine Crocodiles – the Sisters, painted in faded yellow, are overlaid on top of a running battle or hunting scene of running men with spear-throwers, painted in red. This Namarrgarn Sisters Panel is my favorite of all aboriginal rock art I have seen.  I have created detailed panoramic stitched photos of the panels, copies of which are included below.

Nourlangie Rock art site, now called Anbangbang as originally named by the aboriginals, contains fewer panels than Ubirr but has one rather remarkable one of Lightning Man, wife and children.  I did some hiking to an overlook with a terrific view of Nourlangie Rock in the morning sun, as well as visiting the nearby Anbangbang Billabong (don’t you love the names – a billabong is a year-round lake or pond which becomes connected to a river or floodplain during the wet season). I thrice climbed large rocky escarpments looking for the rather rare Black Wallaby and smaller Rock Wallabies, but had no luck, although I did find droppings.  The small flies here in Kakadu, especially during the hottest part of the day, are dreadful.  They are “sticky”, meaning they don’t frighten off easily with hand motions, and come right back to alight.  Because they are “sticky,” however, they are much easier to smack than flies from elsewhere – it always gives me a bit of perverse pleasure to observe the dropping fly – dead, following the smack.

On Tuesday the 22nd I drove back westward on the southern Kakadu road to Cooinda, where I stayed 2 nights in the Lodge Park.  As at Jabiru, the grounds are nice, including restaurant, bar and very large swimming pool with surprisingly cool water.  I have used the pools 3 times and it certainly does help cool off after the 35 C degree days (95 F degrees).

Cooinda is located at the edge of the Yellow Water Floodplain, into which flows the Jim Jim River and out of which flows the South Alligator River, which continues north 100 km to the sea.  The Yellow Water Floodplain is a World Heritage Site, with several hundred species of birds, huge numbers of Estuarine Crocodiles, and many wild buffalo (originally imported from Indonesia, but now all feral and dangerous).  Flat-boat cruises are available from the Lodge; these take one into the various floodplain channels and up the river for remarkable wildlife viewing. I did successfully get great photos (2nd time) of the very tiny Little Kingfisher, brilliant blue and white, and about the size of medium sized hummingbirds.  They are very rare to see, my last one being on the Daintree River 8 years ago.  Also I was able again to photograph the other magnificent small kingfisher, the Azure Kingfisher, with its pinkish-orange breast and brilliant azure back, also quite rare to see.

The waters seemed full of 6 inch, fat catfish – fortune was with me in permitting photos of the Australasian Darter (snakebird), Intermediate Egret and Nankeen Night-Heron, each catching and trying to eat one of these catfish, which were huge relative to the bird’s gullets. The catfish have long backward facing spines which the fish lock up until dead.  The egrets and herons both strike downward into the water to grab fish in their long beaks, and then flip the fish so they can be swallowed whole, always head first.  The darter, on the other hand, actually swims underwater to chase down fish, and rather than grabbing them, it spears the fish with the two forks of its beak, then must come above water to remove the speared fish, which then is maneuvered to be swallowed whole, head first.

In the foggy early hours of one morning we had extreme luck in witnessing a mating display of two Brolga, very large red-headed cranes similar to Sarus Cranes. The cranes extend their great wings, and leap into the air in a form of dance for each other.  Added to these views were encounters with the “grinning” toothy Estuarine Crocs, White-bellied Sea Eagles, protected Radjah Shelducks, a tiny 2-day old Crested Jacana with feet bigger than its body walking on a lily pad, and a couple of dozen other great encounters, all photographed and included below.

On Friday I drove out the south entrance of the Park, and turned back North toward Darwin to spend one day at the Litchfield National Park.  There I found some wondrous termite mounds (among many in this part of Australia), which included the Magnetic Termite Mounds – the mounds appear as giant flat stelae, all perfectly aligned North to South for temperature control, with one part always toward the sun and the other side always shaded, and also the Cathedral Termite Mounds, which are simply monstrous castles, up to 25 feet high, with numerous turrets. Whereas most termites live in colonies underground, these Australian mound termites live in floodplains and so build their “underground” nests above ground level.  I also visited the great plunge pool and double waterfall of Wangi Falls, home to fresh water crocs (all in hiding), Black Flying Foxes loudly filling the trees surrounding the pool, and feral pigs in the forest.

Saturday I headed south to Katherine where I now am staying for a few days.  I have been without Wi-Fi for nine straight days, and so needed some time to get this travel report posted.  Also, I now will start my travel west which will take me around Western and then Southern Australia over the next 10 weeks. While stocking up supplies a consistent issue here in the Northern Territory is a little annoying.  Due to some drinking problems with the aboriginals (similar, I believe, to that with some Native Americans such as the Navajo, in which their livers genetically do not process alcohol as rapidly as other people), severe restrictions exist on some form of purchases.  Arnhem Land is completely dry (except for the licensed lodge pubs).  Darwin and Katherine have liquor stores, but operating hours are limited to 6 hours per day, and many wines, including the cask wines I buy for travel (no glass) are limited to one purchase per day – this is enforced by requiring one’s identification to be entered into a national database, which is accessed before each purchase, and will alert the store if a purchase already has been made that day.  This restriction means a trip to the liquor store daily in order to stock up for the weeks in the outback.

As two weeks have passed, and a lot of photographic activity has occurred, quite a number of photos are included below, though these still only represent about 1 out of every 200 photos I have taken.  More time may be needed to permit download of these even in the relatively smaller format of my travelogue.  Also, as a reminder, these photos can be fully appreciated only on a high-resolution monitor (Smart phones just don’t do the photos justice, though they will reproduce low resolution full images).

That is it for now.  Life continues to be good and being on the road again always is marvelous.  Dave


Report on Katherine in Northern Territory, and Entry through the Kimberleys into Western Australia, Sept. 8, 2017

I currently am writing this from Broome, on the north-west coast of Western Australia.  I last reported on Darwin and Kakadu upon my arrival in Katherine, located in the middle of the Northern Territory, at the cross-roads to travel north, south or west, with the branch going east cutting off further south. Although I found my first WiFi internet in a couple of weeks in Katherine, all service had too little band-width or restrictions for uploading my photos, until I tried the local McDonalds.  It, as advertised, provides free, limitless, good-speed internet connections, and I was able to get the travelogue posted.

Katherine is nice with a compact core full of small restaurants and coffee shops.  It sits on the Katherine River which runs from southern Kakadu west to the sea.  Just east of Katherine is the Nitmiluk National Park which contains the awesome Katherine Gorge, which actually is a series of 9 deep gorges which channel the river within towering red cliffs.  Trails run all through the southern side of the gorges.  I hiked one of the short ones.

At the parking area for the boat ramps to Katherine Gorge, the surrounding tall trees simply were filled with Little Red Flying Foxes.  Counting the approximate number in each tree, and the approximate number of trees, I estimated over 5,000 bats in this group.  They are noisy all day, and some constantly moving to different trees and jostling neighbors.  From the ridge line trail about 700 feet above, the parking area seemed to be surrounded by a forest of black dead trees.

I spent 3 days at the lovely Low Level Pass caravan park, situated a few kilometers west of town by the Katherine River where it passes under a historic low level bridge which can only be used during the dry season.  At the bridge a number of herons spent their day fishing from the rocks, including a White-necked Heron and a White-faced Heron.

From Katherine I drove west to Timber Creek, the only “town” – a few buildings along the north side of the two lane highway – within the 500 kilometer stretch between Katherine and the border of Western Australia.  I stayed at the Timber Creek Hotel campground along a small waterway with Freshwater Crocodiles.  I arrived on a day when the camp entertainment was to walk down to the creek at 5pm and watch the owner feed an old almost toothless male croc that lives there.  They then throw hunks of meat into the air for a free-wheeling aerial battle between dozens of Black Kites and one Whistling Kite which swoop faster than the eye can follow to grab the morsels. I hiked a short trail in the morning which followed the Timber Creek, and was rewarded with good flocks of Red-winged Parrots but little else.  Much of the land had just been burned – this is something they do intentionally every dry season to cull out the dead grasses and undergrowth and promote good growth in the coming wet season – it is not, however, very good for birds immediately after a burn.

From Timber Creek I drove the 230 km. to leave the Northern Territory and enter Western Australia.  How to describe entering Western Australia? First, there only are two paved roads which even connect the western 1/3 of the continent to the rest.  I entered on the “Great Northern Highway,” uncertain with what it is to be compared to earn the moniker “Great.”  There is no other northern highway.  The entire length of the highway consists only of two lanes, with nary a passing lane, and already I have crossed 14 one-lane bridges, marked only with red signs attempting to alert drivers that speed must slow to a crawl to make sure a “road train” is not entering the other side. …

(What is a “road train?” – this is what tractors hauling semi-trailers are called – and with good reason – almost all pull 3 full trailers on the little two-lane highways, and the petrol semis haul 4 full tanker trailers.  These really are massive road trains, which barrel down the narrow roads, and incidentally are responsible for the unbelievable overnight slaughter that takes place on the highway each day.  In the morning one passes dozens of road-kill marsupials, providing good opportunities for photographing the massive Wedge-tailed Eagles, which patrol the roads at sun-up, along with the Black Kites, Whistling Kites, Little Eagles and Toresian Crows.)

Somewhat concerning is the fact that upon approaching each one-lane bridge the pavement is marked with dozens of 40 foot long, double-tire skid marks from the frantic  stops that road-trains must have made when coming from opposite directions.  I started this section mentioning that only two paved passages exist into western Australia, so I best mention now the other road, located near the southern coast, portions of which less majestically are called the South-western Highway, Coastal Highway and Eyre Highway.

Also concerning Western Australia: The northern portion, from Kununurra, at the border of the Northern Territory, stretching west over a thousand kilometers to Derby on the coast, comprises the Kimberleys, a famous area of escarpments and gorges, full of rivers, dreadfully hot year-round. The Kimberleys are very popular with Australians for taking multi-week 4-wheel drive journeys (even more people take tour companies which drive large bus like carriers built on high-clearance multi-axle-drive truck frames).  The escarpments and gorges are the remnants of giant ocean reefs built during the Devonian Age of the earth, 350 million years ago.  The area is famous for its limestone caves, and perhaps the best spot on earth for recovery of remnants of 350 million year old sea life.  The area also features some unique plant life, the most iconic of which is the Boab trees.  These grow to eventually form gigantic gnarled trunks, which can get to diameters of 4 meters (14 ft) – the trunks often balloon in the middle, and the leaves only emerge after rains.  Much of the year the limbs, which rise as crooked jags from the huge trunks, are leafless, but have huge coconut sized seed pods.  I have included a photo as I cannot properly describe the trees.  They are closely related to the Baobab trees of Madagascar and Malawi.

What else about northern Western Australia?  The strictest alcohol laws I have encountered. Purchasing wine or beer has been difficult since Darwin, and has become increasingly problematic as I have progressed.  Due to issues with alcohol abuse, particularly among the aboriginals, who may have a genetic intolerance such as exists with some Native Americans, the restrictions have become much harsher in recent times.  A national registry system has been implemented, and one’s identification is scanned into a special connected machine with each alcohol purchase.  The amount of these purchases is severely limited each day, and the system disallows multiple purchases from different stores.  For the cask-wine I buy (to avoid glass bottles), the limitation in the Northern Territory was one 2-liter box per day.  In order to stock up I had to go through the process multiple days to get a few liters for the long haul through the outback.  Upon entering Western Australia the casked wine simply is prohibited from sale.  In Halls Creek the only take-away alcohol which can be purchased is 2.7% beer (that is half the strength of Budweiser which many already consider water).  The restrictions have just gotten worse all the way to the coast, including Derby and Broome.  I have been forced to survive on the strongest Australian beer I can find – 4.9%.  Wine can be purchased only in glass bottles, with restrictions and at astronomical prices.  Interestingly, liquor is freely available, though the prices are more than double that of the US.

At the border entering Western Australia was the strictest food quarantine I have seen.  The RV in front of me, with an elderly couple, was halted for some 10 minutes, holding up a long line of vehicles forming behind me; the inspector finally emerged with two large sacks completely full of fruit, fresh produce, nuts and honey.  Multiple large signs warn of the coming inspection all the way from Katherine, as well as in all guide books, and large signs in all campervan parks also advise re the coming “quarantine” upon entering WA.  I had no problem foods to report, as I was well aware of the coming inspection.  I do not know how that couple remained so ignorant, but it looked like they lost days-worth of fresh food stuffs.

I stopped for 3 days in the only real town between Katherine and Broome, a distance of about 1,700 kms.  The town, just inside Western Australia, is Kununurra.  My caravan park was in Hidden Valley just north of town, right on the border of the Mirima National Park, a very small park made up completely of very red sandstone escarpments surrounding small deep valleys.  I hiked all the trails in the Park, including a couple climbing the escarpment for nice views.  I got to view my first White-quilled Rock Pigeons, and a couple of Variegated Fairy Wrens, as well as the beautiful Yellow-throated Miner.

From Kununurra the drive was all through the hilly Kimberleys to the tiny community of Halls Creek where I found a dusty campervan park – the town is under perpetual water restrictions so none is wasted on green plants.  Next door was the lovely Kimberley Hotel with the only real restaurant and pub in town.  Here I arranged my tour of the Mimby Caves.  The Mimby Caves are within a Devonian escarpment and are located within Aboriginal land.  A two hour guided tour takes one through the winding bottoms of the majestic escarpments and into two limestone caves, each with ponds and running water but not much current stalactite formation.  The flies are awful (of course, they are pretty much awful everywhere in the north of Australia).

Fitzroy Crossing is a tiny community at the Fitzroy River bridges (both one-lane), where I stayed at the terrific Fitzroy River Lodge campgrounds right on the banks of the river.  I spent one morning hiking down river for birds, and enjoyed the Sunday evening buffet with carved roast lamb.  I drove up to the Geikie Gorge National Park where I took a boat trip up into the gorge, the walls of which are the Devonian limestone escarpments.  The large river has a number of Freshwater Crocodiles and some birdlife.  The gorge wall views are spectacular.  The parking area and tourist gazebo areas are covered during the wet season each year by up to 20 feet of flood waters.

From Fitzroy I drove the distance to reach the Northwest coast at the small dusty town of Derby, called the entrance to the Kimberleys.  Derby sits by a narrow bay with the second or third highest tides in the world, at 11 meters or 36 feet.  Because the bay is shallow, filled with silt from the river which enters it, at all times other than the highest of tides, which occur only a couple of times a month, the water’s edge is a few kilometers from the town.

Just a couple of hundred kilometers south and west of Derby sits Broome, on the gorgeous Roebuck Bay.  Broome also has very high tides, but is surrounded by mangroves and simply is charming, though rather hot year-round.  It also is unbelievably expensive.  My first night I tried a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown – the cheapest dish, served a la carte without rice, soup, eggroll or anything else, was $37 (about $30 US).  I have stayed at the Roebuck Bay Park right on the tip of the small peninsula which juts south into the Bay, and located right on the beach.  The first evening, after dark, I had a Tawny Frogmouth (large tropical type of nightjar) landed on a post just feet from my van.  With only my powerful flashlight and huge good luck I was able to get my first photo of this night bird.

I spent two mornings with a local bird guide, George Swann, driving the first day out to clay pans (permanent clay water pans) for various shore birds, including the Oriental Pratincole, the Red-headed Plover and the relatively rare Yellow Chat.  The next day we slogged through mangroves (my shoes were caked with inches of white clay, with splatters up my pants and on my cameras) and swarms of sand flies for the various uncommon mangrove species, including the Mangrove Golden Whistler, the White-breasted Whistler and the Broad-billed Flycatcher.  I also got some photos of a White-bellied Sea Eagle drying its wings, and a Brown Goshawk.

The trip has gone smoothly so far, but the heat has been bothersome here in the north. From Broome I will start driving south, zigzagging between the coast and inland as I aim for arrival around Perth in under 3 weeks.  Later.  Dave




Report on the Pilbarras, Ningaloo Reef, Shark Bay and South, WA, Australia Sept. 26, 2017

I last reported from Broome where, for the second time, I had to go to a McDonalds in order to find internet with broad enough band-width to upload my photos.  Internet just is not generally available at the caravan parks or restaurants outside the southeast coast, and when available, dreadfully slow or limited to a couple of MBs upload data.

I went the next couple of days to the eastern shore of Roebuck Bay outside Broome for shorebirds.  There are an almost unbelievable number of shorebirds with a huge variety of species.  Photos of mixed flocks on the shore sometimes reveal 8 or 9 species packed together.  I would not have been able to pick out many of the species without the help of guide George Swann.

From Broome the drive was southwest across the 600 kms of dry dusty plains to the industrial-mining town of Port Hedland.  Halfway is the Sandfire Roadhouse, the first available gas in 300 kms, where they had dozens of Peafowl, the males all in breeding plumage and calling.  In the morning a very large red hen (chicken) kept jumping in different campervans, going into hidden spots, trying to lay an egg – we all had to keep an eye out for it constantly.

Port Hedland is the largest town in the Pilbarras, the large dry hilly area of northwestern Australia now covered with various large mining operations.  Much of the iron acquired by China is mined and shipped as ore from this area.  Port Hedland itself is practically all industrial and port, with a huge mountain of white salt lying just of the highway.  I spent over two days driving south from Port Hedland through the central Pilbarras, and through the Karijini National Park, where red limestone gorges border the number of small rivers which cut through the area, producing numbers of small waterfalls and beautiful clear water pools for those who hike into the canyons.  I spent one night in the delightful mining town of Tom Price, just outside the eastern end of the park, where I ate a huge buffet dinner in the mining worker’s cafeteria.

From Tom Price I back-tracked north to the coast at Dampier on the Burrup Peninsula where the tumbled giant red boulders, which cover the peninsula and offshore archipelago islands, form the canvas for the largest grouping of petroglyphs on earth – estimates put the number of petroglyphs here at between 500,000 and 1 million.  The ages are unknown, but some work puts the oldest at 22,000 years, although I am skeptical of the geologic methods employed for such estimates.  The etchings into the rock are generally deep, and many represent figures of animals, including apparently extincted species.  Most of the petroglyphs are crude in comparison to many of those in the US southwest, such as those of the Basketmakers (Anasazi ancestors) and Fremont.

I left the Pilbarras driving further southwest to Exmouth on the peninsula surrounded by the Ningaloo Reef, a marine park.  The land portion on the west side is a low ancient reef ridge of mountains forming the Cape Range National Park – the sea for a couple hundred kilometers comprises the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park – all now a World Heritage Site protecting a number of endangered land and sea creatures.  In the Cape Range Park I finally obtained an opportunity for decent photos of the very elusive Australian Bustard, the largest (heaviest) flighted bird in the world, although it normally runs on the ground.  I hiked up the beautiful Yardies Gorge, the only canyon in the range with year-round water, seeking unsuccessfully some rare Rock Wallabies.

All day Sunday I spent with 19 others on the expensive Kings Ningaloo Reef Tour on the largest boat on the reef, the Magellan.  It turned out to be well worth the price.  We spent about 7 hours on the water, both inside, outside and over the reef.  The crew provided us with shorty wet-suits (the water temperature was about 75 F. degrees inside and over the reef which is quite chilly) and snorkel gear including prescription goggle lenses for those of us desiring correction.  Early morning and mid-afternoon we snorkeled over portions of the corals viewing the many species of fish; I did not find this portion of the reef nearly as colorful or impressive as the Great Barrier Reef, but still wonderful.

The Ningaloo Reef Marine Park is famous and World Heritage listed for a number of reasons, but is most famous with tourists for its numbers of whale sharks, the largest shark and largest fish in the world, growing to over 50 feet – the size of humpbacks.  These sharks were practically unknown 50 years ago, and still almost nothing is known of their reproduction and usual annual movements.  They look like giant sharks with grey-black bodies covered in large yellow-white polka dots.  The heads are flattened with extremely wide mouths with which they gather plankton as they slowing swim at the surface in tropical up-welling waters.  I have previously snorkeled with a large number of whale sharks over a two day period off the west coast of central Mozambique in Africa (perhaps the best location in the world).  At Ningaloo the sharks normally can only be found through the winter, and they leave by the end of August, which they did this year.  For three weeks no sharks were sighted, then, 2 days before my arrival, sharks showed up again.

The sharks can only easily be found or spotted from overhead, and so our tour employed, for 2 hours, a spotter aircraft overhead to call in whale shark locations. We thus encountered 4 different whale sharks and were in the water with them for several hours.  With each shark encounter the boat would maneuver to a point somewhat ahead of where the shark was swimming, and we, with wet suits and snorkel gear, would hit the water in two teams; then with hand directions from a spotter on the boat, we would locate and swim with the shark.  Whale sharks swim slowing and at the surface when feeding, and are quite easy to keep up with.  They seem undisturbed by human followers as long as the humans don’t get directly in front or around their heads or swim below them.  We were advised to stay at least 13 feet from their bodies.

We also were blessed with encountering two separate pods of humpback whales, the first directly in front of the boat with large ones seemingly in a contest to see which could breach the best.  Seeing two full-grown humpbacks, 50 feet apart, breach simultaneously is indeed awesome.  We also saw sea turtles and dolphins.  Proving the world is getting smaller, I met a couple of retired lawyers from Tucson on the cruise; we plan on getting together when back in Tucson.

The tour included the presence of an independent professional photographer who spent the day photographing, with stills and video, on deck and underwater, us and the wildlife.  For 50 dollars I acquired jpg copies of all of his photos and video of the day – I was a little distressed I had not brought my underwater camera, but then his underwater setup was better, and I was actually visible in some of the pictures which never seems to happen when I am behind the camera.

From Exmouth driving south I finally passed out of the tropics, passing the Tropic of Capricorn, and within a day the very hot weather just ceased.  I spent one night in the quiet town of Carnarvon, apparently one of the vegetable/fruit capitals of Western Australia; for the first time on this trip I was surrounded by orchards and fields.  Further south from Carnarvon I turned west and then back north to journey onto a very long peninsula which bounds Shark Bay; on this peninsula sits Denham, the “most westerly town” with the “most westerly hotel”, the “most westerly pub”, etc. in Australia.  The huge north-facing peninsula, joined parallel by a large island to the west, are easy to spot on a map of Australia as they constitute the western tip.  The entire area, including all of Shark Bay, constitutes a World Heritage Area, and is comprised of a number of National Parks and conservation areas.  The southern point of the Bay contains the largest collection of the few remaining Stromatolites in the world; these are coral like build-ups created by mats of thousands of types of microbes.  This was the only life on earth 3.5 billion (not million) years ago, and some of these microbes started synthesizing oxygen using sunlight, which created the atmosphere we have today, and permitted the later evolution of all life which needs oxygen for survival.

Shark Bay is shallow in much of its extent which is ideal for the growth of sea grass.  This in turn supports the endangered Dugongs, relatives of the Manatees of the Americas.  Shark Bay is home to 10% of the world’s population of Dugongs.  I spent several hours on a cruise on the Aristocat-2, a large catamaran and the only boat in Shark Bay registered to pass into the sea grass conservation areas.  We spent two hours searching for and encountering Dugongs in the shallow sea grass beds – they can be spotted from above as large brown shadows, and each normally surfaces every minute or so for air.

In the deeper waters were large numbers of Bottlenose Dolphins, apparently displaying mating behavior.  The small docking area, with large accommodations and restaurant is known as Monkey Mia, and requires an entry payment in addition to the National Park fees – for tourists it is the best known feature of Shark Bay because 6 female dolphins have been enticed to come into the beach 3 times each morning to be fed fish by some lucky kids among the crowds of onlookers standing on water’s edge.  Although the park claims it all is part of conservation and study, and the dolphins (each recognized and named) only are permitted 20% of their daily caloric requirements (so being forced to continue natural hunting), I find it all rather tasteless.  There is no denying, however, that Shark Bay is exquisite as a most unusual place on earth.

From Denham I back-tracked 130 kms to get off the peninsula, and drove on south to the Kalbarri National Park and the little seaside town of the same name.  The park is spectacular this time of year for the rare and unusual wildflowers and the gorges through which runs the Murchison River.  The entire day was blustery with squalls off the coast and winds whipping to 60 km/hr.  I had trouble keeping my little hi-top van on the roads, and every time I would leave the car for 15 minutes to visit a gorge, I would end up getting soaked.  I booked a cruise up the Murchison River, which empties into the sea at the town of Kalbarri.  Mostly the cruise provided the 400 year European history of the area, with little bird or wildlife.  The cliff views over the sea just south of Kalbarri are stunning.

From Kalbarri I ventured on south to Jurien Bay, a nice little seaside town.  Unfortunately, after weathering almost 40 days of baking hot dry weather, I now have suffered 4 of the last 5 days with very cold sea squalls and high winds which keeps most birds, and me, under shelter.  From here I will head south to Perth, the half-way point, in both distance and time, of my journey.  The weather forecast for the coast looks like it will start clearing in 3 days, so I am hoping for better bird weather soon.  Since Exmouth I am finally able to buy cask red wine again, gas prices are dropping, and interesting restaurants are more plentiful, so life is good, as always.  Later.  Dave






Report on Perth, Margaret River, Albany and Stirling Range Regions, Australia, Oct. 13, 2017

I last reported from Jurien Bay, just north of Perth; since then I have traveled on south to the cape, through the wine regions, tall tree forests, and a number of mountainous national parks.

On the drive south to Perth I stopped for a large flock of Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos, a threatened species.  I must have spent over an hour on the side of the Indian Ocean Highway photographing the birds in the trees and the grasslands.  These are relatively rare birds, and only recently named a separate species from the Baudin’s Black Cockatoos which I later found in the Stirling Range (see below).  Both species are endemic to the southwest of Australia, occupy much the same ranges, and are exceedingly difficult to distinguish positively.  In that

same location I also picked up my first Western Corella, a white cockatoo also endemic to the southwest, but much more common.  I later passed through Yanchep National Park for photos of ducks, magpies and honeyeaters.

Perth is the only large city in Western Australia (pop 1.7 mil), and by distance and time lies exactly halfway through my journey.  It is said to be the large city most isolated by road from any other large city in the world, with driving distance to Adelaide being 2,700 km, or 1,680 miles (Iquitos, Peru is the large city most isolated with no roads whatsoever leading to it).  I stayed for several days in the delightful Woodman Park about 10 kilometers south of Freemantle, which is the seaport suburb of Perth.  The public transportation in the area is a marvel.  For about $10 (US) I bought a day ticket good on any bus, subway or train in the greater Perth area (about 100 km across).  From Woodman Park, a bus stopped about every 15 minutes right out front, and drove me straight to the train station in downtown Freemantle – from there high speed trains left every 12 minutes or so to central Perth.  In central Perth various bus lines crisscross most streets, arriving every 5 minutes or so, and are completely free to hop on and hop off.

I spent one day visiting downtown Perth, especially the famous and gigantic Kings Park right on the bay, with spectacular views over the bay and downtown Perth – probably not quite as beautiful as the view of downtown Sydney from the botanical gardens, but close.  I say bay, but Perth actually sits on the North bank of the Swan River, about 20 km north of the river mouth and bay at Freemantle, so all large ships dock at Freemantle, but ferries ply the route up the river to the downtown area.

I bought a round-trip day-ticket to Rottnest Island which lies off the coast of Freemantle.  The ticket included free bus pickup at my park, drop-off at the ferry terminal for a high-speed catamaran which travels a number of times a day to the island and a round-the-island bus tour.  The island is famous for its quokkas, extremely friendly and cute small marsupials which inhabit pretty much only this one location.  The Dutch captain who first set foot on the island in the late 1600s, and there spent 2 weeks, wrote that “it was an island paradise, but infested with rats the size of large cats” – and so it received its name “Rottnest.”  The quokkas do sort of look like rats in the face, but are so friendly that everyone loves them.  When they sleep, right out in public on the grass or in front of a restaurant, they curl their head down under their feet, and for all the world look exactly like a brown fuzzy soccer ball with a hairless tail sticking out from underneath.  While discussing Rottnest Island everyone was relaying the story of the drunken British tourist who hauled off and kicked one of the quokkas – all were pleased to report that the hooligan still is in jail.  The “rats” are beloved and fully protected by law.  I had a cappuccino outside a restaurant and watched in amusement as a quokka hopped up to the glass door and sadly sat there apparently hoping someone would let him in for snacks (people do break the rules, of course, and feed the quokkas bits of junk food, which causes the “beggar” quokkas to get patchy fur from the poor diet).

From Freemantle I drove south, pausing one night at Bunbury before continuing on to the town of Margaret River which lies on the river of same name, and is at the center of the entire region of same name; this is wine country, second only barely to the great vineyards which lie just north of Sydney.  It is lush, full of small forested national parks, fruit orchards, and hundreds of small vineyards, almost all open daily to visitors for tours, samples or sales.

I walked a number of times along the trails by the little river where there were White-breasted Robins and Red-winged Fairy Wrens among many other birds.  I was fortunate through a series of inquiries at the Community Center to meet Christine Wilder who generously spent an entire day guiding me to various locals in the Margaret River region for different birds.  This included some of her relative’s and friend’s homes where birds were attracted to the beautiful gardens, which introduced me to the stunning Red-eared Firetails (finches) and breeding pairs of the Western Rosellas (parrots).  I also visited the famous Berry Farm out in the countryside where I enjoyed a cappuccino while photographing New Holland Honeyeaters and a gorgeous male Splendid Fairy Wren in full breeding plumage.  I found many of the meadows in the southwest contained groupings of Emus and Western Grey Kangaroos.

I traveled then east and south through many small national parks which protected various species of the largest eucalyptus trees – these forests are known generally as the “Tall Tree” forests and the trees indeed are tall, running to 50 meters (160 feet).  I stayed at an old logging town, Manjimup, for one night, visiting the surrounding forests and then on to the largest city on the southwestern coast, Albany, where I spent 3 days at a park on Middleton Beach.  Darwin visited this bay for two weeks during his famous voyage aboard the Beagle. For whatever reason he did not find the area enjoyable, and wrote “I depart with no sorrow or regret.”  I found the area rich with birds, and there photographed a pair of Red-capped Parrots engaged in breeding behavior, and found groups of Red-winged Fairy Wrens in breeding plumage at the nearby Cheynes Beach.

Driving north from Albany I stopped at Porongurup National Park where the Scarlet Robin, Western Yellow Robin, Yellow-rumped Thornbill and Inland Thornbill all flew around the picnic area. Nearby I was surrounded by a small mob of Western Grey Kangaroos in the early morning; several females had joeys in their pouches, curious about everything outside.  Later I stopped at Kamballup park where mostly I found large quiet mosquitoes that continued to bite the same spot on the back of one hand until it wept – I have no idea what attracted them to that spot other than the previous mosquito, but I had not put on DEET when I started the walk.

I passed two very busy days at Stirling Range Retreat in the Stirling Range National Park where there was an enormous variety of hard-to-find birds.   After seeking for two weeks I finally found a large flock of endangered Baudin’s Black Cockatoos, only recently split from the endangered Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos discussed above.  The two species are practically identical in appearance and only very slightly different in their calls, the Baudin’s having two middle syllables. To positively distinguish the two, other than at a nesting site (they use different species of nesting trees), one needs to get a very clear look at the upper bills from the side, difficult in the males as the beaks are black like the feathers, and the males puff out the cheek feathers which covers the tips of the beaks.  The females have white beaks and don’t puff their cheek feathers.  Seen from the side, with the beaks open, the tip of the upper bill in the Baudin’s is fully half the height of the entire upper bill, while in the Carnaby the tip is only one third the height.  With good high resolution photos it is quite easy to have a positive id, but I believe most people simply cannot distinguish the two.

Walking in the forest edges produced also the breeding Regent Parrots, Elegant Parrots, Purple-crowned Lorikeets, Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrikes and Grey Currawongs, among many others.  The Stirling Range is the highest mountain range in southwestern Australia, and the only place in West Australia where it snows.  The weather for much of the last 3 weeks has been cold and windy, with scattered showers daily, but that does produce nice rainbows.

From the Stirlings I drove east to Hopetoun at the edge of the Fitzgerald River National Park, and encountered a wonderful pair of nesting Tawny Frogmouths within the caravan park.  As the Frogmouths are related to nightjars, and are night-feeding birds, they sleep during the day.  This allowed relatively close photographs, and especially of the female in nest with two young that constantly were popping their heads out from under to see what was happing down below.  The Fitzgerald River National Park has breathtaking views over the ocean, and incredible rare flowering plants found nowhere else on earth; it is considered one of the biosphere hot-spots.

My final birding stop in Western Australia is at Esperance, from where I am sending this report. I have not been lucky in seeing Cape Barren Geese, which usually frequent the golf course, but did have good results at Lake Munjingup where I photographed the lone male Musk Duck crying to attract a mate, and the elegant Yellow-billed Spoonbills.

Esperance is the last town of any size before the long haul north and east to South Australia through the infamous Nullarbor Plain.  The distance across the Nullarbor Plain and to Port Douglas in S Australia is almost 2,000 km or about 1,220 miles.  Considering the poor 2 lane roads, and my non-aero-efficient hi-top van, it will take me at least 5 long days.  I do hope to stop for seashore life.   Later.  Dave

Western Wattlebird, Lake Monjingup, near Esperance, WA, Australia

Report on Nullarbor Plain to South Australia and Victoria, Oct. 29, 2017

On Saturday, Oct. 14, I departed Esperance to drive north and then east across the great and daunting Nullarbor Plain to enter South Australia.  The first day I drove the section of road called the longest straight highway in the country – probably the world;  for 147kms (92 miles) the two lane Eyre Highway runs absolutely straight with nary a turn of even 1 degree.  For two hours you never worry about whether a curve will creep up on you.  This is the middle section of the Nullarbor Links Golf Course, created about 14 years ago, the longest golf course in the world at over 1,000 kms.  The holes are located at each of the various outback ranches or roadhouses along the way, and are named rather than numbered, so the course can be played in either direction.  The 18 holes are a par 70, but the average distance between greens and the next hole is over 50 kms.  Apparently one can rent irons at each hole for about $5 – a good idea as much of the course is rocks and dirt.  See photo below of one of the promotional posters for the course.

I stayed at the Caiguni Roadhouse the first night.  Below, among the photos, you will find the posted bus schedule for this roadstop in the middle of nowhere – quite funny – Aussie humor.  Another 550 kms the next day and I stayed at the Nullarbor Roadhouse in South Australia, more great signs – see photo of entrance to Pub tavern.  It is difficult to get your head around the time zones in the central part of the continent – West Australia is on western time and Sydney on Eastern, two hours apart, but South Australia is 1 ½ hours ahead of West Australia, and goes on Daylight Savings which West does not, so the change at the border is 2 ½ hours (there actually is a small area of southeastern West Australia which switches by 45 minutes, but as you pass right through it without stopping you don’t notice).

From Nullarbor I drove on to Ceduna, the first actual town since Norseman 1,200 kms ago, and from there on to Port Augusta, the crossroads of Australia.   All highways, except the Great Northern, from Western Australia join into one southern highway which passes through Port Augusta.  All highways from Eastern Australia do the same.  And the lone northern highways which meet at Katherine join just one north-south highway, the Sturt, which runs through Alice Springs and, yes, meets the southern highways at Port Augusta.  Geographically this is where the ocean spears well up into the central desert of the central south of the country.  It is home to the Arid Lands Botanical Gardens which are a refuge for many birds, and where 8 years ago I encountered Peter Langdon, a volunteer and serious bird expert, who spent parts of two days showing me a number of birds in the region.  Peter still was there and I spent a little time with him – he recently published a guide book on the birds of the Arid Lands Gardens.

From Port Augusta I traveled up into the Flinders Range National Park and Wilpena Pound, a beautiful area of magnificent River Red Gum trees and pines, and home to more kangaroos, wallaroos, wallabies and emus than anywhere else I have been in the country.  Driving early mornings or before sunset requires slow speeds and constant diligence as the animals burst out of anywhere crossing the small roads.  This is the one place I have found, twice now, emu fathers followed by their dark and white striped chicks (as I wrote 8 years ago, the emu and cassowary females are n’er-do-well harlots, who lay their eggs then promptly abandon them forever, leaving the nesting and year-long raising of the young, to the males.  I suppose some will find cross-species karma evident in this fact.  I spent one long afternoon driving up to the Brachina Gorge where there are families of the endangered Yellow-footed Rock Wallabies.  After spending well over an hour at the remote rocky site I was rewarded near sunset with one lone photogenic rock wallaby venturing out of the rocks into the small valley to feed.

From the Flinders I headed south and east into Victoria, first passing a pleasant day in Burra on the eastern border of South Australia; Burra is a heritage town, having been built by a copper mining company a hundred years ago.  The copper mine was the largest for 50 years in Australia, and mined some of the purest ore in the world.  The old buildings, hotel and churches in town are real jewels of outback architecture.

From Burra I drove to Mildura on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, the state line of which is the Murray River which runs well over 1,500kms.  Expecting lots of birds around this river plain, as I had found 8 years ago along the Darling River, a tributary, I was disappointed.  Rather than spending two days, I drove on to the Grampians National Park the next day where I was not disappointed.  The Grampians are the highest mountains in Victoria, and contain the best Aboriginal rock art in the south.  They also are full of neat birds.  The days were rather overcast and rainy, but I made the most of them.  After some research and help from the local tourist center, I encountered bird guide Neil Macumber.  I spent over 6 hours with him, discovering a number of new birds.  The next day I spent close to 8 hours driving to the three corners of the tiangular Grampian Park system to visit 4 rock shelters with the best rock art.  This involved not just lots of beautiful driving through the mountains, but about 8 kilometers of hiking trails, most on steep climbs, to reach the various far-flung shelters.  The rock art all was pictographs (paintings), and many appeared quite old, although as usual, dating doesn’t exist.  I was impressed with two shelters containing both red hand stencils and red hand prints.  These are common rock art subjects on three (and perhaps more) continents, which has lead me to much internal speculation about the age of this symbolism with blood colored pigments (Cueva de Monte Castillo in the north of Spain has red hand stencils dated to 22,000 years ago).

Birds encountered included the Red-browed Finch (a member of the Firetails), the GangGang Cockatoo, the Yellow-tailed Cockatoo (finally photographed, after searching 8 years), the Yellow Rosella (subspecies of Crimson Rosella), and the Great-crested and Hoary Grebes.

From the Grampians I returned north to the Murray River at Echuca, where I spent a full day in the Barmah National Park, including a few hours on a cruise along the Murray River. I again was disappointed at the dearth of birds, although I got some nice shots of the Brown Treecreeper and the White-winged Chough (pronounced chuff).  From Echuca I traveled further up the Murray River to Chiltern, a tiny old gold mining town famed for its mid-19th century buildings and for its rare birds. Here, after some inquiry, I met Neville Bartlette, a local bird photographer who helped me find a number of wonderful birding spots.  The best known bird among birders here is the very rare and endangered Regent Honeyeater, which now has been captive bred for some years as its reintroduction is engineered into its only native range.  It is believed that fewer than 1,000 exist.  They are a beautiful black and yellow bird, and I encountered 3 pairs with nests over a two day period – lovely, though one does need to overlook the multiple leg bands attached to most nesting birds as they are continuously studied.

From here I will continue roughly east-south-east to pass through the southern Great Dividing Range (“Snowy Mountains”) to finally meet the eastern coast down at the New South Wales – Victoria border, from where I will end the drive by heading gradually north into Sydney.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on New South Wales, Chiltern to Sydney, Australia, Nov. 13, 2017

I last reported on travel through southern Australia, from the Nullarbor Plains to Victoria.  My final morning in Chiltern I drove again to two of the better sites, the ponds which had a lovely Yellow-billed Spoonbill and the forest where I had located one of the Regent Honeyeaters nests – never enough photos of the best birds.  From Chiltern, Victoria I drove into the Snowy Mountains in the southern Great Dividing Range and to the small town of Tumut.  How do you pronounce Tumut? – only in Australia would it be pronounced “chew-mutt.”  This town at the edge of the mountains is half surrounded by wetlands which have abundant birds, including the Red-browed Finch and multiple parrot species.  I encountered the King Parrot but could not get any decent photos.  Out in a forest preserve I did get great photos of the Buff-rumped Thornbill (a tiny bird with nice warm cinnamon color).

After a couple of days in Tumut I drove over the Snowy Mountains and most of the Great Dividing Range to the small town of Bombalo, where platypus are thriving.  My first attempt to find the platypus failed, but I found a rare Diamond Firetail, one of the spectacular tiny birds of Australia.  The next day was glorious, although with lousy, cold, windy, rainy weather.  Over 2 hours I watched a number of platypus feeding in the Bombalo River – no chance for good photos, as the creatures constantly dive for food, merely gliding just at the surface when taking a breath, with a film of water constantly going over their bodies.  I did get nice photos of the Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Striated Pardelote, Yellow-faced Honeyeater and Dusky Woodswallows, among others.

The last several towns I have stayed in grew on me – they all started as gold mining towns about 150 years ago, and the hotels and main buildings, all located along a short “main street”, are over 100 years old with character.  The hotels have wonderful pubs with great food.  I assume the weather is wonderful in the summer, but still has been a little cold and rainy in the mid-spring. Some of the local (relatively) beer can be hoppy and delightful, although expensive, as is everything.

From Bombalo I finally headed to the Pacific coast, to the town of Eden.  It is a popular tourist beach area, and famous for hosting humpback whales right in the bay.  It also displayed a number of new bird species for me, as the southeast coastal forests are different than those further north or west.  I contacted Barbara Jones, the president of the local birding society, who kindly invited me to her country property outside nearby Nethercote, where she has native plants and a large variety of birds. For over two days I searched for an opportunity to photograph the Superb Lyrebird; I saw many, but always just as they dashed into the thick forest.  The final day I did get a couple of quick snapshots of one just before he ran.  I also was rewarded with views of the Eastern Whipbird, Crested Shrike Thrush, Wonga Pigeon and King Parrot.  On and around Lake Coralo I spent time photographing Bell Miners, cormorants and Black Swans.  My campervan was parked between two bottlebrush trees with brilliant red flower-brushes, which attracted large numbers of very noisy Rainbow Lorikeets, perhaps the most populous bird in Australia, but in my opinion still perhaps the most beautiful.

From Eden I drove the short distance north to Bermagui to check out the lagoon which was reputed to be good for crakes and rails.  Unfortunately, that evening the rain set in and, as I headed further north to Ulladulla it rained the entire day without a break – I was told it dropped over 100mm (4 inches).  The next day, my last day in the campervan and birding, was sunny and beautiful.  I spent 7 hours out in two different reserves, where I found but failed to photograph the Glossy Black Cockatoo,  and then drove up about 1,600 feet elevation to the Morton National Park.  There I finally found a male Gang Gang Cockatoo, and got one decent photo of it with its marvelous crimson-pink head illuminated in the sunlight.  I also got to photograph my only Fan-tailed Cuckoo and Eastern Spinebill there.

From Ulladulla I drove into Sydney and returned the campervan, transferring from 85 nights of sleeping on a narrow bench with no restroom inside, to a lovely room in a Value Suites with a gloriously comfortable bed, one wall comprised of windows and balcony over the city, restroom with rain-shower head, kitchenette, etc.  I am just 150 meters from the Green Square train station, from where I can travel anywhere in the city, including 5 stops around downtown, in just minutes.  Friday I spent a number of hours re-exploring the Australia Museum, a mixture of Natural History, History and Anthropology rooms together with a special exhibition of the best nature photographs of the year. Tuesday the 14th at 11:30am I start the long journey back to Tucson, anticipating arrival the same day at 10:40 am, 40 minutes before departure – crossing the International Date Line does strange things.  I already am contemplating where to travel next.  Later.  Dave