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New England Seabirds

Wilson's Storm-petrel

Birding on My Own
Australia New Zealand
2002
Emmalee Tarry
Revised 2015

Trip Reports

 Table of Contents

 

 
Chapter 10

The Barkley Highway


Poetry in the Desert
Land of the Southern Cross
Australian Bustard
Camooweal to Mount Isa
Life at the Water Holes
Marine Fossils


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Southern Cross windmill along the Barkley Highway

Poetry in the Desert

To drive from Darwin to Queensland you first must backtrack south on the Stuart Highway to Tennant Creek and take the Barkley Highway east to the coast. My objective now is to get to the northern part of Queensland by the first of September. Queensland is the best birding in Australia and September marks the starts of the migration of northern breeding shorebirds (waders) to Australia.

When I checked in at the campground in Tennant Creek I was given an announcement for a poetry reading. I haven't been to poetry reading since I was in graduate school at Indiana University in 1962.

Tennant Creek Caravan Park presents Local poet
Jimmy Hooker.
Appearing here at 6:30 pm tonight
$2 per head - Site 22

Bring a cup and a deck chair and have a cup of billy tea with Jimmy, while Jimmy recites his poetry and bush yarns. Jimmy also brings along some bush tucker for people to see and try if so inclined.

Six people showed up at the campfire with cups and chairs. Tea was already brewing in a can on the fire. Jimmy is a happy and energetic man who despite never learning to read is a gifted poet and story teller. He began by demonstrating how the aborigines melted a fragrant wax from a bush fruit. He had a dutch oven (iron pot with legs and lid used to cook on campfires) and showed us how a small man like himself could sit on the lid. Then he recited a long story poem about a camp cook who wanted to discourage one of the men from sitting on his pots.

Another poem was about the Bilby a small rabbit sized marsupial with very long ears that lives in this area and whose existence in the wild is threatened because the extensive of the railroad from Alice Spring to Darwin will cut right through its prime territory. Remember the Bilby was one of the endangered mammals at Yookamura.

One of Jimmy's poems was about the Australian Bustard which he referred to as the Kori Bustard. At one time the Australian Bustard was thought to be conspecific with the Kori Bustard of Africa, but it is now recognized as a separate species. This reminded me that I have not yet seen a bustard. I surely expected to see this bird along the highway.

Tucker is an Australian word for food. A poem familiar to every Australia is about a Dog on the Tucker Box. The word bush refers to anything away from man made activities. If you go for a walk in the desert or woods that is out in the bush. So bush tucker is food obtained from natural fruit and seeds in the bush. The aborigines lived as hunter gatherers moving frequently to subsist on whatever they could glean from the land. Europeans knew how to do it better and transformed the land into pastures and farms kicking the aborigines off the land. Australia is a land of undependable rain fall. Great floods are followed by long droughts. Rainfall in parts of Australia is less predictable than in the Sahara Desert. Now parts of the country are experiencing the worst drought in one hundred years. Farmers have quit planting rice. Cattle are thin and bony. Dust storms and fires are revenging the landscape. Perhaps the aborigines had a better idea after all.

Jimmy explained each example of bush tucker and then passed around samples for us to taste. If you are in Tennant Creek do seek out Jimmy Hooker at camp site 22 in the caravan park.

Land of the Southern Cross

The Barkley Highway is a paved two lane highway that connects the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory to the coast of Queensland. After the road enters Queensland maintenance deteriorates and I got very tired of the bumpy road. My first day from Tenant Creek to Camoonweal was all in the Northern Territory. As on the Stuart Highway I was the only vehicle in sight in either direction most of the time.

The only water along long stretches of the Barkley Highway is pumped from wells by the landmark windmills made by a company called Southern Cross. Every rest stop along the way had one of these windmills and under each water faucet some kind person maintains a cut off gallon plastic bucket to catch the drips for the animals. I wondered how many small mammals and birds are sustained by this water.

There are road trains on the Barkley Highway hauling petrol and supplies to the interior. You knew a rest stop was coming up when you saw the landmark windmill in the distance.

I stopped frequently at these picnic areas to look for birds. I saw Richard's Pippet, Galah, Crows, Magpie Lark.

There were quite a few flowering trees and in one of them I had Black-faced Woodswallow and Zebra Finch.

Australian Bustard

Some time after lunch on the first day I came around a curve and stared right at a large bird standing on the shoulder of the road. I stopped and managed this photograph of the Australian Bustard. No wonder Jimmy Hooker wrote about it in his poem. The bird stared at me and then slowly walked across the road and disappeared into the bush. Looking back from where it disappeared I saw three birds about 100 yards back in the bush.

Later I saw two solitary bustards some distance from the road for a total of five for the trip.

At the James River there was water or at least a little water. I stopped and found three Brolga, White-necked Heron, Straw-necked Ibis, Brown Falcon and of course a Willy Wagtail. From now to the coast, the long drive was broken by stops at little bits of water.

Camooweal to Mount Isa

After you cross the border of Queensland you leave the dry forest and enter an endless grassland. I stopped early in the afternoon at Camooweal because the next stretch of road to Mount Isa is the notorious lane and half highway.

It is only 180 km, but why would anyone build a highway a lane and a half wide especially out here where land is cheap. It is a touchy point with Australians. One man defended it vigorously because he said the traffic is light and doesn't justify two lanes. And he said the population of Australia is much less than that of the US. Yes, all that is true, but a lane and half highway just doesn't make any sense. I think the real answer lies in the Queensland government which has had some problems with corruption. The politicians don't care about the people along this road. Surely it would make more sense to pay people to rebuild this road rather than paying welfare. It would stimulate the economy of the region and encourage tourism. Besides how much would be saved in health care for people injured in head on collisions.

Camooweal is a depressing place. The campground here was the worst in Australia. It was without grass and had only a few trees, rotting structures and barking dogs. The town itself has little to offer. A single building contains a grocery, new and used clothing store, and post office. On one or two side streets there are houses and a school. I drove around the whole town without seeing any birds other than crows.

The next morning I woke up at 4 AM because of a loud television blaring from the manager's house. Either someone else likes TV at 4 AM or he just did it to get us all out of there early because when I got out of bed he was walking around with one of the dogs and greeted me with a cheery " Another beautiful day in paradise." .

I left paradise at 7 AM. Ten kilometers out of town, suddenly the line down the middle of the road ends and the road narrows. This is the lane and half and it is an abomination. True the traffic is very light and most of the time you can drive down the middle of the road. If you meet a car you are supposed to move over to left, and put one wheel on the unpaved shoulder. Nobody says anything about slowing down and my observation was that no driver slowed down. Certainly do not expect the road trains to slow down. Waiting until the last minute to pull to the side of the road is very dangerous because there are a number of tourists like yourself who may make a mistake and pull to the right. If both cars pull to the same side you have a high speed head on collision. An accident like this occurred between two four wheel drive vehicles on a dirt road near Ayres Rock killing five people. An Italian driver pulled to the right. The British driver correctly went left. Everybody ended up dead.

Even if both drivers pull to the left, at high speeds both cars will throw rocks to either side. This increases the risk of a broken windscreen. An entrepreneur in Mount Isa advertises 24 hour windscreen repair. I bet he does well.

Drive defensively. Slow down or even stop well ahead of an approaching vehicle and get completely off the road. This is especially true if you meet or are passed by a road train. It is very hard for the truck driver to pull off to the left and they are certainly not worried about you hitting them with rocks. I never saw a road train slow down. In most places the shoulders are wide enough for you to pull off the road. Don't wait until the last minute as you may come to a very soft or narrow shoulder. There are a few places where because of a hill or curve you can't really see oncoming cars. Each time I came to one of the blind places I stayed far to the left even putting one wheel on the shoulder.

I had to pull off the road a total of 22 times during the 2 hour drive to Mount Isa. There are stretches of two lane road along the 180 km. One stretch was about 30 km long.. After Mount Isa the road at least always has two lanes, but it remains rough and narrow. Don't be afraid of the Barkley Highway. Do resolve to drive it carefully and yield the right of way.

Life at the Waterholes

The drive continued with stops every time I came to a bit of water. Enormous bridges span dried up river beds. Some are totally dry. Others have a bit of standing water and every now then a flowing stream.

At one water hole I had a flock of Diamond Doves the only time I saw this bird. Egrets, herons and Little Pied Cormorants showed up in small numbers like this guy who flew up on the branch to wait for me to leave.

This very muddy Blue-winged Kookaburra eyed me from a tree. Around Kakadu you will only see the Blue-winged Kookaburra. Both can be found in Queensland. Look for the absence of a dark line through the eye to identify a Blue-winged.

At this same stop I had my first Red-capped Robin. I am doing well on robins. I am determined to see as many species as I can.

Out in the grasslands I spotted this Daddy Emu with his little stripped chick. Male Emus take care of their chicks. I could only see one chick with this guy. Perhaps because of the drought the number of chicks in lower. Another Emu had a group of 3 immature birds behind him. Immatures are lighter in color and lack the blue or white on the neck.

Marine Fossils

I arrived in Richmond about 4:30 PM and found a nice campground. at the top of a hill and next to a small park. The park has a display of rounded stones called "moon stones". They are not fossils but may contain fossils.

Richmond has an excellent museum to display the many marine fossils found in this part of Australia. During the last ice age the ocean was some 300 feet deeper and this whole area was one shallow sea. Many fossils remains of marine reptiles have been found here and there are active digs still in progress. The museum contains some excellent examples of the marine fossils found in the area. Outside the museum is a model of a large marine dinosaur called Kronosaurus Queenlandia. The complete fossil remains were found by Harvard geologist William Schevill and the reconstructed skeleton is now housed in the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge. I will make an effort to see the skeleton.

I have been looking for an Internet terminal for several days to catch up with E-mail from home. Outback campgrounds often do not offer internet. The local libraries usually do and as an added bonus you get to meet the librarian a great source of information about the area. In Richmond the library was across the street from the museum and for AU$2 I was allowed to surf as long as I wanted.

I spent a final night along the Barkley Highway at Charter Towers a famous gold mining town. Somewhere outside of town I saw my fifth and final Bustard.

The following day I drove all the way to Caines. I am not happy to be back on well traveled roads. I miss the solitude and beauty of the outback. Queensland is the best overall birding in Australia. I will stay here until I have to head south for the September Wollongong pelagic. I leave the Red Center with 223 birds on my list.

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