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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones

Birding On My Own
Australia &
New Zealand 2002
Emmalee Tarry
Revised 2015

Trip Reports

Table of Contents

 
Chapter 8

The Red Center


Stuart Highway
Coober Pedy
Ayres Rock
Alice Spring



MacDonnell Range
Long Road North
Katherine Gorge
Aboriginal Rock Art

Comments to webmaster

Author and Willy Ayres Rock

The author and Willy at Ayres Rock now called Uluru.

Ocean to Ocean on the Stuart Highway

At the end of the first week of August, I arrived in Port Augusta. I am a little tired of the cold nights and looking forward to the
warm desert. It is time to head for Darwin and Kakadu National Park. I plan to be in Queensland by September in time to enjoy the migration of shorebirds from the northern hemisphere.

Port Augusta does not offer much other than a good jumping off point for the drive north. I filled up with gas and spent the
night at a Big Four campground where everyone is poised for the long trip north. Most of the campers are retirees and old hands at this trip.

Map Australia with route taken

The black line from north to south is the Stuart Highway from Port Augusta in the south toDarwin in the north.  The outback is anything west of the Great Dividing Range which runs north/south along the coast from Brisbane to Melbourne.  You are really outback when you are on the Stuart Highway.

 I am a little apprehensive about the long drive through the desert. A birding friend who has been to Australia was horrified that I would even consider making this drive alone. There are stories about people running out of gas or dying of heat stroke in the desert. There is the still unsolved murder of a tourist two years ago on the Stuart Highway.

My usual reaction to such fears is to minimize the risks and then to go for it. I resolved to always keep the gas tank at least half full. I would not drive at night or drive off the sealed road. And I always spent the night in a campground rather than camping out along the highway in the rest parks.

I actually experienced no real trouble on my trip.

 

I bought a cellular phone at K-Mart for emergencies. That turned out to be a mistake. If you are going to buy a cellular phone buy one serviced by the largest telephone company in Australia called Telcom. Their phones work in more places that the others. Even their phones don't work most of the time in the Red Center.

I loved driving the Stuart Highway and now that the trip is over I look back on this part of the trip as one of the most satisfying. The Stuart Highway is a straight, level, two lane road with very light traffic. Most of the time I was the only vehicle in sight in either direction. I drove at a leisurely 90 to 100 km per hour. I could see a vehicle coming toward me for miles and had to remind myself to check the rear view mirror for vehicles catching up to me. On rare occasions I passed a car dragging a heavy caravan.

There is plenty of petrol along the Stuart Highway. While there are few real cities along the road there is a roadhouse every 200km or so. The roadhouses are carefully marked on the map. Small cryptic signs along the road indicate the distance to the next roadhouse or small town once you learn to read them. A sign to Coober Pedy for example would say " CP 150 ". and the next "CP 140".

Car repairs and auto parts are not readily available except in the larger towns like Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, or Katherine. .
The radio rarely had a viable station and when it did work all I could get was farm news or country music.

Look out for the road trains, sixteen wheelers pulling up to 3 trailers. They drive fast always exceeding 110km and expect you to stay out of their way. Every time one passed in either direction I would have to hold on to the wheel as Willy's high profile proved unstable inhigh winds or drafts from passing trucks. I read somewhere that in the outback the convention is to wave to every passing motorist. Tourists follow this to
the letter. The truckers seem to ignore it.

One afternoon I noticed a caravan following me very closely. Irritated I slowed down hoping they would pass. The other driver slowed down with me. At the next petrol station, the car followed me right up to the pump. The woman then explained that her husband had refused to buy petrol at the last stop because he thought it too expensive and they were running low. Their reason for sticking so close to me was that if they ran out they figured I would help. Lost in my own thoughts I probably would not have noticed their car slowing to a stop. I am glad they made the station.  Boy! men are alike the world over.

A motorcyclist flagged me down a long way from anywhere. He was out of petrol and wanted to know if I was carrying a spare can. From my days as
a volunteer firefighter, I know that carrying a can of gasoline inside a car or van is a very dangerous thing to do. Spare gas cans should only be carried outside the passenger compartment so that if an accident ruptures the can it explodes out of the vehicle and not into the passenger area. This guy was heading south and had passed up Coober Pedy hoping to get to the cheaper petrol in Port Augusta. I offered bottled water, but he said he had plenty. Men!

I also looked for the famous dog fence mentioned on the map. The fence was built to keep Dingoes from moving south into South Australia. It was a foolish idea that didn't work. I never saw any remnant or even a monument mentioning the dog fence. Nor did I see a Dingo in all of Australia or at least I didn't recognize it  as such. The Dingo is a domestic dog introduced between 3,500 and 11,000 years ago and derived from the Asian Wolf like all domestic dogs. The Dingo was adopted by the Aborigines for the same reasons that man has used domestic dogs all over the world. This was well before the arrival of the Europeans. Dingoes live as wild animals in loose packs but also interbreed with feral domestic dogs. Feral dogs and cats are a big problem to wildlife in Australia because the climate is mild and they easily survive the winter.

Back in the 1980s a Dingo stole a nine week old baby from a camper's tent in Ayres Rock campground. The baby's body was never recovered and it most probably was fed to the Dingo's own pups. The authorities refused to accept the mother's story despite witnesses to the incident and prosecuted both parents for killing the baby. The mother, Lindy Chamberlain spent two years in jail before being exonerated. The bizarre story still raises strong emotions in many Australians some of whom still think sheis guilty. I read Lindy's autobiography and think she had a poor defense attorney. Most Australians can't believe that Dingoes are dangerous to humans and I also think that Lindy's strong religious beliefs irritated people.

Many of the campground have free libraries of used paperback books. I enjoyed reading both novels and non-fiction about Australia as I
traveled. The best free book was one written by a Queensland goldminer picked up at the Kingfisher Lodge in Queensland. .

Mostly I was alone to enjoy the beautiful desert. Desert is perhaps too harsh a word for these arid lands support lots of vegetation. Trees with blackened trucks contrast with the red soil. Here and there a shrubs bloom profusely. I got my first look at the Desert Pea a small ground hugging forb with bright red flowers.

There very few places to stop along the highway as the shoulders are very narrow. Every now and then there is a picnic area and early in the morning there would always be several campers spending the night. It is legal to camp in these areas and some people spend days in these free areas. If the stop has water and toilets, some people seem to be living in them. These stopping places werealways barren so I learned to avoid them.

A Gibberbird flew across the highway shortly outside Port Augusta. I saw a flocks of little green parrots several times. Emus and Kanagaroos are seen every now and then. Kangaroos and other desert mammals are most active at night which leads to their slaughter by the road trains. There were lots of dead kangaroos every day. The Stuart Highway is Raptor Alley. Flocks of Ravens and Little Crows surround the carcass of every freshly killed kangaroo. If one of the birds looked bigger from a distance I knew it was a Wedge-tailed Eagle. Black Kites, one of the most common raptors in Australia were seen everywhere.

Coober Pedy
Opals attracted the early miners to Coober Pedy. Opals made them endure scorching temperatures in summer in a land with no water. To escape the relentless sun and heat, they dug their houses out of the rock and lived underground. Hollywood loves Coober Pedy. Today Coober Pedy has electricity for air conditioning so the underground houses are for tourists and the movies. A pipeline from Port Augusta brings water but water is still a precious commodity.

You know you are approaching Coober Pedy when barren piles of loose dirt line both sides of the highway for as far as you can see. . Signs warn tourists not to walk in the desert and especially not to walk backward for fear of falling into one of the abandoned mines. Men can and will destroy even the desert for opals.

I got to Coober Pedy about 3 PM and registered at the campground. Water is so expensive the campground does not provide faucets for filling water tanks. The only water available is in the amenities block. Nor do they have trees, flowers or a swimming pool. The. campground is pretty barren and uninteresting.

I went off to see the town.They are still mining opals in Coober Pedy, but I think the biggest industry is mining tourists. The old underground dwellings are now shops, museums or open to tourists for a fee. I visited one shop selling what else but opals. They have a free opal polishing demonstrations and displays about types and quality of opals. Tourists buy anything at any price. Fortunately for my finances after looking at lots of opals one started to look like another and I am able to control desire to own one even for my precious granddaughter. The guidebook says that the prices here are not all that good. What tourist town really has bargains.

The underground dwelling in town that is free is the Catholic Church. Before entering I watched a flock of 20 Black Kites circled over the town. . A sign on the door of the church read

                    You are welcome to enter and look around. Meditate, Pray or light a candle.
                    Please close the door and turn off the lights when you leave

This is an active parish with notices about church activities on the bulletin board. It looked as though they only have mass once a month. The cross shaped sanctuary holds 50 people with a choir and altar. The interior is painted white.

A very loud tourist was taking video of everything and ordering his people to do this or that. After he finally left I enjoyed a quiet moment. It didn't seem all that cool to me and I rather think it gets quite hot when filled with 50 warm bodies. Perhaps residents of Coober Pedy are more used to the heat than I am. On the way out I was careful to close the door and turn off the lights.

There are stores, groceries, and an internet cafe in Coober Pedy. This is the first time I have seen numbers of aboriginal people in town. One man screamed what must have been insults at passersby. I couldn't understand what he was saying and he was ignored. The aboriginal people mostly just sit on the sidewalk waiting for handouts. Their ancestors have been in Australia for 60,000 years or more, but they are lost in today's world.
When I returned to the campground every spot was taken. I was amazed at the number of boats. There were small boats on the top of the cars and large boats towed behind. The Stuart Highway goes from sea to sea.The next day I did another 485 Km to Erldunda.

For 50 km outside of Coober Pedy the road was lined with mounds of the opal diggings. Then desert became beautiful again with brown grass, green spring flowering bushes and trees with blackened trunks. I saw lot of Wedge-tailed Eagles and Little Crows on kangaroo carcases.
After I crossed the state line into the Northern Territory, I noticed an improvement in the road signs. The shoulders of the road have been mowed uncovering a round desert gourd. Flocks of Little Corella and Gallah seem attracted to the seeds wherever the gourds have been crushed by a truck.

Two Emu ran across the road one behind the other. Later three Red Kangaroos hop across the road and out over the desert.
From now on the highway stops will be at roadhouses. The typical roadhouse offers: petrol, minor car servicing, limited groceries, restaurant, bar, campground with cabins. I rented a site in the campground and got there early enough to park under one of the only trees. It was shady for about an hour until 4 PM when I went to the lovely shaded swimming pool. The pool was small and very cold. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the shade at the pool. When night falls its get so cold I need flannel pajamas and the quil

Ayres Rock (Uluru) and The Olgas (Kata Tjuta)
The Lasseter Highway is a 250 km side trip to world famous Ayres Rock. As partial settlement of aboriginal claims the entire area containing Ayres Rock has been deeded to the aboriginal tribes so that they can live traditionally. The national park has leased back the area that contains Ayres Rock and adopted the aboriginal name of Uluru for the park. Twenty percent of gate receipts for the park goes to the tribes (AU$15 for three day pass).

Yulara, the tourist town outside the park contains shops, gas stations, hotels, and the campground. The use of the aboriginal names makes everything hard to remember. As usual I drove the Lasserter Highway slowly stopping frequently to look for birds. At a picnic area along the way I had 200 Zebra Finch. You can see Ayres Rock from several spots along the road.

Around noon I arrived at the campground and obtained a site. The campground is quite nice and even has a few trees. There are plenty of powered sites for caravans and campervans and unpowered tent sites. . In one small tree in the campground I had: Yellow-throated Miner, Striped Honeyeater, Crested Pigeon, Singing Honeyeater. Outside in the park were several Black-breasted Buzzards.

Ayres Rock or Uluru

In the afternoon I drove around the rock stopping at various places to look for birds. So after you see it, do you climb it? The only path to the top of Ayres Rock starts at the white sign. Climbing the rock is very popular. The parks service urges tourists not to climb because it is harder than it looks and people are frequently injured or suffer heart attacks. The aboriginal tribes that now own the park consider it a religious site and prefer that people not climb.There are aboriginal rock carvings on a track to the left of the climbing site. You are asked to visit these only with an aboriginal guide. Unfortunately the guide is only there on certain days and at certain times. I did not visit these carvings and later wished that I had just walked the track on my own.

The climb does not look as steep as it actually is. I went up the rock for a short distance and then decided there were better ways to spend my time. I saw a woman coming back down sitting down and sliding down the rock ruined her pants. I drove all the way around the rock and stopped to look for birds at several places. It was pretty barren.

Ayres Rock Uluru trail

I could not find much to interest me at the Aboriginal Cultural Center. The exhibits and videos focused mostly on the traditional Gods and stories. I was much more interested in how they lived in the desert. The aborigines were very primitive stone-age people when the Europeans arrived. The dry land did not support agriculture so they were nomadic hunter gathers. People who move all the time do not collect stuff. Parked in the shade outside the cultural center I noticed a bird moving in the brush. I worked very hard to see this bird and when I finally got a good look I saw scarlet undertail coverts the sure sign of the Mistletoe Bird. The male is unmistakable, but the females can fool you.

I called this raptor perched in the top of the tree an immature Black Falcon. There are lots of raptors in the park. I don't trust my id of this bird so if

Black Falcon Ayres Rock  Ayres Rock as sun sets 
 anyone has another idea, please write. This was certainly a cooperative bird and sat there a long time. One evening activity is to park in the sunset parking lot and wach Ayres Rock change colors as the sun goes down. Actually you can do this from the campground.

The next day I went back into the park. It was windy and cold and the rock climbing was closed. I drove on to the Olgas. I am not seeing many birds here probably because the drought is just starting here. I hiked a short track at the Olgas with little result.I drove from Ulura back to the Stuart Highway and on to Alice Springs.

On the way back to Erlunda, an aboriginal man tried to flag down my car. I slowed without stopping. Further on a woman ran into the center of the highway trying to flag me down. Under a bush on one side of the road I could see 2 children. For safety reasons, I felt I could not stop, but I reported the incident at the roadhouse in Erlunda. The attendant at the petrol station scoffed at the idea these people might need help. He said they did that every day trying to get handouts.

A few Aboriginal people hang out in the parking lot of the roadhouse. They do not ask for money, but do accept if it is offered. They are very sad. The adults are grossly overweight. The children including some who look to be school age have running noses due to something called Sandy Blight. As soon as they are given money they go in the roadhouse and buy french fries, soda pop, and candy.

I did not see Aboriginal people working in the Yulara town shops. Even the cultural center seemed to be staffed by Australians of European Ancestry. I am sure that the people you see at the roadhouses are the worst of the society. I certainly hope that others are taking better advantage of the settlement agreements. Americans have no right to point an accusing finger at Australians since we have done a similar thing to our native Americans.

On the road north I crossed a river which had some standing water under the bridge. On the other side there was a picnic area where I stopped for lunch. The picnic area had 3 campers. One had a large caravan with a tent outhouse and was running a generator. Another was camping in a horse trailer with a dog. They looked like they were here for a long stay. I watched for birds while eating my lunch. I had my first White-backed Swallow here along with Fairy Martins. I was disappointed not to find more birds drawn here by the standing pools. I blame it on the dog. Perhaps there is more water up or down stream from the bridge. I saw some other noteworthy camping rigs along the road. One family had made a London style double-decker bus into a campervan called "Double Trouble". My favorite was a truck called the "The Wandering Cockroach".

Alice Springs
If Ayres Rock and surrounding area was somewhat of a disappointment, Alice Spring was the highlight of my trip up the Red Center. There were several choice of campgrounds here. I stayed at the MacDonnell Range Holiday Park for AU$29 for an ensuite. The campground had many facilities including a swimming pool. A photograph in the office showed the entire site underwater during the last flood. The manager told me that the drought is just starting in this area.

The sewage treatment plant is on Commonage Road off of the Stuart Highway just before Heavitree Gap. You will notice garbage trucks using Commonage Road. I intended to scope the ponds from outside the fence. To my surprise a worker drove over to the fence to invite me inside. This is indeed a birder friendly sewage treatment plant.

Park outside and walk in through the walk in gate. Check out the guest register inside for notes from previous birders. The most interesting report was of Freckled Duck. The first entry was two weeks old and reported 2 birds. The next writer saw 9 and finally a recent visitor claims to have seen 15.

Australasian Grebe


The Australasican Greb e has a yellow skin patch on the face.  The Hoary-headed Grebe was also in the pone.

In the first pond I found a flock of Red-necked Avocets. This was my first and only time to see this beautiful bird. There were good numbers of Pink-eared Ducks. Fairy Martins almost flew into me as I walked the dikes. Also Gray Teal, Black-winged Stilt, Pacific Black Duck, Eurasian Coot, Silver Gull, Wood Duck and of course the Willy Wagtail.

The sewage ponds do not smell. There are paths for walking, benches for sitting and a bird blind. I saw many small Grebes most still in nonbreeding plumage when it is hard to tell the Australasian Grebe (above)  from the Hoary-headed Grebe. This individual shows the distinctive yellow skin patch on the face of the Australasian Grebe. There was at least one Hoary-headed Grebe in partial breeding plumage.I spent hours here on two successive days and did not see a Freckle Duck. There are so many ducks here I can believe I missed two, but how could I miss 15. I did not see the Freckle Duck until late in the trip at Denilquin. It is not a spectacular bird and it could be hard to find when resting.

 I ended my first afternoon at the Alice Spring Cultural Center viewing an exhibit of the watercolor landscapes of Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira (1902 -1959) who lived here and painted the MacDonnell Range. This was a temporary exhibit of his life works and later in the trip I saw the exhibit again at the National Gallery of Art in Canberra. The next day I drove out the MacDonnell Range to see for myself the land he loved and captured so beautifully.

MacDonnell Range
In the morning after finding Gray-crowned Babbler in the campground, I drove out to Ormiston Gorge in the MacDonnel National Park.

This beautiful 130 km highway runs parallel to the mountains. I was not just enjoying the scenery but intent on finding two birds that Thomas and Thomas promise are to found in the campground at Ormiston Gorge. The campground at the end of the park road is primitive without electricity or drinking water. It is easy to do this area as a day trip from Alice Springs. I stopped out of the campervan and almost stepped on the Spinifex Pigeon. Within a few minutes I also saw the Western Bowerbird. Promise kept.

A short track from the campground leads to a delightful water hole. Along this track I saw Crested Pigeon, White-plumed Honeyeater, Magpielark, Spiney-cheeked Honeyeater, Yellow-throated Miner.

Spinifex Pigeon at Ormiston Gorge

With patient waiting at the water hole I saw White-necked Heron (left),  Grey Teal, Coots, Australian Grebe. A Whistling Kite was seen overhead.

I spent a leisurely afternoon driving back to Alice Spring stopping at the Ochre Pits. At Simpson Gap I saw the Rock Wallaby. Birds coming to the water hole at Simpson Gap were: White-necked Heron , Zebra Finch, Gray-backed Shrike-thrush, Gray-fronted Honeyeater. I did not find the Dusky Grasswren you should find here. In fact I missed all the Grasswrens in Australia. I blame this failure on the drought and my adversity to stomping around in the desert.


The Long Road North
The long drive from Alice Springs to Katherine took two full days of driving. The desert was beautiful and I saw lots of the same raptors I had seen before. The car radio was useless.

It takes a very hardy soul to do the red center by bicycle. Every day I passed several bikers usually in groups of two. In the petrol station at Uluru, I met a young man from Germany who had ridden south from Darwin and was continuing on to Port Augusta. He needed a tool to fix his bicycle. One couple from Switzerland headed north pedaling a tandem.. There are even very hardy people who tramp the distance with backpacks.
My favorite was the gentleman in shorts and hiking boots pushing all his possession in a grocery cart. I guess if you want to see your country you can find a way. I figure he must stop off every time he passes a grocery store and trade in for a new model. You don't pass many grocery stores in the Australian Outback.

Almost daily I saw fires along the highway. Fires in the desert are allowed to burn themselves out. One afternoon a fire covered the highway with thick smoke. I stopped short of the fire and waited until several cars came through the smoke from the other direction before going through myself. It seemed really dangerous to me to drive into smoke so thick you couldn't see the other side.

The campground at Wycliff Wells, 368 km north of Alice was very pleasant. There was lots of shade and I picked ripe lemons from a tree. The bore (well) water in many campgrounds has a mineral taste. Each evening I relaxed with a cool glass of water to which I added a little lemon juice.

Next to the campground was an artificial lake now almost empty from the drought. A beached row boat indicated that at one time this was quite a resort. My first Rainbow Bee-eaters were fly catching over the lake. I also found White-backed Swallow, Mistletoe Bird, White-faced Heron, Coots, Australian Grebe and a Brown Goshawk here.

The day I drove from Wycliff Wells to Larrimah was a long 7 1/2 hours on the road. I stopped at the Devil's Marbles right on the Stuart Highway to look around. The Devil's Marbles are spherical boulders some balanced atop other rocks. There is a campground here with Spinefex Pigeons.
The Larrimah Roadhouse campground is cheap, but not so great. The swimming pool was green so I didn't swim here. The campground has new management so it may improve soon. The next morning I had my first Red-tailed Black Cockatoos in a tree across the highway. I put up the scope and even before breakfast attracted several people who were curious about what I was doing. Before I left I drove over to the other side of the road and had Apostlebird and Red-collared Lorikeet.

Katherine Gorge
By noon I was in Katherine. First stop was the Shady Lane Campground which unlike many of the campgrounds actually has trees and shade. It was hot and shade was very welcome.

It was very good birding in and around the campground: Blue-faced Honeyeater, White-line Honeyeater,Gray-crowed Babbler and Bar-shouldered Dove. I also enjoyed a nice swim in the campground pool.

After lunch I drove to Katherine Gorge National Park stopping for Plumed Whistling Duck and Rajah Shelduck in a small pond in front of a restaurant. You can hike the gorge or take a two hour boat trip (AU$37). In the dry season the river is so low it is a series of gorges divided by exposed rocks. The trip is made in a series of boats with passengers hiking to the next boat over the exposed rapids. Don't cart along a lot of stuff on this trip. The highlight of the trip is a piece of Aboriginal Rock Art on the gorge wall.

From the visitors center there is a quarter mile walk to the boat dock. Look for
Rock Wallabies along the way. I am tempted to label this picture the Little-red Flying-fox, but actually I am not sure which species this is. On the boat trip we saw several fresh-water crocodiles which lay their eggs on sand banks along the river. The fresh-water croc is not dangerous like its cousin the salt-water crocodile and people were swimming in the river.A Peregrine Falcon landed on the cliff just above my head. Little Black Cormorants live on the river. I also saw Yellow Oriole ,Sulfur-crested Cockatoo,Red-collared Lorikeet. There was a fire along the canyon rim and 100 or more Black Kites circled looking for small mammals driven out by the fire.



At the boat dock several trees were full of these large fruit bats or Flying-Foxes. I believe there are two species here: Little Red Flying-fox and Black Flying-fox.

Immature Great Bowerbird

Immature male Great Bowerbird

A Great Bowerbird male's pride and joy is his bower. This one was located just behind the fence of the Shady Lane campground. The Bowerbird owner was here, but refused to let me photograph him. The bower is a structure to show off the male bird to the female. This is an avenue type bower consisting of an arch made of twigs with a path of white stones. The female after selecting a male based on his architecture, goes off and builds a nest and raises her brood alone.The Shady Lane campground must be kept rather clean because usually the male Bowerbird collects colorful bits of trash to decorate his bower and this guy doesn't have any trash in his bower.

The Bower Bird is a rather plain bird.

Great Bowerbird bower

Aboriginal Rock Art
The Northern Territory has the best preserved collection of prehistoric rock art in the world. The Aborigines have been in Australia for at least 50,000 years. Archeologists are not in agreement about the age of the rock paintings. Some believe them to be as old as 50,000 years while others hold them to be no older than 15,000 years.

Unlike Europe where the surviving rock art is in caves, the dry climate of the Northern Territory has preserved paintings done on cliff faces. One of the first art forms was an outline of the human hand. The older drawings of large animals include some which are now extinct. The later X-ray style shows animals with internal organs. The latest period before colonization reflects the formation of freshwater floodplains in the northern area. Magpie Geese and other animals associated with freshwater appear.

After European colonization the rock art includes ships, guns and horses. One of the easiest places to see rock art is at Katherine Gorge. There are actually 2 murals at this site one on top of the other. The oldest is estimated to have been done at least 10,000 years ago. The murals are on the canyon wall above the high water level and have been preserved by the dry atmosphere. You can clearly see the image of a man and a kangaroo.
To learn more about aboriginal art go to the museum in Darwin. It is especially nice activity for a hot afternoon for now heat is becoming a factor in every day.

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