Sunday, November 11, 2007

Australia - Edith Falls to Kakadu National Park, NT, November 6, 2007

Roadside warnings about swimming near Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

We stayed Sunday night at Edith Falls National Park, just north of Katherine, and got a quick lesson in Australian ants. Our first acquaintance was at Devils Marbles. While Mandy raised the tent, I started dinner on the portable gas grill. Beneath us roamed the occasional ant. I sautéed the vegetables and grilled some meat, looked down at my feet and was surprised to see ants crossing in all directions in an area about 10 square feet. They posed no problem, so I attended to the food. In a short time, I looked down again to see the squad of ants turn into a small army that covered much of our camp. Still they seemed to pose no problem; they had no interest in food (although we tentatively identified them as “Meat Ants”). We went into our tent that night with some trepidation.

Our camp site at Devils Marbles

The next night at Edith Falls National Park we went through the same process and soon found the ants were out again -- this time tiny red ants smaller than a small flax seed. These, however, were interested in the food, the greasy pans, and us. The next morning we found them into nearly everything including a trash bag inside the truck. The fact that they were smaller than the mesh of the tent screen gave us an even greater fright than the night before. Fortunately our fear was unfounded although, sadly, they found Mandy’s chocolate also stashed in the truck. We learned the next day that Northern Australia has over 200 species of ants.

Nasty little black ants invading our food . . . so small they can (and did) slip through the mesh screening of our tent.

The ants are an amazing variety of sizes and colors -- these ants were gold and green.

Bush Stone-Curlews at Edith Falls National Park with chick in the leaves on the lower right.

The ants were a fright, but the heat hit us like a hammer when we stepped out of the air-conditioning of the Land Cruiser in Katherine. Imperceptibly we slid from cool to burning hot in about a five-hour ride nonstop through Tennant Creek to Katherine (we found out later that the cool morning at Devils Marbles was a fluke). By the time we set camp in Edith Falls it was steamy.

Thunder storm moving over the Monsoon Forest at Kakadu National Park

So the next night, we decided to luxuriate at Kakadu National Park and stayed at the Park’s Cooinda Lodge. It was cool, ant free, with two swimming pools, a bar and crowded with happy tourists. It was well-run by the Aboringinal owners of the land -- the lodge and all the concessions.

Little Corella near the Cooinda Lodge, Kakadu NP

Australian White Ibis feeding outside our room at Cooinda Lodge

Early next morning we met Buck Salau, a field supervisor of Feral Species Team in the Department of Environment and Water Resources Service. Buck agreed to show us around Kakadu National Park and discuss his work and the operation of the park. It’s an odd arrangement. In the US a park is either federal, state or local and, at least in my experience, has no dual authority; a federal land is run by federal staff and likewise for state and county lands. In Kakadu the Australian National Government granted the aboringinal people a land claim that included the park in 1982. The Government then leased it back from them. The Aboriginal groups essentially run the park to the extent that it is they who greet visitors to what is their park and it is they who earn the income. Buck explained that the profits go to businesses run by aboringinal groups or their proxies. Yet for all intents and purposes, the employees one sees are government staff or employees of the concessionaires. While explaining all of this, Buck guided us through billabongs (rivers isolated by dry lands) and spring-tide flooded wetlands full of wildlife.

Buck Salau showing us a wetland at Kakadu National Park

Closeup of the waterlillies

Dancing Brolgas on a tidal flat shown to us by Buck Salau

The relationship of private enterprise and the government is another interesting aspect of these lands; there appears to be a near seamless coexistence of both employees of the government and employees of the concessions. By all appearances it works well, the park appears to be carefully managed to protect both the ecological and cultural resources and the lodge is clean and I assume profitable, being full in this the off-season. As a former employee of state government, and knowing how difficult it is to run parks in the US, there is a lesson to be learned from this effective linkage of private enterprise and government lands.

As if to make the point we finished the day on a boat tour of the South Alligator River, run by an aboriginal concessionaire. The operator provided the 40 or so tourist with an intimate experience with White-Bellied Sea-Eagles, Azure Kingfishers, Darters, Whistling Ducks and thousands of Magpie Geese without creating any apparent disturbance or impact. But the star of the tour were the salt-water crocodiles, which gave everyone a memorable experience despite the trip being cut short by a violent thunderstorm.

A Darter at Yellow Waters in Kakadu NP.

Crocodile resting along a bank of the South Alligator River

A White-Bellied Sea-Eagle nesting along the South Alligator river, the tour boat loaded with 40 people never flushed one of the 6 individuals seen on the tour.

A Comb-crested Jacana walking on the lily pads of the South Alligator R.


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