This month saw me ranging far and wide within the Northern Territory, to Barkly Tablelands in the north-east(ish) corner and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the south-western corner. Unless you’re on your way to Mount Isa, not too many people visit the Barkly Tablelands, but it was slightly surprising that I have lived in Alice Springs for over twelve months now and have visited the Northern Territory half a dozen times before that but had never been to Kata Tjuta!
So, accompanying a number of enthusiastic BirdLife Central Australia members keen to survey the birdlife in the Tablelands, I jumped in a car and drove (was driven) north up the Stuart Highway.
A quick stop at the Devils Marbles at Karlu Karlu Conservation Reserve was quite serene once we got up the opposite end from all the caravans. It boasts a wide sweeping landscape with the occasional gentle rolling hill studded with massive boulders. It didn’t take much imaginative power to see giant toes, bent knees and curled up people in the forms of the rocks. The now familiar and archetypal Central Australian colour scheme of bright blue, rusty oranges and dusty greens dominated Karlu Karlu and with a bit of creative body positioning, you could find yourself a little perch and survey the vista without a single caravan, car or other person in sight. Magic!
With plenty of stops to checkout the birdlife along the roadsides, we finally arrived at Connells Lagoon Conservation Reserve. And although the effectiveness of the cattle grids left much to be desired, inside the fence line was a sea of grass. At first glance it seemed to be a uniform monoculture, but once your eyes adjusted, the slight variations in shade, colour and texture became apparent and I was once again reminded how much I like grass. Especially when it is seeding!
As far as birds went Connells was fairly quiet. What little water remained had been invaded by trespassing cattle. But wading through waist high grass and stumbling across hidden ephemeral swamps filled with cracking clay and brightly coloured mosses instead of water was well worth the drive. And the birds we did see were all the more exciting. Hovering Nankeen Kestrels (Falco cenchroides), large groups of Flock Bronzewings (Phaps histrionica) coming down to drink at sunset, or pairs of Australian Bustards (Ardeotis australis) cruising across the horizon or materialising out of the grass beside the roads. To top it off, each night we got to watch a super moon rising out of the grass like a giant, glowing, white globe.
The wildflowers were already beginning to put in an appearance at the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park and especially around the resort at Yulara. Again, it took a moment to spot them amongst the blanket of yellowy-green-grey hues of the various grasses. But every now and then and bright spark of vivid purple or white or yellow would catch your eye.
The Valley of the Winds walk lived up to its reputation. While the weather was somewhat overcast and lead to rain in the afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the valley with spectacular timing and we crested the hill. Butterflies and Zebra Finches (Taeniopygia guttata) drank at the multitude of tiny pools of water that collected in the pocked face of the rocks. Little Woodswallows (Artamus minor) clustered together in the branches of trees, and curious bugs traversed the broad expanses of rock, but unfortunately it was too cold for the reptiles to get out and about.
To be able to stand on a dune and see Uluru rising proudly from the flat horizon on one side and Kata Tjuta gathered serenely on the other is truly wonderful. These enormous rocks, seemingly so out of place in such a flat area, are majestic in size; they are beautiful, solemn and spectacular. Sometimes it is good to put down the camera and simply look with your ‘real eyes’ and appreciate what is right in front of you.