Day 48-50: 22nd-24th October
The long drive across the Nullarbor is a reminder of why most species in the west don’t mingle with those in the east. It’s a long, long way! We set off from Norseman early on 20th October (Day 46) and drove the 1310km km to Streaky Bay, South Australia – in just two days.
Straight sealed roads, very little traffic, cruise-control, and chewing gum make for a relatively easy drive.
I tried to imagine driving across the Nullarbor before 1976. Much of the road was still gravel, and our VW might have been this one! I’ll stick with the 2017 model Tiguan, thanks.
Streaky Bay was the starting point for our return to SA
We arrived at Streaky Bay before dark, weary and happy to indulge ourselves with a meal at the local pub. We’ve only eaten out a few times on the whole trip, but that doesn’t mean we’ve eaten typical camp fare. Amazingly, the limitations of the Cub’s little stove, one saucepan and one frypan doesn’t curb Paul’s cooking at all. I’m very, very lucky!
Streaky Bay was really just a convenient stop-over, which is probably not doing the town justice. It seemed a very nice place, worthy of further exploration. Another time, perhaps.
Sighting a beautiful young shorebird just metres from our camp was an unexpected bonus, and perhaps a good omen for our return to South Australia.
A bit about the Gawler Ranges
A few weeks ago, as we drove west past Port Augusta, we noticed the Gawler Ranges National Park on our maps. “hhmmm …. perhaps on the way back?”.
This was a rather rare case of us not being guided by FAB. We didn't go with the hope of any particular bird species. We were simply curious to explore a national park in this arid part of the country.
The name ‘Ranges’ might give the impression of high hills. They aren’t. This is a very old landscape. A flat, sandy plain where low rocky rises provide views for miles.
The Park provides a refuge for threatened species, such as the Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby, and is also home to several plants found nowhere else. We didn’t go searching for the Rock-wallabies … I doubt they’re easy to spot. But hop bush is recognisable, even when not flowering.
Initially, the vegetation in the Park came as quite a shock for us. It was such an extreme contrast to the diverse and colourful flowers of the national parks we visited in WA. We weren’t seeking to make a comparison, but the difference was stark.
Yet the vegetation of the Gawler Ranges is more impressive than it seems at first glance. There are 400 plant species, including several threatened species. It’s just that diversity is most obvious when plants are in flower, and there was very little flowering during our visit. Also, I suspect that many of the plant species in the Park are ephemeral, appearing only after rain.
Paul did find me an orchid! Just one plant, but it’s a species we’ve not seen before, and one I’ve yet to be able to identify. Perhaps we’ll make a Winter visit sometime. It would no doubt be quite a different place.
It really was dry. A couple of months ago it would have been quite green, and apparently full of wildflowers, but by late October the grasses were brown, the dust was red, and the flies were teeming.
“The Gawler Ranges is the middle ground between southern mallee country and the arid zone to the north of South Australia.” (National Parks information brochure)
There were a few bushes flowering, including these large and rather stunning Eremophila. This genus is an Australian endemic, and most of the 260 species grow in arid regions, particularly in WA.
I’ve read that Eremophila species with this flower shape are typically insect-pollinated. This one, however, was attracting several honeyeaters - including this Yellow-plumed Honeyeater - and the birds were liberally dusted with pollen.
One advantage of visiting the Park in the ‘off season’ is that we had the place entirely to ourselves. Wonderful! … except there was no-one to share the flies with!
Which means we even had our own ensuite! Quite flash, when it comes to bush toilets. The jumper leads, however, remain a mystery.
Birdwatching in arid regions requires quite a special technique. In woodlands and forests, the best approach is to walk and listen, stopping when you see movement or hear birds calling. Wetlands are child’s play … you just stand at the edge and look out. But in dry mallee scrub and salt marsh, neither tactic works. (Oh, and did I mention the flies?!?)
We find the best approach is to slowly drive along the gravel tracks in the air-conditioned comfort of the Tiguan (with no flies), and stop when we come to an area of high bird activity. This is quite productive. There are vast areas where you see no birds at all … but where there’s one species, there are usually lots! Mixed species feeding and nesting seems to be a feature of these environments.
Happily, we came across a couple of such hotspots on Day 1. The birding turned out to be wonderful.
The Crested Bellbird was perhaps the star of the show. Their loud, chiming calls echoed through the mallee, and we were treated to our best ever sightings, by far.
So many species were building nests, delivering food, or being pestered by demanding fledglings.
A total of 35 bird species - not bad at all. And the mix is interesting. They were almost all insectivores, along with a couple of seed eaters. There were very few honeyeaters at all, perhaps reflecting the fact that most plants had finished flowering. Presumably most of the honeyeaters had moved on.
Still a ‘young’ National Park
I confess that I found the barren, damaged nature of much of the Park a little confronting. Large sections were part of a sheep property until quite recently. The National Park was declared in 2002, so it’s still early days in the slow process of recovery.
The rocky hills are naturally quite bare, but many of the flats have lost virtually all the trees to clearing and grazing. Yet there are large patches of intact mallee, and with time these may spread out across adjacent clearings.
Apparently they have the goats well controlled now, but cats and foxes … and of course, rabbits … are a continuing problem.
I was surprised that the only reptiles we saw were Sleepy Lizards. No snakes or skinks, perhaps due to the cats and foxes (?)
Our first day was hot, and we actually spent a couple of hours in the relatively fly-free interior of the Cub. But the sunsets more than made up for it!
By day the ground is just red dust and crispy plants, but at night it comes alive. Paul estimated at least one wolf spider per square metre. He was having a ball!
Enough dust for now
We toyed with the idea of spending a third night in the region. FAB lists a sheep station just to the east of the park, where several very special birds may be found. Tempting … but we’d both had enough of the dust. Paul coped better than I did with the flies. He is a conditioned South Australian, after all. Nevertheless, we decided to run south to Port Lincoln. The car was booked in for a service … and I managed to convince Paul that we should wash it first!
Oh, and Paul made me promise to make this little confession:
In my distracted state (yep, the flies), I forgot about the fireplace in front of our campsite … and managed to drive the car straight over the top of it! Thankfully, no damage to the car. The hotplate, however …
I still love mallee
Just in case I’ve given the wrong impression, let me stress that I do still love the mallee.
As we left the park, heading for Port Lincoln, we passed through extensive, healthy, eucalypt-dominated woodlands.
By definition, ‘mallee’ are low, bushy eucalypts with multiple stems growing from underground tubers.
At one point, bird activity caught our attention so we stopped to investigate. And we were very glad we did. A family of Rufous Treecreepers put on a show, feeding on the trunks of the trees and on the ground.
We had seen Rufous Treecreepers at Walpole NP and Porongurup NP, in WA, but the species isn’t common and is declining or disappearing from much of its range. It has quite a bizarre distribution, and we had reached its eastern limit.
So although we’re well on the way home, the adventures continue. Why Port Lincoln? It’s not just because there is a VW dealership and service centre. There is the attraction of the Lincoln National Park, and the nearby Coffin Bay National Park.