Before heading out further afield we decided to spend a day in Alice Springs to visit the Desert Park to see the endangered Princess Parrot.
While I don’t particularly like viewing wildlife in captive settings, the Desert Park has walk-in aviaries that are more like spacious islands of native habitat that only house the species that naturally co-occur in a given habitat type.
Princes parrots (Polytelis alexandrae) are one of Australia’s most elusive parakeet species and therefore least known. They are a nomadic species that arrive in an area to breed and then disappear, making them very difficult to see in the wild.
Wycliffe Well – UFO Capital of Australia
From the Desert Park, we got back on the road for a long drive to Wycliffe Well – pretty much the only camping stop between Alice Springs and Mataranka. It is also a convenient overnight stop for visiting Devils Marbles in the morning.
Wycliffe Well is known as Australia’s prime UFO hotspot, boasting more UFO sightings than any other area in the country. The entire holiday park is decked out with the alien theme.
We didn’t spot any notable wildlife on this drive, with an exception of a Little buttonquail on the side of the road and a Brown snake at the campsite. No aliens either this time.
Wildlife of Devils Marbles
Devils Marbles is a spectacular formation of rounded boulders stacked precariously on top of each other. Though it lies close to the tropical north of Australia, this area still has a rather dry climate and provides a unique habitat for a wide suite of species.
As we pulled in to the car park we were greeted by a Dingo that was quite happy to laze around in broad daylight.
Amongst the rocks of the Devils Marbles, we were treated to a rare sight of a pair of courting Painted finches. As part of courtship, the male of this species presents the female with a gift of some nesting material – dry grass or small twigs. Holding the gift in his beak he then proceeds to perform a dance around the female until he sees a favorable sign.
Once his efforts are approved by the female, he gets down to business.
While the amorous part is a fairly quick affair, the pair stays together and continues to build the nest.
The finches’ antics brought in a curious visitor – one of Australia’s smallest birds – a Weebill.
The Spinifex grass at Devils Marbles is home to the aptly named Spinifexbird.
There were also a few Dimond doves amongst the rocks.
The road from Devil’s Marbles to the tropic of Capricorn marker turned up a wide variety of birds of prey: Australian hobby, Black kite, Grey falcon and Spotted harrier.
The tropic of Capricorn marks the formal transition to the tropical North of Australia and the next part of this blog.
Elsey National Park
From the Devils Marbles, we headed to Australia’s Top End and drove from the desert heat to the tropical sauna. Our first order of business in the Top End was to see the wildlife of Mataranka and Katherine Gorge.
Wildlife of Mataranka Hot Springs
We arrived at Mataranka hot springs camping grounds late at night, put up the tent in the dark and went for a quick exploration walk to see what local wildlife was around. The air was laden with moisture – the trademark of the tropical climate and I was hoping to find some new frogs.
And frogs I found. They were everywhere around the camp site. Within 10 meters of our tent I found huge Northern Green Tree frogs (Litoria caerulea), Rocket frogs (Litoria nasuta), Roth’s tree frogs (Litoria rothii), Ornate burrowing frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum) and the inevitable Cane toads (Bufo marinus) that are steadily making their way across Australia wiping out native wildlife.
The showers were occupied by Top End dtella (Gehyra australis) – a small gecko with almost translucent skin and bright-red painted toenails.
Agile Wallabies and Little Red Flying Foxes
Apart from frogs and reptiles there were two new mammals clearly dominating the landscape: Agile wallaby on the ground and Little red flying fox making a racket up in the canopy.
The Agile wallaby is perhaps the most common mammal in Australia’s Top End. They can be seen virtually anywhere: at camping grounds, out in the bush, in the paddocks and along the roads at night. The Little red flying fox is also quite common in the Top End. The population at Mataranka may count up to 200,000 individuals in some years.
In the morning the camp site was overrun by the wallabies. They were completely relaxed and for the most part, ignored us, humans.
Wildlife at Bitter Springs
The hot spring at Mataranka wasn’t particularly inspiring, so we packed up and went to Bitter Springs for something different. Bitter Springs are also located within Elsey National Park but tend to receive fewer visitors and offer somewhat less disturbed surroundings.
The water at the Springs is amazingly warm, clear and inviting – the perfect opportunity to escape the humid heat of the day. The wild inhabitants of the area must be thinking the same thing.
At one point I could hear something move on the opposite side of the pond. But as hard as I peered at the pile of dry palm leaves I could not see any shapes that looked out of place. Only when I looked through my 400 mm lens, did I see a large monitor that was practically the same colour as the leaf litter behind it. It was a very impressive Merten’s Monitor (Varanus mertensi) chewing on a crab.
A short walk along the stream turned up a White-bellied cuckoo-shrike, White-gaped Honeyeater and a beautiful Red-backed fairy-wren .
Katherine Gorge and Nitmiluk National Park
From Bitter Springs we headed out to Katherine Gorge, locally known by its Aboriginal name – Nitmiluk. The landscape has changed from burnt out decimated grazing lands of the Arid centre to greener woodlands dotted with giant termite mounds of various shapes and sizes.
Katherine is an uninviting little town with not much to look at. The only reason we stopped in town was to check out the colony of Little red flying foxes roosting in the tall eucalypts in the court house front yard.
Unlike the Grey-headed flying foxes in Sydney, that hang off the tree branches like motionless sentinels, these bats had to continuously fan themselves with their membranous wings in order to stay relatively cool.
Birds at Katherine Gorge
On the approach road to Nitmiluk, we came across a spot of high bird activity. There were Red-winged Parrots and a young Collared sparrowhawk perched on the tree and a few Black and Whistling kites soaring above.
Camp site at Nitmiluk has much better facilities than the one at Mataranka. There is also a decent visitor center.
Typically, the main reason for visiting Nitmiluk is to take a cruise through the stunning scenery of Katherine Gorge, but in April the water still runs too fast and the flooding of the rainy season has not sufficiently subsided. So we explored the area on foot.
Plenty of birds could be found right at the campsite: Bar-shouldered dove, Silver-crowned Friarbird, Great bowerbird, Australasian yellow oriole, Red-winged parrot and Blue-faced honeyeater.
The walk along the river turned up: Agile wallabies, Forest kingfisher, Collared lorikeet and an elusive Oriental cuckoo .
The night walk produced Rocket frogs, an exquisite Brown tree snake and a few Bush Stone-curlews, which are more often heard than seen – their chilling wailing cry unmistakable in the night.
The mornings at the campsite were announced by the calls of Blue-winged kookaburras .
As much as I wanted to see some crocs, there were none to be found. Though there was no reason to be upset, as our next destination was Kakadu National Park – Australia’s crocodile capital!
Visiting Mataranka and Katherine Gorge
Getting to Mataranka
Mataranka is located 106km south of Katherine. From the Stuart Highway take Martin Road to go to Bitter Springs, Homestead Road to visit the Mataranka Thermal Pools or John Hauser Drive, off Homestead Road, for all other sites in the park
Staying at Mataranka
There is no accommodation at Mataranka apart from the campsite with all the necessary facilities.
Getting to Katherine Gorge
Katherine Gorge, located in Nitmiluk National Park lies 30km east of Katherine along the sealed Gorge Road.
Staying at Katherine Gorge
Nitmiluk Tours offer a range of accommodation options from Luxury lodge to tents. They also run a number of tours in the Gorge.