An­cient wa­ters

The lit­tle-known Daven­port Ranges Na­tional Park in the NT is brim­ming with serene wa­ter­holes, an­cient cul­ture and arid-zone birdlife.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY KEN EAST­WOOD PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY HEATH HOLDEN

This se­cret is al­most too good to share. It’s a lit­tle-known na­tional park in the mid­dle of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, where you can camp right next to some of Aus­tralia’s best in­land wa­ter­holes.

Around the invit­ing wa­ter, the red rocks, star­tling white ghost gums and spinifex re­mind you that you are in the heart of the out­back, while the air hums with bird­song. You can pause to soak in the seren­ity, be­fore driv­ing across ragged ranges on a ded­i­cated four-wheel-drive track, where you’re un­likely to see an­other soul.

Just a cou­ple of hours drive off the Stu­art High­way, be­tween Alice Springs andTen­nant Creek, Iytwele­penty – or the Daven­port Ranges Na­tional Park – is one of the lit­tle-known jew­els of Cen­tral Aus­tralia. In al­most 20 years of writ­ing for AUSTRALIAN GE­O­GRAPHIC, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a place like it in the mid­dle of the coun­try – a place so lit­tle trav­elled, but rel­a­tively eas­ily reached, where the in­land breathes life back into you.

This isn’t a de­vel­oped na­tional park with a list of walk­ing tracks to cross off; cur­rently there are al­most none, and there are only a cou­ple of places you are en­cour­aged to ex­plore. In­stead, more than any other park I’ve vis­ited, this is a place to slow down, to spend time just sit­ting by, or in, a wa­ter­hole as you ab­sorb the daily changes, soak­ing in peace as the coun­try morphs from its vi­brant cre­pus­cu­lar colours to bleached straw and salmon dur­ing the heat of the day. It’s a bird­watcher’s de­light, and in one af­ter­noon I cross five more species off my bird­watch­ing check­list, in­clud­ing painted finches, one of the most spec­tac­u­lar small birds I’ve seen.

There are few facilities, it’s re­mote and you’ll need a sense of ad­ven­ture and a 4WD to get there, but don’t let that stop you – this is one place you want to find.

SLAP BANG DOWN the mid­dle of the Ter­ri­tory, the black tar of the Stu­art High­way carves it into east and west. In the cen­tre, just north of Karlu Karlu (the Devils Mar­bles), a sign in­di­cates a 50km drive along a well-graded dirt road to Ku­rundi sta­tion, then there’s an­other 18km of wind­ing gravel and sand to the turn-off to the na­tional park. From the mo­ment pho­tog­ra­pher Heath Holden and I swing our 4WD south to­wards Whis­tle­duck Creek, the birdlife in­creases sig­nif­i­cantly, al­most as if a switch is flicked.We see more birds in 20km than we’ve seen in days spent else­where in Cen­tral Aus­tralia.There are black-faced cuckoo shrikes, rain­bow bee-eaters, spinifex pi­geons, di­a­mond and peace­ful doves, a flock of bud­gies and myr­iad hon­eyeaters.

In a parched land, where the dust coats the in­side of your mouth and your lungs, birds flock here be­cause the park of­fers hid­den pock­ets of wa­ter­holes.The Daven­port Range also at­tracts a wide va­ri­ety of an­i­mals be­cause there is such an eclec­tic mix of veg­e­ta­tion – it’s the cross­over be­tween the plants of the cen­tral desert and more trop­i­cal species such as the sil­ver-leafed gre­vil­lea, with rain­fall here av­er­ag­ing 400mm a year. It has hints of the Tanami, the arid coun­try fur­ther south, and a serene oa­sis around the wa­ter.

Through rolling hills dressed in snappy gum and soft spinifex, oc­ca­sional coolibahs, curry wat­tles and thick mulga, we wind our way down to Whis­tle­duck Creek camp­ing ground, find­ing it adorned with a pro­fu­sion of Sturt’s desert rose – the flo­ral em­blem of the Ter­ri­tory. The sim­ple, spread-out camp­ing ground has a cou­ple of pit toi­lets, benches and fire­places, and a few shady trees. It’s set back about 1km from the first ma­jor wa­ter­hole, Ir­rmweng Rock­hole.At this de­light­ful per­ma­nent pud­dle, where a hot wind blows leaves off the gums and the red rocks ra­di­ate heat like a pizza oven, a grace­ful lit­tle black cor­morant watches swimming ducks and black-fronted dot­terels that scam­per along the wet sand. Hid­den in the fo­liage of a large gum, a col­lared spar­rowhawk lurks, its beady yel­low eyes on the look­out for slow-mov­ing prey.

The wa­ter is a sanc­tu­ary from the heat, ap­proach­ing 40°C, but thank­fully we don’t stop for too long, be­cause some­thing bet­ter is in store. Just a few hun­dred me­tres up­stream is the di­vine In­jaidan Rock­hole.About the size of an Olympic pool and al­most as deep, but with a base of stones pol­ished by time, it has 25m-high red rock walls, with ghost gums and snappy gums grow­ing out of them. In the wa­ter, span­gled perch – some the size of a shoe – flash sil­ver sides, and in the shal­lows linger plenty of the other six species of smaller fish, in­clud­ing striped grun­ters, pur­ple-spot­ted gud­geon and desert rain­bow­fish.

Re­splen­dent rain­bow bee-eaters zip around as they swoop to catch gi­ant golden wasps and small red drag­on­flies, flick­ing enamel-sheen wings in flight like a Chi­nese fan dance.Way over­head, two wedge-tailed ea­gles pa­trol, one a lighter ju­ve­nile, and the other a wiz­ened old black bird that has seen a few sum­mers.

The wa­ter’s edge of­fers a cool respite and re­fresh­ment for a steady stream of species: ze­bra finches; grey-headed hon­eyeaters; and na­tive ca­naries, or white-plumed hon­eyeaters, with del­i­cate brushes of white across their necks. And then, my top sight­ing of the trip, a party of painted finches comes down to drink, their black chests spot­ted with white like a dot paint­ing. A male shows off his red beak and su­per­hero-style blaze across his chest.

Just back from the wa­ter­hole are spinifex pi­geons, the straw tuft on their heads im­i­tat­ing the spiky grass.A va­ri­ety of dragons come to quench their thirst, in­clud­ing the long-nosed dragon, which stands on three legs and waves, as if wel­com­ing strangers to its spe­cial spot.And up hid­den in the clefts of the rocks around

Sa­cred ob­jects are passed down to the keep­ers of par­tic­u­lar as­pects of the land­scape, such as plants or an­i­mals.

here are the most northerly pop­u­la­tion of black-footed rock­wal­la­bies. At sun­set, a mob of cat­tle also come to drink. They shouldn’t be here, and their de­struc­tive pads spoil this spe­cial spot. But they, too, are part of the area’s his­tory. “T

HERE ARE WA­TER­HOLES all through this coun­try – you’ll never per­ish out here,” says qui­etly spo­ken Michael Lid­dle, in­ter­cul­tural en­gage­ment man­ager at Desert Knowl­edge Aus­tralia. Michael is an Alyawarre man, and one of the tra­di­tional own­ers of Iytwele­penty. The area in­volves the Alyawarre, Kayte­tye, Wakaya and Waru­mungu groups and they are still en­gaged with the park to­day.

Jointly man­aged by tra­di­tional own­ers and the NT Parks and Wildlife Com­mis­sion, the park is filled with sa­cred sites, art­works and se­cret, spe­cial places still used for cer­e­monies. As we drive through it, Michael is care­ful not to re­veal too much. “We don’t want to show the tourists,” he says. “It be­longs to us, and we’ve got to keep look­ing after it.”

At times, con­vers­ing pri­vately in their own lan­guage, Michael, his fa­ther-and-se­nior-law­man John Dug­gie, and his broth­erin-law Phillip Peter­son care­fully dis­cuss what they can tell out­siders. It’s a con­stant strug­gle to man­age the park in a mod­ern world, while main­tain­ing an an­cient cul­ture and tra­di­tions where key in­for­ma­tion is re­stricted to a few peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, the men will share some sites and in­for­ma­tion with the non-in­dige­nous rangers, to help with fire and other park man­age­ment is­sues, but they will only dis­cuss men’s sites.

There is plenty in these rich, an­cient desert cul­tures that can be re­vealed.The an­cient peo­ple used to travel through this coun­try – of­ten at night – in large fam­ily groups, “big mobs, more than 50”, John says. Dur­ing the hottest time of the year, they would stop by a big wa­ter­hole for up to six months, head­ing out for one-day hunt­ing trips, and liv­ing in more per­ma­nent humpy shel­ters in­su­lated with spinifex.

“Hard work, but it makes it cooler,” Michael says. They’d make coola­m­ons – dishes to carry wa­ter – out of bean trees and spears out of the soap­bush tree.“When mak­ing spears and pre­par­ing the flint to sit on the spear it was im­por­tant not to eat, oth­er­wise the spear would end up round, like your guts after a meal, and would not have the pol­ish of a lean knife,” Michael says. “You’ve got to go hun­gry to make a spear, so it’s mean and hun­gry and sharp.”

Food was plen­ti­ful, with soap­bush wat­tle seeds ground up for damper, yams dug up along the riverbed, bush toma­toes, bush co­conuts and bush oranges, as well as fish, echid­nas, goan­nas and the oc­ca­sional emu, or black-tailed wal­laby brought down with a boomerang across the legs and fin­ished off with a spear. But the ab­so­lute favourite – then and now – was in­gk­warl. The name now of­ten refers to ‘some­thing sweet’ but tra­di­tion­ally it means ‘sug­arbag’ – na­tive honey. “It’s the most beau­ti­ful food,” Michael says.

Un­like some groups to the north-east who were known to be more fe­ro­cious in their cus­toms, the in­dige­nous peo­ple here were con­sid­ered rel­a­tively peace-lov­ing, pre­fer­ring to take part in tyenkerr – giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing gifts such as hair belts, boomerangs and sug­arbag – rather than fight with spears. But when the pas­toral­ists moved in in the late 19th cen­tury, con­flict was al­most in­evitable.

“When the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple first seen the cat­tle in the coun­try they killed it and they couldn’t be­lieve how much fat was in it, and they thought, ‘Oh, we like this’,” Michael says. “Fat played a re­ally im­por­tant role; it was used for heal­ing, for medic­i­nal pur­poses, and for warmth and for cer­e­mony.”

“They rub it on their skin, they put it in their hair,” John adds. The area around Whis­tle duck Creek is known as spe­cial ‘rain­maker’ coun­try – an im­por­tant place for cer­e­monies to di­rect the weather. “They used to tell old fella liv­ing in this coun­try he was rain­maker,” John says. “A lot of peo­ple used to come down from other places and say ‘we have not much wa­ter’, and tell that old rain­maker,‘ we have not much rain’. Then they start cer­e­mony for the rain to come. ”This spe­cial men’s cer­e­mony would in­volve the clap­ping of boomerangs and danc­ing.

Michael says that the park is still used for an­cient busi­ness. Sa­cred ob­jects are passed down to the keep­ers of par­tic­u­lar as­pects of the land­scape, such as plants or an­i­mals, ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­monies are still tak­ing place to wel­come men and women into adult­hood, and songs and dances are per­formed to keep the land flour­ish­ing. He laments the fact that cer­e­monies aren’t un­der­taken as reg­u­larly as they once were. “Peo­ple used to sit down and talk about meat and fruits, and the need to re­plen­ish the coun­try, but there’s no need to do that any­more.The need to sing for that sort of sus­tain­abil­ity has been re­placed by buy­ing food from the store.”

John, 62, was born just out­side what is now the park bound­ary, and grew up at Kurinelli, an out­sta­tion for Ku­rundi. He learnt the an­cient laws from his fa­ther, the chief law­man. He has watched a lot of changes oc­cur over his coun­try, such as the de­cline of emu num­bers and the demise of the Cen­tral Australian brush-tailed pos­sum. “They used to be all around this area, big mobs, but they all gone.” None of the men know why, although the in­tro­duc­tion of cat­tle, cats and big bush­fires are sug­gested as likely cul­prits.

John comes out to the park, from his home near Ten­nant Creek, sev­eral times a year for meet­ings and to help with burn­ing and other projects. He says see­ing the cat­tle dam­age at Ir­rmweng Rock­hole makes him sad. “Our wa­ter just go down quick. In old days the wa­ter used to last un­til the next rains come.”

Later we travel to the old Kurinelli homestead that once pro­vided ra­tions to John and his fam­ily and others at the out­sta­tion. There’s noth­ing left but some con­crete slabs and old bot­tles. Nearby stands aban­doned min­ing equip­ment from the 1940s, where the corpse of a dingo pup lies curled in­side an old drum.

THE BIG­GEST AND MOST im­pres­sive wa­ter­hole is the Old Po­lice Sta­tion Wa­ter­hole, which the Alyawarre call Thet hew. The area car­ries a dark his­tory. When drovers first ar­rived at the plains be­side the Frew River with mobs of cat­tle in the early 1890s, they drove the in­dige­nous peo­ple away from wa­ter­holes that had sus­tained them for many thou­sands of years.

“They didn’t want Abo­rig­i­nals drink­ing the wa­ter, be­cause that was for them and their cat­tle,” Michael says. Ten­sions rose, the man­ager of nearby Elke­dra sta­tion was speared, hit with a boomerang and a tom­a­hawk, and the reprisals on both sides were fierce un­til Elke­dra and Frew River cat­tle sta­tions were aban­doned in 1896.

White set­tle­ment re­turned with the out­break of World War I, in or­der to mine tung­sten for ar­ma­ments.To keep the peace and pa­trol min­ing ar­eas, a po­lice­man was posted for a few years.As a re­sult of the added se­cu­rity, the pas­toral­ists soon re­turned.The crum­bled re­mains of the po­lice­man’s cot­tage, and the Frew River sta­tion homestead, now lie on one bank of the splendid, deep wa­ter­hole.

After tak­ing a long, re­fresh­ing swim ac­com­pa­nied by the lovely song of a whistling kite, I walk around this glo­ri­ous blue jewel in about an hour. Three pel­i­cans float in one cor­ner of the wa­ter­hole. Although it doesn’t have the bird di­ver­sity of the smaller wa­ter­holes,

We can see the line of dis­tant river red gums along the Frew, like a neck­lace join­ing to­gether those sparkling wa­ter­holes.

it makes up for it in num­bers, with large flocks of scream­ing corel­las, and qui­eter groups of lit­tle black cor­morants.

The camp­sites here stretch right along one side of the wa­ter­hole, with a night in the swag dis­turbed only by the bray­ing of feral don­keys on the flats on the other side.We see plenty more on the drive out the next day. “There are large num­bers out­side the park,” says Tim Leane, se­nior park ranger in the Barkly District. “They have a high toll in ero­sion.” He says the cat­tle in the park are a more tricky is­sue, and of­ten are a re­sult of fences com­ing down after heavy rains or an­i­mals wan­der­ing into the un­fenced south­west. Parks and Wildlife are in on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with the neigh­bour­ing land­hold­ers to re­move both branded and clean­skin cat­tle. “There’s prob­a­bly a few hun­dred across the park,” he says.

Once part of Ku­rundi sta­tion, the range­lands here were hard to muster cat­tle on, so the land was sold to na­tional parks in the 1990s. “It was partly to have a bet­ter park for the Barkly and Ten­nant Creek com­mu­nity, but also be­cause the Daven­port-Murchi­son Ranges biore­gion is en­tirely en­com­passed in the NT, and we needed to pro­tect it,” Tim says. For a few years it was known as a ‘pro­posed’ na­tional park, and then in 2008 it be­came Abo­rig­i­nal free­hold land, and leased back to the NT gov­ern­ment. It wasn’t of­fi­cially named Iytwele­penty/Daven­port Ranges Na­tional Park un­til 2011.

As a fi­nal way to ex­pe­ri­ence the park, be­fore tack­ling the deeper bull­dust on the south­ern road out, we take the won­der­ful 17km Frew River 4WD loop track over the top of the ranges.The drive takes al­most two hours be­cause it’s pretty bumpy, but is worth it. It starts from the Old Po­lice Sta­tion Wa­ter­hole with a short 15-minute hop to the Frew River camp­sites, where there are no pit toi­lets, but some ta­bles and fire­places, and a very quiet bil­l­abong.

Then the well-de­fined track heads up and over rocky hills, and I need to shift down to first gear in a cou­ple of spots. It’s a fun, very achiev­able lit­tle ad­ven­ture, as long as you’re in a high-clearance 4WD. There are glo­ri­ous views over the range coun­try. We can see the green line of dis­tant river red gums along the Frew like a neck­lace join­ing to­gether those sparkling wa­ter­hole jew­els where we had bathed and basked in beauty. Be­yond, the spinifex lines the coun­try as it stretches to a hazy hori­zon.

In the heart of tra­di­tional rain dream­ing coun­try lies the hid­den oa­sis of In­jaidan Rock­hole, a per­ma­nent wa­ter­hole on Whis­tle­duck Creek, in Iytwele­penty/ Daven­port Ranges NP.

Alyawarre elder John Dug­gie pauses to look over the old tung­sten-min­ing equip­ment near the ru­ins of Kurinelli. John grew up near here, re­ceiv­ing ra­tions from the old home­stead.

Droves of feral don­keys, fre­quently en­coun­tered here, have be­come a se­ri­ous in­tro­duced pest both in­side the park and in neigh­bour­ing lands. Their hooves erode the dirt, caus­ing it to blow away.

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