Moments in time
Boodjamulla NP’s vibrant present is rooted in a past of deep time.
AJOURNEY INTO THE past can take a lifetime – or a heartbeat. We’re walking into the unknown, up a hill no-one has walked for perhaps decades, perhaps centuries. As we skirt tussocks of spinifex and clusters of eucalypts, acacias and figs, aiming for a soaring red cliff, Jarrod Slater, an Indigenous ranger at Boodjamulla National Park, in north-western Queensland, is optimistic we’ll find fragments of the past we’re looking for.
“Life wasn’t that different back then – still had to eat, still had to drink water,” he says of his ancestors, traces of whose presence we’ re searching for in this remote section of the park .“Instinctively, I’d go to that valley – there’s shelter, a load of food and water.We aren’t that different from the old people.” The place we’re heading for appears to have the essential elements for life – and more: “If you were camping up there, you’d feel pretty safe with an 80 or 90m cliff behind you. It’s a good lookout, too.”
We’re seeking evidence of Australia’s First People in an area of Boodjamulla where features are unnamed, except in the unofficial rangers’ argot (Gaffer’s Knob, the Great Wall of China). Our highest hope is to find art on the towering rock walls.
Bush-bashing into the wilderness, I feel like stout Cortez in the Keats poem, staring out “with a wild surmise” to find potential new realms of gold. But reality keeps intruding on the poetic ideal. Spinifex, as its name suggests, is very spiky. As we crash through clumps of the stuff, it’s this quality that most impresses itself painfully upon me, despite my guide’s enthusiasm for its other notable properties.
“We use spinifex resin for gluing stone tools together,” Jarrod says.“I keep some in my truck. I’ve done a lot of work with stone tools with an old man I worked with – once we had 30 men from Africa come out to see how it’s done.”
As we walk, he hands me a leaf:“It’s soapbush – here you go, rub a leaf of this between your hands and it lathers up, washes your hands.” I learn about the medicinal properties of certain eucalypts: “Crush the leaves, boil them in water and use it as antiseptic wash”, and of the sandpaper fig:“It eases skin irritations – you rub it on itchy bits.”
The bush isn’t just a medicine cabinet – it’s a larder, too. Jarrod points out bloodwoods:“There’ll be heaps of witchetty grubs in there,” he says.Then he sees some snappy gum:“You can soak the gum in water and eat it – that keeps you chewing for a while.”
He moves through the bush with easy grace and I glimpse an almost-vanished world where the locals’ deep knowledge of nature allows it to provide food, medicine, shelter and tools.“It’s a culture that’s run strongly for tens of thousands of years,” says Jarrod, a Waanyi man whose family is recognised on the native title of which Boodjamulla (formerly known as Lawn Hill NP) forms part.
As we near the cliff, clambering along a rocky creek bed, we return to the present, scanning the wall for art and the base for artefacts or other indications of Aboriginal presence.
There’s a trickling fall of water clustered with ferns, and stones at its bottom that dam the flow to create a limpid pool. It isn’t clear if the stones were placed there by people or grouped by nature – and although we beat along the bottom of the cliff as far as we can, clambering around clumps of trees, over rocks and through bushes, dodging snakes and spider webs as we go, we don’t discover any other signs of habitation.
It’s a disappointment, but as we scramble back down the hill towards Jarrod’s ute, we’re not thinking of what we didn’t find, but what we did.“I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be,” Jarrod says.“It feels like I’ve found my calling.”
BOODJAMULLA NP IS A sparkling oasis in the outback’s Gulf Country, located 325km north-west of Mount Isa on Queensland’s border with the Northern Territory. The spectacle of the glowing red sandstone of Lawn Hill Gorge, which 1.56 billion years ago was a shallow seabed, is what draws most visitors.
Walk along the edges of the gorge and you can still see ripples etched by waves that washed over the sand in a world where the only living things were bacteria.
The jade-green waters of the gorge are rich in calcite, which, when it flows over objects in its path such as fallen tree trunks or rocks, forms calcium carbonate, which in turn forms a brittle rock called tufa. Indarri Falls is made of tufa, as are the Cascades.
In this way the gorge is still being formed, moving and changing faster than the almost infinitely slow heartbeat of geological time usually allows.
Gliding silently up the gorge in an electric boat is like entering a little Eden – a uniquely Queensland take on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The roots of fig trees snake down to the chalky turquoise water; ghost gums, Leichhardt trees and pandanus squeeze into crevices, clinging to life.
A sunbaking turtle slides off a rock as the boat approaches and silently sinks beneath the water. It’s a Gulf snapping turtle ( Elseya lavarackorum), which hasn’t changed in appearance or behaviour for 25,000 years.
The gorge is rich in other life, too. Agile and rock wallabies surefootedly navigate its steep slopes. Cormorants and egrets cruise the waters looking for archerfish, triggerfish, barramundi, bony bream and sooty grunter. Freshwater crocodiles relax by the falls when there’s no-one around, vanishing as soon as they hear a voice or a splash.
Sitting on a sun-warmed rock beside the falls, I can hear children laughing as they tumble in and out of their canoes, and the distinctive chittering of purple-crowned fairy wrens. Unruly mobs of lorikeets arrow above, and the clean, cool scent of falling water cuts through the smell of the hot dust. It’s a scene of tranquillity that head ranger Jason Bruce is keen to preserve.
Gliding silently up the gorge is like entering Eden – a Queensland take on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
As Boodjamulla’s ranger-in-charge, Jason is responsible for the management of the entire 2820sq.km park, as well as the safety of its many visitors.“We’ve got 18 canoes at the moment to hire out, and one electric boat. That’s plenty – I don’t want to spoil the ambience,” he says. He’s an outback Santa, white beard and all, a big man with a laugh that can surely be heard across the length and breadth of the park. He’s a jackaroo-turned-carpenter-turned-park ranger, who as a child was once found poaching eels by a stranger. Terrified of being punished, little Jason told the man to bugger off. That stranger happened to be American country music legend Johnny Cash, come to play a gig.
Jason is full of homespun sayings, many gleaned from his grandad, who he remembers was always “staring at you over the top of his bifocals with his log-cabin durries, drinking hillbilly tea”.
But this larrikin joker is also a man with a deep knowledge of the bush, who is brimming with ideas for its care. His passion topic is fire management – unsurprisingly, since a devastating fire destroyed much of the park eight years ago, before his tenure began. “It burnt 97 per cent of the park,” Jason says. “It started from a grader blade strike and it took a month to burn out.” He’s full of technical knowledge about the mosaic burns that aim to prevent such wholesale destruction.“I like small to medium fires, 5–20km wind speed and 50 or 60 per cent humidity,” he says, with the precision – and pleasure – of a connoisseur.
But fire management is just one of his interests. He wants the park to have more scientific input, with more studies carried out within its bounds. “I want uni students coming out here to do their theses – there are antechinus, funnelwebs, pebble-mice – plenty to study,” he suggests.
Although our search for Indigenous art was unsuccessful, Boodjamulla is famous for the art sites that do exist there. It’s forbidden to take photos at the Wild Dog Dreaming site, but it consists of several artworks, one of hundreds of dots within circles along a smooth, glassy cliff. It’s another fascination of Jason’s.
“The common understanding is that it represents women’s breasts,” he explains,“but one of our rangers, Gaffer, came up with the theory that it might be a map – this area was a trading route. Do the dots represent permanent water? We need to fill that gap. It’d be nice to get more archaeologists interested – I don’t think enough research has gone on here.”
And although he wants to keep tourist numbers at a manageable level, he’s keen to develop the park in a sustainable manner. “Jarrod and I are creating bush medicine and bush tucker tours,” Jason says.“And I’m interested in low-impact stuff – it’s the outdoor healthier lifestyle that we’re trying to promote. Let’s put in some hiking trails and GPS points.”
He’s hatching another plan, too: “It’d be nice to develop Boodjamulla as a training ground for rangers. It’s great experience – you’re working out of choppers and flying in with all your kit for a week to spray rubber vines.You get to camp out the back even though it’s hot and there’s no water.You’ve got to have that enthusiasm and that spirit of adventure.”
A ride-along with Jason to the furthest reaches of the park, to just those hot, dry outback spots, is an eye-opening experience. The cold metal of his rifle – which ends up coming in handy – nudges up against my leg during the whole stifling day in the ute.
We drive along boundary lines and check flood fences, ever alert for feral pigs or stray cattle from the neighbouring stations. We visit the ‘Great Wall of China’, an unofficial rangers’ name for a vast sun-bleached cliff of tilted layers of quartzite.“It’s just awesome how it splits into those rectangular blocks,” Jason says, then adds, with a sly smile,“It took us a lot of time to put them there…”
We stop for a morning tea break at Ridgepole Waterhole, one of a series of waterholes that Aboriginal people used when travelling for trade. It is starred with waterlilies and edged by trees and has been a place of solace for Jason: when he started the job in Boodjamulla, his wife and three children were living in Charters Towers, where the children went to school, nearly 1000km away.
“Because my family only moved out to join me here six months ago, it’s been a challenge living alone,” he explains.“This is a place where I put my head back on my shoulders when I’m feeling homesick.”
But he only loves it by day. “Once I tried to camp out here, but I had to pack up all my gear and leave at about 7.30pm – I got such a bad feeling. It is a culturally sensitive area, and – I don’t know, but I feel there was a massacre here.”
Jason often feels connections to the area’s former inhabitants – not just Indigenous people, but more recent residents, too. Nearby he once found a wrought-iron bedstead a stockman must have dragged out for a bit of respite from nights on the hard ground. “For nine and a half months of the year they were out there for six weeks at a time.Tough work,” Jason explains.
“When I do fencing inspections, I can just go for a walk and find some spot and think, am I the only person who’s ever been here? But then you can put your hand in a rock and find a tobacco tin, and realise it was some swaggie’s spot, too.”
Another of his favourite places is at the bottom of a terrifyingly steep, twisting, bare rock descent to a viewpoint that looks out over wide grassy plains dotted with trees and hills, mesas of red rock looming behind.
“This is Doherty’s Track,” Jason says, once we’re safely down and I’ve relaxed my death grip on the car seat.“To me it’s one of the most speccy parts of the area. It’s a place where you feel the need to take your hat and boots off and put your feet up and just have a bit of a look. And pray to a different deity.”
Outback rangers don’t just need prayers, but practicality, too. As the ute jolts over evenly spaced ridges (“You can always tell when you’re in black soil country,” Jason says, with a grimace) and rattlepods thwack into the windscreen, we chat about how tough these utes have to be to survive out here – and how many running repairs need to be carried out.
We stop to clear grass seeds from the radiator and Jason hoists the rifle from its spot next to me. He fashions a makeshift radiator cover from the rifle case and zip ties, outback mechanic-style.
“One day you’re weed-spraying, the next day you’re changing pumps in septic tanks – you need to have a practical background,” Jason says of being a remote-area ranger. “You need to be self-sufficient.”
The biggest challenge for a ranger – the terrain – can also be the biggest comfort, he finds:“Even rangers can get a bit depressed out here – the landscape can intimidate. But I find the colours constantly change.”
Mainly, he misses the Sunday newspaper, fruit-and-veg stalls and boutique beers when he’s in the outback, he says.“And my friends – moving along every few years makes it hard to maintain friendships, and time slips by without talking to them.”
TIME CERTAINLY SLIPS BY at Boodjamulla’s other great drawcard, Riversleigh, where it’s measured on an entirely different scale. Fossils were first discovered at Riversleigh back in 1902, but because they were of invertebrates, which were fairly common, no-one was particularly interested until 1966, when Alan Bartholomew, then director of the Queensland Museum, went exploring and found the tooth of a mammal.This was far more unusual.The tooth turned out to be from the jaw of a diprotodon, an ancient wombat the size of a hippo.
In 1976 Mike Archer, who was curator of mammals at the museum, came out to examine the site – and he’s been back every year since, sending 1 tonne of material via helicopter and train back to the University of New South Wales in Sydney, where he now works. David Attenborough rated Riversleigh among the four most important fossil sites in the world, and so far the World Heritage-listed site has yielded 20,000 museum-quality specimens. The site is unmatched in the way it shows how Australian fauna evolved through time, throwing up species that are completely unknown to science at an extraordinarily rapid rate.
One dig produced 30 new species in just 30 minutes – a period that wouldn’t even register on the deep time scale where Riversleigh mostly resides. Deep time is dizzying, a telescope suddenly reversed to look into the far, far distant past. Riversleigh began at the same point in deep time as Lawn Hill Gorge: 1.56 billion years ago, when the Constance Range was at the bottom of the sea.
Guiding us through these incomprehensibly vast stretches of time is Phil Clucas, who works with the Savannah Guides. He takes us out to D Site, the only one of Riversleigh’s 300 sites that is open to the public. The fossils here date mostly from a mere 25 million years ago, when Riversleigh was a rainforest, and the first animals that became the Riversleigh fossils were variously crawling, running and flying through the canopy. But we have a couple of stops to make that are deeper in the past.
Phil vanishes to a secret spot around the back of the hill at D Site and returns with a boulder-like stromatolite, a fossilised clump ofcya no bacteria. Western Australia has st roma to lite st hat are up to 2 billion years old.This Riversleigh example is a youthful 1.3 billion years old. As we wind our way up the rocky outcrop of D Site, Phil points out the rounded stacks of rocks dotting the hills beyond us. “They’re Cambrian pancakes,” he explains. “They’re rocks that are 530 million years old. There aren’t any fossilised bones in them – because when they were formed, there were no animals with bones.” He continues, “It’s made up of ancient sea creatures. And when this rock washed into fresh water, it became Riversleigh limestone.”
The hill we’re climbing, which was once a lake bed, is limestone. When animal bodies ended up in the lake, they were fossilised by the high calcium carbonate content of the water and lake-bed mud. Riversleigh has yielded fossils of bats, rodents, thylacines, platypuses and many other creatures so peculiar that baffled researchers initially named one simply Thingodonta (Thing with Teeth).Tree-climbing crocodiles, 2m-tall carnivorous kangaroos and marsupials with elephantine trunks are among the stranger of evolution’s bygone experiments, but the fossils you can still see at D Site are odd enough.
The Demon Duck of Doom, for example, a 2.5–3m tall bird that weighed 250–300kg, whose closest living relative is a duck, has left a coy knee and leg bone in the limestone, can-canning its way into the history books.
THE DAYWE search for art sites in Boodjamulla is my birthday and the rangers throw me an impromptu celebration barbecue, complete with balloons, roast pork, home-brewed beer – and a birthday card handmade by one of Jason’s daughters that reads, “Have a very Boodjamulla birthday.” As the evening wears on, our laughter rings out across the valley, and the stars wheel round in the sky, I realise I’ve staked a tiny claim in the 1.56 billion-year history of this place. Perhaps it’s an epiphany – or perhaps it’s the home-brew – but this feels like a moment in time that’s worth holding on to.
The site is unmatched in the way it shows how Australian fauna evolved through time.
Ranger Jarrod Slater and writer Hannah James look for previously undocumented art sites.
Trees cling along the edges of Lawn Hill Gorge, their roots snaking to the water over vividly coloured rocks. This fig clearly manages to tap into enough moisture to remain healthy.
With 2820sq.km to look after, Boodjamulla’s ranger-in-charge, Jason Bruce, needs to be a man of many talents, from fixing fences and utes to planning controlled burns.
These ripples were etched in sand by an inland sea that existed an extraordinary 1.56 billion years ago.
Ridgepole Waterhole is one of ranger Jason’s peaceful spots, a place of refuge from all his many daily duties on the huge and remote Boodjamulla NP. Although stray cattle can occasionally trample its banks in search of water, the waterlilies shine on.
Savannah Guide Phil Clucas tells a group about the extraordinary number and variety of fossils found at Riversleigh World Heritage Area. On the left, the ‘demon duck of doom’ and one of the 13 varieties of fossil crocodile found here are vividly depicted.
Guide Phil Clucas takes writer Hannah James up the hill at D Site, which is the only fossil area at Riversleigh open to the public. Twenty-three million years ago, what’s now the top of this hill was on the bottom of a lake.
One of the D Site fossils at Riversleigh that has been left in situ. At newer sites, huge blocks of fossil-rich limestone are carried on helicopters back to base camp, from where they’re then trucked back to Sydney.