ROCKS & CROCS
Denise Cullen gets up close and almost friendly with little bats and big salties in the Rockhampton region
THE steamy dusk air is filled with the papery sound of wings flapping as hundreds of thousands of miniature bats whirl around my head like animated origami. Harnessed to one of the jagged limestone cliffs at Mt Etna Caves National Park, 25km north of Rockhampton in Queensland, I peer into the Bat Cleft — one of only five recorded little bentwing bat maternity sites — with the aid of a torch and the light of a low-slung moon.
‘‘ Watch out for that python at your feet,’’ calls Dianne Vavryn, our guide.
I look down. The reptile is stretched out on a rock underneath the small metal grid I’m standing on and rears to strike at one of the lowflying bats.
I’m touched by Vavryn’s concern for my safety, until she adds: ‘‘ Don’t move. If you do, you might squash him.’’
The bats continue to pour from the cleft for more than 20 minutes, spiralling ever higher on the thermal air currents that help them preserve precious energy for flight, for feeding on insects and for lactating.
Temperatures inside the roost may reach 39C; this heat, along with the stench wafting our way, is unpleasant in the extreme, but for newly born little bentwing bats, whose mothers must leave them to forage for insects each night, this environment represents the perfect humidicrib as the shape of the cave helps retain heat. Accordingly, it accommodates 80 per cent of the known Australian population of little bentwing bats.
As the name suggests, these critters have bodies about as big as a human thumb and wingspans just shy of 30cm. Collectively, they’ve filled the sky above our heads like a swirling chocolate-brown fog; individually, they’re tiny, which makes them prey for the largest bat found in the area, the carnivorous ghost bat, which has a wingspan approaching 70cm. Both species, plus three more, are also found in the nearby Capricorn Caves, a honeycombed limestone labyrinth discovered in 1882 by canny pioneer John Olsen. He kept quiet about his find until after he’d officially been granted a lease on the 32ha of land for minimal rent.
In addition to functioning today as a tourist attraction and wedding chapel, the caves are also considered a biological hot spot by Queensland Museum researchers because of the rich bone deposits found here.
Recent excavations have uncovered mega fauna such as a venomous blind snake similar to an anaconda that became extinct 30,000 years ago, marsupial lions, the thylacine and Tasmanian devils, and koalas 10 per cent larger than those of today.
We learn all this as we wander the chambers, dodging fig tree roots, stalactites and so-called headache rocks, navigating narrow passages and finally crossing a swinging bridge to emerge into the open air.
However, I play my claustrophobia card to evade the more ambitious tours such as the Wild Caving Adventure, which involves squeezing through holes with self-explanatory names such as Fat Man’s Misery and Rebirth.
Because of the caves’ location on the Tropic of Capricorn, there is also a small window of opportunity from early December to midJanuary to join a Summer Solstice Light Spectacle tour, during which visitors are led to the Belfry Cavern to stand under a piercing shaft of light that thrusts through a hole in the limestone roof and is strong enough to ignite paper in a dish.
But pyrotechnics don’t thrill my seven-yearold son, a budding paleontologist, half as much as the prospect of digging for dinosaurs with his bare hands. Scrabbling in the dirt and bat guano, he exhumes something resembling a wishbone and triumphantly brandishes it as though it were the intact skull of a diprotodon. Our guide gently informs him these skeletal remains most probably belonged to a rodent. No matter, though, because we’re about to hit the road and come face-to-face with some living prehistoric creatures at Koorana Saltwater Crocodile Farm, about 35km east of Rockhampton.
‘‘ Take the first right and then follow the track,’’ says a fruit-stall owner on a remote stretch of road when we stop to ask directions. ‘‘ If you get to the sea, you’ve gone too far. . .’’
‘‘ And if you do get to the sea, don’t jump in,’’ his mate deadpans. ‘‘ There’ll be crocs in it.’’
Although what’s known as crocodile country officially starts at the Tropic of Capricorn, Rockhampton is more famous for its beef capital crown; dignified, life-size sculptures of various breeds of benevolent-looking bulls dotted throughout the town proudly celebrate its bovine heritage.
However, the nascent agricultural industry of crocodile farming has quite a different flavour. Warning signs mark the end of our rickety drive over estuarine mudflats. Danger: Do not sit on or lean over fence. And: Anyone throwing rubbish or other objects into the pools will be asked to retrieve them.
Though there are 14 commercial saltwater crocodile farms in Australia, Koorana was Queensland’s first.
Since its establishment in 1981, Koorana has developed a reputation for producing skins destined to be transformed into leather goods for high-profile international designer labels and shops, including Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue and RM Williams.
In joining a behind-the-scenes tour, visitors catch a small glimpse of a much larger operation in which rogue crocodiles, such as the one that menaced a girls’ rowing team while they trained on the nearby Fitzroy River, are captured and brought to Koorana to boost the farm’s 3000-strong breeding stock.
They include Rocky, who was adopted as a hatchling by a man on Thursday Island and raised in a bathtub until the croc began snapping at his owner’s wife and children.
Another cranky-looking crocodile was shanghaied after consuming a local farmer’s prize brahmin bull, proving the parallel cattle and crocodile industries do occasionally collide.
Then there’s the aptly named female croc, Stumpy, who was relieved of the last 60cm of her tail after she had the temerity to challenge the dominant male crocodile in his enclosure. ‘‘ He thrashed Stumpy around a few times, bit the end of her tail off and then, just to prove his point, he ate it,’’ explains our guide, Annette Hammond.
But what these creatures lack in social skills, they make up in their mothering: they may be dangerous but they are protective parents. Indeed, the ‘‘ best girls’’ have just laid their eggs, Hammond adds, as she tosses rump steak and rabbit bones (to build up the egg-laying crocodiles’ calcium stores) into the enclosures.
A beast called Princess lets out a long. loud belch. ‘‘ Lovely manners, darlin’,’’ Hammond says, laughing. Checklist The Bat Cleft tour is offered by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service from December to February. Early bookings are advised as climber numbers are restricted; adults, $8; children, $4; family rates available. More: (07) 4936 0511; www.epa.qld.gov.au. Koorana Saltwater Crocodile Farm opens at 10am each day (except Christmas Day). Two tours daily: adults, $18; children, $9. Lunch (with a menu showcasing crocodile ribs and kebabs) is available. More: www.koorana.com.au. www.rockhamptoninfo.com www.capricorntourism.com.au