ROCKS & CROCS

Denise Cullen gets up close and al­most friendly with lit­tle bats and big sal­ties in the Rock­hamp­ton re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

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