Mo­ments in time

Bood­ja­mulla NP’s vi­brant present is rooted in a past of deep time.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY HAN­NAH JAMES PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY DON FUCHS

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 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 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.

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