Tuesday, 15 July 2014

From Bourke to Wilcannia - down the west side of the Darling River

From Bourke we headed 31 km west on the Wanaaring Road before turning south west down the dirt road to Louth which is an historic hamlet on the Darling River at one of the two crossing points before Wilcannia. The other is at Tilpa. The journey covered a little over 300kms of dirt roads - dry weather only, which were mostly in good condition.
Just out of Bourke we passed a large cotton gin (factory for processing cotton), a massive earth dam to store irrigation water pumped from the Darling and vast flood irrigated paddocks for growing cotton, when there is enough water available. This was a stark reminder of the very vexed water issues in the Murray Darling basin.
It does seem odd in such a drought-ravaged land to be growing such a water hungry crop as cotton in an area where the average annual evaporation rate is around 2,000mm? No doubt there is a range of reasons why cotton is grown out here and further up the catchment in Queensland around towns such as St George.
The first pastoral industry on the Darling was sheep grazing for wool production, which commenced back in the 1850’s - 60’s. The grazing properties were 99 year Government leases and they were huge at around a million acres. The Toorale Station is a good example of one of the old and large sheep stations. After the 99 year lease recently ran out the NSW Government made the station a National Park, which is to officially open in July 2014. Final preparations were being made when we passed through.
Northern entrance to Toorale NP.
Heading south across one of the vast treeless grass plains, Toorale NP.
Along our route between Bourke and Wilcannia there were three main habitat or landscape types;

1) large, flat treeless grass plains where the skies are huge and you can see the earth is not flat as the horizon is curved and the road ahead disappears over the curve;

2) coolabah and black box flood plains (the redgums hug the banks of the river and are not found out on the floodplains) with flat, grey, cracking or self mulching soils and,

3) salt bush or chenopod country, vast areas of salt bush with many species and the odd trees, especially Leopardwood trees. In addition to these three main types there are smaller areas of sand dunes and higher red sand stony mulga country.
Darling River flood plain with coolabah (E coolabah)
Often referred to as chenopod, salt bush country with Leopardwood trees
in Paroo - Darling National Park.
Higher country off the flood plain with red sandy and stony soils and mulga (Acacia aneura).
Shortly after passing the historic Toorale homestead site we crossed the Warrego River where 13 Brolga caught our attention and we stopped for morning tea. The brolgas were far too wary for any photos however a pair of White-breasted Woodswallows allowed close enough approach for some shots.
There are six species of woodswallow in Australia, these are White-breasted Woodswallows perched in dead tree at the Warrego River crossing, Toorale NP. In the outback, like other woodswallow species, these birds are highly nomadic.
Just north of Louth a small flock of Pink, aka Major Mitchell’s, Cockatoos flew across the road in front of us and landed in a redgum/coolabah woodland beside the road. About six pairs of birds were perched in various locations with the odd single bird still flying around.  Judging by the calls some birds were still feeding out on the open plain nearby.
Like many other cockatoo and parrot species in Australia, Pink Cockatoos form strong pair bonds.
One pair seemed to be investigating a tree hollow so I approached, hoping for some closer shots.
One of the pair was investigating this tree hollow.
Just as I was closing in and the birds seemed comfortable with my presence a very noisy truck with a trailer came by and scared the birds off. We had hardly seen a vehicle all day to that point. It did however give a brief flight shot opportunity.
This flight shot shows their pink under-wing.
At Louth we crossed the bridge over the Darling to the east side for a brief tour of the old paddle steamer port town. Paddle steamers were a vital transport link for the sheep stations on the Darling, bringing in supplies and taking out wool.
The bridge across the Darling at Louth. In big floods all roads leading to this bridge
would be under water.
From Louth we travelled a short distance further downstream to Trilby Station where we camped on the river for two nights.  Public access to the Darling River for free camping is limited along much of its length on both sides however a number of stations offer various
levels of accommodation and camping. 
Our camp site on the Darling at Trilby Station, one of many with plenty of privacy from other sites as they are strung out along several kilometres of river bank.
Our stay at Trilby Station gave us a valuable insight into current day operation of these large Darling River sheep grazing stations and what life is like in this outback environment. The current owners are the fifth generation on Trilby and the booklet of notes provided on station life and the Murray family history is very interesting.
We took the self-guided mud map tour of part of the property, which now covers 320,000 hectares following the recent addition of a couple more leases. The tour added more value to our stay. A stay at Trilby or one of the other stations offering accommodation and camping along the Darling is highly recommended.
Even though the area is in drought we managed to record 46 species of birds over the two days we were on Trilby Station. The billabongs around the homestead were bone dry empty, when they are full you could easily add 10 water bird species to the 46 and there would also be a lot more nomadic species such as honeyeaters and woodswallows present.
The Darling River and tributaries such as the Culgoa, Warrego and Paroo, just to name a few, all have their upstream origins in Queensland. These rivers run through flat country and have large flood plains. The average annual rainfall out in this country is around 250mm and this can fall at any time of year and with an annual evaporation rate of around 2,000mm any rain falling over the very hot summer months is not of much use as it soon disappears.
When large floods occur it is not due to local rain but large cyclone driven high rainfall events up in Queensland. Unlike rivers near the coast coming off the Great Dividing Range where you expect flow to increase as you move down stream, out here river flows can often decrease as you move downstream. The water is lost to evaporation and seepage as it fills up the vast flood plains, billabongs and channels.
However every now and again a really large flood event occurs. The stations usually have a month’s warning that a big flood is coming down so they can prepare by moving stock off the flood plains, ensuring levee banks around the homestead and various critical assets are in good order and getting in supplies because they know they will be isolated for many months. Trilby was cut off for four months in the last big flood with the only access via air or boat. No doubt large floods cause a lot of inconvenience but the station owners know that when the water eventually recedes off the flood plains, there is going to be a bonanza of stock feed.
The scale or size of the grazing operations out here is hard to appreciate. On our mud map tour we drove from the homestead on the Darling River, some seven or eight kilometres across the flood plain to eventually reach high ground. In doing so we passed along the boundary of the “10,000 acre” paddock, Trilby has 18 paddocks.
Just think for a moment how big a 10,000 acre paddock is. If it were square each side would be about 6.4 km long giving a total boundary length of about 25 kms. At a cost of about $4 per metre it would cost about $102,000 to erect a fence around the 10,000 acre paddock. Imagine rounding up stock in such paddocks, no wonder they do it on motorbikes with directions given by radio from a plane to the riders.
Another interesting snippet of information picked up from the notes provided stated that most, perhaps all, grazing properties in the western division were now only viable due to the goat meat trade. The huge properties which once generated fabulous amounts of wealth based on sheep and wool, now ride, at least in part, on the goats back? I will have more to say about goats in a future post and their impact on the fragile outback environment.
Camping on the banks of the Darling gave us an opportunity to observe pelicans at close range. Most water holes, stretches of rivers with water, billabongs etc in the outback usually have some pelicans present, so there must be large numbers scattered across the outback! There were 13 on the river at our campsite on Trilby. They seemed to spend a lot of the day and the night feeding. The technique involved upending and plunging their bills deep into the water. They often foraged in pairs.
Thirteen Pelicans fed on the section of river at our camp site on Trilby Station. They fed in pairs or as single birds. This was their foraging method.
A late afternoon break from feeding, they rarely came together in groups greater than two.
They seemed to capture some small food item every second or third plunge, this could easily be recorded as they spent some time adjusting the food item before upending their bills to swallow. There was much grunting, a little like pigs, and the odd altercation over hunting areas. Downstream at Kinchega NP they were inactive all day and only seemed to forage at night when they were often quite noisy splashing and grunting as they foraged. Each bird seemed to come out of the water and waddle up the steep bank to defecate. There was plenty of white wash on the banks to confirm this practice. Were they avoiding polluting their feeding area? Did they always do this? It would be impossible to tell if they defecated in the water?
Every now and again they would come briefly together and on one occasion they were all out on the bank early one morning to enjoy a patch of sun.
A rare group gathering on the steep bank in a patch of early morning sun.
Note the white-wash on the bank.
A trip down the Darling River is a journey rich in both human and natural history, a journey with many dramatic landscapes and huge skies, a real outback experience.

1 comment:

  1. A really interesting post about an area most of us know little about, so thanks for sharing it.