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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Sturt National Park; dry, distant and dramatic

It's a Sydney conceit to think of anywhere west of the Blue Mountains (ie less than 100 kilometres from the sea) as 'western New South Wales'. Sturt National Park however fully merits the description. It is the furthest New South Wales park from Sydney (more than 1000 kilometres away), the second largest park in the state at nearly 350,000 hectares - and one of my favourites. It is way up in the furthest north-west corner, where New South Wales meets Queensland and South Australia.
It was declared in 1972, when drought-hammered pastoralists were happy to sell up and move somewhere more conducive to commercial land management. Several properties were incorporated into the huge park. These were not the first Europeans to be forced to retreat by the natural cycle of El Niño-driven drought and occasional flooding. In 1845 Charles Sturt was stranded at a rare permanent waterhole near here by drought for six months, in the course of his epic - but crazy - odyssey searching for the mythical inland sea that he passionately believed in. 130 years later his name was appended to the new park, though I think and hope that today a more appropriate local indigenous name might be found in such a situation.

Sturt National Park embodies the ancient landscapes of vast open plains that form an important part of our nation-continent. 
Here the jump-ups rise above gibber plains, with a dry stream-line snaking through.
Perhaps that caption needs some clarification! The land surface is part of an ancient bowl-shaped depression which forms the Great Artesian Basin; it is slowly eroding away. Where the old ranges contained a layer of hard silcrete - dissolved silicon salts which settled out like concrete - erosion was greatly slowed when this layer came to the surface. The tough cap is resistant to wearing away, and the resulting characteristic flat-topped hills are known as jump-ups, or breakaways.
Jump-ups, Sturt NP.
Erosion tends to act here from the sides, rather than above; as a result the silcrete cap is undercut, breaks away at the edges, and tumbles in small stones to the plains below. These pebbles, polished by wind and blowing sand, are gibbers; gibber plains cover vast areas of Australia.
Gibber plains, Sturt NP. The tough chenopods covering the surface here are the
result of a relatively wet season.
Below (from an old slide!) is a gibber plain in north-eastern South Australia in a dry season, bare to the horizon.

Near a couple of ephemeral creek lines, River Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) grow, and beyond them on the flood plains Coolabah (E. coolabah); this tree is known to every Australian from a line from Waltzing Matilda (arguably our 'other national anthem') though not many know what it looks like.
Fort Grey campsite, Sturt National Park; early morning among the Coolabahs.
Here are some typical birds of Sturt, in and even above the landscape.
Bluebonnet (Northiella haematogaster) in Belah (Casuarina pauper).
This parrot is found throughout inland south-eastern Australia.
Cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus), the smallest Australian cockatoo, sadly better
known as a cage bird.
Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides) using the updraft from the edge of a jump-up.

Male Brown Songlark (Cincloramphus cruralis) in prickly copperburr, Sclerolaena sp.

Gibber Chat (Ashbyia lovensis); the Australian chats are a specialised group of ground-dwelling honeyeaters.
This one is often regarded as 'difficult' by bird-watchers, but it's more just that it lives in remote areas.
Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax).
Below; where there are no tall trees, an eagle must build its nest where it can.

While we were there last year there was little flowering - it had mostly finished as the land started to dry out after the rains, but there were a few exceptions.
Velvet-leaf Hibiscus (H. krichauffianus).
Sturt is remote, in terms of requiring a long drive to get there, but the little town of Tibooburra on its southern border these days has all the supplies you need, including accommodation if you don't feel like camping.

On the other hand it's hard to beat the sun coming up through the Coolabahs, while flocks of Budgerigars and Cockatiels come in to feed on the grass seeds behind the tent.


Susan said...

Ooooh nostalgia! We spent several long holidays when I was in my teens out in this sort of country, usually with the QOS or RAOU or similar. My first proper holiday with my husband was out here too. Not sure that I've ever been to Sturt NP, but there is plenty of this sort of country in Qld and SA.

The term 'out west' is sort of a catch all, because no one can decide where 'the bush' ends and 'the outback' starts. Every town you pass through as you head west will bill itself as 'the gateway to the outback', but you never apparently arrive in the outback. It's not a very useful term for me when I have to talk about these things in Europe, as it is too east coast centric and people's grasp of geography isn't really that good. These days my rule of thumb for whether you are in the bush or the outback is whether you habitually use a helicopter or light plane to get into town. If you fly you are in the outback. If you drive, it's the bush. Very few places are genuinely outback these days.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Ian
I think you, history and the climate were a bit hard on poor Sturt.
He just arrived a few million (probably many million) years too late.
Or, then again, the way Global warming is going, maybe a few thousand years too early.
Nice post, and I liked your Gibber Chat especially.
Denis Wilson

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for those, Susan and Denis.

You're right of course Susan in saying that there's a LOT of arid land in Australia, but I'd be less certain of lumping it all. I feel that south-west Queensland, for instance, is different from adjacent NSW and South Australia, including in birds. Interesting definition of 'outback' vs 'the bush'; it's certainly evocative (and provocative), but I'm not sure that all outback dwellers are wealthy enough to own a plane. Or maybe today's property owners are...

Denis, I agree re Sturt being unlucky re timing - a few million years either way and he'd have been fine. I'm a big fan of his, not least because of his SA connections, but I think he was guilty of distorting evidence to fit his preconceived ideas about the inland sea. I am tempted to draw modern analogies here, but I'll leave that to your imagination.

Susan said...

I'm always surprised by how many properties have light planes, or these days, often helicopters. Of course, the other definition of 'outback' you can use is making it synonymous with 'desert'. If you are not in proper desert, you are still in the bush. A third definition might be if the kids attend the school of the air and you are within the flying doctor's territory, you are in the outback.

My memory of south western Qld includes gibber plains around Jundah, salt pans around Poepls corner, and I've been through jump up country too -- can't remember where exactly -- may not be in Qld. My memory of journeys is always very patchy.

Ian Fraser said...

Then of course we need to agree on a definition of 'desert'; we often use it in Australia for a habitat that wouldn't qualify elsewhere. However I do like your third definition. By going to Poeppel's Corner you probably have been to jump-ups in Queensland; the Grey Range, which ends in Sturt, extends well north into Qld. Sounds like you had a great childhood in terms of learning about Australia!

Susan said...

OK, well we'll settle on the third definition. Always good to define the landscape in human terms -- less technical, more accessible.