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Finke River journey

Life in oceans, rivers and seas

“The elders say don’t point at the rain as you will point the rain away”.

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

July 28, 2023

The dry riverbed with its occasional and very beautiful waterholes, its source in the MacDonnell Ranges, continues its journey to the Simpson Desert 600 kilometres to the south. The Finke is part of an interconnected system of rivers, when in flood its waters will eventually reach Lake Eyre.

Above: Bobby and Mary load up the 4WD for our river journey.

The Finke landscapes

The geology tells us that the Finke River is very ancient, just how old we do not know, but what is more or less certain is that the Finke River follows a similar path to that of 100 million years ago and has followed the same path for the last 15 to 20 million years. Even that is a very long time.

The surrounding vegetation is very beautiful and includes the River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis, ancient, large, majestic and twisting in the dryness. There is an occasional Red Cabbage Palm Livistona mariae, also tall and distinguished.

For all of the journey there is a piercing clarity in the light and there has been rain, some plants are in flower.

What we learned long ago is never to camp under a River Red Gum as they have a habit of dropping large branches and some are vast in scale and would easily crush a car or tent and everything in it.

This is nature at work, the tree can benefit from this self-pruning and birdlife and insects flourish around it. The River Red Gum producing the nesting hollows in its trunk so favoured by an array of parrot species.

The ancient mountains here, weathered and eroded over millions of years work a wonderful trick with the rivers that flowed here since deep time. The long-time erosion of water and sand, blown on the wind, has created gaps in the ancient hills through which the riverbeds meander and by which we can make our passage through the ancient mountains and shaded hills.

Here also the invasive species Buffel Grass Cenchrus ciliaris, sometimes dense on the desert floor. There is an occasional MacDonnell Ranges Cycad Macrozamia macdonnellii growing in the gorges and steep and sheltered slopes of the rocky hills. Then the rare Palm Valley Myrtle Thryptomene hexandra with its white flowers.

Many of these species are threaten by the Buffel Grass and the high fuel loads that it creates during the hottest months of the year when the grass is dry. The fires now so intense that the native plants, even large trees, are threatened by it.

Podaxis pistillaris is a powdery-spored desert fungus, the black spores used by Aboriginal people to darken hair, for face and body painting and used by children in play. As well as the ground growing Podaxis pistillaris, there is another Podaxis species in Australia, Podaxis beringamensis, which is found on termite mounds, and both species were used in the way described.

Wildlife and what is missing today

One thing that troubles us is that we see very little wildlife, there are the occasional Black Swans, Cormorants, Egrets and Pelicans at the waterholes and springs. Small birds dart between the trees and shrubs. We are reminded of some of the species that are now missing from the NorthernTerritory, many extinct and lost forever.

A very different story from a similar journey, BaldwinSpencer – 1896

“Many animals remain under shelter during the heat of the day, along the grassy flats Kangaroos may be seen feeding, and on the Porcupine sandhills the Rat-Kangaroos Bettongia lesueuriare constantly dodging in and out among the tussocks. The Jew Lizard Amphibolurus barbatusis often seen sunning itself and allied species dart into their holes when disturbed”. 

Long-tailed Hopping-mouse

The missing include the Slender-billed Thornbill, Roper River Scrub-robin (extinct), Western Quoll, Red-tailed Phascogale, Numbat, Pig-footed Bandicoot (extinct), Desert Bandicoot (extinct), Lesser Bilby (extinct), Brush-tailed Bettong, Central Hare-wallaby (extinct), Crescent Nail-tail Wallaby (extinct), Lesser Stick-nest Rat (extinct), Short-tailed Hopping-mouse (extinct), Long-tailed Hopping-mouse (extinct) and Burrowing Bettong (extinct).

In these vast and remote places we always hope that one day we will spot something that gives us hope. The reality is that this landscape is a very different place than it was 100 years ago.

We emerge from the riverbed winding our way on little tracks and then onto a red sandy road that crosses the dunes. Here it is Spinifex and Desert Oak Allocasuarina decaisneana country, some Acacias are here too. The Spinifex polka dotting the red desert sands, a rich sheltered landscape for insects, small mammals and reptiles.

After a long day’s travel we arrive at Ilpurla in the early evening and we meet our first amphibians of the day, these are the frogs that live in the outstation toilet, the Desert Trilling Frog Neobatrachus centralis.

Bobby Abbott and Andrea Hylands at Ilpurla