Trip Report : Return from the Red Centre (long)

To: ausbird <>
Subject: Trip Report : Return from the Red Centre (long)
From: "Hicks, Roger" <>
Date: Thu, 31 Oct 96 11:21:00 EST
Return From The Red Centre

Of course, in order to return from anywhere you first have to get there. The 
cost of flights and one-way car hire(1) proved to be too costly for us, so 
we opted for a long train ride - car and all(2). We travelled on the 
overnight 'Overland' from Melbourne to Adelaide, where we had a few hours 
before joining the famous 'Ghan' for the long haul (18 hours and 1555 km) 
north to Alice Springs.

Alice Springs, when we arrived, was sunny and hot with temperatures in the 
mid-thirties; a bit of a shock after the air-conditioned cool of 'The Ghan'. 
After stocking up with provisions we headed west through the spectacular red 
scenery of the West MacDonnell Ranges, made even more spectacular by the 
strong, gusty winds raising storms of red dust. In these conditions birds 
were few and far between and little time was spent birding as we 
concentrated on keeping the car on the road.

Ormiston Gorge, in the heart of the West MacDonnell National Park and about 
130 km west of Alice Springs was our first base. The campsite here lies in 
the shadow of the mountains with a view towards the gorge where Ormiston 
Creek has cut its way through the range. Beware, the rocky ground was 
extremely hard and we are now the proud owners of several interesting shaped 
tent pegs; we ended up guying the tent to large rocks, of which there were 
plenty. While pitching camp,
we saw the first of the birds we had come this far to see. A Western 
Bowerbird foraged around the barbecue area and was later seen to take items 
from a hot barbecue plate as were Little Crows. Crested Pigeons were common 
around the camp and were soon joined by up to 20 Spinifex Pigeons; running 
around like 'little clockwork red indians' according to Andrew (aged 8). 
While the campsite was relatively deserted these engaging pigeons were 
always present but when busy, they made themselves scarce.

At the mouth of the gorge is a permanent water hole, created where rocks 
carried by the river when in flood have scoured out the ground to below the 
level of the water table. No real rains had fallen in this area for 
18-months prior to our visit so the rivers were dry and water in the water 
hole low. Andrew and Matthew (aged 7) needed no second invitation to cool 
off in the surprisingly chilly water. Just as the water was irresistible to 
two boys so it was to various waterbirds with the following being present 
during our stay: Australasian Grebe, 10; Little Black Cormorant 4; Pacific 
Heron,1; White-faced
Heron, 1; Pacific Black Duck 2; Grey Teal 4 and Black-fronted Plover, 1. 
Also seen at the waterhole were our first Diamond Doves plus thirsty Common 

The blustery conditions continued all day and put us off walking through the 
hills. Instead we opted for a drive to Glen Helen, at the western end of the 
sealed road. From here an unsealed road passes through aboriginal land and a 
permit is required. En route we crossed range land, where cattle had 
completely denuded the vegetation leaving tracts of bare red earth - the 
source of the dust. The waterhole here is much larger than that at Ormiston 
with extensive reed beds at its southern end from where a few Clamorous Reed 
Warblers could be heard singing. Further exploration was unfortunately 
thwarted by the challenging climb along the sides of the waterhole, so while 
Jenny and the boys went for a dip, I contented myself with a wander round 
the northern shores adding Little Woodswallow to our slowly expanding list.

Thankfully, the wind died down overnight and our second morning at Ormiston 
dawned bright and calm. We were up with the sun, (well almost), for a 
saunter along the Ghost Gum trail. It follows the gorge beyond the waterhole 
before climbing the cliffs and returning to the campsite via a solitary 
ghost gum perched on a crag high above the waterhole. Apparently, the roots 
of this tree reach down to the watertable some hundreds of feet below. This 
early in the morning we shared the gorge only with the previously invisible 
Black-footed Rock-Wallaby; amazingly agile as they bounded over the scree 
slopes. We counted 34 including at least one joey in the pouch, but suspect 
that others remained invisible. As the sun rose the ringing calls of the 
Pied Butcherbird echoed eerily from the ever-changing, but always vivid red, 
coloured walls of the gorge. As we followed the trail back along the cliff 
tops two small, dark birds were disturbed from the path, flying to a nearby 
bush where they perched in full view allowing us to identify them as Dusky 
Grasswrens. This was my first species in a family I had long wanted to see 
and we watched them for more than 5 minutes. The male was often in view as 
it sang from exposed perches, either a rock or bush top. The presumed female 
was more secretive. As we returned to camp a pair of Pink (Major Mitchell's) 
Cockatoos were perched in the top of a gum tree, breaking up small ants 
nests and apparently eating the contents. They were accompanied by a single 
Australian Ringneck which was apparently feeding from the nests that the
cockatoos had already broken open.

After a cooked breakfast, shared with a Western Bowerbird and Little Crow, 
we broke camp and headed back towards Alice Springs. In stark contrast to 
our outward journey birds were plentiful by the roadside in the calm but hot 
conditions. Our first Red-backed Kingfisher was seen near the Ochre Pits. 
Zebra Finches flocked to drink at Ellery Creek Big Hole regardless of the 
swimmers nearby. A Crested Bellbird perched high in a bush when I expected 
to see it on the ground while Black-faced
Woodswallows swooped overhead.

In Alice Springs we visited the School of the Air and Flying Doctor Service, 
Australian institutions about which we had heard much back in England. Both 
offered a fascinating insight into the problems of providing services to 
remote locations in the vast, sparsely populated interior. A picnic lunch 
was taken at the original springs, near the Telegraph Station, currently no 
more than a small muddy puddle in the  bed of the dry Todd River. In bushes 
around the car park we identified Slaty-backed Thornbill and Red-browed 
Pardalote. Still celebrating these latest two additions to our list, we 
attempted to start the car, only to be greeted with an ominous whirring. Not 
what we wanted to hear with the best part of 2500 km to drive home. It 
bump-started O.K. and we reached a garage who diagnosed a poorly alternator. 
The good news was that they could probably fix it for the next morning. We 
would not lose too much time but my plans to go in search of Bourke's Parrot 
were scuppered.

Next day we were on the road before midday with nothing more than a hole in 
the budget for our problems. We were bowling along quite nicely, with one 
eye on the sky for raptors, when, less than 100 km south of Alice Springs 
the car lost all momentum. Not being mechanically inclined I did not have a 
clue what had gone wrong. Fortunately (?) we were less than 2 km from 
Stuart's Well, a small wayside halt with motel, bar and garage. Within 30 
minutes we had been towed in.The problem this time turned out to be a broken 
timing chain which would take 4 hours or so to fix once the part was
available. Unfortunately, that would not be until late the next day so we 
would be marooned in Stuart's Well for a couple of nights at least.

Common birds around the roadhouse included Galah, Yellow-throated Miner, 
White-plumed Honeyeater and Little Crow. A waterhole, by the carpark, 
attracted Zebra Finch, Tree Martin and Common Bronzewing. The rocky, 
scrub-covered hills to the north seemed particularly devoid of birds with 
only the antics of brightly coloured Rainbow Bee-eaters enlivening a long 
walk. A dry valley through the hills, where the water course was traced by a 
wriggling line of small trees was more productive with Chestnut-rumped 
Thornbill, Crested Bellbird and White-backed Swallow (one of my favourite 
Australian birds) all being seen. Across the Stuart Highway ('look both ways 
before crossing!') is a lucerne farm, a vivid swathe of green,  maintained 
by irrigation, in stark contrast to the surrounding reddish-brown 
countryside. Many birds came to feed where the crop had been harvested 
including Australian Bustard, Banded and Masked Lapwings among the Galahs 
and Little
Crows. The locals reported both Cockatiel and Budgerigar occurred in the 
area but I did not have the fortune to find either. If you are interested in 
birding the area around Stuart's Well, I can supply a mud map. Please seek 
permission from the bar before wandering away from the immediate vicinity of 
the roadhouse.

Following a day's sojourn, which included a camel ride plus a dip in the 
motel pool as well as the birding, our car was ready to go the next morning. 
Now it was decision time. One of the main reasons for coming to this part of 
the world was to see Ayers Rock but we were running short of time. We 
decided that having got 'so close' we could not miss out. With some 
trepidation and an even bigger hole in the budget, we said farewell to the 
kind folks of Stuart's Well and continued south on the Stuart Highway. At 
Erldunda we filled up with petrol (only 97 cents per litre!) before heading 
west on the Lasseter Highway. A fortuitous lunch stop at a picnic site 
resulted in directions from a fellow traveller to a nearby saltpan where 
White-winged Fairy Wrens and Grey Falcon could be seen Disappointingly, Grey 
turned out to be Brown but the Fairy-Wrens, the male a vivid blue against 
the dull green of the vegetation, were present as were a couple of Banded 
Whitefaces, a flock of White-browed Babblers and a pair of Red-backed 
Kingfishers. Continuing towards Yulara every cutting through the sand 
dunes/hills seemed to hold a pair of White-backed Swallows.

Our arrival at Yulara campsite coincided with an unexpected rain shower 
which dropped the temperature by several degrees. Thankfully, the storm had 
passed before sunset and we were able to enjoy the rock changing through 
various hues of red with the additional treat of a rainbow over one end. 
Arriving at 16:00 one day and departing at midday the next did not give us 
nearly enough time to do the area justice. We could have lingered much 
longer in the cultural centre, an ideal place to
visit during the heat of the day and would have enjoyed longer walks through 
the Olgas and round the base of Ayres Rock. Maybe next time.

We now only had 2.5 days to get back to Melbourne and a large portion of 
Australia to cover. Our stops were brief and highlights were few. A 
spectacular electrical storm raged overhead as we drove south towards Coober 
Pedy where we spent the night in a very nice cave. Continuing down the 
Stuart Highway, we disturbed 7 Wedge-tailed Eagles from a road-killed 
Kangaroo and saw our first House Sparrows and  Starlings at Glendambo 
roadhouse. A party of Blue-Bonnets were seen just
north of Port Augusta where we turned east, reaching Peterborough as the sun 
was setting. We were woken early by the noisy calls of an Apostlebird and 
thanks to this unusual alarm-clock were on the road before 07:00 with the 
promise of breakfast in Broken Hill. Twenty Wedge-tailed Eagles, mostly 
perched on telegraph poles beside the railway, were seen along this stretch. 
Being Sunday, Broken Hill appeared closed and we missed out on breakfast so 
we turned south on the Silver City Highway. A close encounter of the bird 
kind (actually a Long-billed Corella, now one of our least favourite 
Australian birds) left us with a starred windscreen, with most of the damage 
on the passenger's side. A very welcome break of a couple of hours was taken 
in Hattah-Kulkyne National Park where rest was more important than birding 
but Regent Parrot and White-winged Choughs came to us. After negotiating 
flooded sections of the Calder Highway, we eventually reached Melbourne and 
home at 23:00. We had made it back from the Red Centre!

In conclusion we could easily have spent our entire holiday at each of the 
places we visited, even Coober Pedy had a certain fascination. We saw some 
wonderful scenery, a few good birds (but left plenty to go back for) and 
drove a long, long way (3726 km) while completing more than 20 Bird of Prey 
Watch sheets.

(1)While on our travels we heard it may be possible to do a deal with the 
larger car hire companies whereby you return hire cars from out-of-the way
centres to their town of origin. We did not check this out but it may be 
worth bearing in mind.
(2)Costs for Melbourne-Adelaide-Alice Springs aboard 'The Overland' and 'The 
Ghan' were as follows: Single adult fare with reclining chairs AUD194;
Single child fare with reclining chairs AUD97; Single for the car AUD275; 
Return fares are double; Cabins with bunks are available at extra cost.

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Roger Hicks              Tel :     03-9315-0353 (home)
3 Seaview Crescent,           03-9865-8613 (work)
Victoria 3018            E-mail: 
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