Last Friday I woke a bit earlier than usual to do my final packing to head up to a friend’s cottage at Beltana, which is about 130 km north of Hawker off the highway to Leigh Creek. I got picked up from home a bit before 7 and we made our way to Gawler to meet another friend in their car. My ride was an old Holden Gemini wagon, with low profile tyres, a larger than normal engine, and a bit rough around the edges. The dive up to Hawker was rather uneventful, but it was comfortable. We got to Hawker and filled up with petrol and had some food. The Gemini drew some attention given its low clearance. We were advised that the best way to get to Beltana was to take the dirt road that goes straight north from the highway rather than the road that heads west to east. The latter road was in very bad condition according to someone who drove through in the last few days. This was contrary to what had been told.
Our first sightseeing stop was Stokes Hill Lookout, just to the east of Wilpena Pound. Stokes Hill is a worn down old hill surrounded by more worn down old hills covered in spinifex, grasses and grass trees. From the lookout you can clearly see Wilpena pound and some of the other gorgeous surrounding landscape. However, my motive for being here was not to take in the scenery. I was here for some Grasswrening (Bird watching specifically for Grasswrens). I couldn’t go through Grasswren country without having a crack. Although it was highlighted to me that I was taking more of a detour rather than going through Grasswren country. My target was the Short-tailed Grasswren. We made our way across the hills to the spot where I had seen them last year. Within a few minutes of reaching the area the non-birded of the three of us said he could hear them, then like a little brown bolt of lightning, one darted out between some spinifex some distance ahead of us. We made our way slowly and quietly through the spinifex, listening and watching. The Grasswrens were not very obliging, unsurprisingly for Grasswrens. We got glimpses of them bouncing between rocks and spinifex. On one occasion, unbeknownst to us, one was sitting in a clump of spinifex right next to us and burst out at break neck speed and disappeared up the hill. I got one set of reasonable but distant photos, and the other birder among us got good views (for a Grasswren). We left the Grasswrens in peace after not a terrible long time as this is a heavily birded site and we did not want to compound that.
Next we made our way through Brachina Gorge. The road through is ok for standard road cars, but a bit rough and rocky with a few creek (puddle) crossings along the way. We took it slow in the low slung Gemini, bumping along taking in the stunning scenery. The creamy whites and reds of the rocks that propel themselves into the sky from the bottom of the gorge dotted with green trees was magnificent. Part of the way along we saw a Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby down in the creek feeding. We pulled up and got out to take some photos. This was the closest I had been to wild Yellow-foots, and the wallaby seemed relatively unperturbed by our presence, even posing for photos from a phone. Who needs a 400 mm telephoto lens on a big camera anyway. Not much further along another wallaby was spotted. I stayed in the car as this one was a fair way away, but then an echidna was spotted. I ain’t staying in the car for that one. The echidna was plodding along by the creek giving us some excellent views of this curious creature.
We made our way further along the gorge managing to see close to a dozen wallabies and some Euros before our departure. We continued on to Beltana as the light was vanishing. We turned onto the road that heads north to Beltana. This was not the well-kept road we were lead to believe. We made our way very slowly along, dodging ditches and washouts, and broken bits of shale that looked like carefully crafted knives. The 4WD was in front spotting hazards and radioing them back to us in the Gemini. We prayed that there was not a flat tyre in our future. We also though that if this is the good road, what the hell is the bad road like. We eventually made it to the cottage and to a roaring fire, a ready to go BBQ fire, and my friend (who’s cottage it was) advising us that the road we had taken had not been graded for two years and that the other road was in much better condition. I think the person at the petrol station in Hawker had got their facts mixed up. With full stomachs and warmed bodies we headed to bed.
I woke to find the cottage situated on a spacious block surrounded by bluebush, salt bush and samphire. The town sprawls out sparsely around with old buildings, some restored and some ruins. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a population of about 3,000. That has now declined to about 24. Our main activity for the day was to have a walk through three ephemeral creeks/rivers that intersect close to the town. The vegetation around the town had been subjected to less grazing over time and has had some time to recover. The rivers are filled with large stones and rocks with big old gum trees stretching up into the sky. The trees bear scars of violent floods, with big open gashes more than a meter long and sometimes that wide. The noise of these rivers with water running through them was described to me. The rocks tumbling with the turbulent flow, plonking and knocking on each other but multiplied by millions. I imagine it sounds like a mining mill turning and breaking up the rocks inside. The huge dead tree trunks and logs pay testament to the sheer power of these events, hung up high off the ground waiting for the next significant rains to dislodge them and put them further downstream in another precarious perch. Today though, the few small pools of water were calm and clear, with tadpoles and other aquatic creatures dancing around them.
There were plenty of interesting birds including Variegated Fairy-wrens. They look like they have black heads with little iridescent blue helmets and masks on top with brilliant chestnut shoulders. I struggled to get a good photo but this was made up later in the trip with another fairy-wren. The non-locals of us were shown all sorts of interesting things. Eatable plants, grinding stones and worked chert from the first inhabitants, and in addition several plants were flowering or seeding presenting some wonderful colours and textures.
We wandered back to the cottage and relaxed for a bit before heading out to the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna for dinner. While relaxing at the cottage we sat in the beautiful day and watched White-winged Fairy-wrens forging near us occasionally getting a glimpse of the male in full colour. Vibrant blue all over apart from a white wing, they glow like a beacon. I really don’t understand how a bird can be so brilliant in colour. I also noticed a Chirruping Wedgebill calling from across the road. A relatively dull bird that is mostly grey with a long tail and a little crest that sits erect on top of its head. They also have quite a nice call. So I made my way over to try and see it. I got closer and closer to the bush it was in with it singing loudly. But I could not see it. I got to within a few meters but it would not show itself. I waited and nothing. Chirruping Wedgebill one, me zero. I was taunted by these birds for the rest of the weekend, hearing their calls close by, but not seeing them. I only managed one brief glimpse from a long way away. To finish off the day we had a nice meal at the hotel, my meal being a mixed grill of roo, camel and emu, and we then headed back to the cottage to sit in front of the fire and have a few drinks.
The following day, with the adventurous Gemini driver heading back to Adelaide, the remainder of us went to Warraweena Conservation Park, a station turned conservation park to the north of Beltana. We drove along the 4WD tracks, winding through hills and dry river beds to a campground where we had some lunch. One of the most fascinating landscapes we drove through were hill slopes covered in stands of callitris (native pines) on a bare substrate of broken brown shale rock. Rarely with any other plants present. It was kind of eerie. After lunch we walked (or climbed more accurately) up a small creek that ran through a valley in a ridge. We came to an opening in the ridge to see another larger ridge behind. The flora was diverse, with spinifex clumps, small gum trees, often that were flowering, and grass trees. Two of us decided to climb further up the second ridge to get a better view of the landscape. This involved more climbing, dodging spikey bushes and making sure our cameras didn’t bang against the rocks. We tried climbing to the top, but the top kept getting higher and higher as we progressed up and the light was going to disappear fairly soon. The view was spectacular, we could see the valley between the two ridges filled with interesting plants and birds calling form one end. Then behind the ridges to the east was a flat plain that we drove through that sprawled out before us. I love being in places like this, the feeling of the wild and adventure. There is a sense of peace that I get when in places like this that I don’t get anywhere else. This tranquillity was somewhat disrupted by motor bikes down on the flats roaring around, which could be heard clearly as the sound travelled uninterrupted up to the ridges. Humans are a noisy bunch.
We clambered back down to the car more easily than anticipated and somewhat regretting not taking a smaller lens for taking pictures of the landscape. We drove back slowly with a few stops, including for a pair of Red-capped Robins foraging in the callitiris. The male, fascinated by the shutter of my camera came very close, giving fantastic photo opportunities. We headed back to the cottage for dinner cooked on the fire and some more drinks before an early night.
The next day we packed our things and went for a quick walk down to one of the rivers close by. The river was teeming with birds. There were hundreds of tree martins, dozens of Elegant parrots and an array of other birds milling around. We then jumped into the car and made out way back to Adelaide with a few stops on the way for birds and lunch. One stop north of Hawker produced the goods. We stopped for the stunning White-winged Fairy-wrens, but there were also Chirruping Wedgebills (shakes fist), Redthroat, and White-backed Swallows (one of my favourite aerial acrobats). This completed a fantastic trip full of cool creatures, people and landscapes.