This nature photography lark is a lot harder than it looks. I follow a couple of YouTube channels from the UK that weekly show the host going out to some location to photograph and /or film a particular animal or plant. They always find it and always get good images. My experience is a bit different to that. I find that you can go out with all the best intentions in the world, but if nature isn’t playing ball then you don’t get anything. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve set out to look for the Cleopatra’s Needles Orchid (Thelymitra apiculata) driving 100’s of kilometres to find absolutely nothing. Take last weekend. We were down in the South West of Western Australia as my partner was again playing in a croquet tournament. So I’d researched what was about in terms of birds and orchids and set out to several locations with a specific list of what I wanted to photograph. The first stop was Malbup Creek Bird Hide where I wanted to see tawny frogmouths and white-bellied sea-eagles. Well I spent a nice morning at the hide without seeing them. I did get a nice shot of a shelduck and the local kangaroos were hamming it up for a photo.
The next stop was Locke Nature Reserve looking for common helmet and midge orchids. Well after a couple of hours of scrabbling around in the undergrowth fighting off the unwanted attentions of the local mosquitoes I’d found lots of them, but none in flower. There were some Splendid Fairywrens in the nearby bushes but they really didn’t want their picture taken and kept dancing out of the way every time I got close. On the walk back to the car a couple of Western Yellow Robins flew slightly ahead of me. They would stop and perch periodically and I was lucky enough to grab a few frames.
My last spot was Westbay in Augusta looking for scented autumn leek orchids. Now I’d seen them before at this location and knew where to go. They weren’t there. Not a one was to be seen. But I did find some autumn leek orchids – close enough so I photographed them. Funnily enough the autumn leek orchid has a much more pleasant scent than the scented variety which has decidedly unpleasant pong.
So there you have it another rewarding trip. I may not have found what I was looking for but I found other things and really enjoyed my time in the bush and that is what it is all about.
* This weeks musical reference is of course U2’s song I Still Haven’t Found. My favourite version is the one on 1988’s Rattle and Hum album.
We were sitting out on the back patio on a particularly hot day – 39ºC or 102.2ºF for the imperially minded, don’t you think it’s funny that the USA a country that is supposedly a republic favours imperial measurements? Sorry I digress. Back to the patio on a hot day. We were having one of those rambling conversations that goes with just basically hanging out and enjoying each others company when I felt that we were being watched. It is quite a distinct feeling, the hairs go up on the back of the neck and you have a prickly feeling in the centre of your back. I looked around and couldn’t see anything. But the sensation wouldn’t go away. I scanned our surroundings carefully – this time I noticed. There he was. Sitting up 2 metres from the ground (6.561 feet) in the trellis there he was. Impassively watching. Maintaining his vigil in the hot sun.
There’s no denying that summer and autumn here in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia is hot. The best time of day is just after sun up – the air is cool and refreshing. That is when I take Frida for her daily walk. Sometimes I also take a camera as well and on this morning I was rewarded with this yellow-billed spoonbill backlit by the sun.
I went to the touristy olde world town of Richmond a little while ago and saw a Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine. It had been turned into a garden ornament – “gnomified” if you like, just like the Buddha has been.
Tasmanians have a very complicated relationship with the Tassie Tiger. Images of the thylacine can be seen everywhere, it’s on beer labels, the state coat of arms, the coat of arms for Launceston, the logo for Tourism Tasmania. In fact it is everywhere. You might, therefore, come to the conclusion that it is a much-loved animal. In a way it is, but the truth is it wasn’t.
The Thylacine was a shy reclusive animal, the last of its kind – a carnivorous marsupial that was an apex predator and whose relatives went back into the mists of the mammalian era some 5 to 23 million years ago (the Miocene). Computer modelling has shown that the thylacine was not a very strong animal and would have been incapable of handling anything larger than 5Kg and it is now widely believed that they were ambush predators who preyed on small animals such as bandicoots and possums. When the first aboriginal people crossed to the Australian Continent via a land bridge some 40,000 years they brought with them the first dogs, the descendants of what we now call the dingo. The dog was simply a much better and more adaptable predator than the thylacine and by the time British colonisation started they were already extinct on the mainland. When the first settlers in Tasmania saw the thylacine they named it the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. There was an apocryphal tale appealing to Victorian gothic drama that can be traced back to just one source that the Thylacine was a blood drinker which preyed on sheep and poultry. That sealed its fate and a bounty was placed upon it and it was hunted vigorously.
The bounty of £1 for a dead adult and 10 shillings for a dead pup meant that by the 1920’s it was rare to see a thylacine in the wild. In 1930 a farmer by the name of Wilf Batty shot the last wild one. This was bad enough but the tale takes a more tragic turn. In 1933 the Hobart Zoo acquired a thylacine, which was later referred to as Benjamin, which lived there for three years. Inevitably the animal died not of old age but because it was locked out of its shelter on a very cold Tasmanian night. In effect killed by neglect. The last of a species going back millions of years killed because somebody couldn’t be bothered to make sure it was sheltered safely for the night. So after 133 years of settlement, thirty years after a conservation movement was founded seeking its protection and just 59 days after the Tasmanian government signed a conservation order to protect it the last thylacine had died. Optimistically it remained on the endangered list until the 1980’s , but with no confirmed sightings for 50 years it was declared officially extinct.Every now and again there is some crack pot scheme to clone it from DNA harvested from remains in museums, or some millionaire will put a reward for the capture of a live one, but the reality is that the thylacine is long gone because of an indifference to its plight.
In the mid 1990’s a biologist by the name of Nick Mooney gave an interview to the Hobart Mercury newspaper. Mooney was concerned that the attention the thylacine was getting was diverting the attention away from Tasmania’s other iconic animal – the Tasmanian Devil. He argued that the Devil should be researched and protected. Many people thought that he was barmy as there were more Devils in Tasmania then than at the time of first settlement and farmers were claiming that they were at plague proportions and were a threat to livestock. Fast forward twenty years and the devil is now on the verge of extinction from a combination of devil facial tumour (a transmissible cancer), habitat destruction, traffic fatalities and environmental pollution caused by high levels of flame retardant chemicals found in consumer electronics. These chemicals are banned and were phased out in the 1980’s but their effects are still being felt and it is thought that they play a part in devil facial tumour disease. Because devil populations are declining the gene pool is also diminishing this had laid the Devils very vulnerable to disease.
Today Tasmanians mourn the passing of the thylacine even though there are very few people who are left alive that actually saw one. All that remains are a few preserved specimens in museums, some black and white photos and some grainy film footage. Tourist operators say that the extinction of the devil will severely impact their industry and slowly people are starting to wake up to the fact that the devil is likely to go the same way if something is not done. There has been some research on the on devil facial tumour disease which is fantastic. So is devil saved? Well some scientists believe that the only way for the devil to survive is to quarantine healthy devils in captivity and let the wild population die out. Even if the wild population could survive the current Tasmanian state and Australian Federal governments are working to open up Tasmania’s national parks and world heritage areas to commercial logging. The federal government is also not prepared to fund research into Devil Facial Tumour Disease. So at present your best chance of seeing a Tasmanian devil is either at a zoo, animal sanctuary or dead beside a road. In another twenty years all we could be left with is some video footage and some memories. I would urge every Australian and prospective visitor to Tasmania to write to:
The Avon valley was officially discovered by Ensign Dale in 1830 when Governor Stirling saw that the newly established Swan River Colony was going to starve unless it found some decent arable land. Of course the Nyoongar people knew about its existence all along and the upper reaches of the Avon were very important to their dream time stories. As we drive out of Perth on the Great Eastern Highway it’s difficult to imagine how hard it was for Dale all those years ago. What takes us an hour today in a car took him nine days of sheer heart breaking slog. The going was so bad that his horses became bogged in mud and it took all day just to travel one mile or 1.6 Km and he named one spot the Vale of Misery. Ensign Dale opened up a parcel of land the size of Tasmania, although in many cases it was not until the 1860’s that the townsites were established. In the tradition of Nineteenth Century explores he named many of the places after his friends, family and places back in England where he grew up.
Ensign Robert Dale of the 63rd Regiment of Foot is perhaps one of the great unsung heroes of early colonial exploration. Everyone remembers Burke and Wills, and Leichhardt because they lost their lives and that heroic failure mythologized them. Ensign Dale’s exploration and surveying of the Avon Valley, the Canning River and Mount Barker region was of vital importance to the survival of the early settlers in Western Australia. His survey of King George’s Sound in Albany was considered an important work then and is seen as an important artistic and historical document today. While undertaking this achievement he never got lost, he did not loose any men and he maintained excellent relations with the local aboriginal population. In total he mounted seven official expeditions and the journals from them were published in 1833. He was appointed to the post of temporary assistant government surveyor and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. He acquired a lot of property with two town allotments in Albany, a thousand hectares in York and a further 750 hectares in the Swan Valley. But as quickly as his star had risen it fell. He was placed under virtual house arrest by his commanding officer in mid 1832. Soon after he became embroiled in the ugly saga of Yagan’s murder where he was ordered to take Yagan’s pickled head back to England and explain the situation to the Colonial Office and they stripped him of his rank of Lieutenant. Disenchanted Dale resigned from the military and went into business with his brother Thomas importing mahogany. In 1853, at the age of forty-four, he died of tuberculosis in the English town of Bath on the banks of the River Avon.
Today tourists drive out to the Avon Valley to see historic heritage towns, atmospheric homesteads, rocky outcrops and to picnic along the banks of the River Avon. A pleasant spring time trip would be to drive out to Toodyay and then follow the Avon down through Northam, York and Beverley returning to Perth via Westdale and the Brookton Highway. If time permitted you could arrange to stay overnight in Northam or York to get the most out of the trip.
85 km northeast of Perth Toodyay was settled in 1836 and named after the Nyoongar name for the area “Duidgee” which means place of plenty. The original townsite was prone to flooding so it was abandoned in the 1850’s and relocated 5 km and renamed Newcastle. In 1911 the name was changed back to Toodyay because people confused Newcastle in WA with Newcastle in NSW. The Heritage Council of WA list over one hundred places of historical significance in or around Toodyay. Some of these are:
Newcastle Gaol – this was constructed in the 1860’s using convict labour in response to Moondyne Joe’s repeated escapes .
Connor’s Mill on Stirling Terrace was built in 1870 and was as the name suggests a flour mill, it was then converted into an electricity generating plant, and is now the Toodyay Visitors Centre.
Toodyay Post Office – designed by George Temple-Poole and built in 1897
Toodyay Fire station – designed by Ken Duncan and built in 1938
Toodyay plays host to several events throughout the year, the major ones are:
The Moondyne Festival is held on the first Sunday of May and celebrates Moondyne Joe’s life with re-enactments of Colonial life.
The Festival of Food coincides with the Avon Descent and provides culinary delights from all over the world, cooking demonstrations and free entertainment.
Theo’s Run is a convoy of classic cars and motorbikes that starts in Midland and travels to Dowerin via Toodyay.
Toodyay’s Moondyne Festival is the story of Western Australia’s favourite Bushranger, Joseph Bolitho Johns, aka Moondyne Joe is a classic case of where truth is stranger than fiction. Transported to WA as a convict, given a ticket of leave and released, some would say that Johns was a victim of society while others would see him as a recidivist, but what ever your viewpoint it is a fascinating story of a man who is hard done by, has a disdain for authority, who makes repeated escapes from custody and ends up spending his last days in Fremantle Asylum suffering from dementia.
The Toodyay Moondyne Festival has Joe and his gang running riot in the streets of Toodyay. He holds people up, consorts with floozies, avoids the incompetent police and the annoying temperance ladies, is arrested, put on trial and escapes. With local people dressing up in period costume the end result is a gigantic al fresco pantomime with heaps of audience participation (chants of “Free Joe” and “Behind you” ). Alongside the theatrical mayhem there are bush poets, market stalls, displays from the 1860 Regiment, vintage cars and mustache and cleavage competitions. A brilliant day out for all the family.
Northam is 98 Km from Perth on the Great Eastern Highway and it is the largest town in the Avon Valley. With its central location in the valley it makes the perfect base from which to explore. Up until 1891 it was the poor relation to York, but this changed with the coming of the railway linking Perth with the Goldfields and the town became an important staging post. During the 1940’s and 50’s Northam became an important centre for housing displaced European refugees and migrants, in fact the Northam Accommodation Centre was the third largest such facility in Australia. By the time it closed some 23,000 people had passed through its gates. There is a photographic exhibition telling the story at the Northam Visitor Centre. There is a historic town walk that enables visitors to experience the town’s history, some of the significant places on the trail are Morby Cottage – home of the founder of Northam and built in 1836 – and the Old Railway Museum which was built in 1886. More details for both venues can be had by contacting the Visitor Centre. The town hall on Fitzgerald Street is a wonderful example of concrete carbuncle architecture from the 1970’s.
Northam is also the eastern terminus of the Kep Track a 75 km long mountain bike and walking trail that starts in Mundaring and follows the water pipeline the engineering genius CY O’Connor built to take water out to the Goldfields of Western Australia. The name Kep comes from the local Nyoongar word for water. The Golden Pipeline Heritage Trail follows the pipeline in its entirety all the way from Mundaring Weir to Kalgoorlie 650 km to the east, and it also passes through Northam.
Northam is the staring line for The Avon Descent, which was first held in 1973, and there were only forty nine competitors. The event has grown so much now that this year there were over 800 competitors and 2000 plus support crew. In more ways than one it deserves the title the “world’s greatest white water event”. The 134 km two day event starts at Northam and finishes at the Riverside Garden in Bayswater with an over night stop at the Boral Campsite just outside Toodyay. For the majority of entrants the aim is just to complete the course, but for the elite athletes it is a chance of competing in a unique endurance race. The race happens on the first weekend of August every year. It kicks off on the Friday night in Northam with a float parade and firework display. On Saturday morning the event kicks off proper.