In the middle and lower stretches of the river 150 years of intense cattle grazing has turned the countryside into flattened, cement-like earth. Yet despite the dry, dusty landscape the savanna is overrun with life. Flocks of startled galahs, awkward emus, occasional goannas and dingos, not to mention the suicidal wallabies waiting at the roadside at dusk to dart in front of oncoming vehicles. All of these animals were a sight to behold. What we were really after, however, were the waterholes, permanent sources of water that have been the object of human and animal desire on this dry continent since time immemorial. Australian rivers are very unlike those in Canada; here there is a lot of water during the wet season (Dec-March), everything floods, then there is no rain for months (May-Oct) and the rivers stop flowing, instead existing as a series of disconnected pools. These pools (also called waterholes or lagoons or billabongs) are important for cattle grazers, fishers, and Aboriginal people who live traditional lifestyles. Our job is to find out where the waterholes are, how long they last during prolonged periods of drought, and what the animals are eating that live in them. That means plenty of reconnaissance followed by collections of algae, crayfish, shrimp, crabs, insects, fish, and hopefully bird feathers and crocodile tissue.
We had a few interesting moments on this trip, which was mainly an introduction to the landscape. First a helicopter landed at our campsite. I must say that was a first for me. We were enjoying some breakfast, getting ready to pack up for the day when we saw a chopper overhead then realized it was turning around to land. We thought we were in for it, since just about any land off the main road is private property and some of the station managers can be a bit nasty (we're talking standing on the front porch with shotguns nasty). Surprisingly the first thing the guy said after getting out the machine was "sorry about the dust." He was a really nice guy and had only dropped down because we happened to have the hood of the truck up. After brief introductions and some talk about our project, he was on his way.
After a few days we made it to the far western end of the peninsula near the mouth of the Mitchell at the Gulf of Carpentaria. We stayed for a day and a half in Kowanyama, looking at waterholes around there with the help of local Rangers, who are in charge of issuing fishing licenses, policing poachers, and working with researchers like us who constantly pester them for information about the countryside. While we were there, our second interesting moment of the trip happened when we drove past a large, nasty looking snake. The Aboriginal Ranger who was with us at the time told us it was a taipan. He would know one to see one, but I think he might have just been trying to scare us. Later on, we had a black snake slither through our campsite, but it was minding its own business so we weren't too worried.
On our way back up the "beef road" to Cairns we pulled some pig hunters out of the bog; they had been stuck for about four hours before we came along. Apparently word travels fast in the bush because after it happened, we drove about 2 hours up the road and the guy at the service station had heard about the blokes from Griffith Uni helping out the pig hunters. The pig hunting is pretty good around those parts (see photo below), we saw a dozen or so along the road during our travels. Everyone likes to blame the pigs for messing up the waterholes, they get in there and roll around pretty good, but by my calculation there's about 100 times more cattle up there than pigs, and the cattle don't tread lightly themselves. It's part of the reason some people are advocating Aussies switch from beef consumption to kangaroo consumption. The roos have padded feet and as a result are far less devastating to the landscape. Of course they also compete with cattle for grazing, so they are considered a pest.