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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cape York Birding: Day 1 (Gunning for the Golden-Shouldered Parrot)

Two months ago I flew to far-north Queensland with my father (pictured, directly below) to flee the southern winter and also spot some birds, which are his specialty and his big love in life. After hanging out in Cairns for a while we winged it further north up to Cape York, a vast peninsula riven by monsoonal rivers, saturated with tropical savannah, and timbered with millions of termite mounds, all of them artfully erected to avoid the blistering sun. Cape York teems, too, with birds: brolgas, jabirus, Papuan frogmouths are just some of the species to be found, palm cockatoos smart enough to use tools, and flocks of rainbow lorikeets so prodigious they literally blot out the whole sky. Of the 900 or so bird species that inhabit Australia, Dad and I identified more than 100 during the six days we spent up there, dodging the roadtrains, and crunching the corrugations. That was cool and all, but from the outset my father had his heart set on snaring two specimens which are rare, kind of endangered even: I'm speaking here of the red goshawk (Erythrotriorchis radiates), and the golden-shouldered parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius). To hunt them we enlisted the aid of gregarious guide David (Chook) Crawford, of Close-Up Birding Adventures. Chook actually has a golden-shouldered parrot painted (second photo below) on his vehicle, and commands an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Cape. He knows its trails and creek beds like the lines of his hands, and he has plenty of entertaining yarns to tell (most of them custom-crafted for the campfire!) He is the original Crocodile Dundee, to be frank, and he did not disappoint us... he found us the parrots which were his emblem, and he found them fast enough (on the first day of our adventure to be precise!) That was the highlight of our Cape York birding expedition, day one: my father got his wish, well half of it; I meanwhile had the chance to explore a part of the world which is as exotic as it is isolated, and penetrate right up close to the northernmost tip of Australia. If we had gone just a little bit further, we would have reached New Guinea. Where, quite possibly, another Chook might have awaited us!

Dad watches brolgas fly over the Nifold Plain, on the Cape York peninsula (Australia, 2011)
Chook collected us early at the Bohemia Resort, which had become our base in Cairns. Despite my hangover I was excited to be getting out of town and traversing some fresh territory. Excited I was, but also apprehensive, as I have had enough panic attacks on the freeway in recent months to know that driving can be treacherous for me. We struck off across the verdant farmland north of Cairns, cutting through the canefields and lush country, heading for the nearby hills. I was seated in the back; my Dad, meanwhile, rode shotgun. I might not have known it at the time, but this was to be the first of many missions across the mountains, east to west, west to east, then east to west again, as the peninsula narrowed inexorably towards the tip. Chook confessed to being in something of a hurry, due to reports of bushfires in the vicinity of Musgrave Roadhouse, which was our beeline for the day. He wanted to get up there as fast as possible, in other words, in case the fire closed in. So, there wouldn't be much time for twitching on the way. We were immediately consoled with the promise of a healthy flock of golden-shouldered parrots flapping around in the bush near Musgrave. "He's up there right now," Chook said; "we'll find him." I wondered briefly why Chook had chosen to refer to the parrots as "he". They couldn't all possibly be males, could they? And even if they were, a flock of "he's" still constitutes a "they", surely?

Chook's Pajero, adorned with the endangered golden-shouldered parrot, sitting on a termite mound (Australia, 2011)

Ascending the Atherton Tableland towards Kuranda, Cairn's answer to Katoomba, I felt my anxiety climb... in direct proportion to our altitude. The reality of my plight had sunk in: this was to be a 1300km round trip all the way to the top of Australia and back, and the journey had only just begun. And there was no possible way I could pike out this late in the game! To take my mind off things I chatted to Chook, who turned out to be quite a captivating guy. He disclosed that he used to work as a guide at the nearby Mareeba Wetlands, then decided to start his own business chasing birds. He claimed that while birdwatching had something of a geeky reputation, he wanted to bring a bit of mystery and manliness into the equation, a bit of the Aussie larrikin spirit you might say. Glancing ahead at my Dad in his greygreen shorts and T-shirt and his goofy greygreen hat, I couldn't help but feel that the geeky birder stereotype might be here to stay, though, for a few more years at least. Best not to say so openly, I supposed... I might get shot down for blaspheming like that! So, I reclined in my seat, and tugged the handgrip by my shoulder, which for some reason soothed my spirits somewhat. Chook ploughed on, tearing up the Mulligan Highway through Kuranda to Mareeba (16°59′0″S, 145°25′0″E), where we paused to pick up some supplies and fuel. From the windows of the Pajero, Mareeba appeared to be a classic Outback Australian town, just pimped up with palms. While Chook filled the tank I wandered into the service station to buy a Coke or something like that, and maybe a bottle of water to hydrate myself. I would have loved to stay and have a look around, but that fire up north was moving in... there was no time to linger.

Just a quiet country street, in Mareeba (Australia, 2011)

So we rolled on, mauling Mt Molloy (population 273), Mt Carbine, Desailly, and finally landing on a prick on the map called Lakeland, where we halted for lunch. Somewhere along the way, my iPhone lost connectivity with the rest of the world, and the Internet died. I could no longer check my earnings from Google AdSense, or post updates to Twitter. I took plenty of photos though, of all the scenes that passed my window... most of them were blurred and rubbishy. My camera, nonetheless, was recording a more accurate depiction than my brain, which was clouded with fear, and subpanic: derealization flattened my senses and my perceptions, rendering the world two-dimensional, like a screen. You might call it tunnel vision. I clutched the handgrip besides me, and tried my best to relax. Thankfully, traffic was light: a few grey nomads in their campervans, 4WDs coated with red dust, and the occasional piece of mining kit being hauled up to Weipa. Chook explained that campervans would be useless once we hit the corrugations; from that point on it was 4WD territory, 4WDs and road trains only LOL. Pineapple and peanut farms surged past along with the telegraph poles, and miles and miles of open bush. The sky was a euphoric blue.

Pausing to take in the view, on Route 81 (Australia, 2011)
Beyond the Cooktown turnoff, the road mounted a ridge, and presently we were presented a spectacular view of the surrounding country (16°46′0″S, 144°88′0″E). This was something worth stopping for, so Chook pulled up, and we all got out...

Dad checking his watch, in his goofy greygreen birding hat (Australia, 2011)

... to join a small scrum of sightseers. It was evidently a popular vantagepoint, and every conceivable surface (road, railings, cliff-face) was covered with graffiti. We paused to take in the view, which was righteous, nonetheless.

Across the canyon, looking east (Australia, 2011)
I was surprised how hot it was outside, in contrast to the air-con comfort of Chook's Pajero. It was something like 30°C (86°F), and getting hotter all the time.

Mysterious tree with yellow flowers, possibly a kapok, alongside an aluminium can (Australia, 2011)

Curiosity satiated, we repaired to the car, to resume our ride. The road raced on, across stony, bone-dry territory. Chook pointed out various birds as we sped, quite a few of them raptors. He declared that you could tell how interesting a raptor was by the way it flew... those with upturned wings were the ones worth watching. When we arrived at Lakeland Roadhouse, I noticed some kind of bird of prey was circling the plains below. Its wings, disappointingly, were lowered. "Probably a whistling kite," Chook remarked.

Welcome to Lakeland Roadhouse (Australia, 2011)
We sauntered inside and ordered lunch. Chook recommended the house hamburger. I was about to discover that dining on the Cape revolves around hamburgers, steak and toasted cheese sandwiches (which they serve with cute little pickles here.) My burger was good, though; I gobbled it down, then paced around the roadhouse for a while, trying to keep my anxiety at bay. Something about being trapped in a restaurant ramps my blood pressure up: it might be the acoustics, the loud voices, all the cutlery clanging together? Chairs being dragged over tiled floors don't help one bit.

The sign says $2 for a shower at Lakeland Roadhouse (Australia, 2011)
I took a note how much it cost to use the bathroom. One day when I am traveling across Australia on my own this information might be useful, as raw data in an algorithm (or a comparison chart). The bathroom reminded me of a dream I had sometime, somewhere... was that the dream I was over there in the Congo, fleeing with the refugees down that rust-red jungle highway? Yes, that might have been the one.

There was a small gifts shop inside the roadhouse (Australia, 2011) 
I explored the small giftshop, with its local paraphernalia...

On to the dirt (Australia, 2011)
... and then, gratefully, it was time to bail. Leaving Lakeland, we abandoned the Mulligan Highway, and picked up the gauntlet offered us by the Peninsula Development Highway. More a rut than a road, the highway tailgated what remained of the former telegraph line, built in colonial times to connect Brisbane with its farflung northern domains. Like the colonial telegraph, the highway was decaying, disintegrating, and returning to the bush; before too long bitumen dropped away, to be replaced by rutted corrugations. Right about this moment I realized: this is the real Outback, right here, this is what it is all about! Termite mounds lifted themselves from the earth, the first of them short and scrappylooking, spaced far apart, but as time flew by they grew larger and more confident, some of them fashioned like the smashed chimneys left behind by country housefires, others like miniature Ulurus. Roadtrains, those apex predators of the Australian road, emerged from the woodwork, dragging their own dust storms in their wake. Chook withdrew to the side of the road whenever one passed, allowing it plenty of room. "The road's all yours, big boy," he would said, or words to that effect. And I would ask myself, again: Why does everything up here get called a "he"?

Road etiquette of the North: the small give way to the large (Australia, 2011)
As Chook disclosed, this was the road etiquette of Cape York: the small give way to the large. And there are none larger out here than the roadtrain, 100 tonnes of torment, 22 wheels of whiplash and whiteout. Chook implored us all to wind up our windows as it barrelled towards us. The Pajero rocked, side to side, as the shockwave hit, and then we were splattered with sand and soil. Looking around, I noticed that all the roadside trees and bushes were smeared red with this kind of abuse.

Throwing out the anchor, and battening down the hatches (Australia, 2011)
We were entering a strange world, a Gulliverian domain where everything was larger than life: bugs, men, trucks, even the farms which carved up the land here. The farms, actually cattle stations, were the size of European principalities, and most of them boasted airstrips. One of the principalities was called Artemis Station, and it was on this sprawling property that Chook had last sighted golden-shouldered parrots. We dropped in at the homestead to see if they were still around. The station owners did a lot of work helping the local parrot population, Chook informed us. They monitored their movements, and their numbers, and reported it all to the relevant authorities.

Arriving at Artemis Station (Australia, 2011)
Inside the house, I felt like I had stepped back in time, into the rustic d├ęcor of my wheat belt youth. The lady of the house put a cuppa on and we talked to the Boss about various topics, most pressingly the bushfire at Musgrave. It was moving in fast, our host confided... in fact, it seemed to be gunning straight for the roadhouse herself! Alarming stuff, but the Boss had a piece of good news, too, something that lifted our spirits: the birds were here, he divulged, and naturally we could visit them right away. Bullseye! I thought. This is how the west was won! But first there was a coffee or a cup of tea to drink, a coffee or a cold beverage, and a biscuit or two to chew upon. I stood up the whole time, fighting the urge to panic, wishing we could all just get on with it, and stampede out the door. Standing up always renders me restless, for whatever reason... it gives me vertigo, not just the fear of heights kind, but the crazy headspin version too. I suppose I could have just sat down on the nearest chair, but that might not have been polite. And it would not have been the knightly thing to do, in this land of He-Men, and He-Women...

Looking for golden-shouldered parrots, on Artemis Station (Australia, 2011)
Eventually we were back outside roughroading across rugged terrain, the Lady of the House in her vehicle, us bringing up the rear in the Pajero. The spirit of the chase had finally gripped me, and I was fondling a pair of binoculars excitedly, in expectation of an imminent glimpse. The Lady screeched to a halt, so suddenly we nearly rammed her. This was evidently a significant vantagepoint, so we all scurried out... to join about a dozen golden-shouldered parrots frolicking in a clearing. Yatta! I rejoiced, lifting my binoculars for a closer look. We've found the birds. Only problem was, my Dad couldn't see them, not unaided anyway. By the time we pointed them out to him, and his atrophied brain had registered the  headings and coordinates, processed all this information, and relayed appropriate instructions to his eyes and limbs, the birds were gone, a puff of brilliant feathers, a burst of green on green. For a moment it seemed this whole expedition would be in vain, like Burke and Wills' quest for the Gulf of Carpentaria... doomed by a lack of vision. I could sense Chook's frustration: you can lead a horse to water, but how do you make him drink? Some kind of elegant solution was called for. Thankfully, Chook provided one. Retreating to the Pajero momentarily, he returned with a tripod-mounted scope, fitted with a video camera display. Now all he had to do was focus on the parrots, and my Dad could stand behind him, enjoying a close-up view on the screen, without needing to make any fiddly moves. Up close and personal, that's the way Chook rolls. My Dad, suffice to say, was in twitcher heaven.

Remnant of the old telegraph line, at Musgrave Roadhouse (Australia, 2011)
The day was dragging on, and the westering sun had turned the bush a peculiar shade of burnt sienna. I was looking forward to getting a beer, and putting my feet up. Fortunately it wasn't that much further to Musgrave Station (14°46'50"S, 143°30'14"E), our deadline for the day. Located halfway between Cairns and Weipa, 570km south of The Top, Musgrave Station sits atop the aforementioned telegraph line, remnants of which are still visible, as are other interesting relics...

Posting box, beneath the rafters at Musgrave Station (Australia, 2011)
... such as the grave of Samuel Thomas, a pioneer and local identity, lying in a dusty corner of the carpark.

The grave of Samuel Thomas, killed in 1919 (Australia, 2011)
As late as the 1930s there were Aborigines running around in the bush, Chook admitted. Musgrave served as a fort as well as a telegraph relay station in the frontier war. Thomas was apparently a victim in one of the skirmishes. A victim or a perpetrator, it is always hard to tell.

Waiting for a beer, and then maybe a steak or hamburger (Australia, 2011)

Finally, after a long day rushing around, clutching my handgrip, biting my tongue, etc, I could crack open a cold VB, and kick back. Watch some Imparja TV at the downstairs bar, as a harvest moon rose in the clear night sky... who could ask for more than that? A hot shower, and then the chance to fall asleep in a cabin with the air-con on, while wallabies jumped around in the dark outside.

Shine on harvest moon (Australia, 2011)
Only problem was that bushfire closing in just over the airstrip. We could see it after nightfall, an ominous orange glow on the horizon. And if we survived that, another day of gunning around the bush awaited me. Because while Dad could cross the golden-shouldered parrot off his bucket list, there was still one significant critter left to go. Whether he would be able to see it unaided or no, that was the question.
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