White Mountains National Park straddles the high point of the highway between Hughenden and Charters Towers. There is a lookout on the crest of the range – the Burra Range, part of the Great Dividing Range. It presents great views over wild country to the South of the road, but it is a bit sad that that is all that most people ever see of the park.
Apart from the lookout, the park’s facilities are limited to a camping ground ten km off the main road, accessed by a dirt track recommended for 4WD vehicles only and comprising eight camping sites and a composting toilet, all neatly maintained in standard National Parks fashion (camping fees, in equally standard fashion, are a not-too-whopping $10 per night). There is no water supply, though, and the creek rarely runs so visitors have to bring all their own water.
The publican at Prairie reckoned my vehicle (a soft-roader, not a real 4WD) should have no trouble on the road ‘except for maybe the creek just before the campsite,’ so I cautiously gave it a go. The going was good until I got to the creek, which was only a trickle but its bed was deep soft sand perhaps four or five metres across.
Walking across, I found I had the camp completely to myself and decided the possibility of a 10 km hike for help was less attractive than the certainty of a little extra walking, parked beside the track and carried my gear across to the campsite. After the tent was up, I had a quick look round then pointed my camera at the twilight sky:
Three things about the park struck me very forcibly: that it was a botanist’s paradise, that the vegetation was subtly but critically dependent on the geology (especially soil type and drainage) and that the animal life was completely dominated by ants.
I’m no botanist so I can’t say much about the plant life but I did enjoy all the flowering trees and shrubs, especially the wattles and grevilleas. This link will take you to a collection of my photos of them on Flickr.
As for the geology, it is all sandstone country – called the ‘white’ mountains for the pale grey-yellow of most of the rock – but the various sedimentary layers laid down over a couple of hundred million years are different in hardness and mineral content and have been exposed and weathered differently, resulting in a patchwork of micro-environments.
The clearest medium-size example was the area on the track to Sawpit Gorge which supported a veritable city of termite mounds (here and here). On a much smaller scale, I found an isolated patch, less that a square metre, of sundews beside the track near the Sawpit Gorge lookout:
There must have been a tiny seepage of moisture from up-slope, to encourage them here but nowhere nearby. (A better view of individual plants is here.)
As for the ants, I had camera problems (reduced to a point-and-click by battery failure on the SLR) so I didn’t try to take many pictures of small subjects but I did record some of the amazing variety of ant-hills along the road.
- A cluster of little volcanoes.
- A flat circle of excavated gravel ringed by scraps of grass and twigs with one of its (large) inhabitants (this nest may be made by the same species, on different soil).
- Low, solid domes.
- A small mound, like a large brick standing on end, resembling a termite mound but definitely an ant mound. (Termites and ants, by the way, are not at all closely related in spite of their superficial similarities. Ants are closer to wasps and bees than to termites.)
- A fan of very fine sand spreading our from beneath a rock.
The guide to the park is replete with warnings about waterless, trackless wilderness and the very real chance of getting lost or injured. Roaming around the park is recommended only for ‘experienced, well-equipped bushwalkers’ in strong parties. However, a walk along the road from the highway to Sawpit Gorge and back (or a shorter part of that trip) would be a very easy, enjoyable and safe way of seeing a good selection of what the park has to offer. Camping a night or two at Cann’s Creek will be possible for most people, most of the year (it’s not recommended in the Wet) and offers a complete break from urban life as well as an extended opportunity to explore the diversity of the area.
Park information: http://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/white-mountains/about.html