Life in ‘the outback’

My Easter trip to Western Queensland began with a visit to a cattle property, Rainsby, owned and operated by Diane Alford, my cousin-in-law, and her husband Bill. To get there from Townsville, you head inland on the Hughenden and Mt Isa road, turn left after 290 km and head South for another hour and a half on a road that is partly sealed, partly gravel.

Rainsby covers 121 square miles, about 10 miles East-West by 12 miles North-South (about 14 by 17 km), and the road from the gate to the house is no suburban driveway. Drive for a while and you come to Torrens Creek, which at the peak of the Wet can be a kilometre wide and at Easter was still big enough to stop our car though not a 4WD. The house is a couple of kilometres further in, so we were glad that Diane could meet us at the creek.

The road into Rainsby
No suburban driveway: the road into Rainsby

Diane wrote a newspaper article six months ago and in it she introduces her family and the property beautifully:

My name is Diane Alford and, with my husband Bill, I live and work on Rainsby, the 23 000 hectare (230 square kilometre, or 57 000 acres in the old money) beef cattle property we, and the bank, own in central western Queensland. Rainsby is 160 km south of Torrens Creek (pop. 17) and 140 km north of Aramac (pop. 400). Our closest large centre is Longreach (pop. 3000), a three hour drive south west. Here, along with four nearly-grown children, we have raised cattle for domestic consumption for the past 13 years.

Rainsby is wild, sparsely inhabited and, I believe, beautiful. It is predominantly black gidgee country interspersed with sand ridges and a hard Spinifex northern end. Torrens Creek weaves its way through the length of the property, exiting into the Thompson river system and finally reaching Lake Eyre. Our principal pasture is Mitchell grass, with seasonal Flinders grass and various burrs, while the sand ridges support blue grasses and a range of other perennials. The Artesian Basin is close to the surface in Rainsby, and bores flow without pumping. It’s Waltzing Matilda country, complete with billabongs and gilgais, coolabahs and hundreds of thousands of black gidgee trees; and we love it.

Rainsby has a 480 – 500 mm (18 to 20 inch) annual rainfall and, seasons allowing, we aim to run 1500 mixed-aged Brahman cattle. Our temperature ranges from 2 degrees Celsius in Winter, to 42 degrees in Summer. With luck the seasons start out green with the rivers full, and ends golden and waiting for storms. But of course that’s not always the case, and that’s where the management comes in.

The article from which I have quoted was concerned primarily with the negative perceptions of beef production and consumption.  Diane argues (rightly, in my view) that graziers like Bill and herself are unthinkingly blamed for environmentally damaging practices which are common elsewhere but are simply not followed in Western Queensland. That section of her article is now here.

Farm sheds
Farm buildings, seen from the house

Returning to our visit … Easter Saturday was a big day in the area, with a wedding and christening on a neighbouring property. Guests came from miles around. (When you think about it, they had to: no-one lives within miles of their house, just as no-one lives within miles of Diane and Bill. The drive from one house to the next often takes half an hour, even when the roads are good.)

Anyway, guests came from miles around – Aramac and Torrens Creek, Cairns and points beyond. The gardens were beautifully prepared, trestle tables and a dance floor set up, and lanterns were hung in the trees although they were hardly needed with the Easter moon. Everyone dressed up for the occasion of course but the main thing was the rare chance to meet and yarn to rarely-seen neighbours, and the evening went quite late.

Fishing in Torrens Creek
Wetting a line ... and a body

On Sunday we went for a family picnic down at a waterhole on Torrens Creek. I went for a walk along the river bank with my camera, bird-spotting (bird photos will come soon), while some of the younger people threw in fishing lines. All they caught was a turtle, which was released unharmed:

speed-blurred pic of turtle
Escape! The fastest turtle in the West.

On Monday, sadly, we had to leave – some of us to return to Townsville to work on Tuesday, while I went alone a little further North and West to Porcupine Gorge (yet another Green Path post which is still in the pipeline) and White Mountains.

Toad Day Out

I am always reluctant to kill an animal – any animal – but I am less reluctant than usual when it comes to Cane Toads. They are a real pest up here and are spreading steadily to the south and north-west, decimating local wildlife as they go. They breed prodigiously, eat nearly anything that is smaller than themselves, and poison our predators.

Continue reading “Toad Day Out”

New Cape York frog species

small brown frogThe Townsville Bulletin today reported the discovery of two new species of frogs on Cape York. Their article begins:

A Townsville scientist was hopping up and down with excitement after stumbling upon two new species of frog in the Far North.

James Cook University researcher Dr Conrad Hoskin and Kieran Aland from the Queensland Museum discovered two boulder-dwelling amphibians while exploring a remote part of Cape York Peninsula.

small brown frogThe tiny thumb-sized frogs have been named the kutini boulder frog and the golden-capped boulder frog.

They were found in two different areas in the vicinity of Iron Range near the township of Lockhart River, north of Cooktown.

 

The whole article is here.

The discovery should remind us how little we still know about the living world around us. We have been systematically naming and classifying creatures for nearly two hundred years but are still finding new animals, even quite large ones  (e.g. the Saola), in remote areas and we are not even close to knowing all the insects around us. For instance, the introduction to CSIRO’s Australian Moths Online notes that, ‘There are about 22 000 species of Australian moths, of which only half have been described [i.e. scientifically identified] so far.’

Cuddlefish

We don’t usually think of sharks amongst the natural world’s great lovers but perhaps we’re being unfair.

Leopard sharks
Love bites: Leopard sharks in Reef HQ

I have been a volunteer at Reef HQ Aquarium for a couple of years now, and I have gradually been getting into the habit of taking my camera in with me. A little while ago I spotted the female Leopard shark, Leonie, lying back in what looks like bliss while the male, Leo, nibbled her fins amorously.

It is typical courtship behaviour for the species (and it must work well for this couple because they have produced several offspring for Reef HQ) but I do find the parallels with human behaviour amusing and thought-provoking. One recent thought is that we usually say ‘how like people’ animals are when they behave like we do, but that way of putting it is really back to front: people evolved from lower animals, not the other way round, so it’s very likely some of our behaviour patterns, as well as our genes, are inherited from them.

So next time you spot a couple of teenagers kissing and cuddling you might think, ‘How like sharks they are!’

P.S. Crocs do it too: I didn’t know how romantic crocodiles were until I came across this description recently.

Billabong: reptiles

Still at Billabong Sanctuary

Girls with snakes around their shoulders
Relaxed attitude: Woma (left) and Boa

There is a sequence of talks and shows through the day – birds, koalas, (small) reptiles, dingos and so on, culminating in the largest reptiles. The snakes and lizards show was entertaining, as well as informative, partly because of the visitors’ responses.

‘Does anyone want to put this Woma around their neck?’ Response: trepidation.

‘What about this Boa Constrictor?’ Response: consternation.

But the relaxed attitude of the staff holding the snakes did reassure the visitors, and quite a few were confident enough to step forward.

Visitors were not, however, invited to step forward and handle the snappy logs. The crocodiles were quite lethargic because of the cool weather but still not to be taken lightly. Both of our Australian species were presented:

  • The Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) can grow to about 3 m in length but are usually 1.5 – 2 m. They are primarily fish-eaters, though they will also take insects, amphibians and small mammals; they are unaggressive and are considered harmless to people.
  • The Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) is quite a different proposition. The world’s largest living reptile, it can grow to at least 7 m and 1300 kg, and large individuals can tackle prey up to the size of a water buffalo. There are very few fatal attacks on people but staying well away from them is strongly recommended!

The first of these two pictures shows one of the Sanctuary’s larger salties; the second shows a considerably smaller animal.

Saltwater Croc - frontal view
Saltie
Ranger feeding a Saltwater croc
Do not try this at home!

More on crocs: Wikipedia has good articles on both salties and freshies.