Because, well, why not?
Because, well, why not?
I’m a big fan of the Big Desert. It’s a subtle place. Like a grassland, you have to get up close and personal with it to discover its treasures. It has no towering trees, no roaring waterfalls, no charismatic megafauna. It is miles and miles of rolling sand dunes and Mallee heath. After a fire, it is white sand and black sticks, little else. And yet the Big Desert is a biodiversity wonderland. Ants, scorpions, centipedes, bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, cicadas. The insects hum day and night. As do the reptiles that chase them, and each other…
Last week I managed to sneak off on a week’s leave with an old friend, venturing deep into the Murray-Sunset National Park. Now I’m not going to tell you exactly where we went – one has to keep some secrets. But it is suffice to say that we camped amongst the Red Gum and Black Box next to the mighty Murray herself.
We’ve been to this part of the world annually for the last five years, after being given a tempter of its splendour during some volunteer work in 2003. And when I say splendour, I mean splendour. If you have spent some time in the Murray forests, you’ll know that most have seen better days. River regulation, forestry, grazing and firewood collection are the main culprits, but some recreational uses of the river also play their part (think of a speed boat screaming past you with subwoofers blasting and you’ll get my drift….). But the Murray-Sunset is different. It is home to the most remote Red Gum and Black Box communities in the state. Stepping into the Murray-Sunset is like stepping back in time. Old growth Red Gum and Black Box abounds, and the understorey is magnificent – dense Lignum (Muehlenbeckia) and Goosefoot (Chenopodium) growing over a tangle of fallen timber, with thickets of Melaleuca, Acacia and Exocarpus filling in the gaps. And not a cowpat to be seen!
What’s more, the aquatic environs are just as much of a throw-back, a point bought home to us in a discussion we had on this trip with a long time resident of the Murray. Ken told us of his childhood days spent on the river and its anabranches around Cohuna before European Carp (Cyprinus carpio) invaded the system. Ken related clear water, with dense stands of submerged and floating aquatic vegetation such as Pondweeds (Potamogeton), Water Ribbons (Triglochin) and Eelgrass (Vallisneria). Until I visited the Murray-Sunset, I thought these vegetation communities were all but gone from the Murray-Darling, given uprooting by Carp (indeed, Ken related watching his beloved beds of Eelgrass literally float away when Carp first arrived). On our first trip to the Murray-Sunset, we were gob-smacked to see huge stands of Eelgrass and Pondweed wafting in the currents. While these plants are currently in low abundance given recent floods and a concomitant spike in Carp abundance, I’m sure they will return once things settle.
Of course, a big drawcard for me is the herpetological diversity of the Murray-Sunset. The park sits in a biogeographic melting pot from a herpetological perspective, displaying fauna characteristic of semi-arid areas further north and temperate locations further south, plus fauna that enters the region via the network of rivers and associated flood plains. The wide diversity of environs that the park conserves is also an important determinant of its herpetological diversity. Think Mallee communities on sandy dunes, Buloke (Allocasuarina) and Pine (Callitris) woodlands, Acacia and chenopod shrublands, and of course the Red Gum and Black Box woodlands. I’ll leave you with a few images of some of the herpefauna we’ve spotted in the Murray-Sunset over recent years. It’s just a taster, both for you and for me.