A MATRIARCH CALLED BILL — When we first met, Bill was wearing the brown plumage of an immature Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus). We developed a long term trading relationship in which I provided scraps of meat and Bill woke me each morning with the beautiful songs of his people. I say “his” but as seasons passed and Bill turned up from time to time with a little brown youngster or two in tow, it became apparent that Bill was a hen rather than a rooster. She and her descendants were quite relaxed about hanging out on a washing line inside my safari tent home at Kabulwarnamyo and when meat scraps weren’t on offer they wiped out all the spiders and bugs inside the tent and its surrounds. After the youngsters lost their brown plumage and gave up their incessant squawking to be fed by mum or grandma, they all started work on their repertoire of traditional songs — not so great to start with, but persevering until the tent was surrounded by the mellifluous sounds of Bill’s bush choir. The photographs of Bill as matriarch were taken in 2012, six years after she turned up outside my bush camp. The story has a tragic end. Each year a group of volunteer veterinarians from “Down South” came around the remote communities and dosed up the local dogs with Ivomec, an anti-parasitic. I was away at the time, but because some of the dogs were reluctant to be caught and dosed, the vets put Ivomec on bread and tossed it to the dogs. About five birds, including Bill made off with the bait, measured out for a beast of 20kg, not one of a few hundred grams and by next day they were dead. Some, it seems, escaped, for there are new families of Grey Butcherbirds at Kabulwarnamyo. But I do miss my old mate Bill.

In the Top End of the Northern Territory the monsoon comes in bursts, sometimes only a few days, sometimes weeks when the sun is rarely, if at all, seen. In the mid to late wet season as these rainy periods pause, the flowers of Patersonia macrantha come out to greet the sun. In places these brilliant spots of mauve dot the ground cover throughout forests on sandy soils of the Arnhem Plateau. The stingless native bees (Tetragonula and Austroplebeia) are quick to find the flowers.

Top photo: Jan Cooke.

The Swamp Bloodwood (Eucalyptus ptychocarpa) flowers during the wet season, literally bursting into flower as the caps are pushed off the seed capsules and the brilliant blossoms that range from a deep hot pink to dark crimson emerge. The tree grows to 12m with a spreading crown and is associated with permanent freshwater springs and stream in both lowland and escarpment country. Indigenous artist George Garrawun told me that the best black colour used for painting on bark is made from the charcoal of E. ptychocarpa. The charcoal is gathered in lumps and then rubbed on a stone palette as water is added.

Trichosanthes cucumerina is a wet season plant that is happiest in shade and particularly happy amongst the boulder strewn landscape of the West Arnhem Plateau. Although Tricosanthes does not have an edible fruit, the family to which it belongs contains many cultivated vegetables including pumpkins, squash, watermelons and rockmelons.
The ID comes from Kym Brennan’s wonderful little book Wildflowers of Kakadu and the lower photo showing the vine leaves is by Jan Cooke. If you look carefully in the upper left of Jan’s photo you will find a spider lurking in a web amongst the leaves. No doubt a good position to intercept native bees and other insects visiting the flowers.

The fruit Japheth Miller is enjoying is called Djarduk in the Kundedjnyenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok, a language of the Western Arnhem Land Plateau. Its english common name is Red Bush Apple Tree and its botanic name is Syzygium sub-orbiculare. It’s a spreading medium tree favouring sandy soils near creeks where its roots can readily find moisture. Although the fruit is about the size of a tennis ball the seed inside is about ping pong ball-sized, leaving less than a centimetre of pulpy flesh available to snack on. In general it has a tart and acidic taste, not unpleasant at all and quite refreshing in the hot times of early to mid wet season when the fruit ripens. The taste varies a lot from place to place, some are sweeter and some more tart. Clean white sand with plenty of sub-surface water yields the best fruit in my experience.

The feisty Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a tough character for sure. The devil’s large head and neck allow it to generate the strongest bite per unit body mass of any extant mammal land predator. But since the early 1990s devils in their eponymous heartland have been threatened by devil facial tumour disease which has dramatically reduced the population and led to an endangered status in 2008. But while conservation bodies are making some way in ensuring the survival of the Devils in Tasmania, the Devils of mainland Australia are long-gone. It is generally accepted that they were spread across the continent in pleistocene times but went extinct through many local extinctions about 3000 years. As for the demise of Thylacines, dingoes are the main suspects.
Their presence in the Northern Territory is demonstrated only by a single fossil from near Darwin and depictions in rock art. I’m quite confident that the animal in the rock art image from the West Arnhem Land plateau is a Tasmanian Devil on the basis of a distinctive body shape, prominent whiskers and posture. The short tail is most persuasive. Tasmanian Devils are not spotted, while another carnivorous mammal, the northern quoll is spotted. But the Northern Quoll has a particularly long tail, tufted at the end. We can be fairly confident that the spots are only decorative in this image — unless of course we had a spotted sub-species of Devil in the north.
As with a lot of rock art, images are often overpainted and indeed the sequencing has been used to provide broad understanding of the chronology of changing styles over the 40,000 plus years since people first put ochre to rock. In this case it’s not easy to tell which came first, the Devil or the Goanna.
The image was recorded on a survey in Marrirn country last month and the excellent Devil drawing was made in Tasmania in 1880 by Louisa Ann Meredith.

Scanning my way back through a lifetime of prints and slides I came on this set recording the making and launching of Wubbun Djabayena (the canoe called sawfish) at Maningrida in Central Arnhem Land. The Kunibidji people have salt water in their veins and know their seas and coastal waters intimately. In the 1980s the Australian Museum commissioned a working dug-out canoe from master craftsmen Jimmy Bungurru and Albert Wurridjal. They felled a large paperbark in a jungle outside of town and roughed out the shape there with axes and short handled adzes. The people of Arnhem Land have had increasing access to the steel tools essential for work of this sort for perhaps 400 years, the approximate date when it is believed that Macassan fishermen from Indonesia first started coming to Arnhem Land each wet season. They came to fish for trepang which they boiled and dried for the Chinese market. They came with canoes to use when gathering the sea slugs in shallow waters and often, fully laden at the end of the season, made presents of their canoes to the local people as rewards for assisting with their endeavours and to establish friendly relationships. The english colonists banned the trepangers in the first decade of the 20th century and so local people were now completely reliant on their own canoe-making skills, although no doubt many had begun making Australian canoes much earlier. Women weavers made sails from the fibres of the pandanus palm. In the Gulf of Carpentaria sails were of an Asian style, big rectangles extending both sides of the boat. In Central Arnhem Land some canoe makers began to follow European styles and Djabayena was more or less gaff rigged. Despite being mesh, the canoes could move at a good clip under sail. Notice the wake in the photo near the barge landing, when Jimmy and Albert needed only to sit back and steer. Canoes stayed fairly close inshore and used currents as well as wind. Canoes linked coastal communities and Djabayena Wubbunj demonstrated its sea worthiness with a trip from Maningrida along to coast to Warruwi, about 60km away before being loaded on a barge to eventual end up in Sydney. Leading the women weavers is Daisy Wurridjal, but I can’t recall the names of the other women. Aluminium dinghies have now replaced the dug-outs for hunting for turtle and dugong and for travelling along the coast. In the photo showing Albert standing in the prow he’s loaded for turtle with a detachable style harpoon fitted into the end of a long shaft and attached to a rope, hand-made from hibiscus fibre. The style was for the hunter to leap into the air to drive the harpoon deep and firmly into the turtle shell. After clambering back on board the turtle would be brought on board after it had tired. A tug of war would have resulted in the harpoon pulling out.

The last known Thylacine died in Beaumaris Zoo Tasmania on 7 September 1936. It is believed that it became extinct much earlier on the mainland and its extinction has been linked with the arrival of placental dogs (Canis lupus dingo) on the Australian continent about 5000 years ago. Wiki says intensive hunting encouraged by bounties is generally blamed for its extinction in Tasmania, but other contributing factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs to Tasmania and human encroachment into its habitat.
In Arnhem Land the Thylacine is gone, but not forgotten. There are countless rock art images of the Thylacine in the rock shelters of Western Arnhem Land and it still has a name in the Bininj Kunwok dialects (including Kundedjnyenghmi). It is known as Djarnkerrk (or Djankerr) and now has a mythic role as the travelling companion of Ngalyod, the great creator rainbow serpent being.
We have no way of knowing when this life-sized rock art image of Djarnkerrk from the Liverpool River was painted but the doyen of Arnhem Land rock art, George Chaloupka, exclaimed in awe when he first saw this image “I have seen many, and this is the best”.
Another eminence, also deceased, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, recalls that as a child he gave his personal companion and hunting dog the name Djarnkerrk.


This Santa doesn’t dispense expensive presents but he does bring good cheer to all who know him. My friend Nigel Gellar (see post from last week) dispels several myths about Santa, one being that Santa lives at the North Pole. I’ll let you guess the other. Thanks Nigel, for letting me use your photo to wish the best for the coming festive season to all who see this post.