In my last post I described the incredible geology of the Kimberley. This time around I want to focus on the creatures creeping along, and soaring above the landscape, and about the greenery thriving in the most unlikely places. A favorite of mine has to be the iconic boab trees. Leafless this time of year, the massive pot-bellied trunks appear stuck in the dry countryside like hulking organic Buddha statues. They are known as upside-down trees because the branches look likea bare root system reaching up to the sky much of the year. In fact, the tree’s anchor is a single taproot searching the dry soil for a deep water source. I have seen boab trees that would take at least 12 people to reach around the beer-belly of a trunk. Their closest relatives occur on Madagascar where there are six species and one variety more can be found throughout all of Africa. I might have to start a checklist and try to see all eightboab species around the world. It’s as good an excuse to travel as any!
A tough and wiry grass known as Spinifex carpets much of the Kimberley. The first couple of days here I walked across the stone country and my legs accumulated a fibrous, gummy coating from the grass and man, did that itch and burn after a freshwater shower in the evening. I learned pretty quickly not to shave my legs right before walking the narrow grass-lined tracks around here. As aggressive as I find the grass, it’s a wonderful haven for all kinds of insects and small lizards that can hide in the curly, matted, and well protected “forest” of reed-like grass blades. So far, I’ve encountered a highly poisonous brown snake, grasshoppers, spiders and tiny lizards living in the Spinifex. If I had time to sit and observe these small oases, I’m sure far more critters would reveal their hiding places.
Unlike the microcosm of animals hiding away in grassy clumps, termites in the Kimberley live right out in the open. Their massive mounds and towering teepees speckle the vast savannas like small-scale cities – which in fact, they basically are – being highly organized colonies with a queen laying thousands of eggs each day. The termites are white and related more closely to cockroaches than the ants they resemble. They thrive by breaking down cellulose in wood. By turning this otherwise overlooked resource into the protein in their bodies, they nourish a huge array of animals including echidnas, reptiles, birds and bandicoots.
While some reptiles enjoy snacking on tiny termites, others require a slightly larger meal. The Kimberley is renown for it’s healthy crocodile populations, both fresh and saltwater varieties. We come across them basking in the sunlight on just about every available muddy bank and tidal creek. I love watching their cat-like pupils slide behind thin-skinned nictitating membranes each time they blink. They truly embody the dinosaurs they are descended from – ancient predators instructed by instinct alone – they are the unpredictable, fear inducing kings and queens of their realm.
Leaving the terrestrial world far below, raptors of many shapes, colors and varieties pass overhead tracing the contours of the landscape with the single black dot of their shadow. The big, solitary birds of prey can be Wedge-tailed Eagles, White-bellied Sea Eagles, fish-eating Ospreys, or the stunning russet red Brahminy Kites. Flocking hawks are generally Black or Whistling Kites – slightly smaller in size and soaring up high with the air of a menacing biker gang on the wing – they circle local parks ready to snatch a tuna wrap right out of the hand of an unsuspecting picnicker. This actually happened to someone during lunch the other day. Watch out for ominous gangs of Kites if you ever visit the Kimberley!