It was a hot November day as we rumbled around a corner on the Cape York Development road on a freshwater fish researching trip. Cape York is the northernmost tip of continental Australia. All part of the state of Queensland, it is largely remote and undeveloped – save for a few small communities and the town of Weipa on its western coast. Weipa was our destination, though driving past the turnoff to the tiny seaside town of Portland Roads via the Iron Range was taunting me, especially considering the good state of the dirt roads at the time. I just had to go there.
The Iron Range was a US/Australian military stronghold in northern Australia during WWII, though these days it is a region that is out of the way of most travellers. The human population resides in two towns: Portland Roads and Lockhart River, both separated by about 30km of dirt road that winds through a small section of the rainforest.
It was the rainforest that really drew my attention. Far more like the forests of New Guinea than the rest of northern Australia, it is home to several unique species of plant and animal found nowhere else- pretty much the rest of them are otherwise only found in nearby New Guinea. The turnoff was soon lost in the dust of the rear vision mirror, but my plans were just forming.
When we returned to Cairns, I called up Phil Lewis to see what he thought. The original plan we hatched was to fly into Weipa and drive the two and a half hours in a hire car to Lockhart River. Rain seemed unlikely, so the five river crossings should have been pretty easy. I looked into flights direct to Lockhart, and for $750 return we could fly in via small aircraft if the weather got too bad.
As unlikely as it was, a massive rain depression formed and threatened to drown the Cape, so as quickly as I could, I booked us return flights with Skytrans. As for a car, I stumbled upon Lockhart River Car Hire. Paul, the owner was hard to reach but the price of $128/day for a car was pretty unbeatable. With the car finally secured, it was time to say goodbye to my ever tolerant partner Linda and collect Phil at Cairns.
The rain depression was a bit troublesome – planes were going to be grounded on the 24th of December- our flying day as for the next few days it would be too risky to attempt landing. Skytrans called me to say that we would have to fly on the 23rd or else not at all.
So Phil and I packed our bags early and headed for the airport. Thunderclouds loomed in the distance as we took off in a small plane and headed north. Being a small regional carrier, we had to stop at the community of Coen to collect and drop off some passengers (rather like a flying community bus) before passing over the Macillwraith Range (the southern part of the Iron Range type rainforest). The rainforest covered hills were marked by snaking creeks and rivers. A waterfall complete with a large plunge pool slid by below us. The air was obviously humid from the beginning of the rains as steam lifted off the slopes and condensed in clouds.
Soon enough we started to descend. Rainforest gave way to larger rivers and swamps lined in Nypa palms. The rainforest was clearly defined around the edges; it did not fade into the surrounding savannah and heathland but one habitat abruptly became another as if cut out by jagged scissors.
Soon we were walking across the tarmac to the terminal – a wooden shack. That was it – a hut with a small baggage room and a waiting area. It was old, and had been through many re-paintings over the years. It felt like we had left Australia and were somewhere in New Guinea or Melanesia. Not knowing what we were expected to do, we waited around outside and soon enough a grey headed man in a Hilux ute (pickup truck) stopped in front of us with all of the luggage sitting on the tray. It seemed this was the baggage carousel. He stepped out and introduced himself to us as “Nev”.
“So… You fellas are the birdos that Paul has been waitin’ for?”
“Birdos?” I replied “Nah, we’re here to look for reptiles and yeah, we were hiring a car off Paul.”
“Righto. Paul sent a fella down yest’day lookin for ya. He was ‘ere for ages but since ya didn’t show, he left the car ‘ere just in case.”
“I emailed ‘im to let ‘im know the flights ‘ad changed and I had never booked one for yesterday.” I replied.
“It’s all good, Paul’s an easy goin’ bloke. It’ll be right. Anyway, if you’re interested how ’bout you just take the car – it’s over there (pointing to a Hilux ute in the carpark) an the keys are in it and it’s ready ta go. I’ll see if Les can take ya out ta meet Steve. He lives in an old abattoir. One of those feel good community projects that never took off, ya know. Anyway he’s as mad as a cut snake. We all call ‘im Snakeman round ‘ere. Good bloke though, knows ‘is stuff. Once ya get ‘im goin’, ya won’t stop ‘im. Anyways, where’s Les?
Nev called to a young, brown, tall and thin man with a shock of black curly hair grown out to an Afro on his head. He would have been in his very early twenties. He was working at the airport, ferrying things back and forth. He stopped what he was doing and walked over. Phil immediately noticed Les was wearing two vastly different shoes, in colour, size and style. One was a white sneaker and it was about three sizes bigger than the other purple one on the other foot. He grinned and shook our hands. Like Nev, he was instantly likeable and very welcoming.
“So Lesley…” began Nev “When ya knock off, you wanna take these fellas out to Steve’s an’ say G’day? When can ya finish?”
“I reckon I could go ’bout now, it’s almost knock off time” replied Les. So he pushed the load on the trolley he was attending into a room and walked over. He stepped into his car and called out to us: “The road is a bit wet, just take it easy and you’ll be right. I can pull ya out if ya get stuck.”
So I picked up the keys from the driver’s seat of our car, fired it up and followed; the gear banging around on the open tray. It didn’t take long and we were on a muddy gravel road, rocking from side to side. The puddles were deep but we managed to scrape and slide through without any real problems. Soon we were at the top of a small rise. A man in his early forties emerged from the run-down and disused abattoir, slightly confused it seemed. Les introduced us and he walked over, shook our hands and showed us around.
Steve was cautious at first, but a genuinely decent guy. He had turned this already ideal reptile habitat into a perfect habitat with sheets of iron laid around thoughtfully, old tyres and fallen timber. It didn’t take us long to find some Nactus geckoes under a sheet; black with small white flecks and clawed, padless toes. Apparently taipans (Australia’s most feared snakes) are often found under the sheets too. Steve loved that fact, and to him it was a sign that he was doing the right thing. But time was short, Phil managed to find a little spotted python (Antaresia maculosa) which was a great start.
“So, where you stayin’ ta-nite?” asked Steve.
“Dunno, I s’pose we’re going to the national park and camp” I replied.
“Nah, stuff that. Just stay at Paul’s place. He won’t be home for a day or so, ‘sides, he won’t mind anyway.”
“Sure?” said Phil.
“Yeah, for sure. He’s cool, I’ll take ya there.”
“Just another thing…” I added “Paul doesn’t even know we’re here, and we didn’t pay him anything or sign any forms for the car, what do we do?”
“Don’ worry! Paul will sort it out with ya later on. He’s easy going as. Anyway, let’s go.” He turned to Les, “I’ll catch ya later Les.”
Les waved and left ahead of us while Steve drove a larger four wheel drive and we followed. We arrived at a house just out of town with a very large shed. Cars were parked all around it. A house was in the middle of the cleared block of land. Steve led us into the shed and told us we could set up anywhere. He pointed to a series of pictures printed and stuck to a wall. There was a collection of snakes including the brown headed snake (Furina tristis), the coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), whip snakes (Demansia vestigiata) and the snake we had come to see, the green python (Morelia viridis).
“The local mob ‘ere call ‘em the glow snake” mentioned Steve, pointing at a picture of one wrapped around a tree branch “They reckon they glow when they see ‘em in the headlights on the road at night. Bright green so they stand out like dog’s balls!”
“You see many?” asked Phil.
“Yeah mate, whenever I go out pretty much, though some nights I might see a dozen, others I see only one or none. See the young one there? [pointing to a bright yellow one in a picture] Rare as rockin’ horse shit. I seen only two the whole time I’ve been ‘ere. You gotta be lucky for them little ones.”
“You go far for them?” Phil replied.
“Don’ ‘ave to. We find ‘em right across the road in that there bit of forest. Crossing the roads from time to time. Seen a big old dead one a little while back. Some prick ‘ad run over it, poor bugger. Mostly ya see the big scrub pythons, but big uns are getting’ rarer these days. Lots get run over ’cause they are too big to drive round. Take up the entire road! Lots of little ones round three metres or so gettin’ ’bout. Anyway, set up an’ I’ll catch ya in the morn’.”
We felt weird about just setting up in the shed of a guy who we had rented a car from, not paid, never met and who didn’t even know we had arrived – and was not home. But the tent was up in no time and the mosquitoes arrived in earnest, bouncing off the mesh walls.
There was herping to be done. We had come all this way and we were not going to waste a night in the one rainforest I wanted to see the most. Phil was itching to see Australia’s only “true frog”, the wood frog (Hylarana daemeli). This species had eluded us on the last trip to Cairns. Apparently super abundant we had not seen even one. In the days leading up to Phil arriving, I had found plenty of them in the rainforest, and I had shown Phil one beside a stream one night but it was not the full experience. I wanted to see the fringed or growling tree frog (Litoria eucnemis) which is a species otherwise known from New Guinea.
We had only driven a short distance when I heard the loud, distinctive calls of wood frogs. It is hard to describe, but imagine rubbing a finger on a balloon with one long note and several shorter, lower pitched notes following. They also squeak and chirp, especially while males wrestle. They were all over the drain under the road and in the pools near it. The thing I noticed was the size of them. Those I had seen near Townsville and around Cairns were small in comparison, only around six centimetres. These were very large, even the males were formidable at ten centimetres or so while the females nearby were bigger still. As the males croaked, their vocal sacs either side of the mouth swelled. This sets them apart from all other Australian frogs. As the only member of the Ranidae family that includes the “typical” frogs from around the world to be found in Australia, they are somewhat of a novelty. Phil was ecstatic. A horrible smell filled our nostrils. I thought it might be a dead body, Phil remarked soberly that with the amount of exploring we do that it is “only a matter of time”. We found the culprit. A dead cane toad was covered in black beetles, some were under the skin making it writhe around. Phil was fascinated, I was happy to back away.
As we drove through the forest scanning for snakes, we noticed the frogs were everywhere. But not many species. The familiar frogs of the Wet Tropics nearby to the south were largely missing. Instead, a small number of species filled many niches. On the low branches were green tree frogs (Litoria caerulea) and white lipped tree frogs (Litoria infrafrenata), obviously looking to spear tackle any small insects, frogs, lizards or snakes. Both of these species are massive, the white lipped is the largest tree frog of all, at 150mm snout to vent. The green is only slightly smaller but has a garbage-guts reputation and will try and eat almost anything it can, including said snakes. On the higher branches we saw dainty green tree frogs (Litoria gracilenta), a smaller species with a granular green back, yellow “eyebrows” and vivid orange eyes and legs. The thighs are bright purple or blue. Wood frogs made up the bulk on the ground, as did introduced cane toads. Occasionally we saw marbled marsh frogs (Limnodynastes convexiusculus) and ornate burrowing frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum) but otherwise nothing else in the way of frogs. It should be noted that the only two species from that list that are normally in rainforest are the white lipped tree frog and the wood frog. The other species are normally in other, drier habitats. We thought about the massive abundance of so few frog species and determined that it was likely that the larger size of the wood frogs meant less competition. The normal competitors from further south like barred frogs (Mixophyes) and Jungguy frogs (Litoria jungguy) were absent and not to mention, far fewer lizards.
The frog I wanted to see came later. We drove past a culvert that drained a swampy part of the forest and was surrounded in a low, broad leaved bamboo. I glimpsed a brown frog on a bamboo branch and slammed on the brakes. It was a growling tree frog, and I couldn’t get near it before it hopped away into the dense bamboo. We stopped and listened. I could hear low, constant growling from a short distance into the swamp. We headed in and found dozens of growling tree frogs calling. A beautiful frog, they have green around the eyes, a light brown body with frilled edges to the legs. A prominent soft spur is on each heel. We spent an hour or so photographing and recording these gorgeous little frogs. I couldn’t help but notice that they were nearly identical to the tapping green eyed frog (Litoria serrata) from the Cairns region. The call and the heel spur are the only diagnostic features. Still, this was my goal in terms of frogs fulfilled.
The other frog I had really wanted to photograph was a species of rocket frog, known as the bridled frog (Litoria nigrofrenata). We found them without any trouble along the roadsides in the heathland beyond the rainforest. Males were gathered up around puddles calling loudly and were easily found by their eye shine. I must admit, though I really wanted to find this species it was a let down when we did. They are so similar to a related species in the Darwin region, it felt as though I hadn’t ticked off a new species. But in reality, I had.
We patrolled the road, and saw a red 4WD parked with its headlights on. It was unregistered and had no license plate. Phil is a fan of Wolf Creek, and is, to put it bluntly “wary” of strangers in the bush. It was an indigenous family, and I slowed down and leaned out the window, said “hello” and kept driving. My plan was to turn around and come back and ask if everything was OK. We did, and I asked Phil what the bet was they had run out of fuel. We chuckled and pulled over.
I called out “Hey bud, everything OK?”
The Indigenous man answered: “We got a problem with our fuel…”
“You got any fuel?” I asked.
“No.” He seemed let down “We run out.”
“Told you so…” I whispered to Phil.
“Look buddy, we got nothing to tow you with, and we got no can of fuel, so maybe we can drive you to town.” I told him.
He was relieved, so he called to the others in the car to jump on the back. The kids, as if expecting this all along had blankets and mattresses ready and made beds on the tray. There was about eight of them. Their mother and an aunty also joined them in the back while the man climbed on last and stood up, leaning on the roll bar on the roof. Hoping no police were on the roads (unlikely) we continued to look for snakes on and drove slowly towards town. Arriving half an hour later, they disembarked and walked into their house with only a quick thanks and goodbye. It was now well into the morning hours so we headed for bed in Paul’s workshop.