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Big Springs Trip 17th -18th October

SKIPA trip 17-18th October 2009

If you were dropped, blindfolded, into the middle Big Springs then had to guess your location, the last place you’d think of is a searing hot mudflat, wedged between the Great Sandy Desert and the Timor Sea. This is the freshwater oasis of Big Springs on Meda Station, north east of Derby.

The spring is home to two types of possum and plenty of birds.  The Rose-crowned Fruit-dove feasts on the fruit of two types of fig—the banyan (Ficus virens) and the cluster fig (Ficus racemosa).  The sprawling canopies of white paperbark (Melaleuca leucadendra) and Terminalia microcarpa provide shelter to Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, Pheasant Coucals, Mistletoebirds, Purple Swamphens, Channel-billed Cuckoos and a multitude of honeyeaters.

Big Springs is Janet Oombagooma’s father-in-law’s country and the springs are her son Ashley’s wungkurru (conception site).  Janet and her family escorted the SKIPA crew and Tom Vigilante from the KLC, bagging a couple of fat bush turkeys (Australian Bustard) along the way.  On Sunday when our group trooped into the largest of the springs, they called out to their ancestors asking them to give us all safe and snake-free passage through.

Big Springs comprises a number of mound springs north-east of Derby, along the Gibb River Road.  Like islands, they appear as green spheres floating in the shimmering heat haze of the salt marsh.  The springs represent the might of the freshwater against the salt around it.

The treasure of the springs is its plant life.  The smaller springs only support one or two trees whereas the largest, about one kilometre long and 600 metres wide, is home to an impressive number of plant species.

Collared by tea-tree thickets and bullrushes it harbours substantial specimens of ficus, pandanus, towering paperbarks and ferns. The Terminalia have buttress-type roots to support its sprawling canopy.  “Old-growth” is the word that springs immediately to mind. Some of the banyan have girths you would expect to find in a rainforest. We spotted a mistletoe (Amyema sp) by the telltale orange petals scattered across the leaf litter. Climbing ferns (Stenochlaena sp.) and pockets of pandanus (Pandanus spiralis) weave their way through the thick upper canopy of the forest in search of sunlight.  Ferns (Acrostichum sp.) two meters tall occupy some of the lower storey along with trees such as swamp corkwood (Sesbania formosa), garj (Timonius timon) and tangled vine thickets.

The pirates in this treasure island are the cattle; unchecked by fences they plunder the earth, with their hooves ripping great, gaping holes through the springs.

The birds in Big Springs are responsible for the aerial acrobatics of banyan figs.  They eat the fruit and excrete the sticky seeds onto the branches of trees.  Eventually, the fig casts it roots downwards—we found a striking example growing ten metres up in the branches of a cajeput, its roots, like manila rope, anchoring it to the ground.

At times your footsteps through this landscape become muted.  The earth gives way to a matt of fibrous roots over water seepage areas.  Green ants infiltrate shirt collars and waistbands.  Crows caw-caw as they chase the Channel-bill Cuckoos away from their nests.  Every now and then, after scrambling through dense marshes and undergrowth, we would burst out into open meadows where the temperature was noticeably higher.

The SKIPA party navigated its way through seepage areas and ferny thickets.  We took cuttings and sifted through the rich humus beneath trees, collecting seed while trying to take in all the range of plant and animal life around us. Skirting, bridging and leaping over the wet areas, we eventually surrendered to the mud and waded through the swamps.  Then suddenly, we found ourselves squinting into the sun on the other side of the spring.

Our party had split into two; bird enthusiasts, Dave and Tom chose a quieter path.  In the paperbark thickets we split again—Beau and Doc took a shortcut back through the springs to the car while the rest of us, who’d had enough of the mud, skirted around the outside.  There were a few anxious moments as we were unsure of what the co-ordinates on the GPS signified, but this anxiety didn’t last long – after all there are worse places to be stranded.

Thanks to Janet Oombagooma, her grand-daughter Christobel, her daughter-in-law Lisa and her son, Ashley for allowing us to experience the beauty of Big Springs.

Article by Jacqui Wright


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