Kimberley Wildlife 2021 – The Mitchell Plateau and Kununurra

In the age of covid it’s wise to have a plan B. When a trip to Outback Queensland became another trip on hold, this time as the delta variant took hold across Australia‘s Eastern States, I put plan B into action.

The plan B was a return to the Kimberley, a slightly mad goal for a 2 week break, but during the 2020 Kimberley trip access to the remote Mitchell Plateau was restricted, and I longed to return to that most wild of places…..

See here for the 2020 Kimberley trip to sites on the Western Gibb River Road, when to the Mitchell Plateau was off limits.

Kimberley Wildlife 2020 – Part 1 of 4 – Heading North – Rothschild Rock Wallaby.

Kimberley Wildlife 2020 – Part 2 of 4 – Windjana Gorge – Freshwater Crocodile.

Kimberley Wildlife 2020 – Part 3 of 4 – Mount Hart Station – Northern Quoll.

Kimberley Wildlife 2020 – Part 4 of 4 – Bell Gorge – Olive Python.

I left Perth on a cold and wet Friday afternoon in August, driving North for five hours before overnighting at Payne’s Find.

Saturday, I drove all day through the Mid West and into the Pilbara, where at least it was warmer sleeping by the side of the highway at the De Grey River Rest Stop.

Finally on Sunday afternoon, after 32 driving hours I rolled into Windjana Gorge on the Gibb River Road.

Windjana Gorge.

As I set up in the campground there was a commotion in the nearby undergrowth. Investigating, I found a bower constructed by a Great Bowerbird, the bird was nearby hissing and scolding as it gathered material to add to the artwork in the afternoon heat.

The Great Bowerbird is the largest of Australia’s 10 bowerbirds, and only one of two species found in Western Australia.

Great Bowerbird.

Mitchell Plateau

Late afternoon I walked into Windjana Gorge, and found water levels considerably higher than during previous visits, indicative a good wet season. Unfortunately that same good wet season had aided the ever Westward march of the Cane Toad, and signage on the approach to the gorge advised of the recent arrival of the Cane Toad at Windjana.

Windjana Gorge.

Mitchell Plateau

Late afternoon is usually a good time for Short-eared Rock Wallabies at Windjana, but I didn’t see any of these shy wallabies, probably because of the disturbance resulting from high visitor numbers. Agile Wallabies were however common back at the campgrounds late afternoon.

As darkness fell an ominous trilling eminated from the nearby bush, any doubts the Cane Toad had arrived at Windjana quickly dissipated.

I was exhausted after the long drive, so that evening I elected for an easy spotlight of the nearby 1.4km Savannah Walk Loop Trail.

It was a moonless night as I set off through the grassland, the thump thump of wallabies fleeing for cover the only sound on the hot, still evening. Part way along the trail is a jumble of fallen boulders. I had previously explored this series of caves finding it a haven for reptiles and tonight didn’t disappoint.

The first reptile I came across was a Northern Knob-tailed Gecko, and I highly suspect from the placement of two ticks on the beak of the gecko, the same animal I had encountered in this very cave 12 months previously. It was like meeting and old friend! The intricately patterned eyes of all geckoes are a magnificent sight to behold.

Northern Knob-tailed Gecko with red tick on beak.

Mitchell Plateau

This was not the only reptile encountered amongst the boulders and caves. In a cleft in the roof was a Northern Spotted Rock Dtella. The specialised toe-pads of the dtellas make them exceptional climbers on the rocks and trees they inhabit.

Northern Spotted Rock Dtella.

Mitchell Plateau

The last reptile I encountered was an extremely large, and rather venomous, King Brown or Mulga Snake crossing the trail. I was glad I had elected to spotlight instead of using the thermal imager. In fact despite bringing the imager on the trip I decided against it’s use. The risk of snakebite in the remote Kimberley was too real.

This beautifully patterned snake was no doubt on the hunt, though whether for a meal or a mate I was unsure. Despite looking fearsome, King Browns are far from aggressive, and after initially freezing in the spotlight it slithered off peacefully into the bush.

King Brown Snake.

Mitchell Plateau

During the evenings spotlight there were high numbers of insects, another indicator of a previously productive wet season. When an insect kamikazied my eyeball, I could only hope it wouldn’t become conjunctivitis.

I woke in the night and my eye was stuck together, it was conjunctivitis, shit…….

The following morning as I lay in my tent wrapped in darkness and still frazzled from the immense drive, and now with conjuctivitis, I was starting to think this trip was a mistake, that was until I heard the pulsating dawn chorus.

To hear a dawn chorus at Windjana you would be forgiven for thinking you are deep in a Southeast Asian Rainforest. The cackles, hoots, screeches, whistles, drumming and trills of the multitude of bird species is stupendous. It was amazing to be back in the Kimberley, wow!

I packed up the tent and made the 280 return drive to Derby, the nearest town, to purchase chloramphenicol to treat the raging bacterial infection in the mucous membrane of my eye.

If there was one positive from this is was that the Gibb River Road has now been almost entirely sealed (except 9km) between Derby and the Windjana Gorge turnoff.

East of Windjana Gorge turnoff I dropped my tyre pressures to 26psi, to accomodate the corrugations, and continued towards the the ultimate destination, the Mitchell Plateau.

It was another long day of travel, although driving through the spectacular Kimberley is never a chore. The only wildlife I encountered during the day was a Dingo sauntering across the road East of Barnett River Roadhouse.

I overnighted at the busy Drysdale River Station, before continuing further North, early the following morning. A Dingo had sadly become the victim of vehicle strike on the Kalumburu Road.

The condition of the Kalumburu Road North of Drysdale River Station was good having been recently graded. After 90 minutes of driving, I reached the Port Warrender Road, the gateway to the Mitchell Plateau.

Mitchell Plateau (Ngauwudu.)

The Mitchell Plateau is a 220 square km, elevated laterite-capped plain 350m above sea level, a very unique area situated in an area of high Summer rainfall in the Northwest Kimberley. The conspicuous Palm Forests (Livistonia eastonii) of the plateau are a result of the hot wet climate and give the Mitchell Plateau an otherworldly feel.

Port Warrender Road

Time was on my side for once this morning after the early start from Drysdale River Station, so after crossing the low water levels at the King Edward River Crossing, I explored the amazing indigenous rock art sites at Munurru, finding Northern Cave Bats plentiful in the overhangs and caves of the area.

Northern Cave Bat.

Mitchell Plateau

The Port Warrender Road is best described as atrocious. During my short time on the Mitchell Plateau I heard of two cars receiving suspension damage. Car wrecks shattered by the corrugations litter the road.

Car Wreck – Port Warrender Road.

Mitchell Plateau

The journey to the campgound however, is an amazing drive, corrugated as it may be. To drive through the Livistonia Palm Forests is like nothing else in Western Australia.

Livistonia Palm Forests on the Port Warrender Road.

Mitchell Plateau

After a bumpy but beautiful 88km drive I arrived at the Mitchell River NP Campground. Temperatures were hot as I set up camp, before resting for the remainder of the afternoon out of the worst of the tropical sun.

Camp fees at Mitchell Falls Campground are a mere $11. Not bad to camp in one of the most beautiful parts of Australia. There are however no showers, but bathing in nearby Mertens Creek (detergent free,) is always an absolute pleasure.

Mitchell Falls (Punamii-unpuu.)

I made the pilgrimage to Mitchell Falls twice during the five days on the Plateau. This four-tiered 260 foot waterfall can best be described as immense. Such is the remoteness of Mitchell Falls that on the second visit I had it completely to myself.

See here for the previous visit to Mitchell Falls in 2018….

Kimberley Adventures to Bachsten Creek and the Mitchell Plateau.

Mitchell Falls.

Mitchell Plateau

Diurnal Wildlife of the Mitchell Plateau

Before listing wildlife encounters, I will describe the part of the Mitchell Falls Track walked/spotlighted, to give the reader specifically interested in wildlife watching in the area the best idea of where species were found. All wildlife watching occurred between the campground and the top of Big Mertens Falls.

Leaving the campground, the track initially crosses Mertens Creek, then traverses sandstone. On the approach to Little Mertens Falls there is a strip on riverine forest on the left of the track, and a sandstone plateau on the right.

After Little Mertens Falls the track passes though savannah woodland with a grass understory, before climbing over sandstone acacia. The track then descends into a second strip of riparian rainforest for about 200m. This was the area I spent the most time walking transects when spotlighting.

Immediately past the rainforest is a fabulous rock art site on the far side of the creek, the track then crosses further sandstone to the top of Big Mertens Falls. I estimate the total length of the track from the campgound to this point to be two kilometres.

Wildlife seen in daytime over the five days included a stunning Kimberley Rock Monitor (Varanus glauerti.) Monjons early morning at Little Mertens Falls, and late afternoon at the sandstone escapment adjacent to the second strip of rainforest. Both Antelopine Wallaroos and a Dingo seen in the vicinity of Little Mertens Falls early morning were visiting the creek to drink.

The best daytime sighting of all was a Mertens Water Monitor. The lizard was warming on a sun-heated rock after a spot of fishing in the cool creek, displaying the amazing long rudder-like tail perfect for swimming.

An exquisitely patterned Mertens Water Monitor.

Mitchell Plateau

Numbers of Mertens Water Monitors have plummeted on the Mitchell Plateau as well as at other sites in the Kimberley with the arrival of the Cane Toad in the 2019/2020 wet season. Therefore this large Mertens was obviously not consuming the poisonous toads. There is hope!

The Mertens had competition for the fish from a Cormorant, and it was incredibly humorous to observe these two fishermen squabble like petulant children over fishing rights in the creek.

Cormorant.

Mitchell Plateau

In the nearby rainforest on dusk, a bird associated with riverine forest in the Northern Kimberley perched on overhead branch, an attractive Buff-sided Robin. Most sections of monsoonal forest, no matter how small, will have a pair of these beautiful birds resident.

Buff-sided Robin.

Mitchell Plateau

Late afternoon I would sit by Mertens Creek and watch the sandstone escarpment for Monjon activity, when the tranquility would be broken by the whir of White-quilled Rock-pigeon wings as these plump birds returned to rock ledges to roost.

White-quilled Rock-pigeon.

Mitchell Plateau

The days were just so darn hot, but fortunately the cool shady rainforest at the base of Little Mertens Falls is the perfect place to escape the heat. Most afternoons I snoozed and read in the tranquility of this beautiful location surrounded by intriguing rock art, and calmed by the sound of three small rivulets cascading over the sandstone precipice. The swimming wasn’t bad either!

Rainforest at the base of Little Mertens Falls.

Mitchell Plateau

Nocturnal Wildlife of the Mitchell Plateau.

The Australian bush comes alive at night and the Mitchell Plateau is no exception. My arrival on the Mitchell Plateau coincided with moonless nights when the activity of small mammals increases.

Monjons were seen every night, with four of these tiny wallabies in close proximity at the top of Little Mertens Falls on the first night. The other area particularly productive for this species was the sandstone escarpment, adjacent to and just past, the second strip of rainforest, with one Monjon seen at the top of Big Mertens Falls.

The adult wallabies were hard to pin down under the spotlight but an adorable juvenile Monjon was rather more confiding as it foraged amongst the leaflitter on top of Little Mertens Falls. To give an idea of size, I could have picked up this wallaby in the palm of one hand! Too cute!

Juvenile Monjon.

Mitchell Plateau

The Savannah Woodland and Sandstone Acacia linking Little Mertens Falls with the second section of Rainforest held different species. This habitat had been scorched by fire at the time of my last visit in 2018 but now there was a thick understory of vegetation. I disturbed Antelopine Wallaroos browsing here on two of the four nights.

Ningbing False Antechinus were another species seen in this habitat. During both encounters these carnivorous marsupials proved rather confiding under the spotlight.

This first night spotlighting was the most humid of the entire trip, with humidity bringing out the reptiles I wasn’t surprised to encounter a Banded Rock Python (Antaresia childreni.) This tiny python froze under the spotlight before disappearing into the thick grass.

Banded Rock Python.

Mitchell Plateau

The second stretch of Rainforest was where I spent the most time spotlighting, and the find of the trip was a Rock Ringtail Possum. The first night I saw this species it froze on a branch high above the path allowing clear views, the second viewing was among the sandstone to the right of the path. It briefly climbed a small tree before disappearing into the sandstone.

Both Kimberley Rock Rats and Common Rock Rats were plentiful in the crevices of the sandstone adjacent to the Rainforest, and to see the two species in close proximity underscored the differences, the most obvious of which is the size, (The Kimberley Rock Rats are considerably larger rodents.). The often broken tails of the Kimberley Rock Rats was another clear giveaway.

Common Rock Rat.

Mitchell Plateau

Frogs were of course common in the Rainforest Habitat and on the rocks along the creeks. I had two Freshwater Crocodile sightings, and incredibly a Rakali scampering over the rocks at the top of Big Mertens Falls.

At first, from a distance I thought the Rakali was a Northern Brown Bandicoot, but on approach the white-tipped tail clearly identified the Rakali. Of all the places I thought I would see my first Western Australian Rakali, 330m above sea level scampering across sandstone was something I never imagined. Nature never fails to surprise.

Nocturnal birds seen on the nightly excursions were Tawny Frogmouths and a Boobook Owl.

The unsung heroes of the Kimberley are the stars, the cosmic chandelier. My knowledge of the night skies is indeed basic but I do recognise a few constellations. The distinctly reddish star of Antares guided my eye to the constellation of Scorpio, hanging low in the Western sky as I started out for the evening spotlight.

Conversely, it was Orion the Hunter that watched over from the Eastern night sky as I relieved my taut 45 year old bladder outside the tent, in the early hours of the morning.

It had been great to spend four nights on the Mitchell Plateau and the place was as incredible as I had remembered it, so it was with sadness that I packed the tent and returned along the Port Warrender Road to Munurru Campgounds at the intersection of the Port Warrender and Kalumburu Roads. I was overnighting here to break the long journey to Kununurra.

Munurru (King Edward River) Campground.

Once the tent was set up I made the short walk to the King Edward River for a swim, on what was another hot day. A small waterfall spilled into a lovely swimming hole with my swimming companion a Freshwater Crocodile.

Munurru Falls.

Mitchell Plateau

I was delighted an indigenous corroboree was taking place that very night at the campground, and so under the cosmic chandelier I was treated to an unforgettable night of singing and dance.

The following morning an indigenous ranger guided a tour at one of the two impressive rock art sites near Munurru Campgound. I had visited this site previously but the indigenous knowledge transformed the experience. (This photo of this rock art is published with the permission of the guide.)

The Wandjina deities have no need for mouths as they send their thoughts.

Wandjina Deities.

Today was a long drive from Munurru Campgrounds back down the Kalumburu Road and East along the Gibb River Road to Kununurra. A pair of beautiful Wedge-tailed Eagles were disturbed off a wallaroo carcass on the approach to Drysdale River Station. The Eastern Gibb was rougher than I had remembered but the Cockburn Range was spectacular, glowing orange in late afternoon sunlight.

Cockburn Range bathed in late afternoon sunlight.

Mitchell Plateau

The Grotto

The Grotto is (almost) en-route to Kununurra, situated 15 kilometres North of the Gibb River Road turnoff, and only 2 kilometres from the highway. This local landmark is a gorge with a sheer 120 metre cliff face and 140 steps leading down to a deep swimming hole. Not only would a swim be the perfect end to a long dusty day of driving, but I heard rumours of Short-eared Rock Wallabies at this site.

Descending the stone steps to the depths below, I noticed perfect rock wallaby habitat on the right hand side, worth investigating post swim.

The water was beautifully crisp with the added bonus of a rope swing. Suitably refreshed I made the return journey up the steps, making use of a stone ledge half way up to sit quietly and scan a boulder scree for rock wallabies.

Rock wallabies are well camoflagued when motionless, but within a few minutes I had located one on a boulder. This beautiful Short-eared Rock Wallaby was a mum, and while she seemed oblivious to my presence the joey was definitely onto me.

Short-eared Rock Wallaby with Joey.

Mitchell Plateau

As the sun set and daylight faded, I covered the final 65 kilometres to the town of Kununurra.

The following day my partner Lorenz flew in from Perth and we checked into the atmospheric Kimberley Grande Hotel. The soft bed was magic after many nights on the hard ground.

A lazy pool day added to the wildlife encounters, with plenty of Crimson Finches feeding on the grass seed and flitting around the lush tropical gardens of the resort. Within Western Australia Crimson Finches are endemic to the Kimberley, a sign you are in the true North of the state.

Crimson Finch.

Mitchell Plateau

Gilbert’s Water Dragons were also common soaking up the suns rays around the hotel grounds, with the head bobbing and handwaving typical to this species, this gives rise to it’s vernacular name of Ta Ta Lizard.

Gilbert’s Water Dragon.

Mitchell Plateau

Five Rivers Lookout – Wyndham.

The following afternoon we made the 100km drive as far North as one could go, to the town of Wyndham. High above Wyndham in the Bastion Range is a viewpoint from which five Kimberley rivers (Pentecost, King, Durack, Forrest and Ord,) can be seen draining into Cambridge Gulf.

This lookout is especially renowned as a sunset lookout, but sunset views were the last thing on my mind on arrival because after exiting the car I noticed, hiding from the hot sun in the shade of a bush, a Short-eared Rock Wallaby.

Peering over the lookout, I could see a rocky scree, perfect habitat for Rock Wallabies. When I scrambled down and sat quietly, I had close encounters with four or five Rock Wallabies.

Short-eared Rock Wallaby.

Mitchell Plateau

It was a magical experience sitting high above the floodplain at the very top of Western Australia, watching an amazing Kimberley sunset, surrounded by Rock Wallabies, the setting sun illuminating their pelage with oranges and pinks.

Short-eared Rock Wallaby.

Mitchell Plateau

Once the sun had set, I clamboured back up the cliff face to rejoin a worried Lorenz, disturbing a juvenile Rock Wallaby that froze on a boulder for great views.

Juvenile Short-eared Rock Wallaby.

Mitchell Plateau

I had previously taken the 3 hour sunset cruise on Lake Argyle, and there can be nothing more Aussie than a sunset beer in a lake with a catchment area the size of Switzerland containing 30,000 Freshwater Crocodiles.

There are two companies that run sunset cruises. The company below I have cruised with twice and can highly recommend:-

https://www.lakeargyle.com/

Conditions were amazing on day of our visit, with a glass-off on the lake, which made for awesome reflections. There is wildlife viewing on the cruise with all of sunbathing Freshwater Crocodiles, Fish Feeding and Euros on the islands in the lake.

Glass off – Lake Argyle.

Mitchell Plateau

It was great to jump in the water to cool off at sunset, then at dusk we were treated to a beautiful sunset afterglow on the glassy, calm waters.

A Hot, Still, Dusk on Lake Argyle.

Mitchell Plateau

Mirima National Park

Mirima National Park (often referred to as the mini Bungle Bungles,) is situated right next to Kununurra, indeed it is within walking distance. Every morning while Lorenz slept in, I made the short drive out to Mirima to observe plentiful dawn wildlife.

There are walking trails up into the range and Euros were fairly common within the park, seen on both the 2.2km return Gerliwany-gerring Banan Trail (where Agile Wallabies were also seen,) and the 500m return Demboong Banan Trail.

Euro, aka Common Wallaroo or Hill Kangaroos.

Mitchell Plateau

Birdlife was also great at Mirima and species seen included Pheasant Coucal, Great Bowerbird, White-quilled Rock Pigeon, Peaceful Doves and both Double-barred and Crimson Finches.

Colourful Rainbow Bee-eaters were around in good numbers and their burrows in the sandy terrain were easy to spot.

Rainbow Bee-eater.

Mitchell Plateau

Short-eared Rock Wallabies are known to inhabit Mirima National Park and on the last morning in Kununurra I found a colony of these little beauties very close to the town.

Short-eared Rock Wallabies.

Mitchell Plateau

Friday morning I was on the road before dawn for the 3200 kilometre return drive to Perth. Lorenz had sensibly decided to fly.

Friday night I overnighted at Fitzroy Crossing remembering the good numbers of Agile Wallabies at Fitzroy River Lodge from the 2018 trip. This night was my last in the Kimberley for now, and as I lay in the warm tent bathed in the light of a full moon and listening to a pair of Barking Owls calling nearby, I made sure I was in the moment, not knowing when I would next be in this spectacular part of Australia.

Agile Wallabies.

Mitchell Plateau

The following day, driving along the Great Northern Highway I noticed a Black-footed Rock Wallaby perched high on a cliff in the Erskine Range, with no time to explore, I vowed to return and make sure I have time to hang out with this Northern-most colony of these wallabies. A reason to return to the Kimberley! #QuollingAround

One thought on “Kimberley Wildlife 2021 – The Mitchell Plateau and Kununurra

  1. Excellent stuff again, Jimmy. Looks like Plan B was a success.
    Great the way you use the original name for places, where possible.
    Loved the “mini Bungles” when I was there in 2017, right next to our Caravan Park

    Like

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