Night Drive – Alice Springs News

Emus and a roo carcass.


Travelling south, I leave Alice Springs before first light and I’m rewarded and indeed frustrated by a brilliant meteor plummeting to earth in the south west.

The heavenly body is primarily bright green with an orange tail and I fail to capture it even though the camera sits on the seat beside me ready for such moments.

Simultaneously braking, winding down the window, seeking a gap through the roadside trees and pointing the camera is futile, a second too late. I know this chance, the most impressive, brightest and closest I’ve ever seen will never come again.

Just after sunrise a carcass on the roadside, pulverised by the passage of vehicles, causes me to stop. Roadkill roos are often a signifier of low rainfall when hungry herbivores are attracted to the green flush produced by moisture runoff from the bitumen road.

This is an especially wet year and I’m puzzled by two carcasses so early on my journey, an exception to the established order of the season. The act of dragging the second carcass, a barely recognisable female and with no need to check the marsupial pouch for a miracle survivor, is sobering.

The plague of invasive buffel grass, an alien green verge, provokes in me a frenzy of pointless kicking to dislodge the healthiest specimen. According to the Vomit Colour Chart this new growth of buffel grass resembles undigested bile, although I’m forced to admit that some anglophiles might be stirred to song in celebration of green pastures a world away.

While the poor soils of the hyper arid country, the stony plains around Coober Pedy are effective in slowing the spread of buffel, there is another silver lining that deserves mention.

Feral camels have spread quickly through the sandplain and dune deserts of inland Australia but the gibber country seems to act as a disincentive to their south-westerly march and that’s a great benefit to plants such as quandongs that are so prolific in the Eromanga basin and palaeo drainage country.

Sadly the gibber landscapes transformed during wet seasons were a less effective barrier to the early invaders, rabbits, cats and foxes, that caused so much devastation during the early period of European colonisation.

Will we fail to act on the geographical advantages protecting the desert wonderlands around Bon Bon, Tarcoola and Kingoonya allowing camels to invade through the backdoor from Western Australia?

Roadkill: A spotted nightjar.

As the desert uplands fall away, the sky expands. I yawn for the hundredth time and look for a reason to stop. On my last excursion down the Stuart Highway I noticed several pairs of shoes and a random thong hanging from an isolated Gidgee that had provided me with a rest stop in the past.

Clearly the wannabe sculptors and doodlers found inspiration in one of the roadhouses that parades pub humour by hanging caps, bras or nickers from the rafters. A custom that is particularly sad when the appalling apparel covers craftsmanship in important heritage buildings.

Parking in the generous shade, I pulled out a knife kept handy for such occasions and removed the nonsensical detritus, puzzled by the fact that all three pairs of boots were until recently in good condition. This could only happen in the “civilised” world.

A large body of water catches my eye at Karinga Creek, fiery sand dune reflected on its mirrored surface and I’m hopelessly distracted for several hours variously flying the drone and exploring ephemeral channels on foot.

A vibrant flush of greens and yellows floating on water would soon replace the desiccated copper leaves of last summer’s nardoo pressed into dry cracking mud. To reach my destination at Coober Pedy, still three and a half hours away, I’m left with no alternative but to keep driving after sunset, albeit at reduced speed.

This rare inundation event would recharge aquifers, saturate parched subsoil and herald a great awakening of dormant life in desert land systems.

In time this once in a ten or fifty year event (depending whose hyperbole you follow) would give rise to a plague of rodents and locusts in its wake. Numbers of the introduced house mouse, Mus musculus, exploded rapidly and it would be another few months before populations of the endearing native hopping mouse, Tarkawarra also peaked wherever the highway intersected with sandplain and dune habitats.

Caught momentarily in the beam of my LED spotlights the small mice darted back and forth and I swerved to straddle rotund frogs and pale geckos being hunted by relatives of that feral cat, its green eye-shine watching me from the road side.

Crouching kangaroos are much more problematic and constant vigilance is required to distinguish individuals among the bushes, one that might be startled or dazzled by spotlights and make a poor decision to cross the road. Elongate snakes required more definitive braking and swerving but there was no saving the invertebrates.

A blizzard of insects struck the windscreen, the larger moths, grasshoppers and beetles collided with the ferocity of hail, the mosquitoes and termites with the gentle pitter patter of early rain; the brutal collective environmental impact of LED spotlights.

The carnage was extreme and there was nothing I could do but watch in mounting sadness as briefly illuminated shapes entered the spotlight zone, ethereal and angelic to splatter violently in front of my eyes, clinging to the windscreen for a microsecond before the onrush of wind swept myriad mangled forms into the dark.

A magnificent king cricket, pinned briefly to the window in a swirl of its own body juices vanished to be consumed by a crow in the following morning or possibly ignored by a corvid, already too fat to fly.

I try not to think about the mass of insects killed during my single night drive; numbers fluctuate and pulse, their identity and density an indication of the presence of unseen swamps nearby. A sudden increase in the density of termite alates provides compelling evidence that I was passing through a woodland of old growth mulga.

The prevalence of spotted night jars, swooping across the bonnet to catch that fat moth, oblivious to the peril of a fast moving metal object, force me to slow my speed yet further and apply the brakes with urgency.

With its trademark white epaulettes, another nightjar approaches from the gloom, pivoting left and right in a graceful zig zag movement, beak opening wide in the manner of an oceanic predator cutting a swathe through a cloud of krill. I flash the high beam on and off in an attempt to break the false moon spell that has gripped the incoming stream of insects and pursuing nightjar.

To my knowledge I’ve never killed one of these ethereal birds but I did come close when one was knocked senseless and pinned to the Hilux grill. Fortunately, the bird recovered quickly and enthusiastically accepted the hawkmoth carcass I offered, one it had briefly caught and regurgitated at the moment of impact.

Belly full it returned confidently into the night and the memory of its painterly plumage stayed with me for a long time and ensured that I braked harder in future. Years later I photographed a road kill nightjar, its head crushed by a hurtling metal object the night before but glorious wings and plumage still perfect.

Making a toilet stop served only to increase my sense of guilt as old familiars, rhinoceros beetles crash to and fro between the headlights and Yeperenye moths cartwheel and pirouette in an energy sapping flutter.

This is not a relaxing drive in the desert and I vow for the hundredth time to avoid night drives unless it’s at a very slow speed for the purpose of observing nocturnal wildlife, instead of beating them to death.

Next day I’ll check my phone and make a cursory search for any references to the massive meteor, surely some lucky photographer was at their tripod waiting for an Uluru sunrise and joyously vindicated for being up early? Nothing!

I disappear into the silence and cool of the dugout and fall into a pattern of writing essays punctuated by photographic forays into the outlying desert. On my return to Alice Springs a week later I leave before sunrise.

In daylight the murderous carnage of the night before is revealed in full graphic detail, of flayed and broken bodies and patches of bone and fur blended into the hot bitumen to become cellular smears of abstract design.

Catching the headlights, touching roadside memorials record the resting places of the vanquished, those who succumbed to sleep for a micro second on that sweeping bend, others who gambled with alcohol, speed or faulty tires and lost.

I couldn’t have predicted the French tourist, broken down. While cursing my luck and the fateful intersection of our itineraries, we clearly had to help. The clapped out 4X4 vehicle had a faulty injector so we sent him ahead and came behind as escort.

At the next stop we lifted the bonnet once more and confirmed the sound of escaping pressure was louder. Then we discovered a film of oil in the radiator header tank and our new friend announced grimly that he suffered from anxiety attacks! Towing his vehicle was a wiser plan and in that moment another unplanned night drive became necessary.

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