Western Australia

In July and August 2006, me (Ben Verboom) and my family (wife Jana, sons Lukas and Simon, daughter Nina) ventured down under to spend five weeks in Western Australia (WA), the largest, driest, and emptiest (as for humans) part of this continent. Since our summer is the Australian winter, conditions were relatively cool and dry compared to the rest of the year. Cool means day temperatures ranging from 15-20 °C in the Perth area to around 25-30 °C in the tropical north. Clouds, including a few drops of rain, were present on some days north of Perth, but for the rest of our stay sunny, clear skies were the rule.

Our rental 4WD Toyota Landcruiser brought us from Perth in the southwest to Broome and the Kimberley in the northwest. We then drove back to Perth for our return flight to Amsterdam. This was a family holiday, but since we are all highly nature-oriented, our aim was to see as many landscapes, flora and fauna, including reptiles and amphibians, as possible. This report highlights the most important areas visited, from south to north, and lists interesting species encountered. Given the enormous herpetological diversity in Australia, the number of species found is low due to the fact that many species are inactive in the ‘dry’. The wet season should be much better for watching herps, albeit less convenient for human travellers.

In general, the areas were visited were:

1. Shark Bay area

2. Ningaloo – Cape Range N.P.

3. Pilbara and Great Sandy Desert

4. Broome and Dampier Peninsula

5. West-Kimberley

1. Shark Bay area

A large part of WA is desert, and so is the area around Shark Bay. Reds and browns dominate the gentle hills and flat lands, that are covered by sparse vegetation of grasses and shrubs. There is just one paved road, reaching Denham, the only town here, and the tourist resort of Monkey Mia. Access to other parts of the area, including Francois Perron N.P., is via dirt roads, 4WD only. One of those sandy tracks leads to Big Lagoon, near the shore of a shallow bay.

On a late afternoon hike around the camping site we met a shingleback lizard, Tiliqua rugosa. The Shark Bay area is inhabited by the subspecies T. r. palarra. This large, slowly moving skink has an odd tail, the form of which resembles its head. Hence its other name, two-headed lizard. Shinglebacks have been found to be monogamous, and may form pairs for many years. Only a few hundred metres from the campgound we found smooth knob-tailed gecko, Nephrurus levis occidentalis. This little chap has an even stranger tail and is beautifully coloured. When my sons found it, it barked to them with its head popping out of the sand. It was just emerging from its underground hiding place to spend the dark hours aboveground, hunting for insects, spiders and small geckos. Shark Bay was probably our best chance to find a thorny devil, Moloch horridus, one of the most extraordinary of all lizards. Although it was still winter, the species had already been reported in the area. Unfortunately we missed it.

A shingleback lizard in Big Lagoon, Francois Perron N.P.
… also called two-headed lizard. You can see why.
A smooth knob-tailed lizard (Nephrurus levis occidentalis) is emerging from its underground hiding place, where it has spent the day. When my sons discovered this animal, it barked to them with its head just popping out of the sand.
“Now first get myself a decent meal.”
One of the avian beauties of the Shark Bay area, the splendid fairy-wren.

2. Ningaloo – Cape Range N.P.

Heading north, the Tropic of Capricorn is crossed just south of Cape Range N.P., close to the city of Exmouth. This park is bordered by the Ningaloo Reef, the southernmost and most extensive tropical reef system of Australia’s westcoast. Snorkelling between the many colourful fishes and corals was magnificent. Besides, we all swam for a while with a pretty large (unidentified) turtle, an unforgettable experience.

The dunes near our camp site at Yardie Creek were full of tracks, presumably caused by blind snakes. While making dinner, one of these small and harmless snakes crawled aboveground next to our tent. Most part of the animal seemed to closely resemble our own, European, blind snake (Typhlops vermicularis), both in colour and size. Its black tail (and probably head), however, suggests that it was beaked blind snake, Ramphotyphlops grypus. When it was released, it quickly disappeared in the sand.

No doubt, the herpetological highlight in Cape Range N.P. was a huge perentie, Varanus giganteus, measuring well over 2 m, making it the largest of all Australian monitor lizards, and the third largest in the world. The species is sparsely distributed over west-central Australia, and reaches the coast in central WA only. So apparently we were lucky to see this impressive reptile.

Driving across Cape Range N.P. is rather risky after dark, when numerous wallabies and kangaroos are active along, and on, the road. One evening, while slowly driving back to our campsite, a short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) crossed the road. This remarkable mammal is not a placental nor a marsupial mammal, but belongs to the order Monotremata, together with that other peculiar East-Australian mammal, the platypus. “Our” echidna was very shy, and dived into a bush as soon as it had reached the other side of the road. A specialty of Cape Range N.P. is the black-flanked rock wallaby (Petrogale lateralis). We spotted several in the distance, climbing rocks. This was also one of the few areas where we saw emu.

Blind snake tracks in the dunes of Cape Range N.P.
No time for a decent picture. This is probably Ramphotyphlops grypus.
A huge perentie (Varanus giganteus), with 2.5 m the largest Australian monitor lizard, stately crossing a dirt road in Cape Range National Park.

3. Pilbara and Great Sandy Desert

On our northbound journey we passed the Pilbara desert, and visited Millstream-Chichester N.P. As a result of a relatively wet summer season, the desert was quite green, and thousands of budgerigars, ‘budgies’, flew around in small groups. In most years, when it is much drier, these small parakeets are found more inland. The Pilbara is generally quite rich in birds, such as colourful finches and stunning fairy-wrens. Reptiles, not to mention amphibians, however, were sparse at this time of the year. Apart from a few central netted dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis) and a ring-tailed dragon (Ctenophorus caudicinctus), there seemed to be little herpetological activity.

North of Port Hedland a yet even bigger desert was crossed. This Great Sandy Desert stretches over much of NW-Australia, and seemed quite monotonous here as compared to the Pilbara. To see a group of 15 one-humped camels (Camelus dromedarius) along the road was quite a surprise. Once introduced, camels are now widespread over much of the western interior of Australia. In fact, Australia is currently the only country with wild camel populations. On sandy roads from the highway to the coast (Cape Keraudren and Eighty Miles Beach), we twice saw a black-headed python (Aspidites melanocephalus). Unfortunately this beautiful snake was too shy to allow me to take its picture. On Eighty Miles Beach campground, there a few Gilbert’s dragons, Amphibolurus gilberti.

Mulla mulla (Ptilotus sp.) flowering in Millstream-Chichester N.P.
The Pilbara desert at dusk.
One-humped camels along the road crossing the Great Sandy Desert.

4. Broome and Dampier Peninsula

Broome is by far the most touristic town in this part of tropical Australia. We stayed a few days here and at the nearby Broome Bird Observatory. North of Broome we visited the Dampier Peninsula. Again we praised ourselves lucky to have a 4WD car, as we were able to drive the sandy roads and camp in remote areas. On our way to Barred Creek, there was a bushfire along the road. Being faint-hearted Europeans, we stopped and hesitated whether or not to move on through the thick smoke. Some locals, when being asked for advice, just gave us laughs – “just a bit of smoke, mate” – and vanished into the smoke. And so we did. A good decision, because the fires had driven several reptiles to the relative safety of the road. Three species were found, Centralian blue-tongue (Tiliqua multifasciata), Burton’s legless lizard (Lialis burtonis), and an as yet unidentified species of dragon. Since the fires started to cross the road, and the smoke got thicker, we started to feel more and more uncomfortable and moved on to look for a camp site. With the bush fire moving across the area, we decided to camp in the dunes south of Barred Creek, where there was no vegetation to burn.

Bushfires are a common phenomenon in Australia. They may have a natural cause (e.g. lightning) or may be intentionally started for management reasons. Non-flying animals escape from these fires by hiding underground or by just waiting on a road.
This handsome Centralian blue-tongue (Tiliqua multifasciata), actually a large skink, was found on a sandy road during a bushfire.
Our campsite in the dunes of the Dampier Peninsula. There were no people around here for miles. But tracks in the morning revealed the presence of small mammals and reptiles. In the background the smoke of a distant bushfire.

The next day we had planned a 7 km long hike along the beach, to the mouth of the creek. It was hot, but swimming was not an option here. Saltwater (or estuarine) crocodiles (Crocodilus porosus) inhabit the creeks and estuaries in the area and may migrate along the coast. Not far from our camp site, a beautiful sea snake crawled on the beach. It was afterwards identified as Dubois’ seas snake, Aipysurus duboisii, but I admit I didn’t handhold it to study its scales and body rows. When we approached the animal, it slowly moved on. Along with the seashells, the frigate birds, and the fantastic crabs around here, this snake really made our day!

A sea snake, possibly Dubois’ sea snake (Aipysurus dubiosii), on a beach in NW-Australia.
The flame fiddler crab (Uca flammula) is just one of the striking crabs of Australia.
A leaf on the beach. A leaf miner caused this ‘snake pattern’.

5. A taste of The Kimberley

We only visited the western part of this immense wilderness area. East from Derby we took the famous (and notorious) Gibb River Road, and after about 120 km turned right to Windjana Gorge N.P. From the pleasant bush camping it is only a 15 min walk to the entrance of the canyon, which is in fact an old Devonian reef. Windjana Gorge is home to a considerable number of freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni), and is indeed a very good place to watch this shy reptile. We spent several days in the gorge, from dawn to dusk. We found it quite hot at midday, but were told that in summer temperatures usually rise to over 35 °C. Given the high humidity in the wet season, it must be quite unbearable by then.

In the forest close to the entrance of the gorge, we found an olive python, Liasis olivaceus. The snake was approximately 3 m long, and it was slowly moving in the grass on the forest floor, terrifying several visitors.

The track along the river is very good for watching birds, such as herons, kingfishers, bower birds and finches. In trees along the river, there are small populations of the black flying fox (Pteropus alecto). They are hard to miss for the smell of guano and the squabbling noise they make.

Windjana Gorge N.P., a truly fantastic ‘klooiplek’.
Freshwater crocodiles (Crocodilus johnstoni) in Windjana Gorge, NW-Australia.
‘Freshies’ mating in the early morning, Windjana Gorge.

A day trip to Tunnel Creek N.P. was also interesting. One has to wade for 750 m through shallow underground pools to reach the other cave entrance. It is of course completely dark inside, except for an opening halfway, where the roof of the tunnel has collapsed. From this point, a small colony of little red fruit bats (Pteropus scapulatus) can be seen roosting high in the cave. We also found other (microchiropteran) bats in crevices in the tunnel, but couldn’t tell the species. Our traverse through the tunnel became even more exciting by the presence of a 1.5-2 m long crocodile in one of the pools. The light of our torches reflected in its eyes, so we could follow it swimming around. Fortunately it was just a ‘freshie’, so there was actually nothing to worry about. This fisheater is rather harmless, as long as you don’t pick it up or put your fingers in its mouth. At the end of the tunnel a Merten’s water monitor (Varanus mertensi) was basking in de sun, high up in a tree.

A black flying-fox, Pteropus alecto, curiously watching the photographer. Riverbanks in the Kimberley hold small colonies of these large fruit-eating bats.
Merten’s water monitor (Varanus mertensi), basking high up in a tree.
A landscape in the W-Kimberley. The spinifex (or actually Triodia sp.) covered landscapes of Australia support many species of reptiles. The wet season is the best time to look for them.