Hermann Beckler collected 120 different species of plants around Menindee. It is that list that the Beckler Botanical Bounty Project is using. So correct identification is very important!
I am a gardener, not a botanist. I find it hard to hold the Latin names in my head. I have no idea of many of the botanical plant terms. So identifying plants was a huge learning curve for me — and I am still only a little way on that curve!
We have been so lucky to have had the support of a botanist whose work takes him regularly to Kinchega National Park. As you walk with him he points to plants and says, “That’s a so and so (fill in Latin plant name here), that’s a such and such (add different Latin name). That one over there is on Beckler’s list, this one isn’t.” So he was able to help sort plants in the field. That was a massive help.
However much we would have liked it, he couldn’t always be with us. And sometimes he was unsure. So then it was back to the reference books.
I am working on plants from the genus Cullen. This year I was working on a species Cullen discolor. But I had to be sure that my identification was correct.
It is described as ‘a perennial herb with stems prostrate to 1.5 metres’. Okay, I get those terms. Then the description said ‘tomentose to hispid’. These I discover are descriptions of hairiness. Its leaves are pinnately 3 foliate, narrow to broad, lanceolate to elliptic and less pubescent on the upper surface. The margins are toothed. There are petioles and stipules, peduncles and calyxes — and I never got to dissect the flower, which has more specialised terminology!
So, having nutted my way through the key, and gone to botanical dictionaries and other more knowledgeable people, I am confident that this is Cullen discolor.
At least I knew that this Cullen was ‘on the list’. Some artists went through the identification process, only to find it was one that Beckler hadn’t collected. Then it was out into the bush again to repeat the process.
Last time I mentioned that there was a link between a group of botanical artists, including myself, and the Burke and Wills Expedition. (Actually, although this name has gone deep into Australian folk lore, it was officically called the ‘Victorian Exploring Expedition’.) To explain the link, firstly I need to explain the expedition.
The intention of the expedition was to find an inland route from the more settled southern areas of Australia to the north, the Gulf of Carpentaria. It was organised by the Royal Society of Victoria in Melbourne, which, after much discussion, chose Robert O’Hara Burke as the leader of the expedition — a strange choice, as Burke had no experience with expeditions or the Australian interior.
They set off on 20th August 1860, with 18 men, 25 camels, 22 horses and 6 wagons carrying 21 tonnes of equipment. This included a cedar camp table and chairs and a Chinese gong! They left Royal Park in Melbourne but only made a few miles before nightfall. The first stopping place was Essendon, in what is now Queens Park.
They reached Menindee, via Swan Hill, on 12th October. It had taken two months to travel 750 km – the regular mail coach did the journey in little more than a week. There had been arguments and disputes for much of that journey. In Menindee James Landells, who was both second in charge and the cameleer, resigned. William Wills was promoted to his position. Hermann Beckler, the surgeon, also resigned. (Remember Beckler, as he is the link to our botanic project.)
As the plaque says, at this point Burke decided to split the party, taking a smaller group ahead to Cooper Creek. The intention was that the others bring up the supplies from Menindee to Cooper Creek. Burke and his group arrived there on 11th November. They thought they would stay there until the end of summer and avoid travelling in the heat. However Burke wanted to make a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burke, Wills, John King and Charles Gray set off for the Gulf on 16th December, with six camels, one horse and enough food for just three months. The men left at Cooper Creek were instructed to wait for 4 months.
After 59 days they reached the Gulf — well almost. The mangroves were so thick that Burke and Wills turned back to rejoin Grey and King about 5 km away from the coast. They had food for 29 days and had to endure monsoonal rains on the return journey. They shot and ate the camels. On April 17th Grey died.
Meanwhile, back at Cooper Creek, the party had waited for Burke’s return. They were low on food and, thinking that Burke and the others must have perished, decided to return to Menindee. They buried provisions, marked the tree and left in the morning of Sunday 21 April. Burke, Wills and King returned THAT EVENING, missing the others by 9 hours. They realised that they didn’t have the strength to follow to Menindee and Burke decided that they would head south-west, to South Australia. They left a letter at the same tree, telling of their intentions. However, they didn’t alter the date marked on the tree. 2 men from the main party did return. They found the camp deserted, the tree markings the same, and assumed that Burke had not been there. They left, with Burke and the other 2 men only about 30 miles away.
Over the next few months Wills, and later Burke, died. King survived with the help of a local Aboriginal tribe and was found by one of the rescue expeditions that was mounted.
So that is the broad bones of the story. If you are interested in finding out more, the Burke and Wills Historical Society has a page of links to other information. There are many interesting books written about the expedition, with some of them listed here.
As mentioned before, my link is with Hermann Beckler, who was still in Menindee. More of him next time.
(Thanks to Bev, for picking up the misspelling of Landells’ name!)
I want to leave the Flinders Ranges now and head almost due east for about 500 km, to Menindee. It is a small town, about an hour south-east of Broken Hill, on the Darling River and right on the edge of the Menindee Lakes system and Kinchega National Park. It is big sky country — it is so flat that the sky arches from horizon to horizon. And it is red dirt country, semi-arid. So, why there?
Well, it is fascinating. The lakes and the river attract birds from far away. The habitats away from the water are full of secret treasures — plants, insects, reptiles. (Fortunately I didn’t see any snakes, but I know they are there.) Secret because driving past in the car it all looks like boring saltbush. But stop and investigate and a world opens up.
But also because it is an area that features in the Burke and Wills story. For Australians those names are legendary. For others I will explain in the next few posts who they were and why their story sent me and other botanical artists to Menindee. For now, enjoy some of the beauty of Copi Hollow, and the caravan park where we stayed.
There are so many emus across the more arid areas we travelled through — from Menindee, out of Broken Hill, to the Flinders Ranges, including this one at the very aptly named Emu Creek, Kinchega National Park.
This photo is my favourite though. We were ambling along the Brachina Gorge track and came across this adult and chicks. They just sauntered up the road, and then up the bank. The adult, a male, waited until all the chicks had scrambled up the bank before he moved them on.
It is a male because male emus not only do most of the incubation, but then rear the chicks for the next 6 months. They will usually have a number of young to look after, and have been known to take orphaned and abandoned chicks into their care too. Someone at the caravan park had a photo that showed one adult with 24 chicks!
Seeing the yellow footed rock wallaby was one of the highlights of my stay in the Flinders Ranges. These little marsupials are also known by their Adnyamathanha name, Andu. A colony of them live in the Brachina Gorge and if you are quiet and observant you can see them on a rock scree.
They are shy and very well camouflaged. Can you spot the 2 andu in this photo?
Before white people came to the area they used to be very common but their status now is vulnerable. They were hunted for their skins and to cut down on competition for the grazing sheep brought in by pastoralists.
As well, their populations have been decimated by foxes and feral cats.
The andu, as marsupials, carry their joeys in pouches. As the joey grows it becomes more difficult for the mother to jump from rock to rock. So the joeys are left in rock crevices while the mother forages. A great idea when there was no real danger from bigger predators. However foxes and cats changed that. Instead of being a safe creche, the crevice made the joey easy pickings. Now, the National Park has established programmes to help protect them.
This andu came out after the other photographers had gone, and posed just for me!
The Sacred Gorge is another stunning gorge in the Flinders Ranges. You walk (clamber at times!) up the creek bed, looking at the marvellous rock formations. This makes it more intimate than Brachina Gorge, which is a drive, not a walk.
The other thrill in this gorge is the Aboriginal art that has been carved into the rock. It is not always obvious, which makes it even more special. The Adnyamathanha people believe that the art was created in the Dreamtime. Given the beauty and age of this serene place, that seems quite possible.