A Visit to Keep River National Park

Now a regular contributor, Dr. Teege takes us on a trip 'down under' to see a rare and wonderful, silver Livistona. Gorgeous!
Dr. Maria-Jutta Teege, Alwin-Mittaschplatz 12, 67063 Ludwigshafen, Germany
Chamaerops No.21, Winter Edition 95/96

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Photo: Livistona sp. 'Victoria River' in habitat

A German falling in love with palms faces the same problems as any other inhabitant of a cool country: Where to see tropical plants in the cold climate of Europe? You can never build a glasshouse big enough to grow all of them, you can do only this: save all your money and all your leisure time and spend both visiting the palms in their natural habitat. It's guaranteed to be wonderful and exiting, making friends with these plants in their own environment, and if you capture them on film, they will never wilt or die and you will always remember the meeting. I have been doing this for many years now and it continues to give me a great deal of pleasure. For me as a biologist, palms fit rather neatly alongside my own specialized field of work. However, for my husband as an industrial chemist it was really something new, a hobby or a working holiday, but he certainly learned quickly!

He shows great skill as a navigator during our foreign motoring trips, and he's also not bad with a video camera. So we are a good team and since retiring we are travelling more than ever.

In Australia we were often surprised to find small populations of palms in rather isolated places. And most of them we were led to by some mention in the literature or in tourist information brochures. So it was that in January 1993 I heard about a trip by some palm enthusiasts from Darwin to Keep River National Park in the north of Australia. In this remote locality they were lucky enough to come across individuals of a rare Livistona population which is temporarily named Livistona sp. 'Victoria River'. Fascinated, I immediately took the decision to look for these palms during our upcoming visit 'down under'.

The Keep River National Park is situated in the Northern Territory just east of the border with Western Australia. Access to the park is from the Victoria highway on a gravel road, in a northerly direction. The first park area was purchased in 1980 by the Northern Territory Government, became enlarged later and now includes 26,000 ha. of open woodland on gently undulating plains. Interspersed are major uplands and plateaux over 300 m in height above the plains. The entire park area forms part of the Keep River catchment and the valleys are drained by short, poorly developed streams which become dry soon after the wet season. The 30 km or so of Keep River itself are also mainly filled with dry sand or boulders. About 5 km of the riverbed leads through a gorge with highly eroded sandstone bluffs and ridges. The climate is monsoonal with a mean annual rainfall of 800 mm and a mean temperature of 30°C.

We approached the park from the east. The last town on our way was Katherine before we began rolling west along the lonely Victoria Highway. This is one of the most beautiful highways of Australia. On both sides of the road we saw a vast savannah with high and dry yellow grass (probably wild sorghum) and scattered trees of different kinds. Apart from the Eucalypts we knew only the small native kapok trees (Cochlospermum gillivraei) with their conspicuous yellow blossoms. The land was dry and stony, sometimes with high mesas of red sandstone rising from the plain. 193 km west of Katherine we crossed the Victoria River on a well-built bridge, noticing an unusually high water level in the riverbed due to the season now after the summer rain. This is already crocodile country, where the dangerous Estuary or Saltwater crocodiles may be met. Close behind the river crossing was a camping area, a restaurant and petrol station, but we didn't stop. Continuing on our way we passed more high sandstone rocks. They looked like walls or castles and far away at their bases in shady niches and little gorges we discovered some palms. With their straight and slender stems and spherical shaped crowns they differed clearly from the other trees. But there was no road or footpath leading to them. And a hot sun shone from a cloudless blue sky, the temperature being about 40?C in the shade, if you could find shade.

283 km west of Katherine we reached Timber Creek, a tiny settlement, mainly inhabited by Aboriginal people. There we stayed for the night. Next morning we started again westwards on the Victoria Highway, and again we saw walls and castles of red sandstone rising from the savannah plain. Instead of palms they were here accompanied by strange thickstemmed baobab trees (Adansonia gregorii) which are endemic in this region and the bordering parts of Western Australia. Their nearest relatives are the baobab trees of Madagascar and East Africa.

470 km west of Katherine we reached an unsealed road branching off to the north: the access to Keep River National Park. Although it was too late this day to explore the park, we wanted to have a quick look around, so we drove a further 15 km to the camping and picnic ground of "Gurrandalang" where a couple from Sidney gave us some very useful information about the walking trails in the park. Of course I asked about palms and they had seen them on a trail from "Jarrnarm" camp ground 20 km further to the north. Full of expectation for the next day we left Keep River National Park and took the highway for another 40 km to Kununurra in Western Australia. In a small private hotel with several aviaries full of beautiful Australian birds in the little garden we booked accommodation for the following four nights.

Next morning we decided to drive straight on to the Jarrnarm camp and picnic ground near the northern end of the park. The most important excursion should be made first. As we arrived at this lovely spot and parked our car we saw our first palm. It was a very young one, a baby, with greyish-green, fan-shaped leaves. It looked beautiful. Was it growing here naturally or had it been planted for the picnic area? Nobody there could tell me. In the meantime my husband had been looking for the beginning of the walking trail. But there he found a message to all visitors : Today the area will be burnt! Don't walk on the trail from 13.00 o'clock.' Now it was 12.00, so we only had one hour to walk for a little a bit along the trail. The whole way would be about three hours for us with the video camera. We were disappointed, of course, but there was nothing we could do.

The first part of the trail ran through a plain with high, dry grass and there we found some more of the greyish-green fan palms. They were bigger than the first one, but also young. Here it was obvious that they grew naturally. We walked in the direction of a little sandstone range and then returned. At that moment a small aeroplane flew low above us and then in a curve over the dry grassy plain. A minute later it began to burn here and there, under the path of the plane. Now it was definitely time for us to leave the trail. In the Northern Territory they burn the grass every year in small patches at the end of the dry season when the grass is high and dry. Were it to burn uncontrolled there is the danger of vast areas burning which nobody could stop.

So this day was lost for visiting palms at the Jarrnarm trail. As all the other trails in the park were obscured by the smoky air, we returned to Kununurra.

Next day the Jarrnarm area was still affected by the after burning. So we drove to Gurrandalang where we walked along a wonderful but rather strenuous trail up and down through sandstone outcrops in the grassland. And there, quite unexpectedly, we saw some single palms. Splendid individuals they were, with a high solitary stem and a regular crown of stiff fan shaped leaves. Some of them were mature and displayed yellow flowers between the leaves. They grew at the bases of rocks or in small gaps so that they could take advantage of the rainwater which flows down the slopes. It was a wonderful picture with the scattered palms between red sandstone towers and ridges, the stony surface of which formed a striking weathered pattern, and everything around combined with grassland, trees and bushes under a bright sun.

The same beautiful scene we were to enjoy next day on Jarrnarm trail. The path led us between high yellow grass along the base of a sandstone ridge, where we could approach the palms quite closely. Here we met many young individuals, often in clumps together. So this hot and dry inland habitat seems to have enough water supply for the offspring of this adapted species. No other palms live in the area. And those which live here are endemic to the region of Victoria River and adjacent areas. They belong to an undescribed species: Livistona sp. "Victoria River" and may be closely allied to the Millstream Palm, Livistona alfredii in the area of Fortescue River far away in Western Australia.

Our visit to Keep River National Park was a great success and a great pleasure for us. We didn't only find a beautiful and interesting palm species but could also enjoy them in an outstanding natural habitat, which is now fortunately protected as a National Park.

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