Mornington Station

Mornington is a former 220,000 hectare cattle station that was bought by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, largely destocked and is now managed as a private nature reserve and Wilderness Park. For the observant, you will have noted on the frontpage of these photodiaries, that we support AWC in its conservation aims. Their policy is to buy up large tracts of land, usually degraded rural properties and restore them to create suitable habitats for the many native species that occur in the regions. They do a great job of this and in evaluating biodiversity of areas and the impacts of management techniques on this – a rigorous and scientific approach. The first donation we made to AWC was to help buy Mornington, so we feel a bit like part-owners (probably where the toilet block is) and we were looking forward to seeing what it was like.

The road in was long but interesting, at first a wide dirt track heading for the imposing mesa of Mt House (but which, as we noticed when passing by its base, was sadly scorched by a late season wildfire). Then we crossed a wide flat savannah of yellow grass and stunted shrubs, with the odd boab and larger tree. For the last 20km, the road surface became rougher, as we entered a region of low hills that brought us to the entry of Mornington Station.

The savannah grasslands of the central Kimberley

It was only lunchtime when we checked in and, with nothing else planned, we lazed the afternoon away in our campsite on the banks of Annie’s Creek; well spread out and with a maximum of 30 campers, a peaceful wilderness experience is assured here. We whiled away the afternoon doing the odd bit of maintenance and watching the doves, finches, wrens and other small birds that call Mornington home, flitting between tree or shrub or patch of seeding grass. If anywhere is in the heart of the Kimberley, it is this place.

Heading towards Mt House on the Mornington Road

Mornington ridgeline

Dimond Gorge and Cajeput Hole

Today we began our exploration of Mornington and, in one way, it was an introduction to to 4WDriving for 4WDriving’s sake – normally I have only ever driven 4WDs to get from A to B and not for the pleasure of heading down an otherwise inaccessible track.


Mornington was once a working cattle station

Fatboy boab

Whistling kite

Adcock River Crossing

The route in to Dimond Gorge was 24 km long and took over an hour, which gives an indication of this single lane track’s condition; fine in parts, but with some interesting creek crossings and the odd bits of sandy, rocky or rutted surface.

After a few kilometres we crossed the Adcock River, which had flowed down here from the gorge we were in yesterday. On the far side we passed across savannah woodland and black cracking-clay plains beneath the gaze of Fitzroy Bluff, a massive mesa that dominates the landscape here.

View over the woodlands to Mt Brennan

Winding on, we stopped at a small rise / lookout for a 360º panorama of the Mornington landscape – across the southern horizon, Fitzroy Bluff ran into the King Leopold Range, which formed an imposing barrier that disappeared into the northwest. To the northeast lay the flat topped Mt Brennan, basaltic remnant of a lava flow in times gone by.

Black clay country

View across the flowering spinifex to the dark massif of Fitzroy Bluff at the end of the King Leopold Ranges

The colours of mosaic burning

We pushed on, past flowering wattles, kapok and small native herbs. In some areas, the bright green regrowth of a recently burnt patch contrasted with the waving yellow grass of unburnt  patches on the opposite side of the road. Mornington uses fire as a management tool to creat a mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches, which creates a more reliable food supply for endangered seed-feeding birds and reduces the impact of late-dry season wildfires.

Riparian habitat of a creek near Dimond Gorge

Fitzroy River rapids beneath the paperbarks

The Fitzroy River cuts into the
King Leopold Ranges

The paperbark lined shores of Cajeput Pool

Finally we reached Dimond Gorge, where the Fitzroy River dramatically cuts its way through the King Leopold Range. You can canoe on the river here, but we were saving our paddling efforts for the next day. Instead, after admiring the gorge from a rocky lookout, we contented ourselves with a swim with the friendly fish of the Fitzroy River, finding a small patch of sand in its stony bed, lined with a jumble of black basaltic boulders and trees that leant at 45º downstream – another testimony to the force of the wet-season flows here.

The stark beauty of Dimond Gorge

After leaving Dimond Gorge, we retraced our route back across the black-clay plains with their waving cream heads of spinifex. However, once past the bluff at the end of the King Leopold Ranges, we turned off to head down to Cajeput Hole, a long dark green waterhole on the Fitzroy River, densley lined with paperbarks (aka cajeput) and a gathering place for many of Mornington's birds, mammals and larger aquatic reptiles.

Reflections of Fitzroy Bluff in Cajeput Pool

Goanna basking on the bank

Archer fish lurking near the surface

A freshwater crocodile drifting in the waterhole

Here was the perfect place to have lunch and while away the heat of the afternoon, spending sometime sitting in the shady grass on its bank admiring the perfect reflection of Fitzroy Bluff on its glassy surface, and the rest watching a freshwater crocodile, slowly drifting with the current of this sluggish section of river. Seeing the crocodile was almost enough to put us off having a swim in the Fitzroy, but not quite; the day was hot and the water was deliciously cool, and freshies only eat fish (I think).

It was a great introduction to what Mornington has to offer.

Sir John Gorge

Not a good start to the day – we had been to a very interesting talk by a ranger about the management practices at Mornington and the consequent recoveries of key indicator species. I was still thinking about the frequencies of late dry-season fires and its effect on the health of seed-feeding birds, when I ran over a piece of fencing wire and punctured a tyre in the campsite. Still, it could have happened halfway down the Dimond Gorge track, so one can’t complain. We changed the tyre and left it at the station for repairs, before picking up our paddles and lunch hamper, and heading off toward Sir John Gorge.

One of the many possible activities on Mornington is a canoe trip up the Fitzroy, where it cuts through the low, eroded 2 billion year-old rocks of the Sir John Range. Moreover, the gorge is yours exclusively; only one canoe and two persons are allowed to visit each day – a little expensive, but the ultimate getaway.

Lone boab in the grasslands

The track took us in an easterly direction across the flatter landscapes of Mornington, past grasslands dotted with the massive mounds of termites, those great recyclers and soil-builders of the bush.

The track was better than that to Dimond Gorge, punctuated (but fortunately not punctured) by one hairier-than-average creek crossing just before the gorge – not much water, but a steep climb out up a curving jumble of large rocks. It was the only time we needed to engage low range and it was amazing how the absence of a sump guard (see Bungle Bungle section for this story) increased visual acuity.

The worst creek crossing of the trip

The mounds of spinifex termites

Then we were there, walking across a very dry landscape toward the Fitzroy River, which we reached quickly. At the site of a large boab in full-leaf (a rarity this far into the dry season), we turned to follow the pink sandstone slabs and steep sandy beaches that lined this long waterhole. On the far bank, the line of low reddish-orange rocks gradually increased in height to form the entry to Sir John Gorge.

How curious - a boab that has not dropped its leaves

The Fitzroy River just below Sir John Gorge

Polished pink sandstone slabs gleam in the sun

Sir John Gorge walls

Passing a jumble of blackened boulders that blocked the river and forced it into a series of shallow rapids, we spotted a glint of yellow. We had reached the second waterhole and our first canoe.

High above a whistling kite soared by

We loaded our gear and set off, paddling several hundred metres up beneath rugged red cliffs, lined with spinifex where rock wallabies lived (though in a most discrete way for us). This brought us to a jumble of black boulders marking the end of the waterhole. We beached the canoe and set off on foot again, boulder-hopping across the water-rounded stones and climbing the water-polished slabs of red and tan sandstone that tilted gently upwards toward the east. Once across the barrier we spotted our second canoe on the rocks at the beginning of the third and longest waterhole.

Crossing the jumble of pink boulders between waterholes

Black boulders creating a mini-rapid

Our canoe awaits at the second waterhole

Ahead of us, the cliffs on both sides soared skywards, seemingly comprised of randomly sized blocks of orange-red sandstone layered and tilting in a gentle eastward rise. It was a superb feeling, paddling slowly along the dark green surface of the river beneath these ancient cliffs, our attention diverted occasionally by the arrival of other rocks just below the river surface.

In the heart of Sir John Gorge

A rocky section of the course

The gorge turned slightly left to reveal a sharp right bend in the distance. When we reached the bend, we had reached the end of the waterhole. A flat black rock rib protruded out to force the Fitzroy to flow through a set of shallow rapids and low cascades. It was magnificent sitting in this fast flowing stream, massaged by the foaming water as it tumbled over the dark rocks – a complete natural spa and hydrotherapy session in the cool clear water of the Fitzroy.

End of the third waterhole ...

... to reach a set of cascades ...

... for a bit of hydrotherapy on a hot day

Exploring the upper gorge

We wandered around the cascades to look around the bend at the fourth waterhole, wider but shorter and lined with blue–leafed paperbarks shining in the sun.  The pattern of slow deep waterholes linked by rapids seems to be the nature of the Fitzroy here. It was immensely satisfying sitting in the cascades, looking down the dark green waterhole lined with these ancient red walls and knowing that we were the only people within cooee, but the day was passing.

Spa's-eye view of the cascades

Looking back down our route up Sir John Gorge

The tree-lined fourth waterhole in the upper gorge

We paddled back to the entry of the narrow side-gorge that we had seen on the southern side of Sir John Gorge on the way up. Beaching the canoe on the only sandy spot, we set off on foot to follow the trickling creek up this interesting chasm.

The waterhole in the side gorge

The entry of the side gorge

Lunch spot view beneath 2 billion year old cliffs

After a few hundred metres and several stagnant ponds, we were starting to have a few doubts about this as a lunch spot, but then we crossed a set of boulders to find a picturesque little rock pool beneath a gentle 2m waterfall – a good place for lunch and a swim. We opened our hamper – Thai chicken salad on a bed of noodles served with 2 billion year-old rock walls, the sound of tumbling water and the songs of bush birds – not bad at all!

Returning to the canoe, we retraced our wake and our footsteps back to the start of the gorge, stopping only for one last cooling dip at a sandy beach on the first waterhole – it was, after all, a hot afternoon. While we had only pushed an extra 5km up this amazing gorge, it seemed as if we had pushed back many eons in time – alone in the heart of the Kimberley – it would be one of the highlights of our trip.

That night was our last beneath the bright starry skies of Mornington, but before we left we had one last mission to accomplish. Having missed seeing any of the rare and endangered Gouldian finches, we were determined to spot a purple-capped wren, the other iconic bird of this wilderness park. Hence, we did one last ramble around the interpretative track through the riparian habitat of Annie’s Creek. Finally, we spotted one; not the garishly bedecked male, but the more conservatively feathered female - still, a purple-capped wren is a purple-capped wren, even without the purple cap.

The narrow forest strip along Annie's Creek

Purple-capped wren (the uncapped female)

Pandanus-lined tortoise habitat

And so we left Mornington, with a sense of satisfaction that this private nature reserve is being managed effectively, its wildlife is recovering and it provides a good advertisement to the work of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. As we headed back north to rejoin the Gibb River Road, we took with us one lasting message from a sign there that says a lot about life in the Kimberley - “Please shut the toilet lid to keep out frogs”.