One of my favorite things to do in southern Arizona is to hike Sky Islands in search of a beautiful swimming hole. Back home, average rainfall ranges between 11.5 inches in the Sonoran Desert floor near Tucson (2,500 ft elevation) up to about 25 inches in the highest Sky Island (10,000 ft). Water is pretty scarce and it can be a multi-mile hike into a canyon pool that is just deep enough to wade into and float on your back, but it’s always worth it. The Sky Island Region where we live is a pretty amazing landscape of forested mountains surrounded by desert and grassland habitat.
There are at least 50 different Sky Islands scattered through southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northern Sonora, Mexico, forming what’s known as the Madrean Archipelago. They are crisscrossed by deep, hidden canyons with lush vegetation and, if you’re lucky, some flowing water, often created by springs. There are about 1,100 springs in the U.S. portion of the region, many of which have no data on their flow rate, temperature, or the plants and wildlife they’re supporting because they have not been surveyed. Springs are heavily used by humans and have often been developed to provide water for livestock and people’s homes.
In my work at Sky Island Alliance, I’ve developed a program to survey and restore springs with help from the Spring Stewardship Institute and the Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative. This work regularly gets me and a group of 10 or more volunteers out hiking off-trail in search of a spring that we usually know nothing about beyond general location. Part of my interest in traveling Australia was to get a sense of local spring ecosystems, how they’re being managed and how native people value them.
Just like in Arizona, springs in Australia are sacred sites for native people, places of great power, creation, birth, rebirth, and “big dreaming”. Aboriginal dreaming stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values and belief systems to later generations. Aborigines have the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on Earth.
During our trip to Humpty Doo we had the good fortune to share travels with a beautiful couple, David Lee and his wife Charlotte, who created Western Rock Art Research and have dedicated a lot of energy to documenting and understanding rock art and its cultural significance in Wardaman Country, a day’s drive south of where we’ve been staying in Humpty Doo. What an amazing experience to hear about David and Charlotte’s work with one of the few remaining elders of the Wardaman people who still speaks the native language, Yidumduma Bill Harney.
I had expressed interest in visiting local springs to our hosts, Andy, Shay and Mark, and they delivered in a big way. We went out bush overnight in a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Nissan Patrol (fondly named “Pearl”) to a spring in the Adelaide River catchment. This is a special place for Mark and Shay, a sacred place for Aboriginal people in the area, and now a special place for me. What a joy!
We rocked up late afternoon and pitched our tents at the emergence of the spring, chatted about its significance, then had a plunge. The hot spring (~100 F) emerged from the floor of a beautiful pool and flowed out via a small channel. It had an impressive flow rate, compared to most springs we see in southern Arizona. It appeared to be a system of numerous springs as hot water was emerging from various points along the channel.
There was also a large lower pool, hidden under a dense canopy of tropical forest, with water bubbling up from the pool floor. We were told the upper spring was reserved for the women of the aboriginal community and was a birthing site, while the lower spring was reserved for the men.
We did a proper spring survey at the lower pool, which entailed a fair bit of time soaking in the perfect water.
Human impacts at the site were apparent– large denuded areas near the springs where people were driving and camping–but overall, the springs appeared to be in great shape, which was good news. Mark and Shay shared stories of increasing abuse of the site as human use has increased. It all sounded pretty familiar–people cutting down entire trees for fire wood, attempting to drive their 4WDs across the spring channel and mucking in the mud with motorbikes, as well as impacts from dogs and introduction of non-native grasses and vines that have overtaken the banks of the spring to the detriment of native plants. This day we were fortunate to have the place to ourselves.
The bird watching was outstanding. We spotted a black falcon, a gaggle of juvenile crimson finches with bright red tails bouncing as they foraged in the stream-side grass, a pair of reg-winged parrots munching tree fruit, and a few more lemon-bellied flycatchers.
After dark we were visited by small frogs (called “rocket frogs” by our hosts, but precise identification has been challenging). This little guy came to sit with me on my camp chair and Randy managed to get a closeup of another calling in the leaf litter. And, in true Sky Island Alliance spring survey style, we got rained on, in the middle of the dry season, much to everyone’s surprise!
The next day we set off to take a look at a portion of the Adelaide River catchment that is under threat of being flooded by a proposed dam project.
We came across this contraption upstream from the river where studies of flow were conducted. It doesn’t look like much now, but in the wet season massive overland flows come through this area. The proposed Warrai dam has been talked about since the late 1970s to support agriculture. But the potential benefits of the dam have been called into question and, given climate change projections, may be less and less likely.
The Director of the Northern Territory Environmental Center had this to say about the proposed dam in a 2014 newspaper article:
…the proposed dam would not only fail to store water because of the high evaporation rates and the shallow design, but any water produced would likely be too expensive for farmers to use. And even if farmers could afford the water, he said, the poor soil quality in the area made agriculture unlikely.
A dam could also cause flooding in nearby Litchfield National Park, and would likely be opposed by Aboriginal groups, he said. “Dams kill rivers. It is like getting a blood clot in your leg,” said Dr. Blanch, whose doctoral thesis covered the ecology of the Murray River.
Aboriginal elders from the Kamu people have also been critical of the dam because of the impact it would have on their communities’ burial grounds and their efforts to look after the land.
The country that could end up underwater was beautiful. We toured through typical open eucalypt forest, took a closer look at one of the more spectacular termite mounds, and stopped on high ground near the river to look at a flood gauge designed to give the town of Adelaide River a two-hour flood evacuation warning. When we got out of the trucks, I snpped a photo of these dingo tracks while everyone else actually spotted a dingo chasing a wallaby.
We made it to the river side by mid-day and had a leisurely lunch and swim. Adelaide River is known for its population of saltwater crocs (Crocodylus porosus), but our local hosts know the river well, and this spot was shallow with a good view up and downstream to scout for salties before you venture in.
As we bounced along the 4WD track in Pearl, David explained the Wardaman story of how the river was created by a big, black-headed python and water python, two totem women who carved out the river bed with digging sticks. After briefly getting stuck on a steep section of the track (and then extricating ourselves with the tow strap), we paused for a coffee break and a deep breath in a stunning section of mature riverside forest.
Just like in Arizona, riparian strips of habitat along rivers in the Top End disproportionately contribute to biological diversity. In these stream-side photos you may notice a species of cycad, possibly Cycas armstrongii, a vulnerable species on the Northern Territory Threatened Species List at risk from inappropriate fire and introduced grasses.
Water sources are extremely important in Dreaming stories. Rainbow Serpent is a feature in the Dreaming stories of many mainland Aboriginal nations and is associated with water sources such as billabongs, rivers, and springs. she is a source of life, but can also be a source of destruction if not respected. In this country, that usually means floods, although climate change may bring entirely different sources of destruction in the long run.