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Nan Bailey had a rare opportunity to go in search of Australian native waterlilies in far western Queensland. Read about her visit to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park in WGI ONLINE Journal 1.4. Here she relates her exploration of . . .

The Exquisite Waterlilies of
Normanton, Mayvale Station & Gum Hole Lagoon
by Nan Bailey, Queensland, Australia
Click images to enlarge

MacAir flights go from Mt. Isa to Doomadgee, Mornington Island, Burketown, Normanton, then Cairns. It is a mail run and a small plane. The flight was uneventful. Unfortunately, when I checked my bags, they were tagged for Mornington Island, not Normanton. On arrival, I found myself without luggage, in a strange town, and without my pickup. I had arranged to spend the time at Normanton with acquaintances who have a cattle station in the district. They were busy with the cattle right then.

What was I to do but go explore the town? Maybe it was fortuitous that my luggage was off-loaded early so I didn't have to drag it around town with me. I eventually caught up with my wonderful hosts and settled in. My luggage arrived on the flight the next day, so I was free to go look for the famous newly named Normanton waterlilies, Nymphaea carpentariae. This is an area that large salt water crocodiles frequent so, as I was alone, I had to be very aware and very cautious. There is usually no second chance with these creatures.

I borrowed the car and headed out to the river and there the lilies were . . . masses of them. Mostly white, with the occasional pink or blue lily, and those gorgeous maroon leaves. What a sight to behold, with the sun setting over the river, the lilies silhouetted against the orange sky, and the water birds out for their last feed of the day. It was hard to head back to the house, but this was no time to be out alone beside the lagoons and the river, where two large "saltys" were known to live.

Nymphaea carpentariae
Next morning I headed back to photograph the lilies and hopefully collect a specimen to put in my press. These lilies were growing in a lagoon that had been overrun by grasses. It was difficult to determine the true depth of the water but the lilies thrived whatever it was. In the clearer areas, there was what I believe to be Otellia ovalifolia, but without having seen the flowers, I am not 100% sure. There were also masses of Vallisnaria with very red leaves, growing around the edges, which I later learned is Vallisnaria caulescens. This is a species often found in ephemeral billabongs, so not seen often. The reeds in the nearby creeks were Schoenoplectus, plus a very short species I have yet to identify.

Probably Otellia ovalifolia

Vallisnaria caulescens

Vallisnaria caulescens

Nymphaea carpentariae

My next move was to drive northwest along the road to Karumba on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Along this road, I crossed several creeks with Nymphoides crenata and the Nymphaea carpentariae. On the way to Karumba I crossed a large very flat grassy plain with few trees and here I saw a pair of saurus cranes (Grus antigone), with grey bodies and red heads and necks. It was a rare treat for me to see these birds, as it was my first sighting.

I had a look around Karumba, then headed back to Normanton. After lunch I went southwest, back along the road to Burke & Wills Roadhouse on the way to Lawn Hill. My host had told me of some dams along this road where I might find water plants. I found more Vallisnaria caulescens, some native Papyrus, Nymphoides crenata and a saltmarsh Crassula. There was little else that was interesting.

I photographed the Nymphoides crenata at the right in a creek south of Normanton. This creek would be dry within a few months. It is amazing how the seeds survive the long baking dry season, to come back in full the next wet. Up here, the seasons are basically "hot wet" December to May and "dry" June to Nov, with it being cooler in June, July and August. Of course the rains may come at different times. Nature never sticks to schedules.

Nymphoides crenata

Nymphoides crenata

The following day, we went out to my hosts' property, Mayvale Station, about 100km (62 miles) southeast of Normanton. This was different country again and I was excited to see the wetland trees, billabongs, and the masses of white waterlilies. These billabongs are the water supply for the cattle that run on the property. The whole of the Gulf country is low floodplains, with creeks and rivers all heading north into the Gulf. In the dry season it is harsh and dry, but after the wet season rains, it is a bird lover's paradise and a waterlily lover's heaven. There are stands of small Melaleucas, various Eucalyptus and Pandanus.

My host put me in the ute (utility vehicle), gave me a mud map and said, "Follow the tracks to Gum Hole, then head back to the other billabongs. I will see you back at the homestead at lunch time. Don't hesitate to use the satellite phone for emergencies."

I am glad he had such confidence in me. The first billabong, Gum Hole Lagoon, was almost full of white waterlily flowers. What a sight! I went mad with the camera with photos from every angle.

Here I was able to collect flowers, seed pods and plants of the N. carpentariae. I also found a small white Nymphoides that had tiny variegated leaves, Otellia ovalifolia, and a red stemmed plant which I think is Myriophyllum, but this has to be properly identified. The water was slowly drying up, but because of the really big "wet" they had earlier in the year from Cyclones Monica and Larry, the water plants were around much later in the season than they usually were. This was great for me. 

Nymphoides sp. The flowers are small
and the leaves are also small with
brown variegations. I do not know
if it will later grow bigger and lose
the variegations.
The next step was to head back to the rest of the billabongs and hope I didn't get lost. I found Collar Camp billabong with its family of pelicans and some interesting little bog plants. Otellia ovalifolia was plentiful here too, as well as Marsilea mutica. The next billabong had Marsilea drummondii, the tiny white Nymphoides, a small Cyperus, and an Eliocharis. There were a lot of pelicans as well as whistling ducks at this one. Finally hunger made me head back to the homestead. I still wanted to talk with a local Aboriginal elder about how their people use these wetland plants in their culture, and did this on my final morning before flying home to Cairns. 
So, my camera cards were full, I had a collection of plants in my press, and my head was full of notes to be put down before I forgot them. Normanton was quite different from Lawn Hill, and altogether I had had the most wonderful week. I was made so welcome by my wonderful host and hostess and I felt as if I had a month's holiday instead of a week walking miles in the heat. It was time to head home and back to the real world of work and commitments. Thanks to some special friends, I had the most memorable time, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity given, firstly to my husband David for making it possible for me to leave work, to Barbara Wilson for giving me the opportunity to go in the first place, to the staff at Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) for their hospitality, to Alice Bynoe for sharing of her Aboriginal culture with me, and finally to Tanya and Doug Quirk, for making me so welcome and opening their world to me. 

Profile - Nan Bailey
Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park by Nan Bailey in WGI ONLINE Journal 1.4
The Stunning Species Nymphaea of Australia
Gallery by C. Barre Hellquist
Australians in Cultivation by Kit Knotts

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