The Kimberley in 1968

by Dan Freeman

It is now 42 years since I drove along the mostly dirt road from Derby to Mt House cattle station, and on to Wyndham. Along the way - the journey took about four months - we stopped off and took a little walk north from Mt Barnett in the direction of Rocky Mountain.

Our aim was to rediscover the black grasswren, Amytornis housei, which had not been seen for 67 years - since, in fact, its discovery in 1901 by Dr FM House, the ornithologist attached to a surveying party led by FS Brockman.

On that isolated July walk in 1968 we came across the spectacular Manning Falls...and back then we thought we were probably the first white people to have seen it!

Three of us undertook this walk. Harry Butler, who later became famous in Australia, Brian Booth,the expedition leader and me, a young ornithologist employed by London's Natural History Museum. We were on the fifth leg of the Harold Hall Australian Expeditions that studied and collected birds throughout much of Australia during the 1960s.

In a few weeks time I will have a book published. It will be released in Australia. Called Mangroves and Maneaters and other Wildlife Encounters, one of its chapters tells the story of our rediscovery of the black grasswren in July 1968 around the headwaters of Manning Creek and the Isdell River, though we returned to our base camp after four days to find that the other three expedition members, Ralfe Whistler, whose father wrote a definitive book on Indian birds, Tony Hiller, who now runs a biological centre near Brisbane, and Cliff Frith, who has become a world authority on bower birds and birds of paradise, had also found it close to the Barnett escarpment!

The chapter is called Grasswrens from the North and reveals that working on birds in a museum is not quite the bed of roses it might be considered...

There are three other Australian chapters - one about Point Torment just north of Derby and its horrendous mosquitoes and giant crabs, one about a reef off Darwin and another about Isobel Bennett, a famous Australian marine biologist who I met in East Africa nearly 40 years ago and kept in touch with until she died a couple of years ago aged 98!

I enjoy reading your website. It would be interesting to retrace my footsteps and see how much - or how little - the Kimberleys have changed. Probably roads and places to stay are the big difference. The Kimberleys have opened up to tourists in a big way since we were there, though this 'opening up' is not always such a good thing!

Keep up the good work - you obviously love the place in all its mood swings around the year.

With best wishes,

Comments for The Kimberley in 1968

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Nov 13, 2010
Would have loved to see the Kimberley back then...
by: Birgit

Thanks so much for writing!
Wow, wish I could have been there at Manning Falls back then. I so often wished that I had been able to see the Kimberley before it was "opened up". Though I also have to admit that whenever I read stories of the early pioneers, I wonder if I would have had what it takes to cope... I am afraid I am far too soft :-).

Yes, the roads and places to stay make a big difference. Such a journey does not require 4 months any more, people can stay just about anywhere in comfort, and consequently tourist numbers have exploded. If you went to Manning Falls in July now, you'd be in the middle of a big crowd.

If you ever retrace your steps, please don't do it between mid June and mid August. If you come back, I would like you to still like what you find.
Come at the right time, and walk far enough, and the Kimberley you knew can still be found :-).

Sep 04, 2014
Mt House cattle station 1968
by: Anonymous

In 1968 I was travelling round Australia on a 120cc Suzuki motor bike. I had been working in Dampier and left at the end of the wet season and was heading for Darwin. However the wet season prolonged its termination and I was stopped at Fitzroy crossing. I went back to Derby and got a job at the Mount House cattle station. Whilst there we were visited by an expedition from the British museum looking for a particular bird which apparently they did find. I wonder whether that is the expedition that Dan Freeman is talking about? On returning to the UK I did visit the museum to look for the bird but the museum staff were not very helpful.
I found this site as I was hoping to visit the station again as I heard that they provided accommodation for visitors but apparently that is not so any more so I am trying to find the nearest station that does accept visitors.

Sep 05, 2014
Nearest station
by: Birgit

That would be Charnley River. If it doesn't have to be a station then there is also the Mornington Wilderness Camp.

Oct 15, 2014
Mac Scott at Mt House!
by: Dan Freeman


you were right about the British Museum expedition looking for the Black Grasswren being the same one I wrote about from (June)1968.

I do remember 'you' being there, in that I remember someone who was an aspiring gardener/horticulturalist who had a motorbike! Was that actually you?

And yes, we found the bird and I am sorry to hear the Museum staff in London were so unhelpful. If it had been me...maybe you came after I had left the Museum in 1971 to work in Nairobi on the birds of East Africa. I ended up as a wildlife film producer. I wonder what you are doing now! Very best Dan

Oct 16, 2014
Mac Scott
by: Dan Freeman

Hi Mac

Yes, it was you! I dug out my diary this morning and you supplied us with loads of very welcome vegetables from the Mt House garden when we returned in July from finding the black grasswren. Richard and Rachel Blythe were lovely people, it poured with rain while we were there but we were spoilt with great food, wine and company before setting off once more. We finished the expedition in Borroloola on the Gulf coast in late November, so quite a flog from leaving Perth in April.

I wonder what you are doing now. Did you ever go back to Manchester?
Very best


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