I took the picture of these three beautiful pelicans in South Australia’s Coorong National Park, which is a complex web of long shallow saline lagoons, wetlands and sand dunes that start at the mouth of the mighty Murray River and stretch for 135 kilometers alongside the crashing waves of the Southern Ocean.
Declared a wetland of international importance in 1975, the three kilometer-wide Coorong is home to the largest permanent breeding colony of Australian pelicans and is a temporary sanctuary for thousands of migratory birds from all over the world. It is reminiscent of the Camargue wetland in southern France but here the pelican rather than the flamingo is king.
This sprawling horizontal landscape was formed over 800,000 years as a consequence of sea-level changes. The Southern Ocean deposited debris along a series of 13 barrier dunes that eventually became stranded from the ocean. Naracoorte’s dramatic limestone caves, 100 km inland, with sea shells on the cave ceilings, are another piece of the puzzle.
The name ‘Coorong’ comes from the local Ngarrindjeri word ‘Kurangh’ which means long narrow neck. It has been home to the Ngarrindjeri people for thousands of years , as evidenced by the many shell middens found throughout the region. The Ngarrindjeri have their own famous native son, David Unaipon , a scientist, inventor and Australia’s first published indigenous writer whose image appears on the $50 note alongside some of his writings and the Point McLeay church where he is buried in the Coorong.
It is very easy to drive right through the region on the Princes Highway between Adelaide and the beach town of Robe and miss its delicate beauty in a blur of ramrod straight roads streaking through a flat, horizontal landscape that can, to the uninitiated, appear featureless and even bleak. That would be a grave mistake.
Many Australians first discovered the Coorong in the 1970s movie Storm Boy, which was based on a children’s classic by Colin Thiele, whose describes it thus.
“It is an elemental region, a place of wind and water and vast skies, of sand hill and tussock, lagoon and waterweed, stone and scrub. It is a place of softened contours, muted colours and sea haze – and of glaring saltpans so intense that our brows pucker and our eyes wince. A place of winter storms and summer sun glades, of shorelines soft with sand and sibilant reeds, and of limestone outcrops sharper than teeth. A place to sense the universal in the particular, the infinite in the infinitesimal, the verities of life in blowing seeds and grains of sand.”
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