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The Mattress Backs of Taipan

We were walking down the trail from Taipan Wall when Michael abruptly stopped, dropped to his knee and pointed excitedly into the trees. I crouched down next to him and after a few moments I could make out something moving in the boulders. Two small faces, beanies pulled down over their tiny ears, large brown eyes scanning the rocks above them. My heart skipped a beat as I realised we were seeing a pair of elusive marsupial mattress backs (Matterbackious dynocranker).

Like most people I’d only ever seen mattress backs in the gym, playing with themselves in dark corners, swinging by their arms and waiting for feed time. Of course I’d heard their distinctive vocal calls and even stumbled upon their empty caves, but seeing them in the wild was a first for me. Here in the Australian bush mattress backs were once an endangered species, but are now thought to be increasing in numbers. Easily identifiable by the large mattress which they carry on their backs and the woolen beanies they wear on even the hottest of days, mattress backs are among our most elusive and secretive creatures.

What makes this species so unusual, however, is the elaborate rock dance that they periodically perform. Experts believe the rock dance is some form of complex mating ritual. The male, usually the shorter and stockier of the species, steps carefully onto the rock, twists his body into a variety of contorted positions and then, after just a few brief seconds, falls heavily onto the mattress below. These rock dances must require a great deal of effort as the male then rolls over and falls asleep.

Interestingly, if a female of the species is within sight, the male will immediately get up, shake his hands and step back on the rock. This process is repeated many times in a row. The female pretends not to notice the dancing male as she checks her Facebook account, applies her lip balm or changes the wallpaper on her iPhone for the umpteenth time that day. Her tactic appears to be designed to enrage the male mattress back who launches himself into ever more contorted positions accompanied by loud grunting. If there is still no reaction by the female (who may be playing Angry Birds by this stage) the almost exhausted male mattress back will resort to stripping to the waist in a final desperate bid for attention. Observers who have been lucky enough to have witnessed this part of the ritual have reported that after adjusting her Prana pants the female pulls on to the rock and imitates the same dance moves. This results in a sudden wave of interest among the nearby males who all stride forward with outstretched arms, the palms of their trembling hands just millimetres away from the female’s buttocks. As she dances her moves the males all yell in delight, crowding around her in a sort of group-sex rugby scrum. Eventually she collapses onto the mattress and the males all start wailing and pointing at the rock in apparent despair. This highly sex-charged atmosphere now triggers the males to pull on their beanies and launch themselves in a mad frenzy at the rock.

Occasionally a female will begin her rock dance and actually reach the top of the boulder, at which point all the males immediately lose interest in her, fall silent, put on their shirts and walk off in various directions to brood by themselves. The female then retires back to her mattress where she posts her ascent on Facebook.

Unlike other marsupials, mattress backs, both male and female, carry their pouches on their backs. These pouches are filled with a white substance, which they use to daub across the rock to mark their territory. Males also use urine to mark their territory, a habit that females rarely seem to do.

A sub species, the bearded mattress back (Matted dynocranker) can also be occasionally seen. This sub-species tends to be less energetic than their clean-shaven tribal brethren and are usually physically larger and more bombastic. Their rock dance ritual is also much less complex and only lasts for a second or two, after which they spend the rest of the day sitting on their mattresses, softly grunting to themselves.

Lone mattress backs are another enigma. Almost only ever spotted accompanied by a tripod and Go-Pro camera, it appears that lone mattress backs can only perform their complex rock dance routines when videoing themselves. Zoologists originally considered that lone mattress backs were a separate sub-species (lone mattress backs tend to be balding and wear glasses) but now believe that they are the result of a serious psychological impairment, having an inability to perform when observed by other members of their tribe.

And so it was that after a minute or so the two mattress backs noticed our presence and quickly vanished into the boulders. Michael and I walked over to where they had been sitting. All the tell-tale signs were there. A couple of old worn toothbrushes, bits of finger tape and some daubs of chalk on the rock. The acrid smell of urine indicated that we had just witnessed two young males at play with each other. We felt very lucky indeed to have seen these mattress backs in their natural habitat. I even stepped in a mattress back stool. Now how cool was that?


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Northern Australia, 2010

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Keep River NP (NT)

Steep problem on the Trackside Cave at Keep River National Park.

Called into Keep River National Park today. This small park is in the Northern Territory and lies against the Western Australian border. Keep River National Park is geographically the start of the Kimberley which stretches off to the west. The spectacular rock formations in this park are made up of a fairly weird sandstone quartzite pebble-dash mix which means that longer multi-pitch routes are pretty unappealing. There are some good sections of shorter overhanging stuff which provides for a bit of good bouldering if you are in the area. All the problems I did were just a few minutes walk from the scenic Gurrandalng camping area. There are also some short red walls (under 20m-high) that would offer some good climbing if you can be bothered.

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Lost City (NT)

lost city

lost city
Lost City bouldering

Next stop on our Top End road trip was Litchfield National Park. We spent a couple of days here mainly swimming and bouldering. One of the most interesting places we visited was the Lost City, a weirdly-shaped assortment of sandstone pillars dotted about the open sandy bushland. This place was a real gem and the bouldering was excellent. The rock is as good as the best you’ll find in the Grampians and reminded me a little of Stapylton Ampitheatre (although nowhere near as extensive!). The Lost City doesn’t have much in the way of overhanging caves but there is plenty to keep you occupied for a day or two at least. There are also possibilities for maybe 20 or so short climbs (15-20m max) and I’m sure the Darwin locals have picked over the place. To reach the Lost City you will need a 4WD and there is no camping in the immediate area. One of the highlights of climbing here is that Florence Falls, Buley Rockholes and Wangi Falls are all nearby and offer good camping as well as some of the best swimming holes you are ever likely to experience. Litchfield National Park is situated 120km southwest of Darwin.

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Devils Marbles

devils crack

devils crack
Glenn on the perfect jamming problem, Devils Crack.

Last Wednesday, on our long drive up to Darwin, Karen and I dropped in to the Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles) Conservation Reserve. It was much more interesting than I expected so we decided to spend the rest of the day (and the following morning) exploring and bouldering in this remarkable area. First impressions upon driving into the reserve was that it looked like a geologically interesting place but the rock appeared to be crap for climbing. Rounded granite boulders shedding exfoliation flakes like onion skins didn’t give me much confidence that we would find any worthwhile bouldering. Surprisingly I was wrong. The rock is pretty coarse (a bit coarser than Mt Buffalo) but is remarkably solid. Even the flakes were much more solid than they looked. In the end I did a bunch of really enjoyable problems, none of them were particularly difficult but all were full value (and often pretty high!). There are literally hundreds of boulders in the area. Face climbing on flake edges is pretty much what is on the menu but there are also a few excellent cracks and aretes to play on. There are a few fun short climbs as well (15m-high) but nothing to get too excited over. There is a good campground in the reserve (situated right in the middle of the boulders). A small fee is charged ($3.30 per person) but you will need to get in early as it packs out with grey nomads and their caravans. The Devils Marbles are on the Stuart Highway, 105km south of Tennant Creek.