Stick-nest rat

Lesser Stick-nest Rat, illustration by Peter Schouten

Chris Raja

We are nestled in a valley deep in spinifex country underneath breakaway rock looking for the nest of an extinct rat.

Roger, Ben and I are on a rocky track not far from Ewaninga some forty minutes South of Alice Springs off the old South Road that runs to Maryvale and then all the way to Adelaide. This road once connected the centre of Australia with the rest of the country. Along here the telegraph line was built.

Even though I’ve been living in Alice for some time it is not normal for me or many other people I know other than Roger and Ben to be out looking for the Lesser Stick-nest rat also known as Leporillus apicalus. It’s Roger’s capricious brainwave to find this extinct rat or at least some evidence of it. He’s been out here before looking for it and believes he found nests and might be able to find these intangible nests again.

‘How big is the rat,’ says Ben as we walk over rocky escarpment.

‘It is a reasonably sized rodent,’ says Roger. ‘According to the book I have on marsupials this little rat can weigh up to one hundred and fifty grams.’

The rat captured my imagination the moment Roger told me its status is rare, possibly extinct. There is a more than a faint glimmer of hope that this attractive little animal may still survive.

‘The last specimen was collected in 1933,’ says Roger. ‘Its habitat is in caves in breakaway country around central Australia.’

Roger has got a jar out, looking for nesting materials, scats and mulga apples gnawed for insect larvae.

We keep walking for a while silently and the sound of loose rocks underneath our feet makes a distinct sound like earthen jars jostling against each other. From certain vantage points we can see far into the distance. I recognise the outline of features in the landscape. I often look to see if I can see the Gap near where I live and for a little while I can.

It strikes me that we are not that far out of Alice Springs and it’s a warm, beautiful winter day in the centre. Surrounded by various bush flowers and fruits Ben tells me their uses or their Latin names.

‘The fruit on this plant is edible,’ Ben says, as he hands me a curious looking bush currant and for a moment – I pause, wondering if I am supposed to eat it. Tentatively I chew it. It’s a tasty little fruit and I gladly take the next one he hands me.

Ben is collecting various plant samples and seeds. As we walk he plucks flowers and seeds and expertly places them into his specimen bags. He has plenty of these bags.

Along the way we see a young black Perentie run in front of us. The lizard’s clearly disturbed by our intrusion and scampers off. This is not an area many people normally come. Its difficult terrain and the walk is not easy but it is very beautiful with pillars made out of eroded rocks and other startling formations.

We walk deeper into the bush hoping to find the rat or rat nests. All the time I wonder if we will get lucky but hardly believe we will find anything. Gerard Krefft, virtually the only person to write of its habitats, found it in the years 1856-1857. Krefft believed that this is the same social animal of which Burke and Wills complained, naming a certain locality ‘Rat Point’ after it. Krefft also had the unique distinction among white men of having eaten the animal and noted that the flesh is white and excellent flavour. I can’t help but wonder if we are following a wild goose chase or in this case chasing an extinct rat. The irony that we are looking for an extinct rat’s nest is not lost on me or Ben but we persist with Roger’s belief that he has seen evidence of the rat in this area five years earlier.

Roger heads for the dykes, a beautiful rocky outcrop that winds itself around the country.

‘It is around here that I saw what looked like a stick nest,’ says Roger, pointing out the dykes.

From where we stand we see overhanging caves. We scurry over rocks, bush to the caves and have a poke around. In some of the caves we see evidence of animals. A Perentie that’s recently eaten something furry has left its droppings as confirmation. In most of the caves are wallaby scats.

‘We are getting closer,’ says Roger.

Ben walks ahead and we eagerly follow him to another cave. It is difficult to get to it walking over dykes and sharp stones as prickles stick to me and get stuck into my pants and socks and boots. Gradually the soles of my boots begin to shred but I try and ignore this and keep walking eager to keep up with the others. In between cracks in the rock are little plants with beautiful purple flowers. Nearby is a profuse fig tree with ripe fruit.

‘It’s around here that I saw them,’ says Roger.

We are alertly looking for a nest. There are other animal tracks.

‘It is in this area,’ says Roger.

He squats, get on hands and knees, to get into the cave. We have been walking for a couple of hours along the ridge looking for the rat’s nest. These rats have not been seen for almost a hundred years and are believed to be extinct but in this cave we find plenty of sticks and a tarry substance. There are a number of caves around here and it seems wherever there are fig trees we find stashes of stick nests. Roger is clearly excited. So is Ben. It seems we have come across verification of the stick nest rat. We look some more, deeper into the cave and see evidence of nesting chambers. It’s a strange rat’s nest. Roger inspects the nest. He runs his hand through it. Ben climbs into the cave. This is it. We collect some of the sticks and the tarry substance which is a mixture of urine and Faecal pellets and place it into the specimen bag believing we have found the extinct stick nest rat’s nesting place.

‘Are we looking at a nest of an extinct animal?’ I wonder. Ben and Roger are exhilarated by our find.

The sun is lowering in the west. We had been wandering these hills for some hours now and have drunk up most of our water. We head towards our camp where Roger’s four wheel drive is parked. Along the way back we walk along the ridge. We see more caves and more stick nests in them.

Further along we come across a dead fig tree and nearby there is another cave. This is a big cave and in it is plenty of Pitjuri, a type of tobacco that the old people mix with ash and chew. Roger collects some.

‘I know someone who will like this cheeky bugger,’ Roger says as he ties the long healthy green leaves to his back pack.

Around the base of this cave are an assortment of herbs and plants that Ben is also eager to inspect and keenly begins to take note of. He collects samples of Pitjuri but as well he gets many others plants and places them into his specimen bags. Also, as we are about to leave by chance – in a cave, we discover an ancient hand print on a rock. A message from another time!

Roger put his hand against the print and it is almost exactly the same size as this ancient forebear’s marking. Nearby are more hand prints but these are smaller and could have been made by either a woman’s or a child’s hand. None of us had discovered hand prints on rocks before so near Alice Springs.

There is another drawing on the rocks in this cave. Against these rocks are circles with a line running in the middle. None of us could decipher this so we tried guessing.

‘It’s a plant leaf,’ says Ben.

‘It a vulva,’ says Roger.

I can see both.

‘It’s graffiti,’ I wonder aloud. ‘It’s a petroglyph or some sort of ancient rock art!’

Gradually, Roger Ben and I walk back over the ancient dykes with strange rock formations and together we carry bits of the stick nest rat’s nest. We are tired and thirsty but content as we make our way back to Roger’s car. The sun is going down and we walk back to our camp excited to head home with our findings.

A few days later Ben shared our findings with Gary Fry, Director of the Alice Springs Desert Park who in turn suggested we get in touch with a threatened species scientist. After getting in touch with some of the scientists in town another trip out into spinifex country in search for the elusive Lesser Stick-nest rat is certainly on the cards.