Guests on my Outback Tours often ask about the large clay objects that litter the landscape – they are termites nests. Often referred to as ‘White Ants’, Termites are an ancient order of insects whose origins date back more than 100 million years and are not related to ants with their closest relative being the Cockroach. Out of over 300 plus termite species less than 20 actually eat wood with diets usually consisting of grass and other matter. Termites have both a King and Queen, the nest is all about humidity/temperature control and varies depending on the species, external temperature and health of the colony. Termites are social insects, working and living together in groups containing several specialised body shapes to perform different tasks and include workers, soldiers and reproductives.
Termite Mounds are specifically designed to regulate temperature and humidity and this is why there is such a variation in appearance depending on location. Many mounds are thicker across their east-west axis than along the north-south axis. This alignment means that the mound has the most protection from the hot summer sun as it moves east to west directly above the nest, but can still be warmed in winter, when the sun is at a lower angle. Some are a low the ground to avoid the ambient heat and continue many meters below to access moisture.
This is not the case with the Termite Mounds along the Wheelbarrow Way. Two distinctive mounds can be observed although there are less obvious nests in trees and within the timber of trees. The destruction of railway sleepers by Termites on the Savannahlander Rail track was a constant issue and workers often replaced the sleepers with the toxic Cooktown Ironwood. Older buildings were also severely effected if the maintenance wasn’t kept up such as what happened to the Chillagoe Post Office. These days most Outback dwellings are made totally of steel (such as Chillagoe Cabins) to ensure their buildings stay standing long after others have been eaten away. There is even a story about an unlucky camper who had his wooden leg eaten off during the night and had to use the assistance of a tent pole to drive home. Close to Mareeba the mounds are large and bulbous but closer to Chillagoe they tend to become smaller, conical in shape – most obvious after bush fires.
Tommy Prior from Chillagoe can remember people living in shacks with floors made of crushed and compacted Termite Mounds. It was also common to make tennis courts in the same manner.
TERMITES & ABORIGINALS
The Aboriginal Didgeridoo is made from termite-hollowed trunks of trees. The specific termite and tree species are only found in certain locations in Australia and therefore, contrary to popular belief, Didgeridoos were not used by Aboriginals Australia wide. Aborigines would eat pieces of termite mound to cure diarrhoea and stomach upsets and to provide essential nutrients such as iron. As the majority of the mound is organic and consists of the termites own excrement, it can burn and it’s a well know bush craft to burn the center out and use the shell as an oven.
More information can be found at http://www.orkin.com/termites/
or have a look at the Perentie Tours home page