Posted by: travelrat | October 8, 2012

Termite Mounds

Litchfield National Park: 16th April 2012.


When I lived in Adelaide in the early 1960s, most of the city’s buses carried adverts for ‘Lawler’s: The White Ant People’. At first, I wondered why people would want white ants; to feed their goldfish on, perhaps? Then, I found Lawler’s business was getting rid of white ants … or termites, as they’re properly called, for they have a habit of snacking on wood, and, if you lived in a wooden house, you’d probably have nightmares about them.


In the wild, they build mounds, which reach a considerable height, which are made up of saliva, excrement and chewed-up vegetable matter … or, as one Park ranger put it … ‘spit, shit and sawdust’


Scientists examining the mounds tell us that termites had multi-storey buildings, air conditioning, waste disposal and an organised society before Man learnt to walk on his hind legs. And, what did Man do for the termites? Well, it’s believed that the Aborigines knew they were edible, but didn’t regard them very highly as a food source. And, when Europeans arrived, they found that crushed-up termite mounds, mixed with a little water made a good mortar, and was widely used for flooring in early dwellings.


So, maybe they’re justified in snarfing the odd homestead in return? Karma, or something?


When we visited the Sagrada Famila basilica in Barcelona a couple of years back, an Australian in the party remarked that it looked just like the termite mounds near his home. We discovered that was a pretty fair comparison; indeed, one type of termite mound is called the Cathedral Mound.


Termite mounds can be seen all over the world, and some of the best of the Australian ones can be seen at the Litchfield National Park, near Darwin. Around the grand-daddy of them all, a Cathedral mound standing about twenty feet high is a car park, a boardwalk and an information display.


One advantage of the mounds being a well-known tourist attraction is there’s usually people about, so you can get some figures in the picture, to show the size of the thing … but not too many. The time I stood around waiting for the crowd to thin out a bit’ I nearly missed out on seeing the Magnetic Mounds.


These aren’t far away, and actually proved to be a bit of a disappointment. They didn’t have a load of glasses, cameras, Swiss Army knives and artificial legs stuck to them, and nobody got dragged to them by their belt buckles, tooth braces or other metallic objects. They’re only called ‘magnetic’ because, to ensure maximum coolness therein, they’re always tombstone shape … just about everyone I know who’s ever seen them compared the clearing in which they stand with a cemetery … and lined up with the compass points. It would seem that these termites (sometimes called ‘compass termites) have a better sense of direction than most humans have.

Magnetic Mounds





  1. Such incredible constructions. I remember seeing David Attenborough climb right inside one years ago in one of his shows. I couldn’t believe how well made it was. Your photos are fantastic. Such great things to see!

    • Do you know, I used to regard David Attenborough as rather pedantic and schoolmasterly, but he’s sort of grown on me over the years, and now, he’s up there with Gerald Durrell, Steve Irwin, Ben Cropp, Brady Barr and their like …

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