A touch of light: caper white butterflies


 A caper white laying her eggs. © Mike Gillam


Last week I said that my favourite time on the Capparis spinosa calendar is seeing the plant totally stripped of its leaves, a veritable crown of thorns and bare sticks adorned with hovering butterflies. I forgot to add the rows of twitching pre-emergent pupa, vivid red, orange, black and white, backlit in the morning sun like cellophane lanterns.

Each week I have to show restraint and choose images carefully. I’m trusting words alone to describe the pupa anxious to escape their chrysalis exoskeletons and begin life as butterflies. Equally, I know that most Centralian readers are familiar with the dark greenish black caterpillars with their bright yellow highlights. So this week I’ve selected two images possibly less familiar, one showing the female caper white laying her eggs beneath a leaf and the other a bit of whimsy. A bouquet for the Lorax I hear you ask?

In Central Australia the life cycle of caper white butterflies is mostly tethered to their host plants, the native passionfruit Capparis spinosa and the wild orange C.mitchelli. C. spinosa (caper, native passionfruit) thrives on alluvium such as river banks, creeks and floodouts while C.mitchelli (wild orange) favours foot-slopes and rocky uplands, the final bastion for a fire sensitive species.

Mid-channel islands are a favoured location for C.spinosa and there’s always a few miracle plants embedded in pockets of soil several metres up in the air, in a river red gum hollow filled with flood debris. These unusual germinations are quite commonplace, a reminder of ring neck parrots feeding directly above and dropping seed or an indicator of the high water mark and the final resting place of water borne fruits.

Early one morning I arrived at N’dhala Gorge after driving around dense pockets of Capparis, each shrub outlined by numerous courting white butterflies. The low angled light was perfect and there, among hundreds of petroglyphs, was an artwork fainter and sweeter than the rest and depicting inteleyapelyape, the caper white butterflies dancing in the river. Regretfully I failed to photograph that stone but the image of several fluttering forms has stayed with me for more than 40 years.

N’Dhala is undeniably a beautiful eastern Arrernte word, a sound that somehow captures the breath of country, a word spoken in hushed tones around the cooking fires. The actual name for the gorge is Ilwentje and among the site’s reputedly 5,900 individual petroglyphs, two sacred caterpillars, Utnerrengatye and Ntyarlke (both hawkmoths), figure prominently. Apparently N’Dhala refers to a ‘swamp’ near the gorge. While I fully understand the marketing power of the word I can’t remember seeing the swamp so I’m unable to clarify the meaning of ‘near’ in reference to the swamp’s location.

Reflecting on that first visit to N’Dhala Gorge, I’m still struck by the enduring power of that humble petroglyph. Certainly it was executed by someone with a strong ancestral connection to that place and the authority to leave their mark. Like most of us, the artist who knelt before a smooth flat rock thousands of years earlier was clearly delighted by inteleyapelyape (caper white butterflies) dancing in the early morning light.

The whimsical petroglyph spoke of the essence of place and the universality of human emotions across the aeons, connecting those who feel and see the life force here. It also spoke of ‘less is more’ and of what was thankfully missing. To my knowledge there are still no rock-climbing pitons, stainless steel nuts or coloured route markers. There’s no lavish light show projection sponsored by the ‘Dept. of Tourism and Commerce Inc.’ – something big and bright, an ‘artistic’ commodification of culture that’s blind to the slow death of the country it claims to celebrate. Instead, the park interpretation signage is modest and understated; respect for this sacred place is clearly more important than corporate branding.

As the decades rolled by I returned to N’Dhala a handful of times and searched unsuccessfully for that petroglyph. Weeds and fires have taken their toll on this magical place and the country in between is looking neglected. On the last occasion I photographed rubber bush, Calotropis procera, in Mount Benstead Creek, two metres high and conspicuously out of place. The weeds are not on the gazetted nature park, so the rangers are not responsible.

I suppose it’s part of a pastoral lease but left unchecked, this weed will eventually invade adjacent parks and reserves. Will we fail to invest a half day on rubber bush removal and some follow up to remove seedlings? Why look away? Do we imagine that a future generation might find an easier biological control solution? What if we simply downgrade or de-list some of these weeds, thereby removing society’s obligation to act? Now that’s a political solution for our times. 

To conclude on a positive and encouraging note, it’s evident that park rangers supported by an Indigenous workforce are making an absolutely heroic effort to control buffel grass in a core area of nearby Trephina Gorge. It’s now possible to walk through rocky terraces and exquisite gardens of native shrubs, a rare reminder of the country’s botanical richness before the grey plague of buffel grass swept across the land. 

A word of caution to those residing in the adjoining biosecurity region centred around Alice Springs. At this time Trephina is only accessible to a very small and lucky minority who live in the immediate area. The rest of us will have to wait until Covid 19 restrictions are eased and the East MacDonnell Ranges are actually open. Given the low rainfall of the past two years, buffel grass should remain under control while the native gardens, maintaining their recovery, will be better in time and worth waiting for.

There are still a few caper whites resisting the bitter south-easterlies of early winter, however they are much more numerous during spring and summer. After mating the female butterfly lays her fertilised eggs, usually on the underside of the native passionfruit leaves (see also last week’s post). Three to four days later the caterpillars hatch and begin to eat.

The larva gain weight rapidly and after three weeks the final instar attaches itself to a stem to moult. The pupa morphs dramatically in shape and colour exhibiting a tougher exoskeleton, a chrysalis that protects the developing butterfly. Perhaps two weeks later the chrysalis is split open and the caper white butterfly emerges.

Competition between male butterflies hoping to breed is intense. Males frequently jostle for position and congregate around females while they are still emerging from the chrysalis. One grouping (pictured above) caught my eye and I made a hasty image before their arrangement drifted apart. Frequently the mating butterflies remain coupled as they take to the sky, a fluttering ballet accompanied by the papery rustling of many wings.

At this moment they do resemble origami creations, strange and slightly awkward flying machines lifted up and animated by the breeze flowing through a desert gorge. I’m quite sure the unknown artists of N’Dhala and their descendants working at Trephina would enjoy my butterfly bouquet. But I have no illusions about the ephemeral nature of my work. For all our technological wizardry I’m confident the ancient petroglyphs of N’Dhala will outlast this digital file and indeed the most stable analogue transparencies in my archive. I only wish I could say the same for the priceless story trees and plant communities of our region.


End notes: Quoting from the website of Butterfly Conservation South Australia Inc. “This butterfly (Belenois aurota) has its [evolutionary] origins in Africa where a large number of morphologically similar species occur. … historically made its way to India, and from there probably … via Indonesia to Australia where it is now represented by B. java.

In Australia there are various accounts of caper whites travelling great distances during periodic migrations. Check this link for more information.



A touch of light: native passionfruit

A touch of light: totemic caterpillars – ewepe



  1. Thank God for those who stop to smell the roses! (Desert or otherwise).
    Times of isolation like these gives us all a chance to pause and reflect on the intrinsic wonder and beauty of life around us!
    Our very own Attenborough in the form of Mike is a treasure as are his photos and eloquent and poetic words.
    Thank you Mr Gillam for taking the time on behalf of us all, allowing us to see things we might never get to experience otherwise.
    As a now limited traveller, your work is truly a real and lasting gift!

  2. Another gasp, another Gillam masterpiece. Another happy half hour reading and savouring Mike’s words. Thank you so much.

  3. More wonder-filled reportage from, as Daryl aptly dubs Mike, our local Attenborough.
    Apart from leading readers into parts perhaps less valued by many travellers, its a relief to find these missives featuring amongst the usual drumbeats of The News.
    That’s not to say that an equally serious urgency drives these brilliant snapshots.


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