17 April 15. Having set the alarm for some time in the middle of the night we uncurl ourselves from deep sleep, and moan and groan our way out of bed well before sunrise. We quickly wash, dress, and make tea. Hot sweet tea first thing in the morning seems to ignite me for the day; without it I can never quite get going. We head out from our campground cabin near the small town of Jabiru in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory, and drive for about forty-five minutes to Cooinda Lodge. Cooinda is the meeting-point to join the sunrise cruise of Yellow Water.
A “high-rise” all-terrain vehicle takes us from the lodge to the water where we board an open-sided boat. I am spellbound by the beauty of the landscape.
Yellow Water is a land-locked billabong. Billabong, of the “jolly swagman” fame (so jolly he committed suicide rather than be caught for sheep stealing), is an Australian aboriginal word for a branch of a river that is a backwater or stagnant pool. Yellow Water, a backwater of the South Alligator River, is no pool. At the end of the wet season it is huge, and teeming with wildlife. Situated near the centre of Kakadu, it is home to plentiful fish and crocodiles, and its shores are home to wild buffalo and brumbies. Brumbies are wild feral horses. Perhaps the name came from the horses abandoned in 1804 by Sergeant James Brumby when he left New South Wales for Tasmania, or perhaps the name came from the Pitjara Aboriginal word baroomby, meaning wild. Either way it is uniquely Australian.
Yellow Water is also teeming with birds. And it’s not long before we start seeing them in the early morning light. We see comb-crested jacanas with their bright red hats, strutting across the lilypads,
and their chicks. Look at the size of their feet! Large enough to walk on water.
We see several rainbow bee-eaters, all green and golden and a flash of aqua shining in the morning sun.
We see a white-breasted eagle, and later, a sea eagle, formidable and majestic birds, rulers of the sky.
We see a whole huge waddle of plumed whistling ducks,
and of course we see prehistoric crocodiles, lurking quietly on the shore almost completely camouflaged in the mud,
or gliding silently through the water.
We see jabirus, magpie geese, a rufus night heron, a crimson finch, a darter, a great egret, a cormorant, terns, a whistling kite, a forest kingfisher, and one lone buffalo hiding under a tree.
Nearly two hours after sunrise the boat turns around
and we head back to Cooinda. Disembarking from the boat we are told to stand in a caged area for our safety until the bus arrives. There is a sign nearby at the water’s edge:
The water doesn’t end at the edge of the billabong. It floods over the road and crocodiles are not interested in such arbitrary distinctions, hence the cage we are standing in. The buses are raised up on huge tires for a reason. This is the road, seen from the front of the bus while driving back to the lodge:
Our time at Yellow Water is wonderful: the early morning light, the birds, the clear water, the almost hidden buffalo, the stealthy crocodiles, the silence. It’s magical. Then we discover Fogg Dam!
27 April 15. Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve is a little less than half way between Darwin and the western boundary of Kakadu National Park. The dam was created in 1956 to collect water for the failed Humpty Doo Rice Project. The failure was largely due to either too much, or not enough water. Although the Aboriginal people, who are closely attuned to the land, identify six separate seasons in the northern part of the country, the simpler separation is between two seasons – the wet and the dry. Growing rice requires something a little more consistent, but the creation of the dam has given access to the vast wetlands without in any way harming it. Bird life is abundant, and it has one of the largest populations of snakes in Australia, although we didn’t see any. Not at Fogg Dam anyway.
We are alone, driving along the narrow, single-lane road surrounded on either side by water crowded with lily pads, lotus, and grasses.
The road is actually the dam wall though it is hardly higher than the water that surrounds it. We drive slowly, watching on all sides. Suddenly I see it. An adult female jabiru in the water right next to the road! We can hardly believe our luck. We stop the car and manage to get out without disturbing it. It feels like we have hours to watch it although it is probably only minutes.
Jabirus are actually storks found in the Americas. The birds found in Australia and Southeast Asia, although commonly known in Australia as Jabirus, are more correctly called black-necked storks. They grow to be about five feet tall with a wingspan of nearly eight feet. The females can be distinguished by their yellow-rimmed eyes.
Eventually it becomes aware of us, and flies away. As I watch it lift off on huge powerful wings at close range my eyes follow it into the sky. It is a special moment; to hear the sound of it’s wings, to feel the power, to see the controlled, regal grace as it rises higher and higher.
Looking around I immediately see a male jabiru in the water on the other side of the dam wall.
We watch it for a while then it too flies away across the vast wetlands, the flood plains of the Adelaide and Mary Rivers.
There are a great variety of birds all around us, and the further we go the more we see. Eventually we get to the end of the road and park the car. There are boardwalks for longer walks through the wetlands but we are cautious and choose not to walk along them. It is the end of the wet season and the land is flooded with water, which means it is also probably full of crocodiles. Not wanting to be croc dinner we content ourselves with what we can see from either side of the road and the small paved area at the end. What we see is plenty, including a baby crocodile about fourteen inches long. Not big enough to make a meal out of us, but it is enough to indicate the presence of crocs in the area. I should have photographed it next to Don’s foot for size comparison, but Don wasn’t putting his feet anywhere near it.
We are excited by the discovery of Fogg Dam. By this time we’ve already spent ten days exploring three of the great national parks of the “Top End”, and Fogg Dam is an afterthought. We have a little extra time so decide to go there on the way to a cruise on the Adelaide River.
We are both astonished and thrilled by the abundance of birdlife to be seen at close range – a smorgasbord of natural beauty spread out before us. And we are all alone in this magical land.
The comical masked lapwing, on the ground and in flight:
And quick, look! Over there in the grass! A brolga!
Elegant Royal Spoonbills with their yellow eyebrows, and their feathery fascinators perched at the back of their heads:
A very busy conference of pied herons,
and the last one to leave.
Squabbling great egrets,
and one with a snack.
A whistling kite surveying his world,
and an Australasian darter.
For nature-lovers like us Fogg Dam is a fantastic unexpected feast. Nature’s variety astonishes me. All these birds. All so different. What a gift to have discovered this little-visited area. And to have it all to ourselves.
Still to come: Aboriginal dreamtime art twenty-thousand years old, anthills as high as a house, isolated plunge pools, road trains, trees full of bats, pythons, hot-water rivers, kangaroos, and even more exotic birds.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.