Mark Davies, winner of the 2010 Photo of the Year competition (Wildlife category) talks about his trip to Australia's Northern Territory
“Headless Croc Found on City Beach” – not the typical headline you expect to see in a provincial newspaper, but the banner that greets us as we step off the plane into Darwin Airport suggests immediately that this is no ordinary city and no ordinary region. As a city this is something of a conundrum – the same size as Rotherham but whose citizens hail from almost as many nationalities as London. Closer to Singapore than to Sydney, Darwin has evolved along different lines than its bigger and more austere Aussie urban cousins. In equal parts isolated frontier town, gateway to a continent, provincial outpost and cosmopolitan city; it’s an intriguing place.
It’s not the first croc headline we’ll see on our trip, as we learn that the locals have an insatiable interest in the saltwater crocodiles (or “salties” – the aussies love to abbreviate every word and add an “ie” or an “o” to the end) with which they share the landscape of the “Top End” of the Northern Territory (NT). Newspaper sales double upon sight of a good croc headline, and everybody has their own macabre tale to recount. Our pre-trip reading had warned us of these beasts that would be in our midst – up to seven metres long and 1,000 kilos in weight, packing 48 teeth in jaws that can exert a pressure of several tons, together these elements constitute a seriously fearsome proposition. And all governed by the feeble reasoning power of a brain the size of a walnut. It’s a bit like putting Wayne Rooney in charge of an Apache attack helicopter and saying, “go and express yourself, son.”
Tonight though, our thoughts are focused on our forthcoming adventure in the Top End and as we re-read the itinerary and anticipate what’s ahead of us, my wife Debra and I reflect on how we came to be here. So how did we get here? It’s a good question with a long answer, which can best be summarised as from a split second nose-to-nose face off between a lioness and baby warthog on the Musiara Marsh, Masai Mara in October, to the results of the Wanderlust Photo of the Year competition at the Destinations Show at Earl’s Court in February, to a personal extension of the antipodean prize in Sydney and the Queensland Coast to the Top End of the NT, via (over the years) a host of fiscally punitive forays into camera equipment websites and suppliers.
So, we’re ready to begin our NT adventure. It’s 6.30am and we’re in our Darwin hotel reception, meeting our two companions for the trip, Kelda Hempel, our guide from Untamed Adventures and Shaana McNaught, our pro photographer. As we load our stuff into the vehicle and head into the inky morning light, we begin the inevitable two-way inquest that accompanies meeting any travelling companion for the first time.You know, the usual stuff – where are you from? What do you like? What don’t you like? Where have you been? How did you get here? The relative merits of a constitutional monarchy vs a republic (subtext: who are you, are we going to be able to stand being with each other for the next few days, and where did you stand on the royal wedding?) Luckily, the early signs are promising.
Our first stop is Fogg River, a short drive outside Darwin. These wetlands attract a wide variety of birds, and it’s the first opportunity to take a few shots just as the sun rises. It’s also our first, albeit vicarious, introduction to the saltie, as a sign warns of the presence of a particularly large example of the genome that has been recently sighted in this area, and not to get out anywhere on the road within 10 metres of the water. This is the distance within which one of these lurking leviathans would run you down and drag you to its underwater charcuturie, a welcome variety of protein to be added to its diet. This is his manor, and we’re not invited.
None of us admit it, of course, but we each establish a mental pecking order of perceived sprinting ability within the group. Knowing I could easily outstrip Debra, I’m ready to get out and begin photographing there and then. Kelda, clearly not relishing the paperwork that a catastrophic croc attack would generate, ensures we only embark at the safety of the hide at the end of the road. A few shots of breakfasting herons, ibises, spoonbills and darters committed to memory card and we’re off and running (figuratively, not literally, thankfully, as that croc never does materialise). “The birds’ll be better at Borradaile”, says Shaana, whetting the appetite.
On the road to Nourlangie rock, we begin to develop an initial appreciation of this land – endless stands of eucalypt trees, punctuated by gnarled outcrops of red sandstone, perpetually surveyed by wheeling Whistling Kites; a landscape that has found a way over time to adapt and flourish in the face of contrasting wet and dry seasons. This year’s “wet” (Nov-Mar) has been particularly moist, an incredible 3 metres of rain falling over 3 months, and as we are visiting at the start of the “dry”, a handful of roads are still off limits.
Embarking at Nourlangie, we feel the ancient earth of Dual World-Heritage listed Kakadu National Park under our feet for the first time as Kelda picks her way up the side of the rock to its summit. Here Shaana’s professional expertise comes into its own as she expertly positions Kelda and Debra to best emphasise the scale of the vista that lies before us. Wide angle lenses on their widest setting, together with a narrow aperture, best serve to frame the figures against the landscape, isolated and insignificant against the rocks, trees and sky that stretch to infinity ahead of them.
The afternoon finds us at Yellow Water Billabong for a sunset cruise on its still bloated waters. It’s an introduction to some of the keystone species of the area that will become familiar companions over the next few days – White Breasted Sea Eagles restlessly perched at the water’s side, tree snakes coiled around overhanging tree limbs, a Jacana impossibly weaving its way across the surface between the myriad water lily blooms (its seeming ability to walk on water has earnt it the alternative name of “Jesus bird”) and, of course, our first saltie, a huge example floating laconically beside us and eyeing us contemptuously as a couple of dozen shutters fire frenziedly. The denouement is a sky streaked with yellows, reds, pinks and blacks as the sun dips below the omnipresent tree line. “The sunsets’ll be better in Borradaile” whispers Shaana.
Check out Mark's images from his trip in the Photography section of the website
The Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year competition is now open: click here for details