Mark Davies, winner of the 2010 Photo of the Year competition (Wildlife category) talks about his trip to Australia's Northern Territory
Another early start today as we head back to Nourlangie for a fresh perspective in the early morning light. A brief ascent finds us looking up at the fractured sandstone of the rock’s eastern face, casting a pale russet glow in the oblique rays of the sun. Set against the azure of the sky, it’s a decent start to the day’s photography.
Our descent introduces us to another common motif of this landscape, our first sighting of aboriginal rock art: a combination of human and spirit figures, Kelda explains what they are believed to represent. I take a few pictures but Shaana’s advice that, “the art’ll be better in Borradaile” spurs us on to the next leg of our journey, to the much vaunted Mount Borradaile in Arnhem Land.
The waterlogged road conditions mean that the journey to Arnhem Land will be a short hop by light aircraft. As we shoehorn ourselves into the plane, I notice how young the pilot looks. I’m also struck by the sweat on his brow, although I suppose it is quite hot. The plane doesn’t start first time, or second. Or third. Or fourth. The sweat on the pilot’s brow has proliferated, and it feels contagious. At the 14th time of asking the old bird sparks into life (the plane not the wife) and we’re on our way. A look out of the window soon disperses any lingering worries. The view is mesmerising – a vast green sward of forest interspersed with low, broken humps of red-black sandstone, with the big wet still represented by glinting swathes of floodwater. And directly below, a perfectly circular billabong returns my gaze like a big blue eye.
Arnhem Land is aboriginal owned territory, and the need for a visitor’s permit tends to make it a bridge too far for most tourists, so it’s a real privilege to be here. Australia is Earth’s oldest continent, and the rocks of Arnhem Land are the oldest in Australia. So this is what the future looks like; not a future measured on the scale of human lifetimes, but on a gauge of aeons and epochs. The crushing weight of such timescales breaks the resistance of even the hardest rocks, and here they have succumbed the sheer gnawing, relentless omnipotence of time, the scattered and fractured sandstone outcrops are mere vestiges of their much greater former bulk. All around them, nature asserts its wild order. Take a good look at Arnhem Land, because it’s where everything’s headed.
After lunch at our Mount Borradaile base, we head off on our first safari, Arnhem Land style. Amanda, our garrulous aboriginal guide, promises us grasshoppers, art and swimming. We are guided down a short track to an innocuous looking bush, which Amanda assures us is teeming with Leichardt's grasshoppers. If they are there, they’re not immediately apparent, but closer scrutiny reveals first one, then two until suddenly our eyes adjust and they are indeed everywhere. The Leichardt's grasshopper only eats a plant called pityrodia – an adult will spend much of its life on just one "host" plant. They are striking subjects, their bright orange bodies laced with bright blues and reds, and, even better for the photographer, they stay obligingly still.
Next we head to a cave, and Amanda suggests that we look up. Right above our heads is a 15 foot rainbow serpent painted on the ceiling, an image which is both arresting and captivating. Perhaps 6,000, maybe 8,000 years old, it was painted at a time when the cave was beside the now distant sea. When you realise that we are talking about human activities over geological timescales, a couple of thousand years here or there don’t really matter. Its meaning can be interpreted, or guessed at, but in reality it’s so old that its meaning has outlived the folklore that was its only source of understanding. And then, by contrast, Amanda points out a tiny red ochre handprint on the nearby rock, the eternal legacy of an unknown child from an unknown time left indelibly on the landscape.
Finally we visit a swim hole, where we are joined by the other guests at the camp, a, gregarious gaggle of ladies who lunch, on their annual jaunt to Borradaile from Western Australia. The guides patiently reassure all guests that no, there are definitely no crocs in the pool, no doubt for the umpteenth time in their careers, and the cool waters are a welcome respite from the late afternoon heat as thoughts already begin to turn to tomorrow’s agenda.
After an early breakfast we begin our day of water based activities, guided by Brad at the helm of the flat bottomed boat (“tinnie”). As we embark on the swollen waterway, enveloped by the middle canopy of the surrounding waterlogged trees, there are echoes of “Heart of Darkness” which are quickly dissipated by talk of the prospect of jabirus, eagles, crocs and maybe, just maybe, brolgas ahead. It’s not long before the potential becomes reality, as a pair of jabiru storks hove into view. These tall, elegant birds make excellent subjects as the early light warms the iridescent green feathers around their necks, a great counterpoint to the burnished gold of the female’s eye. Jacanas and a languorous croc are swiftly encountered, together with a bonus view of a rock wallaby nervously regarding us from a cliff face.
As the sun gets up Brad, much to the approval of confirmed “fishos” Kelda and Shaana, breaks out the fishing rods and we all indulge in a spot of Barra fishing (this being the exception that proves the rule about shortening all words to end in “ie” or “o”). The barramundi in this spot are either exceptionally obliging or just plain suicidal, as a constant succession are reeled into the tinnie before being measured and returned. Even I catch one and take the advice of my experienced companions to hold the fish well in front of me to make it appear larger on the photo – it really was that big – honest.
After lunch we head back out to a small waterfall. While the fishos have another flick I feel obliged to take the compulsory blurred waterfall shot, before seeking out some insect prey with the macro lens. The abundant dragonflies provide plenty of material, with a stationary specimen feasting on its insect lunch providing the pick of the shots. Turning a corner on our way back to camp, we chance across a hunting jabiru and as Brad cuts the engine we just get our cameras ready in time to freeze the moment as he scoops up his quarry. An anxious review of the back of the camera confirms what I’d hoped for – the fish is suspended, mid- writhe, in open space between the two bills of the stork as a dot-to-dot of water droplets arc back towards the water whence it came. The sighting of a giant croc directly ahead rounds off a productive afternoon.
For our late afternoon cruise we are joined by the ladies to enjoy the sunset together. More sea eagles and another mega-croc are committed to memory before Brad finds a perfect spot to drop anchor and crack open the canapés. A profusion of photographic options are presented as to starboard the sun sets behind a perfectly perched whistling kite while to port the sandstone outlier of Mount Borradaile glows a faint crimson, like a dying ember underlit by the inundated floodplain at its feet. Maybe Shaana was right – the sunsets really are better at Borradaile.
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