Australia's Northern Territory has a fascinating range of wildlife (Andrew Deer)
Blog Words : Photo of the Year Winners | 09 November

Photo of the Year winners return: Andrew Deer

Winner of the landscape category at last year's Travel Photo of the Year competition, Andrew Deer returns from his prize trip to Australia and reveals all

Andrew Deer was last year's winner of the Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year landscape category. As part of his prize he won a commission to Australia; here's the second part of his epic trip explained. Or if you missed Andrew's first blog you can catch up on his adventures here.

Day 4: Cave, bird-calls and crocs

Dawn at Mt. Borradaile is a bit like waking up inside a menagerie. The only thing between us and the squawking, tweeting and rustling noises outside are thin mozzy screens that make up three of the 'walls' of our accommodation. This morning I was treated to a view of the sun rising from the foot of our bed, illuminating the rainforest just beyond.

Our hunter/dinner companions of the night before were nowhere to be seen, but I half expected to see red laser 'dots' creep up my body – Predator style. Thankfully, all I got was a stern look from a wallaby accompanied by a maniacal cackling from a blue-winged kookaburra.

This morning Kate took us on a short 4x4 drive to one of the major art sites in the area. Cave walls here are covered with the work of many artists, each laid down, one atop the other over many years. Here and there are images of other cultures that found these shores centuries ago; Macassan trading vessels, steamships, rifles and people with hats, pipes, and hands in their pockets.

The caves themselves were originally scoured out by the sea, creating a multitude of winding passages. Carnivorous bats called ‘malambipi’ live in these hidden corridors and we startled a few as Kate lit the way with a torch made from paperbark.

The gaps we squeezed through became progressively tighter, with almost every nook and cranny occupied by countless cobwebs and hungry spiders. Pausing at a particularly narrow hole blocked by a fresh looking web Shaana pushed me right through with an encouraging 'C'mon buddy'. Indiana-Jones didn't have to put up with this kind of thing.

Kelda again amazed us all again with her incredible bird spotting abilities throughout our hike. The woman really must have special binocular vision. Back at the camp the secret is revealed when I catch her quietly making very odd noises while leafing through an ornithology book.

“Haveyou gone mad? You just made bird noises.. at a bird book. You do realise those are just pictures, not the real thing?”

'Um, well I was supposed to be a channel-billed cuckoo...' she offered. Like this made complete sense.

A close call...

Our evening was rounded off in spectacular fashion. Powering along the billabong aboard Kate's tiny metal boat, the surrounding wetlands are crammed with wildlife. Shaana hopes we'll see one of the very best sunsets in Northern Territory tonight, even if the boat itself appears to have a small leak, and I fear for our survival.

'Oh, that's nothing to worry about,' Kate says encouragingly. 'We won't be out on the waters that long.'

Minutes later, when we startle a huge submerged croc half out of the water and our propeller became tangled by water lilies, I wondered if those were to be her famous last words...

Fortunately, an intense red Borradaile sunset brought us back to the present. Reaching for our cameras like a couple of gun-slingers, Shaana and I set about capturing the moment while Susan and Kelda set about demolishing a chilled bottle of wine kept in 'case of emergencies'.

Just when we think our journey is at an end Kate, making a deliberate noise, startles literally thousands of birds from the trees lining the shore. In seconds we're surrounded by a honking, squawking, flapping cloud. Does it get any better than this?

Day 5: "It's a leaf... A bird-shaped leaf"

Our journey today will take us through the sandstone outcrops and thick corridors of vegetation that surround Mount Borradaile. An area honeycombed with caves previously occupied by Arnhemland Aborigines over many thousands of years.

A brief bout of energetic climbing and we arrive at some lesser known (but no less remarkable) art sites hidden away within the more difficult to reach caves. In terms of artistic quality, quantity and state of preservation, the body of rock art here is unrivalled and include illustrations of animals extinct on the Australian mainland such as the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger).

Sitting here as the Aborigines did and looking out across the same unaltered view it's easy to be transported back to a time when families lived in these caves and told stories around glowing fires.

From our vantage point black kites circling overhead inspired Kate to tell a tale of her own. She explained that these birds are known to deliberately spread forest fires by picking up burning twigs and dropping them in dry areas. The thinking being that this causes small mammals to break cover and present themselves as an easy meal.

It seemed a long time since starting out on this trip – back when Shaana first expressed surprise that I had no interest in, nor knowledge of bird spotting. For just a moment, as we headed off to our final camp, I thought I saw something new in the bushes... A kingfisher perhaps? A jacuna? Or a crimson finch?

Our resident bird expert Kelda glanced over and helped identify it for me.

“It's a leaf,” with a pause to confirm with binoculars, “a bird-shaped leaf, but still a leaf.” She conceded.

Seems I've still a lot to learn.

Day 6: Just one more shot...

I'm not mad really. But it must look that way sometimes.

Before dawn I tip-toed out of a cosy bed to step out into the dark and photograph the intricately shaped 'cathedral' termite mounds that completely surround Wildman Wilderness Lodge.

The combined presence of seemingly hundreds of these huge structures (some up to 3m tall) give an illusion of walking through a surreal alien landscape – or even that perhaps the lodge was encircled by some bizarre invading army.

Onlookers would have been bemused as I ran around-and-around the base of a particularly magnificent example at speed, waving a torch above my head.

This was perfectly normal behaviour. Normal that is for anyone trying to use a long-exposure to capture light trails (even if the photographer in question gets dizzy and wobbles about a bit in the process).

As the time for breakfast came a waitress turned to my wife and, inclining her head toward the termite plain through the window, asked “Is he always like that?”

Outside and still oblivious to being watched, I was energetically flapping my arms about, shooing off the attentions of a few persistent flies while trying to get just-one-more photo alone among the termites and curious wallabies.

This is the last morning in the Mary River Wetlands and it only seems right to eke out every last moment. Fortunately, as the sun warmed the air and nature came to life, there was just enough time for a mid-morning cruise on the billlabong. According to Neddie, our Aboriginal pilot, these waters are home to 'Big Ass' a 14ft saltie who won't tolerate another adult male crocodile in his territory.

Many birds are seen before we hit the reptile jackpot and catch a glimpse of the big boy himself. For a moment to all the world it looks to be a huge floating log amongst the lilies but, with a disdainful thrash of the tail, he submerges with little hope of re-surfacing. Perhaps it's for the best, we've had our breakfast... but maybe he hasn't yet.

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