Australia's Northern Territory is vast (Andrew Deer)
Blog Words : Photo of the Year Winners | 02 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

Day 1: A twitcher's paradise

Dawn is the friend of the wannabe landscape photographer. The quality of light can make the difference between 'just another holiday snap' and something a little bit special. This is why I've been waking in darkness for the past week (with barely time for a Dingo's breakfast) and stumbling into the outback with a heavy camera bag before first light – always with the worry that I may have left something critical (like batteries) back at the motel.

This morning is different. This is a trip of two halves and the second half is about to begin.

Today my wife Susan and I team up with Shaana (a local photo pro) and Kelda (our official guide) to begin a week exploring the Northern Territory in a gleaming monster of a 4x4.

This is the beginning of the photography commission awarded on my winning the landscape category in Wanderlust's annual travel photography competition. It's very exciting, and not a little intimidating. I'm very much the amateur and there's real pressure here to come up with the goods.

It's not an auspicious beginning.

“Let me get this right, you're British and not into birds?” Shaana asked, eyebrows raised. “No problem, by the end of the week, we'll turn you both into bird nerds.”

Soon the talk is all, “Jacana, jabiru, brolga” – the birds we might expect to see during our week travelling the Top End. It's like another language – but clearly these two know a lot about their native territory and its wildlife. Sadly my photography kit lacks the kind of giant lens suitable for shooting birds... Is it too early to be hoping for something I can get very close to that doesn't flap?

Our first official stop is the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve.

'Warning: The dam wall is closed to walking due to large saltwater crocodile' – says the sign, along with a jolly graphic of a fanged croc. Kelda switches to safety mode. I'm to avoid getting eaten. Even a small bite would apparently make her 'look bad' around her Ranger chums. A quick paddle is out-of-the-question.

There's no doubt this is a twitcher's paradise. Crimson finches, jacanas, jabirus, whistling ducks... all obligingly present themselves while remaining tantalisingly out of reach of the longest of lenses. Seemingly with bionic eyes, Kelda is able to spot and name everything with astonishing precision. Sadly, the crocs (with their teeth) are camera shy too – or just decide to keep their distance from a nearby croc-trap – so it's off along the Arnhem highway towards Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu is a huge World Heritage Site that contains some of the greatest concentrations of major rock art in the world. For now there is just time for a tantalising glimpse at Anbangbang shelter – a massive art-covered rock that now looms over our heads at an alarming angle. The paintings themselves are tricky to date (those showing contact with British or other explorers being the exception) but there's evidence here that some date back over 20,000 years.

Impressive... but Shaana hints that there will be better art to come. With a keen eye on the fluffy clouds above it's a scramble up the hillside to a favourite spot for a 'hero' sunset shot.

Day 2: Steady shots

'Today is Barra-monday... Tomorrow will be Barra-tuesday,' quips pilot Lionel as our Yellow Waters cruise sets out. The man is clearly a comic genius. Barramundi are a tasty sea bass that thrive in these waters – especially early in the week it seems.

A morning mist hovers above inky-black waters otherwise known as the South Alligator River. With the prospect of another pun fading, 30 passengers visibly relax as his narrative moves onto saltwater crocodiles and birds such as magpie geese, brolgas, jabirus and white-bellied sea eagles.

“It's called Yellow Waters because of the effect dawn light has on the billabong,” explains Lionel. It's hard to argue with this. The whole place seems to positively glow.

The low light levels combined with the movement of the boat make it difficult to get steady shots – but this leaves more time to admire the wild natural beauty. There are flowering water lilies everywhere and, on the shore, feral horses roam while overhead kites circle – it's difficult to decide where to look next.

Next stop is Maguk Falls which we get to via a 1km stroll through monsoonal forest. Still, damp air and lush, thick vegetation offer shade from the ever-present heat of the sun.

Shaana chooses this moment to reveal she 'doesn't do walking' and is happy to point out the many failings of our map for most of the journey (the huge weight of camera kit strapped to her back is probably a factor here). Fortunately the waterfall is pretty, which is a cue for me to set up my Nikon for a long exposure – hopefully transforming the rushing waters into mist.

On the return we almost stumble upon an Arafura file snake (named so for its rough, raspy skin) lurking in the shallows under a step-stone bridge. Seven out of ten of Australia's most dangerous snakes inhabit the Northern Territory (including the cheerfully named 'death snake') – but this one is fairly harmless.

Earlier on the boat, Lionel explained that Aboriginal women hunt these using their bare feet – moving submerged rocks and logs until an unlucky snake is disturbed and caught. She would then break its neck by popping its head into her mouth and biting down.

Onto the sunset...

The rock art at Ubirr has been continuously painted (and repainted over) with images of kangaroos, tortoises and fish since 40,000BC. A 250m scramble from the main gallery takes us to Nardab Lookout, notable for tall escarpments and panoramic views of floodplains that are especially beautiful at sunset. Tonight is no exception and the sky is soon ablaze with colour.

With the final rays of light came hordes of hungry mosquitoes. The air was thick with them. Shaana and I (the last two on the lookout) had to fling ourselves down the hill to the car to avoid being eaten alive. There’s a tense moment when we’re all convinced we can hear the high-pitched whine of a rogue mozzie in the car with us, but then it's back to the town of Jabiru for a night at Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn – an entire hotel built in the shape of a croc.

Day 3: Homelands, hunters and honesty bars

It's another beautiful morning as we drive to Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal homeland. This is where countless sacred sites are kept hidden from the outside world and source of many ‘Dreamtime’ stories – tales that tell of the creation of places, land, people, animals, plants, law and customs.

This is one of the last great unspoiled areas of the world with a small indigenous population whose traditional culture remains largely intact.

At the Aboriginal community at Gunbalanya we're fortunate enough see Telstra award-winning artist Glen Namundja at work on one of his incredible bark paintings. These ancient designs were traditionally used to paint the body for rituals, but the medium of painting onto flattened bark is a (relatively) recent phenomenon. Local resident Jeffrey explains that Glen has again been nominated for the 2011 awards – he has my vote.

At nearby Injalak Hill, artist and guide Wilfred Nawirridj lead us up through tall towers of rock to beautiful galleries and shallow burial caverns while explaining the significance of some of the key paintings. The most impressive is of Yingana – the mother, 'who gave birth to the people of this country and taught them each their proper language'.

In the painting she wears a headband from which hang dilly bags filled with yams. These, he explains, she planted and then taught the Bininj people how to harvest.

The final word as we prepare to leave the rocky peak of Injalak Hill comes again from Shaana. Squinting through binoculars towards East Alligator River in the distance (and camera finger twitching) she asks, 'Is that a load of jabiru I can see down there...?'

In the north-west corner of Arnhemland is Mount Borradaile. A luxurious tented camp nestled within a primeval landscape sculpted by oceans over 100 million years ago. The site is surrounded by sandstone cliffs, billabongs, flood plains and rainforests with many major rock-art caves occupied for more than 50,000 years. Max Davidson developed the camp over the last 25 years – leasing it from the Ulba Bunidj tribe – and has successfully managed to create a spot that verges on perfection. From shelves crammed with amazing books about the area (and a couple of toothy croc skulls) to a tree that gives the illusion of holding the roof up – every detail has been handpicked to create an intoxicating atmosphere of adventure with a dash of eco-chic.

He also operates an honesty bar. Awesome.

I've barely time to gulp down my first beer and we're off with Kate, our local guide, to photograph rare Leichardt's grasshoppers that live nearby (sadly, without a macro lens) and visit some of the nearby rock-art. Hidden within one of the countless caverns is a wonderful painting of a huge, fanged, 'rainbow' serpent, which legend claims loves to eat crying children and their families... At least that's what the aborigines tell their kids. The ‘naughty-step’ eat your heart out.

Many photos and a sunset later we're back at the camp and this time we're not alone. Four guys have been out hunting nearby and are staying overnight. A full day of shooting hasn't dampened their appetite as everyone tucks into perfectly cooked steaks rinsed down with some of Penfold's finest. These guys have had a very long (but successful) day and are now running on an adrenalin-fuelled high – with even more shooting planned for tomorrow.

Note to self. Wear bright clothes tomorrow and avoid friendly fire.

Enjoyed Andrew's blog? Check out part two of his trip to the Northern Territory next week

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