Author Archives: paulaclarke

About paulaclarke

I am a lawyer from London who loves to and take photos. I do not profess to be a great photographer, but hopefully I will get some nice images for this blog. I started this blog when taking a three month trip around the world and now add to it whenever I get a chance to travel

Going ape at Sepilok

The Sepilok Nature Resort is a simple resort of air-conditioned cabins connected by a wooden boardwalk around a pond, right next to the orangutan sanctuary. When I arrived, my room was not ready so I gathered my camera bag and handbag and set off to the sanctuary next door. Fortunately the guide who met me at the airport was headed there for lunch and dropped me in plenty of time for the 3 pm feeding, saving me a short walk in the hot sun. There is a charge of RM 30 plus RM 10 for my camera. After stowing my bags in a locker, as you are not allowed to take any bags in with you as they might be stolen by mischievous orangutans, I headed onto the boardwalk towards the feeding platform.

Hold on to the hand railing at all times

Hold on to the hand railing at all times

After Semmengoh, my expectations were low, and I would not have been surprised if once again there were no apes to be seen. This time there was no detailed ranger briefing, just a friendly ticket inspector who admired my camera before sending me down towards the platform. I suspect he was checking I should not be counted as a professional photographer and therefore charged a fortune for admitting my camera. The rather blunt instrument they use for determining if a person is a professional photographer is apparently by the size of the telephoto lens. 500 mm and above is deemed to be professional, and the charge for the camera goes up to RM 10,000! Fortunately mine is 400 mm. I had not gone far along the boardwalk before I saw an orangutan mother and baby high in the canopy. As I watched her, I heard muffled excitement and turned to see an orangutan heading along the hand railing next to the boardwalk right towards me. I snapped a picture before backing up, but he moved too fast, so I flattened myself against the far railing to let him pass. I followed him towards the feeding platform and took one of the last slots at the front of the viewing platform, next to a man wielding two expensive cameras. A Dutch couple came and asked if their little kids could stand in front of us. The serious photographer refused, but I could not be so rude. To be fair to the parents, they did tell their kids to stop jostling me when the apes arrived. I would have liked to be able to kneel and use the railing as a tripod, but it was probably too crowded to do so anyway. It is tough for kids in an environment like that, as it is very hot and they have to stay quiet and still.

Just let me check my messages...

Just let me check my messages…

As we stood in the hot sun, one young male arrived at the platform. He struck a very human pose, leaning against a tree with his arms folded. Then he grabbed a rope and leaned out hips first from the platform, which made for some rather X-rated photos, but at one point he looked right at me, so I focused on his face. He showed clearly it is not just humans that suffer from male pattern baldness, and just look at the intelligence in his gaze.Orangutan

Dropping in

Dropping in

Mother and baby

Mother and baby

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

Baby with banana

Baby with banana

Silence was not maintained at all, as a series of oohs and aahs greeted the arrival of a mother with a young baby. Despite the signs asking for silence, some people made a lot of noise. The mother scrambled along the rope to the platform and then hung there, eating bananas. After a while, the baby emerged from where she had been tucked firmly against her mother, one hand still clinging to her mother as she tried to eat some fruit. More orangutans appeared until there were five plus the baby, while the ranger who supplied the fruit sat unmoving on the platform with them. I fired off over a hundred photos until after about half an hour the orangutans took to the ropes one by one and headed back into the jungle. I had seen my first orangutans in Borneo. Hopefully I would also get a chance to see some in the wild in the coming days.

And stretch

And stretch

Adjoining the orangutan sanctuary is a sun bear sanctuary. A few days before, one of the bears escaped and remained at large and in the vicinity. As a result, the trails in the orangutan sanctuary were closed to the public. I collected my things and headed back to the adjoining resort, as there was nothing further to be seen.

Flying squirrel

Flying squirrel

That evening I had a night walk which was supposed to be in the grounds of the orangutan sanctuary, but which was moved as a result of the fugitive sun bear. I was collected by a guide and driven about fifteen minutes away to a construction site where the tour company is building a new resort. We waited with about four other small groups for night to fall. At dusk, a flying squirrel appeared in the tall canopy above us. I had taken a monopod in an attempt to get decent photos in the dusk, but despite my best efforts at steadying my lens, it was too dark and all my shots are fuzzy other than one silhouette. It was a magnificent sight, though, at one stage flying straight towards us. We watched it glide at least four times between trees. It would climb to get some height and then launch itself off a branch, gliding to the trunk of another tree in a flash of bright red fur.

Horn frog

Horn frog

Agamid lizard

Agamid lizard

We then proceeded down to the nearly complete boardwalk. It had no side railings, and we had to access it via a narrow plank, but once on there, it was solid and we saw an agamid lizard and lots of large spiders. We could hear lots of frogs calling, and the guides got very excited when they heard the distinctive honk of a horn frog. The torches caught is eyes, and we were able to photograph this lovely frog which looks just like a dead leaf.

Oriental dwarf kingfisher

Oriental dwarf kingfisher

Our final spot of the night was a tiny, technicolour kingfisher fast asleep on a branch, with its head tucked firmly under its wing.

After that, it was another scramble over the plank and back to the resort for the night before departing the following morning towards Lahad Datu.

Kota Kinabalu and Garama Wetlands

I arrived at Kota Kinabalu after an early flight and could not yet check in to my hotel. I left my bags there and wandered into the hot sunshine in the direction of the harbour. I sat for a while on the harbour front admiring the hazy view of the islands just off the coast. Then, after exploring one of KK’s many shopping malls, I looked for somewhere to eat. The local cuisine appears to be Italian, judging by the number of Italian restaurants. Well, when in KK, do what the Romans do, and eat pasta!

Fruit at KK market

Fruit at KK market

Back at the hotel, I settled in before heading out to the evening markets on the waterfront. These are dizzying with their array of local fruit, local fish, both fresh and dried, food stalls and all manner of other things. The smoothie stalls are tempting but probably not a good idea for foreigners as the ice may not be safe to consume. Tailors sit outside fabric shops carrying out alterations on beautiful old pedal driven sewing machines. KK does not have a lot of old architecture, having been almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in the war in the effort to retake it from the Japanese. It is a funny city, aspiring to be very modern with its array of new buildings and shopping malls, but crammed with street markets. Even the malls are very different to the spacious western malls, as they tend to have narrow corridors and many small shops, more in the way of a souk.

Boat, Sabah Museum

Boat, Sabah Museum

The next morning I headed to the Sabah museum. This was really fascinating, housing an archeological collection showing the spread of man to Asia from Africa, and a collection of Stone Age tools. There is also a collection of photos showing the history of the Sabah Rangers, trained by the British to fight the Indonesians in the sixties. There is also a model longhouse interior showing some heads and the swords used for cutting them off, along with photos of head hunters and an explanation of the history of headhunting. The other side of the museum houses a beautiful collection of baskets and hats. The weaving varies depending on the function of the item and the ethnicity of its maker. This gives way to a collection of local dress, which is slightly incongruous in that it is displayed on blue eyed mannequins.

Walkway over pond in the gardens of the Sabah Museum

Walkway over pond in the gardens of the Sabah Museum

Model longhouse, Heritage Village

Model longhouse, Heritage Village

Tower, Heritage Village

Tower, Heritage Village

Outside, the museum is set in beautiful tropical gardens, where a photo shoot was taking place. I stumbled across a model in beautiful traditional dress and huge modern heels, posing with an unhappy model’s expression. Further along is the heritage village, which contains replica long houses showing the different design for different ethnic groups. I had to leave to get back for an afternoon excursion. Much to my frustration, the departure time was pushed back without anyone telling me. I only found out when I called to find out what was going on. This was annoying as I could have spent more time at the museum, as I had had little time to explore the Heritage Village.

Model longhouse

Model longhouse

Eventually my guide, Keli, appeared and we had a long drive to the Garama Wetlands. We stopped twice to kill a little time, as it was very hot and so little wildlife would be out yet. We briefly explored a local market and we stopped to photograph an impressive Chinese temple. However, my camera steamed up going from the air conditioned vehicle to the warm humid air outside and the pictures were all fuzzy.

He said what?

He said what?

Once at the base camp, I was given a cup of tea and some banana fritters before heading out on the boat. There were some macaques near the camp and we saw the flash of some proboscis monkeys disappearing as we got close, but otherwise we had little luck with the wildlife. Another long tailed macaque was calling a warning in a tree. It may have spotted a crocodile in the water below. Once it was dark, we passed herds of water buffalo lying in the water to cool off. My guide told me that in his culture he would have to pay a dowry of several water buffalo if he wanted to marry. It was easier when all you had to do was get a head, he lamented.

Black crowned night heron

Black crowned night heron

Long-tailed macaque

Long-tailed macaque

Get out

Get off my lawn!

Fireflies

Fireflies

After dark, we admired the scores of tiny fireflies which light up the trees on the bank like Christmas trees. These tiny flies, each about the size of a grain of rice, blink furiously from their abdomens to attract a mate. It is amazing how much bioluminescence they emit given their small size.

Fireflies

Fireflies

We then headed back to the base camp where I had dinner surrounded by many skinny cats, which tucked into my tofu as soon as I left the table. We then had the long drive back to KK, during which Keli regaled me with tales of being caned with rattan for being caught drinking rice wine at school, and how he got into tourism as he did not meet the 1.70m minimum height requirement to become a policeman or fireman.

image imageThe following morning I just had time to explore the Sunday market before leaving for Sandakan. This had stalls selling bright sarongs and baggy trousers (much favoured by the backpacker crowd), beaded jewellery and souvenir key rings. At an intersection there was a large board containing condolence messages in memory of flight MH17. Along the side of the market, blind people were giving foot massages, which I confess I did not find at all tempting in the heat. After once again resisting the urge to buy souvenirs, I headed to the airport to catch my flight to Sandakan, from where it was a short drive to the Sepilok Nature Resort which was to be my home for the night.

Monkeying about in Bako National Park

View from the pier at Bako National Park

View from the pier at Bako National Park

Guides need to be specifically licensed for Bako, so instead of Panch I was collected by Louis (pronounced Luis in the Spanish fashion) for my day trip to Bako National Park.  After a transfer by car to the jetty, Louis organised paying the entry fee and we set off by small boat to Bako. This national park is flanked by beautiful limestone cliffs. Unfortunately the sun was right above them, so none of my photos came out, meaning you will have to picture it for yourselves.  The sea was jade green, the sky blue and the creamy cliffs topped with green jungle. Bako is beautiful even before you start to explore it and see the creatures that make their home there.

Hermit crab

Hermit crab

Fiddler crab

Fiddler crab

Mudskipper in water

Mudskipper in water

Mudskipper on land

Mudskipper on land

We landed at the jetty and immediately Louis pointed to a hermit crab on the beach below us. There were also bright blue fiddler crabs with their one giant pincer and fish walking on the beach. Lots of tiny mudskippers darted about across the sand. Of course, they are not fish but amphibians, but it does look for all the world like a bunch of fish have decided to take a stroll on the beach.

Long-tailed macaque

Long-tailed macaque

Bako has many miles of trails, but Louis assured me that the best animal sightings were in or near the camp. After signing in, we walked around the camp and immediately saw some long tailed macaques sitting in a tree behind the main building. My first Borneo primates!

Bearded boar

Bearded boar

Baby macaque

Baby macaque

As we walked along the boardwalk through the camp, we saw a large bearded pig foraging in the ground. After watching more macaques drinking from a dripping tap, we set off into the forest on one of the boardwalks near the camp. It was very hot and humid, and we walked slowly through the dark rainforest. Louis pointed out the huge base of the durian tree, with its famously malodorous fruit, which has a broad buttress.

Pit viper

Pit viper

Right next to the boardwalk, about a metre above the ground, Louis pointed out a gorgeous, bright green pit viper coiled on a branch. It was not moving, so I was not afraid to take its picture, but I was not about to go looking for its head in case I disturbed it.

Baby macaque

Young macaque

We also found a terrapin in a tiny pool and a little swiflet sitting on its nest, both too dark to photograph. There were lots of beautiful bright blue butterflies, which when at rest look like a dried brown leaf, but in flight are an iridescent purple blue.

Female proboscis monkey

Female proboscis monkey

Male proboscis monkey

Male proboscis monkey

As we passed a steep path to another trail, we heard proboscis monkeys calling. We headed up the steep path strewn with tree roots and peered into the canopy. At last we were rewarded with a flash of bright fur. We saw the distinctive flash of orange fur, but they were high in the trees and hard to see. We headed round another trail to see if we had a better view from the other side. Again we could see the monkeys swinging through the trees, but they were far away. We went back to the original trail and waited. We were joined by a German couple and their guide and we sat until our patience was rewarded and we had a clear view of both the male with his pendulous nose and the female with her more dainty retroussé nose. They are fascinatingly odd-looking creatures, with huge, grey hands and feet, big pot bellies a long white tail which looks like a G-string from behind, and, in the case of the male, a bright red chilli pepper, as the Germans’ guide put it. Their backs and shoulders are orange or red, and they often have bemused expressions, as though slightly drunk. Their pot bellies house a chambered stomach full of bacteria to help them digest leaves.

image

While we waited, we were treated to the sight of two tiny nuthatches hopping up the trunk of a huge tree. These funny little birds hop vertically up and down the tree trunk as comfortably as though they were on the flat. Getting any photos in the forest is a challenge as there is so little light, and inconveniently located leaves often spoil what is otherwise a nice shot.

Heading back to the camp, we pointed out the viper to the German couple before eating our packed lunch in the canteen, which has hand basins for washing before eating and welcome ceiling fans. We were joined by the Germans, Norbert and Sigrund.

 

Silver leaf look-out

Silver leaf look-out

Silver leaf monkeys

Silver leaf monkeys

Silver leaf monkeys

Who says ginger babies aren't cute?

Who says ginger babies aren’t cute?

After lunch, we headed around the back of the camp through the staff quarters looking for silver leaf monkeys. We could hear monkeys but could not see anything. We came to a boat shed from where we saw a large mudskipper both in and out of the water. We had one last chance to look for silver leaf monkeys before leaving. Behind a chalet, success! There was a small family group feeding. I moved slowly towards them keeping my back pressed to the building, and they allowed me quite close to photograph them with their endearing Mohicans and bright orange babies. They care for their babies communally, and you can see a youngster moving from one adult to another in my third picture.

After that rewarding sighting, we headed to the beach where we waded out to our boat in the warm sea water. The warm air rushing past the speeding boat soon dried our feet, and we returned to the jetty quite dry, ready to return to Kuching. I was very hot, but had a very successful day’s wildlife viewing; just what I had come to Borneo for. It is worth getting a guide for Bako, as I would never have seen the silver leafs or the viper without Louis. I suspect it may also be worth spending a night there, to see some of the nocturnal creatures.

It is all about the Kuching

I had a terribly early start on my trip to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, one of the two states of Malaysian Borneo. My flight left Darwin at 5 am and despite flying via Kuala Lumpur, I arrived in Kuching at midday, thanks in part to the time difference. I was met by a guide, Panch, who gave me a brief tour to orientate myself in the small city before dropping me at my hotel. My room was vast, and very nice, if a little noisy as it had a balcony overlooking the lobby. After my early start, I had a rest and then set out to explore. The first thing to hit me was the heat. Imagine wrapping yourself in your warmest duvet and then stepping into a sauna set to the hottest and dampest of settings, and you will get an idea of the Borneo heat and humidity. I walked along the riverfront looking for a bank, which I found. However, just walking about half a mile in that heat made me feel drained and exhausted, especially since I had had so little sleep, and I soon retreated to the air conditioned hotel. I contemplated doing a cruise along the river in the evening, but decided to do that the following day when I was feeling more perky.

Kuching Parliament

Kuching Parliament

The following day I had an expedition to Bako National Park, which was fantastic and which I will cover in a separate post. Once I got back to Kuching, I had time for a quick shower before the 5.30 river cruise. As I walked through the lobby of the hotel, I heard a huge rumble of thunder, and the heavens opened before I reached the door. The river cruise would have to wait for another day. Once it stopped raining about two hours later, I decided to try to find some of the restaurants recommended in my guide book, which are all close together, and pick one for dinner. Much to my frustration, I could not find them, even though I was sure I was in the right place. I retreated to the hotel for an uninspiring meal.

The Astana

The Astana

The next morning my guide collected me for a trip to the Semmengoh orang-utan sanctuary. It is no longer a rehabilitation centre, but is a sanctuary for semi-wild rescued orang-utans. As the area hosts more orang-utans than would be found in an area that size in the wild, their diet is supplemented through twice daily feelings which are open to the public.

After a detailed briefing from the ranger, including detailed instructions on what would upset Ritchie, the large male, we set off to the viewing platforms by the feeding station. We were told to remain silent, and had been told that if Ritchie appeared we should not use long lenses, tripods, umbrellas or anything which might look like a gun, as he had never forgotten the fate of his mother. Also, he hated the sound of crying children. In fact, the ranger recommended, if we saw Ritchie we should probably just run.

imageIn silence we waited at the platform, but no apes came. It is the fruiting season, and they are getting all they need in the wild. Although it is great that the rehabilitation is working so well, it was sad not to see any, but I was hopeful that in other places in Borneo I was yet to visit I would see some. I was particularly sorry not to see the fearsome Ritchie, since he shares a name with my big brother, a big ape very dear to me!

On the way back to my hotel, Panch showed me the restaurants I had been unable to find the night before. They were right where I had looked, but were closed on a Monday, which is why I had not been able to find them, as all closed up there is not much to show for them.

Chinese temple, Kuching

Chinese temple, Kuching

After the long drive back to the city (there was a lot of traffic) I had lunch by the river before setting off to the ethnology museum. Although just a short walk from my hotel, it was quite an effort in the heat. I passed the square which contains a huge tree, the buttress of which spreads for about fifteen metres. Men were hanging green and yellow decorations from the lamp posts. Hello, they said, welcome to Sandakan! I was later to learn that these decorations were for Eid, or, as it is known in Malaysia, Hari Raya Aidalfitri, and they were based on woven parcels of palm containing glutinous rice which are typically served at the end of Ramadan.  I cannot imagine not having water all day in this heat. I have to admire the devotion.

Big old tree

Big old tree

The museum is quite interesting, and is free. I wandered into the first section on the ground floor, which was a miscellaneous collection of old machines with no explanation of their origin or purpose. I went to examine one ancient looking machine more closely only to discover it was throwing out cold air. Despite being merely the air conditioning, I stood in front of it for a few blissful moments before seeing what else was on offer. The rest of the ground floor is a natural history museum and houses the 100 year old collection of mammals and birds collected by Alfred Wallace, a colleague of Darwin’s, who was invited to Sarawak by James Brooke. The explanatory notes are small and quite hard to read in the museum’s gloom, but it was quite interesting nonetheless. The shell collections are also interesting, showing how a nautilus crafts its shell and how buttons are made from shells. There is also a little section on the capture of a man-eating crocodile, featuring a huge hairball removed from his stomach and a set of dentures found attached to the hairball.  If that does not put you off swimming in Sarawak’s muddy rivers, nothing will.

However, the upstairs is the most interesting part of the museum. It contains a model of a longhouse as well as explanations of the contents. Probably the most gruesomely fascinating are the skulls tied to the ceiling. Head hunters would collect the heads of their enemies. In the house, the spirits of the dead would protect their skulls, protecting the home with it. Young men wishing to marry would have to cut off the head of an enemy of the father of their intended to prove their worth. Although fresh heads are no longer collected, long houses are still decorated with old skulls.

Square fort

Square fort

I had a quick look at the art museum, which contains a collection of modern paintings. Most interesting are the longhouse carvings housed in the lower section of the museum. I then headed back for my river cruise, but once again the heavens opened at 5 pm, so once again I failed to join the cruise.

That evening I found the restaurants I had failed to locate the night before. My guide had recommended Junk, so I went in there. To my surprise its main offering was pizza, but after two days of eating rice and vegetables, I confess a pizza sounded and tasted great.

The following morning I headed to the river with the aim of getting a ferry across to the other side of the river to see the orchid garden. I asked an English man if I was at the right spot for the ferry, and he told me he and his family were heading there too. I joined him, his wife Liz, who was originally from Borneo, her mother and their young son Matthew. They had also gathered up Ellen, a young Dutch traveller. The river crossing was 50 sens (about 10p) and they kindly treated us all.

Guards at the Astana with Matthew

Guards at the Astana with Matthew

We stopped at the Astana, the palace built by James Brooke, who was the Rajah of Sarawak. He was given this title by the Sultan of Brunei for his part in suppressing an Iban rebellion, and ruled it until his death. The guards told us we could not go in, but were happy to pose for a photo with Matthew. They even got out their gun to make the photo more official!

Orchid garden, Kuching

Orchid garden, Kuching

Orchid garden, Kuching

Orchid garden, Kuching

Orchid garden, Kuching

Orchid garden, Kuching

The orchid garden was lovely, although we did not see it in its full glory as not all of the orchids were in bloom. There were enough to admire, though, and make it worth the trip, especially since admission is free. While we were there the temperature soared, so we had a cold drink before getting the ferry back. There was just time for a quick lunch before meeting my guide for my afternoon excursion. Ellen asked if she could join me, but rejected the cafe next to my hotel as insufficiently authentic. I tried to warn her we would struggle to find local food I could eat as I am a vegetarian, but she would not be deterred. We used up my lunch slot looking for such a place without success and arranged to try again at dinner time.

Irrawaddy dolphin doing whale impression

Irrawaddy dolphin doing whale impression

Irrawaddy dolphins

Spot the dolphins

 

The afternoon excursion was to the Santubong river. After more than an hour’s drive to the boat club, I boarded the small boat with my guide and our driver and headed off down the river. Once at the river mouth, we cruised around looking for Irrawaddy river dolphins. Just as I was sure that I was to be disappointed, I spotted a dorsal fin. A small group swam busily about. They were hard to follow, as it was impossible to predict where they would surface next. We focused on listening for their sharp exhalations as they emerged for air, and at one stage they surfaced right in front of us, but of course had gone under again before I could snap a picture. My best shot is of one doing its best whale breach impression! After about five minutes they had disappeared.

Santubong River village

Santubong River village

Home in fishing village, Santubong River

Home in fishing village, Santubong River

After that, we headed to a small and colourful village on the river’s edge. The locals are fishermen, and the brightly painted houses show them to be Muslim. They were busily decorating the outside of their homes for Eid. The headman had offered a prize for the best decorated house and they were hard at work. Bamboo railings had slots carved in them for simple candles made by filling a piece of bamboo with kerosene, inserting a wick and covering the top with the top of a soft drink can. There were also some more ambitious ones set on coconut shells. They also had lots of the woven leaf parcels for glutinous rice hanging as decorations, so I could see where the green and yellow decorations I had seen in the city the previous day originated.

Hari Raya Aidalfitri decorations

Hari Raya Aidalfitri decorations

Preparing for Hari Raya Aidalfitri

Preparing for Hari Raya Aidalfitri

Two little boys aged about four and five came to show us their toys, talking Iron Man style action figures. The little one explained that there was a little man inside doing the talking. The older one used his as a mobile phone. I did not take pictures of them as I did not want to do so without their parents’ permission, but they were very sweet, and waved us off shouting bye bye, presumably their only word of English.

We then had a short trip up a mangrove-lined tributary looking for crocodiles. After all the ones I saw in Australia, I was more interested in the stork-billed kingfisher I saw in a flash of bright colours, but which flew off before I could take a picture. Time was up and we had to head to back to Kuching.

They really mean no entry in Kuching

They really mean no entry in Kuching

After a cooling shower I met Ellen and we decided to check out Top Spot, a food court at the top of a multi-story car park. It mainly offers sea food, some so fresh it is still alive! We ordered rice and vegetables, and some prawns for Ellen. We got there just after eight but it was winding down by nine.  I think the locals eat very early during Ramadan, understandably. On the way back I showed Ellen my favourite sign in Kuching, a no entry sign illustrated with a drawing of someone being shot in the back of the head. Obviously they have to go to some lengths to keep people out of building sites!

That was the end of my time in Kuching. Too late I realised I had not taken a single cat statue picture. Kuching means cat, so there are a lot of large feline tributes, mostly rather garish and kitsch, so bad they are good. The following morning I was off to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the other Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah.

Exploring the East Kimberly

After my fantastic trip to Kakadu, I had a short flight to Kununurra. As I took off, I had lovely views of Darwin, and could see how it is surrounded by a maze of inlets. I landed in Kununurra before I took off, as it is in a different time zone. For those who do not know it, Kununurra is more or less in the top left hand corner of Australia.

I collected my small SUV (a Toyota Rav 4), necessary in these untamed parts, and was told which parts of El Questro were off-limits in the hire car (as it did not have a snorkel) and told I was not allowed to drive the car at night because of the danger of hitting wildlife. I set off for the town centre to stock up on water, bananas and muesli bars. I parked outside a cafe called the Mango Cafe where I bought a coffee and a wrap for lunch. I later read good things about it in my guidebook, which were borne out by the tasty coffee and delicious wrap.

I decided to head to El Questro straight after my small shopping expedition. El Questro is a vast, privately owned cattle station which has been developed for tourism to give people a taste of life in the Outback.

Lake Kununurra and Diversion Dam

Lake Kununurra and Diversion Dam

As I left Kununurra, I drove across the Diversion Dam, which holds back the Ord River. I was held up for roadworks so had plenty of time to admire the view. As I drove on, I could see the scenery of the East Kimberly. Rocky red escarpments, dry yellow grass and gorgeous, bottle shaped boab trees, topped by the bluest of skies. In winter boabs shed their leaves to reveal their distinctive shape. I say winter, but it is a warm 31 degrees, and the sun is strong enough to burn the foolish who forget their sunblock.

Boab tree

Boab tree

After stopping for a couple of boab pictures and to eat my lunch, I turned onto the infamous Gibb River Road. It was rather a relief to discover that not only is it paved all the way to the El Questro turn-off, it is quite tame at this time of year in that I did not have to cross any flooded sections.

imageAfter the turn off I was on an unpaved road, and almost immediately got a scare when a people carrier going in the other direction took a corner too fast and fishtailed in my direction. Adrenaline pumping, I drove on without further incident, admiring the scenery. In a few places where there is more water the dry grass gives way to green palms and pandanus trees. After fording my third river, I arrived at the station township. This consists of a large campsite, a bar, a shop, a rather nice restaurant and a few little bungalows, one of which was to be my home for the next few days. I was in Insect, which was rather nicer than its name implies. It is a room with a nice balcony over-looking the river behind, with a shower room.

The view from Insect

The view from Insect

After settling in, I wandered back to reception to see about the activities on offer. After expressing an interest in riding, I let Christian, who leads the rides, talk me into an all day ride. He eyed my unlovely body and pronounced me plenty fit enough to ride all day.

The road to El Questro

The road to El Questro

After agreeing to do the ride, I decided to go for a little drive. After about 15 minutes, I noticed it was starting to get dark (just before 5!) so I turned around and went back, owing to those restrictions in my car hire contract. I headed for the bar, where over a gin and tonic I began to worry about my plans for the following day. I had booked myself on a scenic flight over Lake Argyle and the Bungle Bungles. I had opted for the afternoon flight, thinking that the morning flight would involve driving before dawn, but the one and a half hour time difference just 800 kilometres from Darwin meant dawn was around 5 am and dusk around 5 pm.

The following day the receptionist told me the flight was two hours, not three as I anticipated. I drove to the El Questro resort of Emma Gorge, about 20 minutes away, feeling reassured.

Olive python

Olive python

The walk at Emma Gorge takes about an hour to get to the lovely pool at the end. It is more or less flat, but is quite rocky and involves some scrambling over rocks and a stepping stone river crossing. About 15 minutes into the walk I came across a large brown snake asleep under the lip of a rock. As I paused to look at it, a tour group caught me. This was helpful as their guide identified the snake as an olive python.

Stepping stones on the Emma Gorge walk

Stepping stones on the Emma Gorge walk

Emma Gorge walk

Emma Gorge walk

Emma Gorge

Emma Gorge

As I continued, I started chatting to Barbara, a lovely former South African who had been in Australia for more than 30 years without losing her accent. We came first to a beautiful blue green pool, before heading on to the larger pool at the end of the walk. Flanked by red cliffs, and with a thin waterfall on one side, it is well worth the walk, although the water of the pool is icy. I decided against a swim as I had to drive on to Kununurra for my flight and did not want to do so while wet. I headed back to the car, having a nice chat with Barbara on the way.

Pair of black kites

Pair of black kites

I drove on to Kununurra, and returned to the Mango Cafe for lunch. While there, I picked up a flyer for Kimberly Air Tours and saw that sure enough, my flight was three hours long, so would finish just as it started to get dark. I went to the dock to tell them I would not be able to do the flight, only to eventually discover that the flight was leaving from the airport, and not the dock as they had told me. I had a discussion with one of the owners, which was a little awkward as he is the nephew of a friend of mine, and he tried hard to convince me to do the flight, but I was really not comfortable breaching the terms of my agreement with the rental agency, which would see me driving without insurance at the time of day I was most likely to run over some wildlife. Eventually we swapped to a morning flight on the day I was leaving.

Wallabies

Wallabies

I drove straight back to El Questro, but was feeling the effects of the motion sickness tablet so had to have a little sleep. Once I perked up, I headed to the bar for a veggie burger and to listen to the open mike night. They have a resident singer, who sang a few songs before opening the floor to anyone else who fancied a go. Immediately a guy stood up with his bag pipes. He was really good, rather to my surprise. After him, a young boy of about thirteen came forward and told us he would sing but first his brother would do a song about Harry Potter. His little brother then performed a little rap summarising the Harry Potter books, before his brother sang and played the guitar. At first he was nervous and went wrong, but encouraged by a sympathetic crowd he sang quite beautifully. As the evening wore on, we heard from a lot of talented people. As someone who cannot carry a tune in a suitcase, I am always impressed by those who can. Afterwards I had another chat with Barbara and met her sister. We discovered that her grandchildren go to the school where my sister teaches in Johannesburg.

Cowboy Christian and boab tree

Cowboy Christian and boab tree

The day of the horse ride dawned and I set off to the stables. Joining me on the ride were 21 year old Brooke and 12 year old Georgia. After I made friends with my horse, Sajit, I hauled myself on (increasingly a challenge for my inflexible joints) and we set off through the campsite and across the river. Christian first showed us a beautiful and ancient boab, and then the nest of a bower bird. The male makes a lovely nest, about a foot tall, with an arched top. He then decorates his building work to attract the ladies. This one had collected scores of tea lights from the camp, as well as some bits of green glass, all carefully arranged in front of his nest.

We rode on, eventually coming to Zebedee Springs, where we stopped for lunch. After lunch, we changed and went to soak in the springs. They are naturally warm pools that flow down through the palm trees. While Brooke and Georgia explored the various pools, I just sat and relaxed in the top pool, which is just deep enough to sit in up to your neck. The pools are beautifully clean, shaded by palms, and do not have the sulphurous smell that often accompanies hot springs. Just the thing after hours of riding.

After that relaxing soak, we got back on our horses and rode back to the stables, having a few little canters along the way. Christian worked with Brooke on her cowgirl skills as we went, teaching her to do a one rein stop and back her horse up. At the end of the ride, Christian’s one year old daughter sat on my horse, grinning a gummy and delighted grin as she posed for photos with her mother. After the ride, Brooke and her grandparents invited me to join them for dinner.

Little corella

Little corella

After my ride I took a quick snap of the beautiful blue eyed little corellas which roost in high the trees all around the station township before jumping in the shower. Unfortunately I did not have a proper camera at the stables, as they were all around there. Their raucous dawn chorus ensures no one sleeps in past about 5.30 at El Questro.

Dinner that evening was a barbecue at the outdoor bar, with live music from El Questro’s resident musician. I had a really nice evening with the delightful Keogh family.

The following day I got up early to check out and head to Kununurra for my morning flight over the Bungle Bungles and Lake Argyle. At the airport, we were met by our pilot and guide, this time not my friend’s nephew. We loaded into the plane and took off. Unfortunately my view was obstructed by pieces of the plane, so I did not get the best pictures. We flew over the farms that surround Kununurra and then on to Lake Argyle. The lake is the result of damming the Ord River to provide irrigation for the farms. It has created one of the world’s largest man-made lakes, which is home to 30,000 freshwater crocodiles, although I did not see any.

Bungle Bungles

Bungle Bungles

Bungle Bungles

Bungle Bungles

The dome shapes are caused by wind and rain

The dome shapes are caused by wind and rain

Note the stripes caused by algae and oxidisation

Note the stripes caused by algae and oxidisation

After flying over the lake, we flew over the Bungle Bungles, an amazing range of sandstone mountains which have be been eroded by wind and rain into domed shapes. Their stripes are the result of oxidisation and algae growth. The range was only “discovered” by white fellas in 1983, but is now an increasingly popular tourist attraction, although only a small part of it is accessible by road.

Argyle Diamond Mine

Argyle Diamond Mine

We then flew back to Lake Argyle via the Argyle Diamond Mine. The mine is famous for its coloured diamonds and is one of the largest employers in the area. The mine is a town in itself. In particular, it is famous for its pink diamonds, but it also produces champagne diamonds. It is a really clever marketing trick to give them a fancy name and call them rare and therefore valuable, as to me they just look like dirty diamonds!

View of Lake Argyle from Lagoon Island

View of Lake Argyle from Lagoon Island

Lagoon Island

Lagoon Island

Kimberly Air Tours Float Plane

Kimberly Air Tours Float Plane

Lake Argyle

Lake Argyle

We landed on Lake Argyle and cruised to a small island to have a cup of tea. While we stood on the beach, several large Australian pelicans glided past on the lake. After a couple of take offs and landings on the lake, we returned to the airport. Before my afternoon flight back to Darwin, I just had time to go looking for birds around the fringes of Lily Creek Lagoon. There were lots of little finches and rainbow bee-eaters.

I have loved this part of the country. The remoteness, the scenery and the boabs – even the noisy corellas – and I wish I could have had another few days here. I was not even all that stiff after my ride! I even loved my 4WD.  Who would have thought this city girl would be happier in a 4WD than a convertible?  It is a good thing that I am so excited about Borneo as I am really sorry to leave Australia behind. I have caught up with friend, met some lovely people and seen many amazing things. I will miss it.

Rainbow bee eater

Rainbow bee eater

 

Juvenile crimson finch?

Juvenile crimson finch?

 

 

Crocs and birds in Darwin and Kakadu

Rainbow bee-eater

Rainbow bee-eater

I arrived in Darwin late on Saturday night and checked straight into my hotel. The following day I had breakfast at a very nice cafe in the town centre called Four Birds before hiring a car. After a few administrative difficulties, I secured another little car. I had a short drive around but realised I would see more on foot, so I parked at the hotel and walked along the esplanade to the waterfront. There is a long narrow park all along the harbour edge, which is very nice to walk through. It was full of birds. I saw kites, a rainbow bee-eater and scrub fowl, as well as ibises.

It was very hot, and a section of the walk was not very nice as there is development going on, but once at the waterfront I discovered that a section of water which is walled off (presumably to keep the crocs out) was hosting an open water swim. Lots of swimming-hatted heads swam around marker buoys, closely watched by lifeguards and marshals. The shallower area behind it and its surroundings were full of families lying on the grass and cooling off in the water. There are smart flats surrounding the waterfront, which is a slick contrast to the town centre which is full of bars, hostels and adventure holiday companies servicing the backpacker market.

I set off towards Kakadu the following morning. I realised I would soon need another SD card, so I found Darwin’s camera shop in the morning, only to find it was closed for a family emergency. The note on the door mentioned a shop in nearby Palmerston, so I decided to try that on the way. I established that it was a straightforward drive and elected not to hire a GPS, so I was slightly nervous about getting lost, but it was as easy as it looked on the map and I was on the right road very soon. In contrast to much of my Aussie driving to date, this was easy; on a straight, well-maintained road, in daylight. My detour at Palmerston was a waste of time, as it has no centre (at least not that I could find) and just seemed to be a collection of shopping centres linked by roundabouts. I had no joy locating a camera shop.

As I had already burnt a fair amount of daylight, I decided I would not stop to try to photograph the huge, cathedral-like termite mounds not far outside Darwin, thinking I could get them on the way back. This was another mistake, as it was dark when I returned to Darwin several days later.

Tern at Fogg Dam

Tern at Fogg Dam

Waterlily, Fogg Dam

Water lily, Fogg Dam

Lotus lily, Fogg Dam

Lotus lily, Fogg Dam

I stopped at Fogg Dam, which is an area which was set aside for rice growing which did not prove a success (I understand this was because birds kept eating the crop) and which has now been left to become a bird sanctuary. There I saw scores of whistling ducks, magpie geese, jabirus, egrets, ibises and little terns which skimmed the water. I drove slowly across the dam wall, stopping to shoot occasionally from the car, as the risk of crocodiles means you cannot walk across. At the far end is a hide, which was a pleasant spot to sit for a few minutes and chat about camera lenses with a Russian man, while watching the birds.

Just a bit further down the road is the Windows on the Wetlands. This has a little display about the flora and fauna of the wetlands, as well as a viewing platform with a lovely view over the area. I spotted a kangaroo hopping through the trees just below the platform. It never came out into the open, and was gone by the time I climbed down. The woods there are full of birds, including a beautiful rainbow bee-eater, as well as lots of butterflies.

Kapok flower I decided not to take a jumping crocodile cruise at Adelaide River. I am not a fan of feeding wild animals, and attracting them to boats seems harsh on local fishermen, especially as fishing is such a popular pastime in this part of the world. I pressed on and stopped at the Bark Hutt. This is a well known roadhouse, and may be worthy of a brief look, but was not worth the hour or more I spent there! I ordered a sandwich which took forever to appear, and was just an indifferent cheese and salad on white bread.

Broad-billed flycatcher, Mamukala

Broad-billed flycatcher, Mamukala

Whistling ducks, Mamukala

Whistling ducks, Mamukala

Australian darter at Mamukala illustrating why it is also known as the snake bird

Australian darter at Mamukala illustrating why it is also known as the snake bird

Red-combed jacana, Mamukala

Comb-crested jacana, Mamukala

After that prolonged stop, the speed limit increased to a speedy 130 km per hour. I do love the Aussies. None of these boring numbers preferred by everyone else, like 100 or 120 kph. No, they like 110 and 130. As I sped along, I entered Kakadu. A small bush fire was burning at the entrance, and lots of people stopped to take pictures of the fire. I passed a tiny wallaby by the side of the road, imploring him not to move into my path as I went by. I eventually stopped at Mamukala, where there is a lovely platform for watching the birds on the water there. There actually were not a lot of birds there that day, just a few ducks, a darter and a little comb-crested jacana. As well as the water birds, I snapped a beautiful broad-billed flycatcher. I started to do the three kilometre walk there, before I realised it was probably a bit late in the day to start a hike in an area where crocs have been seen on the trail, so I turned around and went on to the little town of Jabiru to check in to the crocodile shaped hotel that was to be my home for the next two nights. Jabiru exists to service the local uranium mine, but may start to struggle as the mine switches to more fly in, fly out workers. Tourism exists mainly in the dry season, so local businesses will start to struggle in the Wet. As I drove along I could see evidence of the impact of the Wet. There are signs everywhere warning of floodways, and depth markers by the side of the road.

Blue-faced honeyeater

Blue-faced honeyeater

Right outside my room a blue-faced honeyeater was foraging in a tree only feet away, enabling me to take some nice pictures even though the light was fading.

The following day I was collected for a safari to the aboriginal-owned area of Arnhem Land. The whole of Kakadu is owned by the traditional owners, but parts are let out as a national park, parts are subject to mineral leases (uranium is found here) and parts are exclusively owned by the traditional owners. A permit is required to enter these areas, so it is easiest to access them through a tour which will ensure the necessary permits are obtained and adhered to. After crossing the river at Cahill’s Crossing, where many a vehicle has been washed away, we entered Arnhem Land. On the way, our guide, Sab, pointed out areas of interest, such where a boy was recently taken by a crocodile. He also pointed out which areas were mineral concessions, which were national park and which were owned by the traditional owners exclusively.

We stopped at the Injalak Cultural Centre at Gunbulanya to see the local men paint and the women weave. There was only one artist in action, so there was not much opportunity to compare styles. There were four women weaving baskets under a tree. The oldest explained the techniques, using the pandanus leaves and vegetable dyes. When she was finished her explanation she politely invited us to move on, by stating that that was all she had to say.

Gary

Gary

We then collected Gary, who was to be our Aboriginal guide for a climb up Injalak Hill, or Long Tom Dreaming. He had us all introduce ourselves with our names and where we were from. When I explained that I lived in London but was originally from South Africa, he pointed out that there were many black fellas there. Yes, indeed, was my response. This was to be a bit of a theme, as he continually pointed out that he was just a simple black fella. We set off on a hot steep climb. Every 30 metres or so we stopped for Gary to tell us a long story which he implored us to share with our families. I must admit that the point of many of his stories escaped me, but it was nice to find a shady spot and listen to his soft voice. He did ask us to ensure that we threw chicken and fish bones on the fire after eating, rather than let them go to landfill, where their sharp edges might hurt someone. He chose a bad victim to illustrate his tale, as he asked a man who was allergic to fish whether he enjoyed eating barramundi. I think he planned to ask him what he did with the bones after eating it next, but of course this man had to say he did not eat fish. Gary was not thrown for long, though, and continued his story.

Echidna

Echidna

Fish

Fish

Rock art

Rock art

Hand print rock art

Hand print rock art

We eventually came to an overhang which was painted with rock art. The shelter under the overhang had little hollows which were used for grinding food. It was hard to work out how old it was, as for Gary things either happened before or after he was born. I think he must be bemused by the white fellas’ obsession with dating things. It did seem that this shelter had been used for a long time, based on all the layers of overlapping paintings. After listening to a number of stories about the art, including a warning to stay away from trees during lightening storms in case the Lightening Man eats us, we moved further up the hill. We came to a cave where Gary showed us some of the tools used for rock art; the brushes fashioned from twigs and the ochre and clay used as paint. Afterwards he pointed out a hand painted on the wall. Taking a torch, he shone a light behind a large rock and illuminated a set of bones crammed in burial behind the rock where the hand was pointing.

We finished the climb with another steep ascent, followed by a scramble through narrow tunnels until we emerged at the top of the hill where Sab waited with sandwich fixings for lunch. From there we enjoyed views over Arnhem Land, including a view of Gunbulanya and the billabong on which it sits. Sab seemed remarkably relaxed about taking a group up a steep climb in 30 degree heat, with an average age of well over 50 before sitting them at the top of a cliff for lunch. We all made it up and back more or less intact, other than one poor man who managed to impale himself in the shin with a large twig. He had to go to the clinic in Jabiru to have it removed. On the way back past the burial site, Gary gave the bones some water and asked us all to bid them farewell by saying “bobo” – goodbye in the local language. At the bottom of the hill Sab handed us welcome frozen face towels, before taking us back to the Injalak centre to purchase art from the shop. Although there were many beautiful pieces, I cannot carry anything more on my travels, so I kept my money firmly in pocket, even though some of Gary’s work was on display.

As we drove back to Jabiru, I did wish we could have stopped for pictures, as we saw a number of brolgas (a large crane) near the road, but we sped past them. Unfortunately those were the only brolgas I saw, even though they are common in Kakadu. I think perhaps they had not yet arrived in great numbers in the park.

Dancing figures, Nourlangie Rock

Dancing figures, Nourlangie Rock

Kangaroo, Nourlangie Rock

Kangaroo, Nourlangie Rock

The following day I had to wait in Jabiru for the supermarket to open so that I could buy the SD card I had failed to find in Darwin. Once purchased, I set off for Nourlangie Rock, another place where there is rock art. I was just in time to hear a fascinating talk by one of the rangers about the archeological dig that has taken place there at the Anbangbang Shelter. The tools and hunting techniques of the Aboriginal people only changed when the landscape (and therefore the animals found there) changed, over tens of thousands of years. The ranger passed around examples of the sorts of tools found there. She explained that the aboriginal people would leave the tools in the shelter so that they would be available when needed. As a result, she asked us not to remove any rocks from the park. She did say that they got a few letters every year enclosing rocks collected in Kakadu which were bringing the collector bad luck.

Nabulwinjbulwinj - watch your head!

Nabulwinjbulwinj – watch your head!

Further up the trail from the shelter there is more rock art, depicting the unpleasant Nabulwinjbulwinj who eats women after hitting them over the head with a yam. I hate when that happens.

The Lightening Man is the little chap on the right

The Lightening Man is the little chap on the right

Also depicted is the Lightening Man with his wife and family. His children are the brightly coloured grasshoppers which precede the start of the rains. The trail continues past the paintings to a lookout, showing the distant and forbidden area where Namarrgon, the Lightening Man, resides. He cannot be disturbed as he sits and waits for the storms of the rainy season.

Whistling ducks, Anbangbang Billabong

Whistling ducks, Anbangbang Billabong

I headed back to the Anbangbang Billabong, but the walk there was closed, perhaps as buffalo had been spotted there. I satisfied myself with a short stroll before heading off towards Cooinda where I would stay that night.

View from the top of the Mirray Lookout

View from the top of the Mirray Lookout

Spider web, Mirray Lookout

Spider web, Mirray Lookout

On the way I stopped and climbed to the Mirray Lookout. Although only about 800 metres up the hill, this was a very hot and steep climb, particularly lugging my camera gear. At the top is a platform with partially obscured 360 degree views over Kakadu. I am not sure it was worth the exertion and battling many flies on the ascent! Although it looked like the trail was shaded, it was only partial shade, and the rocks reflected the heat back fiercely.

Since I drank all my water following that climb, I went to Cooinda, with the air conditioning on maximum, to check in and get some more water. I saw that there was a photographic cruise available, guided by a photographer called Paul Arnold whose work I had seen at his gallery in Darwin. When I expressed interest in his trip, the receptionist summoned him, and he immediately told me I would get much more from his small trip than the larger cruise I was booked on for the following day and told me to swap to his trip. After much debate, I was told I could not swap, so I booked his trip for the following afternoon in addition to the morning cruise I already had booked.

Forest kingfisher

Forest kingfisher

Jabiru

Jabiru

All there is in Cooinda is the small resort, with a shop, a petrol station, an informal restaurant, rather bizarrely a fine dining restaurant, some small cabins (of which I had one) and a campground. After settling in, I went down to Yellow Water (just a few kilometres away) to do the short walk there, after discovering that the walk from Cooinda to Yellow Water was closed. There is a boardwalk there about 600 metres long next to a narrow channel. Unfortunately it is not great for photography in the afternoon, as from the boardwalk you are looking straight into the sun across the water. As I was photographing a forest kingfisher, some young men just ahead pointed out a mid-sized crocodile swimming silently past. Occasionally a barramundi would splash or the kingfisher would pounce on a dragonfly skimming the water, but otherwise it was hot and still. At least until the mosquitoes started to bite! From the jetty, I could see lots of birds, including the graceful jabiru. Owing to the number of mosquitoes ignoring the repellent I had liberally sprayed on, I decided not to wait for the sunset, which had been my original plan.

Back at Cooinda, after a much needed shower, I joined the long queue for dinner at the informal outdoor restaurant. I made a friend, Catherine, in the queue, who invited me to join her family for dinner. Her husband, Richard, and two teenage boys were very pleasant company, and I am sure I earned my huge cheesy pizza on the Mirray lookout walk earlier that day! Despite our mutual scepticism, the fine dining restaurant was reasonably full as we walked past for an early night, as we all had a sunrise cruise booked for the morning.

Sacred kingfisher at dawn

Sacred kingfisher at dawn

Crimson finch

Crimson finch

White-bellied sea eagles

White-bellied sea eagles

Before dawn I waited with about 80 other people for the shuttle down to Yellow Water for the sunrise cruise. I was on the smallest of the three boats which set off. After my discussion with Paul the day before, my expectations were low, but the guide, Belinda, was very knowledgeable about birds and the opportunities for photos were not bad, particularly when things were on my side of the boat. As well as crocs, we saw many, many birds, including three species of kingfisher, a bush full of crimson finches, nankeen or rufous night herons, and two beautiful white bellied sea eagles sitting side by side in a tree.

Rufous night heron

Nankeen night heron

Azure kingfisher

Azure kingfisher

The ticket included a cooked breakfast back at Cooinda, where my 100-400mm lens attracted some attention. There did not seem to be many people with long lenses. I had a chat with a man from Adelaide who was planning an African trip and thinking of upgrading his 300 mm lens. I told him he would not need a 400mm lens in Africa unless he was into birds.

I set off to do a walk but realised that to get there I would have to cross a river in my hatchback. In crocodile infested country that did not seem wise, so I headed back to Cooinda. It was just as well, as I had muddled my dates and was supposed to have checked out! It was the first time in more than two months of travel that I had got confused about my itinerary. I quickly packed the car, and found a shady spot to check my photos, eschewing the nearby cultural centre on the basis that it was just too hot, before my afternoon trip with Paul.

Pied heron dices with death

Pied heron dices with death

Too full to move

Too full to move

Pied cormorant

Pied cormorant

White-bellied sea eagle with snake

White-bellied sea eagle with snake

Spoonbill

Spoonbill

Tern on waterlily

Tern on waterlily

I was his only customer, and we set off with Belinda, my guide from the morning trip, driving the boat. It was very hot and the sun was strong, which made me worried that I would not get any shots. Despite this, we managed to find some good shots, particularly of birds. One huge croc was right on the bank, too full to move even when we nudged the boat right next to him. Paul had seen him take a stillborn foal from the bank the day before. Kakadu is full of brumbies, although I did not see any on my trip. Another croc splashed into the water when we got near him, but his eye made a cool shot through the reeds. At least I liked it so much I made it the featured image of this post.

Juvenile night heron

Juvenile night heron

Radjah shelduck

Radjah shelduck

Sacred kingfisher

Sacred kingfisher

Pied heron

Pied heron

Paul mostly left me to it, just pointing out things I might like to shoot, and telling me to lie on the front of the boat to shoot at eye level to my subjects. This was all very well, but the boat was very hot so sprawling on my stomach on it was not all that comfortable! It was mainly birds, and the only one which really did not play ball was the jacana with a baby, which stayed firmly in the reeds, although I managed to get one shot of the chick which was not too bad. The chicks are well camouflaged in contrast to their brightly coloured parents. It amazes me that these little birds don’t trip over their huge feet, which are perfect for lily pad hopping. The pied heron was darting about right next to a huge crocodile, but the crocs generally prefer fish to birds, and Yellow Water is teeming with fish, so this was not as risky as it might appear. However, a small crocodile which was lying in the water with just its head visible was taking a very keen interest in a juvenile nankeen night heron. I think I captured the intensity of the heron’s gaze as it watched the croc closely.

Magpie goose

Magpie goose

After the photo cruise, I bought a big bottle of water to rehydrate after the hot expedition and headed straight back to Darwin without stopping. I was excited when a road train passed me in the other direction, as it was the first of these huge trucks I had seen. The novelty soon wore off when one sped by at 130 kilometres per hour and shook my little car in its wake.  Still, at least I did not have to overtake any of these monsters. I drove along the almost completely empty roads and hit the wonderfully named town of Humpty Doo before it got dark. It was a gorgeous sunset, even it did occasionally make it hard to see as at times I was driving straight into the setting sun, and of course it was too dark for me to see the termite mounds I had planned to photograph on my return trip. Dusk also brought little pale agile wallabies bouncing across the road, so I kept a sharp eye out to avoid them. Darwin is so small that even I, with my epically useless sense of direction, found my hotel with no problems in the dark. The following morning I was off to the remote East Kimberley.

Jacana chick

Jacana chick

Comb-crested jacana

Comb-crested jacana

Cruising from Cairns

I was dropped at the wharf at Cairns rather early for my cruise. Fortunately I was able to leave my bags and head into Cairns to grab some lunch before heading back to the Coral Princess II, a small cruise ship. On my trip there were 35 passengers and a crew of thirteen. They like to have you on board an hour before departure to settle you in and provide a safety briefing. This was bad news for me as I am not a good sailor, and by the time we set off I was feeling rather queasy. While everyone else was bonding over pre-dinner drinks, I was in my cabin sleeping off a sea-sickness tablet. I went to dinner, but turned tail as soon as I smelled the food. Fortunately I was able to compose myself and join the other passengers for dinner. Thanks to the tablet, I went straight to bed after dinner. I woke about four hours later with no idea where I was when the tablet wore off, and tried to get out of the wrong side of my bed. The wall was in the way! Clearly I should say no to drugs.

Olive backed oriole

Olive backed oriole

Water lily, Cooktown Botanical Gardens

Water lily, Cooktown Botanical Gardens

We travelled all night and and in the morning arrived at Cooktown, where Captain Cook landed to repair the Endeavour after he holed it on the reef. Owing to the tides, we had just two hours to explore the town. Having left a crucial item behind in Port Douglas, I had to find a supermarket. I eventually did after finding someone to give me directions, which left me with just an hour to explore and return to the wharf. I decided on the botanical gardens over the museum as I would not have time to do the museum justice, and spent a few minutes there photographing some olive-backed orioles before I had to head back to the boat. They were facing one another, singing, but sadly one was obscured by leaves so only one appears in the pictures. As the tide was out, we had to be transferred on the glass bottomed boat back to the ship. Once back on board, we headed towards Lizard Island. On the way, the crew announced that there were dolphins off the bow, but they did not stick around long enough for anyone else to see them. It was nice to stand at the front of the ship and get some fresh air though.

Blue sea star

Blue sea star

We got there in the afternoon. Lizard Island was hammered by a cyclone in April, so the resort there is closed, and it was looking rather bare, with many of its trees stripped of leaves. We were transferred to Turtle Beach to have a snorkel. Even though the reef was damaged by the cyclone, it gave us an opportunity to start to see what the Great Barrier Reef had to offer. I saw an octopus sticking out of a crevice, colourful parrot fish, and lots of other fish I could not identify. I had been hoping to test my newest toy, a GoPro which I bought after being frustrated at not being able to record my underwater experiences in Maui, but I had not charged it properly, so it would have to wait until the following day. As the sun began to sink we went back on board, and all went to bed straight after dinner after our early start.

The Coral Princess II at dawn, from halfway up Cook's Look

The Coral Princess II at dawn, from halfway up Cook’s Look

Cook's Look - we made it

Cook’s Look – we made it

View over Lizard Island

View over Lizard Island

The following morning, we had an early start to hike up to Cook’s Look. Captain Cook scaled a hill on the island to look for a way out of the reef. He found one, but soon returned to its sheltered waters. Our guide, Chris, set off at a frantic pace that soon saw me confined to the rear despite being younger than most of the others on the trek. Fourteen of us braved the climb, and he did say it was the first time no one had turned back. It is a steep climb, and hot even at first light, but taken at a slower pace it is perfectly doable. On the way I finally tested the GoPro. Back at the beach, there was just time for a quick snorkel to cool down after passing a catamaran which had been parked on the beach by the cyclone. Hopefully the owner will be able to get it back on the water, otherwise it will be an expensive houseboat. We then returned to the ship to head off to Ribbon Reef No. 9.

Houseboat

Houseboat

At Ribbon Reef No. 9 I decided to go for a dive. I am a PADI certified diver, but other than the brief Snuba experience in Maui, I had not dived for years. I gave it up because I suffer from such bad motion sickness, but I decided that off the back of a big boat like the Coral Princess II, I would not suffer in the same way as diving from a rubber dingy. There were four of us who went down with Elayna, the instructor; father and son Mick and Nick and novice diver Angelo. There was a strong current, which meant that we did not get very far, and we got through our air very quickly, so it was not the best dive, but at least I was not sick.

Sea cucumber

Sea cucumber

That night at dinner saw a young person’s table form, as I sat with Nat and Scott, a young couple from Sydney having a last holiday before the birth of their baby, and Sonia and Clemente, honeymooners from Italy. Sonia spoke good Spanish and Clemente’s French was better than his English, so we had a conversation in four languages. Dinner was a barbecue cooked by the captain on the back of the boat. Tiny blue fish were attracted to the lights on the boat, in turn attracted scores of mid-sized silver fish. Three huge gropers also circled around, although they were not feeding. Perhaps they were just showing off for us. It was hypnotic to hang over the back rail and watch them all. After the hike and battling the current, once again we all retired to bed very early, although perhaps it was having to dig up my French that left me so exhausted!

imageThe next morning I went on a glass bottomed boat trip with Chris, who is a marine biologist. He told us lots of fish and coral reproduction stories. It seems fish swap genders rather a lot, the saucy things. After that, we dived at Ribbon Reef No. 3. This time there was no current, and I had an excellent dive with Mick and Nick. There were so many fish it was like being almost like an aquarium. I tested the video function on the GoPro, and managed to film Mick and Nick on their dive but avoid the fish! All accompanied by a Darth Vader soundtrack.

image image imageAfter the dive I jumped in to have a snorkel on the reef, which is actually better for photos as the light is better in the shallow water.

Whale versus snorkelers

Whale versus snorkelers

No sooner had I got in when I heard someone on the ship shout that there were whales off the front of the boat. I swam out to where everyone was gathered together in the deep water. Chris told us to stay together and let them come to us. After just a few minutes Malcolm, the mate who was in the glass bottomed boat watching them from the surface, told us they were headed our way. I peered down into the inky blue depths and suddenly right below me was a dwarf minke whale. It swam slowly beneath us, looking at us very closely.  I almost forgot to breathe, I was so awestruck.

Dwarf minke whale

Dwarf minke whale

Chris and the captain were free diving, both capable of staying under for ages. The captain in particular could dive for so long I was sure he was half fish. I, on the other hand, was so buoyant in my wetsuit it was almost impossible for me to dive under, and by the time I got below the surface I had used all my air in the effort to get underwater! There were three whales, and they circled round us, as curious about the brightly coloured group of snorkelers as we were about them. Each time they came a little closer, and we had an amazing time with them. As one came right underneath us, it turned to look at some of the snorkelers more closely. It was not at all frightening, just awe inspiring. Despite being small for whales, they were still impressively large. By this stage the captain had urged the crew to jump in, so they were all there, still in their uniforms, having just grabbed a mask and fins. What a nice boss, making sure no one missed out on a rare and magical experience.

Back on the boat we were all buzzing after our close encounter. As a farewell, the whales breached near the boat, but I missed it having gone inside. This meant that even those who were unable to get in the water got a lovely view of the whales. They left, and we too set off, this time for for Escape Reef.

Ribbon reef No 9

Ribbon Reef No 9

Once at Escape Reef, I decided to do a final dive, as I am not sure whether I will get the chance again. This time it was just me with Elayna and Julie, another crew member. As I moved onto the platform at the back of the boat to put on my fins and my scuba gear, I stepped onto the lower step and just kept going. Once I realised I was slipping, I let myself go so as not to hurt myself and slid off the platform which was about a metre and a half above the sea. When I surfaced, still clutching my GoPro and my mask in one hand, I could see Elayna peering very anxiously at me. She dived in, frantic as I was wearing a weight belt, but in my very buoyant wetsuit I was fine. She pulled off the weight belt and let it drop before ushering me back onto the boat. Once back on board, Foxy, the engineer and safety office who had been watched from the deck above, appeared in fits of giggles to lighten the mood. Poor Elayna got a big fright, but I was fine, despite falling off the boat, and after collecting another weight belt, completed the dive. We did pick up the first weight belt before surfacing!

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Brain coral

Brain coral

There was no time for a snorkel after that last dive, as we started to head back towards Cairns. After dinner we had a quiz on all the information imparted by Chris over the course of the cruise. I was in a small team with Scott and Nat, and to our surprise we tied for first place. The decider was a picture round, which we lost resoundingly after getting into a helpless fit of giggles when my picture was inadvertently suggestive. It made Nat think of the reproduction stories she had heard from Chris earlier that day. Marine sex is all the boy talked about on his glassy trips. The more I tried to fix it, the worse it got and the more we laughed. We did not mind losing though – we saw whales earlier in the day!

Flying foxes

Flying foxes

Flying fox

Flying fox

We docked in Cairns early the next morning. I then had the day in Cairns before my evening flight to Darwin. I checked my suitcase in but was carrying all of my hand luggage, so I just had a little wander around. There is a very nice esplanade, complete with free wifi and a lagoon pool along the mudflats. Right in the centre of town, I could hear a lot of squawking and looked up to see hundreds of flying foxes roosting in giant fig trees. These amazing bats have beautiful doggy faces and large black wings that they flapped gently to keep themselves cool. It seems the local council has tried to evict them by cutting the trees they like to roost in. I am sure they are a bit messy and they are certainly noisy, but they are gorgeous. Leave them alone, they add to the tropical feel of the place. Also on my wanders I saw a shop selling museum quality shrunken heads. Well, I had been wondering what to get the family. Problem solved!

Australian pelican

Australian pelican

I headed back to the esplanade and watched some pelicans for a while, chatting to a Dutch girl called Franke who had just arrived in Cairns. She was a PhD student who was in Australia to speak at a conference. Nice work if you can get it! We admired the rainbow lorikeets roosting in the palm trees along the esplanade before I headed off to the airport to catch my flight to Darwin, unsure if Queensland could be topped, but at the same time knowing more exciting experiences were waiting for me.

Sunset at sea

Sunset at sea

Rainbow lorikeets

Rainbow lorikeets