Monday, 14 August 1995

Yellow Waters Sunrise Cruise

Our sunrise cruise required a 6:45 am dock departure time, in order we might catch this wonder as it occurred over the still and peaceful water of the billabong. To meet this deadline, we had a 5:30 am wake up, as we had to eat and then complete the 30 minute drive to Yellow Waters. As our only alarm was the small device on my wrist watch, both Sue and I were concerned we would sleep through it and miss our cruise. Therefore, independently, we tossed and turned for most of the night waiting for the tiny beeping sounds which would give us permission to leap from our air mattress and behave like children on Christmas morning.

When the alarm finally rang, the adults dragged themselves up, exhausted from a vigil which had lasted almost all night and one they had only failed to keep for the last two hours of deep sleep. The children were, however, like ... children ... on Christmas morning. Despite the great incompatibility of our dispositions owing to our lack of faith in ourselves, we managed to drag ourselves into the car and off to Yellow Waters.

By the time we arrived "dock side", we were all sharing the infectious excitement started by the children and we boarded the shallow-draft boats with great expectation.

To say we were not disappointed would be among the great understatements of our time ! This was the bestof all experiences.

After introductions to our guide - Nick - and a few safety rules, we slowly made our way out of the home lagoon under the watchful eye of a sea eagle. Turning, we caught the first glimpse of the sun as it rose from behind the Arnhem Land escarpment and began its daily supply of warmth and light. These first rays spread like probing fingers across the watery landscape, finding the inhabitants stirring after their twelve hours of darkness. Some, like the Tawny Frogmouth and the Night Heron, were preparing for sleep, after a night on the hustings. Most were dressing for the day and on the lookout for any early catch which might be available.

Our boat wended its way along the narrow pathway still open for traffic, as we were now in the fifth month since the passing of the wet season. Our luck was that the last wet had been a big one and there was still substantial water In the system. Along the edges of the billabongs were native bamboo and mangroves, woven into a sometimes thick tangle of foliage which would suddenly give way to reveal a shallow wetland beyond and a watery plain of picnicking Egrets, Magpie Geese, Ibis, Whistling Ducks, Brolgas and the famed Jabiru. Swimming in the relative safety of these shallow waters were Pygmy Geese, Rahjah Shellducks (orBurdikan Ducks) and the Plumed Whistling Ducks.

In the branches beside the deeper part of the billabongs we trafficked, Forest Kingfishers sat with assured authority. A close and more colourful relative, the Azure Kingfisher, kept a closer line to the trees, but occasionally popped down to the water surface to scoop a swift drink. A Shining Flycatcher was more game and
was keen to show off his flying skills among the narrow passages the branches make. Bar Chested Doves walked carefully along the bank, with a watchful eye on the still, dark water for any evil which might lurk there.

Darters could be seen drying their wings in the crazy, spread out manner which makes them look just a little silly. This drying routine is one of those strange quirks of nature. The darter lacks the natural oil in its feathers that prevents them becoming water logged and after diving to spear Its prey in the water and then consuming it with a toss of the head, it must assume this wings-spread position to dry off.

Flying above, with watchful eyes on any chance for a quick and easy feed, Whistling Kites gilded with relative ease In the early morning breeze which rushed ahead of the warming air. In all, we were able to identify 19 different species of birds in two short hours.

The return journey coincided with the early daytime activities of the "salties" and we were able to observe three fair sized beasts getting under way for the day. One chap was very cooperative In swimming up and back past our boat, but no one felt compelled to pat him in order to say thanks.

Throughout this two hours of uninterrupted nature, we were not only entertained by what was outside the boat, but were kept informed by our knowledgeable guide Nick. His vast data bank of information about the birds, plants, trees, fish etc was impressive in its breadth, but even more appreciated because of the manner of his delivery.

From this high, we felt the rest of the day might well be a letdown. However, we could not have been more wrong, as our next port of call was the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The five of us have spent many happy hours looking through aboriginal cultural centres across a variety of tribal areas, but I have never seen one which combined new and old In such a clever way, to tell an important story. On one hand there were original stone tools and artifacts. Nearby, a computer database - with touch sensitive screens - explained the complicated kinship system. Movement sensors activated thunder and lightning sequences as you walked through an alcove showing the legend of Narmarrgon, The Lightning Man. Video images were projected onto angled mirrors which only gave you a view when you stood in certain positions.

Despite all of this clever planning and use of innovative displays, it was the words of the people recorded on the walls, which left the indelible impression. The heart rending stories of separation from family members; the fear of the elders that It would all be lost; the sadness at the loss of their culture. It was poignant stuff.

We emerged scathed, but not chastened; saddened but uplifted. It was, a truly cultural experience. The adjoining art gallery contained some outstanding art works, ranging from decorated didjeridoos, bark and paper paintings, clothing and decorated materials. It was all of such quality and told such rich stories, that an open cheque book was never so desired by Sue and I.

From this peak, it was back to camp for lunch and the boredom of school work ... ho, hum !

Late In the afternoon, we were joined in camp by twenty members of an engineers company attached to K95. These guys had been working to repair walking tracks in Kakadu as a pay off for the use of the park. It transpired they were a combination of "home force" and "Orangelanders" and had been working on a nearby lookout track. It was estimated they had completed work which would have taken the rangers six months, in the space of the previous week.

I spoke with a couple of them during the early evening and following morning and you couldn't help but feel sorry for them in terms of the way the press in the Top End had dealt with them during the past few weeks. There had been a constant tirade against the exercise in general and the soldiers in particular. It was nothing they had done wrong while being in the Top End, just the fact they were here. It would appear many residents have short memories and don't appreciate what was done 50 years ago to defend them. Of course, they could well argue the military build up then, had caused much of their grief by making them a target for the Japanese.

You could dispute the big issues at great length, but the Individual soldier should not be the butt of the derision we had seen. Come a crisis, it would be these same troops who would be expected to answer the call and not the armchair cnttcs, who had been given the luxury of comment from the safety of their soft chairs, by the predecessors of our current soldiers.

Our other neighbours for the evening were a Swedish trio who were travelling through the Top End at a great rate of knots. When they arrived, they were about to set up in the midst of where the army had
indicated they were encamping, so I advised them to move. The two girls were happy to stay, but the bloke was not so keen. We offered them the usual sharing arrangements about our fireplace etc., but they kept fairly much to themselves.

However, about 9:00 pm, Sue and I spotted a Sugar Glider in a nearby tree and before a minute had passed, Sue was over at their camp offering my services as a night guide to the wild creatures of Kakadu ! There ensued a discussion about where they had been, what they had seen and what they thought of Australia. Needless to say, they were impressed, but on the basis of the time scale they indicated and the length of their sleep-in the next morning, it was a surprise they had seen anything! I was at my helpful best, explaining the dangers of drop bears and funnel-back spiders and yowies.

We crashed, after a long but enjoyable day, but not before a late night visit from Mr Dingo. He wandered Into camp around half past ten and sniffed about until he found some uneaten jaffles in thefireplace. Very nervously -fear of humans and hot coals - he picked his way into the fireplace and exhumed the abandoned and burnt offerings.

It was then I remembered I hadn't warned the Swedes about our fearsome native dog, known to drag humans from their tents ...

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