Journey to Australia, the Original Oz
Back on the train we continue our creep toward Darwin. Most people say the Top End of Australia has two distinct seasons: the dry and the wet. However, the Bininj, as aborigines are known in this part of the country, observe six. I arrive in Darwin in gumeleng, the gradual buildup to the monsoon, when waterbirds flock to the billabongs (wetlands), and crocodiles are getting ready to lay their eggs.
“Everything that will bite you and sting you lives around here—sharks, crocs, box jellies, sea snakes, you name it,” says private bird guide Mike Ostwald, shortly after we rendezvous, as he watches a fisherman cast into ominous waters along Darwin’s shores. Ostwald is a man of many trades: real estate, insurance, horses, farming, gold mining, and most recently bird touring. He is the great-great grandson of an Irish convict sentenced to Australia for five counts of armed robbery during the potato famine, and the son of a man who hunted possums and other wild game during the depression. In fact, that’s how Ostwald first learned birds. “We used to shoot them and eat them,” he says, “so I know them well.”
His plan is to score as many “specialty birds” as we can on our way from the territory’s capital city to his lodge on the Mary River, where we will bunk for a night before heading north to Kakadu. We’re off to a good start at our first stop, the Casuarina Coastal Reserve, where the trees are filled with the colorful fluttering of a red-headed honeyeater, a yellow oriole, and a lemon-bellied flycatcher. At George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens we find a family of rufous owls napping in the canopy. Off-trail in the monsoon rainforest at Howard Springs we spot the elusive rainbow pitta hopping on the forest floor. “When he flies, he’s a flash of color,” Ostwald says, admiring the bird’s cobalt-blue wing bar and emerald feathers. At Knuckey Lagoon a black-and-white tuxedoed jabiru stands among the pygmy geese, two brolgas doing their high-stepping crane dance, and several little curlews strutting in the low grasses.
The majority of the more than 170,000 travelers who visit Kakadu National Park each year sign up for its famed Yellow Water Cruises. The big draw is the ginga—saltwater crocs, several of them 13 feet or longer—that reside in the billabong at the end of Jim Jim Creek, a tributary of the South Alligator River. But it’s the birds Ostwald and I seek, and we’re lucky to be assigned to boat captain Murray Hunt, one of the few park guides who knows exactly where to look for the real rarities. “There,” he says, pointing to the left bank, “a white-browed robin flying across the river. He’s a skulker—he likes to hide.” Hunt quickly sets up a CD player and broadcasts a recording of the robin’s fluting tune: tu-tu sweet-too; ch-ch-choo. Some movement in the thick mangroves suggests our quarry might be wooed, but alas we cannot see it.
Kakadu supports more than 280 species of birds, from comb-crested jacanas tiptoeing across colossal pink lotus lilies to the electric-blue little kingfisher we find peeking from the cavity of a dead pandanus tree. But as fruitful as Kakadu’s birdlife appears, Hunt says numbers have dipped, even since last year.
A variety of destructive forces have been converging on Australia’s Top End. As is happening on Louisiana’s coast and elsewhere, rising salt water is penetrating Kakadu’s freshwater wetlands, threatening this World Heritage Site. Scientists debate the probable causes: natural sea level rise, changing rainfall patterns, storm surges, global warming. In addition, invasive species like feral buffalo and pigs cut channels with their hooves, while cane toads are poisoning native wildlife, including the catlike quoll (one of Australia’s carnivorous marsupials), goannas, and birds.
Toward the end of our cruise, we see ribbons of smoke rising from the riverbank. It’s from a bushfire lit by an aboriginal woman who is trying to defeat the buffalo grass choking the marshlands that provide her family with food. Violet Lawson is a petite, 54-year-old with ebony skin and a whisper of a voice that belies her tenacity. “This is my land. I’ve lived here all my life,” she says. “Lily was growing all through here.” The lotus lilies produce seeds that taste a lot like peas, she adds, and her protein comes from the geese and file snakes that thrive in lily habitat. “The buffalo grass took over about 10 years ago. Now there’s no billabong left. We come here just like a supermarket. When the grass really took over we had trouble finding food.”
Aborigines, who have lived in Kakadu for at least 50,000 years, have long used fire to manage the area’s grasslands, thus promoting the diversity of plants and animals. When Captain James Cook charted Australia’s coastline in 1770, he saw their fires ablaze. As Europeans began exploiting the region in the late 1800s to mine gold, graze cattle, and hunt introduced buffalo, the old aboriginal way of life nearly vanished. For most of the next century, buffalo provided a surrogate for aboriginal fires by munching on the floodplains and keeping the grasses low. But buffalo have been mostly banished from Kakadu in recent decades, and the grasses are now flourishing, crowding out the lilies and transforming rich bird habitat into little more than turfgrass. “It’s important to keep the fire, to keep the grass down,” Lawson explains. “It’s good for everything, everybody—people, wildlife, and the birds.