Billabong Life By Ross Bray*
Tropical billabongs, deceptively still and quiet, form perfect havens for thousands of native species to nest, feed and breed. And, though they swell and recede with each seasonal shift, some have held their places – and nourished life – for millennia.
They move to the slow rhythms of light and dark, wet and dry, year after year – yet Australia’s tropical billabongs are never still, nor ever quiet.
Here there are eyes that don’t move but see everything, predators that lie under lily pads waiting for the flawed and fatal move of a frog or insect. Birds feed, bathe and squabble. The still eyes of a crocodile see all and wait patiently for an opportunity. A wallaby nervously stretches to the water’s edge for a drink. It could be its last. A sudden struggle, then ripples disappear from the water’s quiet surface. A billabong, if nothing else, is about life and death. The survival of the quick and the fit.
The Top End’s most famous billabong is Kakadu, but there are others closer to Darwin, all easily reached with a 4WD and a tinnie. Hire a guide and go fishing, or hire one and don’t – and simply watch a nature documentary unfold around you. The guides know their wildlife. And they know billabongs such as Corroboree (two hours drive from Darwin), where most of these pictures were shot, or others in that stretch over the immense floodplain like Red Lily, Hardies or Alligator (around a two to three hour drive).
Europeans have divided the Top End’s seasons into the Wet and the Dry but the local Aborigines, who demonstrate a profound knowledge of their environment, use six – based around the ripening of fruit, the vagaries of weather and the comings and goings of animals. We newcomers have much to learn.
The Wet (December to February) floods the plains and crocodiles and birds fan out in pursuit of the abundance of prey. Barramundi locked in billabongs spill out into rivers and head to the coast to breed before returning.
After the Wet (March and April), the billabongs and fringes are carpeted in waterlilies, and birds finish raising their young as the Dry sets in. As the Wet season runoff shrinks back into the confines of rivers and billabongs, the country takes on the look more familiar to tourists.
The cooler months of the Dry (June to August) find crocodiles sunning themselves for warmth and birds slowly congregating around the edges of billabongs in search of food. Grass fires burn off old growth to bring on new shoots. Honking magpie geese grub out waterlily bulbs from the mud. The Dry squeezes life to the limits.
The build-up to the Wet (October and November) is signalled by the appearance of clouds amassing week after week as the parched country pleads for a storm. Birds and animals crowd around the waterholes, waiting. Massive and violent storms break the simmering tension, rains lashes the countryside and the Wet rolls in to breathe life back into the floodplains.
The seasonal cycles continue their slow, millennial rhythms.
*Ross Bray has 30 years’ media experience, beginning as a TV reporter on the ABC’s Countrywide, before directing and producing many programs and documentaries as a freelance operator in Australia and London. Over that time he has also written and shot for a number of magazines and newspapers here and overseas. He was a finalist in the 2004 Archibald photographic competition and has just completed a black and white photojournalism project on the tugboats working in Sydney Harbour. For more information, contact Bray via firstname.lastname@example.org.