Birds, Ballads and Billabongs: Australia’s Wild West!

Birds at Marlgu Billabong

Just a few of the Birds at Marlgu Billabong

It’s hardly surprising, given the lyrics of Aussie folk ballad Waltzing Matilda* are responsible for most people’s entire knowledge of billabongs**, that to visit a real one raises certain expectations.

So the unexpected dearth of swagmen, coolibah trees, jolly jumbucks and troopers at the Marlgu Billabong, oasis in the Kimberley west of Kununurra, was a staggering disappointment.
BUT … at least we didn’t have to wait long to find out why!

Bizarrely, while technically accurate, the two-sentence teaser from the Glove Box Guide to the East Kimberley didn’t fully capture the essence of Marlgu Billabong or prepare us for its many attractions.

A boardwalk and shaded bird hide have been constructed over a billabong within the Parry Lagoon Nature Reserve. A birdwatcher’s paradise.
The extensive Marlgu Billabong, via Wyndham & Kununurra, Western Australia

The extensive Marlgu Billabong, via Wyndham & Kununurra, Western Australia

Although that would – and did – capture a twitcher’s attention, it probably wasn’t quite enough to reel in the crowds this unexpected jewel-like Outback oasis deserves.

En Route to Marlgu Billabong, via Wyndham, Western Australia

En Route to Marlgu Billabong, via Wyndham, Western Australia

And the roads in weren’t doing it any favours either.

But then, it’s probably just as well. Massive crowds at Marlgu – an Aboriginal word meaning ‘wild bird’ – Billabong would almost certainly affect the quality of an experience dependent on listening, observing and patience. But bigger crowds would significantly enhance my own secret indulgence – people watching!
Pas de Deux: Green Pygmy Geese at Marlgu Billabong, Western Australia

Pas de Deux: Green Pygmy Geese at Marlgu Billabong, Western Australia

And watching the visitors who think Marlgu Billabong is an amusement park with performing animals just waiting for their pix to be uploaded onto a random strangers FaceBook page are funniest of all. Because the creatures who frequent this remote and sometimes inaccessible spot are wild, unpredictable and – oddly – don’t seem to have the tourist experience at the top of their agenda!

But a quiet observer is usually rewarded … and although it’s possible to come here and NOT see anything, that didn’t happen to us!
Kimberley Landscape near Marlgu Billabong, Western Australia

Kimberley Landscape near Marlgu Billabong, Western Australia

On the alternative back route (read ‘rough 4WD track’) from Kununurra to Wyndham, the Parry Lagoon Nature Reserve of which Marlgu Billabong is a part, is a RAMSAR*** wetland of international significance as it’s on the shorebird migration route.

Magpie Geese in flight above Marlgu Billabong, Kimberley, Western Australia

Magpie Geese in flight above Marlgu Billabong, Kimberley, Western Australia

Although shorebirds are the last thing you’d expect to see after driving through the magnificently dry and arid East Kimberley landscape en route to the Billabong. The parched dry season landscape doesn’t look as if it’s EVER been wet, let alone wet enough to support a large and thriving permanent waterhole.

That isn’t just used by the birds …

None of the 60+ bird species we observed on our two July 2012 visits (totalling 3-4 hours) seemed overly concerned by the ever-present – and quite large – crocodiles that delighted the random selection of tourists who actually saw them.
Birds and Crocodile at Marlgu Billabong

The Birds ignore the Crocodile as he? she?? swims right by

Maybe because the big crocs rarely bother with such small prey – the energy burned by catching them is far greater than the small amount replaced by eating them!

They’re after larger prey. Like swagmen and jumbucks …
Killer photographs aside, witnessing direct interaction between the crocodiles and the bird life would have been a bit ghoulish – so thankfully, despite the aggression imbalance, the scene remained peaceful and serene.
Our caravan park neighbour also seemed happy enough not to be involved in a direct human/croc interaction, albeit for different reasons. Upon hearing he was to travel northern Australia in a campervan, his Swiss friends were apparently convinced he’d fall victim to a crocodile attack.
‘So I CAN’T be taken by a crocodile, you see,’ he explained. ‘I’d never live it down!’
Telegraph Hill, Parrys Lagoon Nature Reserve via Wyndham, Western Australia

Telegraph Hill, Parrys Lagoon Nature Reserve via Wyndham, Western Australia

I’m sure the car hire companies would be intrigued by footage of the random selection of vehicles jolting down the rough, rocky track to the waterhole from the old Telegraph Station on – yes, you guessed right: Telegraph Hill – overlooking the Billabong.

But inadvertent entertainment aside, they were only a brief distraction from the main attraction – starting with the pair of Brolga in the carpark, the massive selection of ducks in the shallow waters surrounding the main pool, the astonishing array of birdlife on the billabong itself, and – of course – the crocodiles!
Brolga at Marlgu Billabong, Kimberley, Western Australia

Brolga at Marlgu Billabong, Kimberley, Western Australia

The non-existent amenities block and the crocodile’s natural tendency to police taking nature’s call from behind a tree ensure most visitors move on after a relatively short visit. Whether or not it’s a deliberate strategy to reduce human impact, tragically it means the billabong won’t be featuring in my Australian Scenic Public Toilet series
… and also turns the Waltzing Matilda fantasy tableau – a swagman boiling his billy while camped beside the Billabong with a freshly killed sheep ready to roast – into Waterhole Massacre.
Crocodile at Marlgu Billabong, Western Australia

Crocodile at Marlgu Billabong, Western Australia

But with all the crocodile, tourist and other wildlife action, who cares?
Kimberley Landscape near Marlgu Billabong

Kimberley Landscape near Marlgu Billabong

 

* Refer to lyrics from Waltzing Matilda, arguably the most popular Aussie song of all time

** Billabong = Oxbow lake

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32 comments

  • Love all of the bird pictures – I want to go here so badly! Great post. – Tasha xxx

  • A hidden gem. One of the beautiful places that tour buses don’t get to.

  • @Meftun Tenkeci – Size selamlar benim de arkadaşım!

  • TURKEY den AVUSTRALYA ya selamlar…

  • @Iris – The sandflies LOVE me too … Pilchard gets the mosquitoes!! Most sandfly repellent is like paint stripper, so I just try to avoid them by covering up (not always successful). A local told some tourists to swim at Mindil Beach in Darwin – but didn’t explain why none of the locals were swimming …
    @PDP – Haha, nothing’s too good for you, right?!?! And you’re right about the croc I suspect!
    @Jo – I had the benefit of as much time as I wanted there! I think tours like yours as a great way to find the places you want to revisit!! It’s amazing what a difference no pressure makes!
    @George – Yeah, it’s easier to see the birds with less people! At least the croc was behind a barrier which NO ONE was going to jump over!!!

  • @Linda – It’s even better live!! Try it sometime!
    @diane b – Did you go there on your tour?? I LOVE Magpie Geese, but rarely see so many in one place!! And we are right to be scared of crocs:)
    @Arija – I don’t have enough birdo followers to put a full bird list, but 60+ varieties without really trying too hard makes it a TOP birding spot! As well as scenic!!
    @MJWC – It’s like they didn’t even care he was there!!

  • @Jill – HAha, if the world’s biggest technophobe (ie ME) can insert a video, it can’t be that hard!!! And Marlgu is SO on the list for our next Kimberley trip!
    @Alessandra – You see? SO many good reasons NOT to be taken by a croc! It’s easy to stay safe – just obey the signs and stay behind the barriers! LOTS of us have survived a croc-sighting!!
    @Rose – Haha, I think he may have already eaten his fill!!!
    @River – I believe you’re right – there wasn’t a lot of info about the building specifics, so I don’t know what happened to the old one. Possibly fire, hurricane or some other nasty tropical weather event!!!
    @Saucy Kod – They’re boab trees, most common in Africa – this is the only place they grow in OZ! I’m sure the croc sneaks a bird or two for an appetiser …

  • @Filip – I believe this habitat is very similar to the Everglades, although not quite so extensive! But our crocodiles are bigger!
    @SFlaGuy – HAha, you don’t mean ‘English’, you mean ‘American’, don’t you?!?! Completely forgot to translate ‘swagman’ … good thing you’re on the ball!!
    @Kath – It’s a far cry from the Alhambra … but it’s still pretty good! Your father has good taste!!
    @Sallie – Thank god I don’t have to translate EVERYTHING!!!! Maybe I should put an ‘OZ/rest of the English speaking world’ dictionary on my site somewhere?!!

  • @Andrew – I’m happy to say I haven’t seen that happen!! But I’m not surprised the bird disappeared – even the small crocs have big mouths!
    @Hilda – I’m quite happy to bravely meet them from behind a protective – and croc-proof – barrier …
    @Mary – Haha, if I was your neighbour, you’d hardly ever see me!!! I once had a jellybean jar on my desk for my ‘staff’. I think we both know what happened to most of them …
    @LONDONLULU – Haha, that brand is BIG down here too!! Funnily, I wasn’t thinking of it at all when I was actually AT the billabong!
    @JM – Well spotted! They are called ‘Boab’ trees in OZ, but are a type of Baobab tree found only in the Kimberley region. Here’s a link if you are interested! http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baobab

  • I think I would enjoy a visit to this beautiful area without a lot of tourists around. I wouldn’t be wildly excited about the crocodiles, but I guess we can’t have everything. Your photos are marvelous.

  • Heavens Red you are so entertaining (and knowledgeable). What an amazing post and some great video clips too. My post about our Kimberley trip which includes Marlgu pales into insignificance besides yours. Well done, love it, keep up the great work 🙂

  • I would love to spend a few hours in the hide here snapping all the marvelous birdlife Red IF I could fly in, have the plane on standby to whisk me off again the minute a toilet break was necessary haha! Seeing the crocodile swimming through the birds brought to mind one of my cats who used to share his dinner with three or four pigeons without giving them a glance..I suspect the crocodile, like my cat, was already well fed 🙂

  • In Wyndham at the tourist info they gave me Tea-Tree-Oil for free cause I was so dang bitten by sandflies… See. Even that (being bitten badly) now has kinda sweet memories. And you brought them back.
    Great pics. But, uhhh, that croc freaks me out (memory: Darwin).
    TTFN

  • The Crocodile at Marlgu Billabong, looks huge!! I was very surprised to see all the birds staying so close to that croc.

  • Just my kind of place, especially with all that water, geese and brolgas. Looks like it’s going to the top of my bucket list.

  • This sure looks a wild and pristine area. With a road like that any wonder tourists dont flock there and maybe thats a good thing. We have a few resident Magpie Geese on our local lake. I think they flew here from up north and decided to stay. Great shots especially of the crocodiles. They are scary beasties.

  • What a lovely place. Thank you so much for this wonderful tour!

  • I am most impressed with the trees in 4th photo – never saw trunks like that before. The telegraph station is really quite interesting – looks like a foothold to build a cottage. The crocs with the birds I love – waiting patiently for a bigger meal. Great shots Red.

  • It’s a very pretty billabong and I’d like to see it one day. I’m curious about the old telegraph station, are those stumps the old foundations upon which the house sat? They certainly look like you could just put down some floorboards, raise the walls and add a roof.

  • Oh yes, I would love to hang out in the hide there. Isn’t that shot of the croc with the birds just A-mazing?!

  • Wow, to see those ducks swimming there with the crocodiles seem so strange and bizarre, and all those lily flowers, so beautiful… I am so scared of crocs, but have to admit that watching the video they do swim gracefully.

    Also I feel like the campervan tourist, I cannot be taken by a croc or any other animal, I am a vegetarian, my friends would laugh at me (yeah yeah I know that I will not care by then, but the though is enough!!! hahahaha)

  • I love your writing Red, and your descriptions and images of Marlgu have transported me right back to our visit a few years ago. What a thoroughly beautiful and captivating place. We visited on the way from Broome to Wyndham, and again on the return trip. Beautiful beautiful. There was a resident croc when we visited too. I love the way you have inserted video and sound. I am going to have to find out how to do that!
    Thanks again for a thoroughly entertaining piece.

  • It’s an oasis and a fabulous and unexpected birding spot! The comment above is funny…. I actually knew what all those “foreign” words mean…been reading you for a while!

    And you are not only a good people watcher, but also a good people listener..the crocodile story about the tourist in the camper is priceless.

  • Your photos are smahing, Red. My father – a keen twitcher – has been there and raved about the place. Now I understand why.

  • Your crocks make out gators look like house pets. Thank goodness I can google translate what you post into English

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swagman

  • Great variety of birds, reminds me a bit of the Everglades in Florida.

    Greetings,
    Filip

  • The kind of tour I would love to take! Great post. Are those Baobab trees on the 4th shot? I thought they existed in Africa only.

  • Ha, the word Billabong always makes me reminisce about home in surfer world Hawaii (one of the most popular brands of apparel!) Anyway, thanks for that little memory job and these utterly gorgeous vistas!

  • More amazing photos are proof of your spirit of adventure. I’d love to have you as a neighbor:-). By-the-by: the Easter weakness is jellybeans. They mysteriously disappear in my presence, Have a great day. Blessings…Mary

  • Amazing vistas! But I have to say “No thanks” to encountering a croc.

  • I saw a croc take a bird in the NT. A quick snap, and the bird was gone.

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