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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!’
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!
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.
But with all the crocodile, tourist and other wildlife action, who cares?
* Refer to lyrics from Waltzing Matilda, arguably the most popular Aussie song of all time