Last Updated on May 6, 2021 by Red Nomad OZ
The lyrics of Aussie folk ballad Waltzing Matilda* are responsible for most people’s entire knowledge of billabongs**. So visiting a real one – like Marlgu Billabong – raises certain expectations.
Visiting a real Billabong
That’s why I found the unexpected lack of swagmen, coolibah trees, jolly jumbucks and troopers at the Marlgu Billabong, oasis in the Kimberley west of Kununurra, a staggering disappointment.
But we didn’t have to wait long to find out why!
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.
Yes, it was technically accurate. But no, it didn’t describe the reality.
Birds at Marlgu Billabong
The description would – and did – capture a twitcher’s attention. “Marlgu” is an Aboriginal word meaning “wild bird”, after all. But it wasn’t going to reel in the crowds that Marlgu Billabong, an 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 Billabong would almost certainly affect the quality of an experience dependent on listening, observing and patience. Even though 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 don’t seem to have the tourist experience at the top of their agenda!
A quiet observer is usually rewarded, and although it’s possible to come here and NOT see anything, that didn’t happen to us!
Despite the crowds!
Where is it?
Marlgu Billabong is on the alternative back route (read ‘rough 4WD track’) from Kununurra to Wyndham. The Parry Lagoon Nature Reserve of which the 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.
But it isn’t just used by the 60+ bird species we observed on our two visits (totalling 3-4 hours). The birds didn’t seem worried 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.
And maybe even tourists!
Killer photographs aside, witnessing direct interaction between the crocodiles and the bird life wouldn’t have been pleasant. 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!’
What to expect at the waterhole
A random selection of vehicles jolted down the rough, rocky track to the waterhole from the old Telegraph Station on Telegraph Hill overlooking the billabong. I was pretty sure they were breaching the hire care agreement.
They were only a brief distraction from the billabong’s main attractions. These started with a pair of Brolga in the carpark, a massive selection of ducks in the shallow waters surrounding the main pool, an astonishing array of birdlife on the billabong itself, and – of course – the crocodiles!
No amenities block and the thought of a stray crocodile policing the surrounding trees ensure most visitors move on after a short time. 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.
This also turns the Waltzing Matilda subject matter – a swagman boiling his billy while camped beside the Billabong with a freshly killed sheep ready to roast – into potential 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
** Billabong = Oxbow lake
*** Ramsar Wetlands
Click HERE to see Slim Dusty singing Waltzing Matilda