The Kangaroo – A Spotter’s Guide

Hold still, Skippy! My one half-decent wild kangaroo shot. And I’m not even convinced it’s not actually a wallaby.

A kangaroo in the wild is nothing like what you see in the zoo.

Stealth and speed kept me from getting many good kangaroo photos. I tried hard, everywhere from Kakadu National Park to the Atherton Table Lands.

First off, imagine the setting: Forest lands, often dotted with termite mounds. When you scan the terrain, you’ll see the trees. And you’ll see the termite mounds. Things get interesting, though, when a group of "termite mounds" starts to move. Fast. Their body shape at rest is an amazing camouflage.

From a distance, a good-sized kangaroo can look like a big ol’ termite mound.

Now, just set aside your notions of how a kangaroo moves when it’s hell-bent to get away from you. Forget everything you imagine about a placid, languid bounce.

Instead, imagine a furry missile streaking over the land. From what I could see, they fold their upper bodies parallel to the ground. They push off with their hind legs and project their considerable power back rather than up. The result is a tremendous burst of speed – and little chance for the camera I carried at the time to catch any action: My Fuji superzoom was great for landscape, but was just overmatched for trying to catch a fast, quick, camera-shy creature.

So if you want to photograph Skippy, remember these tips:

  • Be quiet
  • Be patient
  • Use an SLR
  • Bring a big, honkin’ lens, no less than 200 millimeters.

Watch Wallabies and other Wildlife in Australia’s Top End

What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.
What's cuter than a baby wallaby? Nothing, that's what.

Everyone has a reason for traveling – shopping, lying by the beach, sightseeing, sampling cuisine.

It seeing wildlife is the reason you book long-haul flights, put Australia high on your list. The entire continent is too much for most people to explore in a single trip – especially us Americans who struggle to get two weeks away from the cubicle. If you want to maximize the number of creatures you’ll see, there’s one place you need to visit: The Northern Territory, or Top End as it’s often known in Australia. It’s a real Australian travel experience you’ll always remember.

If you’ve seen Crocodile Dundee, you’ve caught a glimpse of the Northern Territory. It’s littered with towns bearing lyrical names like Humpty Doo and Jabiru, most derived from Aboriginal languages. Among its centerpieces is the Kakadu National Park,  measuring nearly 60 by 120

Crikey, what a specimen!
Crikey, what a specimen!miles. Many of the roads are rugged, and barely even worthy of being called trails - much less roads. There are certain rental car companies that will not even rent their vehicles to people who intend to venture into the Kakadu.

And each square mile of both the Top End and the Kakadu is overflowing with creatures of every size, shape and classification. The roads are rough. The distances are formidable. The routes are varying. And many of the creatures are fierece. That makes a guide a good idea. I highly recommend Wilderness Adventures.

During my time bouncing around the NT, here are some spots that yielded the best creature sightings (WARNING – mind your guides and everything they say about staying safe. Your life is on the line out there):

Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong
Bird is the Word at Corroboree Billabong

Corroboree Billabong

This place is absolutely crawling with crocs. You know you’re starting to get assimilated when you point one out to your travel buddies and shout “loogit at ‘un! He’s  a’ least ite meetahs!” You also get a great lecture on the boat tour (which you should take, even though it costs extra) about the croc’s fearsome hunting and killing capabilites – along with a great explanation of how Outback charlatans wrestle crocs and live to tell about it.

But there’s more than crocs. You will see simply too many birds species to even remember half of them. And we’re talking big birds here, not sparrows. Just check the photos! On the way to the billabong, you’ll also get glimpses of wallabies bouncing all over. They’ll be moving fast, and the truck will be bouncing, so it’ll be hard to snap good photos. Not to worry – you’ll see them again.

Rock wallaby at Ubirr
Rock wallaby at Ubirr

Ubirr

There’s more here than old rock paintings. Those are cool, but get me within a few feet of a rock wallaby, and I’ll forget all about the paintings. If your guides are the adventurous sort (G’day, Amy and Grady!), they’ll egg you on to make you lick a green ant’s butt – which really does taste like lime and gets used in Aborginal cooking. You’ll see some cool insects and arachnids, along with the big rock where Mick Dundee stood to make a Bushman’s Phone Call – whipping a bullroarer around his head.

White Lilly Billabong

While most of our group went for a swim in this rare, totally croc-free billabong (at least that time of year), Sarah and I went creature spotting. We saw a very cool orange and gray snake, and some cool gray kangaroos! The lighting conditions were rough, and they were skittish. We had to be quiet to sneak a few photos.

Hold still, Skippy!
Hold still, Skippy!

This was also our first time seeing a kangaroo in full-speed flight. You might think they make a cute little hop at all velocities. But when they go to warp speed, their upper body seems to fold parallel to the ground, and they turn into a furry missile. I wouldn’t want to collide with one!

The Termite Mounds

Fairly close to Darwin, which is the major hub for adventure travel, you’ll start seeing giant termite colonies. They certainly contain no animals that are cute and cuddly, usually being filled with millions of termites or ants. But they look so cool, like set pieces from The Dark Crystal.

Also, I noticed something interesting: A gray kangaroo at rest looks a lot like a termite mound from a distance. I’d have to guess that’s evolution at work. A perfect camouflage, rapid acceleration and awesome top-end speed must make kangaroos a hard proposition for a predator.

The Didgeridoo Hut

Yeah, it’s a tourist trap. But it also sells really reasonably priced didgeridoos – and your chances of seeing cute creatures are pretty high. During my visit, the staff was caring for an oprhaned wallaby, a baby emu and sundry skinks and snakes.

Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
Orla and Sarah at a huge termite mound.
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut
An orphaned young wallaby charms visitors at The Didgeridoo Hut

Intro to Crocs and Billabongs

This monster was just waiting to charge at our boat ... and he did!
This monster was just waiting to charge at our boat ... and he did!

Wednesday, Aug. 22

Being German near water is the most dangerous thing you can do in Australia.

Starting today, I will start hearing a plethora of tales about German people being eaten by salt-water crocodiles. This theme will continue through the trip, to the point where I’m eyeballing the shower waiting for a swarm of mini-crocs to shoot out of the spigot to devour me. And I’m only half-German. If I were a Speedo-wearing, techno-loving Bayern Munich fan, I’d stay away from this continent altogether. Or at least not get within mortar-distance of a billabong.

But there are no crocs in Darwin, for now. Especially during the pre-dawn hours. My eyes are barely even open when an Arkana Safari II four-wheel-drive truck towing a wagon picked us up. At the wheel is Amy, our tour guide. She looked almost identical to a friend at home (Mary, that would be you!), so I can tell she’ll be a character.

dscf4394

Speaking of characters, we’re a tourist short. So far, we’ve got a 40-ish but sturdy English couple (Dave and Dominique), Orla from Ireland, Fiona from Canada and us. Apparently, Amy and the staff at a hostel have been trying to rouse our last member, English Anna. She was big-time hung over.

Eventually, someone pried her out of bed and tossed her and her gear into the Arkana, which is known as the Possum.

Once Anna is in the car, we’re bound for the bush! The sun was fully in the sky, and traffic cleared quickly as we neared the edge of Darwin. In less than 30 minutes, we start seeing the first massive bunch of cathedral termite mounds. They’re amazingly tall and stately, more like stage sets from The Dark Crystal than giant communes for gross, glistening-white insects. Which, by the way, largely vacate the mounds and ants take over. We’re blaring the Rolling Stones, much to Anna’s torment.

Morning on the billabong.
Morning on the billabong.

Soon, the Possum is flying down a dirt road toward Corroboree Billabong. What we’re going to do is take a boat ride with a madman who loves crocodile. We got lectures from everyone not to stand up, jump in the water or even stick a hand in to test the temperature. Apparently, you have a maximum time of three seconds once you’re in before a salt-water croc will overtake you.

And these things are monsters. We quickly start spotting 10-footers lounging about, and we start seeing some really gigantic specimens, too.

Here’s the thing I really learned about crocs: They are hard-wired to quickly evaluate any movement within their range. If they determine they can get it with 100 percent certainty, they will attack. It doesn’t matter what they had for lunch, they’ll eat a tourist or a whole bunch…just as long as they’re in range.

Well, that’s not strictly true. If a croc’s just eaten and you enter its range, it’ll grab you, drown you and then stuff you someplace where it can nibble at your carcass at its leisure.

In short, if a croc heads your way, you’re toast.

Sarah and Justin keep their arms and legs inside the boat.
Sarah and Justin keep their arms and legs inside the boat.

I got some great pictures, and we saw many lesser creatures. I can’t get worked up about a bird when a 12-foot croc is eyeing me from 25 feet away. And this croc happened to get a wild hair up its cloaca and shot into the water, missing our boat just by feet. Apparently, he spotted something else. It thrashed its tail (its main device for swimming) and passed us in about three blinks of an eye. Zero to 60 in nothing flat …

Another interesting thing I learned is that not all Aussies are enamored of one Steve Irwin. Our tour guide considered him little more than a sideshow. And all the croc wrestling? That’s done by keeping them cold. Crocs have a narrow range of operating temperatures, and they spend most of their time regulating their temperature. See the beast in that photo? His mouth is open to help him cool off.

Some kind of big bird.
Some kind of big bird.

After our boat ride, we left the billabong and headed back to the highway for a spell. We eventually left the pavement, where we stopped for lunch near another watering hole. At this one, a German had recently disappeared, likely as a result of a croc attack.

The crew of the Possum breaks for lunch.
The crew of the Possum breaks for lunch.

Anyway, this is a camping trip. So pretty much everybody pitched in to make food and clean up. The communal tasks actually do a good job of bonding the group pretty well. We’ve got tuna, turkey, bread and other sandwich fixings, which all went down pretty well.

We bounced over more rugged trails before hopping out again. This time, Amy took us along a mostly-dry creekbed that looks like it must really rage in the rainy season. There are quite a few people, and after about 45 minutes of hiking, we found out why. The trail goes upward, leading us to a series of crystal-blue swimming holes. It’s all red rocks, blue pools and bikinis. In Arizona, no place this hot and dry will suddenly yield swimming holes. There are people an guides everywhere. Oddly enough, we’d run into many of them in the days to come. FYI, there was no way for crocs to get in here during this time of the year. No waterways big enough for them, and too many waterfalls!

A Top End swimming hole ... no crocs here!
A Top End swimming hole ... no crocs here!

We hiked back down, drove further inland and stopped for fuel. Here, I met yet another SAB. He was on holiday with his family, and he looked at the Possum like it was an old girlfriend. Apparently, he had been in the military when he’d driven through the country in an old Arkana just like this one. Since they’re getting rare, he asked me to snap some photos of him posing with the Possum.

Then we headed off to a relatively nice camping area that has bathrooms. We also stopped on a random stretch of highway to gather firewood for the night. We actually did this every day after the hiking. We’d stop the Possum and scramble around by the roadside, tossing branches and logs atop the roof.

Once we got to the campsite (a fairly civilized one with toilets and running water), the crew of the Possum set to work on dinner, the centerpiece of which was Amy’s honey-ginger chicken with veggies and rice. Nice healthy stuff to accompany our hiking! The meal is another good chance to yack. I got on well with Dave, who is from Bristol. Orla was also pretty amusing – she speaks in exactly the same voice and vocabulary that Roy Keane, the former Manchester United star, used in his autobiography. She and Sarah got along well since they’re both into triathlon. Anna, our hung-over group member, was a pretty good character, too.

After dinner, we learned how to sleep in a swag. A swag is like a big vinyl Hot Pocket for people. You stuff your sleeping bag inside it, then zip yourself inside. There’s a big flap to cover up your face. It’s smart, according to Amy, to keep your shoes inside the swag. Dingos, apparently, have an affinity for footwear. They will run off with unattended shoes that are not inside a swag.

Campfire in the Kakadu
Campfire in the Kakadu

It was a nice chilly night with a brilliant moon and a good amount of stars, and soon I was dead asleep in my swag. Sarah got up for a toilet visit, and shoo’d a dingo out of camp. Maybe he was looking for a new pair of Timberlands?

A damn fine day in the Outback, this was. This is why I wanted to come to Australia. Crikey!

The next day, we’re up early. The plan is to get to Jim Jim and Twin falls in a hurry.