My trip to the top of Western Australia, photographing wildlife from a helicopter

 

When I was 12 years old, a helicopter pilot who is a good friend of the family, lived with us for a few months on the farm. His name is Roger and he flew helicopters for the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme. Roger would keep the choppers next to our house, with as many as 3 machines a common sight in our back paddock. I would come home from school, see Roger prepping one of the choppers, and a few minutes later find myself dropping my school bag in the paddock and flying off into the mountains to chase wild horses at 200km hour.

Fast forward 18 years later and Roger is now working in the Kimberly region of Australia, flying helicopters mustering cattle. I had joked around with Roger for a couple of years about visiting him, but it was not until Roger started posting on Facebook brilliant photos of the Top End from the air (that he had taken with his phone no less!) that I could no longer joke, but instead had to go. A few phone calls, two flights and a bloody long bus trip, and I were on my way to the top end of Australia.

When the bus pulled into the roadhouse at Willare, a familiar face met me and said: “hello mate, I’ve got a present for you in the truck, but it’s a bit cold”. Instead of a croc, which was my first thought, a 3 m black headed python was pulled out of a bag and tossed my direction. “Good thing it was cold” I shakily thought to myself. We were heading to Yeeda, which is a cattle station on the King Sound, the mouth of the mighty Fitzroy river and the largest river in Australia during flooding. Yeeda is only 800,000 acres, which is small by top end standards, but it still takes a good half hour to fly from one side to other.

 

Pelicans of King Sound, this was taken after a long day of mustering headed back to Yeeda homestead. At first we thought the white specks were seagulls but when we got closer we could not beleaive that they were pelicans in such a large flock.

 

The first day Roger was not flying and so he showed me around the historic Yeeda homestead. Roger told me how 24 hours before I got there I would have been sleeping in a swag, but a couple of the station hands had had a disagreement with the manager and had stolen a vehicle and headed south. Lucky for me ‘cause I got their room and bed, bad luck for them because the vehicle was not registered and they got pulled up by the cops 7 hours south. The vibe around camp was good and I was welcomed by everyone, even if it was hard to work out why a wildlife photographer was staying at a working cattle station.

Roger only worked when the chopper needed flying, so to fill in time he would explore up and down Yeeda Creek and look for birds and animals. He showed me where the local saltwater crocs hung out and where to find the many beautiful different species of birds in the area: bee-eaters, dusky wood swallows, night herons, red-wing parrots, and western bower birds. It was a wildlife photographer’s paradise.

 

Taken on my first day at Yeeda these small Dusky wood swallows were huddled together for warmth unitll the sun had warmed them enough to start the day.

 

On the second day, Roger said we would have to drive to Halls Creek to pick up another chopper and fly it back. We collected the chopper from Halls Creek, filled up a spare jerry can which I had to keep between my legs for the trip, so we could fill up half way. As soon as we took off I knew I was going to get some of the best photos of the year. It was not because I was in a chopper or because I was in the Kimberley, but because I had Roger as a pilot and I knew what he could do with that machine other pilots would never even try.

It didn’t take us long to find our first wedge-tail eagle of the trip. Eagles don’t like other things in the air with them and can be very aggressive in making their presence felt. We kept our distance but at the same time tried to keep up with the large bird. Being in a chopper means you can go up, down, left and right and even backward. Having no doors while flying is the only way to get the shots I wanted, I found myself hanging more and more out of the door with every shot, with only my seatbelt to stop me, but the freedom to move and track my subjects cannot be achieved through a window. While flying, I only took one lens, a Nikon 28-300 f5.6. This lens lets me shoot wide and tight, it lets me change my composition in a split second and is sharp right through. Some people might say that you need a more expensive lens to shoot these things but I do not think those same people have tried shooting a moving subject that does not want to do what you want, while you are flying at 100 km an hour at 500 feet.

 

The first of many Wedge-tail eagles we saw from the chopper, this one paid little attention choosing to keep hunting as we flew overhead.

 

We flew over places no man can drive to or walk to, gorges of limestone with crystal blue streams filled with fresh water crocs while thousands of fruit bats flew from the trees. We flew through the middle of gorges with 60-foot walls on both sides, crocs below and the chopper blades meters away from the rocks. I only wish I could have filmed many of the things I saw. When we went to refuel from the large jerry of jet fuel I had been cradling with legs for the last 2 hours we pulled up in an isolated gorge. Rock art covered the walls, large crocodiles and emus lined the walls, images of spirits from a time long forgotten. Roger told me these were things that only a man with chopper can ever see these days and that if he could do anything it would be to explore the Kimberley with a chopper for the rest of his life as that is the time it would take to see it all.

 

One of the very isolated gorges we flew over on our way back from Halls Creek to Yeeda Station. There were thousands of fruit bats taking flight as we flew overhead. The water was crystal blue from the limestone and fresh water crocs could be seen rising to the surface hoping for an easy meal as the bats scrambled out of the trees.

 

Flying back into camp it was just on dark, we could see the sun setting over the King Sound and a small light from Yeeda Station guiding us home. It was only my first day flying for the trip but I could have gone home then and felt like it had been a trip worthwhile.

 

Taken from 4000 feet up, the last rays of light settle over the horizon with The King Sound laid out before us.

 

The next few days were spent chasing cattle for muster. The station hands would leave early to set up yards and Roger and I would go fishing until they needed us. As the river was always on the way to where we needed to go it was not hard to spot a good sized fish from the air in amongst the many crocs, land, throw a few lures and then be on our way again. It was to and from the round-ups that I would take most of my photos, following the many channels of the braided river system, photographing eagles, crocs, pelicans and anything else that crossed our path as we flew across the vast area.

 

Roger called these cattle wattle fairies and described mustering them like herding cockroaches. In the thick wattle cattle are impossible to muster on foot and are anything but fairies. This herd of cattle had nearly been put through the gate but at the last minute had spooked and turned back to make an escape.

 

A large freshwater crocodile makes a quick getaway, photographed in the crystal clear upper Fitzroy River.

 

While Roger mustered I would help spot cattle, while he avoided trees. Some days were up to 10 hours long, the chopper flying side to side, up and down and sometimes almost upside down. Every now and then I would see a dingo or scrub turkey being chased by an eagle, we would quickly dart overtake a few shots then drop hard onto the next bunch of cattle. On one big day flying, I was caught out nodding off, when I was jolted awake with a jarring thud. Thinking we had hit another tree with the skids I was surprised to see we had not but instead had hit the ass of a huge scrub bull with the skid with Roger yelling “Bloody move ya stubborn bastard”.

 

The last minutes of the muster as the wild cattle are driven into the large portable yards by both choppers while the boys on the ground scramble to shut the gates before the cattle break loose.

 

I tried to document as much of the station goings on as I could for RM Williams Outback Magazine. I also did a family shoot for the station manager’s family as a thank you for having me. When you live on a large cattle station in the territory, getting a professional family portrait at home can be a challenge. It was hard to leave after my couple of weeks of flying, and I am so grateful to Roger and the crew from Yeeda for having me. I have since helped buy Roger a Nikon d7200 DSLR and a couple of lenses, as I the things he sees on daily basis could make for one of the best coffee table books the world has ever seen.

 

The manager of Yeeda Station Rowen and his lovely family, this was part of my thank you present to them for looking after me.