Visiting the restricted gorges of Central Australia’s Watarrka National Park and the creatures that reside within.
My trip to the heart of Australia started in Late 2015 with an unlikely conversation at the University of Canberra with my mate Simon.
Simon was starting his honors project in Environmental Science. He told me how he was part of a larger project that involved camera trapping remote arid zone water holes for a vertebrate study. Having never been to Central Australia and taking the initiative I straight away asked how I could become part of the project.
After some chats with my brilliant course convener, a plan was put forward that I could do the last unit of my Science degree as work experience by taking part in the project.
I told Simon and his supervisor and they approved, the adventure had begun.
Opportunities such as these do not come along every day and as such, I planned to take full advantage of this one. My next point of contact was with my Editor at OutBack Magazine who are always interested in good photos and stories from the remote parts of Australia which this trip promised in spades.
The trip purely depended on rain, no rain, no water and no remote water holes. We got our chance in February of 2016 with a good amount or rain being reported in the research area of Watarrka, or Kings Canyon as most tourists know it. My first impression of Alice Springs was hot, BLOODY HOT! Like drop an egg and watch it incinerate before it even hits the ground.
We were met at the airport by Dr. Jenny Davis (not a relation) who is one of Australia’s leading freshwater ecologists and a lady with no shortage of energy. The remote water hole survey was Jenny’s project and one that she had been working on for years. It became apparent very quickly that traveling in this part of the world should never be done without a Dr. Jenny Davis. Not only did Jenny know everything about every species of plant and critter we came across on our journey, she was also good mates with the park rangers at Watarrka.
The first day we were up before sunrise to beat the heat and get into the first of many remote gorges, where tourists are not allowed and people very rarely visit. Watarrka (King’s Canyon) is the best-known attraction, but there are also quite a lot of other gorges hidden away all the way along the escarpment with amazing water holes peppered with natural wonders and Aboriginal History.
We reached the first camera trap 10 minutes down the track, where we also met the first wild creature in the form of a 3 meter long Central Carpet python, curled up next to Jenny’s foot. It was probably the prettiest snake I’ve seen but it did not stick around long enough for a proper photo. This may have been a blessing in disguise, as the pythons are considered sacred and to mess with them is to invite bad things upon the world.
The first water hole was a natural spring with hundreds of birds in the trees surrounding it. In such a dry environment, water means life. Zebra finches were easily the most numerous, followed by diamond doves and several types of honeyeaters. Photographing these birds is not easy. A good wildlife photo is simple if all you want is a textbook bird on a stick photo, but a great wildlife photo takes time and patience. You must be invisible; the animal must be doing something interesting and beautiful; and the light in your favour. Needless to say, a group of people is a bad recipe for a great shot so I focused on documenting Simon and Jenny as they set up the new camera traps and checked the weather stations.
Recent floods had washed away a few of the camera traps and so we had to search through the thick undergrowth for them. This was somewhat unsettling after meeting the large snake only an hour before. One camera was found but the other was lost to the wild. In between swatting, swearing and trying to eat the thousands of black flies trying to burrow into my eyes, I tried to take photos of the masses of birds now waiting to drink at the hole where the weird humans were working.
The next few days were spent trekking into more stunning isolated gorges. Rock art lined the walls, and bottomless water holes with thousands of tree frogs waited for us at the depths of the great cathedrals of stone. In the sand amongst the rocks, I could see what animals had passed through here, like a newspaper written in the earth itself. Pythons, goannas, dingos, eagles, small lizards and the snakes that hunted them, left their marks everywhere. The data we retrieved from the camera traps confirmed these stories, with movement-triggered photos showing dingos and goannas drinking in the presences of nervous smaller creatures.
I focused on shooting as much as I could during the early hours of the day. I kept two camera bodies handy at all times with a super zoom and an ultra-wide at the ready. On Day 1 I took every lens, but by Day 2 I was down to just three. Extreme heat makes you very conscious of any extra weight to carry.
On Day 3 we walked the rim of Kings Canyon, the number one tourist attraction in Watarrka. That walk was a quick reminder of why I avoid the tourist spots of the world. In the extreme heat, there were people with no hats; no water and definitely no idea. It was HOT! We were prepared with litres of water, proper clothing, a decent amount of fitness and we were feeling it, only god knows how those backpackers and grey nomads survived.
I had collected a solid quantity of photos during the few days and early morning adventures but we needed aerial shots for the project and ‘cause riding in choppers is always fun, we booked a flight. After some haggling and negotiating with the local chopper pilot, we had a flight sorted for the last hour of the day. We arrived at the heli pad, shooed away the dingos that were asleep under the chopper, removed my door so I could shoot freely and we were off. The moment we got in the air, an isolated storm broke in the distance. In the arid zone, storms are very localized, with rain only falling on an area the size of a few hundred meters. With a chopper, I had the ability to shoot the storm from all angles making rainbows and backlit rain easily obtainable, things you could never do on the ground.
We spent the last days of our trip in the West McDonald Ranges, which were outrageously beautiful. We swam up deep slot gorges, passing snakes and centipedes that had fallen in from the world above. More storms came later in the day and made for one of the best photos of the trip and a feature page for RM William’s Outback Magazine which is the cover photo for this adventure.