Sandy Billabong, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia
We have been watching dark billows of smoke on the south-western horizon all day but as we begin the six kilometre track to Sandy Billabong they become even thicker and more expansive. It’s not long before we reach the edges of a slowly burning bush fire. We pause to take a closer look and test the strength of the wind and decide to continue. The fire to the left of the track is moving back towards Muirella Park, whilst on the right it is moving slowly north. When we reach the billabong the ground is black and the dry grass and bushes have been completely burned away. The place looks open and barren without all the brush between the scrubby trees. Some small trees are still burning and a few stumps are smoking here and there and probably will be for days. The breeze stirs up the ash lying on the bare ground and the prospect of camping here is not an attractive one.
We drive to the edge of the large billabong and we can see that this is a lovely place. There are lots of different water birds and the billabong is surrounded by paper-bark trees. It is a few hundred metres from where we stand to the other side of the water. What a pity we arrived at the same time as the fire. We find out later that it has come up from the south and has been burning for many days.
I get to thinking about the scene around the billabong and the effect the smoke will have on the light around sunset and sunrise and what that might look like over the water and around the trees and reeds that skirt the billabong. It is not surprising then that I am back there a short while before the sun sets. I have followed a track part way around the billabong and driven across the blackened earth to an unburnt patch of ground about ten metres from the edge of the water. The ground all around the car is black. I cross the burnt grass and walk down to the green, muddy strip at the edge of the billabong. The air is hazy with smoke and I can see that the fire has completely circled the billabong. Many of the paper-bark trees have been burnt. Only a few will be dead though, the rest will be left with patches of black and white bark … hence their name Melaleucas.
The name Melaleuca is derived from the Ancient Greek μέλας (mélas) meaning “dark” or “black” and λευκός (leukós) meaning “white”, apparently because one of the first specimens described had fire-blackened white bark. See “Melaleuca” on Wikipedia for more about these trees.
In fact the fire is still burning strongly in many places. Just a few metres to my right some trees are alight and I can feel the heat on my shoulder and back.
As it gets darker the fires brighten and light up nearby patches of bush and water. Fifty metres to my left a large tree at the edge of the billabong is completely ablaze and the water there glows red and orange.
Across the way the dark grey trees and water are obscured by thick smoke.
Everywhere I look I can see patches of flames; some amongst the grass at ground level, others climbing up the creepers and trees and smaller fires high up in the taller trees. Occasionally the sound of burning trees crashing to the ground comes to me across the water as well as from my left and right. I am keenly aware of everything that is happening around me. I’m not taking any significant risks but I need to be watchful.
It is a while before I start taking photos. Smoke filters the last light of the day, obscuring distant, darker corners and softening the colors. I feel the heat of the fire on my back as I take photos through the smoky blue haze lying just above the water.
Brilliant white egrets stand out in the shadows along the far edge of the billabong.
Dozens of Black Kites swoop in and out of the smoke until it is almost dark, flying low between the black tree trunks hunting for insects and small mammals now looking for new cover. I watch the colours in the sky turn to orange and then to darker russet tones at sunset followed by the blues and purples as the cloak of dusk settles.
With so many small fires still burning it will not be a peaceful night. The water birds keep calling to each other until well after dark. Several times I am fooled into thinking that there are other people nearby, but I’m the only crazy person here. The calls from the ducks and geese sound like a constant refrain echoing around the billabong; “Shall we stay?”, “Shall we go?”
Eventually it is time for me to drive back to camp. All I can see in the dark are the spot fires and the white hot cores of a few burning tree stumps. Then I see the fire front along the creek to my right. Strangely I see quite a few frogs and birds just sitting on the road as I drive along the track. It may be the coolest bit of earth around. The fire is on both sides of the road for a couple of kilometres.
For the rest of the evening I contemplate the surreal nature of these scenes hoping that I have captured just some of the experience with my camera.
I return before dawn next morning, driving back down the same track to the edge of the billabong. Flocks of White Ibis forage in the blackened ground amongst smoking tree stumps. Despite the early hour the kites are already starting to fly low across the country.
The morning colours are quite different. Light pastel shades of blue gradually change to pale, hazy greens in the smoke that has settled over the water in the early morning. I have arrived early enough that the nearby ducks, geese and egrets have not seen me approach against the dark backdrop of the trees. Jacanas skip across the water lilies. Looks like they all decided to stay.
Some larger birds are back as well. A White-Bellied Sea Eagle glides over to some tall trees and a Jabiru glides past from over my left shoulder and lands on a fallen tree in the middle of the water. Because of the smoke I can hardly see many of the birds.
Eventually the rising sun lights up the tree trunks on the far side of the billabong. I take my last photos and my work here is done.