Day 5 - April 26, 2014 - Hunter River, Mitchell Falls
By Malcolm Turner, Naturalist
Co-ordinates: S 15º02'10”, W 125º20'05"
Weather: Sunny with Haze
Air Temperature: 36ºC
Pressure: 1010 hPa
Wind: calm, 0-5 knots
Another spectacular red ball greets the early risers as the sun tries to burn through a layer of bushfire smoke. It rises to illuminate the red rocky cliffs of Naturalist Island and the shores of Prince Frederick Harbour. Pockets of dry rainforest show dark green foliage in sharp contrast to the rusty sandstone.
I head off with a keen party of early morning discoverers in two Zodiacs to the large mangrove forest at high tide. We cruise through the flooded mangroves, a somewhat surreal experience. How often do you get to float through treetops?! Birds are calling all around us and we manage to see several well, including the Lemon-breasted Flycatcher, Broad-billed Gerygone and a particularly nicely coloured Sacred Kingfisher.
As we are admiring Great Bowerbirds and other birds the boat is surrounded by small fish. Pop-eyed Mullet, Diamond-backed Mullet and small garfish are all interesting, but the most exciting of all is the Kimberley Archer Fish. These fish are able to spit drops of water at insects on branches and leaves above the surface knocking them into the water where they can be gobbled up.
On the way back to the ship I spot a single trail of tracks leading up a tiny steep beach. Investigating with the Zodiac we spot their maker, a large (3.5 metre) crocodile resting in the shade of a tree at the top of the beach. Everyone is impressed with the sheer bulk of the croc and the impressive teeth displayed in its open mouth. It is a fitting highlight to a great morning of exploration and we head back to the Silver Discoverer.
We meet the first group of guests back from their Mitchell Falls helicopter flights. They are full of descriptions of the spectacular scenery seen from the air, the falls themselves, and the excitement of flying in helicopters with no doors. We hear some guests even managed the "Mitchell Falls Marathon" – photographing the Mitchell Falls from all three lookouts and having a freshwater plunge.
I am keenly anticipating the afternoon cruise up the Hunter River and Porosus Creek as it is likely to produce a wildlife show -and we are not disappointed. The first fleet of seven Zodiacs sets off and soon stop to watch Manta Rays feeding in the shallow fast-flowing currents wrapping around Naturalists Island. Although the water is murky we can clearly see the contrasting black back and white belly as the mantas somersault on the spot, sieving small animals from the near the water surface. Wow -this is good.
Next it is crocodile time with a nice croc cruising in the shallow water near a large mud bank -unconcerned by our presence. Another is basking on a small mud island with the mouth open to regulate its temperature. I manoeuver the Zodiac closer for photographs -the croc watches us with its yellow eyes and twitches a leg to show it is not a statue.
During the second cruise another crocodile allows us to watch it fish along the water's edge and get close enough for dramatic pictures, without us getting grounded on the soft mud. I nose the Zodiac close to a mud back so we can watch mudskippers in action. These amazing fish take water into gill pouches and then walk, using their leg-like front fins, onto the exposed mud to feed and display colourful fins. This is truly a fish out of water that belongs that way.
Birds were not prolific but are highlighted by the Great-billed Heron and the Mangrove Heron. These are the largest and smallest of the Australian herons. By now the sun is lowering and the cliffs surrounding us are glowing. The combination of iron-rich sandstone and the bushfire smoke helps the sun turn the cliffs first bright orange and then red.
I love this time of day.
As I point the Zodiac towards Silver Discoverer, highlighted against a yellow sky, I feel privileged to have experienced another day in the remote and spectacular Kimberley.
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