“When are we going to see some kangaroos?” I asked.
My rainforest tour of Queensland revealed that Australia was a land Down Under that I didn’t really know at all. A rainforest in Australia? I though that Oz was mostly outback. A desert. Wrong! But while touring the Atherton Tablelands region west of Cairns, a high plateau (formerly a rainforest where the trees have been mostly removed to create dairy farms), I discovered a touch of outback on the western edge of the plateau. The resort was called Jabiru Safari Lodge, and there was water everywhere on the property. Strange.
“You’ll see some roos when we get to the hay fields,” said Greg. “They are all over, so you can’t miss them.”
The Mareeba Wetlands had been formed by the construction of a dam designed to provide irrigation to Tableland farms. The spillover created seven small lakes and ponds, or wetlands, which in turn attract a huge number of wild birds that fed or live on or around the lakes. It was birdwatchers heaven. A reserve had been created, and a lodge built.
“We had a cyclone through here recently,” said Greg, behind the wheel of his four-wheel drive jeep, “and that scared off lots of birds that haven’t returned yet. But as you can see, there’s still lots around.”
Indeed there were. There were ducks floating on the surface of the lagoon, but what caught my eye were the pelicans nesting in the tops of some high trees. Did you know that pelicans slept in trees? I sure didn’t. Hawks and other birds I couldn’t identify drifted through the air, rested in the tops of trees, and floated on the pond. Specifically we were looking for a jabiru, for which the property is named, a kind of stork.
The wetlands are the seasonal evening roost of several hundred brolga and sarus cranes, plus jabirus, jacanas, black swans, pelicans, magpie geese, egrets, ibis, cormorants, darters and dozens more, for a total of 222 bird species. Blinds have been created so you can get really close for a good look. Kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, emus and wild pigs are regularly sighted in the bush.
I arrived in time for the afternoon eco-cruise at 3.30 on Greg’s quiet battery-powered boat on Clancy’s Lagoon. A good pair of binoculars or a zoom lens on a camera is vital. Then we drove slowly into the heart of the 2,000-hectare reserve looking for kangaroos. No roos. They were elsewhere. I made my desires clear, so Greg made a turn and we headed for the pastures where roos were guaranteed. Sure enough, there they were, bounding around like jack in the boxes. I wondered what the original European settlers arriving in the outback a few hundred years ago must have thought when they first saw them.
“This scrub, this bush, is exactly what the outback looks like,” said Greg, as we watched the roos bounce. “The outback is not all desert. The rainy season brings water and that forms ponds we call billabongs. That’s what the cattle feed on.”
We were driving slowly back through the bush when we finally sighted the jabiru, hidden deep in a marsh hunting for its dinner. I managed to get a quick photo before it took off. We were looking for the wild parrots that have introduced themselves to the reserve. We saw several but couldn’t get them to pose for a photo. Parrots are like that.
Greg had recently sold his 600,000-acre property in the outback and moved “back home” to the Tablelands, and bought the Lodge when the former owners couldn’t make a go of it. His own ranch was only a kilometre away, where we went to look for the parrots that usually showed up every day for a free feed outside his house. No parrots today. With darkness approaching, we headed back to the Lodge to enjoy a wine and cheese spread on the deck and to enjoy the highlight of the day, the sunset over the lagoon.
Never mind the wildlife, sunsets over Clancy’s Lagoon ought to be the stuff of legend. That’s if enough people know about Jabiru Safari Lodge, as you do now, so please spread the word. The Lodge faces west towards the setting sun, and the colours cascading over the pond are a photographer’s dream. Yellow turned to orange and then turned to red and almost a purple, with great long shadows creeping over the still waters amid the ripples of duck contrails. Along with half a dozen other guests madly clicking away, I took hundreds of shots.
Night comes quickly in these parts, and after a long dinner of locally sourced meats and produce it became time to retreat to the tenthouses that serve as accommodation in the bush. Each tent comes with double beds and a full bathroom with a tub. In the sky a trillion stars twinkled and the air was sparkling with nary a sound to be heard. Who knew the outback could be so comfortable?
Visit the Jabiru Safari Lodge. www.jabirusafarilodge.com.au/