Our campsite had been inundated less than two weeks earlier. As the dry season advances and the waters shrink, the wildlife, including 2.5 million birds, become concentrated into the resulting billabongs.
As our boat left its moorings, a flock of magpie geese crossed the sky. To either side of us, an enormous carpet of water lilies stretched toward distant trees. Egrets and tall jabirus (storks) tiptoed through the vegetation. Darters decorated half-submerged logs, wings outstretched, as immobile as statues. Pied herons gazed into the water, searching for a meal among the roots of the mangrove.
We learned that there were 30 or 40 bird species in the Yellow Water region. During a year, more than 280 species of birds have been recorded in Kakadu as a whole.
This represents one-third of all Australia’s birds. In addition, around 50 kinds of fish swim throughout Kakadu, as well as two species of crocodiles — freshwater and the larger and more dangerous saltwater.
We spotted our first “salty,” an 11-foot (3.5-4 m) saltwater crocodile, in about 10 minutes. Over the next hour we came across another six, some gliding through the water, others resting on patches of mud among the trees.
Three weeks earlier, when the water was 8 feet (2.5 m) deeper, only two crocodiles had been seen. Now, the depth had fallen to 3 feet (1 m), and shrinkage of their habitat had brought 15 or 20 into Yellow Water. In another month, the area over which we now sailed would be completely dry, and the crocodiles would have retreated to the muddy remnants of scattered billabongs.
We passed beneath a white-bellied sea eagle, perched magisterially on a high branch, unperturbed by our proximity. A whistling kite flew over us, carrying nesting material, and settled on a tree.
We sailed away from the water lilies and into a flooded jungle where large trees, tinted pink by the light of the sinking sun, stood in the water. A sacred kingfisher, adorned in turquoise plumage, landed on a stick, but flew away as we approached.
The boat passed out into open water once again. The sun had now sunk behind the trees to the west, which became black shadows against a background of an increasingly fiery sky. The reds and oranges of the sky reflected onto the water, giving it an eerie luminosity.
Then something magical happened.
The sky to the east grew dark, yet the raft of lilies and the trees shone with something resembling an alpenglow. The boat slowed and began to drift in silence. A silver glimmer, the topmost curve of the moon, peered tentatively through a dip in the tree line, before disappearing behind taller greenery.
It reappeared, and though it seemed not to move, in little more than a minute, it was above the trees and opening a gap, which increased noticeably while we watched.
The conversation receded to a whisper, consisting mostly of gasps of astonishment, just audible against the staccato click of cameras and the soft lapping of the water against the sides of the boat. As the moon rose, its reflection drifted clear of the lily field and acquired its own independence, flickering, fragmenting and changing shape with the line at the edge of the lilies and the ripples on the surface.
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