I can vividly recall my early childhood in the western suburbs of Sydney, spending time in the school library constantly perusing the same book – Furred Animals of Australia. At that time there were very few books on Australian wildlife and I stared in amazement at the paintings of bizarre arboreal marsupials such as spotted-tailed quolls, striped possums, green ringtail possums and tree-kangaroos. I was fascinated and dreamed about seeing these spectacular creatures.
When I settled in Cairns in 1988 I was appalled to learn that two thirds of the Wet Tropics rainforests had been clear-felled and new logging roads were still being cut deeper into pristine wilderness. I felt saddened as I thought about the millions of animals that had been lost through habitat destruction. How could this still be happening?
It was clear to me that the conservation of wild areas could not occur without strong public support. As a keen photographer I recognised the persuasive power of a strong image. People needed to be introduced to the fascinating Wet Tropics creatures before they could develop any empathy with the animals or their fight for survival. I took up the challenge to photograph the diverse and enigmatic wildlife of the rainforests, including endemic, rare and threatened species. I wanted to share my sense of wonderment and intrigue through bold and dynamic pictures. I hoped that people would begin to feel passionate enough to vote for wildlife protection.
Some of the most enjoyable times of my life were during the following eight years with my friend and outstanding naturalist, Mike Trenerry. We spent most weekends scouring the rainforests, camping out and spotlighting in some of the most beautiful places within the World Heritage Area. We gained a special insight into the animals and plants of the rainforest and photographed almost everything we encountered. Ironically, some of the most memorable events were those that involved a calamity of errors where no photographs eventuated.
Whilst photographing at Lacey’s Creek a male cassowary, with three chicks in tow, casually strolled past us. Bare-footed, with just the cameras we were holding, we carefully manoeuvred ahead through the dense lawyer cane and stinging trees. After several hundred metres we found ourselves on a sandy bend in the creek and, as the birds were slowly making their way in our direction, we sat down and waited. To our amazement the adult bird came right down into the creek to drink only three metres from us. He then sat on the sand while his chicks fed on fallen feather palm fruits, foraging all around us. We strongly resisted the urge to reach out and touch them. There was a sense of apprehension as we realised we were between dad and his young charges – a position no person should be in with potentially dangerous wildlife! By this time my flash batteries had gone flat and fresh ones were back in the vehicle. It was exhilarating sitting in such proximity to these wild and unpredictable animals and agony not being able to get any photos. Time seemed to pass in slow motion as we savoured this intimacy whilst wondering how this encounter would end. Who would make the first move and when?
On another occasion we encountered a four metre scrub python. I thought that a full-frontal, close-up head shot would make the best photograph. Lying on my stomach, I wriggled to within 30 centimetres of a very relaxed, immobile snake. But just as I focused and was about to click the shutter I saw it strike suddenly and felt an intense, sharp pain in my left hand. The python had my entire palm, between thumb and forefinger, in its mouth and was biting harder with every second. Fortunately, the camera had shielded my face – the intended strike zone. In no time at all the python had looped its body in rope-like coils around my arm and began squeezing with alarming strength. I found it impossible to dislodge with just one arm and I had to rely entirely upon Mike to unfurl the coils and prise its jaws apart. I was left with a heavily bruised hand supporting two U-shaped rows of needle-like teeth protruding from bleeding puncture wounds. I never did get that photograph!
Where else but the Wet Tropics rainforests can you naturally experience such a wild time?
Countless numbers of Mike’s photographs have been reproduced in a wide variety of publications, bringing Wet Tropics wildlife and landscapes to prominence. In 2006 Mike commenced publishing a series of his own books about the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The first won the Queensland Multimedia Awards and the second was taken up as a high school text, which for Mike is his greatest personal achievement. He now looks forward to producing more books to further showcase the beauty and natural history of this very special corner of the Australian continent.
Robert was born in Western Australia but, until recently, lived in South Australia where he studied art. Robert has travelled much of Australia observing wildlife and its habitats. His eye for detail has led him to paint. Robert has settled in north Queensland because he loves the rainforest and its wildlife and he has since discovered a diverse range of habitats within easy reach. His ability to accurately portray wildlife comes from extensive research on the subject before he starts a painting. Robert uses oil paint over acrylic washes on primed watercolour paper.
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