We had our first storm in the top end, which is also the first rainfall we have experienced since leaving home. I never thought I would be so excited about a storm however unfortunately the storm wasn’t even able to provide our van with a much needed wash. We have arrived in the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park and at first glance it feels as if you could be in any national park as the terrain appears to be no different to that outside the park and that of other regions we have visited in the territory. We drive over a number of rivers, mainly tidal and crocodile infested. There are plenty of tropical looking plants which are mostly low lying. We soon discover though, this is a very special place and no doubt we are about to learn more about Kakadu with the numerous ranger tours on offer.
We make our way for a bush camping site at Merl, located a short distance from Ubirr, which is at the north eastern corner of the park. The Ubirr region is rich in history and we are all interested in the free talk and tour by one of the park rangers. The topic today is ‘the rainbow serpent and kinship’. A short walk to a sheer rock wall brings us face to face with the rock art image of ‘the rainbow serpent’. The powerful ancestor ‘the rainbow serpent’ is symbolic for Indigenous throughout the country. The image of the rainbow serpent is the symbol used to represent Kakadu National Park and appears on all Kakadu rangers badges; it is a constant reminder to the local Indigenous, and the rangers, of their obligation to care for country. Kakadu is leased by the Commonwealth however jointly managed by National Parks and the local indigenous families/clans. We continue along the path and find ourselves facing a large cave known as the main gallery.
We followed the ranger to Nadab lookout for another spectacular sunset over the floodplains. These floodplains, which are fully flowing during the wet season, retain an enormous amount of moisture through the drier months, and we admire its beauty whilst having explained to us the height of the water during the wetter months.
The sandstone that makes way for the stone country escarpment to Arnhem Land is half the age of this earth; approx. 600 million years old. As we sit in silence on the escarpment, and watch the sun disappear behind the floodplains, a strong wind picks up and it takes your breath away.
We were fortunate to have a visit the following day from a couple of aboriginal men from Arnhem Land, together with a park ranger, for a painting class at the campground. We spent the morning learning how to make paintbrushes from the reed grass, then attempting to understand the local painting techniques. We were then able to try our very own unique aboriginal styled artwork. Amos (skin name –Bullan), one of the artists, took a liking to Maddox. He wished for a photo with Maddox and their paintings. He also spent a lot of time talking to Michael about skin names, family, kinship and footy (especially the Sydney Swans, his favourite team).
We then headed for Cahill’s crossing, a well-known river crossing over the East Alligator River into Arnhem Land. We were due to attend the Stone country festival at Oenpelli (Indigenous town) in Arnhem Land but unfortunately this year the festival had to be cancelled due to a lack of funding. Cahill’s Crossing is an interesting place and we watch from the lookout as the crocodiles sit and wait for Barramundi swimming upstream. We witness a number of crazy fishermen either standing on rocks or knee deep in water on the causeway as they attempt to compete with the crocs for some local barramundi.
I can’t believe some people put themselves in such danger. There was even a family by the river, including three small kids which you may see in the photo, as both the mother and father wandered back and forth along the causeway fishing whilst the kids were left to play by the side of the croc infested river. I could not believe what I was witnessing; and people wonder why there are crocodile attacks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Making our way to Jabiru, which is effectively the capital of Kakadu, we base ourselves there for the next four days. The first night here at camp we decide to take in some more of the free activities provided by the park rangers. There was an information session and slide show of rock art in the park. The following morning we take a 2km walk with the same park ranger that showed us the Rock art slide show the previous evening (these park rangers don’t get much down time). The Bowali nature walk was an extremely informative walk. We covered everything from flora and fauna to tucker and fires. I think most people on the walk would agree that we could have listened to Christian (park ranger) all day as his wealth of knowledge was incredible. Bininj base their ability to live in this area on the six seasons of Kakadu. It is currently ‘Gurrung’ (hot/dry weather season). Bininj look for natural indicators, such as noticing when a flowering gum begins to drop its flowers, indicating it is time to commence burning of land. This not only eradicates possible weed growth but will burn the long grasses to make walking through the bushlands easier as well as encourage new plant growth. New plant growth encourages the animals to these areas providing the aboriginals with great hunting opportunities. The pandanus tree leaves are used for weaving dilly baskets and once the nuts fall to the ground it is an indicator it is time to head to the fresh water and collect Waddajan (fresh water turtles). The hearts of the sandy palms are collected and used for weaving and once stripped back can be eaten and these apparently have a sugary taste. Emus are also known to love these berries. We have seen plenty of green ants; these are approx. 2cm in length and have an iridescent green rear half of the body. The ranger demonstrates how to have an instant lime sherbet fizz by picking up one of these ants and biting off the green section of the ant….. eeeeewwww.
After a short Barrk bushwalk we perch ourselves at the Gun-warddehwardde lookout. The Arnhem Land escarpment runs south of our view whilst below us are the Nourlangie woodlands. Megan, our friendly ranger, meets us and relays some very important stories regarding kinship. One story known as ‘the feather’, is very interesting, likewise the story of ‘lightning man’. We were also fascinated to learn of one mans (the last man in his tribe) plight to save his land from mining. Following exploration and the discovery of large deposits of uranium, this land had the Koongarra mineral lease on it for a very long time however quite recently, and after years of fighting, his fight was won and his land is now protected for people to enjoy in the future and protected from any further exploration or mining. Unfortunately Ranger mine, along with the Jabiluka mine (both owned by Rio Tinto), are still mining uranium in Kakadu.
As we stroll through the bush on a now very warm morning, approx. 35’C already, we arrive at the Anbangbang Gallery (a relatively small cave) with some very significant rock art. We are given a very basic introduction on the understanding of land, law and family. “Skin names” is an interesting topic as this dictates a number of very important issues such as who you can marry, which family members you can talk to and your role in family and society. The intricate web of law and family is probably something you would need to spend a long time on to completely grasp however what we touched on was fascinating. The final talk that morning was at a huge cave where locals would retreat during the wet season. The Anbangbang shelter was large enough to house an entire clan and there were some very intriguing artefacts here. To take some time out to digest our thoughts from this morning’s tour we hike to the top of Nowurlandja lookout, and the view to the Anbangbang billabong was spectacular.
Mamukalan Billabong is a little oasis for birdlife and we enjoy the huge variety of species that frequent the area. Kakadu is home to over 1/3 of Australia’s birds.
Red Lilly Billabong is another great adventure; we take a turn off the main highway onto a 4WD only access track and due to the corrugation, here and elsewhere beforehand, our UHF arial finally snaps clean off. We then spent the afternoon enjoying a swim in the park swimming pool.
Late one night we feel a violent rocking of the camper trailer and Mike jumps out of the van with his Crocodile Dundee style knife to fend off the prankster. The shaking continues for a while and then abruptly stops. We had no idea what caused the rocking however several days later we discovered there had been an earthquake in Timor, some 115km below the sea. We later spoke with people in Katherine that also felt the quake.
Coiinda is a small resort/caravan park located in the south of Kakadu and we decide to base ourselves here for a couple of nights. It is adjacent to the South Alligator River and as you can imagine there are plenty of signs around indicating crocodiles move through this area. The only way to see the South Alligator River and its wildlife is to do a Yellow water cruise. It is a little cool as we take to the water on the Yellow Water Cruise along the South Alligator before sunrise. The early morning cruise is a birdwatchers paradise as along the river banks we spot the gorgeous kingfishers, sea eagles and night herons. We take a very slow trip along the billabongs and spot jacanas (one bird I have been waiting to see and it’s a lot smaller than what I imagined), jabirus, magpie geese, whistling ducks, shags, egrets, pelicans and the cormorant. Amongst the wetlands we spot a few brumbies and buffalo, along with the ever growing number of crocodiles.
Much of Kakadu is under fire, leaving the area very smokey. We decide to take a 4WD track to a waterhole/waterfall that people rave about. So we pack the car with our supplies and head for Gunlom. The 4WD track takes us close to some burning landscape and the kids are a little nervous. With over an hour’s drive on this mixed conditioned road from sand to rock corrugation and several river crossings (all very low) we make it to Gunlom. This area was apparently used for some of the location shots in the movie ‘Crocodile Dundee’. The waterfall here and the plunge pool are spectacular; the water is an emerald green however we don’t dare enter the water. Instead we opt to take a hike to the top of the waterfall. The view from here is incredible and the pools at the top of the waterfall are home to some good sized fish.
Maguk was a 2km walk through a very dense monsoon forest. At various points, pools of water sat behind some very close banks giving me a sense that something could be watching and waiting to pounce. I hurry the kids along to the open sandy, rocky creek beds and clear water. At least with the clear water you can see everything in the water. The waterfall is gorgeous and we come across some people swimming in the plunge pools at the base of the falls. Not far back down the river we had noticed several crocodile bite indicators. After something to eat we turn and walk the way we came in through the dense forest; this part of the track is walked quietly and rather briskly as Michael reminds me of the German tourist that was taken by a croc in approx. 2002 after a tour guide told the group a particular watering hole was safe to swim in.
Kakadu has dual world heritage listing for its environmental and cultural significance and I am so glad to have been able to experience this very special place.