KAKADU, NORTH­ERN TER­RI­TORY

CROC­O­DILES DODG­ING THROUGH THE NORTH­ERN TER­RI­TORY’ S TOP END.

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THE Top End is ad­ven­ture coun­try, a land of vast mon­soon forests, flood­plains, far hori­zons, es­carp­ments and muddy, crocodile-in­vested tidal streams. Pine Creek is the gate­way to this chal­leng­ing land­scape. From this his­toric rail and min­ing vil­lage there is a choice of con­tin­u­ing north to Dar­win on the Stu­art High­way, or east via the Kakadu High­way to Cahills Cross­ing on the East Al­li­ga­tor River. It in­ter­sects with the Arn­hem High­way at Jabiru. The com­bi­na­tion of the Stu­art, Kakadu and Arn­hem High­ways is a 700km cir­cuit ad­ven­ture drive from Pine Creek.

Okay, die-hard 4Wders will cry out that these roads are sealed, but these high­ways of­fer some of the best ad­ven­ture es­capes you can ex­pe­ri­ence, and you don’t need cor­ru­gated bull­dust tracks to have fun. Back in the early 1960s, the only way into the Al­li­ga­tor River coun­try in a ve­hi­cle was from Pine Creek. A mate and I did it in an old Se­ries 1 Land Rover – a dusty, bone-jar­ring jour­ney that took three days; though, it would have taken less time if we didn’t share a few bot­tles of rum with fel­low trav­ellers we met en route, in­clud­ing bar­ra­mundi fish­ers, buf­falo hunters, poach­ers, rangers and two Pine Creek cop­pers on pa­trol.

In 1979, the Ranger Ura­nium Mine Agree­ment saw the development of the first stage of the Kakadu Na­tional Park. Two other stages were added to it in the 1980s, mak­ing it Aus­tralia’s largest na­tional park at 20,000km². Kakadu is a World Her­itage Area-listed park, recog­nised for its cultural and natural her­itage. It at­tracts vis­i­tors from all over the world, which, along with the Ranger Mine op­er­a­tion, was enough of a rea­son to seal the old Pine Creek to the East Al­li­ga­tor River in the 1990s. The Arn­hem High­way was planned in the late 1960s when ura­nium was dis­cov­ered in the Al­li­ga­tor Rivers Prov­ince, and it was sealed in the 1970s.

While the dusty road no longer ex­ists, the cir­cuit pro­vided by the three high­ways has opened up coun­try that was im­pass­able with even the best-equipped 4WD of the day prior to the 1960s. In case you’re wondering, there are still plenty of dirt side-tracks that end at stream pools, bil­l­abongs and swamps.

Just to the east of Pine Creek is the North­ern Gold­fields Loop, an 81km drive that takes you past the ruins of

THE ONLY SAFE WA­TER­HOLE IS ON TOP OF THE ES­CARP­MENT AT JABIRU

his­toric towns and aban­doned mines. It’s wild, hilly coun­try ruled by buf­falo, wal­la­roos and brumbies.

About 70km from Pine Creek is the Mary River Road­house, where the en­trance to the park is about two kilo­me­tres up the road. Take El Sher­ana Road to Gum­lom and Koolpin Gorge, which runs past the Ranger Sta­tion. The road is rarely main­tained and of­ten badly cor­ru­gated, but the re­wards at its end make it well worth the drive, es­pe­cially when un­der the high walls of the Arn­hem Land Es­carp­ment that looms high above the trees. At Gum­lom, there’s a man­age­ment camp­ing area that has an ablu­tion block with show­ers and toi­lets, and all Kakad­u­man­aged camps have an on-site man­ager who col­lects camp­ing fees.

The es­carp­ment plateau features sand­stone shel­ters at its base, where the many out­liers that rise above the wood­lands house an in­cred­i­ble num­ber of rock-art gal­leries. Some are open to the pub­lic, while oth­ers are strictly out of bounds. A big plunge pool at the base of Wa­ter­fall Creek at Gum­lom was made pop­u­lar by the first Crocodile Dundee movie, when Mick Dundee speared the bar­ra­mundi while im­press­ing his lady friend. Peo­ple swim here; though, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing lived in Kakadu for 10 years, the only safe wa­ter­hole is on top of the es­carp­ment at Jabiru. Re­mem­ber that the Top End is crocodile coun­try.

BAR­RA­MUNDI COUN­TRY

IF YOU love fishing, it’s time to un­wind the gear and catch a barra – as you’ve ar­rived in bar­ra­mundi coun­try. The Yel­low Water Bil­l­abong has some of the best freshwater fishing in Kakadu, with the op­por­tu­nity to lure bar­ra­mundi,

saratoga and tar­pon. It’s rec­om­mended to re­lease your fish, be­cause bil­l­abong barra have a weedy taste and aren’t great to eat. If you must, soak the skinned fil­lets in a strong brine so­lu­tion for 30 min­utes, then dry and store. Be­ware that croc­o­diles in this part of the world have no fear of you and may at­tempt to steal your fish (or you). Pun­ters with­out a tin­nie can sign up to a Yel­low Water Cruise, which flows right into the heart of the swamp, past bask­ing croc­o­diles, whistling ducks, rad­jah shel­ducks, water-walk­ing lo­tus birds, jabirus and div­ing sea ea­gles. The wildlife is truly amaz­ing, and if you ever wanted to swim in a Kakadu wa­ter­hole, this cruise will in­spire you not to. More at­trac­tions, camp­grounds, lookouts and bird-rich, lily-clad bil­l­abongs are lo­cated fur­ther up the high­way. How­ever, we’d ad­vise against pick­ing the lilies or you will end up on the front page of an NT news­pa­per (again, re­mem­ber this is crocodile coun­try). Muirella Park hosts one of the nicest camp­grounds in Kakadu, and a lit­tle far­ther is Nourlangie Rock, an out­lier that features the most amaz­ing rock art in Aus­tralia. The many gal­leries house the spirit be­ings of the dream­time, who cre­ated the land and still rule the weather. For the fit, there are sev­eral long walks in the Nourlangie Rock area, but let some­one know what you are do­ing and carry plenty of drink­ing water. This wilder­ness is not kind to the un­wary or stupid.

A 58km sec­tion of the Kakadu High­way, from the Arn­hem High­way to Cahills Cross­ing, com­pletes the drive. It’s a truly in­vig­o­rat­ing jour­ney that pro­vides the best views of both wet­lands and es­carp­ment stone coun­try in Kakadu. Check with the North­ern Land Coun­cil Of­fice at Jabiru for a per­mit to Gum­bal­anya into Arn­hem Land proper. The com­mu­nity has an amaz­ing lo­cal art gallery and is well worth an ex­cuse to see the es­carp­ment and bil­l­abong coun­try. Be­fore you get there, though, you must run the gaunt­let of lo­cal croc­o­diles that laze near Cahills Cross­ing on the East Al­li­ga­tor River. When the muddy tide flows in, it pushes di­a­mond-scale mul­let up against the cross­ing. They are ham­mered by bar­ra­mundi, which in turn are ham­mered by an­glers, who are ham­mered by croc­o­diles.

There is a man­aged camp­ground nearby, as well as the world-fa­mous Ubirr rock-art gal­leries. Beau­ti­ful panoramic vis­tas from the top of the rock, where the flood­plains of the river ex­tend far to the north, are on of­fer. With good fishing and bush­walks, the East Al­li­ga­tor River is well worth a few days of relaxation.

There are many ve­hi­cle tracks in the

un­de­vel­oped north­ern parts of the park, so check with the staff at the Bowali Vis­i­tors Cen­tre for ac­cess and per­mits. It’s very re­mote, wild coun­try bi­sected by bil­l­abongs, wood­lands, flood­plains and rush­ing springs.

THE ARN­HEM HIGH­WAY

THERE is 250km of ad­ven­ture en route to Dar­win from Jabiru. After re­sup­ply­ing at Jabiru, stop and visit the Ma­mukala Wet­lands and the boat ramp at the South Al­li­ga­tor River. If you have a boat, the river has a lot of good fishing.

The Aurora Kakadu re­sort, just down the high­way, is a top spot to re­lax, bush walk, or from which to take day trips to the Red Lily and Al­li­ga­tor Bil­l­abong com­plexes to the south. The West Al­li­ga­tor Head Track is a short dis­tance from the re­sort and is one of the most un­der­rated des­ti­na­tions in the park. En route, trav­ellers have the choice of camp­ing and fishing on sev­eral bil­l­abongs and pools in the Wild­man River, or they can camp near a huge coastal swamp that over­looks Van Diemen Gulf. There are no fa­cil­i­ties and, apart from fish­ers and bird­watch­ers, few peo­ple ever go there. Note: these tracks rarely open be­fore July, as they tra­verse sev­eral wet­lands.

Head­ing west, the partly-sealed Shady Camp road has sev­eral turn-offs in­clud­ing those to Rock­hole and Car­mor Plains Wildlife Re­serve. This is true flood­plain coun­try clad with bir­drich wet­lands, bil­l­abongs and the best land­based fishing spot in the Top End, the Shady Camp Bar­rage.

The wet­land is all part of the Mary River sys­tem, and it’s rated as the most beau­ti­ful in trop­i­cal Aus­tralia. The river – we crossed it up­stream on the Kakadu High­way – loses its iden­tity be­low Cor­ro­boree Bil­l­abong, where

it over­flows into two creeks, Tom­my­cut and Sam­pan. The lat­ter was dammed in the 1980s in an ef­fort to stop the tides from flood­ing the freshwater wet­lands. The dam is sim­i­lar to Cahills Cross­ing, as fish on in­com­ing tides are trapped be­tween the wall and the preda­tors. The fishing from the wall and the creek bank is amaz­ing in the wet sea­son, as the barra, tailed by hordes of hun­gry croc­o­diles, sim­ply jump onto your hook.

Back on Kakadu High­way, the Mary River Park and Bark Hut Tourism Cen­tre are si­t­u­ated on the east bank of the river, and both of­fer com­fort­able ac­com­mo­da­tion. There is a pic­nic day area and a boat ramp on the Mary River La­goon, while a bush track closely fol­lows the river down­stream and takes in bil­l­abongs and river pools, be­fore it joins the Rock­hole track from Shady Camp Road. It’s an amaz­ing wildlife route, but it’s only open late in the dry sea­son. A lit­tle fur­ther west is the turn-off to Hardies La­goon, which takes you across woody hills where an­tilop­ine wal­la­roos frolic. The la­goon has bush camp­ing and a boat ramp, and it’s a nice spot to un­wind and re­lax.

The next turn-off is to the famed Cor­ro­boree Bil­l­abong – there’s no other bil­l­abong like it in the Top End. It has 18km of nav­i­ga­ble waters, hous­ing a vis­i­ble dis­play of birdlife and crocodile num­bers un­matched any­where else. It’s the only place (I know of) where both freshwater and salt­wa­ter croc­o­diles bask side by side, and there are enough fish in the bil­l­abong to keep both species happy. For some­thing dif­fer­ent, hire one of the house­boats that ply the waters and spend a night sur­rounded by fish, croc­o­diles, wa­ter­fowl and din­goes.

Cor­ro­boree Park has ac­com­mo­da­tion, camp­ing, fuel and meals, and the en­trance to Djuk­binj Na­tional Park is just down the road. This park is un­der-utilised by vis­i­tors in their rush to get to Kakadu, but it has nice bush camp­sites scat­tered

along ver­dant creeks, flood­plains, patches of true mon­soon rain­for­est and tall wood­lands. Down the road, the Ade­laide Crocodile Cruise Cen­tre pro­vides crocodile cruises along the river. It’s a big op­er­a­tion, with an­other com­pany sited down­stream, which is reached past the Win­dows on the Wet­lands – an in­for­ma­tion com­plex sited on the highly vis­i­ble Beatrice Hill, which pro­vides 360-de­gree views of the wet­lands. The cen­tre has amaz­ing in­ter­pre­tive dis­plays of the re­gion that cov­ers flora, fauna and lo­cal history.

From Beatrice Hill, take the Fogg Dam turnoff. The dam, built just after World War II, was one of sev­eral de­signed to pro­vide water to grow rice on the flood­plains, but the project failed when mil­lions of mag­pie geese ate the crop. The army was called in to help and ma­chine­gunned the birds, but to no avail, as the geese out­num­bered the bul­lets. Huge pumps on the Ade­laide River pumped water at low tide into the hold­ing dams. How­ever, ev­ery time they were switched on, Dar­win suf­fered a power out­age – so most of the dams were later de­stroyed to re­store the land.

Con­tinue on the dirt road from Fogg Dam across the flood­plains to the original Ade­laide River Cruises op­er­a­tion. The per­son­alised op­er­a­tion uses small boats that carry only 20 peo­ple, who are seated at water level. Once on the river, they’ll come face to face with some of the big­gest croc­o­diles in the Top End. But never fear, as pro­tec­tion is af­forded via screens. The Ade­laide River is the only place in trop­i­cal Aus­tralia where cruise op­er­a­tors are al­lowed to feed croc­o­diles in the wild. It is banned else­where, apart from wildlife parks. As this is no park, you will never ex­pe­ri­ence any­thing like it else­where.

A few kilo­me­tres later you’ll drive into busy Humpty Doo. If you’re a pub crawler, pop in to the lo­cal pub for the chance to meet lo­cal barflies and hear their tall tales. That is pub life for you!

After a quick ale, you’ll be back on the Stu­art High­way where the vol­ume of traf­fic will make you wish you were back in the bush. It’s fol­lowed by an urge to turn back and do it again. Hell, why not?

There are a bunch of dirt side­tracks worth ex­plor­ing.

The water may look ap­peal­ing, but watch out for logs that bite.

Some of the land’s best in­dige­nous art is on dis­play in this re­gion.

Get ac­cess and Bowali per­mits at the Vis­i­tors Cen­tre.

The Kakadu re­gion has a rich history of in­dige­nous cul­ture.

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