The old days

Tom Gilling en­joys a re­turn to the grandeur of Kakadu

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Adventure Holidays -

HOUSE­KEEP­ING first: is this go­ing to be a dry camp or not? Jeff, our crew-cut tour guide, al­most chokes at the an­nounce­ment that one of the group in­tends to ab­stain from al­co­hol for the du­ra­tion. Why would you do that?’’ he asks in­cred­u­lously. The de­ci­sion, it turns out, had more to do with dry­ing out than go­ing dry. We are a half hour from Dar­win city cen­tre en route to the crocin­fested flood plains of Kakadu and a life-or-death de­ci­sion now con­fronts the rest of us: will half a slab be enough for two nights or should we go the whole slab? Jeff’s coun­sel — the prod­uct of 14 years as a pro­fes­sional tour guide — proves to be right on the money: a cold beer around the camp­fire is the ideal way to round off a day in one of Aus­tralia’s great na­tional parks.

Hu­man in­ter­fer­ence has altered Kakadu in the 20 years since my last visit: there is more tar­mac be­tween the main tourist sights and more peo­ple are us­ing it. Cane toads have ar­rived, as have troop car­ri­ers full of back­pack­ers.

At a more pro­found level, how­ever, noth­ing has changed: dur­ing 50,000 years of hu­man oc­cu­pa­tion Kakadu has al­ways an­swered to a much higher author­ity than mankind. Nowhere are the ex­tremes of na­ture so man­i­fest as in Aus­tralia’s Top End, and nowhere are those ex­tremes more spec­tac­u­lar than in Kakadu.

From Dar­win it’s about three hours to Kakadu by the Arn­hem High­way. Our first stop is Ubirr, about 40km by sealed road from the main Bowali Vis­i­tors’ Cen­tre. Ubirr is one of the park’s great nat­u­ral trea­sures, a rocky out­crop with stun­ning views over the Nardab flood plain. Ubirr’s rock art sites, cre­ated over thou­sands of years, com­prise a lit­eral his­tory of hu­man habi­ta­tion as well as a time­less record of myth­i­cal be­lief. As well as the ubiq­ui­tous croc­o­diles, tur­tles and bar­ra­mundi, there are anatom­i­cally pre­cise pic­tures of gi­ant lum­ber­ing mar­su­pi­als and other long-ex­tinct an­i­mals.

If you have only seen Abo­rig­i­nal art in gal­leries you will find it a strangely mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to con­tem­plate th­ese some­times rough, some­times exquisitely de­tailed, pic­tures in the place they were in­tended to be seen.

There are many Kakadu tours to choose from but most keep to the es­tab­lished (and, at this time of the year, of­ten crowded) camp­sites close to the key at­trac­tions. Con­ve­nient, cer­tainly, but not nec­es­sar­ily the best way to ap­pre­ci­ate the grandeur and seren­ity of Kakadu af­ter dark.

Con­nec­tions has a private camp­site: a dozen per­ma­nent two-per­son cab­ins on the banks of a pic­turesque bil­l­abong. The Mur­dud­jurl Dream­time sa­fari camp lies at the end of a 4WD track that winds around a mist­shrouded flood plain fringed with pa­per­barks.

The swamp never dries up and a herd of wild horses, de­scen­dants of those left be­hind by buf­falo hunters, grazes year round on the rich green grass. The pres­ence of croc­o­diles doesn’t seem to worry them, al­though close-up you can see the pale scars of croc­o­dile at­tacks on the legs and haunches of the un­wary.

En route to the camp­site Jeff stops the 4WD to pick up Wayne, a mem­ber of the lo­cal Mur­dud­jurl com­mu­nity, who is just set­ting out in his AC/DC T-shirt to walk the 50km home with only a plas­tic bot­tle of wa­ter for com­pany.

The con­ver­sa­tion soon turns to hunt­ing: the an­i­mal he has just killed, the one he killed last time and the ones he’s de­ter­mined to kill next time. Yes­ter­day it was a wild pig, which Wayne and his mates fol­lowed for hours, track­ing it by the tell­tale flock of white birds ac­com­pa­ny­ing it through the pa­per­bark swamp. Last time it was a croc­o­dile, stuffed with eu­ca­lyp­tus leaves and roasted in the ground. Wayne’s next prey, at least in his dreams, is a huge pig he calls Hogzilla, which has been lurk­ing around the swamp but al­ways man­ages to dis­ap­pear when the men with guns come look­ing.

In re­cent weeks, Wayne has feasted on tur­tles and mag­pie geese and file snakes teased out from be­tween the roots of pan­danus trees (‘‘Women’s work,’’ he says.

We just stand around and watch.’’) Kakadu has a rich fauna and vir­tu­ally all of it is on the menu for the Abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of the park.

It doesn’t take long be­fore Jeff gets in on the act. A keen hunter and bush cook, he has shot and eaten most of the same wildlife. Soon he and Wayne are swap­ping yarns and com­par­ing cook­ing meth­ods. It’s like be­ing stuck in a lift with Gor­don Ram­say and Jamie Oliver.

As part of its ar­range­ment with the Mur­dud­jurl com­mu­nity, Con­nec­tions in­cludes a cul­tural tour in its three-day Dream­time Sa­fari. Mandy Muir is the driv­ing force be­hind the re­la­tion­ship and has re­cently re­turned from an Abo­rig­i­nal trade tour of sev­eral Euro­pean cap­i­tals. We find her sit­ting on the veranda of her house with Priscilla Badari, an as-yet-un­known but ac­com­plished artist, who is teach­ing Mandy how to paint.

Hung over a nearby tree stump is all that re­mains of the croc Wayne told us about: a me­tre-long strip of tail leather. It’s sur­pris­ingly thick and heavy. Mandy points to the bil­l­abong it came from. As bil­l­abongs go it isn’t very big but un­til re­cently it was home to seven croc­o­diles, the big­gest a 5m mon­ster. Most of the time we live in har­mony,’’ she says. Ex­cept when they take a dog.’’

Be­fore strik­ing, a croc will lie for three or four days watch­ing the same dog come down to the wa­ter’s edge. Mandy’s dogs were get­ting care­less. Af­ter two of them dis­ap­peared into the bil­l­abong, Mandy knew some culling was nec­es­sary. The croc trap — a cof­fin-shaped cage of steel mesh with a rot­ting leg of pork at one end — is more of­ten a ges­ture of faith than a prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion, since crocs are gen­er­ally too wily to ven­ture inside. But once in a while even crocs drop their guard and for now Mandy’s dogs have two less to worry about when they go down for a dip.

Af­ter an hour with Mandy we head off to the camp­site. Flood lit­ter dan­gling two or three me­tres off the ground in­di­cates the wa­ter level at the height of the wet sea­son, when the South Al­li­ga­tor River (there are no al­li­ga­tors, of course, only croc­o­diles) swells from a rel­a­tive trickle to a surg­ing tor­rent a kilo­me­tre or more across.

Up­rooted melaleu­cas, some of them sus­pended high in the forks of trees, demon­strate the power of a mighty river in full flood. Even in the dry, when the tem­per­a­ture

Liq­uid as­set: Jim Jim Falls, where the wa­ter strikes your skin like nee­dles, is one of Kakadu’s best-known sights soars way above 40C and some of Kakadu’s rivers and creeks stop flow­ing al­to­gether, one can never for­get the wet. Its legacy is ev­ery­where, in the ragged shreds of bark hang­ing from the tops of pan­danus trees, in the flood lev­els etched on the trunks of the melaleu­cas, even in the croc­o­diles them­selves, which are car­ried far and wide by the wet sea­son floods only to be trapped in shrink­ing bil­l­abongs dur­ing the dry.

The rhythm of ebb and flow has its coun­ter­point in the fires that run through the park dur­ing the dry, fol­low­ing an in­tri­cate sys­tem of fire man­age­ment de­vel­oped by the Abo­rig­ines over tens of thou­sands of years. Drive al­most any­where in Kakadu and you are con­tin­u­ously aware of land that is burn­ing, land that was burned last year and land that will be burned next. The cy­cle of mo­saic burn­ing is es­sen­tial, not only to prop­a­gate and stim­u­late growth, but to pro­tect the flora and fauna from big fires that would oth­er­wise rage unchecked.

Like the ter­ri­tory it­self, Kakadu Na­tional Park is laid out on a big scale. From the camp­site it is roughly two hours’ drive on a well-kept dirt road to the fa­mous Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls. (Both are in­ac­ces­si­ble in the wet.) The last few kilo­me­tres are a slow crawl over rugged and sandy 4WD tracks, fol­lowed by a scram­ble over rocks.

Swim­ming is no longer al­lowed at Twin Falls, mainly due to the dif­fi­culty of clear­ing the area of salt­wa­ter crocs. At Jim Jim, you can take your pick be­tween a small sandy beach and a deep black plunge pool walled by 150m sand­stone cliffs. Ac­cord­ing to the signs, there could be crocs here but no­body seems too both­ered. From the top of the es­carp­ment, the tum­bling wa­ter strikes your skin like nee­dles. Like the other guides, Jeff knows how cold it is and spends an hour soak­ing up the sun on a rock. YEL­LOW Wa­ters is the place I re­call most vividly from my first visit and it’s as un­for­get­table the sec­ond time. A two-hour guided cruise of­fers a won­der­ful view of Kakadu’s world her­itage wet­lands.

The Yel­low Wa­ters flood plain, which forms part of the South Al­li­ga­tor sys­tem, is the habi­tat for the most con­cen­trated variety of birdlife in Kakadu. From the ma­jes­tic jabiru stork to the tiny rain­bow bee-eater, you’ll see a fair se­lec­tion of the park’s 280-odd species of bird, and as many salt­wa­ter crocs as you’d want to meet.

The sea ea­gle I re­mem­ber see­ing 20 years ago seems to be still here, re­gally sur­vey­ing the hori­zon from an ex­posed branch perch high up in a pa­per­bark. Per­haps sea ea­gles al­ways look like that, serene and dis­dain­ful of the hu­man chat­ter be­low, but I’ve got a feel­ing it is the same bird, keep­ing the same vigil, in a mag­nif­i­cent na­tional park that for all its awe­some change­abil­ity re­mains in some ele­men­tal way un­change­able. Tom Gilling was a guest of Con­nec­tions. His most re­cent book is Dream­land (Text).

Check­list

Con­nec­tions’ three-day 4WD Kakadu Dream­time Sa­fari op­er­ates May to Novem­ber with de­par­tures Mon­days, Wed­nes­days, Fri­days and Satur­days from Dar­win. Max­i­mum group size is six; from $935 a per­son, in­clud­ing three break­fasts, three lunches and two din­ners. More: 1800 077 251; www.con­nec­tions.travel.

www.trav­elnt.com

Flock around the croc:

Pic­ture: Tom Gilling

Private site: One of the tented cab­ins

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