The old days
Tom Gilling enjoys a return to the grandeur of Kakadu
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).
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.
Flock around the croc:
Private site: One of the tented cabins