Culture calls in Kakadu
A voyage of discovery along the oddly named East Alligator River
CROCODILES are plentiful at Cahills Crossing in Kakadu. From the lookout, I can barely discern them, but down at water level they become bone-chillingly obvious, their scaled rows of slick black vertebrae disturbing the water’s surface.
Robert Namarnyilk tells us there are about 400 crocs in the East Alligator River as we push off from the shore on a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise. ‘‘Make sure you keep your arms, legs and heads inside this boat,’’ he warns. ‘‘Even when we can’t see the crocs, they can see us.’’
It is the dry season when I visit, but the water laps at the crossing nonetheless and churns about its edge; a monster of a crocodile appears inside the froth, its glassy eyes fixed on the vehicles that rumble across from Kakadu into Arnhem Land. Come December, this will be a drowned landscape, with the river rising and spreading until it measures 25km at its widest point.
‘‘My people used to cross here [up to their] kneecaps at low tide,’’ Namarnyilk says, nodding towards the crossing. ‘‘Paddy Cahill [a local buffalo shooter and farmer] said: ‘One day I’ll put a crossing in.’’’
In 1960, long after Cahill died, a crossing was finally installed at this perilous spot and Namarnyilk’s people helped to build it. We cruise away from it now, against the incoming tide, and Namarnyilk points out the hibiscus bushes on the riverbank. He tells us that indigenous people make spears, woomeras and firesticks from the wood, fashion bandages from the bark and use the flowers to treat stomach ailments. ‘‘This is my home ground and my supermarket.’’
The river widens and pandanus palms and cane grass flourish on its banks. Female crocodiles make floating nests from the grass in the wet season and lay their eggs in them; most of the hatchlings are eaten by barramundi, sharks, birds or crocodiles.
But it’s just as well, for the river would surely be clogged without such ruthless elimination.
As if to reinforce this thought, an infestation of crocs appears as we round a bend in the river — they laze on sandbanks, mouths ajar, bodies set like stone; they lurk in the shallows, betrayed only by shining eyes that protrude from the water and they cruise through the current with feigned innocence and grace.
Namarnyilk points to a towering paperbark tree rimmed high up with a black watermark, the imprint of a seasonally flooded river. Up ahead a swath of bushland lies crumpled and desolate, the calling card left by Cyclone Monica when it passed through here in 2006.
Soon, the flora gives way to sandstone walls and overhanging outcrops bearing the mark of early Aboriginal rock artists. This is of particular interest to our group, for we are part of a World Expeditions community project examining rock art in Kakadu and Arnhem Land.
Our guide, eminent rock art researcher and Griffith University professor Paul Tacon, points out paintings of catfish and saratoga, waterlilies and Mimi spirits. They are worn, of course; it can hardly be helped, for every wet season the water swallows this ancient gallery.
We pull into shore and step out of the boat into Arnhem Land. The view from here is bright and expansive. Kakadu lies to the west and Arnhem Land spreads out to the east. Separating the two is the misnamed East Alligator River, a green ribbon of water that flows all the way from the Arnhem Land plateau to Van Diemen Gulf, gradually reshaping everything it passes — the rock faces, the artwork, the riverbanks, the flora. But not the everpresent crocodiles just beneath its surface.
Catherine Marshall was a guest of World Expeditions.
Aboard the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise in Kakadu National Park