Cul­ture calls in Kakadu

A voy­age of dis­cov­ery along the oddly named East Al­li­ga­tor River

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

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

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