Chop­per might be 80, but in Aus­tralia’s Kakadu Na­tional Park, this croc is still the boss.

Nikki Mar­shall ex­plores an Aus­tralian na­tional park – and has a much-too-close en­counter with a croc called Chop­per

Friday - - Contents -

You feel it from the heart. It’s some­thing words can’t ex­plain.’ So says Paul Arnold, a Dar­win­based land­scape pho­tog­ra­pher dressed like a cross be­tween Steve Ir­win and Crocodile Dundee (khaki shorts and shirt, bat­tered bush hat, huge gold nugget on a kan­ga­roo-skin strap around his neck). He’s talk­ing about Kakadu, Aus­tralia’s largest na­tional park – a world her­itage-listed wilder­ness that’s home to wet­lands, wa­ter­falls, wildlife and the world’s long­est con­tin­u­ous sur­viv­ing cul­ture.

We’re here on a four-day trip to fol­low in the foot­steps of Mick Dundee him­self, 30 years af­ter Paul Ho­gan’s smash-hit film cat­a­pulted Kakadu, the out­back – and Aus­tralia it­self – on to the world stage.

In Arnold’s gallery in Dar­win, sur­rounded by his shots of the Top End, he tells us to be still and drink it in. ‘You’ll know what I’m talk­ing about when you get there,’ he says. ‘That’s the thing about Kakadu – it can’t not change you.’

Fast-for­ward two hours and I’m des­per­ately wish­ing for a change... of clothes. We’re at Cro­cosaurus Cove, a rep­tile park in the cen­tre of the city that’s home to some 200 salt­wa­ter crocs. I’ve just come face-to-face with the park’s most pop­u­lar res­i­dent, a bat­tle-scarred 5.5m mon­ster called Chop­per.

Miss­ing a leg and a few front teeth, he’s named af­ter the in­fa­mous Aussie crim­i­nal Mark ‘Chop­per’ Read .

Two of us have been given gog­gles and snorkels and low­ered in the ‘cage of death’ into Chop­per’s en­clo­sure. The mo­ment we hit the wa­ter, the 800kg saltie throws him­self at us and I scream in sur­prise. It takes a few sec­onds to re­alise Chop­per’s in­ter­est isn’t in us but in the chicken car­cass a han­dler is dan­gling over our heads.

TAL­ENTED OR TASTY?

As he cir­cles and lunges, we re­alise he’s fol­low­ing ver­bal com­mands; he only jumps when he’s told to. It’s clear this wily old boy – he’s at least 80 years old – knows this game and how to play it.

It’s an im­pres­sive dis­play from an an­i­mal I’d pre­vi­ously thought akin to a vi­cious log – and to be avoided at all costs. Less en­gag­ing is the smell. Chop­per reeks. It’s an in­tensely fishy, slimy stench made alarm­ing by the re­lease I just signed, ac­knowl­edg­ing that the wa­ter in the cage ‘fills from the pen wa­ter hold­ing the croc­o­diles and may ex­pose me to po­ten­tially harm­ful or fa­tal dis­ease’. And we’re be­ing urged to put our heads fully un­der be­cause ‘it’s bet­ter for the pho­to­graphs’. Oh­h­hhh-K then.

Af­ter about five min­utes of cage rat­tling, Chop­per de­mol­ishes the last of the chicken and the show’s over. But then comes the best bit. He starts to check us out. To re­ally look at us. Yes, we might be prey, but I swear there’s a gleam of amuse­ment in that rep­tile eye (he’s so huge I can only see one at a time). And lock­ing eyes with an apex preda­tor so for­mi­da­ble that his species hasn’t seen the need to evolve in 200 mil­lion years is a pow­er­ful sen­sa­tion.

Chop­per’s han­dler Josh (the chicken dan­gler) says croc­o­diles can un­der­stand up to 16 com­mands: ‘So they’re brighter than a dog – but they won’t stop at lick­ing you!’

There’s an­other crocodile en­counter in store at din­ner in the atrium restau­rant of the har­bour­side Dar­win Novo­tel CBD.

First course is lo­cal croc served two ways. I’m not ex­actly ex­cited to try it af­ter meet­ing old Chop Chop, but I fig­ure if our roles were re­versed, he wouldn’t hes­i­tate. Other din­ers joke it tastes like chicken and they’re right – if you like your poul­try fishy and scaly.

More ap­peal­ing is the crispy-skin na­tive bar­ra­mundi, with a rel­ish made of na­tive quan­dong fruit, and a zingy dessert of na­tive wat­tle­seed crema cata­lana with na­tive macadamia tof­fee crumb and lime sauce. Seems Ter­ri­to­ri­ans like to take a theme and run with it.

Af­ter five min­utes of CAGE RAT­TLING, Chop­per de­mol­ishes the last of the chicken. But then comes the best bit. He starts to check us out. I swear there’s a GLEAM OF AMUSE­MENT in that REP­TILE EYE

Nowhere is that more ap­par­ent than the base for our first night in Kakadu, the Mer­cure Crocodile Ho­tel in the town of Jabiru – an easy three-hour drive from Dar­win.

Built for the tourists who flocked to the na­tional park af­ter Crocodile Dundee came out, the Indige­nousowned 110-room re­sort is shaped like an enor­mous ‘ginga’ (the word for crocodile in the lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages).

You en­ter through her jaws; the struts hold­ing up the por­tico re­sem­ble gi­ant teeth; in the belly of the beast is the swim­ming pool. It’s kitsch on a mon­u­men­tal scale, de­serv­ing a place on the list of Aus­tralia’s beloved Big Things.

The rooms are com­fort­able, though, and the re­cep­tion is warm.

Tra­di­tional own­ers David, Mark and May are on hand to wel­come our group to Mi­rarr coun­try with a smok­ing cer­e­mony on the front lawn.

The men sing as the green leaves crackle and catch, send­ing cleans­ing fumes our way. Mark fin­ishes with a short tale about hunt­ing wal­laby. As he sings, I’m struck by a dizzy­ing sense of right­ness. Hear­ing this an­cient song, in this place… for a heady few sec­onds it feels as though mil­len­nia are fall­ing away.

In­side we meet our guides, Selone Djand­jomerr, the ho­tel’s artist-in-res­i­dence, and Chris­tian Did­dams, a na­tional park in­ter­pre­tive ranger. As we fill out pa­per­work – all vis­i­tors to Kakadu must ob­tain a pass

We’d have to STAY in Kakadu at least two years to be­gin to un­der­stand the CUL­TURE, but any­one will­ing to feel the coun­try will ex­pe­ri­ence ‘THE MAGIC’. Just DON’T drive around the park tick­ing off sites

– Chris­tian briefs us on the park’s his­tory. There were once up to 2,500 Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple (or Bin­inj, as they’re called in the north of the park) liv­ing here, in 22 clan groups speak­ing 12 lan­guages – in­clud­ing the now-ex­tinct Gagudju (cock­a­too) for which the park was named. To­day there are 12 clans left, speak­ing three lan­guages – and no more than 500 Bin­inj still liv­ing here.

Bin­inj call vis­i­tors here (and any­one who isn’t in­dige­nous) Ba­landa, a deriva­tion of Hol­lan­der that comes from the Ma­cas­san peo­ple of Su­lawesi, with whom Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple traded for cen­turies.

SAND­STONE AND SUN­SET

With more than 2,000 plant species and nearly 300 dif­fer­ent birds, the park’s bio­di­ver­sity is ‘off the hook’, Chris­tian says, but it’s clear that for this park ranger Kakadu is all about the peo­ple. Per­mits sorted, it’s time to get into the land­scape. We set off for the park’s north-eastern cor­ner.

We glimpse our first rock art on the sand­stone pil­lars of the Bard­ed­jilidji walk, a 2.5km loop along­side the East Al­li­ga­tor river, and the lo­ca­tion for the cli­mac­tic scenes of Crocodile Dundee II (no, I don’t re­mem­ber it ei­ther). Then it’s a short drive to the day’s high­light, sun­set atop the glory that is Ubirr. The paint­ings here – cre­ated by artists who mix min­eral pig­ments with blood and fat and tat­too them into the stone – are stu­pen­dous.

There’s a thy­lacine (they died out on the Aus­tralian main­land at least 2,000 years ago), x-ray an­i­mals, crocodile warn­ing signs and pic­tures de­scrib­ing early con­tact with Euro­peans.

As Chris­tian tells it, Kakadu’s stone gal­leries il­lus­trate sto­ries, lore and song stretch­ing back 20,000 years. They also pro­vide an eye­wit­ness ac­count of a time of rapid en­vi­ron­men­tal change, when, at the end of the last ice age, sea lev­els rose 130m in 6,000 years.

But Ba­landa are only told the ‘chil­dren’s sto­ries’ that go with the im­ages – as Bin­inj progress through cer­e­mo­nial life, and prove their will­ing­ness to ac­cept the obli­ga­tions that come with knowl­edge, ex­tra lay­ers of mean­ing are re­vealed to them.

As we climb to the look­out, Selone says qui­etly we’d have to stay in Kakadu at least two years to be­gin to un­der­stand his cul­ture, but any­one will­ing to sit and feel coun­try will ex­pe­ri­ence ‘the magic’. Just don’t drive around the park at 130km/h tick­ing off sites, he says – that’s just a waste of time.

The view from the tallest of Ubirr’s rocky out­crops is un­for­get­table. Drag­on­flies dart about and cock­a­toos call out as a red ball of fire sinks into the in­tense green of the Nadab flood­plain be­low. This is the

movie mo­ment when Mick Dundee points to the hori­zon and says, ‘This is my back­yard and over there is the Never Never.’ For a bliss­ful hour it’s our back­yard too.

TIME TO FLY

To get a han­dle on the dis­tinct ter­rains of Aus­tralia’s largest na­tional park, it’s good idea to get above them. Just min­utes af­ter tak­ing off from Jabiru Air­port in a sin­gle-en­gine Cessna op­er­ated by the Scenic Flight Com­pany, there’s an ‘aha mo­ment’. To the north and west are the wet­lands, their rivers and creeks snaking across lush plains and glint­ing in the morn­ing light. Tow­er­ing above them to the south and east is Arn­hem Land’s stone coun­try – hot, dry and harsh, though, with the sand­stone es­carp­ment ris­ing up to 300m, there are far fewer crocs.

We fol­low the ridge south to Jim Jim falls, where wa­ter cas­cades 200m from the cliff face into a plunge pool that’s only ac­ces­si­ble in the dry sea­son. Fur­ther south, our pi­lot Cameron tells us, is Gun­lom wa­ter­fall – an­other Dundee lo­ca­tion – and be­yond that is ‘sick­ness coun­try’, where rock paint­ings warn­ing passersby to steer clear are now known to cor­re­late with ura­nium de­posits.

‘So for 20,000 years they’ve known there’s been some­thing in this area that isn’t too

It IN­FU­RI­ATES Chris­tian that ABO­RIG­I­NAL peo­ple are still de­scribed as hav­ing been NO­MADIC hunter-gath­er­ers, ig­nor­ing how skil­fully they man­age and ma­nip­u­late their LAND­SCAPE

good for their health,’ he says. Cir­cling back to Jabiru, we glimpse the Ranger ura­nium mine, an in­con­gru­ous is­land in this oth­er­wise un­touched ter­rain. Open-cut min­ing ceased here in 2012 but the pro­cess­ing of ore con­tin­ues. When the mine closes, the com­pany is re­quired to re­ha­bil­i­tate the land so it can be incorporated into the sur­round­ing park.

LIFE LESSONS

Back at the ho­tel we meet Selone for an art les­son. He cuts reeds col­lected on yes­ter­day’s out­ing to craft long, fine brushes and deftly gets to work. Un­like the colour­ful, more ab­stract dot paint­ings of cen­tral Aus­tralia, the art tra­di­tion here is stark.

Black, white, rust and ochre shades form x-ray fig­ures with cross-hatched bod­ies. The shapes are sim­ple but the fine lines make them pop. It’s star­tling to see the an­i­mals from the rock art we saw yes­ter­day make the leap to can­vas.

There’s an­other les­son in store at Nourlangie, an art site 20km south of Jabiru, where we meet Chris­tian for a ranger-led tour. He has stone tools and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds lined up to show us but, again, his fo­cus is on peo­ple.

He de­scribes a fan­tas­ti­cally com­plex kin­ship-based sys­tem that im­poses rights and avoid­ances: for ex­am­ple, for each species in­di­vid­ual Bin­inj are al­lowed to hunt or har­vest, there is an­other they must pro­tect.

Here his­tory is oral: song­lines are ‘locked in’ over three gen­er­a­tions to en­sure they are learnt word for word. An­cient sto­ries to­day still speak of sea-level changes that oc­curred mil­len­nia ago – far fur­ther back than the west’s writ­ten his­to­ries go.

Chris­tian’s pas­sion brings these rock gal­leries to life. A favourite de­tail: chil­dren are taught that when spear­grass turns pur­ple, bar­ra­mundi are at their fat­test. There’s even a sea­son named for that grass. Ba­landa say the Top End has two sea­sons: the wet and the dry. Bin­inj recog­nise six, in­clud­ing Bang­ger­reng, which means ‘knock ‘em down storms sea­son’ af­ter the April rains that flat­ten the grass.

It in­fu­ri­ates Chris­tian that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are still de­scribed as hav­ing been no­madic hunter-gath­er­ers, ig­nor­ing how skil­fully they man­age and ma­nip­u­late their land­scape. There is ev­i­dence they prop­a­gated species on a mas­sive scale, in­clud­ing en­tire val­leys given over to na­tive mil­let. And the spare time they had over from the busi­ness of sur­vival was ded­i­cated to cer­e­mony.

We stop in front of the rock art of Na­jom­bolmi, a mas­ter bark painter, hunter and fisher also known as Bar­ra­mundi Charlie. He spent years work­ing among Ba­landa, watch­ing on in grief as his peo­ple died from the ill­nesses they brought. With the flood­plain lan­guages gone and the stone coun­try lan­guages dis­ap­pear­ing, he came here in the wet sea­son of 1963-64 – not long be­fore he him­self died – to leave his art along­side that of his ances­tors. His im­ages of Na­mar­rgon the light­ning man, his wife, Bar­rginj, and a fam­ily group of Bin­inj are recog­nised as master­pieces.

Next we look out over Ang­bang­bang Bil­l­abong, where Mick Dundee took Sue for

their first night in the wilder­ness, and climb Nawur­landja look­out to see a rain­bow ap­pear above Nourlangie Rock. As we stand in bright sun­shine gaz­ing out across the park, steel grey clouds ap­pear, then a sud­den rain­storm sweeps in from the es­carp­ment. It’s spec­tac­u­lar – and we cop a drench­ing.

AMAZ­INGLY AC­CES­SI­BLE

The im­mer­sion con­tin­ues on our fi­nal day in Kakadu, from a pre-dawn start at our ac­com­mo­da­tion be­side the Yel­low Wa­ter Bil­l­abong, the In­dige­nous-owned, Ac­cor man­aged Cooinda Lodge. The bil­l­abong, a branch of the South Al­li­ga­tor river, takes its name from the soft colour of its sur­face at sun­rise and sun­set. Which makes sun­rise the per­fect time for a trip with Yel­low Wa­ter Cruises, one of the park’s top at­trac­tions.

Our guide and skip­per Mar­garet points out mag­pie geese and darters, and teaches us to spot the streams of small bub­bles that mean a ginga is lurk­ing be­low.

It’s ex­cit­ing to see a dozen or so croc­o­diles in their el­e­ment, glid­ing through the wa­ter, rest­ing among wa­terlilies and sun­ning them­selves on mud banks. For our fi­nal out­ing we head up through stone coun­try into the park’s south-west to pic­nic at Mo­line, one of Kakadu’s many small swim­ming holes. We’re in a four-wheel drive with Kevin of Spirit of Kakadu Ad­ven­ture Tours.

He’s been in Kakadu a dozen years, af­ter grow­ing up around Dar­win. ‘I’m not real keen on it though – it’s too big nowa­days,’ he says of his home town.

Mo­line is on a rut­ted track off the high­way – the first rough road we’ve been on. As I jump into the cool, fresh wa­ter, I con­sider how un­ex­pect­edly ac­ces­si­ble Kakadu is. With Aus­tralia’s min­ing boom over, the cost of flights to Dar­win has come down, as air­lines com­pete for the tourist mar­ket.

And Jabiru is just 250km fur­ther on. I’d pre­vi­ously imag­ined the park to be a re­mote wilder­ness, the do­main of hard­core campers with se­ri­ous bush skills. That you some­how had to earn the right to see its won­ders. (Crocodile Dundee might even be to blame for that im­pres­sion.)

I know that on this long week­end I’ve only seen a tiny bit of this beau­ti­ful place, and that a longer, less-busy stay would more fully re­veal Selone’s ‘magic’. But as I scram­ble up rocks to stand in Mo­line’s wa­ter­fall, a Top End dream comes true.

And I do feel changed: I feel awed and ex­hil­a­rated and fired up by a fierce yearn­ing to see more, learn more and ex­pe­ri­ence more of this vast and glo­ri­ous land.

This 80-year-old croc called Chop­per rules Cro­cosaurus Cove. From panoramic views to gi­ant ter­mite hills, Kakadu Na­tional Park is breath­tak­ing

While Kakadu Na­tional Park has a rich ecosys­tem, the Dar­win Novo­tel (top) serves crocs on a plat­ter

The abo­rig­i­nal rock art site at Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu Na­tional Park of­fers lessons in an­cient wis­dom

It might seem like the back of be­yond, but Kakadu is grad­u­ally mak­ing a mark for it­self on the tourism map

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