Published: September 16th 2009September 13th 2009
Catching another lift
Before I left Darwin, I had to do one last thing and that was to see Australia’s largest national park called in a typically Australian way, Kakadu. Not only is it chock-full of wildlife unique to Kakadu alone but it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing ancient rocks as well as aboriginal rock art - truly a must-see. Of course I didn’t have transport or a driver’s license to rent a car to go so I put another poster up around hostels asking for a lift from anybody going that way. Enter Kathrin and Tine from Germany and Belgium who was on a working holiday visa in Australia and who wanted to go to Kakadu. Result! We both happened to be at the Mindil Night Market (I was coming back from the NT Museum) and so we met on the beach along with thousands of others, to see the sunset.
Tine was 25 years old and from Ghent - and so we talked about my time there a few summers back; Kathrin was 19 years old and from near Munich, who despite only nine months in Australia spoke fluent Aussie - complete with nasal twang.
The girls had been travelling together for a few weeks from Broome - but only as friends of other travel companions.
We met the following day at Coles Supermarket where we did some shopping for the trip along with a surprise fourth passenger - another German girl. Before we set off I quickly booked a flight to Cairns on the East Coast - there was nothing much of interest overland from Darwin to Cairns so I wanted to save myself another long road trip.
It was Tine’s hatchback car so she did most of the driving to the national park - we made a stop to make lunch along the way at a roadhouse and to stock up on water. However, when we got back on the road Kathrin asked if she could drive and somebody really should have asked if indeed she could, because she managed to damage the car by recklessly reversing the car into the side of a bridge. Admittedly it was to catch a glimpse of our first wild crocodile, but the wheel caps were now gashed which didn’t increase Tine’s chances of selling the car once she got back to Darwin.
Kakadu art work
Anyway, we finally got to Kakadu by late afternoon, made a quick visit to the information services and immediately drove on to Ubirr
- the site of some pretty incredible aboriginal rock art. The “gallery” had images of long extinct giant kangaroos and thylacines (Tasmanian Tigers), crocodiles, tortoises and fish painted in anatomical X-ray which have been painted onto the rock. This is the world’s oldest art created by the world’s first artists and it is ancient - at Ubirr roughly 8,000 years old but some images are up to 15,000 years old. Apparently the reason they have survived for so long is because of the iron ore in the rock which has helped act with the ochre paint to preserve it all.
We then scrambled past more art on the way up to the 250 meter high Nardab Lookout
which gave a superb sunset view of the exotic floodplain below. A park ranger was also there giving a talk on the ancient geology of the park - almost too many millions of years to actually fathom what the hell happened here - let’s just say that these rocks are 2,000 million years old
Aboriginal rock art
Can you spot the crocodile?
and a lot has happened in that time! Anyway, after sun set we were told that we had about 10 minutes until the mosquitoes from the water pools below would come flying across with a vengeance.
We made a run for it therefore and drove to a nearby campsite called Meri where it was pitch black and stars brightly lit above. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were more than a nuisance that night, they were a plague and no matter how much we covered up or repellant we applied they still managed to buzz around my ears, up my nose and bite through my long-sleeved shirt. Tine and I eventually resorted to cooking with my mosquito net covering us both. The two German girls retreated to the tent or the car.
Despite having no roll mat any longer (having been using Locky’s on the way to Darwin) I slept pretty soundly on the ground that night, even managing to prevent any mozzies into my tent! Unfortunately the German goth girl was a tad under-prepared having just arrived in the country and didn’t have a tent, mosquito net or repellant - and none of us openly discussed her sleeping in my two
man tent. If she had been a little less taciturn and German
I’d have considered it but it was tight enough in there so she slept in the car - having a miserable night with the mozzies apparently.
“Walking is good. You follow track you sleep, wake in morning to birds, maybe kookaburra. You feel country’. Bill Neidjie - Bunitj clan, Aboriginal traditional owner.
I loved reading these quotes from the Kakadu park guide. Not only did it give a voice to the people who’ve lived here for thousands of years but also showed the grace and respect they had towards their land and environment. Well, we took this fellow's advice about going for a walk and went on the Manngarre (Marn-narr-ay) rainforest walk.
As soon as we entered the forest we could hear the strangest of sounds - something akin to a maternity ward of babies crying out for their mothers. But looking up into the trees were in fact dozens of fruit bats or flying foxes
as they are colloquially known here - the largest bats in the world, hanging upside down and making a hell of a racket. Bizarre, but hey
Anyway, of more sinister interest was the river we passed - the East Alligator River. We spotted a few sunning crocs themselves on the banks of the river, waiting for their next meal. Oh and they're not alligators...yes, an odd story this but - in 1820 English explorer, Lieutenant Phillip Parker King came through this way and named the river systems in the mistaken belief that the crocodiles he were alligators. However, this place is brimming with crocs, despite nearly being hunted to near extinction for their skins in the 1960s, by 1971, crocs became protected. The estuarine crocodile population has since recovered dramatically and they continue to move further inland into freshwater rivers, billabongs and creeks in search of new territory.
Two species occur in Australia, the freshwater (known as a Freshie) and the estuarine or saltwater crocodile (known as a Salty).The smaller freshwater crocodiles are usually shy animals but can become aggressive if disturbed; but it’s the salties you have to worry about not because of their ability to run after a person but their ability to strike before the person can react.They’ve attacked and killed people in Kakadu…in 2002 a 23
year old German tourist was taken in the park when swimming in a billabong at night time. Mind you the stupid bloody tour guide said it was okay to swim there despite the warning sign.
Anyway, the three of us split up for a little while because there was an aboriginal place that women only used and thus only women could enter. Of course the girls later told me there was a German bloke standing around oblivious.
We then walked back to the East Alligator River to a place called Cahill’s Crossing, there we made some lunch before waiting for the afternoon show. That being salt water tides coming up river from the sea and bringing loads of fish with them. That in turn brings in the fishermen who stand across a half-submerged concrete road going across the river and oh the salties! We spotted about 10 crocs when the tide turned moving across the river from side to side.
We moved to a different camp site that night where the swarms of mosquitoes had disappeared. However, the following day we did have to contend with bush flies constantly trying to get in your eyes and up
your nose. Dealing with this annoyance is known as the "Australian Salute" and boy did we have to.
Nourlangie rock art and Nawurlandja Lookout
We went to Nourlangie the following day featuring a 1.5 km circular walk that takes you past an ancient Aboriginal shelter and several ‘outstanding’ art sites. A ranger’s talk helpfully pointed out and explained lots of the images. For example, actual hand prints used as a form of aboriginal signature, a painting of a rifle which denoted the first European contact with the local tribes. Then there was a dance scene which resembled an ancient rave. He also pointed out figures with what looked like swollen joints - and he explained that this was a warning reminding youngsters not to go to “sickness country”. These places were historically known to make people ill and are now known as the sites of radioactive Uranium which are mined. Incredible stuff.
Finally we got to see elaborately drawn figures such as the Namarrgon, or the Lightning Man, an important Creation Ancestor who is still active today. He is meant to be responsible for the violent lightning storms that occur every wet season here in Kakadu. The
band around him from his left ankle, joining his hands and head, and down to his right ankle represents the lightning he creates. He uses the axes on his head, elbows and feet to split the dark clouds and make lightning and thunder. Although the art has been repainted in the 1960s it’s all rather mind-boggling what with 5000 more of these sites and a further 10,000 sites which are thought to exist.
After the walk I climbed to Gun-warddehwardde Lookout where I saw about ten noisy red-tailed black cockatoos sitting in the Eucalyptus trees. I stood there transfixed as theybit off branchlets with clusters of seed capsules, held them with their feet while chewing before chucking them on the ground. The hoodlums! The look out provided impressive views of Kakadu’s escarpment and Nourlangie. We then drove a short distance to Nawurlandja Lookout, a 600 m climb up a moderately steep slope which offered more views of the escarpment, Nourlangie and Anbangbang Billabong. It just so happened that there was a bush fire raging at the top of this lookout - but these things are naturally occurring so we didn’t pay too much attention to it.
We camped up again that night, cooking up a very nice pasta fry up with loads of cheese, oh and getting a bit pissed on the last of the cheap boxed wine known as ‘goon’ (which I’ve since found out comes from an aboriginal word for pillow - or the plastic pouch containing said wine).
The following morning we tried to get to the magnificent Jim Jim Falls. However we didn’t have a 4x4 which was required but we couldn’t get a lift with 4 of us, so we gave up on the falls. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that they would have been dry at that time of the year,
So instead we visited Ngurrungurrudjba or Yellow Water which is part of Kakadu’s World Heritage wetlands. A great opportunity to see the varied birdlife here as more than 280 species of birds, or about one-third of Australia's bird species can be found here.. We saw plenty of bird life but we didn’t bother with doing a boat cruise and so we soon said “Boh Boh
” to Kakadu (pronounced bor bor) - the local Bininj/Mungguy word for goodbye but not before catching the rare sight
of another deadly reptile. As we drove back to Darwin along the Kakadu Highway, Tine had to swerve to avoid something in the middle of the road. We stopped to look back as cars drove over what looked like a large snake trying to cross the road. So we stopped, got out and had a closer look, incredibly this snake was still crawling across the road but looked a bit lumpy. On closer inspection (me) we thought it looked like a King Brown snake, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. Not a bad way to end a trip to this exotic and remote part of the world, literally brimming with wildlife.
Adelaide River croc jumping
The wildlife didn’t stop there because on our way back to Darwin we stopped by an outfit that took you out onto the Adelaide River to feed wild saltwater crocodiles; with meat hanging from a hook on a boat these crocodiles cunningly swam underwater toward the boat before suddenly jumping up out of the water to grab the meat. It was a very impressive hour seeing these huge creatures literally only about 20 meters apart sitting on the banks. One
of them, a huge thing who was about 70 years old and about 6 meters, long had two of his feet missing probably from territorial fights with other crocs over the years. So we saw about 10 crocs in total as well as newly hatched babies, floating around on the river banks. It was a great way to spend an hour and made even cooler by Hawks (known as Kites in the NT) who swooped in at the boat like er, well hawks, after some food being thrown out to them.
Of course, such a spectacle could not be enjoyed with out some good old fashioned bad luck. Before we got on the boat Tine and I went to the car to get the esky out for lunch, however, she went to the picnic table and I closed the boot after me - but Tine had left the car key in the boot and her bag was in the front seat! We were locked out!
So after we got back from the cruise, we had to figure out how to get back into the car. We stood in the hot sun for a bit, prowling
Fishing at Cahill's Crossing
Look out for the crocs maaaaaaaaaaaaaate!
around the car - trying to see if we could squeeze the window down or maybe it would miraculously open for us. We then asked one of the fellas from the cruise if he knew how to break into a car!” He then went and fetched a rod of steel and tried to reach down through the small window opening. As he sweated in the middle afternoon heat I had serious doubts that he could scrape the door lock up in such a tight space. But, amazingly after about an hour of this he managed to do jsut that. We were bloody thankful as we were in the middle of nowhere, Tine did not want to smash the window and yet I had a flight the next day!
I shouted with joy and offered him a drink, but he said he only drank Coke Zero these days! We got in the car pretty sharpish and got our arses back into Darwin. My flight to Cairns was at the ridiculous hour of five the next morning so the girls and I said our goodbyes in the hostel dorm we were sharing and I slipped out in the early hours...
Learnt Aussie word: Esky
- large insulated ice chest for keeping food and drinks cold.
There are more photos below