Top End Trip
Pictures from our June 2005 Top End Trip
Out of the frying pan and into the fire - there have been a couple reasons we haven't made a trip to northern Australia before now, in the four years we've been here - one is that we've either been busy with other things (such as trips to the US) at the most appropriate time of year - and the other big one is that we are cool weather people, who find an Adelaide "winter" (with temps from 40-70 degrees F) just about right, with little taste for hot and humid places. However, the Top End (the common description of the northern part of the Northern Territory), along with Queensland and the Kimberly region of Western Australia, are important regions of Oz, and ones which fascinated us from a distance. Thus, we wanted to see them before our move back to the States, in spite of the weather. We originally hoped to make a trip encompassing the Kimberly and Top End, but due to the vast distances, we decided that we couldn't take enough time to do both. So this time, it was just the Top End - primarily focusing on Litchfield, Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) and Kakadu National Parks.
To cut to the chase - how was the trip? In a nutshell, we saw a lot of amazing things, and had many enjoyable moments - and gained great respect for those hardy souls who make the Top End their year round home - and even greater respect for those folks who settled the area a hundred years ago, with no mod cons at all! There were several things that struck us, and seem to form the core of our lasting impressions of the Top End; these were:
- Birds! So many types - from the large colourful jabiru, to the tiny rainbow bee-eater, the darting azure kingfishers and the noisy whistling duck, the water-walking "Jesus" birds (jacanas) and the "Me" bird - the rufous night heron which spends its days apparently staring at its reflection. These and dozens more filled our eyes and ears.
- Bushfires! We were never out of sight of one or more smoke plumes, or even really out of sight of recently-burned over (and often still smouldering) bush - and at night, the fires lit up the horizons. The Territorians have taken to heart the Aboriginal lesson of regular, early Dry season burning to both prevent late Dry season disasters, and to improve the habitat in general.
- Crocodiles & Termites! Everywhere - in Kakadu, the official line is that the only safe places to swim are in the town swimming pools in Jabiru and Cooinda - even the small man-made lake in the centre of Jabiru contains salties! Unlike crocs, of which we saw scores, we never actually saw a termite - but their huge mounds were an ever-present part of the scenery.
- Heat and humidity! Guess we're just not tropical people - there were certainly many people who loved and relished the weather, and some who adore the Wet with its even greater heat and massive humidity.
- Lush and varied flora! The small part of the Top End we sampled had widely ranging habitats - from monsoon rainforest to savannah grasslands, to bush indistinguishable from the Adelaide Hills (except for the termite mounds!) to broad expanses of wetlands.
Since we only had a week, we decided to fly instead of either driving or doing the rail-drive combo as with our Red Centre trip. We flew from Adelaide non-stop on Saturday morning on an old friend - Qantas' "Yananyi Dreaming" aircraft which we had flown on one of our trips back to the US. We arrived in Darwin in good shape, with all our luggage. Then we stepped outside to find our rental Nissan Patrol - and the heat hit us. The nominal daily high temperature in Darwin for this time of year is about 31 degrees C (88 F) with lows of about 20 C (68 F) with humidity ranging from 38% to 62%; however, we'd hit an even warmer spell than usual, with highs of 32-35 and lows 20-22, with higher than normal humidity in many locations as well. We'd adapted to Adelaide's dry heat, to some extent - but this wet heat hit us pretty hard--and this is mid winter! In fact we would later learn that the Aboriginal people divide the year into 6 seasons, and they call the current one "the cold weather season." We loaded up the Patrol, and headed south along the Stuart Highway (the same road that ends up in Adelaide about 3000 km later), with the air conditioning cranked. We had originally been thinking of making a loop through Litchfield National Park on our way to Adelaide River and Mt. Bundy Station - but we decided that we didn't really have enough time - especially since we wanted to get to Adelaide River in time to go to the Adelaide River Races (more later).
So, instead of a loop into Litchfield, we decided we had a little time, and stopped at the Darwin Crocodile Farm, about 40 km south of Darwin, where the Arnhem and Stuart Highways diverge. We arrived just in time for lunch - both for us and the crocs! There are a variety of billabongs of varying sizes to contain the various crocs, plus pens for the younger crocks, and individual enclosures for some of the bigger, older crocs who wouldn't be able to share a small billabong together without fighting. We had a quick lunch - of crocodile, of course! It was much better than any we had previously had (which is what we hoped for by going to the source of much of Australia's food-grade crocodile.) They primarily harvest 3 year old crocs, which are about 1.5 metres (4 1/2 feet) at that point. Then we had time for a very short wander outside around the main billabong (see here) before the tour started. Today, they weren't feeding the crocs in the big pond, which is supposedly even more exciting, as the feeder and a guard with a gun go inside the fence and the crocs come up out of the water to feed. Instead, they fed several of the big crocs which are kept in separate enclosures.
First up was Snowy, a white (not albino) croc - very rare. He's worth about $250,000 alive - but dead, he wouldn't be worth much more than a normally-colored croc, since the processing of the croc leather tends to lighten and grey it anyway. This picture shows him gulping down a whole (dead) chicken the keeper has just dropped into his mouth. We also watched her feed Pig (so-called because of his habit of passing gas while eating) and one other large old croc, who had been rescued from a dried-up waterhole - but by the time he was rescued, he'd already received a bad sunburn, and the scars are still visible on his back.
After the feeding, we continued the tour of the facility, learning about the difference between the salt water or estuarine crocodiles and the freshwater crocs (freshies) - primarily, the freshies are not dangerous to people, and don't grow nearly as large (a 4 1/2 metre freshie is very large - where that's only a medium-sized saltie.) Freshies also have more stringent requirements for their eggs to hatch, which means they became endangered sooner than salties, and were legally protected sooner - however, now both salties and freshies are protected in Oz, and their numbers have rebounded - to the point that it is getting hard to find a saltie-free place to swim in the Top End!
We also "met" Burt, the most famous croc at the farm. He was originally named after Burt Reynolds, but then achieved fame on his own as a star of Crocodile Dundee - in fact, his big scene with Paul Hogan and Linda Koslowski was filmed at the farm. While we had watched Crocodile Dundee the night before our trip, to give the girls some feeling for the territory we were heading to, we didn't really intend for this to be a repeat of the NZ Lord of the Rings tour - but we kept stumbling across bits and pieces related to the Crocodile Dundee movies and myth - this was just the first.
The farm has about 20,000 crocs on hand at any one time, and processes many thousands a year - however, large as this number seems, it is still tiny compared to Africa, where the annual output is around 200,000! We saw the crocs in all stages of growth, from babies a few months old, through harvestable 3 year olds, up to the old males, as much as 6-7 metres (20 feet) long and possibly 80-100 years old. Other interesting (to us) odds and ends about crocs include their inability to eat underwater (unlike American alligators) - we were to see this more clearly on our Adelaide River cruise a couple days later. They have no internal flap to seal their throat, and cannot actually seal their jaws completely due to the teeth (see here for a close-up look.) They also blend into their environments very well, and frequently lay or swim with only their eyes above water - and even if their back is out, it can be easily mistaken for a log, given the color and the tendency for it to be covered with growths. The projections on their backs are in fact designed to allow them to move barely under the surface without a wake, making them very dangerous stalkers. (Another purpose of the projections is to provide a mechanism to help them regulate their body temperature.) In addition to all the crocs (and a few American Alligators) at the farm, there is also plentiful birdlife - for example here are a bunch of ubiquitous (and loud) Whistling Ducks gathered about a croc - we marveled at the lack of interest the croc showed in them. And here is a white-necked heron which was unbothered by people or crocs.
We enjoyed the tour about the farm, and would have stayed longer - but the road called - we wanted to make it to the town of Adelaide River in time to see the Adelaide River Cup horse race, so we piled back into the Patrol, and headed down the Stuart Highway (the same one that runs within a couple hundred yards of our house 3000 km further south). As we went, we could see smoke at various points of the horizon, and even drove past open burning at times. This was to be a constant feature of our trip, with the Terrritorians having taken a page from Aboriginal books, and realizing that regular (often annual) controlled burning in the early dry season is both good for the flora and fauna, and far less destructive than unplanned "hot" fires late in the dry. In addition to the fires, we also saw our first termite mounds. There are several different species of termites, building different styles of mounds - and unlike the smaller mounds we saw in the Red Centre, these are frequently over two metres tall. (See here [note Polly sitting on the mound] and here for an idea of the size.)
The town of Adelaide River consists of a few hundred people, and a few amenities located where the Stuart Highway crosses the Adelaide River. We drove through the town, found the turn to Mt. Bundy Station, and after a bit of hunting about, found our home for the next three days. Fran, who runs the station, had warned us she would be at the races, so we let ourselves in, unloaded the car, and headed back down to the town. We located the show grounds without trouble (and knew we had the right places from the scores of cars and hundreds of people gathered about.) We parked, got our entry bracelets (the girls were envious of Tim and Sandy's brighter-colored bracelets - the ones that allow adults to be served at the open-air bars in the showgrounds). We wandered about as the next-to-last race was run, got drinks, and then made our way to the saddling ring, where the horses running in the big race were getting ready. And then they were off! We found a spot along the rails to watch, and saw Fran's horse claim an easy victory by several lengths - although we didn't know it was hers at the time. One might think that the last race was the end of the party - but it was just getting started - bands were setting up, and people were clearly using this occasion as a major social event and a chance to catch up - the race day attracts people from all over the Territory - it was shaping up to quite an evening, but we were tired and hot, and decided we needed to go get dinner and then bed.
We headed back into central Adelaide River a couple miles away, and stopped at the Adelaide River Inn, where they were setting up the nightly buffet. We grabbed a picnic table in their outdoor dining area (lit by multicolored lights strung through the trees), and enjoyed a buffet dinner. We also took the opportunity to go inside and see Charlie, the water buffalo featured in Crocodile Dundee (we told you this movie would keep appearing.) When Charlie died, he was stuffed and mounted above the bar of the pub. Asian water buffalo had been a serious problem in the top end; they were introduced long ago by early settlers, and soon went feral. Their numbers peaked in the thousands back in the 50s and 60s; they did tremendous damage to the wetlands, destroying huge areas with their wallows and trails. Fortunately, the government took them on in the 1980s, and instigated a program to eliminate them (along with feral pigs, which have proven harder to eliminate). Now, water buffalo are only rarely seen in the wild, and while you can easily find their former wallows and water crossings, the plant and animal life is quickly recovering. Today, if you want to see a (non-stuffed) water buffalo, you can either go to a zoo or one of the carefully-managed water buffalo farms.
Replete and tired, we drove back to Mt Bundy station in the gathering darkness. We settled into our rooms (at opposite ends of the upstairs section), and got the girls to bed. Some of the other guests (visiting for the races) were downstairs, so we greeted them, then went to bed ourselves, leaving Fran a note that we wouldn't be up for breakfast any sooner than the 7:30 am the other folks requested. We noticed what was going to be a common pattern throughout our stay in the top end - lots of insect life - and lots of geckos taking advantage of the same. We found one gecko in our shower, one on the bedroom ceiling, and another one on the outside of the window screen working its way through the insects trying to get in. We later learned there was even a gecko family that laid eggs behind the downstairs bookshelves! We also had a private balcony over the car port, and went out to admire the many stars (we were far from any lights) - and also the wildfires burning in the distance.
The next morning, we made our way down to breakfast, noticing the Adelaide River Cup sitting in the entryway - Fran was quite pleased to have won the race - this means her horse now qualifies for the big Darwin Cup later in the year, and doesn't have to worry about a draw to get in. The other guests were eating breakfast, so we sat down on the deck, to update our journals, listen to all the birds, watch a stick insect moving about in good disguise, plan the day, and in general just enjoy the cooler morning air and the views across the countryside (albeit smoke haze was in evidence.) Note also all the termite mounds in the valley. Mt Bundy Station comprises thousands of acres; the house is located on a small hill like the one seen in the near distance in the previous picture. They also have a campground/caravan park in the valley below, which is popular with tour groups. Birds and flowers abound, and birdsong is constant in the mornings and evenings. Flocks of birds converge on the small dams below, adding to the sense of Crocodile Dundee. We had intended to explore more of the station proper, but we ended up too busy to do more than enjoy the station house itself. After an excellent breakfast (the girls delighted in trying all the different cereals/granolas Fran put out, along with a hot cooked breakfast), we headed for Litchfield National Park, along an unsealed shortcut Fran told us about.
Litchfield National Park was, for a long time, the unknown sister to Kakadu National Park. None of the Territory's major parks, either federal, state or local, have been in existence for very long - but Kakadu, as a World Heritage Site, is the better known (not least because of the Crocodile Dundee movies). What many people don't realize is that much (even most) of Kakadu, while of great ecological and cultural importance, is a less spectacular place scenically. The famous postcard shots of Kakadu tend to focus on two or three waterfalls during the Wet (which primarily flow only during the Wet), and of some waterfowl-dense wetlands. On the other hand, Litchfield is full of more dramatic scenery - with many waterfalls, plunge pools and rugged escarpments - and more safe saltie-free places to swim! Both parks are well worth a visit, but for different reasons.
We headed back north along the Stuart Highway, and turned off on Crater Lake Road. Not far in, we came across a group of red-tailed black cockatoos scratching a meal out of some sparsely-vegetated soil. They were a bit skittish, so Tim never really got a good picture of them - as with many cockies, they are more spectacular in flight, with the bright red feathers under their tails flashing in the sun. We came back out onto a sealed road just outside the town of Batchelor, gateway to Litchfield. The town was a military base during World War II, then became more significant when Australia's first uranium mine, known as Rum Jungle, went into production in the 1950s. Nowadays, it serves as the primary service stop for Litchfield, and hosts an Aboriginal Teaching college as well. We stopped for fuel (diesel, for a change), and then at the miniature Havlick Castle on the edge of town. This model of Czechoslovakia's Karlstein Castle was built over many years by a longtime resident of Batchelor, Bernie Havlik.
Then it was into the park proper. From Batchelor, we climbed up into the highlands of the park. We passed many Cathedral Termite Mounds, and had to stop for a few pictures (see here [note Polly sitting on the mound] and here.) There are several different types of termites, and each has a more-or-less unique type of mound. As we came into the open grasslands, we began noticing a different type of termite mound - instead of the tall, somewhat sprawling Cathedral mounds, these were much thinner and squarer - and all aligned in the same direction - these were the Magnetic Termite Mounds we had heard about. The mounds are carefully aligned by their builders to avoid extremes of heat and cold as the sun passes over. At one point, there was a field full of them; their precise alignment brought to mind a graveyard.
Termites are an inescapable feature of the landscape of the Top End, and essential for the health of the ecosystem. They fulfill important recycling niches, and even allow trees to grow in soil that is too nutrient poor for growth (by bringing in plant material for their own use, and thereby nourishing the tree as well - not unlike the benefits provided to trees by sea eagles nesting in them, and thereby providing extra fertilizer to promote growth.) In addition, termites are an important food source for other birds and animals, and their houses serve to house other animals as well. There are a wide variety of termite species in the Top End, living in a variety of forms of mounds - the most common ones are the Cathedral Termites, Magnetic Termites, and Post Hole Termites. They are such an amazing and interesting feature of the landscapes, much like the widely-varied gum trees which have come to be one of Australia's major symbols to us - Tim had great difficulty NOT pulling over to take a picture as each new and interestingly shaped mound came into view - their shapes and colors change with the soil and the microclimate, as well as with the specific species - like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike.
After stopping to explore a roadside exhibit about the magnetic termite mounds, we continued on towards Florence Falls. Since it was a weekend, we expected there would likely be crowds at most of the easily accessible falls/plunge pools in the park. Florence Falls was no exception (can you see all the people swimming in this picture? There are far more out of sight under the foliage at the bottom of the pool! We read that Europeans love the plunge pools of Litchfield since they are so uncrowded by their standards - but not by ours...) So - we walked along the scenic path above the falls, admiring the flowers, butterflies and birds (including an Azure Kingfisher too fast for the camera), then decided to continue on to the Tabletop Swamp for lunch.
This proved a good choice, as it was a beautiful location, minimal flies about and we had it to ourselves. The swamp is surrounded by paperbark gums - which are very common in and around wetlands in the Top End - particularly at Yellow Waters in Kakadu, where the photographs of paperbarks reflecting in the still waters are very common. See also here and here. After eating lunch, we explored around the swamp a bit, seeing a lot of skinks and a few birds, and some very tall grass. We could have spent a lot more time there, but wanted to continue on, since we had a lot of Litchfield to see. At this point, we had a decision to make - we could continue along the main park road, and check the various falls and plunge pools, to see how crowded they were - or we could take advantage of having a real 4x4 and strike off the beaten path down a 4WD only road. We chose the latter, and headed down towards Tjaynera (Sandy Creek) Falls. The road was a bit rough and corrugated, and had one water crossing we wouldn't have wanted to try in Tim's Tribute (the girls loved it but it made Sandy a bit nervous!), but otherwise it was easy going, and gave the feeling of truly being in Crocodile Dundee country - alternating woods and open bush, termite mounds everywhere, occasional "water hazards" - and of course bush fires. We passed burning areas with some trepidation, wondering if we'd have to follow the road the long way out rather than retracing our route if the fires picked up.
We eventually arrived at a small campground, with 8-10 heavily equipped 4x4s and camping trailers/gear in attendance. We had hoped to have fewer people about, but decided it was perhaps late enough in the day that many would be leaving soon, so we hopped out and headed down the 1.7 km walk to Sandy Creek Falls and plunge pool. While hot, it was still an enjoyable walk, not too steep or rocky, passing through a variety of habitats and following a creek for much of the way. We saw a few birds and large goannas on the way in, and when we arrived at the falls, we decided it was all well worth the drive and hike. There were a few other people around, but not many, and the setting was beautiful and relatively cool (see here and here). The girls immediately changed and dove in; Tim took a little longer to decide, but he hopped in as well, and had a great time playing with the girls, and just floating in the peaceful environment, admiring the views, and in general enjoying one of the highlights of our trip.
Even though this is the "cold, dry season" in the Top End, there is a large array of flowering plants and bushes about. Purple flowering Turkey Bush everywhere (looking a lot like 6 foot tall heather), gum trees with their characteristic "hairy" flowers in all colors (orange, white, red, yellow), water lilies of all shapes and sizes in the various wetlands - and many other plants we didn't specifically identify. See also here. Lots of colorful (and loud!) birds, butterflies - and of course reptiles and amphibians of all sizes, from inch-long baby geckos, to 5 inch fire-tailed skinks to 3-4 foot long goannas.
There were a lot of fish in the plunge pool, and no crocs to worry about; along with the goannas we had spotted along the way in, we noticed one sunning itself on a tiny beach on the opposite shore, with a couple feet in the water; one of the other visitors told us that was very unusual behavior for them. Birds were also in abundance, particularly very bright rainbow bee eaters zipping around. After we had been there a while, another small group arrived, and a couple of the guys climbed part way up the falls (perhaps 10-15 metres up), and then dove in. The girls thought that was pretty cool! Eventually, the sun started going down towards the surrounding cliffs, and we decided we needed to start heading back, so we could make it to the car before the trail was obscured in darkness. Heading out, we passed yet another group of folks walking in - we hoped they had flashlights (or "torches", as the Aussies say) to help on the return trip! We arrived back in good shape, loaded up, and headed back out towards the main road. There are some interesting ruins (as well as other falls and springs) off side tracks along the way - but we decided we didn't have time, especially with the sun setting. So it was back to the main drag, then to Batchelor, along our shortcut, and back into Adelaide River, where we stopped at the Adelaide River Inn again for our evening meal.
After we made it back to Mt. Bundy, we noticed even more bushfires around much of the horizon - even bigger than the night before. We had the house to ourselves (other than Fran), as all the other guests who had come for the races had headed back to Darwin and elsewhere. We tucked the girls in, then read for awhile, with occasional trips out to our balcony to admire the stars (and the fires), then we hit the sack as well. In the morning, we went down for breakfast with Fran, and she told us how she had spent most of the night sitting up beside the phone, staying in touch with her nearest neighbors and the local CFS (Country Fire Service), all of whom were watching the fires, which had jumped the road north of the station, and had moved into areas which hadn't been burned in 9 years, resulting in fields of grass 12 feet high - and tinder dry. Fran had the grader ready in case she needed to cut more fire breaks (she had already done a lot of prep work, so her property was in pretty good shape), and she had made up beds for us down in the caravan park (in a greener, less likely-to-burn part of the station) in case we had to move in the night. However, the fires didn't come close enough for that, and we slept blissfully unaware!
Given our increasing appreciation for how hot it was likely to get in the afternoons, we called up the "Jumping Croc" cruise office (still on the Adelaide River, but on the other side of the station, and necessitating a two hour drive to get there), and changed from our late afternoon booking to a late morning booking - which we hoped we could make! Then hopped in the car, and took off north, back up the Stuart Highway to where the Arnhem Highway branches to the east towards Kakadu, through the town of Humpty Doo (yes, it's a real town, with its own post office - and the obligatory giant roadside attraction - in this case, a boxing croc - other giant roadside attractions can be seen here...) and then to Adelaide River. We arrived just in time, got our tickets, and walked on board the Adelaide River Queen. This operation was the original jumping crocodile cruise, founded back when there was little else around in the area, and people were trying to figure out how to make a living. Tourism was one area where there seemed to be a chance, and this cruise operation succeeded and grew to the point where several other similar cruises are now run by other operators.
The Adelaide River Queen is a two deck boat, powered by water jets (as opposed to propellers, to minimize harm to crocs and other critters). The bottom deck is entirely glassed in, while the upper deck is open, and has a large "fishing pole" on each side. The guides attach pork chops to a string on the pole, and then bounce it off the water near a croc, trying to interest the croc in jumping for it. They know most of the crocs on the river by name (both by distinguishing marks and where in the river they live/feed), and keep careful track of which ones they feed when, so that they don't habituate the crocs so much that they stop hunting naturally. It was quite amazing to see these crocs come up out of the water using just their tails - they would approach the bait slowly, then submerge a few feet away, and come up with a tremendous rush - they keep their feet and legs tight against their sides, and can come so far out of the water that all four legs are out! In fact, there was one croc who had lost three legs, and it could still jump as well as the others! The older crocs, including Marrakai, their original jumping croc, don't come as far out of the water - but they do pretty well for being 80-90 years old! They are also starting to run low on teeth - crocs teeth regrow through much of their life - several thousand all told - but eventually the ability to grow new teeth disappears, which will usually result in the death of the croc which is no longer able to feed itself. Crocs do have an amazing digestive system, which can even, over time, digest/dissolve metal to some extent - however, it can't handle the chitin of insect exoskeletons.
Most of the crocs on the river (and for that matter, most of the crocs anywhere) are female. This might seem a normal outcome given the territorialism of the male crocs (they cannot share territory with each other - and when the big 5-6 metre crocs are out on the water, the smaller males will not be seen - we saw and example of this when a "little" 3-4 metre croc started coming towards the boat - then noticed a bigger croc a couple hundred metres away, and dove and disappeared for good). However, the root cause is biological. Crocs don't have a Y chromosome, so the gender of the crocs is determined by the temperature of the eggs during gestation. There is a narrow range - plus or minus 1/2 degree C - where the egg will hatch into a male. Outside of that range, and it becomes a female. Thus, females end up outnumbering males four to one. In addition, croc nests are very susceptible to variations in water levels - if the water level rises after the eggs have been laid, they can be drowned, and a season's entire crop of crocs lost. The guides pointed out a couple croc nests from the season just past - looking essentially like piles of sticks and grass. There were also several sea eagles nesting along the river. One section of the river is called the rice paddy, since there is a lot of wild rice growing along there. We were told the local rice growers occasionally will cross breed the wild rice back into their domestic varieties to increase its vigor and ability to stand up to pests and disease. The wild rice along the river serves as yet another food source for the plentiful bird life.
The Adelaide River at this point is quite wide, slow and grey, unlike the narrow, fast and relatively clear river we saw in the town of Adelaide River a few score kilometers upstream. It is rich with wildlife, not just crocs. Immediately across the river from the boat dock, the trees were filled with hundred of raucous white cockatoos. A little further upstream, we saw kites floating on the breezes. As the trip went on, we saw more and more kites - and learned why they were gathering. After the main croc feeding on the way upriver, the guides started tossing out bits of fat they had cut off the chops - which the kites were expecting, and which they snatched out of the air. We were in the midst of 30-40 kites, acting like a swarm of seagulls jostling for position and snacks! The kites are able to catch the thrown food in their claws and then transfer it to their mouths on the fly, and come back for more.
As we were to learn and see elsewhere, this past Wet season had actually been fairly dry. There had only been 1.2 metres (about 47 inches) of rain, and the river was running relatively low for this time of the Dry. In comparison, the guides told us about the Wet of 1997, the river ran one metre over the top of the Adelaide River Bridge (it was currently many metres under) and caused damage all over the Top End.
We all enjoyed the trip, with the girls moving from deck to deck watching and photographing the action. We arrived back at the dock after an enjoyable and educational trip, had lunch and took a few photos of the giant (artificial!) crocs, then headed back north. The day was warming up, but we had a couple more places we wanted to visit while we were here. The first was Windows on the Wetlands. This is a visitor centre / exhibit located in a modern custom-designed building on a hill overlooking the Alligator River floodplain. (Note the name of the river - this was misnamed by one of the early explorers who had recently been in America, and had seen American alligators - and he had no idea of the difference between crocs and gators. There are no wild alligators in Oz - just a few in wildlife parks and zoos.) There is an interesting interactive exhibit introducing the plants, animals and aboriginal culture of the region - including the opportunity to "be" a mudhopper - a type of fish which can pull itself out of the water and crawl across the mud - and whose eyes bulge out of the top of its head. The top floor provides a broad view of the wetlands area.
From Windows on the Wetlands, we headed toward the Fogg Dam Conversation Refuge - and this turned into another highlight of our trip. Fogg Dam was originally built in the 50s as an irrigation source for a planned rice cultivation project. However, the project failed, leaving behind a dry season refuge for the local birds and animals. Note that in Australia, "dam" means the actual body of water, as opposed to the device which holds the water in. In this case, it is possible to drive across the dam wall (which is dirt and only a few feet above water level). It took us quite a while to make it across, as we had to keep stopping for animals crossing the dam wall to get from one side to the other - a water python, many goannas and long-necked turtles (a really interesting variation on the sorts of turtles we had seen in the past - the neck is so long it has to curve around under the shell, rather being retracted straight back in when in danger) - the girls were quite taken with a Willy Wagtail who was riding across the road on the back of one of these long-necked turtles! There were birds from sea eagles to egrets to kingfishers to crows to bee eaters to ... We had far too little time to visit and explore, and would love to be able to spend an entire day there exploring the available walks and trails - we only scratched the surface before we had to head back to Mt. Bundy.
Sidenote: we learned during our stay that whenever cane toads move into an area, the goannas greatly decrease. Cane toads are an introduced species brought in to fight the cane beetle. Unfortunately, the cane beetles live high in the cane when the toads are out and about, so the toads had no impact on the beetles - but instead turned to other food sources, competing with native species. And since all stages of the cane toad, from tadpole to adult, are poisonous, they have no natural predator. They are also prolific breeders. At present, they pose a huge threat to many Australian species, and no good solution is in sight. So - it looks like the toads aren't in the Fogg Dam or inner Litchfield areas yet, given all the goannas we saw. However, they have reached Mt Bundy - Fran told us of a school group that came and stayed in the caravan park - one of their projects was to look for cane toads. They didn't find many, but they did find one as big as a dinner plate! Much to Fran's disappointment, they didn't kill it, but let it go again!
On our way back to Mt. Bundy, we stopped in Humpty Doo to check out the giant boxing crocodile next to the PO, and use the rest rooms. After we made the turn from the Arnhem Highway to the Stuart Highway and were again headed south, we stopped briefly at the Territory Wildlife Park, just for postcards (since they were only a few minutes from closing). We arrived at Mt Bundy just at sunset (see here), got cleaned up, and then sat down with Fran for a wonderful meal of Barramundi. The girls couldn't get enough (even though we'd already had barra a couple times at the Adelaide River Inn, this was far better.) They also really enjoyed the passionfruit dessert she prepared (and were quite intrigued by the "chocolate pudding" fruit she told us about.) Fran told us more about her life in Oz. She grew up in Sydney but lived various places in the Outback with her husband for many years raising four children. The had sheep and cattle on their property, but when the children were all a bit older and going to boarding school, they needed a more steady income because the price of wool had plummeted. While one of her daughters was at boarding school, a new teacher was giving a history lesson about settlers in the Outback having only batteries for electricity, etc. When Fran's daughter piped up and said, "that's what we have at home," the teacher thought she was being very "cheeky" (disrespectful). Eventually they moved to Mt Bundy 11 years ago, and now as a widow, Fran manages the place on her own with the help of a resident caretaker.
We had a restful last night at Mt. Bundy, then up for another one of Fran's filling breakfasts, followed by loading of the Patrol, and off into Adelaide River. There is a local museum (which Fran supports - she offered to let us in off hours - but we just ran out of time) and a World War II Memorial Cemetery. We decided to visit the cemetery, which was a beautiful and tranquil place. One of the little known facts about Australia is just how heavily World War II impacted it. Darwin was bombed more than 60 times, the city nearly destroyed, and hundreds of people killed. There were thousands of Australian and Allied troops based out of the Top End. There were air strips all along the Stuart Highway (we passed several on our trip from Darwin down to Katherine), and a large contingent was housed in Adelaide River. Also a bit surprising was that the Australian government suppressed the news of the bombings in Darwin from the rest of the country for many years. It was eye-opening to walk the rows of graves, and read of all the people who had died in the Northern Territory during WWII - Australians, Canadians and Brits - including several members of the same family, who all worked for the Post Office, and died when the Darwin Post Office was bombed.
From Adelaide River, we headed down the old road towards Daly River, where Fran had told us there was a good Aboriginal Art shop (we had fallen in love with one of her Aboriginal pieces - unfortunately for us, the lady who painted two of the pieces she has, has only painted 4-5 in her life.) The countryside was reminiscent of the area around Alice Springs - somewhat sparse and twisted gum trees, generally dry, with occasional rocky prominences. When we came to the turnoff to Daly River, we saw a sign announcing that the Arts Festival had been held the previous weekend - Fran had thought it was still a week in the future, so we would have a good selection - but we decided they were likely cleaned out of interesting art, so changed our minds, and headed back to the Stuart Highway, and onward to Pine Creek.
In Pine Creek, our first stop was at Mayse's, aka the original Hard Rock Cafe! Hard Rock in this context refers to the hard rock gold mining that has been a staple of life in this region for a long time. Mayse herself was quite a character, one of the early female settlers of the Top End - we bought a book about her life at the cafe - it continues to amaze us just how rugged life was back then, and the fortitude of the people who settled the area. We had a very good lunch - the girls were in raptures over their BLTs, and thought the Mango Smoothies were pretty good as well. They insisted we had to stop here again on the way back! From the cafe, we headed off to the Gun Alley Gold Mining exhibit, which is one of Pine Creek's little known treasures.
We arrived as Earl Gano was just getting started telling a few other visitors about the history of gold mining in Pine Creek, in the shade of a few gum trees. He recapped for us, then continued on, describing the cyclic nature of gold mining, from alluvial mining where nuggets were picked up from streams, through to modern hard rock techniques, requiring extensive technological assistance to make the minute amounts of gold worth recovery. As each cycle faded, Pine Creek's future seemed uncertain - but new finds, and improved technology always arrived in time to save the town. Today is no exception, with new mines coming on line, and some old ones being processed with different technical approaches. After he had brought us up to date on the state of mining, he took us over to an open air shed, where he had accumulated, restored, and set up a line of antique equipment that he and his partner still use to process gold-bearing ore. There was a wood-fired steam boiler (built in Melbourne long ago), which drives a Fraser and Chalmers (fore runner of Allis Chalmers) steam engine built in England in 1866, which in turn drives a crusher / stamper built in San Francisco in 1898. He showed us a sample of typical gold bearing ore - quartz and iron, with some small veins of gold - as he called it, ironized quartz ("Iron is the father and quartz is the mother of gold.") He then fired up the equipment, and threw a few pieces of ore into the stamper, and we watched it work - with the end result that water is run through the ore, and over a woolen blanket, which captures the flakes of gold - this is the origin of the original "Golden Fleece" expression. It was fun to see Clara's and Lucy's eyes widen with wonder when everything started to move!
Earl is a Canadian, who has lived in Oz for 35 years, and has had quite a varied career, starting out as one of the Territory's original park rangers (until the increasing bureaucracy became too much for his taste - i.e., more than one supervisor for the entire Territory field crew), then switched to buffalo hunting until the government killed off all the buffalo. Since he had hunting camps established across the top end, he switched to guiding high end hunting tours for Abercrombie and Kent (they offer five star guides across the world; he was their chosen guide for the Top End.) He tried his hand at gold mining off and on, both alluvial and hard rock, and still has a couple of leases and does some mining and processing using the equipment we saw in action. The gold accumulates slowly, until they have enough to make a 20 ounce ($10,000) bar. He has been having increasing trouble with leukemia over the past 18 years, so he's been taking it easier, and spending more time running these exhibits and passing on his knowledge and he is a natural and compelling story teller. Or, as he puts it, instead of taking clients on safari, he's now letting the clients come to him. Since he had also trained as a boilermaker in Canada, restoring this equipment was right up his alley - although he had to go pretty far afield to find it, in old mining camps, etc. He also restored the old Beyer Peacock Class W Locomotive (built in England in 1877) steam engine in town (the oldest operating steam engine in Oz), and was quite pleased to be the first person to drive it in 45 years. When he is in the hospital, he spends his time writing stories and poetry, instead of watching "The Box." He recited his Australian version of the Ballad of Sam McGee (being Canadian, he's quite familiar with Robert Service), which was quite entertaining. We asked if he'd published any of his work - but he's only printed a few copies for family and friends so far.
After the demonstration of the old, still functional equipment, Earl took us to a pile of what appeared to be dirt, and filled up a pan for each of us. We then went over to an old sluiceway full of water where he showed us the proper technique for gold panning. The essence is to mix the water and dirt to the consistency of a mud pie, and then use a continuous vigorous swirling motion such that you can hear the gravel sliding around on the bottom of the pan. Since the gold is heavier than the dirt and water, it will work its way to the bottom of the pan. Then tilt the pan, continuing to swirl under water, and wash out the majority of the dirt. Lift out rocks and larger gravel, get down to that last 5-10 percent of sand, tilt even more, and use a beach "wave action" to wash out the light coloured (and lighter-weight) sand on top, revealing the darker, iron-rich sand (where the gold congregates). Carefully swirl this, and start working the gold flakes to one side, washing out remaining sand. When you get down to mostly gold flakes, use a dry finger to lift out the flakes and put them into a separate container of water. We all managed to find a few flakes - it was great fun and highly educational, and left us with an appreciation for what the old-time miners went through. Earl told us that some people still pan for gold by hand, but usually in ore that is 10-20 times richer than what we were using (in fact, the ore we were using came from a nearby gold vein, where machine panning is used to cost-effectively separate out the gold flakes.) Earl also had a few small nuggets of gold from alluvial sources that he had found on his claims; Lucy and Clara each ended up with one; Lucy's was sharp-edged, meaning it had been found very near the source, before it had been worn down and rounded off from years of tumbling and moving. We thanked Earl for a great experience, and hit the road again towards Katherine.
It was just a short trip down the Stuart Highway to Katherine, the last town of much size prior to Alice Springs, approximately 1300 km further on (although Tennant Creek might argue the point...) We found our accommodation, the St. Andrews Apartments, without trouble, and got settled in. We drove a few blocks to the visitor centre and picked up our tickets for our Katherine Gorge cruise on the morrow, had pizza at a little cafe, and went home to do laundry and get some sleep.
After breakfast in the apartment, we headed out to the east to Katherine Gorge (Nitmiluk) National Park, to the boat landing where tours of the gorge(s) start. The center piece of the park is a series of 13 gorges on the Katherine River, generally referred to as Katherine Gorge (which is actually only one of the 13). As we walked towards the river, we heard a tremendous cacophony, unlike anything we had heard before - sort of a cross between babies crying, cats fighting, and a bunch of galahs - as we reached the river, we saw it was none of the above, but instead, trees packed with large black flying foxes and little red flying foxes - in other words, bats! Quite an amazing sight and sound, given our previous experience of bats being more nocturnal, quiet - and preferring less public places!
We got onto the boat, and we were soon cruising up the river towards the first gorge (the gorges are numbered, rather than named, although a portion of gorge 2 is what is normally seen in pictures as being "Katherine Gorge"). It was a clear day, with early morning light and a nice breeze was coming down the river, making it a very pleasant ride and scenic experience. Since the previous Wet season had been so dry, the river was already pretty much down to its Dry season level, well ahead of schedule. The 13 gorges are separated by shallow water and rock dams - or at least seriously rocky stretches that cruise boats can't navigate - even the canoeists and kayakers have to get out and push and pull to pass between the gorges. So a cruise up the gorges is actually several separate cruises, in different boats, with a walk between them at each gorge end.
The cruise up the first gorge was very pleasant and relaxing - so much so, we wondered if perhaps we should have chosen the full day tour instead of the half day (as will be explained later, we're glad we didn't!) At the top of the first gorge, we disembarked and walked up to some Aboriginal art galleries located on the cliff faces. This art is actually made with a substance that penetrates 5-7 mm into the rock face (unlike the types of powdered ochre rock used many other places, especially in the south, which is just painted on and stays on the surface), so it is more durable. This particular set of art is dated at about 10,000 years old, since it is clearly about bush tucker - but no barramundi are shown. Since barra, when present, are a good and easy source of food, they would show up in "menu" type art; since they are not shown, that means the art was likely drawn before the Katharine River became estuarine about 10,000 years ago.
We walked the remaining couple hundred metres to the start of the second gorge, boarded a new boat and headed upstream again. This is the most famous and most heavily photographed of the gorges, and the centre section is what most people think of as Katherine Gorge (here's a non-standard view of part of the gorge; see also here.) Throughout the cruise, our guides told us of the natural history of the area, and of the Aboriginal cultural traditions associated with the area. One that stayed with us was the story of the creation being responsible for the gorges, which supposedly sleeps in the bottom of a large, deep pool at the downstream end of Katharine Gorge, where the river makes a right turn to avoid flowing into Butterfly Gorge. The Aboriginal people refuse to swim or fish in this pool, for fear of waking the creation being, who would be most unhappy and would bring monsoons, floods and general disaster to the local people in consequence. We heard about this particular type of legend applying elsewhere as well; a number of other sacred sites house creation beings who must not be disturbed. The scientific explanation for this very deep pool is that during runoff, the amount of water traveling down Katherine Gorge is enormous (the water level can get 10 metres above where it was on our tour - during the big floods of January 1998, the water was another 5 metres higher, and was 2 metres over the bridge in the town of Katherine - driving around, you see marks people have put on the sides of buildings and poles indicating just how deep it got), and it doesn't quite make the turn at the bottom of the gorge; instead, it washes up into Butterfly Gorge, swirls around, and washes rocks and gravel back down into the river, which then swirls around in this corner pool, scouring it ever deeper.
Jedda Rock is another famous location within the second gorge; this one is where Australia's first colour movie (of the same name) was filmed - it was essentially an Aboriginal version of Romeo and Juliet. Later we heard that they had to reshoot many of the parts involving Jedda Rock due to problems they discovered during editing; however, they couldn't afford to return to the gorge to shoot, so they had to redo much of it in the studio! We also saw some birdlife, although not as much as elsewhere - primarily cormorants and white-faced herons. A few freshwater crocs were about, and the guides pointed out the beaches where they breed (marked with "Keep Off" signs - not so much to protect people, as to protect the crocs) - in fact, all the best swimming places appeared to be croc breeding grounds...
At the end of the second gorge, we transferred to a third boat, and continued on. We passed a little oasis one side know as Lily Falls - this was a secret Aboriginal women's place. There was a little water fall coming out of it, and you could just see a path into some greenery that disappeared behind a rock. Supposedly it is a very pretty place with waterfall and plunge pool for swimming. Most of the waterfalls along Katherine Gorge are seasonal (as is the norm throughout the Top End - other than in a few places, particularly in Litchfield, where the sponge-like rock on the higher plateaus absorbs enough water during the wet to keep at least a trickle flowing during the Dry) - and since the previous Wet was very dry, we saw little water flowing over the cliffs anywhere along the gorges. However, there are some seepages out of the rock faces, which contribute to keeping the river flowing at some level throughout the year. These could be identified by the amount of green growth around them; elsewhere, and outside the gorge, things were browning up quickly. Black streaks on the cliffs also indicated seepages, where enough water came out of support a crop of lichen. The first actual freshwater tributary to the Katherine is 17 Mile Creek, located downstream of the gorges (and 17 miles from Katherine, hence the name.)
When we reached the top of the third gorge, disembarked, and climbed to the top of the rock pile blocking the gorge, we decided only going up three gorges was a good idea - to get to the next boat at the bottom of the 4th gorge required a one kilometer scramble over very rough and rocky terrain - bad enough going up, but coming back a few hours later in the heat of the sun would have been worse. As it was, the girls had a great time scrambling about on the rock pile and examining the "swirl pools" or "vortex holes" carved into the rock by the action of the river over the eons - (some of which even contained tiny fish). Then it was time to get back into the boat, and retrace our route back to the first gorge, where the boat anchored under the trees (across from and next to a freshwater croc beach where we were not supposed to go) and the crew served morning tea (fruitcake, oranges and drinks) while those who wished to went for a swim. This of course included Clara and Lucy, while Tim went wading with them. There was really no concern about the freshies; as the guide said, "If you get bitten by a freshie, it will be the first time anyone has been bitten except for a few academics and Steve Irwin!" (Steve Irwin is, of course, the Crocodile Hunter - infamous for his stunts with all manner of dangerous critters, and for founding and maintaining the Australia Zoo near Brisbane with his American-born - and equally-animal-crazy - partner and wife Terry.)
After tea and a swim, we reloaded, and headed downstream. The guides spotted a couple freshies near the shore, so pulled in for a closer look; then it was back to the dock, and the end of another highlight of our trip. As we drove away, we noticed similarities with our trip on Milford Sound in New Zealand - and great differences as well - from the extremely wet to the extremely dry - but both fascinating and unique. From the gorge, we headed back to the apartment for lunch, then into town to visit a couple Aboriginal Art galleries (including one with a resident freshie, living in a big tank in the back of the shop.) Afterwards, we headed out to the Springvale Homestead, which is claimed to be the oldest cattle station in the Territory. In 1879, Dr. William J. Browne hired Alfred Giles to establish the station. Giles drove the required cattle from Adelaide (approx 2500 km). The homestead was interesting - sadly, most of the original furnishings and exhibits were destroyed in the 1998 floods. One aspect which wasn't damaged, and which Tim particularly wanted to see was a Boab tree growing at the homestead - they are quite common in western Australia, less so in the central Top End. After touring the homestead, we returned once again to "Starving Time Pizza" in Katherine for dinner, then back to the apartment for the evening.
Thursday morning, we drove back out along the road towards Katherine Gorge in order to partake of a full "bush breakfast" at Kumbidgee Lodge Tea Rooms - where we ate at a picnic table, overlooking a little billabong filled with interesting (and inquisitive / hungry) birds - Cape Barren Geese and other birds wandered up to our table, hoping for a handout. After breakfast, we headed south on the Stuart Highway once again, hoping to immerse ourselves in the legend of the Never-Never.
In 1902, Aeneas Gunn, a librarian from Melbourne (albeit with considerable back-country credentials and experience) took over management of Elsey Station, located several hundred kilometers south of Darwin, near the present-day town of Mataranka. He took with him his bride, Jeannie Gunn, against the advice and wishes of everyone else involved, from the city-side factotums to the workers at the station. They made the trip anyway, traveling across incredible country, struggling against the elements and prejudice, and had a successful year at The Elsey, as the station was known. A year later, Aeneas died from malarial dysentary. Jeannie left the Territory, and a few years later published an account of that year, under the title We of the Never-Never - which became one of the most famous books in Australian literature. Today, the area around Mataranka has been building on the fame of that book (and the movie made from it in 1982) to attract ever-increasing numbers of tourists searching for the "Never-Never." (Here's yet another Crocodile Dundee tie-in - recall that his touring business was called Never-Never Safaris - "Never go out with us; if you do, you'll never come back!")
We had read the book (it is downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg here) and seen the movie, and wanted to see the area where it all happened. What took us a couple hours in a car would have taken the Gunns weeks on foot and horseback - and they made the trip during the beginning of the wet, with rising water levels, and great heat and humidity. Traveling the same country in comfort, during the relatively cool Dry season, we gained even more respect for the pioneers of the Top End. Nowadays, "We of the Never-Never" seems to be the primary reason for existence for the town of Mataranka, our first stop on our trip south. We stopped at the town square, where there are statues and other exhibits related to the Never-Never. However, our attention was drawn to a Brolga - a large, crane-like bird, and the first of this species we had seen - it was wandering about the park, mooching food (including fries) from people. From Mataranka, we turned off towards Mataranka Homestead Resort (essentially a caravan park built immediately adjacent to or just inside (we never did find out) Elsey National Park) with the primary attraction being the Mataranka Hot Springs. However, we were primarily interested in something else - the replica of the original Elsey Homestead which had been built for the 1982 movie, and then moved here a few years later.
After we browsed through the station house replica (see here and here), we walked to the thermal pools (and the "Rainbow Springs" which replenish the 34 degree C water at over 10,000 liters per minute). At the springs, Lucy noted the blue color - when Sandy told her that was due to dissolved limestone, Lucy responded that that must be why the waters near the Great Barrier Reef appear so blue, since the coral is made of limestone - which we thought was pretty good deduction. Then we headed further into Elsey National Park. Much of the original station area has become part of park, and while much of it is sparse bush, the Roper River provides a beautiful respite. We drove out along the river access road until we came to a parking area with no cars, then carried our picnic lunch (and our swim suits) down to the river. We discovered another couple there (apparently dropped off by someone), but had the area mostly to ourselves. After a picnic lunch sitting on rocks by the edge of the river, we found a relatively secluded spot to change, and the girls all went in. This time Sandy went swimming, while Tim contented himself with wading and taking pictures (see here and here) and keeping an eye out for crocs (freshies only, though). There were lots of fish, and lots of dragonflies of various colors - red, blue and gold. We had an enjoyable time - the girls particularly liked sliding down the rock bars as they had done in New Hampshire last summer. But eventually, we had to head back out.
From the river, we drove back to the Stuart Highway, where we turned south for one final bit of Never-Never history - the cemetery near where the original Elsey homestead stood. At the cemetery, Tim and Clara took a wander around, looking at the graves of Aeneas Gunn, and some of the other station hands - there were memorials to Jeannie Gunn (buried elsewhere), and a couple of the characters from the book who are actually buried in Angaston, South Australia. We also stopped to look at some stacked rocks which seemed quite common along this road - we had heard of the Devil's Marbles further down the road towards Alice Springs - apparently this is a similar if smaller phenomena. Then it was time to head north once again. We stopped in Mataranka to check out the Stockman's Gallery, and then continued back uneventfully to our apartment in Katherine, where Sandy and the girls had another swim, this time in the pool. We went out for an excellent Chinese dinner (once again, we have to remark on just how common Chinese restaurants are throughout Australia - even well off the beaten track - and how good they tend to be) then back to the apartment for our final night in Katherine.
In the morning, we ate breakfast in the room, then headed north. We had one final stop in Nitmiluk National Park - at Edith Falls. The setting was beautiful, with an artist working away on a water color when we arrived. We took a couple of family photos, then headed north with regret that we didn't have time for a swim in the inviting waters. From Edith Falls, we drove to Pine Creek, where we stopped to check out the Beyer Peacock steam locomotive that Earl Gano restored, then reprised our lunch at Mayse's (this time the girls weren't quite as taken with their BLTs, since they came on regular toast instead of the hamburger buns of the previous trip - but they completely devoured them just the same.)
The turnoff from the Stuart Highway to Kakadu is at Pine Creek, so we were shortly on our way over new territory, into the park we had heard so much about over the years. Kakadu is unique in many ways - it contains nearly the entire Alligator River drainage inside its borders, it has a long history of dense Aboriginal occupation and management, it covers 8 distinct types of habitat - and its density of wildlife, some of which is unique to Kakadu, is tremendous. We entered the park through a region of monsoon rainforest - which is a unique habitat, consisting of plants and animals which normally inhabit other types of rainforest - but which have adapted to the much harsher environment of Kakadu, where each year the climate swings between extremely wet and extremely dry.
As we drove further into the park, we noticed more of the "Stone Country" outcroppings - this is the sandstone plateau which makes up the eastern edge of the park (and continues on into Arnhem Land), and which is one of the primary features of Kakadu - many of the unique habitats and flora/fauna live in the zone where the monsoon rainforest meats the outcroppings - commonly referred to as the Escarpment. We stopped at a scenic overlook named Buknukluk, where Tim walked up to the lookout for a few pictures - once again, we noticed smoke from bushfires at various points around the horizon. As mentioned earlier, part of the critical knowledge passed on by the traditional owners (the common phrase describing the Aboriginal people who inhabited the land long before westerners arrived), is how to manage fire in an environment where it can cause disaster if not properly used. This includes burning regularly in the early Dry, as opposed to waiting for natural (and frequently catastrophic) lightning-induced fires in the late Dry.
Kakadu National Park is the result of an extended and difficult cooperative effort by the local Aboriginal people and the Australian government. They worked long and hard to get protected status for Kakadu and then to try and preserve and pass on the deep Aboriginal knowledge of Kakadu, and how best to manage it. We noticed a far better integration of Aboriginal and western cultures, and more successful attempts to convey to visitors some of the natural and cultural history of the area than we had seen in other areas (such as in the Red Centre.) Ian Morris' book on Kakadu attributes this to the efforts of perhaps a dozen Aboriginal elders who worked tirelessly to establish Kakadu and the process under which it is managed; indeed, we saw the same few names cropping up throughout the park, where individual elders passed on their knowledge in exhibits and descriptive signs. In particular, Bill Neidjie, the "Kakadu Man", whose book provides a good introduction to the cultural and natural history of the Kakadu region from an Aboriginal perspective. As with all peoples, there is no unanimity within the Aboriginal community - some embrace the western ways totally, some partially - and only a few maintain the traditional ways. Some want to exploit the natural environment in non-renewable ways (e.g., the uranium mines and buffalo hunting - not that the buffalo are non-renewable - but that they destroy the land and other native species), and others want only to maintain a renewable lifestyle. Something we came to better understand is just how integral all the rock art is to the maintenance and passing on of natural and cultural knowledge to new generations of Aboriginal people. Only a few of the elders maintain the traditions and knowledge to pass on these days.
From Buknukluk overlook, we continued north. We planned to revisit this southern section of the park in the coming days, and it was getting late - so we drove on to Cooinda, at the edge of the Yellow Waters wetlands area, to get our tickets for the dawn cruise over the Yellow Waters (and the Alligator River) two days later. From Cooinda, we headed to Jabiru (the other primary town within Kakadu), and checked into our cabin at the Aurora Kakadu Lodge. From the lodge, we retraced our steps back to the Bowali Visitor Centre, where we wandered through the exhibits, and watched a video on the seasons of Kakadu - an interesting aspect of it was the discussion of how the Aboriginal presence has changed the countryside and its wildlife - with burning and harvesting of various species, some have disappeared, while others have flourished. (see here for an article on animal extinctions caused in Australia by the arrival of the first humans 45,000 years ago - which included most of Oz's large animals!) Even though it is often not recognizable as such by western eyes, the Aboriginal people's stewardship of the land is a form of agriculture or farming - they burn to establish better conditions for certain plants and animals, while trying to eradicate those which are dangerous (such as certain poisonous snakes) and/or of little use. As the sun started to set, we talked to a ranger, who suggested we had time to make it to Nourlangie Rock, to watch the sunset and the play of colors against Nourlangie itself.
We drove south to Nourlangie, one of the major, easily accessible Aboriginal art sites within the park - but the sun was rapidly setting, so we made a beeline for the Nawurlandja Lookout, and climbed up the rocky slope, where we found several other groups of people already awaiting sunset. We watched the colours deepen on Nourlangie Rock as the sun set (see also here), after which the tour groups left. We made our way down soon after, taking to heart the ranger's warning about descending before it became completely dark, as the trail is hard to see, and potentially dangerous - last year a group ended up spending the night up on the rock face after losing the trail in the darkness. Once down, we headed back northwards towards Jabiru. Along the way, we stopped at a small roadside wetlands to watch egrets, Jabiru (the namesake blue-headed crane of the town we were staying in), spoonbills, ibis and other water birds. As with the flame-breasted robins in Tasmania, this was Tim's best chance to get a picture of a Jabiru - but he didn't realize it, and didn't even lift a camera! Once back at our cabin, we walked to the center of the caravan park, where the open-air resort restaurant was located next to the pool - it bore the name Croc and Quoll - which to the girls became Rock and Roll ever after...
Saturday morning, we returned to the Croc and Quoll for a leisurely poolside breakfast - we were the first to arrive, even though it wasn't that early. By this time we had come to really appreciate and enjoy the relatively cool mornings, and tended to linger. Following breakfast, we headed north to Ubirr, another well-known Aboriginal art site. The drive out to Ubirr was very pretty, through various terrains, with interesting isolated cliffs and stacked "standing stones", along with wetlands and "tunnels" through dense green forest. Purple Turkey bush and yellow kapok flowers abounded. Ubirr consists of a set of outlier rocks / cliffs slightly separated from the main Kakadu / Arnhem Land escarpment. There are a number of caves and overhangs, which lend themselves to shelter from the elements (particularly during the Wet), and which have not surprisingly been the recipient of many rock paintings over the years. There are galleries in a variety of styles and ages - from thousands of years ago to 20-30 years ago. The so-called main gallery is a very large overhang, with rock art dating at least as far back as when Tasmanian Tigers and Tasmanian Devils roamed the Top End, since there is an unmistakable drawing of a Tassie Tiger (Thylacine) on the roof of the overhang. (Tassie tigers and devils have been extinct on the mainland of Australia for thousands of years - ever since dingoes were introduced by early visitors, which replaced them as the primary predator.) This gallery was also particularly convenient during the Wet, since it was an obvious shelter for animals as well, which meant the Aboriginal people didn't have to travel far for their food - it was in fact used as a domicile up through the 1980s. In addition, there are a variety of bush fruits and vegetables which grow in the immediate area. Among the more interesting trees was a kapok tree (behind the girls in this picture) - which has a peculiar trunk with small pointed protrusions, and which has yellow flowers (but no leaves) at this time of year.
We toured around Ubirr, admiring the rock art, and trying to find a ranger-guided talk before deciding we read the schedule wrong and had missed. The girls spotted a small wallaby - which we think was one of the black wallaroos that, while still uncommon in general, can often be seen at Ubirr. Lots of skinks as well. We headed off to the lookout, which provided an absolutely fabulous view of the East Alligator River floodplain - the view from the top will forever be with us as symbolizing Kakadu in all its glory. One of the rangers said it is the best view in the park - and we would have to agree it was certainly the best we saw on our trip. The view covered the wetlands, rainforest, and into the sandstone outcroppings of the escarpment. Here is a poor attempt to capture part of the view. While Sandy found a spot to sit and enjoy the view, the girls enjoyed scrambling around the rocks as always, and were soon identifying various shapes in the rocks which reminded them of everything from a map of Australia to penguins to eagles (they kept muttering the list to themselves until they got back to Sandy and could list all the things they had "found" in the rocks.) See also here. And of course there's a Crocodile Dundee tie-in - this lookout was a filming site in the second movie. Eventually, we climbed down and continued our walk through the galleries and associated bush - noticing occasional rock art painted with gold ochre (as opposed to the more common red - the gold tends to be saved for special occasions, and is/was used as a trade commodity between groups.) In particular, we noted a large painting of the rainbow serpent, one of the main creation beings of the area. And here is a painting of a long-necked turtle, like those we saw at Fogg Dam.
From Ubirr, we returned to the Bowali Visitor Centre for lunch, and to see the rest of the exhibits. We wandered about the grounds, noticing a lot of lizards (skinks?) and green ant "houses" in the trees. We had been noticing green ants (their tail section is green, hence the name) throughout our trip, and the guide at the croc farm had warned us about brushing against branches where they were, since they are quite willing to inflict nasty bites with little provocation. They make houses in trees by gluing leaves together with silk from the larva. They turn out to be rich in Vitamin C, and the Aborigines were aware of their medicinal properties and would either toss the nest in the fire to cook them, or boil them in water to make a tea. Then we headed back into Jabiru for groceries, and then back to the lodge for a swim.
Sunday brought a very early morning - we were in the Patrol on the road to Cooinda (about 60 km away) by 5:45 am. We had worried a bit as to how much wildlife we would see along the way, and whether that would slow us down - but we saw absolutely nothing. (In Tassie, by comparison, we would likely have been slowed to a crawl at that time of day, avoiding all the critters that come out at dawn and dusk.) We arrived at the Yellow Waters dock in plenty of time, and boarded our cruise boat, one of three that were heading out for the dawn cruise, all full (most of the people taking the dawn cruise actually stay at Cooinda, and only a few come in, like us, from Jabiru - the 9 am cruise, on the other hand, barely filled one boat.) The sky was just brightening as we pulled away from the dock, and headed in the opposite direction from the other two boats, out onto Yellow Waters (note the distant flock of magpie geese flying across the sky - later in the Dry, thousands of these large black and white geese make these wetlands their home. See also here.)
We immediately saw a saltwater croc, and then the birds filled our sense. Birds everywhere, dozens of species. Over the course of the next couple of hours, we reveled in the beauty and peace (in spite of raucous nature of some of the birds, such as the Whistling Ducks - once they woke up) of the area. We saw:
We continued to see occasional crocodiles, mostly pretty inactive given the relative coolness of the morning. One of the highlights of the cruise came when our guide turned the boat into a flooded paperbark forest - given the lower-than-normal water levels, she noted that this was likely the last week she'd be able to do it. We had seen pictures and postcards of the paperbarks reflecting in the still waters, and now came to really appreciate them, even more than at the Tabletop Swamp in Litchfield. See also here. Once into the centre of the forest, our guide let the boat drift with the motor off, so we could appreciate the bird song, and watch the brightly coloured bee eaters and kingfishers flit among the paperbarks and lilies. The paperbarks have two sets of roots to handle the varying water levels. Other plants have evolved to handle the widely varying water levels as well - one of the primary grasses that grow in the wetlands, buffalo grass, has roots that are spring-like, and which can coil and uncoil to allow the grass to always be at the right height to float on the water surface - regardless of the water level. We also cruised between broad patches of various types of lilies - purple and white water lilies on tall stems (which really caught Lucy's fancy), tiny snowflake lilies (closed at the moment, but when they open up in the sun the water looks as if it is covered with snow), and fields of lotuses. The lotuses were one of the casualties of the rampant water buffalo, but have been making a dramatic comeback since the buffalo have been largely eliminated from the Top End. They have beautiful magenta flowers and little "microphone-shaped" seed pods - the most of the lotus plant is edible, and our guide told us the seeds are particularly delicious. The leaves are even waterproof, as we observed by seeing small pools of water trapped on top of some of the leaves.
- Male and female darters
- Rufous Night Herons (the "Me" bird which spends its days apparently staring at its reflection
- Jabirus - the brightly coloured and stately namesake of the town we were staying in
- Rainbow bee-eaters
- Azure kingfishers
- Whistling ducks
- Jacanas - the water-walking "Jesus" birds which has the largest feet (compared to body size) of any bird, and where the dad takes care of the young (see here, here, here and here.)
- Three of the four egret species in Oz (the creatively name Greater, Small and Intermediate egrets - only the cow egret was missing)
- Sea eagles
- Kites of various types
- Swallows (darting over the water taking insects - a good sign for the Barra fishermen we saw out on the water, trying their hand.)
- Magpie geese - these birds form family trios - one male for each two females; while only a few were in area at the moment, later in the Wet 85% of the world population of these geese - millions of birds - descend on Kakadu - what a sight that must be!
- And many more which our overloaded senses couldn't absorb
File snakes are common amongst the tree routes along the "shore" of the wetlands, although we didn't see any. The Aboriginal women would hunt them barefooted, using their feet to seek them out and trap them, then break their necks, bite off their heads and toss them on the bank. While the snakes didn't bother the women, they would do a crocodile dance before hunting, in order to ward off any crocs in the area. We also learned that the bark of the paperbark trees were an important resource, and essentially used as Aboriginal aluminum foil - plus, the oil content allows a piece of the bark to burn for 20 minutes. As we were cruising back, we saw a very large nest in the top of a tree in the distance, with a dark blue head poking up - this was a Jabiru, sitting on the nest. The adult birds take turns, 30 minutes on and off, to mind the eggs or babies, and then go hunting. We later saw more Jabirus flying in the distance, but never saw one close up.
Eventually, our cruise had to end - another wonderful highlight of the trip. We stopped in the Cooinda store long enough to get some muffins for "second breakfast", then headed south towards Gunlom (Waterfall Creek) - another location made famous by Crocodile Dundee. We hoped that its remote location and long unsealed access road would limit the crowds somewhat. And of course the girls were looking forward to another swim in a plunge pool (they are going to be spoiled as far as all the heavily chlorinated indoor pools go upon our return to Adelaide!)
Sidenote: We had intended to visit Jim-Jim and Twin Falls, probably the most famous falls within Kakadu. However, after a few days of the hot weather, particularly in the afternoons, we decided that an all-day 4WD tour (the only kind available) to Jim-Jim and Twin Falls would probably do us in, and that we'd be better off going to less ambitious places on our own (the road to Jim-Jim and Twin Falls is the only one bad enough within the park to be explicitly EXCLUDED in our rental agreement - even though we had a reasonably rugged 4x4 in our Nissan Patrol.) Given that we had already seen some very pretty falls and plunge pools (and had still more to go), and had explored a lot of the types of habitat en route to the falls, we decided we wouldn't be missing much - we confirmed this with other friends who had been there just before us - they concluded they could easily have given the trip to the falls as miss as well. What we really want to do, however, is take a long weekend trip back to the Top End during the Wet, and take one of the scenic flights over all the falls in Litchfield and Kakadu, as well as Katherine Gorge - all of which should be flowing at max levels. Perhaps someday...
100 km of sealed and 40 km of unsealed road later, we pulled into the parking lot at Gunlom Falls. The girls changed into their bathers (swimming suits), while Tim loaded up with cameras and water bottles, and then we walked down to the falls and plunge pool itself. This location is the one where Paul Hogan and Linda Koslowski camp one night during the first Crocodile Dundee movie. The girls jumped in (see here and here), while Sandy found a shady spot to observe, and Tim wandered about taking pictures. There was almost no water coming over the falls - just enough, along with seepage, to keep the pool topped up during the Dry. There were lots of fairly fearless fish swimming about amongst the feet of the swimmers and waders, barramundi, saratoga, sooty grunters, etc. And while there weren't supposed to be crocs in the pool (in spite of the signs warning about crocs), we had the girls stay nearby, in the clear water at our end of the pool. Other people cruised the entire pool at leisure, including some boys who claimed to have found a cane toad on the far side and killed it. Big red and blue dragonflies flitted about as well (see here). Once again, we had to call the girls out of the water sooner than they were ready, and we walked back up to the picnic area near the car for some lunch, then back on the road northward bound again. Clearly the road would be impassible in the wet - we saw one water crossing (with only a trickle in it now) which had posts showing water depth up to 6 metres over the roadbed! However, Kambogie Creek was about the only waterway that had much water in it at present.
One of the features we noticed (and had noticed elsewhere) was the variety of gums - and in particular, the very attractive and occasional salmon gums (which had pinkish-red trunks) interspersed among all the grey, white and black gums. The girls had noticed and remarked on all the bamboo growing along the Gunlom Road. When we got back to the turnoff to Cooinda (where we had been in the morning for the cruise), we decided we still had time to visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Cooinda. The centre is circular in design, and resembles a turtle; thus the name Warradjan (which is the Aboriginal name for the pig-nosed turtle.) Once again, we enjoyed the greatly educational tour through the centre, and were again struck by the level of openness and cultural sharing within Kakadu, unlike what we have experienced elsewhere - this opportunity to immerse oneself in the culture of the traditional owners is a great reason to visit Kakadu (and we have heard nothing but praise for the various Aboriginal-run tours of the area, although we didn't take any on this trip.) One of the exhibits that caught Tim's eye was the set of spears - each one was designed for a different purpose - fishing, hunting, fighting or ceremonial - the last three were all some variation on a single barbed spear - while the fishing spear had three separate smooth points. Then it was back to Jabiru for showers and another poolside meal before packing for our departure the next day.
Monday morning, we had a last poolside breakfast, then packed the Patrol and were on the road to Darwin by 8 am. We had to make a few stops for pictures of course (Tim hates to go home with any room left on the camera's memory cards!) of Pandanas trees heavy with red fruit, Jabirus (again from a distance) and a snake - unfortunately dead. Lots of white and black cockies all around as we traveled along the Arnhem Highway. We also stopped at the Mamukala wetlands for a quick stroll to the waterside, and a few minutes of observations of all the water birds (including a couple of family trios of Magpie Geese). See also here. Then we had to leave, just as the ranger arrived for a guided tour. We made a quick stop at Humpty Doo to get stamps and mail cards and - but had forgotten once again that it was a public holiday - the Queen's Birthday - so the PO was closed. We continued on towards Darwin - and it struck us once again just how big the distances are in the Territory - even traveling at 140 km/hr on a smooth road takes a long time - imagine what it was like for the settlers, on foot, and dealing with great unknowns. We ended the trip as we started, with great respect for those who live here, and while we wouldn't choose to live in the Top End - we would surely visit again - and hope to do so, to get a taste of the other seasons as well.
Pictures from our June 2005 Top End Trip
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