The lost world of Kakadu

The tour of the two National Parks in Australian Northern Territory lasted three days. The first day was spent in Litchfield NP, and days two and three were devoted to the National Park of Kakadu. The tour was quite unusual in a number of ways. As it took place in the rain season, most of the usually visited places in the two parks were unreachable even for our 4WD minibus. Our driver-guide though insisted that on the contrary the Wet was the absolute best time to visit the two parks. The reason according to him was that we would see the parts of the parks that the tourists would never normally see. An additional reason is that in the dry seasons these parks are full of tourists; during the Wet there was practically no one – so we felt in a true lost world.

Indeed a number of times we cross the rivers that had flooded their valleys. Our driver would systematically call the rangers to find out whether we can actually get to a certain destination and how to best do it. The route therefore was updated on the go. This was exciting.

Another way how this tour was different was its formula – it was a so-called participation tour, which meant that the group was expected to participate in the organisation. In practice this meant that we were to take part in cooking the food, washing the dishes, cleaning the camp etc. The whole process reminded me of a scout camp (pioneer camp for those of us who come from the East) and was mildly ridiculous. The main problem was that you don’t want to look like a free rider, and yet there is never enough work for all 12 group participants.

We were 3 Americans, 4 Danes, an Englishman, a German and myself. The Danes were all around 20 years old, two Americans and the Brit in the range of 50, myself, the German and the other American around 30. So we were a pretty heterogenous bunch and it was a study in human interaction to see how the work division would pan out each time. Funnily all this led to some tension in the group. The older members of the group would tend to occupy the key posts, and then pointedly comment how they did all the work. The younger ones would virtually never do anything. I was somewhere in the middle on both counts, and even so the tour guide hinted a couple of times that I didn’t do enough. I felt something between amusement and exasperation.

Our second day started from a trek in the jungle with the stated objective of swimming in another waterfall. What is written on this board that my English and American fellow travellers are reading with such attention?

This is what it says. Our guide went on to insist that there are indeed only two types of warnings on these boards: “Do not enter the water” and “Enter the water at your own risk”. The latter means that it is basically safe to swim in these waters.

The pool by the waterfall was indeed connected to the river that run downhill. Not one of us dared to enter, despite our driver’s passionate pleas.

On another outing we explored these fantastic low bushes of Kakadu – what is called savannah woodlands.

On the path through the high grass.

The mountains on the horizon are the Arnhem Land massif, which is Australia’s Northern border. The ocean is beyond it.

The Arnham Land escarpment is a dramatic sandstone cliff line which is almost 500 km long. 

A river ferry ride through the Mamukala Wetlands was on our program that day. Off we go!

Immediately I notice this stowaway – about 1 cm large – sitting on the ferry’s fence next to me.

We navigate between the tall trees

And we reach the areas where the flooded river looks like a large lake. Our guides explained to us that the water level has risen here by as much as 3 metres. The whole look and feel of this area is completely different in the dry season.

Our two guides on this ferry trip were a white girl and an aboriginal boy from a tribe that traditionally owns the land in the National Park. They would point out to us various birds and animals. I would have never noticed quite a few of those. This bird is standing pretty proud though. It is a jabiru.

Suddenly we notice that we are not the only ones to watch the jabiru…

A crocodile can’t keep his eyes off it! We congratulate each other. Seeing the crocodile is pretty much the goal of the visit of the wetlands, but the sightings are nevertheless very rare. Two tours had taken place that day before us and no crocodile was spotted. Holding our breath, we observe the crocodile. Our guide explains that is likely a female – judging by the size and the fact that an old giant male who roams these waters would likely chase away younger males. The jabiru though is probably perfectly aware of the crocodile and would not lose a second to surprise should an attack occur.

We sail on.

Another very exotic bird, a comb-crested jacana.

Incredible legs allow it to keep perfect balance.

Suddenly we notice another dangerous mighty friend!

Probably another female, but quite a bit larger this time. We follow her slowly and get to see her even better as it slows down among the trees.

Later on we encountered yet another crocodile. A triple luck then. Our guide told us that the crocodiles are incredibly intelligent. It is very dangerous for instance to go to the river at the same hour every day. The crocodile would note the time of the visit, would start to keep watch at that hour and then suddenly strike with no escape.

We overnighted in these sorts of permanent camps that the travel company keeps up. The permanent tents are surprisingly comfortable. There is even electricity – to charge the phone, light up a table lamp and power a ventilator.

A kitchen and a dining area are in a separate block. The only proper permanent building is the bathroom block.

In the evening our guide-driver-cook prepared for us this mountain of food. Kangaroo steak is to the left, camel meat to the right. Both very tasty, particularly after a day on the road through an endless national park. I had a bottle of wonderful Australian Riesling which was well enjoyed in the company of fellow travellers.

The next day: a visit to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

Right by the entrance a stone explains schematically the aboriginal calendar. The aborigines possessed an incredibly deep understanding of the nature of this land. They had lived here for tens of thousands of years after all. Their calendar has six seasons reflecting the changes in the nature as the year progresses.

We only had 30 minutes to visit the cultural centre which was way too little. The aboriginal culture is highly complex and is extremely different from anything we can imagine. This centre was filled with fascinating insights into this culture. For example on the photo below is the diagram that explains the system for choosing a bride or a groom used by the local tribes. Every tribe member belonged to one of 16 marital classes and each class could only marry one specific another class. The children from such a marriage would belong to an altogether different class. This may seem absurdly complicated but there is a direct rational explanation for such a system. It ensures that the inbreeding in these small communities is kept to an absolute minimum.

As we drive along this monitor lizard suddenly run over the road:

Nourlangie Rock is one of the main attractions of Kakadu National Park. The mountains around the Rock are full of rock paintings.

We start our walk around the Rock.

Our guide would point out various drawings and tell whatever is known about them. The clan that used to own this land died out and for this reasons the drawings can be shown to visitors without limitations. On this drawing we can see the Mimi Spirits, which were supposed to live among the rocks and taught all the key skills to the ancient people. According to the guide, in any case the deep meaning of the drawings is hidden from the white people. What aborigines tell us is the first level of knowledge, what is communicated to children as they learn. Many other deeper levels follow but we cannot access them.

The rock paintings were created all over Australia for many thousands of years. On the same rock we can find paintings dated to 10000 and 20000 and 5000 years ago. Indeed the exact dating of the paintings is quite difficult. The paint used was not organic, thus the dating can only be done indirectly, and even so the mere fact of taking the sample endangers the painting and is therefore discouraged.

These paintings are mysterious as it is unclear how they were made. They are tentatively dated to 6000 BC, and at that time there was no technology allowing to make the paintings so high on the rock face. According to the aboriginal legends, the paintings were made by the Mimi Spirits themselves.

A wild bee nest next to the rock painting.

More rock paintings. In the Kakadu park alone upwards of 10000 rock paintings have been catalogued. It is impossible to estimate the total number of such paintings all over Australia. Each painting tells a complex story – a legend – what they call a dreaming.

Through the high grass we head to one more waterfall, this time it is Motor Car Falls I believe. As our route did not follow the classical route published on the company website, I cannot be sure.

I follow one of the Danes straight into the water from this high stone.

The walk continues

The last waterfall, most amazing of all. You can actually approach it from the inside – a water pool to the right allows you to access it behind the boulders so that you suddenly find yourself right in the falling water.

On this stone in front of the waterfall we identified a small spider with a red cross on its back – apparently one of the most poisonous. In Australia you always have to keep your guard.

On the way back to Darwin we had a drink in this bar. The stuffed bull in the centre is the very bull that took part in filming “Crocodile Dundee”. I can remember this movie quite well from my childhood.

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