Day 13 of the “Ultimate Australian Rail Holiday” Monday 30th May 2016
The Northern Territory (NT) covers around one-sixth of the Australian continent, or about the combined size of France, Spain and Italy. It is possibly best known for its arid red centre, as a quarter of a million people from all around the world visit Uluru (Ayers Rock) each year. This is not the only stunning landscape experience however. Some are to be found further up in the tropical top end, and easily reached from Darwin. Today we are off to Kakadu National Park.
I feel the best way to describe this area is to resort to our tour brochure: “a timeless place – a landscape of exceptional beauty and diversity. The combination of mangrove fringed coastal areas, expansive flood plains, lowland hills, open woodland and forest habitats make Kakadu one of the most diverse landscapes you’ll ever experience.” (AAT Kings).
It’s another very early morning departure, commencing via the Stuart Highway, which runs for 2,834 km (1,761 mi) from Darwin to Port Augusta in South Australia, following much the same route as that carved out by the Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart in 1861-62. He made six expeditions in all, but after that last one where he managed to cross the continent south to north and return alive he was “in poor health, almost blind, and had a crippled right hand . . .” He returned to Glasgow in 1864, and “when he died in London in June 1866 only seven people attended the funeral: four relatives, two members of the Royal Geographical Society, and Alexander Hay, a South Australian farmer who was in London at the time.” (Source: Bailey, John (2006). Mr. Stuart’s Track: the forgotten life of Australia’s greatest explorer.)
It is not long though before we turn onto the Arnhem Highway, a 230km (145 mi) stretch which leads to the town of Jabiru, built in 1982 to service the nearby Ranger Uranium Mine. The sign at the turn-off also includes the fabulously named Humpty Doo. It’s a pity we aren’t visiting there today. I could chat with the owner of the farm supplies store. I got on great with her by phone a few years back, when I still had a job heading up the customer service team of an animal health company. We sent her a pallet of goods which were intended for a place called Dunedoo. The two places are only 3600 km (2200 mi) apart. We managed to do that twice! No wonder she thought it hysterically funny that we were responsible for the freight each way. If only she had need of the goods, I might have been able to swing a good deal with her.
We stop for a short break at the Bark Hut Inn whose decor reminds us that this area was once known for buffalo hunting. Out the back, several emus and buffaloes are keeping company. Why the emus? I have no idea. But the coffee was warm and wet, and the loos clean, and that was my priority after a couple hours of driving. This inn also provides the independent traveller basic accommodation and meals on an otherwise lonely stretch of road. It’s even marked on this map! (click to enlarge).
A bit further down the road and our driver/tour guide brings to our attention that we are passing one of the boundaries of the Mount Bundey Military Training Area. Mount Bundey is 1000 sq km (about 400 sq mi), of live firing training ground. The bush is dotted with warning signs. The training exercises are bi-lateral, including forces from New Zealand, USA, Indonesia and Malaysia. It must be a spectacular sight to see the equipment and troops moving here along the highway. (GP Cox, here is an article about a recent training exercise with US Marines). This is also the end of the line for the electricity grid, from here on, all power is generated from diesel.
Next thing, a road train carrying sulphuric acid to the uranium mine passes us. It prompts some further information on the juxtaposition of mining and national parks, aboriginal land ownership, negotiating mining leases, and whether we should mine uranium in any case.
It’s all a bit too complicated to explain on this friendly blog I have decided! However, if you wished to know more, you could start with the UNESCO documents at whc.unesco.org. There is a lot there!
The Kakadu National Park was released in three stages, and acquired UNESCO World Heritage Listing over the decade starting from 1981. Its 20,000 sq km (about the size of Wales) are rated both for its cultural and its natural value. The list of wildlife which can be found in the park is so extensive, it is perhaps best to take a look at the relevant sections on this site.
I will mention though, that we are told there are 117 different types of reptiles, gheckos, lizards, and snakes – including the venomous species: the Brown, the Taipan and the Red Bellied Black, all of which blend into the environment well, so we are reminded to stick to the tracks if we are out walking. There are also various pythons, which are non venomous. Seriously – which city slicker sticks around to find out the difference?
And the other dangerous wildlife we have come to see – at a safe distance – is the crocodiles. There are both freshwater and salt water crocodiles up here, although the former is something of a misnomer, because it will tolerate salt water. The difference is in their size and the shape of the snout. Both can live up to 100 years old. Prior to 1970 they were considered a pest and shot almost to extinction, but now they are a protected species and can be found in great numbers. They were farmed for the leather trade by stealing the eggs and raising them in captivity, but it is worth knowing that only the skin from the underside is used, so there is not much leather yielded per crocodile killed.
Nowadays if there is a need to shoot a crocodile, it is necessary to call in an indigenous ranger, as others are not allowed to hunt them. If the rangers need to distinguish between Salt and Fresh, they put a buoy in the water, the croc investigates with their snout and bite, then the trappers can evaluate the bite marks. In tourist season park and wildlife rangers will look for crocs at night by the shine from red eyes. If capture is necessary, they lay crocodile traps which are helicoptered in, the bait is a pig’s leg or a frozen leg from another animal. Captured crocs are then transferred to a crocodile farm.
Crocodiles are more at home in water, but they can move a seriously long distance on land, and it is easier for them to move around in the wet season.
And all of that information was provided by Reuben Jones, our indigenous tour guide on our Yellow Water Billabong Cruise.
Believe it or not, when we returned to our hotel that night, it was to hear that a woman had been taken by a crocodile just the day before. It happened in Cairns in Far North Queensland. She and her girlfriend, both tourists, and unaware of the dangers, at 10.30 pm on a “very nice, clear night” had been “walking along the beach and decided to go for a swim just in waist-deep water . . . “
Blissfully unaware, we were almost disappointed that only a couple of crocodiles revealed themselves on this cruise, although we were treated to a magnificent display of birdlife and water lilies, which will die off shortly. We also saw a lot of Moses grass, or Salvinium, which is an introduced plant pest that has come from domestic aquariums – something to keep in mind if you are ever cleaning out your fish tank!
All through the day we have been soaking up tidbits of information on Aboriginal use of the things they find in nature, and one example is that termites eat the inside of Stringy Bark trees, and that becomes the basis for the musical instrument, the Didgeridoo.
After lunch, we get more background and understanding of Aboriginal culture when we visit the nearby Warradjan Cultural Centre. One of the displays I was puzzling over was their kinship and skin colour familial relationships which determine, among other things, who can marry whom. If any of you saw the 1955 Charles Chauvel film called Jedda, you may recall that her “abductor” Marbuck was sung to death by the tribal elders for attempting to bring Jedda, someone of the wrong skin group, into their fold. It ends badly for both of them when they fall to their death from a steep clifftop. By co-incidence, a couple of days later our travels take us to where the scene was originally filmed. It had to be re-shot, but that is a story for another day.
The last visit for the day is to Nourlangie Rock, a rocky sandstone escarpment on the eastern side of the Kakadu National Park bordering Arnhem Land. This is a significant site as it contains important rock art. This includes spiritual and creation paintings, such as Namarrkun, the Lightning Man, who strikes at people who do not obey laws. The Wallaby is often depicted, as a tribute for giving up his life to feed the man’s family. The colour pigments come from crushing what the artists found around them, minerals, clay, and charcoal. The iron-rich rock Haematite provided the red, and its longevity explains why it is the strongest colour remaining.
Those of us with the stamina for the 36’c (97’f) heat go off for a half-hour bush walk. Once again I notice I am accompanied by a butterfly for most of the way. Walking quietly, lagging behind the group, surrounded by this ancient land and the spirits of the past, I find myself wondering if it is a winged messenger . . .
Total to Date = 8300 klm (approx) or 5160 miles
Round Trip Darwin to Nourlangie Rock and Return = approximately 600 klm (370 mi)
Running Total = 8900 klm or 5530 miles
For Reference: We booked our tour through the Australian Holiday Centre.