Comings and Goings along Dusty Tracks # 6

Jasper Gorge, Judbarra (Gregory) NP, NT

Jasper Gorge, Judbarra (Gregory) NP, NT

Our Latest Dusty Track – When we left Jabiru we continued our Kakadu exploration before finally leaving the park by the southern road to Pine Creek. Naturally we found a few dusty tracks in the park, in fact most of the best spots are either 4WD only or 4WD recommended. We followed the Stuart Highway south from Pine Creek with a brief side trip to revisit Edith Falls. A few days rest were in order at Mataranka and we loved swimming and drifting downstream in the crystal clear thermal pools at Bitter Springs while we were there. We left the bitumen just south of Elliott to take the Barkly Stock Route across to the Tablelands Highway then had another section of dusty track along Ranken Road to reach the Barkly Highway shortly before the Northern Territory / Queensland border. This has now taken us through Camooweal and Mt Isa on our way east.

Where are we now? – Half way between Mt Isa and Cloncurry a sign to Clem Walton Park leads you to what appears to be a locked gate. It has stopped Julie calling in here a couple of times in the past but thanks to Bill and Bunty, who we met at Shady Camp on the way to Kakadu, and to others we’ve met along the way we’ve learnt that it isn’t actually locked and the chain can be undone to reach a couple of delightful camping areas. The first is Corella Dam but we continued on past there through a gate onto station property until we reached Clem Walton Creek. We intended stopping two nights and expected phone and internet reception but it is such a lovely place we decided to forgo the internet cover and stop at least three nights. We will have to prepare our blog updates as best we can and send them off when we get a decent Internet connection.

Where to next? – We are both keen to have a dip in an ocean which is not too cold and where we know there aren’t any of those nasty big lizards so we’ll continue east along the highway until we run out of land (or change our minds of course which is always a possibility). After that we’ll only have two or three weeks until we want to be in south east Queensland so we’ll try to balance finding some good spots to enjoy for a few days and keeping our driving distances between them reasonably short.

What’s new on the blog? – During our time in Northern Territory we were hard pressed to keep up with our blog but since we left Jabiru and particularly while we’ve been camped by the creek in the more moderate weather at Clem Walton Park we’ve managed to catch up. Posts since Jabiru include:

There are photos in the posts but if you visit our Northern Territory Photo Gallery you’ll find those plus some extras.

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All Change

Mataranka to Mt Isa

Barkly Tablelands, NT

Barkly Tablelands, NT

Change of Plans – OK, we know making plans is a waste of time but we did it again. After our time in Kakadu (see blog post The Time of Mahbilil) we would initially head south to Mataranka. Then our plan was to leave the Stuart Highway and head east to Roper Bar and south through the Limmen National Park and into the Lorella Springs Station for a chance to explore their huge property which extends right to the Gulf of Carpentaria. From there we would follow the road past Borroloola to Hells Gate and on to Normanton and Karumba with a side trip to Lawn Hill along the way. Sounds good but a few things caused us to rethink. First a fellow camper at Gunlom in Kakadu had come up that road and reported enormous corrugations which did serious damage to their vehicle and also Lorella Springs had already closed their camping for the season; second the increasing temperatures and decreasing water levels suggested it would be a hot, dry trip with few chances to have swims along the way; and third and possibly most critically was the realisation that the time we had available before we wanted to reach the south east of Queensland was shrinking rapidly and if we wanted to spend a reasonable time in the Gulf country we would run out of time to enjoy the east coast on our way south. By now we are both eagerly looking forward to a swim in the Pacific Ocean so we decided to leave a thorough exploration of the Gulf country for another time and travel to the east coast via Mt Isa.

Change of Weather – It is pretty hot as we head south from Mataranka after another lovely dip in the crystal clear water of Bitter Springs but as we drive the wind from the south east gets stronger and stronger and the temperature eases. Our late start means we travel later than usual and by the time we stop for the night the wind is extremely strong and the overnight temperature sees us digging out windcheaters and vests. The strong wind and cool overnight temperatures continue for the rest of our journey to Mt Isa and although the days are still sunny they are a warm 30 degrees or so rather than the hot high 30’s and low 40’s we were getting in Kakadu.

Bitter Springs, Mataranka, NT

Bitter Springs, Mataranka, NT

Change of Country – Our first day out of Mataranka we travel south along the Stuart Highway to Elliott. Along the way the highway gradually climbs about 100 metres then drops slightly and the country changes dramatically. We’ve left the tropical part of the NT behind and now we are on a very extensive and flat tableland with sparse trees and not much water. We manage to find a very pleasant billabong to camp beside though as we spend the night at Longreach Waterhole on the outskirts of Elliott. It is a lovely spot and while there are quite a few other campers there is loads of room. Pity about the wind but at least we can head inside for cooking and comfort. When we head east off the Stuart Highway we are on the Barkly Tablelands and apart from patches of trees surrounding watercourses (usually dry) our view from horizon to horizon is flat grassland. Some may find this boring but Paul sees the photographic opportunity and our next camp is picked accordingly. No shade or shelter from the wind but once again it is quite late in the day so the heat is no problem and while Paul is perched on top of the Troopie taking photographs at sunset Julie can admire the colours from the inside of the camper. The land changes yet again as we leave the tablelands behind and approach Mt Isa. Now we are surrounded by wonderful rocky hills with rich red colours offering a different type of photographic opportunity but that will have to wait for another trip.

Barkly Tablelands, NT

Barkly Tablelands, NT

Change of Tyres – We’ve been driving down lots of very rough and rugged roads without any problems but on the stretch of bitumen between Mataranka and Elliott Paul gets a warning beep on his tyre pressure monitor as one of the rear tyres on his Troopie springs a leak. It’s no problem to change it on the side of the road but as the damage is on the side wall it has reached the end of its journey. The other rear tyre on the Troopie is showing wear as well so we change that as well before we leave Elliott. It means a later start to the day’s drive and ends up being a later finish as well. That night we agree that we would like an earlier start the next morning and Paul comments that we won’t need to change any tyres in the morning. He spoke too soon! A short time later he notices the front left tyre on the Hilux has some canvas showing. The road hasn’t been too bad so it seems an old gouge in the tyre might have been torn off as we left the road to set up camp. Another tyre change is made in the morning, hopefully that’s the last until we get to the east coast and buy new tyres.

Change of Road Conditions – We are never keen on spending too much time on highways as we amble along at no more than 80kph and even slower with this type of wind. Cars and caravans can pass us when they want but we always try to get off the road when a road train approaches from behind. We’re much happier driving down our dusty tracks at our own speed with time to look around us and more variety in the road to keep us interested. Instead of following the Stuart Highway right down to Three Ways then taking the Barkly Highway east to Mt Isa we decide to take the Barkly Stock Route across to the Tablelands Highway and then Ranken Road to meet the Barkly Highway less than 100km from the Queensland border. Our travel on the dirt roads is slower than on the highway but it is a shorter distance so it doesn’t add much if any time to our trip and we’ve missed all that boring black stuff and heavy traffic. The roads were in better condition than we expected, the Barkly Stock Route looked to be recently graded and we didn’t see a single vehicle while we were on it.

Change of State – Travelling east on the Barkly Highway we cross the Northern Territory/Queensland border just 13km before Camooweal and with it comes another time change. Clocks on phones and computers are automatically changed but between us we have five cameras to be changed. It has been a relatively short visit to NT, just over two months and almost three weeks of that in Darwin but we have managed to pack in quite a lot. We spend our final night of this section of our travels by a lagoon on the edge of Camooweal and we make it into Mt Isa by lunchtime next day.

The Time of Mahbilil

 Kakadu National Park

Gunlom, Kakadu NP, NT

Gunlom, Kakadu NP, NT

According to the Bininj people of Kakadu there are six different seasons in the year and our visit is during Gurrung, the hot, dry season, which runs from late August until the beginning of October. In this season the amount of water in rivers, creeks, billabongs and waterfalls is decreasing and Mahbilil, the warm afternoon breeze, rises.

We enter Kakadu from the west along the Arnhem Highway and spend our first evening at Ubirr in the north-west of the park near the East Alligator River. We wander around the 1km track to see the Aboriginal rock art sites then climb to the top of the rock to enjoy the sunset over the Nadab floodplain. Most of the water on the plain has dried out but the colours of the grass and trees are still vibrant and lush. Smoke from late season burning make the sky hazy as the sun sinks.

Ubirr Lookout, Kakadu NP, NT

Ubirr Lookout, Kakadu NP, NT

After spending the night at the nearby Merl campground our next week is spent in Arnhem Land on the Cobourg Peninsula in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. (Take a look at The Land and Deepwater of the Garig Peoples for more about our time here.)

On our return we spend a few days in the town of Jabiru while they hold their annual Mahbilil Festival and Gurrung Sports Carnival. It’s lots of fun and we particularly enjoy tasting the magpie goose cooked over the hot coals of a long wood fire, watching the grand final of the AFL match and listening to some great music in the evening. The festival feels very casual and everyone is good-natured with lots of kids (face painting applied) dancing in the sand that has been spread across the grass in front of the stage. Paul visits the medical centre to have some sutures removed which takes no more than 30 minutes while Julie visits the local supermarket. We both enjoy the swimming pool at the caravan park during the middle of the day and our time here is refreshing and relaxing before we head out into the southern part of Kakadu.

We pick up some great tips on lesser visited spots and current conditions of waterfalls and swimming spots from rangers at the festival and the visitor centre and make our plans accordingly. Nourlangie is not far south down the Kakadu Highway and it offers some more Aboriginal art sites and the nearby Anbangbang billabong. There are several camping areas nearby but based on the ranger’s advice we decide to try Sandy Billabong for a couple of nights with a visit to Nourlangie and Anbangbang from there. A fire burning in the area means we spend the night at the campground at nearby Muirella Park instead but Paul captures the eerie feeling at Sandy Billabong in some photos and has written about the experience in the post Fiery Billabong. Because of the fire and the heat we move on after one night and continue south after our walk around Nourlangie.

Nourlangie, Kakadu NP, NT

Nourlangie, Kakadu NP, NT

We have decided to skip a visit to Jim Jim and Twin Falls this trip as the creeks and falls have stopped flowing but there are a few spots further south which still offer waterfalls and good swimming. Along the way we call into the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Cooinda. It offers a really interesting display with loads of well-presented information and we spend an hour or so wandering through reading and observing it all.

Moving on we reach the turn to Maguk and Barramundi Creek and take the 10km dirt road to the camping area. It is late afternoon by now so we leave our visit to the falls and pool for the next day and set up camp in a shady spot. The weather is really warming up now and when Mahbilil blows it comes off the sun-baked rocks and doesn’t provide any relief. We’re really looking forward to a swim when we set off for the waterfall in the morning. It’s a one kilometre walk through a monsoon forest and along a rocky creek to the small falls and the clear pool, but that’s based on a start from the day visitor area and we find out that the camping area is about one and a half kilometres from there so our two kilometre return walk turns into a five kilometre walk. Still it’s flat and not too far so it is good to get a bit more exercise. The swimming is fabulous and we spend quite a bit of time swimming across the pool to the falls and back and sitting in the sun on the rocks. Paul makes a return visit at sunset but this time he drives to the day visitor area to shorten the walk.

Maguk, Kakadu NP, NT

Maguk, Kakadu NP, NT

We managed to pick up a hitch hiker while we were in Maguk. A rustling noise during the night proves to be coming from inside the camper rather than from animals feeding outside. A pesky mouse has found his way in. His correct name is “Kakadu Dunnart” but when he proves to be able to set off mouse traps without being caught and continues to rustle away through a couple of nights Julie dubs him Mongrel Mouse while Paul reckons Mighty Mouse is far more fitting. Maybe the different attitudes are because Julie wakes at the slightest rustle while Paul slumbers on, until poked in the ribs by Julie. “MM” is still along for the ride when we leave Maguk after a two nights stay but either he disliked the corrugations and escaped or maybe he was just along for the ride to Gunlom because he leaves of his own accord shortly after we arrive

Mighty/Mongrel Mouse, Maguk to Gunlom, Kakadu NP, NT

Mighty/Mongrel Mouse, Maguk to Gunlom, Kakadu NP, NT

Gunlom is another great spot with a beautiful pool and waterfall. It’s much busier than Maguk and there is less shade but it has the extra advantages of having a very short walk between the camping area and the plunge pool plus a series of pools at the top of a short but steep 20 minute walk up the escarpment. We are staying three nights so we use what shade we can find and also set up an awning across the back of the camper and shade cloth and a small awning over the kitchen. This really helps us keep cool and of course a short walk down to the plunge pool or a quick cold shower does the trick as well. The views from the top are inspiring and, as well as a prolonged excursion to explore and swim one day, Paul makes the trek before sunrise to capture the early light one day and stays up at the top of the waterfall until after dark another time.

Gunlom, Kakadu NP, NT

Gunlom, Kakadu NP, NT

One of the really special spots recommended by the ranger at the festival is Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge). A permit and a key to a gate are needed to visit the place and we arranged the permit before we left Jabiru and picked up the key before we came into Gunlom. The track in is 4WD only so although we only have 30km to drive from Gunlom it is a slow trip and we arrive at the camping area near Koolpin Creek at lunchtime. There is a large pool here but unfortunately it is definitely not an option for a swim to cool off as crocs are often around. We are going to have to work for our swims here. The gorge contains a series of pools we can walk to, and while Long Pool by the campground and the next pool, Vegetation Pool, are not safe for swimming the ones further up the creek are OK.

In fact they are far more than OK as we discover when we set out later in the afternoon. The first part of the walk to the upper pools is marked but when the markers run out it is a matter of finding your own path up and over and around the rocks. We make a couple of false starts but eventually work out a route past the obstacles. The next pool is Pink Pool, obviously named for the pink rocks at the far end. It is OK to swim here but we’ve been told it is even better further up so we clamber up and over some more rocks to another level and we reach Black Pool. Here we are surrounded by dark rocks and at this time of the day the pool is in deep shadow and has very dark, almost black water. The water is clear and fabulous although a bit on the chilly side but that’s welcome after our trek in the heat. On the rocks above this pool we see a few people taking in the late afternoon sun. They have reached Blue Pool and we’ll get there too, but not today, we’re happy spending a couple of hours here before returning to camp.

Black Pool, Jarrangbarnmi, Kakadu NP, NT

Black Pool, Jarrangbarnmi, Kakadu NP, NT

Next morning we set out with food and water included in our backpacks. Rather they are in Julie’s backpack as Paul’s is full of camera, lenses and filters and he has his tripod to carry as well. We reach Black Pool mid-morning and spend another couple of hours swimming, taking photos and reading. We’re now ready to tackle the climb up to Blue Pool. The direct route is not an option, unless we can climb sheer cliff walls that is. Instead we need to trek up the side of the hill to a sloped rock face we can use to reach a ridge. Once past the hump of the hill we need to descend down the steep hill to the pool. There are enough “steps” on the rocks to make it safely down and after about twenty minutes we are taking another welcome dip. It is not obvious how this pool got its name as the surrounding vegetation would make Green Pool seem more appropriate but perhaps that name is taken on another pool further up the valley. The water here is not as deep but it is certainly still very refreshing.

On our way back to Black Pool we take the time to admire the breath-taking views over the surrounding country. (Maybe the climb contributed to the breath-taking bit but it’s a good excuse for stopping.) Another swim and more photos are in order before we start to make our way back down to camp. This section of the walk seemed pretty tricky on our first walk in but it’s getting simpler all the time.

Breath Taking View, Jarrangbarnmi, Kakadu NP, NT

Breath Taking View, Jarrangbarnmi, Kakadu NP, NT

Our final day feels even hotter, it must be in the low 40’s by now and as the wind blows around the rocky bowl of hills it feels even hotter. We have plenty of water so a shower from the shower bag hung in the tree is a welcome activity. We had planned to take another trip to Black Pool mid-afternoon but the heat defeats us and we settle for another shower instead. We’ll definitely be back to this jewel but next time we’ll aim for earlier in the year when the weather is a little kinder.

We’ve heard people refer to Kakadu as Kakadon’t, but we really struggle to understand that sentiment as this is a very special place with lots of wonders to be found. Perhaps they don’t leave the bitumen and aren’t prepared to walk more than a short distance but a 4WD opens up lots more options and a little effort is well rewarded.

 

Fiery Billabong

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

We have been watching dark billows of smoke on the south-western horizon all day but as we begin the six kilometre track to Sandy Billabong they become even thicker and more expansive. It’s not long before we reach the edges of a slowly burning bush fire. We pause to take a closer look and test the strength of the wind and decide to continue. The fire to the left of the track is moving back towards Muirella Park, whilst on the right it is moving slowly north. When we reach the billabong the ground is black and the dry grass and bushes have been completely burned away. The place looks open and barren without all the brush between the scrubby trees. Some small trees are still burning and a few stumps are smoking here and there and probably will be for days. The breeze stirs up the ash lying on the bare ground and the prospect of camping here is not an attractive one.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Near Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

We drive to the edge of the large billabong and we can see that this is a lovely place. There are lots of different water birds and the billabong is surrounded by paper-bark trees. It is a few hundred metres from where we stand to the other side of the water. What a pity we arrived at the same time as the fire. We find out later that it has come up from the south and has been burning for many days.

I get to thinking about the scene around the billabong and the effect the smoke will have on the light around sunset and sunrise and what that might look like over the water and around the trees and reeds that skirt the billabong. It is not surprising then that I am back there a short while before the sun sets. I have followed a track part way around the billabong and driven across the blackened earth to an unburnt patch of ground about ten metres from the edge of the water. The ground all around the car is black. I cross the burnt grass and walk down to the green, muddy strip at the edge of the billabong. The air is hazy with smoke and I can see that the fire has completely circled the billabong. Many of the paper-bark trees have been burnt. Only a few will be dead though, the rest will be left with patches of black and white bark … hence their name Melaleucas.

The name Melaleuca is derived from the Ancient Greek μέλας (mélas) meaning “dark” or “black” and λευκός (leukós) meaning “white”, apparently because one of the first specimens described had fire-blackened white bark. See “Melaleuca” on Wikipedia for more about these trees.

In fact the fire is still burning strongly in many places. Just a few metres to my right some trees are alight and I can feel the heat on my shoulder and back.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

As it gets darker the fires brighten and light up nearby patches of bush and water. Fifty metres to my left a large tree at the edge of the billabong is completely ablaze and the water there glows red and orange.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Across the way the dark grey trees and water are obscured by thick smoke.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Everywhere I look I can see patches of flames; some amongst the grass at ground level, others climbing up the creepers and trees and smaller fires high up in the taller trees. Occasionally the sound of burning trees crashing to the ground comes to me across the water as well as from my left and right. I am keenly aware of everything that is happening around me. I’m not taking any significant risks but I need to be watchful.

It is a while before I start taking photos. Smoke filters the last light of the day, obscuring distant, darker corners and softening the colors. I feel the heat of the fire on my back as I take photos through the smoky blue haze lying just above the water.

Brilliant white egrets stand out in the shadows along the far edge of the billabong.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Dozens of Black Kites swoop in and out of the smoke until it is almost dark, flying low between the black tree trunks hunting for insects and small mammals now looking for new cover. I watch the colours in the sky turn to orange and then to darker russet tones at sunset followed by the blues and purples as the cloak of dusk settles.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

With so many small fires still burning it will not be a peaceful night. The water birds keep calling to each other until well after dark. Several times I am fooled into thinking that there are other people nearby, but I’m the only crazy person here. The calls from the ducks and geese sound like a constant refrain echoing around the billabong; “Shall we stay?”, “Shall we go?”

Eventually it is time for me to drive back to camp. All I can see in the dark are the spot fires and the white hot cores of a few burning tree stumps. Then I see the fire front along the creek to my right. Strangely I see quite a few frogs and birds just sitting on the road as I drive along the track. It may be the coolest bit of earth around. The fire is on both sides of the road for a couple of kilometres.

For the rest of the evening I contemplate the surreal nature of these scenes hoping that I have captured just some of the experience with my camera.

I return before dawn next morning, driving back down the same track to the edge of the billabong. Flocks of White Ibis forage in the blackened ground amongst smoking tree stumps. Despite the early hour the kites are already starting to fly low across the country.

The morning colours are quite different. Light pastel shades of blue gradually change to pale, hazy greens in the smoke that has settled over the water in the early morning. I have arrived early enough that the nearby ducks, geese and egrets have not seen me approach against the dark backdrop of the trees. Jacanas skip across the water lilies. Looks like they all decided to stay.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Some larger birds are back as well. A White-Bellied Sea Eagle glides over to some tall trees and a Jabiru glides past from over my left shoulder and lands on a fallen tree in the middle of the water. Because of the smoke I can hardly see many of the birds.

Eventually the rising sun lights up the tree trunks on the far side of the billabong. I take my last photos and my work here is done.

Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Sandy Billabong, Kakadu NP, NT, Australia

Comings and Goings along Dusty Tracks # 5

Lake Jabiru Spirit at the Mahbilil Festival

Lake Jabiru Spirit at the Mahbilil Festival

Our Latest Dusty Track – After nearly three weeks in Darwin (check out the blog post Music, Art and Food) we were keen to get back into the bush. We headed toward Kakadu and Jabiru but wanted a bush camp along the way. Shady Camp is on the banks of the Mary River about 100 km east of the Stuart Highway on the Arnhem Highway and then 50 km north along good dirt roads, well maybe the odd corrugation but nothing significant by our standards.

It’s a pretty dry and dusty area at this time of the year and the campground is set back a little from the river. Not sure if that’s to protect the campers from the crocodiles or the river banks from the campers. Some large groups of shady trees are blocked with large boulders barring them to all but tents and day use but we managed to find one large tree we could get underneath for shade most of the day.

The next couple of days were very relaxing, out in the bush, not much to do except shelter from the heat and take short strolls, and chat to other campers including Bill and Bunty who have been coming here regularly for years. It’s the end of the dry season and daytime temperatures are getting hotter so there aren’t many people around. Paul takes a drive to Point Stuart one day but the water in the billabongs around there is low so instead of bird watching he stalks the buffalo lazing in the slightly cooler mud to take a few photos. Fishermen launch their boats from a ramp near our camp and a group of four return with their full complement of 8 large barramundi fish. They take huge fillets from them and leave the frame and “wings”. Instead of throwing them out they offer them to the campers and Bill shows a young French backpacker and Paul how to prepare them for cooking. Cooked over the flames and coals they provide a feast for us and the backpackers that night, a bit fiddly but the nicest part of the fish and more than we could eat.

After three nights we’ve got back into the rhythm of the bush and move on to our next destination. We’re going to spend a couple of weeks in Kakadu but first we have a permit for a week camping in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula in the north-west corner of Arnhem Land. We’re leaving the Troopie at the caravan park in Jabiru and spending one night at Merl campground in Kakadu so we can get an early start through Arnhem Land. This is an ideal opportunity to visit Ubirr rock in time for sunset. We’ve both been here before to see the rock art but it’s certainly worth seeing again and the sunset view from the top of the rocks is always special. Last wet season was not particularly wet and it’s now approaching the end of the dry season so water on the flood plain is less than usual but the grass is still brilliant green, and the colours of the land, rocks and sky are great.

Our week in Cobourg Peninsula passed all too quickly, it is a very special place with beautiful bays and rocky headlands around the peninsula and areas of wetlands in the centre. It is far from everywhere and there were very few people around. We’ll try to post more about our time there soon.

Where are we now? – We left Arnhem Land and returned to Kakadu in time to attend the Mahbilil Festival and Gurrung Sports Carnival in Jabiru. ‘Gurrung’ is a local Aboriginal word for the season when ‘Mahbilil’, the afternoon breeze, rises and the magpie geese fly in huge numbers across the wetlands and lay their eggs. The Sports Carnival includes AFL and men’s and women’s basketball and it runs over the Friday and Saturday and the festival runs from midday to midnight on the Saturday. We attend the festival in the afternoon and we enjoy the music while we have a look at the stalls and displays and sample the rich red meat of magpie goose cooked on the coals. A magpie goose cooking competition is part of the festival with about ten dishes entered, all looking very interesting. After the judges made their decision the entries could be sampled and voted for and we hoped to try some but ran out of time before we had to head off to watch the grand final of the football. The reigning premiers were the Minjilang Tigers from Croker Island and they made it three in a row by defeating the Gunbulanya Buffaloes. The pace of the game was extremely fast with the players showing great speed and agility. In this heat we were very impressed as even though they are only short games of two 12 minute halves they had played five previous games during the day. We returned to the festival in the evening and enjoyed a couple more bands and a great atmosphere with kids and adults having a ball under the large trees festooned with lanterns. Here and there we saw larger lanterns in the form of Barramundi Fish and Magpie Geese. Along the edge of the lake are very tall sculptures of ‘spirits’ and in the middle of the lake is a giant orange crocodile with red lights for its eyes.

Where to next? – Our travels through the rest of Kakadu National Park will probably take us close to two weeks. Water levels are low and a couple of the waterfalls don’t have much flow so we may skip them but a ranger has given us some good tips on where there are good pools to explore and which will be pretty quiet. South of Kakadu we’ll pass through Katherine and visit the thermal springs in Mataranka before travelling east along the southern edge of Arnhem Land to Roper Bar and out to the “gulf country”. We’ll pass around the gulf into Queensland and eventually to the east coast around Townsville before we head south. Naturally there are lots of places we’ll want to stop at along the way but time is moving on and we’ll have to as well.

The Land and Deep Water of the Garig Peoples

Garig Gunak Barlu (Cobourg Peninsula) National Park

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park is an area of about 4,500 square kilometres northeast of Darwin that lies within the clan estates of the Iwaidja speaking peoples of the Cobourg Peninsula. It can only be visited with a previously arranged permit.

It’s only 150 nautical miles by sea from Darwin, or two days sailing, which would be a great way to get there. Whilst it is possible to drive the 570km by road from Darwin in a day, the last 250km takes 5-6 hours which is a pretty full day for us. Taking this into account we camp at Merl, a short distance from Cahills Crossing over the East Alligator River, and spend the evening walking around the extensive rock art “galleries” at Ubirr and watching the sun set over the Kakadu wetlands from an elevated rocky outcrop.

Early the next morning we cross the East Alligator River at low tide and stop for coffee on the far side. After that it’s a very pleasant drive east in the morning sun through Arnhem Land past Oenpelli and then north to the Cobourg Peninsula. The road is in pretty good shape as far as Murgenella but we have to slow down as we reach the peninsula and cross the border into the national park. We pass several turnoffs to Aboriginal communities but our permit is only valid for a visit to a small area of the park around Smith Point.

We reach the ranger station at Black Point around 2pm and after a chat with Alan we drive a few kilometres to the camp site and have lunch. It’s only a short stroll from our camp to the beach but unfortunately we can’t swim here because of the crocs! Just a short way further up the road there is a sign saying “Crocodile Crossing” near a dip in the road where crocodiles move back and forth from the wetlands to the sea. Just off the road are the sun-whitened bones of a cow which couldn’t read.

It’s very hot during the day and we are lucky to get a spot with good shade only a short walk from the shower which we use several times a day. At night we enjoy the balmy air and listen to the sea and the wind blowing through the Casaurina trees. (I am strongly reminded of the holidays my family took south of Mombasa in Kenya when I was young.)

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Apart from walks on the beach there are a couple of lengthy drives that are well worth doing. One of these takes in the wetlands, which are the prime reason for the existence of the park, and the other is a longer drive which tracks alongside the beaches and then loops back to the road we came in on. We are here for a week so we take our time and explore at leisure. We take it easy in the camp for the first couple of days so we can absorb the marvellous atmosphere of this remote national park – and so Julie can recover from a pesky 24 hour bug she picked up along the way.

The wetlands drive is only a few kilometres long and takes you along a narrow track between thick bushes before it comes to a series of clearings beside the water. There are birds everywhere and the clamour of thousands of Magpie Geese is everywhere. Apart from the geese there are also several types of egrets, ducks and herons as well as Jacanas, Jabirus, White Bellied Sea Eagles and the beautiful Royal Spoonbills.

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

We find that it is possible to drive fairly close to the water’s edge without disturbing the birds too much and it’s only when we get out of the car that many of them decide to move further away. I return a few times at sunrise and sunset to take photographs using the car as my cover to set up my camera and tripod and I take my photos across the back. This seems to work very well and even though a few geese initially move away it isn’t long before several return to the spot in front of me.

As well as taking lots of shots of the birds I walk out onto the broad muddy margins around the water and take photos of the dead trees and the soft light playing on the water as well as the wonderful clear reflections of the birds and the trees. I really enjoyed the hours I spent around the wetlands and it is a favourite place.

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

On one of the mornings I visit the wetlands I catch sight of a couple of the small Indonesian Bentang cattle that inhabit the park. These cattle are endangered in Indonesia and the herd in Garig Gunak Barlu is the largest wild herd in the world. When we leave the park at the end of our stay we see several more several kilometres away and the signs are that herd is quite large.

For some of the time it seems we are the only people staying in the park and even when we see other people they are often at a distance from us and the camping area is so extensive that we are not even sure where they are. We do share a fire on a couple of nights with Andrew from the high country on the border between New South Wales and Victoria. One evening he brings about half a kilogram of shelled oysters and we share our BBQ chicken with him. Andrew gathered the oysters from the rocks on Kuper Point on the coastal drive. They are so nice and fresh that we make our preparations (hammer, screwdriver and empty jar) and two days later we set off on the coastal drive to get some for ourselves. After about an hour walking amongst the rocks at low tide we have more than sufficient for a starter for our evening meal. That might be a gross understatement!

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

With a few more stops along the drive to investigate photographic locations we complete the round trip and make it back to camp after popping in to the Ranger Station to check up on other photographic opportunities. Alan mentions Smith Point for sunset and the condemned jetty nearby.

I visit Smith Point one evening for the light at sunset and dusk, taking photos around the rocks there, and we revisit the coastal track another day for photos and, of course, more oysters!

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Cobourg Peninsula, NT

The days pass far too quickly and, all too soon, our week here is up. We will be back.