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.

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Music, Art and Food

Darwin

Darwin City Skyline from Fishermans Wharf

Darwin City Skyline from Fishermans Wharf

We’re not really city people but Darwin has a lot to attract us, especially at this time of the year when the weather is perfect and the Darwin Festival and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Competition are on. Paul’s appendicitis wasn’t the best of starts to our time here but once he was out of hospital he bounced back very quickly. Life on the road helps keep us pretty fit so recovery times are less … too many places to go and things to do to waste too much time being unwell!

Festivals in the other capitals are no doubt bigger but there was plenty on offer for us to enjoy. We made it to the opening concert in the Botanic Gardens which included the delightful Clare Bowditch but Paul’s appendicitis meant we had to leave early. The Railway Club is a great venue and, once Paul was on the mend, we made it to a session with three bands from Darwin and Melbourne. A night at the Convention Centre was a dressier occasion and we watched a very entertaining performance of Dangerous Liaisons. A lot of the festival performances took place in the city and an area under the fig trees on the edge of the CBD was transformed into “Festival Park” with lighting and food stalls and long tables where you could eat and meet and enjoy the atmosphere.

The standard and variety of art in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards at the Museum and Art Gallery was inspiring and we also loved the entries which didn’t make the awards but were displayed at the Salon de Refuse in an art gallery on Darwin’s Wharf precinct. Several other art galleries around town had exhibitions as part of the festival and we made it to as many as we could as well as to some exhibitions at Darwin University.

The Darwin Festival is a very casual, but well run event and we thoroughly enjoyed the music and performances as well as the festival atmosphere in this tropical city with its balmy August temperatures. We’ll be back at some time in the future!

Away from the festival the coast between Lee Point and Cullen Bay Marina provided some lovely spots to visit, beach walk and take photos with rocks and cliffs of all manner of shapes and a wide spectrum of colours. East Point has lots of places to explore and we enjoyed a barbecue after the sun set at Dripstone Cliffs on Casuarina Beach. Late one afternoon we strolled along the beach under the cliffs at Fannie Bay and watched a wedding on the sand near the boat club. Along with the wedding guests we enjoyed a cool drink in the comfort of the boat club as we watched the sun set over the Arafura Sea, very civilized as well as beautiful.

Watching the sunset at Dripstone Cliffs.

Watching the sunset at Dripstone Cliffs.

A favourite past-time in Darwin has to be attending the markets and we managed to visit three of them. Parap market is on Saturday mornings and as well as a number of fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, jewellery and craft stalls they have a mouth-watering array of choices for delicious snacks. By sharing we managed to sample a very good range as it was just too hard to pick one or two. Mindil Beach market is the best known market and it operates on Thursday and Sunday evenings. We visited on a Thursday and while it has less in the way of fresh produce they have a larger range of craft and souvenir type stalls and a huge number of food stalls to feed the crowds who attend. We joined the hundreds on the beach for the sunset and enjoyed the free music and shows throughout the evening while we grazed on the food.

Both Nightcliff and Rapid Creek have Sunday morning markets and as we ran out of time for both we visited the Rapid Creek market as it reportedly has the best range of fresh produce. This was spot on!  There were heaps of stalls with a huge range of freshly picked vegetables, herbs and fruits. Our fridges were loaded up but because it was all so fresh we managed to use it all while it was still in excellent condition. The only problem is having to go back to buying from supermarkets after eating the delicious market food.

Our visit to Darwin this time was longer than we expected and stretched to almost three weeks. Maybe next time we make it here it will be during a wet season and we can see a totally different side of the place.

All Good Things …

Canning Stock Route – Breaden Hills to Halls Creek

Well 51, northern most well on the Canning Stock Route

Well 51, northern most well on the Canning Stock Route

We drive out of the Breaden Pool valley and back onto the main track. Near the turn off to Well 48 we can’t resist another short stop for more photos but eventually we leave the hills behind and head on to Well 49 passing yet another Outback Spirit convoy on the way. We’ve been told there is excellent water available at the well and I’m quite surprised to find that when I lower the bucket it won’t even sink and the water I haul up is a little muddy. It’s fine for washing water which is all we need at this stage but I’d be disappointed if I was after drinking water. Later we find out that the Outback Spirit people pump water here and would have taken 1300 litres and dropped the water level in the process. It will refill fairly quickly but we arrive too soon after their departure for that to have happened. We refill our washing water and have a cuppa before moving on.

Well 49, Canning Stock Route

Well 49, Canning Stock Route

Six kilometres up the track there are three camping areas under stands of desert oaks. We had thought of using one of these for an overnight stop but it’s only mid-morning and we’re not ready to stop for the day. We find the Unimog mob in the process of finishing their morning pack up after an overnight camp at one of them and stop for a chat, and another cuppa. We’re always ready for a chat and another coffee. We thought they would have been further ahead of us but they had a couple of short days because they had to change a tyre, no small task with those massive rims and treads. They are only planning on travelling a short distance today to a gorge and Galvida soak near Well 50.

We finish our chat and leave them to their packing to continue our journey. It is only another 25km to the turn into Well 50 but there are lots of corrugations so it’s slow and bumpy going. Some trees in the direction of the well look like a promising spot for lunch and we head in. Lots of trees are scattered across and around a large mud pan and promise good camping but we continue past this area and the well to investigate alternatives near the gorge another few kilometres on. A quick look shows it to be worth exploring this afternoon but not a good spot for the night. We’ve just finished lunch when the big red Unimog is seen approaching and the others arrive. The kids want to join us in our exploring so Julie gets them a quick lunch to eat while we walk and we head across the rocks and down onto the sandy floor.

Boy do they have loads of energy. It’s the middle of the day and hot but that doesn’t stop them running ahead and clambering over rocks and diving into soft sand. We follow the gorge for a while with Dominic quizzing Paul for photography tips and Eloise demonstrating her sand swimming skills then decide the soak is probably in the opposite direction so we return to the vehicles. Jim and Julie are just setting out for their walk and the kids have the choice of joining them or staying with us to see if we can find the soak back along the road we drove in. They stay with us and we drive up the road to a spot we think likely and walk through the spinifex to the dry river bed. We’ve come further than we hoped so we walk along the sandy bed identifying animal tracks until we reach the bright red wall we hoped would be the soak. No luck and we’re very hot by now so after a rest in the shade we return to the cars. When we finally catch up with Jim and Julie we find out they went further than us and found a rock hole with a good amount of water plus side gorges and Aboriginal etchings. Oh well, we tried. We all return to the treed area to camp for the night and enjoy another good campfire and very pleasant evening.

It is a short drive in the morning to Well 51, the final well of the Stock Route, just 20km north. From here the Unimog mob are continuing north along the western side of Lake Gregory to camp at Stretch Lagoon which is about 12km before Billiluna and the Tanami Track, which is the end of the Canning Stock Route. We want to spend some time at Stretch Lagoon too but first we are planning to follow the track around the eastern shores of Lake Gregory to a camp site there then finding a smaller track across the top rejoin the Stock Route just below the lagoon.

The track around the south and east of the lake is good with far fewer corrugations, no doubt due to far less traffic. Brolgas are common and fly off as we approach. We find the Handover campground with no problems and Paul is very keen to capture some of the beauty in the evening and tomorrow morning. The lake has lots of water in it but near the water there is no shade and loads of insects so we spend the afternoon in a shady spot in the campground two kilometres from the lake edge.

When Paul is heading off to take photos in the late afternoon he notices the front of the car bouncing far more than normal. A quick check shows the shock absorbers are shot, this could mean a change of plans. Paul is still hopeful of sticking to our plan but after we have packed and headed on in the morning it soon becomes obvious that rough tracks should be avoided as far as possible. We aren’t far from the Aboriginal community of Mulan and there is a graded road from there to Balgo and then into Halls Creek. It is adding quite a bit to our distance to be travelled and means we miss Stretch Lagoon but at a steady rate we can make it into town today and organise repairs.

It’s not quite the way we planned to finish our journey up the Canning Stock Route but the change of plans is minor and the problem will be easily fixed. We have had a fantastic journey with many great sights and experiences.

The rain and mud in the early stages were unexpected and gave us a totally different view of the track. I found it challenging but I’m much more experienced and confident in mud now, or at least as long as there is a firm bottom. The rain also put fresh life into the vegetation making everything greener and bringing on the wildflowers we saw more of later in the trip.

The southern section had an abundance of good camp sites with our favourites at North Pool, Windich Springs, Pierre Springs and the highlight, Durba Springs. We’d be happy to spend more time at any of them.

When the rain finally cleared we were treated to clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine. As the track dried and the sun heated the sand, the dunes which had been easy to cross while damp become far more challenging.

I always thrill to the sight of the red sand dunes, damp or dry, burnt or unburnt, they really reflect the Aussie outback to me and I love the anticipation I feel when I’m driving up one face, what will I see when I reach the crest. That’s apart from the ‘will I make it over the top feeling’ of course. I’m far more confident of my abilities in sand now as well as mud.

The sheer variety in the track surprised us. Conditions constantly swapped between sandy or rocky, corrugated or firm and level, straight or winding, open or bushy and every combination and degree. It can make for tiring driving but if you are not in a hurry and love driving, as we do, it is a delight.

We met lots of great people as we travelled. It is rare for people out here not to take the time to stop and have a chat and we shared some friendly campfires and yarns. On the other hand there weren’t so many we felt we couldn’t get our own space and we often had the camp site to ourselves.

Overall it is the sheer dimensions of the journey which make it special. 2,000 km of rough unmaintained tracks through rugged and unforgiving country including three deserts with extremely limited support or services over a five week period make it an epic journey and it is certainly one we won’t forget.