Garig Gunak Barlu (Cobourg Peninsula) National Park
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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!
The days pass far too quickly and, all too soon, our week here is up. We will be back.