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.

 

Advertisements

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.