Kakadu NP was one of the three major areas of interest for us on this trip. These aboriginal lands are a jointly managed Commonwealth Reserve covering 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) and they are on the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of both outstanding natural values and as a living cultural landscape. Aboriginal people have been living in Kakadu continously for more than 50,000 years so a visit to the park is a learning experience about aboriginal culture and art as well as the diversity of plants, animals and landscapes in the park. On arrival we were sold a 7day park pass and as it turned out, that was how long we stayed there. We worked our way down from the north to the south so our first stop was Merl campground near Ubirr Rock, one of the main aborignal rock art sites in the park. The park offers Ranger Guided Rock Art Talks or Walks at key locations so we joined the Ubirr Art Talk. Unfortunately our guide was a 25 year old non-aboriginal who was working from a script, so the passion and feeling were missing. The art was ok but not the best we have seen. We watched the sunset from the top of the rock and then returned to our campsite in the dark and were overrun with bugs and the heat. It was not a nice night especially as I was already covered with midge bites from Darwin.
In an attempt to maximize our enjoyment of the park, we decided to check into the ensuite caravan park in the town of Jabiru so we could have air conditioning and minimize the number of bugs in the van. On the way there we stopped at Cahill Crossing which is a notorious crossing over the East Alligator River (due to crocodile attacks and flooding) and is the border to Arnhem Land, which was declared an aboriginal reserve in 1931. Access to Arnhem Land is restricted and visitors need a permit to enter this pristine area which comprises 91,000 square kilometers of unspoiled wilderness. We did see one large crocodile in the water at the crossing and still there were people fishing on the rocks there. We enjoyed cooling off in the CP pool and using AC. Our next stop was Nourlangie Rock, another art site, where we made a big effort to leave Jabiru before 8am so we could catch the guided ranger tour at 9am, and as luck would have it we got the same ranger as before (disappointing….). Spent 2 hours in the heat at 3 sites, some rock art, some stories, culture and history. Moved on to Cooinda/Yellow Waters Wetlands for the sunset cruise and we were not disappointed. This was one of the highlights of Kakadu, especially for Dick as he wanted to see crocodiles. Had a good aboriginal guide on this tour in a 50 person boat through the Yellow Waters billabong and the South Alligator River. In 2 hours we saw thousands of ducks and birds and 20-30 crocodiles (up close!). Our guide was very good at spotting birds and crocs and making sure all could see and get photos, including a sunset croc photo. Earlier in the day we visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre which had a lot of displays about the traditional lifestyle but it felt like something was missing, (probably the fact that there were no people working there).
Next stop was Jim Jim Falls, only accessible in the dry season by 4 WD. We aired down (reduced tire pressure) for the drive, and booked in to Garnamarr campground on the way to the falls. Decided to go to the falls later in the day to avoid some of the worst heat so left at 2:45 for the 10 km drive on a very rough 4WD only track. Met lots of cars coming out and about 3 km in we saw lots of black smoke from a large bush fire. Stopped the next car we passed leaving and they thought it was ok. Smoke was looking worse so we stopped another car and they had turned around after only starting the walk to the falls. It had taken us half an hour to do 5 kms of the 10km drive and then there was a 3 hour return 2 km walk to see the falls. Didn’t take much more deliberation before we decided it wasn’t worth risking being caught in a bush fire and turned around. Good decision as we later met others who had seen flames at the side of the road. It was a hot and smokey night and our 12 V Transcool AC did a good job.
The next day we tried again but left at 8 am, and the fire was not an issue. We thought that allowing 3 hours for a 2 km return walk seemed excessive. We found out!!! It took us 3 hours and 20 minutes and we didn’t swim at the falls. The falls were spectacular and the plunge pool and sandy beach looked good but it was still a bit cool for a swim. We found the walk quite difficult – lots of huge rocks to scramble over, but we did it without a disaster. That came soon enough. I volunteered to do the 10 km, 4 WD rough track out to give Dick a rest and to get some 4 WD practice in. Big mistake!!! FULL DISCLOSURE now – I was going along fine and then I hit a tree with the side of the van and smashed our awning. A few minutes later we met someone on the one lane track and I had to back up and try to take a side lane. Didn’t back up enough and got us bogged in the sand, one wheel off the ground. Within minutes there were 6 cars there going both directions and I was blocking the track! I got out of the driver’s seat very quickly. Dick couldn’t drive us out so the guy behind pulled us out with a snatch strap. Everyone seemed to take it in their stride but I felt bad. Dick said he was glad it was me that did it and not him. We stopped back at the campground to regroup and have lunch and Dick managed to re-align the wrecked awning a bit and tape it up with gaffer tape. I hope it stays on until we get to Sydney. Just as well we don’t use it much.
Gunlom Falls were the next stop and their lovely plunge pool was next to the campground. A ranger talk was scheduled for our two nights there and guess what – it was the same ranger we had before so we skipped his slide show/talk. This time the walk goes to the top of the falls and its a 2 km return walk straight up the cliff to the top of the falls. On the way up we saw a sign that said in this area there was a correlation between the location of deposits of potentially harmful minerals such as uranium, mercury, lead and arsenic and areas of aboriginal sickness country (that they traditionally avoid). Seems like the more we learn about aboriginal ways the more we value their knowledge of country. More climbing over lots of rocks in the heat of the day but we made it to the top and enjoyed a nice time swimming in the infinity pools at the top of the waterfall. Took 50 minutes to climb to the top and 30 minutes to get down. It was relaxing just to sit on the rocks in the water and chat with others there. Finished the day with another swim in the plunge pool at the bottom of the falls. Overall a good day in a beautiful place, one of the nicest parts of Kakadu in my opinion, and a nice finish to our time there.
Because we had not seen enough waterfalls or climbed enough steep cliffs in the heat, we camped at Edith Falls (Leliyn) which is part of Nitmiluk NP (Katherine Gorge) and we’re glad we did. You will be noticing how all the old english names are being replaced with the original aboriginal names, which do take a bit of getting used to. The large plunge pool is also next to the campground and there is a 2.6 km round trip walk that climbs to the top of the escarpment and the upper pools, which of course we did. On the way we stopped at a lookout where I got phone coverage and talked to Amy for about an hour. This walk was also quite steep and it was a hot day, so we were glad we wore our hiking boots and sorry we left our poles behind. Had a lovely swim in the Upper Pools and we both swam across one pool, climbed over some rocks and got to another pool under a waterfall. It was a big accomplishment for me, as the swim was ~100 meters. We stopped at some great lookouts on the way back so in the end we were out in the hot sun for 4 hours. I went for a quick swim in the plunge pool at bottom of the falls when we got back to the campground. That marked our third consecutive day of strenous walks/climbing/swimming in 30+ C heat and we were both feeling quite tired and hot from the sun.
For a change of pace we went to Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk NP and did a scenic helicopter flight for 20 minutes which took us over all 13 gorges. The 13 natural gorges have been carved thru sandstone by the Katherine River, with rocks and boulders separating each gorge. The commentary was good (pilot was from St Ives in Sydney), and the gorges were impressive from the air. We had lunch in the visitor centre and saw thousands of bats in the trees there along the river, and that was all that we allowed time for at Nitmiluk NP. Moved on back to Bitter Springs so we could pay another visit to the thermal springs we had enjoyed on the way up. Arrived late and floated down the creek on our noodles until dark. As we were staying close to the springs we went back in the morning for our third swim/ float in the thermal pool. Then we started on the long drive home.