If bumpy four-wheel drive tracks and trekking without trails is your idea of adventure, head for the World Heritage ancient landscapes of southern Kakadu and rough it in the outback to feel the spirit of this biological wonderland.
Drones of coaches and four-wheel drive buses leave Darwin every morning heading for the hot spots “ticky box” day tour of the world heritage Kakadu national park with screeches of “Awwwwwesome….. coooooooool” and “Oh my gorrrrrrd” trailing in their wake.
While my husband, Paul, rolls his eyes in irritation of generation Y’s overused lingo, I fear we’ve finally morphed into grumpy middle aged-farts so I decide to seek out an alternative way to explore Australia’s largest national park.
We find a local company who provide small group trips into deepest Kakadu and have permits into Kakadu’s less-travelled, restricted-access jewels where there are no trails to follow and zero facilities. We choose their more rugged adventure. It’s a five-day round trip, sleeping under the stars in a swag (waterproof sleeping bag) – just us, a couple of other more youthful adventurers and a guide in an old Land Cruiser Troopy.
Intrepid adventures tend to be aimed towards the younger generation so at the booking office we come across a small hitch; we’re more than a decade over the age limit of 30. But there’s “hope” for us, their representative says, “if you’re young-minded and fit enough to cope with all day treks.” We say: “No problem.” He says: “Awesome,” and before we can say: “Oh my god,” we’re booked on the trip.
Manic tour guides are really irritating so it’s no problem for us when our guide “Mick” (I’m not kidding) turns up 30 minutes late at 7am, barefooted and a bit bleary-eyed. While rolling up “a tab”, he introduces us to our tour buddies – two young doctors from Melbourne. Mick is laid back in every way and soon forgets everyone’s names.
We spend the first morning with a local aboriginal tribe on a deserted beach learning about one of the world’s oldest living cultures and I learn something new about hubby Paul when he shows them how he used to hunt rabbits in Ireland as a kid with a homemade spear. But this is strictly men’s business. So while he’s taken off into the bush to rediscover his spear throwing talent, I’m left behind making twine for baskets.
After a long drive to get off the touristy track, we set up camp for the night ….well…. we roll out our swags. Mick says he can smell fire, which is normal in these parts apparently, so we trek up to the highest ridge to take a look at the situation. On the way he tells us about the different types of bush fire; the small smouldering ones and the huge fierce ones. At the top of the ridge we see the whole horizon is glowing, and for the first time I detect a slight concern in Mick’s voice.
We race back to camp and I roll up my swag, grab my belongings and jump in the Troopy.
“Where are you going?” asks Mick.
“Are we not getting out of here?” I answer.
“It’s too widespread,” he explains. “Just sleep in a clearing and make sure there’s nothing around your swag that can burn.” Mick flicks on a Jack Johnson CD, lies back, lights a rollup and now I’m the subject of the eye rolling.
After waking, uncooked, we begin to understand a little of what we learned about the Aboriginal connection to the land when take an all day hike into the highlight of our trip, Koolpin Gorge – Jarrangbarnmi in traditional language.
It’s not a trek for the unfit. Mick guides us through the gorge, nicknamed the giant’s staircase for good reason, scrambling and rock hopping, avoiding the sacred cultural areas that can only be visited by Jawoyn; the local traditional people.
We can sense the ancient landscape dating hundreds of millions of years and we’re rewarded with refreshing cool-offs in oasis after oasis of gentle dry season waterfalls cascading into rock pools. No wonder Australia is called the lucky country.
Each night we sleep in a different spot, allowing us to trek to the more frequented and famous Jim Jim and Twin waterfalls where we climb to the top, swim in plunge pools and enjoy the spectacular views over a picnic.
We see the fearsome saltwater crocodiles from the safety of a boat cruise on the Mary River and visit Nourlangie Rock, one of the most significant art sites in the world, according to world heritage.
Near the end of our five-day tour the bush fire catches up with us and we have to drive through it. While we all gulp hard, Mick turns up the music and shouts: “Feel the heat through those windows, guys.” Flames licking the windows, the dance beats of the Chemical Brothers blasting out “here we go”, and Mick punching the air, it is a surreal experience that will be imprinted in my memory for a long time.
We come through unscathed – diesel doesn’t explode, I’m told. A little later we get a flat. Staying in the baking vehicle isn’t an option. Shade is nowhere in sight. All I can see is the blistering heat in the distance. I ask jokingly if the luxury version of the tour comes with a mobile shade. “Naaaah,” says Mick, “the only difference is a bit of camembert after dinner.”
The doctors are starting to feel the strain from the rugged terrain and although we’ve shared frequent belly laughs, I can’t help feeling a little smug that we have plenty left in our higher mileage tanks. Mick notices too and I’m no longer the subject of the eye rolling, but an approving Aussie bloke wink.
On the last night we have an uneasy sleep 30 meters from a saltwater croc-infested billabong. Mick reckons we’d be okay because the crocs don’t wander too far from the water and he will sleep closest.
Despite Mick’s outward persona he turned out to be a highly knowledgeable and resourceful guide who gave us an unforgettable warts-and-all experience. But I couldn’t help thinking that, to truly feel the spirit of Kakadu, I needed to hear more about the land and the culture directly from aboriginal people who have passed the stories down through the generations.
We leave the biological wonderland of Kakadu grateful to the generations of Aboriginal people that have protected it for tens of thousands of years. With Jack Johnson and the Chemical Brothers still ringing in my head, it’s back to the concrete jungle and ‘oh my god’.
Getting to Kakadu National Park
Australia’s largest National Park is 120km’s east of Darwin. The whole park, which covers almost 20,000 kilometres, is accessible in the dry season (April to September) when the daytime temperature is 32°C, humidity is relatively low and rain is unusual.
Kakadu is one of very few places that is World Heritage listed for both its cultural and its natural values. It’s filled with natural beauty, from sweeping landscapes of the Arnhem Land escarpment to internationally important wetlands on the plains. It supports an estimated 2,000 varieties of plant species, 280 bird species, 68 mammals, 120 reptiles, including the fearsome Saltwater Crocodile that can grow up to seven meters and the smaller, less aggressive Freshwater Crocodile.
Within Kakadu there are over 5,000 recorded Aboriginal rock art sites, many of which are recognized internationally as outstanding examples of Aboriginal art, some of which would have been integral to the survival of aboriginal people.
Around 500 Aboriginal people live in the park, many being descendants of the original clans that lived and hunted there as long as 40,000 years ago. Some areas, which are well signposted, are sacred sites only to be visited by the traditional Aboriginal owners.
Wet to dry season transformation
During the wet season (November to March) monsoon rains transform Kakadu. The gorges and ravines carry torrents of water over the escarpment onto the lowlands and plains creating jaw-dropping waterfalls. Parts of the Kakadu are inaccessible in the wet season and can only be seen by air.
Individual permits for Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge)
Jarrangbarnmi can only be accessed with a permit in the dry season (April to September) and with a high clearance 4WD vehicle. Independent travelers can apply to park authorities for a permit to visit Jarrangbarnmi. Information is at www.environment.gov.au/parks/permits/kakadu-jarrangbarnmi.html
Eco certified group tours into Kakadu with access into Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge)
Gagudju Dreaming is an indigenous owned collection of Kakadu wetland cruises, 4WD Kakadu tours, cultural experiences and Kakadu accommodation. http://www.gagudjulodgecooinda.com.au/
Tracey Croke is an Australian-based travel writer and arthritic adventurer with a mission to go where no arthritic has gone before. You can read about it on her blog www.chronic-adventures.com and follow her on Twitter @TraceyCroke