TOP END TAILS – KAKADU

Kakadu by 4WD: Croc-infested billabongs, ‘didge lessons and swimming in lush waterholes

“The two crocs are headed for each other,” our captain says. Was I about to witness a crocodile fight?

Images flash through my mind of monsters wrestling with snapping jaws and thrashing tails, only metres away. It turns out, however, when wild crocodiles are left to their own devices they are more strategic and stealthy than the crazed, bloodthirsty stereotypes. Right now all I can see is the top of a flat, scaly head and one golden glistening eye. Suddenly, it vanishes without the slightest ripple on the water’s surface.

”Like a hot knife through butter,” our captain says. She has a devilish sense of humour and keen eyesight. In the last hour we’ve seen more crocs than we can keep track of and only one ‘logadile’. She gently eases the boat over to the direction of the hidden predator.

“Jesus,” I hear an Irish voice say behind me. “We’re floating over it.”

This is a frightening thought when you consider the boat’s measly eight-metre length. The largest recorded saltwater crocodile was measured at a whopping 8.6 metres. Add to that the two attacks in the area during the past week and it’s enough to make your stomach flip, well, stop your hands from dangling over the boat’s edge anyway.

The Corroboree Billabong has the largest concentration of saltwater crocs in the world and is the first stop on our three-day 4WD tour of Kakadu.

It’s also the first day of the dry season and abundant with lush, green waterlilies. Birds of all shapes, sizes and colours fly overhead and frequent the banks.

On our way back the boat operator spots a sea eagle swooping for fish. Its 1.5 metre wingspan is impressive but this is just a juvenile learning to hunt. We eagerly watch it attempting to catch prey. When it finally emerges from the water with a bloodied whitefish in its talons, the entire group erupts into applause. Elated, we head back to the Territory Expeditions truck to continue our tour.

Dreamtime in Ubirr

I call our vehicle a truck because van or bus doesn’t cut it. This is a beast. There is no pleasant toilet located at the rear or cute, little TV hanging up the front. This vehicle means business. It can go across the bumpy, unsealed dirt roads and plough through muddy waters. In other words, it’s the ideal way to reach the most remote, beautiful places in Kakadu.

And leading us is our tour guide Barney. He has spent the last 10 years working in Kakadu and knows it like the back of his hand. A relieving thought for this city mouse.

Passing through the gates of Kakadu, we learn it’s the same size as Belgium and the largest national park in the world. This World Heritage Area is currently resident to six aboriginal tribes, where three different languages are spoken.

The first place on the agenda is probably its most world-renowned. Ubirr, which is known for its aboriginal rock art, and also happens to be Barney’s favourite place in Kakadu. He leads us down the track to an overhanging rock that juts out three metres above our heads. It is covered in hundreds of paintings and drawings.

This rock art is estimated to be up to 8,000 years old. There are handprints, animals, fish and people.The magnitude of gazing at work created by the oldest continuing culture in the world is so profound that we spend a good amount of time gaping in wonder.

Barney guides us up a 250-metre steep climb to the Ubirr lookout which has 360-degree views of the floodplains spanning out as far as the eye can see. He instructs us to find a corner by ourselves, sit quietly and take it all in. Rolling my eyes, it’s as though I’ve been told to do something lame by a dorky schoolteacher.

Sitting on a flat bit of rock to watch the horizon I instantly become so aware of my surroundings. I can hear singing birds and the soft sounds of travelling winds. The contrast of green bush, orange boulders and clear blue skies is uniquely striking. My mind wanders and I begin to daydream. And if ever there was a place to dream it’s here, overlooking Arnhem Land.

I feel as though I could stay here forever or melt into the rock I’m sitting on and become a part of the breathtaking landscape. Without a doubt, this is a special, spiritual place.

We set up for the night at Cooinda Campground. Dinner is served by candlelight. Barney has prepared a degustation spread of kangaroo, crocodile and good ol’ Aussie beef snags.

After the tasting plate – yes, crocodile does taste like a mix between fish and chicken – we sit around the campfire while Barney patiently teaches us to play the didgeridoo. To the glee of the rest of the tour group, my attempts sound like farts.

A young Australian couple pass around their bag of marshmallows. As a possum bounces by, almost in time to the beat of Barney’s didgeridoo, I’m roasting a marshmallow in one hand and sipping a Coopers beer in the other. It can’t get much better than this.

My own private waterhole

The didgeridoo wakes us up at 6am. Today is a day for hiking and swimming – my fingers are crossed I don’t meet a croc during one of our dips. Everyone is pretty quiet. Dawn may be a time for humans to be sleepy, but the wildlife outside is alive with activity.

All of a sudden the truck lurks to a stop and does a U-turn. On the side of the road a lizard sits serenely, chin faced to the sky, catching some morning rays. Seeing Barney it runs a metre. The frill-necked lizard moves quickly but it also resembles a middle-aged woman awkwardly flailing about in fear. Carefully Barney picks it up and as he does, its neck pops out like opening a cocktail umbrella. We’re all reduced to fits of giggles.

There is so much wildlife in Kakadu. Every time I board the truck it feels as though I’m going on safari.

Barney turns off a sealed road and onto a small dirt track. It’s crazy he spotted it as there are no signs and the opening to the road is almost camouflaged into the bush. A few bumpy kilometres later we come to a small, cleared space.

Again, there is no signage. In fact, there’s not a peep of civilisation at all. The scenery is pretty bleak: wispy bits of dead grass and some remnants of burnt bush. It’s a 45-minute hike through a small track until we get to boulders. We scramble over them, passing a foot-long golden orb spider on the way. The dry terrain starts to turn greener and lusher.

When we emerge from the path we are welcomed by Motor Car Falls. A large, flat rock pokes out over a dazzling waterhole surrounded by orange cliff faces. A waterfall drops down the middle of the cliff. It’s postcard perfect and completely deserted.

Barney assures us it’s croc-free and shows us the safe place for diving in. Quickly discarding my sweaty shirt it’s mere moments before I plunge into refreshing water. A group of us swim over to the base of the waterfall taking it in turns for it to massage our backs.

This is a hidden gem. In the last 24 hours we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kakadu, but we’ve hit the jackpot with Ubirr and Motor Car Falls.

Wild about Kakadu

You know something is a rare occurrence when your guide frantically scrambles for his camera. Our truck comes to a grinding halt as a herd of wild buffalo cross in front of us. Buffalo are usually only sighted once a year in Kakadu. We’ve just seen three adults and a baby – that’s four years worth in one hit.

Donkeys, a wallaby, a goanna and a baby dingo also feature on today’s safari. No one is as enthusiastic, however, when it comes to spotting insects. Kakadu has 10,000 species of bugs and a popular attraction is the termite mounds.

It’s with a mix of curiosity and revulsion that we exit the truck to visit them. Barney says the cathedral-like structures are made up of plant materials, clay and their own faeces.

As I stand next to a monolithic tower almost three times my height, it occurs to me I’m posing next to a giant mound of bug poo infested with thousands of creepy crawlies. Wicked

!All good things must come to an end. After a whirlwind, jam-packed experience we get to Buley Rockholes and Florence Falls in Litchfield. These swimming places are like the theme-park rides of the Top End.

We’re greeted with flowing rapids, strong currents, mini whirlpools and loud thundering waterfalls. I sit awkwardly under a gushing flood of water that almost washes me away. Gripping onto an edge of a rock I think if I were ‘to go’ in Kakadu, I’d probably prefer being taken by a crocodile after all. Better yet, have two crocs fight over me.

That would be one hell of a way to leave the Top End.

Photos: Tourism NT, Territory Expeditions 

Published in TNT Downunder Magazine online and in print on May 6th, 2013

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