Saturday, 31 May 2014

Kakadu Part 3 Nanguluwur, Gubara, Yurmikmik and Ubirr.

After visiting some of the big sites in Kakadu and waiting in vain for the other big sites to open, getting eaten by mosquitoes, being ridiculously hot all day and night, showering and then sweating again as soon as the cold water stops running… it was all getting a bit much. I had loved our first tastes of Kakadu, but UysHuis-ing was getting a bit hard. I yearned for some civilisation and air-conditioning and had been campaigning for a detour to Litchfield National Park and a return to Kakadu after everything had opened. Things didn’t look good in that arena, as it had rained overnight and sporadic showers continued during the morning, filling up creeks even more and delaying the official Dry Season again.

But Fiela, who knows me best,  pushed aside the Litchfield contingency plan and instead drove me (in air-conditioning) 50kms up the Kakadu Highway to the main town of Jabiru and gave me what civilisation there had to offer- a hot pie. It was bloody good too.

Fortified a little, we grabbed some groceries and I had a quick look at the Bowali Visitors Centre which was pretty amazing. They have a very informative and interesting exhibit of the flora and fauna found in the park and an exceptionally enthusiastic guide at the front desk. In fact, I had her to thank for a renewed interest in the park; she pointed me in the direction of a few walks nearby to us at Mozzie Central.

Hand stencils at Nanguluwur. Look for the middle three fingered salute bottom left.

Only a few hundred years old, thought to be a re-creation of a lace glove. Indicates interaction with white people.
Buoyed, we stopped on the way back to camp at the Nanguluwur art site, on the opposite side of Nourlangie (the famous art site). I would hazard a guess that the reason this site is less visited is that in this nation of fatties we’ve become (half the tourists) and the tendency to do very little on your overseas holiday (the other half of the tourists), not many people want to do a 3km round trip to see some drawings on a wall. Nourlangie is much more accessible, but I would suggest that Nanguluwur is better. There were still moralistic tales on the walls of evil spirits, but also more recent depictions of sailing ships and lace gloves- a clear indication of contact with settlers, in particular white women. The walk in was flat through savannah woodlands with a short climb at the end up to the gallery and at a cool 30 degrees at 3pm, really it was fantastic. And to be honest, if the entire park was open, we probably would never have bothered with this slightly out of the way site which at this point of our Kakadu Odyssey, had been an absolute highlight.

But wait: there’s more!

Looking along the gallery at Nanguluwur.

Evil spirit figures. Tells of places which were forbidden and held evil spirits who would do awful things to you...

More evil spirits: count the fingers.


Nanguluwur Gallery.

Mardugal camping. Mosquitoes about to make their appearance.
The next day we decided to do the Gubara Rock Pools walk. Since it had rained loads of beautiful wildflowers were out, not to mention lots of creek crossings to keep Miss Whingie interested on this 6km return walk. We walked past rocky escarpments, more savannah woodlands and into forest before we hit any sizeable creeks. The Kakadu website had said that swimming was not recommended due to the risk of crocodiles, but we had our swimmers and towels just in case- thank God because we got to these picturesque pools to find a few people swimming and a large group having just exited the creek. 

Gubara rock pools walk.

There had been some rain, so all the wildflowers were out- just beautiful.

Purple and yellow wildflowers.

Gubara rockpools.

Little fish on the top of the rocks- we saw lots of different species including Barramundi.

Water cascaded over beautiful rapids and the deep pools were clear and cool. We spoke to a Jabiru local who said that the late Wet/ early Dry was the only time to see Gubara in all its glory as the pools dry up to stagnant mosquito mating grounds very quickly. Again, I was struck by the intricate ecology of this place and its fleeting window of opportunity as a food source to the traditional owners. Not to mention being an awesome place for a swim on a hot day.

Ferns growing in the rock walls on the side of the rockpools.

Water goanna.

Mr Uys and his mini-me. Just chillin.

This sense of importance was increased tenfold when I was given a two hour ‘hall pass’ to visit the Warradjan Visitors Centre a few kms down the road from our camp at Mardugal. An informative exhibit sans children… I was in heaven! The Warradjan Centre is fantastic and gives an excellent explanation of life in Kakadu for Aboriginals. And whilst I say ‘excellent’ this doesn’t immediately indicate ‘positive’. I left feeling enlightened yet sad for what were a gentle people completely in tune with the workings of the world around them, betrayed by a government who had claimed them and left with a fragmented culture at best. The exhibit shows the incredibly complicated ‘skin’ types (blood lines rather than actual skin colour) and their relationships to one another in such things as marriage and kinship (there were four different types). It showed the way in which Aboriginal people cared for the land, regenerating it by ‘firing’ the landscape yearly and traditional ways of hunting. It also mentioned recent events.

More Gubara rockpool action.

Directly after the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942 during World War II, the Australian government rounded up all Aboriginal people in the Darwin area and placed them in one of  three detention camps for years, frightened that should the invading force be successful, Aborigines would ‘guide’ them to the southern and more populous states. Uranium mining was left unchecked in Kakadu for years (some with the approval of some Aboriginal leaders, some without) until the price fell out of the market and the mines were abandoned; one is still in operation. And one comment that left me feeling sad and affronted all at the same time: ‘This used to be a place where we camped and lived... “now it’s just for tourists.”’

Having said all of this, we did witness small pockets of positivity for Aboriginal people. Fiela and the Braggs went down to the Mardugal Billabong for a quick fish off the bridge, and came across (or more likely the other way around) a grandmother walking up the river bank taking her grandson ‘bush’ for a few days. Apparently this kid was beside himself with excitement at the prospect of a few days lost in the bush... Jabiru and the surrounds are about as dry alcohol wise as it gets with so many white people around, greatly reducing the debilitating effects of this drug on Aboriginal people. And probably best of all, the traditional owners are instrumental in the running of Kakadu.

The UysHuis with the Motor Car Waterfall 
Anyhoo, back to Balanda (white people) Land and the Uys Huis… A few days later (we are on holidays after all, we’re allowed to ‘fritter away’ the odd day or four), frustrated that Gunlom and its infinity pool still hadn’t opened, we settled for one of the walks in the Yurmikmik area- Motor Car Falls. The track follows that of early bogan, Paul Allmich, who in 1946 gunned his Chevrolet all the way to falls of a similar name. We didn’t get there until late (around 12pm) after some feral donkey sightings. No, I’m not joking. Anyway, the walk was hot and long, being almost 8kms return, and I was seriously doubting the validity of the term ‘falls’ as every creek bed we passed was completely dry. But then, true to Kakadu form, the landscape changed dramatically, mosquitoes appeared and I knew we were close to something special.

The stunning Motorcar Falls.
The water falls over the escarpment cliff face around 15 storeys up down to a deep and large pool surrounded by massive boulders and thick forest: it is a magical spot especially after the walk. We stripped off into our swimmers and plunged into the water, coming up for a gasping “Shhhhiiiiiittttt it’s coooooooold!!!!!” Yes yes refreshing. But shit! COLD!

Fiela, the kids and the three other people here- visiting Kakadu at the beginning of the Dry has its perks!
We attempted ‘quiet time’ here so Fiela and I could have a quick snooze (no prizes for guessing the previous night’s overindulgence) but this was just an exercise in extreme frustration so we headed back to the carpark. Along the way we saw some beautiful parrots, a water buffalo and more dingoes. Kakadooooooo.

Enjoying the cool water.
The next day we packed up and headed for Jabiru and the delights of electricity and running drinking water at the Aurora Caravan Park. I must say, I felt like I was in a European camp spot, what with the manicured hedges, lawn for Fiela to die for and plentiful Germans and French people around.

We also went to Ubirr- the premier art site in Kakadu but luckily for you dear reader, eyes almost shut, I’d forgotten my camera so all I’ll say is that this place is phenomenal, amazing, spiritual and accessible. Believe the brochures. Every turn in the cliff is a new and exciting art piece. Every vista contains landscape untouched by man to the naked eye. Every breath can rejuvenate your city soul.

Miss M and I swimming the 50 metres back to the rocks. A note on this- Miss M has become quite the swimmer and is supremely confident in her abilities (as are we). But not so many people are. We were heading to the swimming hole (where Marguerite had been swimming unaided for the last few days) at Adel's Grove, and she had run ahead of us and jumped in before we got there. This wasn't much of a problem for us, but it was for the ladies sitting on the step next to the water, who promptly pulled Miss M out of the water by her hair. Poor Marguerite had a sore head for a while, the ladies recovered slowly from their heartaches and we reminded Marguerite to wait for us before jumping in.

And with every moment you know that the sites this National Park offers are all the traditional owners are prepared for you to see- there are bigger and better things out there in Arnhem Land and Kakadu I’m sure of it, but perhaps this is all we Balanda can handle for the moment.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Kakadu Part 2. The Yellow Billabong Cruise

So as part of our ‘Who can get the most mosquito bites?’ Crazy Fun Times Competition, the Uys Huis got up before the crack of dawn and headed up the road for the Yellow Billabong tour in Kakadu one fine end of the Wet Season morning. Due to water over the road and the threat of crocodiles, there was no way to even get down to the Billabong except through a tour, and I’m so glad we did.

Ready for Billabong action!

Our guide was really enthusiastic and shared a heap of knowledge about the flora and fauna of the area, not to mention how Aboriginal people hunted it. The file snake is only hunted at certain times of the year and involves Aboriginal women feeling the bottom of the river with their feet, grabbing the snake and killing it by placing the snake’s head in their mouth and biting down henceforth breaking its neck. Might just get the Barra Burger thanks!

Yellow Billabong Sunrise.
In between slapping at the mozzies trying to bite us through our shirts, we saw a couple of crocodiles (all really close up), some beautiful birds, a golden tree snake and lots of amazing scenery. The Billabong in the Wet is gorgeous; green green grass and water lilies everywhere.

Our first Northen Territory crocodile.

Same crocodile showing off on the river bank.

Serial pest Miss M, drove our guide to distraction with questions which weren't always (ok, mostly) related to the tour.

Lotus flower

More Yellow Billabong.
Afterwards we ate the most enormous breakfast ever at the resort restaurant. This was the first really touristy thing we’d done since the Undara Lava Tubes, and I liked it! I needed a lie down afterwards, we abandoned all thoughts of doing a bushwalk (even got half way up to a lookout, met people who said the trees obstructed the view so came back down- so lazy) and went back to Camp Fatty Boombalada. It was great.


Crocodile. A small one apparently.

Ever the thrill seeker.
The next day, buoyed by the tour where he saw the waters of Kakadu brimming with life, Fiela went out on a charter with the Braggs (guess who turned up??) and caught a small catfish. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so deflated… But Mrs Bragg managed to snag a barramundi, and we all had a taste of it that night at the Gagadju Resort and Caravan Park where the Braggs were staying. It tasted like dirt, and I mean that in the literal sense. Apparently the better tasting Barra are found much closer to the sea and saltwater.

Golden tree snake.

Funny how my photos can never do what my eyes see and heart feels justice.

Miss M, bored after 10 minutes with no croc sightings...

Note the blood stained teeth.

The Braggs came down the next morning, marveled at the beauty of the Mardugal (a Kakadu National Park) Campground at $10 per night, wondered why they were paying $40+ at the caravan park for the same amount of mosquitoes and duly packed up and moved in. And I must say, I probably gave our campground a bit of a bad wrap in the last post, but it really was beautiful. Warm showers, massive sites and fireplaces abounded, and listening to the howls of dingoes at night was special to say the least. On the cost, we couldn’t actually find anywhere to pay, even the rangers just kept telling us that someone would come around “soon” to get the fees but they never came. There was a rumour amongst the (very) few people sharing this enormous campground that because only a few sites were open (the park had had quite a lot of late Wet Season rain which had delayed the opening of lots of bushwalks, swimming holes and art sites. Some of this was due to inaccessibility and creeks being too high to cross, and in other areas the rangers were still checking/ removing crocodiles from creeks and swimming holes.), they weren’t charging us. Whatever the reason, we ended up making a token donation at a different campsite where there was an honesty box you could put your fees in.

But don’t fret dear reader, that’s not the end of Kakadu just yet. Turns out there were more spectacular sites still to be seen, even in the Wet.

Yellow Billabong.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Kakadu Part 1- Mardgual Campground and Nourlangie

I won’t say it was a tearful farewell, but saying goodbye to the Braggs in Katherine before we headed up to Kakadu was a little depressing. Fiela and I had been mourning our lack of travel companions (besides ourselves obviously!) in our two months of travel before we met this couple, and having spent a few days getting to know them a little better, we realised we’d found some true friends. Of course, we would probably see them in Darwin in a month’s time if not before (so dry your eyes princess).
Nourlangie art site, Kakadu, on a quiet day.

Our first taste of Kakadu... The Bukbukluk Lookout.
We got on the highway toward the famous Kakadu National Park feeling a little lonely, which was increased ten-fold by the Irish guy manning the Mary River Hotel where we were supposed to buy our Park Passes ($25 each to get into a National Park). I walked in and felt like I was in an episode of ‘Black’s Books’ as he gleefully told me that no, he had no park passes left, and no, you won’t be camping anywhere near that beautiful waterfall as it’s still closed for the wet season and no, actually you can’t really go anywhere but a handful of spots in the entire park. Oh and if you do go and camp there when the sign says closed you’ll probably get rained in for a month which would serve you right you stupid stupid  tourist.

Nourlangie from the (enormous) carpark. We arrived just before busload of tourists came- apparently we were lucky it was just one. We visited at the beginning of the Dry Season, and still had the place relatively to ourselves. 

So our plans changed again and instead of camping at Gunlom Falls and swimming in the croc-free natural infinity pool at the top of a cliff overlooking the plains below, we drove an extra hundred kilometers into the park and camped at the Mozzie Campground. Sorry, I mean Mardugal Campground. It is a beautiful camping area with showers and toilets, but the mosquitoes were outrageous: at exactly 6.55pm every night they descended upon our little band of warm blooded bodies in a way that is unholy. Completely unprepared the first night we were eaten alive, found about 25 blood filled mozzies in the campertrailer in the morning and thousands clinging to the outside waiting for an opportunity to get to the Uys Huis Buffet.

So far, Kakadu had definitely felt like Kakadon’t.

The first hint that Kakadu was more than mosquitoes and disappointment. This is the entrance way to a 'minor' site (cave) of Aboriginal artwork.

But we picked our anemic selves up, found a resort at Cooinda 5 minutes up the road with the most beautiful pool ever (open to the camping peasants from down at Mardugal), bought our park passes,  booked a billabong tour and suddenly felt like we had hit good times again… The photos can do the rest of the talking. About bloody time I hear you all scream...

30,000 year old artwork at a minor site at Nourlangie. Kangaroos  were also some of Australia's early inhabitants ;)

The shelter, painting to the far bottom left, used for 10,000s of years.

Another 'minor site'. Artwork was often painted and repainted. The act of painting was at times more significant than the subject itself.

A greater perspective of the wall from where the previous artwork came.

A close up of some paintings on a wall. Every twist and turn in the rock showed some new, familiar and at times baffling pictures.

From the main gallery at Nourlangie.

Nourlangie. This frieze has a few moralistic stories attached to it, the most obvious being don't sleep with your sister or you'll be turned into a crocodile... one for all of us, not just traditional land owners!

Namorrgon the lightning spirit.



At the lookout, Nourlangie gallery to the left.
Beautiful Kakadu ranges.

Nourlangie in the background.

So high on Kakadu awesomeness we decided to tackle the first 1 or 2kms of the Barrk track... "Do not underestimate the difficulty of this walk.." said the big sign at the start.

Our reward for 2kms of up up up rock climbing.

Can you hear the adrenaline pumping as I take a photo of my children being held by a maniac next to a cliff??
I jest. This place is beautiful and spiritual. I felt like I was in a Baz Luhrman film.
Yes, just me. Everyone else was pumped to be at one of the highest points in the Kakadu Ranges, looking over plains and plains of untouched wilderness with not a human in sight.
A Lion King moment.
Some perspective... One of the most rewarding, challenging and wonderful experiences of Kakadu. Nothing but the whistling of wind, some lonely birds and us, the Uys Huis crazies puffing at the climb and exclaiming at the view. What an ancient and spiritual land we live in. 

A dingo sauntering about as we headed back to the creature comforts of mozzie central.
 We booked a cruise on the Yellow Billabong for the next day. I was excited about seeing crocodiles (though there was a buffet breakfast at the end of the cruise and those that know me will know that was possibly even more exciting).