After a busy morning picking up our rental car, buying food supplies and changing money, we set off for the 250km drive from Darwin to Kakadu National Park. By car we were able to cover in an afternoon what would have taken us three days on a bike. Others were more willing to spend the extra time as we found out when we met Dave, an English cyclist, at a rest stop. He had cycled up from Sydney and was able to give us some advice on what lay ahead. In exchange, we forced some food on him – finally it was our turn to give something back to a cycle tourer, and we were not going to be deterred by the fact that he had just had lunch and wasn’t hungry!||
We had been hoping to drive up to Ubirr, in the north-eastern corner of the national park. It’s a famous spot to watch the sun set over the flood plains and the escarpment forming the border to Arnhem Land, a fairly traditional Aboriginal area that can only be entered with a permit. However, as we got to the turnoff, there was a sign saying the road was closed due to flooding. Although it was the start of the Dry, this was no big surprise as the Northern Territory had experienced up to 3 times the normal rainfall during the recent Wet which only ended a couple of weeks before we got there.
We saw some 4WDs going through the creek and figured it wasn’t very deep, so we gave it a go. A few hundred metres after this successful crossing we were stopped by a second creek, this one much wider and a little deeper. Of course we had rented the cheapest available car, by no means a 4WD, and it was clearly stipulated in our rental agreement that we were not to go through water, so we succumbed and turned back. (Later we read a newspaper report of a group of German tourists who had got stuck in this crocodile-infested creek with their rental vehicle and had to be rescued from the rooftop by the park rangers).
Back on the main road through Kakadu, we continued to drive through the beautiful bush land until we found a turnoff to a bush camp site. This was an unmanned campsite with basic bush toilets, no drinking water and a little donation box to pay the camp fee. We felt quite uneasy entering the site as there were crocodile warning signs all around, and the campsite was half enclosed by a river. Glen’s parting words rang ominously in our ears: “Crocs venture quite far on land. If you can see water, you’re too close!”
However, we really had not much choice as it was getting dark, and we later discovered that the situation was quite similar at all campsites in Kakadu. So we set up our little tent, making sure there were some other campers between us and the river, and always keeping an eye out for any dark shapes moving towards us through the undergrowth. We cooked our dinner at a little picnic table and were even able to light a campfire. Staring into the fire, we were pretty glad we’d invested in broad rimmed hats and head nets: the flies and mosquitoes were just unbearable.
It was great to wake up in our tent, surrounded by the Australian bush with all its bird life and the fragrant gum trees swaying in the breeze. Our first port of call was the visitor’s centre at Bowalie where our wallets were relieved of the hefty park entrance fee and we visited an exhibition with information about the flora and fauna in the Kakadu area.
Next, we drove to Nourlangie, an ancient rock art site. A loop walk took us past Aboriginal rock paintings of varying ages, depicting various subjects ranging from kangaroos to dancing people and lightning gods. One of the caves had been used as shelter for the last 20,000 years.
On we drove to Cooinda. As we had been unable to visit Ubirr, and quite a few of the bushwalks were closed due to flooding as well, we had decided to treat ourselves to a Yellow Water Cruise to experience more of Kakadu. The Yellow Water Billabong is a lake which carries water year-round and is connected to a wetlands and river system.
As soon as we had entered the boat, we spotted our first crocodile cruising in the water nearby.
The crocodiles in Kakadu are mainly of the saltwater variety, which means they are larger and more aggressive than their freshwater counterparts. Whilst the “salties” were endangered a while ago, they became a protected species in the 1970s. Since, their numbers have spiralled up to over 100,000 in the Northern Territory alone. As Glen and Ruth told us, you wouldn’t want to swim in the sea or any rivers up here as crocodile attacks are quite common, only some water holes are safe to swim in.
The bird life in the wetlands was amazing. We spotted many different birds such as egrets, eagles, corellas and jabirus.
We also saw four more crocodiles. Most were sunning themselves on the river banks with that toothy crocidle grin satisified in the fact that they sit ontop of the food chain. One of the regular males (4.5m long) was doing his usual rounds of his territory making sure all was in order.
In the evening, we found another great campsite. The campsites here in the Australian bush are so different from the manicured lawns and hedges of Europe. They are more spacious and open so that everyone has a good amount of space, and you can often light campfires in the evening to cook your Roo steaks.
In the morning we were keen to drive back to Darwin to tackle our final chores. We were full of nervous energy knowing we have a big ride ahead of us and were trying to get our heads around what lay in front of us.