“Has anyone swallowed a fly yet?” yelled our guide, Justin, better known as “J” as he scrambled over the boulders like a goat in the 46-degree heat. “If you haven’t, you will.” He continued confidently. We were all too busy concentrating on not falling down the steep sides into the creek to reply. One slip and you were done for; if the rocks didn’t get you the crocodiles were waiting.
It was the first day of a two-day safari through Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory and the heat and humidity were taking some adjusting to, but the thrills were worth it. Fifteen of us had piled into a 4WD and driven out of Darwin in the wake of a retreating January monsoon. Everywhere shone newly washed brilliant green in the early sun and the land teemed with bird, plant, and wildlife rarely seen in the popular but parched dry season. That the ‘wildlife’ included reptiles added spice and that few other people ventured here at this time of year added tranquillity. In the two days we spent on safari in this World Heritage Park we only met one other group of visitors, whereas in the ‘Dry’ between April and October, more than 200,000 visitors are fighting for space. Of course the reason for that is the weather and whilst the park is certainly more beautiful in the ‘Wet’, it is not always accessible and often means hanging around in frontier town Darwin for days waiting for a squall, monsoon or even a cyclone to clear away. My friend Paul and I had been lucky though, arriving the previous night as the storm abated and the downed power lines were finally restored.
The impulsive trip had evolved in a bar, as so many do, this time in Perth, where I was visiting a friend and met up with Paul from Yorkshire, who wanted to ‘go bush’ to see the ‘Salties’, the estuarine or saltwater crocodiles. “I’m 65 years old. This could be my last chance.” He said touting for an accomplice. I succumbed within one glass of Chardonnay and less than a week later we had flown to the ‘Top End’ and booked ourselves on a safari with Adventure Tours Australia.
Our group was a mix of Swedish gap year backpackers passing through, French and Korean singletons in their twenties enjoying an adventure and an English couple in their thirties taking a career break. Then there was Justin “call me ‘J’”, our local guide.
Kakadu is aboriginal territory and the name derives from ‘Gagudju’, an aboriginal language. This 20,000 square foot of land is an ancient one and sacred to the tribes whose ancestors settled here. Now it is managed jointly by aboriginal traditional owners and the Australian National Parks.
J explained that during the Wet there was no itinerary and we would just see which areas were accessible. There were pools of floodwater everywhere and occasional bodies of animals, fish and reptiles that had been trapped by the fast rising or falling waters. We drove slowly so that we didn’t hit the waterfowl, emus, wallabies and even dingoes that had come out of retreat to drink at the newly formed waterholes.
“This is my favourite time of year,” J told us, “I love the storms, scientists come here to study our spectacular lightning. I got stuck out here a few days ago in a cyclone. It was great fun; it only ripped up a few trees so not a bad one on Darwin’s scale.”
I rather hoped a cyclone wouldn’t trap us as J reckoned we were currently in the ‘eye’ and the storm would be back in a day or two.
“No worries, “said J catching sight of my face, “Believe me your biggest danger out here is dehydration.” With that he hauled out a huge barrel of ice that gradually melted into cooling drinks over the next twenty-four hours.
The road to the river had been under a metre of water the day before but we splashed through and were greeted by Norah who ran the visitors centre. She told us of the close connection aboriginal people have with the earth. They could predict the weather with uncanny accuracy and have used plants for medicines for millennia. Then she hauled out various rescued snakes for the brave to drape around their necks but I was quite content just to run my finger down a python’s dry scaly back whilst it was wrapping itself around J.
Norah gleefully watched her audience’s sunburn blanch as she announced “The ten most poisonous snakes in the world live in Australia, along with man-eating spiders, wild dingoes, lots of biting insects, including our old friend ‘The Mozzie’. It’s enough to make the bravest man quiver, and that’s before we get to those hungry ‘Salties’ on all the warning signs. The floods have lured them further away from their normal habitats and the fast receding waters could have trapped them. They will be very hungry and you will all look very meaty. You won’t even have time to scream!” She then proceeded to show us various newspaper clippings of horror stories, mostly children being eaten. At that point I resolved never to drink Chardonnay again. Paul however, was even more keen and eager to see his ‘Salties’. Perhaps he thought it would be a heroic way to go.
On the ‘Croc Cruise’ I saw those massive jaws and heard them snapping shut with an awful clunking sound around the pieces of meat the captain was dangling at them from a boat hook. I was left in no doubt just how powerful they were or how high they could jump. Paul, though, was thrilled. It was another ambition ticked off his list.
Afterwards, as we drove alongside long abandoned rice paddies emerging from their watery grave, we spotted a white cockatoo and then stopped to listen to a Kookaburra bird whistling. It sounded spookily like cackling human laughter. The rains had brought a bounteous supply of insects and as we approached the Fogg Dam lookout, a cloud of them over a newly formed lake were suddenly parted by a blue streak of diving Kingfisher. The floodplain was dotted with magpie geese, darters, jabiru, and a jacana, more commonly known as the Jesus Bird as it has huge spindly feet which allow it to walk on top of the water or rather on the lotus lilies smothering it. J was looking for snakes that are only sighted at this time of year and I could well believe his assertions that there were at least ten thousand species of insects here as most of them were walking on my t-shirt. Time to reapply the Deet and wish I’d bought one of those hats with corks on it.
The waterfalls were in full flow after the floods and calling like sirens through the heat. J pronounced crocs “unlikely” to have been stupid enough to get stranded this far out and suggested we “wet our toes”. As we had already resisted several enticing creeks, we surrendered to a dip at the Motor Car falls, so called because someone had once managed to drive an Austin A40 over them. They water felt heavenly on our scorched skin and the backpackers began performing spectacular dives from the high rocks into the steamy oasis. It looked like a film set of paradise but I had read the warning at the foot of the trail and a quick dip was enough for me.
Clambering back, we photographed ourselves beside one of the giant cathedral termite mounds. It was completely solid and at least twice my height. Crushed, they were often used to make tennis courts, roads, and even the runway J showed us later. It was the one used in the Crocodile Dundee films and now over-grown with weeds, but the old shack was still there and the battered windsock and even the oil barrels used in filming. Remembering the film I could only hope that J would live up to Dundee should we need serious protection.
Before sunset we reached the main reason for the park’s World Heritage status.
Aboriginal Rock Art in Kakadu dates back over twenty thousand years. There are more than 5000 sites but two of the finest collections are at Ubirr and Nourlangie. For the Aborigines, these paintings represent their archives, their source of traditional knowledge. It is where their laws were laid down and instructions, recipes and cures for illnesses passed down the generations through the paintings. There were stories of creation and childbirth and prohibitions for incest, and one of the oldest drawings was a warning to avoid an area where deathly spirits dwelt - a uranium mine sits on that spot today!
J offered refreshment in the form of some giant green ants.
“Citric Acid very good for throats”, he said popping one in.
I waited for more palatable thirst relief in the form of a cold ‘stubbie’ beer served in its own little pouch at the next Roadhouse. We squatted in the scant shade with a fly-laden picnic whilst J played a didgeridoo to entertain the resident baby wallaby. At this point it all began to seem a bit surreal, a feeling that increased when we spotted a huge Holiday Inn in the shape of a crocodile further down the road. It looked like a mirage and I knew Paul was thinking of escape as I’d already caught him dodging J’s salad in favour of a hot meat pie at the Roadhouse.
Our camp wasn’t so luxurious and, as most of the creatures including the snakes were nocturnal, going to the toilet block through the long grass in the dark was nearly as much of an adventure as the shower when we got there. A few wild dingoes had begun to howl just outside the camp and unseen wings beat overhead, but it was fascinating to watch the giant tree frogs sitting under the facility’s lights their tongues flicking as they feasted on the attracted insect life. Those same unlucky insects were also dementedly drawn to our torches and the Clever Dick who’d worn a head torch received a face full of the blighters. At least he’d saved a few ‘stubbies’ to wash them down.
Between us we concocted a vat of spaghetti bolognaise and crowded around a long wooden table to eat it. As we swapped travellers tales I had to admit that the Holiday Inn was unlikely to offer this kind of camaraderie. The camp was a permanent one and our tents were more like huts, comfortable and clean with proper bunks and mattresses to lay our sleeping bags on. I slept comatose (thank goodness as I didn’t fancy another trip to the conveniences) and woke to J’s knock for an early breakfast before the scramble to get back on the road.
We passed through several townships with wonderful names like ‘Humpty Doo’, stopping at various visitors centres to learn more about Kakadu’s ecology or view local crafts and paintings. Occasionally we encountered a Roadtrain on its long-distance run. These multi-trailered lorries would come barrelling along in a cloud of red dust and no way to stop. We had to get off the road fast or be flattened. They thundered by, leaving us sucked into the vacuum of their wake, our solid 4WD rattling like a flimsy toy. Then J would pull back onto the tarmac with his usual comment of “No Worries” and we would be on our way again.
If anything the heat had intensified that second day. The humidity was high and the sky had begun to brood. We all felt it and climbing made us breathless and dizzy, but there were advantages to the extra rests needed; at one stop we came across a rare, shy black wallaroo hiding in the rocks and on another we saw a kangaroo jump away into the trees.
Approaching Darwin I felt sorry to be leaving this great teeming wilderness. I hadn’t even swallowed the promised fly yet, although Paul had, but, oh, that cool shower on arrival was blissful and the freshly cooked barramundi and chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc soon compensated, especially when the first flashes of lightning over Darwin Harbour heralded J’s promised storm.