There is an iconic tale of living at a remote bush homestead in the early 20th century, called We of the Never Never Land. The author, Jeannie Gunn, who happened to be writing about life at the site of present-day Elsey National Park (where we stayed a few weeks ago) devotes an entire chapter in responding to city-folks’ accusations that life on a (cattle) station must be dreadfully boring: “what do you do all day?” they ask. “You must stagnate.” But she explains in exhaustive detail that in “the land of plenty of time” life is fit to burst and work and recreation merge almost imperceptibly. Our experience of the Territory may be wildly different in many ways to life here 105 years ago, but one thing certainly hasn’t changed: the city is passive. It is where one observes, where other people perform. In contrast the bush is a place of experience and adventure. It is a place for participation.
After a week in Darwin we were ready for some more participation. On this trip plans have been made and remade and – not just for the fun of it – made again. We exchanged the rustling hot coastal winds of Darwin for the chirruping and chattering of birds and the marginally cooler nights of Kakadu. We were excited to see some more of the harder to reach parts, but were also slightly hesitant: is it wise to return so soon to a place you have enjoyed so much? Can you break the spell?
Last time we were in Kakadu we whisked past the southernmost section, missing out the Mary River region (one of the seven regions of the Park). Kakadu hasn’t always been a National Park – it was used to run cattle and for mining. The Ranger mine at Jabiru still has a lease running, but there are other old mining sites in various places.
One former mine was near Gunlom (Goon-lom), which is located 40 km from the highway, down a gravel road. The Uranium Development Project (UDP) that operated the Coronation Mine nearby had a merry old time here. For daytime recreation, the workers enjoyed the cool plunge pool at the base of the waterfall or the sparkling rockpools above it, then camped out under the dazzlingly clear Milky Way.
At night we sleep in our trusty old Salewa tent, but many others hire vans kitted out for travelling, or tow trailer tents. We drove in through twilight to the half-full campground and about half an hour before reaching the site we saw a distinctly battered rented ‘Wicked’ camper van in a dry riverbed. It appeared to have hit a bump, skidded across the road, fallen off the causeway and hit a tree. No one was around so we left the scene, but perhaps more superstitious folk might have seen this as an omen.
For Jawoyn people (the traditional owners of this area) Gunlom has a whole different meaning. It is in the heart of sickness country; it’s the place where creation ancestors (those who formed the landscapes) rest and should not be disturbed lest they cause storms, floods, earthquakes and disease. Visiting some sites can cause sickness. Fascinatingly, some of these sickness sites correspond with deposits of minerals such as uranium, lead, mercury and arsenic and other nasties.
As we approached camp in the dark, THE BENCH’S speedometer packed up. It just stopped dead. No doubt this was the effect of thousands of kilometres of corrugated bush tracks. Never mind. A couple of days later, speedometer partly fixed, we took a dip in the plunge pool then made our way back along the gravel road to Yurmikmik and followed a baking hot trail to Motor Car Falls. Yes, the walk was a scorcher. As a result we walked like zombies on morphine, but the falls (reduced to a trickle in the dry season) were an unexpected oasis and we lounged around in the pool for ages. We even spotted a long-necked turtle that briefly surfaced in the deep pool below the falls.
Unfortunately we had to head back along the hot track to the car park a little sooner than would have been ideal. It was time to fix a second little problem. Before we started the walk we had noticed that one of THE BENCH’S wheel studs had sheared off. There is a certain smug satisfaction to be gained from carrying appropriate spare parts and being able to use them, so we were smugly on our way again after a short while.
Does bad luck come in threes? Read on and find out.
Finishing Nicolas Rothwell’s The Red Highway – a recently published book that knits together various stories about northern and central Australia – I read an anecdote of a soldier in south east asia utilising the antiseptic properties of green ants. Rather, the green ants were utilising his wounded flesh and he was benefiting. At the various campsites around Kakadu the Rangers provide free talks, walks and slideshows. At Gunlom we watched an excellent slideshow about bush tucker, presented by two of the traditional landowners. Frankly we were amazed by the sheer range of food tucked into the landscape around us: yams, pandanus, goanna, file snakes, turtle, kangaroo, bush potato, bush banana, tree nuts, billy goat plums, water lilies … green ants. Yes, of course, they’re all around us, impossible to miss, but only at the slideshow did we learn that they’re living lemsip: their green bums are bursting with intense lemon flavour and antiseptic goodness.
After the slideshow we asked the women who presented for tips about our next destination in Kakadu – an important cultural and spiritual place called Koolpin Gorge. Initially we were planning to visit Koolpin in a later week because access is limited, permits are required and they take seven days to be granted, but we have a pressing engagement interstate next week (more about that in a later post) and the friendly permit officer agreed to let us in early.
As the sun began to permeate another singeing day, we happily wound our way back up the dusty road heading for the Mary River Roadhouse. A well-oiled day was planned out: collect keys for the gates to Koolpin Gorge; stop somewhere shady for lunch; try another Yurmikmik walk; then head to Koolpin itself. Instead I ended up covered in oil.
At the end of the gravel road the sign for the junction to the highway loomed, fourth gear gave way to third, then the brake pedal gave way completely. A stream of brake fluid pissed out of a fractured pipe above the rear differential.
We pulled over at the Rangers Station a short distance along the highway and asked for advice on where we could get the brakes fixed. They let us use their phone and recommended the service station in Jabiru.
“You’re 160 km away. We shut at 4.30. If you can get here before then we can help” said the mechanic at the end of the phone.
Fortunately Kakadu Highway is straight and there is very little traffic. We made it all the way without needing to brake, but all the car lifts were in use. So I rolled around under the car in the dirt, extracted the offending piece of brake pipe, and the mechanics repaired it before closing time. By bed time the brakes were working again.
Jabiru is no Koolpin Gorge, but if the spirits don’t want us there, then who are we to argue?
Instead, the next day we drove (braking at regular intervals just for the hell of it) around the back of Nourlangie to Gubara, and enjoyed another sticky walk to a stunning gorge with some tiny waterholes.
In case you don’t know, the Cane Toad is the scourge of Australian native fauna. Introduced to kill the Cane Beetle that decimated sugar cane crops in Queensland, the toad is poisonous to would-be predators and has led to the disappearance of many Australian species. It has been impossible to contain and has (frog-)marched across the country. In 2004 the toad reached the Northern Territory, and we heard at the slideshow mentioned above that water monitors have become scarce in the Mary River region as a result. Gubara is a fair way north of that region, but it was still exciting to be joined in the water by a yellow-spotted water monitor.
We climbed out of the water and stood as still as we could, waiting patiently to see if the beautiful reptile (we’ll call him Willy the Water Monitor) would hang around. Our patience was rewarded and he basked on a rock nearby for 15 minutes allowing us to get some great snaps, as you can see.
Another night, another spectacular campsite. This time at Sandy Billabong:
Given our track record we’re probably tempting fate to let you know where we plan to go next, but we’re still not superstitious so we will anyway. Next on our list of things to see is the Gunbalanya festival at Oenpelli. That isn’t until Saturday, so you can read all about it in another post … with any luck.