Our day trip to Arnhem land. After our hot, humid and horrid night’s sleep (the temperature finally dropped at about 3am) we breakfasted, packed up the van, locked it up and walked to the campground entrance – our pick up point for the Lord’s tour at 9am. We were there with twenty minutes to spare so chatted with a ranger who arrived to set up a noticeboard advertising a free weaving talk that morning and told us the mossies weren’t nearly as bad as usual!! Given our night’s rest was fitful at best due to their efforts to sup on our blood – this wasn’t reassuring, and we started thinking about whether we were up for another night at Merl. The bus didn’t appear at 9am, but another ute with two other rangers drove past, saw us and did a u-turn stopping to say they saw a tour bus at the border crossing kiosk up ahead waiting for passengers and we started to wonder if our rendezvous had been forgotten. They kindly drove off to check and came back after about 15 mins to say it was a different tour company and ours was on its way. It finally turned up a 9.25 and we were told that it was indeed early!
We were the last passengers for the tour to be picked up but were informed that they had kept two seats for us (strange thing to say as we had paid and confirmed our seats). We were wedged in the back corner of the bus and had obviously missed quite a bit of introductory commentary which had started from Jabiru much to our annoyance. However, on the positive side, we only had a few kms to drive before we headed over the border crossing which was a tidal and croc infested river ford and up into Arnhemland.
From the minute you drove past the sign warning that you needed a permit to enter, you felt this was a part of Australia unlike any other, this was ancient land.
The dirt road took us through a sweeping grassy plain surrounded by spectacular rugged sandstone formations. In the centre of the plain was a billabong with an egret feeding. We passed the other tour company as it had stopped by the billabong to see some art in a nearby cave but we kept going. It was hot and humid and the road was appallingly rutted and juddery – our tour guide blamed the semis and road trains ploughing through it in the wet season. The four wheel drive bus swayed precariously, jumped high and thudded heavily – we were glad we had both seatbelts and air conditioning. First stop was the township of Gunbalanya and the Injalak arts centre. It was a one storey building with an open area at the back where two painters were at work. Kerrie had a brief conversation with Gabriel Maralngurra who Petra our tour guide told us was one of the most senior and best painters there. Both painters used a one hair paintbrush, each stroke deliberate and slow. As Gabriel told Kerrie, there were no rubbers, so no mistakes. He said he started work at 5 to 5.30 every morning and stopped at 2pm when it got too hot.
Inside was a room where fabrics were screen printed and painted. The screen printing technology was apparently introduced by Macassan traders from Indonesia some while back – now it seems there’s a co-operative relationship where Aboriginal designs are traded with the screenprinters in Indonesia.
Meanwhile there’s a screen printing business here so local artists have different media to work on and on which they have their art represented. Back outside and past the dogs lying in the sun and a group of men sitting under the trees chatting, there was an area to the side where the women did their weaving. They had run out of flax and were dependant on others to get it for them and they said they were hoping someone was going to get some for them on Thursday – this was Monday. Our guide Petra gave us some commentary and showed us a young flax plant nearby as well as roots that are a source of the yellow colour. She pointed out a rocky outcrop across the river, Injalak Hill and said that was where we were going to climb to see the 20,000 year or more rock art. We picked up our indigenous guide, Christina, who was sitting waiting for us. We guessed she was in her early twenties, hard to say, and clambered back onto the bus and along another atrocious road to the base of the outcrop.
Before the climb we were offered a morning tea break consisting of water and a biscuit, (we thought for the money we might have got more) before Christina headed up the scree and rocks into the ancient caves and rock formations. She didn’t say anything at first and just headed up. In the meantime the other tour group with an elderly man as their guide headed off in a different direction up into the rocks. Christina and he had conversed in their native language and decided which way each way would go. We found out later that there were some areas where Christina and he were not allowed by law to be together.
Christina was very quiet to begin with but Andrew said that is quite common with Aborigines. She stopped every so often to count heads, nodded quietly as she counted, then continued climbing. She guided us to different caves, overhanging rocks and shelters and at each site explained the story and significance of the images. She spoke in a slow and deliberate way, sometimes repeating herself as English was her second language, but was always happy to answer questions. The more we asked – the more Christina opened up and revealed of her stories.
I think we all felt very privileged to be in the company of Christina, and to see and be a part of this remote, and extremely ancient landscape. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we felt the spirits of the ancients but I felt the longevity of human occupation there and we were in awe of their ability to survive, thrive and manage this harsh and dangerous part of the world and we were amazed at the complicated kinship laws and beliefs they had developed. A number of times Christina asked us to share the respect and awe we had acquired for her ancestors with others when we returned to wherever we came from.
We were told our lunch stop was to be a lookout but what we didn’t know was that the lookout was from a rock shelf which we had to crawl along under an overhanging rock to get to but it did offer panoramic views.
After lunch Christina took us to a cave that had human bones in it, explained that archaeologists had removed many of them for dating but returned for burial; she showed us a few remaining bones including a skull as evidence of the burial practices they used to have. Fortunately she had finished giving her talk when she caught sight of the other guide and suddenly moved faster than she had before – they were related somehow and she wasn’t allowed to be near the bones at the same time as this male guide.
At the bottom of the rocks there was Petra waiting with our “big cold surprise” which we hoped was an ice block but was a cold cloth and two orange quarters.
We drove back to the town and the arts centre where we given time to explore the shop. Andrew and I were keen to buy a painting by Gabriel Maralngurra and decided on a painting of a Royal Spoonbill. The shop manager asked us if we wanted a photo with Gabriel and duly went and fetched him. He appeared seemingly embarrassed but secretly happy with the attention and our purchase!
We drove back the way we came on the same rutted and rough road, crossed the river ford after a face to face with a semi – he seemed to want us to reverse back along the river ford to allow him to pass – we won. Saw a croc in the river as we crossed the ford at the same time.
After we were dropped off at the entrance we almost ran to the Kea ( our campervan) and headed in to Jabiru.
We booked into the Kakadu Lodge Caravan park – good powered site. Three of the other passengers on the tour were young twenty somethings who worked in Jabiru, 2 from Germany and one from England, and they recommended it. (We met a lot of 20 somethings doing a gap year in the NT.) We cooled off in their really nice pool and decided to treat ourselves with dinner at their bistro – wild caught barramundi and chips and salad. Excellent. We both felt a bit strange, after our day in almost another country and another time, then returning to the world of western style living.
We decided we’d have a half day exploring and half getting chores done. We drove to Nourlangie to see the Anbangbang billabong and Nowurlandja Lookout. Stunning vistas, a truly beautiful billabong alive with birds including whistling ducks, magpie geese and various wading birds, egrets etc. We were cautious about doing the walk around the billabong due to warning signs of crocs – and evidence of wild pigs digging up mud along the shoreline.
So we brewed a nice cuppa and enjoyed the view..
Stayed at Kakadu Lodge caravan park another night but ate in.
Chores included washing clothes and driving part way down the Uranium Ranger mine road to empty the “grey water”. We emptied the toilet cassette at a dump site. Yuk! At 7.30 there was a ranger talk by the swimming pool delivered by Christian who we met up with the next day. Half way through as if right on cue a young bandicoot ran through the crowd, I thought it was a huge rat!
This morning we packed up and headed out of the mini tin can circular city – the pool and bistro were the centre – and headed back to the same area as yesterday for a ranger guided talk and tour of Nourlangie rock art site withKakadu NP Ranger Christian Diddams, which was excellent. It was a three part tour, we stayed for the trifecta. He explained at the start that the three talks were being videoed and the DVD was going to be sent to Canberra as apparently a lot of fantastic feedback about his talks had been sent to the Nat Park and Wildlife service and they were going to be used for training. We found out why, he was a great communicator and really knew his stuff giving an excellent, accessible insight into Aboriginal law, customs, language and song – how they all are inextricably bound together and reflect both the subtle knowledge of how to live and survive in this land but also how their complex kinship systems regulate and govern their social relationships and behaviour.
The funniest moment was during his third talk when he was standing in front of a cave that had been continuously occupied for more than 20,000 years and showing some of the tools etc that had been excavated there when an elderly man and his wife moved through the crowd. Christian stopped the talk and said they were very welcome to stay and listen but they said they weren’t interested as they were “creationists”. Why were they there then????????
The talks had started at 9.30 but by the time they’d finished our heads were spinning with so much information, not to mention the heat and humidity of the near midday sun.
We drove on to Cooinda and booked into the camping ground for the Yellow Water cruise the next day. Kerrie was driving and forgot to allow a wide berth when turning into a tight corner and clipped the metal of the power post, tearing the window tint in the truck. The young woman who checked us in came running over and asked if we were alright as she heard the noise. We were, just tired, hot and snappy. We went for a swim in the pool, all these places seem to have swimming pools which was a welcome blessing and relief from the heat ( remembering this is winter!!!), watched a bit of the news on the big screen TV – very weird to see capital city news up here, cooked dinner and went to bed.
We had to be up very early this morning as it was a breakfast cruise. We set the alarm for 5.45am. Great time to be awake as cool and quiet. We had to meet at the bus stop just at the back of where we were parked. At about 6am the humans began moving, by 6.30am, it was like early morning rush hour in the big city. There must have been at least 200 people.
Bus after bus arrived to transport us to the four waiting boats – once more flat bottomed with a metal roof, we found out breakfast was after the cruise and back at the bistro.
We decided we had the easy going kid’s guide – not a great deal of information but a nice guy. However, we did see a lot of crocodiles with the guide warning us to keep our hands and arms inside the boat and reminding us that for every one you can see there are another ten out of sight !! We saw lots of different birds with the highlight being a jabiru. Seeing the sun rise was another bonus and the river come to life in the early morning. No one knows why this river is known as the Yellow River, it may be due to some yellow colouration at times in the water due to algae or tanin.
Back at the bistro for breakfast, badly prepared for this many tourists. Decided to pop into Aboriginal culture centre as only just down the road, then hit the road for our destination of Katherine. We said goodbye to Kakadu driving out of the southern entrance and re-joining the Stuart Highway.
We made one detour along the way to see the Edith Falls. We had a refreshing swim and then an ice cream at the rustic hippie trippie café but then resumed our travels. As with so much of the Northern Territory you have to travel a long way for a landmark or a change of scene and often those landmarks come with a downside – mosquitoes or too many others cramped into a tiny place wanting to experience the remoteness and wilderness of the NT.
We had been given a recommendation for where to stay in Katherine which was a Big 4 caravan park on the outskirts of the town. It was very slickly run with huge parklands and trees as you drove in, the reception appeared to be in a house and then you had to drive past all that before you came to the sardine can city hidden from view. As soon as we found our spot, it was put the jug on and time for tea, hot dry and thirsty but not humid. We decided to give the bistro and swimming pool a miss, although we noticed quite a few of the elderly sardine can occupants walking along dressed up for a big night out.
Katherine to Dunmarra
We had to drive 30 kms to get to the gorge. We arrived in what we thought was heaps of time only to find out we were parked in the wrong spot. No matter, the boats were on NT time so we ended up with heaps of time to walk the 400 metres to the wharf. We waited under trees full of bats making a huge din, then a magnificent kookaburra sat on a branch just above us munching on a grasshopper. The kookaburra smashed it on the branch then gulped it down- delicious.
The boat cruise was a 3 gorge trip, 9.30am to 1pm. The gorges were each truly magnificent, and the commentary was good though a bit tired. The watermarks down the rocks were evidence of the amount of water that comes down in the wet season as were the high tide marks.
We had a swim in the second gorge, though the rocks were extremely slippery. We were impressed by the fact that the Jarwon people jointly manage the National Park, having been given back the land and then leased it to the NT government. Consequently they own 100% of the boat operation, many worked on the boats and served in the café.
It was excessively hot by the time we finished the tour, there was a viewing platform we could have walked to from the café but the boat guide recommended it be done in the morning or evening as at 1-2pm the temperature would be around 50 degrees centigrade up there.
Had a bite to eat and a coffee in the café – am amazed at how you can get cappuccinos almost anywhere – and headed back to the Stuart Highway with our next major destination being Alice Springs but that was a day and half of driving away. We wanted to get as far as we could but we also wanted to see the pub at Daly Waters, having seen it featured in a movie we’d watched in Wanaka recently. It was not far off sunset when we turned off the highway and drove the 2 kms to the pub. Kangaroos were nibbling at the side of the road and making us nervous but we decided to risk it. The pub was exactly as it was in the movie but we decided not to stay – too many grey nomads and 20 somethings packed in the pub and the beer garden for us. The bras hanging from the rafters were interesting! We took a few photos and hit the road once more, deciding to drive through the Dunmarra.,,
The caravan park in Dunmarra had been recommended to us by two kiwis we’d met in Jabiru. It was attached to the service station/roadhouse/bistro and was to all intents and purposes the “community”‘. It was run by an old chap by the name of Trevor who spent every day being the manager, gardener, pool maintenance man etc. The guy in the roadhouse radioed him to ask if there was a free powered site and you could hear the joy in his voice confirming that yes, he could squeeze us in. The swimming pool was a tiny oasis in the desert and dogs were allowed to stay. Trevor guided us on foot to the site which was between trees and backed on to a huge dirt area that turned out to be where everyone walked their dogs in the morning to do their do dos. Brilliant red sunset in the west.