Before coming to Australia, three commandments were handed to me from on high (from my Mum). Firstly, never mention Australia’s convict past. Secondly, never be coaxed into a debate about any sport in which Australia and England compete (because being English I would never win), and thirdly, and most importantly, never, ever sample the notoriously dangerous Aussie bush. Not because I might catch something nasty, but because something nasty might catch me.
It’s amazing that this continent was ever settled considering the number of lethal creatures that can bring a swift end to an otherwise merry day. Toxic jellyfish, man-eating sharks, and venomous snakes are all beasts best avoided, but I was on the search for Australia’s apex predator, a killer so perfect it has cheated evolution for 200 million years. I was heading to Kakadu National Park in search of the infamous Saltwater Crocodile.
Few places rival Kakadu for wildlife. The park has more species of lizard than the whole of Europe, is home to 2000 species of plant and 10,000 species of insect, and at the end of the dry season in October, the park becomes a bird nerd’s paradise, with more tits, cocks and boobies than a Jenna Jameson flick.
HEART OF DARKNESS
Thus, I headed east from Darwin in a 4wd filled with tanned Scandinavians, past termite mounds, road trains and a very lost croc yawning lazily by the road side. At Mamukala bird sanctuary, our guide, Adam, introduced us to magpie geese, black crested cockatoos (worth a tempting US$40,000 on the black market) and a pair of brolga; the symbol of the Northern Territory. All very well, but we were looking for killers, so in a storm of bright red dust we shot to the Mary River and boarded a tiny tin-can vessel for a voyage into the Heart of Darkness.
I settled into a gentle meander up the mirror flat billabong, bumping into the park’s safe but boring animal and plant life; giant lily-pads, cute wallabies, and mangroves filled with jabiru and darters. I was itching to see a croc when our captain, Chris, began his commentary; “Freshwater crocs are endemic to Australia and are relatively benign, attacking only when provoked. Salties, like that one there, however,” he said, casually pointing to a violent eruption of bubbles off the port bow, “are different. Those monsters are the largest reptiles on this planet. They can weigh 1000kg, grow up to seven metres in length, far longer than this boat, and will attack without provocation.” It was then that I realised I was breaking the third commandment and had I been in the water, I, too, would have been making bubbles.
Although threatened by extinction in 1971, crocodile numbers are again on the rise and the Mary River was full of them. To my right, two Salties fought over territory. In front, a four metre croc warmed itself on the bank. To my left, a row of Freshies lined up like tree trunks in the shallows. We were surrounded.
“A saltwater croc can happily snatch an 800kg buffalo from the banks of a river and drag it into the depths before it can moo,” claimed Chris, “and the pressure in its bite is greater than that in the brakes of a jumbo jet.” What chance did I, an 80kg man, have sitting in a boat just inches above the water? I had seen crocs on the Adelaide River leap three metres out of the water, so when a fresh set of bubbles disappeared under the boat I knew we should move on. And luckily for me, we did.
Kakadu is World Heritage-listed for both its natural and cultural attractions, so after returning to terra firma with all limbs attached, I headed east to Ubirr, one of Australia’s best and oldest rock art sites.
The area has been inhabited for fifty millennia, and is home to over 5,000 rock art sites, some of which date back 20,000 years. The walls and caves are wallpapered with amazing mouth-sprayed stencils and x-ray drawings of goannas and barramundi in ochre reds and golds. It is a fantastic introduction to the culture and traditions of the local Aboriginal people, who only regained ownership rights to the park in 1976.
The day ended sublimely as I drank in the views over the termite mounds and wetlands of the Nardab floodplain, where parts of Crocodile Dundee were filmed, to the red escarpment cliffs of Arnhem Land, until the heat left the sky. I then headed to the beautiful paper bark swamps of Yellow Water, where crocs inched silently through marble flat waters and mosquitoes the size of pterodactyls feasted greedily on my blood, to watch a sunset burnt red by the smoke from distant fires.
The night was punctuated by dingoes and wallabies foraging in the camp, and the 5am alarm call reminded why drinking and camp fires don’t mix. The day was going to be a tough one, with the majority of it spent on the road. At 20,000 square kilometres, Kakadu is as big as Wales, and even if you covered every inch of road and track, you would still see less than 1 per cent of the park.
It took two hours to meander 60km along dry creek beds to Twin Falls, where I boarded a boat and sailed through a burning red canyon on a creek filled with barramundi and turtles. The canyon ended where the falls crashed into a crystal clear plunge pool (no swimming allowed) by a beautiful white sand beach.
It was true Australiana; beautiful and remote yet ultimately lethal.
Back in the van, we drove through the crocodile-filled Jim Jim River, the last place in the park you would want to break down, and headed towards the fiery red escarpment of Arnhem Land. I scrambled over boulders and scree to Jim Jim Falls, the park’s most famous site. The falls are incredible, crashing 150m over a horseshoe escarpment into a crystal clear plunge pool; or at least they would be in the wet season, but in the dry, they are very, well, dry.
By 7am it had already hit 36 degrees, and although tales of unwitting backpackers being chomped in the park are legion, I stripped off to a criminally small pair of budgie smugglers and dived in. According to my brochure, the only safe place to swim is the public pool in the town of Jabiru, but the falls are monitored and the traps were empty, so I swam across the plunge pool and sat on a ledge where, in a month’s time, hundreds of tonnes of water would be crashing down on my head, and felt supremely sacrilegious having now broken all three Australian commandments.
The experience: Mamukala Bird Sanctuary, Ph: (08) 8938 112. Andy travelled from Alice to Darwin with Oz Experience, Ph: (02) 9213 1766 or visit www.ozexperience.com.
December 12th, 2007