November 2, 2013

Onwards to the next phase of our trip! We made breakfast from the food we had smuggled into the territory—one apple and half a dozen chocolate Hobnobs. Then at 10 am we took a taxi out to the Cheapa Campa offices on the Stuart Highway, where we would get a camper van for the next week. It was a complicated business, renting a camper van. Not only was there all of the regular car-rental paperwork, we also had to learn how to operate all of the van’s features—the gas canister, the bed, the battery, checking the oil, and so on. But soon enough we were on our way. The five-speed standard transmission was familiar from other vehicles we had owned in the past, which made it actually easier to drive than the standard-transmission car we had in Cairns.

First stop was the Woolworths in Coolalinga. We stocked up on groceries for the week and then headed down the Stuart Highway towards Kakadu. It wasn’t long before we came to the turn-off for the Arnhem Highway. Here we saw our first road train, a truck pulling a train of three trailers. There wasn’t much traffic and the speed limit was 110 km/h, a number we hadn’t ever seen in Queensland. It was now lunch time so we paused at the Window on the Wetlands interpretive centre. The temperature was climbing and by now it was in the mid-30’s. After lunch we went into the centre, which was aboriginal-run. It was a new-looking building on top of a hill with a good view over the wetlands, and the displays gave us some insight into the history of the area. Interestingly the Japanese sculptor Tanake had also donated a sculpture to the centre because of the importance of pure wild rice which was grown in the area.

We didn’t want to go much farther today, so we turned off at the Corroboree Camp Tavern, a roadhouse with a campground behind it. We paid our $28 for a powered site and set up camp. After plugging in the van and starting the battery-charging process, we got out the chairs and sat in the shade. We used the camp facilities to do laundry, and we got out the water and juice (apple-blackcurrant flavour) to get ourselves rehydrated after a day of snorkelling and flying.

We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting there looking and listening for birds. There was a family of cockatoos (Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos) in our campground, and they were squawking most of the time. There were also quite a few other birds flitting about. By the time our clothes were dry it was time to make dinner. It was still very hot outside so neither of us was particularly hungry, so we had a simple dinner. The sun set at about 6:30 pm, so we had a beautiful sunset with fiery red skies. We had dozens of white parrots streaming and squawking overhead, and eventually we figured out that they weren’t cockatoos, but corellas. And just before dark a group of four Agile Wallabies came by, five if you counted the baby riding in its mother’s pouch. Our first kangaroos! (Not including roadkill, unfortunately.) They were definitely wary as Rosemary tried to approach them to take photographs.

Next job was to make the bed. We figured out how to set up the mattresses, which means storing most of your gear underneath the bed. But then you should make sure those things don’t contain anything you need. Eventually we would get the system worked out. At bedtime we had to evict a beetle and a dragonfly from the van; our little thermometer indicated that it was still 34°C inside it, which wasn’t exactly ideal for sleeping! Bed time was at 10 pm.

November 3, 2013

It was very hot sleeping last night, periodically a breeze would come in but for the most part the air was still. Strangely, but fortunately, we weren’t woken up by screeching cockatoos this morning, so we got up at about 8 am. We made our breakfast porridge in the microwave and then reorganized the van for day-time use. Our packing job didn’t work out all that well, as we were to find out a bit later in the morning, but hopefully we will get better at it. Before leaving the campsite we chatted with our Australian neighbours, who were nearing the end of a year travelling around the country. They had already been to Kakadu so they gave us some pointers on places to visit and where to stay.

But before heading to Kakadu, we retraced our steps to Fogg Dam, which we had passed by yesterday. The dam had been built a long time ago as part of a failed agricultural program, but it still provides good habitat for a lot of birds and animals. There were a lot of water birds in the ponds by the road and a lot more visible from the viewing tower at the end of the road. Because of the dryness of the wetlands, the pool there was one of the few places for birds to congregate. We weren’t allowed to walk along the dam because a crocodile had been seen there recently, but we did see a flock of pretty Crimson Finches and a pair of Brolgas out in the grasslands from the car.

We decided to have lunch there, since we had everything we needed. As we pulled into the picnic area we went over a speed bump a bit too fast, and everything in the back of the van bounced up and down. When we looked in the back we noticed that the microwave wasn’t working, even though the battery was fully charged. We checked all of the plugs and switches we had access to, and nothing made any difference. We were worried that we had broken it, but when we plugged the van in later in the day it started working. We soon realized that this was normal behaviour.

From Fogg Dam we reversed course again and headed towards Kakadu. Once we were in the park we turned off down the road to the bird hide at the Mamukala wetlands. Here there were huge numbers of Magpie Geese and whistling-ducks, along with numerous other birds like Pink-eared Duck, a duck with an astonishing beak, and Purple Swamphen. There were a lot of those little flies, too, the ones which land in your ears and crawl on your face. If you have ever seen cartoon Australians wearing those hats with the corks hanging down from the brim, these flies are why they are wearing them. We spent about three quarters of an hour here before carrying on.

At the visitor centre we paid our $25 park fee, which was valid for 14 days. There were a lot of displays in the visitor centre, so we postponed looking at them until later and went over to the Kakadu Lodge caravan park. This was as per the recommendation of our neighbours this morning. The park was pretty empty as the busy season had ended a while ago, so we had our choice of sites. Camping here in a powered site was $40 per night, a bit higher than usual, but the facilities were worth it. The swimming pool was very fancy, with a bistro bar at one side and a rock waterfall at the end. To enter the pool you either walked in like at the beach, or you jumped in from the edge.

Before dinner we did some planning, trying to decide how to spend the rest of our time in the territory. We’ll spend a couple more days here in Kakadu, a couple of days in Litchfield National Park, and maybe go down to Katherine for a day. Not sure about Katherine though, it’s a lot of driving.

Our campsite was right next to the pool. There was a lot of splashing and shouting, but late in the evening we decided to go for a swim too. The lady at the reception had told us that the temperature had “only” reached 37.5°C yesterday, but was supposed to reach 40°C today. So the pool was really cool and refreshing. Just as it was getting dark we saw some of the flying-fox bats fly over. Wow, were they ever big!

November 4, 2013

After a good night’s sleep we got up at 8 am, made breakfast, and put away the bed. Today’s plan was to see the sights of Kakadu, and the first thing was to drive to Ubirr to see the aboriginal rock paintings. But the real first thing was to top up the gas tank before heading up the road. So we fumbled our way through the streets of Jabiru until we found the gas station. After filling the van’s tank ($1.77 per litre) we headed off to the rock paintings.

There was a very large escarpment bordering the East Alligator River, and this was where Ubirr was. We walked along the footpath to the main gallery of rock art, and it was absolutely amazing to see the intricate paintings, some of which were X-ray depictions of various types of fish. The artists seemed to have preferred fish as their subjects, but there were many other things depicted as well. The main site was on the walls of a large rock formation with a very large overhand, so they were well preserved. These paintings were up to 5,000 years old but looked like they had been painted quite recently. In another area the paintings were about 2,000 years old, and some of the other paintings were obviously quite recent because they depicted things like rifles.

From the main site the trail took us to other art sites which weren’t as well maintained, mostly because they were more exposed to the weather. We also climbed up the rocks on a marked trail to see the view over Arnhem Land. From this vantage point we looked down over the wetlands of the Nadab floodplain.

By now the day was getting very hot and it was nearing lunch time, so we retraced our steps back to the car. We stopped at Cahill Crossing to look for crocodiles in the river, again on the advice of our neighbours at Corroboree Camp Tavern, and we did actually find one. After that we carried on to the visitor centre, which we had skipped over yesterday. There was quite a comprehensive set of displays and it took us until lunch time to go through them. We bought some cold juice and had our lunch outside in the van.

We had booked the Yellow Waters boat trip from Cooinda at 4:30 pm, so the plan for this afternoon was to work our way down there. After leaving the visitor centre we saw a sign pointing off the road to a campground, so we decided to check that out. So we set off along the dusty red road until we got to Malabanjbanjdju campsite. It was located on a creek, so we saw various geese and ducks at the water’s edge. There was a walking trail from there, but it was closed due to “seasonal conditions”, which meant the high temperatures and the possibility of crocodiles. The campsite itself was deserted—the park is not very busy at this time of year—but it did look like quite a nice place to camp.

Farther down the road we saw a sign for Mirrai Lookout, so we pulled in there to have a look. Luckily it had clouded over a bit, so even though it was still very hot, the sun was not shining directly on us. According to the sign in the car park, the path to the lookout was 1.6 km round trip, so we decided we could manage that. The path went steadily up a ridge, through an area which had recently been burned, and the new vegetation was coming up quite nicely. As we reached the observation tower it started to rain, but only a few fat drops before it stopped. From the tower we had good views through the trees in all directions, across plains towards distant escarpments.

From here we drove directly to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, which detailed the aboriginal culture in Kakadu. It was beautifully laid out and very informative, with information about local cultural practices and a bit about the history of the area. We checked the gift shop but we didn’t really see anything that we wanted but and (importantly) would fit into our packs. Our timing was perfect because we finished there in time to use the washrooms and then head to the Yellow Waters boat launch area.

The boat had space for maybe 60 people, but our tour had only about 25 people, which was good because people could easily get up and move around. Our guide was an aboriginal woman who knew her birdlife very well. As we motored along the river she pointed out the various birds, and the numerous crocodiles, and stopped to get closer to them. The highlight of the trip was seeing a Comb-crested Jacana with a four-day-old chick. The baby was so tiny but it managed to follow its parent along as it tiptoed over the lily pads. A bit farther along we saw another jacana, this time sitting on its nest. Apparently there were four eggs, but as the bird didn’t stand up we didn’t see them. The two-hour cruise finished at sunset, a beautiful red sunset because of the fires burning nearby.

Now we had to drive back to Jabiru in the dusk, which we did more slowly than usual. There was virtually no traffic on the road, and luckily we got back without encountering any wildlife on the road. We made our dinner and then went to the pool for a swim. In the distance we could see a fantastic lightning storm, which we watched from the pool. Overhead the sky was clear but we could see the storm approaching, and we didn’t want to be swimming in a lightning storm. So we headed back to the van to write our journals. We sat outside the van until we felt some very large raindrops falling, then quickly put things away. We battened down the hatches to stop the rain from coming in the windows, then sat in the van watching the storm. Outside we could see that the ground was quite flooded, but finally the rain let up a bit. We made our way to the washrooms, avoiding lakes and rivers, then went to bed at 11 pm.

November 5, 2013

We slept quite well last night, despite having to have the windows closed because of the rain. By morning the rain had stopped and most of the puddles had dried up. We were almost finished in Kakadu; there were a lot of places like Jim Jim Falls where our rental van wasn’t allowed to go, so that left only Nourlangie Rock. So after breakfast we packed up—it doesn’t take very long at all now—and headed down the Kakadu Highway.

It wasn’t far down the road to the Nourlangie turn-off, and we were soon there. The paintings at Nourlangie were not quite as detailed as the ones at Ubirr, but they were very interesting nevertheless. The Ubirr paintings tended to focus on food items, whereas these tended to tell stories instead. There was also a huge rock shelter, which would have been a great place for a group of people to shelter from the rain, and there was also a short walk up to the Gunwarddehwardde Lookout, with views over the surrounding forest and towards the rock formation which formed part of the stories. Near the top we also saw a pair of Spangled Drongos, with the female sitting on the nest.

Farther down the road we stopped at the Warradjan Cultural Centre again, just to look through the gift shop. In the end both of us bought new short-sleeved bamboo shirts to augment our hot-weather wardrobe. They didn’t have aboriginal motifs but at least they were made in Australia.

Next: Pine Creek

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