Tread Lightly Through Kakadu - Australia's Outback Northern Territory

To comprehend the significance of Kakadu's world heritage listing, you have to walk the land and feel it. You need time to sit and absorb the landscape, observe the wildlife, and admire the Aboriginal people who have lived in this very special part of the Northern Territory for over 60,000 years, and traveled so lightly that the region looks untouched.

Middle aged and middle classed, I never saw myself aboard a back packing tour, but having spent three days in a comfortable, air-conditioned 16 seat vehicle with an Adventure Tours Australia guide, I would not see Kakadu in any other way.

The difference is the freedom the tour gives you to explore the remote areas, and the time to breathe in what you see. It is also the passion and knowledge of the guide who is genuinely sad each time he or she exits the National Park gates on the return journey to Darwin.

Travelling with 'much younger' international visitors through this remote and exciting part of Australia adds to the adventure. My fellow travellers were from all parts of the globe, but this was their first taste of the Northern Territory.

Day one of the tour was a meandering journey through wildlife 'hot spots' on the way to Point Stuart, where Adventure Tours Australia has a permanent camp site. Ports of call included Fogg Dam - now a haven for birdlife but originally experimental rice fields. That it attracts such an enormous volume and diversity of birds explains why the experiment was a dismal failure.
Fogg Dam - Australia's Outback Northern Territory
Fogg Dam - Australia's Outback Northern Territory
Crocodile - Australia's Outback Northern Territory
Crocodile - Australia's Outback Northern Territory
A boat trip along the Adelaide River before lunch introduced my new-found foreign friends to the Northern Territory's most spectacular species of wildlife, the saltwater crocodile. The crocodiles are fed from the boat, providing tourists with a very 'up close and personal' view of the ancient reptiles. It was little wonder that a game of American football proved a more popular lunch-time activity than swimming at Annabaroo Billabong. The exasperated guide gave up explaining the popular swimming hole was perfectly safe.

Originally, our overnight camp spot, Point Stuart, was an abattoir built just outside the Kakadu border to service the lucrative buffalo trade, now it is a comfortable camp ground complete with bar, cabins and inground pool near the Top End coastline. Our crew arrived in time for a bush tucker walk around the camp ground with an experienced Aboriginal guide.

When not teaching tourists about the medicinal and nutritional value of the Top End's native bushland, our bushtucker guide is an internationally recognised Aboriginal dancer who has toured America, the UK and Europe. We were to appreciate his entertainment and dancing skills at a private corroboree by firelight following dinner that evening.

Dinner was a communal affair - everyone pitched in. Our guide, once again exasperated, tried to hurry us along so we wouldn't hold up the corroboree, explaining there would be plenty of time over the two days for debating international politics. Retiring to permanent tents with framed doors and a timber floor was an unexpected pleasure for those of us with a propensity for five star motels.

Day two was an early start following a lavish breakfast in the tour company's enclosed dining 'hut'. There was plenty of hubbub in the vehicle as the fellow 'backpackers' anticipated the border crossing into Kakadu.

Three central themes dominate the Kakadu experience - wildlife, landscape and indigenous culture. Our first day in the National Park focussed on landscape and culture. Our guide silenced our group with her depth of knowledge at Aboriginal rock art sites. The Aboriginal people's dream time legends and day to day living over thousands of years are represented at the 'art galleries' of Nourlangie and Ubirr Rock. It was to these natural rock overhangs that the Aboriginal people gathered as they observed the first signs of the approaching 'wet'. This area of Kakadu comprises vast wetlands that flood between October and May, chasing residents to the high country to sit out the rainy season.

It was during this time that Aboriginal people told their lives through the intricate stories painted in ochre on the rock faces under which they sheltered. Different art styles and objects revealed the century in which the artists painted.

Two young American college students who were avid photographers in our tour group were excited by the art sites, but ecstatic that evening as we climbed Ubirr Rock to watch the sun set over the huge expanse of wetlands that stretch toward the coast. As they leapt from one part of Ubirr to the other they captured flocks of black cockatoos swooping across the plains above wallabies grazing on the sweet flood plain grasses. The sinking sun cast a mauve hue over the Arnhemland escarpment as our small group of strangers bonded in silence.

We didn't want to leave Ubirr, but our guide, no longer exasperated, gently prodded us toward our vehicle, we were already late for dinner at the Jabiru campground. It was our final night together, and we were all old friends by now. We hurriedly prepared our meal before voting to retire early so that we could rise ahead of schedule and reach Gunlom Falls before any other tour group.

By day three our small group had become systematic in cleaning out the permanent tents, preparing breakfast and rolling sleeping bags. We in the vehicle right on time and the guide was beaming.

Gunlom Falls is a couple of hours drive from Jabiru, on the Kakadu Highway heading for Pine Creek. It is accessed off the highway by a short stretch of dirt road, and closed to traffic during the wet season. It had been opened just days prior to our arrival, a secret we wanted to keep.

The falls tower from the Arnhemland escarpment into an enormous pool fringed by a white sandy beach. Well maintained with picnic areas, barbeques and a small campground, staying at the bottom is tempting, but any local will tell you the walk to the top reveals paradise. Climbing to the top is easy with a well-kept pathway winding up the escarpment and plenty of time to pause for the view. The reward is pristine rock pools cascading gently before the fall's final plunge over the edge. If Ubirr was difficult to leave, the top of Gunlom was impossible. We were torn away at lunchtime with a promise of another visit to a 'secret' waterfall on our journey back to Darwin.

It was a quiet ride back to town - some slept others talked quietly about future adventures. I was exhausted, but rejuvenated. I had learned so much, about my country, about other people's countries, and about myself. Maybe I'm not as middle aged and middle classed as I thought.

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