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
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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