Singin’ in the Rain: Lichfield and Kakadu

Breaking with tradition I’ve decided not to do the ‘Top End’ part of the blog chronologically because I spent 1 day before the tour in Darwin and will have spent 2 days after the tour there. It seems to make sense to separate the two parts in order to keep the length down so this is the blog on Lichfield and Kakadu National Parks. Darwin blog will.

Monday 17th February
I made my way to the pick up point, the Adventure Tours store which was luckily on the same street as my hostel and only a 5 minute walk. I’d allowed plenty of time but was still relieved to see someone else waiting for the same trip and it wasn’t long before Patrick joined us. The 4WD mini bus turned up and soon the rest of the group arrived. It turned out some of them had been travelling together for as much as 15 days having started in Melbourne and initially it felt a bit odd to be joining a group that had already been through so much together.

We drove for about an hour before we stopped at the Lichfield tourist and van park for a toilet stop and to get some breakfast. Our guide Ray also used the opportunity to speak to us about the trip and to get us to complete some paperwork. Whilst it was cloudy it was still dry and quite warm and very humid however as we were visiting in the wet season we knew the heavens could open up at minute.

The Lichfield National Park is smaller than Kakadu and Ray told us the crocodile Sweetheart that I had seen at the museum the day before was originally from this area. Our first stop in the national park was a nice lookout over the Florence Falls. It’s been a few months since I felt I overdosed on these features in New Zealand and whilst Florence Falls were not the most spectacular the recent rain in the area had clearly had an impact. The water cascaded over the edge of the two torrents at a phenomenal speed in to the bowel below which was clearly overflowing and gradually expanding.

We headed down from the lookout where the plan was to take a dip in the water however as we were about half way it began to rain. Not light rain, big heavy tropical rain drops and at such a speed within a few seconds my t shirt was soaked. We tried to keep our bags under cover and made our way in to the water which was surprisingly warm. Somehow the rain began to become even heavier than it already was so we grabbed our things and dashed back. Whilst my bag was drenched I had left everything but the camera on the bus and learning from Kaikoura after taking a few quick pictures I’d left it inside the camera bag which was inside a plastic bag, wrapped up in my clothes.

The bus had stunk when we got on that morning but (worryingly) we quickly got used to it and now we sat on the bus in our wet swim gear all trying to dry what possessions had got wet. We were just about to leave when Joke suddenly asked Felix what was on his foot. It was a leech and obviously it wasn’t possible to just pull it off. Someone suggested lighting a match under it so we did that and eventually it was removed and the panic was over.

The road had already been slightly flooded in patches on our way to the falls and on our return there were even bigger patches of submerged road. We had no difficulty getting through but it was about a foot deep and when we got to the far end a few of us jumped out to get a photo. I’m sure the National Park must look amazing in the dry season but in the wet season It felt and looked quite dramatic for different reasons.

It had stopped raining by the time we reached the lookout overlooking Tolmer waterfall. This one was made up of two sections and appeared even more stunning and spectacular than the Florence Falls though this time we didn’t try to make our way down to the plunge pool.

Next we headed to see some termite mounds. I had seen one of these on kangaroo island and had heard they could grow high however I have to admit I was still staggered by the sight of the one created by the Cathedral termites. This was over 4 meters high and yet again I was left astounded by what nature can do, especially as the termites are only 5mm. There were also about 100 magnetic termite mounds in the area all around 100 years old and they resembled large gravestones.

Ray explained that there are two types of termite in the area. The Magnetic Termites which build on flooded soil and with the thin edges pointing from north to south to maintain the perfect temperature. In contrast the Cathedral Termite prefer to build on well drained soil and tend to create bigger structures.

It had been a day of lots of driving and eventually we ended up sleeping at a campsite outside Katherine because there was flooding which meant we couldn’t access our intended campsite. I assumed we would be camping in tents similar to those we used on the Nullabor however these actually looked more like semi permanent buildings. They even had beds (with mattresses) a bed side table (and lamp) and a working fan. In fact initially I thought I’d probably stayed in worse hostels and this opinion was only revised when after dinner Patrick who I was sharing with realised there was an ants nest under his mattress.

Tuesday 18th February
We had an early start leaving the camp at 5.30am. This was because quite a few roads in the Kakadu park were closed which meant we had to travel slightly further to find a area where it was safe for us to swim without either being washed away or being eaten by crocodiles…Though there was probably always a slight risk of the latter.

We travelled for about 2 hours during which most fell asleep, though I stayed awake long enough to see the sun rise. We arrived at a reception where we received the park tickets and I brought a coffee which I had to drink incredibly quickly because the road through Kakadu was so bumpy.

Eventually we arrived in the Yurmikmik area where we started the 1km walk to Boulder Creek which involved walking across a swaying footbridge in single file and an area of tall grass that towered me. The waterfalls themselves are not as famous as the spectacular as Jim Jim Falls however it was still a pleasant spot and the off road drive to them had felt particularly spectacular. There was with no one else around and luckily there appeared to be no clouds in the sky and the sun was already shining unlike the day before

I started by climbed up to top of lower waterfall with a few of the others and then across to a rock in the centre where I was able to look down on the rest of the group below. I scrambled back down where I sat on the bank trying to deliberate whether to change and join the others in the water. In the end I made the sensible decision. I’d probably never have the chance to swim in Kakadu again so I left the group found a tree and changed. A few of the others were jumping in to the water (“Bommeke”) from a rock and using Nic’s Go Pro to get pictures so I followed suit though I have to admit it was a pretty feeble attempt.

This time no one got attacked by leeches and finding another tree I was able to change back in to some dry clothes before we headed to a spot to make lunch. The scenery during the drive was great but tiredness was creeping in and eventually as everyone else seemed to be asleep my eyes won the battle and closed. I awoke a few times, mainly when we went over a big bump and when we arrived at our destination I probably felt even more tired.

After lunch i felt more refreshed and we made a short walk to the jetty for our Yellow River Cruise where we hoped to see some of the 300 crocodiles that apparently inhabit the National Park. The sun was still shining and the view from the front of the boat made me feel like I’d stepped back in time, which in a way I had as crocodiles have been around since the time of the dinosaurs.

Our guide was very informative and told us that the Yellow River Billabong had got its name due to the silt which created a yellow tinge. Some of the trees were overhanging in to the inside of the boat and the river had flooded so much it appeared most of them were growing directly out of the water. In fact it was impossible to see where the banks would normally have been and at times we were probably floating over them.

There weren’t any crocodiles in this section so we made our way to South Alligator River. Our guide told us there are no alligators, only crocodiles however back in 1818 they were mistaken for alligators by Phillip King. Unfortunately by the time the error was realised it was deemed to be to late to rename it due to the costs involved so the name has stuck.

There were a number of areas the guide expected us to be lucky with a sighting and eventually we saw one just on the surface of the water. Initially our guide thought it was ‘Waters’ the croc that had ruled the waterway we were on however on closer inspection he realised it was a rival ‘Waters’ had been fighting for the territory. The guide estimated this one was about 4 metres in length and he said he believed it now owned the territory as ‘Waters’ hadn’t been seen in a while.

As we pulled up along side it, the crocodile slowly started to disappear beneath the surface and once it was under it was impossible to tell where it had swum, if indeed it had even moved from its location. Crocodiles can stay under water for over 1 hour and as I learnt at the Australia zoo they can move through the water without leaving a trace on the surface.

Due ti the wet season we were able to go down channels not normally accessible and visited the dry season jetty and the adjoining boardwalk which was submerged under the water. Apparently a large crocodile normally lay in wait on the submerged boardwalk however it was not there and instead we headed to an area where the territories of 3 crocodiles met.

We didn’t see any more crocodiles however we did see a number of birds including a male nesting Jesus bird, given its name because it appears to walk on water due to its long legs. This bird is also from the same family as the Cassowary and the Emu and like the latter it is the male that raises the young. We also saw a nesting White Bellied Sea Eagle the second largest bird in Australia and a kookaburra as well as some parrots. We also saw a wide variety of trees and were told how a few were used within the Aboriginal way of life and were encouraged to sniff one tree that smelt like honey.

After the cruise we went to the Warradjan cultural centre. This provided some interesting information about the area and the local clans including the Binjini clan. The display included a slightly poignant section on what the clans feel the future will hold and there was certainly the sense that the increase in tourism to the area, whilst not resented, has had a huge impact on the way they are allowed to use the area. I’m not sure how many tourists go to the centre but I’m sure those that don’t won’t ever appreciate the delicate balancing act that has to take place when making decisions in the region.

We arrived at the campsite at Jabaru where the tents were similar to those from the night before. There had clearly been quite a bit of rain in the area and it was a good job the ‘tents’ were raised above the ground because the ground was partially flooded in places. We had planned on using the swimming pool but it was so closed and so Nick Abdu Oliver, Joke and I looked at the pictures from the day before it started raining very heavily and the others joined us. It continued to rain during and after dinner so we played a few games of the card game ‘shithead’ and lit some incense in an attempt to discourage mosquitoes. A small stream appeared to be forming through our campsite and the route I took to the washrooms was

Wednesday 19th February
It rained throughout night which meant the area surrounding our tents was even wetter and the path to the shower block was partly flooded. Unfortunately I hadn’t realised this due to the long grass so my boots were soaked again as were my one dry pair of socks and it wasn’t even 7am. Before the tour I’d had a feeling some of my clothes wouldn’t survive the adventure to Litchfield and Kakadu and it certainly feels like it’s a matter of when not if my ‘new’ walking boots fall apart.

Our first stop was to see some Aboriginal wall paintings at Nanguluwur rock. The walk was about 2km and was uneventful as we hadn’t encountered the bull buffalo there was a warning about at the carpark. There were various styles of Aboriginal wall art on display including ‘Contact Paintings’ which illustrated the relatively recent interaction with new/other cultures. One of the sections of rock featured a large painting of a European sailing ship, likely to reflect the time when the buffalo hunters first arrived and it is therefore likely to be less than 200 years old. Another style on display were a series of hand stencils which is one of the oldest styles.

Next we made our way to Nourlangie Rock to see the paintings at the lower area Anbangbang gallery. Some of the paintings here may be between 6,000 – 20,000 years old dating to the Pre-Estuarine period, examples of the Estuarine period between 6,000 and 2,000 years ago and the Freshwater Period from 2,000 years ago to the present day. At Ubir (which unfortunately was inaccessible) there are apparently paintings which reflect the changes caused by the ice age which if true is quite phenomenal.

One of the display board explained some of the rock art stories that are told are sacred though the displays did provide some information to help us with the interpretation and Ray also had some knowledge. The most famous painting in the Anbangbang gallery appears to include Namondjok who is thought to have been guilty of incest (not necessarily with a family member) and Namarrgon, a lightning being who plays a central role in the creation legends. This particular painting was re-done in 1964 by a member of the Badmardi clan.

After spending sometime appreciating the history and the significance of the site we went to the Nawurlandja lookout which which overlooked the Escarpment area of Kakadu and where if we used our imagination we could see a distant rock formation that resembled the Sydney Opera House. We spent a while just staring in to the vast open space laid out before us, however it slowly started to rain and so we decided to head back before it got worse.

After leaving the lookout we began the journey back to Darwin briefly stopping for lunch before continuing to a Caravan Park that had a 4m salt water crocodile called Brutus and a Freshwater Crocodile called Freddy. Neither were being that sociable and both stayed in water to stay cool. Brutus in particular didn’t enjoy our company and disappeared beneath the surface so we got back on the bus for the final time.

After arriving in Darwin I quickly did my laundry before heading back out to meet a few of the others for a post tour night out at a bar called Monsoon. There was the opportunity to enter a face painting competition to win a $50 bar tab so Nic and I took one for the team with him doing his best to make me look like a koala with fluorescent paint. Sadly the audience didn’t get his abstract creation and we didn’t win, though did receive a free drink and me lots of attention.

I’d only been with the group 3 days but it was a lot of fun and I’m really glad I’m finally making some contacts in other European cities. It has certainly encouraged me to learn a language (probably Spanish) when I get back, though my German is getting better and I’m steadily learning Belgium and re-learning French.

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