We got into Darwin on May 20. We were surprised by how small and how touristy it was for one of Australia’s top cities. But then again, nothing here in Australia should be a surprise by now. We left after sunset which, thanks to the lack of clouds, was less than the spectacular we were hoping for but still pretty as we watched from a park in the East Point Recreation Reserve.
The rest stop we were hoping to stay at was 150 km outside of Darwin down the Arnhem Highway, but it was, of course, found with closed and locked gates as we pulled up in the dark. We kept driving in the hopes of finding any sort of side road, parking lot, anything – but there was NOTHING aside from a long stretch of road through crocodile infested wetlands. We finally found an entrance to a 4WD track and pulled off to spend the night there, but as we ate our dinner sandwiches we noticed a stench that smelled not so much like rotting garbage as much as rotting meat. We left. Another half hour of driving finally found us a dirt road that paralleled the main highway on the opposite side of some bushes. By the way, we have decided that we are officially gypsies now.
May 21 found us rising with the sun (we do this a lot now… the whole lack of electricity thing…) and heading into Kakadu National Park, Australia’s largest national park and one of only 12 World Heritage sites to be listed for both cultural and natural reasons. It is home to over 5000 Aboriginal rock art sites and protects many rare species and habitats found no where else on Earth. Neat!
We stopped first just outside of the Kakadu at Mary River (proposed) National Park (an outside section of Kakadu) to visit the bird billabong. It was a quiet, out of the way place where we stalked egrets for their pictures and tortured a flock of black cockatoos with the sound of our engine. It was an incredibly beautiful place, but just the start of Kakadu.
We drove all the way into Kakadu to the Bowali Visitor center where we loaded up on culture and information, then beelined our way to Jabiru (the local uranium mining town) to see if we could use their swimming pool. It was rather expensive to use, so we ran around in a sprinkler instead while we ate our lunch sandwiches. I haven’t run around in a sprinkler in a long time. It sure beats the heat.
Oh, don’t mind that. It’s just the park – burning.
It was HOT out there, and so we waited until almost 4:00 before heading to Ubirr, an amazing roack art site that also has “the universe’s best sunset”. The art was amazing, dating back more than 20,000 years, with nice interpretation signs. Rather sad to think that the people that owned it had to lease it out, but hey, at least this park is also being jointly managed between the Aborigines and Australian Parks Services in the manner of Uluru.
The southern section of Kakadu is in what the Aborigines who live there call sickness country. It is a place where you aren’t meant to stay too long even though the resources of food and water are very good, and if you disturb the land there then great disaster will befall the Earth. This is a (thousands and thousands of years old) drawing of a person with Miramira, a sickness where your joints swell; you will contract this if you stay too long or drink from a certain section of river. Interestingly enough the sickness country is also where loads of high-level uranium is currently being mined – a tough call for the Aboriginies who need money but are afraid of what will happen if the land is disturbed. (By the way, high levels of radiation can also cause swollen joints.)
This guy is holding a spear thrower on the left, a dilly bag (a woven bag for holding food, water, etc) around his neck, and spears and a goose-wing fan in his right hand.
We climbed up a series of rocks past more art sites containing drawings of barramundi (the good-eatin’ fish) and the crocodile sisters to reach the spot to watch the sunset. It was breathtakingly beautiful, a viewpoint above the wetlands below that were still swollen with excess water from The Wet. You could see for practically forever in all directions, from the reaches of the vast Arnhem land (one of the last strongholds of Aboriginal culture) far into the south sickness country over rocks and trees. A few kangaroos grazed below us as we sat on the edge of a cliff waiting for the sun to perform. Below us purple-winged swifts flew in and out of the cliff’s walls, eating the mosquitoes that we were to high for their little bloodsucking wings to reach. Hah!. Unfortunately the wind blew the smoke from the brushfires into our scene and ended up blocking out the sun completely before it could make its grand exit, but it was still beautiful to sit there for a while.
By the way, did I mention that Australia stopped collecting fees to enter Kakadu in 2004? Yes, this park, Australia’s largest and a double world-heritage-rated site, was free to get into, and so was the campsite within the park that we stayed in that night. Only in Australia.
May 22 we woke to the screams of white cockatoos (such a lovely sounding bird. Who in their right mind would ever want to own one?) then headed to Burrunggui and Anbangbang to visit another famous art site. The first section was a huge rock shelter that has been used for over 20,000 years.
The guy below is Namarrgon. He is the lightning man, who holds stone axes in his hands, at his elbows, and at his knees that are used for splitting the clouds and making thunder and lightning. The lines connecting his hands, head and feet are lightning. The white figure above is Barrginj, Namarrgon’s wife. Their children are the brightly painted red and blue grasshoppers that appear just before the storms of the wet season start, indicating to the Aboriginies that is is time to seek shelter from the huge, horrible storms that are coming.
Namarrgon went to live in this cliff, where you can see him as the three bulges that just out from the face. This is an extremely sacred, dangerous part of Kakadu that should never be disturbed.
From the Anbangbang shelter and surrounding art sites we headed to yellow water, a section of the park that is particularly known for its wildlife, but as we weren’t able to afford one of the commercial boat tours we had to stand on the side of the wetlands and see what we could from shore. There was lots, and it was GORGEOUS. We even saw a croc!
After a stop through the Warradjan Cultural Center to learn more about the country and Aboriginal ways we headed out of the park and drove 300km towards Mataranka (we really, really wanted to swim in the thermal springs again, as well as get hot showers for free. Free hot showers… is anything better?) Unfortunately the rest stop we stayed at had the worst mosquitoes ever, which at this point is saying a lot. With the hot nights of the northern tropics have come swarms of our bloodsucking friends. This night in particular we had a hard time sleeping because the drone of the mosquitoes was so loud. If you shined your light on the bug nets covering our back windows you could count at least 30 waiting to get in at us. I can’t say that I was sad to leave the tropics again and head back into the outback because of them.