On Saturday 3rd I drove to Kakadu National Park, without a doubt the most famous National Park in Australia. It's certainly one of the most popular, and people either love it or loathe it. I've heard people call it Kaka-don't, but it's not the sort of attraction you miss out just because someone else didn't like it. At A$15 the entry fee is three times the fee at any of the Western Australian parks, but you do get your money's worth: you can stay for 14 days, and bush camping is free (though there are sites with amenities for a paltry A$5 per night). When I paid, I mentioned to the ranger that I was interested in walking, and he handed me a huge bundle of leaflets, detailing the marked tracks available, and apart from three sites, they were all accessible by two-wheel-drive. (The most notable 4WD sites are Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls, to which day tours cost A$120: maybe next time.)
Some criticisms levelled at Kakadu are well founded. First, even in winter, it's very hot and humid, to the point of being really uncomfortable. Second, because all the creeks and rivers are croc-infested, you can't swim anywhere except the odd rock pool and the commercial swimming pools at the various resorts: camping next to a cool, flowing creek that you really want to jump into is a bit of a nightmare when all you can do is look at it. Third, because it's so humid and you're so sweaty, the flies and mozzies are not just a nuisance, they're a serious inconvenience. Even after the flies of northern WA, Kakadu is really annoying: the Aussie salute (waving your hand in front of your face to brush away flies) is in serious evidence here. And as for the dirt roads, there aren't many, but those that are dirt are terrible, a much lower standard than you would expect from such a popular tourist spot (though, of course, this does help prevent huge numbers of vehicles, which can only be a good thing).
I spent Saturday at Gunlom (Waterfall Creek), a beautiful rock pool full of fish and cold, clear water, the perfect antidote to the long drive over the bastard corrugation, and there I camped and planned my visit. The park looked so good from all the literature: it's strange how initial enthusiasm can give way to apathy and a general feeling of having been led down the garden path by all the glowing Lonely Planet entries. Little was I to know that Gunlom would be one of the most beautiful spots on the entire trip.
On Sunday morning I got up early and went for a scramble round the top of Gunlom, where there are some very pretty rock pools, and took a quick dip in the falls to wake me up. I then drove back towards the highway, stopping to do a picturesque walk at Yurmikmik to Motor Car Falls, another croc-free swimming hole. After a relaxed lunch in the shade I walked back and drove to a bush camp next to Kambolgie Creek. As I sat there, boiling my billy on the fire after supper, chatting to a couple of lads who had driven a 4WD all round Australia who I'd invited over to share the fire (and who I'd meet at every campsite during my stay in the park), I reckoned Kakadu must be one of the finest spots in Oz. But the next day I headed north...
And as you head north, the real Kakadu begins to rear its ugly head. As I drove up the sealed Kakadu Highway – missing a lookout that was on the map but didn't seem to exist in real life, however hard I looked – I noticed that most of the cars I was passing were very expensive, very clean, very new, very fast and very rude (not one of them returned my waves). I stopped off to do a couple of walks on the way – the dismal Gun-gardun walk and the pretty, but short Mardugal Billabong walk, where I took advantage of the campsite's showers, something you have to do to keep sane in the humidity – and eventually got to Cooinda, home to Yellow Water Creek. Talk about beauty and the beast.
Yellow Water is wetland, which means it's flooded for a lot of the year. Wetland is under serious threat from man, and Kakadu has some of the most important tropical wetlands in the world, a haven for migrating birds and water-happy plants. The walk round Yellow Water is beautifully tranquil, and I was so impressed I drove the three kilometres to Cooinda to buy a ticket for the Yellow Water boat cruise.
Cooinda is one of the hotel complexes in Kakadu, and I was culture-shocked: blubbery, whingeing tourists oozed out of their air-conditioned coaches to book into soulless units and ensure that their seats on the whizz-through tours of Kakadu's highlights had been reserved, while cheery girls with American accents greeted potential tour-victims with cheesy smiles and ingratiating sales talk. I nearly upped and ran away, but I spotted a boat tour for 6.45am the next day and paid up: my theory was that the sort of tourists I wanted to avoid wouldn't be up for a tour that early. After a quick lunch on the lawn – during which a huge black crow swooped down on the half-eaten sandwich in my hand, snatched it clean out of my fingers and flew up into a tree to eat it, the little swine – I got out as fast as I could.
But obviously not fast enough. I popped into the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre on the way, a fascinating museum to Aboriginal culture, Dreaming stories and how Kakadu is still an important part of their way of life, and discovered that sometimes there's no escape from the masses. The lunchtime hordes were right on my tail, bursting through the whole thing at breakneck speeds. You could almost imagine them saying, 'Right, that's the Aborigines done, what's on tomorrow? Driving through the whole of Europe and back home by six? Great!' Hanging's too good for 'em.
So I drove off to camp at Jim Jim Billabong, the nearest bush camp to Yellow Water. I drove back to see the sunset at Yellow Water, unfortunately coinciding with hundreds of video camera junkies and an astounding number of loud French and Germans, all with the same idea, and turned in to try to get some sleep in the closeness of Kakadu's nights.
Up before the sun, I duly headed off for my A$25-worth of entertainment on Yellow Water, 'the highlight of most people's trip to Kakadu' according to my increasingly inaccurate guidebook. Well, I suppose it was all right, but I like to leave a tour having found out something I hadn't known, and I didn't, except for the names of a few birds that I would have known if I were into ornithology (when it comes to birds, my favourites come with roast potatoes). True, if you are a devoted fan of eagles, jabirus, ducks, geese and all those other water-dwelling birds, Yellow Water is a dream come true (almost literally for the orgasmic feathered-friend freak I sat next to), but it's not really my cuppa, so I was destined to be slightly mesmerized by the two-hour cruise. It was pleasant, but no highlight.
The rest of the day I spent doing a few more of the slightly disappointing walks of Kakadu. The Mirrai Lookout was interesting, though largely obscured by the smoke from the controlled burning being lit at this time of year (though the smoke does give the vista a unique charm, an air of mystery that's rather pleasant). Only half of the Bubba Walk at Muirella Camp was open, and although it was pleasant, it was nothing I hadn't seen at Yellow Water, and it was only meeting a very nice couple from Melbourne en route that raised it above the forgettable. I then headed out to Nourlangie Rock, home to my first batch of rock art: rock art isn't, as I had previously thought, pop art with noisier guitars, it's Aboriginal cave painting, and interesting though it is, it's not the rather clumsy paintings that are fun, it's the stories behind them. I've always enjoyed stories of the Dreaming, and Kakadu is chocka with 'em, from stories of Lightning Man to the Rainbow Serpent to how the crocodiles came about... lots of fun, but more entertaining from a book than a rock wall. I came, I saw, I Kodaked, and I preferred the explanations in the Aboriginal Cultural Centre.
Iligadjarr and Tea
The next walk was round the Anbangbang Billabong – more wetland, same story, but with a very pleasing backdrop of the awesome Nourlangie Rock – followed by a hop up Nawurlandja Lookout, a view that was again rather smoky, but good nonetheless. My next jaunt was to Gubara, a walk that started at the end of a god-awful 9km dirt boneshaker, and which ended up at some stagnant and rather smelly rock pools, rather than the luscious flowing river promised in the brochure. There was just enough flowing stream to have a quick dip, but only time will tell if I've caught something fatal in the process. It didn't take much persuasion to head off to the Burdulba Camp to set up the tent and have a cuppa... or two, or three, or four...
Every cloud has a silver lining, and every day has its sunset, and for Tuesday's I went on the Iligadjarr Wetlands walk, a fine example of what a wetland walk should be, helped by the guide leaflet I'd got from the ranger. The best part of the walk was the solitude, and the sounds and smells of the swampy sunset were divine, even if the mozzies had a field day. Iligadjarr and tea helped to revive my flagging interest in Kakadu, even if I did get gobbled up by a bunch of evil blood suckers: I have never, ever encountered so many mozzies before. There are clouds of them, and they're huge. It might sound amusing1, but it makes sitting outside at night impossible, as they seem able to ignore sprays, burning coils, the lot: they even managed to infiltrate my car one night, as I found out when trying to get away from the bites. Thank goodness I managed to kill all the ones that got into the tent, as you can hear them buzzing round outside all night...
Tuesday night ended on a slightly surreal note. Just as I was about to tuck in for the night, the ranger pulled up and went round every tent, handing out census forms. Yes, August 6th was census night in Oz, and everyone, including non-residents, had to fill out their details. So I'm in the Australian census statistics as an unemployed traveller who isn't looking for work... who would have thought it? Me, an official bum. I thank you.
The Wonder of Ubir
Wednesday 7th was the day of reckoning, Kakadu's last chance to prove to me that it deserved its position as Australia's Number One National Park. I suppose it tried its hardest, but by the end of the day all I could think of was driving to Darwin. I started the day early – before the sun rises is the only remotely cool time of day or night – and headed back to Nourlangie Rock to start the Barrk Sandstone Bush Walk, which I did at 8am (by which time the temperature had already reached 22°C, or 70°F). This bushwalk is the longest in the park at 12km, and it's supposed to take 6-8 hours. By 11am I was back, having trudged through some interesting sandstone mountains with ornate erosion patters, and having visited the Naguluwur rock art site. It wasn't the best walk I've ever done, but it wasn't the worst: it was mediocre, as much of Kakadu's walks seem to be.
I then drove to the Bowali Visitor's Centre, the administration centre for the park, and although it wasn't a patch on the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, it was interesting enough. After a quick petrol stop at Jabiru – Kakadu's only town and tourist haven, a nice spot for staying in luxurious hotels and swimming in the sun, but not really in keeping with my budget – I set off for Ubir.
Tucked away at the northern end of the park, right on the border with the Aboriginal territory of Arnhem Land, Ubir was the only site, apart from Gunlom, that I found really special. The rock art there is superb, and the view from the rock of the huge Arnhem Land escarpment is just amazing: it's probably worth visiting Kakadu for this sight alone, to be honest. I went off to camp at Merl thinking that although I was disappointed with Kakadu, I wouldn't have missed Ubir for the world.
I rounded off the day with two more walks: the Mangarre walk, which was mostly closed, and therefore a bit of a waste of time; and the combined Bardedjilidji/Rock Holes walk, which was long (6.5km), monotonous, very sandy (a walker's nightmare) and not worth the effort, despite the pleasant East Alligator River flowing along half the walk. You know a walk isn't going well when, halfway round, you just want to be back at camp with the kettle on. It wasn't long before I was doing just that, but only after I'd decided not to bother with the two short walks remaining for me to do on the way to Darwin – more wetlands and more rainforest I could live without. I left Kakadu a day earlier than planned, smothered in bites, with a sackful of dirty, sweaty clothes, and – to be honest – relief that Darwin was so close.
So, that was Kakadu. I wasn't so much disappointed as underwhelmed: after the most amazing sights and walks I've seen in Western Australia, Kakadu really isn't that special. It's a cultural treasure, and a haven for rare animals, and all that jazz, but there's nothing that sticks in the mind like Nambung's pinnacles, Kalbarri and Karijini's gorges, Fitzgerald River and Cape Range's beaches, Purnululu's beehives, Wilpena Pound's mountains, Tunnel Creek's atmosphere... need I go on? The wetlands at Yellow Water are nice, and Gunlom and Ubir are delightful (which is probably why they filmed some of Crocodile Dundee at Gunlom), but they're hidden among a lot of really average walks and sights. I get the feeling that Kakadu is such a success because most people don't know that there are better places out there. I've done Kakadu, and although it pains me to say so, I don't think I'll bother to come back.
1 But not as amusing as what happened to me on my last night in Kakadu, when I torchlit my way through the night to make use of the A$5 ablutions. There I was, minding my own business, a sitting target for all the mozzies who'd discovered that the toilet was a perfect spot for target practice, when I spotted an odd shape sticking out of the top of the door. Closer inspection showed it to be a lizard that I'd accidentally trapped, so I opened the door, let him go and went back to the job in hand. The next thing I knew a huge beetle was wandering around my feet, trying to climb up to join me, so I finished off and headed off back into the night. The lizard and beetle weren't a drama, but as I walked back, this huge bird – well, I couldn't see it, but it sounded huge – swooped down from the trees, right past my head, squawking as it went. Now that did scare the shit out of me... good job I'd just done what I'd done, if you catch my drift.