Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park (including Jabiru, Nourlangie Rock, Ubirr, Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls, Yellow Waters, the South Alligator River and Waterfall Creek Nature Park)
World Heritage listed park characterized by exceptional galleries of Aboriginal art and diverse and fascinating wildlife.
The starting point for any appreciation of Kakadu National Park is to eliminate any preconceptions you may have. No matter how many photographs you may have seen and no matter how many times you have watched the two Crocodile Dundee movies nothing will adequately prepare you for the discrepancy between the image and the reality.
For most Australians 'tropical' means 'exotic rainforests' and 'World Heritage' equals 'area of great beauty'. The reality is that Kakadu, apart from a few small areas, is not tropical rainforest and that its World Heritage is based on its importance as a wetlands area not on its physical beauty. Like much of northern Australia, Kakadu is an area of flat tropical savanna woodland with a kind of grey, rather unattractive, monotony produced by a low scrubby vegetation and large tracts of undifferentiated flat terrain. This is not, for one moment, to suggest that it shouldn't be World Heritage listed. The abundance of wildlife, particularly birdlife, which flocks into the swampy areas of the park during the dry season demonstrates how important it is to the fauna of the area. It's just not an area of great beauty.
As far as can be determined the term 'Kakadu' was given to the people of the Alligator River region by the noted anthropologist and biologist Sir Baldwin Spencer. It is in fact the language of the Aboriginal people who traditionally lived in the north western section of the park. Some authorities on the area have suggested that in the language of the local Aborigines 'Kakadu' or, as it is sometimes spelt, 'Kakudju' or 'Gagadju', doesn't have a specific meaning.
The early history of white contact with the Kakadu area includes the visits of Baldwin Spencer in 1912, the subsequent visit of N. B. Tindale in 1928 and the establishment of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. In 1954 UNESCO published a book of paintings from the area in a series on world art. Subsequent explorations have discovered many other valuable sites.
The area around Kakadu is the site of some of the earliest tropical settlements in Australia and as such is of great archaeological importance. It is important to remember, when traveling through the area, that 25 000 years ago the Aborigines were far more artistically and industrially advanced than their counterparts in Europe and the Middle East. They had developed grinding stones for crushing seeds and were preparing ochre for painting on cave walls.
On 5 April 1979, as part of the Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into the Ranger Mining Proposals, it was decided to set aside 6000 sq. km of Arnhem Land under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. The park was to be managed by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. The area was subsequently listed by the World Heritage and is now one of the most important Heritage regions in Australia. At the moment it covers an area of 1 307 300 hectares of land.
Kakadu National Park has five natural sub regions
1. The plateau is a huge, rugged sandstone formation which rises sharply to a height of 250 m from the lower lands to the north and produces some of the most spectacular scenery in the park. The dramatic escarpment extends for over 600 km and is the site of the major waterfalls and deep gorges in the park. The escarpment caves have been a natural shelter for the traditional owners of the region who have painted many of the caves with pictures of great antiquity and beauty. The plateau has been subjected to severe tropical weathering which has created honeycombing in the rock surfaces and exposed ancient rock formations.
2. The lowlands are a vast eroded plain with a few rocky outcrops which lie to the north of the escarpment.
3. The floodplain which lies to the north of the plateau is dramatic and beautiful. It receives the full force of the monsoonal rains which arrive in November and last until March and thus in the wet season is a vast expanse of water. In the dry season it is characterized by permanent billabongs. The area is famed for its water lilies and lotus lilies which are edible.
4. Tidal flats. This area is a typical tropical wasteland where the salt water inundates the region making it suitable only for mangroves and rainforest which can thrive on sandy saline soils.
5. Southern hills and basins exist at the southern most point of the park near Fisher Creek. This is an area of woodland where the headwaters of the South Alligator River run through harsh stony country.
Bounded to the north by Van Diemen Gulf and to the east and west by the Wild Man and East Alligator Rivers (the Alligator River was named by Phillip Parker King in 1820 who mistook the crocodiles in the area for alligators) Kakadu gained international publicity when it featured prominently in the two Crocodile Dundee movies.
But it is the diversity of its fauna and flora rather than its brush with Paul Hogan which has really made the area important. It is worth remembering, as you drive through Kakadu, that the park contains over 1000 plant species, a quarter of all the freshwater fish species found in Australia, and over one-third of all the bird species. Add to this the thousands of insects and the whole park is a reminder that the tropics really are the breeding ground for the whole planet.
It is hard to pick the ideal time to visit Kakadu. In the wet season large areas of the park are closed to the public. It would not be possible to enter or exit from the park via the Kakadu Highway. It would not be possible to visit Jim Jim or Twin Falls and, until the road is sealed, it would not be possible to go to Ubirr Rocks. There seems to be a consensus amongst the park's rangers that the best time to visit is at the end of the dry season when the birds are forced to congregate in the ever-diminishing wetland waterholes.
During the dry season there is still selective burning off in Kakadu which means that the idea of leaving the area as a wilderness park is being conditioned by the controls of the National Parks and Wildlife.
Things to see: Mamakala Observation Point and Nature Walk. - As you enter the park on the Arnhem Highway the first place you will come to is the Mamakala Observation Point. It is an easy walk of only 100 metres to the Observation Point (known as a 'bird hide') where, from a shaded platform, you can observe the edge of a wetlands lake with its rich variety of birdland. The observation point is a model of good park organisation. Wall charts clearly show the bird species to be found on the lake and special elevated sections allow small children to view the wetlands.
Ubirr - The sign at Ubirr spells out very clearly the attitude of both the National Parks Rangers and the traditional owners: 'Ubirr is an Aboriginal rock art site of international status. Its also of great significance to its Aboriginal owners with whose advice and approval material in this display has been prepared. We ask you to observe two simple rules: (i) follow directional signs and keep to defined walking paths and (ii) do not touch painted surfaces under any circumstances. Penalties may be imposed for interference with such sites.'
There are ranger talks at Ubirr Rock Main Gallery at 9.30 and 12.00 and 4.00, at the Namarrkan Sisters at 10.30 and 5.30 and the Rainbow Serpent at 11.30 and 4.00.'
Ubirr is exceptionally good. It is one of the best displays of Aboriginal rock paintings available to the public anywhere in the Northern Territory.
Nabulwinjbulwinj - a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam
You can walk around Ubirr in about an hour. It is merely a question of how long you linger at the galleries. Ubirr has five art sites on public display (there are apparently over 120 sites in the area) as well as some excellent views over the wetlands from vantage points on the rocks.
It is now recognised that Ubirr has some of the finest examples of X-ray art in the world. The paintings of barramundi at the main gallery are widely recognised as masterpieces of the X-ray style. This style of art is fascinating because in it the artist not only paints what he can see from the outside but also depicts what he knows exists on the inside.
The interpretation of these paintings is difficult. Some people have assumed that they were done for leisure but others have argued that they were partly to assist the success of hunting. The concentration on food sources like fish, birds, animals and reptiles is said to suggest some kind of success over the animal. The sequence of events may have been that a man saw a large barramundi in the river but couldn't catch it. He returned to the gallery where he painted it. By painting it he was ensuring power over the animal which would result in him seeing it again and spearing it.
The gallery also includes a painting of a pipe-smoking European whose body is X-rayed through his clothing.
The track winds around to the lookout. On the way there are two galleries - one is located underneath a rock overhang and the other depicts the Namarrkan Sisters.
The last section of the walk around the Ubirr gallery depicts the Rainbow Serpent on a cliff wall above an occupation site. The notice at this point outlines the importance of the site by pointing out that 'the dark mounded soil at the base of the cliffs is evidence of Aboriginal occupation on this site. The deposit accumulated over time from fires, and organic remains which were left on the site as Aboriginal people utilised the rich resources of Ubirr - its waterfowl, fish, reptiles and mammals. Though the site was used for day to day shelter it has also been extensively painted. In some cases with paintings of food species such as the magpie goose and the barramundi, as well as subjects of a purely mythical or religious nature. Scientific investigation of occupation deposits in this region has yielded the oldest evidence for man's presence in Northern Australia with dates in the order of 23 000 years before present. Aboriginal people believe however, that they and their ancestors have occupied the land forever, since the landscape assumed its present shape in the era of creation which they sometimes refer to as the Dreaming.'
Jabiru - Jabiru is a small centre which has grown dramatically in recent times as a direct result of the development firstly of uranium mining at the Ranger Mine and more recently with the opening up of the Kakadu National Park.
The town gets its name from the jabiru which is the name given to a large bird , sometimes known as the black-necked stork or the 'policeman-bird', by Aborigines in the area.
In 1970 uranium was discovered at Ranger in Arnhem Land. The following year more uranium was discovered at Jabiluka.
For the next decade a furious debate over whether the uranium should be mined occurred. A Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry into mining at Ranger was established in 1975. It carried out its inquiry and reported to Parliament in 1977. The following year it was agreed that mining could go ahead with substantial royalties being paid to the Northern Land Council. The following year the Northern Land Council approved uranium mining at Jabiluka however the Commonwealth Government was not happy about the situation. Today only the Ranger Uranium Mine is in operation.
The town of Jabiru was established specifically for employees of the mine. The town is better than most outback mining communities. Considerable civic pride has led to the maintenance of lawns and gardens.
Ranger Uranium Mine - The sign at the entrance to the Ranger Uranium Mine details the 'achievements' of the mining company. 'Welcome to Ranger Uranium Mine an open cut mine and ore treatment plant. The ore body was discovered in 1969. Environmental enquiry and report 1974-77. Construction 1979-1981. Official opening - November, 1981. Project area: 79 square kilometres. Mine site: 4 square kilometres. The material mined: 6 million tonnes per year. Uranium oxide produced: 3,000 tonnes per year. Export earnings: $1500 million to June 1987. Royalties to the Aborigines: $65 million to June 1987. Parent Company: Energy Resources of Australia Ltd. (ERA)'.
As an exercise in good public relations ERA run regular tours of the mine and the mill which last for about an hour. The tours are free and times can be ascertained by ringing the Tour Guides Office on (08) 8979 2411. The Tour Guides Office is only too happy to persuade people about ERA's environmental and ecological commitment with a series of expensive and glossy publications including Ranger Uranium Mine and the Environment, Mining and the return of the living environment, Why Nuclear and Ranger and the Environment.. Such publications are unlikely to convince the anti-nuclear and environmental lobbies and will be of little interest to those who are indifferent to the problems. They do, however, have excellent photographs of the wildlife in Kakadu.
Nourlangie Rock - Located south of Jabiru, Nourlangie Rock is part of the area known as the Mt. Brockman Massif. There are over 100 sacred sites in this area and some of them are designated sacred-dangerous (and therefore not open to the public). The area has a number of cave sites and there is evidence of quarries where the local Aborigines made their stone implements. Interestingly some of the caves include drawings of thylacines, Tasmanian tigers, which presumably lived in the area at the time the paintings were done.
There are a number of walks at Nourlangie Rock.including walks to the lookouts at Gunwarrde and Nawurlandja, a walk around Anbangbang Billabong and a short walk (from the carpark) to the excellent Anbangbang Gallery where depictions of Namarrgon the 'Lightning Man' and Nabulwinjbulwinj, a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam, make it one of the most interesting galleries in the park.
Namarrgon the Lightning Man is a fascinating character who wears his lightning as a band connecting his arms, legs and head. The stone axes on his knees and elbows make the thunder. The story of the Lightning Man, as explained by the local Aborigines, is that Namarrgon, his wife Barrginj and their children, Aljurr, came from the north coast searching for a good place to settle. Namarrgon now lives at Lightning Dreaming which can be seen from Gunwarrde Warrde Lookout. When Namarrgon wants to make lightning he strikes his stone axes on the ground or against the clouds. The actual lightning is his children - Aljurr - which means 'little lightning'.
Both the Lightning Man and Nabulwinjbulwinj were actually repainted in 1964 by Nayombolmi (Barramundi Charlie) of the Badmardi clan in the style of the earlier works which were fading due to the weather.
Jim Jim Falls - The Jim Jim Falls are a kind of Australian Catch-22. In the 'dry', when access is possible via a rather unpleasant 60 km dirt road (the last 11 km are really suitable for 4WD only), the water dries up and the falls often don't fall. In the 'wet' when the falls are at their most spectacular it is impossible to drive any vehicle into the area. Those photographs of the falls at their most dramatic were all taken by people who entered the area by light plane or helicopter.
Twin Falls - For all their beauty Twin Falls are the ultimate obstacle course. not only does the visitor have to travel the 60 km dirt road to the Jim Jim Falls but when there they have to swim or sail around to the Twin Falls. There is no land access to the falls. The effort, for the enthusiastic, is rewarded by the sight of a double cascading waterfall with a small beach at the bottom.
Yellow Waters - Located 52 km south of the Ranger Headquarters, the Yellow Waters billabong is one of the most famous areas within the park. The accommodation at the Cooinda Motel gives access to the walks along the river and the regular boat trips (phone the Cooinda Motel for bookings) provide an opportunity to see birds (some of whom have migrated from the Northern Hemisphere), feral buffalos and crocodiles in their native habitat.
South Alligator River - The river abounds with wildlife and it is common to see buffalo, the jabiru, cockatoos, white egrets, magpie geese and whistler ducks.
It is worth remembering that the South Alligator River is home to nearly all the magpie geese in Australia during the dry season. One survey found over 100 000 birds in a relatively small area of the floodplain.
The buffalo which wander through the area were introduced in the early nineteenth century. Brought over from Timor and Indonesia to feed the military settlements in the area they escaped and have since multiplied to near plague proportions. They have caused havoc on the native fauna seriously depleting the lotus lily and trampling the vegetation. The damage caused by the buffalo has been compounded the existence of feral pigs, horses and donkeys within the park's borders.
Camping Sites - There are a large number of camping sites within the boundaries of the park including Malabanbandju, Mardukal and the Jim Jim Billabong Camping Areas. It is sensible to call in at the Ranger Headquarters near Jabiru to get details, brochures and maps. The headquarters can be contacted on tel: 08 8938 1100
Jabiru Tourist Centre
6 Tasman Plaza, Kakadu National Park NT 0886
Telephone: (08) 8979 2548 Facsimile: (08) 8979 2482