An Africans Experience of Kakadu
by Guest Author
Early 2008 saw dark clouds gathering on the worlds economic horizon. We decided it might be a good idea to look for a good job. After a couple of interviews for the position of general manager of tours for Kakadu National Park, we placed our own business Safari Holidays under management and I headed for Cooinda, a place Id never heard of before. My wife Carol and the kids would follow once the school year drew to a close.
Cooinda means happy place. Its about 300km from Darwin, and 50km beyond Jabiru, which is the nearest town. It is a hub for the best adventures Kakadu has to offer. Besides being home to the famous Yellow Water Cruises (which host well over 100,000 visitors a year), its the departure point for numerous tours that explore the nature and culture of Kakadu.
Living in Kakadu was testing, but fun. Free time was spent exploring, taking thousands of photographs, walking, swimming and sometimes just quietly observing. The kids loved the nature of the place and enjoyed attending the 280-student Jabiru Area School. Carol took on an interesting job as administration and finance manager for the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation in Jabiru.
Day to day life was challenging at times. Contending with an extreme climate and seasonal insect invasions did pose a few frustrations, but in time we adapted. Heat and humidity, rising water levels and infestations of small nuisance creatures are testing. Many operators close or scale down their operations in the wet season due to reduced visitor numbers and simply because the elements make it too challenging, and, in many instances, impossible, to operate. Many zones become impassable and others become dangerous as rising water levels disperse crocodiles to areas that are safe in the dry.
I often got the feeling that I knew this place. There are similarities, in nature and culture, in extremes and in beauty. On reflection I think that coming from Africa gave us an advantage in being able to appreciate the spirit of the place. Not simply because its about the bush, and people living in it, but rather because its wild and unpredictable.
Kakadu is World Heritage-listed for nature and culture. The culture is largely hidden and derives its listing more from the richness of history than the living present. Over 5,000 art sites have been recorded and many archaeological sites are evidence of a history of occupation dating back between 20 and 40,000 years. Information boards at places of interest and displays at Bowali and the Warradjan Cultural Centre provide some of this history and ways of life of the indigenous people, but its through local operators that visitors get real insight into it.
Kakadu is huge, at around 20,000km2, nearly the size of Wales. Thats bigger than the Kruger National Park and almost as big as Etosha National Park. The name Kakadu comes from the word Gagudju, one of the many languages spoken in the area.
The secret of seeing the best of Kakadu is getting out of your car. This is no Kruger Park and if you think you are going to see much from the comfort of your Prado, forget it. Travel on the roads through the park offers little more than endless kilometres of woodland that look much the same. Walking, cruising, swimming or touring, with those who know, is the way to go.
Kakadus eco zones are diverse. From the rocky sandstone formations of the escarpment, plateau and outliers to sharp cliffs and scree slopes that give way to large flat plains. In the dry lowland areas the open forest and woodland vegetation is dominated by Eucalypts like the Stringybark and Woollybutt. The wet zones of coastal foreshore, river and riparian woodlands, billabongs, floodplains and paperbark swamps change dramatically with the seasons. The monsoon rain forests and rocky southern hills make up the rest of the landscape.
Kakadu is home to over 1,700 plant, 60 mammal, 117 reptile and 280 bird species. There are 53 species of fish, 25 different frogs and more than 10,000 insect varieties. Of all of these crocodiles are probably the most prolific and by far draw the most public attention and park management activity.
Before starting to plan a Kakadu trip you have to understand the seasons. Your interests will determine the best time for you. Its a place of extremes, receiving an annual average rainfall of 1,500mm. When its hot its really hot and when it rains it pours. In the wet season its not simply about the rain that falls where you are, its also about the rain that has fallen high up on the Arnhemland escarpment. This deluge flows down to flood and transform the low lying plains. The nature and the culture of Kakudu revolves, in annual cycles, around this coming and going of the heat and rain. The indigenous people identify six distinct seasons. For the last 50,000 years or more they have determined their movements, their harvests and their way of life.
Kakadu has its share of special places. Yellow Water Billabong is one of my favourites. It has a peaceful busyness about it. The abundant bird life will blow you away and the best is that the birds are so relaxed, allowing boats to approach really close.
The rocky outcrops of Ubirr in the east are home to interesting rock art and spectacular views out over the Megela floodplains. Nourlangie is an easy walk with a lot of rock art. Neighbouring Nawurlandja offers great views over the landscape and Anbangbang Billabong. Nearby the interesting walk to Gubara is an easy flat seven kilometre round trip. To the south, not far from Cooinda are the beautiful falls and walks at Gunlom and Yurmikmik Falls. In the dry season a visit to Twin Falls is a must. The best guided tour in Kakadu is Animal Tracks. These small group tours offer a unique afternoon bush experience exploring nature and collecting bush tucker.
For reasons related to my work, life at Cooinda became intolerable and sadly shortened our stay to less than a year. I left Kakadu with difficulty and often reflect on it with awe. Its a place with a distinct spirit and it left powerful lasting impressions abundance, extremes, beauty, heritage and spirit. I believe its a place every explorer needs to experience. And when I say experience, I mean you need to feel, hear, smell, taste and truly experience the place. If you go there just to look, you will not see.
Kakadus Six Seasons
Gudjewg December to March Monsoon season, heavy rain, thunderstorms and flooding;
Bangerreng March to May Harvest time and knock em down storm season when violent storms knock down the tall spear grasses;
Yegge May to June Cool weather time with lower humidity;
Wurrgeng June to August - Early dry season, cooler weather arrives and humidity drops, creeks stop flowing, floodplains and some billabongs dry out;
Gurrung August to October Hot dry season, with intermittent periods of torrential rain;
Gunumelang October to December Hot weather, pre-monsoon storm season with humidity building.