Moonrise with crocodiles
Everything here is big: the birds, the trees, the red rocks. From high viewpoints, the wilderness of eucalypt forest reaches into a distance limited only by the abrupt wall of the 400-kilometre Arnhem Land Escarpment. Even the span of a spider matches that of my hand.
Yellow Water Billabong was no different, though at a first glance, it appeared nothing more than a broad river. The boat meandered through half-submerged trees, freshwater mangroves (Darlingtonia) and a huge acreage of water lilies. Further expanses of water opened out around each bend, and as the first crocodile drifted silently across the bow, we realised we were in the middle of a vast wetland, and that the nearest dry shore was a long way off.
Big as it is, Kakadu is not a place to see at a gallop, and we had taken two days to get this far. Stretching for 100 kilometres east to west and double that north to south, it is Australia’s largest National Park, a Ramsar wetland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To qualify for World Heritage status, a site must fulfil at least one of ten criteria, which cover either its significance in human cultural development or its importance in the natural environment. Of more than 800 sites worldwide, over three-quarters are listed for purely cultural reasons. Kakadu satisfies no fewer than five of the criteria, and is one of only 24 sites to be listed as of both cultural and natural significance.
Kakadu has been inhabited by humans for probably 50 000 years, and was almost certainly one of the first areas in Australia to be settled by the Aboriginal peoples. It plays an important role in their creation myths, those wonderful, richly textured stories that incorporate the physical landforms, the birds, animals, fishes and their relationships with the settlers. At places such as Ubirr and Nourlangie, these myths are exquisitely illustrated in rock paintings, which give a unique insight into Aboriginal culture and history.
The traditional owners manage the National Park jointly with the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Heritage. It is a wilderness, cut by only two surfaced roads, the Arnhem Highway from Darwin to Jabiru, and the Kakadu Highway from Jabiru to Pine Creek. A short road north to Ubirr and the border with Arnhem Land is impassable in the wet seasons, as are the unsurfaced roads that are generally navigable only by 4WD vehicles.
Six seasons divide the year in the Aboriginal calendar, though half this time is dominated by the storms that precede and follow the monsoons of December to March. This year, the rains lasted longer than usual, and Cyclone Larry, which in March had battered North Queensland, had prolonged their effects. The result was that we were unable to get through to Ubirr, while the roads to several outlying billabongs and the spectacular Jim Jim Falls were still submerged. After several hours being amazed by the rock art of Nourlangie, we booked our campervan onto the Cooinda site and awaited the boat for the late afternoon trip on Yellow Water.
￼ Jabirus, egrets and herons
Kakadu is the only National Park in the world that contains the entire catchment of a major river system, that of the South Alligator. It also encompasses the smaller West Alligator and much of the Wildman rivers, and is divided from Arnhem Land by the East Alligator. In the monsoon season, the floodplains cover several hundred square kilometres. Even our campsite had been inundated less than two weeks earlier. As the dry season advances, and the waters shrink, the wildlife, including 2.5 million birds, become concentrated into the resulting billabongs.
As our boat left its moorings, a flock of magpie geese crossed the skyline. To either side of us, an enormous carpet of water lilies stretched toward the distant trees. Egrets and tall jabirus tiptoed through the vegetation. Darters decorated half-submerged logs, wings outstretched, as immobile as statues. Pied herons gazed into the water, searching for a meal among the roots of the Darlingtonia.
At this point in the season, there were 30 or 40 bird species in the Yellow Water region. Over the next few months, this would rise to around 75. During a year, more than 280 species of bird have been recorded in Kakadu as a whole. This represents one-third of all Australia’s birds. In addition, around 50 kinds of fish swim here as well as two crocodiles, freshwater and the larger and more dangerous saltwater. No species have been introduced, and the river is completely unpolluted, making this a pristine environment.
We spotted our first ‘saltie’, a 3.5-to-4-metre giant, after about ten minutes. Over the next hour-or-so we came across another six, some gliding through the water, others resting on patches of mud among the trees. Three weeks earlier, when the water was 2.5 metres deeper, only two crocodiles had been seen. Now, the depth had fallen to one metre, and shrinkage of their habitat had brought 15 or 20 into Yellow Water. In another month, the area over which we now sailed would be completely dry, and the crocodiles would have retreated to the muddy remnants of scattered billabongs.
We passed beneath a white-bellied sea eagle, perched magisterially on a high branch, unperturbed by our proximity. A whistling kite flew over us, carrying nest material, and settled on a tree. Its relative, the black kite, though not in evidence here, was overall the most abundant bird we saw throughout Kakadu. At one time, we witnessed as many as two dozen circling over the smoke and flames of a bush fire.
We sailed away from the water lilies and into a flooded jungle. Large trees, tinted pink by the light of the sinking sun, stood proud of the water. A rare and secretive sacred kingfisher landed on a stick, but flew away as we approached.
The boat passed out into open water once more. The sun had now sunk behind the trees to the west, which became black shadows against a background of an increasingly Götterdämmerung fire. The reds and oranges of the sky reflected onto the water to give it an eerie luminosity.
Then something magic happened.
The sky to the east grew dark, yet the raft of lilies, the trees and the gaunt, leafless skeletons shone with something resembling an alpenglow. The boat slowed and began to drift in silence. A silver glimmer, the topmost curve of the moon, peered tentatively through a dip in the tree line, before disappearing behind taller greenery. It re-appeared, and though it seemed not to move, in little more than a minute, it was above the trees and opening a gap, which increased noticeably while we watched. The conversation receded to a whisper, consisting mostly of gasps of astonishment, just audible against the staccato click of cameras and the soft lap, lap against the sides of the boat. As the moon rose, its reflection drifted clear of the lily field, and acquired its own independence, flickering, fragmenting and changing shape with the line at the edge of the lilies and the ripples on the surface.
Over a period of several minutes, the sky darkened and the sharp boundary between vegetation and water faded and vanished. The moon rose higher and the first stars appeared. Almost imperceptibly, the magic quietly subsided to nothing more than that of a beautiful tropical night. Yet the effect on us lingered.
We returned to the mooring half-an-hour later than scheduled. As we stood in the pitch dark and sticky heat, awaiting the shuttle bus for the short trip back to the campsite, nobody complained. The talk was muffled. An owl hooted in the trees nearby. The Milky Way glowed like a vivid white streak across the profound blackness of Space.
Catherine Crone, Managing Director of Headwater, presents the
Award for Excellence (Best Travel Feature – 2007)
at the Macdonald Blossoms Hotel, Chester.
(Photo: Jon Sparks)