As we drove the Defender 110 down yet another washout, we came across our third water crossing. Normally this would present only a brief delay while the driver walks across the stream to ascertain depth, current, bottom conditions and to check for obstructions. We didn’t believe this approach would work in this case. The warning posters kept coming to mind: “don’t risk your life, Never enter the water or you may become part of a crocodile’s menu”.
We had arrived three days earlier at Darwin, Northern territories, Australia and were now in Kakadu National Park. At the visitor center we learned that the park’s 20,000 sq. miles encompass a number of distinct zones from tidal mudflats and mangrove forests at the ocean’s edge, inland through vast floodplain areas which in the wet season become wetlands, to woodland and savannas. Forming the backdrop to Kakadu is the Arnhem Land Plateau which rises above the forest and the coastal lowland as an unbroken escarpment or “jump-up”. Kakadu has 2 very distinct seasons, the “wet” when all the streams flood and the park becomes a vast wetland, and the “dry” when even the largest rivers become nothing more than isolated pools, and fires sweep the land.
The ranger warned us that crocodiles could be found throughout the park. The Top End of Australia is home to two different types of croc’s: the smaller and less dangerous Johnston river croc or “freshy”; and its cousin the estuary or salt-water croc or “salty”. These leviathans from a distant era grow to lengths of over 20 feet, eat fish, kangaroos, buffaloes, and people and have been known to attack fishing boats. Salt-water crocs inhabit all tropical water courses, rivers, billabongs (ponds), and the coastal regions of northern Australia.
We decided to begin our exploration of Kakadu by taking a ranger led hike to Ubirr Rock, site of numerous Aboriginal rock paintings. We marveled at the stylized paintings left on the rock faces by the Aborigines. These first Australians are believed to have been living in the Kakadu region for at least the last 30,000 years. We climbed a nearby hill and watched as the setting sun turned the entire coastal floodplain to beautiful shades of amber and pink, and flocks of multicolor birds began to settle down on their favorite gum (eucalyptus) tree for the night.
After a quick breakfast the next day, we headed off towards the Manngarre Monsoon rainforest. A short walking loop allowed us to explore this rare type of forest found only in Kakadu and representing the vestiges of an ecosystem that once covered large portions of northern Australia. Inside the forest, a different world enveloped us. It was cool, damp and dark with the sounds of thousands of birds overhead. Doves, pigeons, red tailed black cockatoos, sulfur crested cockatoos, parrots and kingfishers are all found in the forest. Under on tree a particularly large colony of flying foxes (huge fruit bats) were noisily getting ready for bed.
In the early afternoon we boarded a large flat-bottomed boat for a wildlife sightseeing trip down the South Alligator River. At the time of our visit, the beginning of the dry season, the majority of wildlife is concentrated along the receding waterways. Although there were huge numbers of birds of all descriptions on the trees and flying about, all of us on board were scanning the water and banks for a first hand look at a salt-water croc. Then just off the port bow, on the bank, under a tree, we saw him. At first it looked like a fallen log, but with mouth ajar and innumerable white pointed teeth, clearly showed what it was. Our guide estimated its size at around 18 feet. Suddenly it dashed for the water with a speed we had not known it capable of. Into the murky water it went and out of sight. As we continued down the river we saw numerous other crocs sunning themselves along the banks. Along the river the trees were alive with multitudes of corellas, sulfur crested cockatoos and lorikeets whose bright plumage created a splash of color among the foliage. Cormorants, egrets and whistling tree ducks were among the birds that dotted the water’s edge. A short distance from the river bank a group of brolgas, tall birds with pale gray plumage, bright red head and dark green bill enchanted us with their elegant and choreographed movements. During September and October these vast wetlands are also home to over 200,000 magpie geese.
After dinner we topped off the Land Rover’s diesel and water tanks and headed to Murella Campground a few km up the track. We broke camp early next morning. Destination: a waterfall located some 100 km inland at the jump-up. As the track makes its way from the coastal lowland to the escarpment, it traverses lowland woodlands with many eucalyptus, sand palms, and spiny grasses. There are also pockets of open savanna, as well as bare patches of red and orange soil, the type of terrain we envision as forming the ‘real’ outback. Here and there a large lizard could be seen running from tree to tree. Found throughout the track are termite mounds of all sizes and shapes. Some are small while others are gigantic cathedral-like mounds complete with spires and bell towers and over 8 feet tall!
The track quickly deteriorated. Now we had to contend with rocks as well as stretches of fine sand that threatened to bog us down. The farther we drove the worse the conditions became, deeper and finer sand, and longer stretches of rock strewn track. It was no longer possible to drive around the rocks; we had to go up and down over each menacing boulder guiding the vehicle so as to not crash an axle or steering rod. As we rounded another bend we came to our first real obstacle: a narrow, heavily eroded steep-sided dry gulch crossing. The problem was that both the way down and the way up were traversed by several large washouts and ruts nearly 2 feet deep. Each tire had to be kept out of the gullies that ran down both sides and the middle of the track. Sliding into one of the gullies would mean at best becoming high centered and at worst tipping over. With my co-driver out in front signaling where to move each tire, I very slowly eased the Land Rover down and down each successive step. As each tire dropped into the washout, the whole vehicle tipped and twisted straining the suspension to its limit. If the way down had been bad, the way up was much worse. All I could see was hood, sky, and the hands of the co-driver frantically signaling to move a tire a little to the left or right. Once out of the gulch we stopped to check the vehicle. All looked in order, so we pushed on through more fine sand and more dry gulches. On a couple of descents our rear bumper bottomed out coming to rest on a rock ledge and stopping the rear tires from getting any traction. Thanks to the Defender’s Central Differential Lock the front tires were able to ease us forward off the ledge.
Now we were contemplating our third large creek crossing. Should we drive on hoping the water wasn’t too deep, and the bottom firm and obstacle free; or should we risk a quick wading across the murky water. The fact that the stream seemed to spread and become a bit wider at the crossing suggested that its depth was reduced, but to what level? As we sat on the bank trying to deduce what the water concealed, the quiet of the outback was shattered by the high whine of an off road motorcycle coming up fast behind us. He saw us as he came around the bend and without as much as a nod or even slowing down, he plunged into the water. The farther the motorcycle ventured across the river the higher the water rose. Over the tires, over the driver’s knees, over the gas tank until only the handlebars were above water. That’s when all became quiet again. The bike’s engine had had enough, it was not going any further, it refused to become a submarine. The driver was forced off his bike and while he held his bike against the slight current, the magnitude of his predicament slowly registered on his face. Should he let go the bike, losing it in the murky water and make a dash for the safety of the shore, or walk the bike to the distant shore, a slow process exposed to whatever might be in the water. As he looked all around in the water and at the banks, it was clear he realized that standing in almost 5 feet of water in croc county is not a wise thing to do. A quick glance at my co-driver and we were both in the Defender shifting into low range, engaging the Center Differential Lock and making our way down the rutted bank into the murky water towards the stranded biker. As the water level rose, first over the floor boards, halfway up the doors, over the fenders, and finally over the hood I hoped my electrical system was better waterproofed that the bikes had been. And said a small prayer to the snorkel equipped Td5 engine. As we approached the biker we could see his anguish quickly turning to panic. We pulled up beside him and with him back on his bike and hanging on to the passenger door we slowly made our way to the far side. We rode over a couple of large rocks which made the Defender lurch and tilt to one side forcing water to splash through the open window. After what seemed an eternity the water level began to drop and we were almost across the water. Now we had to decide how best to tackle the heavily rutted and eroded exit ramp. As the biker pushed off to a dry gravel bed, we drove the Defender with, as they say at Eastnor Castle “a bit of passion”; with tires spinning and mud flying we bounced from one rut to another finally cresting the embankment to be greeted by a stretch of fine sand. No place to stop there, so we shifted to high range on the fly and drove to the end of the sand. A bit shaky we walked back to check on the biker. He thanked us and assured us he was OK and his bike would be fine once it dried.
The track now began to climb gently, and we were afforded our first glimpses of the jump-up. After a couple more rock strewn stretches of track, we reached a small car park. A faint walking path continued towards the falls. We grabbed our canteens, lunch and camera and started up the trail enjoying stretching our legs after our bouncy ride. The trail made its way up a narrow valley, with the stream hiding among truck size boulders. The trail soon disappeared and we bushwhacked farther up the valley boulder-hopping and wondering at the force of the water which must flow in this peaceful valley to be able to move the huge boulders. The steep sides of the valley were well forested with a variety of eucalyptus trees. We could see now that we were almost at the foot of the jump-up, but we still had not seen the waterfall, we could hear it but not until we had walked perhaps another 30 minutes did the waterfall appear just in front of us. From the top of the escarpment the water plunged down and down to a large pool at its base. The plunging water sent up thousands of water droplets creating a mystical scene where the air seemed to sparkle and a multitude of rainbows colored the sky. The escarpment rose from the forest canopy some 600 vertical feet in a slight amphitheater shape with the waterfall plunging down the center. Looking at the scene before us we could understand the mythical importance of the escarpment in the dreamtime stories of the Aborigines. For a moment we also imagined what the first explorers must have felt when confronted with this impassable barrier.
Sitting on a sandy beach we had our picnic lunch and enjoyed the waterfall and surrounding forest. Soon however it was time to head back. Our drive back was without mishap, although not without some anxious moments. We arrived at the sealed highway just as the last of the sun dipped below the horizon. As we drove along the Arnhem Highway towards Darwin and “civilization” we looked back and promised ourselves to return for a longer visit to this dangerous but beautiful Park.
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