Wednesday, February 1, 2017

KAKADU NATIONAL PARK

visited November 2016

The track into MAGUK FALLS

How Smokey Yunick Gave Top Advice Without Visiting Kakadu

“IF A BIT’S GOOD, A LOT’S BETTER”
The above sweet philosophy is not a tezza original – I first heard it from Smokey Yunick, the 50s thru70s stock car builder/driver. He was talking about engine power, but it applies to many other parts of life. Including Kakadu Tours. 
Here’s the thing – a one day tour is do-able, but distance from Darwin plus the multitude of attractions within the park make 2 days better, 3 days better again.

Distances are not small. KAKADU's JABIRU (top right) is 250km by road from DARWIN. The nearest to DARWIN ENTRANCE to the park is 155km frpm the TOP END capital.
Note the size of KAKADU relative to the very good LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK which is also considerably closer to DARWIN. (image Brookes Australian Tours)

I say 3 days are better because my 2 day trip with TERRITORY EXPEDITIONS, although excellent, did not have time to cover all the SHOULD SEES years of Kakadu documentaries have suggested are highlights. For instance these shows have people standing on top of the Arnhem escarpment drinking in the panoramic view –we hiked half way up to an okay viewpoint but lacked the 90 minutes signs suggested were needed to continue to the top.
This is as close as we got to the top of the escarpment - I reckon the view would be way more panoramic from up there.

IMHO another SHOULD SEE/DO is the YELLOW WATER WILDLIFE CRUISE or one of the OTHER WETLANDS. We called in at COOINDA LODGE near Yellow Water but our itinerary just did not suit the timing of the cruise. (Although many would suggest our pre-park ADELAIDE RIVER JUMPING CROC TOUR was a more than adequate substitute).
Yellow Water Cruise looks sweet to me. (image Tourism Top End)

I also personally reckon a quick tour of the Kakadu’s main (only?) township JAIBIRU, although not a SHOULD SEE would have been worthwhile, particularly when we passed so close. But the fact is we were pressed for time all the first day – the tour got off to a delayed start when a traffic accident road jam made for a late departure from Darwin. This also caused us to bypass the WARRADJAN CULTURAL CENTRE mentioned on the itinerary.

But we certainly got in other SHOULD SEES like the NOURLANGIE ROCK ART SITE; a couple of very nice waterfall-fed swimming holes (MUGUK AND MOLINE ROCK HOLE); and some short, not too difficult treks (to GUNWHARDEWHARDE LOOKOUT and MAGUK swimming hole). We also got extra swimming at 2 attractive roadhouse pools – probably the best was at COOINDA LODGE where we saw in sunset while tour guide MATT prepared dinner for us at the nearby MARDUGAL SAFARI CAMP. I have a lot of info and pix on these places down page.

There were BONUS ATTRACTIONS outside the park.

 We called in to the ADELAIDE RIVER SPECTACULAR JUMPING CROCODILE CRUISE - highlight of the 2 days - more down page....


 ....and the short visit to BARK HUT INN closer to KAKADU’S north west entrance was a pleasant break in the rather long drive to reach the park too. This place has way more then just a nice aircon bar fer cool drinks - more down page..


THE TOUR
I researched best value on account I'm a budget traveler. From what I could see TERRITORY EXPEDITION'S 2 DAY TOUR did the job - this one seemed to have a good itinerary, including a lot (but not all) of the SHOULD SEES I'd heard/read about, fine user reviews but was considerably less expensive than similar opposition. It included the $40 park entrance fee whereas most of the others don't and I was not put off by accommodation is in tents not aircon dorms or better as promised by others. On the last point I didn't care - camping in the bush is more KAKADU than some dorm etc.>A point to note - quite a few of the attractive-seeming tours I found online do not run in wet season.
THE TOUR ROUTE was roughly triangular – after stops at the ADELAIDE R JUMPING CROCS CRUISE (out of image abt 56Kkm west of BARK HUT INN) and at the latter for lunch, we entered the park at the ARNHEM HWY’s north west entrance, heading east to almost JAIBARU, and then turning south west on the KAKADU HIGHWAY, visiting the NOURLANGIE ROCK ART/GUNWHARDEWHARDE LOOOKOUT area on the way to our overnight stop at MARDUBAL CAMPSITE. Second day we hiked/swam at MAGUK, lunched at MARY R ROADHOUSE and swam at nearby MOLINE ROCKHOLE. We exited the park 60km north-east of PINE CREEK (at the MARY RIVER ROADHOUSE). Reaching PINE CREEK, the group split up – those doing a third day at LITCHFIELD NATIONAL PARK went in another vehicle while we cruised back to Darwin on HWY ONE (about 3 hours including a rest stop at ADELAIDE RIVER township).
A more detailed PARK MAP is available on this page.


STOP 1 - 0900 - ADELAIDE RIVER SPECTACULAR JUMPING CROC TOUR.
After a delayed start due to accident-caused traffic jams in DARWIN, about 20 of us arrived for the ADELAIDE RIVER SPECTACULAR JUMPING CROC TOUR 9am cruise. This part of the Adelaide R is one hour out of Darwin and 90km east of the Kakadu entrance. This is one of 2 jumping croc tours in this area - it is a few km north of the river bridge along a fairly good dirt road.
Along with a handful of independent tourists we piled into the smaller of the 2 craft - being early low season there was no demand for the bigger 2 deck vessel – an advantage because viewing is much closer and less obstructed from the smaller craft: btw – for the nervous:  it is not tiny and of very solid/heavy construction – there is no chance of a cranky croc overturning it.

Very soon into the cruise we were approached by our first croc– a big dominant male who put on a great leaping display. 
Kudos must go to Katie in the bow with the meat on a pole – she had a great eye for cruising crocs and  sure knew how to get those muggers jumping. And she changed sides so that no passenger was disadvantaged. 

Meanwhile Tamara at the controls kept up a steady stream of humourous banter interspersed with lots of interesting facts (I’ve done 2 other croc tours with good commentary but a lot of Tamara’s info was new to me).

Further down river we were lucky enough to attract a smaller female (Tamara was right when she said the females can get more of themselves out of the water) followed by 2 more big males (one split when the other approached – he didn’t want to risk a fight which Tamara said is common when the big guys meet).

On the way back Katie fed the riverside kites which are expert at catching thrown food on the wing in their claws – and consuming it without landing.

Back at the arrivals area many of our group – 80% from overseas – got a big kick out of holding a python. I’m a seriously old geezer, seen this a dozen times, but enthused by the group I decided to give it my first try. 
Geezer gets a girlfriend


MATT, our guide, was excellent. He was a safe driver, had good knowledge of attractions, flora and fauna, a great sense of humour, fine organisational skills and was a pretty good cook. He gave didgeridoo lessons at the after-dinner campfire.

In all, our CROC TOUR visit took abt 90mins. Gotta say it was my highlight in a tour that was pretty excellent all round. Hell, done the highlight and not even in KAKADU!

A BRIEF HISTORY OF LEAPING CROCS
Northern Territory’s muggers have been leaping several meters out of the water for millennia in pursuit of low flying birds or critters sitting on riverside tree branches.
But the first recorded leap in response to human stimulus came in July 1862 when explorer JOHN MCDOUALL STUART reached the Adelaide River. Stuaart had not bathed since leaving DALY WATERS over a moth before – hence he was pretty ripe when he entered the river in an attempt to ford it. The whiff gave the area’s crocs such a shock they began leaping from the water. FAT ALBERT, the local dominant male, was so incensed he tail-wagged furiously down to the river mouth and took off for TIMOR.
FAT ALBERT hauls himself ashore at TIMOR

Another report comes from World War 2. A descendant of FAT ALBERT known by locals as SLIM SAM (locals were big on sarcasm) took up residence in a lagoon at the end of the WW2 airstrip at FENTON south of the Adelaide R. SLIM SAM was no mug and knew better than to have a go at the big B24 bombers passing close overhead  - but  one of those compact Japanese Zeros on a straffing run may have been another matter because Japanese ground crews reported several cases of weird tooth marks on the undersides of returning aircraft.
IN FER A SURPRISE - ground crew hasn't checked underneath yet.

History if wasted if we don’t learn from it – I guess the lesson here is don’t fly your ultralight too close to Top End rivers and lagoons UNLESS you haven’t tubbed for a month or so.
How natural selection Northern Territory style works.


STOP 2 - BARK HUT INN
This place (abt 60km on from the crocs) reads up on the 'net as pretty ordinary, but......
....the aircon bar was an okay place to spend time.....


....and the outside facilities were just the place to set up luncheon. What we had here was plenty of cold meats + salads + bread/wraps. Tea, coffee and water of course. Vegan tastes accommodated. Guests helped in preparation/washing-drying. Nothing too onerous.


BARK HUT INN's animal enclosure


STOP 3 - IN THE PARK! - NOURLANGIE ROCK ART and GUNWHARDEWHARDE LOOKOUT
Matt give us order of operations at the NOURLANGIE carpark/info shelter at the base of the ARNHEM ESCARPMENT south of JABIRU township. What we are going to do it walk up to the ROCK ART SITES and from there a bit higher to the GUNWHARDEWHARDE LOOKOUT.
The above is 165km from BARK HUT INN, 125km from the PARK ENTRANCE and 30km south of JABIRU**. The 11km side road in from the KAKADU Hwy is sealed.

**although not on the itinerary, I was a bit disappointed in not doing a drive-through at the least of JABIRU. This is the ONLY town in the park and has constantly been in the news over the years - plus experts say it will soon become a ghost town when the nearby RANGER URANIUM MINE for which it is a service town, closes. I feel it will always exist as a site for tourist resorts/cultural centres etc - albeit smaller than today.

From the car-park it’s a relatively short easy bush walk to the ROCK ART locations  – maybe 10 minutes, good surface, grades fairly gentle.


Where a Freelance Visit May Not Be Best.
Here’s the thing. I’m a bit of a loner and prefer to do my own thing. The idea of a bus/van tour normally does not whelm me all that much. However I’m glad I was on TERRITORY EXPEDITIONS's tour when I called in at NOURLANGIE – I got much more value from the area by having guide MATT explain the story behind not only the pictures but also the landscape. The saga of sibling love gone wrong made both way more relevant.


From the ROCK ART sites you can take a loop track along the base of the escarpment which gets you up to GUNWHARDEWHARDE LOOKOUT in abt another 10 minutes. The track is no more difficult underfoot but some grades can reach moderate to fairly steep over short sections.

I was a bit disappointed that the viewpoint when reached was not atop the ARNHEM PLATEA but about half way up. It offered okay views of the surrounding lower countryside and key spots on the PLATEAU ESCARPMENT itself – many relevant in the folklore MATT relayed to us. 

It is possible to continue the climb to the top of the cliff-side for some of those higher viewpoints you see on the KAKADU DOCUMENTARIES, but time constraints saw us loop back to the car park.

Schematic at car park info shelter (lower left) gives idea of route - up to ROCK ART sites at foot of cliffs center and center right - then along base of escarpment to GUNWHARDEWHARDE LOOKOUT top right - finally returning on lower section of loop track. Details clearer if you click-expand image.

Back to the car park.

SECOND BEST? – is NOURLANGIE inferior to UBIRR native-art wise? I’m saying this because several tour operators substitute NOORLANGIE when UBIRR becomes difficult to reach in the full wet season. My own outfit just didn’t have the time to divert the 39km north of JABIRU to UBIRR which makes it some way off the beaten KAKADU track.


STOP 4 - COINDA LODGE
 COOINDA is one of several accommodation places within the park. We weren't staying there, but at the nearby MARDIGAL CAMPGROUND. Matt had a great plan of operations - he dropped us off for an hour or so of leisurely swimming/sunning while he set up camp and prepared dinner. Sweet place. It seems COOINDA has an open pool policy, probably in the hope that visitors will use their bar/shop. I made sure I bought a beer.

COOINDA LODGE STORE had all the usual touristy stuff plus usefuls like cold beer. 


FINAL STOP DAY 1 - MARDIGAL CAMPGROUND 
This is 7km from COOINDA and 43km from NOURLANGIE ROCK ART site (find MARDUGAL CAMPGROUND #1 on GOOGLE MAPS) – various trip companies have their own area over this big site (although we were the only outfit on our early low season visit). 

Dining tent center - at right a bigger sleeping tent although I had the smaller one at rear in shot. 

I found my camp bed comfortable but if you have a small camping pillow you can slip into your pack bring it: space restrictions on the bus meant TERRITORY EXPEDITIONS didn’t supply any. Note too no ladders to upper bunks - get in early if you are less agile.

Dinner was BBQ in style – steak and sausages. If you are vegetarian, mention this early; the yummy vegetarian burgers disappeared quickly. Apart from the above, there was always enough food at all meals, and this non-gourmet thought quality was fine.

Campfire went down well - MATT rear left has unpacked the digeridoo to give some lessons - some guests had the knack.



DAY 2 - BREAKFAST

The usual cereal/fruit/bread + condiments, tea and coffee plus....

....toast outside for those who fancied it.

Campsite amenities block shared by all tour companies. Spacious, clean, great hot water - looked big enough to handle 3 or more bus loads at the one time. However it was about a 500m walk from TERRITORY EXPEDITION's campsite. Walk not lit at night, so take torch. Good light at the block.


STOP 1 DAY 2 MAGUK FALLS AND PLUNGE POOL
Sweet pool at MAGUK

WHY TOUR GUIDES GO GREY OVERNIGHT.
The pool beneath MAGUK FALLS was pristine when we arrived. It hadn’t rained much at all in the previous week and so the pool was not turbulent, the water clear and the cascade of the falls hitting the rocks 120m away at the pool’s far end end not over-powering. As a matter of fact everyone in the group had a strong desire to swim across and grab a free water massage under the falls.
Trouble is we had half a dozen or so young people from overseas who were non or poor swimmers. I felt sorry for them as they huddled in the shallower water near the pool entrance and gazed wistfully at the far end.
 No problem: when my kids and grandkids were too young to swim I used to tow them along, me breast-stroking – they with hands on my shoulders and kicking. And although I’m a 71 yo geezer, I swim laps every day and super fit in the water. So I offered to tow people across. My bus-seat mate William from Malaysia declined. A girl from Taiwan thought she could swim across but asked me to stay with her because “I’m not fully confident of my stamina”. Hey, pretty sophisticated language from an English as a second language person – and it turned out her stamina was real good. This emboldened her friend, a non-swimmer, to try the hands on shoulder routine – no problems and after 10 minutes sitting under the falls we went back where William, having seen the success of the others, was raring to go. He turned out a dream to tow on account he had a very powerful kick – so much so a young Polish girl, a good swimmer, offered to take him back.
In the meantime our poor tour guide MATT who had constantly urged the poor and non-swimmers to be careful and stick to the shallow bits near the pool’s entrance had that concentrated cool of someone pretending to be not worried while underneath having conniptions. No worries MATT, not only am I super fit in the water, but I know CPR real well.

I’m sure the possibility of someone performing CPR cheered him up immensely.



The last 1km to the pool from the vehicle parking area is along a great bush track which in parts is a boardwalk thru a palm and eucalyptus forest, in others a creekside track which was a bit rough underfoot and required a certain amount of rock-hopping at some points (see pic top of page). But overall not a difficult trek. I think this track may close at the peak of the wet – MATT showed us vegetation detritus from prior wet periods in the lower tree canopy.

THE UPPER FALLS AREA – we didn’t have time to explore this area but apparently there is a real good track which leads to some nice smaller pools and a fine viewpoint above the falls. Check it out on Google. There are also some long distance treks which leaves from this area.

ACCESS TO MAGUK
MAGUK is 45km south of our campsite and 110km from JABIRU. The road in from the KAKADU HIGHWAY is about 10km km long, dirt surfaced, corrugated in parts but overall in pretty good condition when we did it. I’m not sure how it goes in the peak of the wet. No problem - it seems TERRITORY EXPEDITIONS has an alternative site if MAGUK is closed.


STOP 2 - TERMITE MOUNDS
Back on the KAKADU Hwy we pulled over 20km south to check these termite mounds - these are not the size, variety of structures or sheer numbers of LITCHFIELD NP's MAGNETIC TERMITE MOUNDS, but probably pretty impressive for someone who hasn't seen mounds previously.


STOP 3 - MARY RIVER ROADHOUSE
This is another of those rather nice roadhouses in the park area. Has a good airconned shop/diner/bar at right, and undercover picnic facilities at left, where.....

We set up the usual sandwiches/wraps etc luncheon. MATT had some sausages going on the gas BBQ.

As usual, I felt obliged to buy a beer. Other guests went with the more touristy purchases. There are camping supplies, motoring needs, groceries, snacks/fast food etc. Because this is adjacent the southern entrance to KAKADU you can buy park passes and get a lot of tourist info, maps,brochures.

MARY RIVER ROADHOUSE is part of a bigger complex known as GOYMARR TOURIST PARK. Run by the local aborigines, this has motel rooms, cabins, backpacker rooms, a campground with camp kitchen, pool, laudary, tv room/lounge etc. I had a wander around out back - seemed like a good base for those with their own vehicle. 
The building furthest north (closest top of image) on the driveway loop is the GOYMARR INTERPRETIVE CENTER, their tourist info place where you can purchase park permits, check status of roads into tourist spots, get maps and other info, check native art and similar cultural stuff.


STOP 4 - MOLINE ROCKHOLE
After lunch we backtracked a few km into the park to the MOLINE ROCKHOLE. This was smaller than MAGUK but just as nice. We repeated the tow service across to the small falls.

The turn into MOLINE is about 7km north-east f MARY RIVER ROADHOUSE. The dirt access road is less than 1km long, narrow, in fairly good condition when we went thru. The car park and particularly direct entry to the pool werw restricted in size - there is a kind of letterbox about 15m to the right in the bush at the start of the track, where tour buses alert others that they are already there - apparently 2 tour groups create too much of a crowd. 
There is no restriction on private vehicles of course.
This place is a bit of a gem: I don't remember any sign posts beside the Hwy to alert casual visitors to its whereabouts - so I'd start looking for a dirt track to the right abt 30km south of the marked track into MAGUK if coming from the north.
I forgot to add a linear scale to this image - it is 5km in a straight line between the 2 place-markers.


GOING HOME
After MOLINE, we headed back south-west out of the park to PINE CREEK township (abt 60km from MARY R ROADHOUSE). Abt half our group was doing a third day at LITCHFIELD NP - they swapped into a 2nd vehicle after which we took off for the 225 tip north along Hwy 1 to DARWIN. This took about 3hours including a stop at a nice roadhouse at ADELAIDE RIVER township, roughly half way (110km).

Sweet trip - I can recommend KAKADU, gang. 
But maybe not a one day trip - I reckon you would spend so much of the day in the bus that places of interest would have to be rationed severely, and you would get back to DARWIN feeling really bushed. 
As I said up page, even my 2 day trip had to miss out on some interesting venues. I feel the best deal may be to hire a vehicle and do it independently - however this would be prohibitively expensive to a loner-cheapskate like me and I would miss out on the expert commentary and knowledge of someone like MATT. Maybe a 3 day guided tour would work out a better deal for a single traveler.
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