The Crocs of the Mary River
Our first experience in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory is to cross the croc-infested Mary River. We putter across the murky water in our little motorboat. Black hogs trot about on the grassy banks and saltwater crocodiles—a burgeoning population essential for maintaining the balance of the wetlands (1), its home for over 200 million years— frolic and sunbathe on the sandy banks among the mangroves, like puppies in a pen.
Keep your arms in and don’t lean out,’ the tour guide warns us, ‘they can jump their own body length out of the water.’‘
That body length, for some, is two meters. I wish we’d chosen the deluxe tour boat rather than the backpacker option. A huge saltie just a meter away slides into the water from its rocky launch pad, disturbing the green waterlilies that float like stepping-stones. Its elegance deceives the eye into believing the movement is slow—actually the speed is terrific.
Everyone is screaming up front and the boat sways precariously as people stand up, panicking, trying to see. This is it, I think, we’re going overboard. ‘Sit down,’ the tour guide urges. A barramundi the size of a baby croc has jumped into the boat, presumably to escape its predator. Its fin cuts a boy’s leg. The fish flaps and gapes, fighting death.
The guide holds it up and we see the fish span from his ankle to waist. Enough to feed us all, he says. I feel sorry for it but that’s nature, I guess. Being self sufficient in Kakadu means most indigenous people are not vegetarians, though we do sample live bush tucker in the form of berries, leaves and luminous green bugs that taste like lime. This ancient place has been sustaining the aboriginal Bininj and Mungguy (2) people for over 40,000 years.
The World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park is, we’re told by the tour guide, approximately the same size as Wales in Great Britain. Being British I understand the comparison. At 19,480 square kilometers, no wonder it takes four hours on bumpy terrain to get from one site to the next.
Kakadu lay under a shallow sea 140 million years ago. It now has six major landscape types—from stone country, hills and ridges, savannah woodlands and monsoon forests to billabongs, floodplains, tidal flats and coast (3). Ever-evolving with the seasons and with climate change, who knows how much longer the flora, fauna and earth will continue to thrive in this unique land.
I wonder why Kakadu is not on the radar for international tourism along with Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands, Ayers Rock, Queensland and Sydney. I only discovered this jewel of the Northern Territory by chance when I began to explore Australia’s ancient civilization. Home to 2,000 plant species, 280 bird species and one-fifth of Australia’s mammals (4), anyone who is inspired by nature, landscape and undeveloped Australia should go. Now.
We stand on the crest of Ubirr, as if at the peak of the world. The expansive flood plains are dry and flat in shades of green, brown and yellow. I get lost in the ridged sandstone, like honeycomb, against the pale blue sky. I haven’t even seen the movie Crocodile Dundee which was filmed here yet something tells me I am standing on sacred ground. Silence.
The earth hums a story which comforts, inspires and unsettles. Right here is the beginning of time.
Aboriginal art depicting fish, turtles and hunters adorns the red rock and rippled sandstone slabs that form a maze of caves and crevices, providing cool mercy from the beating sun. Craters dug into the rocks, like holes in Swiss cheese, are carved from nature’s hand and from the sea’s inundation. Molten rock like giant pumice stones smooth bare feet that have gone walkabout across them for centuries, hunting and gathering food.
Jim Jim Falls
Danger! Crocodiles inhabit this area, the signs say. ‘Don’t worry, that’s just a precaution. Crocs haven’t been spotted here for over 30 years,’ the guide tells us. Everyone else seems easily convinced. Gullible, I think, shuddering at the thought of being rolled and slowly drowned by one of those ancient, scaly beasts. I weigh my options: stay here alone—where crocs could appear on the riverbank—and miss out on Jim Jim Falls. Swimming down river is the only way to reach Jim Jim Falls, which we have driven a day to get to. It’s human nature to follow the pack; I plunge into the black water. To my horror it’s too deep to touch the bottom. My pulse throbs in my neck; the water is cool but panic keeps me warm. I cringe, waiting for the pull on my leg.
Just under a kilometer in distance, the swim feels like forever.
Jim Jim is well worth the fear and trepidation. At the end of the river we are met with a dramatic escarpment wall, which used to be a sea cliff shoreline above a shallow sea 140 million years ago (5).
The water cascades, white and silver froth drumming with a deafening roar into the aquamarine pool below. The force of the water pummels our shoulders, heads and backs like a firm massage as we stand underneath it. Clean and pure, like Kakadu itself, the water is invigorating. Despite being in Wurrgeng (winter), the water is abundant and temperatures still reach up to 30°C.
The thrum of insects, frog chorus and birdsong provides a constant musical companion to the peace of Kakadu. We listen to night owls under the black sky at camp. The clean air makes the winking stars seem far away here. The fresh scent of eucalyptus and burning wood fills my nostrils.
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Assistant Editor: Kathryn Rutz/Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photos: Tina Wild