During my 23 years living in Australia, “Kakadu” carried a mystique and an allure that was unparalleled anywhere else in Australia. “Pristine wilderness”; “world heritage listed”, “the ultimate outdoor adventure”, for those who liked backpacking or off road ventures. The wow factor was seriously piqued.
When we first looked at our route for this trip, Kakadu National Park seemed like the tipping point of an already full itinerary. Maybe…if we have time.
Turns out, we have time. We made good time, thanks to the low season, frequent closures of things we could have seen, and maybe a bit of drivenness in us – we both like to ‘move on’. In any event, we ended up north of Katherine with three more nights to kill before heading into Darwin. Why not take the 400km triangle route through Kakadu? We could stop half way through, at one of the nominal bush camps and still have enough time to take in some hikes and sightseeing.
So we turn east at Pine Creek off the Stuart Highway and drive into the park. Our first reaction to learning we had to pay $25pp to enter the park meets with some resistance, but hey – for the “Kakadu experience” it has to be worth it. We stop at Goymarr Interpretive Centre to pay our fees, but are told by a German-accented young woman that they’re out of passes, we’ll have to get one at the next stop, another 75kms up the road. She gives us a map and points out all the look-out stops, hikes, aboriginal art, and a few commercial ventures we might be interested in.
The road in is very quiet. Not unusual to what we’ve met so far and it adds to the wild feel of the park. We stop at the first look-out, walk the 600 metre path to a nice, but not scintillating view across the expanse of the park. The vistas we saw throughout the Kimberley were better than this. We stop at the next look-out, 25kms up the road, but this walk is a 3km return to the look-out and it’s high noon and hot as anything. We move on.
The landscape along the road is bland bush. It reminds Johan of bush north of Albany on the highway to Perth. Tall enough to obstruct any long-distance views, but mostly they’re unappealing straggly trees with thin trunks.
The next stop is closed for the season. The next, Gagudju Lodge, is where we’re supposed to purchase our passes. We’ve been on the road for over an hour now. The experience so far has not been earth-shattering. We feel a slight grudge towards the expensive entry fee: putting a price tag on a wilderness experience has a sultry effect of devaluing the experience. As though we’re looking for our money’s worth rather than enjoying the free thrills nature so generously offers.
After a few minutes ruminating, we decide to drive the whole 400kms through the park – and skip paying the fee that entitles us to use the look-outs and the campgrounds (which incur an additional fee).
Even so, or just to tempt fate, we stop at Mirral Lookout. This will be our ‘quintessential Kakadu experience”, the one that made this 400km detour worthwhile. The carpark is empty and the sign says it’s a 3km return hike: steep. Indeed, it’s steep and rocky. At the top is a metal platform, constructed to give a 360 degree view of the park. Brilliant idea, but trees obstruct most of the views and seriously inhibit the ‘wow’ factor. We like the idea of having to work for our views, but wonder how elderly travelers, the unfit and disabled get to enjoy the views of the park when there are none from the look-out carparks.
Back at the car, we pull out lunch, a leftover salad from yesterday’s lunch. A crow flies onto a post near the bench where I sit. He coos and gurgles at me, noises I’ve rarely heard from the squawking crows back home. To be honest, he sounds like he’s going to be sick, but maybe it’s his coy way of asking for a handout. I assure him I don’t feed wild animals, he’s got plenty to eat in this abundant bush, but I’m happy to talk with him while I eat my lunch. He continues his weird and garbled noises, like he’s doing his best to impersonate a kookaburra. Instead of talking to him in my native tongue (English), I start mimicking his strange calls. His head cocks and he eyes my suspiciously. Friend or foe? For a moment he looks on the attack. I suggest to him (in English again), that’s not a good idea: I’m bigger than he is.
We duck into Jabiru, the commercial center of Kakadu but it’s like a ghost town. Two boys, one on a bicycle, the other on a skateboard, amble down the road, but we see no one else and no cars either. Only a stray dingo. Probably a scavenger.
We head west out the town, back towards the Stuart Highway on the northern Kakadu road. The sun sits lower in the sky and enlivens the storm clouds forming up ahead. Once the trees give way to the wetlands the view opens up and becomes interesting, for the first time in our three-hour drive. We make a final stop at the Mamukala wetland bird exhibit. The walk trail is closed but the viewing platform is open. It looks out over a vast wetland lake with lilies and other water plants blowing gently in the humid breeze. There isn’t a bird in sight, despite the extensive display behind us that shows the hundreds of species of migratory birds that use this wetlands as a stopping ground, mostly in the late dry season, September-November.
A single bird alights upon the lily pads just in front of us: a Jacana, long orange legs, black body, orange hood over its head. We watch it peck at lily pads and strut around the shallow waters, as though he’s been assigned the job of entertaining the sole set of tourists that have stopped by this day.
Satisfied, we turn back to the car and head out of the park. There are no doubt wonderful things to see and do in Kakadu, in the right season and off the main roads. Or maybe not. Maybe the $25pp entry fee is meant to keep the tourists away. Mostly they have a reputation of trampling heritage listed sites such as this one. Maybe it’s a good deterrent to protect what’s left of the pristine nature of the park.
Singing in a late afternoon thunder-shower