Monthly Archives: May 2013

BANGGERRENG

I awoke with my ears still ringing from slapping at the mosquitoes during the night. I would have thought that  the immense buzzing would cease with the rising sun but apparently, when camped by a billabong, the sun means nothing but a light switch being turned on.

I stared at the netting on my tent. It was covered by hungry mosquitoes, like groupies rallying outside The Beatles hotel during their peak. I slipped into my jeans and long-sleeved shirt, donned the fly net, unzipped the tent and commando-rolled out into the cloudy morning.

There was no fooling the mozzies. They came at me while I brewed my coffee. I thought maybe if I headed to the water’s edge they’d leave me alone, thinking, ‘This guy’s crazy! There’s a dinosaur in them waters!’.P1020903

I stood at the top of the boat ramp, slapping at the flying insects when I saw bubbles explode at the surface of the water. And then a wake was created as something very large swam towards the boat ramp.

Not hanging around to find out what it was I headed back to my camp, inviting the Germans to sample my coffee. Skipping breakfast, I packed up the tent and jumped in the car – along with about 20 mozzies that decided to hitch a free ride.

 

Not on my watch. I unwound my window and as I navigated the dirt track, using my truck-drivers cap, I swiped at the persistent blood-sucking bastards. They’re worse than a relentless ex-girlfriend.

By the time I reached Warradjan Visitor’s Center I had dispatched most of my fury on the mozzies, which incidentally, almost had me crash into a tree. Indeed, mosquitoes can kill.

Warradjan means ‘pig-nosed turtle’ in the local indigenous language. The building itself was shaped like its namesake. I entered the display area that teaches a little bit about the culture of the local clans that still live in the area and are now responsible for the care-taking of the Kakadu National Park.

Traditional sounds of chants, rhythm sticks and didgeridoos played repeatedly over the speakers as I read about the Murumburr people who spoke Gun-djeihmi.

Aboriginal people call themselves ‘Bininj’ and non-Aboriginals are called ‘Balanda’. The three important languages of the region are Gagudju, Gun-djeihmi and Jawyon.

Jawyon is also the resting place of Bula, the creator of the land. It is regarded as ‘sick country’ due to it being the uranium deposits of the north. The people believe that if you enter Jawyon and disturb Bula great floods, fires and destructive earthquakes will erupt.

When the Australian Government began to mine the area for the sought-after uranium in the early 80s, they raised the debate on Aboriginal land rights and it was during that argument that Aboriginal rights and land ownership started to be returned to their rightful owners and the mining subsequently stopped.P1020930

In their story of Creation, the first people, called ‘Nayuhyunggi’ left marks on rocks – Gunbim – rock art – which can be viewed at Nourlangie. Some places are regarded  Andjamun – sacred and dangerous and can only be visited by senior men and women.

But throughout most of the Aboriginal clans around Australia the Rainbow Snake is the most popular story of creation, holding children in her belly as she went around the land, dispersing them in different locations and creating the seasonal cycles of animals and plants.

The rock art in Kakadu helped it achieve World Heritage status and is only one of 25 sites in the world that is regarded a cultural and natural site worth preserving.

Some local Aborigines are regarded in the highest respect as passing on ancestral stories and knowledge of hunting and gathering. People like Old Nym Djimogurr was regarded as a ‘Magic Man’ who possessed all the knowledge for all the ceremonial dances.

Nipper Kapi-ije held and shared his knowledge about the culture, boundaries of different clans and was one of the leaders raising the plight to get his people’s land back.

To maintain the preservation of Kakadu National Park, a lot of controlled ‘Gumak’ (fire) was used to spurce regrowth of vegetation and to clear the forests of sources for wild fires. This practice has been around for thousands of years, used by the locals to maintain their land during Wurrgeng – the cold wetter season – so that during the Gurrung – hot dry weather – wild fires wouldn’t destroy the land.

Banggerreng, meaning ‘knock ’em down storm’ (and my new favourite word) was refereed to the monsoon season – the wet season.

When the first European settlers arrived in the 19th century they brought with them alcohol and disease such as the common cold and influenza that killed thousands of Aborigines as they had never had to deal with it.

They also stole the land from the local indigenous populations, introduced water buffalo from Timor in 1820 (in the Cobourg Pennisula ) and later, in 1845, after abandoning their failed settlements, released 50 buffalo into the wild that bred and destroyed the environment (during the 70s, to control tuberculosis, the Australian Government reduced their numbers). The settlers almost shot the crocodiles to the verge of extinction. Aborigines were used to help in the hunting, skinning and salting of crocodile the hides before they were packed and shipped off to the European markets. They were payed in tobacco rations, clothing and food. No money was provided (may as well call it slavery).

There were 200 languages before the Europeans arrived. Now there remain maybe 50. It was Australia’s darkest period of its 200-year history including the displacement of children (The Stolen Generation) and forcing the conversion to Christianity by missions.

Today, a lot of Aborigines are still facing racism, high unemployment numbers, spend their day drinking to the verge of an inability to do anything (an act that their children witness and take on), have a lack of education and a lack of being involved in today’s modern society.

And with it being Reconciliation Week all around this great nation, Australia has so much to do to reconcile and fix the damage caused by the first settlers. Hopefully, one day we will all be able to come together properly as one nation (and not the Pauline Hanson kind).

Feeling a bit down from the destructive history, I headed on to the lookout point at Nourlangie. I saw that my fuel gauge was scratching the ’empty’ side of the tank.

With 20 liters of spare fuel in the can behind the driver’s seat (that had been keeping me on a steady high since Adelaide), I finally used it and filled up as I read the sign informing that the walking track around the billabong was closed.

There could only be two reasons – debris from recent floods or crocodiles – or both.

I headed up to the lookout view point on the sloping rock that overlooked the billabong and the rest of the national park, its majestic rock faces shadowing like a protective mother over the vast land.

Here I met Felicity, a young Aussie girl also traveling on her own. We chatted and I suggested that Gubara might have a swimming hole. I didn’t know for sure but a gut instinct told me that there was a high chance of one being there (and lately I was listening more and more to my gut).

She in turn recommended the rock art further down the road. We figured we’d catch up at Gubara as I headed down to see the rock art. Painted works that told stories from 5,000 years ago (although it is believed that Aborigines have been around for 50,000 years).

The last paintings were from 150 years ago showing ships and guns introduced by Europeans.

The sun was pounding and I was craving for a swim. I sped down down the red dirt track, sliding ever so slightly, feeling like I was in the Dakar Rally as I parked beside Felicity’s van, reading the sign – ‘Gubara Pool’. I yelped for joy, packed my backpack with water, mandarins and my loyal travel buddy, Animal, and practically ran – barefoot – the 3 K track to the pool.P1020941

I light-footed through tall grass, hoping that there weren’t any snakes that I might surprise (and in turn, they might surprise me), slapped flies off me and reached a rocky and wooded area. I followed the water pools to a small rock pool where a Frenchman and a German girl were chilling by the water and Felicity had just returned from exploring a little further up the creek.

Without hesitation I stripped to my bathers and jumped in the cool, clear waters, swimming about among fish that darted between the rocks.

I found a spot with sand and sat under water, a school of small fish surrounding me.

P1020949After splashing about for what felt like a few hours, I headed back with Felicity to the car park where we said our ‘goodbyes’ and drove off to Jabiru, the main town in the park, practically in the middle.

A small community with a petrol station, a supermarket, a pub, a Holiday Inn hotel shaped like a crocodile and two caravan parks. I pulled into the cheaper one, $13 to pitch a tent where I met Greg (American) and Lyn (Australian) and a German motorcyclist (whose name I didn’t catch).

 

We exchanged travel stories and again I found myself recommending Springvale Homestead in Katherine to both travelers.

I cooked a Middle Eastern dish called ‘Shakshuka’ and after a shower I headed over to the bar for a few well-deserved beers and to type away at the keyboard.

I headed to bed at 22:30 fighting off 2-3 mosquitoes, trying not to scratch at the 400 hundred bites I sustained at Jim Jim Billabong.

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ONCE A JOLLY SWAGMAN, NEVER BY A BILLABONG

You are the guitar man, jah?” said Marcus, implying that I mosey on over later with my six-string when the fire is lit.

“No worries,” I said.

I had camped next to Marcus and Vilma, a German couple, the previous night at Gunlom. The whole camp had heard me strum my guitar (I was surprised no one asked me to either burn it or stop playing) but I only bumped into them at the top of the Gunlom Waterfalls in the rock pools.

P1020867I had climbed the steep ascent after a breakfast of eggs and a salad. Rounding a boulder I almost fell back. My eyes had to be playing tricks on me.

Before me three separate rock pools with crystal-clear waters surrounded by red rock were laid out like a therapeutic spa. Sandy beaches lay at the foot of gum trees standing proud, watching over the visitors that came to swim.

Without hesitation I splashed between pools, clambered over rocks exploring one of the most astounding places I had ever set foot in. I conversed with the Germans about travels, the Middle East, Oktoberfest, life in general.

As we played about, Marcus suddenly noticed a Mertens Monitor (known as ‘Burrarr’ in the local indigenous language), a large black lizard about a meter in length, with small yellow dots all over its body, resembling a starry night sky. Its underbelly was a light, creamy colour. It lay on the edge of the rock pool basking in the sun.P1020879

Marcus and I climbed up to the higher rock pool where we we’re both taken aback by the gorge the water was carving its way through. A small, Jacuzzi-like pool just above the small waterfall beckoned me to sit in it.

I simply could not believe that I was here in this glorious part of the world, untouched (so it seemed) by the hand of destructive human. Clambering over a fallen tree trunk, I almost stepped on a dead black dung beetle, the size of a chicken’s egg.

As the sun climbed higher, I bid the German’s farewell. Kakadu was the size of a third of Tasmania, about 20,000 square kilometers. There was much too see and do. I drove up to Gungurul, a campsite and lookout point on the South Alligator River. I climbed the hill only to discover that the view was obscured by trees. I could just make out the green blanket of forest spread out over a red sheet of Outback earth. I walked the 250 meters to the South Alligator River, passing a bright yellow sign with large red letters that didn’t hold back in typical Aussie manner:

‘EXTREME DANGER VERY LARGE ESTUARINE (SALTWATER) CROCODILES INHABIT THESE WATERS’

Known as ‘Ginga’ in the local indigenous language, salty males can reach 5-7 meters (and sometimes more) while the females were slightly smaller at 3-4 meters.

I was the only person around which made everything more eerie and horror movie-esq. I walked as quietly as I could to the banks of the river – only to discover that it was all a dry sandy beach with tall gum trees standing at odd angles with huge chunks of debris collected at their base.

I was about to turn back when I noticed another embankment in the middle. I assumed that the other side would have water – and crocs. I threw off my sandals and crept up as stealthily as possible; feeling very vulnerable if there just happened to be a 5-meter dinosaur on the other side that might be catching some rays (I was also on the lookout for snakes and prehistoric-sized spiders).

I breathed slowly as I saw that the ankle-deep water was clear. I looked each way; staring at rocks for prolonged lengths of time until I was satisfied that it wasn’t one of nature’s highly tuned killing machines.

I headed back to the car and traveled onwards to Jim Jim Billabong, slowing down to watch a majestic chocolate-brown wild Brumby cross the road. Further on, a couple of wild donkeys crossed the highway.

Jim Jim Billabong is a $5 camp site with a compost toilet block, concrete picnic tables and fire pits. I parked at the furthest table from the watering hole, donned my fly net and began to collect firewood for the night. I lingered by the water, watching it with the intensity of a predator tracking its prey, only that I was the prey.

The billabong is surrounded by thick trees, the only opening being the boat ramp. I stood far enough from the edge of the water to feel just a little bit safe. I was getting a strange feeling that I was being watched so I backed off and went to pitch my tent.

A French family pulled up in a hired Landcruiser. We exchanged ‘bonjours’ and just as I finished cooking a tuna pasta dish surrounded by green tree ants, the Germans rolled up.

As the sun began to set . I began to feel the mosquitoes bite so I changed to jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and added socks to go with my sandals. My only exposed parts were my hands as I kept the fly net on. The Germans began to prep their own dinner as I brought over the wood I had collected and my guitar.

I lit the fire while a constant buzzing sound grew louder as the sun disappeared and I realised that camping by a billabong on a humid night was about as smart an idea as having Tony Abbott run for Prime Minister.

I was sweating due to the humidity (dry season my ass), trying to play guitar while slapping away at the mozzies that had the special ability to pierce through jeans and long-sleeved shirts.

“Jesus Christ!” I yelled out, trying to complete a whole song without stopping to slap at an insect.

The buzzing grew louder and pretty soon all we could hear was the roaring fire and the buzzing of  mini-Messerschmits.

The Germans shared their white wine while I tried desperately to provide some musical entertainment. I managed to suffer through two hours of bites before giving up.

“I’ll see you guys in the morning,” I said. “I’ll make coffee,” I promised and devised a strategy to leap into my tent without getting the mosquitoes to follow. I somehow managed to give them the slip and zipped up the netting in lightning speed.

I lay down to try and sleep but the constant buzzing drone of a jazillion mosquitoes kept me up. I may as well be sleeping under an engine of a jet plane going through the wind tunnel test. I seriously thought that the mozzies would pick up my tent and drop me in the middle of the billabong.

And if that wasn’t enough, weird animal noises were penetrating the night. Creatures kept crashing into my tent with high-pierced squawks, as though something were killing it and dragging it off to feed its family.

The howling of dingos nearby did not add to the nightmarish soundtrack. All I could do was hope that none of the mosquitoes would find a way in, like semen trying to fertilise an egg. The ones that did penetrate through were dealt with formidably.

That night I was not a jolly swagman camped by a billabong. Whoever wrote the words to ‘Waltzing Matilda’ forgot to mention that the mosquitoes will, like an investment bank, suck you dry.

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KAKADU-KAKADON’T

P1020784I was strumming Led Zeppelin’s epos, Stairway to Heaven, on my guitar as I casually looked up at the moonless starry sky. It was just past 19:00 and the Milky Way was as clear as a red wine stain on a white rug. I knew it would be a good day which started out by waking up at 07:00, the sun not yet warm enough to scare off the morning chill. As I brewed my Turkish-Lebanese coffee blend in the communal kitchen, I looked over to the banks of the lagoon.

Grumpy was nowhere to be seen.

 

Chatted with an Australian fisherman over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and tomato sandwiches, he gave me the title to the piece.

“Kakadu, kakadon’t,” he said when I told him of my travel outline.

I left Springvale Homestead feeling springy, stopping at the now open Trash ‘n’ Treasure shop which stocked the machine head I needed for the guitar which I fixed at the counter and bought a new set of strings just in case.

On the road I pulled in at Edith Falls, about 46 K’s north of Katherine for a quick swim. No one else was in the water which made me paranoid as I was freaked out enough about the possibilities of crocodiles sharing the water. I’m all for sharing, just not with them.

P1020782After a quick dip (and I mean quick. I jumped in, submerged and jumped out), I continued on to Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage listed park, the only one in the world to have a protected tropical river running through it – the Alligator River (even though its home to crocodiles).

“You should be able to drive up to Gunlom in your 2-wheel drive,” advised the ranger when I bought my 14 day, $25 pass at Mary’s Roadhouse at the southern entrance to the park. He marked out the $5 (with pit toilets) and $10 (with hot showers) camp sites and where it was safe to swim. “Gunlom, by far, is the best place in the park,” he recommended.

I took the first left off the Kakadu Highway and hit the dusty red track that took me to Yurmikmik walking tracks. I grinned as my car was finally covered in a thin layer of red, Outback dust. I went for the 4-K Motorcar Falls trek. It was an extremely hot day so I packed 3 litres of water.

I came across a retired couple halfway up the track who informed me that, “Once you climb over the boulders, you’ll reach the plunge pool.”

I kept walking, diverting slightly to the Yurmikmik lookout that showed off the grandeur of the Kakadu National Park as far as a good eye could see. It was as green as a lush botanical garden.P1020789

I returned to the track, noticing its dullness. It was through dry bushland, covered with mighty-sized ants that I had to skip over so as not to physically trip over. I came across a young British couple who repeated what the retirees had said, “Brave the boulders and you’ll see it. It’s beautiful.”

After a further 35 minutes I found myself in a thick wooded area with small pools of clear water and planet-sized boulders. I clambered over them, scattering tiny black frogs (or were they grasshoppers?), weary of the huge webs orb spiders had booby-trapped everywhere as I stepped lightly. I came up to a moon-sized boulder which I scaled with the ease of a mountain goat (if I do say so myself – and I do say so myself). Upon reaching its peak I had to stop.

I started to laugh, almost maniacally although it was from pure joy. Before me was a crystal clear pool of water, about P1020796as big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Surrounding it were tall cliffs of red, yellow and black rock reaching up almost a hundred feet to scratch the blue sky. From the top of one wall, a waterfall cascaded down gently into the water.

It was as if I had fallen into one of Monet’s water-paintings. I was in complete awe as to how something as simple (and complex) as nature had created this slice of paradise. And after such a dull hike, to be rewarded with this…

P1020797Three weeks ago I was 3,500 K’s from this spot and now I was in heaven.

I tore off the shirt sticking to my back and, although I knew that there wouldn’t be (and shouldn’t be) any crocs around, I still checked vehemently until I was absolutely certain that it was safe to plunge in.

And plunge I did, swimming out to the centre of the pool, basking in the sun, an irremovable grin smeared across my face. I splashed about, the only human around (which would make me an easy – and bony – meal for any croc).

Sunning myself on the rock like a basking lizard, I looked around again, exploding in joyous laughter. “I can’t believe this is real,” I said aloud, the spiders and frogs (or were they grasshoppers?) my only audience.

I gathered my things and began to head off when something caught my eye. A flash of orange and black came into focus as an orb spider the size of my small hatchback hung in the middle of its house-sized web just off the rock I was standing on.

I had to force myself to pull away and get back on the track as I was in complete awe by the magnificent arachnid.P1020816

I hit the trail, head down to make sure I wasn’t about to step on a snake, tiny black frogs (or were they grasshoppers?) or disturb one of the many ant nests I had come across. When I did lift my head it was because I had reached a gate I didn’t pass on the way up.

Huh, I shrugged and continued on. Must lead back to the car park.

When I passed the sign that read, ‘Tour Vehicles Only’ I knew I had made a wrong turn. Hopes were dashed of reaching the car park when the track reached the red dirt road I had been driving on.

Shit.

The full force of the Outback sun hit me like a runaway train. My gut instinct told me to go left and for the first time in my life I decided to listen to it. After a few metres I heard the rumblings of a car and flagged down a campervan driven by a French couple.

They offered me a ride to the car park where I was headed. In return, I recommended the Springvale Homestead for camping as they were headed towards Katherine and gave them my map of the town.

I continued down the road a further 11 K’s to Gunlom where I pitched a tent at the $10 campsite. I hiked over to the rock pool which was bigger than the Motorcar Falls and had a taller water fall flowing down.

“This is incredible,” I said aloud, taken aback by the majestic beauty of nature’s handy work. I swam in knee-deep water (it was getting late and it is recommended not to swim after 19:00 even though it was only 16:00) before heading back to the campsite.

P1020857I collected wood for a fire, fixed a new G-string… to my guitar… paid the $10 fee to the ranger doing the rounds and cooked up a dinner of canned pumpkin and sweet potato soup, adding in chunks of real potato. While washing the dishes I bumped into the British couple from the Motorcar Falls track. “Come round later,” I invited them. “I’ve got marshmallows to roast and a guitar to play.”

They came by just as I lit the fire and strummed my first chords on Ol’ Red since leaving Melbourne some 3,500 kilometres ago. I shared my marshmallows and they shared their carton of red wine. Just after 21:00 they headed off to their tent. I watched the moon rise over the cliff-side, spreading an almost warm white light, the outline of the rocks creating a stairway to heaven.

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