“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.
I 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.
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.