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!’.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.