From Kakadu to Katherine

October 20, 2023
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Map of Kakadu National Park by Nigel Malone (2007), CC BY SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons. North toward the top.

AFTER Jabiru, I decided to head southwest along the Kakadu Highway to Pine Creek, and from there southward along the Stuart Highway to the town of Katherine.

This would take me through another part of Kakadu National Park, and on down past another national park called Nitmiluk  National Park, which contains the 13 gorges of the Katherine River.

I decided to stay for another night or two at Cooinda, roughly 1 km from the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. Cooinda was founded in 1964 by a couple named Tom and Judy Opitz. Tom was a crocodile hunter and Judy came from England. In those days, hardly any tourists visited this part of the country, and Kakadu National Park did not yet exist.

I pitched a tent on the campground of the rather oasis-like Cooinda Lodge.

Cooinda, which means happy meeting place, an aboriginal name chosen by the Opitzes, began as a ‘tent store’ on the banks of Jim Jim Creek, which flows down from the Twin Falls and the 200-metre-high  Jim Jim Falls, 50 to 60 kilometres up a dirt four-wheel-drive road but with a well-serviced campground, Garnamarr or Karnamarr, between them.

(The name Jim Jim is a corruption of a local aboriginal term for a plant that grows in the area: the correct aboriginal name for the falls is Barrkmalam.)

There are several scenic local walks and hikes around and above the falls: in the dry season, it is generally possible to walk to the base of the falls. All in all, Jim Jim or Barrkmalam looks like a very good place to finish reading a book or, for that matter, writing one.

You can apparently be dropped off at the campground by 4WD tour buses, or hire a vehicle if confident enough. Like many of the roads in the Kakadu area, the Jim Jim Falls Road is often completely impassable in the wet season. It’s no coincidence, then, that the best photos of the falls in the wet all seem to be taken from the air, and sightseeing flights are popular.

The Jim Jim / Barrkmalam Falls during the wet season (29 January 2007). Photo by Tourism NT via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright image, but certain use rights permitted.

But there are other things to see within walking distance of Cooinda. Along with the Warradjan Cultural Centre, one kilometre distant, you only have to go two kilometres up the local roads to arrive at the Yellow Water Billabong.

The Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre had the most amazing displays, but photography was forbidden: so, you have to go there. It’s in the shape of a turtle outside, and there is a stone in the entrance describing the local aboriginal seasons, more detailed than just the wet and the dry.

The entrance to the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre

A stone attesting indigenous names for the local climatic seasons and their significance, in the foyer of the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre

One of the things that was really fascinating was a display of the local aboriginal marriage customs. The several local aboriginal tribes, which traditionally all spoke different languages though they have now tended to adopt Gundjeimhi as their common language, had customs whereby one could only marry a spouse from another tribe. This practice is called exogamy: it prevents inbreeding when the tribes are small, and cements alliances as well. There were elaborate rules, similar to the game of rock-scissors-paper, about who could marry whom.

At Yellow Water, of which the aboriginal name is Ngurrungurrudjaba, I went on another NT Bird Specialists tour, this time to spy on the waterfowl in a boat operated by Yellow Water Cruises.

Incidentally, this does not involve roughing it in any way. There is a covered jetty, with Mimi’s Restaurant & Barra Bar behind it.

The jetty and two boats on Yellow Water Billabong

A long list of birds we might see

The guy in charge of our trip, NT Bird Specialists’ Luke Paterson, can apparently imitate the sound of about 300 different types of birds.

Luke Paterson, one of the two principals of NT Bird Specialists

As the next four photographs show, the area around the billabong is a really attractive mixture of swamp grass and trees that looks almost English, and the exposed waters of the billabong itself were like a mirror at times.

There were only about ten on the boat, though it could take 25, perhaps because even though the scene looked English, it was stinking hot.

And of course, the day was followed by a hot tropical sunset.

Sunset at Yellow Water

A closer view of the sunset, with ripples

On that tour, we saw about 80 kinds of birds, plus these well-camouflaged wallabies.

Generally, I wasn’t able to get really sharp bird photos, as I only had my mobile. Most serious birdwatchers tend to be armed with fairly flash-looking cameras.

Here is a video I made of the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre exterior, more huge bats in the trees (whence the thumbnail), and the boat tour, including a scene of a moulting waterbird right at the end.

Anyway, I met this guy called Joshua. We were both heading to Alice Springs shortly and decided to go as travel buddies, i.e. two cars together in a sort of convoy, stopping together, which is prudent for long journeys in Australia. There is a train — the Ghan — but it is strictly for wealthy tourists and costs a fortune, even though it was partly built for military purposes at taxpayer expense.

The Ghan costs about A$1,000 a night, and even a bus from Darwin to Alice Springs costs A$1,800 return. Probably the cheapest is a rental car, costing about A$300 to hire and about A$600 for gas out to Kakadu and then down to Alice Springs and back. Obviously, climate change is not yet a priority in these pricing arrangements.

We headed on down through Pine Creek, where the Kakadu Highway joins the Stuart Highway. The Stuart Highway is named after John McDouall Stuart, an explorer who led a ten-man party from Adelaide to the site of the future Darwin, and back, in 1861 and 1862, with all ten surviving despite all manner of epic privations. Stuart is generally counted as the founder of the Northern Territory. In the 1870s, a telegraph line was laid along the route of his expedition, and the various stations of the telegraph are counted as major historical sites.

The expedition was the sixth in a series, each one charting the location of more and more waterholes so that it was actually possible to cross the centre of Australia without perishing in the manner of all but one of the members of a less fortunate north-south expedition, that of Burke and Wills, whose one surviving member was famously saved by the aborigines.

Stuart’s party hoisted a Union Jack from a big tree, the location of which is commemorated by a cairn at what is now Point Stuart Coastal Reserve, about 100km east of Darwin Harbour.

Darwin Harbour is where Stuart’s party was aiming for but they got a bit lost on the way and drifted east, by a small distance considering how far they had come.

It is rather grimly ironic to think of a high-speed paved highway following much the same route as Stuart’s party, struggling across vast distances of desert, Stuart himself in such a bad way that he had to be carried for part of the distance. Imagine that!

(The Stuart Highway mostly follows the supply route known in the World War II era as ‘The Track’, and it was really only around that time that it was made into a sealed road. Nor was there a railway connection for the whole distance between Darwin and Adelaide until quite recently. For a long time, right up until the time the Opitzes founded Cooinda, the NT really was a frontier-like area.)

Pine Creek, which was the southern terminus of the line from Darwin until 1914, has a railway and miners’ museum. But apart from that it is not a very big place, with only about 318 residents at the latest count.

The only town in these parts that is of any real size is Katherine, with a population of 6,300, some 90 km south of Pine Creek along the Stuart Highway. Katherine is the gateway to the Nitmiluk National Park, of which the two main attractions are the 13 gorges of the Katherine River, which are quite close to the town, and, further north, Leliyn, or Edith Falls.

Katherine is also on one of the two main east-west automobile Tourism Drives in the north, the Savannah Way.

A little further to the north there is Nature’s Way, which includes the Arnhem Highway and the Kakadu Highway. You can see the logo for this route on the map at the top of this article.

That map also shows a logo for the north-south route along the Stuart Highway called, unsurprisingly, the Explorer’s Way. A web link to all the great outback touring routes can be accessed here.

In my next post, I will talk about the things I saw around Katherine, including the gorges, and the falls at Leliyn,


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