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The Arnhem Highway to Kakadu

Published
October 14, 2023
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AFTER DARWIN, I set out to explore the natural parklands to the east of the city. The following local tourism map, which I photographed in Darwin, doesn’t show everything: but it does do a very good job of showing where I went, along the Arnhem Highway to the Corroboree Billabong and Jabiru in the Kakadu National Park, at the extreme right-hand side of the map.

Tourist map in Darwin. North toward the top.

I had thought that Arnhem was an aboriginal name, but of course, it was bestowed by Dutch explorers, after Arnhem in the Netherlands. Nowadays the name refers to a region east of Darwin called Arnhem Land, in which lower-lying savannahs and swamps that go down to the sea are overlooked by tall cliffs, the edges of an inland plateau.

Arnem Land overlaps Kakadu National Park. The next photograph shows the sort of scene that’s typical of Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land: the cliffs of the inland plateau in the background or on the horizon, and low flat greenery in front that runs all the way to the present-day coastline.

The cliffs are sea cliffs from the Jurassic Era, around 170 million years old. At that time, the flat lowlands in front were under the shallow sea that currently divides Australia from New Guinea: the Arafura Sea, the coast of which now begins a few tens of kilometres north of the cliffs of Arnhem Land. The Arafura Sea is one of the world’s oldest seas in the sense that it has neither opened nor closed up in all that time, though its floor is entirely dry during the ice ages.

The Arafura Sea and Gulf of Carpenteria. Historic public domain CIA map edited by ‘Supaluminal’ to show the Arafura Sea (19 March 2006) via Wikimedia Commons. East Timor is now independent, as Timor-Leste.

It amazes me that anything as clearly defined as sea cliffs remains from 170 million years ago, as if hardly anything has changed in all that time: the Arafura Sea merely a bit further out than it used to be. But every aspect of the Australian landscape seems to be incredibly ancient by New Zealand standards.

The daytime temperature in this area, at the end of the hot dry season of Gurrung and the start of the pre-monsoon season of Gunumeleng was in the thirties, and for most of the time, I wore a sort of Foreign Legion outfit.

Thursday

I stayed at the well-regarded Corroboree Park Tavern Caravan Park and Camp Grounds, home to an albino buffalo and two crocodiles, including a big saltwater crocodile named Brutus.

The following info panel shows the boundaries and main attractions of Kakadu National Park. The name is apparently a corruption of the name of one of the major local languages of the area, Gaagudju. You have to buy a park pass to enter the park, by the way.

Here is a sign advertising the two crocodiles at the tavern/caravan park.

I am not sure if the Brutus to which they refer is the same Brutus, 5.5 m long and with only one arm, who patrols the nearby Adelaide River, leaping out of the water for scraps to alarm the tourists. They say that the only thing more terrifying than Brutus of the Adelaide River is whatever it was that bit his arm off, either a shark or an even larger crocodile named Dominator.

A sign I saw in Darwin

A sign on the road

I should have gone on the Adelaide River Queen Jumping Crocodile Cruises, which advertises itself as the “original” jumping crocodile tour service, in business since 1985: for it now transpires, in a “shock announcement,” that they are going to close on the 31st of October, citing excessively short licence periods and an inability to attract long-term investment. There are still Adelaide River Cruises (the ones with the signboard in Darwin), Adelaide River Tours, which looks as though it is a bit more sedate, and others.

To judge by the Adelaide River Queen story, things may be getting a bit chaotic on the river, with lots of new firms getting in on the jumping-crocodile act, and that the public should make sure to go with professional operators using a big boat.

I went for a boat tour of the nearby Corroboree Billabong with Corroboree Billabong Wetland Cruises.

Corroboree means get-together and billabong means waterhole or swamp; though these are not local Northern Territory terms but actually come from New South Wales by way of Australian English, which first developed most of its colloquialisms and aboriginal borrowings in that state.

Anyhow, the cruise was amazing: as you can see from the next three photos, there were just crocodiles everywhere!

In fact, so numerous are crocodiles at the ‘top end’ of the Northern Territory that three of the rivers draining into the Arafura Sea to the east of Corroboree Billabong are known in English as the West Alligator, South Alligator, and East Alligator respectively.

The Alligator Rivers were given their English names two hundred years ago by an explorer named Philip Parker King, who mistook the numerous crocodiles of the area for alligators (not quite the same thing) and prudently noted that “as they appeared to be very numerous and large, it was not thought safe to stop all night up the River.” Quite so.

On a less alarming note, I saw beautiful lotus flowers in the swamp. From the 1700s on, if not earlier, the local aboriginals used to trade with Indonesian people called Macassans or Makasar, and I had thought that this was how the lotus arrived in the Northern Territory.

In fact, the lotus is native to the Northern Territory, as well as to much of Asia.

One of the Coroboree Billabong lotuses

The leaves of the lotus are famously water-repellent. Water forms beads that just run off as if they were droplets of mercury. Scientists have studied the underlying phenomenon to try and copy it, so as to make more waterproof and self-cleaning materials. I used one of these leaves to help keep off the sun as well!

The author with lotus flower and leaf

There are also lilies in the billabong: these are not the same thing as lotuses, though they are otherwise vaguely similar.

Lilies

On dry land, I took a photo of a sign pointing to the Purple Mango Café and Brewery, which is apparently well worth a visit.

And here is what looks like one of the local park headquarters.

Meanwhile, getting back to the boat cruise, I got some photos of the sun going down, which was lovely.

Here’s a video I made. It includes scenes of the white-bellied sea eagle and a small kangaroo or wallaby. The largest species of kangaroo, the big red, isn’t found up here.

Another thing you can see in the video are huge termite mounds that we went past while exploring on the ground. There are two main kinds of termite mounds in the Northern Territory, made by different kinds of termite. The mounds made by the so-called magnetic or compass termite species look like broad planks stuck in the ground with the thin edges to the north and to the south. They are about two or three metres high and aligned that way so that they present a thin edge to the full sun but warm up quickly in the morning and remain warm in the evening. The other common type is the mound made by cathedral termites, which can be as much as eight metres high and is quite commonly up to four metres high. Cathedral termite mounds are so massive that the direction of the sun can be ignored. All of these mounds can be 100 years old or more.

Heading on to Kakadu

After Corroboree, I carried on to Jabiru, the principal town in Kakadu National Park. I chose to stay there because camping is mostly about A$20–$25 a night and because most or all of the campsites in the area have swimming pools, plus fridges, cooking facilities, showers and toilets. Jabiru is also close to the centre of things locally.

Here is an overall map of Kakadu National Park.

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

More detailed and up-to-date maps can be found in the Parks Australia Visitor Guide to Kakadu National Park.

There are 19 aboriginal clans in Kakadu National Park, and more than 5,000 rock art sites. So, the ones to which tours are organised, mainly Barrangkuy and Ubirr, are just a tiny fraction of the total.

I got a park pass from one of the two visitor centres of the park, at Bowali. The other is at Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre to the southwest, on the Kakadu Highway.

I met a guy who had been travelling around Australia for six weeks: the campsite was made up of all sorts of people. I stayed at the Aurora Kakadu Lodge. There is also the government-run Merl campground, a little further to the northeast from Jabiru and perhaps a bit more basic at A$15 a night, and another one at Cooinda Lodge on the Kakadu Highway, close to Warradjan. There are other camping spots that you can only get to by way of a four-wheel drive with good ground clearance (I was driving a normal car).

Jabiru is essentially a uranium-mining town, on land owned by a tribal group called the Mirarr. Its future is uncertain, as the last local uranium mine, called the Ranger Mine, has now closed down in the aftermath of the Fukushima explosion. Another, with a forty-year mining licence from 1968, closed in 2008. They are trying to convert the town to tourism now, which seems reasonable.

Jabiru has a hotel in the shape of a crocodile! This is the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel.

Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, at Jabiru. Photo by Tourism NT, 4 January 2007, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright image, but certain use rights permitted.

You can get really good food at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, including children’s portions for only A$15.

There are ethnic restaurants in Jabiru and a supermarket, so, despite the remoteness of the township, you are not ‘roughing it’ there by any means. I think its increasingly touristy nature has seen to that.

In my next post, I will describe three days of sightseeing in Kakadu National Park.


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