Thursday, March 15, 2012

Into Kakadu

Some statistics:  Kakadu National Park is enormous - almost 20 000 square kilometers in size.. That's half the size of Switzerland.
            Kakadu contains 4 major river systems, six major landforms, a dizzying array of wildlife and has been continuously inhabited for more than 40 000 years.  And for half the year, it's underwater.  It's Australia's Big Wet.  Kakadu has everything - from sandstone escarpments to enormous lagoons of floating wildflowers, pockets of rainforest, towering cliffs with waterfalls, salt water crocodiles, freshwater crocodiles, magpie geese, azure kingfishers, wading birds like the Brolga and the Jabiru, and the largest concentration of aboriginal rock art in the world - a pictorial record of a history that goes back 40 00 years
            In two days we were going to see an absolutely infinitesimal amount of it.  We knew that.  But we were going to give it a good try.

As we drove south, traffic tapered off until we saw only tourists in camper vans like our own, and trucks on the long-haul route south to Alice Springs. A road train is a tractor unit with a string of trailers behind it - four are average, six are common. They get longer out in the center where the roads are really, truly, primordially, flat and run straight for hundreds of kilometers.   On this big country, with its long highways, and rail lines that are drying up and shutting down their spur lines, it's an efficient and economical way of hauling goods. 
            You can hear them coming before you see them.  You can feel them coming before you hear them, and  if they're carrying sheep or cattle you can smell them before you feel them.  They're a roaring in the earth, and then a churning maelstrom of air as they blast past at a thousand knots on two lane roads, and then they're gone - hurtling away from you into the interior of the continent.
            As we drove further into Kakadu, the dry earth gave way to scatterings of  wetland.  Mean,  patchy things, as seen from the road - little ponds covered in water-lillies.  Pretty and pandanus-lined, yes, and - oh, it was silly, but thanks to childhood picture books I'd had the silly idea that Kakadu was 10000 square miles of water, and you parked your car at the waters edge and were poled into the park on a punt.  The crocodile warning signs posted every half kilometer along the highway soothed my heart.  These signs were dotted across dry basins and empty ditches and watercourses that looked like they hadn't run for centuries.  Maybe the Top End wasn't going to be a world-spanning lagoon while we were there, but at some point in the year, the world was water.

Australian Crocodiles….
When you see signs about crocodiles, they're referring to the saltwater species.  Saltwater crocs are at the top of the food chain.  They live comfortably in fresh wate and salt - paddling hundreds of miles out to see, and cruising hundreds of km inland.  They fear no-one.  They eat everything.  And particularly relish the tourists who think that nature in the raw is a theme park and Disneyland all rolled into one.
            Signs are posted at every single pond, rivulet and lake, and the warning is a very simple one:
            "Crocodiles are present anywhere there is water, and if you go swimming, the odds of being attacked approach 100 percent."

For the first part of the twentieth century, crocodiles were regarded as terrifying pests.  Hunting was encouraged and the  crocodile leather industry boomed, and the wild populations were almost eradicated.  My maternal grandfather was a crocodile hunter up here for a time. It wasn't until the sixties that policy makers recognized that crocodiles might play a genuine role in their own ecosystems.  Crocodile farms were established and slowly, people were educated to permit crocodiles to share the landscape.
            We also passed several fire-warning signs, on which  'Severe' was only the 3rd setting out of 5.  One presumes that there are actually 6 settings in total, the last being "Sign no longer here . Check pile of smoking ashes for residual heat."
            And then, right at the doorpost of the Kakadu National Park, we pulled the car to the side of the road, because there it was.  A swamp, a wetland, a carpet of blue water stretching out past the horizon, tangling to dark green trees on the very far edges of sight.  It was straight out of the film Ten Canoes - a massive and serene expanse of water.   Carpeted with enormous waterlillies -huge leaves, giant pink flowers. 
            Dragonflies skittered.  Frogs croaked and plopped and a white egret picked her way elegantly across the face of the water, dipping and skimming with her long orange beak.  We all sighed and sat and stared, and stretched ourselves in the silence, and then we got back in the car and drove hell for leather into the park to find our hotel and check so that we could drive a further  40 km further to Ubirr because the ranger at the water had told us that we must go there to watch the sunset.  

So we did.

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