Kakadu: the land of extremes

By Joanna Egan | October 11, 2011

Gem of the Northern Territory, Kakadu National Park boasts a rich natural history and cultural heritage.

IT’S GOING TO GET BUMPY as we come up over the escarpment,” Clancy Grant, our pilot, warns over the helicopter’s intercom. Wind is gushing through the cabin’s open doorways and sheets of fine, silver rain are slapping the windscreen. A wall of thick cloud is building over the Arnhem Land plateau and rolling quickly towards us. “This will certainly give you an appreciation of the weather,” Clancy says as we rapidly drop and bounce into a storm. 

The tonne of metal that makes up the R44 seems insignificant compared with the force of the wind jerking us from side to side. The edge of the escarpment is rushing past, and just up ahead a puff of smoke-like mist rises from its rugged sandstone stacks. We circle towards it, juddering through the wind above the foggy floodplain. At once, in its full wet-season magnificence, Twin Falls comes into view. Water is thundering over the escarpment and surging into Jim Jim Creek below.

Every wet season, three months worth of heavy, monsoonal rains drain off the Arnhem Land plateau and inundate Kakadu’s floodplains. The sandstone escarpment, which is the plateau’s edge and forms much of the eastern border of the 19,804sq.km national park, has stood sentry over Kakadu’s lowlands for about 140 million years. Once lapped by ancient seas, it now bears witness to the region’s annual transformation from lush, freshwater wetlands, covered in the iridescent blue-green hue of spear grass in the Wet, to massive expanses of arid, savannah woodland in the Dry. Studded with termite mounds and punctuated by shrinking billabongs, this dry-season landscape takes on the colours of scorched ochre.

Kakadu is a place filled with contrasts, in which the weather determines the rhythms of the landscape and everything in it. As the dark, wet-season cloud engulfs us and the wind jostles us in the cabin, I hear Clancy’s voice cut through the static in my headphones: “I’m going to play a weather card and pull up on this landing.” A wave of relief washes over me. White-knuckled, I hold my seat and my breath as Clancy lowers the helicopter onto a football-field-sized clearing. Fuel drums are piled at its edges, and as we sit in the shaking cabin with the blades above us whirring gradually to a stop, Clancy explains that this is a remote service area used by park rangers during the Dry. During the Wet, road access is limited because the entry track is submerged.

“You’d rather be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground,” Clancy says as we wait for the torrential downpour to pass. I couldn’t agree more. He is one of a large group of transient residents who live in Jabiru, a small township in the north-east of Kakadu. Originally from Perisher Valley, in the Australian Alps, he made the shift “from an icebox to an oven” only 18 months ago, but already he’s experienced all the power and beauty of Kakadu’s weather. “Nowhere else in the world will you find an environment that looks like this,” he says. “Just the other day I was fishing when a storm came in and I had to pinch myself – the colours were so strong.”

The immensity of Kakadu National Park

As the weather clears and we track back along the escarpment to the Jabiru air strip, I realise just how vast Australia’s largest national park is. Roughly one-third the size of Tasmania, or the size of Israel, Kakadu stretches across the Top End, from the Wildman River east towards the Arnhem Land plateau, and from the Van Diemen Gulf south towards Pine Creek and adjoining Nitmiluk National Park. “Its immensity is something that’s really hard to conceptualise,” park manager Sarah Kerin tells me several days later as we sit in the audiovisual room at Bowali, the park’s main visitor centre. “It is such a rich tapestry of natural values and cultural values, and they intersect at that landscape level.”

Sarah came to Kakadu three years ago after a six-year stint in Nitmiluk National Park. A Territorian born and bred, she has spent most of her adult life working in wildlife research and land conservation in the Top End. “During the wet season the landscape is green, and it’s beautiful,” she tells me as a heavy monsoonal shower falls on the corrugated roof of the visitor centre. “You have the recharge of all the aquifers: the streams, the billabongs, the floodplains. You’ve got the geese that are out feeding and growing fat and thinking about nesting; it’s just exquisite.”

The floodplains, tea-tree scrub and mangrove-fringed mudflats that make up Kakadu’s lowlands cover a vast eroded plain. In the past they underwent periods of saltwater inundation when the sea level rose higher than it is today. Now they comprise Kakadu’s extensive area of RAMSAR-listed wetlands, which officially span the entire park. The wetlands attract up to 3 million waterbirds each year, including egrets, brolga, jabiru and comb-crested jacana. During the Dry (May-October), Kakadu’s billabongs act like sponges, drawing in the park’s diverse wildlife, such as whistling ducks and magpie geese, which flock in their thousands.

“There’s a really distinct rhythm up here,” Sarah says, “a seasonal rhythm between the dry season and the wet season.” But Kakadu’s contrasts extend much further than its Wet-Dry climate, and often sit in stark contradiction. On the one hand there are the natural and cultural values for which Kakadu was World Heritage listed in 1992.

The park is home to about one-third of Australia’s 800-plus bird species and one-quarter of the continent’s land mammals. It is the most species-rich region for freshwater fish in Australia and still contains nearly all the plant and animal species that were present in the area before European settlement, including many endemic species such as the black wallaroo, the Arnhem rock-rat, the Kakadu dunnart, the white-throated grass-wren, the chestnut-quilled rock pigeon, the giant cave gecko and Leichhardt’s grasshopper.

In addition, Kakadu has been recognised as a living cultural landscape. The earliest known human occupation sites on the continent are situated within the park’s boundaries, and Kakadu’s traditional owners, the Bininj/Mungguy, continue to live on and care for the land as their ancestors did more than 50,000 years ago. Three of 12 indigenous languages are still spoken in Kakadu and important Dreaming sites, known as Djang in Gun-djeihmi (the language used in central Kakadu), remain off limits to tourists and central to traditional life. There are up to 15,000 rock-art sites cradled within Kakadu’s stone country, 5000 of which have been documented. They make up the greatest known concentration of rock art in the world, and some of the paintings date back more than 20,000 years (see “History in stone”, opposite).

Despite the cultural riches, a century and a half of European settlement has led to the introduction of invasive weeds and animals, and resulted in changed management practices, such as land clearing and destructive fire regimes. On top of this, the area’s more recent history has seen Australia’s largest uranium mine, a service town and a buffalo farm all established right in the middle of the park.

Kakadu: battle for mining and environment

Kakadu National Park was established in three stages between 1979 and 1991. At the time, conflicting interest groups were calling for very different land uses in the region. Their competing agendas included tourism, mining, farming, conservation and Aboriginal land rights. During the early 1970s, two things occurred in the Top End that would determine Kakadu’s future: large deposits of uranium were found in areas that would later become part of the park, and the Whitlam government recognised the validity of Aboriginal land claims in the Northern Territory.
 
In 1975 a formal proposal to develop the Ranger uranium deposit was submitted to the Commonwealth Government. In response, the government set up the Ranger Uranium Environment Inquiry (also known as the Fox Inquiry) to investigate the environmental feasibility of the mining proposal. While the Fox Inquiry was underway, federal parliament passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. In its second report, the Fox Inquiry assessed claims to land in Kakadu’s Alligator Rivers Region, the area under proposal for mining. In short, the report recommended the construction of the Ranger Uranium Mine, the creation of the national park and the granting of title to Aboriginal land claimants.

Soon after Kakadu was gazetted, the township of Jabiru was constructed to service the mine, and although the mine is situated in the heart of Kakadu, it is excluded from the national park. Today, Ranger generates about 11 per cent of the world’s total uranium supply. A percentage of its revenue is paid to Kakadu’s traditional owners as a royalty equivalent, and the funds are collected, distributed and managed by the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC).
 
“There’s an inexorable nexus between the creation of the park, the Ranger Uranium Mine, and land rights,” GAC’s Executive Officer Justin O’Brien tells me. “I like to say that they all meet in the middle and not any one of those agendas dominates any of the others.”

But, he says, mining has always been controversial in Kakadu. Although GAC monitors the mine’s environmental impact, there have been more than 150 leaks and spills since it opened in 1981, and despite being the traditional landowners of the site, Bininj/Mungguy have no input into the way the mine is managed. Nor do they have a say on the impact the mine has on adjoining country.

“It’s not lost on us that there is a major economic and social impact coming when mining ceases in 2021,” Justin says. Mining royalties are an important income for Kakadu’s traditional owners. Despite this, there has been a long history of opposition to mining. In 1999 GAC members and senior traditional owners Yvonne Margarula and Jacqui Katona won the Goldman Environmental Prize for successfully campaigning against mining at Jabiluka, in the north-east of Kakadu. Just last year Jeffrey Lee, the only remaining member of the Djok clan and senior custodian of Kakadu’s Koongarra area, started a process that will see the 1228ha mine site protected. Despite its initial exclusion from the park’s boundaries because of its rich uranium deposits and mining potential, it will likely become part of the park in late 2011.

Today, about half of Kakadu is owned by Bininj/Mungguy, and most of the remaining land is under claim. Traditional owners lease it to the federal government’s director of parks, so it can be run as a national park under a joint management scheme. The Kakadu Board of Management, which comprises 10 Bininj/Mungguy and five Balanda (non-indigenous) members, determines the park’s management policy, and traditional owners work with the parks service to make sure traditional skills and knowledge play a role in looking after the country.

“Some of the traditional owners are the best naturalists we’ve got,” says Steve Winderlich, the park’s natural and cultural programs manager. “They’re out there more often than us and they rely on a lot of the native species for food, so they know what’s happening with weeds, for example, because weeds choke habitat for cultural and food species.” Steve explains how all Kakadu’s land-management plans encompass a strong cultural focus. “When we go out and manage a section of country we’re not separating out natural and cultural, because they’re intertwined,” he says.

For example, Kakadu’s fire plan, which involves regular controlled burns to reduce fuel loads when spear grass dries out at the end of the wet season, has both an ecological and a cultural component. “The cultural component involves looking at how traditional burning was carried out, but there’s also the impact on cultural sites to consider. Fire too close to rock-art sites can exfoliate the rock, and then the art’s gone.”

On a more subtle level, management programs also consider how a fire plan, or an invasive plant or animal control plan, will affect culturally significant species, Steve says. “Cane toads, for example, have had a very big cultural impact…because they’ve affected key food species, such as large goannas.”

“Our culture is alive and thriving,” traditional owner and park ranger Jessie Alderson tells me as we shelter from a downpour on the Jim Jim ranger station’s verandah, in central Kakadu. The rumble of an ice machine and the hum from ceiling fans blend with the white noise of the rain. Detailed maps and poster-sized photos of Kakadu’s tourist attractions are pinned to the walls and a whiteboard is scribbled with maintenance records and weed-spraying rosters.
 
“We still keep our practices going, you know, hunting and camping and teaching our young people,” Jessie tells me. “In a way, the parks service helps keep us culturally alive because they allow us to do it all.” Jessie has lived in the area for most of her life and has been working out of Jim Jim for the past 10 years. She was on the Kakadu Board of Management for 15 years, until she retired in 2010. “I’ve been here as long as the park,” she says. “All my kids and their kids, they’re all here too now, so I’ll never leave.”

Jessie is one of eight rangers based at Jim Jim, and one of about 80 people who work for the parks service in Kakadu. Close to half of the park’s permanent staff are indigenous, and many started as trainees working under the Kakadu Indigenous Ranger Program (KIRP), which aims to give young people training opportunities so they can become rangers. “Any locals that are making the most out of living on country and being able to make a job for themselves where they live is good,” Jason Koh, who works with Jessie, tells me. “You don’t have to leave country to go and work in the city, and it’s good to still be on the land.”

Jason started out on a program similar to KIRP about 10 years ago. “Just look out there at our office. It’s the best place to work,” he says. “We got the escarpment and the rock country, and then you go down to the floodplains, and we got the tidal areas as well, so there’s all different kinds of habitats, and you’re not doing the same thing every day – one day you’re looking after campgrounds and tourist areas, and the next you’re working with scientists doing animal surveys or crocodile work.”

Kakadu’s natural beauty

Jim Jim is one of seven regions within Kakadu, five of which are equipped with a ranger base. There are also specialised crews who work on fire and crocodile management, feral animal control and invasive weed control across the entire park. I spend my last afternoon in Kakadu with the weeds team. Sheets of rain have been falling all morning, and the landscape is saturated. 

“Come wet season, like now, the ground’s nice and wet and the weeds start to come up so we’ve got to go out and catch them before they seed,” ranger Fred Hunter tells me. He was born at Madjinbardi (Mudjinberri), a community in north-east Kakadu, and has lived here for most of his life. He completed an apprenticeship with parks 26 years ago, and has worked as a ranger since. For the past 11 years Fred has been one of a four-strong team that targets one of Kakadu’s main invasive weeds: mimosa, a woody shrub introduced from Central America.
 
“In the park there are about 300 mimosa plots,” he says. “A plot is where we’ve found a mimosa plant that’s dropped seeds, and we have to check each of them at least five times a year. A seed can stay in the ground for 20 years and the risk is that a pig will come along and dig it up, and you’ll get another plant growing.”

During a break in the weather, I meet Fred and his team at a point on the road between Jabiru and Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), where the bitumen is covered in water, and Fred launches the Swamp Master. The roar of the airboat’s huge fan thunders across the watery landscape. With Fred at the helm we plane along the highway. Yellow road signs poke out above the water, warning that the road is subject to flooding. We’re heading for Marnanj, the Magela Creek floodplain, where Fred and his team will check plots and spray herbicide on weeds on the Djarr Djarr billabong.
 
“During the wet season we use airboats and helicopters to check plots,” Fred says. “In the dry season we go out on quad bikes. We go everywhere. Wherever mimosa grows, we go.”

The mimosa control team has been operating in the park since the early 1980s, and is one of the most successful weeding programs in any conservation area in Australia. As we jet across the billabong, stopping to assess the spread of salvinia, another problem weed in Kakadu, a large white cloud mass starts spitting down rain. The escarpment makes for a dramatic backdrop, and from this vantage point, as we swerve around the tips of termite mounds several metres high and between tea-tree tops, the power of Kakadu’s Wet-Dry cycle really comes home. In a matter of months, this expanse will be a stretch of dry savannah woodland.

Grasshoppers leap in their thousands from the lilies and floating salvinia colonies, and I glimpse large saratoga and barramundi under the  surface. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to see Kakadu’s ever-changing landscape at its wettest. I recall speaking to ranger Jenny Hunter, who is also Fred’s sister, on my first morning in the park. “I like the Wet,” she’d said, while she sprayed para grass from a quad bike near the Bowali Visitor Centre. Fat droplets of water were rolling from the tea-tree leaves and pooling onto the soggy earth below.
 
“All the bush food comes out, and that’s why I explain to people that you’ve got to come and visit Kakadu in the Wet as well, because it’s so different fr0m the Dry. You might not be able to get to as many places, but just look at the scenery,” she said, pointing out a camping area, which, although under water, was lush and green and brimming with wildlife.

Park manager Sarah Kerin shared a similar sentiment when I spoke with her at Bowali. “I would definitely recommend people come twice,” she told me. “There’s nothing more beautiful than looking up over the escarpment at a canopy of stars on a dry-season night; it’s just exquisite. Or simply going out and walking around Anbangbang Billabong on an early dry-season morning, when you have the mist, and you can smell the swamp and the lilies. It’s just beautiful. During the wet season the park is entirely different. It’s characterised by rejuvenation and a refreshment of the landscape.”

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