Savannah strolling: bushwalking in Kakadu National Park

By Andrew Bain | November 5, 2015

Crisscrossed with more than 25 day walks, Kakadu National Park offers bushwalkers the chance to soak up the unique and plentiful treasures of Australia’s Top End.

IT’S 9AM IN THE EXPOSED savannah woodland of Kakadu National Park, in the Northern Territory, and the heat is already intense. The sandy walking track is imprinted with fresh animal tracks of dingoes, wallabies and monitor lizards – but ours are the first left by people. We’re walking to Gubara Pools, a crystalline rock hole chipped into the slopes of Nourlangie Rock.

Like so many of Kakadu’s natural treasures, Gubara can’t be reached by a vehicle. To get there we must walk, which invariably means a combination of pleasure and pain.

“It’s pretty much the essence of Kakadu that the harder you work, the more it will give to you,” says Rhys Clarke, a guide who’s been walking in Kakadu for a decade. “It’s a national park that really rewards the explorer and the adventurous.”

For an hour we tread through the heat of the shadeless savannah towards the pools, but stepping into the monsoon rainforest at the end of the track is like being swept up in a cool change. Tall anbinik and paperbark trees shade the ground, and the temperature drops. More than a dozen freshwater fish species swim in the rock hole, where the water’s so clear they appear almost suspended like marionettes.

As we wade into the pool, tiny black-banded rainbow fish nibble at our toes. Rock hole frogs bounce about at the water’s edge and a water monitor basks in a cascade at the head of the pool, while the stream tumbles over its shoulders.

“There are hundreds of places like this in Kakadu, but to see the best of them you have to walk,” Rhys tells me.

Australia’s largest national park

Established in three stages, from 1979 to 1991, and World Heritage listed in 1992, Kakadu is Australia’s largest terrestrial national park, covering an area almost one-third the size of Tasmania (or the size of the nation of Israel). About one-third of Australia’s bird species have been recorded here and it’s home to one-quarter of the country’s freshwater fishes. An estimated 15,000 rock-art sites, dating back as far as 20,000 years, are scattered across the park.

And yet for all that, Kakadu is rarely thought of as a pure bushwalking destination. Anja Toms, who oversees the park’s walking permit applications for overnight trips, thinks that may be changing. “This year we’ve seen a huge increase in interest and applications forwarded to us,” she says. “We’re not quite sure what the reasons are…but definitely walker numbers are up compared with last year.”

Overnight bushwalks in Kakadu are typically across the ‘stone country’ of the Arnhem Land escarpment. Routes are unmarked and overnight treks require a permit. Applications must include details of the route and campsites, as well as a marked-up topographic map. Information about bushwalking experience is required, and a satellite phone, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) must be carried. Applications must be lodged seven days in advance, and permits aren’t issued to solo walkers

“Once you’re away from tracks and picnic areas, you’re pretty much on your own,” Anja says. “So we look at how they planned the route. Can they read maps? Can they navigate? Do they have all the right equipment? Traditional owners are protective of some of the routes because they’re close to sacred sites. We want to make sure the people who come and walk up there in the stone country really understand how special the place is.”

Permits aren’t required for day walks, except at Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge), where numbers are limited to 40 at any one time. For John Daly, who spent weeks walking through Kakadu while writing his Take a Walk in Northern Territory’s National Parks guidebook, it was the overnight walking through the stone country between Koolpin Gorge and Twin Falls that was most memorable. “We came across lots of Aboriginal art, but it was just the sheer grandeur of the place that stuck with me,” he says. “You can stand on a ridge up on the plateau and see for miles but not see another soul.”

Walking and swimming in Kakadu

On the banks of a billabong near Humpty Doo, Limilngan-Wulna elder Graham Kenyon welcomes walkers to country, spitting a mouthful of water on each person’s head. “It could be worse,” he says, laughing. “In another country they wipe sweat on you from their armpits.”

Limilngan lands cover the north-west corner of Kakadu, and Graham – who worked as a park ranger around the NT for 15 years – is a member of Kakadu’s board of management. The growing number of walkers, he says, marks a return to tradition in the relationship between people and the land. “Walking was a big important thing in the olden days.

People walked for miles. Even in the early ’80s we used to walk 150km just to look for food and tucker and then come back. You see a lot more when you’re walking. I think people need to step back a notch and look at it and I reckon if they go back to walking it’ll be a better place.”

The group he’s welcoming today is travelling on a new walking trip into Kakadu, run by World Expeditions. Among the group is 72-year-old Judith Watkins, who, until a year ago, had barely been on a bushwalk. Then, inspired by a movie, she walked 800km across Spain on the Camino de Santiago trail. She says she’s now hooked on walking and, with her twin brother John, chose Kakadu for her first bushwalking trip in Australia.

“I love the outback. I love the colours,” Judith says. “Here, I love the waterfalls, the pools you can swim in, the shapes of the rocks and the reflections.” The national park has about 25 marked day walks and the group’s first walk in Kakadu is the Barrk Sandstone Bushwalk traversing Nourlangie Rock. At 12km in length, Barrk is one of the longest and driest of Kakadu’s day walks.

The track begins along the base of Nourlangie Rock, ascending though gullies to the sandstone plateau. The climb is steep at times, but the greater discomfort is atop the dry plateau, where you’re exposed to the heat. No issue is greater when walking in Kakadu than access to drinking water. “In the last three years, every evacuation I’ve had to arrange has been from dehydration,” Rhys says.

Park authorities recommend that on a dry track such as Barrk, walkers carry at least 1L of water for every hour. “On extended walks that may not be an option, so you rely on [filtering water from] sources you come across,” Anja says. “Right after the Wet you find fresh flowing water everywhere, and most places are suitable to top up your water bottles without a problem. Later in the year, when creeks stop flowing and water becomes scarce, you may need to take extra precautions in addition to filtration – tablets or solutions to treat the water”.

Rock art in Kakadu

Nourlangie Rock’s plateau is a glimpse into Kakadu’s grander stone country. Fractured sandstone rises in stacks and pinnacles, and weaving through the small canyons in-between is like wandering into a ruined Asian temple. Nourlangie is also the canvas for two of Kakadu’s three major public rock-art sites, but like so much of the park, it has ancient art hidden everywhere.

As we descend its northern slopes and round its base, art peeps down from outcrops and decorates rock overhangs. Later, Judith tells me that the art and the sense of Kakadu as a living cultural landscape would be one of her enduring memories.

“We were walking in an art gallery all the time,” she says. “Sometimes it was just the visual beauty of what we saw, but then so long ago these people sat tucked in there and did these paintings and chatted away and baked… I started to think how – to the Aboriginal people – the animals, plants, trees, birds and flowers are all part of their family. And [that] I’m part of this planet and they’re all part of my family, too. I like that concept.”

In Kakadu, just as the seasons dictate life, they dictate walking. The Aboriginal people of the area recognised six seasons, which in itself is an indication of how quickly conditions change in the Top End. It’s a constant process of transformation that makes walking here very dynamic. What you see one month can look entirely di erent the next.

I’ve come to Kakadu in May, immediately after Banggerreng, the ‘knock ’em down’ season when the towering spear grass collapses under the pressure of wind and storms. Prescribed burning is in place and the land retains some lingering tinges of green from the Wet. It’s a time when tracks around Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls remain closed, but when accessible waterfalls still flow at Gunlom and Yurmikmik, at the park’s southern extent.

When to go to Kakadu

On the final day of the trip, we set out walking on the Yurmikmik network of tracks, which amble beneath sandstone ridges and into a variety of waterfalls and gorges. “Personally, this is my favourite walk,” Rhys says. “There are so many options; it never gets boring. Depending on your want, you can link together up to 20km of walking. You can link two, three or four waterfalls, gorges, canyons and monsoon rainforest.

“Because they’re longer walks, not so many people do them, so you tend to see a lot more wildlife and you get that feeling of remoteness. You can really immerse yourself in the country.”

It’s another day of sweat and swims as we push through scrub on the little-used track to Kurundie Falls and then detour into Motor Car Falls on our return. Beside the track, salmon gums glow the colour of the sandstone cliffs and the flattened spear grass resembles an enormous bird nest.

At Motor Car Falls, our final stop, we drop packs for a couple of hours, savouring this magnificent pool that can only be reached on foot. Walkers lounge about on boulders and, across the water, hundreds of common crow butterflies feed on minerals on the wall of a shaded overhang. A banded tree snake slowly sheds its skin in the fork of a tree.

It’s typical of Kakadu to reveal itself this way – gradually, subtly – saving its best for those who are prepared to come slowly and on foot.

“The traditional owners say: ‘Hey don’t come here and rush through,’” Anja says. “There are so many stories, so much to learn, but you really need to take the time to experience it and you need to walk. You need to feel the rocks, feel the heat, listen to the birds and go back with at least some of the stories.”

Source: This article was originally published in Australian Geographic #121 (July-August 2014).