Our journey in the Territory continues…
After our splendid Nitmiluk visit, we picked up the Sturt Highway again and headed north through rugged bush and scrub country. About 50km later we pulled up in Pine Creek for a squiz.
There wasn’t a lot shakin’ in old Pino that Sunday arvo. Our priority being afternoon tea, we made a scrambling dash for the highly recommended Mayse’s Café, only to witness a ‘Closed’ sign flipped in the window when we were but metres away.
Undaunted, we cruised around town seeking amusement, and were mildly rewarded when we stumbled upon the Pine Creek National Trust Museum (empty apart from us). This is a salute to the town’s colourful history as a railway stop, bush outpost, important Overland Telegraph station, World War II base and gold mining centre.
There was some info about local indigenous people but it conveyed little apart from how abominably they were treated by early white settlers – a common and lamentable reality across this great brown land.
We also zipped up to Enterprise Lookout on the west side of town, and dutifully looked out. Below lies the abandoned open-cut mine, now filled with water, presumably to prevent acid and residue build-up. (We are great at digging gigantic holes in Australia, but pretty poor at replacing the divot.)
The “lake” is pretty enough, although I’m not sure I’d be practising my water ballet in its pellucid depths.
We sauntered into Pine Creek Railway Resort for coffee by the pool, grabbed a few supplies at the Lazy Lizard store and hit the road. On the north side of town we jumped on the Kakadu Highway and disappeared into the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park.
The beautiful Gunlom Falls was on our itinerary, but the access road is about 25kms of dirt and we’d heard it was bit rough at the falls end. Not wishing to convert our two-wheel drive rental into an instant disintegrating clunker, we left the falls for our next NT sojourn.
Another 30km or so up the macadam we pulled in at Coorinda Lodge, Starfish base for the night, and settled into one of the comfortable new glamping tents in the campground.
Owned by the local indigenous community, the lodge offers access to Yellow Water cruises, Warradjan Cultural Centre, Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls, Nourlangie and bushwalks. The camping area is located next to Yellow Water Billabong.
There is a lot on offer for travellers. Whether you’re looking for a powered site, budget accommodation, space to pitch your tent, or a touch of glamping, Coorinda campground caters for all.
Of course, glamping (glamorous camping) has become tremendously de rigueur the world over. Our tent featured all the mod cons of a hotel room, all enclosed in sturdy canvas to ward off tempest, beast and inept tent erection. Glamping gives the impression you are roughing it, when you are not. It’s a kind of outback opulence denial.
Our abode was, however, sans commode. Stumbling through darkness to the distant ablution block in the silk kimono and koala slippers, clutching a toilet bag and towel, was a minor trial, but there has to be some outdoor endurance involved in glamping, or you may as well find a motel.
That evening we headed over to the communal Barra Bistro and Bar and enjoyed excellent barramundi ‘n’ chips and a glass of wine.
The labyrinthine night route back to the tent through the grounds (okay, we got hopelessly lost), took us via what seemed like endless looping paths and hidden sectors teeming with campers and caravaners from all over Australia.
We’d heard tourism had dropped off in the Territory in recent years, but this was pretty hard to compute at the Coorinda campground. It looked like the staging area for the D-Day landings.
Next morning we were up before sunrise to join the Yellow River Cruise, a kilometre or so from the Lodge.
We can certainly recommend this tour, which putters around pristine wetlands abounding with fascinating flora and fauna.
Approximately one-third of Australia’s bird species can be found in Kakadu National Park, with at least 60 species in the wetlands.
Whistling Ducks, Magpie Geese and Jacanas are abundant. You will also spot eagles, the distinctive Jabirus, and maybe even Brolgas performing their famous jigs.
Yellow Water Cruises has exclusive use of the billabong and robust environmental credentials caring for the place. They operate year round and provide up to six cruises a day of 90 or 120-minute duration.
The sunrise and sunset cruises are very popular and advance bookings are recommended. Many visitors undertake more than one cruise during their Lodge stay in order to see the changes in the wildlife at different times of the day.
Our skipper deftly manoeuvred us up close with some pretty formidable crocs and buffaloes as we puttered around the beautiful wetland.
We were out in one of two boats and I couldn’t help but note that our sister ship seemed to be rather lop-sided, the starboard bow low in the water, probably due to a preponderance of colossal tourists (a common sight in Oz these days) lacking nautical nous and failing to trim the craft.
Those are not waters you would want to turn turtle and dog paddle ashore, as pitiless, golden reptilian eyes are always upon you. Luckily the boats and helmsmen are first class and we managed to return with a full complement.
The informative commentary, unspoiled tropical beauty and extraordinary creatures makes this a “must do” when visiting the park. We’d have loved to join the sunset tour as well, but the rest of Kakadu was calling, so had to get ready to leave.
We returned to Lodge en masse, stampeded into the buffet brekkie, then hit the road to explore more of the region.
Next up was what must be one of the most extraordinary natural wildlife experiences in Australia, and we were very lucky to discover it.
Several nights before, in Adelaide River, we’d been sitting by the campfire at Bundy Station eating pizza ( the resident donkey seem to be gobbling most of it directly off the table) and a chatty grey nomad suggested we visit Cahills Crossing if we “want to see why the NT is international croc central.”
The crossing is about 36kms north of Jabiru and cuts across the East Alligator River between Kakadu and Arnhem Land. It’s a simple weir road that gets inundated daily on the turning tides.
By the way, the Territory’s East, West, and South Alligator rivers were explored and named by one Lieutenant Phillip Parker King in 1820. He named them in the mistaken belief that the crocodiles in the estuaries and rivers were alligators.
By the time everyone cottoned on to the fact that the Lieutenant was a rather reptile-challenged chap, too many map and place names existed, so even though there are no alligators in Australia, the river names stuck, thanks to bureaucratic obstinacy.
We arrived at the crossing and the action began.
“Bugger off, mate – I know what I’m f@#!%&g doin’! What do you think I am, a bloody mug?”
This amiable exclamation boomed from an ornery old coot milling about with his wife in the ankle-deep river flow on the crossing. They’d stopped their car and boat trailer in the flow for no apparent reason.
A barramundi fisherman, of which there are always plenty at the crossing, had yelled at the old-timer to get to get the hell out of there, primarily because there was a six metre salty lurking metres away behind him.
Truth be told, the curmudgeon clearly was a ‘bloody mug’, as are many others who don’t seem to grasp the inherent danger at the crossing, often dillydallying at water’s edge with rods and handlines and dipping their tootsies.
Crocs are masters of the aquatic ambush and can be lightning fast. If one clamps down on you, even a smaller one, its pretty much curtains.
Salties slam their jaws shut with 3,700 pounds per square inch, or 16,460 newtons, of bite force. By contrast, you might gnaw a steak with 150 to 200 psi (890 newtons). Hyenas, lions, and tigers generate around 1,000 psi (4,450 newtons). Hence the saltie has the strongest bite of any land animal.
There have been human croc deaths at the crossing (a tragic incident in the late 1970s saw a fisherman grabbed and beheaded in front of his mates); and one gets the distinct impression the authorities don’t put this place on the tourist map simply because it is so dangerous.
Crocodilian behaviour here is absolutely fascinating. The salties have figured out that, as the large northern tides change, great numbers of barramundi and mullet swim or are swept over the crossing, both going up and downstream.
The crocs literally position themselves strategically in the best spots so they can snap up the fish as they are channelled over the submerged road. They fan out in formation, seeming to know where the fish will most likely be. Naturally, the biggest ones get the prime spots.
We sat on the rocks above the crossing as the tides began to change. Some 30 or 40 big ‘uns cruised in and took up positions, sometimes crawling or being carried over the crossing itself as the flow increased with the tide. It’s clearly all about location when you’re a barra and mullet hunting croc.
Then the frenzy of snapping begins. The blinding speed of an animal that can weight up to 1000kg is astonishing. They rarely miss their fishy prey on the first snap, rise out of the water, chomp down on the fish several times with frightening force, turn the mangled remains in their jaws and swallow it whole. It’s all over within about 10 seconds. There goes a 35 kilo barra in one gulp, folks. Even a big mullet is like white bait to a saltie.
The most bizarre thing is, they seem terribly pleased with themselves after a kill, their mouths in a curious permanent grin, and then go back for more.
Meanwhile, traffic trundling through the flow is often blocked from passing by stubborn crocs. We heard it was relatively common for vehicles to be swept off the crossing into the lethal waters.
At such times, one would have to assume a few Guinness World Records have been broken for winding up windows.
At one point during the feeding frenzy, we watched as an excited oriental tourist, obviously keen to spot a croc, ran down onto the crossing and into the water dragging his toddler son along with him.
A fisherman yelled at the man to get the tacker out of danger, like only a rough-as-guts Territorian can. The startled duo scarpered back up the road and disappeared out of sight – probably all the way back to the Guangzhou. (I’m not sure they will find a translation for their protector’s pithy phraseology in the Mandarin-English dictionary. Not in polite usage, perchance?) The locals can be as scary as the crocs up yonder.
Another skinny young fellow stood at the very edge of the shoreline, his shadow playing on the opaque muddy waters, as he unsuccessfully fished with a handline. A croc was lurking beneath the ripples only a metre away; we watched its dark shape. But the drive to get a feed of barra, even if you end up main course yourself, is strong for many and seems to bring out the raving idiot within.
When the tide retreats and the crossing is again high and dry, the satiated salties nonchalantly cruise back to their favourite resting spots and wait for Mother Moon to do her tidal work again.
We left the scene thrilled to have seen one of Australia’s truly remarkable, and little-known, natural wonders.
“See ya later alligator, in a while crocodile…”
We continue our trip through Kakadu in a November edition of The Starfish.