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It's been a long, busy, tiring day.
We began by getting up at 06:15 to dress for breakfast in the Maud Creek Lodge dining room. Willem came down with a large picnic basket full of breakfasty goodies a couple of minutes after we went into the dining room at 06:30. He laid out a table for us with a choice of cereals, fruit, yoghurt, toast, juice, tea, and coffee.
We ate our fill quickly and then packed the car and left Maud Creek, stopping only briefly to drop the key off. We drove the 10 km or so to Nitmiluk National Park and Nitmiluk Gorge. After parking the car, we discovered we had a 400 metre walk to the boat wharf, where our cruise would start at 08:00. We were there milling around with a bunch of other people, wondering exactly where we should be. Signs indicated queueing points for several other cruises, but not ours - until we walked around them and saw our cruise marked on the back of one of the others.
At 08:00, some staff appeared and marshalled people into our group, checking tickets and sending us down the ramp to the wharf, where our boat was waiting. We ended up in a group of 12 people, despite Willem telling us last night that they'd only received confirmation that we'd be able to take our cruise because they required a minimum booking of six passengers to run it.
An ebullient guy introduced himself as Russell, and his cohort Anthony, as our guides for the day. Russell provided information and jokes throughout the day, both of good quality. They were both Jawoyn Aboriginal.
The tour began by cruising the length of the first gorge, which was through an open V-shaped valley in the sandstone of the escarpment. The end of the first gorge was marked by a series of rocky rapids, through which the boat couldn't travel. We disembarked and walked a few hundred metres on a concreted path across the rocks to another boat mooring, where a new boat waited to take us into the second gorge.
Entering Katherine Gorge
The second gorge was much more impressive than the first, with the river cutting through vertical slices of rock some 30 or so metres high and taking a couple of sharp turns where the river had switched to different fault lines in the rock. Russell pointed out Jedda Rock and the Butterfly Gorge, and some Aboriginal rock art sites which we could see up near the top of the cliffs from our vantage point on the boat.
At the end of the second gorge we had another walk, this time only 40 metres or so across a flat path to get past the rapids and into the third gorge. Further impressive walls of fractured rock presented themselves to us, with eucalypts and palms hanging on to precarious perches in places. The sandstone was tilted at about five degrees to the horizontal, the layers of the rock sloping down gently in the downstream direction. Great cracks in the stone walls showed where huge rectangular blocks must have fallen off to eventually become the more or less rounded boulders seen sitting in the water or piled up at the rapids. In places a softer layer had eroded away leaving a gently sloping groove large enough to walk along, leading up from water level as we powered upstream to the top of the escarpment. It was in one of these grooves that more rock art appeared.
Rock art, Katherine Gorge
The third gorge ended at an extensive series of tumbled boulders, rapids, and intermediate pools of water that we had to walk past for about 1500 metres to reach the fourth gorge. This walk was tough, involving hopping from boulder to boulder, picking our way between large rocks and over uneven, sloping, and loose surfaces, then up and down slopes of sand, and across bumpy and boulder-packed shelves of rock. It was hard work in the relentless and unshaded heat of the sun.
Eventually we emerged on to a tree-shaded area of sand next to the boat we were to use for the fourth gorge. But first we had a break for morning tea. Here there was a metal cupboard, a sink for washing up, a large gas barbecue, an a selection of folding chairs. The heavy items had been dropped in by helicopter, and the rest, including perishables, carted in in large backpacks by Russell and Anthony. We had some muesli bars and crackers and cheese, and they boiled a billy for people to have coffee or tea.
While sitting there relaxing, we saw a number of large, dark grey catfish swim up to the sandy bank. Russell said they came looking for food handouts. When one guy asked what they ate, Russell said, "Oh, bread, steak, sausages... chocolate chip muesli bars," as he started breaking up a muesli bar and tossing it to the fish.
Morning tea over, we climbed into the boat to cross the length of the fourth gorge - a mere 400 metres or so to the next tie-up point and another walk. This walk was a little shorter and easier than the one between gorges three and four, and we soon came upon the boat to take us the length of the fifth gorge. This was another long one and we cruised up slowly to appreciate the beauty of the scenery.
Butterfly Gorge (second gorge)
Russell explained how they got the boats to the various points up the river. In the Wet season, the Katherine River can flood to a level 10 or more metres higher, completely submerging the rapids. At the end of the Wet, when the river is dropping, they use a jetboat to tow the aluminium hulled tour boats up as far as the third gorge. There they also leave the smaller boats for gorges four and five, but they can't tow them any further because the currents are too treacherous. When the river drops more, they physically drag the small boats right over the rocks to the fourth and fifth gorges. Then at the end of the Dry season, as the Wet begins and the river begins to rise again, they simply float all the boats back out downstream over the rapids and store them elsewhere and do repairs and maintenance during the Wet.
At the end of the fifth gorge, we got out and clambered over the enormous boulders at the rapids there - one block was as big as a house and had only partially rounded corners, a relatively recent arrival from off the eroding cliffs above - to see the start of the sixth gorge. But our trip had to turn around here and we reboarded the boat for the float back downriver.
While heading back along the fifth gorge, Russell told us the Dreaming legend of how the Nitmiluk Gorge was created by the slithering passage of the Rainbow Serpent. The place near Butterfly Gorge on the second gorge is the mythical resting place of the Serpent, and as such the second gorge is considered sacred and nobody is allowed to swim there or drink water from it.
We returned via the walk and the boat on the fourth gorge to the lunch site. Some people however chose to swim the 400 metres along the fourth gorge (where swimming is allowed). I would have swum also, but I stupidly had brought my swimmers separately rather than wearing them under my shorts, and didn't have time to duck behind a rock and change before Russell wanted to get the boat going. So I took the boat with M. and most of the other passengers (only four people swam).
About halfway along the gorge, and with the swimmers left behind us, we spotted a crocodile in the water, sitting on a rock ledge, mostly submerged. Russell took the boat over for a close look and joked about the fate of the swimmers. But it was a freshwater crocodile - the only sort normally seen in the gorges - about 1.5 metres long, and more cute than threatening looking. Freshies are timid and won't attack humans unless cornered and provoked, so the swimmers really had nothing to worry about. But they could hear us on the boat pointing at the croc and they all took a wide detour to the far side of the gorge, giving it a wide berth.
Freshwater crocodile, Katherine Gorge
Back at the barbecue site, Anthony (who had stayed behind) had cooked up a feast of steak, sausages, and veg patties for lunch. There was also bread, salads, and sauces. After the exertions of the day, and in the cool shade away from the sweltering sun, it was delicious and welcome. We lingered for an hour or so, and several people had a swim in the fourth gorge (yes, where we'd seen the crocodile), including me after I'd changed in the handy toilet shed nearby. The water was cold and soothing, and visibility of about two metres, although the gorge was deep enough that the bottom wasn't visible, except near the sandy slope we entered by. It tasted fresh and clean, and indeed was safe to drink directly from the river - Russell and Anthony had a cooler full of water for us to drink, filled directly from the gorge.
The catfish also returned and some people fed them on bits of leftover steak and sausages. One passenger found an old bit of rope hanging in a tree and asked Russell what it was. Russell pointed out the crude hook on the end - it looked like a piece of bent coathanger wire - and said it was a Northern Territory fishing line. He baited it with a piece of sausage and told the guy to toss it in the water from the back of the boat. He did so, and as soon as the hook and sausage hit the water there was a flurry of flying bodies splashing around it and the guy tugged up the rope to find a 50 centimetre catfish on the end of it. It was too fast to measure - it must have been a few tenths of a second at most between casting the line and catching the fish. He pulled the fish out and Russell raced over to show him how to grab it safely, as the catfish had nasty spines along its sides that could cause a severe injury. The guy posed with the flapping fish and the bit of rope for his girlfriend to snap a photo, then released the fish back into the gorge.
Between fifth and sixth gorges, Katherine Gorge
With lunch done, we tackled the long and arduous walk back over the boulders and rock shelves to the third gorge. This time it was even worse, with the sun hotter and us more worn out. When we reached the third gorge, Russell declared another 20 minutes of swimming time to cool us down again. He walked out along a rock ledge about 6 metres high off the water and showed us a good point for jumping off into the water. The catfish guy and his girlfriend jumped as well, after some hesitation, then went up for another go. I followed them and steeled myself for the jump. Never having jumped off anything this high before, I was quite full of trepidation, but with a word of encouragement from the guy there, I leapt off into the water. The rush was exciting, but all too quickly I hit the water and plunged deep into its cool, green depths. I never touched the bottom, and surfaced with a yell of triumph. An older guy with a white beard also went up to the top and prepared to jump, but took a few minutes to work up the nerve. By the time he jumped, everyone was watching and egging him on, and all broke into cheers after he surfaced.
M. in Katherine Gorge
The swimming done, we piled back into the boat for the remainder of our leisurely cruise back to the wharf. After boarding the boat in the second gorge, Russell gave us a performance on the didgeridoo, showing impressive control of breathing and an astonishing number of tonal variations from the instrument. He then passed it around aw we drifted down the gorge, encouraging everyone to give it a go. The best anyone else could produce was a plaintive raspberry sound.
We made it back to the wharf a few minutes before 16:00, making it a nearly 8 hour day on the gorge. It was tiring and hot at times, but well worth it, not only for the scenery, but also the informative and amusing commentary and the activites we got to do during the expedition. All in all, I'd highly recommend this full-day cruise.
After walking back to the visitor's centre, I purchased a new pair of sunglasses to replace my old ones - one lens of which had fallen out and been lost to the waters of the second gorge. They were old glasses anyway, themselves having been bought on Stromboli during our trip to Italy in 2001, after my previous pair had fallen into the water off a wharf in Positano. I seem to have a thing for dropping sunglasses irretrievably into exotic bodies of water.
We also bought cold drinks - a lemonade for me an some iced coffee for M. We sat in the cool shade of the centre to drink, then hit the road for our long drive of the day. First up was to drive back into Katherine, where we filled up on petrol and M. grabbed another small iced coffee to help recover from the privations and exertions of the hot day. Crossing the Katherine River on our way out of town, we noticed on a support pylon for the adjacent railway bridge flood marker indicators for floods up to 16 metres above the normal river level.
Our drive north to Pine Creek was uneventful, except for noticing a lot more traffic on the road north of Katherine than south. At Pine Creek, we turned right off the Stuart Highway and on to the Kakadu Highway, to take us into Kakadu National Park. Before we got there though, we were waved down by a man standing by a car, with the bonnet up, and a woman sitting half out the passenger side door. He said his name was Mal and he worked at the Mary Creek Roadhouse about 40 km ahead of us (just outside the national park entrance), and could we let them know he'd broken down again and to send a car out to give him a tow. We said we'd let them know at Mary Creek and continued on our way.
Sunset reflected in car, near Kakadu National Park entrance
At Mary Creek, we pulled into the roadhouse and went inside to tell the staff there about Mal. When we told the lady, she said, yeah, she knew, someone else had just phoned in to say Mal was 40 km down the road to Jabiru, and they'd just sent someone to get him. I pointed out that he was towards Pine Creek, not Jabiru, and the woman looked shocked and asked if I was sure. Having come through Pine Creek and not heading on to Jabiru for another two days, I was pretty sure! The woman got another guy to race outside and see if he could catch the other guy before he went off in the wrong direction. She thanked us and we left them to their hectic confusion and rescue effort.
Just a few hundred metres from the roadhouse, we came across the entrance sign for Kakadu National Park. We stopped to take some quick snaps before hurrying on, since the sun was setting and we wanted to get as close to Cooinda as we could before dark. Being in the tropics though, the sun set quickly and darkness fell before we arrived. But not before presenting a beautiful red ball on the western horizon, the sun seen through a low haze of bushfire smoke.
Kakadu National Park entrance
The rangers set deliberate fires in Kakadu every Dry season to help with control and dispersal of the natural vegetation and ecosystems. We passed a controlled fire along one stretch of road, where glowing embers and the odd burning tree stood amidst a field of ash, all glowing eerily with flame in the twilight.
We climbed a hill and stopped at a convenient lookout spot just as we saw thousands upon thousands of what we assumed were bats pouring across the pink-painted sky of the western horizon, forming a mass of black silhouettes that flowed like a liquid across the sky.
Bats flying out at sunset, Kakadu National Park
The stars were out as we approached Cooinda and I drove cautiously, scanning for any wildlife that might dart out in front of the car. But the complete lack of roadkill (contrasted to the Stuart Highway out of Katherine, where there was a dead kangaroo or wallaby every few hundred metres), gave me confidence that such things were more rare in Kakadu. In fact, we didn't see a single animal anywhere by the road, and pulled into Cooinda safely just before 20:00.
We checked in, confirmed our Yellow Water dawn cruise for tomorrow, then considered our dinner options. While moving our bags from the car to the room, we spotted a huge bird running across the lawn. I thought it was a baby emu at first, but later found it to be a bush stone-curlew. There is a bistro with counter meals and al fresco seating in the warm, humid air, with ceiling fans on the roof above doing their best to move the thick air around, or Mimi's, an inside restaurant of moderately fancy pretensions - for which apparently reservations are "essential". Figuring we could walk in the front door and try making a reservation for "now", we sauntered in and did so with no drama, although I took a dislike to the waitress, who came across a bit snooty. Maybe we had walked in tired and dirty from a day of slogging over rocks and sweating hard, smelling of sunscreen and insect repellent, but we were hungry and just wanted some food!
Diner at Mimi's restaurant
We ordered a pesto pizza bread for starters and downed a whole bottle of water waiting for it, requesting another (which was also soon emptied). M. had one of the entrees as a main meal - a mushroom and gorgonzola tart with pears, plus a beetroot and rocket salad, while I couldn't go past the Atlantic salmon with a poached egg, served on a fried polenta cake, garnished with preserved lemon rind in olives. It was all a bit fancy, but certainly hit the spot. Rather than spend an extra half hour (and $20) waiting for dessert, we retired to our room, where there was a complimentary pack of two cream biscuits for eating with the coffee or tea - a chocolate cream and a shortbread cream. I had those to assuage the sweet tooth, and then we cleaned off the grime of the day and relaxed in front of the Beijing Olympic closing ceremony on the scratchy TV before falling into a deep sleep.
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