Kakadu: the Crocodile Dundee tour of Australia’s wetland wonderland | Travel

“You feel it from the heart. It’s something words can’t explain.”

So says Paul Arnold, a Darwin-based landscape photographer dressed like a cross between Steve Irwin and Crocodile Dundee (khaki shorts and shirt, battered bush hat, huge gold nugget on a kangaroo-skin strap around his neck). He’s talking about Kakadu, Australia’s largest national park – a world heritage-listed wilderness that’s home to wetlands, waterfalls, wildlife and the world’s longest continuous surviving culture.

We’re here on a four-day trip to follow in the footsteps of Mick Dundee himself, 30 years after Paul Hogan’s smash-hit film catapulted Kakadu, the outback – and Australia itself – on to the world stage.

In Arnold’s gallery in Darwin, surrounded by his shots of the Top End, he tells us to be still and drink it in. “You’ll know what I’m talking about when you get there,” he says. “That’s the thing about Kakadu – it can’t not change you.”

Thursday: swim with the crocodile

Fast forward two hours and I’m desperately wishing for a change … of clothes. We’re at Crocosaurus Cove, a reptile park in the centre of the city that’s home to some 200 saltwater crocs. I’ve just come face-to-face with the park’s most popular resident, a battle-scarred 5.5-metre monster called Chopper. Missing a leg and a few front teeth, he’s named after the infamous Aussie criminal Mark “Chopper” Read (Eric Bana shot to fame playing him in a 2000 biopic).

Two of us have been given goggles and snorkels and lowered in the “cage of death” into Chopper’s enclosure. The moment we hit the water, the 800kg saltie throws himself at us and I scream in surprise. It takes a few seconds to realise Chopper’s interest isn’t in us but in the chicken carcass a handler is dangling over our heads.

As he circles and lunges, we realise he’s following verbal commands; he only jumps when he’s told to. It’s clear this wily old boy – he’s at least 80 years old – knows this game and how to play it. It’s an impressive display from an animal I’d previously thought akin to a vicious log – and to be avoided at all costs.

Less engaging is the smell. Chopper reeks. It’s an intensely fishy, slimy stench made alarming by the release I just signed, acknowledging that the water in the cage “fills from the pen water holding the crocodiles and may expose me to potentially harmful or fatal disease”. And we’re being urged to put our heads fully under because “it’s better for the photographs”. Ohhhhhkay then.

Chopper circles the ‘cage of death’ at Crocosaurus Cove. Photograph: Danielle Lancaster

After about five minutes of cage rattling, Chopper demolishes the last of the chicken and the show’s over. But then comes the best bit. He starts to check us out. To really look at us. Yes, we might be prey, but I swear there’s a gleam of amusement in that reptile eye (he’s so huge I can only see one at a time). And locking eyes with an apex predator so formidable that his species hasn’t seen the need to evolve in 200m years is a powerful sensation.

Chopper’s handler Josh (the chook dangler) says crocodiles can understand up to 16 commands: “So they’re brighter than a dog – but they won’t stop at licking you!”

There’s another crocodile encounter in store at dinner in the atrium restaurant of the harbourside Darwin Novotel CBD. First course is local croc served two ways. I’m not exactly excited to try it after meeting old Chop Chop, but figure if our roles were reversed, he wouldn’t hesitate. Other diners joke it tastes like chicken and they’re right – if you like your poultry fishy and scaly.

More appealing is the crispy-skin native barramundi, with a relish made of native quandong fruit, and a zingy dessert of native wattleseed crema catalana with native macadamia toffee crumb and lime sauce. Seems Territorians like to take a theme and run with it.

Friday: sleep in the crocodile

Nowhere is that more apparent than the base for our first night in Kakadu, the Mercure Crocodile Hotel in the town of Jabiru – an easy three-hour drive from Darwin. Built for the tourists who flocked to the national park after Crocodile Dundee came out, the Indigenous-owned 110-room resort is shaped like an enormous “ginga” (the word for crocodile in the local Aboriginal languages). You enter through her jaws; the struts holding up the portico resemble giant teeth; in the belly of the beast is the swimming pool. It’s kitsch on a monumental scale, deserving a place on the list of Australia’s beloved Big Things.

The Crocodile Hotel from the air

The Crocodile Hotel from the air. Photograph: Nikki Marshall for the Guardian

The rooms are comfortable, though, and the reception is warm. Traditional owners David, Mark and May are on hand to welcome our group to Mirarr country with a smoking ceremony on the front lawn. The men sing as the green leaves crackle and catch, sending cleansing fumes our way. Mark finishes with a short tale about hunting wallaby. As he sings, I’m struck by a dizzying sense of rightness. Hearing this ancient song, in this place … for a heady few seconds it feels as though millennia are falling away.

Bininj and Balanda

Inside we meet our guides, Selone Djandjomerr, the hotel’s artist-in-residence, and Christian Diddams, a national park interpretive ranger. As we fill out paperwork – all visitors to Kakadu must obtain a pass – Christian briefs us on the park’s history. There were once up to 2,500 Aboriginal people (or Bininj, as they’re called in the north of the park) living here, in 22 clan groups speaking 12 languages – including the now-extinct Gagudju (cockatoo) for which the park was named. Today there are 12 clans left, speaking three languages – and no more than 500 Bininj still living on country. Bininj call visitors here (and anyone who isn’t Indigenous) Balanda, a derivation of Hollander that comes from the Macassan people of Sulawesi, with whom Aboriginal people traded for centuries.

With more than 2,000 plant species and nearly 300 different birds, the park’s biodiversity is “off the hook”, Christian says, but it’s clear that for this park ranger Kakadu is all about the people.

Sandstone and sunset

Permits sorted, it’s time to get into the landscape. We set off for the park’s north-eastern corner.

Selone Djandjomerr offers a floral tribute at a billabong just outside Jabiru

Selone Djandjomerr offers a floral tribute at a billabong just outside Jabiru. Photograph: Nikki Marshall for the Guardian

We glimpse our first rock art on the sandstone pillars of the Bardedjilidji walk, a 2.5km loop alongside the East Alligator river, and the location for the climactic scenes of Crocodile Dundee II (no, I don’t remember it either). Then it’s a short drive to the day’s highlight, sunset atop the glory that is Ubirr.

The paintings here – created by artists who mix mineral pigments with blood and fat and tattoo them into the stone – are stupendous. There’s a thylacine (they died out on the Australian mainland at least 2,000 years ago), x-ray animals, crocodile warning signs and pictures describing early contact with Europeans.

X-ray drawings of barramundi at Ubirr

X-ray drawings of barramundi at Ubirr. Photograph: Nikki Marshall for the Guardian

As Christian tells it, Kakadu’s stone galleries illustrate stories, lore and song stretching back 20,000 years. They also provide an eyewitness account of a time of rapid environmental change, when, at the end of the last ice age, sea levels rose 130 metres in 6,000 years. But Balanda are only told the “children’s stories” that go with the images – as Bininj progress through ceremonial life, and prove their willingness to accept the obligations that come with knowledge, extra layers of meaning are revealed to them.

As we climb to the lookout, Selone says quietly we’d have to stay in Kakadu at least two years to begin to understand his culture, but anyone willing to sit and feel country will experience “the magic”. Just don’t drive around the park at 130km/h ticking off sites, he says – that’s “a bloody waste of time”.

The view from the tallest of Ubirr’s rocky outcrops is unforgettable. Dragonflies dart about and cockatoos call out as a red ball of fire sinks into the intense green of the Nadab floodplain below. This is the movie moment when Mick Dundee points to the horizon and says, “This is my backyard and over there is the Never Never.” For a blissful hour it’s our backyard too.

Saturday: time to fly

To get a handle on the distinct terrains of Australia’s largest national park, it’s good idea to get above them. Just minutes after taking off from Jabiru airport in a single-engine Cessna operated by the Scenic Flight Company, there’s an aha moment. To the north and west are the wetlands, their rivers and creeks snaking across lush plains and glinting in the morning light. Towering above them to the south and east is Arnhem Land’s stone country – hot, dry and harsh, though, with the sandstone escarpment rising up to 300 metres, there are far fewer crocs.

Stone and water: Kakadu from the air

Stone and water: Kakadu from the air. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian

We follow the ridge south to Jim Jim falls, where water cascades 200 metres from the cliff face into a plunge pool that’s only accessible in the dry season. Further south, our pilot Cameron tells us, is Gunlom waterfall – another Dundee location – and beyond that is “sickness country”, where rock paintings warning passersby to steer clear are now known to correlate with uranium deposits. “So for 20,000 years they’ve known there’s been something in this area that isn’t too good for their health,” he says.

Circling back to Jabiru, we glimpse the Ranger uranium mine, an incongruous island in this otherwise untouched terrain. Open-cut mining ceased here in 2012 but the processing of ore continues. When the mine closes, the company is required to rehabilitate the land so it can be incorporated into the surrounding park.

Art lessons

Back at the hotel we meet Selone for an art lesson. He cuts reeds collected on yesterday’s outing to craft long, fine brushes and deftly gets to work. Unlike the colourful, more abstract dot paintings of central Australia, the art tradition here is stark.

An Aboriginal artist painting sea creatures

Artists in Kakadu and Arnhem Land use fine lines to create intricate designs. Photograph: Penny Tweedie/Getty Images

Black, white, rust and ochre shades form x-ray figures with cross-hatched bodies. The shapes are simple but the fine lines make them pop. It’s startling to see the animals from the rock art we saw yesterday make the leap to canvas.

There’s another lesson in store at Nourlangie, an art site 20km south of Jabiru, where we meet Christian for a ranger-led tour. He has stone tools and archaeological finds lined up to show us but, again, his focus is on people. He describes a fantastically complex kinship-based system that imposes rights and avoidances: for example, for each species individual Bininj are allowed to hunt or harvest, there is another they must protect.

Here history is oral: songlines are “locked in” over three generations to ensure they are learnt word for word. Ancient stories today still speak of sea-level changes that occurred millennia ago – far further back than the west’s written histories go.

Christian’s passion brings these rock galleries to life. A favourite detail: children are taught that when speargrass turns purple, barramundi are at their fattest. There’s even a season named for that grass. Balanda say the Top End has two seasons: the wet and the dry. Bininj recognise six, including Banggerreng, which means “knock ’em down storms season” after the April rains that flatten the grass.

It infuriates Christian that Aboriginal people are still described as having been nomadic hunter-gatherers, ignoring how skilfully they manage and manipulate their landscape. There is evidence they propagated species on a massive scale, including entire valleys given over to native millet. And the spare time they had over from the business of survival was dedicated to ceremony.

We stop in front of the rock art of Najombolmi, a master bark painter, hunter and fisher also known as Barramundi Charlie. He spent years working among Balanda, watching on in grief as his people died from the illnesses they brought. With the floodplain languages gone and the stone country languages disappearing, he came here in the wet season of 1963-64 – not long before he himself died – to leave his art alongside that of his ancestors. His images of Namarrgon the lightning man, his wife, Barrginj, and a family group of Bininj are recognised as masterpieces.

A rainstorm rolls in over Nourlangie Rock, seen from Nawurlandja lookout

A rainstorm rolls in over Nourlangie Rock, seen from Nawurlandja lookout. Photograph: Nikki Marshall for the Guardian

Next we look out over Angbangbang Billabong, where Mick Dundee took Sue for their first night in the wilderness, and climb Nawurlandja lookout to see a rainbow appear above Nourlangie Rock. As we stand in bright sunshine gazing out across the park, steel grey clouds appear, then a sudden rainstorm sweeps in from the escarpment. It’s spectacular – and we cop a drenching.

Sunday: water, water everywhere

The immersion continues on our final day in Kakadu, from a pre-dawn start at our accommodation beside the Yellow Water Billabong, the Indigenous-owned, Accor-managed Cooinda Lodge. The billabong, a branch of the South Alligator river, takes its name from the soft colour of its surface at sunrise and sunset. Which makes sunrise the perfect time for a trip with Yellow Water Cruises, one of the park’s top attractions.

Our guide and skipper Margaret points out magpie geese and darters, and teaches us to spot the streams of small bubbles that mean a ginga is lurking below. It’s exciting to see a dozen or so crocodiles in their element, gliding through the water, resting among waterlilies and sunning themselves on mudbanks.

Yellow Water Billabong at sunrise

Yellow Water Billabong at sunrise. Photograph: Nikki Marshall for the Guardian

For our final outing we head up through stone country into the park’s south-west to picnic at Moline, one of Kakadu’s many small swimming holes. We’re in a four-wheel drive with Kevin of Spirit of Kakadu Adventure Tours. He’s been in Kakadu a dozen years, after growing up around Darwin. “I’m not real keen on it though – it’s too big nowadays,” he says of his home town.

Moline is on a rutted track off the highway – the first rough road we’ve been on. As I jump into the cool, fresh water, I consider how unexpectedly accessible Kakadu is. With Australia’s mining boom over, the cost of flights to Darwin has come down, as airlines compete for the tourist market. And Jabiru is just 250km further on. I’d previously imagined the park to be a remote wilderness, the domain of hardcore campers with serious bush skills. That you somehow had to earn the right to see its wonders. (Crocodile Dundee might even be to blame for that impression.)

I know that on this long weekend I’ve only seen a tiny bit of this beautiful place, and that a longer, less-busy stay would more fully reveal Selone’s “magic”. But as I scramble up rocks to stand in Moline’s waterfall, a Top End dream comes true. And I do feel changed: I’m awed and exhilarated and fired up by a fierce yearning to see more, learn more and experience more of this vast and glorious land.

Guardian Australia was a guest of Tourism NT and Qantas

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