The van up on jacks, the wheels two-hundred kilometres away in Darwin.
I was naked (as usual) when Vero knocked. Rod had fixed his “car” and was going to Ubirr. Did we want to go?
We grabbed some sandwiches for the road, Rod fueled up on resort and we sped off through the parched landscape. The trees clung to the red earth, somehow adapted to half the year spent without rain, and the other half spent drowned in it. Termite hills as tall as me peppered the landscape, along with the occasional burnt out or abandoned car.
We passed large patches of blackened, smouldering forest. At first we thought it as the work of a wild bushfire, but actually these were controlled burnings, practiced by the locals for many thousands of years. “Whitefellas” have taken this long to realise the value of the burning, but it is done when the temperature is at its coolest and helps prevent larger, more devastating bushfires, removes undergrowth and helps encourages new growth and wildlife to return to the area. The Aborigines see fire as a nature occurrence, not something to be afraid of, and part of their duty as stewards of the land.
Rod swung a left just before Jabiru and now this was all new territory for me. The Arnhem Land escarpment (of which Ubirr is an outlying piece) rose up on our right while sparse patches of water still clung to the floodplains and billabongs to our left. The grass seemed to glow as the sun shone through it like a thick crop of blonde hair on a warm summer’s evening.
We passed Merl campground and pulled up at Cahill’s Crossing. For many this is the end of the road. From here you need to drive across the East Alligator – a major tidal river – and need a permit to enter Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal land on the other side.
But that’s another adventure.
We were here because Vero – my unofficial Spanish tutor and general creator of mirth – had never seen a crocodile. (We had.) So the four of us stood on the banks and watched as crocodiles moved about on the river, appearing on the surface only briefly, before descending back beneath the water with the rest of their lot.
Brave (stupid) fishermen-and-women stood on the rocks or in the shallows and fished from the Crossing, as the occasional Aboriginal car or four-wheel-drive or road-train ploughed across the river at medium tide.
Mosquitoes and flies buzzed all around, making their usual din. The flies here – march flies – bite and draw blood. Rod killed one just as it was in the process of lunching on his leg.
Everything in the Territory bites.
We stopped at the Border Store at Manbiyarra – a remote outstation beside the East Alligator river and Arnhem Land border, famous for its Thai food – for Vero to use the bathroom, but when she saw the state of the dunny (Outback toilet) she changed her mind and we were on the road again.
At Ubirr lies a rock art painting of the Rainbow Serpent – one of the oldest creator beings, known across much of Australia (locally as Almudj in Kunwinjku, Ngalyod in Gundjeihmi and Garranga’rreli in the no longer spoken language of Gagudju, from which “Kakadu” – the name of the Park – is derived) – who split and moved rock, creating rivers, wetlands and billabongs as she made her way through the land. (At Nourlangie, Christian the ranger told us of an ancient river – wider than any around today, that once ran through these lands, creating the Arnhem Land escarpment as its Eastern bank. Listening to this, I had to wonder; could this have been the Rainbow Serpent?)
On her travels the Rainbow Serpent passed through Ubirr, leaving the painting of herself, and crossed the East Alligator. She still rests somewhere deep in Arnhem Land, in a quiet waterhole, and, if disturbed, can cause floods and other natural disasters.
Rod led the way, scrambling up the rocks, past rock art galleries thousands of years old, one of the Aboriginal rangers giving a free talk, rock wallabies bouncing through the dusty spinifex. A one-kilometre walking trail leads into the incredible “stone country” landscape before you climb 250 metres up onto Ubirr Rock – the Nadab Lookout – arguably the most beautiful sunset spot in the park.
Of all the things to do in Kakadu, the lookouts are my favourite: steeped in Aboriginal tradition, they give context and perspective to everything you see down on the ground. Up here you see the bigger picture of Kakadu National Park, and nowhere else is its raw, wild beauty more evident – especially at sunrise and sunset. (Nawurlandja Lookout at Nourlangie is another.)
The sun was getting low in the sky and we sat and watched as it shone through the long grass and sank slowly into its own reflection in the Nadab floodplain.
Rod looked totally at peace in this backdrop.
“I could live out here,” he said. “In the bush, catching and cooking my own food, camping out under the stars…”
I nodded in agreement.
Rod’s from “Bundy” (Bundaberg). After his “old lady shot through”, leaving him to raise his daughter as a single parent, and having never been in a plane, out of Australia, or even Queensland, he one day decided to get the most out of life, packed up and set off across the continent in his high-clearance four-wheel-drive, laden to the sky with camping and fishing gear, spare tyres and jerries, and picking up work as he went. You meet very few people in this world who understand the value of this short life, but Rod’s one of them.
The sun set, as it has a way of doing – turning the sky and its reflection from blue to gold to red to black.
On the way back (85 kilometres) we didn’t see a single car.
I guess Vero finally found a toilet.