Wangi Falls Camp Site, Litchfield National Park. Thursday 15th June, 2017
Litchfield National Park. It’s not far from Darwin, less than half a day’s ride, and was the first place I chose to visit on my ‘final tour’. I camped at the Wangi Falls campground for a couple of nights and explored the park from there. It’s a usefully compact park, only 1,500 sq kms, but with plenty to see. There’s five different waterfalls, tumbling down off the sandstone rock outcrops. Beneath most of them are swimming holes, with cool, clear water in which to take a refreshing swim. I sampled those delights at Wangi Falls twice, particularly when I’d returned from a hot and sweaty walk around the trail above the spectacular Tolmer Falls. The area beneath those falls isn’t accessible for swimming, being a special place for the local Aboriginals. I also took a look at the Magnetic Termite mounds. There’s an area which has hundreds of them, almost like they were planted there. I’d seen them before, up on Cape York, two years previously. The termites build them with a north/south orientation so they always have a shaded side to escape the heat in. Some species can be very destructive to buildings, but not these. They are often referred to as White Ants but are actually related to cockroaches. Their bodies are almost translucent and they have no defence against the sun or its heat.
The Bamboo Creek tin mine was a reminder of people’s determination to extract value out of the land. They managed to haul in some heavy machinery, including a large engine. Opened in 1906, it became too difficult to extract the ore because of water ingress and it was abandoned in the 1950s. The rusting machinery left behind is a testament to the tough mining life and the tough men that lived it.
At the camp site I met another biker, named Jorge, a German now living in Leeds where he is a vet. His sister lives in Aus and he asked her to obtain a bike for him. She managed to get him a Kawasaki KLR650, fully equipped with panniers, at a great price. A French guy was selling it urgently so he could buy a plane ticket home. Stress sales can be a great way to find a bargain. Jorge was very happy with it and I’m not surprised.
Talking of bikes, I discovered a fault with mine,of which I had been conscious for a few days. The battery had gone fairly flat while I was in Darwin and wouldn’t always start the bike. On my Suzuki that was never a problem because I’d had a kick start as back up. No such thing on this one, so I’d bought one of those Lithium Ion battery packs that can be used to charge electronic device,s and also to jump start cars. It’s not very big, and I had doubts about its capability, but it always did the job, for which I was very grateful. While I was at the camp ground I decided to run some tests, enlisting Jorge’s help, and quickly realised that the bike’s alternator stator wasn’t working properly. There was enough output to run the bike, once it was started up, but not enough to charge the battery too. I knew I’d be OK until I left Australia, but it was another item on the list for the factory to replace under warranty. It was a bloody nuisance though and the hassle of constant jump starting tended to discourage me from making unplanned stops to look at things!
After Litchfield I decided to head down to Douglas Hot Springs, a bit further south. I’d met another biker on a camp site who had recommended them, and they sounded good. I really do wish I hadn’t listened! On the way there I was on a dirt road and came to a creek crossing. It wasn’t wide or deep so I went across at a sensible speed, but stood up on the footrests. Usually I’d be sitting down with my feet close to the ground. What I hadn’t realised was that the road base was concrete and, of course, was covered in slippery weed. As I came out of the creek the rear wheel slid round and I came off the bike. It was all at low speed but I landed awkwardly enough to bruise a rib and my foot got twisted round as I came off. The result was a twisted ankle, which was to give me trouble for several weeks. I could walk on it, so I knew nothing was broken, just for a change. But it was swollen up and appropriately painful. I managed to get to Douglas Springs and camped there for a couple of days. The problem was that the river water was hot when all I wanted was cold! There were no facilities there to speak of, so nowhere to get any ice, or similar. I paddled in the hot springs but my heart wasn’t really in it. Once I felt rested enough I headed for the town of Katherine and booked into a hostel to rest up.
My initial booking of three days grew, a few days at a time, into seven. I long ago learned the art of sitting still and to avoid the urge to be doing things. And my sore ankle encouraged that attitude. I bought ice and placed bags of it over the swelling. The bruising gradually went down but the ankle itself stayed swollen up and stiff to move. After a few days one of the other guys there offered me some heavy duty anti inflammation tablets. He said to only take one a day. He’d got them in Thailand when he pulled a shoulder muscle. I took one that evening and in the morning it was as if a miracle had happened. The swelling had gone right down and I could walk without limping. Wonderful! He gave me a few spares, which I took over the next few days, reveling in the relief they brought.
Katherine isn’t a very big place, with only a few tourist sites within the town. But there are several in the area around it. Nitmiluk National Park is the most significant. It includes Katherine Gorge, a series of thirteen gorges strung along the Katherine River like green pearls. They can be explored by canoe or on foot, but I sensibly chose to visit them on an organised boat trip. I only explored two out of the possibe three, which involved changing boats half way along. At this time of year the water level is too low to pass from one to another. It was fascinating to see how high up the water reaches in the summer months – easily five metres above the winter levels. The gorges are, of course, beautiful, with plenty interesting geology. One of these was a feature known as sub gorges. Land movement causes gaps to open up in the cliffs that line the gorge, creating sub gorges, which sit opposite each other. I hadn’t seen this before.
On the rock face near where we changed boats was some Aboriginal rock art. The Jawoyn people are the traditional owners of this area. They were among the first Aboriginal groups to successfully reclaim ownership of their land. As is common now, they immediately leased it back to the government so that a national park could be created.
Katherine suffered from Japanese bombing during WW2, the furthest point south to do so. It was a base for troops and a supply line for invasion forces too. This information was on display in the town museum, along with much else. The town itself only started when a bridge was built across the river as the railway headed south from Darwin. The original town of Emungalan, centred around the new telegraph station in the 1870s, had many of its buildings moved there. Pastoral activity supported that town too, as did mining activity. The river had been named by explorer John Stuart, chosen in honour of the daughter of one of his sponsors, as he headed north. Perhaps the most significant incident in the town’s history was the flooding of 1998, when the river rose by twenty one metres and destroyed most of the centre of town. There had been others before, but this was by far the worst. But the town recovered and nearly twenty years later it thrives as a busy regional centre.
One of the strong impressions left by the town was how close it is to the edge of nowhere. There’s several towns on the way north to Darwin of course, but the road sign to the south told me that the nearest place of any significance was Alice Springs, all of 1,200kms away. To the west it’s Kununurra, over 500kms. To the east? Nothing. Just bush. It brought home the size of Australia and just how vast and remote the Top End is.
With the clock ticking, and my injuries feeling much better, I decided it was time to explore Kakadu National Park, lying north and east of Katherine. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, it is the Territory’s largest and the second biggest in Australia. Its wetlands are visited by vast numbers of migratory birds and it is populated by a huge variety of flora and fauna. I wanted to take a closer (but not too close) look at one of these, Estuarine Crocodiles – or Salties, as they’re called. The biker who had told me about Douglas Springs also mentioned Cahill Crossing, where the crocs go to catch fish along with careless tourists. Definitely intriguing enough to be worth my while. I had already seen plenty of natural beauty, which often involved walking, so me and my still painful ankle where going to limit the sightseeing to the Aboriginal rock art the park is famous for.
One difference between this park and most others is that an entry pass has to be bought. You’re trusted to go and buy one once you enter, but there are plenty of rangers around who may ask to see it. Fair enough in itself, but what annoyed me is that I had to pay for seven days when I was only going to be there three. Although it wasn’t very expensive, at $35, it’s still a bit annoying to pay for more than you plan to use. But I suppose the positive side of it is that the money helps support projects aimed at Indigenous Peoples. They own the land and are heavily involved in managing the park. It borders Arnhem Land, which is totally given over to Aboriginal people. It’s a vast area that borders the coast and had I wanted to go there I would have needed a special permit, as would all non Aboriginals. There are a number of such areas around Australia, a positive attempt to enable Indigenous Peoples to regain their culture.
Once I’d set up camp I visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Centre, where I bought my pass then looked around the information displays. The focus was on local culture; about the six or seven different seasons Aboriginals recognise; various hunting and fishing artefacts; some displays telling the stories of how children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to mission schools; how the people had to rely on working on the stations in order to get food, although without pay. The history and effects of the destruction of Indigenous culture is a long and troubling one but the existence and operation of the national parks is at least a beginning in the search for a solution.
Next day, as I rode to a different campsite, I went to see the Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie. The park has created access by installing a walkway which took me up around the rocks and enabled a great view of the artwork. Fortunately they also have infoboards, essential for interpreting the drawings. It’s common to find new art drawn over old. Some of it relates to the Dreamtime stories. These are the Aboriginal creation stories; how the landscape was formed and how animals came to be. Others relate to activities such as hunting, dancing and other ceremonies. It’s not uncommon for them to be simply diagrams used to help the elders teach boys necessary skills. Some of them are as much as 20,000 years old, although most of them are clearly more recent. They tend to be located up in rocky areas, hidden from easy view. They were the best I’d seen anywhere, much better than those in Katherine Gorge, for example.
Some of the drawings showed kangaroos but my next stop was all about crocodiles. Cahill Crossing is where the road into Arnhem Land goes over the East Alligator River. Was that name ironic or just a simple confusion by explorers between snappy jawed reptiles? Whatever, the river at this point is tidal and at high tide sea fish swim upriver and the salties wait upstream of the causeway and snap them up as they swim across. Clever!
I’d checked the tide times at the visitor centre and got there in plenty of time to watch the fun. The river was running downstream, across the causeway and there were plenty of people fishing. The best of them were the young Aboriginal lads who forsook expensive rods and reels and just used spools with line on. No bait is allowed so lures are used, to great effect. I’ve no idea what the fish are but by the time the tide had started to come over the causeway the lads had loaded about twenty into their car. Most of the other fishers released those they’d caught. Just downstream was a 4WD lying on its roof. By the time the tide was full all except a wheel was under water. Apocryphal tales abound about careless tourists who misjudge the strength of the water flow and end up as crocodile lunch. Was this one of their vehicles?
The fishers abandoned their positions as the waters rose and eventually it was possible to see the crocs, over on the other side of the river, swimming around purposefully. It was plain to see they were catching fish although details were hard to see. It does seem as if the causeway slows the fish down, making the crocs’ task that much easier. Man and nature in perfect harmony then. It’s worth noting that fifty years ago crocs had been almost hunted to extinction, mainly for their skins. Making them a protected species has increased their numbers hugely, with 10,000 reckoned to live in Kakadu alone. Apart from a very few locations, swimming is not advised because of the risk. Finally, how do you tell the difference between a Freshie and a Saltie? A Freshie will swim away from you, a Saltie will swim towards you. But they’re not easy to see anyway. A stark warning indeed!
Deep and fast flowing at high tide. Crocs await their lunch.
It was a ride of only a few hours from Kakadu to Darwin. Once I’d settled in I made a ‘to do’ list. At the top of it was to go to Alicross Motorcycles for new tyres. I’d called in to see owner Richard when I was in Darwin last time. He’s a friend of Dave’s and, like Dave, often helps travelers passing through, letting them use his workshop and so on. He fitted my new tyres while we chatted about bikes and traveling. I met Jason there too. He was having his racing BMW R100 checked on the dynomometer for power output. He uses it for drag racing, a bit of an unusual bike for that activity. It looked nice though.
Next task was to organise the shipping of Trixie the short distance across to Dili, in East Timor. Getting a bike across water is a vital step in any journey and can be fraught with difficulty. You hear tales of people turning up at a port, talking to crew members and getting their bike onto a local ‘onion boat’. I’m a realist and experience has taught me that the best way is to do it ‘official’ and use an agent. More expensive but always easier. Apart from anything else I planned to leave my bike in Darwin while I went back to the UK for a few weeks so I needed it all to be handled properly. Bolloré are based in Darwin and deal with ANL Shipping, a company that runs freighters to Dili, Singapore and back to Darwin. Just what I needed. I’d already chatted to Luke, at Bolloré, last time I was in the city and he’d assured me they could find a transportation frame for my bike and that they would arrange everything for me. So I called him and made the final arrangements. He couldn’t quote me a full price but was able to give me an approximation, which sounded OK.
The customs office was just up the road from the hostel and I took the bike up there so they could check its details against those on the carnet. Next job was to sort through my panniers and separate all the gear I was planning to bring home with me. I won’t need my camping or cooking equipment in South East Asia as living is very cheap out there. It will just be an unnecessary burden. The rest would stay with the bike. In the morning I rode the bike to Bolloré, sorted everything out with Luke and waved goodbye to Trixie. See you in Dili!
A helpful truckie went out of his way to give me a lift to the bus stop on the main road, where I immediately got a bus back into town. Straight to customs to get my carnet stamped. And once that was all done I could relax.
My idea of relaxing somehow seems to involve a lot of walking. From the hostel down to the botanic gardens – which were very good. Then along the seashore path to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. There was plenty of modern Aboriginal art to enjoy and puzzle over; some excellent natural history; and a film all about the effects of Cyclone Tracy. Apart from Japanese bombs, the cyclone was the most devastating event that Darwin had ever suffered. It pretty much wiped out the city, and on Christmas day to boot. There were 49 casualties, but fewer than the amount of damage caused might suggest. If there is an upside to such a disaster it’s that a rather dowdy city was turned into somewhere much more attractive; and that building regulations throughout Australia were changed to make buildings more cyclone proof. The scale of the disaster provided a wake up call to the whole of Australia and its ability to manage such disasters was stepped up considerably.
Modern Aboriginal art at MAGNT.
The piece of artwork above reminds me that the Maroons beat the Cockroaches, by a healthy margin, in the deciding game of the State of Origin competition. Making it, I believe, eleven wins out of twelve. It’s shame I missed the game.
So in general my last few days in Australia were spent enjoying Darwin in a very relaxed fashion, sampling coffee, food and beer. But eventually my last journey on Australian soil was completed on the airport bus before I flew out of one of the most remarkable countries I’d been to on my travels so far.