by David Lung, Darya Cheng, and Lynn (Jomkuan) Theprungsirikul
Location of Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Kakadu National Park is located within the Alligator Rivers Region in the Northern Territory, Australia. It is about 170 km Southeast from Darwin, and the Ranger Uranium Mine is located within the park. The park is one of the most ecologically and biologically diverse park in the world comprising of over 1700 plant species, over 280 bird species, about 60 mammal species, and about 117 species of reptiles.
Day 1: Crocodile Jumping Cruise, Adelaide River
Baby Wallaby at Crocodile Jumping Cruise
On our 4th day in Australia, we left Darwin for a 3 day camping trip
to Kakadu National Park, which is one of the few places that is listed
as a World Heritage Area for both its cultural and national values of
international significance. It is home to 68 species of mammals, over
120 reptiles, 26 frogs, more than 2,000 species of plants, and 10,000
species of insects. The park is located in the Alligator Region of the
Northern Territory, approximately 3 hours away from Darwin and was
established in stages with the last one occurring in 1992, making it a
relatively new national park. However, while the park has been
established for almost 2 decades, Aborigines have occupied the area
for over 50,000 years. Aboriginal traditional owners work jointly with
the Director of National Parks to preserve and the immense
biodiversity, rich cultural significance and breathtaking natural
beauty of Kakadu National Park.
We arrived at the park during the Wurrgeng or cold weather season, one
of 6 seasons that Aborigines recognize within the park. Northern
Australia in the tropical regions typically recognizes only 2 seasons:
wet and dry. However, Aborigines’ six seasons have small variations
that transition from one to another. The other seasons include Gudjewg
(Monsoon season) in December to March, Banggerreng (Knock ‘em down
storm- violent, windy storms) in April, Yegge (Cooler but still humid
season) in May to June, Gurrung (hot dry weather) in August to
October, and Gunumeleng (pre-monsoon storm season) in October to
Greeny and Tina were our amazing and very knowledgeable Aboriginal
guides who informed us of the various fauna, flora, and also
significance of major Aboriginal sites throughout Kakadu National
Park. As we passed the city limits of Darwin, the landscape changed
drastically with wetlands replacing the arid scenery. We caught a few
glances of wetland birds such as egrets and water buffalos as we made
our way to our first stop, the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise
where we had some breakfast and also had the opportunity to handle 2
pythons: the carpet python (Morelia spilota) and the olive python
(Liasis olivaceus). All of us could sense the incredible coordination
of their muscles as the pythons wrapped around us and curiously
slithered along our shoulders. As some of us handled the pythons, we
were joined by another member of the crew, an adorable baby wallaby!
While it hopped around exploring the station, all of us had the chance
to pet and play with it. Eventually, the joey hopped back into its
makeshift pouch, and we were on our way to a breathtaking experience
on the Adelaide River where more than 80,000 saltwater crocodile
(Crocodylus porosus) roam.
Crocodile Jumping, Adelaide River
As we set out on the river, our guide gave us a few fun facts about
crocodiles. Normally, you can’t see crocodiles. Often, they are hidden
beneath the river or basking under the sun along the shore. However,
crocodiles are calculating and patient predators, stalking and
memorizing the patterns of their prey for possibly weeks before
striking. The crocodiles in the Adelaide River know the vibrations
from the river boat and come out from hiding for a free meal. After a
few minutes of speeding through the river, our guide stopped the boat
while his assistant pulled out a fishing rod made of bamboo and tied a
piece of buffalo meat at the end. She tapped the water several times
as we waited for any signs of a crocodile. It did not take long until
we suddenly noticed a head poking out from the murky water and heading
straight for the boat. The crocodile patiently floated below the meat
before jumping for it, extending out of the water to almost half of
the length of its body. It truly was a spectacular sight, leaving us
gasping in surprise and awe at the extraordinary display of power.
Despite being normally timid animals, if our guide saw crocodiles that
were close to each other, he would drive the boat between them to
prevent the crocodiles from going after each other. We saw much
evidence of cannibalism among the crocodiles with several missing a
leg or more limbs, but crocodiles are extraordinarily resilient
animals and do not appear affected by the missing limbs. Their
dominance of the river is still unquestioned and their presence
inspires both a sense of caution but also admiration from all
White Bellied Sea Eagle, Adelaide River
After feeding the crocodiles, a circle of whistling kites (Haliastur
Whistling Kite, Adelaide River
sphenurus) hovered above the boat as we sped off. Our guide’s
assistant pulled out a few pieces of buffalo meat and showed a piece
in her hand as the kites drew closer. In an incredible display of the
kites’ keen vision and deft acrobatics in the air, the kites easily
snatched the pieces of buffalo the assistant threw in mid-air. Of
course, another larger bird of prey soon joined the kites, the white
bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster). As we quickly passed the
sea eagle, it appeared that it did not see our guide’s assistant
presenting a piece of buffalo at the end of the bamboo rod, but before
we knew it, the sea eagle quickly caught up to the boat and snatched
the chunk of meat in a matter of seconds before roosting far away to
enjoy its meal while we were left in awe and wonder. The Spectacular
Jumping Crocodile Cruise was an unbelievable start to our adventures,
leaving us eager to explore and experience what else Kakadu had to
Before arriving at our camp site, we surveyed the landscape for
wallabies that are a common sight among the fire-resistant trees such
as the Eucalyptus, dry grasses and termite mounds, another quick
environmental change from the wetlands. The bush resembles a savanna
that stretches for miles, but another common feature of the area is
bush fires. Aboriginal caretakers practice mosaic burning to burn away
the dry grasses in small patches, which allows new vegetation to grow
and prevents fires from becoming uncontrollable. We spotted several
wallabies traveling in packs, hopping along the landscape, a fitting
sight for our first day in the bush.
As we continued to our next destination, we noticed several cars
parked randomly on the side of the road, and Greeny told us we just
entered the Exclusion Zone of the Ranger Uranium Mine, one of the most
productive uranium mines in the world. Prior to any mining activity,
Aborigines who were exposed to high levels of radiation for a period
of time became sick without any evident cause, leaving many to believe
it was cursed. Today, environmentalists strongly oppose further
exploration of Kakadu for uranium due to fears that waste from mining
will contaminate the wetlands and billabongs that are extremely
important breeding grounds for wetland birds and crucial water sources
for other wildlife and Aborigines, which would devastate the
biodiversity of the area. Greeny informed us that further development
of uranium in other areas has currently slowed down, and he and many
other environmentalists hope the Australian government recognize the
importance of protecting the biodiversity of Kakadu and prevent
further damage within the park.
Ubirr Rock, East Alligator Region
As we passed the entrance of Kakadu, we headed towards the East
Alligator region where we had our first taste of Aboriginal culture at
Ubirr, an area famous for rock art that dates back tens of thousands
of years. While we stopped to admire the paintings, Greeny told us of
their significance, which ranged from ensuring abundance of wildlife
for hunting to moral lessons. X-ray painting styles were common among
the paintings, often featuring barramundi, waterfowl and turtles,
which shows the abundance of food available within Ubirr. Many of the
paintings focused on the environmental conditions of Ubirr and
depicted the rich resources of the East Alligator River as well as the
Nadab floodplain that many Aborigines exploited. At times, Greeny
paused in some of his cultural explanations, telling us that they
would make more sense if we knew the whole story. However, due to
their customs, we were not allowed to know the rest, which only
increased the mystery and our fascination with Aboriginal culture.
Despite living in a modern society, Greeny’s convincing presentation
coupled with our surroundings gave Ubirr a mystical feel and none of
us questioned the significance of these sacred sites. Walking through
the woodlands, we eventually began to climb Ubirr Rock, which gave us
a stunning view of the Nadab floodplains as well as the woodlands.
View from the top of Ubirr Rock
As incredible as the biodiversity of Kakadu has been, the geological
variation was also a stunning sight. Kakadu is an ancient geological
area with granite intrusions that date back to 2.5 billion years ago,
but Kakadu was once submerged under a shallow sea 140 million years
ago, which was a critical event that shaped much of the landscape.
Many sea cliffs can be seen near waterfalls such as Gunlom, Jim Jim,
Twin Falls, as well as at Nourlangie Rock. Igneous intrusions that are
more resistant to erosion lie randomly in the grasslands and are
highly conspicuous on the flat landscape, ripple marks on sandstone
throughout Ubirr are remnants from an ancient river, and conglomerate
rocks dominate much of the landscape within the sandstone. We spent
about half an hour internalizing the scene and resting for our final
trip of the day to our campsite.
Tired from our travels, we made our way to our campsite where we
waited for a surprise dinner. When dinner was served, nothing seemed
out of the ordinary with a salad, potatoes, garlic bread and what
appeared to be steak. It wasn’t until we were almost finished that the
cooks finally told us that we didn’t have steak but kangaroo!
Definitely an unexpected surprise! After dinner and spraying a great
deal of bug spray, we ended our first, eventful day with a beautiful
and mesmerizing night sky, stargazing at the astonishing number of
stars that we could never see in the States. Our first day was nothing
short of amazing, making significant impressions on all of us on the
majesty of Kakadu.
Day 2 at the Kakadu National Park
Early the next morning, on our second day in Kakadu, we headed out towards the Gunlom Falls, located in southern half of the national park. On our way there, Tina stopped to show us a termite “cathedral” mound. Made of mud and termite saliva, these mounds can grow up to 25 feet tall and serve as high-rise “apartments” for the termites during the wet season when low-lying lands flood. The mounds also help to maintain humidity, as many of the worker termites are relatively thin skinned and are quite susceptible to dehydration. Tina also told us a bit about the phylogeny of the termites. While termites might look a lot like ants, and are frequently referred to as “white ants”, termites are actually much more closely related to cockroaches. This confusion isn’t helped by the fact that ants often take over exposed areas of the termite mound for their own use, thus coining the popular moniker “anthills” for what are really termite mounds. After snapping a few pictures, we were on our way again.
Not too long afterwards, we arrived at Gunlom Falls, one of the many stunning waterfalls in Kakadu. After stopping briefly to change into swimwear and to admire the waterfall from afar, Greenie led us up a steep, 30+ m (100+ ft) climb to the top of the falls. Hot and sweaty after the climb (while it’s winter here in the Southern hemisphere, northern Australia is located well within the tropics), everyone quickly jumped into plunge pools to cool off, relax, and enjoy the spectacular views of Kakadu. While several of us explored the several pools closer to the edge of the falls and admired the scenery, some of the more adventurous members of our group climbed up the smaller waterfall towards the back of the pools and dove off cliffs into the beautiful water. All too soon though, it was time to head back down. We were really quite reluctant to leave, but the thought of lunch was too good to resist! Back at the bottom, we went swimming again in the pool at the bottom of Gunlom Falls while we waited for lunch. Having missed out on the climbing at the other site, this time I wanted to go climbing too. After clambering up the rock face, we were able to get right up next to the waterfall itself. In the meantime, Lynn and some other friends did some exploring at a nearby billagong and found some very beautiful and unusual plants. The red ones are sundews, genus Drosera. These carnivorous plants secrete a sweet, sticky substance in order to attract hapless insects, which are then trapped by the sticky fluid. The sundew then curls its tentacles inwards and begins digesting the insect in order to supplement what the plant receives from the relatively nutrient-poor soil. The yellow one, on the other hand, is a bladderwort, genusUtricularia, which doesn’t need a response from the plant but instead traps insects mechanically. On the bladderwort, a small, empty bladder rests underwater. When a water insect swims by and triggers the hairs on the opening of the bladder, the bladder pops open, sucking the insect in to the digestion area as water rushes into the lower pressure area inside the bladder. Luckily for us, our lunch was ready too, and we all enjoyed our sandwiches and wraps.
Gunlom Falls, Kakadu National Park
Sated – and able to concentrate again! – we all sat down for an in-the-field class session to examine and identify the native Australian fauna growing around us. Among the plants we observed, quite a few were eucalyptus (also known as the gum tree). With over 600 types of eucalyptus are present in Australia, it’s no surprise that we saw so many in Kakadu! Dr. V showed us two main forms: the smooth bark eucalyptus with roundish leaves and the stringy bark (and fire-resistant) eucalyptus with pointed leaves. Dr. V also found several different gum nuts, the fruit of the eucalyptus from which the eucalyptus derives its nickname. Additionally, we also saw several wattles, the common name for trees in the genus Acacia. These trees had clusters of bright yellow flowers at the tips of the branches – two hints that they were wind pollinated, rather than bird pollinated, which would have required bright red flowers to attract the birds. The most interesting plant, or so I thought anyway, were the figs. In return for carrying its pollen, these trees allow tiny fig wasps to crawl inside the fig flowers and lay wasp eggs. As the fruit forms, the wasp larvae are encased inside the fig, sheltering the wasps from the dangers of the outside world and providing nourishment. Because of this close association between the two species, each type of fig tree has co-evolved with the wasps to have highly specific relationships in which each fig species pollinates and protects only one wasp species.
Tired from our long day, we soon headed back towards camp, stopping once or twice to learn more about Kakadu. One of the hottest things we saw was a bush fire (sorry, couldn’t resist!), which was actually blocking our way. Bush fires are an extremely important aspect of the way that Australian biogeography developed. Throughout history, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have practiced firestick farming, in which the ground cover would be burned off in controlled fires to both encourage the growth of plant species that would attract food animals and make travel throughout the country much easier. This caused a gradual shift from scrubland to grassland throughout Australia, increasing the numbers of grass-eating herbivores (such as the kangaroos) while also potentially causing the extinction of large Australian animal species. To this day, controlled fires are still used as a method of maintaining the park and other lands, and we were lucky to see it up close. We quickly detoured around the fire (though it’s clear from the picture that not everyone did!) and drove on to the Yellow Waters billabong, where we stopped on the boardwalk to watch the sun set over the wetlands. Despite enjoying the dramatically colored sunset, we were all ready to leave as soon as the sun fell below the horizon, as the mozzies were out in full force, but not before we stopped to marvel at the massive golden orb-weaver.
Later that night, after dinner, Dr. V led us on a night hike where we tried to spot the nocturnal wildlife. To do so, you hold a flashlight by your eyes, pointing out in front of you, and then look for the sparks of light reflecting from the animal’s eyes. I can’t help but feel that most of the time everything within a 100 foot radius can see and hear us coming as we tramp through the forest, but that night we had a particularly fruitful hike. In addition to the ever-present cane toads, a toxic, non-native alien species that’s quickly spreading and killing off many of the native species, we also spotted flying foxes (which are really a type of very large bat), a sugar glider, and something that we couldn’t quite identify, but which may have been a rock wallaby. Once we got back from our hike, we headed straight for our tents – we knew we’d be up early again the next day!
Day 3 at the Kakadu National Park
Yellow Water Billabong
Campsite at Kakadu National Park
On our third day at Kakadu National Park, we woke up as the cool breeze was blowing gently through the mesh of our tents. The stars were slowly fading away after the Sun had risen at the far horizon edge of Kakadu. The water drips on our tents started to evaporate when the cool breeze was warming up by sunlight in this part of the downunder land. With birds chirping welcoming another new day, people in other tents started to move and we heard zipping down sounds as they roll out of their sleeping bags. Today, our plan was to pack up and leave the campsite to visit Aboriginal Cultural Center and head back to Darwin.
Willie Wagtail at the Yellow Water Billabong
Since the Aboriginal Cultural Center opens
Rainbow Bee-eater at the Yellow Water Billabong
at 9 o’clock in the morning, we decided to stop at the Yellow Water Billabong before to observe some wild life. We saw many different kinds of birds and spiders such as Kingfishers, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Willie Wagtails, Golden Orb spiders, and also some aquatic plants such as beautiful lotuses. We applied extra insect repellent because there were a lot of mosquitoes at this site since we were walking on a walkway above billabong (an Aboriginal word for a stagnant pool) which served as a great habitat for mosquitoes to live and breed. Some people were already fishing on the deck as we walked back to the bus.
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Center
When we arrived at the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Center, we were introduced into an exhibition of the Aboriginal people and their cultures. The cultural center building was built in the shape of pig-nosed turtle which is called ‘Warradjan’ in Aborigines,
Pandanus Tree in front of Northern Territory Museum, Darwin
hence, became the name of the center. In this area, Bininj means Aboriginal people and Balanda means non-Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people believe that Mimi (spirit ancestors) were the first people to paint on rocks and created the rock arts. Bininj are told never to spoil (touch up) somebody else’s painting as it could hurt the spirit of the painting. However, it is fine to paint over the top of other arts.
Recent deaths usually caused too much sadness, so according to Bininj’s custom, the death’s names cannot be spoken and the photographs of them cannot be seen for at least a year. Those people who passed away will be given new names replacing their actual names. Bininj hunt according to what is seasonally available in their areas. We saw different types of hunting weapons displayed at the exhibition; each serves specific purpose in hunting. Buffalo hunting is very common among Aboriginal people since buffalos can damage land and food resources. When buffalo became scarce, they started to hunt for crocodiles and dingoes.
Pandanus trees (An-yakngarra) are used for tucker, medicines, weaving fibers, and fuel for cooking. The tender parts of the leaves are good to eat. They can be crushed up and mixed into a paste to be applied to bruises, sores, or swelling areas. Aboriginal people commonly use fire (Gunak) to take care of their country. The bark from melaleuca or paperbark tree is used to wrap old people when they die. Aboriginal people tend to reside under rocks for shelter, so we usually find rock arts in those areas that are comfortable enough to be a shelter and home.
Nourlangie Rock locates between Jabiru and Cooinda in the Kakadu National Park, and it is about 3 hours drive from Darwin. It was a 1.5 km loop walk that took us through ancient Aboriginal shelters and their life stories embedded in the outstanding rock arts as if they were canvases.
Australian Bottlebrush at Nourlangie Rock
On our way up to the Gunwarddehwardde lookout spot to view the Nourlangie Rock, we encountered several rock paintings. Our guide told us that sometimes buffalos and wild hogs rubbed their bodies against the rock art so they have to build the rail to protect animals from getting into contact with the paintings. The colors that the Aboriginal people used for painting usually come in 4 shades. Red color came from Haematite, yellow color came from Limonite, white color came from Pipeclay, and black color came from charcoal. We found some Australian bottlebrush (red, brush-like flowers) along our trail and it has sweet nectar that if you dip the flower into a water bottle, it will sweeten up the water for you to refresh yourself.
Namarrgon-Lightning Man Rock Art
We walked pass paintings such as Namarrgon-lightening man and Nabulwinjbulwinj (a dangerous spirit), and we explored the relationship between the people and their culture. We learned that Aboriginal men and women enjoy dancing which adds to the life and vigor of most ceremonial events, making them something to look forward to. The view of the Nourlangie Rock was very beautiful contrasting with the bright blue sky in the background.
Nabulwinjbulwinj Rock Art
After we hiked down the trail back from the Nourlangie Rock, we continued heading back to Darwin. On our way back, we stopped at a picnic place in Jabiru (just off the Arnhem highway) for lunch and saw many White Cockatoos and many Eucalyptus species. Lunch was great with crocodile sausages and sandwiches with picnic tables overlooking a lake. In the lake, there were many water ferns (red seaweed-like plants) on the edge near the land. Some crocodile cages could be seen on the opposite side of the lake to catch crocodiles for survey purposes. By the end of that day, we reached Darwin safely. It was a long trip but very worthwhile and we will miss every details of our trip and moments we shared together during our 3 days in the Kakadu National Park the memories that will never be forgotten.