15 April 2015. After driving for about half an hour from our cabin in the campground near the small town of Jabiru, we arrive at the bush car park ready for a hike. We step out of the car into an oven. It’s mid April and the high for the day is as usual around the mid to high thirties (close to 100F). The heat is not unexpected. What is unexpected is that I don’t have my sun hat. I must have left it behind at the ranger station. I am stunned. How could I have done such a thing?! I can’t hike without it, especially since I have no hair.
Even though it is unlikely we will be swimming, for some reason Don had put his swimming shorts in the car along with a towel. His shorts become my new hat. Looking ridiculous but hoping to avoid serious sunburn,
we happily set off on a six-kilometre walk to Gubarra Pools through the wet-season forest of Kakadu National Park in Australia’s “Top End”.
World-Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park covers almost twenty thousand square kilometres of the Northern Territory and is one of Australia’s natural and cultural icons. I’ve wanted to go there for years. In my twenties one of the walls of each of the various apartments I lived in was graced with a huge poster of Kakadu scenery. Finally I was getting to see the real thing.
We pass a warning sign: “Crocodiles inhabit this area”.
Very soon we come to a long stretch of water on the track. Don asks “Do we really want to do this?” I ask him what his hesitation is about. It’s about the crocs! There are both saltwater and freshwater crocodiles, known as salties and freshies, throughout the park and honestly neither of us knows if this stretch of water on the track is enough to attract them or not. It is at least shallow enough that we’d see them in the water, but not necessarily in the grass on either side of it.
Earlier we’d stopped in at the park information centre and had been told we should have three-and-a-half litres of water each for a twelve-kilometre walk. The ranger stressed this. He said they’d found a German man who didn’t have enough water. “We found his body three days later. He wasn’t breathing.”
I’m thinking we should have at least one-and-a-half litres of water each for a six-kilometre walk and I know we’re not carrying that much. So now I’m anxious about crocs and water. I’m aware of this anxiety as I continue walking through the water on the track. I’m aware of the fear but I’m determined that it’s not going to stop me. I wade on through the water, with Don following behind me. We make it through. Phew! So far so good. I think of the dangers of dehydration and crocs and choose to surrender. I’m not going to do this hike in fear. That’s no fun. What will be will be.
I’m aware that I need to pee but choose not to. If I just keep on walking the body will reabsorb it. It’s always worked in the past. I’m not wasting any water.
It’s an imposing landscape: still and silent and powerful. I feel as if I could be swallowed whole by it. It has a power and majesty that envelops me. The land feels sacred, as if I’m walking on hallowed ground. I’ve never felt anything quite like this before. Perhaps I have aboriginal ancestors, or was aboriginal in a past-life. It is deeply familiar. All land is holy ground, but in this place I really feel it.
As we walk we come across wildflowers,
a Peaceful Dove,
dragonfly bush fairy.
We walk on, eventually coming to the end of the trail at a river. The croc signs are there again. “Crocodiles inhabit this area. Don’t go too close to the water”. People are coming towards us from the river and tell us there are no crocs, only big spiders. We don’t see spiders but we do see this bug.
We go a bit further, scrambling over rocks now, and decide we’re done; it’s time to turn back. The whole way we’ve been rationing water, a few sips here and there, but making sure to keep half for the return journey. I still need to pee.
It’s harder than we imagined. And slow. The heat saps our strength. I’m aware of being thirsty, of the body needing water. I feel the body hunching over. In extreme cold we tend to hunch over to try to keep warm. I notice in the heat that the same hunching occurs, but for a different reason: I have no strength to stand up straight. I have only enough energy to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
It seems to take forever. The heat is relentless. We are both aware of how over-heated our bodies are. Every now and then, for a few brief seconds, there is the sheer bliss of a slight breeze coupled with the shade from a tree or a cloud passing in front of the sun. Each time it happens I see how little is needed for respite. Shade and a breeze. But each time it is short-lived. I take a few more gulps of water. I’m so hot I’m vaguely afraid I’ll pass out. I don’t actually know how hot the body can get before it can’t take any more. I still need to pee.
And then the end comes. Suddenly we are back at the car. I have a little water left, Don quite a bit more. We have more water in the car. I finally check the size of our water bottles: three-quarters of a litre, half what we should have taken. We climb into the car, turn on the ignition, turn the AC up full blast, drink more water and high five each other! Fun! Now that it’s over.
Later we climb one of those imposing escarpments for glorious sunset views of the valley beyond, lush and green from the wet-season rains.
19 April 2015. After a two-hour drive to the south end of the park, we set off again, this time hiking only about four kilometres to Motor Car Falls. Right from the start we meet Mathilde and her mum Viviane from France and we hike with them through the dry grasses and relentless heat.
Eventually we come to the river, and this time we are not afraid of crocodiles, even though perhaps we should be.
This is what Parks Australia has to say about swimming in Kakadu National Park: The safest places to swim are the public swimming pool in Jabiru and the pools at the various resorts and hotels. We don’t recommend that people swim in Kakadu’s waterways, but some people choose to do so at their own risk.
Some places are safer to swim than others. Some of the pools up on the escarpment, above the waterfalls, are less likely to be accessible to crocs. We go to lots of effort to clear certain areas of crocodiles, but they can move back in at any time.
We go ahead and swim anyway. How could you not swim in a place like this?
Small groups of people come and go, but it is never crowded. We swim, we laze around, we eat lunch sitting in the gentle shade on the smooth rocks, we swim some more. The water is cool and delicious.
Later, making my way around some rocks and under some low hanging branches, looking for the best spot to photograph the pool, I find this gorgeous creature:
Sometime about mid-afternoon we decide it’s time to head back. It’s about 38 degrees (100F) and even though we have much more water with us this time, and have cooled off swimming, the walk out is no easier than the walk out from Gubarra Pools, but this time there is no fear of dehydration or crocs.
More to come about Kakadu and the Top End – jumping crocs and jabirus, ancient cave art and aboriginal magic, flooded rivers, hot springs, and gorges.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.