Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom

The end of week one sees us heading for Cooinda to do the obligatory Yellow Waters cruise and, beyond that, to head further south to Gunlom and Koolpin Gorge.

We are booked in for a sunset cruise and arrive in time to set up camp and head down to Yellow Waters, a part of the South Alligator wetlands. I last did this cruise 20 years ago. Then there was one boat with about 15 people on the evening cruise, now there are four boats each with forty people on board.

The Yellow Waters sunset cruise used to be one of the truly great wetland experiences, particularly later in the year when up to a million magpie geese feed on the wetlands along with thousands of other water birds.

I am cynical that with 160 people on four boats it will be anything other than a very superficial tourist experience, but am pleasantly surprised. You still get to see much of what you would have seen in a smaller boat and the guide is excellent. The only drawback being one can’t really ask the questions one used to be able to ask.

We spend the night at the Cooinda Hotel camp ground. It’s not the most peaceful or natural of locations and, for pretty much every resident of the campground, sleep was an intermittent exercise up until about 2 am. This is when the group of ten or so Indian tourists, who had apparently been attempting to imitate a Bombay Indian wedding with a thousand guests, decided to turn in.

Dinner duties were allocated to Kaylee and I, but Jill decided that, after about 36 seconds without food, she was hungrier than a bear after winter. Jill has a metronomic gastric system which requires replenishing with tea at about 10 minute intervals and food about every two hours.

As a result, when Kaylee and I decamped for pre-dinner drinks at the hotel, dinner duties changed hands. This was to later cause mayhem in the dinner stakes since she and Roger cooked dinner with unauthorised ingredients, without informing us, thereby throwing succeeding dinners into chaos since the ingredients for those planned dinners had already been consumed.

Reflections 2

The stress involved in the our discovery of the theft of Kaylee’s and my dinner ingredients leads to an urgent requirement for relief for Jill. This involves plugging her earphones into her iPod, closing her eyes and performing a public dance routine. That routine involves a cross between rap, salsa, a brolga dancing, yoga, and giving birth. But it seems to work for Jill and provides some degree of hilarity for the rest of the campground.

On Monday July 7, we decamp for Koolpin Gorge and Gunlom. When I lived in Darwin Gunlom was known as UDP (Uranium Development Project Falls) so-named, rather romantically, by mining companies at the height of the 60s uranium boom.

We had planned to visit Koolpin first but we discover that it is closed due to a large saltie having been spotted. It’s now almost 50 years since crocodiles were hunted almost to extinction and they are no longer scared of humans. As the number of crocodiles has increased the smaller crocs have been forced further upstream. Places where it was perfectly safe to swim 20 years ago are no longer safe.

With plan A foiled by too much crocodile sex, we head for Gunlom. Jill has attempted to reach back into her memory synapses and has convinced us that she once visited Gunlom and that it was the highlight of her previous trip to the NT…astoundingly fabulous. She has talked it up so much that she is now nervous that we will not be impressed.

All of this area, including Koolpin, was once excluded from Kakadu. The Hawke Government promised to include it as a third extension of Kakadu, the original area of Kakadu having already been expanded once. At that time the two grazing leases, Gimbat and Goodparla, which comprised the proposed stage 3,  were resumed (the leases were re-purchased by the Federal Government) with the intention of including them in the park.

The proposed Stage 3 extension was stymied by the discovery in the 1980s of gold, by mining company BHP,  at Coronation Hill adjacent to the South Alligator River.

As a result there was a 10 year struggle to prevent gold mining before Kakadu was eventually extended in 1991. This area has a special significance for me as I was part of that campaign, for three years, while I lived in Darwin.

For a week in February 1988, Richard Ledgar, another local, Scott Wootten, and I sat on BHP’s drill rig and loader at the exploration site at Coronation Hill to highlight the illegal nature of the exploration permit.

(for more on Coronation Hill see: and images at: )

As we drive towards Gunlom the butterfly wings start beating again. Kaylee comments that she has heard an odd noise under the vehicle but, in our desire to avoid having to do anything, we all rush to reassure each other that chaos is not about to befall us again. Along the way to Gunlom we pull in for a short walk up a gorge to a another waterfall.

After a quick leg stretch we are getting into the car and Jill notices a bit of metal hanging down beneath the car. We check it out. The metal plate that protects the underside of the radiator has buckled. Not much we can do. But Jill, decides on immediate remedial action and “deliberately” removes the loose metal plate by backing over the largest rock in the car park. That fixed it. No more loose metal. We pick it up and chuck it in the back of the Nissan. As we are driving to Gunlom, Jill comments once again on the spongy brakes.

We arrive at Gunlom at lunchtime and after a quick lunch head straight for the plunge pool for a swim. There are about 10 people swimming and a conversation ensues about water temperatures at various beaches including WA.

This leads onto the the issue of WA shark attacks at which point I politely point out that the WA Government’s policy, which advocates killing sharks, could only have been designed by a bunch of ignorant, ill-informed fuckwit bogans. The man on my right demurs and a conversation ensues in which it turns out our fellow tourist believes that anything that threatens human life should be exterminated, including all crocodiles.

I refrain from telling him that he is Richard Head or pointing out that his knowledge of ecology could fit into a box of matches, so peace is restored.

We are standing around after swimming and chaos theory activates for the fourth time. A passing tourist tells us he has noted a leak near the rear passenger wheel. He thinks it might be transmission fluid. We check it out and it is clearly a brake line issue. At this point there is no mechanic, no phone line, internet or mobile reception, so we cannot call anyone to get it fixed.

The four of us enter bush mechanic mode. This is a state of delusion in which all Australians apparently know everything about repairing cars and are able to undertake that repair with bog, fencing wire and cable ties.

It appears the join between the metal brake line and the rubber brake line is leaking. We opt for a bodgy repair using two pack bog which we borrow from our neighbours. If we can slow or stop the leak we figure we can get to Pine Creek on the spare lot of brake fluid we have purchased from the campground caretaker

Eventually Roger locates the exact source of the leak which is a crack on the upper side of the brake line. The bog will clearly not work. We now need to find something to bind the pipe. It must be non-porous, highly flexible and resistant to brake fluid.

We debate where to find this magical repair material. Eventually Jill suggests dental floss. The brains trust considers this. It’s a wax coated nylon, thin and flexible. Perfect. Roger and Jill go to work and, in an hour, the brake line is perfectly bodgied with dental floss and white cable ties. The white cable ties are chosen, of course, to coordinate with the dental floss. It is another victory for Australia’s bush mechanics, albeit one that is far from perfect – the fluid is still leaking but more slowly than before.

The following morning we leave Gunlom. Roger is on the wheel and I am on the handbrake. We make haste slowly. The process is that at each creek crossing Roger slows the car with the gears and where necessary I add extra braking with the park brake. We try to avoid doing doughnuts (handbrake turns), wherever possible, but soon the excitement is getting too much for us and Roger and I decide to form a rally driving team on our return to civilisation.

At 10 am we arrive in Pine Creek sans accidents. I call Nathan the company owner and explain the dilemma. There is nowhere in Pine Creek (a town comprising one horse and a pub) where we can get the brake lines fixed and we cannot buy more brake fluid to replenish our supply.

Nathan cannot send a replacement vehicle because he is not allowed to risk the safety of his mechanic who would need to return to Darwin in our dodgy vehicle.  But, for us it’s ok to drive on. No worries. Let us travel, without brakes, to Katherine where we can get the brakes repaired. Boldly we press on using our patented gears and handbrake technique.

Roger and I are bonding nicely and we decide, in addition to our rally driving venture, to form a band based on our shared knowledge of Patti Smith and the Grateful Dead. The conversation mutates into one about road trips. I reveal that, in 1992/3, I toured the US, Canada and Mexico in an $1100 blue and white Kombi purchased in Oregon and equipped with everything a person could wish for; namely a reconditioned engine and a Grateful Dead sticker. Could any human being be more cool?

Finally we roll into Katherine and overshoot the location of our designated mechanic when the gear/handbrake stop is not effectively coordinated. By the time we eventually stop we are in downtown Katherine where, cleverly avoiding an oncoming road train with an extra notch on the handbrake, Roger and I drop off Kaylee and Jill at the Coffee Club.

our newly formed Rally Drivers Association then manages to turn around and drop the vehicle off at the mechanics. At this point we have no prognosis on the recovery of our vehicle which we have named Beyonce.

In the absence of any future plans other than an indefinite stay in Katherine town, a place which would feature only one star on any reputable trip advisor, we decide to drown our sorrows with alcohol. We ask a local shopkeeper which is the best pub. She wouldn’t recommend any. I translate for Jill and Kaylee. She means we have a chance of encountering Aborigines in them which, apparently, makes them undesirable destinations. It appears the RSL is the drinking hole of choice for the colonial white population. Absent other recommendations we decamp for the RSL.

Wandering the streets of Katherine while Roger goes to check up on the vehicle, we are hailed by a passing motorist. She is worried that we appear lost and has seen a group of blackfellas approaching. Our safety is of concern, apparently. She is extremely friendly and offers us a lift to the RSL but her attitude epitomises the state of race relations in Katherine which veers between fear, distrust, contempt and pure racism and hostility.

At the RSL we must remove our hats…it’s important, apparently, to respect dead people but not the living ancestors of this ancient continent’s original inhabitants.

We settle in for a stay in Katherine, which remains the shit hole it always has been.

See all collection from which these images were selected on Flickr:
Yellow Waters –

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr


Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls

At noon, Darwin lies 200 km behind us. We have entered Kakadu National Park. The blind have commenced to lead the blind, as Roger asks me for dirt road driving tips.

It is true that I spent four years driving four-wheel drives around the NT but I also very successfully wrote off Kaylee’s Subaru on a dirt road in NSW, by spinning it 360 and rolling it back on to its wheels on the other side of the fence

Some might argue that this makes me eminently qualified since the greatest cause of death in the NT is single vehicle roll-over…so my skills are clearly in keeping with NT driving standards.

We are heading for Twin Falls where we have a permit to camp on top of those falls. At 3.30 pm we turn onto the Jim Jim Falls road. Where there used to be a beautiful bush track winding through the trees, the national parks service has now created a corrugated four lane dirt monstrosity. Such are the perils of re-visiting favourite spots 20 years on.

We stop at the camp ground just 10 km from Jim Jim falls. We are sold a $12.50 ticket to take a boat trip up Twin Falls gorge. The cost is a rip-off but is, apparently, justified because one can no longer swim up the gorge, as we used to, due to saltwater crocs. Crocs in the gorge and sharks in the camp ground.

I am under the illusion we need to take this boat to get to the start of the walk up to the top of the waterfall.

Years ago we used to climb the scree slope on the far side of the plunge pool and walk from there to the top of TwinFalls. We race to get the final boat which is advertised as departing at 5 pm. When we arrive we discover the last boat departs at 4 pm. Fortunately we also discover the walk to the top of the falls starts from the car park near Twin Falls, not from near the plunge pool as it used to do. It is success through chaos.

I am nervous about the (shortish) day walk. My knees and ankles have got progressively worse over the last years, the heritage of too many football, skiing and running injuries. I am now a human melange with a 58 year old body, the standard chronologically challenged brain of any male and 80 year old knees and ankles, according to the knee specialist.

There are four in our party….me, my partner, Kaylee MacKenzie and two very old friends Roger Horton and Jill Everett. Kaylee and I have travelled together extensively but we have not travelled as a group of four. We are conducting a social experiment in tolerance and learning. In many ways it is not the Odd Couple but the Odd Quartet. Roger is a tall, calm, tolerant red-head, in many ways the perfect travelling companion.

Kaylee and Jill are highly excitable, exuberant individuals with a tendency to being highly stressed and a commensurate tendency to want things to be under control. They are both teachers…enough said. Being modest, I hesitate to describe my numerous qualities but I am blessed with a tendency towards order and loss. If I can give orders, I will, and I can lose almost any small items put into my care.

We climb up the escarpment towards the top of Twin Falls. We are in full late evening sun, it is still 35 degrees plus in the sun. I have a sweat discharge rate high enough to fill Sydney harbour in about 2 hours (as Australians are wont to describe flow rates).

We arrive in Twin Falls Creek as the sun is starting to set. It is just as I remembered; a little miracle of cool swimming holes, pure white sand, red rocks, cascades, bird life and orchids everywhere. Every bushwalkers idea of a perfect camp spot. There are no mosquitoes worth talking about.

The sun sets, doing its cliff reddening duties, just as the moon rises. We laze in the water hole, Roger lights a small fire and Kaylee cooks Rat and couscous. We are part of the Gods of Small Things. A perfect night.

It is July 6. We leave our camp site departing for Nourlangie Rock and Jabiru. On the way out we detour to what is advertised as the falls lookout. But the falls are beautifully hidden around a rock outcrop. No view of the falls. Lucky for the parks service that they are not a retailer or the ACCC would have them for breakfast.

While on top of the falls we discover two things; the National Parks Service should be sued for false advertising and Kaylee likes to keep her dress colour coordinated even in the bush. In an effort to coordinate her toenail colours with her shirt colours she bashes her toe on a rock. The resulting pink and purple colours coordinate with her shirt perfectly.

On returning to the bottom of the escarpment we detour to take the $12.50 boat trip up the gorge. Dennis, the guide and boat driver, gives us a run-down of the gorge including the fact that they found a 3.5 metre saltie here a few years ago after it was opened to tourists at the start of the dry season. At that time swimming in the gorge was still allowed so it was not an ideal discovery.

The discovery of saltwater crocs in former swimming spots is an increasing problem due to a twenty to forty fold increase in the number of crocodiles since hunting ended in the 1960s

Hence we now have to take a boat and cannot swim in the falls plunge pool. All that water and nothing to swim in. It’s why few people visit Twin Falls these days.

Next stop is Jim Jim Falls. It is just running and is crowded with visitors and swimmers. Swimming is still permitted immediately below the falls as it is higher than the final plunge pool at Twin and the giant rocks provide a barrier to saltwater crocs. But it’s no longer the peaceful place it once was.

Traveling Kakadu is like a permanent exercise in deja vu for me. I spent 3 years out here working for the Northern Land Council at its Parks and Tourism officer. In that role I advised traditional owners on general management issues and on the development of the new plan of management.

Since I worked here visitor numbers appear to have risen about eight-fold. Everything is new and shiny and bound around with rules. Almost everything requires a permit, most major roads have been sealed, small campgrounds have become giant parking lots far removed from the beauty spots at which they were once located. They pulled down paradise and put up a parking lot. So it goes.

See all collection from which these images were selected on Flickr:

Other posts in this series:

Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)

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