Aboriginals are the indigenous inhabitants of Australia and they have probably the oldest living culture on Earth. In Kakadu, Australia’s biggest National Park, they are able to live in their traditional way. We meet Roby, an Aboriginal guide, for a cruise over the East Alligator River. Then we continue to explore the park, where we discover lots of wildlife and traces of the Aboriginals.

Kakadu National Park – The Backpack Journal

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It’s 4 o’clock in the morning when our alarm rings. We wake up in our Airbnb room in Darwin. Outside it is still pitch-black. Today we go to Kakadu National Park! One of Australia’s nature parks we are most looking forward to! The drive from Darwin is going to be long though… It is more than 250 kilometers. At 9 am we have an appointment with our Aboriginal guide at the East Alligator River, so we have to hurry. We jump out of bed and make a quick breakfast. Not much later we get in the car and head to Kakadu.

The drive from Darwin is going to be long… It is more than 250 kilometers.

Driving along the Arnhem Highway, we see one of the most beautiful sunrises that we’ve ever seen. The sun illuminates the clouds in brilliant red and orange colors. On this early morning, we are the only one on the road. Around us, nature spreads as far as the eye can see. For the first time, we are in the outback of Australia. We are overwhelmed and feel truly connected with nature.

For the first time, we are in the outback of Australia. We are overwhelmed and feel truly connected with nature.

The sun illuminates the clouds in brilliant red and orange colors in Kakadu National Park
The sun illuminates the clouds in brilliant red and orange colors

The Arnhem highway seems to last forever. An almost straight route of more than 200 kilometers brings us to our destination in Kakadu National Park. Although long, it is a beautiful drive through forests and grasslands. We encounter many birds, some wallabies, lots of frogs and a dingo.

The Arnhem highway seems to last forever

Arnhem Highway road sign between Jabiru en Darwin
Arnhem Highway road sign between Jabiru en Darwin

The last part of the route leads us through ponds. Last night it has rained cats and dogs during a heavy thunderstorm. “Floodway” roadsigns warn us for possible flooding across the road. We are inexperienced in driving through deep water and hesitate when we encounter our first flooded way. We don’t even know if our car, a Mitshubisi Outlander, can pass here (laughing out loud). We watch while others cross the water and wait until a similar car passes. We don’t need to wait long. Another Outlander crosses the water without any hesitation. We follow shortly after.

“Floodway” roadsigns warn us for possible flooding across the road

Crossing a flooded road in Kakadu National Park
Crossing a flooded road in Kakadu National Park

Our guide is awaiting us at a small campfire next to the river. “Hi, I’m Roby” he introduces himself. We shake hands, share some food and then we follow him to his boat.

Our Guide (eating in the back) awaits us at a fireplace with his friends

“Welcome to the land of Aboriginals” he starts when we board the ship. “Today we sail over East Alligator River. I’m your guide. I will show you how to survive in this land”. We learn that Kakadu is named after a local Aboriginal language called gagudju.

We learn that Kakadu is named after a local Aboriginal language called gagudju.

We are hardly on the water when Roby spots a crocodile. “Look at the roots of that tree” shouts Roby. “Do you see it? It is a crocodile!” Something that seems to be the head of a croc sticks out of the water. We barely see it. Roby moves the boat closer to get a better view. “Are you happy now?” He asks. “Are you not afraid?” Two days earlier, during a cruise over the Corroboree Billabong, we saw many crocs and got used to their presence. We are not afraid, although we would not jump in the water for a swim of course. “You are lucky that we see crocodile today. This crocodile can stay 3 hours under the water” Roby says. “But there live many crocodiles in this area.”

You are lucky that we see crocodile today. This crocodile can stay 3 hours under the water

“Here is a good place for crocodiles to lay eggs. Mating for saltwater crocodiles is in September, October and November. From December to February somewhere she lays the eggs” Roby says. “She comes up here, she has to look in this area for something, like a waterhole or floodplain where the water stays stable. Sometimes she puts her nest on top of water. A floating nest” he explains. “The saltwater crocodile lays about 52 eggs” according to Roby. “How many survive of those”, we ask. “Only 8 to 9 percent” Roby answers. Young crocs have many enemies like other crocodiles, birds, and bullsharks.

Young crocs have many enemies like other crocodiles, birds, and bullsharks.

A crocodile rests under the roots of a tree in the East Aligator River
A crocodile rests under the roots of a tree in the East Aligator River

We sail further. “Do you see that tree?” Roby points at a huge tree with yellow flowers. It is a hibiscus. “Every morning we see that flower yellow. After a whole day, we see that flower change and become a red flower”. “Every day”? We ask Roby. “Yes, every day” he answers. “For us, we use that flower when we have an upset stomach. You have to wait until they become red and then we can eat them”.

Every morning we see that flower yellow. After a whole day, we see that flower change and become a red flower

Then Roby shows us an Aboriginal tool, which is made from hibiscus wood. “This they call a woomera” Roby says. “Here we call it a woondok”. Woomeras or woondoks are used as an extension of the arm to throw the Aboriginal’s spears as fast and as far as possible.

Nori proudly holding a woomera or woondok.
Nori proudly holding a woomera or woondok.

Roby shows us one of his spears. The spear is also made of hibiscus wood. “In all this area, we use this spear on the water” he continues. “When you throw these in the water, they flow back”. We wonder what he means. Roby throws the spear firmly in the water. First, it sinks deep into the water, then it bounces back to Roby’s hands. Aha, that’s it! They use it for fishing and as defense against crocodiles.

Woomeras or woondoks are used as an extension of the arm to throw the Aboriginal’s spears as fast and as far as possible

Another use of hibiscus wood is making fire. Roby shows us how. He rubs a wooden stick called a hand drill on a fireboard topped with hay. The drill needs to spin fast for up to 7 minutes to make fire.

Roby shows how to make fire with a hand drill and a fireboard
Roby shows how to make fire with a hand drill and a fireboard

While sailing further along the Aligator River, Roby warns us for possible snakes that live in the area. They can swim and they love to hide in trees alongside the shore, so we need to be careful.

Roby turns the boat towards the shore. He lands the boat and gets out. He returns with a piece of tree bark. “This is paperbark from paperbark tree” Roby says. “We use it at night, for torches, to have fire. We use it as shelter and to make the canoe, it’s waterproof. We use it as a plate, to eat. Or as foil, to wrap things in it. And for footwear” he continues. “We also use paperbark to wrap a new born baby”. We are astonished by how many uses a simple item like the bark of a tree can have. It appears that even the dead are rolled in paperbark to preserve them during a spiritual and ceremonial period which takes 6 months after someone dies. “Do you know the secret of paperbark tree”? Roby asks. “Look at the big bag on the tree, do you see it?”. He points at a huge excrescence on the side of the trunk. “That contains water” he tells us. “If you need to survive in Kakadu and look for water, look for this tree. That bag will save you” he teaches us.

We also use paperbark to wrap a new born baby

Roby just pulled a piece of paperbark from the Paperbark Tree
Roby just pulled a piece of paperbark from the Paperbark Tree
A water bag on a Paperbark Tree
A water bag on a Paperbark Tree

For the most part, it’s a beautiful ride through a varied landscape. We sail past weird shaped rock formations and see a lot of birds. Some fishermen are fishing in a small boat. They search for this region’s most iconic fish, the Australian Seabass. In Aboriginal language, it’s called barramundi, which means “large-scaled river fish”. It’s a big catch if you’re able to catch a barramundi. A barramundi can become up to 1.8 meters long and their maximum weight is a whopping 60 kilos.

It’s a big catch if you’re able to catch a barramundi

Light shines through a hole in one of the impressive rock formations along the East Alligator River
Light shines through a hole in one of the impressive rock formations along the East Alligator River

“Look to the left, that is Arnhem Land” says Roby. “Come, I’ll show you my homeland”. A few minutes later we set foot on land. Arnhem Land is named after a Dutch ship called “Arnhem”, which discovered the area in 1623 . “Normally, you need a permit to visit Arnhem Land, but you are with me” Roby tells. The place where we landed is beautiful but wild with dry grass, burned trees, and steep rock formations.

Come, I’ll show you my homeland

Dead burned trees in Arnhem Land
Dead burned trees in Arnhem Land

“We burn the land to hunt, for food” says Roby. Aboriginals have been using a technique called “fire-stick farming” for thousands of years. Burned land was not only used to attract game for hunting, but also to encourage the growth of edible plants.

We burn the land to hunt, for food

Roby shows us a bush with yellow fruits. “This is eeley fruit” Roby says. He picks some fruits from the bush. “This is good fruit. Taste it”. The taste of eeley is both sweet and sour. We love it!

 Eeley fruit growing in Arnhem Land
Eeley fruit growing in Arnhem Land

We don’t stay long in Arnhem Land. Unfortunately, this was our last stop on the cruise.

Back ashore we continue our visit to Kakadu National Park and drive to Ubirr. Ubirr is a little mountain consisting of rocks where one can find Aboriginal paintings up to thousands of years old. On the top of the rock, you have a beautiful view over flooded plains and forests.

We park the car at the bottom of the rocks and go on a short hike. Along the way to the top we come across the beautiful Aboriginal rock paintings. Storytelling is an important part of Aboriginal culture. The rockpaintings all tell a story. The painting below tells a story that warns people against stealing.

Aboriginal Rock Painting in Kakadu National Park
Aboriginal rock painting that warns against stealing

Mabuyu is carrying his catch on a string when he returnes from fishing. Then suddenly a greedy person cuts his string and steels his fish.

That night Mabuyu looks for the people that stole his fish. He finds them camping inside a cave near the East Aligator River. He waits until everybody falls asleep. Then he blocks the cave with a huge rock.

The next morning the thieves find out they are trapped. They try to get out, but without succes. Because they stole it, they get punished. Kids, man and woman, everybody dies. End of story“.

Because they stole it, they get punished. Kids, man and woman, everybody dies

We continue our way to the top. We stumble upon more rock paintings and some huge spiders, dragonflies and other insects. Most of the time we walk through a dense forest. When we finally reach the top, the view is breathtaking. The flooded grasslands below look like a green velvet carpet that has been rolled out as far as the eye can see.

View on the flooded grasslands from the rocks at Ubirr
View on the flooded grasslands from the rocks at Ubirr

It’s around midday when we get back to the car. From Ubirr we drive to Kakadu’s visitor center in Jabiru. In the visitor center, we learn more about the Aboriginals and the park’s history and wildlife. There is a huge canoe on display, made from paperbark. We remember Roby’s story about all the uses of paperbark.

A paperbark canoe on display in Kakadu's visitor center in Jaribu
A paperbark canoe on display in Kakadu’s visitor center in Jaribu

We don’t spend much time in the visitor center because we want to explore another area of Kakadu before the sun goes down. We are going to Burrungkuy, also known as Nourlangie.

It’s a beautiful drive from Jabiru to Nourlangie. On the way we spot many birds including a… ooh yeah… jabiru! The bird is called after the place we just left. What a coincidence, isn’t it? A jabiru is also known as the black-necked stork… Whatever, boring name. Her bright yellow eyes reveal that it’s a female. Males have brown eyes. It is a tall bird. Her wings seem to span almost 2 meters wide when she takes off. Jabirus prefer wetlands such as the ones in Kakadu and the Corroboree Billabong which we visited a couple of days ago. They eat all kinds of small water birds, fishes, frogs and reptiles. With its long beak it can even kill a crocodile!

With its long beak it can even kill a crocodile!

A black-necked storck is fishing in Kakadu's Wetlands
A black-necked storck is fishing in Kakadu’s Wetlands

Not long after we spotted the jabiru, we arrive at Nourlangie. Nourlangie is known for its famous rock paintings, the scenic walk to multiple lookouts and its great opportunities to spot wildlife. We are hardly out of the car when we spot two wallabies. The little cuties are grazing about 10 meters distance from the parking lot. The word ‘wallaby’ is a collective name for multiple small kangaroo species. The two wallabies that are sitting in front of us are agile wallabies. We can clearly see the white stripes on their thighs that are remarkable for agile wallabies.

The word ‘wallaby’ is a collective name for multiple small kangaroo species

Two cute little agile wallabies are watching us at Nourlangie
Two cute little agile wallabies are watching us at Nourlangie

We walk further up to Nourlangie’s lookouts. It’s a beautiful walk along high rocks and through dense monsoon forests. On some of the rocks, there are Aboriginal paintings. One of them includes a painting of a wallaby. You’d think it’s cute, but actually, Aboriginals paint animals for two reasons. Firstly, the paintings were meant to capture the pride of the hunter by picturing the animal. Secondly, Aboriginals believed that by painting the hunted animals, they’ll help their souls to pass, so it’s partly out of respect. We hear some rustle behind us. A little bird is hiding silently in the forest, hoping we didn’t see him. On the way up we see many more birds. Some small lizzards take a sunbath on the rocks.

It’s a beautiful walk along high rocks and through dense monsoon forests

An Aboriginal rock painting pictures a wallaby near Nourlangie
An Aboriginal rock painting pictures a wallaby near Nourlangie

In about 1 hour we reach the top. Bare rocks form a platform from where we can oversee the whole area. Giant rock formations proudly stand out in the green sea of trees in front of us. Behind us, Nourlangie’s red and grey colored rocks stand as giants above the forest. We feel one with nature.

Viewpoint at Nourlangie in Kakadu National Park
Viewpoint at Nourlangie in Kakadu National Park

It was an impressive day in the Kakadu National Park. To be surrounded by endless nature is unspeakable. How the Aboriginals survived and kept this place intact is remarkable. Lots of credits for the Aboriginals and their land!