This piece was first published in Great Walks' Annual Bumper Edition in January 2016.
Great Walks spent a week hiking in Arnhem Land and came back the wiser.
Halfway up a precipitous scramble in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park, a foot slips somewhere above me.
“All good Mick?!” I call up the cliff face. A pebble bounces past and into the dark pool at the base of Motorcar Falls, 30 metres below. The reply comes quickly, “YEP! No worries. Come on!” Mick has found a way. Mick Jerram is the nuggety former Royal Australian Air Force PT instructor leading us on a walk that will take us across some of the most spectacular and rarely seen parts of the Arnhem Land Plateau.
We eventually strain and scramble our way to the top of Motorcar Falls to be rewarded with views across the entire region known to Jawoyn traditional owners as Yurmikmik – named in onomatopoeic homage for the call of the White-throated Grasswren which calls this area home.
From Motorcar Falls we trek along Yurmikmik ridge, stopping just once to evade an aborted charge by four Water Buffalo. We retreat to the safety of a nearby rock pile and the buffalo vanish into the scrub as quickly as they had appeared. Further on, a hiker’s boot disturbs a rock. From underneath, a harmless Children’s Python makes off to avoid the disturbance. Bird song surrounds us, and the trees are alive with movement. We count the number of different birds we can identify as we go along and the list tops fifty species before we arrive at our first camp on Kurrundie Creek.
We can swim in the pools surrounding the falls here; we are above the level at which Saltwater Crocodiles may occur following the wet season. Walking upstream takes us onto the terraced sandstone plateau. We pass bemused denizens of the sandstone like the prehistoric-looking Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon. Small groups of these plump, pin-headed birds scatter from the terraces as we approach.
We pause to scrutinise rock art galleries. Mick proves here to also be adept at interpreting the ancient daubs of Jawoyn ancestors. He identifies animals and ancestral beings for us, while leaving silence enough for our imaginations to travel. It’s impossible not to make comparisons between our journey, and the journeys of those people who have walked this country in eons past. The temptation to label such places as wilderness, denies the clear reality that, as wild as it is, this is a cultural landscape; a human place.
Continuing deeper into the sandstone country, the terraces erode to minarets and the fissured rock becomes a labyrinth capable of absorbing and disorienting the unwary navigator. We cross the watershed and camp by the flowing waters of Dinner Creek.
The landscape transforms here. Water cascades down sandstone falls every hundred metres or so. The sound of moving water is the constant soundtrack to life. This is remote country, and it feels it. By starlight we search the riverbanks for wildlife. Euros (bulky hill kangaroos) bound along the rocks. In a crevice, again adorned with ancient artwork, we encounter another endemic inhabitant of this region, a Northern Giant Cave Gecko.
Setting off in the morning it seems logical to assume it’ll be an easy walk from here on; a simple matter of following the watercourse down to its confluence with the South Alligator River. But walking in this landscape is rarely so straightforward. We skirt around ever larger falls until we’re stopped by the main falls on Dinner Creek; a 20 metre cascade with sheer rock on either side. We’re momentarily stupefied by the prospect of a lengthy walk to get around this barrier when Mick yet again finds a way. He spies a navigable scramble down a re-entrant to one side of the falls, and after a wary descent, we’re on the floor of a gorge straight out of Jurassic Park.
We pick our way along the river bed, and it feels as though few other people have had the privilege of visiting this magical hidden gem of a place. Ferns cover the water’s edge. Huge Black-banded Fruit Doves zip across the gorge overhead searching for ripe figs.
In due course we have to start taking care to avoid the dark waters that are now almost certainly home to salties. Having seen only 4 other hikers during our six day walk, it feels like we have emerged from a very special part, of one of the Northern Territory’s truly special wild places.
Just one of the extensive network of Top End routes that await discovery by keen hikers, Yurmikmik is only possible with permits and a talented, experienced and accredited guide. It connects the numerous trails within Kakadu NP with some of the lesser-known routes through Nitmiluk NP on its southern border. The walks here (the Jatbula Trail and many routes making their way up to the headwaters of the Katherine River) are rapidly earning a reputation for being among the best marked and “off-trail” walks in the country.
The permits required to complete these walks, far from being a troublesome barrier, should be seen for what they are: a welcome measure to protect an area of world-famous cultural and ecological significance and sensitivity. In every sense of the word, walking in such parts of the NT’s Top End is a privilege, and an experience never to be forgotten.
The Jatbula Trail features magnificent waterfalls tumbling from the high sandstone escarpment. These feed into creeks surrounded by shady monsoon forests and the rock outcrops of the escarpment providing great opportunities to view ancient rock art, and cool off with great swimming spots. It’s a medium to hard walk and you’ll need to be able to carry a full pack over rough ground. The majority of people walk the trail independently however more people are starting to use guides. There are emergency call devices (ECD) and checkpoint book registers along the way. More info www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au
NEED TO KNOW
Kakadu National Park
Located 240km east of Darwin in Australia’s tropical north, Kakadu NP is Australia’s largest terrestrial national park. Kakadu covers almost 20,000 sq km and is a place of enormous ecological and biological diversity. It extends from the coast and estuaries in the north through floodplains, billabongs and lowlands to rocky ridges and stone country in the south. These landscapes are home to a range of rare and endemic plants and animals, including more than one third of Australia’s bird species and one quarter of its freshwater and estuarine fish species.
Nitmiluk National Park
This 292,800 ha national park is owned by the Jawoyn Aboriginal people and jointly managed with NT’s Parks and Wildlife Commission. Some of the park’s features include spectacular dissected sandstone country, broad valleys and numerous, significant cultural sites. The deep gorge carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River is the central attraction of the park. The park’s main entrance is 30km northeast of Katherine via a sealed road. Katherine is located 310km south of Darwin along the Stuart Highway. Leliyn (Edith Falls) on the western side of the park is reached by turning off the Stuart Highway 42km north of Katherine then following a sealed road for a further 19km.
Need to know