Monthly Archives: June 2008

Kakadu National Park

Posted by on June 10, 2008

Sunset over Kakadu

Sunset over Kakadu

In the United States, there three parks which are considered to be the crown jewels in the National Parks system: Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. If you had to make a similar list for Australia, I don’t know what two of the parks would be, one one of them would have to be Kakadu.

Kakadu is an enormous park. It is one of the largest national parks in the world, over twice the size of Yellowstone and is larger than New Jersey or the nation of Israel. Of the 850 UNESCO World Heritage sites, only 25 are recognized for both natural and cultural significance, and Kakadu is one of them.

Even if you have never heard of Kakadu, you have probably seen it on TV. Kakadu is where many of the ‘outback’ scenes in Crocodile Dundee were shot and was often frequented by Steve Irwin.

There is no one single thing in Kakadu. The park has wetlands with a wide diversity of bird life, several rivers with crocodiles, rock escarpments, part of the coast on the Arafura Sea, and savanna. Kakadu has over 280 bird species, 60 mammal species, and 1,600 plant species.

The Nabulwinjbulwinj is a creature which would abduct women by throwing yams at their head.

The Nabulwinjbulwinj is a creature which would abduct women by throwing yams at their head.

My trip to Kakadu began as almost all trips to Kakadu do: from Darwin. Kakadu within driving distance to Darwin and there are day tours you can take from the city. While there isn’t a lot you can see just taking a day trip, it is doable. Driving distance is about two hours, depending on where you go in the park. There are only two main roads in the park which are paved and a small number of spur roads to various sights. Everything else requires a 4-wheel drive (which I didn’t have). Most of the unpaved roads are not accessible during the wet season which is about October to March. I was there in May, which seemed to be the perfect time to go. Conditions were dry enough that most roads were open, yet not so dry that everything was brown.

Fire plays an important part of things in the park (and for most of Australia for that matter). While I was there I saw many brush fires in the park, all of which were started on purpose. They tend to start fires early in the dry season when the grass still has some moisture so the fires don’t get out of hand, least you have a bigger fire later in the year when conditions are really dry. Many of the plants require fire to germinate. In fact, there is one species of kite (a bird) which catches prey has it flees fire. It has learned to pick up burning sticks and embers and to drop them on unburnt brush to spread fire to flush out more animals.

CRIKEY! Look at the size of that croc! He's looking for bush tucker!

CRIKEY! Look at the size of that croc! He's looking for bush tucker!

My first day in the park I visited Ubirr, which is noted for its Aboriginal rock art work. The Aboriginal presence in the area extends back over 20,000 years (I’ve heard estimates of 40,000 years, which would put it on a par with the evidence of human settlement I saw in Mungo National Park). There are several locations in Kakadu of well preserved examples of Aboriginal art work, some of which is older than the cave paintings found in Lascaux, France. Unlike Lascaux, the art in Kakadu isn’t in a cave and is very accessible.

I arrived at Ubirr about two hours before sunset and managed to climb up the large outcrop to watch the sun set over the nearby wetlands. It was something like you’d see in a documentary about the African savanna, except there were no lions, zebras or elephants. A large number of tourists arrived just before sunset, so it must be one of the big stops for tour groups in the park.

I stayed overnight in Kakadu in my camper, and the next day I headed out early to explore some more of the park. One of the most prominent features in Kakadu is Jimjim Falls. Unfortunately, the road there was the only one I saw that was closed in the park, so I couldn’t take a trip in a 4-wheel drive out there.

The avian life in Kakadu is diverse and amazing.

The avian life in Kakadu is diverse and amazing.

My first stop was at Anbangbang, which is another rock art site south of Ubirr. The geologist in me noticed a difference in the rocks between the two locations. Ubirr was a fine grained sandstone, where as Anbangbang was a very course conglomerate. The art work was surprisingly sophisticated for something done thousands of year ago. All of the art was done in sheltered areas under rock overhangs. In nearly all of the locations, you could also see holes worn into the stone, where food was prepared.

The last big thing I did was to take a boat trip on the South Alligator river. (There are no alligators in Kakadu, only crocodiles, but the first Europeans to go there didn’t know the difference). The water levels on the river vary dramatically depending on the time of year you are there. The guide we had said that just two weeks before hand, all the trees in the area had been about half way submerged, so the water had gone more than a meter.

Kakadu is one of the most beautiful places I've seen in Australia

Kakadu is one of the most beautiful places I've seen in Australia

Again, the time of the visit was almost perfect. The water wasn’t so high that it was just a giant lake, but it wasn’t so low that it was dried out. There was plenty of grass around and many of the bird species were giving birth. There were birds all over the place. I wish I had taken notes during the trip, but I was too busy taking photos (and after many attempts in many places, I can say with authority I suck at taking bird photos).

The big feature of the tour, and of the entire park itself, were the crocodiles. We saw three crocs during the 90-minutes of the tour, including one very large male sunning himself on bank of the river. Everywhere in Kakadu, on every body of water, you can see warning signs about crocs. Don’t swim, don’t fish, don’t clean fish, don’t stop, don’t do anything, please stay the hell away from the water. Crocs are dangerous, but so long as you don’t do anything stupid, they aren’t a problem. I heard a news report while in Australia that local Australians are attacked at higher rates than tourists, usually because they don’t tend to take warnings as seriously. In 2002 a German tourist was killed by a croc in Kakadu.

If a person was going to Australia and could only see one thing, I think I’d have to recommend Kakadu. It is probably the quintessential Australian experience where you can see most of the things which makes Australia, Australia.

5,445 Kilometers

Posted by on June 8, 2008

Route through West Australia

Route through West Australia

That’s 3,383 miles to those of you in the U.S. of A.

Since I left Darwin, I’ve been to three World Heritage Sites, seen all manner of Australian road-kill, been next to wild crocodiles, whale sharks, humpback whales, venomous sea snakes. and have gained a very deep appreciation for just how big and empty Western Australia truly is.

..and I only drove around the edge.

I’ve done my share of driving, but never anything like this. I can’t think of many places in the US where you can drive in this sort of desolation for this long. Perhaps parts of Nevada or West Texas. Eventually you will hit a farm or a town or something. North West Australia is just empty. I’m not sure if there are many places on Earth where you can make a drive like that. There are places more empty perhaps, but there are no roads or gas stations.

Now that I’m in Perth, I can say for certain it really is the only thing going in the entire state. I’ve met several people from Perth on my travels and they all have the same complaint. It is a long flight to anywhere. Even domestic flights from Perth take forever. In terms of distance, unless I go to Antarctica or some uninhabited islands in the Indian Ocean, this is the farthest point I’ll be from where I started my trip back in the US. Almost 11,000 miles (17,500 km). The total distance I’ve driven in Australia is probably around 10,000 km.

My goal for the next few days is to park my ass in Perth, get through all my photos (I finally got PNG done), catch up on the movies I’ve missed, and write up all the articles I’ve been meaning to write and dribble them out on the website over the next few weeks. Then I’ll fly to Uluru, because there is no way in hell I’m going to drive there.


Posted by on June 6, 2008

I’ve arrived in Geralton, which is about four hours north of Perth. Prior to arriving here, the landscape changed. Trees appeared where there were only bushes before. Farms, power lines, fences and other things you see in rural areas appeared out of the nothingness.

Today I’ll stop in the Pinnacle Desert before arriving in Perth. I have a few days left on my rental, so I’ll probably drive south of Perth to explore the SW coast before I have to turn in it. I don’t know how much time I’ll spend in Perth as it is getting colder and I should probably get a move on and get out of Australia.

I shot a podcast episode at the stromatolite pools in Shark Bay which was fun. The first episode is done and will be up as soon as I can set up the iTunes stuff. I also shot a quick one as a crossed over the Tropic of Capricorn. I’m getting better at it. The first ones will probably be the worst of the bunch, but that is to be expected.

Gary Swims With The Fishes (Big Fishes)

Posted by on June 4, 2008

I saw some pretty cool things the last two days: sea snakes, sand sharks, humpback whales, and the grand whale shark.

On Tuesday I did a dive on the navy pier. The pier is supposed to be one of the “Top 10 dives in the world”, a title which probably 100 different places on Earth can claim. The pier is where fuel ships dock at the local navy base. The navy base was originally built by the Americans back in the 1960’s as a ELF submarine communication station. It is now operated by the Australian Navy, it is the reason the town of Exmouth was built in the 1960’s.

The pier is normally off limits, but the company I dove with has exclusive rights to dive off of it. It was different from any of the other dives I’ve done if for no other reason than there was no coral. The pier blocks out the sun in the water below it.

I can say with authority that it is not one of the top 10 dives in the world, as it is not one of the top 10 dives on my trip. It was interesting in its own way, and I don’t regret doing it, but I can’t see it being one of the top dives in the world.

The water there was much colder than I had experienced before. I had to wear a 5 mil wet suit. We also had to jump into the water from a platform about 6ft (2m) above the water. There was a surprisingly large number of fish below the pier. I saw several sharks, large cods, large schools, and a sea snake, which surprised the hell out of me. It was very long and very light colored.

Today I went to swim with the whale sharks.

You don’t “dive” with the whale sharks. You technically can’t use SCUBA gear around them. You have to snorkel. They spent a lot of time near the surface feeding on plankton, so that isn’t a problem. The biggest problem is finding the fish. There are several boats which go out to see the whale sharks. They way they find them is from spotter aircraft which look for them near the surface. The company I went with (and I didn’t know this at the time) has their own aircraft, where all the other companies share the same aircraft.
You spend a lot of time on the boat waiting for the plane to spot a whale shark. While we were waiting we saw several humpback whales which were some of the first humpbacks in the area for the season. They were the first whales I’ve seen on my trip. I got some photos of them diving, spouting and a few of them with their tails up on the air.

Snorkeling is normally a pretty relaxed activity. It is more floating than swimming. Snorkeling to see the whale sharks is closer to sprinting than anything else.

When a whale shark is spotted by the plane, the boat moves as fast as possible to the location. One of the staff jumps in the water to spot the shark and everyone else is waiting on board with fins and gear ready to jump in.

The whole exercise is like a fire drill. Once you are in the water, you are have to swim, usually pretty fast, to keep up with the shark. They don’t sit still as they are filter feeders. The first time I jumped it, the shark was heading right towards me so I got to see it head on. If I had to rank the times on my trip where I wish I had a camera but didn’t have one, I think that would have be #1 on the list.

These are BIG fish. The ones we saw were 6-7m in length (19.5-23ft). They have other fish that swim around it as if the fish were a moving reef. I assume they cleaner fish which pick parasites and barnacles off the shark.

When you get to a shark, it is all sort of chaos. Everyone is getting the water, people bump into each other, you often only see bubbles from the fins of the person in front of you, you are trying to follow the guide on the surface while looking under the water for the shark. Sometimes the shark is so deep is it just a shadow. The boat is moving the entire time. Sometimes I figured I was 200 yards from the boat.

You are also in open ocean, in water about 100m deep. As you aren’t diving, you are subject to the waves ands swells on the surface.

We saw two sharks during the whole day. They claimed we were near sharks for 60 minutes, but that seems wildly optimistic. At best, you can see them only for a few minutes at a time, if for no reason that it is hard to keep up swimming at that pace for a long period of time.

It is a unique experience, but your day seeing whale sharks can be hit or miss. I heard stories of when they saw five together at the same time. Other days, you might not see a single one. They also aren’t like whales. You wont see them breaching the water and showing their tails. You are going to have to work to see what amounts for only a handful of minutes near the shark.

Tomorrow I’m off to Shark Bay. I’m about 2/3 of the way to Perth and still have 9 days left on my camper. I shouldn’t have any more death drives ahead of me. In theory, I’m 11 hours from Perth.

Shark Bay has something that I’ve been waiting to see during my entire time in Australia: Stromatolites! Probably the complete opposite experience of going to see whales and sharks.

*Image by Zac Wolf via WikiCommons