Kakadu, a simultaneously brown and green landscape during the Dry, doesn’t give up its beauty easily. As we’d discovered when bouncing along 37km of dash-rattling, corrugated red dirt into Gunlom, and 9km into Maguk, you have to work to discover this ancient land’s secrets.
The Kakadu Highway connects the Stuart Highway to Jabiru, the residential heart of the national park. The highway is an artery, red trails branching east-wards to gorges and waterways that ebb and flow with the seasons. These are Kakadu’s natural attractions, but they are also its extremities.
The main track to Jim Jim and Twin Falls is as poorly kept as those into Gunlom and Maguk. It’s also longer, a 50km washboard along which I’d advise against towing a caravan. You could only take it as far as Garnamarr campground, anyway. The remaining 10km is 4WD only. For good reason.
BEST LAID PLANS
My wife Stacey, the kids, and I spent a day washing off the dust of Maguk and Gunlom at Gagudju Lodge Cooinda, an oasis near Yellow Water. There we left the Coromal, taking the Pajero for what turned out to be a punishing day trip – for us, not it.
It was almost liberating to traverse the corrugated Jim Jim Falls Road unhitched. I even dared take the Paj to the speed limit – a baffling 60km/h. Yes, it’s an unsealed road, so the authorities don’t want you travelling too fast. For us, though, 60km/h was too slow for ‘skipping’ across the bumps. In fact, it made the ride worse. So we were stuck with a much more sedate pace, our plan to check out Twin Falls that same day going out the window at 30km/h.
Eventually, Garnamarr campground came into view. A uniformed attendant, sitting by the road beneath a portable shelter, signalled for us to stop.
“If you’re going out to Twin Falls, the crossing is 650mm under water,” she said.
Sans snorkel, would my Pajero make it? The attendant assured me someone with the same model had made it through 700mm of water the week before. I’ve been called many things before, but never reckless.
“We’ll have to give it a miss, then,” I said, before shifting the Paj into 4H in preparation for the tight, sandy track from Garnamarr to the Jim Jim Falls carpark.
The sun was high when we arrived, but the signs claimed it was only 900m to the plunge pool at the base of Jim Jim Falls. Easy. Another sign gave directions to the top of the falls, the Barrk Malam walk – a 6km hike that would test the most experienced of bushwalkers.
“Let’s just do the plunge pool walk,” I suggested to Stacey, who nodded enthusiastically. And on we trekked, up a dirt gradient, following the orange, triangular markers nailed to trees. Unfortunately, these markers are few and far between and, aside from the sign at the beginning of the walk, there’s nothing to tell you if you’re on the right track. After 20 minutes of walking, we knew something was wrong.
THE WRONG TRACK
Trying to follow the trail (a difficult task thanks to the lack of markers), I peeled through some overgrown branches and a swarm of green tree ants – which form nests in the leaves of certain trees – exploded onto me. I swatted and brushed and cursed, and something bit me on the leg. Were these critters venomous? I’d know soon enough.
We crossed a stream and were soon trekking uphill.
“This isn’t right – the plunge pool is at the base of the falls. We shouldn’t be walking uphill,” I said.
Stacey agreed that we had somehow veered onto the Barrk Malam walk, so we began retracing our steps, by now hot and very bothered and bemoaning the serious lack of signage and terrible definition of the trail. By this stage, we didn’t know if we were even on the trail. I pointed out a croc trap in the stream and Stacey and I exchanged a look.
Suddenly, a flash of colour through the thicket caught our attention – bushwalkers. We headed towards their voices… and found ourselves more or less back at the start of the plunge pool walk. All we could do was laugh, though, at the time, the situation was far from funny.
The actual walk to the Jim Jim Falls swimming hole – not the fun way that we originally took – involves scrambling over lots of grey boulders. If you have mobility issues, this is not the walk for you, but we saw lots of people of varying ages and fitness levels managing well enough. There are plenty of rocky plateaus along the way that make good rest stops.
Soon, the falls towered before us. We elected to again cross the stream, towards a large beach of pure white sand near the base of the 200m gorge. The water was fresh and shimmering, surrounded by lush vegetation, massive boulders and gorge walls that appeared to have been built, layer upon layer, in orange stone by a giant hand. We were deep inside Kakadu National Park now.
Croc safety should be paramount for all Kakadu visitors. Jim Jim is one of many so-called ‘croc-managed zones’, meaning rangers set traps for salties and, if caught, move them to another area. The best advice, though, is to assume each waterway contains estuarine crocs and to apply some common sense before swimming. Thanks to its beach entry, we could see the bottom of the swimming hole and were comfortable cooling off in the shallowest sections.
Other tourists lazed on towels spread on the blistering sand and the silence was pervasive. The sun soon dipped behind the gorge, heightening the sense of seclusion, of isolation. It was time to leave – it had taken a mighty effort to reach the falls so we’d have preferred to stay longer, but we had a long drive at 30km/h to look forward to.
Wearily, we returned to the Pajero. Though disappointed at having missed out on Twin Falls, we were awed by Jim Jim. Untouched and somehow elusive, it’s one of Kakadu’s true wonders. Within that green wilderness, listening to nothing and gazing at the orange stackstone walls of the escarpments, you can’t help but be aware of the singular nature of the experience.
To visit Twin Falls, head down Jim Jim Falls Road, towards Garnamarr. From there, travel 8km towards Jim Jim Falls along the 4WD-only track, turn right where signposted, and travel a further 10km. The final stretch involves a water crossing, which is only open during the Dry, at Jim Jim Creek. Even then, the crossing is likely to be under water, as it was during our visit. Depending on the depth, only attempt to cross if your 4WD is fitted with a snorkel. What could be worse than a drowned engine in the middle of nowhere?
Beyond this creek crossing, the Twin Falls Gorge Boat Shuttle Service will ferry you to the base of the falls. Tickets for the ferry are available at the Bowali Visitor Centre, (08) 8938 1121.
· Jim Jim Falls Road, around 50km south of Jabiru, runs from the Kakadu Highway to the Jim Jim Falls carpark. The final 10km is a strictly 4WD-only track.
· Jim Jim Falls is at its most spectacular during the wet season; however, the rains at this time make access impossible, even for the most experienced 4WDers. In fact, the road out to both Jim Jim and nearby Twin Falls is closed. Therefore, to see these falls at their roaring best, enquire about a chopper ride at the Bowali Visitor Centre, (08) 8938 1121.
· If you’re planning to stay a couple of days for a complete exploration of the Jim Jim/Twin Falls region, keep in mind that Jim Jim Falls Road is not really suitable for blacktop tourers. Offroad rigs should be fine. Garnamarr is a ‘managed’ campground, meaning it has some basic facilities, including a well-kept amenities block with hot showers. Camping costs $10 per adult per night; children under 16 are free.
· There is a range of companies that provide guided tours to both Jim Jim and Twin Falls, and would be a good idea if you’ve haven’t visited before, lest you get lost as we did. More information is available at the Bowali Visitor Centre.