Bitumen had never felt so smooth, and we savoured every kilometre of the 39 between Gunlom and the Maguk turn-off.
We’d been told the pool at the base of the falls of Maguk (also known as Barramundi Gorge) was the warmest in the Northern Territory. I didn’t know if that was true, but I had every intention of judging the temperature for myself before afternoon tea. First, though, we’d have to conquer another of Kakadu’s finest tracks.
Here and there, the landscape was a dehydrated brown, a blunt contrast to the deep green of the trees and shrubs either side of the red track. They grew, it seemed, in defiance of their environment, that dry August heat in which water recedes from creekbeds and causeways.
The map assured us that the road in was only 9km, a quarter of the length of the Gunlom track. Easy-peasy.
The sign at the turn-off said ‘4WD only’ and nothing about caravans. The track looked rough, sure, but I was confident in my Pajero and Coromal. I removed the load levellers in accordance with the manufacturer’s warning not to use them in offroad conditions, dropped the tyre pressure all-round, and set a measured pace. Each bump and hollow jostled my spine and my nerves. They rocked Jasmine to sleep in her baby seat. Ethan just grinned at the adventure of it all.
An oncoming white LandCruiser sidled up alongside and the driver wound down his window.
“Does the track get any better?” I asked.
“Nope.” Then, glancing at the van, he said, “If you made it this far, you’ll make it all the way.”
That was reassuring.
“Just mind the sandy crossing ahead, it gets a bit narrow,” he said, waving as he tootled on.
We tootled, too, and the slim, sandy crossing soon came into view. I braked and climbed out for a closer look at the terrain before attempting to traverse it with a van in tow. There was room for only one vehicle and the road was narrowest near a blind corner. Once committed to the sand, I’d be reluctant to stop for fear of bogging.
And that was when an Oka rounded the bend ahead.
This would take some coordination. I jogged over and the young woman at the Oka’s helm scowled.
“Pity they don’t pave these roads, eh?” I offered, an unfunny attempt to lighten the situation.
“Are you stuck?” she grumbled in an eastern European accent. “The sign at the front says 4WD only.”
It did indeed, but it didn’t say anything about caravans, I wanted to say. I bit my lip. “No, I’m fine, but I’d be grateful if you can back up a bit and pull in there.” I gestured towards a turn-out bay about 20m behind the Oka. “There’s nowhere for me to back into, especially with the van.”
Scowling some more, she reversed. I climbed back into the Pajero and gave her a little wave of thanks as I passed. She just shook her head. I’m still not sure why she was so upset.
STILL NOT BOGGED
The vegetation crept closer to the edge of the track as we neared the Maguk campground, low-hanging branches threatening to swipe off the van’s air-conditioner.
Before committing to the direction I’d take when entering the campground, I again left the rig to see whether the van would make it around some of the tighter corners, and which site would be the best to pull into. A tour operator with a small bus full of tourists saw me eyeing off his site.
“You can have it, mate, we’re leaving,” he said. He stole a glance at my stationary Pajero and van. “Are you bogged?”
Why did people keep asking me
“No, the road is just so tight that I wanted to check things out first,” I answered.
He nodded, pulled on his wide-brimmed hat, and climbed into the cab of his bus. “It’s all yours.”
After I’d backed the Coromal into position, Stacey pointed out we were parked right next to the compost toilet. The trouble was, the campground had a very limited number of sites large enough to take a caravan. We’d just have to accept people wandering through our site in the dead of night – we were lucky to get the site we did.
The campground at Maguk is much more basic than the one at Gunlom. There’s a scattering of sites, each enclosed by scrub. Concrete fire rings are provided at most sites and a sign requests that campers forage for firewood at the roadside, rather than wandering into the bush, which seemed fair enough to me. After all, there’s no telling what could be slithering and scurrying in that tall grass. The compost toilet adjacent to our van was the campground’s only facility and generators are allowed.
It’s a peaceful place nestled 1km, as the crow flies, from the Kakadu Highway. Most visitors to Maguk, however, drive in and park in the day-use area, a short drive from the campground. From there, a 1km track meanders through lush vegetation, a tropical setting, that borders Barramundi Creek, where we stopped to spot saratoga, archer fish, black bream and grunters in the clear water. Fishing is not allowed, as Maguk is a breeding ground for many local fish species.
Further upstream, the path devolved into river-smoothed rocks. Water tumbled down knee-high cascades into lazy, beckoning pools, the untouched, untamed terrain becoming more magnificent with each step. With the sound of laughter and splashing not far ahead, we pushed on, over dry boulders and across shallow stretches of water, until the Maguk plunge pool and falls towered into view.
Shadows played along one side of the gorge, the other was alight with sun. The falls fell at a trickle. English tourists had gathered at the pool’s main entrance, daring one another to dive in and join their compatriots who were swimming out in the deep water. To the left, others were sunning themselves on a rocky plateau. Others still, so small in the distance that they looked like insects, stood waving at the top of the falls, a challenging walk that rewards with amazing rockpools.
Unlike Gunlom, Maguk isn’t a kid-friendly swimming hole. The main entrance is a narrow, rocky ledge that drops straight into water too deep for any child to stand in. Jasmine, lathered in sunscreen, squirmed to be released from the special backpack in which her mother carried her, apparently wanting nothing more than to test the water’s temperature.
As I backstroked towards the falls, the ground dropped away very quickly, despite it being the dry season (how deep does it get in the Wet?). I found myself treading water and, I admit, wondering about what might be looking up at the soles of my feet.
I swam back to the ledge and Stacey lowered Ethan into my arms. He cried out in surprise. Maguk, he’ll tell you, is certainly not the warmest plunge pool in the Northern Territory. Jasmine, bless her little sunscreened soul, gave a squeal when we carefully dipped her in.
Notwithstanding the cool water, Maguk is an amazing attraction, more than worth the walk. The almost-orange gorge walls and the blue sky above, the green foliage – an incongruous contrast with the dryness elsewhere in Kakadu – and a body of water as beautiful as it is wide and deep, conspire to awaken something primal and spiritual from within, a feeling that lingers long beyond a day visit.
Soon enough, though, it was time to head back. The English tourists had departed and the sun was starting to lower. Following river rocks and cascades, we easily found the main path back to the car park. As I fired the Pajero’s ignition, I reflected that Maguk might lack the same accessibility and family-friendliness of Gunlom, and that includes the campground, but that’s part of what makes it special. Hidden, peaceful, meaningful.
We spent the night in the van and in the morning I wanted to return. But doing so would’ve felt somehow greedy. Instead, I left Maguk to itself. As accommodating as it was, I thought it perhaps preferred its own company.
· Maguk is about 9km along a corrugated track. As with Gunlom, be very careful and keep your speed at walking pace if towing a van in. While there are only a handful of sites for larger rigs, there’s plenty of tent camping sites and sites that’ll easily accommodate camper trailers and offroad B-class motorhomes.
· Camping costs $5 per adult per night; children camp free. A fee collection box is located next to the (very) basic toilet block. Concrete fire rings are provided and generators are allowed.
· No drinking water is available so be sure to bring your own.
· For more information, visit http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu/.
Originally published in Caravan World #507, October 2012.