We drove deeper into Kakadu, leaving Jim Jim Falls and Sandy Billabong behind for the highlight of the East Alligator region – Ubirr Rock. Eventually, the Kakadu Highway intersected the Arnhem Highway. Jabiru lay to the east, but we were heading north, as close to Arnhem Land as you can get without a permit.
Watching as an emaciated dingo skulked in the dry grass before disappearing into the scrub, we pushed on. It’s about 40km from the Arnhem Highway to Cahills Crossing, a causeway providing safe passage across the East Alligator River, and the terrain is peppered with termite mounds and monoliths. The country is wide and open, a distinctive contrast with the enclosed attractions either side of the Kakadu Highway.
We’d been told to arrive at Cahills Crossing by 11am, when high tide would gather the fish at the causeway and saltwater crocodiles would come in for a feed.
The source of the East Alligator River can be traced 150km south-east of Cahills Crossing in the stone country of Arnhem Land, 3km from the Katherine River headwaters. It meanders north to the Van Diemen Gulf, some 95km away. The East Alligator is one of the five major river systems flowing through Kakadu. The Alligators were so named by Captain Phillip Parker King after mistaking the many estuarine crocs he saw for alligators as he explored in the ketch Mermaid.
The river forms part of the boundary between Kakadu and Arnhem Land, recognised as Aboriginal land since 1931. The region surrounding Cahills Crossing is owned by members of the Bunidj, Manilagarr, Murrwan and Mandjuringunj clans. You can’t cross the river without a permit – a strange notion for many Australians, perhaps, but this system is designed to protect the privacy of Arnhem Land Aboriginal communities, the closest of which is Gunbalanya (Oenpelli).
Leaving our rig in the nearby carpark, we set off in the hope of seeing crocodiles dining on barramundi. We were surprised to instead find fishermen standing in ankle-deep, murky water on the causeway. From a lookout, we spotted a croc lolling on a mud bank and could only imagine how many others were beneath the water, scenting for food. Those fishermen were braver – or crazier – than I.
But the crocs weren’t feeding today. Cahills Crossing, however, is still a great place for a picnic or walk. The Manngaree walk (dry season only) is a series of three interconnected tracks from 600m to 1.5km that takes you through monsoonal rainforest to an elevated viewing platform beside the East Alligator River. There’s also the Bardedjilidji walk (check wet season access), a 2.5km hike through layered sandstone outliers.
When you’ve finished exploring the Cahills region, drop into the nearby Border Store for a cool drink, a meal, or to buy a souvenir. It’s also a good place to obtain information on the surrounding area, including information on the tides if you’re planning to cross the river – cars have been known to be pushed off the crossing, forcing their owners to swim through croc-infested water to safety.
The best way to take in Ubirr and its amazing rock art is to first unhitch your van at Merl Campground. Rangers will visit in the evening to collect the fee – $10 per adult per night (children under 16 are free). Fireplaces are provided, and campers are encouraged to find firewood by the roadside.
We followed the signs to the generators-allowed section of the park and began reversing the Coromal F616s onto our site – it’s a first come, first served system – when the owner of an adjacent fifth wheeler approached with a slightly anxious expression on his face.
“You do realise that this is the generator section, don’t you?” he asked. “I’ll be running mine until about 10pm because my batteries are flat.”
“No worries,” I replied. “I’ll be using mine, too.”
It’s nice to experience a bit of courtesy in the bush.
Merl is an extremely quiet and peaceful campground – notwithstanding the generators, of course – that’s well integrated with the natural environment. The facilities are better than you’ll find in many other bush sites around Australia, with solar-heated showers, toilets and access to bore water. As I was filling my van’s tank, one bloke commented about how nice the water was.
“Did you at least boil it first?” I asked.
“Nah,” he replied. “We just go by taste!”
With the van set up, but well before sunset, we headed to the nearby carpark at the Ubirr art site. We wanted to allow plenty of time to absorb the rock art before climbing the moderately steep, rocky lookout to watch the sun set over the Nadab floodplain, which is inundated by the East Alligator during the Wet.
Ubirr is home to some of the most culturally significant rock art in Kakadu, if not the whole of Australia. An easy 1km loop takes visitors to a number of galleries with stunning examples of x-ray rock art, a style that depicts a creature’s internal organs and bone structures. The trail is very well marked and the various galleries are fitted with placards that detail the Dreaming stories behind each artwork, as well as their cultural importance.
It’s a 250m climb to the lookout. There are plenty of large plateaus on which to rest if you find the going a little tough, but most people of reasonable fitness and mobility should manage quite easily. An Ubirr sunset, watching as the sky changes from deep blue to blazing orange, as the floodplain darkles and monoliths light up, is an absolute must. Guided tours are available – a large group perched on the lower lookout as a ranger conducted an informative talk on the history of the area, the sun lowering in the sky behind her.
Visitors are required to leave in the latter stages of twilight – for their protection from critters large, small and venomous, and to ensure a safe climb down the lookout. A ranger does the rounds to ensure everybody complies.
The Ubirr landscape is markedly different from anywhere else in Kakadu. The colours are different, the sights and smells are different. Even the light, which softly illuminates towering escarpments and paperbarks, is somehow different. But, having seen the national park’s main sights along the Kakadu Highway, and having taken the northern pilgrimage to Ubirr, it was time to say goodbye to Kakadu.
The Arnhem Highway was our route out, and I wondered what it had in store…
· Ubirr is about 40km from Jabiru – take the turn-off about 1km west of the Kakadu Highway intersection along the Arnhem Highway. It’s very well signposted.
· The Merl campground costs $10 per adult per night (children under 16 are free). This campground has good facilities and generators are allowed in specific areas.
· A 1km circular track will take you past several fascinating rock art galleries at Ubirr (check wet season access). The lookout across the Nadab floodplain is open from April to November, 8.30am to sunset.
· During the dry season, take the Guluyambi boat tour of the East Alligator River. Phone 1800 895 179 or visit www.kakaduculturaltours.com.au for more information.
· The Border Store sells food, fishing gear and souvenirs, and also takes bookings for commercial tours. Phone (08) 8979 2474.
Originally published in Caravan World #508, November 2011.