As far as Northern Territory national parks go, Keep River National Park (NP) is tiny – less than 3 per cent of the size of Kakadu NP – but it stands tall among the best in the Top End for its striking landscape, Aboriginal rock art and walking adventures. As a bonus, it’s easy to get to and is accessible without a 4WD.
We knew it was going to be something special as soon as we turned off the Victoria Highway, 3km inside the Territory border, and headed along the gravel road that would eventually deliver us to the Jarnum camping area near the park’s northern boundary. This 34km road, which runs the length of the park, can be flooded and impassable during the wet season (November-April) but, at the time of our visit in mid-July, it was dusty and somewhat corrugated in places.
About 3km from the park entrance, we stopped at the park office to chat to the resident ranger and browse the informative displays, before following a track through the back gate to the edge of Cockatoo Lagoon. In the wet season, this waterhole is renowned for its aquatic scenery and abundant birdlife but, in the middle of the dry, it had shrunk to a fraction of its usual size. Still, there was enough water in it to float several grebes and a few exotic lilies and attract a stately egret that patrolled the bank in search of bush tucker. Happily, we saw none of the crocodiles rumoured to visit here.
A short distance beyond the ranger station, we stopped again at Ginger’s Hill for the short (200m-return) walk through silver-leafed grevillea and Pindan wattle to a curious little stone structure with a roof made of sticks, similar to many that were built by Aboriginal people throughout north-west Australia. Its purpose had anthropologists stumped for a while; only 1m high and 1.5m wide, it was too small to sleep in and its thatch would do little to keep out the elements. Rather, it seems to have been used as a hide from which to catch birds of prey.
The park takes its name from the Keep River, which runs roughly parallel with the WA/NT border for about 100km, through savannah woodlands and sandstone gorges to the coastal floodplains and mangrove swamps on the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, but only in the wet season. For the rest of the year, the tropical sun bakes the plains and desiccates the watercourses, which makes it possible to explore the park on some of the best bushwalks in the country.
The first of these is the 2km Gurrandalng (Brolga) walk, which starts in a sheltered campground of the same name, 18km inside the park. It is a great introduction to Keep River’s unusual ‘beehives’ of layered sandstone, akin to those found in the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu NP) less than 200km, as the crow flies, across the border in Western Australia. The trail first enters arid eucalypt woodland of white-trunked bloodwood, Darwin woolybutts and ironwood, used by Aborigines to make spears and clap sticks. Emerging from the trees, the trail weaves through a transition zone dominated by huge spherical clumps of spinifex on its way to the rocky slopes below an escarpment of so-called Kelly’s Knob Sandstone – layered sedimentary beds of fine-grained sand and ‘pudding stone’ conglomerate deposited some 250 million years ago. Extensive weathering has created the richly-coloured formations we see today, with their crevices, caves and overhangs, the modern-day habitat of strutting white-quilled rock pigeons and shy short-eared rock wallabies. Fan palms, wattles and stunted tropical red box sprout miraculously among the rocky clefts and gullies, surviving in the harsh conditions by extracting water and nutrients delivered there by seasonal rains.
Eventually, the trail climbs to an escarpment that skirts a cluster of towering orange and ochre formations with magnificent views across the savannah plain to a line of more beehive ridges in the distance. After only an hour or so here, we had fallen thoroughly in love with the park and all its natural wonders.
From the Gurrandalng camp, the park road continues its scenic route north through the tribal lands of the Miriwoong and Gadjerong people, whose long occupation of this country is evidenced by many art sites containing some 2500 stencils and drawings in rock shelters and caverns throughout the park. Notable among these is the Nganalam art site in an outcrop with a huge archway said to be made by the nose of ‘Nganalang’, the white cockatoo. The paintings and stencils are distinctive in style, vivid in colour and include a 24m red, yellow and white snake – one of the longest known paintings in Australia. Another significant art site is Jinumum, a wet season shelter once used by the Miriwoong people, accessed by a 3km (two hour) walk that follows the bed of the Keep River. Sadly, some art sites in the park are now closed to the public due to past vandalism.
LORD OF THE MANOR
About 16km beyond Gurrandalng, the park road terminates at the Jarnum camp, where we made our base for the next few days. On our arrival, only two of the 20 or so sites were occupied in this peaceful bushland retreat and the best one was free. This was sheltered from the sweltering afternoon heat by a copse of shrubs on one side and screened from above by tall woolybutts festooned with clumps of vivid orange blossoms. From our front door, we had an unobstructed view of a weathered sandstone knoll (a registered sacred site) that changed colour with the passage of the sun through a cloudless sky from one horizon to the other.
As it turned out, the shrubbery adjacent to our van was the exclusive domain of a male great bowerbird, who was lord of all he surveyed. His manor was an impressive ‘bower’ – an arched, twin-walled avenue made from intricately spliced twigs with a welcoming forecourt decorated with shiny white objects, such as pebbles and sun-bleached bones. This impressive structure was not a nest but an elaborate device to attract a mate. In fact, bowerbirds are considered by experts to be the most advanced of all bird species because of their remarkable bower-building talents and extraordinarily complex courtship behaviour. Our neighbour’s bower was certainly a remarkable piece of avian engineering and his courtship displays kept us, and a bevy of prospective lady-mates, entertained for hours. The bowerbird wasn’t the only bird in the campground, however, and all day long the surrounding woodland echoed with a resounding chorus by butcherbirds, lorikeets, corellas, friarbirds and blue-winged kookaburras.
Jarnum also offered more walking trails: the lookout walk (5.5km, two hours return) and the art site walk (5.2km, two hours return). We combined the two into a single 8km loop through a variety of interesting habitats that took us half a day to complete, not because it was particularly arduous, but because we were mesmerised by the magnificent scenery and rock art and took our time absorbing it.
From the camp, the track meandered through boggy black soil meadows dotted with bottle trees and climbed rocky gullies to a lookout with spectacular views in all directions. Here, we took time out to catch our breath and appreciate the panorama of savannah woodland aglow with plumes of crimson turkey brush, golden kapok and sprays of orange woolybutt blossoms. This wooded red-earth plain was bordered by ramparts of weathered sandstone that added their own unique texture and hue to the tableau before us.
Keep River NP is a truly magnificent place and, situated adjacent to the Victoria Highway only 50km east of Kununurra, it is also one of the most accessible in the Territory. Travellers along the highway might be tempted to pass it by in favour of the bigger, more publicised parks in the west of the Territory or WA’s east Kimberley, but they should not do so, as this little gem of a park punches way above its weight when it comes to Top End adventure.
The turn-off to Keep River NP is 50km east of Kununurra, WA, and 468km west of Katherine, NT, along the Victoria Highway.
- Remote camping in scenic savannah bushland
- Walking the stunning landscape of beehive sandstone formations
- Experiencing Aboriginal culture and seeing rock art