Arnhem Land. Australia’s last true wilderness

“Where do I begin …

to tell a tale of

adventure, excitement and

wilderness?

Where do I beeegiiiiiinnnnn …”

 

4WD Action, an Australian publication devoted to, you guessed it, driving thousands of kilogrammes of powerful heavily modified machines through iconic wilderness areas for … joy … describes Arnhem Land as “Australia’s last true wilderness”. And it is definitely one of the most untouched wildernesses I’ve been in Australia for quite a while.

And I went there, you guessed it, in the relative comfort of thousands of kilogrammes of powerful heavily modified machine, namely a Toyota 79 Series trayback with a 4.5 litre V8 engine. An unstoppable Monster.

Small remote town Australia is where “nothing changes, not in a hurry anyway”, to paraphrase Goanna’s iconic 1982 song Solid Rock (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjzCDNOBicw). And, yes, there is a band called Goanna. It also means that permits are not something obtained quickly. Unless, of course, you’re a local. One with a decent network. Courtesy of Scott’s connection we manage a permit in less than 24 hours, instead of the usual five working days. The digital age is handy, particularly when one departs for a place where permits are required. For although a permit has been created it arrives in Jabiru long after we depart for the Cobourg Peninsular and the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. Scott is non-plussed. The Ranger will be able to check, apparently, that a permit has indeed been issued and ’she’ll be right’ as Australians are wont to say.

Long have I wanted to go to Arnhem Land. 230$ of permits later and Scott's awesome machine and we're heading for the Cobourg Peninsular. The most northerly bit of the Northern Territory
Long have I wanted to go to Arnhem Land. 230$ of permits later and Scott’s awesome Monster and we’re heading for the Cobourg Peninsular. The most northerly bit of the Northern Territory
Garik Gunah Barlu National Park is our destination
Garik Gunah Barlu National Park is our destination
After a bit of a drive, we are the park's entrance
After a bit of a drive, we are at the park’s entrance

An uneventful four hours of dirt road later we arrive. Four hours of no trace of human habitation. Just forest. In places of large trees. Other places where the same kinds of trees are far smaller. No real idea why. Soil type? Water availability? The extent of the forest passing by as the Monster hurltles down the track at 100 km per hour is impressive. Never knew such forest existed up here.

Our route from Jabiru to Cobourg Peninsula. Darwin's a small dot waaay to the west
Our route from Jabiru to Cobourg Peninsula. Darwin’s a small dot waaay to the west
The track/road to the Cobourg Peninsular
The track/road to the Cobourg Peninsular
Part of the escarpment as we neared Kakadu. Very pretty
Part of the escarpment as we neared Kakadu. Very pretty

We check out the jetty, the Ranger’s place where we write our arrival and proposed camp location on the board and then chose a campsite in one of the two nominated camping areas, imaginatively named Camp 1 and Camp 2. The difference being where one can and cannot use a generator. Even though we don’t have such a beast we end up in the ‘have generator’ campsite. We are alone and figure it’s unlikely to get too busy.

Detail of the Peninsula, and where we camped. Most of the Peninsula and the National Park are actually off limits to random zombie tourists such as us. Not quite sure why
Detail of the Peninsula, and where we camped. Most of the Peninsula and the National Park are actually off limits to random zombie tourists such as us. Not quite sure why

Shortly after we arrive the Ranger turns up to check on our permit. He’ll check his system for the one we have but not on us. He tells us that as far he’s aware we’re gonna be alone on the peninsula for the weekend. I ask him about swimmability. He laughs and replies “The sea’s full of large sharks (Tigers) and crocodiles, and poisonous jellyfish” and that in 18 years he’s “never had a swim”.

For less than 100$ I equipped myself for an outdoor adventure, including this tent, 15$, and the inflatable sleeping mat, also 15$.
For less than 100$ I equipped myself for an outdoor adventure, including this tent, 15$, and the inflatable sleeping mat, also 15$.
Our camp
Our camp

The Cobourg Peninsular is endless beaches on who’s perfect white sands are only the marks of wildlife.

The Arafura Sea. I always wanted to catch and eat a fish from the Arafura. Perhaps my time has come
The Arafura Sea. I always wanted to catch and eat a fish from the Arafura. Perhaps my time has come
Our beach, where the crocs tend to congregate
Our beach, where the crocs tend to congregate

Goannas wandering the fore-dunes searching for turtle nests. Turtle nests open and exposed either through predation (them goannas) or coz little turtles took to the sea.

No human footprints/marks, but plenty of animals. Here goanna tracks around a turtle's nest
No human footprints/marks, but plenty of animals. Here goanna tracks around a turtle’s nest
Turtle nest, with the hatchlings long gone
Turtle nest, with the hatchlings long gone
Turtle eggs, which we believe hatched and not eaten
Turtle eggs, which we believe hatched and not eaten
Fat goanna raiding a turtle nest. Later the Ranger's wife said "I hoped to shooed it away". Seems they are pretty good at raiding nests
Fat goanna raiding a turtle nest. Later the Ranger’s wife said “I hoped you shooed it away”. Seems they are pretty good at raiding nests
It was at least 1.5 meter long
It was at least 1.5 meter long

Frighteningly wide belly marks from a Large Apex Predator, namely your Estuarine or Saltwater Crocodile, overlain by smaller Apex Predators of the same ilk.

Tracks of a small crocodile heading for the Arafura Sea
Tracks of a small crocodile heading for the Arafura Sea
And here there's a large croc's track with two smaller ones overlain on it. Busy place it seems
And here there’s a large croc’s track with two smaller ones overlain on it. Busy place it seems

Countless bird tracks, Ghost Crab tracks, Soldier Crabs … not a human imprint of any type anywhere. Not even the most infamous and unfortunately ubiquitous human ‘imprint’ … plastic litter, either carelessly tossed in the dunes/sand or washed up by the waves.

Soldier crabs. Hilarious to watch
Soldier crabs. Hilarious to watch
Soldier crab
Soldier crab

Scurrying in the centimetre deep water are numerous starfish. They wander (do starfish ‘wander’? Or do they crawl? How does a starfish move?) in an obscure random choreography. Quite comical and a little absurd. Could watch them for hours. Only there’s so much more to watch too.

Deep ripples lie exposed by the low tide. As do oyster clad rocks. We didn’t really have the right tool to get access to them, although we tried.

160530 Cobourg Pen 32

Arafura coastline, low tide. The white hue of the rocks in the centre of the photo are oysters
Arafura coastline, low tide. The white hue of the rocks in the centre of the photo are oysters

And, finally, crocodiles.

We never saw the crocodiles in the day, so I don’t have any photos. As we returned from Smith’s Point well after sunset we notice some very, as in very very, fresh tracks in the track. Checking them out we debate whether they are from a large goanna (Scott’s thoughts) or a small crocodile (my thoughts). So we follow them. They cut off the track and head through the grass towards the beach. We can’t follow the tracks through the grass but an animal that size would make quite a fuss it is in the grass but we notice nothing.

Breaching the fore dunes, there, just before the surf is a two meter crocodile. It doesn’t hang around and rapidly enters the water as we approach it.

Scott, having a good eye for the locals, spots another waaay down the beach. I can barely make out a shape, but Scott’s convinced.

Subsequently Scott ‘guides’, if that’s what it can be called, me (and him) to within five meters of a four meter behemoth lying just where the light swell washes up on ‘his/her’ beach. Five metres is very close to something four meters long and which consumes humans should they be dumb enough to wander into crocodile territory. It is H U G E.

As we are staring at it going OMG +/- various other exclamations Scott’s impressive Led Lenser headlamp decided to loose enough battery to trigger the “I need some juice” signal. Which means it flashes.

Mr/Ms Enormous Crocodile did not think much of a high intensity LED lamp suddenly strobing so it hurtles itself with frightening speed (and power, don’t forget The Power – according to Wikipedia a four meter male crocodile weighs in anywhere from 250 to 500 kg) into the surf. Now an animal that can throw 250 – 500 kg of weight around with ease is an awe inspiring if a tad terrifying animal to get to within five metres of. Fortunately it went The Other Way, and not up the beach towards us.

Some of the tracks we found during our stay the are so fresh we could clearly see the pattern of the scales of the soles of its feet. On a sandy beach, that is fresh.

So fresh you can easily see the scales of the crocs feet imprinted in the sand
So fresh you can easily see the scales of the crocs feet imprinted in the sand

We cruise the various driving tracks: the wetlands route and the coastal one. The ‘wet’ season’s been very dry. Consequently the ‘wetlands’ are pretty dry.

It's been a very dry wet season. Normally this billabong would be full of water
It’s been a very dry wet season. Normally this billabong would be full of water
A Beast, a Beach and the Arafura along the coastal route
A Beast, a Beach and the Arafura along the coastal route
Shadow-selfie-panorama
Shadow-selfie-panorama
Selfie-panorama
Selfie-panorama
Evelyn & Scott on a typical track on the Cobourg Peninsular
Evelyn & Scott on a typical track on the Cobourg Peninsular
Me and Scott
Me and Scott

We fish. Lots. Our original plan was to try for barramundi. Since the billabongs and rivers lack water we don’t bother, instead opting for beach fishing.

Evelyn and Scott hard at fishing
Evelyn and Scott hard at fishing

Scott is a far more accomplished beach fisherman than I am and subsequently catches lots of fish whereas I catch buggar all. Mind you it is I who catches the first fish. Since I’m accustomed to the soft mouthed fishes of Scandinavian waters my retrieval technique is questionable and the fish gets off. “I thought you were too gentle with it” Scott remarks. In comparison when he hooks something he hauls it in as if line and mouth are indestructible. Yellow trevali is the main fish we/he lands. And sharks. It is obvious that the mouths of both fish are relatively indestructible. Especially the sharks.

Beautiful place
Beautiful place
Endless empty beaches
Endless empty beaches

Since we thought we’d be going for barramundi we don’t have any wire traces. Shark’s teeth are damned sharp and frequently they simply snap the line.

Eventually I work out what rig and bait (shark) is best to use and start to catch my own. As it turns out I catch fewer fish, but land the larger.

On light tackle and a small hook I manage to land a metre long 10 kilogramme white-tipped reef shark. In its stomach we find two of our previous attempts to catch it: hook and bait swallowed and the line sheared by the shark’s razor teeth.

Another time where we were catching (or trying to) trevali I get a solid bite. Or is it? Whatever it is it goes to ground and resolutely stays there. Tired as I am of losing various bits of tackle to the rocks and coral in the near-shore I try my best to dislodge it. And bit by bit so it comes, imponderably slowly. Whatever it is, is so heavy I need to pull using the flexibility of the rode before winding in manically as I lower the rode in order to haul again. We speculate on what it could be. Some large fish simply don’t fight, instead feel like a log.

Eventually in the shallow water we find out that indeed I have caught a log. Long and skinny it must have weighed a good 20 kg. Barnacle encrusted and dark it could have been in the water for a long, long time.

My passion for the Arafura Sea stems in no small part than from the 1985 Weddings Parties Anything song Luckiest Man (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfsSrNSRk1o). The song starts by discussing … a fish. And at second 48 we learn the narrator kicked a “footy into the Arafura Sea/I was the Luckiest Man in the Country … ” And I figured, waaay back in 1985 I’d really like to go to the Arafura Sea and catch a fish of which I “left the head and left the tail but nothing else got wasted … ”

And finally, I caught my fish!

Australia is famous or rather infamous for its sharks and shark attacks. And on the Cobourg Peninsula I too became a victim and survivor of a shark attack. Scott lands a shark and we now have the task of trying to remove the hook from its mouth. A delicate operation. I have hold of it by its tail. It’s perhaps half a metre long and writhes in my grasp. As it twists and turns its head comes dangerously close to my forearm and I feel the gentlest of feather touches before it twists the other way. After we’d removed the hook and released the shark I notice two puncture marks. So sharp are the teeth I didn’t actually feel it’s teeth puncture my skin.

Scott caught most of the fish, including this shark, during the trip. Ultimately I caught the bigger shark (10 kg) and trevali (3-4 kg)
Scott caught most of the fish, including this shark, during the trip. Ultimately I caught the bigger shark (10 kg) and trevali (2 – 3 kg)
We let most of them go. Tough buggars though. They effortlessly cut through our line
We let most of them go. Tough buggars though. They effortlessly cut through our line
This is proof I survived a Shark Attack! I had hold if its tail when it whipped around and barely touched me. Yet its sharp little teeth still left a mark
This is proof I survived a Shark Attack! I had hold if its tail when it whipped around and barely touched me. Yet its sharp little teeth still left a mark

Tired of losing so many hooks to the evidently numerous sharks in the water Scott re-searches his tackle box and finds a wire-trace. Now, says he, we’re gonna get some BIG fish. Sharks.

“OK”, says I, “let’s just speculate a bit, knowing how hard it is to deal with small sharks what if we catch one two metres long? How do we deal with it?” For, on the one hand, we simply do not have enough fridge space to accommodate the volume of meat we’ll end up with. Already the fridge is full of the remains of the 10 kg shark I caught. For another, them teeth on a two meter shark will be a whole different ball game, damned near lethal. And it’ll be pissed.

“We try to cut the line as close to its mouth as possible and let it go”. Sound advice, albeit still a bit daunting.

Geared up, tackle sorted, large beach rod selected with thick line Scott approaches the Arafura Sea and casts long and strong. And we all hear a loud ominous shot. And watch the one and only wire trace we have fly tens of metres out into the Arafura Sea, snapped clean at the reel. Scott had left the bail on. So much for that.

Beautiful place
Beautiful place
Endless empty beaches
Endless empty beaches

Scott’s been around the Top End for years. Casting, retrieving fish, cleaning them, and our lighting and seating plan is all conducted with one thing in mind … crocodiles. And we know they are around. To cast means you have to be near or in the water. Crocodiles are ambush hunters and we’ve seen just how hard it is to keep an eye on a huge four meter crocodile we know is there in the daytime. What about the ones we’ve not yet seen? Especially at night. Consequently before each cast we scan the near-water with headlamps in a bid to spot the tell-tale orange glow of a croc’s eye before making a hasty retreat to the relative safety of our waiting spot a minimum of five meters (one for each meter of croc) from the water. When dark the lamp is turned towards the sea coz it’s from that direction an attack will come. And one does not sit and fuck-around preparing lines and dealing with fish with one’s back to the water.

An interesting experience.

Back at camp we find we are actually not alone. A couple of other campers have arrived. Whilst we are aware they are around in the camp area we never bump into them whilst touring around. Effectively we have the area to ourselves.

One night whilst Scott and Evelyn are showering (yes, the camp sites have hot showers, powered by solar. Not sure why in perhaps one of the most stable warm environments in Australia they opt to provide hot showers when the ambient temperatures don’t dip much below 25 C. And that’s at night. Whilst in ‘chilly’ southern Australia only cold showers are available, if at all) I am sitting around camp, headlamp with the ‘red’ light on instead of white. Night animals can’t see the red light. I notice a scurrying shape along the floor. Barry the Bandicoot brazenly wanders through the camp including right under my chair. Had I ever wanted to actually catch a bandicoot all I have to do is reach down and grab Barry. Cool as.

In the daytime Larry the Lizard, a teenage sandgoanna checks us out. I try to catch it but it’s far too wily for me.

Whistling Kites are perhaps the most pervasive raptors in the Top End and a few are drifting over the camp. One settles in a near-by tree. Scott takes a chunk of rump steak, whistles to get the bird’s attention before tossing the meat a few meters away. As if on cue  Kerry the Kite glides out of the tree executes an amazing aerial acrobatic loop swoops down and effortlessly retrieves the meat. Shortly afterwards we have half a dozen Kites whistling back at us demanding more.

There are endless numbers of kites in The North. This whistling kite is hopeful of more tidbits. We enjoyed watching them fly and dive for cuts of prime rump steak. Very impressive
There are endless numbers of kites in The North. This whistling kite is hopeful of more tidbits. We enjoyed watching them fly and dive for cuts of prime rump steak. Very impressive

I catch another Children’s Python at the side of the track.

As I open the shower door one time I come across a long skinny snake. It buggars off pretty quick. I figure it to be brown-tree snake, but my first thought was Taipan. A snake encountered in the daytime is most likely to be poisonous. Hmmm … the world’s deadliest snake in the shower with me.

Daily, and nightly, we check out the beach where the crocodile’s path from the billabong terminates in the Arafura Sea. Plenty of tracks but we don’t see any crocodiles. I can’t resist. With Scott and Evelyn keeping a watchful eye I plunge in the shallow crystal clear waters of the Arafura Sea. At least for a dip rather than a swim. Pushing my luck in the croc’s lair is simply one push too far.

Me swimming in the Arafura. The local Ranger said in 18 years he's never gone for a swim: "It's full of killer sharks, killer crocs and jellyfish" he told me. My point of swim is damned close to the end of the croc-commute. Though we all keep a beady eye on the water
Me swimming in the Arafura. The local Ranger said in 18 years he’s never gone for a swim: “It’s full of killer sharks, killer crocs and jellyfish” he told me. My point of swim is damned close to the end of the croc-commute. Though we all keep a beady eye on the water
Bones on the crocodile commuite. Wonder who's they belong to
Bones on the crocodile commuite. Wonder who they belong to
Interesting. A billabong lies to the left, the Arafura Sea to the right. Crocodiles cross between them at dusk and dawn
Interesting. A billabong lies to the left, the Arafura Sea to the right. Crocodiles cross between them at dusk and dawn
A billabong. A crocs favourite haunt. We were very observant and cautious
A billabong. A crocs favourite haunt. We were very observant and cautious
Don't fuck with a crocodile
Don’t fuck with a crocodile

For our final night we return to Smith’s point, the most northerly point on the Peninsular. It is our intention to get Evelyn into fishing. The fridge is full and we’ve basically caught our fill. But not Evelyn. Scott rigs up his huge beach road and casts far. Handing the rod to Evelyn he gives her basic instructions on what to do when she gets a bite. Only he is using the huge rod with masses of bait. The bigger the hook and bait the bigger the fish and sure enough poor Evelyn’s introduction to fishing results in a screaming reel as the line races out. Something very big is on the line. Magnanimously Scott takes over and starts trying to win the fight. Shark or stingray? Large Mulloway or Kingfish? Perhaps a Queenie?

The lack of wire trace means he loses the battle and we do not find out what it is.

Scott being a very accomplished photographer sent me this. It's me fishing at Smith's Point
Scott being a very accomplished photographer sent me this. It’s me fishing at Smith’s Point
Fishing under them stars. Thanks Scott
Fishing under them stars. Thanks Scott
Smith's Point, and me fishing
Smith’s Point, and me fishing

By now we are running out of tackle, specifically weights. Doesn’t seem to matter though. Put a large enough chunk of meat on a hook and we could still do a decent cast. I manage to catch a fish I don’t recognise, which I release. Other than that we catch nothing. That is not to say we didn’t get any bites. Far from it. Scott’s using his huge beach rode again. No weight, just bait. His cast is reasonable and we retire to our deck chairs and wait.

Not too long later the huge rod bends alarmingly and the line races again. For but a few seconds before the line is cut. Once Scott’s reeled in the remains of the line we figure it was a shark since the end of the line is shredded. Sharp teeth in action.

After three fantastic nights we head home, rising early in a bid to get to Cahills Crossing at low tide, before the turning of the tide creates a powerful current strong enough to wash huge truck off. Even the Monster won’t stand a chance.

Shortly after we start we pass a large snake coiled in the shadows on the road. Stopping I catch a three metre Olive Python. Beautiful.

Heading back towards Jabiru we came across a 3 meter Olive Python at the side of the road
Heading back towards Jabiru we came across a 3 meter Olive Python at the side of the road
It was pretty chilled by the cool evening and was simple to pick up
It was pretty chilled by the cool evening and was simple to pick up
Mind you it warmed up pretty quick in my arms and began to track Scott as he took photos, coiled to strike
Mind you it warmed up pretty quick in my arms and began to track Scott as he took photos, coiled to strike
Letting it go
Letting it go

Indeed Arnhem Land, the Cobourg Peninsular and the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park are a wilderness. I’ve not experienced such untouched wilderness in Australia since the ‘80s. Hardly surprising since I’ve not lived in Australia since the late ‘80s but still it was truly amazing.

And thanks be to Scott and Evelyn for taking me there. Fantastic experience.

 

Max

Darwin, 31 May 2016

2 thoughts on “Arnhem Land. Australia’s last true wilderness

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