Red Lilly Billabong: back on the Ride

The Plan is simple … ride, loaded light easy and tropical, along the Arnhem Highway turn left two kilometres past Aurora Kakadu onto the Red Lilly Billabong track, check-out the billabongs and sites, until linking up with the Old Jim Jim Road, then left on the Kakadu Highway, another visit to Jim Jim Billabong and thence back to Jabiru.

170812-15 Red Lilly Billabong route
Start top right, left just after Aurora, do the Billabongs, before returning to start

Parks Australia tells me, about my route, that …

“… you’ll find a collection of three secluded campgrounds suited to adventurous travellers … popular with local fishers but rarely used by those unfamiliar with the region … down an 18 km track through savanna woodlands to three billabongs: Red Lily Billabong, Bucket followed by Alligator all pretty close to each other. [ ] Just pick a shady spot near one of the fireplaces to set up camp.”

A night at each, making it four nights five days. The only ‘unknown’ is the quality of the tracks. During the wetseason this part of Kakadu is simply off limits as Yellow Waters expands to be a huge shallow inland sea between Kakadu’s two highways. Then there’s the drying out period which can extend well into the dry season. So, what’s it gonna be? Hard pan, the fine sediment of the inland sea deposited across the lands then baked hard and flat by a relentless tropical sun?

Or will it be vast stretches of decimetre thick layers of soft sand totally not baked dry and hard pan by the sun. Or perhaps sublime stretches interspersed by deep sections of muddy-not-quite-any-more-wetland where my skinny tires will sink just that bit too deep. Like on some of the salt pans in Central Australia.

Only one way to find out.

170811 Day I, Aurora Kakadu
As ever a simple 45km along the Arnhem Highway. Not need to leave early, it’s less than three hours ride especially with the wind behind me propelling me at 20kph. Nice.

Camp, again. Didn’t bother to check-in. 15AUD for no fridge, no camp kitchen, no services. Hmmm, not this time. Stock up on water, enjoy a shower, enjoy the cockatoos enjoying their happy-hour at the leaking sprinklers, pour over the map, dream a bit, go to sleep early.

Left middle-finger is inflamed and painful. No obvious reason. Lanced it with my Swiss-army knife. Some relief but no cure. See how it is tomorrow.

Since I’ve decided enough is enough and I’m not going to do the Cape York, planning to return to Sweden preoccupies me. Gonna be expensive. Ticket ‘home’, shipping my stuff to Europe, trip to Perth to say Bye to family, live-aboard diving in Komodo. Something in the order of 6000AUD. Oh Boy.

170812 Day II, Red Lilly
Early start, coffee, thinking. It’s really come to an end. I really could do with my own space, my own place. To not have to move on every morning, day, week, whatever.

Inflamed finger less painful though still inflamed.

Ride two kilometres, face off against the obligatory warnings about diabolical road conditions and crocodiles. The track is sandy. But I’m in woodland. The wetlands (now dry) of the billabongs are yet to come.

OK, it’s a bit sandy in places

Something’s amiss. Sloppy handling, wriggle in the steering, like a flat tire. Get off. Trailer OK, no flats, no movement in the forks (headset is firm), grab the trailer’s coupling arms and give them a shake. Bingo. The quick-release axle is loose. First thought is a broken axle. Instead, the quick release has released itself. Re-tightening it, the sloppy handling disappears. Whew!

Didn’t realise today is a Saturday. It explains the Local Heroes – those ‘adventurous travellers familiar with the region’ – crammed in a 4WD, tinny behind and beers in hand. “Only on the gravel” the driver tells me. “Djawannabier?” It’s ten in the morning, the young guys are in an ebullient mood and I’m just off the track giving them room. “Sure”. Laughing they pass me one, tell me we’ll go fishing if I find them at some billabong, before rumbling off. Thanks guys.


10am is Beer O’clock, when it’s the only chance you’re likely to get

The country is lovely, the woodland open enough to offer views and closed enough to offer shade. The track, for the most part, is juuust fine. For the most part. A stretch of pea-gravel bit gets hold of Dreamer’s front end and awaaay it geoes. No harm no damage. Pick it up and carry on. Am used to this.

Bugga! Pebble gravel. All good
170812 red lilly 6
Superlative riding. New growth after the obligatory ‘controlled burn’

The wetlands are approaching. The paper barks take over from the Darwin Woollybutt – I kid you not, that is the poor plants name! Who came up with Woollybutt? – lining the track which becomes less sand and more hardpan dried mud. A boulevard lined with vibrant green under a primary blue sky. Can’t get better than this.

A junction in the track tells me the left lies Red Lilly whilst if I veer right I’ll find Bucket and Alligator Billabong. Turning left I follow the track first through thick marsh-woodland until the track serves as a border between woodland to the left (north) and a large open space on the other side of which is the billbong, almost like the large expanses of grass urban planners leave along the sides of rivers. For hundreds of metres the track makes its way and so do I.

170813 bucket & alligator 4
Left to Red Lilly. The right track is for later

Eventually I come across Dave, lounging under a huge blue tarpaulin he uses to keep the sun off his fair skin. A beat-up 2WD parked in front, and a mozzy-dome tent in which he sleeps to one side. One takes one’s opportunities to chat out here in the wilderness. One never knows when one’s gonna get another chance.

170812 red lilly 12
They look green to me
Dave. Wish you well mate

Dave is delightfully chatty, with a bit of sad tale. Dave’s 53, used to be a painter. A sportsman of sorts. Not quite good enough to go full pro but pulled his weight and enjoyed quite some success in cricket. His swimming’s not so bad either, apparently. It was a natural path to drift into coaching, both in cricket and swimming and he did OK. That was then. Bit by bit the painting and coaching roles dried up and with it his income and means to live. So he hit the road, searching for work.

I’ve met a L O T of Daves since starting my Epic in 2015. Older blokes in beat up vehicles and scant possessions, with skills covering multitudes of tasks but lacking recognised qualifications. Australia’s social-welfare system denies recipients a ‘decent’ ‘living’ wage. Dave would get about 1100AUD per month, should he survive unscathed the arcane assets and income testing he’d have to undergo. Given rents for a dicky studio start at 1000AUD per month (“in larger cities”) and anything else costs more, I not sure how they actually expect people to actually live (

Clearly Dave knows this all too well coz he’s camped here, for free, at Red Lilly Billabong awaiting his dole check so he can get some fuel to be able to continue to look for work. He’s got enough juice to ride into Jabiru where he hopes to get some money. (“Where you hope to get some money? Not where you will get some money?”).

Dave’s world, killing time waiting for the dole cheque

Part of me connects with Dave and the other Dudes. They are not much different than I. Work is drying up for us and there’s scant safeguards. Australia is similar to both the UK and the US in blaming the downtrodden for the prints of the shoes on top of them from they who walk over them. Dave should have worked harder smarter cleverer better qualified wiser … whatever. It’s Dave’s fault. And, yes, we, the Australian system, think it perfectly OK for Dave to starve to death someplace. I still don’t understand why Australia, keen as it is to avoid having to help the weak, vulnerable, marginalised and perhaps simply incapable, hasn’t got a thriving self-administrating, low-threshold, largely unregulated euthanasia program. Why it seems to so thoroughly enjoy hurting people who do not deserve to be hurt. Blaming them for the situation they are in, rather than helping them develop the self-esteem, self-confidence and support they need to be able to function in our ultra-competitive economy, rapidly being eviscerated by austerity programs, automation, off-shoring and other measures which only seem to benefit a tiny fraction of the population.

It’s sobering talking with Dave.

A couple of Local Heroes turn up, with 4WD, tinny and beers. They ask about the billabong and decide to launch the tinny right in front of us. We’re entertained for an hour or so by them racing up and down the billabong before they give up to try the next one. Dave and I wander over, enjoy a chat, watch them load the tinny on the trailer and wave them off. 100m down the track they stop and crawl under the trailer where they stay for quite a whiles. We walk over. The trailer’s suspension has just broken.

They are well drunk as they set about trying to repair the trailer, complaining that they are too drunk to do this, all the while drinking more beer. Funny dudes, and part of an Australia rapidly being squeezed into extinction by the Nanny State’s relentless campaigns to curb the Ockers more exuberant excesses. Watching and listening to them safe as I am, I’ll miss them when they are gone. When I’m on Dreamer and they hammer past oblivious to my fate, or worse determined to frighten me, I rejoice at the idea of them being gone.

I need a wash. In the billabong. It’s famous for its crocs. All waters in Kakadu are famous for their crocs. I pick a spot where the water is shallow in the hope that four or metres of crocodile won’t be able to sneak up that easily. Using my plastic kuksa (bowl) I dose myself in water and, without soap, rinse myself off. All the while keeping a beady eye on the waters of the billabong. Using my Platypus water filtration system I replenish my water supplies.

170813 bucket & alligator 3
Red Lilly

Evening trickles on, Dave tells me about the time he got caught in a big breaker’s undercurrent, the proverbial washing machine, running out of air, the surface tantalising close but unreachable as he’s spun around and around and around. He starts to take calculated little gulps of water from which he extracts enough oxygen to prevent him drowning until the washing machine lets him go and he can surface.

I don’t think there’s a kid in Australia who’s not had the exact same fantasy, especially if they’d been dumped during a day at the beach. Perhaps Dave actually managed to do this. Who am I to say? If I’m about to drown in the washing machine of a huge wave I’ll certainly try to get some oxygen from the water. Y’never know.

It’s an enjoyable evening and truly wish Dave and all the other Daves success in eking a patch of contentment in a system which does not serve them well.

170813 Bucket & Alligator Billabong
Doesn’t take long until I find myself facing off against some 30m of muddy creek straddling the path. Croc-infested, muddy, stony, wet. Godda be done.

170813 bucket & alligator 5
Hmmm … not sure I’m gonna enjoy this. Muddy, croc-infested, slippery, stony too I’m sure. Oh Boy!

A Hilux + tinny crosses from the other side. “It’s a metre deep” the driver tells me. A metre? Fuck me! Still godda be done.

“Maybe you can go around” indicating the possibility through the woods. “There are dry patches where can go around”. Fuck me! Didn’t think of that.

I have a look. It can be done. Thus do I successfully cross the creek, without crocs, stones, mud, water. Godda remember that: go around. Or at least check. Think laterally. Literally.

Some stretches of the track are simply wonderful. Smooth and pretty.

Superlative track

Bucket Billabong is huge in comparison to Red Lilly. More trees, more shade, but access to water is impossible. Steep banks plunging into deep water. Crocodile infested water.

170813 bucket & alligator 12
Bucket Billabong. Looks great, but it’s a long drop to the water. To croc-infested water

Now for Alligator Billabong and, hopefully, to camp.

So much for my track. One of the reasons buffalo are a pest is, like cattle, horse, donkeys, goats, sheep, and so on, they are hard-hoofed ungulates. I can’t count the number of beautiful billabongs I’ve come across which have been churned into polluted cesspits by these ungulates getting to water. Totally destroys them. I reckon they should fence off the billabongs with a structure keeping cattle out but allowing native fauna in, and rig up a trough away from it, to preserve the fragile ecosystems.

Today, however, I’m hammering along a track churned up by God-knows how many buffalo during the wet, then dried to a Himalayan mountain chain in miniature. It’s painful and slow. I curse buffalos profusely.

170813 bucket & alligator 11
Great area for a ride

This mini-mountain chain continues for quite a ways. Eventually I turn off to wind my way along a dissolute muddy creek towards Alligator Billabong. It’s huge. Near the water on the boat-ramp I can see a large crocodile a ways out in the middle. As a camping area for a cyclist it sucks. Since I don’t know what kind of water I’m likely to find further along I’m going to have to get water here.

170813 bucket & alligator 19
The track follows this, er, charming looking creek towards Alligator’s camping area

After collecting my Platypus water system I turn around to find my croc is now at the base of the boat ramp clearly checking me out. Oh Boy! Now what? I need water and there’s a large crocodile stalking me. I wander up and down the billabong looking for a ‘safe’ place to access the water and realise there isn’t one.

Near the boat ramp a shallow area is bedecked in lilies. If 4m of croc is going to get me it’ll have to cross the lilies. I put faith in the idea that she will not be able to do that without disturbing the lilies. Surely?

I set up the Platypus a few meters from the edge, then gingerly go to the water, fill up the reservoir before beating a hasty retreat up the bank. Repeat like four times. Nervous each time.

170813 bucket & alligator 25
Surely 4m of stalking croc can’t make through the lilies without disturbing them. Right?

Back on the ride, I pass number of really pretty wetlands. I think about camping but I want the ride, and so continue each time.

170813 bucket & alligator 28
Wetlands abound. Green and lush and full of life
170813 bucket & alligator 29
Pretty as
170813 bucket & alligator 30
OK, also pretty
170813 bucket & alligator 31
This one too

1600 is rapidly approaching. Time to camp. There are a number of foreboding billabongs, steep-sided, and lacking that je ne sais quoi. Others are rendered unpalatable, traumatised by buffalo, pig and horse. Ride on ride on.

Woops. Didn’t see that. Honest. Wasn’t much anyway, though I think the fishing would have been good

Smack on 1600, 200m from the track lies a small wetland surrounded by grand paperbarks, with flat tentable land for camping.

Had a wash, carefully, cooking lentils as the sky rapidly darkens.

170813 bucket & alligator 32
Camp Random Wetland

White-breasted sea-eagles contest a tree on the far side. Surely the wetland is too small for such grand raptors. Very impressive.

I’m enjoying the ride. Slow’n’easy, even when the track sucks. Plodding along, short distances, plenty of water and wetlands, little traffic, not too hot or dusty. No rain. Very nice. Except the flies and mozzies!

The sea-eagles show off their talents, snatching something from the wetlands, retiring to a tall gum for dinner. After eating they fly and glide about calling to each other cajoling and frolicking in a bout of post-dinner digestion enhancing activity before returning to their gum tree to sleep.

170814 wetland & road to Kak Hwy 1
Home to a pair of white-breasted sea-eagles. Amazing to witness

It’s all very pleasant and blanket of warm contentment drapes over me. Yeah, I think to myself, it’s worth doing this, for moments like this.

170814 Mardugal

Ah, The Sign. Godda be close

A last look at my quaint wetland before hitting the track. I know I’m close to the end, a sign facing the way I’ve come tells the intrepid Beware of Loose Surfaces. A bit of a zig and a zag the track disgorges me onto the Old Jim Jim Road and almost immediately an Alligator River ford. Shallow enough to severely reduce the risk of croc-ambush. A brief wander around, a few mini-bus-loads of tourists who must be European for whilst they surreptitiously check out Dreamer and Zi-Biddi they don’t strike up a conversation. Australians would.

170814 wetland & road to Kak Hwy 6
One way to get the red-dust off Dreamer & Zi-Biddi

It’s just shy of 30km to the Kakadu Highway and asphalt. An hour or so later I pull into Mardugal. Again. Again I park under the shady tree near the ablution block and go about rinsing and washing off four days of dust and dirt.

I need this. 41C OTH, but OK. Ascent day, as I rode upstream along one of the Alligator Rivers (South, East, West? Not sure, but it will be an ‘Alligator’ River). Very dusty, with lots of buffalo damage on the Red Lilly Road. Bulldust and corrugations on the Old Jim Jim. Plus, very sandy creek crossings. Had to push.

Now, for a shower.

Later I make my way over to a camping spot, set up and chill out.

As before, coach-loads of tourists, 4WD’ers, and other assorted tourists descend hard upon Mardugal as the evening progresses.

If it wasn’t for the shower I’d have ridden to the peace and tranquillity of Jim Jim Billabong. But then again the crowds are here for the same reason I am – the facilities. No one camps near me, so it’s hardly an imposition.

170815 Jim Jim to Jabiru
Well, aside of Telstra stealing my money again coz I didn’t have connection to buy more credit before the ‘steal my balance’ due date came and went, my brand-spanking-new Goal Zero Nomad 7 Plus solar panel is, or at least seems to be, kapot! Brand new. OK, it’s been in full sun but it’s a solar panel, as in it’s meant to be in the sun. Something to solve once back in Jabiru.

Jabiru is less than 60kms from Mardugal. I’m in no hurry. A detour to Jim Jim Billabong and the various little side-tracks with their ‘No Access’ signs appeals to me.

170815 Jim Jim Billabong 1
Jim Jim Billabong

Jim Jim Billabong is a great campsite, so long as you don’t need a shower. Could always wash where the boat ramp enters the Billabong but I personally would be embarrassed to be eaten by what is afterall just a lizard. Admittedly a LARGE lizard, but a lizard nonetheless.

170815 Jim Jim Billabong 2
Jim Jim Billabong

My OCD can’t deal with this: Crocodiles are not lizards. Crocodilia contains all species of crocodiles & other similar beasties, some 23 in total. Scuamata includes lizards, snakes and worm lizards, some 9150 species. This means if I get eaten by a crocodile whilst rinsing off the ride at the bottom of the boat ramp at Jim Jim Billabong, I can derive some comfort from the fact that I was not eaten by a lizard. Makes all the difference y’know.

South Alligator looking rather large

Skipped the urge to visit Jim Jim (no longer falling) Falls (again), and made my way back to Jabiru, where I rode into the swimming pool, parked in the shade, rinsed in the shower before enjoying leisurely swim.

Great little trip.

Jabiru Swimming Pool

One thought on “Red Lilly Billabong: back on the Ride

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