With life getting in the way of our plans to get out bush again, it had been a couple of months since our last sojourn into the wilderness. The approach of a long weekend in the Northern Territory saw us seize the opportunity and again indulge in the four wheel drive equivalent of Tetris in the ritual that has become packing the D-Max with the clothes, camping kit, bikes and food for a few days out bush.
Our destination once again was the wonderful Kakadu National Park, with the aim to explore those features that we missed on our last trip due to the seasonal closures that were still in place over the Easter weekend. Car packed, pet-minders arranged and travel plans lodged with the parents, we left Darwin behind and set off on our next adventure.
The trip to the Cooinda camp ground passed uneventfully, save for the many fuel reduction fires along the Arnhem Highway that got the kids chattering in the back seat about Fireman Sam. For as long as human habitation in the Kakadu area, fire has been used as a land management tool to promote the growth of new vegetation and with it, encourage animals to move into the area that were in turn hunted by the traditional owners of the land for food.
We found Cooinda to be considerably busier this trip than the last, with a distinct shift in the demographic of its new residents – where the Easter weekend was young families with kids running around seeking cover from the plovers in the grass, this trip found us accompanied by more seasoned travellers enjoying their retirement and the serenity that Cooinda offered. We were welcomed to the park by Cooinda staff member Aliza – her smiling face and warm nature was to become a regular feature over the weekend, and was just one example of the wonderful staff that work and live at Cooinda! We found our camp spot and got the tent and swags set up while the kids supervised from a distance!
After dinner and a refreshing paddle in the pool, we stretched out in the swags and retired early to the chorus of barking owls woofing in the trees around the caravan park.
The dawning day brought with it a sense of adventure and we were soon on the road travelling north a short way to Kakadu National Parks famous Jim Jim Falls. The road is bitumen up to the camp ground at Jim Jim, but a dirt track accessible by moderate to high ground clearance vehicles only completes the journey to the car park for the falls. The track itself is well maintained and easily driven by even soft roaders with limited clearance but erosion control mounds prevent standard vehicles from being able to successfully complete the track.
We arrived at the car park and got the kids sorted with their new back-packs. In order to better equip them for the warm conditions, we had visited Ray's Outdoors in Darwin and gotten them each a Camelbak that carries two litres of water and enough snacks to keep them fuelled and happy. The small packs suited their little bodies well and made life a lot easier, freeing up the space in Felicity's and my packs for extra water, snacks, a first aid kit and camera gear.
Setting out from the car park towards Jim Jim Falls, we followed a creek along in the shade of tall trees on a well established trail which meandered for several hundred metres before it became more challenging. The smooth trail gave way to undulating terrain, which eventually gave way to scrambling over and around boulders the size of the average car.
Continuing to follow the creek, the trees gave teasing glimpses of Jim Jim Falls and as our destination got closer, the whisper of the breeze through the trees succumbed to the crashing of water over the falls into the pools below. The crystal clear waters of the river were oh-so tempting, but the presence of a baited crocodile trap was a poignant reminder that humans definitely aren't the top of the food chain in top end waters and having even a quick dip in the lower creeks was courting with disaster.
While the trail itself was challenging, the kids loved the sense of adventure it brought with it and wearing the right attire and footwear, we soon cleared the boulder field and were greeted at the base of the falls by deep shadows and a white sandy beach. We found a spot in the shade, kicked off the hiking boots and dipped a toe in the water.
Jim Jim Falls is a well known landmark, and should really be on the must-see list for anyone in the area. Over thousands of years, one of several creeks running across the escarpment country reached the edge and tumbled down to create a series of deep pools below. With sandy white beaches that look more like they should be on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and the fringing vegetation, it's an extraordinarily picturesque spot that words and photo’s fall well short of doing justice to.
Now, if you don't know any Territorians, there’s a funny trait amongst us – anything under 25 degrees Celsius is cold. Not just cold, but bone chillingly, take-your-breath-away, brain freezingly cold. Having reached a suitable running temperature on the hike in, I was first in line to check the temperature with a big toe, while the kids took a slightly less rational approach and plunged right in. Neck deep, the sudden realisation of how cold the water was saw both kids trying to walk on water to get back out!! As any responsible parent would do, I made sure they were safe but had a hearty laugh as I declined their requests to carry them out of the water! You’ll be happy to know they both safely made it out under their own steam, and spend the next fifteen minutes thawing out wrapped in towels under the sun!
We spend some time taking in the surroundings and watching the ever-present backpackers coming and going before heading back down the trail on the return journey. We passed several groups that expressed surprise that such young children could complete the hike in and back out, but we found that with a little support, a lot of encouragement and the right equipment went a long way in allowing the kids to tackle more challenging terrain as their confidence and experience grew. I was equally surprised at the number of people on the trail that were ill prepared for the undertaking – trails like these are no place for even the hardiest of double pluggers (otherwise known as thongs, or flip flops), and sturdy footwear that offers ankle support, protects the foot and has suitable grip for clambering over boulders should be worn.
Back at the D-Max, we had a quick lunch before driving back to Cooinda. We indulged in the bistro and had an iceblock and a cold drink before seeing out the remainder of the afternoon lounging in and around the pool. We took the opportunity to perfect a water entry technique now known as the “Kakadu Cannonball”, which involved the kids being hurled by dad as high as possible from the water before gravity took over and they plummeted back to the pool amidst screams and giggles with their knees tucked into their chests. As darkness fell and the daytime creatures went to bed, the night shift took over while we finished dinner and climbed into our swags to the chorus of owls on the night patrol.
The next day dawned with the smell of sizzling bacon and eggs and fresh brewed coffee. The morning routine was quickly dispatched and we loaded up in the D-Max with the plan of heading south from Cooinda to Gunlom Falls. We had been there prior to having children and always wanted to return there, such was the amazing vista from the top of the escarpment and it's infinity edge rock pools. About half way to our intended destination, we drove past a sign saying “Barramundi Gorge”. There wasn't much information about it on the maps we had, so having the luxury of time up our sleeves, we decided that some exploring was called for.
We arrived at the car park and set off up the walking trail, which crossed over a small creek then ran alongside it for a few hundred metres through some beautiful monsoonal rainforest. The trail was in excellent condition and made for easy walking, so Lachlan and Nicholas charged ahead to explore while Felicity and I ambled along enjoying the surroundings. Spying boulders ahead, there was an ‘oh no’ moment while we mentally prepared for a challenge like that experienced the day before, but as we neared we saw the terrain opening up from forest to a more open gorge with the creek bubbling its way through the middle.
Moving up to more open ground, we literally had our breath taken away. The geography of the area created a number of crystal clear rock pools fringed by native scrub. The white sands along one side made for a gorgeous little beach that just beckoned for us to enjoy it. And enjoy it we did – it was packs off, boots off and into the water we went! The kids splashed around chasing small native fish through the water, while the grown-ups enjoyed a natural spa with the water bubbling down around us. After a relaxing dip, we walked the remaining short distance to Barramundi Gorge itself.
Known as Maguk in the indigenous language, the waterhole at the head of the gorge is about a hundred metres in width and makes for safe and enjoyable swimming. The waterfall at the far side of the lagoon has water tumbling from the escarpment above and the echoes of the falls splashing down made for a blissful tranquility. Our intended destination of Gunlom Falls was soon forgotten, and the remainder of the day was spent splashing around, chasing the small fish that inhabited the waterhole, and lounging in the shade.
All too soon, the little hand reached the 4 on my watch and it was time to head back to camp. The drive back took well under an hour, and the kids used the opportunity for a tactical nap while highlights and future plans were made in the front. Back at Cooinda, we once again raided the pool before enjoying some territory style tucker in the bistro – if there's one dish you have to try, go the territory tasting plate.
Monday morning saw the end of our trip to Kakadu, so we gave the kids simple jobs to do such as packing the plates and bowls, sports gear and chairs into the car while the bigger items like packing the swags and tents was up to Felicity and I. We found keeping the kids busy with small jobs gave them a sense of responsibility and made the experience more enjoyable overall. Once again, we found the facilities at Cooinda great – it’s not too busy, and the only noise at night is the Owls on the night watch. If you want to travel there yourself, the Kakadu Tourism website is a wealth of information and contains links to make bookings at Cooinda.
Since starting the blog, we have fielded a few questions about the modifications we have done to our Isuzu D-Max for touring and camping. Our next blog entry will be centred more on this topic, and while the D-Max remains a work in progress (do we ever finish tweaking our four wheel drives?!), there will be some great information in there. Our Cooper S/TMAXX tyres remain to be one of the most significant modifications to the vehicle, and after completing over 10,000 kilometres over some of the most punishing terrain that the Northern Territory has to offer, we don’t have any reservations in recommending them to fellow outdoors enthusiasts.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and enjoy this amazing gift that is our country!