Exploring Kakadu

G’day all, and welcome back to our blog. When last we wrote, we had set ourselves the goal of spending a weekend at the locally situated Tumbling Waters Caravan Park to give the modifications to the car and the new camping gear a test run, but still be close to home in case things went up that particular creek. As fate would have it, one of our first lessons learned was to forward plan, and to check out the viability of your intended itinerary. When I called the caravan park to book, I was advised that they were in the middle of some renovations and it would be several weeks before the park was available to take guests.

Time to hatch another plan!

With the Easter long weekend rapidly approaching, we decided to put our apprehensions aside and book in at the Cooinda camping grounds, located centrally within Kakadu National Park. We booked in with a few weeks to spare, completed a few last minute jobs on the Isuzu D-Max, and became well acquainted with the staff at our local Rays Outdoors store to buy a few essentials for the trip. First and foremost was proper footwear for Felicity and the kids to handle the terrain we were expecting – little ankles and big rocks are rarely a good mix but some good sturdy boots to help support the ankles and prevent injury would make for a safer trip, and my old Merrell’s still had some life in them yet.

All too quickly it was the day before our departure. I suffer from an all too common condition called ‘distraction’ – this is normally brought on by kids asking for things, hiding things, and/ or moving things; or Hunter, our Golden Retriever joining in and attempting to bury the left shoe of any footwear left lying around. I have found making a list (and checking it twice!) invaluable over the years and took the time to check it, then check it again! If you don’t have one, there are plenty of resources available in your local camping store or online. It might be a little OCD, but it saves that cold shock of realization that some vital piece of equipment is three hours away safely stored at home!

Another habit I have gotten in to is giving the car a good solid once-over prior to undertaking any trips off the beaten track. Simple checks like the oil, coolant, brake fluid levels are all topped up, and tyre pressures are where they should be. I also visually checked all the belts and hoses for damage, even though we carry spares for all these anyway.

Good Friday arrived, and it was all go and excitement. The final items were packed, the roof racks loaded with swags and the kids’ bikes, and finally all members of the clan were on board and Kakadu bound.

Road conditions were good and after an hour on the road we pulled into the Bark Hut Inn on the Arnhem Highway for some morning tea and for the kids to blow off some energy before tackling the remaining two hours to Cooinda. Sausage rolls devoured and resident emu’s adored, we were on the road again. After topping off fuel in Jabiru, we dropped into the visitor centre to collect maps and find our permit requirements for staying and travelling through the park. We had arrived early in the season, and many of the more well-known features were still closed for the wet season – a smart safeguard in country where people aren’t the top of the food chain. We made the short hop to Cooinda and checked in before picking out a nice shady spot to set camp.

As soon as the bikes were off the roof rack the kids were away and making new friends with the other kids that had stopped by to check out the new arrivals. Felicity and I tried to remember how the staff in Ray’s Outdoors had put the tent up (Lesson two – practice at home to familiarize yourself with your equipment!) but it didn’t take long before the bush palace took shape! Just between you and me, I did manage to put the fly on back to front, but it was a minor hiccup and soon our OzTrail swags were rolled out in the tent, the chairs unfolded and a cold drink and boots off was order of the afternoon! Cooinda Campground was a lovely spot – well manicured, grassy camping areas surrounded the amenities which were only a short walk away. Showers, toilets, a communal kitchen and swimming pool were all close at hand, but not so close as to feel crowded. There was a lovely and welcoming feel to the place, with a friendly nod and a quick chat with our new neighbours before wrangling the kids in the direction of the pool to beat the heat of the afternoon. Though it was late in the wet season temperatures were still in the high 30’s and the humidity hovering about 70%.

The afternoon passed quickly and before we knew it, our dinner of fish and salad was scoffed down, kids bathed and safely bedded in their swags. One thing we did get right was giving the kids the chance to get familiar with their new bedding at home – they were quickly settled and dreaming of riding bikes and climbing trees. Or whatever it is that a four and a six year old dream of!

All too quickly night turned into dusk and the kids were blasting out the door to go. With morning bike rides and breakfast sorted, it was off to the pool for a quick dip before jumping in the D-Max to start exploring. We headed North to the famous Cahill’s Crossing, the road across the East Alligator River into Arnhem Land. This crossing is infamous for its swift tidal run and the ever-present saltwater crocodiles waiting for their next unsuspecting victim.

The crossing itself was closed due to seasonal rains up stream, and with a water height of 1.2 metres there was no way a conventional vehicle would safely make it across. We took some time out to look out for crocodiles and watch the fishermen sending their lures into the deep in relentless pursuit of barramundi. While no barra were caught, and no crocodiles seen it was still a great experience to simply be there with the family.

We then took the short drive to Ubirr, a series of rocky outcrops that house incredible examples of indigenous rock art, many of which date back several thousand years. It’s quite a humbling experience to think about the stories behind the art, which contain images of creation ancestors, white settlers, spirits and local animals including barramundi, goannas, turtles and wallabies to name a few. With high temperatures and the humidity making things hot and sticky, we were pushing the boundaries to get the kids up to the top of Ubirr. Lachy succumbed to fatigue about the half way mark and stayed in the cool shade of some overhanging rocks with Felicity, but Nicholas powered up the rocks in his new “4 wheel drive boots” and was soon standing atop the escarpment looking very pleased with himself, and sharing just how good his new boots were with anyone in earshot!

We took a few photos to record the memory, soaked in the amazing vista that really defies an adequate description, then returned to Felicity and Lachy.

We walked back to the car, enjoyed a cool drink from the Engel car fridge and headed back towards Cooinda.

During the return journey, we stopped at Magela Creek to get some photos for the blog and unleash some of my creativity behind the lens. The creek crossing was about 60cm in depth with a moderate run, and easily tackled by any vehicle with suitable ground clearance and an experienced driver. With Felicity driving we crossed a couple of times with me taking pics from the opposite bank, and the kids excitedly watching for crocs in the creek. Tactics for the third and final crossing were discussed briefly over the UHF radio (we have one mounted in the car, plus a hand held radio for recovery work), but just as Felicity was commencing her run she was overtaken at speed by a Suzuki 4×4 that was determined to hit the water as hard as possible.

It takes a lot to surprise me, but I was stunned enough to take one image of the car hitting the water then forget to leave my finger on the shutter release to capture all the ensuing excitement. The Suzuki ploughed into the creek sending water well over its roof height as it continued across two thirds of the creek before abruptly coming to a halt for what seemed an eternity. Convinced that the car had stalled in the crossing, we were discussing recovery options when the car started moving again, but in reverse. Turns out the driver, sure that the water level had increased substantially since crossing that morning, bailed out of the crossing when in fact he had progressed far past the deepest part of the creek and the water over the windscreen was a result of his speed. Personally, I was impressed the little Suzuki didn’t suck water into the motor as it didn’t have a snorkel fitted – a testament to the bush origins of the mighty Zook!

Felicity checked that the occupants of the Suzuki were okay, and aside from a slightly soiled driver’s seat, they were fine but a little embarrassed. They took the opportunity to draft a 4×4 that was crossing before Felicity completed the trifecta in the D-Max and collected me on the other side. It did serve as a reminder that drivers travelling in remote areas should have a good knowledge of safe 4×4 practices such as creek crossings and recovery techniques – in these circumstances selecting an appropriate gear (second gear in 2 wheel drive, as it’s a sealed road surface in good condition) and remaining in that gear for the duration of the crossing, and entering the water and completing the crossing slowly and steadily is the safest option. The remainder of the return journey to Cooinda passed uneventfully, and after a dinner of chicken and salad, we all retired to our swags and drifted off to sleep to the excited chatter of the kids in their swags, and the sounds of a dingo crunching a bone just the other side of the tent.

Easter Sunday arrived to the excited chatter of kids hunting for eggs, and the warning cries from the plovers warning them away from the lush green grass where they were on the hunt for grubs. Lachy and Nick are well aware of plovers and give them a very wide berth after being chased from the local oval one day by a very angry bird! We quickly ate breakfast and headed out early to beat the heat, heading about 50 kilometres to the North to explore Nourlangie Rocks. This site is home to more indigenous rock art and is nestled in some of the escarpment country that Kakadu is world famous for. We followed the interpretive trails around, reading the stories and signs to the kids as we went before taking a couple of family pics at the lookout. Wildflowers dotted the bush next to the walkways and birds chattered away in the trees, and even the cicadas were getting in on the chorus.

We really to live in a very beautiful part of the world. After whiling away a few hours, we explored a few tracks and roads but found most closed for the wet season. Foiled in our attempts to go wild, we headed back to the camp ground where the kids belted around on their bikes with their new friends, or cooled down in the pool.

Our final day saw us up early to join a guided cruise in Yellow Waters Billabong. For the next two hours we glided about being told the indigenous and local histories of the area while watching the wildlife watching us. We saw dozens of different types of birds, and even the saltwater crocodiles were sociable and posed nicely for photos. Having worked as a tour guide in my youth, I know how challenging a job it can be, but I can honestly say the guide we had was one of the best I’ve seen – he kept us fascinated and entertained for the full two hours and the kids (and the adults!) were hanging on his every word.

All too soon our tour was over and it was time to begrudgingly pack up and head back to reality. Our first trip went better than we could ever have hoped for – the kids had a ball and are mad keen for their next trip, and all the customising and checks on the D-Max worked better than expected. Two things really stood out as making life on the road so much better – the first is the Boab 55 litre water tank that we built in to the drawers in the back of the D-Max. The water tank runs through a small electric pump and a tap at the front of the drawers, and how we plumbed it in gave the kids the ability to top up their drinking water by themselves and gave us ample water for drinking, cleaning and washing hands.

The second was our choice in Cooper tyres. The Cooper S/TMAXX tyres have 5,000km on them now and are showing very little, if any wear, and no stone damage after some solid work on station tracks and rough roads in the top ends hot and wet conditions. What has impressed me most is the grip on wet, greasy roads and the lack of road noise or vibration from the tyres. They sure are a great tyre and offer some confidence in their ability to take the punishment dished out to them!

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