Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Nitmiluk NP


10:30pm last night
A group of young French men and women arrived with the campsite basically asleep or pretending to be. For the next two hours they giggled and talked and thought they were being so quite but kept most, except your correspondent, awake. I slept through the lot.
A band of marauding macropods invaded our campsite, searching for food and prepared to take on anything. They managed to remove the plastic lid off the container that housed our beverage making ingredients and had the contents off the table and into the dirt - but still intact. Only small fellas, they soon scattered when the school ma’am lying next to me took to them with harsh words. Other campers refused to leave their beds when the troupe moved in on them, for fear the woman with the angry words was touring with them.
6:00am … ish
The first group had obviously been scouts for just as I woke with the usual chorus of local birds, the Mrs Darth Vader of the local macropod population arrived and began knocking things over in search of groceries. By the time I emerged from the tent, she had ripped three pages from the tour directory which Sue had spent months preparing and hopped away on my approach with the pages in one paw. Facing me and fixing my Penzil headlamp with a "you and who's army" stare, she proceed to tear our Kununurra accommodation guide and two pages of the Minima NP information into strips and then eat them. If only the kids that Sue taught would consume the written word with such enthusiasm!
The late arriving French were in for a shock. A groovy looking official was sneaking about checking tickets on cars that showed campers had paid their dues and he soon fixed on them. After walking through their camp and peering in windows and stopping to admire the sleeping arrangements, he eventually managed to catch one with his eye half open and the process of pooling this currency they didn't understand into the required fees began. As this was progressing for our long-haired ex-backpacking official - many of the people working here are French, German or English tourists - an angry Pom who had lost sleep the night before, came over and gave them a piece of his mind. Perhaps he shouldn't have given them such a generous portion because he had to drive and retain the power of speech, even breath, soon afterwards and he didn’t appear to have that much to spare. All very pointless and all very unnecessary. A quiet word was all that was needed.
Did the washing.
Sue and I set off in a canoe to explore the first gorge. Progress was slow as I must be a stroke-challenged paddler because I kept sending us in circles which had the effect of giving us our money's worth. We eventually reached the end of the gorge (7.2km according to the lovely Emma in the Nitmiluk Centre ... but I think that's only if you go up and back three times ... mind you, with the way I paddle we probably had covered that much distance) and clambered over the rocks for a swim in a pool in Gorge Two. Sue had a lovely time, being photographed and then videoed by tourists as she walked over the rocks in her bikini, whilst I got caught in the current near a small set of rapids and was tumbled over rocks for three or four metres out of control - I have the scars to prove it. Even that didn't gain attention away from Miss July. She stood and gave her friendliest wave whilst I bled in the background.
I played up my injuries as much as I thought I could get away with but my crew soon coaxed me back into the canoe for the trip down river. Much fuss was made of the crocodile resting in shallow water near the bank. I was more concerned with size of the saltwater crocodile trap tied on the opposite shore. I am pleased to report that by the last 150 metres of the journey we could both paddle with synchronicity and move our craft in a straight line. This happened immediately after I handed the captaincy of the craft to my crewman. I don't feel like a failure, just paddler down on his luck who is still waiting for success.
We had a reflective coffee at the Nitmiluk Centre, which did not include any review of canoeing techniques or injuries. It dawned on us that we were here and everyone else we knew was not. This was not a startling revelation but a never the less extremely satisfying one.
Not content with our aquatic endeavours, we changed apparel, donning our walking boots and Hawaiian shirts (well I did  the shirt thing) and climbed to the lookout above the gorge at the exact time the day was recording its highest temperature (33C). This was steep set of steps mainly and my breathing passed in flying colours, confirming that the adjustments I have made to medication are well and truly working. We both climbed to a view that was outstanding.
Collected the washing.
Flopped into the pool at the camping area. Very, very nice.
T-bone steak, vegies and a cob of corn. No wine but who cares. A perfect day’s ends.
As I finish my blog, five macropods have been making their plans against me and moving into attack position around the camper's kitchen where I write. The German girls are taking pictures and the French girls are saying foreign words which I think mean "cute" but they may be asking me the way to the railway station. It will be a different picture when the lights go out and these little fur covered babies move in for the kill. In the ensuing mayhem, as throats are ripped and intestines spilled, I should be able to make my escape. If I can just make my way to the light switch ...


We were up, dressed, organised and out of the campsite to the river in no time flat this morning. Our enthusiasm was obvious and well founded, given our experience with the kids on the same river thirteen years ago. Today, however, we would be touring five gorges, not three and we would be out all day.

The unseen guest, a lovely cool breeze when we most needed it, brushed past us with whispers - reminders of the responsibility even we must bear during our seven hour visit. Two of our transverses between gorges were longish, rock hopping events which tested ankles and thighs as we climbed up, over and through great boulders and small bowling balls of sandstone. Sue found these stages very testing and has been trying to quieten screaming muscles since, but handled them with aplomb and I even dare say, courage. It is difficult to place an obstacle before her that can stop her if she values the prize.

Our tour guide, Russell, a local Jarwon man, started the ball rolling in a style we would come to enjoy throughout the day. He was generous in sharing information about the land, bush tucker and Jarwon folklore. It was a beautiful morning to be on the water and as the gorges extended their vertical climb above us, there was plenty of shade. The gorges - nine in all - are separated by rock partitions that have been formed when cliffs have collapsed and partially blocked the river. Even these don't stop the Katherine when the wet season is in full furry as there is an average height differential of seven metres dry to wet. Big wets are more like ten metres higher. Sitting in our aluminium flat-bottomed punts with shear rock walls three or four times taller than any ramparts the Knights of the Round Table would have faced, it was a sobering thought just how much water made up the difference.

All of it, at its peak during the wet, flowing at somewhere between 50 and 70 km/hr! There is little green to be seen. It fringes the top of the escarpment and provides dots and dashes along the wet edges of the river in a coded signal of it “other” existence. It’s also in the few cracks and gullies that have broken the edges. Parndanas bow to the Katherine as it passes and Silver Paperbarks grow in bent agreement to the direction of water flow. If green was in small supply, yellows and reds and oranges shone from the silent walls which spoke of time frames which we might imagine but never understand. Often their talk was muted where black stains of wet season cascades had tumbled to their greater life from the flatness and sunshine above. Cracks and joints in the sandstone threw shadows and the various layers of their formation looked like rainbow cake for rock eaters. Above and below and between, blue provided the ever present contrast. A cloudless sky framed the ceiling of our day and the horizon at the long stretched ends of the gorges. Blue lapped against our punts and held us in the apparent safety of its oversized palm all day.

By gorge four, we stopped for a cuppa boiled in the billy and a visit to one of the most original dunnies I have ever seen (see photos). Built of tin, it holds a purchase high up a staircase of maybe 12 steps, right against the rock face of a sub gorge. The first of those steps is a prize obtained itself, after fifteen metres of scrambling up a rough scree slope with a boulder carpet. The pay off comes not in the relief gained within the structure, but the view one has when the toilet door is swung open after the job is completed. Here is a view better than most would have from the decking of a multi-million dollar mansion, let alone a small tin shack with one piece of furniture and an aroma that I would not try to describe. After morning tea, we made the short punt ride up gorge four and then another testing climb over a sand and rock mountain to gorge five. This was an up and back job and a twenty minute swimming stop at the point where gorges four and five shake hands. The water was like Johnny Depp – cool, deep and made you nervous - and we all took advantage to sooth ourselves in the 33C heat and to be kind to dogs that had been barking a collaborative neighbourhood chorus.

Steak, sausages and salad were ready at the morning tea spot and we had plenty of time to chat with others about experiences good and bad as is expected at such gatherings of chance and recommendations were noted. The big rock hop was all that remained between us and a relaxing three gorge ride home, spotting the odd crocodile, hearing about more Jarwon dreamtime tales and having bush tucker identified and explained. The crowning glory was Russell playing his didgeridoo for us at the dock before we dropped our last punt. It was a sensory rich, big day which only dementia will have us forget and the drive through Qld seems such a long time ago now. Some might thank their lucky stars but we chose to cherish each other that little bit more and thank our God.

Kakadu tomorrow.

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