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Sandstone and silence

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday March 12, 2011

Elisabeth Sexton

Far from the day-trippers, Elisabeth Sexton is dwarfed by the escarpment in Kakadu's Koolpin Gorge. In the far south of Kakadu National Park lies a lovely natural pool. Fringed by strappy pandanus shrubs, surrounded by salmon-coloured boulders that match the bark of the eucalypts and filled with the clear, clean water of Koolpin Creek, it is a destination that would be worth walking all day to reach.Yet the pool is just 20 minutes' walk from a car park. It is the first of many waterholes we encounter, each higher than the last, each offering an ever better vista of the surrounding stone country and, now and then, a small sandy beach or waterfall.After a climb up the gorge, we take in the surroundings. Small pale-trunked paperbark trees with luminous green young leaves are close at hand. Brilliant mosses and the delicate flowers of the yellow bladderwort are underfoot. Black cockatoos, rainbow bee-eaters and chestnut-quilled rock pigeons are overhead.In the middle distance is the sandstone escarpment with its blanket of eucalypts and dramatic flashes of black- and honey-coloured rock. And as far as the eye can see are the plains of the enormous park stretching under a violently blue sky.The air is untainted by even a hint of pollution and the creek water is pristine.This natural beauty rivals the better-known sites of Kakadu, yet included on the long list of the attractions of Koolpin Gorge, or Jarrangbarnmi, is the remarkable lack of fellow bushwalkers.The secret is its remoteness. The gorge is 350 kilometres from Darwin and at least 130 kilometres from the most popular parts of Kakadu served by bitumen roads, such as the wetlands of Yellow Water and Anbangbang Billabong and the rock-art sites of Ubirr and Nourlangie.The last part of the unsealed road to Koolpin is poor, requiring a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. But the same can be said of other beautiful creeks and pools, such as Gunlom and Maguk, which attract convoys of intrepid grey nomads and backpackers by the 4WD bus load.What really sets Koolpin apart is that access requires a permit from park authorities. A locked gate is nine kilometres from the car park. Keys are given - free but with a $50 refundable deposit - to only 40 tourists a day who have taken the trouble to book at least seven days in advance and register at the Mary River Roadhouse.The lucky ones congregate at the end of the road. There is parking for permit-holders who only want to spend a few hours. Anyone who wants to take full advantage of a relaxed walk in the gorge will stay at the campsite for $5 a person a night.Our group of seven arrives late in the afternoon, in time to appreciate a spacious area on the southern side of a high stone bluff. Pleasant enough, it gives no hint of the stunning scenery of the gorge hidden on the other side.A trip to Koolpin brings home the vastness and variety of Kakadu National Park. At 19,804 square kilometres, it is almost a third the size of mainland Tasmania.It is possible to visit Kakadu in a single day from Darwin. The 250-kilometre trip to the town of Jabiru takes about three hours on the sealed Arnhem Highway. The services in Jabiru for tourists (and employees of the nearby Ranger uranium mine) include an Aboriginal art gallery, two hotels, a bank, a swimming pool, a golf course and a petrol station.On a day trip there's time to look at rock art, take a cruise on Yellow Water and climb Ubirr rock to watch the sun set over the East Alligator River flood plain before heading back to Darwin.All these spectacular sites, which attract most of the 210,000 annual visitors, lie in an east-west corridor across the middle of the park.To the north, the protected area stretches 80 kilometres to the coast of Van Diemen Gulf. To the south, it spreads even further over the escarpment and into old pastoral and mining country.The south-western sector where Koolpin lies was the last parcel of land added to the national park, in 1991, and to the World Heritage register in 1992.Access is via Pine Creek, a small town on the Stuart Highway with interesting old buildings, Chinese migrant history and a cafe serving justifiably renowned mango smoothies.After a turnoff from the sealed Kakadu Highway linking Pine Creek to Jabiru, the gravel road crosses tributaries of the South Alligator River and the escarpment gradually comes into view.The only facilities at the camping ground are two composting toilets and an emergency radio. The nearest mobile reception is either high on Nourlangie Rock near Jabiru or on the outskirts of Darwin. There is no shower block but for those prepared to trust the vigilance of park rangers in finding crocodiles, the waterfalls of the gorge provide an invigorating alternative.Park authorities do not say it is safe to swim anywhere in the park, other than the 50-metre concrete pool in Jabiru. But at the beginning of each dry season, the rangers survey areas high on the escarpment, including Koolpin Gorge. Traps are used to catch and remove crocodiles and the warning signs posted are less insistent than those used in the lower-lying waters of the park where lethal saltwater crocodiles are found year-round.World Expeditions, with whom we're touring, provides our group with tents made from mosquito netting - perfect for those who like to gaze at the stars from their pillow. We stay for two nights, allowing a full day to explore the gorge. We have come from the better-equipped but less-atmospheric camping ground at Mardugal, a drive of more than 130 kilometres plus a 20-kilometre detour for a midday swim at the Maguk waterfall. Reaching the higher pools of the waterfalls in Koolpin Gorge requires good walking shoes and some rock-hopping skills. The permits for Jarrangbarnmi stipulate that visitors must keep to the creek line and stay away from cultural sites open only to local Jawoyn people.There is no marked path through the gorge but following the banks of the creek is simple, if at times physically demanding.Close by is Coronation Hill, a site that caused controversy in the 1980s when mining companies wanted to extract gold and platinum. When the federal government initially left the door open for mining in 1986, the resources minister, Gareth Evans, described the area as "clapped-out buffalo land" and told parliament it did not share the natural and cultural heritage significance of stages one and two of the park created in 1979 and 1984.The buffalo are still there, grazing on native grasses. Mining is now banned and travellers prepared to leave the bitumen can make their own judgments about how this corner of the park compares to more famous neighbouring areas.Elisabeth Sexton travelled courtesy of World Expeditions, Virgin Blue and Vibe Hotels.FAST FACTSGetting there Virgin Blue flies non-stop to Darwin from Melbourne (4hr 30min) for $158 and from Sydney via Brisbane for $209. Fares are one way and include tax. Jetstar and Qantas fly non-stop between Sydney and Darwin (4hr 45min).Touring there World Expeditions has a seven-day Kakadu and Beyond camping tour that costs $1995 a person, which includes a guide, four-wheel-drive transport from Darwin, all meals, accommodation, wildlife cruise on Yellow Waters, park and camping fees. Trips run from April to September. Phone 1300 720 000; see worldexpeditions.com.Independent travellers can apply to park authorities for a permit to visit Jarrangbarnmi or Koolpin Gorge. Information is at environment.gov.au/parks/permits/kakadu-jarrangbarnmi.html, phone (08) 8938 1140 email kakadu.permits@environment.gov.au.At least seven days is needed to obtain a permit, which is required for day use (no charge) and overnight stays ($5 an adult). Access is available only with a high-clearance 4WD and only during the dry (midyear) season. Pick up a key for the gate at the Mary River Roadhouse ($50 refundable deposit).Staying there Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront has harbour views, a pool, cafe and bar. Rooms cost from $250 a night in the dry season. Phone (08) 8982 9998; see vibehotels.com.au.Open-air galleriesVIEWING rock paintings is three experiences rolled into one: art appreciation, exposure to Aboriginal culture and bushwalking.In the sandstone country of the Top End, galleries are typically found in secluded rock shelters or caves along escarpments or in gorges. Kakadu National Park contains some of the most accessible sites in Australia.Yet visiting any of its natural galleries involves some walking or climbing and often getting the best view of a painting involves wriggling along a stone platform under a low rock overhang.The richness and profusion of the artwork is the prime attraction. But the shelters also offer stunning views of the plains below and spending time in their deep shade is an appealing contrast to the heat of the open terrain.Park authorities maintain four tracks to art sites in the north-eastern corner of the park. There are brief explanatory signs at the sites and detailed information is available at visitor centres near Jabiru and Yellow Water. Rangers give talks at the sites in the tourist high season from June to September. Ubirr, a popular sunset spot overlooking a floodplain 36 kilometres north of Jabiru, has a one-kilometre loop track suitable for wheelchairs and rougher side-tracks to additional galleries.The nearby Bardedjilidji walk is a 2.5-kilometre circuit close to the East Alligator River, which forms the border between the park and Arnhem Land.Nourlangie, 33 kilometres south of Jabiru, has tracks to three art sites and two lookouts branching out from a 1.5-kilometre wheelchair-accessible main path. There are spectacular views of the escarpment and nearby is the beautiful Anbangbang Billabong, whose tranquil waters, pale paperbarks and sandstone surrounds have provided the cover shot for many books and brochures on Kakadu.These are a tiny proportion of the 5000 recorded sites. World Expeditions includes walks to lesser-known sites on its Kakadu camping trips. These offer the chance to appreciate the paintings in a small group, as well as allowing quiet contemplation about the lives of the people who created them in the past 20,000 years.Elisabeth Sexton

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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