There, peeking out from behind the scrub and the dawn mist, is a row of nonchalant whistling ducks. We hold our breath (and cross our fingers inside the boat) as a crocodile swims languorously towards them, and we breathe out again when he alters course. Able to concentrate again on the guide’s commentary, we realise that we are listening to a recipe for roasted whistling duck, “delicious served with wild lime”.
Next we are told that the magpie geese we see in Hitchcockian numbers around Yellow Water billabong are best caught and roasted after they have been feeding on water chestnuts, thereby saving the cook the bother of stuffing them (surely a joke). Tricia, our Bininj (Aboriginal) guide, assures us that if it weren’t “against protocol” she would be dragging a fishing line behind our little cruise boat to catch her supper. At first this feels as incongruous as an RSPB warden smacking his lips at the prospect of puffin pie or lark’s tongue in aspic. Treating nature as a kitchen comes as a shock, just as it did to Nicole Kidman in the opening sequence of the film Australia, when a local stockman casually kills the cute kangaroo that Lady Sarah is gushing over.
While staying at a bush camp in Kakadu National Park a few days later, we hear from the Aboriginal owners (aptly named the Hunter family) how they like to cook long-necked turtle in an underground pit-oven called a gungerre, sealed with sheets of paperbark. This did not go down well with the 12-year-old member of our party, who has two pet Eastern long-necked turtles called Noggin and Popsicle back home in Melbourne.
First the film Crocodile Dundee, and now Australia reinforce the image of a Jurassic landscape that both Australians and visitors carry in their heads. We wanted to see for ourselves whether this storied and magical landscape would really look like an illustration from a child’s dinosaur picture-book. So we set off from Darwin in a hired people-carrier to explore the “Top End” of the Northern Territory – and a few corners of a park that is, you may not be surprised to learn, the size of Wales.
It is no place for prissy sentimentalists (Kakadu, I mean, not Wales). Tricia told us she was thrown into the billabong by her grandmother at age seven so she would learn to swim. Later she was taught how to catch file snakes from among underwater pandanus roots, and to kill them instantly by biting down on their heads to break their necks, while someone remained as lookout for ginga (saltwater crocodiles).
Familiarity with the nutritional, medicinal and practical uses of the indigenous plants and animals – not to mention toothy predators – has allowed the ancestral guardians of this harsh and timeless land to survive for 50,000 years.
The traditional owners eat lotus – not because they are lotus-eaters in the figurative sense, but because the nutritious seeds inside the lily pods taste like nut-flavoured peas. The people have to work hard for their bush tucker, which, up here, is not just a fashionable hobby-horse for celebrity chefs.
Back on Yellow Water, Tricia (mercifully) did not suggest a recipe for Australia’s only stork, the magnificent jabiru, with its glossy, blue head and coral-red legs. The arresting sight of this stately creature strutting and jabbing its sharp bill into the shallow waters to hunt for fish and crustaceans was raised to high drama when our crocodile glided purposefully in its direction. As our boat drew alongside, the two magnificent creatures just a few feet apart, our guide recounted in a hushed tone the creation story of how Jabiru, as lord of the air, and Ginga, as ruler of the water, agreed a pact not to attack each other. With a beak sharp enough to penetrate the skull of his ancient enemy, the jabiru is one of the few adversaries feared by the crocodile. This tableau alone justified the trip to Kakadu.
With their bulbous brows, nobbled skin and half-submerged lurking, crocs more than satisfy any visitor’s craving for peril. If crocodiles didn’t already exist, Hollywood would have had to invent them. Unlike the planet’s other large species, crocodiles are flourishing – the population in Kakadu is estimated to exceed 7,000. The name “saltwater crocodile” is dangerously misleading, since they inhabit inland freshwater billabongs and waterways. As a result, swimming is forbidden almost everywhere.
City-dwelling Australians delight in talking up the dangers of their wildlife. Most visitors enjoy the frisson of imagined danger from snakes and spiders, stingers and sharks, without encountering anything more frightening than an enormous (yet harmless) Huntsman spider. In Kakadu the dangers are not imaginary. On a walk around Anbangbang Billabong near the ancient rock art site at Nourlangie, a spider appeared on the walking track ahead of us. “What kind of spider is that?” I asked my Australian (urbanite) friend, Deirdre. “One with a big, fat, yellow body – and yellow is not good,” she replied. An attempt to nudge it off the path goaded it into rearing up defensively before scuttling away.
But crocodiles are not so easy to frighten off. Earlier this month, a five-year-old boy was taken by a crocodile in neighbouring north Queensland. All those Territory warning signs are not to be taken lightly – nor to be taken away as souvenirs, leaving the next ignorant party of tourists in grave danger. A more harmless souvenir costs A$10 from the Territory Insurance Office in Darwin: an instant policy that pays A$50,000 to your estate if you are killed by a croc.
Cloudless skies, scorching days and balmy evenings make the Dry (June-August) a perfect time to visit Kakadu. At this time of year, it is not as hard to resist plunging into the inviting billabongs as it is in the stifling pre-monsoon months. But resist them you must, unless you want to be in the sequel of the Discovery Channel’s Worst Animal Nightmares, a laughably over-the-top reconstruction of a tragic event. One evening in October 2002, a German backpacker, part of a group that had been told by their guide that it was safe to swim in Sandy Billabong, was killed by a disabled old croc desperate for a feed. It turns out that Sandy Billabong is close to Kakadu Culture Camp. This is where visitors are met by Fred, Douglas and Jenny Hunter, and Andy, Jenny’s balanda (white-skinned) husband.
In the open-air dining area where we would later feast on barbecued buffalo, their barefoot six-year-old daughter Catherine delighted in scaring us with photos of famous crocodiles. Brutes like these were hunted by her grandfather, Fred Senior, who moved from Victoria after the war, and whose courage is celebrated in an exhibit at the fascinating Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Cooinda. After dinner, Douglas and Fred, a qualified park ranger like his sister, take about a dozen of us in a boat on to the billabong. As the torch sweeps the glassy surface of the water, “eyeshine” is eerily revealed, and up in the trees, white-bellied sea-eagles and ki ngfishers can be seen roosting. Fred grabs a branch from a paperbark tree and crushes the leaves to release the aromatic smell of this bush herb into the starry night air.
One creature that the Aboriginal clans seem to leave alone is the minuscule termite that builds high-rise apartments throughout Kakadu and the Top End, at a rate of up to a metre a decade. The termite equivalent of wattle and daub is a building material consisting of grass, dirt and spit. In Kakadu – as well as in Litchfield National Park, much nearer Darwin – the astonishing spectacle of giant grey slab-like mounds two or even three metres high all facing the same direction can be found in swampy treeless areas liable to flooding. Scientists have shown that the north-south orientation of these magnetic termite mounds maximises stability in temperature. In drier areas, the mounds resemble fluted and buttressed cathedrals rather than tombstones.
You long to see what goes on inside these fortresses. At Litchfield,u o an abandoned mound can be seen in cross-section revealing a warren of chambers and passageways, like seaside rocks that have been pitted and eroded by water. One of our holiday party happens to be writing a book about Henry Smeathman, an 18th-century entomologist and African explorer, who was interested in termites. While studying their mounds in Sierra Leone, he noticed that hundreds of thousands of insects attempted to fly up to mate with the queen, and died trying, only to be scooped up and toasted for tea by the local people.
The Territorian termites are not given to such public displays. The impenetrability of their society is perhaps not unlike the complexity of native belief systems and kinship structures. Both operate in secret and mysterious ways that are difficult for the outsider to understand.
Gradually and belatedly, traditional owners of Kakadu are taking control of tourism. On their sailing and walking tours, they patiently attempt to explain that this landscape is not just natural but cultural. In Australia, the endearing Aboriginal child narrator comments on his English mistress’s feeling of being overwhelmed in her new setting: “This land has a strange power.”
A trip to Kakadu’s clan country will certainly provide a glimmer of what the Aboriginal artist and activist Wandjuk Marika meant when he said: “Land is not empty – the land is full of knowledge, full of story, full of goodness, full of energy, full of power.”
The National Geographic Store on London’s Regent Street is staging a exhibition of photographs of the Australian Outback, including Kakadu National Park, from Monday until 7 March (nglondonstore.co.uk)
Jetstar (00 61 3 9092 6500; jetstar.com) offers connections from Singapore to Darwin. Singapore is served from Heathrow by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; singaporeair.co.uk) and Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk), which also has connections to Sydney and on to Darwin.
The drive from Darwin to Jabiru, the main township in Kakadu, takes three hours. Hire a car or use Wilderness 4WD Adventures (00 61 8 8981 8363; wildernessadventures.com.au), or Aussie Adventure (00 61 1300 721 365; aussieadventure.com.au).
When to go
Wurrgeng is the local Aboriginal name for the dry season, between mid-June and mid-August, when it is 30C, rainfall is nil and birds and animals are easier to spot.
Kakadu Culture Camp, Djarradjin Billabong, Muirella Park Campground (00 61 428 792 048; kakaduculturecamp.com). Tents start at A$160 (£72) per person, half board. Night billabong boat tour costs A$70 (£31). Gagudju Lodge, Cooinda (00 61 8 8979 0145; gagudjulodgecooinda.com.au). Doubles start at A$310 (£139), including breakfast; dorm beds cost A$35 (£16); easy access to Yellow Water Cruises (yellowwatercruises.com).
Kakadu National Park: 00 61 8 8938 1120; environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu
The sandstone monolith has caves, waterholes and rock art to explore. Opt for an aerial tour or learn more about its Aboriginal heritage from one of the many local guides. Anangu Tours (00 61 8 8950 3030; ananguwaai.com.au) offers small group tours of Uluru with local guides.
Five Northern Territory treats
Jim Jim Falls
The pool at the foot of this 215m waterfall is hemmed in by soaring cliffs and is an idyllic spot for swimming, provided you stick to the designated pool (crocodiles lurk downstream). Kakadu Attractions (00 61 8 8979 0145; kakadu-attractions. com) offers tours.
More than a kilometre long and 100m deep, this is the highlight of Watarrka National Park. A trek along the rim descends into a chasm and reveals the “Garden of Eden”, full of plant life, waterholes and fossils. Kings Canyon Resort (00 61 8 8956 7442; kingscanyon resort. com.au) has accommodation and tours of the Canyon.
The territory capital has Aboriginal art at the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT, native flora and fauna in the George Brown Botanic Gardens, and there are daily crocodile feedings at Crocodylus Park. Tourism Top End (00 61 8 8980 6000; tourismtopend.com.au).
Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles)
Best seen at sunrise and sunset when the rocks glow deep red, this collection of huge granite boulders is mythical in Aboriginal “Dreaming”. A new Parks Alive programme is due to be launched in April (tiny.cc/3MSEO).