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Tuesday, 11 October 2016 11:00

Kakadu: The Aussie spot that is pure magic

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Crocodile Dundee earlier this year, a group of journalists retraced Mick’s footsteps and discovered the magic behind the film…and the destination. Here is News Ltd’s Andrea Hamblin’s story about her experience, which appeared recently in ESCAPE

Full story & pictures: https://goo.gl/zVRi57

Kakadu: The Aussie spot that is pure magic
ANDREA HAMBLIN, ESCAPE
October 11, 2016

Standing on the rocks of Ubirr, I fumbled with the camera on my phone. So many photo filters to choose from, so little time.

Beyond, the sun was vanishing somewhere behind a floodplain of luminescent green grass. It would be swallowed in minutes. So, too, the band of burnt orange and purple that lit up the sky.

Here was Kakadu; not the thirsty, barren desert pictured in my mind, but a spectacle of colours beyond imagination. Full of life. Otherworldly, to the eyes of someone accustomed to days cooped up in a city office.

Adjusting the focus and the flash, I watched on my iPhone screen a moving picture of the horizon drinking in the sky.

I asked a fellow traveller to take my picture, and when that shot didn’t suffice I snapped a dozen selfies, my back to the view and my mind fixed on achieving the most flattering face angle.

The sun sunk behind me. Then so did my stomach. On cue, the wet arrived to relieve us from the desert heat the second the light disappeared. Rain plonked down along with a realisation: Here I was, likely for the only time in my life, atop the sacred rocks millions of years old, where generations of indigenous people have gathered to pass down knowledge — and the home of artworks that form the longest continual visual representation of spiritual and cultural beliefs. On the entire earth. And I’d experienced it through a phone screen. And, for what? To add to my Instagram?

It would become clear from that moment the real magic of Kakadu can’t be captured. Renowned Northern Territory photographer Paul Arnold put it well. “You go there, you feel it and understand it in your heart,” he told me during a stop at his Darwin gallery before our group journeyed the three hours southeast. Arnold spends months camping in harsh bush, patiently waiting for the perfect shot. But even someone who dedicates his life to recording the World Heritage Site knows it’s that which can’t be seen that makes Kakadu extraordinary.

The wider public was first drawn to this mystique through the box office hit Crocodile Dundee. It was 1986 and travel to the area was largely unheard of. Almost overnight, Paul Hogan and his team put the world’s spotlight on the region, bringing about one of the biggest revolutions in Australian tourism. We were visiting the park to follow in the footsteps of the iconic bushman Mick Dundee in celebration of the 30th year since the film’s release.

We’d made “that’s not a knife, this is a knife” jokes, seen in outback pubs real-life characters that could have stepped straight from the movie. And when it came to encounters with the other stars of the film — crocodiles — the Top End did not disappoint. Tourism is reliant on the creatures; At Jabiru, a Kakadu town from which to explore the sites, visitors can even stay inside a hotel built in the shape of a crocodile. Tasty crocodile meat is a feature of laid-back barbecue menus and a favourite with fine dining chefs (think chargrilled with Asian spices and Sous vide, or with a mango and Kakadu plum salad). While the sun rose over Yellow Water Billabong, where much of the movie was filmed, we saw the stealthy creatures eyeball us as they emerged just an arm’s length from the boat. That wasn’t close enough for some daredevils who signed up at Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin to be submerged in a glass cage with the hungry giants.

But the experience went beyond sightseeing and thrillseeking. Sheltering in the shade of Nourlangie’s caves or rambling over rock escarpments under a blazing sun there was sometimes not much more to do than reflect. My moment of determination to photograph Ubirr reminded me of a scene in which an Aboriginal man (played by the great David Gulpilil) tells visiting American journalist Sue that she can’t take his photograph.

“Oh, I’m sorry, you believe it will take your spirit away,” she says.

“No, you got lens-cap on it,” the man replies.

It’s an amusing exchange poking fun at the outsider, to be sure, but also thought-provoking for what it reveals about cultural understandings. Relevant is the scene, too, for a journalist often absorbed in recording a moment instead of being in the moment. How many of us travel with an expectation, viewing a place through a certain lens — or, worse, with the cap screwed on tight, unable or unwilling to see any different?

It’s a frustration felt by our guide Christian Diddims, a Balanda (non-indigenous) man who has lived “on country” with Bininj (traditional land owners in Jabiru), studying culture, land and language. Christian has noticed how many people travel north with the wrong mindset. “They’re expecting to be entertained,” he said. Inevitably, seeing not much but rock and dirt and trees and endless space, those visitors are let down; they just don’t ‘get’ why Kakadu is important or special.

The allure to the place is in the subtleties. It’s in the tints in the rock which change with the shifting sun, the six different types of rain in the wet season, the dropping of berry seeds which signals it is prime time to hunt for barramundi. Through knowledge passed down by ancestors, Bininj learn to look for these signs. Their survival, and that of the plants and animals they rely on, depends on these observations. Seasons and cycles replace a linear concept of time. It was a foreign idea for someone addicted to checking an iPhone. We were learning to adjust our thinking. In front of rock paintings I’d heard were thousands of years old, my first question was always “exactly how old is that?” But our other local guide, 26-year-old Bininj man Selone Djandjomer, simply shrugged. He didn’t know and didn’t care.

The painting’s worth was not determined by age; it was valuable because his ancestors put it there for him to learn lessons of the land and their language.

“It takes a long time to remove the scaffolding in our brain,” Christian noted.

I didn’t ask again. A few days in Kakadu and my mind was opening.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Northern Territory, Kakadu Tourism, AccorHotels, Kakadu National Park and Qantas Airways

MUST DO

Get up close to crocodiles at Crocosaurus Cove, 58 Mitchell St, Darwin: Hold baby saltwater crocodiles, encounter turtles and native reptiles. Be submerged in the “cage of death” — the only cage in the world that brings you face-to-face with some of the world’s largest saltwater crocodiles in captivity.

Meet Paul Arnold, landscape photographer at his gallery in Smith St, Darwin.

Walk up Ubirr, Kakadu: Time your visit here to watch the sunset over Nadab Floodplain. During the 1km walk and short rocky climb, you’ll find galleries of paintings ranging from the thylacine to arrival of Europeans. Spectacular viewing!

For a birdseye view of the region, a Scenic Flight from Jabiru Airport is a must. The knowledgeable and passionate pilots guide you over the National Park, seeing waterfalls and other parts of Kakadu not accessible by road.

Bardedjilidji Walk, Kakadu: The 2.5km walk starts near Cahills crossing and winds through paperbark forests, sand stone escarpments and caves where you’ll find rock art, geckos and bats.

Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu: A site of important art “galleries” and archaeological finds, it’s estimated Aboriginal people have used the site for 20,000 years. Walk around the base of the rock and Angbanglang Billabong, a haven for water birds.

Yellow Water Cruises, Kakadu: Here you’ll spot crocodiles up-close during a spectacular sunrise or sunset cruise. It’s also a favourite for bird-watchers. About one third of Australia’s bird species are represented in Kakadu and Yellow Water Billabong is home to 60 species.

Spirit of Kakadu 4WD Adventure Tour: Go off-road to explore waterfalls and escarpments. Refreshments are provided so you can enjoy lunch while swimming in secludes swimming holes.

ESCAPE ROUTE

GETTING THERE

Qantas offers daily B737 return services from every capital city to Darwin. qantas.com

Staying there

Novotel, Darwin CBD: a four star hotel opposite the water in Darwin and walking distance from city attractions, and the site of Zest restaurant which offers modern fusion bush tucker like wattle seeds, barramundi, kangaroo and crocodile, and fine local wines.

Crocodile Hotel, Kakadu: The perfect place from which to explore Ubirr and Nourlangie, the hotel is shaped in a crocodile and is home to art galleries and a restaurant. Tours of Kakadu can be arranged from the hotel and visitors can meet indigenous artists on site.

Cooinda Lodge: Offering a range of accommodation styles, from camping to caravan sites, huts and ‘flashcamping’, Cooinda is right near Yellow Water Billabong (buses depart from the lodge) and a short drive from popular swimming holes.