2012 - Jatbula Trail
We walked the Jatbula trail in 2012. A great walk camping in spectacular camp sites always with superb water features
We had talked about Jatbula for some time and the great reviews that this hike had been given in the past by both friends and reading online journals. Early 2012 we were looking for a walk to do and the inevitable ski tour came up. Chis suggested that we look into the Jatbula trail and see if we could book some time in August/September of 2012. After a few phone calls Chis had managed to get a booking for 5 people on the trail starting on the 24th August 2012. A maximum of 15 people are allowed out on each day walking South to North along the track staying at each camp site for 1 night and then moving onto the next one the following day.
We had our trip idea booked - now the real organisation needed to start to happen. The trip members were JayBee, Cam, Greg Fowler, Pierre and Chis. Unfortunately Mr Bean could not come as some last minute changes with his working schedule precluded him from the trip. Organisation fell to Chis.
The walk was for 5 days - Friday 24th through to Wednesday 29th of August, we then had a few days to spend up in the top end so we decided to wing it but to stay for a couple of nights up at Jabiru. We booked our tours as we went. At Cooindia we booked a evening cruise on Yellow Water for Wednesday, Thursday we were off to Arnhem Land to an artists center called Injalak and then Friday we would spend in Darwin before flying out early Saturday morning arriving back in Melbourne at about 12pm
We make the most of the available time our flight out of Melbourne was for 2am, yep that's right - 2am. It was an ungodly hour. Onboard with us were a bunch of school kids from Cookatoo Primary School. This flight was a non-stop and arrived in Darwin at about 6.15am - 30 minutes late. We all got a couple of hours sleep. From the airport we picked up our hire car a Kia Carnival and headed off to Katherine. We stopped at a road side cafe in Adelaide River for breakfast. Breakfast was really good. On to Katherine for lunch and some supplies like gas cylinders, last minute food items and some stuff for breakfast in Friday morning as well as a bottle or 2 or wine to have with dinner on Thursday night. We had a tightish time table on Thursday. We needed to get our last minute supplies for the walk, get to Nitmiluk camping ground, make sure we had all of our walking gear and packed in the car our end of walk gear then Greg and Cam did the car shuffle thing, driving the Kia to Edith Falls where our walk would end and then to get a lift back with the bus company that drove walkers back to Katherine or Nitmiluk camping ground. The shuttle service left Edith Falls at 3pm sharp for the return trip.As Cam and Greg did the car shuffle, Pierre, JayBee and Chis did a bit of exploring. Being southerners we were somewhat weary of crocs in the Katherine Gorge as they do swim up. We were re-assured that it is fine to swim in the river, however, the sight of a croc trap on the other side of the river dampened our adventurous spirits so we paddled our feet in the river instead of going for a proper swim.
We walked around the gorge and went up to the look out to get a glimpse of the land that lay ahead of us. The rock around Katherine Gorge is really interesting with these layers of river pebbles held together with hardened (like concrete) sediments that would have been laid down millions of years ago.
We eventually made our way back to the bar were we partook in a few beers, before Greg and Cam arrived back. JayBee decided that we would call Penny (his good woman) from my phone, so I did the dialling - when Penny answered after the initial hellos I said "JayBee is legless - a croc was to blame - then, No not really - he is legless, but the Cascade Premiums were to blame"
Our accommodation for the night was a tent in the tent village. Each tent had with a couple of single beds and a wooden floor. Included in the price for the "tent" was dinner at the bar so it seemed to be a pretty good deal. We all order barra for dinner and it was good washed down with the red wine that we had purchased earlier as was the swim in the pool. The barramundi were small fillets and tasted a lot sweeter than the larger ones that we get in Melbourne. We did save one bottle for the trip which we decanted into a wine bladder bought from a camping shop. Backpack weights were not going to be an issue for this trip with the heaviest weighting in at about 20kg.
We were off to bed early and off to sleep within minutes.
Weather outlook for the trip - overnight lows of about 20 with day time highs in their mid 30s and no rain. What more could you ask for.
Friday morning we were up early to catch the 9am ferry across the Katherine River to the start of the Jatbula Trail. We paid our trail fee to the ranger as well as the ferry fee. We aypart of the d were on the boat with 5 other people - none were Swedish pack packers. Two other walkers had headed off on an earlier ferry service. There were to be 12 of us all up moving from camp to camp. A solo walker, three couples and our lot. The first day was a short day of 8km with our first stop at the Northern Rock Pool which was a large pool at the bottom of a big waterfall, well out of the way of crocs - the pool provided some respite from the heat of the day that quickly built up. We were last to leave the pool and then continued for the remaining 4 or so ks to Biddlecombe Cascades.
We arrived at our first days camp site at about 12 and this was to be the pattern for the rest of the walk. The distances were such that you could avoid walking during the hottest part of the day.
Biddlecombe Cascades were wonderful, we explored upstream and down stream. I was really amazed by the volume of water flowing down this river, and infact all of the rivers. I'm not sure where all the water comes from, all I can think of is that it is the water from the "wet" as it continues to seep through the ground. The water was warm and sweet tasting. We did not boil of filter the water as it was so clean and fresh.
A quick lunch and then down to the pools to spend the rest of the day lounging in the water holes and swimming.
Dinner was Cous Cous and chilli tuna - rather tasty.
We slept under the stars as we did for the rest of the trip - one of the reasons our packs were so light is that we were not carrying tents. The night sky in the bush is truly breath taking - everyone should have the opportunity to experience this.
We were up at 6.30am on Saturday. One of the earliest starts for a Dodgey day. A quick breakfast and off on our way by 8am. We were the last to leave camp and this also became a bit of a feature of our walking. Over the course of the day and the days that preceded us we would catch up with most a far few of the walkers who had left ahead of us. The walking was pretty easy and the terrain easy to navigate and easy to walk. We were like a little procession of ants walking at an easy 5 to 6 km per hour.
We stopped frequently to look at interesting feature, termite mounds, rock art etc. Saturday was a 10km day so once again not too long and would have us in camp around midday. We made sure that we were well hydrated - dehydration is a real risk in this environment.
We found some rock art along the way and it made you wonder what it was the early people of Australia were trying to communicate, what stories or what instructions were being communicated. People with sun rays coming from their heads. We mused that maybe some young indigenous people took to rock art as we today take to graffiti and that one day some new civilisation would find a Banksy Parachuting Rat and would theorise that the people back tens of thousands of years ago worshiped some strange four legged creature that descended from the skies. Clearly the rock art has more meaning as the rock art was added to and changed from one generation to the next.
We made it to camp around midday. Went for our swim. In the water we spotted a Mertons Water monitor with his head just poking up amongst the water lillies. This was a small guy and we were luck enough to see it get onto a log to sun itself - its beautiful colours, skin spotted with yellow and its stream lined body clearly adapted for life in and near the water. We saw a large specimen later on that day a good meter long.
After lunch we went exploring and followed the river downstream. We arrived at Crystal Falls - a massive plunging waterfall cascading down 50 meters of more off the escarpment. We had a good look around the falls but we could not find a way down. Once again I was amazed by the volume of water that was flowing over these falls and once again amazed that this was the dry season.
That night we decided to have our red with with our dinner - a fine dinner with Chinese sausages, peas, corn and rice. We saw some really large fresh water crays and some small native fish. We did discuss catching a couple of these crays but thought why, why eat something when we are not hungry and when we have our own food. Live and let live.
We had another early start to the day leaving camp by 8am, and once again the last to leave camp. was an 8km day with a stop off at the Amphitheater which contained a spectacular collection of rock art depicting "fertility" images. Along the way Chis stopped to look over the edge of a ridge whilst the rest of the party kept moving on. Un-beknown to Chis the rest of the group decide a bit further on to have a look over the ridge - Chis thinking that the others had put on a pace tried to catch up not realising that they were infact behind him. So setting a cracking pace to catch the rest of the team they fell further and further behind. It was not until Chis reached the Amphitheater that the mistake was realised when he asked some of the other walkers if they had seen the rest of his group.
Anyway they did catch up and we all spent a good hour or so looking through this site. It was really amazing - in the starkness of the landscape was a valley and in it was a mini rain forest with a permanent water supply flowing through it. The quality, variety and sheer numbers of rock art was great. There were sleeping hollows in rocky overhangs and some were quite elevated. There were pictures of fish, emus, roos, turtles and some rude ones of people. This area was a bit of an oasis and you could see the appeal of this valley.
We continued on to 17 Mile Falls and hit camp at about midday. We found a spot away from the rest of the campers and set up our camp site on some sandy banks. After lunch we swam upstream for quite some way, saw heaps of frogs and some really nice sandy shady banks further upstream. Whilst not at the right time to see lots and lots of wild flowers we did see a few. The variety, colour and differences between all of these flowers is amazing.
We found a way down to the bottom of 17 Mile Falls via a ramp down the escarpment. We got down to the river at the bottom of the falls and swam upstream to get under the falls. There was a small cave under the falls that JayBee and Chis got into, where we found a Green Tree snake - a bit out of where you may expect to see one - under a waterfall and not in a tree. Pierre, Greg and Cam joined us. A through that came to me later was that we were swimming in water that was below the escarpment and may have had a saltie or two in it. The 17 Mile Creek did flow into the Katherine River from where we had started our hike a few days ago.
Another night under the stars and no bitey insects.
Our next destination was to be either Edith River Crossing or Sandy Camp. We were not sure so we had not commitment to either. Leaving the water again we made our way through a variety of landscapes - some swampy, some rocky and some grassed. The grassed ones spooked me the most due to the height of the grass and when you are leading the walk you were not sure if there would be snakes, pigs or buffalo about to cross your path - none of which you would want to unexpectedly meet.
We made pretty good time to Edith River Crossing but the camp site was pretty uninviting so after lunch and a quick swim we pushed onto Sandy Camp. The worst part of this day was when we were walking through some very rocky landscape that just radiated the heat back at you - there was no respite from the heat until we got back into the grassed and treed areas.
As we approached Sandy Camp we encountered the most spectacular water hole filled with a mass of purple water lilies all in various states of flowering. It reminded me of Monet's famous Water Lilies. We spent some time photographing this spot as it was truly beautiful. The light was hitting the water hole at just the right angle that accentuated all of the colours, greens, purples and blues.
Our next camp site was situated on the banks of a large water hole which was deep and clear. We setup camp under a couple of trees, the ground was sandy and soft. The water hole would have been an easy 100 meters across and 200 long. After swimming around for awhile we decided we had better eat lunch. That night we had some fruit bats in the camp and some creatures scampering around the camp site.
We tried some green ants, instead of biting off their bums, all you had to do was lick them to get the same strong citrusy taste.
Tuesday we were going to walk from Sandy Camp to Sweet Water Pool but a discussion ensued around do we keep pushing on and finish the walk a day earlier or spend one last day on the track. We would decide what to do once we arrived at Sweet Water Pool.
As usual the day had heated up before we left. We were running a little late today and left camp at 8.30am. The trail took us past some really nice looking water holes, this time following the Edith River. On the river side there were lots of trees in various states of flower and lots of birds especially parrots.
Along the way we caught up with Nick (the solo walker) who had just had a fright after coming face to face with one of the brown snakes of the area. As a lone walker if you were to be bitten by one of these snakes it's unlikely that you would have a good outcome, especially if you were at the back of the walking pack.
We pushed on through some swampy land to eventually arrive at Sweet Water Pool. It was a large expanse of water that tumbled over a few cascades. The campsite was pretty ordinary having sustained significant flood damage.
We found a shady spot and had lunch and a swim. This was the last lunch we were to have on the trail. Given the state of the camp site we decided to push on and were glad that had decided to leave the Kia at Edith Falls as this gave us the flexibility of leaving early. We also met up with the rest of the walking groups at Edith Falls, all having decided to push on through to the end.
There was only about 3kms to go before we reached Long Pool and then about a k or 2 before reaching Edith Falls. Long Pool was a lovely expanse of water and would have made a great camping site but given how close we were to Edith falls we pushed on keen to get off to Jabiru. We could see in the distance the falling away of the land off the escarpment and knew that we were rapidly approaching the end of the walk.
Reaching Edith Falls was the end of our trip. We had our final swim in these waters swimming upto there the Edith River tumbles into the pool below. The water coming off the escarpment was warm, being several degrees warmer than the water in the pool. We ended up leaving Edith Falls at about 2pm in the afternoon
We packed up and drove back to Katherine for find a place to stay.
We ended up staying at the Riverview Tourist Village in a comfortable lodge that cold sleep all of us. Dinner was at the local club - Katherine Country Club just up the road from us.
Wednesday morning we had a relaxed start and did a bit of planning around the next few days. We decided not to visit Cutta Cutta Caves South of Katherine as it would cost us too much time, so instead we decided to head straight up to Kakadu and stay at Jabiru.
We headed back up North along the Stuart Hwy to turn off at the Kakadu Hwy and head East. On the way up we spotted a water buffalo grazing by the side of the road so we stopped and got out. Now these things are not tame beasts and if in the mood can move quickly towards you and they are big. This was a little fella, but non the less we kept a respectable distance. We did get some photos of it. Our next stop was the entry point into Kakadu where you had to pay some entry fee to the park, we also got some icecreams - as you do. stop over.
We drove through to Cooinda which was a large tourist stopover. From there we planned our next couple of days. We booked a sunset cruise on Yellow Water for that evening as well as a trip into Arnhem land the following day. We liked the notion of this trip because it provided something back to the local Aboriginal communities. Also to trip into Arnhem Land required a permit so would be something that couple only be done with a tour company. We had lunch at Cooinda before leaving for our sunset cruise of Yellow Water.
One thing that struck me about this part of the country was the lushness of it all and how the "wet" must transform the landscape. Fleeting visits to this part of the country only makes you want to come back for more, the other thing that we noticed was that the people were a bit harder, tougher. It's true that a hard place makes a hard person. When its wet its really wet and we saw photos of Katherine back in the 80's when flood waters were lapping at the balcony in the main drag. When you look at Katherine you think that the area is as flat as a tack, but still the volume of water is such that it floods to major levels.
We spent a few hours in the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Center. It was really interesting to understand the notion of "skin" and how that idea ensured genetic diversity amoungst the people. Also the early settler photos taken of some of the buffalo hunt. Some of the stories such as the Yam and how the people know when it is OK to eat. Some of the stories are telling of when things happen, such as hearing the grasshoppers is a sign that the yams are ready to be dug up. But don't eat one yet because they are toxic. You need to soak them in water for a couple of days and then cook them over a fire so that the toxins are removed. How on earth do you figure that sort of stuff out? The different spears, traps and boomerangs and their purposes - all really really interesting. For whites to have claimed and persisted in the claim of "terra nullis" beggers belief when the evidence is so contrary to that idea.
We boarded the boat for the cruise at about 4pm. Yellow Water is national park land not a croc farm or anything else like that. The amount of wildlife that Yellow Water supported was truly amazing. From crocs - of course, to Jabiru's, Buffalo, pig faced turtles, Azure Kingfishers, Sea Eagles and a myriad of other creatures. One thing was for sure, if you fell out of the boat you would not make it to shore, there were so many crocs that we could see I'm sure you would have been eaten by something in that water. Yellow water is extensive and I'm sure we only traveled a little way along the waterways. We had an Aboriginal guide on the boat who told us the stories about the Sea Eagle and the Brown Eagle and how they had decided which part of the land they would occupy. He also pulled up some Lotus Lily and extracted the seeds for us to try. They were really its tasty. He also told us that a croc cannot take you unless it can get tail on the ground, I was non too convinced of this story nor the one about slapping your hands on the water to scare them away.
We got a spectacular sunset and I've got to same the cruise was well worth the cost.
We drove to Jabiru for the night were we had booked some accommodation at Cooinda. We had a nice cabin that slept all of us. JayBee was determined to try his Aldi tent and proceeded to do so. That night we BBQ'ed some meat that we had bought in Katherine as cooked up some veggies as well. Cheese and crackers before hand - all very civilized.
Thursday we got off to a bad start. We had booked the Arnhem Land tour at Cooinda, but we were not too convinced that the booking office had done it right. We paid the money but the registration never went through to the tour office. Fortunately we had our receipts and tickets.
After waiting around for a while and a couple of chats with the park manager the tour company finally got the message that they had forgotten 5 people. The tour owners drove up and collected us and took us to the Ubirr Boarder Store. We caught the tour here and had not really missed anything. Infact chatting with the driver who was taking us to the start of the tour told us about the Stone People, the fire sticking of the country, the management of the land, mega fauna and many other very interesting topics. He said that when Kakadu park management was taken over by the government they disregarded the advise from the Aboriginals about fire sticking the country. This attitude was changed when a large bushfire devastated the country destroying habitats that have never recovered. Parks Management then sought the advise from the Aboriginal communities on how to manage the country and thus re-introduced "fire sticking". He also told us about the fire birds that grab embers in the air and drop them ahead of the fire front to start new fires so that their prey will be flushed out, or the crows that have figured if you flip a cane toad on its back and peck out its stomach you don't die. Some other bird species have learnt from the crow. I find this all very very amazing - how animals adapt to and leverage environmental changes. We arrived at Cahill's Crossing which is a road that crosses the East Alligator River and into Arnhem Land.
Crossing the East Alligator River into Arnhem land on the large 4WD bus that we were on was pretty easy affair. Our first stop was Injalak artist community. The purpose of this community and presumably other like this are to provide a self sufficient source of income for the local people. Some of the people were not comfortable with a bunch or tourists that I'm sure happens every day just dropping in and watching them at work so they took themselves off. I must admit that I felt somewhat uncomfortable with the whole process as it seem to me like we were visiting a sort of zoo to watch people work and as such I really did not take very many photos. It was interesting listening to one of the elders talk about the rock art and how they do not do rock art anymore in a bid to preserve what is there as well as the changing styles of art, lines, vs dots for instance. Also to try to get a glimpse of the stories behind the art.
After Injalak we went off to a rocky outcrop where in earlier days the young men would throw their spears up into a crack within the rock. This outcrop would have been a good 40 to 60 meters high. So the test showed a couple of things. Firstly you could throw a spear that distance and secondly you could hit a target - all very important when your lifestyle is hunter gather. Also very important for a young woman when she is choosing a potential husband as you need to know that your husband can effectively hunt for food.
Near by this site was a burial cave - we could see bones from long departed people scattered in some instances by the animals that roamed this part of the country. We were also asked not to photograph these remains so as to respect the dead. Recently a village elder had passed away - a very well respected village elder. All the trees that we could see had red ocher painted around their trunks as a mark of respect and passing. We saw many other rock art sites - all different. We visited a stunningly beautiful lagoon and watch as a croc tried to catch a pelican, but the pelican was too clever and just kept on moving out of reach as each time the croc got too close. What was disappointing about this beautiful spot was the litter, rubbish, dirty nappies etc and what I could not reconcile in my head was the statement that the Aboriginals looked after the land but this litter was from them. We had lunch at this spot - litter aside is was a really beautiful spot.
Heading back now to Ubirr and back to Jabiru for a swim in the pool, a couple of beers, another BBQ dinner and a lecture about the area slide show and all by the pool by about the area.
We set off on Saturday back to Darwin via the Arnhem Hwy crossing the South Alligator River stopping at the Aurora Roadhouse for lunch before joining the Stuart Hwy at Humpty Doo. Before heading back we went back to the Ubirr Rock Art site and spent quite some time looking at the rock art galleries. A ranger was giving a talk about the stories behind the paintings and the progressing from the paintings that depicted physical features to the "x-ray" paintings that depicted internal organs. The painters were not giving anatomy classes but were showing which parts inside were good or bad to eat - all very practical advise in this outback setting. We spent a while looking around before heading back to Cahill's crossing. This time the East Alligator was pumping inland - it's still tidal all the way up and the crocs were circling catching unwary barramundi. We saw a 4WD cross and was nearly swept off, but I guess for these guys that do the crossing a few times aday they were not worried. What did amaze me was the brazenous of the fishermen and how they were in the water fishing.
The drive back into Darwin was uneventful, we stopped by a popular beach surprised but not surprised to see all of the netting keeping people and the sharks and crocs separate. The weather was gorgeous. We eventually found some accommodation in town - a large suite that slept all of us, had a couple of showers so all in all pretty comfy and great views.
When we were visiting Darwin it was really pleasant, however, during the build up before the wet it's not so great.
We had dinner in town at some local touristy place and it was OK.
Next morning up early - off to the airport and back home to Melbourne. Having only really scratched the surface in a small part of the Northern Territory