I left Doug cooking up some eggs and bacon in the caravan and headed off just after 7.30 am to walk the Bardedjilidji Track and the Sandstone and River Bushwalk. The Bardedjilidji Track is a short, well marked track which wanders through sandstone towers and makes a loop back along the East Alligator River. The latter track, branches off the former, and follows Mawoene woene Creek south before traversing across country to return north along the East Alligator River. At the Bowali Visitor Centre we had been told that there was a seasonal closure still in place on the Sandstone and River walk as the rangers hadn't been along it to declare it open this year. Given the state of the "track" I don't think the rangers have been along it for many a year, and, frankly, I doubt that they could find it any more, but more on that later.
My first stop was Cahills Crossing where the river was low, but the tide still rushing out over the weir. It was quiet in the morning. The usual daily influx of aboriginals across the river had not yet begun and the barramundi fisherman were still lying abed dreaming of their catch. I spent some time looking for saltwater crocodiles but the water level may have been too low. I wandered upstream past the upstream boat ramp where a gleaming truck pulling a boat trailer advertised "Kakadu Fishing Safaris." Later in the morning, Doug saw them parked on the Arnhem Land side of Cahills Crossing. Apparently, the clients paid big bucks to motor a hundred or so metres downstream and essentially fish where the aborigines cast out handlines (with more success) for free.
Salwater crocodile in the sun
The Bardedjilidji track wanders through interesting sandstone towers and outliers, past deep caves and crevices. Gungadbow (Jabiru Dreaming) dominates the view to the west rising above dense green wetlands. Just before the Bardedjilidji track splits at the wet season/dry season junction, a very faint track branches off and a sign indicates "seasonal closure." This is the route to the Sandstone and River walk. My first foray took me off to the right following two very faint wheel tracks through thick dry grass. This track forked, one branch running out to the road and a sign prohibiting entry (these signs pepper the National Park and seem mostly meaningless) while the other ended swiftly at some low sandstone outcrops. Retracing my steps, a bit of wandering about resulted in my locating a large and sturdy footbridge across Mawoene woene Creek. Various signs indicated the danger of swimming in this water, although I doubt anyone would risk a dip in such a turgid black pool.
Once across the creek, the track should, if the maps are to be believed branch left and right. The left branch quickly reaching the East Alligator River and the right taking the longer route along Mawoene woene Creek. There was no sign of any track to the left, so I duly went to the right.
My baseline of what constitutes a decent track has swiftly declined since arriving in Australia. Now, anything vaguely marked by any indicator at all, no matter how sporadic, widely spaced, decrepit or rusted, or with even the slightest hint of a foot bed, no matter how deeply buried beneath dense vegetation is considered a "good track." It may go straight up crossing fourth class terrain with fearful exposure, or descend so precipitously that fracturing a femur, pelvis, spine, or perhaps all three is likely in the event of a slip, but, if the track is at all visible, it will still meet the criteria for a "good track." This track did not.
By travelling in what I generally considered the right direction - quite difficult to establish as I had no topographic map, and the three sketch maps I had managed to source from various different track signs were all different - I would eventually manage to spy, in the far distance, buried in tall spear grass, a faint and rusted track marker. The walking was mostly not at all enjoyable. The grass was thick matted and tall - sure to harbour some incredibly toxic Australian snake. I believe, but you can Google it to check, Australia has more poisonous snakes than any other country, and, given that I see at least one snake on every bush walk, I am undeniably, and I think sensibly, nervous of snake bite. Underfoot, which I really couldn't see, the ground was full of ankle twisting holes and hollows, some knee deep but completely invisible. I'm not sure if they were all made by rampaging water buffalo - just another creature to be aware of out here - or whether they are the dens of toxic snakes, but, they are certainly ankle snapping. Eventually, I managed to bash on until I reached a second footbridge shown on one of the three maps I had garnered. I could only risk short glimpses at the photos of the sketch maps I had on my camera as my battery was rapidly waning and these rough line drawings constituted my only navigational tools. I did note, however, that this second footbridge was only an eighth of the way along the circuit. At this rate, I would still be on the track tomorrow. I passed a small scattering of rocks, which could have been the rock outcrop marked on one of my sketch maps but just as easily could be completely insignificant.
Sun over wetland
I confess at this point I was considering the "sunk costs" of this expedition. On the one hand, I was continuing on because walking back was unappealing, but, walking the entire distance risking darkness falling, snake bite and being charged by a rabid water buffalo was no more appetizing. Mostly, I was thinking about how Doug was also walking this track and I feared he would come back and say "What, you didn't find the track? It was perfectly clear."
At some point, it all became moot. At a last rusting track marker, I searched ahead, and out to each side in a reasonable facsimile of a sensible Search and Rescue grid search (as taught by Nelson SAR) and could find no other marker anywhere. It was with some relief that I turned back, carefully trying to retrace all the little foibles of the geography that I had noted on the way out should I have to return. As an aside, I was once on a Nelson Search and Rescue training weekend where we (the hapless new recruits) were given to believe that we were heading out to "practice" bushwacking on the second day of the two day weekend "extravaganza." I left before that session. The idea that one would willingly subject themselves to bashing through the BC bush "for practice" was an anathema to me. In my time in the West Kootenay, I bashed up and down over a hundred peaks, and certainly had no need to "practice" bushwacking. The technique is simple. Put your head down and wack. Practice not required.
In any event, I duly returned to the first long and robust footbridge and set about searching for the left hand branch of the track, which did not exist in any form, something that was no surprise to me, nor should it be to you. Finally, I made my way back to the tourist track on the Bardedjilidji circuit. Once on that track, I scrambled up a rock pagoda and had a break from all that wacking as I watched the tourists trundle around the loop below me.
Walking back along the East Alligator River I passed a small, circular, dark pool where a freshwater crocodile was resting on the rock bank. Fumbling with my camera, I scared him (?her) off his rock perch and he disappeared below the ebony water. Shortly thereafter, I saw a big estuarine crocodile lying on the opposite bank in the grey mud of the ebbing East Alligator River, and, further downstream, near Cahills Crossing, another estuarine crocodile floated lazily in the drifting waters.
After spending some time at Cahills Crossing; quite a crowd had gathered by now and were watching as one white fella pulled out a series of barramundi for a bunch of black fellas, all of whom were happy to get their own fish for dinner, I meandered downstream onto the Manngarre track.
This short circuit walk has been hacked into dense monsoon forest on the western bank of the East Alligator River. There are a series of viewing platforms but most have grown in so thickly that the river can only be glimpsed through the foliage. I did, however, at the "womens' place" on the trail, see yet another estuarine crocodile, this one swimming up river with some determination. By the time I returned yet again to Cahills Crossing, the run of the river had switched and the silvery grey water was rushing up over the weir. A "cheeky" (as the aboriginals would say) white fella, in a work truck on his way to some job in Arnhem Land, drove out into the writhing water, feeling cocky, as white fellas are wont to do, and almost lost his truck in the turbulent water as it began to float at the deepest part of the crossing. Given that there were by my count at least three saltwater crocodiles now upstream, swimming out of a lost vehicle here would be quite a proposition. Finally, with swollen feet, in the heat of the day, after wandering about, thoroughly enjoying myself for the last six hours, I wandered back along the track to enjoy a well earned cup of tea at the caravan.