Saturday, June 14, 2014

Sandstone Wandering In Kakadu National Park

The night before this walk, I had one of those tortuous dreams that seem to go on and on with no resolution and strange, unrelated people popping in and out at odd moments. In this dream, I was planning a sea kayak trip and had great difficulty getting topographic maps which I eventually procured. Trouble was, all kinds of people, including my dad (whose been dead almost 30 years), my oldest brother (who would no more paddle a kayak than climb a mountain) and various other unidentified but bothersome people kept trying to mark up the maps. I awoke after a bout of screaming "no one is to touch the maps." Clearly, the fact that the only map we had for our travels through Kakadu National Park was a road map was deeply troubling to me. How I longed for a set of topographic maps of the Northern Territory.

That was the night before the walk, the day before the walk, we had driven an hour (to cover about 18 km) down a rough corrugated road to Gunlom campground where Waterfall Creek falls 70 metres over the escarpment into a deep plunge pool and eventually meanders out to join the South Alligator River on the low lands. A steep but substantial track leads up to the top of the falls and a couple of beautiful clear pools in the small sandstone gorge. Many out of condition travellers were staggering up this slope, mostly glad in highly unsuitable thongs (something you wear on your feet in Australia, thankfully, I could not see their underwear), luckily, they happily stepped aside to let us past or it would have been a tedious 70 metre climb. 

 Above Gunlom Falls

The pools are beautiful, but the walk seems too short, so after dashing back down for a swim in the plunge pool at the bottom, we hiked back up again - great consternation from people that we would actually hike twice up a whole 70 metres, and went wandering. Fresh from Umbrawarra Gorge, the sensible thing seemed to be to follow Waterfall Creek east across the plateau. We did this for about half an hour, but it was on the bushy side, and we felt closed in under the dense (for these parts) forest. A shady ledge above the creek offered a good lunch spot and a view to rocky escarpment on either side. We abandoned our course up the creek and instead, wandered up rocky slabs and over boulders to the ridge line above the creek. From the top, we had a good view across Barramundie Creek to the Arnhem Plateau, but a topographic map, to plan a walk and identify all the terrain features we could see, would have been helpful.

 Looking towards the Arnhem Land plateau

The next day, we started out optimistically enough to walk what the National Park literature describes as an unmarked route that makes a circuit around Kurrindie and Motor Car Creeks and the South Alligator River. We packed long pants expecting tall spear grass. The first part of the walk is on a trail and leads through savannah forest along the northern edge of a sandstone escarpment. After about 4 km, a side track leads up to a deep pool at the base of Motor Car Creek falls, now just a trickle over black cliffs into a deep, dark pool at the base. We were expecting a long day so did not take the time to swim just walked back down the side track and changed into long pants as the track ahead had deteriorated to a small swath through high spear grass. It is only about 1.5 kilometres along this narrow track to Kurrindie Creek and a side track, that disappears at a minor tributary drainage leads part way up to Kurrindie Creek falls. The last bit you must scramble up big river boulders to another deep plunge pool before another trickling waterfall. We were hot and bothered by now so we did have a quick dip in the cool water before walking back to the "main" track. A few steps further on, and all signs of a track disappeared.

We pushed through head high spear grass to Kurrindie Creek and began to follow it downstream, through thick spinifex, matted spear grass, and spiky sword palms. Progress was not only slow, but painful and tedious. After a bit, we battled our way through spear grass out onto some sandstone slabs above the east side of the creek. "It's all a bit ordinary" we said to each other. An Australian expression that means it's actually bloody awful. I spied a strange mushroom shaped sandstone tower above the river and we decided to head for this eminence for lunch. Much battling with spear grass followed and we were somewhat relieved to climb out onto clean sandstone slabs below a big undercut mushroom of rock. Doug did a few pull-ups to celebrate and we sat down to lunch in the shade. 

 Celebratory pull-ups

Once again we got to wondering if it wasn't better to walk up on the sandstone plateaus rather than down in the river beds. To the north of us, extensive slabs of sandstone led up to some small peaks on a plateau above both Motor Car and Kurrindie Creeks. After lunch, by picking a route on boulders and slabs, we had a minimum of bush and quickly ended up onto a big flat open plateau overlooking Kurrindie Creek. We wandered north, scrambling up and down gullies between sandstone slabs to the furthest north plateau looking over the South Alligator River and down to Motor Car Creek. A topographic map would have been great to have. 

Instead of going back the way we had come, we plotted a route past a small mini escarpment to the left, and a gentle hillock to the right that, if we passed both and headed almost due south would allow us to intercept the track. Most of the way was good travel. We could link together boulders and slabs, and even a creek bed that ran in the correct direction for a while, but the last 15 minutes was fairly scratchy. Scrambling down one section over a shadowy cave, I scared a Barrk (a dark coloured male wallaroo, apparently fairly rare and infrequently sighted) out from its resting spot in the shade and it took off showing us it's muscular black body quite unlike other wallaroos and kangaroos. 

 Above Kurrindie Creek

The last half hour, and particularly the last 15 minutes was quite ordinary. We were out in the savannah grasslands and the spear grass was matted, dense and over my head. Pushing through, I would collect a big bow wave of snapped off stalks which I would have to eventually push aside before I began to accumulate more. When we finally pushed out onto the track, our arms were scratched and itchy with the spear grass rash. 

Spear Grass

We took the time to walk the extra distance up to Motor Car Falls for a swim in the deep pool before staggering the last four kilometres back under the baking hot sun. I saved a few sips of water for the short side walk that led to Yurmikmik Lookout which we did for completeness. The view was nowhere near as good as that from our wanderings on the Callanan Claypan along the sandstone plateaus.

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