Symphony for man & nature — Australia’s Kakadu National Park
The wild is calling…
Kakadu National Park is the first place I visited in Australia. The park is among the most awe-inspiring wildernesses on our planet, together with the Canyonlands National Park in America and the Kruger National Park in South Africa. It’s one of those places where Mother Nature lets her hair down.
Kakadu is a vast park where we can be alone with nature. It shelters rivers, forests, floodplains, and an astounding array of lifeforms. And then there is also an ancient sandstone country with tumbling waterfalls that spans two billion years of history. What’s more, these spectacular ecosystems are always changing as they are scorched and flooded seasonally.
But Kakadu is much more than a natural paradise. It’s a living cultural landscape — an elemental link between the Aboriginal people and the nature they have respected and nurtured for thousands of generations. Today, still the traditional owners care for the park. And their spirit can sway us profoundly.
Pleasure of nature
The landscape changes dramatically from one end of Kakadu to the other. The various environments protect one-fifth of Australia’s mammals (75 mammal species), 120 reptiles, 300 fish species (a quarter of freshwater fish species in Australia), 2,000 plants and 10,000 species of insects.
But bird watching might be the most rewarding, because Kakadu harbors around one-third of Australia’s birds (300 bird species). The park’s billabongs (seasonal ponds) are crucial rest stops for migratory birds and protect countless waterbirds. In the morning, raptors take off from termite mounds and soar high looking for prey beneath the still waters. Then, in the midday heat, we can spot amusing Jesus birds stepping from lily pad to lily pad. And at dusk, hundreds of herons circle over our head and land on half-submerged trees.
The park’s water world grants us certainly the greatest pleasure. Besides birds, freshwater and saltwater crocodiles populate all river banks and billabongs. They sleep for most of the day but, with patience, we might also catch them swimming in the water. We can also observe kangaroos coming to the billabongs to quench their thirst. And at night, we may hear dingoes howling.
A patchwork of landscapes
In the giant, 20,000-square-kilometer patchwork of Kakadu, there are six main landforms. And each habitat contains a unique range of plants and animals. These distinct landscapes are so dazzling that the popular Aussie movie “Crocodile Dundee” featured many scenes from Kakadu.
In the north, we find the tidal zone, where rivers meet the sea. It’s mainly lined with mangroves and acts as an immense, 500-square-kilometer big nursery for fishes. These waters are also home to dugongs (sea cows).
Further inland, savanna woodlands cover the gently rolling country. They seem lifeless at first, consisting mostly of eucalyptus and tall grasses. However, these woodlands support a larger variety of life than any other environment in Kakadu.
In the center of the park, the savanna gives way to the floodplains. They change dramatically with the seasons. The wet season transforms them into a shallow freshwater sea, spreading for hundreds of square kilometers. And in the dry season, waterbirds seek refuge in their shrinking billabongs.
Crossing the park from the northeast to the southwest, a rock plateau rises 330 meters high. Waterfalls cascade over the edge of this stone country to join the floodplains and rivers, which follow their winding course to the sea. The pools below the cascades are the place to come across freshwater crocodiles.
Creeks have carved deep canyons into the rock plateau. Vine forests grow in these gorges, where ample water nourishes the plants. Birds and bats connect the plants in these isolated pockets: they disperse pollen and seeds as they fly from one canyon to the next.
Finally, hills and ridges stretch over southern Kakadu. Wind and water eroded and sculpted them for millions of years. Their exposed rocks are extremely old, some of them date back to 2500 million years.
Useful plant life
Aboriginals use many plants in Kakadu for food, medicine, weaving material, canoes, and the world’s oldest musical instrument. Some plants also indicate seasons, telling them when to harvest various foods or when to patch burn the vegetation.
One of Kakadu’s most recognizable trees are the elegant paperbarks. They fringe floodplains and rivers, offering nesting sites for birds. Honeyeaters sip their nectars and we can spot kingfishers racing through their forests. Paperbark forests also create safe havens for kangaroos, who have to leave the safety of these trees to drink from billabongs.
Indigenous people make shelters, rafts, and bandages from the bark of the trees. And the leaves flavor their traditional dishes.
Screw palm is the most common palm species of Kakadu. It stands along many walking paths in the park. We can recognize this palm from the long, thorny leaves spiraling up from its slim trunk. The dry leaves hanging in skirts form sanctuaries for small birds and lizards. The screw palm also produces massive seed pods between June and October. As they ripen, these pods turn orange and become a favorite food of cockatoos.
Traditionally, this palm has multiple uses. We can weave its leaves into baskets and mats. The large clusters of seeds may also be eaten raw or roasted. And Aboriginals heal stomach pain, diarrhea, wounds, toothache, and headaches with its trunk.
Mammals with wings & pouches
Many of Kakadu’s mammals dwell in the forests and become active only during the night. Thus, it’s difficult to see them. But others, such as the 8 species of kangaroos, are active during the cooler mornings and afternoons, and this makes them easier to see.
The agile wallaby is the most common kangaroo in the park. They are, together with the tail, around 1.5 meters long. We identify them from the white stripe on their thigh and the dark stripe on their cheeks. Wallabies breed during the entire year and their females give birth to a single offspring. The newborn enjoys the protection of the pouch for 8 months.
The best places to spot these kangaroos are the open meadows near woodlands. They also happily graze around campsites, letting us study their behavior if we sit quietly.
We can glimpse about one-third of all Australian bats in Kakadu. The largest bats in the park are the flying foxes. In daylight, they roost in big noisy gangs in forests. And at night, they feast on fruit and nectar. Flying foxes can fly 30 kilometers a night in the search of food. But unlike most bats, they don’t rely on echolocation to maneuver. Instead, they use their excellent eyesight and superb sense of smell.
While feeding, flying foxes pollinate flowers and spread seeds. Thus, these loud mammals make Kakadu the beautiful place it is. We can greet them at dusk, as they go about their business flapping through the sky.
Birds of the billabongs
The summer rapidly refills Kakadu’s dry floodplains and kicks in the mating season for birds. Imposing egrets patrol the shallow waters and sea eagles sail the skies. When the water retreats in the dry season, large flocks of magpie geese congregate on the dwindling billabongs.
We can encounter five species of egrets in the park. The great egret, in brilliant white feathers, is the tallest of them. Its neck being longer than its body, this bird easily reaches a height of one meter. Egrets stab fishes with their long bills to catch them. But they also feed on insects and small reptiles in the water. Between December and March, we can find them nesting in large colonies on mangrove trees.
The white-bellied sea eagle is the second-largest raptor in Australia. Its wing may span a spectacular 2.2 meters. This majestic bird glides on thermals and then swoops down to snatch large fish from the water surface with its long talons. On sunny days, it attacks from the direction of the sun to avoid casting shadows and hence warning potential prey. The sea eagle also takes other meals. Look out for it bullying smaller birds into dropping any food that they are carrying.
The magpie goose is quite widespread in Kakadu: about 3 million of them call the park home. Look for them on the floodplains in noisy flocks. A walk there between September and November can reward you with an experience you’ll never forget. In these two months, enormous swarms of geese leave the water to perch for the night and they fill the sky in honking lines across the red setting sun.
There are roughly 10,000 crocodiles in Kakadu! This means one croc every two square kilometers, on average. Though, if we look carefully at certain places, we can spot even seven crocs in a short stretch.
These fascinating creatures have changed little in the last 200 million years. They are fearsome predators that can glide fast through water with the aid of their thrashing tail. This muscular tail also propels their body out of the water to strike the surprised prey. The attack is usually deadly.
Two species of crocodiles thrive in Kakadu: freshwater and saltwater crocodiles. Freshwater crocs only grow to three meters, but salties can develop into six-meter-long giants weighing a ton! They are the world’s largest reptiles.
Termites have erected Kakadu’s most stunning structures: enormous castles towering six meters high. These insects munch grass roots and other plant remains on plains. But the plains are seasonally flooded. Thus, they have to build fortresses to stay above the water.
Made of mud and termite saliva, the mansions are incredibly sturdy: they last for more than 60 years. They feature nursery halls, tunnels, arches, chimneys, insulation, and ventilation. And each one is home to millions of workers, thousands of soldiers, and a king and a queen.
The oldest living culture
The land of Kakadu National Park has been home to Aboriginal clans for over 65,000 years. They preserve the oldest living culture on earth. Their ways of life, mythical stories, rock paintings, and caring for the land have passed from generation to generation.
Ways of life
The Aboriginal ancestors were hunter-gatherers. The clans moved around the area with the change of seasons to find food and shelter. These people didn’t build permanent dwellings, but used the same camping sites for countless generations. In the dry season, they set up paperbark tents on the floodplains. And during the wet season, they made huts on stilts at the billabongs or rock shelters in the stone country.
When white people reached the Kakadu region, the indigenous population collapsed. Most natives died of diseases or left their land. Their diminished numbers and the introduction of jeeps and shops have ended the ancient seasonal migration.
Today, the clans stay in small and remote outposts and use cars to shop, to hunt, to visit other outposts, and to celebrate rituals. Their traditional lifestyle has changed, but their indigenous art, language, customs and beliefs prevail. Nowadays, about 500 Aboriginal owners live in the park — they work to keep their country healthy and share it with us.
Kinship of nature
Kakadu has 19 indigenous clans. These clans are family groups who mutually own an area of the park. The boundaries between clans have passed from one generation to the next, through the fathers.
The kinship system of the area is complex. Natives classify all humans, animals, plants, terrains, songs, dances, and rituals into two major groups. And then, they divide both of these major groups further into eight minor groups. Children inherit their major groups from their fathers and their minor groups from their mothers.
The kinship determines the communication between Aboriginal people. They don’t address each other through individual names, but through minor-group names. This means that they identify the people around them and modify their behavior accordingly.
According to indigenous traditions, creation ancestors traveled across the terrain during the Creation Time. They formed the landscapes of Kakadu and taught natives how to live with nature. From then on, Aboriginal people became the guardians of the land.
One of the major creation ancestors is Lightning Man. This ancestor created — between his hands, feet and head — the mighty storms that sway the park every summer. He sliced the dark clouds with the axes on his elbows, knees and head to make lightning and thunder.
This creation story belongs to a larger saga. It tells his odyssey from the coast to the sandstone country of Kakadu, where he rests today. During his adventures, Lightning Man left his powers behind at numerous places. On his last journey, he removed his own eyes and fixed them on a sheer rock cliff called Lightning Dreaming, where they wait for the storm season.
During the buildup of storms, Lightning Man’s children — Leichhardt’s grasshoppers — visit Kakadu in huge numbers. With their orange, blue and black colors, they are the most eye-catching insects in the park. While feeding on shrubs, they call their father, who answers them with powerful storms and lightning.
With 5,000 rock art sites, Kakadu has one of the greatest concentrations of rock paintings on earth. Some paintings are 20,000 years old. They represent the world’s oldest unbroken tradition of art and the longest historical records of people.
For Aboriginals, the act of painting is more vital than the paintings themselves. So, they have covered older paintings with younger ones. In the powerful and visceral act of repainting (called Dreaming), painters have invoked the wisdom of Creation Time.
As a result, many rock paintings illustrate educational stories for the next generations. Let’s take the one called “ Lesson in Good Behavior “ as an example. It depicts the story of a fisherman. He was dragging his catch on a string after a productive day of fishing, but someone cut the string and took the fish. He tracked down the rascals and waited until they have had their meal. The fisherman hoped that there would be still some fish left. But there was none. That night, while the thieves were sleeping in a cave, he blocked it with a huge rock, trapping everyone inside.
The knowledge behind this and other paintings has multiple levels. Young natives and white people can only learn the first level, the public story. Older Aboriginals can access the whole story if they advance through rituals and accept the responsibilities of that knowledge.
Aboriginal people continue to paint — now, on bark, paper or canvas instead of rocks. Their art shows objects they still use, animals they still hunt and rituals they still do. It continues to express their connection with the eternal laws of life on earth.
Bonding with bushfood
The best way to grasp the indigenous bond with the land is to harvest bushfood. Kakadu is rich in nutritious bush meals — so rich that one can collect enough in an hour to serve a family for a day. Here are my favorite bush fruits, traditionally gathered by women.
Kakadu plums are common in the savanna woodlands of the park. We can recognize them from their egg-shaped fruits and large round leaves. The tasty green fruits are ripe between March and May. These plums are the most vitamin C-rich natural food on our planet: they contain 50 times more vitamin C than oranges. We can eat them raw or make them into jam. Natives also use the bark of the tree to treat mosquito bites and sores.
Red bush apples grow in the transition zones between Kakadu’s eucalyptus and vine forests. We identify them from the large, dark and glossy leaves and ribbed red fruits. The apples are ready to eat from December to February. Usually, we have to throw sticks up into the tall trees to knock them down. We can eat the fruits raw or make them into juice. Aboriginals also make the leaves into tea to heal stomach problems and apply heated leaves on wounds to stop bleeding and swelling.
Waterlilies skirt billabongs that are several meters deep. We recognize them from their large green leaves floating on the water. During most of the year, they flaunt pink-and-yellow flowers with a truly divine smell. We can eat their seed pods raw from August to October, but indigenous people also grind the seeds into flour. And after adding water to the flour, they wrap the dough in lily leaves and bake it in a ground oven to make bush bread.
Besides plants, animal meat and seafood are also part of the diet in Kakadu. Foods from wild animals include kangaroo, geese, and barramundi. Traditionally, it was the responsibility of men to hunt for these critters.
Kangaroo is a long-time favorite of the Aboriginal people in the park. First, they throw it into a fire to burn off the hair. And then, they put the meat into a hole covered with hot coal to cook it.
In September and October, magpie geese grow fat on waterlilies. They crowd around the shrinking billabongs, which makes them easy to hunt. Their time-tested cooking method is the open fire with a view of the heavens. Natives also collect and eat their eggs in February and March.
Barramundis live in rivers. But when these fishes mate between October and December, they swim back to the river mouths where they were born. Indigenous people catch them during these months. They stuff the gutted fishes with paperbark leaves to add flavor and roast them on hot coal.
Caring for the land
Aboriginal people have seasonally burned the bush for thousands of years. The creation ancestors gave them this cultural duty to clean up the country, and they have handed it down from generation to generation. Signs in nature told them the time to burn — the time when they could achieve maximal benefits with minimal harm.
Natives lit fires for multiple reasons. They encouraged the growth of grass and bush fruits, which also attracted animals to these areas. Plus, the patchwork of burnt and unburnt land made it harder for bushfires to spread, protecting bushfood from later fires.
After white people arrived and indigenous population declined, less and less burning took place in the cooler seasons. As a result, wildfires became more and more common in the hot and dry seasons. These fires were often large and devastating, changing the mix of plants and animals.
Since Kakadu became a national park, the traditional owners have reintroduced patch burning to prevent big bushfires. Consequently, the landscapes are once again teeming with native flora and fauna.
Seasons of nature & man
Six seasons tie together the nature and men of Kakadu. The transitions between seasons arise from the subtle changes in weather and bushfood. Natives have embraced these changes for thousands of generations to find shelter and food.
The monsoon season lasts from December till March. This is the true tropical summer with thunderstorms, torrential rain and flooding. The heat (24–34°C) and humidity explodes animal and plant life — speargrass reaches two meters and turns the woodlands silvery green; magpie geese nest in the billabongs, while lizards and snakes flee to the trees from the flood. During the flooding, locals hunt for the stranded animals. They also collect ripe bush apples and blackcurrants.
April is the “knock ’em down” storm season (23–33°C). During this month, violent storms flatten the speargrass. But the rain clouds vanish quickly and clear skies prevail mostly. As the skies brighten up, the vast expanse of floodwater retreats and rivers turn clear again. This is the time to harvest most fruits and to spot animals nursing their young.
The cold and humid season fills May and June. The weather is relatively cool (20–32°C), but still humid. Early-morning mists cling to the plains and waterlilies carpet the billabongs. Natives collect their beloved dessert: honey from the stingless sugarbag bees. Drying winds and flowering Darwin woollybutt also tell them to start patch burning — their fires die out from the dew at night.
The cold and dry season runs from June to August. It’s only cold (17–31°C) by tropical standards. Patch burning continues in these months, and raptors use the fire lines to hunt for the fleeing animals. As creeks stop flowing and floodplains dry out, crocodiles lay eggs on the creek banks and fat waterbirds crowd the shrinking billabongs. Aboriginals collect the eggs and catch the birds.
The hot and dry season (21–36°C) is between August and October. Thunderclouds and whirlwinds build in this season, but rainstorms don’t arrive yet. We can spot sea turtles laying their eggs on the sandy beaches and monitor lizards robbing their nests. And it’s the time for indigenous people to hunt long-necked turtles, besides geese and snakes.
The hot and humid season (25–37°C) wraps up the year from October to December. This is the pre-monsoon season, when thunderstorms form in the afternoons. The rain brings green to the dry land and creeks start to run again. Barramundis swim down the creeks to the river mouths to breed. Aboriginals catch these fishes and also harvest freshwater mussels. Traditionally, this was the season when they moved from the floodplains to the rock country to shelter from the coming monsoons.
To feel this land…
Take time to look and listen to the country to feel the spirits of this land. Sit on and respect the country to learn the stories of this land. Your experience will be one that you cannot get anywhere else in the world. You will regain your lost communion with nature, and go home and feel the same way.
We say “bobo” (Aboriginal farewell) to Kakadu now!
- Take care, Andy
Originally published at AndysAnyLandTours.com