The Kakadu National Park is a 20,000 square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage Site – in fact it is one of the only places World Heritage listed for both it’s cultural and natural aspects. The wetland was recognized as an area of international significance due to it being a major staging point for migratory birds. Read part 2 of the reportage by Katie Stacey and Luke Massey. 

We move from Corroboree eastwards to Kakadu National Park, a 20,000 square-kilometre UNESCO World Heritage Site – in fact it is one of the only places World Heritage listed for both it’s cultural and natural aspects. It is home to 68 mammal species, 120 reptiles, 26 frogs, over 300 tidal and freshwater fish species, more than 2,000 plants, over 10,000 species of insects and it provides habitat for over 290 bird species (which accounts for over 1/3 of Australia’s birds).

There we met our guides for the remainder of the visit, Luke and Sarah Patterson of NT Bird Specialists, who took us on one of their 5 day ‘Top End Birding & Wildlife Experience’ tours. We arrived in the devilish heat of the day, but Luke assured us the cooling rains weren’t far off – “You can tell because we are starting to hear and see the rain birds – the dollarbird, pacific koel and channel-billed cuckoo are the traditionally known ones, but it’s generally tied in with the arrival of migratory birds. And the noisy ones at that!” We spent that first evening exploring the town of Jabiru in search of partridge pigeon and a confiding family of tawny frogmouth that Luke knew well, and on both counts we were successful!

The next morning we headed down to South Alligator region, and sat in the dark at the edge of what appeared to be a vast open plain. It was the noise that you noticed first – the cries and shrieks and crunks and cheeps – which started quietly and then built until they reverberated through your entire body. Then as the sun began to rise, it revealed a magnificent wetland teeming with bird life. As well as the 5,000 odd magpie geese, there were red-kneed dotterel, pied stilt, sharp tailed sand piper (a migrant from Russia), marsh sandpiper, black tailed godwits, avocet and red-necked avocet all sifting through the shallow waters, while grey teal, raja shell duck, pelicans and white necked heron fished a little deeper. Australian pratincole and whiskered tern flitted above them, and a white bellied sea eagle sent up a flock of royal spoonbill. The variety of species on this one site was absolutely astonishing – and it was no wonder the wetland was recognised as an area of international significance due to it being such a major staging point for migratory birds.

That afternoon we visited Anganbang Billabong, a stunning receding water hole beneath a rock formation thought to be 1.8billion years old, and there we counted 30 different species! We finished day 1 in stone country, in search of lightening man’s children, the bright red, blue and orange Leichhardt’s grasshopper. Lightening man is a powerful ancestral being of the Jawoyn and Gundjeibmi people of Western Arnhem Land, and spotting his children are another sign of the impending wet season. The location is also a great spot to see the chestnut quilled pigeon.

As well as the birdlife, Kakadu is also known for being one of the world’s oldest living cultures, Aboriginal people have lived and cared for this country for tens of thousands of years, and you cannot visit without experiencing what this truly means. We began day 2 with a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise along East Alligator River. Our Aboriginal guide, Terence, gave us an insight into his culture, local mythology, the river’s abundant food chain, traditional uses for many plants & animals as well as some bush survival skills. What I found particularly fascinating was his explanation of how totem animals worked. Each indigenous tribe has a totem animal which they hold in high regard and which they do not hunt or eat. Because the tribes totems are all different it means that no species is over hunted – it is essentially conservation in it’s most basic and effective form.

Caring for the land is at the very heart of the aboriginal peoples culture, and one of the ways in which these lessons are taught is through rock art which Terence showed us a little of along the East Alligator River. But one of the most famous examples of rock art galleries can be found at Ubirr, where you can see naturalistic paintings of animals, traditional x-ray art, and paintings of early contact with European people. Some of the paintings are up to 20,000 years old, which makes the artwork one of the longest historical records of any group of people on Earth. I particularly enjoyed seeing the rock art of the wildlife; from the different fish – the art depicting which are good for eating and which aren’t, to the wallabies which can be seen on the walls and off them – you can often spot the beautiful little Wilkins’ rock-wallabies under the shady overhangs. And at the northern end of the main gallery there is a thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, which has been extinct in the area for about 2000 years!

Another species there are endless paintings of the saltwater and freshwater crocodiles, which makes sense given the abundance of them in the area. One spot that is particularly infamous for saltwater crocodiles is Cahill’s Crossing due to it being a feeding ground for the salties. It is also, as its name suggests, a crossing point – however only at certain times of the day. If you decide to cross when the water is too high, then it is highly likely that your vehicle will be washed away and you will become croc food. We visited when the water was low, as it turned out an equally risky time to visit as that is when the salties line up alongside the road to catch the fish the changing waters bring in. It is also the time that fisherman turn up to challenge the crocs for their catch, and there are many stories of anglers losing that particular battle and become lunch themselves.

Part 3 of the reportage will be published on June 26 2020. 

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