On Yellow Water

Mon. 24th June 2019

This Tiny Kingfisher was just one of the treasures of Kakadu‘Magic’ Maguk lives up to its name as we get a solid night’s sleep in the peace and quiet amongst the trees. The shade also meant that it was 7:30 before we woke – better than I’ve managed in most beds. It was absolutely a great call to spend the night here, there are perhaps another 10 campers here. The couple opposite us still don’t seem to be talking to each other and our other neighbours prove to be a godsend when we have a spot of bother with the zip on the cover of the roof tent. We still need it for a couple more nights, don’t break now!

Distraction on the walk to Maguk FallsFirst on our itinerary is the walk to Maguk Falls that we didn’t get a chance to do last night. This is flagged in Lonely Planet as one of Kakadu’s highlights but it also includes a warning that we wouldn’t have the place to ourselves. Fair enough, though we weren’t expecting a party of high school kids (well young adults) getting a biology / botany field trip! We’re now used to these paths – running beside (and across) a stream, past rock pools over boulders though we were surprised by the need to remove shoes and socks to cross a flooded section of the boardwalk.

Maguk Falls - they'd be a sight in the wet seasonAt the end of the walk, we find a large natural plunge pool with a waterfall at the back. There is an impressive drop for the falls but the flow is now reduced to just a trickle. It would be spectacular in the ‘wet’ but now too small and too far away to make for great photos now. It’s very apparent that most folk are here for the swim – seems a very Aussie thing to do get a swim at the bottom of any gorge or waterfall (provided no crocs). We haven’t really got into the swing of these swims and have only done a couple. I suspect that we are usually in too much of a rush as there is so much to see.

White bellied Sea EagleOur plan is to spend tonight at Cooinda, one of the centres of Kakadu Park and one of the places where there is a commercial campground with restaurant, pool – and showers! The appeal of the latter is obvious, but the former also appeals as want break from cooking on our piddly little gas camp stoves. Unusually, we get there early as it is only 50km away from Maguk. It was never going to be as small or quiet a campsite as Maguk, but we weren’t expecting it to be so big or so busy. Still, we only need an unpowered site and we were easily able to find a quiet spot shaded under a couple of trees and set up to grab a bite of lunch.

Jacaranda walking on waterAfter much cogitation, we decided to sign up for a sunset cruise on the nearby Yellow Water – another LP recommended activity. We’ve been in two minds as it looks very commercialised and we’d had one couple that we got chatting to recommend Corroboree over Yellow Water for a billabong cruise. [We eventually asked, and in the UK, a billabong would just be called a lake – though here in Aus, they can be more seasonal in size, existence or river access]. In the end, we go for it as we are only going to get one chance to do it. We also decide to go and have an early peek at the billabong (there is also a boardwalk there) and see what we have let ourselves in for.

Spoonbill & Egret having a conversationThe omens aren’t good when we spot 3 or 4 open decked boats with rows of seats for sheep people to be herded about. Well, we’ll find out soon enough and have a bit more of a walk along the boardwalk that runs over the marshy fringe of the shore. There is a croc lazing around but the we are more interested in the birdlife and, in particular, the egret and spoonbill that seem to be having a conversation. OK, but what is there going to be to keep us interested for a 2hr cruise?

On the Sausage MachineOur worries increased when we join a crowd for the bus transfer from the campsite back to the dock at Yellow Water. Over their walkie-talkies, the guides seem to be organising 3 boats to go out with around 130 people in total. Not so much sheep as sausages going through the machine. Our hearts sank even further as we queued on the jetty to board the boats. It looked as if we would be among the last people on the first boat. Given that the seating was airline style in rows with 3 seats one side and 2 the other of the aisle. With all these couples, we’re going to be separated and in two aisle seats with no view out over the water at the wildlife.

Nankeen Heron - just waiting for food to appearFrom this low point, it all just got better. They didn’t fill the boat and we both got seats at the side on opposite sides too. Then Rueben, the skipper / guide, introduces himself as being part of the (aboriginal) family who’ve lived in this area forever (65,000 years of history) and own the land, the campsite and the tour company. He thanks us for joining this tour and providing him with a job – but reminds us he would be off fishing if we weren’t here. His safety briefing is similarly wry – “I need to show you how to put on a life jacket. But there is no point, if you fall overboard you will be eaten by a crocodile.”

Sunset behind a Pandanus tree - a very NT image“I’m going to talk, non-stop, for the next 2 hours” he continued. And he did. The spiel was delivered at breakneck pace and covered history (aboriginal and European), plants, trees, birds, animals and the climate. All delivered with the same dry humour and the odd rant (e.g. “Don’t point out an egret, they’re as common as seagulls”; “Yellow River is in China, this is Yellow Water”). The tour starts in the billabong, but what we hadn’t realised is that the billabong connects to the South Alligator River [Ed. a) European who named the river didn’t know the difference between a croc and a gator; b) the South, East and West Alligator rivers are 3 of the 8 major rivers in the NT; c) shocking lack of imagination / British nobles to end up with 3 Alligator Rivers]

The Boss goes huntingTalking of crocs, yes we saw a few salties. Rueben explained that females average around 3m in length and own a stretch of river of around 500m, whereas males average around 4.5m long and own around 2km of river (and the females). Male or female, you definitely don’t want to mess with any of them. We were lucky enough to see the ‘boss’ of this stretch of river glide by – definitely keeping one eye on us (and maybe getting hopeful) but certainly on the hunt for some supper.

Pelican at takeoffRueben also talked a lot about the changes in the river (and the impact on the land) between wet and dry seasons. For example, he showed us a patch of lotus lilies where the leaves were 2 – 3 feet above the water level and dying and yet there was a new growth of leaves on the water surface. Or that how the wet season rains flushed nutrients down the creeks and streams that turned into food for the larger fish including the Barramundi that we have eaten so frequently in Australia – though, I can imagine that you’d have to compete with the crocs in order to land your Barramundi.

Juvenille Jabiru practising huntingBut it was the birds that fascinated us the most – whether it was the ducks gathered on the river banks in large family groups; or the Jacarandas seemingly walking on water amongst the lily pads; or the Darters (like cormorants) swimming under water, then needing to dry their (non-waterproof) wings in the sunshine; or the Tiny Kingfisher (yes, really) balanced on a single reed which swayed alarmingly in the wash of the boat; or the Brolgas (a type of stork) walking in the marshes in the distance; or the juvenile Jabiru (black stork – and the only bird not afraid of crocodiles) learning to feed for himself and about to get kicked out of the family home.

A darter salutes us as the sun disappearsOur favourite, though, was the sea eagle. We first spotted them soaring above the trees lining the river, then landed in the trees and as we came closer, he just stayed there. And as we got closer, he was still there – king of all he surveys. He posed for us on our way up the river, and then as we came back trying to get the right spot for the sunset colours, he was still there! The long lens on Janet’s camera certainly paid dividends once again. I have to settle for landscape and some scene setting shots. All in all, we took some great photos – and saw some incredible sights that just wouldn’t translate into a photograph.

Unsurprisingly, we were absolutely buzzing when we got off the boat. Yes, we’ve been through the Yellow Water sausage machine but we are so glad that we had the experience. Thanks to Rueben and his family for managing it all so well and delivering quite a show.

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