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Kakadu: Incredible Grace

Laura Ealing

From the dry, cool confines of Canberra in spring, the idea of spending two weeks hiking in tropical Kakadu seemed like the adventure of a lifetime and I signed myself up excitedly.

As the hike drew nearer, however, I started to get nervous about hiking in the tropics. Now that I thought about it, I wilted like a dying flower in very hot, sunny conditions. But it would be the wet season, and this would bring cooling rain and the shade of clouds. If I had shade I knew I could manage it. I can now say I was right to be excited, and right to be nervous. The hike was one of the hardest and best things I’ve done.

We were a group of seven including our guide, Don, and there didn’t seem to be any egomaniacs, narcissists or psychopaths, which is always a relief.

Don briefed us the night before we started – it had been the hottest February on record, with very low rainfall, creating particularly challenging conditions for hiking. Thank you climate change. But we were doing this for a reason. Wet season was really the only time it was possible to visit Baroalba Plateau – a rocky outcrop that sits like a stepping-stone to the Arnhem Plateau proper. There would be water flowing in the plateau, meaning, quite crucially, there would be drinking water. Plus places to swim and a lush and green landscape.

Looking over the savannah from Baroalba Plateau

On our first night we camped at the foot of the plateau on an abandoned air-strip which radiated heat and harboured a plague of bloody-nosed mosquitoes. A violent electrical storm meant we ate dinner around the campfire with our hairs rising up vertically from our heads. Later, sweating in a strobe-lit tent, I considered that I would most likely be killed by heat stroke or lightening before the two weeks were out, and seriously considered abandoning the hike now, before quitting would entail an expensive helicopter trip.

But the morning arrived and I took a deep breath and put on my pack as we left the safety of our vehicles for the next 12 days.

We passed through a beautiful rainforest pocket, where fig trees and vines stood cooling their feet in crystal clear creeks, then up through a furnace of hot, exposed rock and finally arrived at our campsite, a grassy clearing on a cascading river, just as a storm burst out of the towering cumulous clouds to drench the earth with rain.

The next day was hotter and longer. I stumbled through the day, just wanting to get it over and done with and take my pack off. But my fears were realised and I eventually succumbed to heat stress only a short way from camp, lying dizzy and weak under a big shady rock and attempting to rehydrate whilst my pack was ferried to camp for me. I wondered how I would endure nine more days of this. But by the following day, though weak, I was able to carry my pack again. As we hiked further up the valley, it suddenly opened out into a vast rocky scene so majestic that my exhaustion was eclipsed entirely. A few hundred metres away in every direction, sandstone walls rose up sharply, surrounded by a jumble of massive stone blocks, as if tossed by a giant baby.

As I filled up our bottles at camp that afternoon, I noticed rock art handprints on the little overhang next to me.

Over the next few days we explored amazing rock shelters, many perched up high with panoramic views over the valley. We saw a huge mural of an emu being speared by a hunter who hid himself behind a handful of branches – the spitting emu, so called because blood or maybe life-force is shown escaping from the emu’s mouth. We saw a haunting painting of a thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, extinct on the mainland for around 5,000 years, and now gone forever, nuzzling it’s young.

On the Baroalba Plateau

We saw a huge crocodile that stared out of the wall with oversized white eyes. We also saw paintings of spirits, stencils and prints of hands of all sizes, including little children. We saw paintings of snakes, geckoes, fish, people playing didgeridoos, fish traps, wallabies, bats, turtles…

We spent many days exploring the shady shelters, quietly contemplating the meaning of the art we saw, and imagining life as it might have been throughout this ‘deep time’. Trying to come to grips with 50,000 years of Aboriginal history – which is at least 1,600 generations… I started to think about how rich and abundant life was here, with people wearing elaborate headdresses and body ornamentations, like neck and arm-bands woven out of colourful rainbow lorikeet feathers, sharing epic dreamtime stories shared around the campfire under stars and coming together in times of music and dancing. I imagined what it might have been like to feel a bone-deep sense of belonging to the land and to one-another – being enveloped in the fabric of family and community and really knowing who you were.

I started to feel a sort of grief for this lost sense of belonging, which can seem so absent from modern life.

Knowing who you are, what your purpose is and where you’re from is so far out of reach for most of us today. We are often so far from the people we love, who make us feel that we belong. One night I woke up suddenly in the early hours of the morning, feeling completely alert and awake, struck by a deep feeling of appreciation and love for my own family, and my own tribe of friends.  A recognition crept over me that we weave a fabric of belonging for one another too – it might not be quite the same thing in form, but maybe it was exactly the same thing in essence and I was suddenly terrified that I’d taken these precious connections for granted in the past.

Our campsite in the savannah woodland

Eventually our time in the magical Baroalba Plateau came to an end. The trip out involved a hike through scorching savannah woodland, with two-metre high speargrass. We walked for around ten hours with very little shade, under a blazing sun. But by constantly drenching my hat and clothes in creeks and drinking over 8 litres of water, I managed to stay not only alive, but somehow, decidedly animated and energetic.

Was I finally adapting to the conditions? Or perhaps just learning to lift my gaze away from my physical discomfort, and focus on the beauty of the journey instead?

As our last day arrived, I couldn’t deny that I was looking forward to a real mattress and even air conditioning. But there was still one final lesson in humility and respect for us. On our way out we passed through an area that is protected because Jeffrey Lee, the last member of the Djok clan who own the land here, recently cancelled the Koongarra mining lease. In doing so, he turned down what would probably have been millions of dollars in royalties, in order to keep the land intact and prevent another large uranium mine being built in Kakadu. Jeffrey Lee now wants to build an out station here to live on his land and maybe get involved in tourism, but he can’t afford it. The irony is devastating, but hopefully Jeffrey will find a way to make this project a reality, with the support of the broader community.

Alyurr (Children of the Lightening Man) or Leichhardt's Grasshopper

We trampled through this land, trying to understand something of it, not really much less clumsily than the feral buffalos, but luckily small in number and carefully restricted by Parks Australia to limit our damage. But as we walked, we were privileged to glean a tiny insight into this place and the incredible skill, grace and knowledge of those generations who walked this land for tens of thousands of years, and continue to do so today.

As each step took us closer to leaving this place behind, I felt like the physical suffering of the hike was simply the necessary toll required to experience this place.

Not from a plane, like a spirit or a bird, but by foot, one step at a time. To see every detail – the orchids in the trees, the bright-pink wild hibiscuses and blushing ginger flowers. The electric-blue butterflies feasting on the salty sweat of my socks as I swam in a cold, rocky waterhole. And the every-coloured grasshoppers that sometimes popped out of the grass and other times sat silently, watching our passage.


Laura Ealing

Laura Ealing moved to Canberra four years ago, and somewhat to her surprise, has never looked back. She is currently indulging her nomadic tendencies by taking time off work to travel and volunteer. She is happiest when hiking, dancing, cooking, reading or watching films. She writes about ethical travel, eco-adventures and the environment at her blog More about the Author

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