Tag Archives: kakadu national park

Water Buffalo

The water buffalo found in the northern part of Australia are impressive and fascinating, but they are not indigenous—and they are, in fact, something of a menace. Introduced into Australia in the 1800s as work animals and as a way to supply milk and meat to settlers in remote, northern settlements, these heat-tolerant mammals from Asia went feral when settlements failed or were abandoned. The now-wild buffalo multiplied to a point where they began to present serious problems.

First, they trashed the local ecology. They trampled shorelines, destroyed bird-breeding areas, and generally demolished delicate ecosystems. Second big problem is that they carry diseases that both indigenous animals and domestic cattle could catch. So they aren’t popular.

On top of that, they can be dangerous. In Crocodile Dundee, Paul Hogan’s character was able to hypnotize a massive buffalo that blocked his path, but this is not how they normally react to humans. While they might run away, they might not. They can weigh up to 3/4 of a ton, and their horns can measure ten feet from tip to tip—so if they decide to attack, you’re in trouble. And even if they just step out in front of your car as you’re driving down the road, you’re not going to survive slamming into a 1,500-pound wall of muscle.

Efforts to reduce the number of feral water buffalo in the Top End have been successful, but the Australian Park Service must remain vigilant, so the numbers don’t rebound. However, though numbers are reduced, you can still see an occasional water buffalo in the wilder regions of Australia’s north.

water buffalo



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I love the trees in Australia. Of course, the eucalypts are my favorite and are by far the most diverse and most ubiquitous. But paperbarks are high on the list of other trees I fancy. I love the willowy leaves and the soft, pale, tattered bark that peels off in thin layers. Of course, I suspect part of the reason I love paperbarks is that I generally saw them in fabulous, remote settings, often surrounding billabongs. We saw a lot of paperbarks in Kakadu.

Paperbarks are actually not a specific species, but rather a number of related trees that have the same papery bark. These Aussie natives are members of the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) and belong to the genus Melaleuca—which means they are related to the trees from which we get tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). The Melaleucas from which tea tree oil is made grow in New South Wales, so that’s not what we were seeing in Kakadu.

Actually, it would be more accurate to refer to tea tree oil as paperbark oil. While many paperbarks are called tea trees, true tea trees are a different genus— Leptospermum—though both are in the myrtle family, so no doubt the confusion is due to a family resemblance.

In Kakadu, the paperbarks grow primarily on the edges of creeks, billabongs, lagoons, floodplains, and permanent waterholes. The broad-leafed paperbark and weeping paperbark are the main species seen in these wetland areas. It was spring, so the Melaleucas were in bloom, and the heavy, honeyed fragrance of their flowers suggested to me that they might be popular with bees.

The photo below shows the wonderfully papery bark of a Melaleuca tree we saw by the side of a billabong in Kakadu.
Paperbark in Kakadu

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Australia’s White Ants (Termites)

Pretty much everywhere you go in the semi-arid regions of Australia, the landscape is dotted by termite mounds. In the north of Queensland, I had seen gnarled, gray termite mounds that were three to five feet high standing amidst fields of golden grasses. As I had neared Darwin, I saw three- to five-foot-high termite mounds both punctuating the grasslands, but also leaning against collapsing trees. But in Kakadu, we saw astonishing mounds that were as much as 20 feet tall.

Australia’s “white ant” is actually unrelated to ants, though the termites do look quite like colorless ants. They also have a social order that is reminiscent of ants, living in large colonies with workers, soldiers, and an egg-laying queen. There are more than two hundred species of termite in Australia. Most eat grass or leaf litter, but many species eat wood, and there is a constant battle in areas where the wood-eating varieties thrive to keep them from eating one’s home. (Of those that eat wood, most prefer dead wood, so they fill a need in the wild, disposing of dead trees. But if the dead wood happens to be the infrastructure of your bungalow, then it’s a problem.)

Termites need humid, protected environments, so they create massive nests, almost entirely underground. To stay protected, they build mud shelter tubes for traveling to feeding sites—and a mud sheltering tube is sometimes the first indication that a tree or house has visitors.

The giant mounds are made of mud and termite saliva, and they are of a hardness somewhere between baked pottery and concrete. These mounds stand above the nests and help control airflow and temperature in the extensive network of subterranean tunnels.

Because they are largely made of mud, the color of the land affects the color of the termite mounds. When I reached the iron-rich Hammersleys in Western Australia, the termite mounds I saw shared the rich rust color of the surrounding soil, but in Kakadu, they were gray. However, in Kakadu, they also appeared more carefully constructed, more castle-like. Still, in both places, standing next to a twenty-foot hill created by insects makes an impression. The mound below was one we stopped to admire on our last day in Kakadu.

Termite Mound


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Twin Falls

As you might imagine, a towering plateau such as the Arnhem Plateau has more than a few waterfalls. The afternoon of the day we visited Jim Jim, we put on our swimsuits and hiking boots and headed for Twin Falls.

Twin Falls was a delight. Getting in was an adventure, but it was worth the effort. However, from what I’ve read, among the many alterations made in Kakadu was altering the approach to the falls to make it more accessible. No more paddling in on air mattresses (lilos in Australia), sliding over huge sunken boulders. Now you take a boat part way and then there’s a boardwalk. Well, I suppose that means more people get to see it. But the trip in was so much fun, I can’t help but think that something is lost. Of course, having now read about saltwater crocodiles appearing in the approach to some of the falls, and knowing that these savvy hunters would notice if lots more humans started showing up, it’s probably just as much a safety issue as it is an accessibility issue.

The photo below is from the base of the falls looking back toward the spit of land where we dumped our lilos when we went for a swim. The picture is a little deceiving, because it’s hard to tell how large the area is. Look for the little humans below the short trees on shore to get a sense of scale.

The spot was glorious, and while I’m disappointed to learn that the adventure has been somewhat diminished, it’s nice to know more people get to appreciate Twin Falls.

Twin Falls Gorge

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Jim Jim Falls

They say that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Hmm. Maybe it should be rephrased as what you don’t know won’t scare you—at least not until you find out later. Our guide chose not to share the following information with us, which I found on the Australia Government Department of the Environment site long after I had returned home from my first Australia venture.

Some visitors choose to swim at their own risk, in selected natural plunge pools and gorge areas such as Gubara, Maguk, Jim Jim Falls, Gunlom, Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge) and in creeks on the plateau above Twin Falls and Gunlom. These areas are surveyed for estuarine crocodiles prior to opening each dry season. There remains some risk that estuarine crocodiles may move into gorges and plunge pools during the dry season.

The next day after our arrival in the Jim Jim area, we hiked in to see Jim Jim Falls and the plunge pool (a deep pool created by the plunging waters of a waterfall). On the plus side, we didn’t get in the water until we reached the plunge pool. That government web site again:

  • Visitors who choose to swim at the Jim Jim Falls plunge pool do so at their own risk. Please note the advice on our visitor safety page regarding crocodiles and all crocodile warning signs on site.
  • Do not enter the water downstream of the Jim Jim Falls plunge pool. Estuarine crocodiles may be present.

Actually, the crocodile warning signs arrived after our visit—along with other changes that make the park more accessible to a larger number of tourists.

Oh, well, ignorance is bliss. We thought the only challenge was the house-sized boulders we had to climb over as we approached the sandstone walls that surround the plunge pool. And that cool, clear water was mighty refreshing after the long, hot hike/climb/scramble up the gorge.

The photos below are at the start of the hike in and about halfway through the hike out. I think they at least suggested how glorious the place is, and why we loved it so much. However, though we saw a lot more, I don’t have heaps of images from this hike, because once we reached the pool, I wasn’t thinking about photography, just getting into the water. (And to be honest, nearer the falls, both coming and going, photography seemed less important than concentrating on getting over those big boulders.)

Jim Jim Gorge Leaving Jim Jim

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Arnhem Land

Leaving Cooinda and Yellow Water behind, we began the long, rough drive deeper into the wilderness. The great, craggy walls of the Arnhem Plateau rose in the distance, looking like the lost world from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale.

If “Arnhem” doesn’t sound like an Aboriginal name, that’s because it’s not. The top end of Australia was sighted in the 1600s by Dutch traders who were looking for spices in India and the Molucca Islands. They thought it was desolate and not worth checking into further, as they didn’t see any real profit in it (no spices, gold, silk, tea, or other trade goods), but they still managed to leave a handful of Dutch names behind in this area: Van Diemen Gulf, Groote Eylandt, and Arnhem Land. This particular stretch of coast was visited in 1623 by Dutch explorer Willem van Colster. Van Colster’s ship was named the Arnhem, after an ancient ship-building town in the Netherlands, and he named this bit of land after his ship.

Arnhem Plateau

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We saw thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of birds as we cruised Yellow Water. There is an incredible concentration of birdlife at this wetland site, and I was nearly beside myself with delight (and frantic to write down everything we were seeing). It wasn’t just numbers of each species, though that was impressive, but the diversity of species, as well. Ibis, sea eagles, ducks, pygmy geese, lotus birds, and vastly more surrounded us, flew or perched overhead, or hunted in the water nearby.

Among those hunters were several snakebirds, which are also called darters, and in some parts of the world are known as anhingas. Snakebirds are found in tropical to warm temperate regions worldwide, with the exception of Europe. I have since seen anhingas in Florida, while down there photographing birds during the spring mating season, but my first view of this lithe bird was at Yellow Water.

The bird gets its “snakebird” moniker from the way it hunts. It swims almost completely submerged, with only its head and long, flexible neck above the water. As it swims, the head and neck dart from side to side, darting snakelike as it looks for fish. (And that darting is, of course, why it is also sometimes called a darter.) When it sees a fish, the snakebird strikes with the speed of a snake, too, spearing the fish on its bill. It then carries the fish to shore for consumption. Once fed, it perches on a branch and spreads out its wings to dry them.

The darter below is being watched by a couple of Australian pelicans—which were also abundant at Yellow Water.
Snakebird and Australian pelicans

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From the Red Center, I traveled north, to Australia’s Top End. I was only in Darwin for a day before I headed out with a small adventure tour group to visit Kakadu National Park, and wonderful wilderness made internationally famous in the movie “Crocodile Dundee.” On our second day in Kakadu, we visited Yellow Water.

Yellow Water Lagoon, with its many branches and inlets, was as still as glass when we arrived just after dawn. Reflected in the smooth, silver-blue water were the willowy paperbarks, dark-leaved mangroves, and densely clustered groves of pandanus that grow along much of the shoreline. A small, flat-bottomed, aluminum boat was tethered to a tree at the lagoon’s edge, and in this we launched out onto the bright water.

Like most of the estuaries and lagoons of Australia’s north, Yellow Water is home to the enormous (adults 15-25 feet in length) and dangerous saltwater, or estuarine, crocodile—“salty” for short. You stay out of the water. Not only can salties make an easy meal out of any human foolish enough to go for a swim, these monsters think nothing of tackling water buffalo, grabbing them by their faces when they come down to wallow and pulling them under water. Though massive, salties can move with incredible speed, even on land. They have reactions fast enough to catch a diving bird in flight, lurking below the water’s surface, then exploding into action

Most of the salties we saw were lazing in the sun or cruising through the water lilies. We did see one, though, who’d just caught dinner—a 20-pound ox-eyed herring—and we watched as he calmly crushed his struggling prey, the sound of crunching bones echoing across the still lagoon. Then he deftly tossed the fish into the air, catching it so it would go down head first, and with one gulp it was gone.

A large goanna moved cautiously into a clearing at the water’s edge. Goannas are monitor lizards, of which there are about 19 species in Australia. The largest is the giant perentie, second in size only to the related Komodo dragon. The goanna before us was no giant, but was at least four feet long. We went ashore to get a closer look, approaching slowly and quietly. The lizard’s forked tongue flicked in and out as it “tasted” the air, and it could tell something was going on. I was closest to it, and I could hear it hissing. Then it reared up, and I froze. Eventually, the goanna moved off into the brush, and we returned to our boat.

Yellow Water is so called because after the rainy season the water’s surface is entirely covered with yellow water lilies. The lilies we saw were either purple or white, and clung mostly along the shore. But it is feathers, not flowers, that draw visitors to Yellow Water, for here one of the largest selections of Northern Territory birds congregates.

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