Neville is practising his blue steel pose. He has just landed a part in a frontier action-thriller that’s going to be shot in Kakadu and Arnhem Land with Jack Thompson, Guy Pearce and David Gulpilil, and he’s pretty excited, although he doesn’t yet know what his role will be, or how long he’ll be on screen. “Maybe I’ll be a big star,” he says with a shy smile as we cruise up the road in a flat-bottomed boat.
We’re meant to be driving to Ubirr, one of Kakadu’s most popular rock art sites, but the road is submerged and the monsoon forest has transformed into a vast wetland. It doesn’t faze Neville, though.
Out here during the wet months, on the edge of Arnhem Land where floods are just part of the seasonal cycle, the roads turn into rivers and the locals replace cars with boats. We wave to a passing dinghy doing double duty ferrying kids to school.
When Neville’s not auditioning for the silver screen he’s a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise guide, and this special boat trip up the flooded Magela Creek to Ubirr is only available in big wet seasons when water levels are high enough. It’s a magical trip through an ethereal forest of peeling paperbarks full of nesting magpie geese and sentinel storks, a world away from the usual road trip across a dusty landscape of dried yellow grass. As we wind through the trees, Neville tells us stories about living in Kakadu and points out medicine plants and bush tucker, including his favourite, the “tasty magpie goose”. He’s also an artist – his work is sold in the Marrawuddi Gallery at Bowali Cultural Centre in Jabiru – and with a nifty flick of his hand, he transforms a reed into a paintbrush, which he pops into his pocket to use later.
We pull up at the flooded carpark, leaving Neville with his rapidly growing pile of reedy brushes, and head off on foot to the rocky outcrop famous for its galleries of art, which includes imagery of the extinct thylacines, depictions of European buffalo hunters, and ancient creation stories. We’re the only ones here and even the black wallaroos, who obviously weren’t expecting any tourists to turn up today, are surprised to see us. “They’re very rare,” says our tour guide, who usually only visits Ubirr in the dry season. “I’ve never seen them here before, there’s usually too many people around.”
It’s not my first visit to Kakadu but it may as well be because the view from the top of the lookout across the plain is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before: a rippling green sea of two-metre-high spear grass speckled with water glinting in the sun, replacing the vast golden savannah I remembered. It’s also crowd-free. Climb Ubirr on any given afternoon in July and chances are you’ll be sharing your view with hundreds of others, all jostling for the best sunset shot.
Back in the boat, Neville talks about the six distinct seasons in Kakadu: Banggerreng (storm season), Yegge (cool season), Wurrgeng (cold season), Gurrung (hot, dry season) and Gunumeleng (pre-monsoon storm season), but it’s when Gudjewg (monsoon season) arrives in February and March that the landscape completely transforms, although for the Traditional Owners of Kakadu, the seasons are defined by the bush foods that are available rather than just the weather. Neville, like everyone else I talk to on this trip, loves Gudjewg because the nesting magpie geese are easy to catch.
Up until now I had always thought April and November were the best times to visit because the roads and four-wheel drive tracks to campsites are all open. My last trip was in August, when we spent three weeks moving from one campsite to another and hiking through forests to secluded waterholes. We swam in the ink-black waters of the magic Motorcar Falls while turtles nibbled our toes and climbed up to the top of Gunlom Falls, which doesn’t flow in August but has one of the world’s best wet-edged plunge pools at the top. The landscape was blackened and bare after the annual burning that cleans the country of dry grass, and although the smoke haze produced some spectacular sunsets and the wildlife – buffalo, brumbies, wallabies and crocodiles – gathered at shrinking billabongs while migrating flocks of geese and other birds turned the sky dark with a million wings at dusk, it lacked the thundering waterfalls and lily-covered wetlands I see before me now.
It’s February, smack bang in the middle of the wet time, but it’s not actually raining that much on this trip – three of my four days here have been dry and when it does rain it has been at night. The humidity, on the other hand, has ramped up and as I turn in at the end of the days I’m grateful for the comfort of hotel-room air-conditioning and pleased I haven’t opted for canvas walls this time around.
The 4WD tracks to the epic waterfalls are closed – by the time they dry out enough to drive the falls will have all but disappeared – so the only way to see them is a 70-minute chopper flight that skims out along the edge of the escarpment, past Dreaming sites and gorges laced with dozens of ephemeral cascades, to Jim Jim and Twin Falls. We’ve asked for the doors off, and our pilot hovers above the billowing clouds of smoke-like mist, circling the sites so we can capture the shimmering rainbows that arc across the canyons. It’s awe-inspiring, bigger and more powerful than I’d ever imagined, and absolutely worth the splurge.
We fly low across the floodplains and I can see roaming buffalo and brumbies, while rivers fan out over the horizon. From this view, the enormity of Kakadu’s 20,000 square kilometres is enthralling. Devoid of buses, campervans and grey nomads, it seems even more untouched and wilder than it is in the dry.
I’d hiked most of the popular walking trails on previous visits, so we ask local indigenous guide and former ranger, Victor Cooper, to take us off track. He over-delivers, and we find ourselves tramping through the prickly spinifex, scrambling up rocky outcrops and splashing across creeks. We get to a small waterfall and crouch beneath the gushing water to cool down when Victor sheepishly admits that he’s lost the track because it’s so overgrown.
He heads off on a reconnaissance and half an hour later we reluctantly leave our wild spa to follow him clambering up a rocky cliff. I still can’t see the trail but Victor seems pretty confident he knows where he’s going (or he’s a really good bluffer), and all is forgiven when we get to the top and look out over the edge of the escarpment. We haven’t seen another person all day.
An early-morning cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong the following day leads us to the fabled oceans of lilies. The flooded plain is carpeted in pink, purple and white flowers while dainty jacana – nicknamed ‘Jesus birds’ for their ability to walk on water – pick their way from lily pad to lily pad. Sea eagles surf the thermals above, although our boat driver – just like Neville on our cruise to Ubirr on the first day – seems very disappointed that he has to motor past trees full of geese without taking one home.
“Those geese look much better on a plate,” he says with a grin, reminding me that up here, particularly in the wet season when there’s not so many tourists about, traditional hunting and gathering is still very much a way of life. I think back to the paintbrush Neville made in seconds on my first day, and recall his comments that there aren’t any Officeworks out in the bush.
It’s hard to believe that one place can provide so much. It seems that’s the magic of Kakadu; from dry to wet, reed to paintbrush, the changing seasons breathe new life into more than just the surrounding landscape. I leave Kakadu feeling restored, and wondering how Neville is going with his blue steel. I guess I’ll find out when High Ground hits the cinemas.