Nov 21 2017

Do you need a 4WD to visit Kakadu?

You don’t need a 4WD to visit most of the sights in Kakadu, but when you have a 4WD vehicle, you obviously have to use it.

Not just for the 4WDing, but because you’ll see something that most people don’t get to.

The major roads through the park are tar, so a 2WD vehicle will get you to most places, but there are others …

The Yellow Waters cruise is possibly the biggest drawcard for visitors, and is very easy to get to on tar all the way. It’s operated by Indigenous Rangers who really know and love the area they’re taking you through. And they are expert at spotting everything, including the tiniest birds in the trees. I’ve done the cruise every time I’ve gone to Kakadu, and every time it’s been different. It’s always first on my list of things to do.

Cahill’s Crossing, the causeway from Kakadu to Arnhem Land, is another of my favourite haunts. Really, it’s just a river crossing, nothing else, where people come down to fish for barrumundi. And many of them stand in the water in the middle of the causeway. With crocodiles swimming nearby. Unsurprisingly, people have been taken by crocs on that causeway. I think, secretly, that’s one of the drawcards – wondering if you’ll see somebody taken by a croc while you’re there. (Or perhaps not so secretly.)

This time Eleanor and & sat at Cahill’s Crossing for about an hour, with a picnic lunch, just watching crocodiles swim lazily around in the river. There were three crocs swimming around, and another three sitting in the water flowing across the causeway, seemingly waiting for a fish to somehow just get washed into their mouth. Unsurprisingly, nobody was fishing, but there were a few cars crossing from one side of the river to the other. Whenever a car drove across, the crocs would surf the car’s bow wave then, seemingly without effort, make their way back to their spot on the causeway. You can’t understand how fascinating it is unless you’ve seen it yourself!

Other people came, looked, had a chat, and left again. And still we sat. And watched.

And of course Ubirr and Angbangbang are … indescribable. The art, stories, shelters, and locations make you almost feel the spirits of people who used to live there.

But when you get off road, it’s different. Isolated. Just you and the environment. And your own skills.

We decided to go to Red Lily Billabong. Just 23km down a dirt track marked “4WD recommended”. Hahahahaha. Don’t go down there in a standard 2WD car, really.

We’d spoken with a ranger that morning who told us the road was open all the way through, but that there was still about a foot of water in the crossing.

“That’s ok” I said “We can manage that.”

“Yeah. It’s easy.” He said “Just watch the drop in. Oh, and watch there aren’t any water buffalo sitting in the water on the track. If there are, just drive up slowly and give them a nudge.”

The rangers are very amusing in Kakadu! Nudge a water buffalo in a little Jeep, I don’t think so! I think a water buffalo weighs more than a Jeep.

The first 21k were easy. A bit of gravel, a bit of sand, but nothing to worry about. Then, in the middle of a soft, sandy patch we came to water, Eleanor looked at it. “Here’s the water crossing.”

“No,” I replied “that’s just a puddle.”

Quite a long puddle admittedly, but just a puddle.

Into low range, and through the puddle. Easy.

A short drive later we came to more water.

“Is this the water crossing?”

“No. Just another puddle.”

A big enough puddle to slide through, and get mud over the car. But just a puddle. Fortunately neither puddle had a water buffalo sitting in it.

Seriously – don’t take a standard 2WD vehicle down there.

Then we came to Red Lily Billabong, and it was beautiful. Still covered with lilies, and surrounded by ducks and magpie geese. Is every whistling duck in the world in Kakadu?

We drove around, then pulled up by the billabong. And used the excuse that it was 40 degrees outside to not get out and walk around. But really, we were scared of crocs. Who wouldn’t be??? If anything happened we were a long way from help.

So we sat in the car with a picnic lunch (yes, we enjoy our picnics), getting out for brief strolls, and quickly retreating to the car before any crocs spotted us. We didn’t see any, but we knew they were around. They are everywhere!

Eventually we decided to move on and continue down the track. There were a couple more billabongs on the way down; and Kakadu how very few people see it.

The 23k from the highway to Red Lily Billabong took around 40 minutes, so the next 35k or so shouldn’t take much more than an hour, plus stops. Hahahahaha. Famous last words.

A few ks down the track and we came to a creek. About 10m wide and about a foot deep.

“THIS is a water crossing.” I said

The drop in didn’t look too bad, but I wasn’t going to get out and walk across to check what the bottom was like. This was croc country and I had absolutely no desire to stand knee deep in water that might – would – also contain crocs. Besides, the ranger had driven down there a few days earlier and I could still see where the tracks went.

Into low range again, down the drop off, across the creek, and up the other side. No worries!

We made it!

Things should be easy from here. Hahahahahaha. Famous last words.

Most of the track was fine, a bit rutted and a few puddles. Enough to keep our speed down under 20k, but nothing to need low range.

But then we reach the real water crossing, with a drop in. A drop in that we needed to stop and check before we did it.

There was no water in the crossing, at least where we had to cross, but about 20m away on each side the creek started again. But I wasn’t the one who had to stand at the bottom and guide the car down!

Luckily at that point I remembered I had the GoPro so I got it out and set it up on the front of the car. If Eleanor got taken by a croc at least I’d have it recorded!

After a couple of times walking Eleanor through where I wanted to put the wheels on the way down we were ready. Here’s a tip: If you’re being guided by somebody who hasn’t done it before, talk about what signals mean. Eleanor looked like she was doing ballet with her hands. It looked very elegant, but I have no idea what any of it meant. Fortunately it wasn’t really that difficult a drop in. I made it down, across the creek, and back up the other side.

At that’s when we started coming across wildlife. Lots of little kangaroos, wallabies, even brumbies running at full stride across the track right in front of us.

And, of course, there were water buffalo. The first one was solo and stood still, a fair way from the car, just watching.

The second was a family lot – three water buffalo together.

Eleanor turned pale. The buffalo were standing in the middle of the track. When I stopped the car to get out and turn the GoPro on, she stuttered.

“D..d..d..d..d..don’t get out of the car!”

But I got out. How else would I record us being rammed by water buffalo?

I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed, but we didn’t get rammed.

Not much further down the track, the next lot of water buffalo looked more promising. They were charging towards the track where we were about to cross.

The stutter that started with the last lot got more pronounced.

“F..f…f…f..f…  Wh…wh…wh… DON’T stop!”

I slowed down.

“DON’T stop!” I sped up “No. Don’t drive towards them.”

And right behind that group was a whole herd. So many I thought somebody must have been running cattle in there. But no, they were all water buffalo. And all a long way from the track, fortunately.

We called in to three billabongs on the way down the track, and passed another couple.

For the end of the dry season, the billabongs were still large, and there was not a soul around at any of them. Any one of them would have been a beautiful spot to stop and camp, but sadly we didn’t have any camping gear. At one billabong we even spotted a crocodile. A big one, swimming lazily through the water. We both got a frisson of excitement – our first ‘wild’ croc. As if somehow the ones in Yellow Waters and Cahills Crossing were tame!

As we had no camping gear, we kept going. And kept going. And went some more.

“Are you sure we’re on the right track?” asked Eleanor.

“There’s only one track.” I replied “We can’t go wrong.”

“But there was another track back there. What if that was the right one?”

“That wasn’t a real track.” I said “It wasn’t well enough marked. That was just where somebody had gone off track to explore.”

I wasn’t going to let on, but after more than two hours driving even I was starting to worry.

Then, when we came across a large tree across the track my heart jumped. It was a long way back, and not only was it almost dark, there were very threatening clouds gathering.

We got out and walked. And thankfully found a side track around the tree. For some reason that brought me some cheer. If there was a way around the fallen tree, then the track had been used a bit. We must be going the right way. And it surely couldn’t be much further!

And it wasn’t. Just a few (long) kilometres further on, almost 3 hours since we left Red Lilly Billabong, we came to the end. And the first drops of rain!

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