Mention the word ‘koala’ to me and the first image that comes to mind is a cute, furry grey animal with a white stomach and no tail, found in souvenir shops, wildlife magazines and at best, in an Aussie zoo! Yes, I’ve caught glimpses of koalas in the wild. However, those sightings were not only rare, but difficult to spot as koalas usually sit high up in eucalyptus branches.
Driver: Look, there’s one up there!
Me: Where? Where?
Driver: See the big tree in the middle? (Duh???) She’s right there.
Me: I see only lots of trees. Where?
Driver: It’s a bit dark but you can still see her. Up there. Look, she’s moving now.
Me: Where? Where?
Everyone else: Yes, there she is! Aww! That’s so cute!
Me: Where? Where?
Driver: That’s all, folks. The koala’s gone!
I had never really seen a koala in its natural habitat until I visited the Koala Conservation Centre in Phillip Island. The Centre plays host to a special koala breeding programme, ensuring it remains a key player in the conservation of these iconic animals.
The unique treetop boardwalks in a eucalypt woodland area gives visitors the chance to see how these amazing creatures live as they would in the wild. Even while strolling, two or three koalas could be seen relaxing in the trees directly above me.
It was super exciting to see them face-to-face. Never in my life had I come this close to a koala. This fella was like on a branch five feet away from me and I could literally touch him if I leaned forward and stretched out my hand.
I was half expecting the koala to move away but instead, he moved even nearer towards me, bringing the both of us to eye level by his sheer weight on the branch. We just stared at each other for around a minute, waiting to see the other’s next move. It was perfect timing for a photograph (or selfie) but I didn’t want to scare him off with a lens in front of my face. That was a very special moment for me and one which I will never forget.
Certain stretches of the wooden boardwalk have more koala poo than others, indicating that koalas have their favourite spots to hang out. When walking along this part of the bridge, you need to be on your toes (pardon the pun) to avoid stepping on koala poo and keep looking upwards occasionally to make sure that no koala does its toilet business on you!
I have to admit that I’ve never ever seen a koala walk on the ground before! It was specially thrilling to see this cute fella casually climbing down the tree trunk and sitting on a log for a quick rest…
…before making his way under the boardwalk where I was standing. He appeared on the other side and proceeded to climb up another tree! How I wished I had videotaped the scene but I was so excited to see the koala on the ground that I couldn’t think straight!
Kennett River situated along the coastal bushland between Lorne and Apollo Bay on the Great Ocean Road is one of the best places in Australia to see koalas in the wild. This area is home to hundreds of colonies that live in both the forests and more urbanised areas. You are practically guaranteed close koala sightings if you drive up the Grey River Road. Here, they can be found in trees surrounding the houses, in peoples’ gardens, relaxing on someone’s balcony and occasionally crossing the road!
Hearing this catchy tune on the way back to Melbourne, “Please Don’t Call Me a Koala Bear‘ by Don Spencer, sealed the end of a thoroughly enjoyable day with the koalas!
Please Don’t Call Me a Koala Bear
I’m a koala not a bear
And I don’t think it’s fair The way that people always add a word that isn’t there I’m a marsupial and proud of it And there can be no doubt of it I’m closer to a kangaroo than I am to a bear
So please don’t call me a koala bear Coz I’m not a bear at all Please don’t call me a koala bear It’s driving me up the wall If your name was Tom And everyone called you Dick Perhaps you’d understand why I’m sick, sick, sick I’m simply a koala And I want the name to stick
So please don’t call me a koala bear
I live here in Australia In a eucalyptus tree I’m as cuddly, cute and charming as an animal can be I don’t understand fair dinkum How anyone could think them Grizzly bears and polar bears Are anything like me
So please dont call me a koala bear Coz I’m not a bear at all Please don’t call me a koala bear It’s driving me up the wall If your name was Tom And everyone called you Dick Perhaps you’d understand why I’m sick, sick, sick I’m simply a koala And I want the name to stick
Just 235 kilometres west of Melbourne is Grampians National Park which is down on Australia’s National Heritage List for its outstanding natural beauty. The Park boasts of one of the richest aboriginal rock art sites in south-eastern Australia, with some of the best bush scenery against a backdrop of rugged sandstone mountains that can reach as high up as 1000 metres.
I had never been to The Grampians during my previous visits to Australia – until last year. Of all days, I had to sign up for a day tour during one of the wettest and coldest days in Victoria! It was too late to pull out from the trip by the time it was announced that heavy showers were expected the next day.
I felt less apprehensive when the Driver/Guide explained that The Grampians had its own climate and eco system, so the wet weather forecast need not necessarily apply to the National Park. With this assurance, I didn’t think too much about the intermittent showers that accompanied our small group during the 3-hour journey.
Brambuk Cultural Centre
The coach drove into the township of Halls Gap and dropped us off at the Brambuk Culture Centre. Owned and operated by five Aboriginal communities, Brambuk Culture Centre is the longest running Aboriginal cultural centre in Australia, offering information on the Grampians National Park as well as local aboriginal culture and history. The architecture of the centre looks like a flying cockatoo, a symbol of the local Aboriginal communities.
There was a lot of interesting things on display at the Centre – multimedia shows, art exhibitions, aboriginal artefacts, cultural talks, an aboriginal museum, and activities such as didgeridoo music, traditional dance, basket weaving, boomerang throwing and painting. I even managed to spot a number of wallabies roaming freely in the garden.
The group was scheduled to have lunch at Halls Gap and I was really looking forward to checking out this interesting-looking town. Once we got inside the coach, however, the Guide broke the news that we would be by-passing Halls Gap and heading straight for MacKenzie Falls instead. Storm clouds had already started to form in the distance and he wanted to make sure that we got the chance to visit the Park’s major attraction before the rain. We began the 40-minute drive up the winding mountain road towards MacKenzie Falls.
On the way, I could see evidence of the destructive forces responsible for shaping the landscape – burnt, charred, naked trees everywhere with no birds or animals in sight.
In the past ten years, Grampians National Park has been hit by a series of natural disasters, namely bushfires and floods. In 2006, a major bushfire devastated about 50 percent of the park, followed five years later by a major flood that damaged a significant amount of the park’s infrastructure, particularly along the MacKenzie River.
The road we followed marked a transection between two distinct vegetation types – healthy woodlands on one side and scorched eucalyptus trees standing out of rock and ash on the other. The lonely trees, dark clouds and stillness of the surroundings gave the area a bleak and gloomy feel, as if waiting in quiet anticipation for something to happen.
After a hurried lunch at the picnic area, I made my way down the 1.9 km path leading to the waterfalls. MacKenzie Falls is one of Victoria`s largest and most spectacular waterfalls. It is independent of weather and season, and flows all year round.
The falls sees torrents of water cascade over huge cliffs and plunging into a deep pool, sending fine sprays of rainbow mist high into the air above a stunning gorge.
The weather seemed to favour us, with the grey clouds being held in check by the wind. At first, the hike seemed to be an easy one but as I walked further in, the path became progressively steeper, involving many stairs going down to reach the base of the waterfall. In any case, it wasn’t nearly as tiring as climbing back up!
The pool at the base of MacKenzie Falls looked tempting especially after the long walk. However, the water is deceptively deep and the rocks slippery. Swimming is discouraged as some people have drowned here in recent years. It’s best to stay out of the water and just enjoy the scenery.
Reed Lookout and The Balconies
Just as the coach made its way out of the carpark, the clouds gave way and it started to pour. It was still raining very heavily when we arrived at Reed Lookout.
Reed Lookout right across the carpark is supposed to be a fantastic platform for enjoying sweeping views of the Victoria Valley on one side and Lake Wartook on the other. This lookout is also the starting point of the track to the rock formation known as The Balconies.
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to capture any views from Reed Lookout due to the rainfall, clouds and thick fog which reduced visibility to near zero. We remained inside the coach, hoping for the storm to subside soon. It was freezing cold outside and everyone just stayed put on their seats! I was beginning to think that this would be another one of those disappointing trips where I had to make my way home without accomplishing what I had set out to do.
Luckily, the rain eased to a moderate drizzle 15 minutes later and I decided to make the 2-kilometre walk to The Balconies that takes about 25 minutes one way. Apart from the fact that the ground was wet and a bit slippery, it turned out to be a pleasant walk on a gentle dirt track with some interesting sights along the way. I walked past a rocky outcrop of stacked rocks and through a forest with lush bush and wildflowers.
There were seats hewn from tree trunks for resting, before arriving at the highlight of the Grampians – the rock formation called The Balconies, better known as The Jaws of Death.
At one time, there used to be uninhibited access to this lookout and people could walk all the way to the edge of the ‘jaw’ to take in the scenery. Today, the path is sealed off to visitors to allow the bush around the rock formation time to recover from the bush fires. I suspect that the real reason behind the closure has something to do with safety because someone accidentally slipped and fell to her death some years back.
Visibility at The Balconies was blurry and misty – not what they could have been. Still, The Jaws of Death is admirably huge, jutting out fearlessly and majestically, and beckoning the daring and suicidal to walk out of its upper lip and mouth for stunning views of the valley below.
Just as I started to make my way back it started to rain again – a light drizzle at first, turning quickly into a shower and culminating in a downpour midway along the trail. I started to run all the way back, but was soaking wet and numb with cold by the time I got inside the coach. Ahh! It was so nice to have the air-conditioning turned up and feel warm again. I took this opportunity to space out and let my mind wander while waiting for the others to make their way round the bend and back!
The last stop was to Boroka Lookout, a 10-minute drive up the mountain from Reed Lookout. This is an easy lookout as it is accessible via sealed roads and therefore suited for those with limited mobility. A casual stroll through an open forest leads to two viewing platforms giving a bird’s-eye view of the Fyans Valley, Lake Bellfield and more.
In my case, getting to the lookout involved a light sprint instead of a stroll as it was still raining. While most of the others remained inside the coach still recovering from the damp and cold experienced earlier, I made a dash for Boroka Lookout, taking a shortcut through the forest and bushes. For my efforts, I was rewarded with views of the fog, more fog and not much else!
So…it was not exactly the best day to visit Grampians National Park. I must say, however, that the gloomy weather had a special quality of its own, bringing to attention other ordinary elements that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. In retrospect, I enjoyed myself immensely, although in an unexpected way! I’d love to go back there again and spend a night or two at Halls Gap to explore more walking trails, lakes and waterfalls and take more photos in better weather!
While putting up at my mother’s place in Melbourne last year, I decided to sign up for a day tour of the Great Ocean Road. This was my third visit to the scenic coastline. I still remember my second tour of the same road many years ago. That was the time we took our 2-year-old daughter, C, on her first overseas trip.
I had made sure that C slept most of the time during our flight so that the journey would not seem so long. When the pilot announced that we would be touching down at Tullamarine Airport in 90 minutes, the both of us felt relieved that the long flight had turned out better than expected. C had woken up by then and was trying to make friends with the little boy seated directly behind us. By and by, our attention turned to the airline stewardess who was running up and down the aisle and seemed rather flustered. Guess what? The little boy behind us had thrown up in the plane! The stewardess was doing her best to clean up the mess and reassure the embarrassed parents that everything was going to be alright. As the stench of vomit began to fill our nostrils, I started to feel queasy and turned to my husband for a sick bag. Unfortunately, he had his eyes closed while clutching a sick bag! I managed to find another one for myself and took deep gulps while doing mental workouts for the retching feeling to go away. Seconds later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my husband gesturing to me that C looked like she was about to throw up! I had to act fast and quickly shoved my bag in front of her. Methinks the stewardess should have thanked me for saving her from cleaning up another mess. As for me, all that frantic gulping, swallowing and mind control actually worked!
The moment we got in the coach for the Great Ocean Road tour, I knew we had made a big mistake. Barely an hour into the journey, C started to show signs of nausea. Viewing stops in the itinerary were spent inside the Visitor Centre or in the cold outdoors, desperately trying to get C to recover sufficiently so that we could continue the next leg of our journey. What was supposed to have been an enjoyable day out on the Great Ocean Road turned out to be a nightmare. It was a huge relief when we finally made it back to Melbourne in the late evening!
This time, I was determined to make the most of the tour. So on a very cold and wet morning in August 2015, my sister, two nephews and I boarded the train to Flinders Street Station and waited outside St Paul’s Cathedral for the coach that would take us on the Reverse Great Ocean Road Tour!
Our first stop for morning tea was at Colac Park. The town is built next to the huge Lake Colac and sits on the doorstep to the Great Otway National Park. While we were helping ourselves to coffee and biscuits, I noticed that my 14-year old nephew was unusually quiet and asked him if anything was wrong. He told me that the memory card in his camera was full and that he didn’t have an extra one. Oh no! I hadn’t anticipated this! How could he have used up 8GB of memory within a few days of buying the camera?
I asked our Tour Guide/Driver if we could make a quick stop in Colac town to buy an SD card. She said “no” as we were on a very tight itinerary and it would be unfair to keep the other passengers waiting. What a crappy excuse! I would have been able to accept it if she had said that it was too early in the morning for the shops to be opened! Seeing my nephew so dejected, I allowed him to use my SD card from my cellphone – but not before issuing a veiled threat that there would be hell to pay if he lost any data or stored images. This act of kindness cheered him up immediately and he was soon back to his usual cheerful self. I was waiting for him to shed tears of gratitude but that moment never came!
London Bridge is an impressive rock formation, offering sweeping views of the great Southern Ocean. During my first visit many years back, London Bridge was a double-span archway and tunnel which allowed me to walk right across to the furthest end of the cliff. In 1990, I read the news that the arch closest to the shore had collapsed, becoming a bridge without a middle. It’s good to know that I was one of those lucky ones who managed to make it all the way across before London Bridge fell down!
Loch Ard Gorge
If you are looking to find a spot on the Great Ocean Road that has it all, then Loch Ard Gorge wins hands down! Where else can you find rugged natural beauty, towering limestone cliffs, offshore stacks, mysterious blowholes and friendly nature trails to explore? Oh yes! Let’s not forget the stories of shipwreck and survival!
There’s no better place to leave behind life’s daily trivia than the dramatic and wind-swept coastline where the iconic Twelve Apostles sit. I first saw the golden cliffs and crumbling pillars from a helicopter during my first tour of the Great Ocean Road. At that time, nine apostles were still visible. My second time here is not worth mentioning as I only got as far as the Visitor Centre!
This third time, however, I was determined to see something – anything, so I made my way under a tunnel leading out to an extensive walkway complete with viewing platforms.
Powerful waves and wind of the Southern Ocean pound the rugged, windswept coastline, carving them into caves, then arches, and eventually battering them down into columns that rise up to 45 metres high! They used to be connected to the cliffs of the mainland some 20 million years ago. The stacks continue to be eroded at a rate of roughly 2 centimetres a year. Over the years, some have given up the battle against nature and today, only seven stacks remain.
Long ago, the Twelve Apostles was known as “The Sow and Piglets”. However, I’m sure you’ll agree that the name “Twelve Apostles” lends more credence and dignity to this weather-beaten magnificent landscape.
It’s an invigorating, end-of-the-earth feeling to watch this dramatic coastline being whipped by howling winds and foaming seas. No photograph or video can accurately capture the ocean’s raw power and the emotion it brings out, unless you’re standing there yourself.
Walkway leading to the Twelve Apostles
Seen behind the Visitor Centre. The narrow path less travelled.
Proof that I was here!
Pond behind the Visitor Centre that attracts birdlife
Wild Koalas and Birdlife at Kennet River
Native animals and wildlife are certainly not shy in the Kennett River area, located half way between the seaside towns of Apollo Bay and Lorne. In fact, the wildlife appear to coexist with the residents there. How refreshing it must be to look outside everyday and spot a koala or kookaburra in the trees!
A popular stop to see koalas, king parrots, rosellas and kookaburra is the Grey River Road. This dirt road winds up amongst some beautiful eucalyptus trees with wild koalas feeling right at home in their natural habitat. There are wild birds and cockatoos in the trees near the parking area. They are so used to humans gawking at them that they are no longer camera-shy – like this kookaburra below!
Memorial Arch marks the gateway to the Great Ocean Road. The arch is a tribute to the 3,000 returned soldiers from WWI who built the road between 1919 and 1932.
The 243-kilometre stretch of road itself was built as a memorial for all those who had lost their lives in WWI. It extends from Torquay to Allansford and is the longest war memorial in the world.
Next to Memorial Arch is a sculpture of two returned soldiers working on the Great Ocean Road. The sculpture was built to honour the men who used only pickaxes and shovels to clear the way and smoothen the road. The difficult and dangerous nature of the work resulted in a high level of turnover and a number of deaths.
To give an idea of what life was like back then, bush camps were set up at the site, with a piano, gramophone, playing cards, games, newspapers and magazines for recreation and relaxation. Accommodation was in individual tents, with a communal dining marquee and a kitchen. The soldiers were paid 10 shillings and sixpence ($1.05) for an eight-hour day and worked a half-day on Saturdays. Meals were not provided, and food costs came up to 10 shillings week. Due to the distances involved, few soldiers were able to go home to their families during their rest days, so swimming, fishing and hunting became popular weekend pastimes.
The Great Ocean Road is dotted with many surf spots, attracting surfing professionals from around the world.
Torquay, at the beginning of the Great Ocean Road, is the birthplace of surf culture. The leading surf brands of Rip Curl and Quiksliver were established here more than 30 years ago and are now global market leaders in clothing and equipment for surf, snow and adventure sports. The internationally renowned Bells Beach is home to the famous annual Rip Curl Pro event.
We stopped at Torquay for a hearty Bubba’s Pizza dinner, spread across a barbecue bench next to the beach. There was a full moon that evening and its light across the darkened sky signalled the end of an enjoyable and satisfying day on the Great Ocean Road!
Loch Ard Gorge is a must-stop point along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. It’s found in Port Campbell National Park, just three minutes away from the world-famous Twelve Apostles.
Flanked by two cliff faces and tufts of vibrant greenery, this scenic gorge is home to a secluded, turquoise-coloured bay with rolling waves caressing a narrow, sandy beach. However, Loch Ard Gorge isn’t just another natural Aussie attraction. It has a history of tragedy, irony and heroism that started from a voyage 130 years ago.
In 1878, the Loch Ard, a magnificent three-masted square-rigged iron clipper ship set sail from Gravesend (I’m serious!) in Kent, UK. Measuring 263 feet long with a beam of 38 feet, it carried onboard 17 passengers and 37 crew for a 3-month voyage to Melbourne. For the past 90 days at sea, it had been smooth-sailing and everyone was in good spirits, looking forward to their arrival in Melbourne the next day. On the night of 31 May 1878, a party was organised to celebrate the end of a long voyage.
Many days of fog and poor weather had made it difficult for the newly married, 29-year-old Captain Gibb to calculate his exact position for the critical passage into the western entrance of Bass Strait. By the time the mist lifted around 4:00am, the Loch Ard was greeted by powerful breakers and treacherous cliffs of the Victorian coast just two miles away. The Captain and his crew tried desperately to drop their anchors in an effort to steady the ship and turn her about, but it was too late. There was not enough space to manoeuvre such a large vessel, particularly with the wind and current against her. The Loch Ard struck Mutton Bird Island, crashing against the reef, dislodging rocks from the limestone cliffs onto the ship’s decks.
Pandemonium broke out as the crew struggled to launch the lifeboats, while passengers screamed in terror as the ship started to disintegrate. Many of the crew and passengers were washed overboard, and others trapped as the sea began to invade the ship. The Loch Ard sank within 15 minutes of the crash, with passengers having little chance of survival in the icy and treacherous waters.
Fifty-two people went down with the ship on that day. Only 4 bodies were eventually recovered and later buried in the clifftop cemetery – in coffins made from piano crates!
Only two people survived the Loch Ard Shipwreck – Tom Pearce, an apprentice seaman aged 18 years, and Eva Carmichael, also 18, a passenger emigrating with her family to start a new life in Australia. When the Loch Ard was going down, Eva had raced onto the deck to find out what was happening, only to be confronted by towering cliffs looming above the stricken ship, before being swept off by a huge wave. She could not swim and clung fiercely to a chicken coop for 5 hours. As the angry waves carried her nearer towards the entrance of a long, narrow gorge, she saw a lone figure on the distant beach and screamed for help.
Tom Pearce, a member of the crew, was swept into the sea while helping to launch a lifeboat. He managed to hold on underneath the upturned boat and was swept into the same deep gorge that now bears the name Loch Ard Gorge. He managed to swim to shore and was recuperating in a sea cave when he heard Eva’s cries for help. Although himself exhausted, he bravely dashed back out into the raging sea to rescue Eva. It took him an hour to swim out to Eva and pull her ashore. He brought Eva to a nearby cave in the gorge where she collapsed from her ordeal. After a few hours of resting, Tom climbed up the surrounding cliff and walked over three miles to seek help.
He managed to raise the alarm from the nearby Glenample Homestead and both survivors spent the rest of their time recovering at the farmhouse.
Tom and Eva became the subject of intense media attention and romantic speculation. On the one hand, there was the romantic expectation for them to marry. On the other, Victorian attitudes suggested that she was compromised by sleeping in a cave with a young sailor, and he should do the right thing by offering to marry her. Disappointingly for the romantics amongst us, Tom and Eva went their separate ways. They never saw each other again. Eva returned to Ireland where she later got married. Tom went back to sea and his heroism earned him a medal from the Humane Society.
Visitors to the area today can see the Gorge where the disaster took place, the rock stack of Mutton Bird Island that brought down the Loch Ard, the beach where Tom and Eva struggled ashore, and the cave where she lay exhausted while Tom went for help.
The other survivor of the shipwreck is a life-sized, brilliantly-coloured 1.5-metre-tall Minton porcelain peacock, perched on a rock. It was on its way from England to be displayed at Melbourne’s Great International Exhibition of 1880. Apart from a small chip on its beak, it was undamaged and is Australia’s most valuable shipwreck relic on display at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum with an estimated worth of $4m.
Life After the Shipwreck
What became of Tom and Eva after they went their separate ways?
After recuperating for 6 weeks at Glenample Homestead, Eva boarded a steamship and went back to Ireland! What a brave young woman to board a ship after all that had happened just a few weeks ago!
Eva married a Captain Thomas Townshend. Notice that her husband and rescuer had the same first name. Perhaps the name ‘Tom” was very common during that time.
Could Tom Pearce have been jinxed – or as we Asians call it – suay! Before the Loch Ard, Tom Pearce had previously survived another shipwreck 3 years earlier in 1875 when the Eliza Ramsden went down near the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. After the Loch Ard tragedy in 1878, Tom returned to sea in 1879. The ship Loch Sunart he was in hit a rock off Ballywalter in what is Northern Ireland today. The story goes that Tom was washed ashore and carried unconscious to the nearest house. Guess whose house it was? Eva Townshend’s! Coincidence? Fate?
Tom eventually married a woman who happened to be the relative of another ship apprentice that went down with the Loch Ard. He retired in 1908 and died in his Southhampton home at the age of 49. It’s a bit of an irony that Tom managed to survive 3 shipwrecks but didn’t get to reach his 50th birthday! Perhaps he had cheated Death one too many times and his time was finally up!
Tom Pearce was born Thomas Richard Millett. When his civil engineer father died in 1874, Tom’s widowed mother married Captain James Pearce and Tom took on the surname ‘Pearce’ from then on. Tom’s stepfather, James Pearce, happened to be the captain of the ill-fated SS Gothenburg that wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in February 1875!
Tom’s family history is littered with tragedy. Both his sons followed in their father’s footsteps and became sailors. However while Tom managed to survive three shipwrecks, his sons were not so lucky and both boys died at sea. Tom’s daughter was killed in a road crash and a granddaughter committed suicide.
Back to present-day Loch Ard Gorge where yesterday’s tragedy has become today’s tourist attraction. I felt very small standing on this narrow stretch of sand, sandwiched between towering cliffs on both sides. While some of the fascination has rubbed off, the coast has not been tamed. It’s really not difficult to imagine the chaos, destruction and danger that sweeps across this part of the Great Ocean Road during a thunderstorm.
To be honest, you’re not likely to go ga-ga at the mention of Phillip Island’s Forrest Caves, unless you have a passion for surfing. There are three exposed beaches on this 1.3 km of coastline with extensive rocks, reefs and bluffs around. These waves have strong rips with a number of breaks over the reefs. Breaking the waves, flipping the board, turtle roll! You can realise all these moves here!
A 45-minute return walk along some large sand dunes will bring you to Forrest Caves. These are large sea caverns in the rock carved by the unceasing erosive action of the waves. The caves become exposed and are accessible only during low tide.
You get to see some beautiful colours on this walk – the red stained tuff rocks, grey boulders, green tussock grass, the blue sky, white waves and golden sands. Best of all, the whole beach was deserted. What a special way to be spending my last few hours in Phillip Island!
The Nobbies is actually the more popular name for Point Grant, located at the western tip of Phillip Island. In addition to boasting of panoramic ocean views and dramatic sea bluffs, the Nobbies is home to one of the largest fur seal colonies in Australia. It’s not quite certain as to how the Nobbies got its name. Perhaps it was from the domes at the end of the point, or from the rocks that protrude from the water like knobs when the tide reaches a certain level.
Unlike Cape Woolamai where the hike can be quite challenging, the one-kilometre walk around the Nobbies is a relaxing one via a series of wooden boardwalks and stairs that wind around the edge of the cliffs, offering uninterrupted views of fiery waves and white water crashing against the rocks.
The Nobbies showcases nature at its best. There are many native birds and wildlife in the surrounding area, and they turn up at the most unexpected moments. If you are thinking of coming here, consider bringing along a pair of binoculars. We spotted quite a number of wallabies hopping about, and admiring us while we admired them. Elsewhere, there were Grey Geese wandering about with their goslings. It’s amazing to think that little penguins land here and climb the cliffs to their burrows every night. We spotted many man-made burrows and even spied little penguins inside some of them.
Wallabies are plentiful here.
A penguin inside her burrow.
Birds are abundant.
After crossing a level stretch of the boardwalk, we arrived at a viewing platform for the Nobbies Blowhole. There is a 12-metre-deep sea cave just below the boardwalk. When smashed by a strong wave, the blowhole returns fire with a mist of air and water that sprays out of the hole. It was mesmerising to watch this phenomenon from the safety of the platform.
There is a sign along the boardwalk to explain how this force of nature works. Those with a physics bias will appreciate this additional information.
1. A large wave enters the blowhole. 2. The wave fills the tunnel from floor to ceiling, compressing air against the rear wall. 3. The wave hits the rear wall and rebounds, its speed increased by the explosive force of the compressed air. This creates a jet spray from the tunnel entrance.
The plus point about the rugged scenery of the Nobbies is that there are no entrance charges for the the pram-friendly boardwalk. Free. Now that’s a word I rarely hear these days! Don’t forget your jacket and scarf as it can get very cold especially if you are visiting during winter and spring.
It’s not often that I get the chance to catch the sunrise in a beach setting. So very early the next morning, I forced myself out of the warm bedcovers, grabbed my jacket, camera and torchlight and used a shortcut to Cowes beach. The entire neighbourhood was still in slumber as I walked right to the end of the street. I made my way across the grass and into some bushes and trees that hid a narrow trail until I came to a flight of wooden stairs leading straight to the beach. As I made my way through the foliage, I could hear the distinctive calls of birds and insects as well as movements and cracking branches coming from the trees above me. This is what I love about Phillip Island. You get to really experience close encounters with wildlife in their natural habitat.
At that very early hour, I was the only person on the deserted beach. The sand was still wet and soft under my feet, forming little pools of water with every step forward. In the distance, I could make out the dim flicker of lights from the town and the black silhouette of trees against an emerging gold sky. I gazed at the waves ebbing lazily in their silver blue-grey coat and waited. A flock of seagulls kept me company as I watched the sky perform an elegant dance ritual of colours in blue, purple, pink, red and orange.
I felt as if I was in a huge open air concert hall and the light extravaganza was for my eyes only. What a humbling feeling!
All too soon, the magic of the moments came to an abrupt end. The sun’s golden rays had appeared surreptitiously but quickly, casting its light over the landscape and staking its claim on a new day.
Going to Melbourne and spending some time with family is always something I look forward to. Besides being able to put up at Mom’s place for as long as I wish, my two married sisters will always make sure that my time in Melbourne is well-spent – be it catching up with close relatives, window shopping, visiting Melbourne’s historical monuments and city attractions, or joining their famiies for outings to explore Victoria’s many natural attractions.
This time round, my sister announced that she and her family would be bringing me to Philip Island, staying for three nights in a time-share resort. This would be my first time to Philip Island so I was pretty excited about the prospect of getting some great photographs. Getting the chance to join my sister, brother-in-law and nephew was the icing on the cake as the family are nature lovers, spending weekends in the outdoors and making short trips to those places less trodden without burning a big hole in the pocket!
The drive from Melbourne to Philip Island is about 130km and takes about an hour and forty-five minutes. Due to the after-office crawl on the highway, however, we only arrived in Phillip Island two-and-a-half hours later and checked into the villa after dark.
The next day, we drove to Cape Woolamai, Phillip Island’s most southerly point that’s world renown for its surf beaches, natural beauty and shearwater rookery (mutton birds). In fact, Cape Woolamai has been declared a National Surfing Reserve, where you can just enjoy the beach and watch daring surfers in action. If coming here is in your itinerary, make sure you are prepared to walk a few kilometres in from the Woolamai Beach Surf Lifesaving Club carpark.
From the carpark, we walked down a wooden ramp to the beach and made our way along a wide strip of sand towards an outcrop that juts out from Cape Woolamai. On the other side of this rocky point is the spectacular granite formation called the Pinnacles.
About 700 meters before reaching the end of the beach, we came to a wooden staircase leading up to the sandy grass-covered bluffs that connect the rocky end of Cape Woolamai with the rest of Phillip Island.
Once at the top, the rugged landscape of Cape Woolamai opens up to views of red cliffs, blue oceans, rocky shores and golden beaches.
There is a sign here highlighting four of the most rewarding walking track loops that run along the coastline and are interspersed with viewing platforms that offer superb views of Phillip Island. Each track is identified with a different colour marker, and varies in distance and terrain.
Pinnacles Walk – The green track is 4.5km long, with an estimated walking time of 2 hours return. The path winds along rugged granite cliffs and impressive rock formations known as The Pinnacles.
Cape Woolamai Beacon Walk – The black track is 7.4km long and continues past the Pinnacles to the light beacon at the high point of Cape Woolamai (118m) before looping back around the end of the cape. It has an estimated walking time of 3.5 hours
Old Granite Quarry Walk – The blue track is 5.6km long with an estimated walking time of 3 hours. It crosses over to the east side of the cape that was once the site of an old rock quarry.
Cape Woolamai Circuit Walk is 8km return and takes about 4.5 hours to compete all three walking tracks.
Our initial plan was to take the shortest of the three walks – the Pinnacles Walk (2 hours round trip), leave Cape Woolamai by 4pm and finish the day with a hearty dinner in town before returning to the resort.
However, by the time we arrived at the junction where the walking trails branched out, all initial plans were forgotten. Since my sister’s family had not tried out the inland route, we decided to start with the Cape Woolamai Beacon Walk first, and then head back via the Pinnacles Walk so that we could take in the ocean scenery for the remainder hike back to the carpark.
The Cape Woolamai Beacon trail enters some woodlands, which provide the only shady area in Cape Woolamai. As we approached the beacon, the trees gave way to shrubs and we continued the long hike on undulating terrain before finally arriving at Cape Woolamai’s beacon.
At an elevation of 118m, the beacon sits at the highest point on Cape Woolamai and all of Phillip Island. While looking seemingly ordinary, this light beacon is responsible for keeping ships from running into Phillip Island!
It is also from this lookout point that we got to see stunning panoramas of the island, including the Bass Strait that separates Victoria from the island of Tasmania.
From the beacon, we took the left trail that looped round along the sheer cliff tops towards the direction of the Pinnacles. You know you’ve reach there when you see a wooden bench at the edge of the grassy bluff with spectacular views of granite formations that make up the Pinnacles. Here, sea stacks resembling connected rock columns rise out of the water and strong waves crash into the rocks, exuding energy, anticipation and excitement to the seascape. If the views are so mesmerising from the top, how stunning the Pinnacles must look if seen up close from the rocky shoreline!
However, none of us attempted to venture down the rocky shoreline as it was already getting dark and the path looked rather unsafe. You need to go down the narrow trail leading towards the steep embankment overlooking the bottom. Extra care is needed to make sure that you don’t slip on the soft soil held together with loose vegetation. I wasn’t prepared to take the risk of injuring myself so early into my stay in Australia.
During the hike, we spotted a number of curious wallabies and one echidna which was trying its best to hide away from us. Dotting the cliff sides, we also saw many burrows dug by short-tailed mutton birds.
Mutton birds are plucky creatures. Around the last week of September every year, they brave a 15,000km journey from Alaska via Siberia, South America, Antarctica and Japan to arrive on the shores of Philip Island. They remain for nearly six months to rest, build their burrows and mate, with each pair producing one large egg. The newly born chicks have an extraordinary penchant for survival – waiting up to two weeks between meals whilst the adult birds travel to as far as the Antarctica to feed on krill, which they regurgitate for their waiting chicks back in the burrows of Philip Island. We managed to see the occasional mutton bird and spotted a chick or two peeping out from their burrows.
While the walking routes at Cape Woolamai appear generally flat and undulating, it is a physically challenging one. The first half of the trail is over deep sand that gives way with every step. It was energy-draining and exhausting to walk on. Near the stairs, the beach becomes somewhat rocky and rough and the rest of the walk along the cliff is laden with loose stones that are quite slippery. If you’re not confident with your level of fitness, you might want to give this place a miss and check out Philip Island’s other natural but less strenuous attractions.
It’s also best to be accompanied by someone if you are thinking of doing this track. Should the unthinkable happen, at least someone can go for help.
In addition to your camera and binoculars, I would bring along a jacket, biscuits and a plentiful supply of water. While it may have looked like a nice, sunny day, the winds were strong and it was actually very cold. I had my jacket on during the entire 8.5km walk. A torch would be worth packing especially during the winter months when daylight hours are shortened. The most important thing is to make sure you wear solid shoes with a good grip for traction on the slippery rocks.
By the time we got back to the carpark, everyone was very hungry and looking forward to having fish ‘n chips for dinner. To our utter disappointment, most of the eating places in town were already shut by 7pm. We finally ended up having Chinese food in a small cafe.
Mindil Beach Sunset Markets are something of a Darwin institution. Held every Thursday and Sunday during the dry season months between May and October, the markets are a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, where you can sample a wide variety of flavours from the Asia-Pacific, shop and be entertained beneath the coconut trees swaying gently against the backdrop of a brilliant sunset.
The stalls sell bush art, clothes, puppets and pottery. For something to remember your visit, you can take home a didgeridoo, Aboriginal painting or a crocodile wallet, wristband or jewellery made from crocodile teeth.
All around the air is filled with delicious smells. This is the place to sample spicy Thai tom yum or green curry, or traditional Indonesian goodies like bakso (savoury meatball noodle soup), gado-gado (vegetable salad with peanut sauce) and satay (barbecued meat morsels on skewers, marinated in turmeric) topped with a hearty dose of peanut sauce and served with ketupat (rice cakes)
Then there’s Malaysia’s laksa, mee siam and nasi goreng; Vietnam’s buncha (pork meatball and noodle salad), goi cuon (shrimp or pork with herbs rolled up in rice paper) and nem nuong xa (grilled meat on lemongrass skewers).
Closer to home, crocodile, buffalo and barramundi are just some of the fresh specialties for the taking. For those traditional foodies, there’s always the roasts, burgers, fish and chips. To finish off with something sweet, there’s tropical fruit, fresh juices and a great array of exotic desserts.
At dusk, the throngs of locals start arriving, armed with deck chairs, stools, rugs, mats and magazines to stake a space on the sandy beach and wait for the sun to sink below the horizon. The Sunday that I went was especially busy with the spillover of merrymakers who had gathered earlier in the afternoon for the 42nd Darwin Beer Can Regatta.
By the time I made my way to the beachfront, I could not find a nice spot on the sand. Everyone looked well-prepared except me. I had forgotten to bring something to sit on. As time was running out, I took off my shoes and sat on them. A few feet away from me, a resourceful French backpacker had appraoched a Dutch girl who had already secured her spot, and asked if she could share her rug.
So there was only me on the beach – along with a few hundred other people, waiting expectantly for the magic to happen. By and by, the murmurs, quiet chattering, shifting and movements stopped as the sun recede into the waters below.
The sky lit up into a blend of reds, oranges, yellows and even purple. The ebbing waves carried a hint of red, with dark blue streaks running across the waters. Everyone was transfixed and mesmerised. The contrast between the dark waters and the painted sky made the horizon look mysterious and beautiful at the same time. For a few moments, the world was quiet and restful as the sun transitioned from day into night.
A few minutes later, the silence was broken. Around me, a flurry of activity as people started to pack up and make their way out of the beach.
As for me, I couldn’t bring myself to leave so quickly. The last traces of light was still across the sky and I decided to just wait a little longer for the darkness to set in. I rummaged inside my bag to look for my little LED torch, just in case it became too dark to make my way out of an unfamiliar place. By the time I looked up again in those few short seconds, the fading sky had changed once again and transformed into a rich, creamy, blue canvas, spilling silver dust all over the water.
I sat there and waited until the beach was almost deserted. Then I dusted the sand from my toes, put on my shoes and made my way back to the hotel.
Darwin has come a long way from a laid-back frontier town to a modern city. She is arguably Australia’s most cosmopolitan city, boasting a population made up of people from more than 60 nationalities and 70 different ethnic backgrounds. Darwin’s multicultural mix is evident by its many exciting ethnic cultural festivals and weekly food and craft markets. Interestingly, Darwin has a youthful population with an average age of 33 years!
Darwin city living is characterised by wide streets, shady parks, a pedestrian mall, authentic ethnic restaurants, contemporary and outback-style pubs, clubs, galleries and museums. Its facilities and amenities are at least equal to, and often better than, what you’ll find in Australia’s southern cities.
At its heart is the Smith Street, a pedestrian-only shopping mall between Knuckey Street and Bennett Street. There are more than 200 specialty shops lining this Mall where you can find Aboriginal art and crafts, jewellery, tropical clothing and souvenirs. Two large supermarkets can also be found here – Coles and Woolworths.
The main entertainment district is Mitchell Street, with its cinemas, sidewalk cafes, open air bars, specialty restaurants, fast food joints, 5-star hotels and quaint Irish, English and Aussie pubs. A good number of budget accommodation catered towards backpackers are also found here. Overall, Mitchell Street has something to offer for groups, families or singles.
A short stroll from the Darwin CBD is the Darwin Waterfront Precinct. It’s family-style entertainment area with its seaside promenades, parklands, landscaped gardens, retail outlets, hotels and alfresco dining is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Darwin Waterfront’s unique appeal has something for everyone. There’s boardwalk dining overlooking the harbour where multicultural menus include Australian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Italian, French, Greek, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Mexican and Indian influenced cuisine. It is reachable from the central business district via the Esplanade or an elevated walkway.
The Darwin Waterfront Precinct is home to Northern Territory’s only Wave Lagoon. Offering safe year-round swimming for the entire family, the Wave Lagoon is open daily and is a great spot to cool off, relax or ride a wave. The size of the Wave Lagoon is over 4000 square metres with depths varying from 2m at the deepest point. The lagoon creates ten different wave patterns with the highest wave reaching 1.7 metres. Admission charges are AUD$7.00 for an adult and AUD18.000 for a family 2 adults and 3 children.
At the opposite end of Darwin’s Business District and a stone’s throw away from Mindil Beach is the George Brown Botanic Gardens. Built in 1886, the Botanic Gardens offers a wide range of environments in the form of monsoon forests, coastal dunes, mangroves and open woodlands. It showcases a host of Top End flora, including 450 species of palms and plantings from Tiwi Island and Arnhem Land. This historic place is one of the world’s few botanic gardens with marine and estuarine plants occurring naturally in its grounds. This is the place for plants and flowers enthusiasts!
I spent about 1.5 hours in the Botanic Gardens until it was time for me to make my way to Mindil Beach. At the entrance before crossing the little bridge, I looked up at the trees for any last-minute shots and couldn’t believe my eyes. Just above my head, resting in the shadows of a tree branch was a python! Was I thrilled! As no one else was around, I had the snake all to myself, clicking away with my camera and cursing the lack of sufficient light.
And then, when I was drafting this post, Google Search results showed up about a fake snake in George Brown Botanic Gardens. Oh no! This couldn’t be my snake!
I compared my photo with the snake in the article. As you can see, there is no similarity whatsoever! Made my day!
I made my way to Mindil Beach Sunset Markets which was crowded with people. The weekend’s festivities had already started much earlier with the 42nd Darwin Beer Can Regatta in full swing by the time I got there.
The Darwin Beer Can Regatta is a festival held annually since 1974 at Darwin’s Mindil Beach. Participants show off their creativity by building boats using empty beer cans, soda cans, soft drink bottles and milk cartons. The can boats are not tested prior to water events, and those that fall apart in the water become part of the fun and entertainment.
Mindil Beach’s Sunset Markets have up to 60 food stalls offering cuisine from all over the world – Turkey, Greece, Sri Lanka, South America, North Africa, India and all over South East Asia. In addition, the stalls sell Aboriginal arts and crafts and jewellery. There is a host of other activities like buskers, masseurs, tarot readers, leather tailors, jewellers, artists and magicians to add to the hustle, bustle and fun-filled atmosphere.
With its easy and relaxed charm, stress-free environment, little traffic and a small population, everyday is a holiday in Darwin – even if a lifelike python is thrown in front of the visitor to add to the excitement. It’s a good thing that I didn’t have to pay any entrance fees to get into the Botanic Gardens. Otherwise, I would have felt cheated that the snake wasn’t real!
If you are looking to have a break from the journey between Darwin and Katherine, then Emerald Springs Roadhouse is THE place for a stop-by. I visited the roadhouse twice – once for breakfast during the journey to Katherine Gorge and again for dinner before returning to Darwin.
One can be forgiven for not noticing this place, which sits just below the Stuart Highway. The exterior is rather nondescript and except for the signage, “Emerald Springs Roadhouse”, you would think that it is just another abandoned farmhouse. The narrow entrance at the side doesn’t help either. There are no signs to invite the weary traveller in for a good meal and refresh himself.
However, once I got past the door, a whole new world opened up in front of me. I was really impressed by the warm ambience, the vintage-style decor and wood furnishing. What a big difference between the outside and the inside! I will go so far as to say that once you are inside, you really don’t want to get back on the road too soon. Instead, you will want to pamper yourself with a hearty, value-for-money meal, sit back, relax and enjoy the retro-modern atmosphere.
The main dining area is air-conditioned and tastefully furnished with wooden tables, chairs and bar stools – perfect for enjoying an Aussie meal and stretching those weary muscles. The full bar, decorated with some interesting ornaments and wall hangings, offers an impressive wine list along with pub classics.
Next to the restaurant is a beer garden, great for chilling out and for the children to run around.
Out the back is a huge timber deck furnished with cane sofas and plush cushions. The huge ceiling fans, flowers in jars and potted plants, all add to the relaxed, laid-back mood of the 1950s era.
The toilet facilities are clean and well-maintained. The owners have added a nice touch by placing a fresh flower stalk on each hand basin – even in the men’s toilet!
Emerald Springs Roadhouse boasts of serving the best coffee along this stretch of the Stuart Highway, as they claim to own the only cappuccino machine between Darwin and Katherine.
We were given only 20 minutes for breakfast. Considering that I had to stand behind a long line for my breakfast selection, then join the queue again for ordering drinks and making payment at the bar, and finally queuing up for the toilet, it really didn’t leave me much time to appreciate my surrounding. What a pity! I decided to try out their famous scones topped with butter, jam and cream. So yummy! I would have happily gone for a second helping of scones, had it not been for our tour guide urging us to hurry, hurry, hurry, as we still had a long distance to cover!
Fortunately, things were not so so rushed when we stopped by again for dinner. I ordered the Chef’s Special of the Day – Grilled Barramundi with Potato Chips and Mixed Salad. It was lovely to have my meal out in the garden, waiting for the night to set in. It gave me the chance to reflect on the three National Parks I had visited in Northern Territory – each one giving me the permission to take back with me a small piece of their uniqueness, and finding a place in my suitcase of memories.
Granted that it wasn’t a brilliant sunset, this silhouette shot I took just before boarding the coach will always be a beautiful reminder of the cozy ambience, sumptuous food and wonderful people at Emerald Springs Roadhouse!
This marks my last post about my trip to the national parks in Australia’s Northern Territory. Up to today, I still cannot say which visit I enjoyed most – Maguk, NitmilukorJim Jim Falls. All I know is that whenever I recall these places, I tend to remember the journey there, rather than the destination!
Just a 70-minute drive away from Edith Falls is one of Australia’s most spectacular outback regions – Katherine Gorge or as the local indigenous Jawoyn people call it – Nitmiluk National Park.
Frankly, I had envisioned the gorge to be something like Maguk(Barramundi Gorge) where the hike is long and strenuous across most parts. My fears, however, proved unfounded. You can’t just walk in and out of Katherine Gorge. You either take a cruise or canoe.
All tours in the region are operated by Nitmiluk Tours that offers 2-hour and half-day safari gorge cruises, canoeing, hiking, helicopter rides and accommodation within the National Park. You can buy your tickets at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre located at the entrance to the jetty, and then make your way down the ramp and hop into a boat or canoe.
Nitmiluk Gorge is made up of 13 separate waterways that wind along a 12 kilometres stretch of ancient rock with heights extending to more than 70 metres. Sculpted from sandstone over 20 million years ago by the Katherine River, it is open all year round, and features some of the most stunning gorge scenery in Northern Territory – raging waterfalls, rocks and boulders, breathtaking cliff views of Jawoyn country, pockets of rainforest along streams, water holes, bushland and a myriad of lizards, insects, birds including freshwater crocodiles!
These thirteen gorges are actually sections of one massive gorge that become separated by rock bars and boulders when the water level drops during the dry season. Conversely, when the water level rises during the rainy season, rivers, rapids and waterfalls develop and flow down the escarpment. Therefore, accessibility into the upper reaches of the gorge by boat and canoe depends very much on the water level.
The cruise I went in took me as far as the Second Gorge. The guide gave a good account of the local Jawoyn culture, the make up of the gorge, and some of the plants and wildlife that inhabit the area. It was not long before we came across a freshwater crocodile camouflaged underneath a rock along the bank.
Can you spot the croc?
At reaching the end of the First Gorge, we had to get off the boat and make a 400-metre walk across rocky terrain before getting into another boat that would take us to the Second Gorge.
This crossover with its uneven surfaces can become quite tricky. Those with restricted mobility do not need to hike all the way to the Second Gorge. There are benches and rocks at the crossover to sit down and take in the views while waiting for the rest to return.
Here are some views that opened up as we made our way to the Second Gorge.
Making our way down the steps to the Second Gorge.
The Second Gorge is even more stunning than the first one. Every turn of the winding river provides another visual masterpiece of near vertical bedrock plunging straight down into the blue-green waters of the expansive Nitmiluk Gorge.
I felt a sense of deja vu when cruising along the Second Gorge. The place looked strangely familiar and I couldn’t recall where I had seen a similar scenery. And then it struck me! I was cruising along the same route that was used in the filming of the Australian horror crocodile movie, “Rogue”.
Rogue (2007) is about an idyllic wildlife cruise that disintegrates into terror when a party of tourists are stalked by a massive man-eating crocodile. The movie was shot in Yellow Water at Kakadu National Park, with additional scenes in Nitmiluk Gorge. You can watch the trailer here.
All too soon, two hours seemed to whiz by. It would have been very nice to have been able to stay back for the sunset. Sadly, time did not permit. We were soon back inside the coach, making a stop at Emerald Springs for dinner, before embarking on the last leg of the long journey back to Darwin.
Edith Falls, also known by its Aboriginal name Leliyn, is a picturesque collection of dazzling waterfalls that crash down the surrounding cliff sides and into the one large plunge pool. Surrounded by lush vegetation and a quirky array of wildlife, Edith Falls is a popular recreation spot for visitors on the look out for the Top End’s mesmerising outback scenery.
The falls are located about a one hour drive north from Katherine in Northern Territory, and is a must-visit attraction if you’re headed for the Katherine region.
The falls are named after the Edith River which runs through the Nitmiluk National Park. It is a thriving habitat for plants and animals, whilst the rock pools offer cool respite from the hot Australian outback.
In addition to the waterfalls and rock pools, the landscape surrounding Edith Falls is carved with numerous hiking trails which are popular with more active travellers. There are plenty of scenic bushwalking routes for exploring, as well as a handful of secluded spots with grassy sites and ample shade for picnics and relaxation.
Hot shower facilities are available and there is a kiosk for buying food and drinks.
Edith Falls can be visited at anytime of the year, but it’s best to experience it during the dry season between May and September. The rainy season might be less crowded, but there’s a chance you might not get to swim in the pools – one of the main highlights of the trip.
It was a lovely start to the morning. I got to try crocodile meat for the first time during lunch, and then we were back on the road again, headed for Katherine Gorge.
After a satisfying picnic lunch at Angbangbang Billabong, our little group made our way to Nourlangie Rock (Burrunguy) to view Kakadu’s famous rock art gallery. Aboriginal art is the oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world and this is no surprise as Aboriginal people have lived in Kakadu continuously for at least 50,000 years.
Rock art consists of paintings, drawings, stencils, engravings, bas-relief and figures found in caves and rock shelters, on rock platforms and boulders. The paintings connect past and present, the indigenous people and the land, the supernatural and reality. Some indigenous paintings date as far back as 20,000 years old – so little wonder that Kakadu enjoys World Heritage status.
The Bininj/Mungguy (Aboriginal people) believe that Kakadu was shaped by their Creation Ancestors who travelled across the country creating landforms, plants, animals and of course, the Bininj/Mungguy. The Creation Ancestors left Bininj/Mungguy a legacy of kinship, linking people to the land and the cultural responsibility to look after the land. From then on, Aboriginal people became caretakers of their country. Laws including ceremony, language, kinship and ecological knowledge were introduced, and subsequently passed down from one generation to the next.
Our guide explained that we were standing right smack on one of the biggest uranium sites in the world. The traditional owners had rejected a very lucrative offer by a huge mining company to buy the land, as they felt it their duty to preserve the bond between Aboriginal people and land, and pass it down for future generations to continue this tradition.
We embarked on a 1.5 km circuit climb that took us through a shelter used by the Aboriginal people for over 50,000 years . Its exit opens out to Angbangbang’s Outdoor Art Gallery.
Reasons for rock painting
Story telling and education — The art sites are dreaming places, depicting dreamtime legends and images that communicate valuable lessons to be passed down from one generation to the next. There are more than 5,000 art sites that tell the story of Creation Ancestors and how they came to shape the landscape.
Hunting — animals were often painted to increase their numbers and to ensure a successful hunt by placing the aboriginal hunter in touch with the spirit of the animal.
Religious purposes — at some sites paintings depict aspects of certain ceremonies.
Magic and sorcery — pictures were drawn to manipulate events and influence lives.
Past time – for enjoyment, recreation and practice.
Some of the world’s finest examples of X-ray art can be found in this gallery. X-ray art is where animal bones and internal organs are drawn together with the outline. This detailed drawing gives the picture a three-dimensional effect.
The basic colours used Kakadu’s rock paintings are derived from several naturally occurring minerals.
Haematite – An iron-rich rock used for red
Limonite and goethite – For yellow/orange
Ochre – An iron-stained clay used to make red, orange and yellow and can be stained darker by baking it in a fire before grinding
Kaolin (pipeclay) and huntite – For white
Manganese oxide and charcoal – For black. Charcoal does not last long as it is not a mineral.
Of all the paints, haematite lasts the longest. This is why the majority of rock art that we see today are completely red.
To make the paint the Aboriginal people crushed the pigments on a stone palette and mixed it with water to make a paste. They made brushes from human hair, chewed sticks, reeds and feathers. To create a stencil, they would blow wet pigments of ochre, water and animal fat from their mouths across their hands and other objects. The mixture is absorbed into the rock just like dye or ink on paper.
Generally, it is the act of painting that was regarded as more important than the painting itself. The act of painting put Bininj/Mungguy in touch with their Creation Ancestors – a powerful, spiritual experience. I suppose this is a bit like praying or meditating. As the artist was not painting for posterity but simply to tell a story, many images have been painted over each other.
For those of us who are non-Aboriginal, we view rock art as an individual piece of art. We admire the beauty and intricacy of the work, and then walk on to the next piece, just like in a museum.
Most Aboriginal art sites were not intended that way. The sites or places are in fact inter-linked – all adding up to an overall story whose sum is more than its parts.
A local rock art site might tell a particular creation story which is connected to another rock art site located a few hundred metres away. While some sites are a long distance apart, they are connected through the Dreaming stories they relay.
The stories associated with the rock paintings have a number of levels of meaning. Younger Bininj/Mungguy and non-Aboriginal people are only told the first level – that which is suitable for public consumption. Access to the ‘full story’ depends on an individual’s progression through ceremonial life, their inclinations, and their willingness to take on the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with the ‘advanced/secret’ knowledge.
Here is a short introduction to some of the Creation Ancestors seen on the walls of Angbangbang Gallery.
The single male figure is Nabulwinjbulwinj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after killing them by striking them with yam.
This dramatic painting seen is Namarrgon, the Lightning Man. He is responsible for the spectacular lightning storms that pass through the area every year.
The band from his left ankle, joining his hands and head, and extending down to his right ankle represents the lightning he creates. The stone axes on his head, knees and elbows are used to split the dark clouds and create thunder.
Namarrgon’s rock home can be seen from the Gunwarddewarde Lookout. It’s not difficult to imagine Lightning Man standing on the rock, conjuring the lightning storms that overun the valley during the wet season.
Aboriginal people from different clan groups have different stories associated with Namondjok. To some, he is a Creation Ancestor who lives in the sky and can be seen as a dark spot across the Milky Way.
To others, he is a Creation Ancestor who travelled through the Burrungguy (Nourlangie Rock) area and broke the kinship laws with his ‘sister’.
Kinship laws dictate who Aboriginal people may and may not marry. Aboriginal people have a much more complex kinship system than those of European descent. An Aboriginal person’s ‘sister’ also includes first cousins (mother’s sisters’ children and their father’s brothers’ children). Just as marriage between brother and sister is unacceptable in non-Aboriginal society, the same applies to Aboriginal society.
A solitary boulder on Nourlangie Rock (Burrunguy) is a feather taken from Namondjok’s head-dress by his ‘sister’, after they had slept together. The boulder is visible from Gunwarddewarde Lookout to remind others of what they had done. As the story goes, the feather turned to stone and can still be seen there today.
Beneath these three Creation Ancestors is a group of men and women. Their elaborate dress suggests they are probably attending a ceremony. The dashes across the women’s chests indicate that they are breast-feeding.
These kinds of stories are told to explain the layout of the land and act as a reminder of the sacred practices and beliefs of the Aboriginal people.
A short walk through the bushes behind the Gallery led us to some rocky steps where we made our way up to Gunwarddewarde Lookout. The climb was short but difficult in certain places. Upon reaching the rocky top, however, all my tiredness dissipated and I was all over the place trying to capture the rugged beauty of the Kakadu escarpment.
Rock painting is rarely done by the Aboriginal people nowadays. Among the reasons for this is the fact that Aboriginal people no longer live in rock shelters, and there are fewer people with the necessary knowledge to paint at certain sites. Nevertheless, modern day Aboriginal artists continue to paint on bark, paper and other materials.
It took a couple of hours to finally get out of the dirt road from Jim Jimand head northwards to view the rock art in Nourlangie. We made a stopover for lunch at Angbangbang Billabong, one of Kakadu’s most attractive billabongs. Here, you get to see a large variety of wetland waterbirds, water lilies, as well as Burrunggui (Nourlangie Rock) making for a stunning backdrop.
There’s an easy 2.5 km walk around the billabong but as the track is so close to the water, you need to be wary of saltwater crocodiles.
The long ride had made us very hungry. We set up our picnic goodies on one of the shaded park benches and made sandwiches topped with bacon, ham and leftover kangaroo meat from the previous night’s campfire dinner. The day was very hot, and we were glad to have a bit of a stretch, take selfies and enjoy the view.
After the stint at Yellow Water to watch the sun set, we rushed to Garnamarr Camping Ground before the gates shut, or risk being locked out to sleep in the bush with crocs for company.
Garnamarr Camping Ground is the only campsite that allows access to Jim Jim Falls. It can take up to 250 people at any one time, and camping on the grounds is on a first-come-first-served basis. This campsite is not opened all year long – just during the dry season (May – October).
I must admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this camp ground in terms of public facilities. However, I was pleasantly surprised! Clean toilets, hot water showers, cubicles fitted with a dry bench area, available drinking water – what more could a tired visitor ask for? Security is also commendable. The camp gates are locked from 8.30 pm to 6.30 am daily.
On the way to Garnamarr, the bumpy gravel road caused a runaway stone to hit the back window of the 4WD, resulting in a tiny crack that gradually spread out to fill the entire frame. This incident forced us to make an unscheduled stop in No Man’s Land, in an effort to seal down the cracked glass with tape and bandage the injured window with a towel. Suddenly, the desire to sit closest to the rear door of the vehicle was gone! Everyone was hoping that the glass window would not crumble and give way.
Luckily, the cracked window remained intact right up to the end of the tour!
It was great fun sitting round the campfire. There were a number of new things I tried out that evening. I learnt how to set up a tent on my own, and then had a go at the didgeridoo but failed to get a sound out of this ancient aboriginal wind instrument. Finally, I tried barbecued kangaroo meat and buffalo sausages with mashed potatoes and salad for the first time in my life. It was a simple but tasty meal.
As I settled down inside my tent for the night, I started to recollect the day’s activities – from the rocky waterfalls, massive gorges, gushing creeks, thriving billabongs, unique wildlife and diverse forests to gazing up at the twinkling silver stars peeping through my tent – what a precious gift to have the chance of experiencing those rare moments in the outback.
Jim Jim Falls
The road from Garnamarr Camping Ground to Jim Jim Falls is only suitable for high clearance four-wheeled vehicles. The track was uneven with deep ruts, gravel and sandy patches, creek crossings and thick muddy soil. Sitting inside the 4WD was like getting a strong massage. The ride was so rough that we were falling all over each other – forwards and sideways –especially when navigating the tight corners!
It is a 2 km round hike from the carpark to Jim Jim Falls The Jim Jim track is basically divided into three levels of difficulty. The first 100 metres or so is fairly easy, with the second part requiring scrambling over rocks, and the last part entailing a steep and slippery climb up the escarpment. What got me thinking twice about making it all the way to the waterfalls was our guide saying that accidents were quite a frequent occurrence during the last part of the hike, with some victims having to be air-lifted out of the area!
I managed to breeze through the first part of the track and was even walking in front of the rest. However, as I hiked further in, the trail became more and more challenging. Soon, I found myself scrambling over jagged rocks and sandy boulders, trying to keep my balance and not slip between the rocks.
Still waters run deep and crocs lurk underneath
The first few metres of the track to Jim Jim Falls.
Rock scrambling for most of the 2 km hike to the waterfalls.
The hike took us past the Gorge Viewing Area where we got our first view of Jim Jim Falls. I could already see Jim Jim’s rocky escarpment in the distance. After this viewing area, the rocky track enters its third level of difficulty. At the thought of the struggle that lay ahead, I decided to remain at the viewing area and not proceed to the waterfalls.
So while the rest proceeded with their hike, I stayed behind to catch my breath and enjoy the view. The place looked so serene that it was rather difficult to imagine that there is always the real danger of crocodiles waiting for their prey- under water and on land. While clicking away at my surroundings, I had to be extra vigilant that the world’s oldest reptile was not going to jump out of the calm water or appear from behind the rocks, and have me for its meal!
One of my biggest regrets about this trip is that I didn’t do enough reading about how fast crocodiles move on land. If I had, I would not have had to worry about what to do if a crocodile DID appear from behind the rocks, or wonder if I could scramble fast enough to outpace the reptile. This is what happens when you watch too many Sci-Fi movies about mutant super crocodiles that can chase you across the forest at 50 km an hour!
My decision to stay behind at the Gorge View Area was the right one. I felt good to have made it this far, and relieved that my limbs and camera were intact. After all, I was already at Jim Jim Falls – standing on the very ground that becomes a river bed during the rainy season. I scanned the raw landscape, grateful to have a few quiet moments to myself instead of feeling rushed and stressed out.
If you’re not too fussy about sleeping and want to see as much as possible within a short time, travelling in a 4WD is a great way to see Kakadu National Park. Entry to Kakadu National Park is AUD25.00 per person, valid for 14 days. Those under 16 years of age and Northern Territory Residents are exempt.
Would I do it again? Absolutely, without a doubt! There is still so much to learn, see and do. Getting a taste of Australia’s remote and wild outback – now that is really something to remember!
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Yellow Water Billabong is near the small settlement of Cooinda in Kakadu National Park. This massive wetlands is rich in wildlife and boasts of stunning scenery in an ever-changing vibrant landscape. The pretty water lilies dotting the calm water’s surface may give the impression that all is quiet, but don’t underestimate the serenity of this billabong. This place is notorious for crocodiles lurking beneath the surface…and these crocs share the same eco-space with a wide range of resident birdlife, fish and amphibians.
After a jam-packed day at Kakadu, watching the sun set behind Yellow Water was a great way to wind down for the evening!