Eye Spy – Beauty and danger await on a river cruise in Arnhem Land

Written by Brad Crouch. Article was originally published on page 40 of the Escape liftout 5 February 2017.

Standing on a beautiful sand beach on a humid 35C day looking at Arnhem Land, the only thing keeping me out of the water are two beady eyes.

Turns out it is a “log-odile” but the incorrectly named East Alligator River in the remote north of the Northern Territory is notorious for crocodiles so a swim is out of the question. A 4m-long reptile earlier had quietly swum up and nudged Guluyambi Cruises’ 30-guest river boat to impress the point – this is his river. Our guide Robert subtly makes the point this is his land, without the politics.

He points out a bole on a paperbark tree. “If you are dying of thirst, that is full of water. Puncture it, have a drink then seal it up for the next traveller,” he says. You’ll get a bit crook, he counsels, but it will get you to the next waterhole. Paperbark also gives soft layers of bark for water carriers, dilly bags and even work as cosy bassinets.

A hibiscus tree provides wood for spears, an iron bark the tips. Deliciously pungent melaleuca leaves flavour barramundi on the fire, black wattle leaves stun fish for easy collection, while pandanus leaves are good for weaving fish traps.

What to me looks like a forest is a smorgasbord, a pharmacy and a Bunnings to Robert.

We pull up at a sandbank, the 20,000sq km of Kakadu National Park on one side, the 100,000sq km of Arnhem Land on the other. It is quiet. A kite circles. No one swims.

Robert pulls out his trusty woomera (spear-throwing device). It is feather light and smooth. It is Robert’s Swiss Army knife. “I can use it for digging, for dancing, for deflecting (a spear),” he says.

But right now he is using it as a missile launcher. He takes a spear he has fashioned from a hibiscus tree. He notes Aborigines don’t hold spears like a javelin, hand clasped around the middle. Instead they hold it at the very back, with a finger on the end, and flick it. The woomera has a pointy bit which Robert puts in the end of the spear, and in a whip-like action flicks it. The spear sails an astonishing 50m.

More astonishing is Robert flicks a second one and it lands in exactly the same spot. Such accuracy is fun for display, but if you are hunting wallaby for hungry tummies, it is literally a matter of life and death. The spear wobbles in flight, which I naively think is clumsy. “That is so it rips the organs out of an animal,” Robert advises.

The 90-minute cruise along the East Alligator River continues. Robert points out plants, birds, reptiles. The nearby road into Arnhem Land is visible as a causeway in the dry, in an area where the river turns from estuarine salt to floodwater fresh. In the wet, this waterway is 25km wide. This is a land of monster extremes.

While modern talk speaks of the wet and the dry, Aborigines speak of six seasons in this area. Linked to seasonal weather changes, they also signal what food is available from the smorgasbord, such as delicious fat goose and file snakes.

Birds dance lightly on flamboyant water lilies, a brown snake moseys by in the water, archer fish shoot jets of water at insects. Log-odiles lurk but so do crocodiles.

It is only a 90-minute cruise, but it feels a lot longer and it’s an education you don’t get in a classroom.

Back at the jetty, Robert farewells us with a warm handshake and a huge grin, and prepares for his next group.

I realise I have learnt a lot. But the clearest lesson is so simple. Respect.

Holidays of Australia have various rail/sail packages which include a Kakadu tour. A 14-night package departing Adelaide on October 22, 2017, priced from $5179 a person, twin share, starts with two nights on The Ghan with off train excursions calls at Alice Springs and Katherine, then two nights in Darwin with your choice of a full-day Kakadu tour or Litchfield tour, followed by a ten-night Sun Princess cruise calling at Cairns, Alotau (Papua New Guinea) and Brisbane, finishing in Sydney. View package.


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