Aboriginal Australia

Kakadu National Park: Wildlife along the Billabong
By Jeff Burdick
  |  Gorp.com
Page 3 of 5   |  

For another exotic taste of aboriginal Australia, I next headed 160 miles east of Darwin to Kakadu National Park, which at 7,300 square miles is Australia's version of Yellowstone National Park. This gigantic park of stunning tropical vistas is also the only park in the world that encompasses and protects an entire river system (the South Alligator River System). Only two main roads cut through the park, but many backcountry areas are accessible to four-wheel-drive vehicles and backpackers.

The name "Kakadu" is derived from "Gagudju," the main Aboriginal language used in the area at the start of the 20th century. Today 500 Aborigines remain living in the park, but their numbers are dwarfed by the vast galleries of rock art that their ancestors painted thousands of years ago beneath rock overhangs. In fact, Kakadu is so vast and unexplored that new Aboriginal art locations are discovered every year and added to the park's catalog of 5,000 sites.

Crocs, Flocks, and Fish, Oh My!
Among the most famous sites is Ubirr, located on a plateau near the park town of Jabiru. Art-wise, Ubirr includes several excellent examples of the Aboriginal "X-ray" style in which the body outline and bone structure of figures are drawn. Other subjects included sprayed hand stencils, warriors, mystical figures from the Aborigines' Dream-Time lore, and allegorical depictions that once were used to instruct Aboriginal children. Local wildlife was also a favorite rock-art subject, and to see the real thing, visitors need go no farther than the nearest "billabong," of which Kakadu boasts many. The word "billabong" is Aboriginal in origin and refers to a seasonally created backwater unique to northern Australia. During the Top End's six-month rainy season (November to April), billabongs fill up and flow as part of vast river systems. During the next six months when almost no rain falls, the Top End starts drying up. It's during the May-to-October dry season that many floodplains and river arteries evaporate and create trapped backwaters known as billabongs.

I took several billabong cruises during my stay in the Top End, and each time I was stunned by the quantity of exotic wildlife. On the shores, I came to expect the sight of dozens of menacing crocodiles sunning themselves (including the huge saltwater variety that grows up to 20 feet long). On the water, barramundi fish continuously jumped from the water, and in the sky above, flocks of birds flew everywhere in awesome numbers. Among the exotic bird species I saw were cockatoos, eagles, pelicans, egrets, cranes, king fishers, jabiru storks, and webbed-feet jacanas (also known as "Jesus birds" for their ability to walk on lily pads).

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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