Sunday, May 1, 2016

Visiting Australia—Glorious Kakadu National Park

Kakadu forest

Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the northern end of Australia is the warmest. In the lands east of Darwin on the northern coast, there is monsoon forest. A distinctly Australian tropical forest, very dry part of the year, alternating with periods so wet the low spots all become lakes and the roads disappear.

Kakadu National Park preserves a big part of that region for visitors to marvel at. It is the world's second largest national park and a World Heritage site (for both culture and nature), protecting a complex and diverse place.

Kakadu National Park entrance

When I was there, in early November, the forests were still pretty dry. There had been a little rain, but the rainy season hadn’t really started.

Kakadu National Park's literature began with a welcome from the Bininj/Mungguy, the aboriginal owners of the land upon which the park stands. The park is jointly managed by Australian National Parks and the Bininj/Mungguy. This was typical in the Australian national parks I saw.

The visitor center displays were rich in information on traditional life here.

The local aboriginal people recognized six major seasons, of varying length because that was how long they were. These are a hot and dry season, followed by the season of early rains, then the monsoon season with its heavy rains, the "knock'em down storm season" of spectacular storms, a cool, rainless but humid season and finally the coolest season, also rainless. This picture is a bit from a calendar describing that:


In the photo, you can't easily read the names of the seasons, Wurrgeng, Gurrung and Gunumeleng, in large letters around the curve. (See photos from all six seasons: link

I am so accustomed to four temperature-driven seasons of north temperate climates that I rarely think of other patterns. Generally, when I do, it is to say, "Alaska doesn't have much of a summer," or "it is summer almost all year in Georgia." But, especially near the tropics, the patterns can be quite different, cycling, as is the case here, between very wet and very dry. Without being able to stay to see the seasons change, it is hard to comprehend the climate. I spent much of two years in the tropical dry forest of northwestern Costa Rica, which had some similarities to the seasons of Kakadu, but really only enough to make me say "wow, that's not like anything I've ever experienced."

There were fine gum (Eucalyptus) trees in the forest. There are about 800 species of Eucalyptus, all but nine found in Australia, and they have adapted to all of Australia's diverse climates.

eucalyptus tree

We were drawn to the ponds and streams—see the blue beyond the trees above?

Which led us to signs like this:

crocodile warning sign

These are the famous “salties,” saltwater crocodiles, big enough and aggressive enough to be very dangerous to people.

Of course, while a saltie wouldn’t scorn an inattentive human, they were generally hunting the abundant ducks and geese. The low water levels at the end of the dry season concentrated the wild fowl into dramatic displays:

ducks at Kakadu

Also making dramatic displays in the water was the sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera.  It is probably not native to Australia but rather was introduced years and years ago by humans. The rhizomes, seeds and leaves of sacred lotus are edible (previous blog) as well as being very pretty.


We indeed saw crocodiles (from the relative safety of a boat).


The salties will hunt people. Consequently I wondered how aboriginal women could have safely gathered lotus or other edible aquatics. Aboriginal women were fierce and accurate with their digging sticks, which often had a clublike head and very nice balance, but that wouldn’t be enough against a determined 8’ saltie. The guide suggested that the women left places like this slow-moving waterway alone, gathering aquatics in places less attractive to salties, and that when men hunted birds in these areas, they did so warily, in groups and well-armed with spears.

Today there is a second hazard for the unwary visitor: feral water buffalo. Wild and unpredictable, they are fast and fierce. This is a wallow:

water buffalo wallow

Here one sleeps under a tree:

water buffalo under tree

 Or is there more than one?

I’ve hiked New World tropical forests. There are dangerous animals there, but I never encountered them. Of course that is one of the benefits of parks and preservation: animal numbers increase and become easier to see. At the time I worked in dry tropical Costa Rica, the areas were only lightly protected or the protection was very recent.

Kakadu scenery

Kakadu was very beautiful. Here the dry forest floor is waiting for the rains to come.

It was so dry that signs like this were hard to believe.

flood zone

Yet the guides told numerous tales of the region effectively turning into a series of islands in the rainy season, with lots of roads under water.

The locals carry out controlled burns, a tradition going back thousands of years. You can see that the fire ran along the ground and didn’t disturb the trees:

Kakadu scenery

Kakadu National Park was huge and complex, I only saw a corner of it.

I’d like to see it in its other seasons!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Related posts in this blog:  On distinctive Australia plants  Botanists visiting Australia

Southern Hemisphere and central Australia

References: Kakadu National Park Visitor Guide

Kathy Keeler
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