ABOVE: "Look Mum. No hands." A crocodile hovers in in the East Alligator River just above the causeway as the high tide rushes over, bring fish and maybe something extra.
“Excuse me, where is the generators?” came the Scandinavian accent in the Kakadu campground.
We pointed to a designated area: “You can use your generator there.”
“No, I mean for us to plug in,” came the slightly agitated response.
When we explained there was no electricity at the Ubirr camp, one of about 20 camping spots in the park, he became more agitated. “But we paid.”
He and his companion had paid to come into the most expensive national park in Australia, one that has earned the name “Kaka-don’t” from locals. Northern Territory residents don’t have to pay to go to Kakadu but everyone else get’s slugged $25 to go through the gate. The power-less campground cost another $10 a person.
Admittedly the $25 is for two weeks in a big park of wetlands, crocodiles, Aboriginal art and stunning escarpments but let’s face it – how many travellers these days have the time or inclination to spend two weeks looking at variations of the same theme? Apparently the detached officials in comfortable public-funded offices who set the prices are just a little out of touch with reality.
Kakadu offers no concessions and no reduced prices for a two-day or three-day visit. Goods in the tiny shopping centre are two to three times dearer than in Darwin, only 250km on a fine sealed road from Darwin.
Visitor numbers are plummeting, blamed on the drop in European visitors because of the GFC. Some workers also quietly acknowledge that they think the problem is the growing realisation that prices are way too high. Rita and Ed, our American companions travelling with us along the Stuart Highway to Darwin, elected not to take a planned detour to Kakadu because they thought the entry fee was excessive for a quick visit to the wetlands. They were not alone.
We decided later to poke our noses into Kakadu for a couple of days, even though the park was not at its best because of the long dry (“No f@ck!$g wet this year, mate”). It was OK.
From Ubirr camp we trotted along to hear Ranger Kirsten Sierke from South Australia, who has worked at Kakadu for six months of the year for the last four years, give three talks at ancient art galleries, interpreting the significance of the drawings and explaining creation stories and the wildly complicated system of kinship, child naming patterns and poison relatives that controlled genetics.
A rainbow serpent painting in the main art gallery wall was of great significance, she said, because it was not believed to have been painted by man. It was an imprint of where the rainbow serpent rested as it set about carving the land.
A drawing of the rainbow serpent descending to eat a crying baby and all the adults nearby was a stern warning that calamity would befall any clans who let children cry without comforting them.
We climbed the great rock to look over the flood plain at sunset and recognised the scene as one used for a fleeting glimpse in Crocodile Dundee. The next morning we went to the East Alligator River to admire the massed crocodiles either side of the causeway at high tide at Cahill’s Crossing into Arnhem Land. We also admired the nerve of some of the residents from across the river who drove across the surging tide despite the waiting jaws.
At the Border Store we found excellent coffee and a sweet Thai lady Amm, who has a contract to run the store and restaurant for six months during the tourist season. The other six months Amm and husband Michael spend in Thailand. They are closing the store after only four months this year because of the dramatic drop in visitors.
“This year we have gone backwards,” said Amm sadly. “It is hard. Everything is so expensive. We have to pay $9.99 for broccoli but it can be bought for $1.99 in Darwin. Everyone is complaining to us about the cost but we can’t do anything.”
One gets the impression that the Australian Government bit off a bit more than it could chew when it created the national park of almost 20,000 square kilometres. Someone should wise up the federal tourism minister. Hang on, there isn’t one.
Prime Minister Tony Abott ditched the tourism ministry and split it between Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb, who looks after international tourism, and Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane, who had domestic tourism under his wing. As Kakadu touches on both, maybe they should have a nice long lunch to chat about Kakadu finances.