Published in 4×4 Australia Magazine 1988. Republished here 2002. Photos updated 2011
It took me more that a few minutes to catch my breath, and regain my composure, as I stood poised on a scraggy sandstone pillar on the edge of the Koolendong Valley.
I had just completed a seven kilometre bush walk from our camp site over some very rough terrain and through some of the most remote country in the Northern Territory. I gazed across the valley with it’s unspoilt open plains, described by scientists to be in pristine condition, and the Fitzmaurice River, slowly meandering through the tropical savannah woodland. Wild cattle grazed peacefully near the banks of the river, seemingly oblivious to the dangers that lurked beneath the surface of the waters.
This particular river is the habitat of some of the largest saltwater crocodiles seen in tropical northern Australia. One old crocodile stands out from the saurian crowd. Known affectionately as “Mogo” in Aboriginal folklore, those who have seen the monster estimate it’s length to be 9 metres (30 feet)!!
An acquaintance of mine, whilst fishing the river one day, saw quite a few salties lurking in the reeds. During the course of the morning a huge wild boar came down to the river for a drink. My friend shot the pig and he and his mates tied it to a fair sized tree close to the edge of the river embankment with some spare anchor chain. The idea was to come downstream early the following morning for some good photographs of crocodiles feeding.
They returned to the next day only to find the pig carcass, the chain and part of the tree missing, presumably dragged into the depths of the Fitzmaurice. Massive claw marks were seen in the mud along the embankment and a belly slide imprint of around five feet in width between the claw marks.
My friend swears to the authenticity of this tale. Others who have caught a glimpse of the old croc from the air have verified that he may just be that size. There are some lesser crocs of around 6 metres to be seen in the river and further upstream in the freshwater regions one may find numerous Johnston River crocodiles. These are harmless to man.
With all this information at hand I decided that it was prudent not to venture down the escarpment on to the floodplain.
It had taken us three days to reach our destination on the Fitzmaurice River from Darwin. As this was our first trip into this area and wheel tracks were not well defined, we got bushed a number of times by consensus. Logic does not always prevail. A section of the track into this area had been graded for cattle mustering purposes the first time since it was first bulldozed in 1962. There were also wheel tracks running in different directions making choices difficult and impeding progress.
The soil cover throughout this area is sandy loam and very fragile. Once the surface is broken tracks turn into bull dust. The last 180km into our camp site was constant bull dust.
The turn-off to Wombungi Outstation along the Dorisvale Road is 21km south of Pine Creek along the Stuart Highway. From there it is 278km to the first habitable camp site on the Fitzmaurice.
The track was bulldozed in 1962 to provide access to a water gauging station on the river. Access to the river is by way of the Dorisvale Road, Claravale Crossing on the Daly River, Dorisvale Station, along Waterbag Creek, some Crown Land, Laurie Creek, and a small section of the Daly River Aboriginal Reserve. Careful negotiation of the high northern river embankment brings one down to a pleasant camp site on the river next to a small set of rapids. The southern embankment of the river is the northern boundary of Coolibah Station Pastoral Lease.
I used 1:50,000 Topographical Maps which are ideal when doing exploring like this. Pinpointing ones position is so much easier with a larger scale map as one can relate to various topographical features within sight shown on the map.
On our arrival at the camp site we did a quick croc check for saltwater crocodiles and soon after the all clear was given as we had seen two freshwater crocs. Salties eat the Freshies so there was a good chance there were no Salties.
Over the next three weeks our party would go on a few excursions, do a few night walks; fishermen fished and were successful in snaring barramundi, whilst others painted, studied nature nor just lazed around at this idyllic spot. We camped under the shade of fresh water mangroves and paperbarks.
The Fitzmaurice and its tributaries are very old rivers, having been cut deep into the earth’s crust by the floodwaters of time. As the fall of the rivers is quite steep, water rushes down the ravines during the wet season and by June settles down to a steady perennial stream. Many large billabongs have been hewn from the sandstone formations. Fertile soil, deposited on the fringes of the billabongs and rivers, has given growth to an extraordinary variety of pandanus palms (the prickly kind), fresh water mangroves, wattle, eucalypt and milk wood trees as well as a host of unidentifiable species. All of this under growth makes access to the water quite difficult if you need to launch your boat into the river. The billabongs are teeming with Catfish also known as Silver Cobbler in Western Australia, Barramundi, Black bream, freshwater Saratoga and large freshwater Yabbies. Downstream, beyond the tidal change, barramundi and seagoing fish may be taken. Crocodiles and sharks abound.
One day we studied our maps and decided to make for a waterfall to the south of our campsite. The first obstacle was to cross over the river to the other side. We found a likely place and budding road construction engineers with a star picket and manual labour took the best part of the day to make a drivable track.
The next day we tested the track across and made for four large Boab trees on the far side through some rocky terrain. We were now on Coolibah Station Pastoral Lease. Inscribed on the largest of the boab trees is the name of Rob.T.Quilty 9/10/42. The Quilty’s were former owners of Coolibah Station.
The bush south of the Fitzmaurice had not had a fire through for many years and bush orchids (cymbidium canaliculatum) were growing no less than two meters above the ground. Progress was slow as we were driving ‘blind’ through three metre high grass with visibility ending at the bullbar.
We came upon a very deep channel which we had to skirt around. We eventually found a place to cross the channel but it proved more difficult than anticipated and needless to say we had to get our winches going to make the crossing. As luck would have it there was a sturdy tree just in the right place to use for a winch anchor.
Our trip leader for the day took us right to the edge of the waterfall, which was quite a feat in itself as we were relying on compass bearings to negotiate our way through the tall grass. This wet season waterfall lies on an unnamed creek and for the wont of a better name we marked it as Crocodile Falls on our maps. Floating lazily in the iridescent waters freshwater crocodiles were unaware of our presence. Archer fish, bream and Saratoga could be seen. I ventured down to the pool after all the pics had been taken, for a refreshing swim. The noise and vibrations of human intrusion sent the crocs to the bottom of the pool. I did not spend a long time in the water as I was not sure if there were any larger crocs lurking somewhere out of sight.
Then one of our crowd spotted some wild pigs. We raced back to the vehicles to gather up our arsenal and that night we feasted on shoulder of pork cooked to perfection by Judith and her bush recipe.
On our return to camp we were able to negotiate the deep creek without having to winch this time as the exit was of a shallower incline. Keeping the revs up in the soft sand did help a bit.
Some days later we decided to travel to that section of the river where the tidal change occurs. We were camped only two kilometres from this place but had to drive a 25km detour around Alligator Creek so as to gain river access and place to launch our boat. We had an 8 foot punt and 2 horse motor and trips to the Koolendong Valley had to be done with only two passengers at a time. Anticipating on seeing large crocodiles we carried our .3030 rifle as insurance. Happily though, we only saw smaller crocodiles on our journeys there and back, as they silently slid down the muddy embankment of the river.
From the tidal change it is about 60km to the open sea. At the mouth of the river the channel is about 8 kilometres wide. Modern day explorers chartered the river in 1839. Captain John Lort Stokes and his crew aboard the HMAS Beagle found the mouth of the river full of treacherous eddies and whirlpools. The river was named after L.Fitzmaurice, First Mate aboard the HMAS Beagle. Later H.Y.L.Bown, the well known Australian pioneer and biologist, walked the area along the banks of the Fitzmaurice in 1909. Then in 1977, the well-known Territory bushman (and the man who is reputed to have the Crocodile Dundee films based on his exploits), Rod Ansell+, spent four months surviving off the land after his dinghy capsized and sank at the mouth of the river. He spent a good deal of time living in a tree to get away from marauding crocodiles. His book ‘To fight the wild’ relates to the stuff real adventures are made of. There are not many other records relating to the exploration of the Fitzmaurice River. The Miramannidu and Al-ura aboriginal clans have long since vacated the areas near the river. Rough seas near the inlet and a good 800km round trip without refuelling by land, had discouraged many from visiting this isolated place.
On our return trip we searched for and found the ruins of Coolamon Station Homestead as shown on out maps. It was abandoned in the 1960’s. We were able to find, hidden away behind a line of hills, a magnificent valley and gorge with a continuous line of unbroken rock overhangs. We spent three days exploring the valley and found numerous caves, well over 200 rock paintings, burial sites and painted human bones. The latter being part of the aboriginal culture.
The area had obviously been a major burial site for the clan who had frequented this valley. But we were not the first explorers to find this place. Nearby there had been a stock mustering camp and close to 700 empty beer cans were found in a dump. We dug a hole away from the creek and buried the rubbish. Apart from that we took good care to leave everything that we had found untouched. A walk up the gorge yielded a magnificent rainforest pocket and a cascading waterfall with water tumbling through sandstone tunnel formations weathered out over the millennia. The water was bitterly cold but very refreshing to swim in. Although it was the month of July in the tropics the day temperatures still reached 30 Centigrade and the nights dropped down to a cool 10 degrees.
The Fitzmaurice River area is definitely a place to see if you have the time and the resources to convey you there and back. It is a wonderful place to get away from it all. There is good fishing, hard offroading or a bit of hunting if you are so inclined. Or you may go out there and just listen to the river………