Published in 4×4 Australia Magazine 1988
Squinting at a map of the Australian continent you will see a piece of land jutting out of the north western end of Arnhemland, almost as far to the north in degrees latitude as the tip of Cape York itself.
This bit of landfall is Cobourg Peninsula. It is as remote for vehicular access as you can get. The entire peninsula is encompassed by Gurig National Park.
A veritable haven for tropical living, Cobourg Peninsula has provided shelter, fresh water and food aplenty for its Aboriginal inhabitants for thousands of years.
Known historical events date back as far as the 16th century when European explorers, Macassan fishermen and trepang traders started visiting Australia’s north coast. Trepang, also known as Sea Cucumber, is an Asian delicacy with reputed aphrodisiac qualities.
The Macassan trading continued until 1903 when the British Government imposed a customs tax. This discouraged the continuation of the harvesting of trepang.
The British Government had tried unsuccessfully, to establish Victoria Settlement on Adam Head in Port Essington in 1837 after a first failure some ten years earlier at Fort Wellington at Raffles Bay. Captain Bremer, aboard the HMAS Alligator had been commissioned to establish a settlement on Cobourg Peninsula. The main purpose was for defence and a haven for shipwrecked seamen.
The indigenous peoples of Port Essington, well fed on fresh fish, turtle and dugong, had been trading with the Macassans for centuries. They were not afraid of new arrivals and maintained a friendly stance. The British settlers however, steeped in their tradition, insisted on wearing their red button-up tunics and some of the brave garrison ladies, who had ventured to this far away place, their frilled dresses. Needless to say, in such a harsh tropical climate, this sort of living brought on all types of heat related ailments and diseases. Later, scurvy, parasites and cyclones drove the new settlers away. In 1849 the British Garrison packed up and left, abandoning the settlement. The indigenous people, who were friendly towards the settlers, also became infected with numerous European diseases and their numbers were decimated. In the ensuing years they drifted away from the peninsula as the development of the north by the white men brought radical changes that influenced their society.
Cobourg Peninsula was recognised as an area of significance to the Aboriginal people who had affinity with this land. As early as 1940 an area was set aside for them to utilise.
The drift towards the developed areas of the Northern Territory continued however, and by the 1970’s there were no aboriginal inhabitants left on the peninsula. After the Northern Territory Land Rights Act of 1976 had been passed interest was shown again in re-establishing occupation of the land. By 1980 small groups of aborigines started to return. In 1983 the sea waters surrounding the peninsula were declared a marine park.
Today Gurig National Park is managed by the Cobourg Sanctuary Board and the Conservation Commission of the N.T. on behalf of the traditional owners. There is also a training program in place to teach the locals how to become self sufficient and administrative within the confines of the national park.
Visitor access is allowed to tourists and holidaymakers during the period from May until the end of October. This access is on the basis of only 15 vehicle permits issued at any given time for any one day. From the beginning of November to the end of April all of the tracks to and within Cobourg Peninsula may be impassable due to flooding. Access is still possible by sea or air. Permits are required to enter and they are available upon application at the offices of the Conservation Commission of the N.T.
As this remote area is very popular it is advisable to apply for permits to enter well in advance. The permit that is issued also covers transit through Arnhemland Aboriginal Reserve but camping along the way is not allowed. At present the entry fee is $10 per person with a $4 per three persons per day camping fee. Persons under the age of 17 years are exempt from fees.
Tour operators also run fly-in and sailing tours to the National Park. Further information may be obtained from the N.T.Tourist Bureau, 31 Smith Street Mall, Darwin,5790 or your travel agent.
Gurig National park lies some 570km from Darwin, east along the Arnhem Highway or 580km north from Katherine along the Stuart and Kakadu Highways. The road from Darwin is sealed to the Ubirr/East Alligator turnoff and from Katherine for 90km along the Stuart Highway to Pine Creek. It is 198km from there to the Ubirr turnoff on the Kakadu Highway. Of this distance 90km is sealed. From Ubirr turnoff to the East Alligator River crossing it is 37km of corrugated road. The river crossing is tidal and it is advisable to cross at low tide due to the fast outgoing current and the presence of man-eating salt water crocodiles. Quite a number of vehicles have been washed over the side of the concrete causeway in past years.
Leaving the East Alligator Crossing, also known as Cahill’s Crossing, so named after a famous Territory buffalo shooter Paddy Cahill, it is 43km to the turnoff to Murgenella. This stretch of graded road is in reasonable condition with patches of bulldust. It is 95km from this turnoff to Murgenella, an aboriginal outstation. The road is normally in good condition up to and 30km beyond Murgenella. From this point it becomes a sandy track with long stretches of bulldust for the 95km to it’s termination at Smith Point on the coast. The last 70km is badly corrugated. Caravans should not be towed over this track as it is an invitation to trouble. Only sturdy off-road and boat trailers with high ground clearance could be safely towed along these tracks.
The Ranger Station and store is at Black Point, 7km back from Smith Point. Signs showed the way.
Fuel en route to Cobourg Peninsula may be obtained from Jabiru township in Kakadu National Park and also at Wimray Safaris at Black Point. It is advisable however, to carry enough fuel for the return trip to Jabiru.
Camping facilities are provided at the designated area near Black Point airstrip. One pit toilet and one shower services the entire camping area. Each camp site has a sturdy timber table, concrete fireplace and dingo proof rubbish bin. Dry wood is provided and bins are cleared daily.
The beach lies 100 metres from the camp site. The pristine white sands are used by turtles that come up to lay their eggs. Crystal clear waters support a variety of fish. Crocodiles also roam these waters so care must be taken. Almost the whole of the Cobourg Peninsula has white sandy beaches, with low tide reefs jutting out close to and within 50 metres of the shoreline. Most of these reefs are covered in rock oysters while black lip oysters are found on reefs further out to sea. The waters abound with snapper, barramundi, mullet, spotted fish, stingray and many others. Dugong and dolphins also prevail. Fishing for certain species is allowed within the confines of the marine park.
Much of the peninsula is covered by open forest of mixed eucalypts. Various palm species are found throughout the forests and the tall Kentia Palm is the most prolific of these. In places along the coastal margins the forests are replaced by coastal heath land. Here Wallabies, Water Buffalo and wild Banteng cattle graze peacefully.
Lagoons and swamps are intertwined in the low-lying areas and support a great variety of bird life, including large flocks of Brolgas. Waterfowl, water monitors and crocodiles also live in these swamps. A scenic bush track skirts Port Bremer Bay and there are other bush tracks meander in and out of the eucalypt forests.
If you are looking for an uncrowded holiday in the bush where you may fish, bushwalk, study nature or just loaf around, the Cobourg Peninsula and Gurig National Park is the place to visit.