Published in 4×4 Australia Magazine 1989. Republished here 2002. Photos updated 2011
Like the Gagudju Clan of Aboriginal people, who spent the past millennia in the northern half of the Western Arnhemland and the Kakadu Escarpment, the Jawoyn people inhabited the upper reaches of what white man named the South Alligator River, to the north, and the Katherine Gorge area to the south.
This fertile valley, that sustained so many generations in harmony with nature, is due to become the centre of controversy as the modern day Twentieth Century comes to a close in the confines of our time.
The South Alligator River, with all of its tributaries springing from the Kakadu Escarpment, is the major renewable resource for the present and future flora and fauna ecology of the wetlands of Kakadu National Park. It is the life blood of all living things over a vast expanse of country.
The tranquillity of the existence of the South Alligator River system could change in the near future if our land managers made the wrong decision.
In the biggest land grab since Captain Cook took possession of Terra Australis in 1788 (without even, I might add, asking permission from the local inhabitants), the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service took possession of a further 6726 square kilometres to the south and south-east of the existing Kakadu National Park boundaries extending the park area to a grand total of 19,799 square kilometres. This annexation of more land meant excising the Goodparla and Gimbat Pastoral Leases plus the removal of cattle, horses, feral water buffalo and feral pigs.
Kakadu National Park is now one of the largest national parks in the Southern Hemisphere. Its ecological importance to the flora and fauna of the western Arnhemland spectrum is immense as it now encompasses the whole of the South Alligator River system, the whole of the East Alligator River system, the whole of the West Alligator River system and parts of the Wildman and Mary River systems – all very important ecosystems in the make up of the far northern wetlands of Australia.
Recorded history shows that, during October 1845, the intrepid explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt and his companions, descended into the South Alligator Valley after an arduous thirteen month overland journey from Moreton Bay in Queensland.
Al the way north after crossing the Roper River, to where Leichhardt descended into the South Alligator Valley, his party was beset by hostile native inhabitants. They were objecting to this intrusion into and across their land and they harassed the explorers to no end. Leichhardt was passing through Bulajang country, sacred to the Jawoyn, with its totemic spirit values. Bula for short, the spiritual guardian of the upper reaches of the South Alligator Valley, demands that the earth not be disturbed by man or a terrible will overcome those who do so. So is the legend of the Dreamtime, carried forward into the twentieth century by the present day Jawoyn. This land is also known as the Sickness Country. One wonders what the pretext to land disturbance might have been a thousand years ago.
Later, explorers such as John Macdouall Stuart (south/north crossing of the continent in 1862) and George Maclachlan (Overland Telegraph Route 1870) also reported hostile inhabitants. When the pastoralists moved in along with prospectors and miners, their opposition waned and very soon they were dispossessed of their ancestral land.
Then in 1976 the Northern Territory Land Rights Act was promulgated and the Jawoyn people have since then been fighting to have their traditional rights restored to them. Recently they were successful and have been granted a part of Katherine Gorge National Park which includes the famous and scenic Katherine Gorge.
But nothing comes easy these days. Right in the middle of this very fragile land area at the head waters of the South Alligator River, a Conservation Zone, better understood as a Mining Corridor, has been declared at the same time as the declaration of Kakadu Stage Three.
Exploration for minerals commenced in the 1950’s and to date considerable quantities of gold, uranium, platinum, palladium and other precious metals have been found. There are numerous old mine workings in the very rugged conservation zone which have ceased to operate – mines such as Rockhole, El Sherana, UDP and Sleisbeck. Mineral exploration has been continuing at Coronation Hill by the Australian mining giant, BHP Corporation.
If mining uranium in Kakadu Stage One was not enough a can of worms has been opened here with Kakadu Stage Three. Clearly the Federal Government, through the ANPWS and pressure groups throughout Australia, like the Australian Conservation Foundation, has proclaimed the area part of a national Park partly because of its ecological significance and partly because of its will to stem the tide of corporate ownership and exploitation of this resource rich land. But with it comes a great dilemma. With Australia’s foreign debt into hundreds of billions of dollars, new wealth has to be found to drive the country out of a possible recession, here at Coronation Hill mining experts say that the extracted raw the material will earn Australia the necessary capital to wipe out our foreign debt within ten years.
Conservationists throughout the country are aghast that the Federal Government may just give in to big business and that mining may commence. Fears are also held that, if toxic waste from the mines found its way into the South Alligator River System, it could spell absolute disaster for the environment.
In between the Mining Lobby, the Federal Government, the Northern Territory Government, the conservationists, the scientists, the great unwashed professional rent-a-mob protesters, the sometimes biased and ill informed print and electronic media, the general public and the ANPWS, the Jawoyn people patiently wait for an outcome.
ANPWS is stuck with a problem: How to develop a huge extension to a national park when resources are stretched to the limit. To cap it all off, the government of the day, cannot make a decision as to what to do with mining in national parks.
Kakadu Stage Three is an added bonus to the already magnificent attributes of the World Heritage Listed areas of Kakadu Stages One and Two.
Stage Three consists of the South Alligator Valley with its numerous tributaries running in from the escarpments. To the north the continuation of the Arnhemland Escarpment provides for magnificent gorges and waterfalls with remnant rain forest pockets scattered in tranquil valleys. Prolific flora, on the banks of many creeks and rivers, is home to a plethora of animal life. One third of all Australia bird species, a quarter of its fish species, 50 mammal, 75 reptile, including salt and fresh water crocodiles, and 25 frog species live here. A recent scientific survey has discovered a rare miniature marsupial called the Red Cheeked Dunnart- a mouse-like creature. Other rare species are the Pig-nosed Turtle and the Hooded Parrot.
The magnificent sandstone escarpments are home to one of the twelve most important rock art regions on Earth. They also provide some of the best bush walking country in the top of Australia. Although Stage Three at present will be catering for coach and 2wd tourists, there are some 4×4 tracks which provide a challenge to those adventurers who wish to hide away from the general throng of holiday makers.
Stage Three Development
The main areas of development will be at Barramundi Gorge, Graveside Gorge, Gunlom Falls and Koolpin Gorge. There are some other remote areas where existing tracks have been used in recent times but there is no development strategy at this time and access has not been restricted. There are also quite a few areas of lesser significance that will attract minimal development. The head waters of the South Alligator River however, including the Christmas Creek Rock Art site, the Gimbat area, Coronation Hill, Motor Car Creek and Sleisbeck ruins are closed to public access until further notice. Many of the old mining tracks in the vicinity of El Sherana have also been barred from entry.
Access to Stage Three is restricted to the months of May through to the end of December. Flood waters usually make access to most of Kakadu impossible from January until the end of April.
Barramundi Gorge. Good camping and swimming area. 4×4 access only.
Graveside Gorge. 4×4 only. Remote camping.
Shovel Billabong. 2wd access. Picnic Area
Goodparla Plains track. 4×4 only. Shortcut to Old Jim Jim road.
Buk Buk Lookout. 2wd access
Kombolgie Creek crossing. 2wd access and camping.
Plum Tree Falls. Magnificent rain forest pocket. Picnic area and walking access only.
South Alligator River crossing. Sand camping. 4×4 only.
This magnificent waterfall thunders over the escarpment in the wet season. Also know as UDP Falls or Waterfall Creek Falls. 2wd access.
Koolpin Gorge. Another magnificent gorge. 4×4 only but being upgraded to 2wd access.
Christmas Creek Aboriginal Rock Art site. Earmarked for future development but closed to public access for the present.
Gimbat and Sleisbeck. 2wd access in the future for day visitation. No public access at present.
The Rock Hole. Great swimming hole. 4×4 access only.
Upper Mary River. No development at present but 4×4 access for remote bush camping at present.
Mary River Crossing Motel and Roadhouse.
ANPWS Entrance Station
(Description of areas have been deleted due to the changing nature of access requirements).