As we walk in the purple shade of the rocks, stepping around fallen pandanus fruit and erasing the squiggly marks left by heat-seeking reptiles, the sun rises higher, peeping from behind the jagged tip of the gigantic beehive formation to our right and reducing our patch of coolness. The dividing line between shade and light takes on a sharper edge as it creeps closer – the day’s heat honing its blade, preparing to cut into us. We hurry our step along the Jarnem Loop.
We’re in Keep River National Park, in far north-west Northern Territory, an unassuming green patch on the road map neighbouring the WA border. We’ve done Kakadu, done Litchfield, ticked off all of the iconic Top End destinations, and now, hungering after the Bungle Bungles of the Kimberley, we seem to have run into WA ahead of schedule. By all appearances, here it is, 3km short of the border, just off the Victoria Highway. But where are the crowds?
Aside from the sweltering heat, it’s not a difficult national park to experience – there’s campgrounds on site and 2WD access during the dry season. Yet the hordes keep clear. Perhaps they don’t even know the park exists, or perhaps they’re deterred by the distance: some 800km from Darwin and 1100km from Broome. Such numbers are truly shocking. The all-too-human failure to comprehend size has blacked out vast swathes of latitude and longitude from the public imagination.
But the land is out there, provided you’re game. We venture into that great unknown out of the east, after camping by the Victoria River, where the moon-shadows of boab branches play over the canvas and crocodiles (betrayed only by their glinting eyes) drift silently in the turgid waterway. We set out early the next day, through ochrous hills and mesas with crumbly embankments, into a neverland where the high white orb of the sun flings boab shadows direct into the dirt and the distended grey boab trunks, swollen like Pop Eye’s forearm, offer brief flashes of carved text (“JK was here”, “The Thomas family 2009”).
Clusters of five-pronged kapok flowers flash by like sunspots and the noisy aircon and Cold Chisel compete to be heard as we roll over the sizzling bitumen and turn right onto the baking gravel. Instantly, we’re welcomed by the heartening crunch and crackle of stones under the tyres, the familiar opening sequence to any authentic bush experience. First stop, the information centre and Cockatoo Lagoon, where magpie geese, spoonbills and whistling ducks drift on the surface and wade in the shallows, unperturbed by the presence of saltwater crocs.
In Tune with the Land
Just down the road, we tackle the 200m hike up to Ginger’s Hill. This short stroll, insignificant by southern standards but deceptively challenging in the 90 per cent humidity and mid-day sun, delivers us to an ancient indigenous hunting structure. Inhaling the slightly chemical scent of freshly applied Nivea sunscreen, offered to my nostrils as if on a plate by my several weeks of moustache stubble, I read the signage to make sense of what’s in front of me – a circle of stones covered by a dense net of sticks. Genius – it’s for catching birds of prey. A hunter sits underneath the sticks, kindles a small smoky fire, and waits for the hawks to swoop down, then grabs them.
How this structure made by the first peoples, the Miriwoong, would work is by now intuitive to us. Terrain is constantly on fire in the North. Unseen custodians light roadside burn-offs then seem to disappear. The unattended ashy terrain is left to smoulder for days afterwards. The image is only complete when you add in the thirty, forty or fifty hawks drifting above on spread wings, patrolling the underbrush for mammals fleeing the carnage and awaiting their moment to dive.
Further along the winding dirt road, from the Jenemoom trailhead, we tramp along the banks of Keep River, brushing back fronds of vegetation and glancing down at the opaque brown rockpools, to arrive at an ancient Miriwoong rock shelter. As I eye the middens in the prevailing silence beneath an overhanging sweep of white sandstone, I can almost hear the fat globules of wet season rain collapsing into the saturated soil, underlaid by the quieter echo of grinding implements, the gentle clacking of shells, and whispered speech in an unfamiliar language. Later, at Nigli Gap, we’ll witness rock art on the escarpment, perhaps the best-kept trace of this culture in tune with the land.
Experiencing it on Foot
We pull into the Goorrandalng Campsite, the departure point for a 2km walk along a flat track through anything but flat terrain. Terrific sandstone monuments, eroded by howling winds and monsoonal rains into stark shapes and endless complexity, appear to have been deposited by an ancient force on the spinifex plains. The campsite is about a third full; campers loll around in camp chairs, their feet resting over the arms, a dewy drink in hand, their skin dully reflective with a sheen of sweat. They rest in the shade of awnings, fanning themselves with magazines, their expressions unreadable behind their sunglasses.
As we set out along the track in the early afternoon, it’s instantly clear that these longue-abouts had the right idea. Within minutes, we’re seeking the shade within hollows carved out of towering orange rock formations. Resting our palms on the chalky coolness, we gaze out through the dark jagged frames of silhouette towards the faraway clumpy spinifex fields and the endless collections of sandstone sculpture – some towering into the sky, others scooped out of the earth. From here, the intricate flaky crust of their surface is lost; only the powerful red sings out.
In the evening, we turn into our choice of bollarded sites at the all-but-abandoned Jarnem Campground. As we fold out the tent and put the whistling kettle on to boil, we’re joined by two rainbow bee-eaters. They perch out of harm’s way on a horizontal gum tree branch, their bright yellow bodies in profile, narrow beaks marking tiny arcs across the faded blue sky. Over coffee (it’s never too hot for that), the four of us discuss our plans for the morrow. Exhausted by the day’s exertions, we drift off early, and it feels like the next moment we’re descending the ladder bleary-eyed at 7am, to complete the 6.5km Jarnem Loop before the heat turns viscous.
This little wonder of a national park in NT’s remote tropical borderland is like a slice of the Kimberley gone adrift. I contemplate the diversity of what we’ve seen as I steady myself against a cabbage palm trunk, two thirds of the way through the loop. But as I step out into the sun again, I’m suddenly confused. Here I am, feeling whole, at one with the landscape. Yet the scenery is so strange, so unfamiliar, that at the same time I feel out of place. Perhaps there is something deep and meaningful to this, I ponder, or maybe the experience is merely part and parcel of going troppo. Good thing there’s ice-cold soda water in the fridge.
Where In northern NT, 3km from WA border on the Victoria Highway. 804km from Darwin, 491km from Katherine, 88km from Kununurra
Camping options National Parks camping at Jarnem and Goorrandalng sites. Composting toilets, no showers. $3.30 per adult, $1.65 per child, pay by envelope.
Best time of year Dry season (May to September)
Difficulty Easy access along in-and-out road during dry season. Potential wet season damage to tracks at start of tourist season
More info nt.gov.au