Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kakadu National Park

... is Australia's largest national park. It's about the size of New Jersey, and it protects some of the continent's most important wetlands.

The Australian tropics have two main seasons: wet and dry. During "the wet," the flat lands of Kakadu become like a temporary Everglades, flooding and filling with plant and animal life. During "the dry," the swamps evaporate into smaller and smaller billabongs and rivers, concentrating the wildlife into tiny areas and drying out the rest. April is the cusp season, when the wet ends and the dry begins. Kakadu is at its greenest, but it remains largely inaccessible other than by air and boat.

Some of the campers on Lady Musgrave Island insisted that I spend the cash to go on a wetland cruise, specifically the one that departs before sunrise. We braved the mosquitoes to float across billabong, a river, and a floodplain as the sky grew light. We were rewarded with the sight of hundreds of birds and the subtle, but beautiful, blossoming of the wetlands under a cloudy dawn.

Lotus leaves, some the size of trash-can lids
Lotus flowers
We also saw about ten crocodiles in two hours. At every tiny speck of water, from major rivers to muddy puddles, the park puts up comically dire signs warning visitors not to approach the edge, lest they get chomped.

You don't have to tell me twice.
It was pretty rad seeing a crocodile in the wild. During my few days in Kakadu, I also saw plenty of wallabies, cockatoos, cranes, and one scrawny dingo. The most abundant and striking wildlife, though, was the insects. Kakadu has the most amazing assortment of colorful butterflies, some with transparent panels in their wings, like stained glass. The average wasp was as orange as Blogspot's logo, and even the ants were a golden color with fetching lime-green abdomens.

There were less lovely bugs as well. My first night in camp, I was in the vehicle getting ready for bed when I kept hearing mosquitoes. I'd turn on all the interior lights, hold very still, and search around the van. Nothing. The whining kept going, no matter what.

Eventually I realized that the whining wasn't coming from inside the truck. It was coming from every window, all around the vehicle. I was surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, like something out of a nightmare. I couldn't imagine how I would get from the car to my tent. Eventually, I had to put on a hoodie, long pants, and socks in the sweltering humidity, just to sprint 10 yards. Once inside my tent, the cloud gathered around and hovered there all night. It was like falling asleep to an infuriating Phillip Glass composition.

Even after the heat of the day set in, the mosquitoes would, like, roost in any shady spot they could find. Shady spots included the toilets, on my hanging bath towel, and on every surface inside Princess. Disturb them, and end up with a swarm in your hair and nostrils.

The only upside to the mosquitoes was that they attracted scads of tiny, tiny frogs.
Approach them, and they leap from floor to walls to ceiling like gravity has no meaning.

One frog figured out that my tent was an all-you-can-eat buffet and perched there every night, but the little guy could fit maybe six mosquitoes in his tiny tummy, so he didn't make much of a dent.

Kakadu is also has an incredible concentration of Aboriginal rock art. I imagined Aborigines in Australia would be like Native Americans in the states: basically invisible, except in isolated pockets. But Aborigines have a much larger population--and play a much larger role--in Australian society than Indians do in American society. Parts of Kakadu are fully tribal-owned, and require separate permits to visit. There are also sacred rock-art sites that visitors are never allowed access to. The visitor's centers do an excellent job of introducing the landscape and culture from a first-person Aboriginal point of view. Despite this, the true meaning of any individual rock art remains unrevealed.

 Kakadu was fascinating, but it reinforced something I've always known: I'm not meant for the tropics. The last few days have been a perfect storm of stuff that's particularly horrible on my fussy New England Irish skin: Sun, dust, humidity, mosquitoes. I spent the days plastered in a sticky mess of SPF, DEET, squashed mosquito corpses, and my own BO. I broke out like a band geek, and I had horrific hair and puffy eye bags from tossing and turning all night in the wet, motionless heat. Give me a long, cold winter any day, or at least some air conditioning.

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