When they talk of the Top End, they often forget about the topmost end of them all, NT’s Cobourg Peninsula.
No matter how difficult the track – and how remote the destination – it is almost impossible to really get away from it all. There is one place, though, tucked up in the north-east corner of Arnhem Land, where you really are away from it all. A long way.
The Cobourg Peninsula reaches into the Arafura Sea like a hand seeking refuge from the mainland. To protect it, and its surrounding waters and islands, the entire area has been declared a national park.
The Garig Gunak Barlu National Park embraces 4500 square kilometres of archaeological sites, wetlands, swamps and lagoons, monsoon rainforest and mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass meadows. The clear waters teem with aquatic wonders such as dugong, dolphins, six species of sea turtle, tropical fish and corals, and enough trophy-size fish to make any fisherman drop to his or her knees.
If ever blue waters enticed, these do. They’re warm and clear and gorgeous – but with sharks, crocodiles and stonefish, it simply isn’t safe. The Arafura Sea and the sandflies are reminders that no matter how stunning mother nature can be, she can also torment and tease.
A visit to the Cobourg Peninsula entails some serious planning. A permit is required and your application should be made at least a week in advance, or longer for school holiday periods, as campsites are limited.
The camping fee isn’t cheap, so try to spend at least three of the seven nights allowable. You must bring everything with you, including all fuel, food and water; the nearest supplies are in Jabiru, which is 320km away – not exactly convenient. If you enjoy a cold one at the end of the day, the nearest bottle shop is at Humpty Doo, so stock up there, but remember that alcohol may not be consumed on the road through Arnhem Land; keep it packed discretely in your vehicle.
This is a great destination for group travel, so if you can arrange a convoy, all the better. Make sure someone in the group has a radio or satphone in case of emergency; Black Point has a public phone that only takes phone cards. Bring any medications that may be required, including antihistamines for the guaranteed sandfly bites. Toss in a shadecloth, nibbles for watching the sunset from Smith Point and a willingness to relax and do nothing.
Oh, and if you have a boat with a reliable 20hp-plus motor, emergency gear/spares and a high freeboard for rough waters, tow it up for some outstanding fishing and sightseeing.
Your Cobourg adventure begins in earnest at Cahills Crossing. Don’t mistake the boat ramp for the river crossing – something that has happened, believe it or not. Engage 4X4, check the depth marker at the river crossing since the East Alligator River is tidal, then make your way carefully across.
Unfortunately, your permit does not allow you to stop between here and the park boundary, but no one said you can’t drive slowly to take in the stunning floodplains.
A second reason to take it slow is the abundant wildlife: watch for dingoes, wild horses, red-tailed black cockatoos, frill-necked lizards, goannas, pythons and wallabies, just to name a few. The third reason for caution is the road itself, which is rife with dips, corrugations and sharp bends.
At 43km from Cahills Crossing, a track to Nabarlek continues straight while you will turn north towards Murgenella and the Cobourg Peninsula. The Cooper Creek crossing is at 53km and is worth a drop into first gear or low-range if it’s flowing. Don’t walk it first as estuarine crocodiles are most likely present.
The same applies to Angulari Creek, at 90km. Murgenella Creek is 134km out and can be a bit rough – mind the resident croc that patrols the crossing.
The community of Murgenella is closed to all visitors, so continue on and at 156km watch for a ‘Cobourg 120km’ sign and veer left. At 160km, the road develops a series of blind bends where it is easy to slide out of control on the loose gravel if you’re not careful.
The boundary of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park is 187km from Cahills Crossing. Here, the road narrows and stays that way to Black Point, at 278km. Check in at the ranger station to confirm your arrival, then it’s another 2km to a junction. Turn left to Smith Point for mandatory sunset viewing and a walk on the beach, or right to the campgrounds, which are 5km beyond the airstrip.
After this drive, which is best done at the start of the day, all you will want to do is set up. Position your tent or camper for maximum shade (with a little luck you will have been assigned a site with a shade sail). If you have a screen enclosure of any kind, set that up too, since the sandflies are like carnivorous predators here. Pay attention to your surroundings at all times as campers have seen crocodile tracks running from the beach to a nearby billabong.
The next thing to do is to stop by the cultural, environmental and historical display at the ranger station. The Agalda, Madjunbalmi, Muran and Nagaindjagar clans have occupied this area for about 40,000 years, trading with neighbouring Macassan sailors for centuries before Australia was ‘discovered’.
In 1838, the British claimed the area and established the Victoria settlement. This began with typical British bravado and ended in despair a decade later. Visitors with a boat can visit the ruins, 25km south of the Black Point boat ramp. The trip requires an information sheet and registration with the ranger. Allow at least six hours for the return trip.
Other information sheets at the Black Point Cultural Centre are worth a look. The notice board includes commercial tours with Venture North from Black Point to Victoria settlement (twice a week or on demand) and also fishing charters (minimum of three). However, these are best booked in advance with Venture North.
The beach to the south of Smith Point has a rocky area with interesting pools at low tide. There is a coastal 4X4 track from Smith Point to Stewart Point with several scenic lookouts, but make sure that this 30km return drive doesn’t put your fuel supply in jeopardy (and check with the ranger first). The Lamilmil Swamp walking track is 1.5km long and begins at the ranger station.
The fishing at Caiman Creek, 14km back along Garig Road, is meant to be good, but, again, check with the ranger. You can also launch a boat at Caiman to explore the estuary and go fishing. The Black Point ramp provides access to all of Port Essington, but these waters are for equipped, experienced boaters only. Wildlife watchers will want to look out for banteng, an endangered species of Indonesian cattle, roaming near the airstrip at night.
Mostly, though, a trip to the Cobourg Peninsula is about relaxing and enjoying the scenery. The Garig language group called the Arafura Sea lala, and it is that clear blue lala, sparkling like cut crystal, that you’ll remember long after your Cobourg adventure is over.
TRAVEL PLANNER: WHEN TO GO
The dry season, generally from May through to October. School holidays can get very busy so it’s a good idea to book well in advance.
Cahills Crossing to Smith Point, 560km return. Nearest fuel is at Jabiru, 39km one-way from Jabiru to Cahills Crossing. Factor in an additional 50-100km at Smith Point for coastal drives and tracks to Smith Point and the boat ramp.
DIRECTIONS TO START
Travel east on the Arnhem Highway into Kakadu National Park, turn north to Ubirr and drive 37km to the Border Store and Cahills Crossing.
Four to five hours from Cahills Crossing.
Jabiru has fuel, food and services.
WHAT TO TAKE
Everything including all food, water, spares, a tarp for shade, first aid kit, medications, sun and insect protection, enough fuel for a 750km return trip. Radio or satphone in case of an emergency. Phone card for the phone at Black Point.
Moderate with numerous creek crossings that can vary in depth (check depth markers). Expect dust, corrugation and slippery bends. Take a high-clearance 4X4 with and two spares; permits are only issued to 4X4s.
Tents and camper-trailers only; no caravans. Caravan storage available at Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park in Jabiru (08 8979 2422). If you are allergic to sandfly bites, take strong precautions as they are at the top of the food chain here.
The track can be closed with little notice due to damage or for ceremonial purposes.
Tides at Cahills Crossing are about six hours behind Darwin; a high tide can prevent you from crossing, check on bom.gov.au for the NT tide table.
Two campgrounds near Smith Point, Area 1 (no generators) and Area 2 (quiet generators). Both have composting toilets, cold showers, bore water, barbecues, some sites with shade sails.
Northern Territory National Parks, nt.gov.au/nreta/parks. Venture North, 08 8927 5500, venturenorth.com.au.
Black Point Ranger Station, 08 8979 0244. Jabiru Health Clinic, 08 8979 2018.
FEES & PERMITS
Permit required from Cobourg Peninsula Sanctuary and Marine Park Board, PO Box 496, Palmerston, NT 0831; phone 08 8999 4814, fax 08 8999 4524. You must check in with the ranger upon arrival at Black Point.
Camping fee, $220 per vehicle with up to five passengers for seven nights. Transit fee through Arnhem Land, $12.10.
The Garig Gunak Barlu NP Fact Sheet includes three small maps.