ARNHEM LAND INVESTIGATION
This remote area is opening gradually to eco-tourism.
OTA was asked to consult with some Arnhem Land elders about the prospect of limited tag-along tourism in this heavily restricted area. Nothing has materialised yet, but we’re hopeful.
Arnhem Land is the last great frontier for 4WD travellers, but it’s very difficult to enter this remote region. To date, visits are in selected areas and most have to be done in tour operators’ vehicles.
Some of the senior residents of Ngukurr, on the northern bank of the Roper River, are investigating the possibility of escorted tag-along tourism. That’s how we came to be driving over the causeway at Roper Bar, en route to Ngukurr.
Despite what some maps show there is no formal camping area in the Ngukurr area. A condition of permit entry is that you have somewhere to stay when visiting Arnhem Land.
We were privileged guests of Carol and Andrew Robertson and their daughter, Glenda, who welcomed us into her new house. Over seemingly endless cups of tea – Ngukurr is a dry community – we kicked around the eco-tourism idea.
The regional elders are anxious to find future employment for the new generation and tourism is one obvious area. Ngukurr also boats an excellent art gallery, where local artists display their culture, so indigenous art sales would certainly boost the community’s fortunes.
The Robertsons understand that many 4WD travellers would like to see some of the Arnhem Land countryside and experience the local community, but they’re also conscious of the need to keep this region as natural as possible.
“We’ll show you some of our country and also some places where tourists could camp,” Carol Robertson told us.
“Maybe they’d spend time in our country and then come to Ngukurr to shop for supplies and fuel for their ongoing journey.”
The tag-along tour business should be able to integrate with the changes that have made at Munbililla (Tomato Island) on the Limmen National Park side of the Roper River – just across the water from Ngukurr. This informal campsite has suffered from hygiene and firewood supply issues over the past few years and has just received a $1.5 million upgrade.
Tomato Island has been refurbished as a 50-site, non-powered, grassed camping area, with a solar powered ablution block, rubbish dump and manager’s residence. The Yugul Mangi Development Aboriginal Corporation in Ngukurr is managing the site.
Ngukurr and surrounds
Although technically a suburb of Katherine, Ngukurr is a good four-hour drive to the east, over a concrete ford at Roper Bar and a corrugated access road, with several paved river crossings. The community is ‘dry’ and entry is by permit only.
The town’s population of 1100 is expanding rapidly, with new concrete-block houses being built constantly. Kids and young adults make up a large proportion of the population and the median age is only 22 – some 15 years lower than the national average.
Cynics have suggested the town is being made more attractive in order to bring people in from remote areas and deplete bush communities, so mining companies can have freer access to Arnhem Land’s considerable mineral resources. Surely not!
Much of what is now Aboriginal land in the Ngukurr area was once pastoral property. There’s also a river bed that was mined for its slate deposits. The legacy includes roads, tracks and several outstations with buildings that are run down, but not beyond redemption.
We visited several sites in the area, starting with what was once a homestead and support buildings at Turkey Lagoon.
The road north was in good condition and the property tracks were little travelled, but tall grass had been burnt off by the locals, so navigation was easy. The main building was beyond repair, but a solar pump was feeding lagoon water to a tank on a tower, so running water was available in some of the outbuildings. A toilet and shower block looked like they’d connect to the water supply without too much trouble. We reckon this area would make a great campsite for self-sufficient tourists.
Next stop on our investigative tour was a magnificent rocky crossing on the Wilton River, where there were many safe fishing spots. A couple of the crew braved a brief dip, but the Aborigines didn’t and neither did we.
From the upper Wilton crossing we drove south on old property tracks to the lower crossing, on the main road to Ngukurr. This track initially ran across black soil country, dotted with termite mounds, but climbed through rocky hills as it neared the main road. This ridge of hills connects Mt Read and Mt Warrington, with the red rock face of Knuckey Bluff overlooking the river. We had a crack at catching a barra for dinner, but had to settle for snags instead.
East of Ngukurr there’s a good gravel and dirt road that passes the expanse of Lomarieum Lagoon and ends at Nullawan, another outstation. Like Turkey Lagoon this group of buildings would make an ideal tag-along campsite.
Property tracks run from this central spot to many lagoon and river bank fishing spots. No barra, again, but a couple of rifle fish. Oh well. The tracks lead to Nawaparr Gorge, but late Wet Season flooding barred our way.
One of the jewels of the Ngukurr area is only a few hundred metres from town. Known as Yellow-water Lagoon, this broad expanse of lily-covered water nestled among fringing hills, with many picnic spots shaded by river red gums.
Some trees bore the marks of local handiwork, where bark had been removed to make coolamon bush-tucker carriers. An optimist or two had left small rowboats onto the shore, but we weren’t tempted: we could almost smell the crocs!
We didn’t get to see all the attractions in the Ngukurr area, but from our preliminary check we’re sure the locals have a future in eco-tourism.
We suggested a five-day itinerary for tag-along visitors that would involve an escorted drive on roads and 4WD tracks, culminating in a visit to Ngukurr, for fuel and supplies, plus a visit to the art gallery. We’ll keep liaising with the elders and bring you updates.
While in the area
The mighty Roper River forms the southern boundary of Arnhem Land and the northern boundary of the recently gazetted Limmen National Park.
Limmen is best known for fishing camps on the Roper River and Gulf Coast, but the Southern Lost City’s eroded sandstone formations are a must-see in Limmen National Park. Self-guided walks through these fantastic natural sculptures are well signed, but walking in the heat of the day isn’t advisable as there’s little shade and no water.
Another site - the Western Lost City – is at the end of a four-kilometre 4WD track that requires high ground clearance. There’s a locked gate on this track and the key must be obtained from the Nathan River Ranger Station.
Swimming in the Park is dangerous, except in the beautiful rock pool at Butterfly Springs. However, late in the Dry Season this pool becomes stagnant and swimming isn’t advisable.
At the Rocky Bar Hodgson River crossing, just off the main road not far from Roper Bar, there’s a beautiful sandy beach and rock flats that are dotted with hundreds of Aboriginal engravings.
South of all this is the shaded camping area at Cape Crawford, with fuel, accommodation, a restaurant and bar. Paradise.
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