Kakadu, an Aussie wilderness icon and a World Heritage treasure, is not a place for tourists seeking instant gratification. Its rewards are granted only to those who have time to seek them. By Roderick Eime

“The strange, as it were invisible, beauty of Australia, which is undeniably there but which seems to lurk just beyond the range of our white vision …” — D.H. Lawrence, “Kangaroo”

Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory is one of Australia’s national tourism icons. Of the 788 properties on the international heritage list, only two percent are prized for both their cultural and natural attributes. Kakadu shares this honour with treasures such as Uluru, Macchu Pichu (Peru) and Tikal (Guatemala).

Inhabited continuously by Aborigines for more than 40,000 years, Kakadu is described by UNESCO as “a unique archaeological and ethnological reserve.” Its numerous cave paintings and rock carvings record the history of the inhabitants from the age of hunter-gatherers to the present day. “It is a unique example,” says UNESCO, “of a complex of ecosystems, including tidal flats, floodplains, lowlands and plateaux, and provides a habitat for a wide range of rare or endemic species of plants and animals.”

There’s no mistaking the grandeur of the prehistoric vista at Ubir. Drift off for a moment and you can easily imagine a brontosaurus raising its head from the swamp in Jurassic Park fashion. Nourlangie Rock, a cornerstone of Aboriginal Dreaming, thrusts majestically from the plain, while a dawn exploration of the Yellow Waters is a genuinely transforming experience. It’s an extraordinary place – no doubt about it.

PLAYING HARD TO GET
Nonetheless, the glittering jewel of the Top End is suffering an identity crisis. After starring in box office hits, top-rating TV shows and glitzy commercials, Kakadu has fallen on hard times. Visitor numbers (especially internationals) began to decline between 1999 and 2000, even before the tourism trauma caused by 9/11. The graph looks like a ski-jump now that some recovery from airborne terror is occurring globally, but the scars remain. Kakadu and the NT generally continue to lag.

Many of those who’ve visited the Park in more recent years have returned with less than rave reviews. Cruise the burgeoning internet “travelblogs” and other forums, and you’ll get a taste of the widespread reaction:

“Stay away from this place!”
“They don’t like to have guests …”
“When we went to visit the sites we were disapointed.” (sic)
“I went there after Litchfield [National Park] and was also disappointed. Maybe all the advertising hype led to too higher expectations.” (sic)
“The flies and insects were a pain.”
“I had just two things on my mind, a hot shower and bed. Boy, was I in for a disappointment.”
“Thousands of years of aboriginal culture that the rest of the world seems more interested in than us [Australians]!”

However, it’s wrong to draw the conclusion that Kakadu is a wildly over-hyped destination. You have to look deeper – beyond the limitations of so-called “tick tourism” and the imperative of instant gratification – and embrace this idea fully: Kakadu doesn’t do “instant.”

So says John Morse AM, the primary architect of “A Shared Vision” – an NT government-funded report tackling the roots of Kakadu’s problems. Morse spells it out clearly: “Kakadu is about subtleties. Sometimes you have to just sit, listen and reflect to understand Kakadu and what it’s all about. One day, two days … it’s just not enough to do it justice. People leave saying ‘Is that all?’ – not knowing much more than when they arrived.”

Lonely Planet’s Andrew Bain says Kakadu “has a beauty that plays hard to get”, which is why a thorough and concerted investigation of the place is required to extract the elusive spiritual and natural nuances it contains. It’s obvious that to make this connection happen, visitors have to put in the effort to learn at least a little about Aboriginality, and open their eyes, ears and minds to the experiences offered. And they need to take their time about it.

It’s something that doesn’t seem to register with most westerners. The prevailing local attitude has traditionally been one of palpable disdain for Kakadu, with a decided bias toward the locally managed Litchfield National Park. Darwin residents make up less than five percent of total Kakadu visitors – a stark contrast to Litchfield, which is conveniently removed from any indigenous entanglements, and has a visual allure which is immediately apparent. The Tabletop Range contains verdant valleys of monsoonal rainforest, permanent waterfalls and croc-free swimming – ideal for visitors with time against them.

Kakadu, on the other hand, should be an all-encompassing experience. “That’s why,” says Morse, “you can’t compare Litchfield and Kakadu. You can go to Litchfield with a picnic for a day and come away with a positive, albeit cursory, experience. But not Kakadu. That is why Kakadu needs to be dealt with so differently, and the extremely important contribution of traditional owners must be recognised and included.”

Credited with masterminding the global tourism strategy for the Sydney 2000 Olympics and a former Managing Director of the Australian Tourist Commission, Morse returns time and time again during his report to the neglect of Aboriginal values and the importance of the participation of traditional owners in his on-going tourism strategy: “Overall decrease in international tourism numbers across the board after 9/11 notwithstanding, Kakadu has sort of fallen between the cracks. Even with the abundance of publicity derived from films like Crocodile Dundee and countless wildlife documentaries, the significance of the indigenous peoples is rarely properly acknowledged.”

Morse reminds us that, despite earlier omissions, the Aboriginal owners must play a more prominent role in any tourism strategy for the park. “It’s their home after all – and it’s vital that any development proceed at a pace they are comfortable with. International visitors, a highly significant proportion of all visitors to Kakadu, want an authentic Aboriginal experience – and the owners welcome that, provided it can be delivered in a safe, respectful and enriching manner.

“But the owners acknowledge they don’t have the skills to deliver that experience in a way westerners would understand. We’ve been too quick to throw money at them, provide no training or resources, and then deride them when they inevitably fail. This circumstance has bred distrust between all parties. The tour operators cannot provide this experience without proper co-operation of the owners, and the owners don’t really know what the visitors expect. It’s just poor communication and co-operation all around.

“The ‘Shared Vision’ is all about sharing the same ideas and ideals and establishing a common strategy for all to follow, with the ultimate aim of enhancing the visitor experience, meeting their expectations and re-involving the traditional owners in this process – with support and resources to do the job.”

THE KAKADU MAN
Jonathon Nadji is a traditional owner, chairperson of the Kakadu Board of Management and a Bunitj clansman with a destiny to fulfil. Jonathon’s father, “Big” Bill Nadji, was widely acknowledged as perhaps the most visionary of all traditional owners, with a distinct, practical yet spiritual vision for Kakadu. Dubbed “The Kakadu Man”, Bill passed away in 2002.

Jonathon knows he has big shoes to fill, but is committed to seeing through the initiatives of his legendary father: not only for his people but also for the other 22 clans in Kakadu. Big Bill’s dream was to create a sanctuary for Gagudju culture, where non-Aboriginal people could gain a sense of what it means to belong to the land – a vision seized upon by Morse’s team and championed throughout the report.

However, getting consensus amongst 22 clans is a really difficult task. There are a lot of competing interests and variations on Big Bill’s vision – ranging from totally closing the park for conservation to throwing it wide open for all comers. Jonathon knows he has to galvanise the clans to a common purpose if Bill’s dream is to be realised.

And to Jonathon, Big Bill is everywhere, now returned to the land he loved: “He’s still around. He’s always around. And, you know, you can feel him.”

Away from the campfire, Jonathon also has to deal with the needs of government, miners and private enterprise. Providing visitors with a worthwhile, authentic experience is yet another challenge. “This vision is about respecting our culture, helping visitors understand and appreciate the beauty of our traditional lands and proudly sharing our country with park visitors,” he is quoted as saying in a joint Federal and NT Government press release.

But speaking to the ABC on the indigenous Message Stick program, he was a little more candid: “The buses pull up and out they all get, wander around for five minutes, and then off they go again. How can you show someone thousands of years of history and culture in five minutes?”

Obviously, anyone who wants to do a bit of “tick tourism” should forget about Kakadu. On the other hand, seekers of a genuine spiritual experience – perhaps even a “transformational” one – could scarcely come to a more suitable place. And yet it must be acknowledged that this isn’t all there is to the story. Kakadu has serious management problems, as the “Shared Vision” report makes abundantly clear (Click here for KAKADU: THE REPORT CARD).

I first visited the park in July 1998, when tourism was still trending upwards. With little planning, high expectations and not enough time, my scant two nights had their highs and lows. Generally, the facilities I encountered were shoddy, overpriced or both – and the overall experience somewhat mixed. As I’ve subsequently come to learn, at least some of Kakadu’s allure is oversold – if not directly, then by way of wilfully maintained misrepresentations.

One example: much play is made of the splendour of Kakadu’s waterfalls, particularly Jim Jim and Twin Falls. The fine print is often overlooked in the tourists’ rush for instant gratification. Both Jim Jim and Twin Falls require concerted effort by 4WD and are only accessible in the dry season – when the falls are down to barely a trickle.

THE CHALLENGE
When announcing the commissioning of John Morse’s report in May 2004, NT Chief Minister and Tourism Minister Clare Martin declared: “What we are looking for is a clear statement of how tourism can contribute to Kakadu’s world-famous cultural and natural attributes — and how the tourism industry can benefit.” And she got it – in spades.

With the release of the report imminent, she deftly reminded the Federal Government (who jointly manage Kakadu via the Dept of Environment and Heritage, along with traditional owners) of her challenge to match the $500,000 offered last year by the Territory Government for a “repositioning” campaign for Kakadu. This re-tossing of the gauntlet was timed to anaesthetise the media and public prior to the anticipated pain of the report’s publication. As well, Martin has wasted no time sheeting home blame to the conservative CLP, which had been in power since self-government in 1978 until 2001: “Did the CLP ever put once marketing dollar into Kakadu? Never, ever.”

Morse and his team should be commended for not glossing over the issues, instead producing a report that confronts the multitude of shortcomings but also offers hope for those committed enough to take up the challenge. It’s an expose of past misdeeds and shortcomings, an audit of strengths and weaknesses, and a firm but polite set of instructions on what needs to be done.

But the fact remains that right now, Kakadu is something like a plastic model kit full of pieces that don’t fit. For 20 years it’s been messed with. Nobody knows exactly how to put it together, and nobody can even agree on what it should look like. The “Vision” is a belated blueprint produced after serious consultation with the only people who really know – the traditional owners. Making it a reality is going to be a long haul.

After “Vision”, the next phase is “Share Our Story” – a $2.8 million, NT-funded, NT-wide (ie not just Kakadu) advertising and marketing campaign now rolling out into markets across Australia and New Zealand. Those who’ve already seen the three-minute “Share Our Story” piece on pay TV and SBS will have noticed the grand cinematographic production of sweeping vistas interweaved with a soft female Aboriginal voice gently beseeching visitors to come and have a look up north again. In contrast to the hugely successful Daryl Somers-led “If you never, never go …” campaign of the 1990s, there’s a distinct indigenous theme markedly absent from last decade’s enticements. There’s no appeal to the beer-swilling party animal here; it’s all upmarket, chardonnay-sipping, AB demographic glamour.

Somers may have attracted visitors in unprecedented numbers, but what did he deliver them to? This is the hangover the current Territory regime must grapple with, hence the radical rebranding in “Share Our Story.” Now, as the pony-tailed ad gurus trumpet their “integrated brand platforms” “resonating” with “transformational experiences”, the ball is firmly in the court of the combined NT and Federal Government agencies to deliver the right on-the-ground experiences to the newly persuaded.

Australian Traveller’s attempts to determine exactly how much funding will be sent in the direction of Kakadu to actually address the park’s problems, and from whom, and how it’s intended to be spent, have met with considerable resistance. It’s a sensitive issue; in fact, many people have remained extremely guarded about going on the record in this article for fear of upsetting the precarious applecart. However, there are concrete plans afoot, and works already in progress.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, who has Ministerial responsibility for Kakadu National Park, told AT this: “In response to the Morse Report, we have already established a new Visitor Services Management team and begun work on the new entrances recommended by John Morse. The first of the new experiences are under development (for example, a safari camp and a new guided walk and Art Centre). [We have] upgraded walking trails to the Twin Falls escarpment and Twin Falls Gorge. The first of many new directional signs are in place (for example, not just the names of campgrounds but pictograms identifying the visitor facilities available). [There are] new operating practices on the ground to extend the dry season opening and closure. In this financial year, $1.7 million has been allocated to improve infrastructure such as roads, tracks, buildings, toilets, signs, boats and vehicles.”

So: it’s not all window-dressing. There are strong grounds for hope that Kakadu and the issues surrounding it won’t “fall through the cracks” once again.

WHITE MAN’S DREAMING?
John Morse, his initial task complete, stands eagerly in the wings, hoping his personal dream of a more involved Aboriginal leadership is realised. The various Ministers continue to goad each other with offers, counter-offers and funding initiatives, while the campaign bandwagon keeps on rolling, hoping to reinvigorate Australians’ love of the outback, Territory-style.

The outcome will of course be decided, eventually, by the so-called “spirited traveller”, the seeker of experiential travel. These are the people whose determination to see beyond the surface of things will hopefully keep Kakadu afloat until all its problems are solved. Let’s hope that’s how it turns out, for the sake of the Northern Territory and all Australians.

 


DETAILS // KAKADU NATIONAL PARK
BEST MONTHS TO GO: 
The park is open year-round but many services are shut during the wet season. The majority of visitors arrive in July.
MOST UNDER-RATED ASPECT: Significance of Kakadu to indigenous culture.
MOST OVER-RATED ASPECT: Jim Jim Falls in the dry season.
BE PREPARED FOR: Insects, heat, and expensive, patchy services.
WATCH OUT FOR: Ubir and Nourlangie rock galleries, Yellow Water cruise (year-round). Scenic flight in wet season.
BEST VALUE ENCOUNTERED: Entrance fees have been removed, so any of the self-guided walks are great value if you do some homework first.
CONTACTS: (08) 8938 1120, 
www.deh.gov.au/parks/kakadu/

 


IN THE BEGINNING
The first Europeans were totally unimpressed with the region of what is generally now Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The oppressive heat and abundance of insects drove them mad. One of the first to record his appraisal was the valiant Matthew Flinders in 1803, as he surveyed the northernmost coastline: “… a delightful situation to a college of monks, who could stand the heat of the climate, and were impenetrable to the stings of the mosketoes (sic).”

The many Aboriginal communities of the region were considerably more appreciative of the place than the British colonists, having inhabited the swamps, estuaries and escarpments for some 40,000 years. They fished the waters, made exquisite rock paintings, hunted and generally pursued a subsistence lifestyle. Naturally there evolved an immutable spiritual relationship with the land that persists to this day.

The first proposal for a national park in the Alligator Rivers region was put forward in 1965, beginning a tussle between Federal, Territorian, Aboriginal and mining bodies that didn’t reach a resolution until 1991 – and even then a precarious and divisive one.

International recognition amongst conservationists was established when the wetlands were listed by The Ramsar (Iran) Convention in 1980. Australia was among the first countries to sign this charter to protect and conserve significant wetlands internationally.

UNESCO first inscribed Australia’s great Kakadu National Park in 1981 for its newly developed World Heritage programme. That inscription expanded in 1987 and 1992 as the park grew. The current international heritage list comprises three categories: cultural (77 percent), natural (21 percent), and the much rarer mixed (two percent). Kakadu is one of the latter.

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