Vast and beautiful, Arnhem Land is a challenging place to visit but it's well worth the effort.

Story By Mark Muller

Tom McIlwain and John Montefiore are a picture of serenity as they skim along the glassy waters of Cooper Creek Billabong. And who can blame them; all around is the majesty of the magnificent Mount Borradaile wetlands in western Arnhem Land. Tom is a guide for Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris – one of the original and best opportunities for visitors to experience something of the sheer brilliance and wonder of this extraordinary part of Australia. John is a guest who has been back so many times he’s become a friend. “It’s just so pristine,” John says. “It’s unique – the wildlife, the natural environment, the rock art; it’s amazing.”
Arnhem Land is amazing. Touching on Kakadu National Park in the west and stretching across to the sparkling azure waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the east, its 97,000 square kilometres are virtually a nation within a nation. Not all of it is accessible. Outsiders still require a permit from the traditional owners to enter most of Arnhem Land, a protocol that was to be scrapped under the Howard Government’s intervention plans, but which the Rudd Government has said will stay in place. Much of it is misunderstood, and there has been a storm of controversy following last year’s release of the harrowing Little Children are Sacred report, which deals in part with Arnhem Land. But the wider story of this area, home to a mixed population of some 20,000 people, is one of a rich and ancient culture and a stunning, resource-laden environment, parts of which are open to exploration and discovery if you’ve a mind to get there.
Kakadu National Park, which lies 170km east of Darwin, runs off the Arnhem Land escarpment and is the most accessible taste of what is to be found to the east. Its 19,804sqkm attracts 200,000 visitors a year, and it is renowned for the diversity and beauty to be found within its borders. About half of it is Aboriginal-owned land, leased to the government to be run as a national park, and the indigenous experience in the form of cultural tours, rock art and general naming conventions is a strong part of its allure to travellers.
Tony Heenan runs the Twin Falls boat shuttle service. He’s been working in this popular gorge in the park for the better part of 20 years, and does not tire of it. “Kakadu is one of the very few parks in the world that encompasses a complete river catchment system,” he says. “Catchment, rivers, waterfalls, creeks and swamps combine to form a complete ecosystem that is completely protected.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #57

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2008