A four-wheel-drive tour to a forgotten city reveals two sides of Top End history in the Northern Territory's Cobourg Peninsula.
The morning sun has barely crept over the tops of the mangroves and my forehead is already prickling with sweat. As our tinnie glides across a remote West Arnhem Land inlet, about as far off the grid as it gets on mainland Australia, I clock a lone dingo watching us from a beach. I imagine it’s wondering what we’re doing all the way out here in this heat. I start to wonder the same thing as I gulp down the already warm contents of my water bottle and smear on another layer of sunscreen.
Fringed by empty beaches and sapphire-blue coves teeming with marine life (the type that means swimming is off limits), the 2100-square-kilometre Cobourg Peninsula, off the north-western tip of the Northern Territory, is a beautiful but unforgiving place. Protected by Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, the first in Australia to be managed jointly by its traditional custodians, the Arrarrkbi people, this wild landscape has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.
Petrol stations are few and far between, phone reception a fantasy and there’s plenty of stuff that can kill you so you’ll need a Bear Grylls-level of self-sufficiency. Sure, with the right vehicle and appropriate access permits it’s possible to make the 570-kilometre journey from Darwin independently but why would you? Venture North Safaris runs a luxury five-day 4WD trip from its Arrarrkbi-approved camp on the cliffs of Port Essington, a short boat ride from the 19th-century ruins of Victoria Settlement – Australia’s forgotten city.
“We’ve got life jackets but they won’t get you very far if we start sinking,” says guide Tony Webb from Corroboree Billabong Wetland Cruises. The Mary River wetlands, considered the gateway to Kakadu National Park, is our first stop after heading east from Darwin and is home to the highest density of saltwater crocodiles on the planet. Our group of six travellers glides past a huge saltie sunning itself on the riverbank and I begin to understand why the British Navy’s three attempts to establish a colony in the Territory way back when were failures. I’ve still got crocs on the brain as we trudge along a pandanus-shaded path to Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) in Kakadu later that day but the pristine swimming hole enclosed by a steep gorge is just too tempting... I dive in.
While Kakadu felt wild, driving over East Alligator River at Cahill’s Crossing – the only land entry to West Arnhem Land – feels like entering another realm. And here, watching the rugged landscape through the windows of the LandCruiser, I reckon I’d be lucky to last a day on my own. Our Venture North guide Dave McMahon – who with his bare feet, khaki stubbies, manicured beard and YouTube channel can best be described as a hipster Bush Tucker Man – is entirely in his element. “Where you see trees and rocks, Aboriginal people see a supermarket or a pharmacy,” the former chef tells us as he corrals the occupants of a green ant nest into a thermos of boiling water to make a citrus tea. “Mind you, they’ve had 60,000 years of practice.”
An abundance of bush tucker gave this region’s First Peoples more time to paint, which explains the impressive 8000-year old Indigenous rock art galleries of Injalak Hill, near the town of Gunbalanya. We spend three hours clambering around the site with local guide Roland Burrunali, a gifted artist whose works are shown at the Injalak Arts centre in town, and I could happily spend three more admiring the vibrant works hidden within the caves.
As we pull into Cobourg Coastal Camp near the end of the day my body is vibrating from the corrugated dirt road. The camp is an impressively chic set-up for what must surely be the country’s most remote glamping site, with eight safari tents set along a cliff (“too high for the crocs to climb up,” assures McMahon), open-air waterfall showers and eco-friendly loos. As the sun sets across the inlet, casting a coral glow on the water, we gather at the clifftop “bar” to clink glasses of sparkling wine and slurp down oysters just harvested by the camp skipper, Travis, who lives here for the season (May to October) with his wife, Holly, and their two young kids. In the dining pavilion we feast on fresh produce brought from Darwin, which McMahon whips into restaurant-quality meals.
Falling into a proper bed, I nod off in an instant. The next morning I’m eager to get my hands on a cup of coffee after being jolted awake several times during the night by loud splashes – probably a croc or shark having their own dinner, McMahon tells me later. We’ve risen early to explore Victoria Settlement before the heat makes it unbearable; it’s the end of the dry season and the 30°C days can feel much warmer.
“You think it’s hot here now,” says McMahon, grinning under his Akubra as our party wades from the tinnie to explore the surprisingly intact ruins of the villagesized outpost on the low cliffs above a beach. “Imagine having to wear those heavy naval uniforms through the humidity of the wet season.” I’d have fed my corset to the crocs by day two but as I inspect the row of conical ironstone chimneys (chimneys!) that marks the remains, it’s clear the settlers were a stubborn lot.
“They never adapted,” explains McMahon. “But you’ve got to admire their persistence.” You’d think they’d have thrown in the towel when at least eight men were taken out in a single cyclone. Or perhaps when all but two members of the garrison were struck down with malaria. But the settlers stuck it out for 11 years and by the time they received the order to disband in 1849 at least 60 souls had perished.
While there’s not a lot left of the settlement at first glance, a closer inspection reveals fascinating windows into the past, preserved for nearly two centuries by the site’s remoteness. On the beach, McMahon points out dozens of broken bottles lodged in the sand – their hue a giveaway of their age, as black glass was commonly used in the 1800s to protect alcohol from light. I don’t imagine the French wine or Dutch gin would’ve lasted long after it was hauled off the infrequent supply ships. At the eerily intact graveyard the largest headstone is dedicated to Emma Lambrick, wife of the settlement’s second-in-command and a mother figure to the colony.
In his book Forsaken Settlement, worth reading beforehand, Peter G. Spillett details the garrison’s complex relationships with local Indigenous groups and the horrors of the onsite hospital, where one of McMahon’s former guests swore they saw a ghost. But colonial history is one of the youngest attractions here. The peninsula is encompassed by the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and while it doesn’t have the blockbuster reputation of Kakadu, it’s the world’s first wetland to be recognised for its significance on the route of migratory birds. Spanning land and marine environments, the park is a habitat for dugongs, turtles, a herd of Indonesian Banteng cattle and the no longer surprising but always intimidating local crocs. “Wow, this one was an absolute beauty,” remarks McMahon (with a level of enthusiasm that I generally reserve for puppies) after stopping the car to inspect some saltie slide marks. “He would’ve been at least four metres,” he adds as I back towards the vehicle with a shudder.
On our final evening, we feast on mud crabs we speared ourselves that morning, with red snapper and coral trout caught by Travis while we were out exploring. Loading up my plate, I understand why keen anglers come here just to fish, though I can’t imagine missing out on anything I’ve seen. The drive back to Darwin can take up to a day and is dictated by the tide at Cahill’s Crossing. We make it across and stop to witness dozens of crocs converge to snap up fishy treats sucked upriver with the incoming tide. There are more tourists, armed with cameras and fishing rods, taking in the twice-daily spectacle than I’ve seen all week and I feel myself longing for the wilds of Cobourg.
Images credits: Ilse Schrama, Robert Wyatt and Genevieve Vallee.