Mud crabs and crocs: Adventures on Arnhem Land’s Cobourg Peninsula

“Let’s eat some long bums”

It might be a local delicacy, but the long bum that we’ve just dug out of the mangrove mud is a hard sell, even after a solid roasting on hot campfire coals. Barramundi it ain’t, but my fellow Cobourg Peninsula campers don’t seem to mind. 

They nibble on their chewy crustaceans with gusto, and stand with spears ankle-deep in sticky mud, searching for mud crabs. In faraway Arnhem Land, our happy band of big city escapees is going decidedly wild. There are smiles all around!

I wade gingerly behind Robbie, whose spear is poised for any sign of those big, fat mud crabs (or the crocs). We spot starfish and strange sea hares that shoot out toxic ink, but nobody scores a crab. 

Hunters turn gatherers

Instead, we dig around the mud for cockles and pick up unsuspecting long bums from clear tidal pools. Robbie stokes a small campfire while his five-year-old daughter Montana teaches us to throw a spear with a woomera. We all have a go, collecting our wayward spears afterwards from the bush. When the coals are just right – red and aglow – on goes our ‘smoko’. 

Robbie swears that long bums – especially the blue kind – are excellent tucker. I suspect this Top End-bred Larrakia man has been living remote for a wee bit too long. Instead, I steal a morsel of my daughter’s muesli bar and throw a couple of spears. After such an unexpectedly good morning, I’ve got high hopes for the afternoon’s fishing adventure, boating deep into Port Essington’s voluminous blue bay. 

This bush tucker adventure with Garig Gunak Barlu National Park ranger Robbie Risk hasn’t cost us a cent. It’s Robbie’s monthly excursion to Wuwurdi Billabong and an excellent little tag-a-long adventure into the mangroves around Caiman Creek. 

Blue water & barramundi

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the Northern Territory’s Cobourg Peninsula is something of a pin-up destination for NT anglers. It’s remote, pristine and lapped by ridiculously turquoise water that reveals all too easily the queenfish, giant trevally and Spanish mackerel you are sure to catch. 

There are offshore coral reefs and unexpected patches of rainforest. And in NT style, the park is enormous, a tricoloured montage of sheer red cliffs, arcing white sand beaches and mangrove-fringed bays where barramundi and mangrove jacks hide.

How to explore Cobourg

The best way to explore, and the only way to reach Port Essington’s Victoria Ruins, is by boat. Most tow a tinny the 560km from Darwin and launch it from the sealed ramp at Black Point. Head for the deep bays off Port Essington, Vashon Head to the northwest, or along the eastern side of the peninsula as far as Stewart Point. 

If you travel boat-free, you can 4WD to Caiman Creek in Berkeley Bay to cast off the beach. Alternatively, find a patch of private anywhere along the Coastal Drive that skirts Cobourg’s east coast. Don’t miss sunset from Smith Point where a monument rises from the very tip of the peninsula and campers gather with chilled beers at day’s end. 

The legendary fishing alone would be enough to drag any angler out of Darwin, but the camping is wild too. It’s limited to just 20 vehicles at any one time. That means you’ll really feel like you’ve journeyed to the end of the world. 

Hiking the Victoria Ruins

At first sight, this British-built 1838 settlement appears idyllically located. Set atop high limestone cliffs, it stares out over the calmest of bright blue bays. Taking a hike, we discover the chiselled stone footpads of impossibly tiny homes, a hospital, old stores and kilns, and one very surprised buffalo that high-tails it into the cabbage palms. 

There are shell middens and shards of porcelain and glass bottle fragments everywhere. An old tamarind tree flourishes by the beach, left by Macassan traders from Indonesian Sulawesi who arrived 100 years before the British in search of sea cucumbers. They traded with the local Madjunbalmi people, but staked no claim on their traditional lands. 

The British, in all their wisdom, sent settlers here to brave the isolation and endure 11 years of cyclones, malaria and sunken supply ships before they weighed anchor and fled. Well, some of them did. Sadly, a quarter of the population remains buried in the cemetery. 

Why go?

If you love to fish, go to Cobourg. If spotting wildlife or retracing history is your thing, go to Cobourg. If you love isolation and beautiful beaches, this is your nirvana. But if you love to swim, try Litchfield instead (there’s no crocs there).

Out on the water around Cobourg you’ll spot dugongs and dwarf spinner dolphins and more estuarine crocodiles than anywhere else in the north. There are birds and beaches full of enormous shells and turtle tracks. 

All six species of Australia’s nesting sea turtles come ashore at Cobourg, and though the Indonesian feral banteng and buffalos might be outsiders, you’ll enjoy surprising them in the scrub too. 

Getting to Garig Gunak Barlu is an adventure in itself, but well worth the seven hours of off-roading from Darwin. Arrive at Cahills Crossing on the East Alligator River at low tide to get across, and be sure to pack plenty of fuel, food and fishing lures. 

ESSENTIALS

Where: Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula is 560km northeast of Darwin (allow 7 hours). Dry season access (May to October) is limited to 4WD vehicles and camper trailers (no caravans or motorbikes). There is no fuel available in the park so top up at Jabiru in Kakadu National Park, cross Cahills Crossing and push 3-4 hour (275km) to the park.  

Need to know: Alcohol is permitted in the national park but must not be drunk en route (obviously), and be warned that mobile reception is dodgy.

Camping: Two camps provide solar hot water showers, toilets, bore water, firepits and tables (no pets). There’s a boat ramp and an interpretive centre too.

Permits: A week-long stay costs $232.10 per vehicle (up to 5 adults, kids are free). Download an application (and park guide) at nt.gov.au and submit via email ([email protected]) or mail (GPO Box 1448, Darwin, NT, 0801).

Croc Safe: Garig Gunak Barlu is off-limits to swimming, and all the croc slides on the beautiful beaches are bound to keep you dry.  

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