A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again*

OR: How to hike Jim Jim Falls, the hard way

The Escarpment looms large. Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park

The escarpment looms large. Kakadu National Park

I am thankful to Mr Tea for many things, and one of them is getting me back into the great outdoors. When I first moved up to the Territory, I went out to Kakadu and Litchfield and Katherine and any remote community having a festival within a 400 kilometre radius. I even bought a tent and a gas stove. But I don’t know that I would have taken much more initiative beyond that. I grew up in a house where we read books on weekends, and then discussed those books over the dinner table. We could barely change light bulbs, let alone read a compass.

But it’s second nature for Mr Tea. He is one of those Kathmandu clad cliches, devoted to his art. When he’s not sailing, he’s fishing, bushwalking, snorkelling, scuba diving or snowboarding, except when work gets in the way. It’s exciting but comfort zone crashing, especially for someone as challenged in the practical department as I am. And every trip, something always goes awry. What starts as a quiet weekend away on the boat usually ends up with me clutching the spinnaker mid-ocean, throwing my guts up in a massive storm. Or one of us (ok, me again) sliding down a cliff dangerously close to a crocodile infested river.

In the retelling, many of our outdoor adventure stories include the line “and then I cried”.

This is one of them.

It was fairly early on in our relationship, and Mr Tea wanted us to go for a three-day bushwalk with his good friends, Justin and Leida. They, too, sounded dauntingly like outdoor types – Leida was competing in the National Orienteering titles and Justin owned not one but two Camelbak drink bladders.

Mr Tea decided that we should do a walk around Jim Jim Falls in Kakadu National Park. Jim Jim Falls is one of the big attractions in Kakadu, 150 metres worth of falls down a (fairly sheer) cliff, and only accessible during the dry season (and then, only by 4WD).

Mr Tea had previously hiked between Jim Jim and its neighbour Twin Falls, a trip he described to me as a death march. So to my immense relief, he decided on something easier. We applied for permits and using Google Earth, Mr Tea mapped out a route that he described as a piece of piss: we’d hike up the gorge and over the escarpment to the top of the Falls, with an easy descent down to the car park. In retrospect, I should have picked up on the “over the escarpment” bit, but I was starry eyed and in love and had never been to that part of Kakadu.

We drove out one Friday night, and camped in the car park before setting off the following morning. Our packs were filled with camping gear, two silver bladders of wine and an assortment of food that you would never eat when there was a fridge close by. Long shirts, sunscreen, daggy camping hats. We were ready.

Mr Tea led us along the track away from the Jim Jim plunge pool. We stone hopped across the creek, and veered up the escarpment and then down towards the gorge.

Every so often, one of us would brush up against a green ant nest. These nests are a formidable feat of architecture. The ants glue leaves together into a cone; the internet tells me the glue is a silk derived from the larvae. It must take days, so I don’t blame them for getting pissed when some hairy backpacker knocks into it. But it did mean that every couple of steps, I would get another nip: I found green ants down my sleeve, in my hair, and inside my bra.

green ants

The sun was right above us and shade was minimal. It’s hard to describe the heat. The breath feels hot in your throat. Your eyeballs swell. And this is the dry season. It didn’t take long before I could wring the green ant laced sweat out of my shirt, but then Leida pulled out a chocolate muffin she’d bought at the service station the night before.

So far, so good.

Eventually we got to a clearing with a water hole that looked like a decent enough place to pitch a tent. But it was only 4pm, and Mr Tea wanted to push on. It started to get harder. Vines and pandanus leaves scratched at my face and hands. The ridges above the creek had been burnt to ash, and in crappy sneakers, my feet could barely hold on. My bravado and I slid up and down the slopes, gasping for breath, desperately trying to keep up with Mr Tea and Leida the national orienteering champion.

Eventually I had to stop, choking through tears and sweat and exhaustion. Leida took pity on me, and sent the boys ahead on a reconnaissance mission. She spoon-fed me Gatorade powder while I sat on a rock, quietly sobbing behind my sunglasses.

Mr Tea returned half an hour later and reluctantly admitted that we would have to camp back at our original clearing.  I swallowed my told-you-so, and we lit a fire, sucked down wine from the silver bladder and watched a tree snake wind its way from tent to tree to tent.

The next day, we continued up the gorge. But where Mr Tea and Google Earth had envisioned an easy rocky plateau, there was in fact a barely penetrable jungle. Mr Tea cut vines with his pocket-knife and we fought for each footstep forward. Two hours passed and the jungle ended, but then the boulders began. We pushed our packs up first and then hunted for footholds around the water streaming down the boulders. Google Earth and Mr Tea had also missed the additional waterfall at the end of the gorge. I think it was around then that the sole of Justin’s boot split in two. Luckily Mr Tea had some superglue handy and he patched it back together.

I was still reeling from scaling boulders and the fact that superglue was the only thing Mr Tea had in his first aid kit. And then came the cliffs, as far as we could see. The only way was back. Or up.

Who in their right mind would walk up that?

Who in their right mind would walk up that?

I was tempted by the back option, but then I remembered the jungle. Up it was. We made it two hundred metres or so, and then we came to a dead end. The first of many. We’d follow caves in the cliffs, hoping for an opening over the escarpment, and then we’d have to double back, try another cave, another cliff opening, another non-existent path.  It was like The Labyrinth, only without David Bowie or the Bog of Eternal Stench. Then again, we had been sweating a lot…

Eventually we made it over and the sheer rock turned into scrub. I’ve never been so glad to see head-high spear grass. By sunset, we staggered to a white sand beach near a waterhole and set up camp. Leida and Justin cooked two-minute noodles with cabbage and soy sauce and it was the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. We tallied up our water intake for the day: ten litres or more, each.

The walk across the plateau the next day was exposed but easy enough. Jim Jim Falls was spectacular, as promised. And there we encountered other tourists for the first time in two days. One of the guys didn’t have a shirt on, and two of the girls were in thongs. They barely had 600mls of water between them, and I hoped they weren’t continuing onto our Kokoda trail.

I’d anticipated the descent for 24 hours, but after a couple more hours of sliding down mud steps and clinging to tree roots for balance, my calves were aching and the pack had become a monkey on my back. A very heavy monkey.

Finally, we got to the bottom, and staggered back onto the main path with friendly orange triangles signalling the way back to the car park.

Mr Tea dusted his hands.

“Well, that was a bit harder than I thought.”

No one said anything. Even Leida was a bit teary by then. We debated walking up to the plunge pool for one last swim, but that idea was quickly kyboshed. Time to shed our shoes and go back to the car, back to the highway, back to Darwin.

Justin and Leida haven’t come bushwalking with us since.

*I doff my cap to David Foster Wallace.

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