Garig Gunak Barlu National Park
Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, covering the entire Cobourg Peninsula, the surrounding waters of the Arafura Sea and Van Diemen Gulf, and some neighbouring islands, is one of the most spectacular areas of northern Australia, its turquoise waters home to vibrantly coloured marine creatures. Historic ruins tell sad tales of failed colonial endeavours, whereas a rich Aboriginal and Macassan culture and heritage are showcased at the Black Point Cultural Centre.
From Darwin via Arnhem Hwy through Kakadu then through Arnhem Land via Oenpelli and Murgenella; 4WD only; unsealed road open during the dry season (May–Oct) only; via air charter to Smith Point; via boat (two-day sail from Darwin)
May to August; roads open May–October only
570 km north-east of Darwin
- PWCNT Black Point (08) 8979 0244
- PWCNT Darwin (08) 8999 4555
Permit and bookings required in advance to travel through Arnhem Land and also to camp; Permit Officer, Cobourg Peninsula Sanctuary & Marine Park Board, PO Box 496, Palmerston NT 0831, (08) 8999 4814. Additional permits required to travel further into Arnhem Land.
450 000 ha
Bowali Visitors Centre (08) 8938 1121
Darwin 1300 138 886
Featured Activities in the National Park
Visit Victoria Settlement and Black Point Cultural Centre for an insight into the diverse history of the peninsular
Take a boat out on the water and watch the manta rays and dolphins frolic
Fish for mangrove jack and barramundi in the estuaries
Sit on the cliff tops and watch the storms build up late in the year
A look at the past
Macassan trepang fishermen worked the Arnhem Land coast for 400 years until turned away by European settlers in the early 1900s. Throughout the park tamarind trees around freshwater wells and along the beaches are evidence of their visits.
The British established a settlement at Victoria, in Port Essington, in 1838 but abandoned it 11 years later due to harsh living conditions, a massive cyclone and neglect from Sydney and London. The settlement lacked freshwater springs and was built a long way from the sea so passing ships rarely docked. A lofty lighthouse built at Cape Don in 1917 still stands today.
The park lies within the clan estates of the Iwaidja speaking peoples of western Arnhem Land. Four clans – the Agalda, Madjunbalmi, Muran and Ngaindjagar – share ownership of the area and have proven links to the land and sea that date back 40 000 years. Numerous sacred sites and large middens testify to long-term occupation.
The pristine waters of the Arafura Sea and Van Diemen Gulf allow stunning coral reefs, white sand and marine creatures to be clearly visible. Sea meets land at beautiful sandy beaches and towering red cliffs. Plants and wildlife flourish in the creeks and wetlands while the 120-kilometre-wide peninsula is home to some rare imports, such as Banteng cattle, Timor ponies and Sambar deer, introduced by British settlers in the 1800s and still thriving today.
More than 30 species of mangroves populate the park, creeping seawards in the bays and inlets, claiming new areas of land. Some creeks flow between huge arches of mangroves and massive buttress roots dip into the water. Enveloping many billabongs and freshwater waterways are shaggy paperbarks, pandanus, pockets of lush monsoon rainforest and impressive stands of palms including the distinctive Kentish palm. Along the sandy foreshore are coast she-oaks (Casuarina sp.).
Whales, dolphins and manta rays are common in the coastal waters of the park. The waters are also an important habitat for dugong, which feed on the rich, shallow pastures of seagrass. Six marine turtle species, the green, loggerhead, olive ridley, hawksbill, flatback and leatherback, swim and breed in these waters. Late in the year on some remote beaches, small hatchlings dig themselves from the sandy dunes and make a dash for the sea. The waters are also home to dangerous creatures such as sharks, saltwater crocodiles and box jellyfish so rangers positively discourage swimming.
The crocodiles, along with freshwater turtles, such as the northern snake-necked turtle, seek refuge in the billabongs and estuaries. Wallabies and bats are seen throughout the park, while the woodlands are home to northern brown bandicoots, common brushtail possums, echidnas, dingoes and antilopine wallaroos. There are more than 200 species of bird, including the elegant brolga, the white-bellied seaeagle and the pheasant coucal.
The beaches and coastal cliffs are magnificent places for walking. There is a shady 1.5-kilometre walk near the ranger station at Black Point that leads around a small, freshwater wetland. Follow the sandy road to Smith Point where an old beacon, built by British marines in the 1830s, still stands. Soldiers manned this site round-the-clock with hand-held lanterns waiting for ships. The walk along the beach in either direction is very enjoyable but keep an eye out for crocodiles.
A majority of visitors come to fish and there are plenty of mackerel, queenfish, trevally, coral trout and a variety of reef fish within a kilometre of shore, while mangrove jack and barramundi are the estuary favourites. There are several fishing tour operators.
A walk through well-preserved ruins at Victoria Settlement, overlooking Port Essington, can be both uplifting and depressing. Why settlers continued to wear heavy European clothing in the oppressive heat and did little to learn about survival from Aboriginal people, are just two questions that spring to mind. Tours are available.