Cobourg Peninsula is at the very top of the Northern Territory and is spectacular, with the trip through Arnhem Land to get there equally awesome. The Garig Gunak Barlu National Park completely contains the whole of the Cobourg Peninsula. It takes some pre-planning and extra effort to travel through Arnhem Land to the Cobourg Peninsula but the rewards are certainly worth it with spectacular scenery, incredible fishing, and great camping.
To travel to Cobourg Peninsula requires some serious pre-planning as entry is by permit only and numbers are restricted. There are conditions that apply including not stopping within Arnhem Land and each permit covers a period of up to seven days. Permits are only issued between May and October depending on weather, land, and road conditions. Try to arrange your permit well ahead of time, especially during the busier times such as school holiday periods. Note that access is via 4WD vehicles only, with no caravans or motorbikes permitted.
The best way to visit Cobourg is with a well-equipped camper trailer or slideon camper. Now if you wish to bring along a boat then a slideon like the Trayon is just perfect – you can have all the comforts of home such as a 90litre fridge, comfortable bed, enclosed space to escape the bugs, and can even tow a decent boat to one of the premier fishing destinations in Australia.
All the details you need are on the website.
This trip starts at Jabiru, which is where you will need top up with food and supplies to last the duration of you stay at Cobourg as there are no supplies there. Luckily Jabiru has a well-stocked supermarket, petrol station, bakery, and various other shops. Jabiru is also the place where you need to visit the Northern Land Council (NLC) office for a permit to the Oepilli Art Centre.
From Jabiru its 42 km to Cahills Crossing, the infamous crossing of the East Alligator River and gateway to Arnhem Land and Cobourg Peninsula. This crossing has claimed many vehicles in the past, but if you take precautions it shouldn’t pose any problems. The main thing to remember is that the crossing can be affected by the tides, so check the tide charts and do not cross 2 hours within the high tide for tides over 6m (tides less than 5m are below the crossing and not a problem).
Cahills crossing is also a popular fishing spot but make sure you remain croc-safe and stay well away from the river’s edge. We saw several fishermen walking through the crossing and fishing from the rocks, right where a 4m crocodile slid pass the previous night!
Into Arnhem Land
Once across the East Alligator River you enter Arnhem Land. Here you are greeted by spectacular wetlands framed by rugged escarpments and waterholes, with an abundance of wildlife. It is truly a stunning scene and it pays to take this section slow to take it all in (remembering your permit doesn’t allow stopping). There is aboriginal art hidden amongst the rocky outcrops that you may even spot as you travel along. If you wish to explore the art and this area more, then perhaps take a guided Injalak Rock Art Tour (details on the Injalak website).
About 15km from Cahills crossing is the turn-off to the Oenpelli Community and the Injalak Art and Craft Centre. The centre can be visited by arranging a permit through the Northern Land Council in Jabiru, and is well worth visiting. This non-profit enterprise supports local artists and houses a terrific range of art and crafts. You can also watch the artists creating their works under the verandahs of the building, with the adjacent lake and surrounding ranges making a magnificent backdrop.
From the Oenpelli Community head back to the main road and head eastwards through the beautiful range country, with bushland and swamps at the base of rock stacks on your right as you continue on. After a further 20km turn left away at a major intersection and head northwards towards Mungenella and the Cobourg Peninsula.
Another 10km further on is the Cooper Creek. This is a pretty crossing with paperbarks lining the banks, with a shady spot on the northern side that could be a good spot to stop for a quick lunch break. The concrete causeway makes it relatively easy, but it may be worth selecting low-range if it’s flowing strongly.
Next it’s up and over the Wellington Range before arriving at Angulari Creek which can be rough early in the dry season. The track turns back to the west at Brogden Point, next is Murgenella Creek which deep within a shady paperbark forest with masses of birdlife occupying the adjacent waterhole. We watched a variety of birds feeding on the small fish swimming across the narrow crossing, seemingly oblivious to our presence. There is apparently a resident croc that patrols this crossing so stay well clear of the water!
From Murgenella Creek it’s only a few kilometers to the abandoned community of Murgenella. Proceed straight through the community past the airstrip and continue westwards.
Take care as you travel further as there are plenty of rough sections with washouts, blind corners and loose gravel. Many points are signposted with red triangles so slow down when you spot one of these.
Garig Gunak NP
The boundary of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park is a total of 187km from Cahills Crossing. Here, the road narrows and stays that way to Black Point, a further 91km. Black Point is the location of the ranger station and this is where you call in to confirm your arrival. The friendly rangers will fill you in on all the attractions in the area, answer any questions about the area, and advise on the most suitable campsite for your group.
From the ranger station turn-off it’s another 2km to a junction. Turn left to Smith Point which is a great spot to take in the sunset or fish from the rocks, or turn right to the campgrounds which are 5km beyond the airstrip. The first campground is area 1 (no generators) with the second campground (area 2 – generators allowed) a further 1km on. Both campgrounds have bore water, toilets, hot showers and spacious sites with plenty of shade. There are also rubbish bins that are emptied daily by the rangers who are also happy to answer any questions you may have.
A few details the Cobourg Peninsula. Cobourg Peninsula is located 350 km north-east of Darwin and covers a land area of about 2,100 km². It is virtually uninhabited with a population ranging from about 20 to 30 in five family outstations, but without any notable settlement or town. It is separated from Croker Island in the east by Bowen Strait and Melville Island in the west by Dundas Strait. In the north is the Arafura Sea, and in the south the Van Diemen Gulf.
All of Cobourg Peninsula is part of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, which also encompasses a few nearshore islands. It is famous for its pristine wilderness and is home to a large variety of sea life as well as the world’s largest herd of pure-strain banteng (Indonesian Cattle). It is also renowned for its Aboriginal culture. While it is only sparsely inhabited today it was once the site of two failed attempts at founding a major trading port on its northern shores, Fort Wellington at Raffles Bay (1827-1829) and Fort Victoria at Port Essington (1838-1849). Fort Victoria settlement is quite extensive with a marked track and information plaques leading through the stone ruins, however this can only be accessed by boat. Venture North run commercial tours leaving from the Black Point boat ramp and these tours can be arranged by calling the company (the rangers have a phone card to use if you wish to ring from the Phone Box at Black Point).
The ranger stations houses a great cultural, environmental and historical display. There are a range of items on display from the indigenous clans that occupied this area, as well as some more recent artifacts. There is information and displays from the Macassan sailors who have been coming to this area since the 1600s to collect sea cucumber (Trepang) for sale into China. Also at the ranger station are some great photographs of the local wildlife, and there is a short walk leaving from the rear of the centre with gives you a chance to see some of this wildlife first hand!
There are a number of tracks to explore while at Cobourg. The main tracks are the coastal drive, wetlands drive, and Caiman Creek. The coastal drive starts at the second campground and follows the coast firstly through mangroves ringed by black rock, with spectacular sandy sections and some of the best coastal scenery you will ever see. While travelling along the coast be sure to stop at some of the beaches or rocky outcrops to wet a line, or perhaps collect some oysters from the rocks. The coastal drive passes Kuper and Stewart Points before heading along Port Bremer, then heads inland to the main Gurig road.
The track into Caiman Creek (Unarn) commences on the Garig road only a few hundred metres from where the coastal track terminates. This short drive to the coast meanders through woodlands before finishing at the Caiman Creek entrance and providing fantastic views across Port Essington from a high vantage point. This is also a good place to try your luck with some fishing from the beach below.
The wetlands track starts from the rear of campground two and takes you past a large freshwater lagoon and wetland before finishing near the Black Point turn-off.
A great place to watch the sunset and to fish is Smith Point. There is a stone beacon (cairn) here that was constructed in 1845 to guide ships into Port Essington. This beacon was reconstructed to the form you see today in 1978 by volunteers.
Cobourg offers great fishing opportunities from the beach and rocks, but a boat is a great asset if you can bring one in. Fishing charters can be organised with the local operator (Venture North) if you don’t have your own boat. There are oysters to collect at low tide, and plenty of mud crabs to catch for a feed.
One of the best things to do at Cobourg is just relax and wind down. There are plenty of ways to do this – whether it’s sitting in the shade catching up with some reading, sharing a conversation with your friends, relaxing with a cool beverage under the trees, or walking alone along the pristine beach looking out into the sparkling blue water of the Arafura Sea.
Like much of tropical Australia, Cobourg has its fair share of sandflies and mosquitoes so make sure you cover up especially around dusk and apply a liberal amount of deet-based repellent to any exposed skin. It is a good idea to pack some antihistamines for the guaranteed bites.
Cobourg Peninsula – The Top End of NT
Cobourg Peninsula is a long way from civilization and requires quite an effort just to get there. But once there you are rewarded with one of the most scenic and pristine coastal destinations in all of Australia. When considering a trip up north make sure you include Cobourg into your plans, it will certainly not disappoint.