James Jef­frey re­veals why he’s hooked on Dar­win, Kakadu, the red cen­tre and be­yond

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

True north: Clock­wise from bot­tom left, one of Ba­murru Plains’ am­phibi­ous res­i­dents on a wa­ter lily petal; Florence Falls at Litch­field; the Rube­nesque curves of Kata Tjuta; Djali Ganam­barr with a spot of lunch at Bawaka; crabs and ket­tle on the fire, Bawaka Y name’s James and I’m an NT-oholic. It’s been sev­eral months since my last visit but I know temp­ta­tion will even­tu­ally get the bet­ter of me and I’ll be trav­el­ling north again. What fol­lows is a baker’s dozen of some of the most dan­ger­ously ad­dic­tive of­fer­ings, so let’s get crack­ing, we have a lot of ter­ri­tory to cover.

Val­ley of the Winds, Kata Tjuta: Burst­ing out of the plain near Uluru in a car­ni­val of Rube­nesque curves that nicely lend them­selves to the old name of the Ol­gas, Kata Tjuta is ar­guably the most sen­sual as­sem­bly of rock in the coun­try. The 7.4km Val­ley of the Winds walk takes you deep within its self­con­tained uni­verse, a sur­pris­ingly lush world of trees and streams framed by flame-coloured walls of rock. And ev­ery­thing, down to the ri­ots of wild bud­gies, is so bright in the undi­luted desert light you’d swear it was lit from within. More: www.en­vi­ron­ au/parks/uluru/.

Flood-plain ad­ven­tures, Ba­murru Plains: One minute I’m col­lect­ing a tray with cof­fee and fresh pas­tries from my cabin’s doorstep, the next I’m in an air­boat, roar­ing away from the lux­ury bush camp at Ba­murru Plains (be­tween Dar­win and Kakadu) and skim­ming across the Mary River flood plain, a vast, rip­pling meadow of wa­ter lily and spike rush and shad­owy borders of pa­per­bark swamp. Pro­pelled by a huge fan, the air­boat goes where con­ven­tional boats can’t. There are wa­ter buf­faloes, croc­o­diles and even more birds than Al­fred Hitch­cock would be com­fort­able with. By the time I see a party of whistling kites har­ry­ing a pair of mag­pie geese from their nest and mak­ing off with one of their chicks, I’m start­ing to hear David At­ten­bor­ough’s voice in my head. More:­mur­ru­

Devil’s Mar­bles on a moon­lit night: It’s agree­ably strange to wake from a dream in the small hours, un­zip the fly of one’s dome tent and step out among the Devil’s Mar­bles. It’s a pe­cu­liar enough place by day but, in the si­lence of the night, with th­ese gi­gan­tic, geck­o­haunted balls of gran­ite loom­ing in a wash of sil­ver light, it’s bliss­fully sur­real. Devil’s Dumplings would have been an even bet­ter name, but if th­ese are in fact Satan’s mar­bles, it’s no great sur­prise he lost them just af­ter pass­ing through nearby Ten­nant Creek. More: dev­ils­mar­bles.html.

Bar­row Creek Road­house: One of my ear­li­est ter­ri­tory mem­o­ries is of Bar­row Creek, roughly half­way be­tween Alice Springs and Ten­nant Creek. I stum­bled in one night af­ter many hours on the Stu­art High­way and found my­self in a bois­ter­ous mass of ec­cen­tric­ity and leath­ery skin. The walls were all but buck­ling be­neath the weight of an eclec­tic range of mem­o­ra­bilia, in­clud­ing ranks of pick­led snakes coiled in jars, their milky eyes seem­ingly fixed on the pick­led hu­mans be­low while schooners were poured and steaks the size of cof­fee ta­bles de­voured. Then a mini­van pulled up along­side the bug-en­crusted bowsers out­side, dis­gorg­ing a party of young Finns who looked as though they’d just been de­posited on one of Jupiter’s outer moons.

Fly­ing over the Top End in the wet sea­son: This is es­pe­cially bril­liant for those who be­lieve Aus­tralia doesn’t have proper sea­sons. The wet ut­terly trans­forms the Top End into a world of in­land oceans, drowned roads and a vivid green that makes the av­er­age bil­liard ta­ble look kind of khaki. And be­neath skies jostling with darkly tee­ter­ing tow­ers of cloud, wa­ter­falls such as Twin and Jim Jim falls in Kakadu meta­mor­phose into spec­tac­u­lar, foam­ing mon­sters. It’s not the most prac­ti­cal time of year but it is the most bril­liant. More: www.trav­

Wildlife-spot­ting in ul­ti­mate com­fort at Seven Spirit Bay: There are plenty of rea­sons to stay at Pep­pers Seven Spirit Bay Wilder­ness Lodge in its spot of splen­did iso­la­tion on Arn­hem Land’s Cobourg Penin­sula, but for me at­trac­tion No. 1 is that this is the only place where I have had a mas­sage (and a thing of won­der it was, too) while watch­ing a pair of sharks cruise into the bay just be­low the win­dow. If I’d had the two-hour treat­ment, I would have seen a manta ray and a tur­tle from the mas­sage ta­ble, too, though watch­ing them from the beach and the pool lounge re­spec­tively proved far from aw­ful. More: www.pep­

Meree­nie Loop Road: Con­sti­tut­ing the ma­jor­ity of the back road from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon, the Meree­nie Loop Road me­an­ders its cou­ple of hun­dred red and dusty kilo­me­tres through the West MacDon­nell ranges and past spots such as Palm Val­ley and Gosse Bluff. It’s a land­scape made familiar by the paint­ings of Al­bert Na­matjira and the colours seem to al­most be­long to a dif­fer­ent spec­trum. Drive the Loop be­fore they seal it with bi­tu­men and put away the pid­gin road safety signs painted on the sides of 44-gal­lon drums, but try to pack at least two spare tyres. In the mean­time, I’m choos­ing to ig­nore ru­mours the Meree­nie Loop may get pro­saically re­badged as the Red Cen­tre Way.

Footy grand fi­nal, Tiwi Is­lands: I’m a sports ag­nos­tic, but even I re­alised I was in the pres­ence of some­thing spe­cial when I saw the Imalu Tigers play the Ta­palinga Su­per­stars on Melville, the smaller of the Tiwi Is­lands. Amid the sort of car­ni­val at­mos­phere you get when ev­ery is­lan­der is in at­ten­dance and seem­ingly half of Dar­win has flown across the wa­ter in a con­voy of small planes, the Aus­tralian foot­ball game was played with an al­most bal­letic beauty that didn’t re­mind me ter­ri­bly much of AFL games I’d seen in the south.

Un­like me, the Vic­to­ri­ans I was trav­el­ling with knew their footy and they were awed; it was only the sound of one of the coaches blow­ing a men­tal head gas­ket at his play­ers at half time that brought us briefly back to earth. More:

Crus­tacean heaven, Bawaka: It’s a straight­for­ward rou­tine that tra­di­tional own­ers Djawa Bu­rar­rwanga and Djali Ganam­barr have with the mud crabs in their home­land of Bawaka in east Arn­hem Land: spear them, put them on the fire, watch them turn red and black, take them off the fire, eat them. It’s just one small part of the highly en­ter­tain­ing Bawaka Cul­tural Ex­pe­ri­ences tour. The colos­sal crabs are exquisitely messy to eat and, with the wild Port Brad­shaw scenery of white sand, blue sea and not a build­ing in sight, the ex­pe­ri­ence is dan­ger­ously close to per­fect. Ex­cept for the crabs. More: (08) 8987 3433 or dhan­­

Cat­a­combs, Mt Bor­radaile: Formed when west Arn­hem Land was at the bot­tom of the sea, the san­stone cat­a­combs near Mt Bor­radaile are one of the sur­prises on Max David­son’s Arn­hem Land Sa­fari. To fol­low David­son with his torch of pa­per­bark is to en­ter


Pic­tures (ex­cept Kata Tjuta): James Jef­frey

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