MY KIND OF TERRITORY
James Jeffrey reveals why he’s hooked on Darwin, Kakadu, the red centre and beyond
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.environment.gov. 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: www.bamurruplains.com.
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: www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/ 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.travelnt.com.
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.peppers.com.au.
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: www.tilg.nt.gov.au.
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 dhanbul.admin@-octa4.net.au.
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