Tour­ing Aus­tralia’s Top End

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Matthew Cromp­ton

Bikepack­ing the red earth roads of Aus­tralia’s Top End.

“MATE, I'VE SET THE TRAPS AT MAGUK – I wouldn't swim there.” Billy was a ranger at Kakadu Na­tional Park in Aus­tralia's North­ern Ter­ri­tory. I'd run into him on the fourth day of my tour at a pub in Pine Creek, the old gold rush town just out­side the park's south­ern bor­der. “You see, freshies, they'll just take a bite out of you.” He was hold­ing forth on croc­o­diles, and paused to drag on a ci­garette. “But the sal­ties, they won't just kill you – they'll stalk you to kill you.” It wasn't an idle threat. Salt­wa­ter croc­o­diles, by many reck­on­ings the world's most dan­ger­ous large an­i­mal, were ev­ery­where in trop­i­cal north­ern Aus­tralia. As a species they'd failed to get the memo that hu­mans were preda­tors rather than prey, a dis­con­cert­ing fact for an ag­gres­sive am­bush hunter that grows up to seven me­tres in length and of­ten weighs north of 500kg. They'd killed more than 100 peo­ple in Aus­tralia in the last 40 years, in­clud­ing one in Kakadu, where I was headed, just a year be­fore. Yet when I ar­rived at Maguk gorge the next day in the with­er­ing 38˚C heat of mid­day, filthy and sun­burnt from cy­cling 60km up the high­way and a fur­ther 10km along a heav­ily cor­ru­gated red-dirt road, I was so cooked I was will­ing to take my chances. I locked my bike to a tree at the end of a nar­row sandy path and scram­bled over the rocks to the gorge it­self – a large clear pool re­flect­ing blue sky, a wa­ter­fall plung­ing into it over the walls of the es­carp­ment – and with a cry, leapt into the cool clear wa­ter. Sur­fac­ing, tread­ing wa­ter alone in the empti­ness of gorge, I could have been in Gond­wana­land, some primeval Earth long be­fore time, the in­sects hum­ming in the trees and time­less preda­tors per­haps wait­ing for me to pad­dle un­wisely into their path. This pre­his­toric feel was ex­actly what I'd come for. ***

I will con­cede at this point that the Top End – the lo­cal's name for the north­ern ex­treme of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory – is a ques­tion­able lo­ca­tion for a bi­cy­cle tour. The shock­ing heat, ever-present c r o c o d i l e s a nd s heer r e mote­ness a r e a l l ar­gu­ments for tak­ing a leisurely pedal around the Aus­tralian wine coun­try in­stead. Yet the Top End is also ex­actly the Aus­tralia that peo­ple so of­ten dream of: a vast, wild and un­pop­u­lated land­scape that not only teems with life but is ever-chang­ing thanks to its yearly cy­cles of drought and flood, the Dry and the Wet. Al­most a week be­fore, I'd started the tour back in Dar­win, load­ing up my fat-tyred titanium Muru Cy­cles Mungo with sup­plies and tak­ing the pre-dawn ferry across the bay to Man­do­rah on the Cox Penin­sula, a route that would get me to my des­ti­na­tion of Litch­field Na­tional Park, 130km south­west of Dar­win, without hav­ing to meet much traf­fic along the way. It was the end of the dry sea­son and the coun­try run­ning south all along the flat Cox Penin­sula Road was parched, dry red earth and dry scrub plants and scrag­gly thin gum trees from which I star­tled flights of red-tailed black cock­a­toos as I passed. I churned along all day in that med­i­ta­tive state you get spin­ning at a steady pace, sun hood pulled up around my face, the road turn­ing from pave­ment to dirt and back to pave­ment again, no towns to see, only tracks lead­ing off through the bush to re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties. It's worth men­tion­ing that the North­ern Ter­ri­tory is also Aus­tralia's in­dige­nous heart­land. Badly marginalised through­out most of the coun­try, Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians not only make up 15% of the Ter­ri­tory's pop­u­la­tion (ver­sus 3% na­tion­ally), they also own 49% of the land here, and it's ar­guably the area of Aus­tralia where In­dige­nous cul­ture and iden­tity are both strong­est and most vis­i­ble. I'd come for the wild­ness of the land­scape, to be sure, but there was also the chance to gain a fuller un­der­stand­ing of the an­cient, hu­man heart of Aus­tralia, of the old­est con­tin­u­ally-ex­ist­ing cul­ture on the planet, at home for 40,000 years or more on this vast south­ern con­ti­nent. That night, hav­ing set up camp and cooked and eaten at Litch­field's Wangi Falls, I bathed in the pool be­low its high twin cas­cades, the wa­ter sil­vered by the half-moon, know­ing that my an­thro­po­log­i­cal am­bi­tions might have to wait: first there was the Reynolds River Track to ne­go­ti­ate. Run­ning 29x3 inch rub­ber on pave­ment, as I was, is not ex­actly a recipe for speed. But for the Reynolds River Track, 44km of rocky, rut­ted dirt road with nu­mer­ous river cross­ings, it was just about per­fect. Travers­ing Litch­field's western edge, the Reynolds was one of the main things that drew me to tour­ing the Top End in the first place, and as I turned off the pave­ment the next morn­ing and started bombing down the sandy track, rolling over fist-sized rocks, I was amped and ready… for about three min­utes. Then I hit the first crossing. More than a hun­dred me­tres across. Bumper depth on a Land Cruiser. Opaque with mud, and a crocodile warn­ing sign right at its edge. Yeah, nah. I leaned the bike against a tree well back from the wa­ter's edge and set­tled in to read a book. In time, a cou­ple of good ole North­ern Ter­ri­tory boys came

by in a jacked-up truck, both drink­ing beer in the cab and happy enough to ferry an id­iot on a bi­cy­cle across the croc-in­fested waters. Safely on the other side, the Reynolds was ev­ery­thing I'd dreamed – red earth be­neath big blue skies and gi­ant, alien-look­ing ter­mite mounds three me­tres high dot­ted across dry grass­lands. Lean kan­ga­roos scat­ter­ing into the bush and colour­ful par­rots in the trees. And best of all, not a ve­hi­cle in sight (save for a truck bogged to the head­lights in the deep, clear, swift-flow­ing Reynolds River it­self, in the process of be­ing winched out as I forded the crossing). I ended that day, as I did most days on the tour, at a swim­ming hole – the lovely stepped rock pools of Sur­prise Creek – and slept in a dusty grove be­neath bright stars, stripped to the skin and sweat­ing in my tent even deep into the night. The heat was a pre­lude to the next day, 15km south to the tar at the end of the Reynolds River Track and a fur­ther 100km east to Grove Hill through empty coun­try, fight­ing a 37˚C head­wind like a blast from a con­vec­tion oven. I ar­rived dead in the sad­dle at the ram­shackle Grove Hill Pub Ho­tel in the twi­light, con­sumed my body­weight in cold beer and meat pies, and was quickly asleep. I ped­alled 60km the next day, rolling hills be­neath the bru­tal sun on a good-qual­ity dirt road all the way to Pine Creek. With only 700 or so peo­ple in the town, on any given night a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of Pine Creek's pop­u­la­tion could be found at the Lazy Lizard pub, and so it was this night. Tourists and lo­cals, white and in­dige­nous alike mix­ing around the bar tops and pool ta­bles. I spent three hours there talk­ing to ranger Billy (of croc-warn­ing fame) and Mary, a 60-ish woman of the Wag­i­man peo­ple, who ban­tered with each other in cre­ole and pa­tiently an­swered my ques­tions about what it meant to them to be Abo­rig­i­nal in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

“Be­ing here, it's still about Coun­try,” said Mary. Coun­try with a cap­i­tal C. “Our kids, they go to school, but school hol­i­days, we don't let them for­get – we take them out to Coun­try, teach them the sto­ries, show them how to eat that good bush tucker. Help them re­mem­ber they be­long to this place.” Over the course of those hours we cov­ered the va­ri­ety of Abo­rig­i­nal kin­ship re­la­tions (dizzy­ing), the prob­lems with al­co­hol in the com­mu­nity (se­ri­ous), and the best way to cook a tur­tle (in the shell, buried in the ground with hot coals), but it was the pro­found sig­nif­i­cance of the land­scape to the peo­ple here that struck me most. In much of the world, peo­ple had built churches and tem­ples, en­clos­ing what was nu­mi­nous in a shell of hu­man mak­ing. Yet here, above all things, it was the land it­self and all the crea­tures in it that were sa­cred. My days on the bike be­gan to fol­low a pat­tern: I rose in the dark, packed my kit, and was on the road at first light, cy­cling through the morn­ing and again in the evening if nec­es­sary and rest­ing through the heat of mid­day, which now oc­ca­sion­ally touched 40˚C. The Kakadu High­way was smooth and flat and the coun­try was arid and empty – rivers marked as some­times sub­merg­ing the road to two me­tres were now just dry runs of sand. Even the birds seemed to keep to the shade. Yet though I would not have be­lieved it be­fore I came here, a sense of its sa­cred­ness was seep­ing into me. Seep­ing into me as I watched the in­can­des­cent sun­set from my camp with the sweet smell of burn­ing grass fill­ing the air. As I watched wa­ter­birds take flight from a bil­l­abong at dawn, and as I walked be­neath rock ledges the next morn­ing at Nourlangie, where for 20,000 years hu­mans had painted sto­ries of the Dream­ing, of Na­mar­rgon the Light­ning Man, who brings mon­soon storms to re­new the land. All too soon, I was near­ing the end of the road. I rode on­ward through the park's main town at Jabiru (lux­u­ri­at­ing for a day in the won­ders of cheese and fresh fruit) and then to the north­east, where the wild stone coun­try of Arn­hem Land rose be­yond the road like the walls of Mor­dor. At Cahills Crossing, the cause­way across the East Al­li­ga­tor River that marked the edge of the park, huge salt­wa­ter croc­o­diles haunted the wa­ter at low tide, sub­merg­ing and sur­fac­ing like toothy sub­marines. I turned south onto a nar­row dirt track run­ning amongst the sand­stone out­crops of the back­coun­try, rid­ing the roller­coaster of small un­du­lat­ing hills. The day was like a fur­nace. I parked the bike in the shade and re­treated into the mouth of a shal­low cave, watch­ing the land­scape out­side shim­mer­ing in the heat and won­der­ing at the re­source­ful­ness of a peo­ple who could not only live but thrive here for tens of thou­sands of years. As if in an­swer to this thought, my hand found a deep, smooth de­pres­sion in the rock I was sit­ting on: a mor­tar-stone, used to grind grains and berries for­aged from the land. Sur­prised, my eyes searched the cave, and found a sin­gle hand­print in blood-red ochre pressed high up on the wall. I knew these were small things, but they felt weight­ier to me now. My tour of the Top End was over, but I left feel­ing that like this cave, I would bear its marks – of the land­scape, of the peo­ple and their sto­ries – in­wardly, for a long, long time to come.


NOT SUCH A SWEET­HEART A five-me­tre croc in the Mu­seum and Art Gallery of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory in Dar­win, known for a se­ries of at­tacks in the 1970s.

BIKEPACK­ING BESTIE The author’s trusty Muru Cy­cles Mungo at Cahills Crossing.

LEAFY LODG­INGS Twi­light camp­site in a dry grove in the south of Kakadu Na­tional Park.

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