Top End be­gin­nings

It can take a while to re­ally get un­der the skin of the trop­i­cal North­ern Ter­ri­tory, but you can make a good start with a few care­fully planned days spent within cooee of Dar­win.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Chrissie Goldrick

Spend a few days within cooee of Dar­win and the NT will seep into your skin.

It’s not that Ter­ri­to­ri­ans don’t have to deal with the same is­sues that en­gen­der in­se­cu­rity in us all: Dar­win prop­erty prices are just as over­inf lated as in any other ma­jor city; se­cure em­ploy­ment is as ten­u­ous; and the cost of liv­ing spi­rals along the same up­ward tra­jec­tory. Maybe the free­wheel­ing, laid-back ap­proach to life is just a front or stems from liv­ing way be­yond the phys­i­cal reach of the rest of the coun­try in a dy­namic, dra­matic and oc­ca­sion­ally danger­ous cli­mate. It’s hard to know. But the Ter­ri­tory and those who call it home are dif­fer­ent al­right.

THIS IS MY FIRST time in the Top End and what­ever pre­con­cep­tions I had about Dar­win dis­si­pate with ev­ery kilo­me­tre as I’m whisked by taxi from the won­der­fully cen­tral in­ter­na­tional air­port to my water­front ho­tel. We head along a six-lane high­way f lanked by utes and four-wheel-drives, pass­ing blocks of in­dus­trial and re­tail sprawl with the oc­ca­sional hint of a smart sub­ur­ban es­tate in be­tween. Gleam­ing multi-storey off ice build­ings and apart­ment blocks ref lect a cloud­less blue sky and a blind­ing sun. I soon re­alise that my no­tion of Dar­win is woe­fully out­dated. This is a city that has risen from the ashes on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions and to­day re­veals scant ev­i­dence of past in­car­na­tions.

The Dar­win Water­front Precinct be­trays some fa­mil­iar­ity in its dis­tinc­tive bent arm of Stokes Hill Wharf el­bow­ing into the Ara­fura Sea, recog­nis­able from pho­tos of the 1942 bomb­ing of Dar­win and Baz Luhrmann’s clas­sic movie Aus­tralia. But be­tween my ho­tel, the Ad­ina, and the wharf is a sight I didn’t ex­pect to see – kids swim­ming and mess­ing about in the wa­ter.

Com­plete with wave pool and beach, it’s pos­si­ble to swim, surf and sun­bathe here, safe from any po­ten­tial crocodile in­ter­fer­ence. Lin­ing the wa­ter’s edge are bars and res­tau­rants and smart new apart­ment blocks; ab­so­lute water­front and no crocs! Who knew?

I only have seven days to get ac­quainted with the Top End. It’s not enough but all I have, so I can’t af­ford to get it wrong. I en­list the help of Ann-Cather­ine Jones from Travel As­so­ci­ates in Padding­ton, Syd­ney, be­cause I want to travel in­de­pen­dently rather than with a tour.

I like to think I can han­dle my own re­search but with my short time frame, the un­fath­omable road dis­tances that can take an out­sider by sur­prise, and the need to get the most out of the op­por­tu­nity, I put my­self in her ca­pa­ble hands and sup­ply her with my wish list: na­ture, cul­ture, four-wheel driv­ing, ad­ven­ture…and crocs.

Na­ture is a con­stant com­pan­ion in the Top End. Even be­fore I leave Dar­win, the eerie, plain­tive cry of the bush stone-curlew rings through the night out­side my ho­tel win­dow and fruit bats screech in the trees lin­ing the bay. Whistling and black kites, or ‘f ire hawks’ (see Dr Karl AG 146), hover and wheel in the sky above for the en­tire week.

My first spe­cial NT mo­ment comes as the sun dips to­wards the hori­zon across a lo­tus-cov­ered la­goon of the fast-shrink­ing Mary River, about two hour’s drive east of Dar­win, just off the Arn­hem High­way. It is mid-Au­gust and late in the Dry – a won­der­ful time of year to be here. The f lood­plains are con­tract­ing fast,

The North­ern Ter­ri­tory ex­udes a kind of ‘don’t give a rats’, ‘she’ll be right’, slightly edg y, lar­rikin at­ti­tude that the rest of Aus­tralia is in dan­ger of los­ing.

con­cen­trat­ing birdlife at la­goons and bil­l­abongs where they’re eas­ier to spot.

The lack of hu­mid­ity keeps things com­fort­able and the nights are pleas­ant, even if the days can still feel very hot. The sun­sets pro­vide a spec­ta­cle ev­ery evening dur­ing my visit, no mat­ter the to­pog­ra­phy of each van­tage point, as I train my cam­era on the sun’s sur­pris­ingly fast f inal plum­met to the hori­zon.

I’M STAY­ING FOR three nights at Wild­man Wilder­ness Lodge with its stylish sa­fari tents and lux­ury cab­ins that look out across a pri­vate run­way to a land­scape stud­ded with ter­mite mounds and pan­danus palms. The lodge is lo­cated in the Mary River wet­lands and of­fers pri­vate small-group tours for guests. Wild­man’s guides have to be lo­cals, and our man, Shane Powell, was born on the road­side a few kilo­me­tres from here when his mum left it a bit too late to get from the min­ing com­mu­nity where his dad worked to the hospi­tal in Dar­win.

Shane’s a mine of funny sto­ries as well as in­for­ma­tion. He takes our com­pact group – a French thirty-some­thing cou­ple and their young son, an older Ital­ian cou­ple, plus me and my hus­band, Chris – on our first and only foray into Kakadu Na­tional Park.

We start with a boat trip on the East Al­li­ga­tor River, near Cahills Cross­ing, which def ines the east­ern­most bor­der of the park. This broad tidal river has a sig­nif­i­cant es­tu­ar­ine crocodile pop­u­la­tion, which makes watch­ing ve­hi­cles power through the cafe latte wa­ters over the river cross­ing to­wards Arn­hem Land on the far bank all the more thrilling and I find my­self dream­ing of tak­ing the same road. But that’s an ad­ven­ture for an­other day and I re­turn to the mat­ter at hand.

The cruise is op­er­ated by Neville Na­marny­ilk and Ty­rone Garnar­radj of Gu­luyambi Cul­tural Cruises who point out crocs along the banks. Be­fore long we have tal­lied 35.

We dis­em­bark on the far shore, which is within Arn­hem Land, and Neville demon­strates his im­pres­sive spear-throw­ing skills.

He en­ter­tains us all, in his laid-back la­conic style, with tales of how he keeps f in­d­ing him­self cast as an Abo­rig­i­nal ex­tra in big-bud­get movies with lead­ing Hol­ly­wood stars be­ing f ilmed on lo­ca­tion around Kakadu and Arn­hem Land.

From here we travel to Ubirr Rock Art Site. It’s af­ter­noon and we have it, more or less, to our­selves. There is cool re­lief un­der the cav­ernous sand­stone over­hang of the Main Gallery. The place has a peace­ful am­bi­ence that in­duces quiet re­spect among our lit­tle band.

The im­ages here, painted by the Bin­inj peo­ple, fea­ture an­i­mals, in­clud­ing a thy­lacine (Tas­ma­nian tiger) - a species that would have ranged in this area many mil­len­nia ago - and fish. From here we as­cend 250m to the top of the plateau.

It’s not too ar­du­ous but takes a bit of ef­fort in the hot con­di­tions and re­wards us with a 360-de­gree view of the Kakadu f lood­plains. Shane ex­plains how dif­fer­ent the scene would be in the Wet but even now it’s green and lush and the scene is breath­tak­ing.

The place has a peace­ful am­bi­ence that in­duces quiet re­spect among our lit­tle band.

THE NEXT DAY WE ex­plore wa­ter­courses closer to base, such as the lodge’s own Home Bil­l­abong. In the dawn light, Aus­tralasian darters dry their wings on bare branches be­neath over­hang­ing pa­per­barks, and black-necked storks min­gle with hun­dreds of whistling ducks on the muddy banks. Our guides point out a small fresh­wa­ter crocodile be­low the sur­face and we get a close-up sight­ing of a mid-sized saltie hauled out near the jetty.

Later in the day we ex­plore the Mary River f lood­plain on an air­boat. These wa­ter craft, f irst de­vel­oped for Florida’s Ever­glades, skim across the sur­face and are great for get­ting about on vast shal­low bod­ies of wa­ter at speed. Our pilot, cheer­ful 23-year-old Jack Abel, clearly loves his job as he piv­ots and weaves through car­pets of lo­tus lilies and around stands of gnarly old pa­per­barks where mag­pie geese and egrets dis­dain­fully re­gard our noisy pres­ence from twisted f lak­ing boughs. It’s a thrilling ride and the wa­tery views are beau­ti­ful. Jack ex­plains the al­most mag­i­cal wa­ter-re­sis­tant prop­er­ties of the lo­tus lily leaves that blan­ket the sur­face and how the roots form a vi­tal part of the diet of tra­di­tional in­hab­i­tants of the Top End.

For sun­set we head to a bird hide at nearby Mis­take Bil­l­abong and watch the sun set across swathes of lo­tus lilies. Amid the lush green pads and ma­genta blooms, el­e­gant lit­tle comb-crested ja­canas search for in­sects.

It’s time to ex­pe­ri­ence a con­trast­ing land­scape so we head west to Litch­field Na­tional Park. On the way we stop off to take in a croc-jump­ing cruise on the Ade­laide River. I’m un­sure how I feel about this kind of en­ter­tain­ment but the op­er­a­tors as­sure me that sal­ties nat­u­rally jump and are known for snatch­ing calves from steep river­banks. It’s also why we are so of­ten warned to stay 5m back from the edge of any wa­ter body; ad­vice I’m happy to take, but which I of­ten see f louted. Many sal­ties swim up to our open-sided steel boat in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a free meaty snack. They leap up to grab a dan­gled morsel of swamp buf­falo. It’s an awe­some sight. I am so close to one 6m spec­i­men that I can smell its fishy breath and get a good look down its creamy gul­let. The ex­pe­ri­ence is heart-stop­ping and the close en­counter only in­creases my ad­mi­ra­tion for these fear­some, won­drous crea­tures.

It takes us a cou­ple of hours to reach the out­back town of Batch­e­lor, gate­way to Litchf ield NP, where we’ll stay the night in its clas­sic Aussie mo­tel, the Litch­field. The staff are good-hu­moured and in­for­ma­tive, and go out of their way to iden­tify a good place to view the sun­set in­side the park, while promis­ing to keep our din­ner warm un­til we re­turn. We head to Tolmer Falls, stop­ping off where a field of mag­netic ter­mite mounds re­sem­bles a spooky grave­yard scene in the dy­ing light.

Litchf ield NP is a vast sand­stone plateau that ab­sorbs a huge quan­tity of fresh wa­ter dur­ing the Wet and then grad­u­ally trans­mits it via nu­mer­ous water­falls that cas­cade dra­mat­i­cally from the top to the plains be­low. Tolmer Falls is per­haps the most ar­rest­ing sight in the

The ex­pe­ri­ence is heart-stop­ping and only goes to in­crease my ad­mi­ra­tion for these fear­some crea­tures.

park. A sin­gle plume of white wa­ter spears 102m down the es­carp­ment into a dark pool. The sur­round­ing sand­stone cliffs, bur­nished red by the set­ting sun, make for a mem­o­rable sight.

ON OUR FI­NAL morn­ing be­fore head­ing back to Dar­win, we’re keen for a dip in the croc-free wa­ters at the top of Litchf ield’s high plateau. We check out Florence Falls from the look­out be­fore head­ing in­stead to Bu­ley Rock­hole. These gen­tle tiered pools are pop­u­lar and we get there early. The wa­ter is clear and warm, and there are plenty of spots to ease into the wa­ter to es­cape the heat.

Next we set off in search of The Lost City. These un­usual rock for­ma­tions are what re­mains of the top of the plateau as the softer sand­stone has weath­ered away. It’s a good 40-minute drive along a nar­row, wind­ing, red-dirt track and I hap­pily tick my off-road­ing box. The strik­ing shapes re­sem­ble an an­cient Aztec city. There’s an easy 20-minute walk around the site and soon we’re back on the dirt track anx­ious to reach Wangi Falls on the park’s western bound­ary.

It’s Sun­day af­ter­noon and the place is packed with vis­i­tors, cars and coaches. There’s a cafe, pic­nic area and in­for­ma­tion point with clean pub­lic toi­lets and good change fa­cil­i­ties.

The crowds stay close to the ar­tif icial shore but a few swim out to the twin falls. I spend a good hour swim­ming in and out of the tum­bling wa­ters but soon it’s time to head back to Dar­win be­cause I’m keen to catch the fa­mous sun­set on Mindil Beach. Crav­ing a bit more off-road­ing, we opt for the par­tially unsealed route back to the city. It’s only 90 min­utes to the cap­i­tal and easy to see why Litch­field is such a pop­u­lar week­end es­cape for Dar­winites and tourists.

The Dar­win Fes­ti­val is well un­der­way and the city is abuzz on this per­fect Sun­day evening. I’m stag­gered to see how many peo­ple are seated on Mindil Beach await­ing the sun­set. The Sun­day mar­ket is thronged with vis­i­tors and lo­cals and there’s a ca­coph­ony of buskers along the es­planade. The beach is deep and the tide far out.

The sun turns into a blaz­ing blood-red ball as it sets and the en­tire beach bursts into loud ap­plause and cheer­ing. I join them, not just for the free light show, but for the ad­ven­ture that’s come to such a f it­ting end here in the en­velop­ing dark­ness.

I’ve barely scratched the sur­face of the Top End dur­ing my seven-day jour­ney of dis­cov­ery but it has made a deep im­pres­sion. So much of what we think of as that gritty Aussie spirit was forged by wild places like this and I’m hop­ing a lit­tle bit of it may have rubbed off on me.

El­e­gant high-rise apart­ments, smart res­tau­rants and pop­u­lar bars line the wa­ter’s edge along Re­cre­ation La­goon in Dar­win’s orig­i­nal har­bour­side dis­trict.

Re­cre­ation La­goon and a 4260sq.m wave pool with beach pro­vide croc-and-stinger-safe swim­ming fa­cil­i­ties on the Dar­win Water­front and are pop­u­lar with tourists and lo­cals.

Wild­man Wilder­ness Lodge’s lux­ury cab­ins have front-row seats on the re­sort’s pri­vate airstrip, which op­er­ates flights to and from Dar­win.

Vast lo­tus lily–cov­ered la­goons abound across the flood­plains of the Top End’s great rivers and are a bird­watcher’s de­light.

Bu­ley Rock­hole in Litch­field NP is a se­ries of fresh­wa­ter pools and water­falls where you can cool off in safety. They can be reached by 2WD ve­hi­cle.

A 4m fe­male salt­wa­ter crocodile leaps up, en­ticed by a morsel of swamp buf­falo meat, on the Ade­laide River near Fogg Dam, about an hours drive from Dar­win.

Watch­ing the sun go down on Mindil Beach on a Sun­day evening is a Dar­win in­sti­tu­tion and thou­sands gather to watch the spec­ta­cle.

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