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.
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 I soon realise that my notion of Darwin is woefully outdated.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.