TROP­I­CAL FIX

Closer to Bali than Bris­bane, DAR­WIN of­fers a gate­way into an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent and WILDER WORLD of SOR­BET SUN­SETS, trop­i­cal flora and jump­ing croc­o­diles.

Australian Traveller - - Weekends -

SPEND­ING a week in the Top End of­fers up am­ple op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery­thing the trop­ics can throw at you: an abun­dance of water, sor­bet sun­sets, fronds the size of houses, croc­o­diles (from afar!), In­dige­nous cul­ture and frosty mango smooth­ies thrown in for good mea­sure. To en­sure all items sit on the menu, side-trips out of Dar­win to Mary River and Kakadu Na­tional Park are a must. Dar­win is Aus­tralia’s most northerly cap­i­tal city, and the Top End one of the coun­try’s most northerly re­gions. This largely flat, mon­soonal sweep of land borders the Ti­mor Sea and runs as far south as 400 kilo­me­tres below Dar­win to Mataranka. The mon­soonal as­pect here is key for trav­ellers, as it di­vides the year into two clear-cut sea­sons: the rainy ‘Wet’ and the low-hu­mid­ity ‘Dry’. I’m vis­it­ing in the Dry so I can see as much as pos­si­ble. Dur­ing the Wet, road and swim­ming hole clo­sures mean there’s less to do, but also fuller wa­ter­falls and fewer peo­ple around, too – so both sea­sons come with vary­ing perks. In­stead of brav­ing the back­packer strip in the city cen­tre, I opt to rum­mage through the Ge­orge Brown Dar­win Botanic Gar­dens. In­stantly, I’m drawn to a quaint cot­tage set at the gar­den’s en­trance. Its grounds are lit­tered with cane chairs, cof­fee ta­bles and brightly coloured cush­ions. This, I dis­cover, is Eva’s Botan­i­cal Cafe. It’s housed in­side a her­itage-listed church built in 1897. Granted, there are no mango smooth­ies on the menu, but there is a banana shake. I clasp my hands around the chilled glass and drink its en­tire con­tents with haste, be­fore mov­ing deeper into the gar­dens. A rain­for­est sec­tion is alive with lacewing but­ter­flies and be­he­moth fronds. It’s a haven of cool. And nowhere is this more the case than upon a bridge above the wa­ter­fall, set to the rear of the for­est. From here, I ex­plore the cy­cad gar­den and take in the di­ver­sity of palm trees. A pass­ing staffer tells me there are over 450 species around me. My neck cranes to spy the trees’ up­per branches, dot­ted with bou­quets of red and or­ange fruit. The sky shifts to a flirty shade of pink and I make the short trip to Stokes Hill Wharf, just south of the CBD, for a sun­set har­bour cruise. Aboard a vin­tage sail­ing boat, I sip bub­bles and sigh with early-on­set, trop­ics-in­duced sat­is­fac­tion. The pinks now shift through a wheel of or­anges, reds and yel­lows, like fire­works frozen on the hori­zon. Af­ter a sleep-in the next morn­ing, it’s time to head 65 kilo­me­tres east for the start of my out-of-town ad­ven­ture, cruis­ing on the Ade­laide River to wit­ness the fa­mous jump­ing croc­o­diles. Sure, you can see these rep­tiles in Dar­win at var­i­ous aquar­i­ums and crocodile parks. Heck, you can even swim with them in­side a sus­pended cage if you’re nuts enough to do so. But for me, zoo en­vi­ron­ments don’t quite sit right: noth­ing beats see­ing crocs in their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, pa­trolling the river for food. Be­fore long, I come face-to-face with a beast. Bru­tus is 86 years old, 5.5-me­tres long and once suf­fered a shark at­tack, which ex­plains his miss­ing limb. I spot him 20 me­tres from the boat, his snout and tail barely vis­i­ble above the water. “This is no ‘lo­godile’ folks. Here comes the king!” shouts our guide. When the an­i­mal leaps to snatch a hunk of buf­falo meat dan­gling from a hook cast from the boat, Bru­tus’s whole body rock­ets into the air, feet in­cluded. It’s thrilling and shock­ing all at once. Jump­ing croc­o­diles are some­thing you can only see in the NT, and watch­ing these gi­ants in the flesh flings my body into a goose-bump frenzy. Will any­one be­lieve me when I say that I did this? A fur­ther 195 kilo­me­tres down the Arn­hem High­way in the town­ship of Jabiru, I set off for Kakadu. First stop: Nourlangie rock art site. This tow­er­ing es­carp­ment houses shady art gal­leries in its lower sec­tion and glo­ri­ous views of the Kakadu plains from up top. All that re­mains now – trop­i­cal fix nearly com­plete – is a cruise along Yel­low Water Bil­l­abong. This ex­pan­sive plain teems with jabirus, sea ea­gles, a bounty of fish, and yet more croc­o­diles. As we coast along, another saltie sets sail in our di­rec­tion. I start to fear the preda­tors are drawn to me. “It’s the Top End, not you,” our In­dige­nous cruise guide Danny as­sures me, wav­ing a hand to calm me down. “It’s wild up here.” Wild and won­der­fully another world away, I think as I gaze through a thicket of pa­per­bark trees to the vast wet­lands be­yond.

NOTH­ING BEATS SEE­ING CROC­O­DILES IN THEIR NAT­U­RAL EN­VI­RON­MENT, PA­TROLLING THE RIVER FOR FOOD.

THIS PAGE FROM LEFT: An­cient art­works at Nourlangie rock art site; Dar­win, the coun­try’s most northerly cap­i­tal city. OP­PO­SITE: The lush green­ery and vast ex­panses of Kakadu.

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