What I Learnt On A Trip To Australia’s Top End
Why you need to head north.
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Gorges carved into red rock, waterfalls pouring into freshwater swimming holes, and a blend of tropical greenery and arid savannahs; Australia’s Top End is a far cry from its dry, red centre. On her first visit, writer CHRISTINE KAKAIRE came away with some travel wisdom to share.
The Top End of the Northern Territory is a world away from Australia’s southern cities, especially during the mid-winter slump, when temperatures up north still soar above 30 degrees. So a last minute three day Northern Territory adventure visiting Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks seemed to be the panacea for all my problems: decisive desert heat to strip away the suffocating layers of winter, outdoorsy activities to jolt me out of a physical stupor, and, most importantly, an opportunity to put as much distance as possible between myself and Sydney, the location of a recent run of crushing losses and challenges. I needed to shake things up, and get the heck out of dodge for a minute. I did all of that, and picked up a couple of tips along the way.
Be prepared, but not over prepared
I counted down the days to departure with excitement, but as it drew closer, another emotion began to surface: fear. To be honest, I am a spoiled city baby with dodgy knees, asthmatic lungs and fallen arches. I’ve been called a germaphobe more than once, and have a long list of food allergies, intolerances and rather-nots. I possess a scream reflex for any creature with six or more legs, and am so extremely physically clumsy that it borders on the pathological.
The itinerary for the 4WD Kakadu Litchfield Adventure contained several phrases that began to work me into a panic: “Temperatures can be extreme”. “Outback camping grounds”. “Requires a moderate level of fitness”. “Involves a lot of walking”. “Conditions can be basic”. “The hike is pretty tough”. This trip began to feel like a terrible idea, so I packed as if I would be doing little more than fending off death, disease and unfortunate cliff falls for three days straight: bandages, plasters, antibiotics, tweezers, a family set of towels, sanitiser in three different formats, a symphony of painkillers, and clothing for every possible worst case scenario. I didn’t end up tumbling off a rock, eating anything poisonous or wrestling murderous fauna, so I just ended up lugging around a huge overstuffed bag for no reason.
Timing is everything
This trip covers a lot of ground, literally. A three hour drive eastward from Darwin will get you to the edge of Kakadu National Park, and beyond that there’s 20,000 square kilometres of diverse parklands to explore. I’m no early riser – at least not happily – so the prospect of three consecutive pre-dawn morning starts wasn’t appealing, but the itinerary quickly made sense. Getting the bulk of the day’s driving underway in the wee hours, when everybody is still half asleep, allows for a couple of quiet snoozy hours so that everyone is fresh for the morning’s activities; getting back on the road in the middle of the day avoids the most blistering heat, before venturing out again in the slightly cooler hours of the early afternoon.
Our excellent guide Rick calmly commandeered his 4WD vehicle over terrain that ranged from sealed tar highway to off-road rollercoaster. He herded us out of our tents at 5am, and stealthily slipped us muesli bars when we began to flag in the heat. He came to a short stop in the middle of a morning drive to wake us up to a pack of wild brumby horses just beyond the tree line, who regarded us with equal curiosity, then twitched their tails in unison and galloped away. Rick also slowed the vehicle’s speed along a highway, to match that of a forest backburning front that moved along beside us. He delivered Indigenous creation stories, nature trivia, and announcements about pit vs. flushing toilet stops with a quick wit and a slow drawl.
He sped us to the banks of the Yellow River with a few minutes to spare for the most cinematic sunset I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Rick also hauled us a brutal incline at Ubirr, high above the Indigenous rock art that the area is famous for, on a scorching afternoon.
We drooped like delicate flowers in the sun, but once we reached the panoramic view at its peak, there was a merciful shift in temperature as the sun began its descent. I could have stayed up there gazing at the horizon for hours, but he hauled us quickly back down again. On the way out, somebody asked why we couldn’t stay longer, to catch another stunning sunset. Rick said he didn’t want us to get caught up in the thronging packs of tourists who clamber up Ubirr’s lookout for every sunset. As we left the carpark, we saw them arriving by the coachload.
Every story has already been told
As crocs watched us with motionless suspicion from the banks of the river, our boat cruise enjoyed the interspecies melodrama of the Mary River National Park. Large swooping birds stalked a fish that swam perilously close to the water’s surface, but were surprised by a snakenecked Darter Bird who used our boat as cover to get close to, catch, then impale the fish with its long beak in one fluid moment of triumph.
Ubirr’s rock paintings of generations past told universal tales of cultural morality, human curiosity, and the needs of community, while our group’s Welcome To Country address by the Limilngan-Wulna people bled into to a broader discussion about nationhood and heritage in the age of the individual. The magnetic termite mounds of Litchfield National Park look like a vast, derelict cemetery of greying gravestones, but inside each is a tiny civilisation with feats of engineering and sophisticated social structures. Countless stories were told and shared throughout the tour, and whether human, animal, or mystical, they all invariably came back to the common themes of the lived experience: love, loss, greed, regret, sacrifice, duty, protectiveness and pride.
It’s better together
There was no prior information as to how many people would be on our particular tour, and our group ended up filling the maximum capacity: 16 folks, eight nationalities, teen to senior demographics. If forced to choose one word to describe this tour, it would be ‘participatory’. You are in each other’s pockets, and cook, swim, hike, sightsee and travel together, so making the effort to get on makes sense. Plus, if you’re going to try (and fail) to swim all the way to the other side of a thundering waterfall downpour, or enjoy a crisp lager at the pub after a long hot day of hiking to Jim Jim Falls, or go on a late-night mission to spy on a mob of wallabies bouncing noiselessly through your campground after dark, it’s so much more rewarding to do it as part of a gang.
Perspective is as perspective does
The Ubirr lookout provided the moment of recalibration that I craved. After the painful climb to the top, the panorama succeeded in shutting off a part of my mind that been in hyperdrive for months. Turning the full 360° slowly, to take in every angle, is incredible. Seeing vibrant green floodplains and glistening marsh lands merged into scrub and tree covered hills, then arid flat-topped escarpments, then forest canopies, then rocky mountains with columns of smoke signalling the regenerating fires that spark the new life cycles of the land, was the literal big picture view that I needed.
My fear of imagined injury (and humiliation) kept me cautious for the entire trip. I hung back from a barefoot trek over haphazard, mosscovered rocks to Jim Jim Falls’ plunge pool. I trod each step carefully, checked every bathroom stall for hidden spiders, didn’t dare dive into any rock pool, and secretly fretted about crocodile attacks. Our final stop before the long drive back to Darwin was the most epic of all the natural beauties: Litchfield National Park’s Wangi Falls. From across the water we spied a few heads bobbing in a small natural grotto, several metres above the water and tucked into the cliff face, in the path of the waterfall’s gentle flow. I wanted to be up there. So we swam over, climbed up slowly, and eased into the pool that looked and felt like a private jacuzzi.
Soon enough it was time to leave. I was closest to the edge, so the first to exit. I considered climbing back down to the swimming hole carefully, but I really wanted to jump. My tourmates encouraged me. It looked really dangerous, but fun. I had a couple of false starts, but then I finally did it. I jumped, and it was exhilarating.
(All photos: Vincent Rommelaere)