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From Darwin to the Alice
Had I read Jeannie Gunn’s novel, before arriving in the Never-Never, her passion would have been lost on me. In fact, soon after leaving the huge and wonderful state of Western Australia, I was ready to dismiss the Northern Territory as wanting in all those qualities I had become accustomed to – intensity, majesty, ancientness, a sense of the spiritual – during the several months Pam and I spent wandering through the awesome landscapes of Ningaloo, the Pilbara and the Kimberley: tough acts to follow, all.
The Territory was very different; subdued, so I thought at first; uninteresting and without the grandeur of its neighbour to the west. But if someone had said to me then, you ain’t seen nothing yet, I soon would have agreed. Different it is, without doubt, and to its credit for it is like no where else; vast, spectacular, diverse, colourful, exciting, unforgettable. And hot! Oh boy, is it hot.
When it comes to the marvellously unique, Kakadu takes line honours. It is the living, breathing essence of the Top End, wild and beautiful. It is an extraordinary place stiff with wildlife, billabongs covered with water lilies and giant lotuses, magnificent waterfalls, ancient Aboriginal rock art and crocodile infested rivers.
And on the subject of crocodiles, the Territorians, unlike their neighbours, take their man- eating reptiles seriously. Ubiquitous warning signs advise of the presence of saltwater crocodiles and tell the intending swimmer, verbatim, Don’t risk your life! Even when warning signs aren’t posted, there are other signs advising that the absence of any warning signs should, in itself, be taken as a warning. To swim or not to swim? We joke about the crocodile situation but, really, it becomes a little nerve racking after a while.
But Kakadu is not the end of it; there’s plenty more to see and do. Litchfield, just south of Darwin, is a another great National Park. We went there, planning to escape the heat by camping at Wangi Falls, only to find those ubiquitous signs standing between ourselves and the cool water of the pool beneath the falls. It was closed to swimming! We were not long in the Top End then, and still not acclimatised to the enveloping heat, so this was a fairly desperate turn of events. As it turned out though, Litchfield has plenty of other waterfalls and swimming holes, too high for the crocs to reach, so we found relief in the end.
Nitmiluk, too, is a NP well worth a visit with two attractions of particular note: Edith Falls and Katherine Gorge, both mandatory stops on the Grand Tour. And the town of Katherine itself, not far from the gorge of the same name, is an interesting place with a pioneering history as rich and animated as any Wild Western town you can think of.
On the map of this part of the world, the dots are small, few and far apart. South of Katherine is a dot called Mataranka, the Top End’s farthest-flung outpost. Jeannie Gunn, in a passage from We of the Never-Never, describes …a chain of clear crystal pools…[with] emerald-green mossy banks…and everywhere sunflecked, warm, dry shade… She is talking about Bitter Springs, a series of thermal pools just out of Mataranka. The year is 1902.
Pam and I stayed around Mataranka for several days, camping in nearby Elsey NP. We swam in those very pools and the water is still crystal clear, and warm as a bath. The pools are garlanded with giant water–lilies and bathers are carried along on the gentle current, from one limpid pool to the next, through the shade of the monsoon palm forest. Definitely one of the more unique participant-friendly experiences in the Top End; and safe for the kiddies, too.
Throughout the Top End, everywhere we went during the Dry, there was an abiding impression of the Wet, that other half of the year when the rains come and the land is covered with water. We saw it on the banks of rivers, on the trunks of trees, on the rock walls of gorges, in the architecture of the buildings, in stories of past floods.
But all that changed when we left the Top End behind and went south, past Tennant Creek, to where the seasons, Summer and Winter, hold more sway and the land becomes arid. Now, it is the absence of water, rather than its abundance, that is evidenced. This is the Red Centre.
Here, the sun throws its palette – rich reds, pastel pinks and vibrant purples – across the landscape to announce the end of another day in the desert. Travellers come in off the highway and the Grand Tour winds-down for the night.
We came in last night and sit back comfortably now, watching the newbies circle their wagons. How long have you been here? they ask.
Second night, we answer, old hands already.
They’re excited. They want to know what we’ve seen. What’s it like?
We tell them the Red Centre is not so red at the moment. It’s more your green centre, really. The last two summers brought higher than average rainfall and the land has burst forth with flora and fauna unseen for 40 years.
We tell them the days are lovely but the nights are cold, so cold the waterline in our caravan freezes.
We tell them about the mountains around the Alice – the East MacDonnells and the West MacDonnells – and the places we stayed there: Trephina Gorge, Ormiston Gorge. Absolutely beautiful, we say, and, Yes, you can get a caravan in there.
We tell them Uluru and Kata Tjuta are farther from the Alice than they might think. 500 ks ‘round about. Some already know this; some are surprised. We tell them we left our van behind and went down there on a camping trip; that a dingo tore its way into our tent looking for food. At Kings Canyon, not Uluru! we add quickly, feeling empathy with the Chamberlains. Seven days we were away.
We tell them there’s a lot to see down there; that we didn’t see it all. We were forced back early with mechanical damage, and the tent that was rent. Heads nod, knowingly. Everyone on the Grand Tour understands the perils that wait in remote areas. It’s generally agreed that our luck was, A bit off, and a round of sympathy is tendered.
What’s the Grand Tour? they ask.
It’s us, we tell them. The grey nomads, and the not-so-grey, young and old, in our tents and vans and campers; the multitude of Europeans in their hired motorhomes; the Wicked ones in their whizz-bangs; thousands of us. We travel the same routes, arrive at the same destinations, tell the same stories. We’re all on the Grand Tour.
You make it sound crowded, they say.
It is, we tell them. But it’s a big country. There’s still room to be alone in the solitude of the bush.
Where to next? is a question we on the Tour like to ask each other.
Pam and I are off to Queensland after this, we tell them, and up to the Cape.
We wish each other a safe journey. We wave goodbye. We go on our way.
And that’s that; goodbye to the Outback State. Seven weeks ago, I came into the Northern Territory wishing I didn’t have to and now, as I leave, I find myself wishing I could stay. But all things come to an end, and so on and so forth. It is some consolation that I take with me memories of the exciting times we’ve had here and the astounding sights we’ve seen, memories that will remain, possibly, as the most enduring of the entire trip and carry me into the next chapter of our adventure.
So, until then…
Top End images from top: Darwin sunset; Wangi Falls; Yellow Water billabong in Kakadu; saltwater crocodile on the Adelaide River; Aboriginal rock art in Kakadu
Red Centre images from left and top: the Ghan enroute from Adelaide to Darwin; desert moon at Chamber’s Pillar; Uluru at sunset; Perentie goanna; Whistling Kite