One of our standard ploys when planning a trip to a new city, is to book accommodation that is outside of the central business district. The night life is likely to be more relaxed, the prices cheaper, and we are more likely to encounter real people in real situations than if we were to follow the standard tourist route. For our trip to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory of Australia, we followed our usual formula, and had booked a room in backpackers’ accommodation out in what seemed, from the map, to be the far suburbs.
The airport shuttle dropped us outside a rather ramshackle building populated entirely by dope heads. Struggling a little with the humid forty-degree heat, we managed to extract a key from somebody, and located our room, which was in a sort of shack out the back. Inside it was your standard Australian backpacker’s, with a simple bed and a sink, a broken air conditioner, and some six-inch cockroaches. No real surprises, apart from ducking to avoid the roaches as they flew around like pterodactyls, so we ditched our gear and tried to locate a bus or taxi into town.
We couldn’t find anybody at the hostel who could talk to us without drooling, so we set off on foot in what seemed to be the correct direction. Almost instantly, the heavens opened and we were caught in a stunning deluge. We couldn’t avoid getting wet, but a bus shelter prevented the enormous rain drops from bruising us too much. As quickly as it had started, it was over, and we continued our journey, drying almost instantly in the heat, and idly wondering how far we would have to travel before we found either a taxi or a bus to take us into the CBD. We passed a bar (I lie. We stopped in for a beer), then another bar, and then, mysteriously, our journey was interrupted by the sea. We had just walked clear across Darwin.
It really is a very small city indeed. After we’d had beers in the few bars, watched some locals fighting each other, ascertained that all the shopkeepers were quite excited because “a cruise ship is coming in tonight”, and checked out the seafront (Do Not Swim Here. Salty Crocs), we had pretty much exhausted the possibilities of the town, and all before four o’clock in the afternoon.
A brief perusal of the literature in the tourist office revealed that most of the attractions on offer were not in Darwin at all, but several hours plane-ride away in Cairns, a completely different city in a completely different state.
Next morning, then, having unapologetically “done Darwin”, we boarded a small bus and headed out into the wilderness of Kakadu National Park.
The road to Kakadu
The bus seated 22, but thankfully there were only seven of us aboard to share the welcome air-conditioning. One was a kid who was desperately keen to see crocodiles. Whenever we passed a body of water of any size, he would hop up and down and ask, “Are there crocodiles?”
Andy, our Swiss driver, would inevitably reply, “There are crocodiles everywhere”, but although we stopped a few times to check, they were being quite elusive.
Andy took us to a few pit-stops along the way, including a country pub with two crocodiles, a fresh and a salty, in a pen in the car park, but the boy wasn’t impressed with those.
Along the road, we started to see enormous termite cathedrals. Stopping to examine them, we could be forgiven for thinking that they were completely lifeless under the baking sun, but Andy showed us how to tell the old, uninhabited mounds from the live ones. The signs are small, but here and there you can find small rough patches where a dead mound has been damaged. Poking a small hole in the smooth integument of a living mound, however, and within seconds the insects within are rushing around repairing it. The speed of the response, and the speed of the repair, was fascinating.
Kakadu National Park
Although most of Kakadu is floodplain, for eight months of the year it consists of dried mud and burning bush. There are only two seasons, the Dry and the Wet. We had arrived just at the end of the Dry, where the rivers were beginning to fill and the plants were starting to appear lush and green, growing frantically prior to the complete inundation of the Wet.
We climbed to the top of a red mesa-like outcropping that gave stunning views of the floodlands below. Until relatively recently, these plains were home to herds of water buffalo descended from draught animals freed after Darwin was built. Extensive culling has now reduced them to somewhat less than their plague proportions, and now the environment has recovered, although the lush green grass is, inevitably, another introduced species planted by early cattle-ranchers.
Nevertheless, it is an extraordinarily impressive sight, the vivid green contrasting with the bright red rock, all under the merciless glare of the Northern Territories sun.
Aboriginal Rock Paintings
The Park is managed by a committee of ten aboriginal elders and four local rangers, and much of it is off-limits to tourists because it is used for traditional living. The information provided in various centres scattered around the Park give an interesting mix of aboriginal and European facts, stories, and artefacts, and in fact this rock on which we were climbing is one of the areas aboriginal rock painting sites.
I’d never understood rock painting before, but Andy managed to bring the paintings and the culture to life for us. Aboriginal culture is multi-layered, such that as you get older you are taught deeper insights into the topics that you already know, until you are an elder and know all the layers; however, you will still only know the layers of the stories in your particular area or clan.
The information that you learn, handed down in stories about spirits, is all to do with survival in the bush and your behaviour in society. The volume of this information is staggering, but as Andy said, they have 50,000 years of culture to draw upon.
In Kakadu, each picture represents an event or happening, typically a particularly large prey animal. Stories are linked to the painting, which is often laid over older paintings. In this area, animals in particular are pictured transparent in order to display the best way to cut them, and to emphasise those parts which make good eating.
As the day wore on, clouds began to gather on the horizon. Andy started to look worried, and began collecting us from the far corners of the mesa and shepherding us down to ground level.
What was wrong? It was only a rain cloud.
What we hadn’t taken into account was the sheer volume of precipitation that can fall in these parts. We had heard stories of people being cut off by the start of the Wet, but it didn’t seem real up here on this enormous rock in the sunshine.
Andy had told us about one particular guy who had been camping down in the woods one year, and when the rain started to fall he had been flooded out of his tent so he carried his stuff up to the nearby toilet block. After a while, the building flooded, so he climbed onto the roof. The water continued to rise until it reached him there, too, so he started to climb up the corrugated iron water tower on the roof. When the rescue helicopter finally winched him off, he had cut a hole in the water tank and was sitting inside, watching the level come still higher.
Andy wasn’t kidding us around; he was seriously worried that one or more of the rivers that we had forded on the way in might now be too deep for the bus to get out, and he practically force-marched us back to the vehicle and set off at full speed.
The rivers that we had crossed on the way there had just been trickles across the road, but now after just a few hours, and before the rain had really started, we had over a foot of water across the road.
“Are there crocodiles?” asked the kid, as the bus sploshed slowly across. “I’m not wading,” said Andy.
Our Kakadu campsite was a permanent fixture, an attempt to prevent the sort of problems that had befallen the chap in the water tank. On the one hand, we weren’t exactly communing with nature (although the bird noises during the night were wondrous), but on the other, our large tents came with camp beds, mosquito netting, a cooking tent, a swimming pool and a bar, so we weren’t complaining.
The boat cruise next day was probably the highlight of the trip, and we had (inadvertently, of course) timed our arrival to perfection. With the Wet just starting, the billabong was just starting to flood its banks, and where the water had swept over the surrounding floodplains, life was erupting with exuberance.
Spectacular white egrets, flashing azure kingfishers, red-winged parrots, and all manner of wildfowl filled the lush floodplains or hid in crevices amongst the mangroves.
In the topmost branches of the trees, sea-eagles and storks had already kicked their fledglings out of their nests. In only a very short time, not only the river banks and the undergrowth, but even the treetops themselves would be under water. Within days, the boat dock that we had used to embark would be completely inundated and the operator would have to move to another site.
The boat itself was basically a metal raft built on two flat pontoons, each with an enormous outboard engine hanging off the back. Our guide chugged us around into the reeds and under overhanging trees, pointing out different birds and plants, all the while exhorting us not to hang any limbs over the water, just in case. She explained that in the Dry, which is the colder season, crocs tend to sun themselves on the banks, but here in the Wet they are happier to stay cool in the water, and are more than capable of jumping aboard if they think that they can get an arm.
While we all marvelled at the wonders of nature about us (and pondered the possible fate of two men out fishing in a little tin boat) we were all hoping for a glimpse of the real king of the waterways.
Then suddenly a small voice cried “Crocodile!” and everybody ran to what happened to be Bronwyns side of the boat, which tipped alarmingly and left her staring at close range at eight feet of heavily armoured reptile.
From then on, we saw them everywhere. Rooting around in the mangrove palms, rising mysteriously to the surface around us and then cruising effortlessly out of our way, only sinking out of sight when our wake got too annoying.
Eventually, even our precocious young fellow traveller had seen enough, and we returned to the dock, to our bus, and finally to our shack in Darwin. It was by now raining heavily, so we caught a taxi for the short ride into town.
After a refreshing beer or two, there was only one public building left that we hadn’t visited, so we ducked into the air conditioned cinema and watched a film.