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.