A Guide to Darwin, the Gateway to Adventure in Australia’s Top End
If you’re off to Australia, you need to see the rugged Northern Territory. It’s rugged and untamed, and the port town of Darwin is a major gateway to all the fun. There are tons of trips departing Darwin – all ready to take travelers from Litchfield Park to the mighty Kakadu!
At dawn, I found out what makes Sandy Billabong so cool: There is nothing like seeing a sunrise here. The water is cool enough to throw off curtains of mist, and the sunshine filters through them to create and incredible scene that your eyeballs won’t believe. It’s impossible to not get a great photo of it. I am still blown away by the sight. And these photos are very raw: There is absolutely no post-production digital manipulation. These are all JPEG files straight out of my Fuji Finepix S5200.Â Enjoy!
English Dave with his bush-style hat cast a perfect silhouette for my photos. I got a few of a German who tagged along behind us. And yes, I kept her away from the billabong lest she become a morning morsel for a croc.
Our first stop was about four miles from Sandy Billabong: It’s called Culture Camp, and a cheerful Aborigine woman named Jenny talked to us about really funny stories, bush tucker (what the native people ate) and various traditions. My favorite was about the husband of an Aboriginal goddess who was so well-hung that following her everywhere made him tired. So he and his prodigious wang settled down while she wandered the continent.
We also learned how to throw spears with a device much like an Indian atlatl, and had more encounters with my friend, the didgeridoo. I must say that I could hang with anybody who worked at Culture Camp.
We still had more to see, so it was back aboard the Possum.
The Possum was thirsty for gas and oil, and we filled it up in Jabiru, where we also grabbed some pastries from a rather well-known local bakery. Jabiru also features a Holiday Inn in the shape of a crocodile, which Amy described as “not at all over-the-top or anything.”
We cruised out to Ubirr, where got to see some truly awesome rock art. There was actually a good bit of history detailed in the rocks. Apparently, the aborigines had one wall dedicated to their hunting/fishing catches. And women.
“Just like a modern mechanic shop,” Amy said. “Nothin’ but huntin’ pictures and naked ladies.”
I’ll also point out that, on the “Things We’ve Eaten” wall, there’s a painting that definitely depicts a white person. It’s drawn in white, it appears to have a pipe and it’s carrying a gun. Did he wind up in a tribe’s belly?
This is where Sarah and I met up with the green ant. Actually, it’s a red ant with a green bottom. The Aborigines used these to season their food, but just the green bottom. That’s because they taste like lime. Pick one up and give its butt a lick, and sure enough it’ll taste like you dabbed your tongue with key lime juice. Amazing! Sarah’s ant took exception to the assault and dug its mandibles into her hand as she pulled it away. She had to give him a good yank to pry him loose.
We also climbed to the top of a hill that overlooks Ubirr. From there, we could see a huge rock that was used in Crocodile Dundee. Paul Hogan stood atop it in the scene where he swung the bullroarer around. A bullroarer is a flat piece of ironwood that aborigines put on a rope. They swing it overheard, where it makes a weird buzzing sound. Apparently, they use this as a telephone.
We were then on to White Lilly Billabong. Some members of the group grabbed a swim, but Sarah and I went to scout for kangaroo. Thus far, we’d only seen a few wild wallabies, and none had been obliging enough to pose for a photo.
But here, we got our first decent glimpse of gray kangaroos! They were pretty awesome, and so much faster than we expected! We also saw some kind of huge brown/orange snake that was chasing a lizard.
The Possum was having a bit of a problem getting started. Remember, this is one old truck. It’s only two trips away from reaching its mandatory retirement age. Fortunately, some other guides are around … everyone put their heads together to bring the Possum back to life.
Next stop, the termite mounds! They’re everywhere in Kakadu, but some of the most impressive were just outside Darwin. There, some geniuses tried to build wooden viewing platforms among the mounds. That’s like making mouse traps entirely out of cheese.
Finally, we were on to the last stop: The Didgeridoo Hut. Rumor has it this is THE place to buy a decently priced didge. When we got there, it had even more: A baby emu came running out to greet us. Inside, a little aborigine boy sought to impress Sarah by allowing her to hold his pet snake and a fat skink. But then, a baby wallaby bounced out from behind the sales counter. He’d let everyone pet him, and he’d usually lick your hand. His mother had been run over by a car, and the owners of the Didgeridoo Hut had been feeding it out of a bottle. This might be the cutest creature I’ve ever seen.
I also picked up a nice didge, about five feet long with art of one of the mimi spirits on it. But I spend most of the time petting the wallaby and taking photos of him.
We wrapped up with a short drive back to Darwin, where we checked back into the MOM, and this time in a room far away from the hurly-burly!
Let me tell you, it was really nice washing three days of accumulated bush crap off my skin and enjoying a nice shave! And a little air-conditioning, too… After getting all freshened up, Sarah and I met Orla and her friend, Karen from Canada. We spent the night wandering about town, stopping for a late-night snack and some sangria before heading back into bed.
G’day, mates, and welcome to the inaugural episode of “How to Talk to Aborigines.” I’m your host, Wandering Justin!
Alright, now … lesson #1. Traditional Australian Aboriginees are quite polite. They don’t like to disagree with people. I’m hear live with Outback Amy. Amy, give us an example then, love!
“I was out in the bush with some aborigine buddies. I found some plant and said to one ‘Gus, I can eat this, right?'”
“It’s good eating?”
“Will this kill me or make me sick?”
He didn’t want to disagree with his friend, so he didn’t. If you’re asking an aborigine a life-and-death sort of question, it’s best to be open-ended. For example: “Are there crocs in this billabong this time of year?” rather than “There’s no crocs in that billabong, right?”
You’ll remember this lesson if the need arises, right?
Ahem. I mean, remember this lesson if the need arises.
Okay: So I’m from the American Southwest. I know nasty desert roads. Hell, I survived the roads of rural Costa Rica. But little of that prepared me for the battering we’d take in the Possum today. We got rattled by ruts and beaten by bumps that would swallow lesser four-wheel-drive vehicles. Some rental car companies won’t even let their vehicles into certain parts of the Kakadu. This would be why. How rough were these roads? So rough that we stashed our trailer alongside a fairly civilized road. We’d get it on the way out of Twin Falls.
I’m not ever sure what time it was when we got to the beginning of the trek to Jim Jim Falls. It’s a fairly shady walk, and we twisted up and down through the trees lining a placid green river. Of course, in the wet season, there are crocs here. Sometimes they get caught for the dry season, which is why there are croc traps throughout the river. A few wet seasons ago, Amy says, a croc had a little touristschnitzel. Yes, another German. Eep!
During the one-mile hike, Dominique gave her ankle a good wrenching, followed by her knee. Dave stayed back, but the rest surged ahead. We scrambled over boulders to an inland beach at the base of a huge dry waterfall. Now, this is quite a trek, really. This is a like a giant rock monster took too many laxatives and pooped SUV-sized rocks over a quarter of a mile.
The top of the escarpment towers more than a thousand feet overhead. I can imagine this place gets dramatic during the rains. Tourists swam and lounged on a white-sand beach more scenic then anything you’ll see in Southern California. Except most of the bodies here weren’t quite as beach-ready, if you know what I mean. There was a main pool warmed by the sun, and another frigid pool that stays in the shade. Oh, my … the coldness of the water was totally epic.
We hung around for an hour and then turn the other way. We hopped into the Possum and headed to Twin Falls.
Now this is the most rugged road of all. The Possum tackled it pretty easily, but then there was a huge stream we have to cross.
“Pick yer bags up off the floor,” Amy said, “if ya don’t want ’em to get wet.”
The snorkle-equipped Possum plunged into the stream, water creeping nearly up to the top of the hood. Water sloshed around the cabin, getting most of us at least a bit damp. But we were soon out the other side and on the way to Twin Falls.
We pulled to a stop at the bottom of another large escarpment. I realized that I’ve forgotten my hat, though. Not such a big deal on the first leg, but we’ll eventually climb about 1,000 feet to the top of the falls. In really bright sunlight. Fortunately, Sarah had an extra white t-shirt, which I turn into a turban type of thing. I look ridiculous, but it beats having the sun fry my gulliver.
It was a short, fairly shady walk and we soon came to a boat landing. There, we waited a few minutes for Tony and his crew to ferry us up the river. During the wet season, this stretch of river is filled with … crocs! And yes, a German was eaten here, too.
The water is incredibly clear here. Tony dropped us at a landing, where we hiked the rest of the way to Twin Falls, just more than a half-mile. We stopped to make sandwiches with the food we carried in. I was low on water, but Amy told me the water is okay.
“It’s some of the best you’ll ever drink,” she assured me.
I got near a waterfall and fill my CamelBak. And yes, it was some tasty water. Nice and chilly, too! It streamed down from the escarpment in two huge sheets of water, where it collects into a pool before spilling over a natural rock damn and into the river that floats Tony’s boat.
We do the usual “eat and hang out” before hiking back out to get to Tony’s boat ride. From there, we headed up the escarpment. It’s not a long walk, but it’s fairly energetic. Dominique is sitting this one out because of her injury, and Dave goes back to check on her and use the toilet. Orla also feels nature’s call, because she went back with him. Apparently, heading off to use the toilet bonds people together: As we find out later, Dave used this time to engross (or just plain gross out) Orla with tales about his bowel movements. I didn’t think he was quite old enough for that sot of conversation!
Once we reach the top, it’s a fairly undulating walk through bush country. It’s very dry, and you’d never know there was a major body of water within a mile. But we got there soon enough, and everyone is in for a swim again. And I’m at the nearest waterfall topping off the Camelbak. I am still amazed at how quickly what seems so arid becomes so lush and watery. Terrain like this in Arizona would mean despair, dehydration and death. But here, the dryness turns into greenery and a flowing stream before you realize what’s happening.
The view from the top of Twin Falls is pretty spectacular. The rock is smooth and slick from the water that comes pounding down the basin. I’d love to see this in December!
We lingered, swam and took photos for awhile, and then we trooped back down the hill.
After our steam crossing and our battering on the trails, we hit smooth road and grabbed the trailer. We also made a roadside stop to gather firewood for the night’s campfire.
Then we were off to Sandy Billabong where to camp for the night. This billabong is known for its rather ravenous cadre of mozzies (that’s mosquitos, to those of you who haven’t been Down Under), so we’ll be sleeping in tents. I sensed this group’s fear of mozzies, not least of all from Orla, who still bears the marks of her encounters with the savage critters. Being a pale Irish girl makes it hard to cover up the welts!
Unfortunately, the rest of the crew prepares by marinating themselves in DEET, which makes it hard for me to breathe in the Possum. By the time we get out, I had worked myself into a ferocious headache, which was relieved somewhat by swallowing a large burrito or two.
Oh, and something else about Sandy Billabong – there are lots of frickin’ crocs here. Would you be shocked if I mentioned that a German got eater here? I think the only place where a German hadn’t gotten eaten was at Sydney Airport!
Grady, another tour guide, parked his crew next to us. He had a didgeridoo, which got passed throughout the camp. Now, I must admit … I hadn’t told anyone about this. But I actually enjoy building didgeridoos from agave, or century plant. So I have my fair share of experience on the didge. I’m not great at circular breathing, but I can make all sorts of cool sounds and can sustain a drone for a long time. So while most of the other folks sounded like a donkey that had wandered into a bean farm, I was doing all sorts of mad didge stuff – I must say not even the tour guides could keep up with me. Remember the flute-playing scene from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”? It was like that, but I couldn’t conjure any flames from the end of the didge.
With the exception of the DEET, it’s been another great day in the Outback. I am also completely grubby and filthy from two days in the bush without a shower. Still, I can’t say enough about what an amazing couple of days I’ve had in the Kakadu. Do not miss this if you visit Australia.
Being German near water is the most dangerous thing you can do in Australia.
Starting today, I will start hearing a plethora of tales about German people being eaten by salt-water crocodiles. This theme will continue through the trip, to the point where I’m eyeballing the shower waiting for a swarm of mini-crocs to shoot out of the spigot to devour me. And I’m only half-German. If I were a Speedo-wearing, techno-loving Bayern Munich fan, I’d stay away from this continent altogether. Or at least not get within mortar-distance of a billabong.
But there are no crocs in Darwin, for now. Especially during the pre-dawn hours. My eyes are barely even open when an Arkana Safari II four-wheel-drive truck towing a wagon picked us up. At the wheel is Amy, our tour guide. She looked almost identical to a friend at home (Mary, that would be you!), so I can tell she’ll be a character.
Speaking of characters, we’re a tourist short. So far, we’ve got a 40-ish but sturdy English couple (Dave and Dominique), Orla from Ireland, Fiona from Canada and us. Apparently, Amy and the staff at a hostel have been trying to rouse our last member, English Anna. She was big-time hung over.
Eventually, someone pried her out of bed and tossed her and her gear into the Arkana, which is known as the Possum.
Once Anna is in the car, we’re bound for the bush! The sun was fully in the sky, and traffic cleared quickly as we neared the edge of Darwin. In less than 30 minutes, we start seeing the first massive bunch of cathedral termite mounds. They’re amazingly tall and stately, more like stage sets from The Dark Crystal than giant communes for gross, glistening-white insects. Which, by the way, largely vacate the mounds and ants take over. We’re blaring the Rolling Stones, much to Anna’s torment.
Soon, the Possum is flying down a dirt road toward Corroboree Billabong. What we’re going to do is take a boat ride with a madman who loves crocodile. We got lectures from everyone not to stand up, jump in the water or even stick a hand in to test the temperature. Apparently, you have a maximum time of three seconds once you’re in before a salt-water croc will overtake you.
And these things are monsters. We quickly start spotting 10-footers lounging about, and we start seeing some really gigantic specimens, too.
Here’s the thing I really learned about crocs: They are hard-wired to quickly evaluate any movement within their range. If they determine they can get it with 100 percent certainty, they will attack. It doesn’t matter what they had for lunch, they’ll eat a tourist or a whole bunch…just as long as they’re in range.
Well, that’s not strictly true. If a croc’s just eaten and you enter its range, it’ll grab you, drown you and then stuff you someplace where it can nibble at your carcass at its leisure.
In short, if a croc heads your way, you’re toast.
I got some great pictures, and we saw many lesser creatures. I can’t get worked up about a bird when a 12-foot croc is eyeing me from 25 feet away. And this croc happened to get a wild hair up its cloaca and shot into the water, missing our boat just by feet. Apparently, he spotted something else. It thrashed its tail (its main device for swimming) and passed us in about three blinks of an eye. Zero to 60 in nothing flat …
Another interesting thing I learned is that not all Aussies are enamored of one Steve Irwin. Our tour guide considered him little more than a sideshow. And all the croc wrestling? That’s done by keeping them cold. Crocs have a narrow range of operating temperatures, and they spend most of their time regulating their temperature. See the beast in that photo? His mouth is open to help him cool off.
After our boat ride, we left the billabong and headed back to the highway for a spell. We eventually left the pavement, where we stopped for lunch near another watering hole. At this one, a German had recently disappeared, likely as a result of a croc attack.
Anyway, this is a camping trip. So pretty much everybody pitched in to make food and clean up. The communal tasks actually do a good job of bonding the group pretty well. We’ve got tuna, turkey, bread and other sandwich fixings, which all went down pretty well.
We bounced over more rugged trails before hopping out again. This time, Amy took us along a mostly-dry creekbed that looks like it must really rage in the rainy season. There are quite a few people, and after about 45 minutes of hiking, we found out why. The trail goes upward, leading us to a series of crystal-blue swimming holes. It’s all red rocks, blue pools and bikinis. In Arizona, no place this hot and dry will suddenly yield swimming holes. There are people an guides everywhere. Oddly enough, we’d run into many of them in the days to come. FYI, there was no way for crocs to get in here during this time of the year. No waterways big enough for them, and too many waterfalls!
We hiked back down, drove further inland and stopped for fuel. Here, I met yet another SAB. He was on holiday with his family, and he looked at the Possum like it was an old girlfriend. Apparently, he had been in the military when he’d driven through the country in an old Arkana just like this one. Since they’re getting rare, he asked me to snap some photos of him posing with the Possum.
Then we headed off to a relatively nice camping area that has bathrooms. We also stopped on a random stretch of highway to gather firewood for the night. We actually did this every day after the hiking. We’d stop the Possum and scramble around by the roadside, tossing branches and logs atop the roof.
Once we got to the campsite (a fairly civilized one with toilets and running water), the crew of the Possum set to work on dinner, the centerpiece of which was Amy’s honey-ginger chicken with veggies and rice. Nice healthy stuff to accompany our hiking! The meal is another good chance to yack. I got on well with Dave, who is from Bristol. Orla was also pretty amusing – she speaks in exactly the same voice and vocabulary that Roy Keane, the former Manchester United star, used in his autobiography. She and Sarah got along well since they’re both into triathlon. Anna, our hung-over group member, was a pretty good character, too.
After dinner, we learned how to sleep in a swag. A swag is like a big vinyl Hot Pocket for people. You stuff your sleeping bag inside it, then zip yourself inside. There’s a big flap to cover up your face. It’s smart, according to Amy, to keep your shoes inside the swag. Dingos, apparently, have an affinity for footwear. They will run off with unattended shoes that are not inside a swag.
It was a nice chilly night with a brilliant moon and a good amount of stars, and soon I was dead asleep in my swag. Sarah got up for a toilet visit, and shoo’d a dingo out of camp. Maybe he was looking for a new pair of Timberlands?
A damn fine day in the Outback, this was. This is why I wanted to come to Australia. Crikey!
The next day, we’re up early. The plan is to get to Jim Jim and Twin falls in a hurry.