The Top End Down Under

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine

The Top End Down Under
Exploring Katherine Gorge and Kakadu park, the Yosemite of Australia's Northern Territory

By Amanda Jones
Special to Outside Online

"Nobody goes to the Northern Territory in November," the agent told me. It could rain. The humidity will boil your brain.

Ah, I replied, but you have no idea of the current state of this brain. This is no mere vacation, I told her, this is a sanity-saving mission. I had to go where there were no phones, faxes, or e-mail. I needed a place where even DHL messenger pigeons would be snatched from the sky by taloned predators. I wanted the Last Frontier.

I'd first heard about Kakadu National Park in Australia's "Top End" from an Australian bloke I'd met in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. He described it as an untamed, underpopulated Yosemite. All I knew was that it had orange earth, cobalt sky, ragged bluffs, frothy rivers, insatiable reptiles, and men who actually got away with calling women "sheilas." (In fact, it was here that Crocodile Dundee first captivated the lovely New York journalist with his unmitigated maleness.)

I arrived in Australia after a 15-hour flight to Sydney and took another five-hour flight to Darwin. At the hotel, I immediately signed up for a six-day trip to Kakadu and Katherine Gorge. It sounded perfect--a four-wheel-drive vehicle, tents, "mozzie" nets, piles of imperishable foodstuffs and an exceedingly manly guide. I had chosen All Terrain Tours, an outfit that caters to athletic adventure travelers. We're not talking luxury travel--more like a thin sleeping mat, a two-person tent, a seasoned sleeping bag, and lots of lunch meat and cordial. I had come seeking rugged, and I was not to be disappointed.

Just past dawn, Paul, our perfectly handsome, intrepid leader, arrived in a suitably abused Toyota to collect nine outback pilgrims. Even that early, the heat thickened the air. During the days, temperatures would soar to 113 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Let me tell you, those temperatures emasculate the word "hot."

During the 95-mile drive toward the park, Paul, a biologist by training, related that Kakadu is half the size of Switzerland, has three uranium mines, boasts one of the world's highest densities of venomous snakes, and teems with crocodiles. Nigel, a British banker, was decidedly tense about the snakes and crocs. He kept clearing his throat and asking questions like "In the unlikely event of a crocodile creeping into one's tent ..." or "What action should one take when a death adder falls from a tree onto one's neck?" Naturally, if you take a dip in a crocodile's backyard, you are offering yourself up as the week's victuals. To avoid this, all croc-infested waters are signposted, and it's advisable to pay heed. As for venomous bites, Paul informed us that snakes are not the fanged serial killers Steven Spielberg would have us believe. They will go to extremes to avoid contact with humans, so long as you show them the same courtesy.

Once inside the park, we filled our water bottles at the nearest billabong (water hole) and set out for Barramundi Gorge. We climbed through monsoon-vine forest, over pink boulders, and finally up a bald ridge above a flawless green lake speared by tall waterfalls. The destination was an amphitheater of rock steps, each level containing its own heavenly swimming pool. As we lolled about in these, a tempest rolled in--one of the famed Northern Territory wet-season "knock 'em down" storms--and we swam beneath lightning, thunder, and warm, fat raindrops.

Around the campfire that night, Paul, who soon become the hero of every sheila on the trip, told us about the eating habits and sex lives of crocodiles. Nigel turned a whiter shade of Anglo-pale and went to bed, zipping his tent fastidiously. The rest of us walked to the edge of the nearest billabong and shone a light into the red eyes of these armored, predatory beasts. It occurred to me that in America there would be tall fences and hyperbolic warnings preventing us from approaching them. Maybe that's what we have lost in the North, the ability to take your life into your own hands. If a tourist in Kakadu did wander into the jaws of a croc in the inky night, well, he was a "bloody Wally" (fool) and it's nobody's fault but his own.

The following morning we took a bone-shuddering track into Twin Falls. An hour of steep hiking and a tight squeeze down a narrow, 100-foot crack in the rock found us alone on a flat plateau, pitted with more swimming holes and overlooking yet another gorgeous canyon--Twin Falls. We descended and hiked toward the falls, ultimately accessible only by a long swim. No one ever said Shangri-La was easy to get to. Floating in that prehistoric gorge under a white-hot sun, I derived perverse pleasure at the thought of my fax machine running out of paper right about now and the people getting my "no can do" voice-mail message.

Toward sunset, we walked to Jim Jim Falls, the place where Dundee first laid a wet one on his Yank journalist. I was getting rather used to natural perfection by this point. Ho hum, another slice of paradise. I swam up the long, forest-banked lake to the base of the 705-foot falls, now bone dry. The "Wet" would start any day, and Jim Jim would gush again.

The drives were long and hot, but Paul benevolently broke them with stops to swim, eat, or educate us about the local snakes, frilled-necked lizards, wallabies, kangaroos, feral buffalo, horses and boars, "saltie" or "freshie" crocodiles (salties have the proclivity for human flesh), birds, and the 60 different species of mosquitoes in the Top End.

The final Kakadu morning we did the single touristy event of the trip--the Yellow Waters boat cruise. Whether you're there to taunt the flotilla of crocs, or more earnestly study the carnival of wetland bird life, it's a worthy investment of time. Swarming with gorgeous birds (my favorite being the enormous Jabir, an elegant bird that stands five feet tall), fish, water lilies, mangroves, and 62 other species of mammals, it's a nature watcher's Mecca.

Later that day, we reached the foot of Nawulandja, a jutting ridge with rocks as old as two billion years. We hiked up a blazing, shadeless rock face to look at Aboriginal rock art. Aborigines have been living in this area for at least 20,000, and up to 50,000, years; some of the paintings we saw were 15,000 years old. A warrior, a snake, or a Mimi (evil spirit) lived on the underside of an overhang, painted with pulverized minerals and gradually archived by the rock's natural silica.

At the top of Nawulandja, Paul took a willing few of us beneath the skin of the earth into a cool cave. Bent-wing bats rustled past within inches of our faces, their sonar preventing a blind, furry head-on. We slunk through the squeezes and tunnels, wary of slumbering serpents and finally emerging, Indiana Jones-style, via the roots of a fig tree.

As the merciless sun faded, we exited Kakadu and headed for Katherine Gorge, just south of the park. A series of 13 gorges extended for seven miles and we had two days to canoe as far as we saw fit. It was, again, majestic. Arched ocher cliffs sliced into temperate water, flowered trees lined the banks, and brilliant birds gossiped in the foliage. We canoed at a leisurely pace, leaving behind the few other tourists in the first three gorges, setting our tents up on the bank at night. There is no whitewater on the Katherine. It's still and flat, inducing the sort of meditative trance ashram attendees strive for years to attain. Between gorges, we had to portage the two-person canoes, slipping awkwardly on slimy rocks. I, however, had weaseled Paul as my boatmate; he single-handedly shouldered the canoe and strode across the divides. Chivalry is still alive in the bush.

The whole experience was the stimulating, relaxing escape I was looking for. It's tempting to sermonize about the imbalances of modern life in America, or about our loss of touch with nature, but all I will say is that such a trip does all those things best-selling self-help books try to. It forces you to take stock, it teaches you to appreciate, it helps you see that there are alternatives. In the erudite presence of Nature, all pretenses are exposed. It's hard to be vain when you haven't washed your hair in three days, and it's inappropriate to be arrogant when you're crawling through bat guano alongside students and CEOs. Above all, there's some bygone part of the brain that stirs when you're active and surrounded by nature. And it feels great.

Those of you who crave an escape from your fluorescent-lit lives, may I suggest you book passage immediately, before the Federal Express truck finds its way into the bush.

A native of New Zealand, Amanda Jones has lived in the United States for more than a decade. She now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is a freelance writer specializing in adventure travel.


Quantas flies from Los Angeles to Sydney and Sydney to Darwin every day of the week. For reservations and information call 1-800-227-4500. Their service is excellent.

Adventure Tours (all located in Darwin)
I traveled with All Terrain Tours. They specialize in adventure camping for the moderately hardy traveler. They are a larger company and have tours leaving daily in the dry season and, when required, in the wet. There is no need to book in advance of arrival, although it might be a good idea. Contact All Terrain in Australia. Phone: (61) 89- 410-070. Fax: (61) 89-813-053.

For those who want to do a very personalized walking trip, there is a fabulously bearded bush pundit by the name of Ian Hutton who will take you by four-wheel-drive vehicle and foot to some of the most remote areas. If you have a small group assembled, Ian will take custom trips. Contact Footprint Safaris in Australia. Phone: (61) 89-813-966. Fax: (61) 89-813-053. Prior bookings recommended.

For those who are squeamish about the thought of a tent, one luxury tour operator is Odyssey Safaris. You will stay in hotels throughout the tour and travel by air-conditioned vehicles. Phone: (61) 89-480-091. Fax: (61) 89-480-646.

The best time of year to go is between April and September. The coolest months are in June and July, with daytime temperatures of 85 degrees.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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