The Top End Down Under
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The Top End Down Under
By Amanda Jones
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Adventure Tours (all located in Darwin)
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
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.
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