The "Top End" - Darwin, Kakadu and Katherine

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Friday, May 23, 2008

After a few days back in Cairns we head to the airport for our flight to Darwin where we are spending the next 10 days.  On board the plane,  we are advised by the pilot to change our watches by putting them back half an hour!!  Why the Northern Territories should be half an hour different from the rest of the world, I am not quite sure!

Darwin, although it is the capital of the Northern Territories, is still quite a small town an there doesn't appear to be a great deal here apart from businesses geared towards the tourist industry.   We are staying at Globetrotters Youth Hostel right in the city centre.  This place has a wide variety of guests, old, young and from many different countries.  The place itself is a a dump with windows held in by sellotape, air-con that barely functions and is in general run down and is not even particularly cheap. We are booked in for 2 nights and a third for our last night in the NT.  The first thing we do is to cancel our last night!

All things considered, we are underwhelmed by Darwin city so we are pleased when we pick up our rental car, a 4WD Nissan Xtrail, from Budget car rental and head off to the supermarket to stock up with supplies for our trip into the Outback and set off into  Crocodile Dundee country and our first stop in Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu is yet another World Heritage Area and is one of the top National Parks in the Top End and indeed the whole of Australia. It is renowned for having one of the finest and most extensive collections of aboriginal rock art in the world.  Being a National Park it also protects a range of habitats including one of the largest wetlands areas in the world.

We were visiting at the beginning of "The Dry"  when much of the park is driveable, unlike "The Wet" when much of the park is under water.  The drive from Darwin is mostly through plains of Savanna woodland  which stretch for some 270kms.  During the drive we see no more than a handful of cars which brings home to us how very big and how sparsely populated this country really is. (And we were on the main(and only)  highway that leads south to Alice Springs.   The advice which is hammered home to everybody travelling in the outback is to take lots and lots of water, fill up with petrol and if you do break down stay with your car (although there is really nowhere you can walk to anyway!!).  The drive reminds us of parts of Africa we have visited, although the vegetation is very different.  It is very dry and it is difficult to imagine that in the wet, much of the area (i.e. thousnds of Sq Kms) the  will be under water (as is indicated by the depth markers at the side of the road).  Many of the 4WD vehicles here have snorkles fitted so they can drive through the water!

The road is dead straight for much of the journey which makes for a bit of a boring drive in fact a bend in the road is a welcome bit of excitement! Although we don't see any live Kangaroos ones, we do see lots of dead ones on the road which have been hit by cars. They are usually easy to spot in the distance as they are usually covered by hordes of scavenging birds having their lunch! 

It was quite amusing to read the road signs,  One of the first told us the next town was in 270 kms and the one after that in 1479km!   Other signs told of overtaking lanes that were coming up in 20kms, or a shop/petrol pump in 80km. The over taking lanes are important although there is very little traffic.

After 3-4 hours we arrive in Jabiru and our Youth Hostel for the next 3 days.  What a difference to Darwin! This place has just about everything we could want.  Our room is in a building with 5 others with a central shared kitchen, is very clean and spacious with air-con that works, our own fridge and even a TV!  In fact, Lakeview Park seems less like a Youth Hostel and much more like a holiday park with self contained cabins, space for campers, and caravan facilities. Jabiru is a very, very small town and its proximity to the Uranium mine is probably is main reason for being.  We follow the signs to the Town Centre which consists of a supermarket (we are the only shoppers), a bakery and a post office. We buy a few bits and ask for directions to the bottle shop and the assistant looks at us as if we are mad and tells us that this is a dry area.  Being aboriginal owned land, alchohol cannot be sold on its own but only in the very small number of tourist accommodation  (nearest being 2 hour drive away) or the local licensed bar.  We really fancy a cold beer after the long drive but after a quick look at the Jabiru Sports and Social Club we decide that the bottle of wine we brought from Darwin will suffice after all!
There is a big, big  problem with alcoholism here. Some towns nearer the bush are even designated as totally "Dry" areas where alcohol is totally illegal (even to the extent of driving through the town with a bottle of beer in the car is an offence). We head back to the hostel and cook our Kangaroo kebabs for dinner.  They were delicious and apparently a  really healthy meat too. 

Before starting our exploration of the Kakadu National Park we head off to the Bowali Visitor Centre to find our information on the park, which included details on the walking trails, where to find aboriginal art and, most importantly, how to avoid being eaten by the crocodiles in the area

Our first small walk is in the Nourlangie area, up to a lookout point.  We walk up a rocky hillside in the scorching heat of 34degrees.  It is hard work even though it is a relatively short walk, but the effort was worth it -  we can see for miles and miles of uninterrupted outback that is quite breathtaking(both physically and mentally).    

Our next walk is much easier and takes us along a trail, to a place called Anbangbang Gallery,  an area of  outstanding  aboriginal art, drawn/painted  straight on to the rocks and dating back (so they say) 50,000 years.   It looks much newer than that to us and I find out that the aboriginals simply paint over the top over the years.
The artwork is always placed under rocky overhangs and in darkened caves which is how it has survived so long.  We see many examples of rock art over the next few days including paintings of animals that are now extinct, aboriginal rituals and the first contact between Europeans and Aboriginals (about 300 years ago).
We are lucky enough to visit the two most impressive art sites in Australia of Nourlangie and Ubirr.   These show dreamtime Mimi spirit figures, including Namagon "The Lightening Man" who cracks open clouds with axes attached to his head and knees which create lightening.  We also see X-Ray figures of Barramudi Fish and Turtles and boastful man figures with Yams.   It is divided into 4 distinct styles  35,000-50,000 years old, which is Pre-esturine, 7,000-9,000 years old which are the X-Ray styles, the Freshwater period which includes the billabong scenes, dating back 1,000 years and the newest pictures (less than 1,000 years old!)  which tell of the Europeans arriving and the advent of guns and shoes.   

We climb  to the top of Ubirr for what we are promised to be a beautiful sunset.   It is a stunning view, but we leave just before sunset to take advantage of the light for some stunning photo opportunities on the way back down and to drive back before it get too dark, as we have seen too many squashed kangaroos on the road and we are not supposed be outside of city limits after dark in the hire car.

The next day we checked out the Mamukala Walk, another excellent bushwalk trail alongside some wetlands in Kakadu, (this time for the nature rather than the artwork).  I don't know who was more surprised, us our teh family of kangaroos we ran into on the trail a few minutes after starting out! Only the second sighting of live ones since we have been here. The birdlife was also prolific and varied in this area with Bee-eaters, a nesting Eagle and many parakeets, Jabirus and Herons.
After all the walking and hiking and scrambling up to lookout points, we decide to have one easier day and take a cruise on the Yellow River at Jim Jim Creek and the South Alligator River.  This was really interesting as the guide was able to point out the names for all the birds we have previously seen on our walks here and tell us a bit about them.  The cruise started at a croc-infested billabong and lasted 2 hours. As we cruised around  we were able to spot many animals and birds including White Egrets - which are a protected species, crocodiles -  which are capable of eating humans, Whistling Ducks - which neither swim nor quack, Magpie Geese - known as the best bush-tucker by the aborigines and Jabiroos - whose beaks are strong enough to crack a turtle shell.

After three busy days in Kakadu National Park, we drive south to Katherine and another national park, known as Nimiluk.   We stay here at a place called All Seasons, a motel style accommodation.  Katherine is a small town, which has some hot springs and good access to many of the park trails.  We walk to Bukbukluk lookout and Ikaymarrow lookout.  We also see some of the massive termite mounds for which the area is famed as we drive the 200kms between the two towns. 

Our days in this area give us time to trek to a good lookout point for Katherine gorge (the hottest trek ever!) and a rather longer bush walk of about 9km up to and beyond Edith Falls.  Edith Falls was our favourite as the bush was a more varied terrain and included a couple of croc free water holes which were safe to swim in.  On the way back Carolyn had a swim at the last waterfall along the creek.  A perfect way to cool off. 

We intended to spend a few days in Lichfield National Park on our way back to Darwin, but we found the main town (sneeze and you really do miss it), and everywhere was either full, really expensive or really grim with shared bathrooms/bedrooms.  We carried on the long drive back to Darwin (only to find that everywhere here was also  full, really expensive or grim!  However with a little help from Tourist Info, we found a nice (but noisy and still quite expensive  at $120) place to stay, called Ashton Lodge. Nice, but at around 8.00 we noticed the giant TV screen outside the bedroom window as the bar downstairs started the nights coverage of the Queensland v NWS Rugby match.  Not exactly a quiet night!! 
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