38. Australia Road Trip: Darwin and the Survival of the Fittest
The Top End
Darwin, largest city and administrative capital of the Northern territory
The Road to Darwin
From Katherine to Darwin is just over 300kms and at last our Winnebago behaves herself all the way. The landscape beyond Katherine changes – there are hills and strange rocky outcrops bulging out of the bush. At Adelaide River, a pleasant little town about two thirds of the way along, we stop, fill up and have lunch in the shade of tall gum trees. As we approach Darwin the traffic increases and for the first time in a couple of thousand of kilometres of driving we don’t feel like the only buggers on the road. Signs along the way indicate the sites of World War II airbases and runways - Darwin was heavily bombed by the Japanese during the war, one of the few places on the Australian mainland to receive such treatment. Finally we enter the outskirts of the city and I am truly amazed at how suburban and civilised it all looks.
I had envisaged the Northern Territory towns as being quite rustic and “outbacky”, not the semi-modern collection of houses that we have seen in Tennant Creek, Katherine and now Darwin. We drive right into the city centre and I’m even more amazed. There are modern glass panelled high rises, and busy streets that could easily be a slice of Sydney, or Melbourne. There is a large pedestrianised shopping precinct and trendy bars in abundance too.
Then I remember - Darwin was not only bombed in the War, but was literally flattened, almost wiped of the face of the earth, by Cyclone Tracy in 1976. That is why all the old, characterful establishments have disappeared - they were either blown up or blown away. We park and go to the big Visitors Centre to check out things to do and places to stay. It’s a drag, but there are no caravan parks or camp grounds near the city centre and we can’t afford to stay in a hotel, having blown our budget for this part of the trip in the Katherine Motel. However, The curiously named Leprechaun Caravan Park and Camping Ground is about 6kms back down the highway. It’s a bit of a rundown, overgrown place but to be honest, it is great to be parked up in Winnie, living next to a slab* like nature intended. It’s very hot of course but our pitch is shady and we spend the rest of the afternoon doing what we do best – relaxing.
(*Slab - a slab of concrete in a caravan park that you park next to and put your camp table etc on. Sounds bad but often the bare ground is muddy, full of burrs or crawling with ants.)
Darwin has an efficient, modern bus service and the next morning we catch the number 29 into town. We get off a few stops before the city centre and walk through suburbs and parkland to the City’s museum. This is a great place, full of art, antiquities, a maritime section and the fabulous Cyclone Tracy Room which even has a booth where you can listen to an actual recording of the howling banshee that is a category five tropical cyclone… we’ve been there and done that, thinking of our own Cyclone Larry experience.
Darwin is not bad – our timing, as usual, is. We are about two weeks too early in the season to enjoy the famous Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, which is disappointing as we can see how much fun that would be on a balmy tropical spring evening with colourful stalls, exotic foods and Top End ambience. Darwin is surrounded by bright blue tropical water and the smell of the sea air, the cooling breeze that wafts across the stifling land, the sound of sea birds - it’s all very pleasant. Shame it has to end because there is still a lot of Australia left that we have to explore. That evening we have some fabulous South East Asian food, a great laksa in particular, at a smart restaurant in the city, followed by a few cold ones in a couple of the bars on busy Mitchell Street. I would definitely return to Darwin, making sure it was the right time of year, especially to catch the Markets.
The travelling bug quickly kicks in again - after our enforced stay in Katherine we are anxious to explore new ground. Before we leave I visit a big music shop where I purchase a decent quality Aria guitar for Myleen in Katherine.
Looking for adventure again
Land of the reptiles
Can't go to Kakadu? will Humptydoo do?
The next morning we leave Darwin, driving first to a spot on the lower reaches of the Adelaide River to watch the famous Jumping Crocs. We would like to keep going on this road and take the 500km detour through the Kakadu National Park, one of the Territory’s must-see attractions, but as nature would have it, the whole Kakadu region is too flooded to explore, and we don’t do floods anymore, especially in a wilderness area like Kakadu.
At least the road out to Kakadu from Darwin is tar-sealed for the first stretch, enabling us to reach the Adelaide River without any problems. In fact, it is a beautiful day, clear and remarkably fresh for a change, though still very hot. We pass through an agricultural region of avocado and mango plantations, past the quaintly named town of Humptydoo, and finally onto a gravel road that winds for some kilometres across a dry flood plain ending up in a dusty car park next to an open sided shed which serves as the base for the Jumping Crocs Tour.
At the back of the shed there is a boardwalk that leads through mangroves to a pontoon dock on the broad, slow moving river. We are early, but as the clock ticks by, more and more people arrive until there is about 30 of us waiting for the tour to begin. While we are hanging about, a large goanna emerges from the mangroves and walks up to the waiting area where it is photographed and gawped at. Eventually the boat arrives back at the dock and offloads a rather disappointed looking group of passengers, apparently they didn’t see any crocs jumping on their tour. We remain optimistic and buy our tickets, but before we board the boat some of us get to handle a large snake – why not? Then we are herded on board the double-decked river craft and are soon chugging across the river.
The bloke driving the boat gives us a humorous commentary over the tannoy, filling us in on crocodile lore and Territory customs while his wife, a fit looking blonde woman dressed in shorts, boots and a bush hat, emerges from a cupboard with the croc bait.
Highly sophisticated it is too – a big chunk of red meat tied to a stick by a piece of string. She moves onto a small pulpit that sticks out the side of the vessel and starts “fishing for crocs” with the piece of meat. Her husband meanwhile, is telling us how many teeth a fully grown salt water crocodile has, and how it looses teeth and regrows them regularly and how it can eat children and then as if on cue, one appears off the starboard bow.
“Ooh, here comes a big salty ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “He’s a beaut!” You can just hear in the guy’s voice that he loves doing this - he is an undiscovered, slightly droll Steve Erwin. We tourists are all crowding at the side watching the log-like croc drift up to the boat, eyeing the dangling meat above it. Then just like it says on the brochure, it jumps into the air - a good length length of its body leaves the water - and it grabs hold of the meat, and we get to see its teeth and then it splashes into the river and I reckon right there we get our money’s worth. But it doesn’t end; the blonde Crocodile Dundee sheila attracts three more big crocs, one of them about four metres long; she toys with the meat above its head until with a swift swoosh - up it goes and takes the steak. This is a great tourist attraction which I would thoroughly recommend – but don’t try feeding crocs on your own, they can be killers.
Crocs on film
Beautiful, cool Litchfield
Litchfield NP: A Crocodile-free zone
In lieu of going to Kakadu we head to the so called “Poor Man’s Kakadu” - Litchfield National Park. It is reckoned that everything you get in Kakadu you get in Litchfield but in a convenient, easily accessible area, as opposed to the squillion square kilometres that is Kakadu. We leave the Jumping Crocs after the tour, fully satisfied that we have seen crocodiles in the wild, and head back the the Stuart Highway. Litchfield National Park is off the highway in the direction of a place called Rum Jungle, one of Australia’s main uranium mining areas. This really is a crazy part of the world - Uranium, giant lizards, and electric blondes who tease jumping crocodiles with meat. Litchfield attractions include a number of spectacular waterfalls and some good swimming opportunities in pristine, crocodile-free waterholes. We camp the night in a very lovely, rustic caravan park on the road into the Park. There is even a gourmet restaurant here – in the form of an open sided shelter with a tin roof, a bar and a menu that includes excellent Barramundi and chips. During our meal that night the rain chucks it down, clattering noisily on the corrugated tin roof, but it is not monsoon heavy and mainly serves to take the edge of the ever present heat and humidity.
Litchfield can be explored in a day, though you can allow much more time if you plan to bush walk and see everything. The highlight is Florence Falls where we walk down a giant wooden staircase into the canyon. There are dozens of people down there swimming in the cool waters at the base of the cascade. The water rushes over the cliffs and collects in a large clear pool. In the heat of the day it is luxurious, and you can swim around the edge of the cliffs till you are directly under the flume of the falls, fantastic. After a long refreshing swim, we walk back to the car park along a marked bush trail that follows a subsidiary creek of absolutely crystal-clear water. The path is shady and the air is still and quiet except for the drone of cicadas, and the faint roar of the falls.
A fabulous read - An Australian classic by Xavier Herbert
A film of the classic novel
Cyclone Tracy - The Movie
Nicholas Roeg's classic outback allegory starring Jenny Agutter and David Gulpillil
A film set in a traditional aboriginal community
I'm sorry, but I must include this classic... but only the first film, NOT the diabolical sequels
The ultimate Pig Hunting Horror film
Cane Toads - you gotta love 'em
The Pig Hunters and the Toad Racers
From Litchfield we head south, the first time we have travelled in this direction since we left Sydney in February. We are heading south, but only as far as our old mate Katherine. I have the brand new guitar to deliver to Myleen from the Motel, and we are looking forward to seeing those people with whom we braved the flood. A week spent in an isolated town like Katherine feels a lot longer, and we came to know the place, just a bit, as we shared a challenging but intimate part of its history.
During the afternoon drive, massive downpours sweep across the land raising a niggling fear of more floods. There is even thunder and lightning to add to our apprehension. Suddenly the civilisation of Darwin and the relatively benign wilderness of Litchfield are far behind us as I realise we are once again in the middle of nowhere with monsoon rain falling all about. However, it amounts to nothing and in the late afternoon we reach the small town of Pine Creek, about 90kms north of Katherine. There is a caravan park here with a tavern attached, the perfect accommodation in my books. The tavern itself is unique insofar as it is log-framed and tin-roofed with adobe mud bricks making up some of its walls. The front of the building itself has no walls at all. It is a higgledy-piggledy sort of place and is run by the sort of character you might read about in a book of Territorian Mythology, if one existed. (It does - try Capricornia by Xavier Herbert).
We park out front, walk up to the pub and the bloke says, “How ya goin?”
“Awright thanks mate,” says we, “A powered site for the night if that's alright mate,”
“No worries,” says he, “We got pig hunters tho’, you OK with dogs?”
The Pig Hunters are up from somewhere in Queensland. They comprise of a large group of men and in some cases their wives and even their kids. They all drive hard looking 4x4s – mostly Hilux utes. On the tray they keep cages for their dogs. The dogs are not gentle Golden Retrievers, like our Bonnie back home. They are Aussie pitbulls, feral kelpies and ragged blue heelers on steroids. The hunters all fancy themselves as Hard Men. They are all Hard Men. There are rifles in the lockers on the trucks and Bowie knives or bayonets are worn in leather sheaths. They are totally Hard and totally committed to hunting feral pigs, They even read magazines like the authoritative “Bacon,” which has a centrefold pin-up of a scantily clad chick, usually packing a .303 while posing provocatitively next to a huge, freshly killed feral hog. Hard.
Anyway, the Pig Hunters are seriously dug in around the park with campsites that look semi-permanent, though I discover they are mostly just guys from the cities who do this as a hobby, spending two or three weeks a year camping and hunting in the Northern bush. The caravan park itself is a bit rundown and in need of repair. The toilet/shower block appears to be undergoing renovation as the Women’s half of the mud brick and tin building is shut, forcing the Ladies to share facilities with the men.
Sheila is not over the moon at the prospect of showering with a bloodied pig hunter in the cublicle next door, while another has a dump in the dunny across the aisle. As for me I’m visualising myself walking in on a pig hunter’s wife as she gently shaves her legs in the sink with her husband’s bayonet . None of these scenarios talk place, though we do have to share cubicles with large green frogs and the usual haze of flying insects.
In the evening, we wander up to the tavern for a slice of fair-dinkum outback pub action. It’s pretty tame compared to my experiences in the Animal Bar in Karumba back in the 80s, but the Cane Toad Race is enough to remind us that civilisation is a long way from Pine Creek.
Here’s how the Race works. The Landlord’s 10 year old son has spent the day collecting toads from around the park. The Landlord stands in a chalk circle on the floor and shouts a lot of noise as he plucks huge toads from a box and takes bets from the punters (punters = pig hunters) who wave cash around excitedly. Then the toads are released in the chalk circle and the first one to hop out of the ring wins. It is that simple and that stupid. The losing toads, and the winner for that matter, get put in a plastic bin bag. We sit back from the action so we don’t inadvertently get roped into doing anything, but we can see the bin bag bouncing and bumping about as the toads inside are presumably trying to escape as they are suffocating. We leave before the bag stops bouncing, there is nothing we can do.
There is a Cane Toad information leaflet circulating in the tropical outback. The leaflet warns of the toads’ poison and the fact that it is a plague that needs to be eradicated. There is even a bounty on the blighters. The leaflet does however, tell how to dispatch the hapless creatures humanely. The friendly euthanasia method involves a freezer and a long wait while the near indestructible amphibians die of old age while hibernating in the cold, or something like that. It stand to reason that neither our landlord, nor the Pig Hunters would bother with such gentle, PC methods of execution – turn them into sport, use ‘em as golf balls. Play cricket with ‘em; exterminate them.
Next morning we are out of Pine Creek promptly and accomplish the 91km journey to Katherine in just over an hour, one of our easiest day’s drives off the entire trip. We head to the motel first thing where we say hello to Greg, Enzo and Nick, and hand over the Guitar to Myleen. Then, after making arrangements to meet up later with Nick and Chef, we check in to a Caravan Park on the west side of town and spend the first part of the day doing laundry and sorting ourselves out. After that we meet the others at the RSL Club where we play pool and pokies until late in the afternoon. We say our farewells and wander back to camp. Tomorrow is going to be a big day. We are heading west on the Victoria Highway, first destination - Kununarra, Western Australia - over 500 lonely kilometres away. There is of course, only one thought on my mind – will we make it?