A cheap Jetstar flight from Melbourne to Darwin, carry-on only, was the motivator for a quick getaway. The baggage limit would be no problem as this was the end of the Dry – as the season from May to October is called up there – and we would only need a few light clothes. The Wet (November to April) was soon to start, so the weather would be very muggy and hot.
We arrived in Darwin in the evening and took a taxi to our hotel in the city. There was no time for a look around as we had an early start the next morning. I had booked a four day tour with a local company and we would be picked up from our hotel at about 6:30am. There was going to be a lot of travelling each day in the coach, so we had no time to waste.
Next morning our coach arrived – a rather basic looking bus, really – with only one other tourist aboard. It seems like this time of the year was not very popular for tourism, and with good reason as we discovered.
First stop only an hour or so down the road to Litchfield National Park was to admire the Magnetic Termite Mounds. Up to 100 years old and up to 2 metres in height, these termite homes are built with their thin edges pointing north-south and their widest sides facing east-west. This ingenious technique allows the termites to regulate the temperature inside. Shortly before our visit the area had been scoured by a grassfire, leaving the land scorched black, while the mounds stood out in stark contrast like the granite standing stones we had seen in parts of Europe.
Other termite mounds scattered throughout the open savannah woodland stand from about 4m to 7m in height. These are known as Cathedral Termite Mounds, and like the Magnetic ones, are made using the saliva, sand and faeces of the insects themselves. Over time, as the colony grows, so does the size of the mound. The termites feed on cut up grass stalks and store them around the outer chambers of the mound. As the grass is used up, the termites fill the outer chambers with soil and start again on the next level.
Litchfield is filled with waterfalls and waterholes, such as the Tolmer, Wangi and Florence Falls and the Buley Rock Hole. The Tolmer Falls are meant to be the most spectacular, falling over two escarpments and into a deep plunge pool. We took the rocky loop walk from the car park down to pool, stopping at the two lookouts along the way. Unfortunately at the end of the Dry, the volume of water is not so great, so by the time it reached the pool it was just a trickle! From there we checked out the Wangi Falls, which were not much better. The Florence Falls did create a worthwhile display so we set off down the creek for a dip in the Buley Rock Hole to cool off in the 40 ̊C heat. Then it was time to set off for Katherine three hours away, for our first night stop.
The big attraction at Katherine is the Gorge, in the Nitmiluk National Park. Our morning was filled with a river cruise through the dramatic sandstone gorge, combined with a walk alongside the river to see some Aboriginal rock art, then back to the boat for the return trip.
The Nitmiluk Park contains 13 gorges, Katherine Gorge being the most well known. Nitmiluk is the name the traditional owners of the land, the Jawoyn people, call Katherine Gorge. It literally means Cicada Place. There are many Aboriginal rock art paintings on the sandstone walls throughout the gorge system, some of which are thousands of years old. During this tour we learned about traditions, stories, ceremonies and the significance of the land from a local guide.
On the way back to Katherine, we visited the Top Didj Cultural Experience & Art Gallery, where local indigenous artist Manuel Pamkal told us stories of life in the bush and taught us how to do bark painting using a reed brush, fire lighting with two sticks and try spear throwing with a woomera. Then it was off to the Katherine Hot Springs, for a not so refreshing dip in the warm waters.
Next morning we were off on the road early bound for Kakadu. Before leaving the Nitmiluk area we stopped at Edith Falls, a deep pool fringed by pandanus palms and high cliffs, for a last walk and swim. There would be no more creek swimming beyond here, due to the presence of freshwater crocodiles. We were advised that it was safe at the time, but crocodiles have been seen in nearby waterways since then!
Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park, covering a staggering 20,000sqkm. A long three-hour trip lay ahead through Pine Creek and Mary River to Cooinda, the home of the Yellow Water Billabong. Finally there, on a sunset cruise through the billabong and tributaries of the South Alligator River, we saw a large variety of birds and wetland vegetation such as huge pink flowered waterlilies, as well as the main attraction – crocodiles – in and by the side of the river.
The last day of the tour, we headed out for Nourlangie Rock. There a local ranger guided us on a 1.5km walk past dozens of rock shelters where the World Heritage listed indigenous Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) art works could be seen. The gallery of paintings documents life in the region from 20,000 years ago to the first contact with European explorers. We were also fortunate to get a glimpse of the Black Wallaroo, known only in this area of Australia.
The site at Ubirr hosts some of the world’s most outstanding rock art and is one of the reasons for Kakadu’s dual World Heritage status as it records some of the first interactions with non-Aboriginal people. Most of them are x-ray paintings up to 1,500 years old. They show the foods available in the area, including fish, waterfowl, mussels, wallabies, goanna, echidnas and yams. There is even a painting of a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) proving its existence here 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
A 1km circular track took us past the rock art sites before a steep 250m climb to a rocky lookout across the Nadab floodplain to the escarpment of Arnhem Land in the east. Since we had no permit to enter and our tour was out of time anyway, we set off back to Darwin, three hours away. It had been 45̊C for the last two days and neither our accommodation nor the bus had managed sufficiently to combat the heat and humidity. We were looking forward to an efficiently air conditioned hotel room!
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