Young City, Ancient Dreaming
30 August 2011
While exploring this country, we keep running into travellers who put Darwin and nearby Kakadu on their schedule year after year. Many of them maintain that it's their favourite destination. So what local magic draws people back?
We picked a good time to visit Darwin: just when the Darwin Festival was offering insights into the arts and culture of The Top End via a range of displays and events. We found that Dancing in the Sand was fun to watch (and to join in, for the adventurous!) as dancers of all ages and abilities gyrated their way through Bollywood moves. On other nights, visitors could have a shot at dance styles ranging from hip-hop to swing. Mandinka Sound proved to be a popular concert, with its two vibrant West African acts.
And talking about culture, make the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory a 'must' on your list of places to visit. Museums can vary widely in size, presentation and quality. This one, at Bullocky Point on Darwin Harbour, is up near the top of the list.
It's beautifully laid out with five major galleries that allow you to wander through displays of Aboriginal art and craft, get fascinating glimpses into maritime archaeology, and explore Northern Territory history – including, of course, the mesmerising images from Cyclone Tracey. (Make sure you spend some time in the sound booth that reproduces the terrifying howling of the wind and the sound of iron roofing being hurled across the city as the cyclone struck: it really brings home the terror experienced by those who lived through it.)
From being immersed in art, culture and history at the Festival and the Museum, we moved on to another 'must' when you're in the Top End: looking a croc in the eye. Well, actually, we took very good care not to get too close to these creatures! There's a good reason for all those 'be croc-wise' warning signs in the NT: never take them for granted, or assume they won't be lurking in the water somewhere near you. We took the safe way out and visited Crocodyllus Park at Berrimah to learn more about crocodiles from those who live with them every day. We looked down from a safe height at one bad-tempered croc that now had a pen all to himself after he got cranky with his female partner and bit her head off. There's no love lost in the croc world: they battle to the death and will eat each other.
This fully functional crocodile farm serves a practical purpose as well as educational. You can splurge on crocodile skin handbags and giftware, and buy croc meat to cook. We took the cheap way out – we left the croc handbags where they were, and snapped up some croc kebabs to sample for dinner back at the caravan park.
There's no shortage of opportunities to view crocs in this part of the country, so we moved from observation of crocs in a park to watching them in action in the NT rivers on the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise. Hearing those jaws snap closed on a chunk of meat just a few feet from your elbow makes you resolve anew that no matter how hot it gets, there's no way you're going to cool off with a dip in the croc-infested waters of the Northern Territory!
It was quite a relief to move from evil-eyed crocs to the peaceful activity of feeding the fish at Aquascene. You're quite welcome to walk down the ramp and wade in up to your knees to feed the fish that rush in to be fed (bread is provided as part of the entry fee). One fellow traveller back at the Free Spirit Park in Darwin told us he loved the way you could actually run your hand along the back of the fish as they came in to feed. "Better than therapy," he said with a happy nod. (Quick note: no, you can't take your fishing rod!)
From Aquascene, it was on to the world-famous Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. These markets feature art, craft, music and a fantastic range of food stalls. Take your chairs to the beach along with your beverage of choice, and buy tasty snacks or a satisfying meal to eat on the beach while you watch the sun sink slowly below the horizon. Silhouetted against the brilliant red sky are the hundreds of people who flock to the beach to watch the sight. So popular are these busy markets that you may even (as we did) bump into a few folks from back home!
But of course, you don't want to spend all your time in the city. Kakadu beckons: beautiful, majestic, rugged Kakadu. The park area covers a huge 20,000 square kilometres and is the home to a staggering variety of reptiles, birds, insects, fish and of course vegetation.
Kakadu is managed jointly by the National Parks and its Aboriginal traditional owners, and Aboriginal shelters, tools, paintings and cultural sites stretching back over many thousands of years are located throughout the park. The park is World Heritage listed and is a must-see for anyone visiting the Top End.
We stayed at Gagudju Lodge at Cooinda, and made a beeline for the Bowali Visitor Centre to find out more about where we could go and what to see. We decided that the Ubirr Art Site was a must, and headed off to find out more about rock art – and to make the climb to the top of the lookout, to gaze in awe over the sprawling Nardab floodplain. This is one of the most popular viewing sites within the park, and when you get there you'll easily recognise it from documentaries that have been used to promote the area. (Word of warning: the wet season will affect access to Ubirr, so travellers should check the road reports before making the trip.)
It's now necessary to pay a small fee (some exemptions do apply so check with rangers when entering the park) to visit Kakadu National Park because the park needs to cover costs to maintain its services. The permit covers 14 days and visitors can join tours where guides give talks and insights into the meaning of Aboriginal rock art. You can choose park ranger guided tours or from one of the numerous tours conducted by commercial operators.
Tours can range from several hours to several days, and there are plenty of slide shows on offer too. The choice is as varied as the area itself. (Kassey, a well-travelled camper we chatted to at Katherine, told us that the part of Kakadu that really appealed to her was Gunlom. She went for a few days, was immediately struck by the 'special' feeling of the place, and ended up staying for six weeks.)
Unless you have an understanding of the Aboriginal rock art, it's best to take one of the free guided tours. Here you'll learn about the different forms and styles of paintings, including the materials used, what is depicted, the age of drawings and other enlightening facts about this art. You'll also hear about the Mimi Spirits, who reportedly had a great deal of influence in where the paintings were located.
We'd heard from several fellow travellers about the beauty of the Yellow Water cruise (more crocs, of course, but also amazing insights into bird life and the cycle of season in the wetlands) and this was a beautiful, peaceful way to end the day.
What a contrast from sunset at Mindil Markets, with crowds of others sharing the experience, to being present at the day's end at Yellow Water with a few fellow travellers on a slow-moving boat. The dying rays of the sun bathed the glassy water in golden light, while flocks of birds wheeled in and settled for the night.
The whole river cruise was a special experience, with a guide who was an inexhaustible source of knowledge about the wetlands and wildlife.
There's nothing better than someone who is not only well informed, but plainly enthusiastic about his subject. Our guide could spot a kingfisher or a crocodile snout at 500 paces, and was happy to manoeuvre the boat to give everyone memorable photos of the day.
One of our favourite memories was the graceful Jabiru picking its way along in the shallows in the waning light. This water sanctuary is home to an incredible one third of all Australian bird species – a bird-watcher's paradise.
So far, our trip around Australia has been characterised by longing backward glances and a sighed "I wish I could stay longer/explore further…" as we realise, yet again, that our time is up in the current magical location – this time, Darwin and Kakadu.
But… you know what? Underpinning that familiar feeling of regret that it's time to go is (inevitably) a growing sense of anticipation for the joys yet to come. And that, fellow travellers, is the essence of exploring our wonderful country. There's always the next destination to look forward to.
Life on the road is truly a banquet.
• Wave Lagoon, waterfront precinct
• Deckchair outdoor cinema
• Mindil Beach Markets
• Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory
• Wharf precinct
• Tour of Government House (subject to opening schedules)
• Kakadu Park Ranger guided tours
INFORMATION DARWIN VISITOR INFORMATION CENTRE
Corner of Smith & Bennett Street, Darwin City (08) 8980 6000
Darwin: www.australia.com/destinations/ cities/darwin.aspx
Northern Territory: Darwin and Surrounds
Australian Government National Parks – Kakadu National Park
BOWALI VISITOR CENTRE
Kakadu National Park PO Box 71, Jabiru NT 0886
Tel: (08) 8938 1120 Fax:
(08) 8938 1123
• Sunset over Mindil Beach on market days
• Lookout at Ubirr
• Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory
• Yellow Water cruise
WHERE WE STAYED DARWIN
901 Stuart Highway Berrimah NT 0828
(08) 8935 0888
GAGUDJU LODGE COOINDA, KAKADU NATIONAL PARK
Kakadu Highway Jim Jim NT 0886
(08) 89 79 0145
HOW TO GET THERE
Darwin At the end of the Stuart Highway. All roads lead onto the highway and will take you into the city.
From Darwin CBD Follow Stuart Highway south for approximately 40km and take the turnoff along the Arnhem Highway and follow for approximately 220km taking you to Jabiru. The road is blacktop all the way, is well formed, and offers numerous passing opportunities. Take care of road trains that service the area. From Katherine Travel north along Stuart Highway to Pine Creek approximately 90km and take the turnoff into the park via Kakadu Highway. Cooinda is approximately 160km from the turnoff. The road is sealed all the way and is well formed. There are numerous stretches to allow for safe overtaking.
WORDS BY MARG & ROB MCALISTER PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRETT SHEARER