|View of the Nadab floodplain from Ubirr lookout|
It was on a whim that I decided to fly the family to Darwin, Australia when we were in Singapore last August. The flight would take less than 5 hours and August was the dry season which would mean good accessibility to most of the sights in the National Parks, not to forget less risk of encountering crocodiles.
For a number of years now we like to combine nature, food and culture in our holidays and I've always wanted to visit UNESCO-listed Kakadu National Park where the Aboriginal people are said to inhabit for more than 40000 years. We also prefer to self-drive and visiting Darwin during the dry season is essential for that. We started our stay in Darwin with a bit of drama as Hub had left his credit cards behind in Singapore (being used to traveling empty-handed when he's with me) and Budget refused to rent us the car we had reserved because of that. We spent a frightening 30 minutes trying to find an alternative and must commend the lady at Thrifty for her kindness when she discovered the shit we were in. She agreed to rent us a car using my credit card (though Hub would do the driving) and even found us the car we wanted for a slightly higher price than Budget. Whew!
|George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens|
We were dead tired actually having arrived before 6am in Darwin. Drove out to the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens for a walk after breakfast as it was too early to check into our hotel. The grounds were not too big, but the gardens were lovely and it was interesting seeing houses built over void decks. I imagine it was to survive the flooding and crocodiles swimming around during wet season.
With the car rental fiasco we missed watching the sun rise at Mindil Beach, but left the kids to play on the sand while we checked out the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery (MAGNT). It was a small gallery, but we learnt some interesting facts about Cyclone Tracy that devastated much of Darwin and also learnt about Aboriginal art, the NT being the traditional homeland for many of the Aborigines in Australia.
|Mindil Beach and Stokes Hill Wharf neighbourhood|
Darwin is a very small and expensive city and I was initially quite shocked to discover the cost of accommodation as I was planning the trip. However, as we only had a full day and night to spend in the city, I booked us 2 rooms at the Palms City Resort just in front of the esplanade. It was within walking distance to most places including Stokes Hill Wharf where there were wave pools, restaurants and a food court selling different types of food including seafood, Thai and Indian. For dinner, we bought wonderful meat and wine from a nearby supermarket and had a BBQ by the hotel's pool.
|Magnetic Termite Mounds, Litchfield Park.|
The next morning we set out for Litchfield Park which while not as famous as Kakadu is really well worth a visit. You reach the Magnetic Termite mounds first and these cathedral mounds were fascinating as many were taller than us and you learn about the ecosystems, the respect the traditional people have for nature, for their land. Apparently blind worker ants used their inbuilt magnetic compass to orientate their mounds in a North-South direction to keep out the heat, hence the term magnetic termite mounds. Ironically I would discover a huge termite problem in my current rental home just after and I can assure you I didn't take to them kindly and was hell bent on their extermination, no way I wanted any mounds in my house or garden.
|Florence Falls, Litchfield Park.|
We drove further inland and reached Florence Falls where we walked some distance to enjoy a picnic lunch followed by a beautiful swim in the pools beneath the falls. I was just a little bit insulted when some Australians stopped by where we were eating to remind us to carry our rubbish with us. Much as I appreciated their concern, I felt that there was no need for us to be patronised, especially when we were not throwing anything around us.
During the dry season, it's easier to drive around on one's own as well as access pools where crocodiles would have been cleared out so that it would be safe to swim in them. But the rule remains that you don't swim in any body of water if there are no signs telling you it may be safe to do so.
|Buley Rockhole (top middle) and Tolmer Falls Lookout|
After our swim (the skies were blue and we didn't have a drop of rain during our week there so an occasional swim was always welcome to help beat the heat), we continued walking and reached the Tolmer Falls lookout before finishing at Buley Rockhole which was near where we parked our car. The Tolmer Falls area was breathtakingly beautiful and we were pleased to discover that though it was peak tourist season in the NT there were still not that many people around no matter where you went. What a change from China!
|Litchfield Safari Camp|
I have decided to stay overnight in the park so that we would be able to start our next morning at the Cascades. Also, I thought it would be fun for us to stay in a Safari Camp for a change, while still having access to our own private toilet and shower. If you are looking for a budget holiday and do not have your own tent or caravan, forget the NT. We had to pay a small fortune to stay in this tent while being eaten alive by mosquitoes and freezing to death in the middle of the night. But it was quite fun just to have done it once and we even had a BBQ in front of our tent with supplies from the camp's little store.
|The Cascades, Litchfield Park.|
You don't walk/climb your way to the Cascades in tongs or slippers. It was still quite a walk in and the ground was rocky and slippery, but if you were there early in the morning before the tourist buses arrive, you would probably have the pools all to yourselves (hence a good idea to stay in Litchfield for the night). It was a beautiful swim surrounded by nature and we loved Litchfield Park for all these relatively accessible swimming holes.
|Wangi Falls, Litchfield Park.|
On the way out of Litchfield Park we stopped by Wangi Falls to have another swim and that would be our last easily accessible swimming hole for what remained of our stay in the NT. Of course we have only done the usual tourist spots in Litchfield since we didn't have a real 4WD nor too much time, but if you have a real 4WD (and it's your own since rental cars are usually not allowed on unpaved roads) with preferably a scuba you would be able to visit even more amazing places in the parks.
|Mobile home and pool at the Lazy Lizard; a colonial-era building in Pine Creek town.|
From Litchfield Park we continued south into the Katherine region and stopped at the little town of Pine Creek that used to be a booming gold mining and iron ore mining town. Spent the night at the Lazy Lizard where we had a mobile home and the kids swam in the pool where once a crocodile was found swimming in. Pine Creek was really quiet when we were there and we didn't encounter anyone when we walked in the neighbourhood. We were planning to visit Umbrawarra Gorge nearby, but it was turning dark and we didn't dare take the risk, so we had to give it a miss.
Had a pretty good dinner at our holiday park which also had a supermarket and gas station. Last stop for gas on the Stuart Highway before Kakadu National Park, by the way.
|Ranger station and Maguk Plunge Pool|
We entered Kakadu National Park from the Mary River region and decided to drive to Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) for a swim. We stopped by the Ranger station hoping to buy park tickets (A$25 per person) and obtain information about driving accessibility to one of the water falls, but there wasn't a soul to be seen. On the map, Maguk is only accessible via 4WD along a 12km track. We were pretty desperate to check out the plunge pool reputed to be one of the few in Kakadu whose waterfall still flows during dry season, so we decided to give it a go.
It was fortunate for us that Hub was a brave and good driver. We had 4WD in our rental car, but it was really tricky driving through the sandy stretches and a couple of times we were almost stuck especially when we had to stop when there were cars coming from the other end. My heart stopped beating a few times, but the 2km return walk through monsoon forest and along a rocky creek leading to a small waterfall and clear plunge pool really made it worth our while. However, Maguk was scary too because estuarine crocodiles have been known to move into the area even during dry season, so one still had to be vigilant when walking and swimming in the gorge.
It was with regret that we left for the Yellow Water region, hoping to catch the famous Yellow Water cruise. However, I made the mistake of not booking for places in advance and had to give it a miss though we were there in time for a departure. We walked around the beautiful banks of the river and visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre instead. Very interesting centre that described traditional lives and beliefs in the region, definitely a must visit.
From there we drove up to Jabiru, the main township in Kakadu. You have a few hotels, a library, supermarket, bakery (good pies) etc in Jabiru and we finally managed to buy our park tickets at the very nice Bowali Visitor Centre. Actually it was a little expensive when they were for 14 days and you only planned to stay for 4, but it was important to buy them in order to support the maintenance of the park.
We took a mobile home in Kakadu Lodge and once again it was expensive for what you get, but there was a large pool, pretty good bistro and BBQ pits everywhere. From Jabiru, it was also easy to visit the important sights in the park, so it was a good idea to set up base there.
|Manngarre walk and Cahills Crossing|
We spent the next day in the East Alligator region. After a few drinks at the Border Store we walked and walked for the next few hours: Manngarre rainforest walk, the fascinating Cahills Crossing, Bardedjilidji walk...Cahills Crossing was fascinating because we stood on the banks of the alligator river watching crocodiles (quite a number of them) swim in it - as a few cars tried to cross to the other bank. There were tense moments as you watched a few crocodiles crossing the land bridge in between cars, and you know that if for some reason a car should lose control and flip into the water, it would be surrounded pretty quickly by a number of the reptiles.
|Bardedjilidji bush and sandstone walk|
I found the Bardedjilidji and extended sandstone walks savagely beautiful. The sandstone formations were rather grand and there were moments you felt you were in the middle of nowhere surrounded just by bushes and layered sandstone outliers. There wasn't much shade so it could get pretty hot and we were often bitten by huge flies whose bites really hurt!
|Rock art at Ubirr|
The late afternoon was spent at Ubirr. Ubirr's the site of several fascinating Aboriginal rock art sites and a rocky climb takes you to the top of a rocky lookout that offers superb views over the Nadab floodplain: rock, bush, plain. All I could think of once I was up there was WOW! In the older days the traditional peoples took refuge in the rock shelters and I believe that they didn't have the written word and transmitted their stories, rules, celebrations and beliefs through paintings on the rocks.
You could see that they eat kangaroo, emu, turtle, water snake, grub, yam, use a kind of pricky leaf from the bush and may rear water buffaloes. The land stretches, but we hardly ever saw anybody or even a hut. Where do they live within the park?
On our 3rd day in Kakadu we spent our time in the Nourlangie region. We walked through the beautiful Anbangbang Billabong with its bird life and with Nourlangie forming its backdrop; we visited more rock art in Nourlangie and did part of the long and difficult sandstone Barrk walk, picnicking up there somewhere on one of the rock formations before making our way back down to the carpark.
|Nourlangie art sites|
I was sometimes a bit pissed off with our slave driver. Anything that could be climbed would be climbed, and a holiday sometimes became less of a vacation because of the fatigue. Much as it was satisfying reaching somewhere to enjoy a beautiful view or have a lovely swim, there was only so much nature a city girl like me could stomach. It's probably the insects that got to me too, I totally couldn't stand them. But well...
|Lunch at mid point of Barrk walk|
We were told that the traditional owners (Warramal) of Nourlangie were extinct, and that other neighbouring clans are helping them look after the land. They really have a lot of respect for the land and their culture, which considering the hardships coming with such an extensive and harsh landscape is quite something.
|6km return walk to Gubara|
That afternoon, we walked for ages trying/hoping to reach the pools at Gubara, knowing as we started out that there may not be enough water in the pools to swim in because of the dry season. But Hub being always optimistic (a trait which often irritates a pessimist like me) insisted that we try, so we did, getting sand in our tongs as we walked, trying to avoid flies that bit, hoping not to come across any crocodiles.
And of course there wasn't much water in the pools when we finally reached there, and we consoled ourselves by soaking our tired feet in the cool waters before we made the long walk back to the carpark. Fortunately there was a pool at our hotel as it was another really hot and dry day out in Kakadu.
We left Kakadu Park after breakfast and passed through Mamukala on the Arnhem Highway rapidly. My initial plan was to visit the wetlands and observe its famous bird life on our way back to Darwin, but I managed to secure a visit to Pudakul and had to get us there by 10:30am.
|Pudakul: Aboriginal cultural tour|
Pudakul is a family-run business situated off the Arnhem Highway about an hour away from Darwin. The head of the family is an elder of his clan and they own stretches of traditional land in the region. He works as a ranger in Kakadu Park certain times of the year while his wife and 3 daughters help run their cultural tours. We met the youngest that morning and she was a pretty student who was studying tourism management and who seemed perfectly at ease in both the traditional and modern worlds in the NT.
We parked our car in front of the billabong and later found out that crocodiles lived in it. In fact, during the wet season the whole area would be flooded and you would need to navigate the waters in boats and the crocs would be swimming near your houses etc. We were told that often they would travel with an animal like a dog as the crocodiles usually go for the smallest creature first! Girl welcomed us with a cup of water from the Billabong and spat on us with it so as to ward off evil spirits and allow us to move around their homestead safely.
We then met the father and learnt some interesting stuff about the traditional laws and customs. For instance, the Aboriginals have strict marriage laws and they have a chart (according to their colours etc) telling them who they could and could not marry. Also, when siblings reach a certain age (just before puberty, I think), the different sexes would have to be separated and could no longer talk or play with each other for the rest of their lives. That sounded totally harsh and unnecessary to us, but of course it was something natural for them in order to avoid incest. Many guys would appreciate the fact that they wouldn't have any need to accommodate their MILs, nor even to talk to them, because of this rule!
Daddy explained to us how they created (from termite-hollowed out trunks of certain trees) and blew their didgeridoos, how they created their colours, how to throw a spear. Girl explained how they weave their baskets, how they hunt and we questioned them about school systems, land ownership, recipes etc. They still hunt for their meat e.g. wallaby, turtle, snake...though she claimed that she didn't find them particularly tasty actually. Nowadays they also eat food like pasta and rice that they buy in the supermarket and occasionally vegetables. Seems like they have a protein-based diet most of the time and they are not allowed to eat certain animals according to what they themselves are supposed to represent (the mums would normally know that during their pregnancies). We enjoyed the 2 hours spent with them and were glad we chose to do this instead of the jumping crocodile cruise nearby.
|Parap Village Apartments|
Our last night was spent in the Parap neighbourhood in Darwin, love this area with its nice little shops and the apartment we were in was really comfortable with a great balcony for dining in! There was an electric BBQ in the balcony so we bought great meat from the butchers opposite and cooked ourselves a lovely dinner. Lunch was fish and chips from the chippery opposite, yummy too. Darwin was fabulous in the dry season, was really glad we made the trip there.