I’m tell this story than those who have lived in the outback for 50,000 years?
Adventure Tour Kings has special permission to run a safari camp at Hawk Dreaming, part of Kakadu’s World Heritage listing. A few minutes from our comfy cabins, past branches laden with white-plumed cockatiels, past 2-metre termite mounds and the odd wallaby crossing our path, we’re standing in Big Bill’s “house.”
His “kitchen” is several indentations in the rock, where his family has ground seeds and berries for hundreds of years. His den beneath a cliff overhang is where his tribe’s creation ancestors are depicted in blood-red ochre, his front yard a billabong where a pair of saltwater crocodiles sun themselves amid some of the Northern Territory’s 400 species of birds.
There seems precious little to sustain life, yet Bill’s clan could find food, shelter, protect themselves from the elements — even find the right parts of the insect mounds to cure everything from a toothache to indigestion. Where Bill’s large handprint is made on the rock, several of his clan’s are still faintly visible, while new child-sized palms mark his grandkids arrival.
Later, while our intrepid AAT Kings guide Kerry escorts us to the breathtaking lookout at Ubirr above the Nadab floodplain, we see a vast array of creatures carved into rock, from the mischievous mimi spirits to transparent fish and mammals, meant to show coming generations what parts are edible.
These also served as warnings to passing clans about what could be hunted and what was sacred to locals. Accurate dating is nearly impossible, except for ominous crude drawings of masted ships and a man with a pipe.
Some of these local treasures are close enough to touch, but just as you wouldn’t touch Mona Lisa, you must admire only. Not all art in the 20,000 sq-km of Kakadu is open to outsiders or allowed to be photographed. And some sacred areas remain only accessible for male elders for initiation rites or “sorry time” (funerals).
The Northern Territory stretches from Darwin, west to Kakadu and Arnhem Land, south to Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, the Tanami and Simpson Deserts and the MacDonnell Ranges, in all, twice the size of California and one- sixth of Australia’s land mass. Yet only 200,000 live here, joined by many tourists during Yegge, Wurrgeng and Gurrung — the driest and most ideal of the six Aboriginal seasons — running May to September before monsoons cut off most sites.
Darwin is the perfect starting point, a multicultural conduit to South Asia with a thriving club district, and a range of lodging from hostels for backpackers up to the Green Star award winning architecture of the rainforest themed Moonshadow Villas. The city’s golden sunsets are best experienced with a glass of Aussie Shiraz on the patio at SkyCity Hotel.
Darwin is the terminus of the Stuart Highway, almost 3,000 km south to Adelaide via Alice Springs and, until 2007, without speed limits. But no need to go far outside Darwin to get the Outback experience. The Bark Hut Inn is a former buffalo shooters camp turned roadhouse pub on the road to Kakadu, a rough ‘n’ ready setting where you almost expect Crocodile Dundee and his convivial roughneck mates to burst through the doors at any moment.
Get to know the wildlife and incredible biodiversity of Kakadu through Yellow Water Cruises, a network of billabongs and pristine wetlands where crocs are plentiful and the local staple barramundi seem to jump into anglers nets. Kingfishers, honeyeaters and jabirus wing their way past our tour boat while wild horses (brumbies) and buffalo graze in the distance.
A sensational story of a croc threatening a nude beach gets a chuckle the day we arrive and it’s true that for every one you see, there’s likely 20 you don’t. But throughout the NT, their habitats are clearly marked, they’re trapped in areas close to human contact and released safely.
The reptiles certainly can’t climb the Kakadu escarpment, ideal for hikers with easy paths rising to million dollar views. Nourlangie Rock is linked by a 1.5-km circular walk dotted with art sites, guided by park rangers.
A longer and more rewarding day is Jim Jim Falls, first by four-wheel drive to a 2-km walk through monsoon forests and over smooth boulders, ending with great photo opportunities at a small beach and deep plunge pool, ringed by 150-metre high cliffs and waterfall.
By now, we’d worked up a huge appetite for a cook-up of barramundi in the comfort of Hawk Dreaming camp, while Big Bill’s granddaughter Natasha told us more of the first people — or Nayuhyunggi — who journeyed across the landscape during dreaming time and creating the sandstone formations, animals and plants.
Wildlife of a different kind greeted us at Alice Springs, gateway to the Red Centre. Tooling around on Jungala Kriss’s native-painted mountain bikes, we are awed by the great gouges in the rocks that Kriss assures were thrown around by giant fighting beasts. The first toe-hold of white Aussies, the 1860s, telegraph station, is still standing, for years the tenuous link for miners, cattlemen, cowboys, camel herders and other pioneers.
The quirky Ghan railway also stops here, a throwback to the Afghan camel trains that first crossed from Adelaide to the Outback in the 19th century. The Ghan now extends to Darwin, a two-day journey that’s almost a national calling for Aussies. In “The Alice,” you can also re-live the history of the brave Royal Doctors Flying Service.
Aboriginal culture is vibrant here as well. At Todd Mall in the town centre, Tim Jennings of the Mbantua Gallery displays the fruits of his unique relationship with 250 Utopia artists in the outback, bursts of colour displayed on the main floor and a cultural museum upstairs.
These artists are among the last generation in the world to paint solely from lore. Jennings provides art supplies and the Utopians tell their ancestors’ story with seeds, berries, plants, birds, animals and dancing as their inspiration.
For those captivated by the sounds of the didgeridoo, not far from Mbantua is a multi-media experience where you can listen to a didge or try blowing on one yourself, perfect after a dinner of Australian bush food (kangaroo has a nice roast beef quality to it) in a beautiful setting at the Red Ochre Grill.
Visiting chef Athol Wark drops by to update his Aussie wild foods menu, which includes smoked kangaroo loin and emu egg pavlova with wild berries and wattleseed-thickened cream. We cap the evening with a pint at Bojangles Saloon with its homage to Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly, vintage guns and Jangles, the live eight-foot python.
No visit this close to the Red Centre is complete without the geological time capsules of Kings Canyon, Ayers Rock and The Olga mountains. From Alice Springs, retrace the route John McDoull Stuart took as the first white explorer in 1862, drive the spectacular Red Centre Way or as we chose, a thrilling half-hour helicopter shuttle above the rust-covered landscape, deep gorges, far-flung native settlements and roaming camels.
Myles from Australian Pacific Touring greets us at the helipad of King’s Canyon Wilderness Resort, luxury tent-cabins next to a working cattle/camel station. A moonlight dinner is served with colourful tales from owner Ian Conway, who is dedicated to seeing that young Aboriginals get proper schooling through scholarships.
Myles takes us on our greatest challenge yet — 5.5 km straight up and around the canyon’s sheer red rock face, where we anxiously peer into the almost 300 metre drop from the chasm’s unfenced outer ledges.
Dawn hasn’t broken when we leave for Ayers Rock — or Uluru — but a small army of enthusiasts have gathered in camera range for the first slivers of daylight to turn the sandstone to a fiery glow. It’s a good few hours to walk its entire base and see the amazing features that erosion has fashioned.
At night, the Ayers Rock Resort buses visitors to the Sounds of Silence Dinner, with didge serenade as the last rays of sunlight bathe the 348-metre monolith and give way to star-gazing with a resident astronomer. A modern airport is handy for departure to Sydney or the trip home — but we’ll always keep the Northern Territory in our dreams.