BootsnAll Travel Network

The Top End

(It is May 14th today, Happy Mother’s Day!)

We have been in Darwin and the surrounding area for 12 days now. Lora and I arrived here “on schedule” on May 3rd, tired but happy that we made the whole trip on our own. Our constant debates of whether we should have left the car somewhere early and joined a tour or flown to Darwin never came to fruition, and we made the entire drive from Perth to Darwin on our own and all in one piece. Though the trip was technically only 4400 km, we put about 6600km on the rental car, since we explored some of the southwest coast and made trips off the main road to Cervantes and Exmouth. When we reached Darwin, we both laughingly realized we had no idea what to expect of the place, and were pleasantly surprised to find it a bigger than a town, smaller than a city, but with a character all it’s own. Most importantly, it had a camera repair shop for Lora, since there hadn’t been one on the entire trip since Perth. That, along with a beer and a dip in the pool, was the only thing on our agenda, at least for the next day.

After leaving Katherine on the morning of the 3rd, we made a detour stop at Katherine Gorge, one of the major tourist sights in the Northern Territory. Due to high waters in the gorge, canoeing was not allowed yet along the gorge, much to our disappointment. But we found a good hike along the edge, with a stop in the middle at a waterfall and plunge pool called the Southern Rock Pool. The hike was a fairly easy one, except for the high heat, and we were warned to bring at least 3 liters of water with us for our 9km hike. It seemed a little excessive to us, but given our recent excursion on Cable Beach, we brought the recommended amount. The route of the hike started off along the edge of the gorge with great views, but then veered off inland along dry creek beds and rocky paths. We found our way to the steep rocky path down to the rock pool, and after slowly navigating the loose rocks and deep steps, we reached the icy cold water at the base of a waterfall. Though there are crocodiles in the area of Katherine Gorge, and technically swimming anywhere is at your own risk, tons of people were swimming in the plunge pool, located down such a steep path that the chances of crocs finding their way down there was slim to none. Since we were sort of in a hurry to get to Darwin, we decided not to swim, and made our way back to the car park. On our way to the gorge, we noticed our car had a weird smell when we turned on the air vents, and exploration below the hood revealed a very large amount of dead insects plastered against the engine, seemingly the cause of the strange odor. Relieved it wasn’t a larger animal or other problem, we headed north on the highway to Darwin, just a short 3 hours away.

The Northern Territory is 1 1/2 hours ahead of Western Australia, or 1/2 hour behind the East Coast, which we hadn’t realized until we reached Katherine much later than we thought. Leaving the gorge in the early afternoon gave us enough time to make the drive to Darwin before it got dark, and we arrived in the early evening. After checking into our hostel on the main tourist strip and finding a place to park, we went out for a celebratory beer and dinner at a local pub. The nightlife is said to be really good in Darwin, but we decided to save our energy and pennies for the following few days. We unloaded our car, and surveyed the amount of stuff we had accumulated over the past month, an insane amount of stuff. We double checked the car for damage and loose change, and in the morning, returned it to Europcar just a block away. After breakfast, we walked to our Kakadu tour company just down the street from our hostel, Kakadu Dreams, and checked in with them to finalize our payment. Since Paul was due to arrive the next day, they said we could take car of paying then. Unsure of what there was to do in Darwin, and wanting a day to do nothing, that is really what we did, and took our time exploring the surrounding streets and shops. The one thing we knew we needed to do was a market, and luckily enough, the first night market was this evening, and we made our way to Mindil Beach for this famous event.
The Mindil Beach market is a really popular event, not only for tourists but for locals as well. Hundreds of stalls of food and arts and crafts, as well as live music and other entertainment stretched along the beachfront from about 5pm until near 10, and we eagerly arrived to see what the scene was like. Stalls full of different Asian cuisines lined the first path, and we took our time sampling and deciding what to eat for dinner. Other stalls full of fresh fruit juice and smoothies, ice creams a few other random food stuffs tempted us as well. After eating, we strolled along the arts and crafts booths, full of jewelry, clothes, didgeridoos and art. My willpower at markets is non-existent, and I luckily had only brought a small amount of cash with me in anticipation of wanting to spend it all. On our way out of the market after a couple of hours, we stopped to hear a local band called Emdee, a contemporary jam band that uses didgeridoos along with guitar, drums and vocals. It was really interesting, and we both ended up buying a CD to take home. They also noted they are starting to tour in Australia, and making their way to Canada, so keep your eyes out for this band. After the market, we went back to the main strip and stopped in a pub for a few beers. The days were hot, but the nights cooled off quickly and it was a great night to sit outside with a few drinks.

Our main purpose to be in Darwin was to go on a tour of Kakadu, and my friend Paul was due to arrive from Melbourne late on Friday night. I was starting to get sick of my clothes I had brought with me, and took this opportunity to go to the main mall here to try and find some new shorts. Much to my dismay, this is “winter” season here, and summer clothes were already on clearance, even though daytime temperatures still reached into the 30’s Celsius (90F). I finally found a pair of shorts that fit and would be useful on the long hikes in Kakadu, though I had to go to literally every store in the mall to find them among the wool sweaters and long pants. Since the mall was far out of town, it took us almost the whole day to go out there and shop and come back to the main city center. Our tour company for Kakadu had given us vouchers for a free meal at a backpacker bar, and we went there for dinner when we got back. Paul had booked a hotel for the weekend, and allowed me to check in early there, and let me tell you, what a weird little treat that was. TV, bathtub, etc. It felt strangely normal for us to be in that room, and Lora and I settled in to watch Flashdance and Footloose while waiting for Paul to arrive late that night.

Saturday was another casual day as well, and after finalizing our trip at Kakadu Dreams, we took a walk down to another market, called the Parap Shopping Village. They had similar things as they had at Mindil, but on a smaller scale, and we had some brunch of Asian food and fruit smoothies. The afternoon was spent relaxing and then we got ready to go out that night. For dinner, we walked down to the wharf near the city center, where you could buy cheap food and beers and sit along the water. It was empty when we got there about 6, but slowly but surely all the tables filled up with tourists and local families spending some time near the water. We got some really good and cheap fish and chips, always a plus with me, and settled in for a night of drinking and talking in the cool breeze. We tried not to stay out too late, since we to get up really early for our Kakadu tour the next day, and made it home about midnight. We had already packed and everything, so the next morning was fairly easy, except for a slight headache, we made our way back to the tour company to await our trip into Kakadu.

Kakadu National Park is the largest NP in Australia. The land is owned by Aboriginals, but because of the vast scale and popularity with visitors, they get help from the National Parks in running and overseeing the park. There are many tour groups to choose from, all ranging from cheap backpackers tours where you camp out and have cramped 4WD’s, to luxury 4WD buses with either permenant lodge-like tents or actual hotel accomodation. We opted of course for the cheapie route, and found ourselved jammed in a Toyota Land Cruiser with 7 other people, including our guide Joel. Lora had already experienced one of these 4WD trips, with sideways facing seats and absolutely no leg room, but I had not, and the lack of A/C and ability to move around quickly reduced us strangers to silence. After Joel made his introductions and explanation of what the next three days would entail, we went around and introduced ourselves. Aside from Lora, Paul and me, there was Florian, a German from Munich, Andreas, another German from Dresden, Nadege, a French girl from Paris, Mariko, a Japanese girl from Osaka, Lucy, a young Brit from Essex, and Mel, a Canadian girl from Edmonton. It was an odd mix of people, but we were relieved everyone seemed relaxed and low maintenance, as our tour company had a reputation for catering to young people. But as with any tour, sometimes there is chemistry and people start talking immediately, like my Whitsundays group, and sometimes the group doesn’t have anything to say to one another, and it was soon apparent this was the case with ours.

Our first stop that day was at the Jumping Crocodile Cruise, an extremely touristy destination, but a fairly entertaining one at that. We boarded a large boat and set off down the Adelaide river, trying to spot the large saltwater crocodiles. The term saltwater crocodile is a misleading one, as most salties live in freshwater. They are actually estuarine crocodiles, and very aggresive and dangerous. The boat guide uses raw meat to entice these huge crocs to jump out of the water for a feed, and it is really the only opportunity a tourist has to see these creatures in the wild in a safe way. The largest one we saw was about 6meters, which if you think that the whale shark we saw was 8 meters, you understand how huge these crocs can be. After an hour boat tour, we made our way back to the car, and drove to a spot for lunch, which was a nice spread of sandwiches. Following lunch, we headed to Bowali Visitors Center, an Aboriginal cultural center, to browse around the displays and gift shop. Because of the late wet season, some of the sights in Kakadu were still closed, even to 4WDs, so tour companies had wet and dry season itineraries. We were lucky enough that we fell sort of in the middle, as some dry season sights were opening that weekend, but we were still able to see some of the waterfalls that are really spectacular in the wet. On our way to the next stop, we made a short detour at a place called the Mamukala Wetlands observatory. This huge area completely floods during the wet season, and in the dry it attracts thousands of birds to feed off the food supply left by the receding waters. The road had just opened, so we stopped there for a quick view. There weren’t too many birds, but it was interesting to see that area flooded, as most people see it when it is dry.

We left there and went to our next scheduled stop, the Nourlangie Rock and Aboriginal art sights. Much of the Aboriginal art in this area is high on rock faces with beautiful views overlooking the escarpment. This sight was one of the more famous sights, and there were many different locations to walk through and view the art. Unfortunately, not a lot is known about some of the art, as many of the Aboriginal tribes in the region have died off, or the history hasn’t been passed on to the next generation. But Joel seemed to know quite a bit about some of the drawings and their purpose. Much of the art was meant as a way of teaching the young children about things in their environment, such as which plants were poisonous and things like that. Other sights told a story, maybe of a hunt of a wallaby or crocodile. We spent a few hours looking at the art and then taking in the views over the valley. Before we headed to our camp, we made a short but steep climb to Nawurlandja lookout, which gave breathtaking views over the huge valley, a huge billabong which was used in filming Crocodile Dundee, and rocky escarpment of the eastern part of the park. It was gorgeous, and completely silent up there, and we sat there taking in the peacefulness. Joel told us that many undiscovered and unclassified species live on top of the rocky escarpment, and will probably never be completey researched. I find that refreshing, that there are still places on Earth that humans haven’t been, that has stayed basically the same for thousands and thousands of years.


We made our way to our campsite at Kambolgie, which would be our home for the next two nights. On our way we were lucky enough to see some wild horses that live in the park called Brumbies. They were released by settlers after a failed attempt at living in the Northern Territory in the early 1900’s. We reached our campground, which was packed, as it was one of the view places you could camp that wasn’t flooded. Many other tour companies were there, but we mainly kept to ourselves during dinner and after around the fire. The food was surprisingly good, as Joel baked some potatoes in the hot coals, and grilled some kangaroo and sausages, and we made a big veggie stirfry. Gone are the days of pork and beans while camping, it was some of the better food I’ve had on my entire trip. Or maybe it was just the hunger that made it taste so good, I won’t ever know. After dinner we sat around the campfire with a few beers, and tried to play the didgeridoo, very badly as it turns out, much to the delight of the tour guides who all could play reasonably well. The night got surprisingly cold, and Lora and I turned in for the night in our tent, we were bundled up like it was the middle of winter. The temperature dropped to about 15C, and you could see your breath in the morning. Luckily we were prepared for the cold nights, but poor Joel was not somehow, which didn’t put a lot of confidence in us, as he only had a Tshirt with him, so I lent him my wool shirt for the following night. We got up early, before sunrise, and warmed up by the fire with tea and coffee. Breakfast was simple but satisfying with toast grilled over the fire, fresh fruit and cereal. We had a long day ahead of us, and we got an early start.

Our first stop was Kurrundie Falls, a huge high waterfall that met us after a long but easy 6km walk, which ended with a tough climb down a rocky path. There was a path up the side of the waterfall that lead to another pool at the top, where Joel told us only a few weeks before, a guide from another tour company who was trying to rescue a camper that had gotten stuck up there, fell down off the waterfall, and received a fractured skull, among other serious injuries. The camper escaped with minor injuries, and both had to be airlifted out of the park. This story was enough for me to decline climbing up the falls, though other people in our group did. Paul ended up slipping and falling, was fine but clearly shaken when he got back down. We spent the day lazing about the plunge pool and sunning ourselves, until it was time to head to the next stop, another waterfall called Motor Car Falls, which was back to where we came from. The sun was getting hot, and after walking back another 4kms or so, the dip in the falls and pool was very much needed. Though the parks warn about swimming in any waterholes in Kakadu due to crocodiles, these pools are monitored very closely since they are so popular, and it would be hard going for a croc to end up in the pools, way at the bottom of rocky trails. This pool was interesting, as it had a really strong current and was hard to swim close to the falls. There was a dark cave in the rocks close to the falls, and once inside it was completely dark. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We had lunch around the pool and relaxed after our hiking and walking. In the early afternoon, we walked back to the car and drove a short few minutes to our last stop, Gunlom Falls, which was a much smaller waterfall but with crystal clear water. An easier path led up the side of the falls to another fall and plunge pool above it. The whole area was surrounded by cliffs and rainforest. It was my favorite spot of the day, and turned out to be my favorite of the whole trip.

After an hour or so there, we made our way back to the car, and stopped off at a good lookout spot over the Mary River Valley for sunset. It was deep glowing orange, and we enjoyed a beer and a toast while watching the sun go down over our wonderful day. We headed back to camp, and following another good dinner of steak, potatoes and veggies, we quickly finished off our supplies of beers and headed to bed. It wasn’t as cold that night, but still chilly, and though I don’t have a lot of experience camping, got very comfortable and fell asleep quickly. Our third day arrived and ended much too quickly. We packed up camp and headed to our first stop, a small waterfall and pool deep inside the forest called locally as the Garden of Eden. After a decent walk through the woods, we reached the falls and pool, and had lunch. We didn’t spend too much time there, as Joel said he wanted to try and find a spot he had never been before. We took a detour off the main path to a much more overgrown path around the creek, and found ourselves rock climbing up and up, higher and higher over the rocky face of the hills. It was a fairly exhausting climb, but we were nicely rewarded as we reached the top. Surrounding us and hanging over us was huge boulders of rock, painted with tons of Aboriginal art. There were no signs, no fences, nothing to suggest that anyone knew of this place. Though it was clearly a known spot, even Joel had never made it up there, and we wandered through and over the rocks looking at the all the pictures. This hidden gem was wisely called The Castle, and we spent a good hour there, looking at the art, feeling like we had discovered the place. After a tricky climb over a crevasse (how I love those), we climbed on top of a huge boulder for a group photo overlooking the escarpment. The climb down over the crevasse was even harder and scared me a bit, but we all made it safely down. It was the perfect end to the trip, and I could imagine being the first person to discover that location of art, spending hours and hours just staring at them, trying to figure out their meaning.

Unfortunately, our trip had to end, we settled in for a long, grueling drive back to Darwin and civilization. We stopped off quickly at the Wirradjan Cultural center, another Aboriginal and nature center, and were off again in our packed Land Cruiser. The trip was fairly eventful, as we spotted a lot of wildlife along the road, including wallabies, a feral boar, a huge white stork, and my first and only wild dingo. We finally reached Darwin near 6pm, and after having the longest shower of my life, we headed to the Vic Hotel for a our free meal with our group. Unfortunately not everyone came, but it was still a nice way to say goodbye to everyone, clean and happy with beers in our hands. Paul’s flights left really late that evening, about 2am, so we went out for some drinks before he caught a taxi to the airport. The next day, Lora and I just lazed around and did nothing, realizing that we were both totally exhausted and sore, but in a good way. Since we had so much time on our hands, we went to the tour company to sign their guestbook and get our free Tshirts. They offered us a reduced price for their one day Litchfield National Park tour, and we decided to talk advantage of it and go the next day. It was really a shame, as the tour we were supposed to have signed up for wasn’t running, and they decided to put us on something else without telling us. We ended up back at the Jumping Croc tour again, and wasted a good three hours going there and heading to Litchfield Park. It was a really disappointing tour, as our time spent at the two waterfalls and pools was really short, and our tour guide was injured and everyone wanted to get back in time to go to Mindil Market at sunset. So it was sort of a waste of money, and if we hadn’t had such a good time on their other tour, we probably would have complained about it. But we decided to cut our losses and not say anything.

Following our Litchfield tour, Lora and I have done nothing for the past 4 days. And it has been really nice not to have a schedule or somewhere to be, and we’ve just walked around town, window shopping and lazing at the pool. It was definitely needed, and Darwin is a good place for some relaxing. It is big enough that there is plenty to do, good food and bars, but small enough that you don’t feel guilty if you don’t want to do anything. I really have enjoyed my time here and I highly recommend it to everyone, especially since so many people are surprised when I start talking. They say they don’t get a lot of Americans here, so hopefully that will change, because it is a great place, especially Kakadu. I really enjoyed the camping as well, and loved sitting around the fire, though the flavored marshmellows they try to pass off here are truly heinous. I am heading on the Ghan train tomorrow to Alice Springs and my Ayer’s Rock tour. It will be my last real tourist destination in Australia, and hopefully it will be worth the wait.

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One response to “The Top End”

  1. tim says:

    Hey Kirsten,

    Looks like we crossed paths in Darwin. I was there from May 2-6, and stayed at Melaleuca. I also hit the Mindil Beach market on Thursday night.

    I spent all of last week in Borneo (Sabah), and am in Taichung, Taiwan right now. I’ll be here for a couple of weeks and then heading to Bangkok around May 30.

    Glad to hear you liked Darwin, I thought it was a very cool town given the small (?) population. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to do Kakadu, so I guess I’ll be going back again. 🙂


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