It’s not an easy task summing up The Top End, as the top bit of Australia is affectionately known.
It is spectacular. Beautiful. Awe inspiring. Tranquil yet wild. Peaceful yet deadly. Hot. Humid. Dusty.
I’ve struggled quite a bit over the last year trying not to overwork the superlatives and adjectives.
And yet, yet … unfortunately there are only so many superlatives and adjectives to work with.
How to define the holistic-full-body-senses-experience which vastly transcends simple eye-candy photographs without delving into mediocre capitulation to the same superlatives and adjectives?
No idea, so I’ll over work them. What else can I do?
Scott H Murray, photographer, Emergency Response Team guy, nature-fundy, and All Round Good Guy, lives in Jabiru which lies in far east Kakadu. I recommend you give his facebook page and website a look: https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=scott%20h%20murray%20photography
I met Scott back in December/January in Glen Helen. He offered to show me around should I make it Kakadu way. Kakadu is little of an hour’s drive from Darwin, although Jabiru is a good two hours or so. That means two or more days’ cycle. I thought to ride halfway and Scott pick me. Only he works one week on one week off at the Energy Resource Australia’s Jabiru uranium mine. He’s at work for the following week.
Katherine lies 315 km south of Darwin. There are convenient overnights along the way at Alligator Creek and Pine Creek considering I have no camping/cooking gear. Almost exactly 30 years ago I worked at Pine Creek. It’d be worth a look to see if I recognize anything. And so I plan. Scott can pick me up in Pine Creek at the start of his week free.
But 12 hours before I’m due to leave Darwin Scott tells me of a Large 4WD of his which is languishing in Darwin. Would I care to drive it around for a week and deliver it to Jabiru? Errr … now let me think about this …
Twenty Four hours later I’m staring at a huge Nissan Patrol with tires at least a metre high and a 1.5 metre climb to get in the cab.
It costs me less than 100$ to kit out with a tent, sleeping bag, two sheets, inflatable sleeping mat, pump, inflatable pillow (I kid you not) and a couple of other items.
Load the bike on the roof rack, lay down the back seats stick in the mattress (inflated), store my meagre bags in the gap between mattress and side of vehicle, ensure I’ve enough tunes and head south.
Litchfield National Park lies but an hour or so south along the Stuart Highway plus 50 km west. With The Beast and camping stuff I can now tour it with ease.
The northern access to Litchfield is a gravel road from Berry Springs. The Dude at the local gas station tells me “Head back to the highway, drive south for an hour and take the asphalt” in my response to “How’s the road into Litchfield”. I don’t trust him, so I drive on.
At a camp ground just before the turn-off the Dude whips out a simple map and divides the gravel road into sections. “The first 20 km are asphalt. Then next thirty or so they are currently grading. The last ten to twenty is fine. You won’t have a problem” in answer to the same question. I trust him so I drive on.
The road (track) is fine. A bit rough in places but totally doable in a 2WD let alone a Beast. The only drama being to slalom between a large truck, a grader and a heavy-roller fixing the road.
I had a good week until Scott is free to tour a place most do in a day. It took me like four days to do my tour. The Go Slow approach. Watching the guided tours come and go made me realise just how fortunate I am to have the opportunity for the Go Slow approach.
I made camp at Walker Creek, Greenant Creek and Rum Jungle Lake. The latter two I was not really meant to camp at but I thought I’d make an exception. I did pull into the Wangi camp ground and found it a bit to suburban for my liking, and so justified my exceptionalism. Aside of the mozzies I had my camping areas all to myself.
The pools were really shallow at Walker Creek, my first campsite. I lie in a small pool lounging against the sandy bottom and just chill out. Very shortly a swarm of small fish surround me and begin to nibble on … well I’m not really sure what they are nibbling on. Interesting, indeed somewhat disquieting sensation to have a swarm of small fishing noticeably nibbling away at me. Despite my concerns, they did not draw blood.
Litchfield is pretty warm and sweaty which makes sleeping in the back of a Beast with all the windows wound up somewhat uncomfortable. Fortunately I have my Sea to Summit camp-mozzy net. Wind down the front and rear windows then trap the mozzy net in the doors and I sleep comfortable and mozzy free.
Since I have no cooking gear. At all. Nor eating utensils, except for a simple kitchen knife I eat lunch three times a day. Wraps, water biscuits, avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers, canned salmon, chorizo, various cheese and so on. Mind you, after a day or so everything is warm which does make the cheese a bit gooey. Minor detail.
Wangi Falls is one of the main icons of Litchfield. Due to concerns about marauding saltwater crocodiles the pool is closed. It is a massive pool and could easily home several huge crocodiles. It must be one hell of a job for the Rangers towards the end of each wet season when the saltwater crocodiles migrate up waterways looking for new territories. All the iconic and not-so-iconic tourist sites need de-crocodiling. Imagining what would happen if they were not 100% sure of it being salty-free doesn’t bear thinking about. Already this season some guy’s been dragged out his tent by a crocodile (survived, leg injuries). A woman got taken walking knee deep at a beach at Daintree north of Cairns (did not survive). A crabber drowned and his mate fought tooth and claw – and spanners actually – fending off a crocodile which up-ended their dingy near Daly Waters. And so it goes on.
Don’t. Fuck. With. Crocodiles. Got it? Got it!
Visually it’s all very spectacular and photogenic. It’s also really accessible with no ‘hike’ more than five kilometres return with easy grades. The only ‘climbs’ are from the bottom of waterfalls to the top. It’s little surprise that Litchfield is so popular, certainly with the backpacker-foreign tourist set. It’s very easy to hire a small car, drive an hour or so down the Stuart Highway, right at Batchelor and into the park. There’s no park fee and camping fees are tiny. Democratisation of adventure.
Deep in the gloom, strung out across the streams and creeks, some at knee level and others way above head height are lots and lots and L O T S of Orb Web spiders. Some are Golden, others a grey-white. One large fat grey-white one pulled a nasty on me whilst I was snapping away. It very deliberately arched its back and pointed its ass in my direction and squirted some slime. Fortunately its aim wasn’t crash hot otherwise I’d have been well slimmed. Neat little trick. Other times I’d be distracted by one monster Orb Web and web only to find out that another one, most often behind me, is but a centimetre or so from some part of my body. Strung out from leg tip to leg tip they would cover my face. Very impressive.
Unsurprisingly both the Golden Orb Web spider and its web are, well. golden. Very beautiful but I’m still not game enough to get one to walk over my hand despite knowing they are for all intents and purposes ‘harmless’. Err, yeah, right …
Sure, there’s tons of people at the key sites like Wangi, Buley and Florence Falls. Even then all you have to do is walk upstream or downstream for a bit and you’ll find your own bit of paradise.
Rum Jungle is (in)famous. Australia’s original uranium mine, supplying both British and US nuclear weapons with lethality. So much for a peace loving nation. It closed a while back and I ended up camping there. There’s a delightful touch of irony to the well-rehabilitated site that’s exposed to the public. It was rehabilitated by, you guessed it, the taxpayer. Rio Tinto, the parent of the mining company which operated the mine, did not. Little wonder the mining industry has a poor reputation. Mininglegacies.org show other areas of the mine site which are not so well rehabilitated, plagued by that eternal problem of acid mine drainage. Check out http://www.mininglegacies.org/mines/northern-territory/rum-jungle/
It’s a picnic area. Invitingly swimmable. There are no croc-warning signs. There are no ‘it’s safe for swimming’ signs either. I struggle to understand how a crocodile would find an old mine pit lake. So I go for a swim.
Later that evening I go for a wander. I only have my Petzl headlamp, somewhat limiting in its night-penetration abilities. Even so I am shocked to see small orange glowing lights in the shallows around the edge of the lake.
You know, I try really hard to come up with some other justification for them little orange lights floating around. And moving. Around. As in … it is an animal. And I can’t. The only animal I can think of which would have such glowing orange eyes are, you guessed it, crocodiles. At least ten, given the number of orange lamps I counted.
The dudes in Batchelor and the dude at the local caravan park don’t really know which type nor how many crocodiles could be living in the lake. Rumour talks of two – yes they actually defined a number – of freshwater crocodiles. Other rumours mention none. Their rumours I realised need some serious updating. I don’t swim in the lake again.
Interestingly I saw more wildlife at the Rum Jungle lake than in Litchfield National Park. Agile wallabies, tons of waterbirds, HUGE fish splashing about. That kind of thing. The dude from the nearby store reckons its coz not many people visit it.
I leave Litchfield and make my way towards Pine Creek where 30 years ago I spent near six months working as a geologist. Back then Pine Creek was a serious has-been, with no operating mines and little interest. My job was to assess old Chinese mine workings. Great time. Lots of lizards like the frilled neck, goannas, blue-tongues, snakes like the black-headed python and olive python, huge water buffaloes (now recognised as a pest), even baby flying foxes. No tourists.
Nowadays it’s a tourist destination, complete with large caravan park with all the trimmings, a Goldfields Loop to drive along, lots of existing and recently closed mines to gawp at. And no wildlife. I haven’t seen a goanna, nor a frilled neck, nor any snake. All gone. Not sure why.
One possible source of ‘no wildlife’ is readily visible. Fire. Australia, certainly the North at the end of the wet season, is ablaze. Obsessed with avoiding the Tasmanian Fires (1967), Ash Wednesday Fires (1983), Black Saturday Fires (2009), New South Wales Fires (2013), and lots of other lesser fires, the Australian approach is to ape Aboriginal land management techniques which included burning-off large tracts of land. And so, as I drive around I am constantly surrounded by small fires simply burning along. Smoke is constantly visible somewhere or other. Successful it may be at reducing major wildfire risk I can’t help but wonder on the poor critters who have to get out of its way.
Add the dreaded cane toad, a deliberately released invasive species which is simply destroying wildlife across its ever increasing range across the Top End. It’s a large predator (kid you not, it’s the size of house brick) and it’s poisonous to anything which tries to eat it. Like raptors, reptiles, mammals and anything else. And it breeds really fast. And, apparently, competition for territory (new) is selecting for ever faster and jumpier toads as it relentlessly seeks new territory.
Then the shear volume of people travelling around nowadays as 4WD technologies coupled with extensive road improvement programs has seriously democratised the tour-Australia experience. There are hundreds of vaners driving around and it’s still not main-peak season.
Perhaps I should not be surprised in the noticeable drop in biodiversity. It’s a tough call to survive all they are up against.
It’s all very pleasant but quite sanitised. Something’s missing. As if Nanny State Australia has decided Australia itself needs taming. And so it feels tame. I miss the odd wild bit. That was what the Top End used to signify. Now? It’s a huge well organised sanitised ‘wild’ life ‘wilderness’ theme park rendered harmless.
I need something more. Something less sanitised, less cushy, less accessible, more authentic. Something … wild.
“Careful” whispered Little Voice in my ear, “for what you ask for, you may just get”
In Jabiru I inquire at the Northern Land Council as I wait for Scott to wake up (he finished night shift at 0600), on “What do I need should I want to visit Arnhem Land?” for in Arnhem Land I believe I may get what I ask for.
Jabiru, 24 May 2016