Crocodile Dundee’s piercing blue eyes weather beaten craggy profile and his way with women are to blame for my long obsession with Australia’s Northern Territory. Now here I am at last up at The Top End Northern Territory – the place Mick called home, where the 30th anniversary of that first Crocodile Dundee movie is being celebrated this year.
In a Walkabout Creek style spit and sawdust saloon I have already anticipated beer swilling bogans (hard men in from the wilds) swapping their stories of close crocodile and wild buffalo encounters, shouting at the barmaid for “a man salad with some dead horse” (translation: a plate of chips with tomato sauce!)
Paying homage to Charlie the buffalo Mick hypnotized with a flick of his fingers. He looks a lot smaller and cuddlier stuffed. Charlie stands guard next to the fringed sweat stained suede jacket Paul Hogan wore in the first movie on the bar counter of Adelaide river pub along the Stuart Highway.
The pavement ends and the outback begins on the only route south of Darwin stretching 1,400 kms all the way down into the furnace heat of Alice Springs. Clouds of red dust rise up from rutted tracks off the highway. We meet a handful of vehicles in the four hour drive to wild Nitmiluk National Park. Dense Eucalyptus forests and bush scrub grazed by feral donkeys and wild horses who are relics of former mining days dot the horizon. Towering structures that resemble rocks or fancy modern sculpture turn out to be termite mounds.
In the days that follow we will visit sacred Aboriginal sites, natural wonders, billabongs, the spectacular rock art site of Ubirr, looming Nourlangie, verdant Bang Bang and Jim Jim Billabongs and many more ‘Croc Dundee’ locations.
The Top End boasts a national park (Kakadu) half the size of Switzerland so distances are enormous with 40,000 year old Aboriginal rock art sites and flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet scattered almost carelessly here and there. Think just 1,500 species of ants and nearly as many crocodiles as inhabitants!
Our late September six day tour of Top End highlights was perfectly timed with cobalt skies and bearable heat. Mosquitoes, stinging horseflies as big as your palm and other nasty creepy crawlies were on walkabout and the seasonal invasion of killer crocodiles into rock pools and water holes had thankfully not yet begun.
We see numerous crocodiles on our misty early morning and evening cruises of Kakadu’s most famous wetlands, world famous Yellow Water Billabong and Guluyambi in the pristine wilderness of the East Alligator river. Here we meet Tyrone, a shy and very knowledgeable guide whose painted grandfather and relatives danced in the ceremonial Aboriginal scenes in Crocodile Dundee movies 1 and 2. While we drift gently on the deceptively tranquil river he reminds us “if a crocodile doesn’t get you here then a bull shark or a sting ray might, they all get into these waters”. Then someone queries the name “Alligator”.
“The first white man who came here Philip Parker King in the late 1800s had only ever seen alligators in the swamps of America so he thought ours were the same”.
I had visualized terrifying sightings of snakes, scorpions and rats that grow as big as cats before visiting the Northern Territory. Instead the gentle creatures came out to play. The closest we came to a snake was the recently shed skin gleaming in the twilight under a tree while enjoying Sundowner cocktails near a splendid boutique property of luxury bungalows Wildman Wilderness Lodge in the heart of Mary River National Park. We were watching a beautiful blood red sunset near Mary River’s Leichhardt Point wetlands before returning to the lodge for a memorable dining experience under the stars.
Dozens of species of bird life flew, fed, waded and chattered on the edge of the Billabongs and wetlands wherever we strayed. On the tricky climb across massive boulders to famous Edith Falls a splendid frill necked lizard appeared.
Frightened big eyed gekkos darted into crevices.A dawn chorus of squawking, yellow crested cockatoos were our wakeup call In Jabiru’s Ambinik indigenous Kakadu Resort. Clusters of cuddly wallabies scampered under my balcony and rainbow lorikeet parrots streaked the sky with colour at magical Cicada Lodge next to Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk.
A indigenous owned joint venture Cicada Lodge nestled in the wilderness is one of the big success stories in local enterprise while Wildman Wilderness Lodge some hours east, consisting of buildings that were moved lock stock and barrel from Cairns, was also memorable with its warm welcome, cooling swimming pool, and fine dining. Wildman is also located absolutely in the middle of nowhere, accessed by a dirt road and runway for small planes offering bespoke crocodile spotting on its nearby ‘Home Billabong Cruise’ with options from fishing to airboat safaris. Frankly I was astonished to encounter such luxury so far from what most people consider ‘civilization’.
The Northern Territory is home to the largest indigenous population on the Australian continent so I looked forward to talking to some about their lives and history. Sadly I met few and those I did come across kept their distance, looking far away, as if in another world.
The first nation’s successes at the Top End centre on excellently run cruises and accommodations that are indigenous owned and operated in Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks. These ancient lands with their sacred Aboriginal rock art sites were only returned to their original rightful owners in relatively recent times. If you want to see all the Top End has to offer but only have less than a day to do it in…what next?
No worries, as they say in these parts. Darwin airport based Outback Float Planes offer the perfect adventure tour using airboats, helicopters, float planes and a pontoon anchored in the depths of Litchfield Park’s wilderness getting you close up and personal with all the big names: Crocs, Buffalo, Barramundi, wild boar and extensive bird life.
And if that doesn’t get the adrenaline flowing you can always spend the afternoon eyeballing one of several monstrous crocs who swim around your cm thick acrylic tube held by two chains called ‘ the cage of death’ lowered in the crocs pool at Darwin’s Mitchell street big attraction Crocosaurus Cove as visitors gape from above at our foolhardiness
All images (c) Isabel Conway except the first two which are from Wiki.
Tell me more about Top End Northern Territory
Isabel flew from London to Singapore (14 hours) with Singapore Airlines whose new premium economy class (from £1925 return) features a generous seat pitch, recline and leg rests, priority check in, on board champagne and other extras in the separate cabin. The 4 hour onward flight was with its sister carrier Silk Air.
Where to Sleep
Darwin has the full range of accommodation options. Try The Vibe Hotel, Waterfront district and downtown Oaks Elan Hotel Suites . Cicada Lodge at magnificent Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National park, deep in the bush features delicacies like seasoned crocodile tail and kangaroo fillets. Wildman Wilderness Lodge on the edge of Mary River wetlands is another authentic outback experience but with all the little luxuries. In Jabiru bizarre crocodile shaped Mercure hotel stands out.
What to see
Kakadu National park’s Yellow Water Billabong, spectacular rock art site of Ubirr at sunset, mysterious Nourlangie, a dinner cruise at Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, daybreak on the Mary River floodplains. Darwin’s hop on hop off bus tour for all the sights including Crocosaurus Cove and the Outback float plane adventure led by a star of National Geographic TV ‘s ‘Outback Wrangler Matt Wright, animal expert and modern day Mick Dundee. Eating out: Lots of options from macho steak joints to Asian fare. Hot Tamale on Darwin waterfront served up good Mexican fare and The Cav (www.thecavenagh.com) had a great lively atmosphere serving up huge succulent grilled steaks. By far the best Thai restaurant (possibly throughout the awesome size of the Northern Territory) is Hanumans (www.hanuman.com.au) on Darwin’s Mitchell street entertainment hub specialising in Thai and Indian inspired menus.
When to go
The best time to visit the Northern Territory is during the dry season between May and late September. Tropical summer Nov-April is intensely hot and humid but flora and fauna are flourishing .For further information see www.tourismtopend.com.au and www.kakadutourism.com