Top End Traumas (Katherine & Kakadu)
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”
Announced John F Kennedy in September 1962. 40 years later I decided to become a spacecraft engineer, and, having failed to go to the moon after another 5, was now embarking on my next adventure, heading for Australia’s Top End during The Build Up. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
Why travel halfway around the World just to sit in the Irish bar in Sydney when there’s a perfectly good one in Birmingham?
Was a question I had raised many a time on my travels, and whilst people should always do what they want to do, I thought it summed up my opinions of rewarding travel experiences rather well. Many an Australian even, had baulked at my travel plans
“Darwin! During the Build Up?! You’re mad! Head south I tell ya, ya Pommie bast&rd.”
Was the oft heard response. But why lie on a sunny, comfortable beach sipping cool beer forever when you can head for the Top End and find out just what it’s like to live in the boot of a car everyday in 34 degree heat and 90% humidity, as the stifling and suffocating build up to the monsoon season makes everyone go “Troppo”?
Sydney was a long, long way back down the road, Darwin was only 3 hours away and I was exactly where I wanted to be. First stop was stunning Katherine Gorge where I camped out for a couple of days and enjoyed morning walks through the gorges and afternoon canoe trips to cool off. The heat and humidity was indeed unbearable but the scenery was fantastic, and with no-one else heading to the Top End this time of year, rather serene. I paddled for a few hours down the Katherine River, stopping occasionally for a swim and a rest as the sun beat down and the gorges towered high. Apparently there were no crocs in this part of the river, although it’s fair to say it wasn’t the most relaxed swimming I’ve ever done. Crocs though, have a harsh reputation I’ve decided. Flies I’ve already stated, are clearly Australia’s worst pest, but some of their equally miniature colleagues were about to cause me far more grief than the crocs ever had. Back at camp, I cooked up a tasty meal to celebrate a great day on the river, and then took a shower, unaware that the lamp behind me was rapidly attracting a huge swarm of excitable moths. Suddenly I was surrounded and I was apparently more attractive than the light. I set off at pace, aiming for the safety of Gumdrop, frantically waving my arms for protection. Halfway across the site I passed the rude Isrealis with their loud music playing. Fortunately for me, they’d left their car door open and half the swarm immediately veered left towards the light. My smirk didn’t last long though as, with Gumdrop in sight, I promptly lost my towel… It’s with a tinge of sadness I feel, that the cover of darkness prevented the World from witnessing my comical and frantic nude sprint, but in hindsight, perhaps it was for the best. I fell asleep unaware that the next swarm of pesky insects were already doing their worst.
Next morning I woke early and fired up Gumdrop. Nothing. Not a sound. Bugger. Ginger ants, some of the smallest ants I’ve ever seen, but unfortunately for me, particularly determined little sh1ts who stop at nothing to chew through a car’s electrics… Not often a problem in Birmingham, it clearly was in the Northern Territory. This was a problem no amount of coat hangers or red tape could solve and I was in trouble. With the Isrealis already gone, I set off walking randomly through the trees to seek help. My chances were slim. I needed a man who knew a lot about car electrics, and ginger ants. Before long I stumbled upon the mechanic’s yard for the Katherine River Cruise boats where I found a friendly and helpful man. He knew a lot about 3 things – boats, car electrics, and ginger ants. Good fortune had smiled upon me and, after learning a lot about car electrics and ginger ants, I was back on the road north, now with a considerable supply of insect repellent.
Up next was Kakadu, a national park the size of Denmark that finds itself quite rightly on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I stopped at Cooinda for the night and performed my now regular routine of trying to decide which was worse – mosquitos, or the unbearable humidity of sleeping with the windows shut. As was the norm, I slept with windows and doors open, got bitten and still sweated restlessly all night long. The next morning though provided me with what will surely be one of my favourite memories of Australia – cruising the Yellow Water Billabong. Our little tin boat set off atop perfectly still and undisturbed waters as our friendly guide immediately set about laying into the solitary Pom. She reminded me about the cricket, I reminded her about the rugby and she reminded me who was in charge of the boat. Fortunately, it became apparent that the family in front of me were from Geelong and I was spared. We cruised on beneath clear blue skies as lush green wetlands stretched away from us in all directions. An idyllic and tranquil sight disturbed only by the occasional Concorde style take-offs from large Brolgas (the iconic Northern Territory bird). It was hard to believe, in the silent and beautiful calm, that at the same time, a dozen or so 3-4m long saltwater crocodiles were quietly peering out of the waters around our boat. Instant and violent death was only a couple of metres away. We cruised on and, as we learnt more about the incredible knowledge of the local aboriginal communities from our excellent guide, we saw a 3m croc sat menacingly on the bank.
“So, that chap over there then, you’re saying he’s big enough to overpower a human?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d say so” replied our guide,
“He could probably take a 200 pound buffalo straight off the bank. You’d never even know he was there.”
“Crikey, I’m glad there’s none of these fellas in the Katherine River, beautiful for swimming that place isn’t it” I continued.
“Katherine River? Hmmm, you’d never catch me swimming in there!”
“Erm…erm…and…erm… why not?”
“Well, ya never know when one of these big fellas could move in overnight, during a flood or anything ya see. Nope, you’d never catch me in those waters!”
“Erm… erm… no… quite…”
We glided on and I resolved never to swim again. A decision soon backed up by a truly incredible sight. One croc had caught a large Barramundi and, right before our boat, ripped it mercilessly to pieces. Before he could even enjoy his kill though, two other huge crocs moved in and we had a stand off. Much thrashing, hissing and groaning ensued as the successful hunter clung on tightly to his catch and made off for shelter with the other two in pursuit. Nothing staged, nothing faked for the tourists, but pure wild animals doing what they do best. The beauty, calm silence and imminent violence of Kakadu really can’t be described with words, but that morning on the Yellow Water Billabong will forever sit high on the list of memories from all of the countries I’ve been lucky enough to visit so far.