It lies, always, in the outer shadows of the Australian consciousness - the knowledge that the great Australian loneliness has pressed most of the continent's people to the edge. More than eighty per cent of Australians really do live on the eastern sea-board which includes of course shiny Sydney, mellow Melbourne and the fast growing Brisbane. The rest live hard in the blistering heat of the back-country, digging the opal fields of Lightning Ridge, pearling off Broome or running the vast stations which gave this country her promising beginnings in a modern, commercial world.
But it's this small group which has produced Australia's instantly identifiable image - the booted, Akubra-hatted, laconic bushie who doesn't suffer fools gladly, and who calls a spade a 'bloody shovel' when necessary.
I'm happy to say this character is alive and well and, unlike many animal species, is not endangered in Australia's Northern Territory. You'll find him as your driver as you head for Kakadu in your four-wheel drive, recognise him as your park warden detailing the mating habits of the King Brown (snake), or telling you a hair-raising story of how, only last week, a "big croc, took a horse right off the edge of the billabong" where you were planning a comfort stop behind a friendly bush.
You'll come to know him too, as a pupil of the local Aborigines, traditional and current owners of Kakadu, who pass onto him their inherited tribal knowledge fire control and land regeneration. You'll dine with him in the night's camp and be grateful to him as he hauls you up the last sharp, tricky bit of Obiri Rock from where you'll watch an almost mystical sunset.
Our northern safari started in Darwin. Modern Darwin offers much to do, much to see. The Museum of Arts and Sciences is a stand out, housing a permanent collection of Australian work and exceptional Aboriginal works. (It is also home, in perpetuity, to Sweetheart, a huge stuffed croc, who once terrorised local fishermen by munching off their outboards as they fished.)
... only last week, a "BIG CROC, took a horse right off the edge of the BILLABONG"...
Worth visiting too is Aquascene where you can feed hundreds of fish by hand as their schools come in on the high tide(check your hotel for times), the Territory Wildlife Park and Fanny Bay Gaol, where gloom and gallows result in a good old shiver up the spine. Of course, a jaunt to the Skycity Darwin Casino is almost obligatory, but bear in mind this is not the kind of casino James Bond would have frequented in his elegant tux. The dress code's list of what not to wear tells you a lot about the potential clientele. For example, the following are not allowed: 'rubber thongs [read flip flops] , masseur sandals, beach sandals ,Crocs [as in shoes not animals], singlets, sleeveless t-shirts ,tank tops'. You get the picture.
Moving on from Darwin, our safari took us eastward towards Kakadu, our Territorian explaining that the land, and Kakadu in particular, are absolutely central to Aboriginal life and culture. Here, there is a wholeness, an empathy between both man and animal, man and the landscape, which will remain forever elusive to outsiders, who merely glimpse its powerful presence.
Legend has it, that the Aborigines came on wind and tide to this continent aeons ago, and seeing themselves part of nature, sang much of it into existence. Today, the connection between the two remains spiritual.
You'll feel it too, as you travel deep into the National Park along the Jim Jim road, the outback route to Kakadu. Kakadu, named after its first Aboriginal inhabitants, the Gagadju (whose original pronunication was lost in white man's nineteenth-century written translation), was added to the World Heritage List of natural and cultural treasures in 1981.
It is a place of wonder where wildlife abounds in a landscape of antiquity. You'll see spear grass which seems to march to the red-rocked base of a dramatic escarpment, tumbling waterfalls with rainbows bouncing off their white- water spumes and narrow gutted gorges of impossible steepness. The countryside is rich with waterholes and billabongs, the ponds often edged by tall paperbarks. Butterflies are everywhere, and the sun rises to a dawn bird chorus which can border on deafening.
We go to Yellow Waters for a cruise, and are instantly reminded of how unchanging, how ancient is the wide brown land we glide by. We visit Nourlangie Rock with its extraordinary rock art, and walk a green bush trail.
Kakadu's once endangered crocodiles are now thriving back in their old home billabongs. These crocs, the biggest reptiles in the world, are a cornerstone of Aboriginal culture. The large stones they carry in their stomachs to help them grind food, are considered sacred objects in some Aboriginal ceremonies. So important are the crocodiles, they have their own special Dreaming sites.
The following morning, I think every bird in Kakadu decided to be our alarm clock, but whether the calls came from the darters or herons, the jabirus, brolgas, egrets, plovers, eagles or spoon-bills, all of whom live and sing in the park, remains a mystery. To city ears, only the squabbling squawk of the corellas, and the screech of the other cockatoos were recognisable.
Now awake our safari moved on to see the celebrated drawings of Obiri Rock. Believed to be more than 20,000 years old, the art depicts scenes of traditional tribal life. While some of us sat, like those earliest inhabitants of the region, in the cool overhang of the rock, others went for a short bush walk to see the superb views across the wetlands. 'Sheets of water studded with rafts of lilies stretched before us, while a setting crimson sun created shafts of brightness with pink and rose reflections shimmering on the water. Earlier in that long, golden afternoon, the hardy ones had taken a flight by small aircraft over the spectacular Arnhem Land Escarpment, returning with stories of red cliffs and rocky outcrops.
One of the fascinations of Kakadu is its variety of enticements: the monsoonal forests, the wetlands with their spectacular and prolific bird life, the ancient rock art sites, and the park's abundant wildlife. Part of Kakadu's beauty is gargantuan in scale, and part of it is of a more intimate kind. One small image we carried home with us was of a small billabong, whose obsidian surface flaunted a thick cushion of waterlilies, all cream and mauve-tipped.
There are two distinct seasons in Kakadu, the 'wet', or 'green' season and the 'dry'. The wet is roughly from October to March, when the rivers flood and the park virtually disappears under water. It's a magnificent, though hot, time to visit, with waterfalls roaring in flood, and waterlilies seemingly stretching all the way to the horizon. When the waters recede, the land reverts to an iron-hard country, of a more demanding beauty, patiently biding her time until the rains come again. So imbued with the mystery and spirit of Aboriginal lore and legend is Kakadu that some of its magical power seems to rub off on visitors. It's an experience not to be missed.
The Luxury Travel Bible recommends staying at
Bamurru Plains for a luxury camping experience just west of Kakadu National Park in the Mary River flood plains. Bamurru was created by Charles Carlow's Wild Bush Safaris which also runs the sublime Sal Salis in Western Australia and the newly opened Arkaba Station in South Australia. Carlow is an enviromentalist who cut his teeth in Africa and has brought that African safari blend of luxury and wildness to Australia.
Words: Jill Mullens . Photos: Frank Mullens 18/3/10