Australia’s Northern Territory is shaped like a tombstone, its base lodged deep in the red central deserts and jutting up to touch exotically-named bodies of water like the Timor Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria. The state’s human population mostly congregates along the Stuart Highway, a north-south spine of bitumen that links Darwin in the north and Alice Springs in the south, and continues on to distant South Australia. You drive a long way to get to the Northern Territory, and you have to drive a bloody long way to leave it. We entered from the north-west, from Kununurra, and our first destination was Borroloola by the Gulf, where some friends live, and we had two weeks to fill crossing the state from west to east.
To that end, we stopped for a walk in pretty Keep River National Park and hung out at Mataranka for a few days, floating down thermally-heated Bitter Springs, its crystalline waters clogged with school holiday crowds. We then escaped these crowds by barrelling down the Roper Highway towards Limmen National Park.
When Life Gives You Limmens
Limmen is a long swathe of protected land that parallels the Gulf of Carpentaria coast, a place of lush riverbanks and dusty tablelands. It’s not widely known beyond fishermen’s circles, and so its roads and campgrounds were mostly empty even at the height of school holidays.
By the Roper River.
We spent almost a week slowly bumping our way along 350 kilometres of dirt road from top to bottom. We heard dingoes howling on the bank of the Roper River, and we may have heard crocodiles. By this I mean that we heard a frog-like noise that I later matched, with the help of David Attenborough and YouTube, to the call of a baby crocodile. Later, we heard a very large creature swishing through the undergrowth along the riverbank, right below our campsite. Thank heavens for the roof tent.
Later, we stopped for lunch where the road took us through (not over — there are no bridges in Limmen) the Towns River, hoping to spot a croc. This was easy because one was watching us from the water when we pulled up. He (or she, I suppose) would disappear underwater and then surface five minutes later, downstream and a little closer to the bank, and we would scoot off after it, binoculars in hand. Then it would disappear again. This process repeated a couple of times until I realised it may have been trying to lure us closer to the water. Crocodiles are not like sharks — they don’t take a bite of human by mistake, think “Ergh! Yuck!” and swim away. Given the chance, a crocodile will quite happily eat you.
Limmen’s “Southern Lost City”
In Borroloola we visited Harry, a friend I’ve known since we were very little fellows, and his girlfriend Kate, a Dutchwoman who is thriving in the sort of outback heat that would grind most Australian men into exhausted, emotional wrecks. They’re busy people and I’m extremely grateful that they made time to show Hailee and me their world. We had a sort of outback dinner party atop a nearby escarpment, we played cards by the Wearyan River and had a generally quiet, easy time hanging at their cosy pad.
Like much of Australia, the town of Borroloola has a colourful, at times confronting history. At least three Aboriginal communities lived in the vicinity when the explorer Ludwig Leichardt passed through in 1845. The town was built in anticipation of prosperous cattle farming, but without a police station it quickly became a haven for all sorts of nefarious characters, from cattle rustlers to bushrangers to “black birding” slave traders. It saw an extended period of warfare between the indigenous communities and invading pastoralists — though most historians prefer the term “dispersal” to “war” and “invasion.” And now, like many country towns, it is a bustling way station, a place to stop on the way to somewhere else, with a few businesses for the tourists, the townsfolk and the farmers who work the surrounding land. In short: a little Australian town, just like any other.
But a walk around the streets of Borroloola didn’t feel anything like the Australia most of us are familiar with. I felt like a foreigner here, an unsettling sensation that would have quickly moved me on if I wasn’t there to see twinkle-eyed Harry and lovely Kate, whose friendship opened a window, of sorts, onto this place.
Borroloola is no more than a backwater in the grand scheme of things, one of many such backwaters across northern Australia. You could say nothing really happens there. But I’m starting to think that the fate of that little town and its inhabitants are more important to the cultural and even spiritual health of this nation than anything that goes down in Splendid Sydney, Marvellous Melbourne or Parliament House itself.
The Tourist Trail!
As we followed the Territory’s spine up the Stuart Highway, I was struck by just how many travellers there are up here. During school holidays, at the height of the dry season, the rental vans, backpacker wagons and grey nomad spaceships outnumber local vehicles by about three to one. The result is that our people watching (a favourite Quinten and Hailee pastime) usually involves watching other tourists, and any story of a road trip around Australia would be incomplete without an attempt to describe them. So here goes.
There are exceptions (families, modern-day swagmen), but the vast majority of travellers in Australia fall into one of two groups. The first is:
Curiously enough, you never see British backpackers in Australia until you start hanging around the big city party hostels. Poms never venture beyond a small inner-city circle that includes the hostels where they live and the British and/or Irish-themed pubs where they work and drink. So the vast majority of backpackers we meet are French, German, Dutch and Italian (in that order), the Working Holiday Crowd.
Backpackers travel in a variety of battered and bruised vehicles, mostly vans, station wagons and very specific types of four-wheel drives — fifteen year-old Nissan Pathfinders and Mitsubishi Pajeros, to be precise. All these vehicles have various tents, jerry cans and ancient surfboards lashed tenuously to the roof, and some backpackers will even wedge extra jerry cans into their bull bars.
All backpackers have put in long, hard months at various fruit- and vegetable-picking jobs around the country. All will also experience some kind of vehicular breakdown at some point, mainly due to the age of their vehicles and their natural aversion to mechanic workshops. Common Topics of Conversation with backpackers include “My Visa Situation,” “Who Had the Shittiest Fruit Picking Job” and “I Can’t Wait to Get to Asia, Where I Can Afford to Eat.”
We all know the other common kind of Australian traveller:
The Grey Nomads
If I was an entrepreneur with a time machine, I’d go back 15 years and start building caravans. A handful of enterprising businesses are welcoming the baby boomers into retirement with the mobile homes of their dreams, and getting filthy rich in the process. The roads up here are crawling with grey nomads, all towing models like “The Crusader,” “The Patriot” (featuring a map of Australia emblazoned with the Union Jack) and “The Kokoda: Tribute Edition.”
These trailers — towed by large, late-model Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols — range from single axle, off-road, fold-out tents to humungous American-style mansions on wheels, with a wonderland of sizes and styles in between. The favourite grey nomad pastime is to park in a highway rest stop and spend hours setting up awnings, unfolding solar panels, hooking up portable showers and even constructing playpens for the small dogs they’ve brought along. The grey nomad then stands around, admiring not the landscape, but the caravan they’ve towed into it.
Watching the nomads navigate their overlarge caravans in and out of campsites is particularly entertaining. The woman (always the woman) will stand and use various hand signals and code words to direct the man (always the man), who is seated at the wheel. The efficiency of this communication is usually a good barometer for how well the relationship is holding up. We’ve witnessed plenty of meltdowns, and even a couple using walkie-talkies to communicate across the 15 metres between the driver’s seat and the rear end of the caravan.
Favourite Topics of Conversation among grey nomads include “Which Way Ya Going? (Clockwise or Anti-Clockwise? Up or Down?),” “I’ve Been On Much Rougher Roads Than This One” and “You Can’t Go ‘Round Australia In Six Months!”
Once a grey nomad learns that Hailee is American, they will usually make some kind of witty, almost poetic comment about Donald Trump. A sampling:
“I think that bloke’s mouth is about seventeen words ahead of his brain.”
“From Washington, are ya? Isn’t that where your mate Donnie’s draining the swamp?” (When Hailee responds to the “Where in America?” question with “Seattle, Washington,” Australians often confuse the state of Washington with Washington, D.C. Fair enough, I reckon.)
“I’ll tell you what I think of him: I think he’s a prick.”
Quick Side Note
Most nomads then proceed to predict World War Three in the near future, usually involving the United States, Russia, China, North Korea and lots of nuclear warheads. These cheery forecasters of doom don’t seem too worried about this impending catastrophe — because they won’t live long enough to deal with the consequences — but their departure always leaves Hailee and I a little quiet and depressed. With sanctions going nowhere and the rhetoric getting out of control, has anyone tried sending Kim Jong Un an ounce of weed, some rolling papers and the My Morning Jacket discography? This amateur diplomat believes it might just work.
Mr. Kim, pop this on the palace sound system and let Jim James’ heavenly voice sweep you back to sanity.
Anyway, As I Was Saying…
Grey nomads and backpackers make up the vast majority of the travellers in Australia, though unfortunately there is some tension between the two groups. The nomads mainly dislike backpackers because backpackers don’t have bathrooms tucked away in their vans, meaning they must do their business in the great outdoors. The more ignorant backpackers don’t carry shovels with them to bury their turds, and some neglect to bury or burn their toilet paper. The nomads also dislike (and this is a direct quote) the “computer music” backpackers sometimes play when they congregate in free camping areas.
On the other hand, backpackers dislike grey nomads because the nomads vastly outnumber them, and have a habit of swarming all over popular free camping areas, hogging all the best spots with their oversized trailers by two o’clock in the afternoon. Some of the more ignorant grey nomads spend all their time inside watching television, which they power with loud, petrol-burning generators that ruin the ambience for anyone within a kilometre radius.
Most of this hostility finds its outlet in the Wiki Camps app, which most travellers use to find free camping along busy highways. The app allows users to post comments, which can be about anything from the toilet paper situation in bathrooms, to particularly good spots hidden further into the bush, to humble brags about not getting bogged on the way in.
“Shame about the arsehole running his generator all afternoon,” a backpacker will comment.
“Thumbs down to the backpackers leaving toilet paper everywhere. Why do they have to come here and ruin our beautiful country?” a grey nomad will retort the next day.
“I saw plenty of Australian people leaving rubbish as well. Backpackers pick your fruit and pay taxes,” replies a backpacker.
“Fine campground, except for the bloody big group of German youths who came in late AS USUAL,” responds a nomad.
And so it goes. I’m almost ashamed to admit how much fun Hailee and I derive from reading Wiki Camp comments.
For our part, Hailee and I move easily among both factions. Hailee is a backpacker, after all. She can relate about visa situations, and holds her own in the “Who Had the Shittiest Fruit Picking Job” conversations. Meanwhile, the lack of young Australians travelling within Australia means I tend to fit in with the grey nomads by default.
“Armidale!” they crow when they ask where I’m from. “Bloody freezing, awful place. Nothing to see. We’ve been there three times!”
Litchfield National Park
For months, grey nomads of all stripes had been telling Hailee and I that Kakadu National Park — Australia’s largest, most treasured national park — is overrated. Litchfield, they say, is the true gem.
It doesn’t take long to work out why. The Northern Territory’s national park campgrounds are the best (and cheapest) we’ve encountered so far, but those at Litchfield offer another level of luxury. The toilets flush, there are sinks for washing up and not only are there showers, there are hot showers! The park is small, most of the roads are paved, and it seems you’re never more than fifty metres’ walk from yet another stunning waterfall, complete with a swimmable water hole. It ticks all the boxes!
We spent a lot longer in Litchfield than we planned, channelling our inner grey nomads as we wallowed in Florence Falls and pretty Sandy Falls. The only reason we left was the arrival of a long weekend and with it, families. There is no better contraceptive than a night surrounded by three year-old campers.
Even the noise of this lot is preferable to three year-old humans.
Despite Australia’s ongoing obsession with the world wars, the NT’s capital is the only spot where World War Two actually touched the continent in a meaningful way.
The city was bombed by Japan in 1942, which was undoubtedly awful for residents at the time. But at least their descendants can comfort themselves with the piles of money they earn from domestic tourists, who traipse between a series of concrete structures marking various World War Two-era gun placements, storage tanks and parade grounds. None of these relics are at all interesting (the “World War Two Tunnels” being a possible exception, whatever they are) but they’re related to the war, and have therefore been sealed off as permanent monuments to the courageous, the superior, the superhuman Australian Digger… as if we need any reminding.
Propaganda aside, Darwin is a new, diverse city arranged along the spectacular blues of Beagle Bay. We found an inner-city hippy vibe at the Nightcliffe Markets, young American marines blasting country tunes in the parks of East Point and a vibrant pub scene made somewhat menacing by the tribal-tattooed presence of modern Diggers, locally known as “army jerks” (or “AJ’s” for short).
We got Steve serviced, stocked up on water, food and fuel and gunned it for…
I’m going to have to disagree with the nomads on this one — Kakadu is a pretty special place. It’s mostly run by the Bininj (pronounced “binning”) people, who have been living in the area for, oh, about 65,000 years. The swamps, forests and rivers of Kakadu are broken here and there with outcrops of sandstone, whose overhangs provided seasonal shelter for generations of Bininj.
The rocks of these shelters are canvases for all sorts of art. In places where food was prepared, diagrams detail the innards of kangaroos, turtles, goannas and various species of fish. Some paintings facilitated the telling of fables, which instructed young people on responsibilities to their kin and the community. Many of these paintings are 10,000 years old. Some, like depictions of “Mimi” spirits on a high, unreachable patch of rock, or the rainbow serpent herself near the famous Ubirr lookout, are said to be self-portraits, painted by those creation beings themselves.
X-ray kitchen painting.
Self Portrait, by Rainbow Serpent. Ochre and stone. Date: the beginning of time.
(Author’s Note: I’ve just finished typing a bunch of enthusiastic paragraphs which, if I include them here, would make this already-lengthy post take up even more of your time. So I’m setting them aside for another post that will go up reasonably soon. For now, let me summarise: The rock art in Kakadu is really, really cool.)
We ambled around billabongs, climbed sandstone towers and took in the truly Territorian spectacle that is Cahill’s Crossing. Cahill’s is the main link between the national park and Arnhem Land, a large territory owned and managed by Aboriginal people, and the East Alligator River (an early European explorer got his crocodilians mixed up) marks the border between the two.
Vehicles regularly plunge through the river, which can be deceptively powerful at times. Just downstream, somebody’s Land Cruiser is resting, upside down, on the riverbed. The river is also chock-full of saltwater crocodiles. We stood high on the riverbank, watching them watching us as they cruised under the steam of their powerful tails. We watched one large fellow chase a slightly less-large fellow off a riverbank. And we watched them watching a fisherman who decided this was a perfect spot to stand right by the murky water, casting his line.
That face in the water at bottom-right is a crocodile, making this possibly the most Northern Territory photo of all time.
Kakadu also has its share of waterfalls and waterholes. The rangers do try to keep salties out, but they take great pains to explain that crocodiles can re-enter a waterhole at any time, and tourists therefore swim at their own risk. Despite the warnings we kept finding the waterholes full of flabby, tender nomads floating happily on their foam noodles. Reasoning that any croc would surely prefer a bite of nomad over us skinny, underfed young’uns, we jumped in too.
…but how can you say no to a dip?
The highlight of Kakadu was Jim Jim Falls, even though the waterfall itself was barely there this late in the dry season. Getting there involved 50 kilometres of corrugated dirt, followed by a winding four-wheel drive track (Hailee broke the four-by-four gender gap here!) and then a stroll up a gorge.
“Bleh,” I thought. “All this for another gorge and another waterfall?!”
Somehow, it was worth the journey – despite the clunk that has developed in one of Steve’s shock absorbers since the Jim Jim Road. At this time of year, long since the last rains of the wet season, the water doesn’t fall so much as drift off the edge of the cliff, through a full 150 metres of empty space. The waterhole at the bottom is deep, wide, and surrounded by smooth, perpendicular cliffs interrupted by the odd improbable bush clinging to some crack.
With the expiry of Hailee’s visa now rapidly approaching, we held our nerve and went slow through the Top End. We took the Bininj’s advice and, as they might say, “moved slowly through country” — by modern whitefella standards, at least. Sounds cheesy, but it felt like the top half of the tombstone recognised this, and threw a little love our way in return.
A photo of a sunset, to round out a cheesy ending.