Katie McGonagle discovers big crocs, even bigger rocks and whole lot of roll on a fam trip to the Northern Territory
Nature is notoriously unpredictable, so as we queued up to board the small vessel ready to take us out crocodile spotting on Kakadu National Park’s Yellow Water Billabong, I tried not to get my hopes up.
I’ve been on whale-watching cruises and barely seen a fin, and gone looking for bears and come back with pictures of a blurry blob in the distance, so with a far-from-perfect success record of wildlife-watching, I wasn’t overly optimistic about my chances.
A dozen or so crocodile sightings later, that scepticism was long-gone amid a flurry of excitement. We’d seen baby crocs with jaws wide open to keep themselves cool, wizened monster-sized crocs with battle scars testifying to their testy nature, and sneaky types surfacing for a moment or two then disappearing just as we rushed to get a good view.
We weren’t just lucky – with around 10,000 saltwater crocs to be found in Kakadu, this is fertile ground for crocodile spotting – and for a host of other flora and fauna too.
The Top End is fruitful territory for increasing Australia bookings too. Offering a mix of outback, Aboriginal culture, fascinating wildlife and easy access via Darwin, this is a region that deserves to be higher up on travellers’ wish-lists.
Wild at heart
Kakadu National Park boasts some impressive statistics: at 7,500 square miles it’s about half the size of Switzerland; it’s home to a third of Australia’s bird species; and it’s one of only four Australian sites which are World Heritage-listed for both outstanding natural beauty and cultural significance.
Both of the latter two aspects are in evidence on the Aboriginal-run Yellow Water Cruises by Gagudju Dreaming, which also owns Cooinda Lodge and Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, which is shaped like its namesake when viewed from above.
As well as a bumper crop of crocodiles, the mother-and-son team who led our cruise pointed out magpie geese in the adjacent wetlands, sacred ibis and red-breasted sea eagles in the skies, all the while offering informative commentary about their Aboriginal ancestors.
Anyone interested in knowing more should squeeze in a quick visit to the excellent Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre. This modern, easy-to-follow display traces the history of the Aboriginal tribes that once roamed these lands, explaining their complex society, languages, and customs which no longer exist – essential viewing for any visitor wanting to put what they see into context.
Another absolute must are the ancient rock art sites dotted around, most famously at Nourlangie and Ubirr. The latter is utterly awe-inspiring, not only because its rock faces are adorned with paintings up to a mind-blowing 20,000 years old, but because the subjects are so recognisable. There are ‘X-ray’ paintings of barramundi and other fish, a ‘white fella’ with his hands in his pockets (the Aboriginals’ depiction of a European visitor from the late 19th century), and a painting of the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger showing the age of these artworks.
Anyone feeling energetic enough to climb to the top of the rock – it’s a quick and easy hike – is rewarded with breathtaking 360-degree views across the floodplains. It’s the kind of scene that panoramic mode was made for.
You know you’re somewhere hot when even the trees get a tan. But that’s exactly what happens to the native eucalyptus alba trees lining the roads, whose pale white bark strips off as it dies, leaving the fresh bark underneath to colour under the sun and end up a rather fetching shade of peach.
That’s nothing to the rich rusty hues of Katherine Gorge, though, the next highlight in our tour of the Top End. Like Kakadu, this spot is as significant for its culture as for its natural assets. It remains home to more than 5,000 Jawoyn people, whose beliefs say the rainbow serpent Bolung still resides in one part of the gorge, and who call the area by its traditional name, Nitmiluk, or place of the cicada.
It’s as dramatic a landscape as you’re ever likely to come across: towering sandstone sides rush down to deep waters, which can hide the odd crocodile in the wet season but are safe to swim or kayak the rest of the year.
Commissionable tours can be organised through Cicada Lodge, the high-end property that opened last year as an alternative for luxury-seeking guests to the relatively basic accommodation in Katherine, and run in partnership with the Jawoyn people.
There are dawn and sunset cruises (£45 and £80, the latter including dinner), scenic flights (from £54 for three gorges up to £129 to see the full 13 gorges in all their glory) or a helicopter tour focusing on Jawoyn rock art sites (£273).
Anyone who fancies indulging their own artistic side can do so at the Top Didj Cultural Experience. It’s touristy, but serves as a decent introduction to Aboriginal culture with a talk by local guide Manuel Pamkal, then a chance to try traditional cross-hatch-style rarrk painting, learn how to make fire, throw a spear and even meet the resident baby wallabies which hop around on site (£36 per adult, £25 per child, or £109 for a family of four).
On the rails
Self-drives are a popular way to get around, but those who want to sit back and watch the scenery go by in style could opt for iconic rail journey The Ghan, which stretches from Darwin to Adelaide.
Named after the Afghan camel riders who traversed the continent in the 19th century, this is a little piece of Australian history not to be missed – although it might surprise some to know the long-awaited Alice Springs to Darwin section has been in operation only for the past 10 years.
Red Service seats give clients the basic experience, but it’s in Gold and Platinum class that The Ghan really shines. Between the glitzy gold and plum furnishings in the lounge car and the regal decor of the Queen Adelaide restaurant car (with top-notch dining to match), this option will transport guests to an era of elegant train travel. Add to that included off-train excursions and complimentary hotel pick-up, and this becomes an even better sell.
Gold cabins are well-appointed but still a fairly tight squeeze with twin bunk beds and a compact shower, while Platinum passengers enjoy a double bed, big windows and a bit more space.
Prices for the three-day journey from Darwin to Adelaide, or vice-versa, lead in at £1,327 for Gold Service or £1,971 in Platinum, while shorter journeys terminating in Alice Springs – gateway to Uluru – are also available.
Vicki Regan, Travel Australia
One of the best experiences on this trip has to be The Ghan. The service on board was amazing, and there are various activities to do while the train stops in Katherine and Alice Springs. It has definitely helped to explain to clients why it’s worth it.
Sherol D’Costa, Travelpack
Our visit to Ubirr was my favourite because it was amazing to see a collection of Aboriginal rock paintings, some many thousands of years old. And from the top of Ubirr rock the panoramic view of the floodplains was breathtaking.
Noora Stanforth, Anzcro
I loved the Yellow Water Billabong Cruise. It was amazing to see the crocodiles in their own habitat and hear from people whose families have lived there for thousands of years. I would recommend the Northern Territory to anyone interested in the outdoors, wildlife and Aboriginal culture.
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