Comes With The Territory


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Published: September 8th 2010
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If you really want to get away from it all, it’s hard to go past the Northern Territory.

Or at least so you’d have to think.

An area ten times the size of England whose entire population could be comfortably housed within the confines of Reading and still have plenty room left for visitors come festival time.

And as they nearly all choose to live in just two small towns nigh on two days drive apart, if it’s wide open spaces you’re after, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Thing is, though, most people aren’t really all that interested in wide open spaces unless there’s actually something in them.

And therein lies the rub.

While the Northern Territory really does have a good handful of the most drop-dead gorgeous hotpots you’ve ever laid eyes on, you can pretty much count right through them without any danger of running out of fingers. Admittedly some of the larger ones such as Ayer’s rock can handle a fair few folk, but such is the ease of 21st century travel that even they’re getting dangerously close to overcrowded.

And at the end of the day, it’s pretty hard to get away from it all when everyone else is there too.

Fortunately on this our fourth trip, we were amongst the lucky few.

As the years go by I’m growing increasingly wary of returning to places I’ve been before, particularly the ones I’ve really loved. Like movie sequels, it’s rare indeed to find one you enjoy as much as the original second time round, each one a paler trashier imitation of the last. I mean, seriously, has anyone ever even bothered to sit right through Police Academy 7?

It’s not too often you find somewhere improving with time, which makes it all the more special when one crops up, partly explaining why we ended up settling in Cairns in the first place. This being our fourth visit to the Territory I was particularly on edge, constantly wary lest bloody Jar-Jar Binks popped up out of nowhere out and ruined all my cherished memories with just one cheesy one-liner.

“Meesa thinks weesa goin’ have a fair-dinkum bloody ripper good time, mate!”

Fortunately the one advantage that comes with experience is local knowledge, and lessons learnt previously meant we’d arranged for the use of our very own 4-wheel drive Millennium Falcon this time round, so we could simply jump to hyperspace if ever the floppy-eared duck-billed pratt showed his face.

There were three main reasons for this particular vacation. Firstly, and most importantly, we’d now been back in the real world for well over six months, and so could just about get away with taking off on yet another bloody holiday without getting lynched by all our mates. Secondly it was a great chance to catch up with our good friends Paul & Charlene, who’d dubiously chosen to volunteer for a year-long stint working at the Royal Darwin Hospital. And thirdly this neatly allowed us to take advantage of joining them in their aforementioned 4-wheel drive in order to properly explore the fantastic Kakadu National Park.

When I say ‘properly explore’, of course, what I really mean is to at least escape the standard tourist rentacar loop, which we’d already circumnavigated on our previous trip (and very fine it was too, just in case you think I’m getting all elitist in my old age) and scrape a little further down into the dirt. Having said that, quite a few tourists have their own 4-wheel drives these days, as well as a good many of the more adventurous coach firms.

In any case, given Kakadu’s sheer size and impenetrability, to get the most from it you really need to either A) know a decent chopper pilot, B) get yourself a job as a Park Ranger, or C) be able to pull strings like David Attenborough. In fact really you’re going to need all three, and also have a chunk of time considerably longer than your average holiday’s going to allow.

This is one of the real tragedies of travel in general and holidays in particular; there just never seems to be enough time to really get to know a place. The vast majority of Europeans come to Australia just once in a lifetime, and then attempt to cover the entire continent in all of three weeks, generally experiencing very little apart from jetlag, third-degree sunburn and the dubious novelty of watching the water spiral down the plughole the wrong way (or the right way, as they’d maintain in this hemisphere). And typically this will be the longest holiday they’ve ever taken in their lives, certainly longer than the poor Japs, who will attempt the exact same thing inside a week, awakening the next Monday morning as tireder, redder and considerably dizzier version of their former selves, still confused over just how they ended up with a wide-brimmed corked hat atop their head.

The Aussies do the exact same thing in reverse, of course, fearlessly taking on a dream tour of Europe (as in the whole of Europe, these days quite often including the entire former Eastern bloc) in all of four weeks. To a man they’ll return saying they enjoyed the trip, but it’s good to be home, all reporting that the best bit was Oktoberfest, even if they went in April.

In any case to really conquer Kakadu you’ll need not only time, but also a PhD in ornithology, anthropology and psychology, this last to predict just when everyone else won’t be at your favourite hotspot. Sadly none of our little party had any of these, though perhaps our psychology skills weren’t that rusty after all, as somehow we managed to experience most of the best bits all to ourselves, chiefly by dint of attending at mealtimes, when everyone else seemed more interested in expanding their waistlines than experiencing solo serenity.

The truth is that almost nobody who goes to Kakadu ends up seeing the best of it, hopelessly underestimating the scale, inaccessibility, and sheer obscurity of its most fascinating drawcards. In fact for most, a much better time is to be had next-door at its fun-sized cousin Litchfield, neatly proving the point that in Australia, everybody needs good neighbours, even this far from Ramsay Street.

Litchfield National Park is not only far closer to Darwin, but also much more compact and liberally studded with the most amazingly beautiful waterholes, ones you can actually swim in too, as so-far the crocs of Kakadu don’t seem to have found their way down to this end of the cul-de-sac. As a result you really could just about get the most out of it in only three or four days, which probably explains why, strange as it may seem, most attempt to squeeze it into the course of a single day-trip, including the 300 kilometre return drive to Darwin.

It takes a much braver soul to dice with a dip in Kakadu, where your choice of stroke includes, in addition to your standard crawl, breast-stroke, back-stroke and butterfly the little-known local specialty of the death-roll, the one stroke Ian Thorpe sadly failed to master before retirement, content instead to throw his talents into a desperate tilt for the title of World’s Campest Heterosexual.

Fortunately Kakadu’s risks are widely known these days and death-roll students are few and far between, aided considerably by the graphic signage which reminds you at every opportunity that there are only two types of waterhole at Kakadu; ones where people have been eaten by crocodiles, and ones where people haven’t been eaten by crocodiles yet.

Debbie, on her first visit to here a decade ago, innocently swam right up to Twin Falls, which we now revisited, atop a li-lo in company with her entire tour group. She was thus somewhat startled on this occasion to see the banks festooned with croc-traps every hundred metres or so, a vain attempt to snag the local 4 metre inhabitant who has thus far eluded all attempts at capture, up to and including a recent bullet-in-the-head, which he calmly shrugged off as a mere flesh-wound. His presence, along with the unfortunate death of a 23-year old German girl swimming nearby in 2002, has led to a crackdown by the authorities, and these days you’re not allowed to so much as dip a toe in.

Fortunately down the road at Jim-Jim nobody’s been snapped up just yet, and the heat of the day is enough to tempt most mortal souls, ourselves included, to risk ringing the doorbell and seeing if anyone’s home, completing the 100m free-style across to the far side in the sort of time even Thorpie would be proud of. Ironically we’d once again managed to time it so we had the whole place to ourselves, just when we might have appreciated some safety in numbers.

All-in-all Jim-Jim’s splendour is enough to attract a surprisingly eclectic mix of punters, from 8 to 80. The numbers of the latter group are considerable, their ranks swelled by the indomitable grey-nomads, retirees who up-sticks to travel Australia in their caravans, sporting ‘hilarious’ bumper-stickers such as “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance” or “Adventure Before Dementia”. On this occasion we were joined by a determined old German chap who’d decided to go one better and attempt a spot of adventure after dementia, gamely indulging his lifetime’s dream of a trip to the Australian Outback despite having a wife in tow who appeared not to know which planet she was on, let alone which country. It was difficult to know whether to applaud his never-say-die attitude, or chide him for gross irresponsibility, though sadly we were persuaded towards the latter when he completely failed to get her home safely by nightfall, necessitating a rescue by the exasperated Rangers.

Apparently this is far from an isolated incident, our cheery campsite manager later joining us for a bloke’s chat round the campfire, and informing us that a good portion of his time these days was spent nannying certain guests who really should know better. A true Territorian, he bore a striking resemblance to Crocodile Dundee’s erstwhile bumbling sidekick ‘Wally’, and over the years had plainly become something of a philosopher, latterly learning to take the whole affair with a hefty pinch of salt.

“Well, it’s like women, isn’t it?” he confided conspiratorially.

A slight pause for effect, then he leaned in for the kill, clearly about to impart some vital secrets to us young jackaroos, gleaned from his years of experience with the fairer sex.

“You can’t tell ’em they’re fat.”

We gravely nodded agreement into our beers, desperately trying to avoid eye-contact lest we crack-up, but our guru wasn’t finished. Suspecting this might be news to us, he decided to elaborate, the better to cement the information in our minds.

“Oh, I know, they might actually be fat, but you can’t tell ‘em that. They get all offended!”

His intense glare implied he was speaking from experience, and the fact that he himself looked to be at least 21 months pregnant probably factored into the ladies’ considerable indignation.

‘Still, your two seem alright, eh?” he added as an afterthought, before waddling off to the next site to continue his evening’s impromptu marriage guidance sessions.

Other than helpful wardens and man-eating reptiles, Kakadu has another couple of features that Litchfield lacks, though I’d struggle to call them attractions.

Having said that, the first of these is a huge draw for many visitors, but unfailingly leaves me completely cold. It’s just one of a multitude of life’s dubious pleasures that are seemingly adored by the masses but totally fail to float my boat. These ‘mustn’t see attractions’ include (but are by no means limited to) mocktails, teen vampire flicks, Riverdance, and the entire accumulated works of a certain Mr Patrick Swayze (may his mullet forever rest in peace). And I hate to report here that I must solemnly add to this glittering list the entire sphere of Aboriginal Rock Art.

For me, the only explanation for its unfathomable popularity is the sense of relief that most parents feel on realising that they’ve finally stumbled upon a scribbler with even less talent than their little Billy, whose frankly third-rate five-year-olds’ scrawls are on display throughout their homes and workplaces, and occasionally even mailed to astonished relatives, all of whom instantly grasp that he’ll never be the next Michelangelo. For their part the Rock Artists never grew up to be accountants, town-planners or dodgy used-car salesmen, but persisted in their juvenile daubs for tens of thousands of years, by which time little Billy and his brethren had invented the wheel, electricity and aerosol cans, and indulged in an impromptu redecoration of the entire New York Subway, in my view still managing a result far more aesthetic than anything on display here.

Eventually of course little Billy grew tired of tagging and decided to move upstairs to Wall Street, from where he continued to follow his base desires, globalising his talents in a quest to vandalise the whole world. And astonishingly, these days, even Kakadu can’t escape his reach.

In a scene straight out of Avatar, slap bang in the middle of this World heritage listed wilderness lies a wealth of mineral riches in the form of the Ranger Uranium Mine. On screen, as we know, the native Na’avi people of Pandora are unlucky enough to reside straight over the universe’s largest concentration of ‘Unobtainium’, the most valuable element known to man. The Gagadju people of Kakadu find themselves in a remarkably similar situation with Uranium. In the 3D Hollywood version the greedy Wall Street types get their come-uppance when the Na’avi prove completely immune to the avarice of Western culture.

As our hero Jake reports ‘There’s nothing we have that they want. They’re not gonna give up their homes, they’re not gonna make a deal! You expect them to give up paradise for what? A cheap pair of blue jeans and a Lite Beer?’

Sadly, back in the real world at Kakadu there was just one thing the Gagadju fancied after all: cheap cask wine. Apparently after a carton or two even the Rock Art has killer special effects.

This goes a long way to explaining why Baz Luhrmann’s local cinematic epic ‘Australia’ was roundly trounced by Avatar at the Box Office. Well, that and Nicole Kidman’s acting, which has done almost as much damage to Australia’s International reputation as cheap cask wine.

The mine ensures that as well as tourist rentacars and slow-coach caravans, once in a while you’ll get held-up behind a massive roadtrain, carting into this pristine oasis 100-odd tonnes of concentrated sulphuric acid. As you can imagine, this is exactly the kind of scenario that makes the conservationists twitchy, as wading birds tend to have thinner skins than saltwater crocs, their twig-like legs appearing about as bullet-proof as those annoying paper straws you’d get once upon a time that used to collapse in on themselves when you were still only halfway through your Coke.

Fortunately the process of removing uranium from its ore has been scientifically devised and rigorously tested to ensure the process is 100% safe, the whole plant being hermetically sealed, and there is absolutely zero danger of the merest hint of a toxic product finding its way outside into the surrounding avian paradise. Then again, wasn’t that pretty much exactly what they were saying about Deepwater Horizon a few short months back at BP? Luckily as any fool (stupid enough to be involved in the nuclear industry) knows, even the most toxic radioactive spill will render itself completely harmless given time due to the wonders of radioactive decay, handy if you happen to have a quarter of a million years up you sleeve (now that really does sounds like my kind of holiday!).

Sadly we were on a somewhat tighter timeline this time round, and barely 250000 seconds after departing we found ourselves back in Darwin awaiting our return flight, enjoying one last night at Mindil Beach, famous for its marvellous markets and serene sunsets, which handily can be both experienced at once. You do have to be wary lest you miss the sun dipping into the waves while haggling over your ‘My mate went to Darwin and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’, but it just goes to show, even in this sleepy far-flung outpost of Victoria’s once great empire, fast-forward to the twenty-first century and time waits for no man.

Lesson learned: Get used to it.

Turns out these days, even way out here, it Comes With The Territory.

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