Frosts. Enough already! But it was heavy rain with milder conditions greeting me at five o’clock in the morning bound for Canberra Airport. Despite very little traffic, every light was red, the automatic check in counter didn’t recognise me and I was, with some sympathy, relayed the news that I was too late. I looked forlorn, beaten, empty. I felt as much. But throw in a few calls and they managed to arrange some fog in Brisbane to delay my flight and leave me with a 12 hour trip to Darwin. Annoying but also blessed.
It is hard to be anything but languid in the tropics. I felt the odd man out putting on trousers and shoes to undertake work. But in between there were outdoor coffee stop laptop catch ups, esplanade strolls, and post-work reduced-price eating at the Mindil Beach Night Markets. And there were shorts, fully taking advantage of The Dry, which provides an unstinting predictability of blue skies and 33 degrees. Darwin grew on me, but mainly because it wasn’t The Wet. And I’m not sure I could live here, because it only seems to attain adequate on the coffee measurement scale.
Having come so far, I was determined to explore beyond Darwin during The Dry, so tacked on an extra night to squeeze in what most people would probably do over two or three days. An early start on Saturday and speed limits of 130km/h help, and I found myself entering Litchfield National Park before ten; just in front of the procession of tour buses (invariably named things like Crocco Tours, The Top End Crocosaurus, NT Outback Crocclebus etc etc) entering the parking area of Florence Falls.
I had been here in The Wet and it was, undeniably, very wet (there is a blunt truth to many a Top End expression). Today, there was still plenty of water gushing from the twin cascades and into a perfect swimming hole, which soon became populated by sagging swimsuits and shocking Speedos (the tour buses had arrived). No wonder the crocs keep away!
Off the beaten track just a little, a path leads back to the car park following a small, shady creek. It’s called Shady Creek. Again, I remember this in February, when the path was subsumed by the creek and crossing took a bit of arms-linked watch where you put your feet and hope there’s not a snake there kind of affair. Today, with barely a soul venturing this way from the pools, it was a masterpiece of tranquillity. And still devoid of snakes.
Rejoining the Stuart Highway I noted Alice Springs was a mere 1402 kilometres south. And between there, not very much at all. Apart from Katherine, which for quite a long time I pictured as a cute, small-town feel kind of spot nestled in a rocky valley beside the tree-lined meander of the Katherine River. It might even have a nice organic coffee place with homemade Hummingbird cake and copies of The Guardian.
About one hundred clicks out, and with the road trip feels returning to my synapses, I remembered to readjust my expectations. I’m glad I did; not that there was anything wrong with Katherine, but I was restricted to Woollies and Red Rooster for dinner. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter, for Katherine was purely a functional base from which to enter Nitmiluk, more commonly known as Katherine Gorge, a place I had neither been in The Wet nor The Dry.
The benefit of a long drive was arriving in the latter part of the day, with the air cooling just a smidgeon and the light all radiant amber. It was so good, so captivating, that I hiked for a little longer than I planned, detouring an extra few kilometres through rocky valleys and verdant oases to Pat’s Lookout. Grand and serene, primeval and elemental, it was a surprise to be joined this late in the day by a couple of backpackers. But we didn’t say much, other than accented helloes, perhaps because we were just a little beholden by the world we were in.
The light sunk lower as I headed back down towards the visitor centre, confident that I would make it before it became too dark. And indeed, my timing was only a little out, as the last red hues of the sun cast the top of the escarpment aflame. These are the scenes you live for in the Australian outback, these are the memories that never fade.
Almost everyone who comes to Nitmiluk goes out onto the water. My restricted time meant the only option was the Dawn Cruise the next morning, before a race back to Darwin Airport. I think even if I had longer to linger, this would still have been the best option, with only a scattering of people aboard to witness the calm commencement of a magical new day.
Quick tour guide factoid 1: there are actually nine gorges in Nitmiluk, inevitably named Gorge 1, Gorge 2, Gorge 3 etc. During The Wet, the natural rock barriers between each get flooded, allowing saltwater crocodiles a little greater room for exploration.
Quick tour guide factoid 2: the park rangers undertake a Saltie capture and release program to clear the gorge when the waters have subsided. This was in operation now. But Freshwater crocs are there all the time. Like over there, quick, look, just to the right of the boat. But the worse a Freshie can do is tear off your arm or some such.
Quick tour guide factoid 3: we have now come to the end of Gorge 1, so it’s time to get out of the boat and make your way for about 400 metres to the next boat and Gorge 2. It’s all rather gorgeous.
As the sun slowly rises into a field of dotted high cloud, it intermittently breaks through to illuminate massive canyon walls topped with precariously positioned trees. The water flickers with a murmur of wind. A cormorant sits statue in a branch half submerged by water. Sandy beaches and mangroves are interspersed, sometimes disappearing into the fissures and fault lines of the massive sandstone plateau that stretches far into Arnhem Land.
I could never ever pretend to understand what it is like to be an Aboriginal Australian. To be one of the Jawoyn people who have lived with this land for tens of thousands of years, way before a British Lieutenant was a twinkle in his father’s eye. To live, to breath, to die upon a land that they do not see themselves as owning but of being one of itself. It was a land that was a privilege, just for a few hours, to be a part of. And it seemed strange, very strange indeed, to know that I would be back in an artificial white man’s capital, a freezing white man’s capital, later that day.