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Down Under and over the top

Australia's ""Top End'' region is a tropical oasis of wild experiences.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000

I came to Australia's "Top End" region in search of the exotic, and on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin, I definitely found some. As the rest of the tour group relaxed on a beach, I followed my Aboriginal guides into a forest of mangroves. This forest was so dense with exposed mangrove roots that we were forced to walk on top of them -- sometimes as high as 4 feet above the muddy floor.

One of my guides carried an ax. Here and there, he sank it into a fallen tree, but it took 45 minutes of searching before he finally struck gold with a tree lying near a stream. When his ax ripped into it, wood chips exploded everywhere. Soon long, white worms began oozing from the split timber. Greedily, the Aborigines scooped these up and slurped 'em down like strands of spaghetti.

"Bush tucker," they explained with broad smiles (bush meaning the wilderness, and tucker being Australian slang for "food").

Being polite hosts, they even offered me one. I accepted half -- about 6 inches' worth -- and downed it before too many tape-worm connotations sprang to mind. It tasted slimy and salty, like a muddy oyster. I declined any more, which was fine with my guides since it meant more for them. Then for the next 20 minutes, they obliterated the rest of the tree and gobbled down every last worm.

Of course, Australia is synonymous with the exotic. But the Top End may be Australia's last frontier. No trains reach here. Crocodiles still rule the bays and rivers, and it's so remote that the national capital of Canberra lies closer to Antarctica than to the Top End capital of Darwin.

Geographically speaking, the Top End is the chunk of land that tops off the Northern Territory and, in turn, the entire Australian subcontinent. It is a tropical oasis surrounded on three sides by hard-scrabble Outback and to the north by the Timor Sea. Some of Australia's finest national parks are found here, such as Kakadu and the Katherine Gorges.

And while the Northern Territory is the least-populated Australian state, it is home to the largest number of Aborigines still living on ancestral lands. That offers special opportunities to experience native cultures firsthand.

I spent eight days there last August. While winter prevailed across the rest of the subcontinent, I basked in the Top End's tropical climate. Daytime temperatures seldom dipped below 90 and because it was during the six-month dry season (May to October), humidity was comfortably low. Not a single cloud marred the nighttime views of the Southern Cross and the Milky Way's endless cluster of stars.

I used Darwin as my base camp for side trips. For my first foray, I joined a $60 day-trip to Litchfield National Park run by Coo-Ee Tours. The park is a popular picnic spot 80 miles south of Darwin, and my first surprise came at the tour's initial stop: a field of termite mounds. The field was a four-acre, dried floodplain covered with scores of mounds about 8 feet tall. The mounds were shaped like blunted arrowheads. The most spectacular mounds were called "cathedral mounds," and the biggest measured about 20 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter.

We drove into the main portion of the park, atop a sandstone plateau carved by numerous waterfall-fed pools. Not only are these swimming holes intoxicatingly cool but, thanks to the park's elevation, croc-free as well. (No minor feature in a region where harbors are "mined" with 15- by 9-foot crocodile traps baited with whole chickens.)

Following a couple swims, a picnic lunch and several short hikes to waterfalls, we ventured outside the park for a billabong cruise.

Billabongs are special to northern Australia. The word is Aboriginal in origin and refers to a seasonally occurring backwater. During the Top End's six-month rainy season (November to April), billabongs fill and flow as part of river systems. An average of 55 inches of rain falls during this season, which Top Enders call "the Wet." During the next six months, almost no rain falls, and the Top End starts drying up. This is when many floodplains and river arteries evaporate and create trapped backwaters where wildlife sustains itself until the next Wet.

On my Litchfield tour, I cruised the Reynold's Billabong located on a private cattle station just outside Litchfield. Even before we boarded our 20-seat, flat-bottom boat, we saw a herd of wallabies foraging and one crocodile sunning within 30 feet of our launch. On the water, we saw thousands of birds and at least 30 crocodiles (including the huge saltwater variety that grows up to 20 feet long). Birds included cockatoos, eagles, pelicans, egrets, cranes, kingfishers, jabiru storks and webbed-feet jacanas (known colloquially as "Jesus birds" for their ability to walk on lily pads). We also saw wild pigs rutting in the shore grass.

I spent the next day in Darwin. For an end-of-the-road town of only 85,000 (including suburbs), Darwin packs a surprisingly eclectic punch. Budget-minded backpackers are as much at home here as higher-income empty-nesters and families.

There are wildlife parks, crocodile farms, Aboriginal craft shops, night markets, book exchanges, multiplexes, Hovercraft harbor rides, fishing charters, a casino, World War II historical sites and the notable Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Darwin also boasts some impressively modern architecture. Back in 1974, Cyclone Tracy flattened the town on Christmas Day, so today Darwin exudes a clean, contemporary look with distinctive tropical traits. An example is the all-white Parliament Building, the territory's Capitol. Completed in 1994, this structure elegantly incorporates a low-angled roof and huge interior bracing beams designed to protect the building from cyclones.

Darwin is also home to about 70 nationalities, and as Australia's closest gateway to Asia, Darwin has attracted thousands of immigrants from around the Pacific Rim. Darwin's museums, restaurants and night spots reflect this diversity, but nowhere is it more evident than at the open-air markets held throughout the Dry Season.

The most popular is the Thursday night Mindil Beach Market, a can't-miss attraction that draws at least 7,000 shoppers. The market includes about 60 food stalls, featuring cuisine from 20 countries, and more than 150 arts-and-crafts booths. When not perusing the market, locals spread their lawn chairs and coolers across the beach and watch the sun set on the Timor Sea.

Ironically, the exotic cultures most associated with the Top End are of the indigenous variety. Aborigines have lived here for more than 50,000 years. Since the 1960s, Aborigines have tried to assert legal claim to ancestral lands, with mixed results.

Due to the Top End's historical isolation, native communities here have had fewer outside interests to fight and thus have fared far more successfully. In fact, today more than a third of the Northern Territory is considered Aboriginal land, including Australia's most visited natural attraction Uluru (a.k.a. Ayers Rock), located outside Alice Springs.

From Darwin, three Aboriginal areas are particularly inviting: Kakadu National Park, Arnhemland, and the Tiwi Islands of Melville and Bathurst. Generally speaking, the proximity of the Tiwi Islands makes them perfect for one-day tours. Because of its size and distance from Darwin (160 miles east), Kakadu requires at least two days. Similarly Arnhemland, which borders Kakadu to the east, demands a multiple-day stay to be properly enjoyed. It is a far more rugged and uncongested experience than Kakadu and thus more pricey.

I started my immersion into Aboriginal Australia with a four-day trip that combined a drive through Kakadu with three nights at the Davidson Arnhemland Safari camp. I now wish I had had more time for Kakadu, but even with a week there, no one ever sees it all.

Kakadu is Australia's Yellowstone, covering 7,300 square miles of plateaus, savanna, monsoon forests and wildlife estuaries. Only two main roads cut through the park, plus a small number of secondary roads. Four-wheel-drive vehicles make additional off-road sections accessible, but Kakadu is so vast that ancient Aboriginal-art locations are discovered every year and added to the park's catalog of 5,000 sites.

During my one-day tour of Kakadu, we lunched aside a lake in the mining town of Jabiru and hiked for an hour around the Ubirr plateau, one of Kakadu's major sights. Ubirr includes several interesting examples of the Aboriginal "X-ray" art style in which the body outline and bone structure of figures are drawn. Subjects included warriors, fish, marsupials, mystical figures from "Dream-Time" lore, and allegorical tales used to instruct children.

The view from the top of the plateau was stunning, opening on a seemingly prehistoric panorama of stone, wetland and tropical vegetation.

By late afternoon, we crossed the East Alligator River into Arnhemland, where I caught a four-wheel-drive transfer to the safari camp. All told, it took more than two hours of dirt-road driving, but when I finally reached camp, I was not disappointed.

Located in the Mount Barradaile Valley and 15 miles from Van Diemen Gulf, the camp represents a small human footprint in an otherwise completely wild setting. All supplies are either flown or driven in from Darwin. The camp is open year-round, averages 15 guests a night (maximum 42) and is one of only three camps permitted to host overnights in Arnhemland.

By Outback standards, the camp is luxurious. It has its own dirt runway. Every tent contains a pair of cots. Showers have hot and cold water fed by a natural spring. Mosquito netting encloses the dining room, and during my stay, the camp kitchen produced excellent food in copious quantities, ranging from porterhouse steaks to Japanese sashimi.

Stays cost $180 per night per person, which covers all meals, accommodations, hikes, guide services, fishing trips and sunset cruises. Not included are transfer costs to and from the camp ($262 round-trip by plane from Darwin), soft drinks and alcohol, and any specialized activities such as hunting.

During the day, we drove to trail heads and hiked for hours through the bush to dramatic caves and overhangs filled with often-stunning Aboriginal art painted thousands of years ago. Oftentimes, different epochs of art layered one atop another to create a dazzling historical mural of Aboriginal culture. These dazzling "galleries" surpassed anything else I saw in Australia.

During the hikes, our guides also taught us about the nutritional and pharmaceutical qualities of plants traditionally used by Aborigines. Evenings, we chose between either driving to a nearby natural swimming hole or joining a sunset cruise on the billabong.

The only thing my safari lacked was some significant contact with present-day Aborigines. The camp did employ several as guides and cooks, but my most personal interactions occurred during my visit to the Tiwi Island of Bathurst, located 45 miles north of Darwin.

The Tiwis operate their own one-day and two-day trips, and I took a one-day tour for $155 that included a morning tea, lunch and round-trip air transfer from Darwin. (My worm hunt was a bonus.)

Tiwis are particularly known for an attractive design style different from other Aboriginal art forms. Utilizing bright colors and earth tones, these designs use either a repetition of diagonal lines or concentric curves around a central animal figure (such as a sea turtle, peacock or wallaby).

The tour took us past many schools, houses, public buildings and even outhouses painted with such designs. We also visited several craft studios/stores. Two of my guides were particularly engaging and gregarious; Clinton and Ron were also wonderful singers. While hiking out to the mangroves, they spontaneously burst into song. They gave a memorably melodic rendition of Island Home, a popular Aussie tune about a former islander who moves to the city but longs for her ancestral home surrounded by sea.

While they sang, I reflected on Clinton's and Ron's stories, how each had journeyed beyond their island's horizon, seen big cities, but happily returned to their island home.

-- Jeff Burdick is a freelance writer living in Elmwood Park, Ill.

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