“The Top End”

Our last week at the apartment in Clifton Beach was in some ways a sad one. Although it was our decision to leave and move on with our tour of Australia, we were both finding it hard to go and pull ourselves away from such a fabulous location. We were also coming to the end of our time with Mark and Lisa, which we have enjoyed enormously, and so the evening before they left we had our final dinner together. We had a few hugs and kisses, and there was even a couple of watering eyes, but Steve thinks that might have been down to the strong onion that Sarah had just chopped for dinner!! We waved them off as John, the Manager, drove them to the airport at the start of their 50 hour journey home. We then had our final walk into Palm Cove before it was time to do our own packing and go to collect our campervan, which turned out to be quite an upgrade from the previous one we had arrived in 105 days ago. It was seven metres long, with a big bed, small toilet and shower, nice size kitchen area, loads of storage space, a TV screen to watch DVD’s on (no tv reception!) and a separate little dining area. We couldn’t believe the deal we had got!

Our residence for the next 9 weeks.

As we packed our belongings from the apartment, seven of the residents came out to wave us off, as well as Rosie the dog. We really have enjoyed ourselves there and we met some great people, but more experiences await us and we drove off with mixed feelings of sadness and excitement.

After stocking up on provisions we headed in-land with our first stop at Undara Lava Tubes. We arrived there just in time to join a sunset tour where we walked up to the top of a rocky outcrop and were treated to a fabulous view of the outback and a pretty good sunset which was accompanied by a glass of wine and some nibbles for Steve and two glasses of wine and some nibbles for Sarah. Our guide then announced he had a spare bottle of wine left and asked “Does anyone want another glass?” if he opened it. Sarah suddenly discovered the art of teleporting as she disappeared from in front of Steve and reappeared instantaneously in front of the guide with her arm outstretched with an empty glass. “I could force down another glass”, she said!

“Just one more glass for me please”

After the sunset we made our way to the entrance of one of the lava tubes which is home to a colony of micro bats which are about the size of a hand when in flight. These were considerably smaller than the flying foxes we had been used to seeing but when they are flying in and out of the cave in their thousands they make quite a sight. Apparently the colony is 80,000 strong!

At the end of the tour we were dropped off at the entrance to our campsite and made our way back to our new luxury residence. As we passed the shower block we heard the shout, “There’s a snake in the shower!”. We walked towards the shower block, out of curiosity, along with a few others when a woman came running out of the block after obviously getting dressed in rather a hurry. Someone opened the door and the thin, 4ft snake could clearly be seen. There then followed a debate as to what type of snake it was, without any positive conclusion. Sarah, fueled by three or so glasses of wine said “I’m going in to take a photo”, and off she went as Steve shook his head in disbelief. Then after several snaps from different angles trying to get the snakes best side, she emerged saying, “If you’re going to get bitten by a snake you need to be able to identify it”. Or you could stay well away and not get bitten in the first place, thought Steve! In the end it transpired the snake was a brown tree snake and apparently only mildly venemous!

Hissing Sid!

We left Undara the following morning and started our long journey towards Darwin and ‘The Top End’, 3000 kilometres away. With only a couple of significant towns in between, it was going to be a long drive. We had driven across the Nullabor earlier in the year, on our way from Perth to Cairns, so we’d had an introduction to lonely roads. We found this a real advantage and felt quite prepared and when the main road went from single carriageway to single track and a sign saying “Next fuel 345 km”, we felt pretty confident in our plan.  “How much fuel have we got?”, asked Sarah. “Oh, at least enough for 350 km’s” replied Steve.

“Don’t worry we have loads of fuel”

Just like our trip across The Nullabor we loved our journey through the Queensland bush, over the border into the outback of The Northern Territories and North towards the National Parks and Darwin. Our Elton John and Abba CD’s had been replaced by a subscription to Spotify (welcome to the 21st century, thanks Mark!). This was good in some ways but not so good in others, as Steve turned up the volume and re-lived some of the music from his youth. With AC/DC, Rush, Led Zepplin and similar bands on tap he was in his element but it wasn’t long before Sarah drew the line and although she didn’t say anything, Steve knows ‘the look’ by now, and soon a compromise was made and we found some music we were both happy with!

We drove for five or six hours a day, stopping for coffee and lunch by the side of the road, watching the changing scenery as we slowly made progress across the map. During the beginning and end of each day’s drive we were extremely cautious watching for the kangaroos which are more commonly seen at that time of day. We saw several bounce across the road in front of us, as well as a couple of dingos who needed the horn to encourage them along. But probably the biggest hazard on this leg of the trip has been the Road Trains. We became used to them on The Nullabor, where cabs pulling two trailers were common, three trailers were seen occasionally and we saw a spattering of four trailers being pulled. Now the stakes had been upped, with three being the most common and four being quite regular. These beasts can be up to 70 metres long and roar along at 100 kph plus! When you are faced with one coming towards you on a single track road your only option is to pull off the road completely and let it pass. Luckily the roads aren’t busy at all and we probably see about 50 vehicles, at most, all day.

I know he is a small one but I’m still getting off the road!

We have been staying at a variety of different types of campsites. One was on the edge of a fabulous lagoon, another was a roadhouse campsite, one was a commercial site in Mount Isa (the only town of any reasonable size on our route) but our favourite had to be Daly Waters Historic Pub. Originally established towards the end of the 19th century to service the ‘gold rush’, it has become something of an Australian icon. A dirt track road leads to the pub which also has a museum, service station, campsite and entertainment venue. The current owners have created a collection of expertly restored vehicles and memorabilia, and each section of the pub itself is dedicated to a substantial collection of various items, including car number plates, flip-flops (or ‘thongs’ as they are known here), Police Force badges, Fire Station badges, football shirts and country flags. But the real show piece, and where it all started, is the long line across the bar of women’s bras and pants in every size and colour imaginable!  “I’m more likely to take one than leave one”, said Sarah “I’m running short as it is”.

Sat outside the pub at Daly Waters.
Part of the collection inside.

After Daly Waters pub we made our final push towards the main sights of The Far North that you read in all the brochures and the locations for many films, including the three National Parks of Katherine Gorge (aka Nitmiluk), Kakadu and Lichfield. There are plenty of other places in the area but the three mentioned are regarded as the big attractions.

Katherine Gorge was our first stop. We pitched up on a campsite right next to the visitor’s centre and on the main walking routes. The walks connect together at various points so you can choose from an easy couple of kilometres to over 20 kilometres. There is even a multi-day walk that links up to the next Park with primitive camping along the way. We decided on a “difficult” 13 km route which would apparently take us to somewhere we could swim. This was a tempting option as the temperature had been hitting the low 30’s centigrade every day. So with plenty of drinks and snacks we set off.

Sarah having a bit of a rest at Katherine Gorge.

It is peak time for tourism here as we are right in the middle of the dry season, when the weather is cooler and the humidity is low. Apparently it gets to 40 degrees and super high humidty in the wet season and “monsoon madness” is a common health problem….. count us out on that one! However, due to Covid-19 and the international (and some domestic) borders being firmly closed, the number of tourists are minimal. We saw very few people on the walk and after getting used to no-one being around we quite enjoyed the solitude. We scrambled over rocks, wound our way through the bush, walked along dry river beds and were treated to some great views of the gorge and river below. Eventually the route led us down a steep trail with high, vertical walls of rock on either side. We were starting to think we had come the wrong way when the trees cleared and we found ourselves on some rocks, a couple of feet above the water, in the main section of the gorge. We had brought our swimming gear so we couldn’t resist jumping in to cool off. We had been assured that there was little chance of any crocodiles making it to that part of the river, but it was still in the back of our minds!

What a fabulous place to cool off!

After a few minutes of relaxing and floating around, Steve decided he was going to swim across to the other side of the gorge, so off he went. It was an eerie feeling being deep in the gorge with the massive cliffs towering out of the water with no-one around. He made it to the other side then turned around to start his return when, in the distance, he heard the noise of an engine getting louder and then saw a boat heading his way. Soon it became clear the boat was carrying tourists which operate from further down the river. Steve continued to cross back to Sarah making sure he was avoiding the boat. As the boat came within a few feet, some of the passengers spotted Steve in the water. At first they couldn’t work it out. “How was someone swimming miles from anywhere?”, then they started waving and taking photographs much to the annoyance of the guide who was mid flow in his ‘Aboriginal history of the area’ speech!!

Back on top of the gorge

After our swim we resumed our walk and made our way back up to the top of the gorge and back to our campsite. When we arrived we were both tired and hungry after six hours in the heat but we both said it had been a great day. One to remember!

After Katherine and on our way to Kakadu we decided to take a small detour to Edith Falls which is not a regular stop on the tourist trail but we had heard good things about it. We got settled on the great little campsite and then set off on another long walk. This one was a little less strenuous but still a great walk. We had lunch by the river and on the way back we took a small detour to The Falls and a rock pool beneath them. What an amazing place with a waterfall, crystal clear pools, and beatiful rock formations. Another swim to cool off beckoned before the short walk back to the campervan and another great day done.

We are finding some amazing places!

Next stop and our final one before Darwin (we decided to visit Lichfield National Park on the way back South) was the biggest of all the National Parks in Australia, called Kakadu. The place is huge, set within 20,000 square kilometres. It would take at least at couple of weeks to see the major sites so we had to prioritise. Some areas are only accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles, which we don’t have, so they were ruled out straight away. We wanted to do some walking, see some Aboriginal rock art (well Sarah did…. Steve just pretended he did just to keep the peace!) and most of all we wanted to see some of the big saltwater crocodiles that Kakadu is famous for.

It was mid afternoon when we finally got to a campsite and, like Katherine Gorge, on the drive through the Park we were already getting the feeling that it was deserted. After setting up we decided to go for a short walk along the Yellow River which was accessible from just a couple of kilometres away. We set off on the walk hoping to see a big croc. It was a lovely setting, the sky was clear and blue, the sun was starting to make its way down to the horizon, but there was plenty of heat left in it. The landscape was full of deep green tall grass, interspersed with the occasional eucalyptus and a herd of cows were making their way across it grazing whilst being pestered by a flock of birds. A family of wild boar with four tiny piglets were also eating and meandering along. Dozens of different types of birds were coming in and out of view. Neither of us are very knowledgeable in this department, but we could identify cormorants, herons, kingfishers, cranes and wedgetailed eagles but there were so many others. It really was a fantastic scene.

Great place for an evening walk.

We walked along in silence next to a shallow tributary taking in the scene. Then the silence was broken. “Is that a crocodile’s head?”, said Sarah pointing at a large rock semi-submerged in the water. “No”, replied Steve “It’s way too big, but I can see what you mean”. The rock looked like it had a couple of nostrils and then a large square forehead with eyes on the top. We continued along the bank, then the rock with the nostrils, forehead and eyes started to move!!! “S#!t, it is a croc, you were right”, said Steve. We watched the croc move very slowly towards the end of the tributary where the water had almost dried out and more and more of its wide prehistoric looking back emerged from the water. It moved onto the mud with one slow moving leg at a time, then its tail emerged, long, thick and spiny. We made a conservative estimate that it was between four and a half and five metres long and we were, at this point, about 30 metres away behind the croc and holding our breath.

There is a croc in there somewhere.

The croc came to rest in the mud, close to a large puddle, so we settled down to watch. We started whispering to one another and it felt like we were doing the commentary in some David Attenborough wildlife documentary. First a crane landed by the side of the large puddle and started to drink, but the croc didn’t move as the crane wandered closer and closer. “It must be in striking distance”, whispered Steve, but the croc never moved. After about 15 minutes the crane had its fill and flew off. Next we saw the family of wild boar ambling along, eating the grass as they went, heading straight for the puddle. Thirty metres, twenty metres. “This is it”, whispered Sarah, “He is going to get one of the babies”. Ten metres, five metres. Then the family of boars deviated away from the large puddle and wandered back into the grass. “This croc wants his dinner served up on a plate with apple sauce and a cold beer”, said Steve.

We watched the croc for well over an hour, then as the sun started to set we decided to head back. Then just as we were about to move a red and brown bird landed in the mud right behind the croc. In an instant the croc exploded, four and a half metres and probably four or five hundred kilos spun 180 degrees in a split second. Its jaws went for the bird as our brains tried to catch up with events. The mud and water settled and although the croc had been super fast the bird had been quicker. We saw it fly off, probably thinking to itself “that looked like a rock to me”.

To see a croc in its natural habitat is a brilliant thing but to see it stalking, moving so stealth like and attacking so explosively was a real treat. A great first day in Kakadu.

We really are getting to see these crocs up close and personal.

We spent another couple of days in Kakadu. One day was taken up almost entirely with one of the longer walks, this one was marked up as “Strenuous”. We found ourselves scrambling up and over rocks and boulders and through dense bush until we reached the top of an escarpment where some great views of Kakadu opened up stretching to the horizon in every direction. The walk took us around the top of the escarpment through strange rock formations which resembled old destroyed buildings. Then it was back down into the bush for the final few kilometres home. The walk took us most of the day but it was worth it as it was one of the best we have done.

Sarah strides out through the bush.

The highlight of our final day in Kakadu was at a place called Cahills Crossing. Again this isn’t necessarily a place where many people head to, but Steve had read it was a good place for croc spotting (it seems like we can’t get enough of these creatures) especially at the turn of the tide, when fish are forced along the river and the crocs just open their mouths for dinner. “See I told you…. on a plate with apple sauce…. or maybe tartre sauce this time”, said Steve. Cahills Crossing didn’t disappoint, in fact it was amazing. In the space of about 100 metres we saw 15 enormous crocs, probably the biggest ones we had seen so far. We really are starting to get a little bit addicted to these prehistoric looking creatures as they are amazing to see close up in their natural environment.

Coming out for lunch!
Save some for me!

Also on our final day in Kakadu we managed to squeeze in another walk at the very North of The Park, this was a much easier walk and led to a great look out point across the wetlands and into the Aboriginal lands. The walk also passed some examples of Aboriginal Rock art so Sarah managed to get a couple of photos which made her happy!….. oh and Steve was just thrilled too!

Aboriginal rock art……apparently!

With Kakadu done we started to make our way towards Darwin and potential civilization, but we had one more stop to make and one more crocodile fix to have. Steve had read about a place called Corroborree Billabong which was apparently a good croc spot. The place is located several kilometres along a 4-wheel drive track and so we decided to take a tour which picked up at the local roadhouse where we were camping. Tours aren’t really our thing. We do them occasionally when doing our own thing just isn’t practical our just too difficult. This particular tour turned out to be one of the best we have ever done. We could go on for hours about how close we got to the crocs but it was more than just about them. The billabong was a fabulous place, the wildlife and plants were amazing and our guide was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable. We were both enthralled with it all, and the sunset to finish it off was stunning!

Last croc photo….I promise!
A Jabiru near the lily pads
A “Jesus bird” walking on the lily pads.

We have had a pretty good first two weeks back in a campervan, let’s hope it continues!

Perfect!

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