Although I live in big, busy cities at least once a year I need out. In April of this year I chose the Australian Northern Territories to scratch that itch. The Territories are much less popular than Sydney, Melbourne, or the center of the country. But they contain stunning scenery, an incredible chance to interact with Traditional Owners (often known as ‘aboriginals’), and a wild, independent attitude which is right up my alley. In fact, scientists have recently confirmed that Australia has been inhabited continuously for nearly 40,000 years. So if you’re interested in history, this is also about as far back as you can go right now.
But I really wanted an escape away from people, even a fascinating indigenous people. I needed big, open, spaces and was craving something similar to my time in Mongolia. (Without the horseback falling of course.) That’s how I found myself escaping Bangkok in April and landing in Darwin. I’d been wanting to get back to the country ever since reading Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and decided it was time. As a side note, this probably remains one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. So I definitely recommend it, though sleep deprivation may have affected my judgement.
But before I could head out into the Territories, I decided to make a quick trip to the center. Uluru (known for the last hundred years or so on maps as Ayers’ Rock) is the massive, sacred rock in the center of the continent. It’s desert. It’s incredibly hot. And driving out from Alice Springs is a great way to reinforce the size and sparse population of Australia. But it’s also in it’s own class and not to be missed.
Unfortunately, the weather did not grant me a gorgeous sunset of Uluru. So instead I hiked the circumference during the day. And chose the next morning to drive another 50km to the next nearest sacred site for sunrise.
Just in case you would like evidence that my travel is often bumpy, here it is. After 600kms of driving in two days (about 5 hours each day), a sunrise photoshoot, and 3 hour trek in the harsh sun, I enjoyed a canceled flight and an emergency overnight in Alice Springs. But after a flurry of tour adjustments I headed from Darwin into Kakadu only half a day later than expected.
Kakadu National Park
As Bill Bryson noted in his book, Australia has some of the cuddliest (koalas!) and deadliest (crocodiles, box jellyfish, terrifying spiders!) in the world. Even the insects are oversized in their homes, if not their threats. One afternoon while driving we pulled to the side of the road so I could climb to the top of our Land Rover and photograph cathedral termite mounds. Yes, that is a termite mound. If, like me, you are flinching from experience as a homeowner, don’t worry. These guys eat grass, not wood. But those are not undersized trees.
We also traveled into the flooded billabong where there were so many crocodiles, but also lots of other life. We took a boat tour of the area, but in order to get on the boat we had to be driven on amphibious vehicles, walk only on high-fenced pathways, and keep our hands within the boundaries at all times. Because the crocs were just hanging around and sometimes liked to snack – or warn humans off their territory. No joke.
And when the heat got too bad in the middle of the day we found an isolated watering hole not inhabited by crocodiles and took a nice dip. By the way, it’s common to call ahead down the path when you arrive in case others are skinny dipping. Especially around the lesser known and hidden watering holes.
Unexpectedly, one of my favorite parts was Darwin. The town itself is a bit sleepy, yet you can still feel threads of wildness running through it. It’s almost like I imagine the Old West towns but with more modern construction and plumbing. My guide introduced me to a local photographer friend, and we headed out to the beach for sunset and wine. It was lovely to sit, enjoy the landscape, and chat with fellow wanderers.
They were heading the next day into Litchfield Park and I was sorry I couldn’t join them. But I’d definitely recommend putting the Northern Territories on your list if you’re considering Australia.
I was just not in the mood to explore a cool, interesting, and ancient indigenous culture when I visited the Northern Territories. Now, though, I somewhat regret that decision. For one, it’s rather impossible to entirely ignore a culture that co-manages and protects the land I was visiting. Particularly as a visual artist encountering art that’s 2,000 years old. The glimpses of these cultures were a self-imposed terrible tease. But two, although I had very personal, stress-based reasons for avoiding people on this trip, I’m a little ashamed that my behavior unconsciously echoed the first colonists’. I’m constantly grateful, disheartened, and embarrassed that travel continues to hold an honest mirror to myself.