Australia’s Top End, including Darwin and the Kakadu National Park, promises to be an exciting travel destination for both rugged adventurers and city slickers.
TO the adventurous-at-heart, the city of Darwin, Australia, and its surrounding Kakadu National Park, is the perfect travel destination. Also known as the “Top End”, the region offers the chance to encounter salt-water crocodiles and other wildlife in a controlled sanctuary environment and also out in the bush.
However, this is not all that is in store for tourists in this city of 136,000 people. With cosmopolitan cuisine, shopping areas, international markets and other amenities in downtown Darwin, there is much to see and do, even for those who prefer a more urban holiday.
Fans of the late Steve Irwin aka The Crocodile Hunter would definitely approve. Our first stop was Crocosaurus Cove, a crocodile and reptile sanctuary located in the heart of the city. This is the largest reptile display, comprising over 70 species such as lizards and geckos, turtles and snakes. There is also an aquarium which is home to over 15 species, including the barramundi. Visitors can hold a baby crocodile, feed some of the world’s largest saltwater crocs, and even take the plunge and get up close and personal with these estuarine creatures in an adrenalin-pumping Cage of Death experience, the latter being the highlight of my visit to the sanctuary.
Together with another journalist, I climbed into a huge acrylic cage, which was then lowered into a crocodile enclosure containing two saltwater crocodiles known as The Royal Couple (thus named to commemorate the visit of the British royal couple to the sanctuary). While the 5m male came near to observe us, the 3m female kept a distance. It was unnerving to come face-to-face with the fearsome creature eye-balling us sideways and circling the cage as if we were his next meal. Mentally, I just kept telling myself that no matter how close, we were still separated by the cage walls, and the big fella would keep to his side, and I to mine. To be honest, I was more perturbed by the loud screams of the person in the cage next to me! Later, we had the opportunity to feed the unique squirting Archer fish with insect larvae.
The next day, we encountered wildlife in its natural setting during the Jumping Crocodile Cruise along the Adelaide River. We learnt that there are over 80,000 saltwater crocodiles inhabiting the waterways of the Northern Territory and these reptiles, which measure between 5.5m and 6.5m when full grown, are able to live in freshwater streams that flow into the ocean. Though slightly smaller between 2m and 2.5m, freshwater crocodiles are also territorial, though not as dangerous as their estuarine cousins. Both are agile predators and though seemingly sluggish, can display surprising speed when striking at prey, especially in the water.
Jumping is a natural behaviour for these crocodiles in order to catch food. Besides feeding on fish, they are able to jump up trees to catch snakes, birds and frogs. As such, we were told to keep our arms, legs and other body parts and belongings away from the edge of the boat, lest they be mistaken for food.
Feeding time soon began. Slabs of buffalo meat were tied on to poles and then lowered into the water whenever a crocodile was sighted. The crocodile would swim towards the bait and leap up to grab it. The crew was very familiar with the crocodiles; in fact, each croc had been identified and given a name. After the feeding session, the remaining bits of meat were thrown to birds known as brown kites. It was interesting to see them catch it in their talons and toss it into their mouths.
The beauty of the great wide outdoors unfolded during our two-hour Yellow Water Cruise along the tranquil Yellow Water billabong (an oxbow lake) at dawn. As the sun rose, we were amazed at the variety of fauna, especially birds, and the ever-present crocodiles. Myriad flora, including pandanus, bamboo and monsoon rainforest, fringed the water’s edge.
If you are intrigued by ancient civilisations, going on the Pudakul Aboriginal cultural tour would be an enlightening experience. Its name refers to the macaranga tree or freshwater hibiscus, from which the aborigine spears are made.
Before we proceeded on our bushwalk, we received an unusual welcome to the village. The headman’s daughter Tarizma Kenyan, 21, gulped some water and then spat it over the guests’ heads – this is a blessing ceremony believed to protect the recipient from any harm or illness while on the land.
We discovered more about indigenous culture in this two-hour guided bush tucker walk-cum-talk, where we learned about bush medicine, had a taste of billy tea and damper (or bush bread). There was also a didgeridoo and clapstick demonstration, dilly bag and basket weaving, as well as spear making and throwing. We were also told the Dreamtime creation story of the Rainbow Serpent.
A major part of the Top End consists of the Kakadu National Park which we spent a few days exploring. Located 240km east of Darwin, and covering an area of 19,000sqkm, this is Australia’s largest national park and a Unesco World Heritage site. The area contains vast floodplains, meandering rivers, teeming billabongs, towering escarpments and majestic waterfalls.
Wildlife abounds, from thousands of migratory birds to the mighty estuarine crocodiles. Aboriginal people have called this home for some 50,000 years and this can be seen in the significant rock art sites at Ubirr and Nourlangie. Today, Aborigine culture and traditions are alive and well-preserved in this living cultural landscape, where an Aboriginal population continues to live under their own laws.
To conserve the environment and preserve the beauty of the site, special permits are required for photography and filming.
For me, the highlight of this entire trip was the trek up Ubirr to catch the sunset. As the place does not experience winter, the air was torrid – the best kind of weather to be outdoors. One could go on a bush walk for hours without even a single drop of perspiration.
Ubirr is one of the major Aboriginal art sites of Kakadu, and has natural galleries featuring Aboriginal paintings on rock. It is also the location of a shelter used as a home for thousands of years by the indigenous people. After a mild half-hour trek to the peak, we were rewarded with a breathtaking sunset view overlooking the floodplains and escarpment. It felt like being on top of the world. The next day, we proceeded to Nourlangie to view ancient Aborigine shelters and rock art galleries surrounded by creeks, plains, and woodland and sandstone escarpments.
Another memorable moment was trekking 2km into the bush to Barramundi Gorge or Maguk, located south of Kakadu on the Mary River floodplains. Though it was a four-hour drive from the city, it was well worth it. This beautiful billabong was located at the base of steep gorge walls and a waterfall flowed from its side. It was like having our own private swimming pool, and we jumped into the deep waters for a swim.
We spent the night at the unique Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, which was shaped like a crocodile, with the entrance and reception area being the “mouth”.
The next day, at Jabiru Airport, we took a scenic flight with Kakadu Air to get a bird’s-eye view of Kakadu National Park. As it was an extremely windy day and we were in an eight-seater, the ride was somewhat bumpy, but thank goodness, I did not suffer from air-sickness. From the air, the overview of the park’s terrain was breathtaking.
Luxury in the bush
On our last day in the Top End, we drove a 4WD through wild bush country. It was like going on an African safari, with its wild buffalo, crocodiles, birds and other creatures. The greatest surprise was to discover a beautiful and luxurious resort – Bamurru Plains – nestled in the midst of the rugged bush country.
After lunch, we hopped into an airboat to explore the floodplains – home to thousands of magpie geese, plumed whistling ducks, egrets, ibis and a host of other birds.
One of Darwin’s most picturesque areas is the Waterfront Bay, which fronts the Darwin Convention Centre, man-made lagoon and wave pool, Stokes Hill Wharf and the harbour beyond.
With its cosmopolitan atmosphere, dining in Darwin can be a delectable adventure in itself – from the Waterfront area, with its array of restaurants offering both local and international cuisine, to downtown Darwin’s dining hub that comprises choice restaurants, cafés and pubs.
Our first meal in the city was at Il Lido Waterfront Kitchen & Tapas Lounge, which is owned by celebrity chef Jimmy Shu. Despite its Italian-sounding name, this charming restaurant, which boasts scenic views of the Darwin Waterfront Lagoon, Convention Centre and Stokes Hill Wharf, specialises in contemporary Australian cuisine. Another memorable meal was at Hanuman Thai Restaurant Darwin, also a Chef Shu innovation, which offers fusion cuisine with Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Indonesian influences.
Those who love to shop or are just looking for souvenirs are not forgotten. The Mitchell Centre and Smith Street Mall are conveniently located in downtown Darwin. For more exotic fare, check out the Mindil Beach Sunset Market which boasts over 60 food stalls with cuisines from 20 countries, and over 200 arts and crafts stalls selling souvenirs from all over the world, from handmade jewellery to natural remedies.
This is where the adventurous side of me took over and I decided to try a crocodile burger for dinner. It tasted a little like chicken, but with the texture of fish. There is also a street theatre, magic, music and buskers to entertain visitors at this seasonable night market, which opens every Thursday and Sunday evening from end of April to October.
It was a really memorable trip for me, basically because I’m the adventurous sort and willing to try almost anything, at least once, and I also love nature and the outdoors.
This media trip was courtesy of Tourism Australia, Tourism Northern Territory and Malaysia Airlines. Malaysia Airlines flies four times weekly from Kuala Lumpur to Darwin.