We begin our descent into Darwin just as the sun is rising. In the light of dawn, we catch our first glimpse of Australia, the young country that is home to one of the oldest living civilisations in the world. Darwin, in the Northern Territory, is the preferred entry point to the Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage Site and the heart of Aboriginal Australia. Surprisingly, this unique and popular destination is almost unknown in India, where the Gold Coast, the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney and now the Barossa valley, are much better known. I have to confess I chose Kakadu not because I was any better informed, but because, having been warned that the traditional Australian hotspots could be cold, wet and uninviting for a holiday in our summer season, I picked a place where the climate would be just right for a break in June. A fractured foot had me delay the Australia holiday to July-August. But the weather in Kakadu was still perfect. What makes a trip to the Northern Territory (or the Top End, as it’s called in Australia) truly special is that it whets our appetite to learn more about Indigenous Australians, a people who have a culture that has survived the millennia against all odds.
Situated 240 kilometres east of Darwin, a comfortable three-hour coach ride away, the Kakadu National Park covers an area of 20,000 square kilometres, which is equal to half the size of Switzerland! While it is managed by the Australian government, the traditional owners are the Bininj/Mungguy, who have lived on this land for over 50,000 years and feel a deep emotional and spiritual connection to the trees, the animals and, indeed, the land itself.
The Kakadu National Park was first listed as a World Heritage Site in 1981, gaining recognition both for its natural beauty as also its unique cultural heritage. The area is home to a dazzling range of rare plants, a third of Australia’s bird species, and a quarter of its estuarine species. Happily, much of this was on view when we visited the park.
We are on a one-day, 11-hour coach tour of Kakadu, which set off at 6.30am. Along with other drowsy tourists, we watch as the streets of Darwin slip away to be replaced by the Outback: kilometre after kilometre of bare land, sometimes with a solitary dwelling. It could have been mind-numbingly dull, except for the wit and wisdom of Warren, the tour guide, who not only drives effortlessly, but also shares his deep and intimate knowledge of the land and the people. It is this that makes what at first appears to be a fairly unspectacular grassy landscape, interspersed with rivers and billabongs, so very special. Our guide points out how the grass was of a very different level on one side, or further up and down the same side: Aborigines set fire to selected sections to keep the grass in check and still ensure there’s enough fodder for the many wild animals that live in the area. Our first excited sight of what we thought was a kangaroo turned out to be a wallaby, a sort of smaller kangaroo that’s fairly commonplace in Darwin city as well. Soon, all of us in the coach are keeping our eyes peeled for a glimpse of animals and birds on our side of the road, like we did as children, a very long time ago!
Time passes swiftly and we whip up a very healthy appetite so that the breakfast break at the Bark Hut Inn, an iconic pub that’s cheered up by typical Aussie humour (such as a notice saying men without shirts will not be served while women without shirts will be served free!), is very welcome indeed. The food includes staples like meat pies, steaks and burgers, and also other fast foods. As this is the only stop between Darwin and Kakadu, the inn is always full. It’s more pub than posh, but it has got character, and some great photo-ops, as it has obviously been designed for tourists.
We then drive on till we reach the Nourlangie rocks, which showcase Aboriginal rock art dating back 20,000 years, perhaps the oldest rock art anywhere in the world. Aborigines believe the earliest paintings were made by the Mimi spirits, ancestors from Dreamtime, which refers to the beginning of Creation. Powerful messages and guidance may be taken from this art, some considered so sacred that only senior Aborigines can interpret them, and indeed, only they are entitled to view them. Interestingly, the act of painting was considered to be as significant as the paintings themselves, and so many paintings have actually been painted over.
The Australian government has done a fantastic job of showcasing the paintings by raising a wooden over-bridge that enables viewers to get a really close look, and therefore appreciate features such as the small holes used for pounding ochre that has been used in many paintings, the ochre-stained handprints on the rock face, and the more interesting examples of X-ray art where the internal bones and organs (rather than external features) are drawn. These graphically demonstrate both the life as also the mythology of Aboriginal Australians.
The Nourlangie rock paintings have interesting characters such as the misogynist, Nabulwinbulwinj, who is reputed to have eaten women after striking them with a yam, and Nammargon, whose ankles, head and hands are linked by a lightning bolt, and who is credited with causing thunder by striking clouds with an axe. There are also more mundane, domestic drawings of a pregnant woman, and a more celebratory one of a community dance. Interestingly, a painting of sick people is supposed to indicate that the ancient Aboriginal people were aware of the presence of uranium in some parts of the land, which made it unhealthy for extended stay!
While the excursion to see the rock art is not very physically taxing, a point brought home by the mostly silver-haired crowd on the tour, it does entail some walking, so the fairly decent buffet picnic lunch organised afterwards is more than welcome! There are cold cuts, salads with dressings, and lots of very tempting fresh fruit. However, if you have opted for the scenic flight over the Kakadu National Park, later, be warned that you will be weighed after lunch!
But before that is the truly blissful cruise on the Yellow River water billabong (or water body). Our guide for this tour is full of wit, wisdom and humour. He says something that strikes a chord. “People ask me how I do the same cruise every day. The fact is, it is a new cruise every day, because I never know what is going to happen on that day!” So while the water laps gently against the boat, and we see beautiful lilies and water lotuses and a wide variety of birds, we cannot let our guard down and give in to the temptation of letting our hands dip into the water, as the seemingly comatose crocodiles can spring into action and snap off a limb in the blink of an eye! Curiously, there are also wild horses peacefully ambling about on the banks of the water.
After the cruise, we get on board for the pricey, but very worthwhile, helicopter ride. It is this that enables one to fully appreciate the scale of the Kakadu National Park, which traverses areas of great diversity stretching from the coastal areas and estuaries of the north, and includes billabongs and flood plains till it reaches the stony, rocky ridges of the south. On a one-hour flight, we get a flavour of this vastness in a way we never could by just driving through. Indeed, how much of a 20,000 square kilometre park can one cover by driving for a day or two? The flight also provides a very clear view of the controversial Ranger uranium mines, whose damaging impact to an area so rare and sacred was hotly debated before it was allowed.
After the flight, we head back to Darwin, a city so small and friendly that we begin to feel at home almost at once. As the lights of Darwin welcome us back, our guide and coach driver Warren warns that “we’re going to run straight into rush hour traffic.” Yes, of course, there may have been all of 30 cars on the road! It’s just as well because there isn’t much of a wait till we tuck into bed and reflect on our journey into Dreamtime at the Kakadu National Park.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from India to Darwin, so fly to Sydney (round-trip economy class fare from Indian metros: Rs 60,000) and thence to Darwin (round-trip fare from Rs 41,000), or opt for a layover at Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and, from there, take a direct connection to Darwin (economy round-trip fare from about Rs 1,45,000).
Visa: Apply via VFS (022-67866006; www.vfs-au-in.com). A 12-month tourist visa costs AUD130.
Currency: 1 Australian Dollar (AUD) = Rs 50 (approx.)
Where to stay: We stayed at the Darwin Central Hotel (from Rs 14,000; www.darwincentral.com.au), which, as the name suggests, is located near tourist attractions like the Aboriginal Art Gallery, restaurants and eateries, and en route the Kakadu coach tours. There’s also the attractive Mantra on the Esplanade (from Rs 12,800; www.mantra.com.au), which offers harbour view rooms. A popular budget option is Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront (from Rs 5,150; www.tfehotels.com), near Darwin’s happening waterfront and wave lagoon.
What to see & do: There are plenty of coach tours from Darwin to Kakadu NP. We picked the Kakadu National Park Explorer (from Rs 12,000, not including scenic flight; www.aatkings.com/tours/darwin/kakadu-national-park-explorer). We travelled on the Arnhem Highway across the Adelaide River and Marrakai Plains. As we took the scenic flight, we missed the visit to the Warradjan Cultural Centre, which has informative displays depicting the traditions of the Aboriginal people in Kakadu. Kakadu Air (www.kakaduair.com.au; from Rs 12,400 per person) offers ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ season tours. We booked this separately. However, both companies communicate very well with each other, and the scenic flight operator looked out for us as soon as we alighted from the coach.
Where to eat: Most tours to Kakadu include meals. A popular stop is the Bark Hut Inn (www.barkhutinn.com.au). Darwin claims to have over 50 cuisines on offer and we found the food to be of a very high standard almost everywhere.
Top tips: The sun is strong, so sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat are useful. Wear loose clothing and comfortable walking shoes, which are preferably suitable for water activities as well. A small backpack with a bottle of water and a change of clothes is recommended. Tours and flights may be cancelled at the last minute and thus cause disappointment.