In Australia’s Northern Territory, the sun has a disorienting effect. At mid-day, it hangs to the north rather than the south, giving the persistent impression that one is travelling in the wrong direction. At night, which comes early at these latitudes, the moon waxes from the left, Orion lies on his side, and so free of city light pollution are the skies that the Milky Way is indeed a vivid white streak across the blackness.
We did our shopping for the week in Palmerston, about half-an-hour’s drive from Darwin, then continued eastward along the Arnhem Highway toward Kakadu. At 20 000 square kilometres, this is Australia’s largest National Park, and for both cultural and natural reasons, a World Heritage Site. But the wonders began before we even reached Kakadu. A roadside billabong, which did not appear very large, held an abundance of herons, egrets and tall jabirus. A freshwater crocodile slid off the mud and across the pool. A long-necked turtle struggled against the current to escape through a tunnel into the wetlands on the other side of the road.
Despite warnings, a Crocodile Dundee look-alike waded into the pond up to his thighs and flung out a net to catch fishing bait. When the croc leapt at the net, with all four legs clear of the water, he retreated with some alacrity.
This was our first trip in a campervan: three adults with luggage sharing a 4-man Winnebago. We would learn as we went along. Brendan had volunteered to do all the cooking and had planned a different vegetarian menu for each day. He also did virtually all the driving, so Therese and I were able to relax for the week. During the day, we stored our bags in the double bed space above the driver’s cab, moving them down to the floor at night.
We spent our first night in a lay-by and quickly realised that without an external power source, the air conditioning was useless. As also was the television, but as we remained beyond transmitter range all week, that became irrelevant. All we had was a 12-volt battery to operate the lights, water pump and fridge. By the time dinner was ready, we were stripped down to our underclothes and still sweating profusely. Sleeping in such heat was not easy, nor helped by the tropical night noises and the tap of flies on the mosquito nets that guarded the open windows. We spent our second night at a recognised campsite, but one without power, and suffered similar discomfort. This convinced us that for the remaining nights, we would plug our van into the electricity supply of a powered site.
Kakadu is a vast wilderness of wetland, red rock and seemingly endless forest, traversed by only two surfaced roads, one leading east to Jabiru and the other south to Pine Creek. Elsewhere are only rough tracks strictly for 4WD, and for much of the year even these are under water and impassable. On the main roads, you are likely to meet another car once every ten minutes or as many miles.
Several times each day, the unexpected insists on appearing at a time and from a direction of its own choosing. Black kites circle over the bush. Cockatoos, kookaburras and magpie geese perch on the high branches. Wallabies bounce across the road. Giant termite mounds stand like Henry Moore statues above the ashes of scrub fires.
In the heat of an afternoon, we climbed to Nawurlandja Look-out, up a slope of conglomerate that was like a tilted ocean bed. On the way, we passed a strangely shaped sunken hole and an erratic block with an uncanny resemblance to a turtle. At the top, we gazed across a forest wilderness that seemed to stretch forever in one direction and in the other, was limited only by the abrupt rise of the 400-kilometre-long Arnhem Land escarpment.
We spent the cool hours of a morning exploring intricate passageways around the base of Nourlangie Rock. This was once part of the escarpment, but the erosion of millennia has left it standing like a Lost World plateau above Anbangbang billabong. Overhangs that serve as shelters are decorated with exquisite Aboriginal art. At various locations, pictures of animals share space with creatures of legend. Most are centuries old, with earlier paintings overlaid by more recent ones. Something of Australia’s history, and perhaps the bewilderment of the indigenous people can be glimpsed in depictions of the ships and weapons of the first Europeans.
At one of the campsites, a green tree frog leapt out of a toilet bowl onto the wall. On a forest track to a billabong, we passed a nest of green ants, constructed from leaves glued together by gossamer. On a late afternoon boat trip, we saw silent, gliding crocodiles, birds the like of which are not seen in Europe, and a simultaneous sunset and moonrise over the wetlands.
As the week progressed, and we learned more about our campervan, we realised that it had been extremely efficiently designed. The congestion, we coped with very well. The inconvenience of cleaning out and renewing the toilet was very much easier than we had anticipated. In fact we only needed to do that once, just before our return to Darwin. We ran out of water at one point, and so made sure to fill the tank by hose at each site. When I asked a campsite owner where I could empty the waste tank of grey water, the product of our showers and washing, she told us that it was safe to run it off into the garden. At one site, someone in our vicinity blew a fuse, so that we and some others had to re-locate about fifty metres in the dark.
Our week’s hire of the van and use of the campsites cost us little more than we would have paid had we taken two one-day trips from Darwin, rising at 6 am and returning at around 8 pm. We would also have had to pay for hotel accommodation. The tight schedules would have given us little opportunity to see and experience as much as we did at our own chosen, leisurely pace. It was a week during which we witnessed everything from the mundane to the surprising, to the amazing, to the almost transcendental. Kakadu is like that.
Our campervan was hired through Apollo, Darwin: http://www.apollocamper.com/ The cost for the week was AU$1200 (£560). This included AU$35 per day voluntary insurance premium, which reduced the excess we would have paid in the event of an accident from AU$3000 to AU$250
Anthony Toole is a freelance travel, science and outdoor writer with specialist interests in mountaineering, Nature and conservation. Website: http://mysite.freeserve.com/anthony_toole