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My "Working" Holiday Here are some of the amazing things that I have done during my time Down Under. Share in my experience by reading my articles or viewing my photo galleries.

The Top End

AUSTRALIA | Friday, 20 April 2007 | Views [2169]

After a bit of a travel mishap, I arrived safe and sound to the Northern Territory late one Thursday evening in April. En route from Cairns to Darwin, I was treated to one of the most spectacular displays of color I have ever seen, from a deep red to a smoky violet, as the sun set over the horizon. The pictures don’t do it justice. Spectacular! I guess it was my reward for having to kill 6 hours in the Cairns airport.

Affectionately referred to as the Top End, the Northern Territory is a surprising wonderland of treasures. Occupying an area the size of France, Spain, and Italy combined, its rugged geography and harsh weather has retained its character as an outpost. “Territorians” make up only 1% of the Australian population. With more than one quarter of the NT population being indigenous, the area is rich in Aboriginal culture. The largest active Aboriginal communities are the Pitjantjatjar in the Red Centre near Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the Arrernte near Alice Springs. As with many other areas, Indigenous Australians have fought not only for equal rights but also human dignity. In the early days, Aborigines were considered animals. In the famous Yirrakala Land Case of 1971, the Australian courts upheld the government’s claim that Aboriginal people had no meaningful economic, legal, or political relationship to land. In 1976 under increasing pressure, the federal government eventually passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The Act established Aboriginal Land Councils who were empowered to claim land on behalf of traditional Aboriginal owners. The process is cumbersome requiring proof of sacred sites, and was limited to land outside town boundaries. When the Anangu people petitioned for ownership of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), the government denied their request but has since handed back the land under the condition that it was immediately leased back as a national park. While the progress may be slow, it has been successful with more than half of the Northern Territory now being Aboriginal owned. And even though their lifestyle has changed in recent years (no thanks to the western world), their traditional customs and beliefs remain very important. But as the Aboriginal youth rebels, leaving the bush in favor of the city and the elders passing, their stories are in danger of being lost forever.

The Top End sports breathtaking landscapes everywhere you look. Thanks to the Wilderness Adventures Top End Blitz, I caught a glimpse of what the area has to offer. We started our trip on the Adelaide River where we got up close and personal with some “salties”. The reference to saltwater is a bit of a misnomer, as estuarine or saltwater crocodiles inhabit most of the waters in the Northern Territory including fresh water billabongs, creeks, and rivers. In contrast to these deadly predators, freshies (freshwater crocodiles) are considered safe to swim with and will only become aggressive if disturbed. During the wet season when water covers most of the land, the crocodiles are able to move freely. As the wet season comes to a close, the lands dry up, the water lines recede, and roads are opened allowing access to the national parks and their swimming areas. Every year these are surveyed for salties before being opened. Food is placed in a hollowed out buoy and over the days they are checked for bite marks; long, narrow with thin punctures = freshie, wide with larger holes = saltie. No small beast, an adult male crocodile can measures up to 16 feet long and weigh in at 1700 pounds. Females are much smaller. Salties are ambush predators, waiting for its prey to get close to the water's edge before striking without warning. They are capable of taking animals small and large, up to the size of an adult male water buffalo. Most prey are killed by the huge jaw pressure, but occasionally the croc uses its great strength to drag the animal back into the water where they incidentally drown. The infamous death roll is used both to drown prey and for tearing apart large animals for easier eating. If you are lucky enough to visit the Northern Territory pay heed to all posted signs. A German tourist was killed by a saltie in 2002 after going in a billabong for a late night dip despite a clearly displayed warning post.

Next stop, Litchfield National Park. The park encloses much of the Tabletop Range, a wide sandstone plateau surrounded by cliffs. The landscape has created some beautiful waterfalls with crystal clear cascades and idyllic water holes perfect for a cooling off on the usual hot and humid day. Another attraction in the park is what I refer to as the Australia's Stonehenge, a field of magnetic termite mounds all roughly aligned from north to south as to keep the mound cool from the east-west tracking sun. Smart little buggers!

After a night of camping amongst the stars and the mozzies (mosquitos), we were off to Nitmiluk National Park. Home to the Katherine Gorge, a series of thirteen sandstone gorges carved out by the Katherine River as it makes its way from Arnhem Land to the Timor Sea, and Edith Falls. In Jawoyn, the local tribe, Nitmiluk means place of the cicada dreaming. Dreaming is a common term used among Indigenous Australians for a creation story or the mythological and religious stories to describe the creation of the universe. It is also used to signify where creation spirits lay dormant in the land. Here are some of the dreamtimes that tell the story behind the Katherine Gorge. Nabilil, a dragon-like figure came from the west carrying water and firesticks in his dilly bag. He camped at the entrance of the gorge where he heard the song of the cicada. After traveling up the gorge Walarrk, the cave bat, killed Nabilil with a stone tipped spear, piercing his dilly bag releasing the water that filled the river. Bolung the rainbow serpent resides in the deep green pools of the second gorge. The Jawoyn people do not fish or swim in the waters of the second gorge as not to disturb Bolung, for fear that the sleeping spirit will awake rising the waters and flooding their lands.

Our last stop in the bush was Kakadu. The name Kakadu comes from the mispronunciation of Gagudju, an aboriginal language spoken in the northern part of the park. Located in the Alligator Rivers region, the area is home to the Bininj and Mungguy tribes. It is ecologically diverse and includes low-lying floodplains, tidal flats, and estuaries, to the dominating sandstone escarpment of the Arnhem Land Plateau, to the high soaring vertical cliffs of Jim Jim Falls. This diversity in land accounts for a remarkable diversity of wildlife. Unfortunately, my trip was too early in the dry season when access roads to the spectacular Jim Jim and Twin Falls were not yet opened. Ubirr, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur have rock art sites depicting important creation stories, religious ceremonies, and the hunt. Since the 1980’s, early in the dry season park rangers have performed planned burnings, in an effort to reduce the number of fires at the end of the dry season. Low lying grass burns but sparing the surrounding trees, new shoots sprout some two weeks later. Some environmentalists oppose this practice as it changes the ecology of the soil.

Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory, was first and still is inhabited by the Larrakia Aboriginal Tribe. Thanks to a few cyclones and the Japanese bombings during World War II, Darwin has endured several makeovers. Today it is an eclectic and cosmopolitan center. Closer to Asia than to Sydney, the city is a major stop for travelers. The central business district is located at the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the turquoise waters of Port Darwin. Taking a walk along the esplanade, you can enjoy the lush green of Bicentennial Park, or pay your respects to Australia's service men and women at the Anzac Memorial and Survivor's Lookout. Further on down you come to the home of the commonwealth at the Parliament and Government House. Finally, catch a flick at the deckchair cinema at Stokes Hill Wharf. It seemed appropriate as my only time to explore the city fell on April 25th, Anzac day (anniversary of Australian & NZ in WWI). Not fully a Top Gun experience with a “You've Lost That Loving Feeling” serenade, but what woman can resist a sailor in his whites?

Come feed the crocs, enjoy the landscape, climb the sandstone formations, and swim in a crystal clear water hole with me in Salty Not Sweet, Litchfield National Park, Ka Ka Ka Katie, Kakadu, Living Off the Land, and Darwin.  Boh, boh (Aboriginal goodbye)!

Tags: The Great Outdoors

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