A saltwater crocodile sunbathing on the bank of the Mary River
The third and final leg of my Top End tour focused on the national parks surrounding Darwin – mainly Kakadu and Litchfield. The area is renowned for its waterfalls, swimming holes, ancient rock art and… crocodiles! Mary River is is one of the most densely croc-inhabited places in the world, a statistic that you realize is not exaggerated once you’re out on the water. In just our 90 minute boat trip we saw about a dozen of the giant creatures. We also saw glorious birds (of course) and beautiful lotus flowers, which unfortunately are considered a pest in the area since they were brought in from Asia and are not endemic.
The tour was really educational as we learned about the crocodiles’ mating habits and why they are built they way they are (hint: almost every detail helps them stay cool!).
The view from Baruwei Lookout, part of a 5k bushwalking trail at Katherine Gorge
Driving up from Alice Springs, the red rocks and sand suddenly turn into more familiar greenery and the air stops feeling so terribly dry. It’s just past this point where you will find the bustling town of Katherine (pop. 10,000) and the beautiful Katherine Gorge – known to aboriginals as Nitmiluk. Our group was able to do the 5k Baruwei loop walk which passes through a magnificent lookout over the gorge. As usual there is loads of interesting plant and wildlife, including wild cockatoos and tons of flying foxes.
A view of Kings Canyon from the rim walk
One of the most popular attractions in the Red Centre of Australia is Kings Canyon (aka Watarrka National Park) and its a fixture on all the tour routes. There is a 6km walk around the rim of the canyon that gives amazing views of both sides of the canyon. There are loads of fascinating plants which are used by aboriginals for a variety of medicinal purposes and also an abundance of bird life to ogle.
Perhaps most impressive is the sheer age of Kings Canyon – it’s believed the sandstone in this area was laid about 440 million years ago, around the same time ago life on Earth began. There used to be a lake covering the area and evidence of this is shown in fossils of ripples, worms, and jellyfish. There are plant species that pre-date the dinosaurs and still grow today. I’m not a geologist and pre-history makes my head hurt, but it’s hard not to be impressed by those facts.
A portion of Uluru viewed from the base walk
Of course the main draw of central Australia is Uluru – one of the largest bornhardt formations in the world and a sacred site for the local aboriginal people. I decided to do a 10-day group tour from Alice Springs to visit Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Devils Marbles, Katherine Gorge, Mary River, Kakadu NP, and Litchfield NP, finally ending in Darwin in plenty of time to begin my new job. While I would have loved to do this trip on my own as a massive road trip, after adding up all the costs I just couldn’t justify it – it would have been nearly triple the price to do it alone. Of course there are benefits to the tour – being able to sleep during long drives, not worrying about getting lost or finding an appropriate place to sleep, etc., but I definitely realized that my personality and travel style does not lend itself well to being in such close quarters with so many strangers for such a long time. It was a massive relief to be done with the tour and back in a private bedroom, despite how beautiful and exciting everything I saw was.
Anyway, the first stop on this 10-day tour was the magnificent Uluru. We did a little bit of walking around the base (of course we did not climb up it) and heard creation stories about different features on the rock.
White Flowers on Meyers Hill at Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs
After my amazing two months traveling and working in Queensland, I flew to Alice Springs – nearly in the dead center of Australia. The dry weather and dusty environment almost instantly started to bother my skin and respiratory system, but I bucked up and did a bit of sightseeing around town. One of the best things I saw was the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens – a surprisingly colorful spot despite the arid desert setting.
There are loads of bright birds, including galahs, babblers, grey shrike-thrush, willy wagtails, and ringnecks. Of course, there are tons of flowers and trees as well! It’s well worth an hour or two to walk around, but make sure you wear good shoes! The pathways are not flip-flop friendly, as I learned the hard way.