Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Living History: Kakadu, Litchfield and Darwin

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park

Darwin is a small city.  There are really only a couple busy pedestrian streets, a park, and a bay, and then suburbs take over.  The hostels are nearly all lined up on the main drag, looking out from balconies over large bar porches and a slew of smaller food shops and tourist traps.  Southern Australians come here to warm up in the winter and spring ("nomads" are their version of "snow birds"), and tourists come here to see "the real Australia" - the crocodiles and snakes, aboriginal crafts and unique wilderness.  Yet on a country-wide scale Darwin is generally overlooked, overshadowed by every other major city.

Darwin's only swimmable waves
I can understand that - the city is set on an ocean that you can never swim in, and its skies are filled with eagles, no seagulls.  More often than not the weather is either enormously hot, rainy, or both.  But it's the tourists who have it right.  Culturally and historically speaking, "The Top-End", as it's called, has more intrigue than perhaps the rest of the country combined.  The city itself has a history filled with fascinating bits, if you seek them out.  Yes, it was named after Charles Darwin, and to this day new species of plants, animals, and insects are being found.  Prior to World War II the majority of the city's population was Chinese - along with aboriginal, Indonesian, and a few other ethnicities.  Likewise, Darwin has suffered disaster like no other city in the nation - having been essentially entirely destroyed first in World War II, then again by hurricane Tracy in the '80's.  Likewise, some of the most significant and important aboriginal rights movements happened here, which ultimately created a sea change for the entire country in recognizing the rights of and horrible abuses against a whole continent of native inhabitants.

To its south lies Katherine Gorge and the stark contrasts of an enormous red desert.  To the east are the prehistoric wonders of Kakadu and Litchfield national parks.  Just beyond these is the sacred Arnhem Land, now again in Aboriginal hands.  To the north is all of Asia, and to the west the coast and the Kimberly.

It seems even residents of Darwin may not fully appreciate how intriguing all of these is when it's put together in the right way.  Historical and cultural tours exist but are fewer and farther between- with crocodile features and sea fishing recognized as the big sales.

But if you're willing to get a little sticky wading around for the tasty details, you'll certainly find the diamonds in the rough.

Maguk Gorge, Kakadu National Park

Some features of my time in the Top End:

- many amazing sunsets over the ocean from the park, the national parks, and Mindil Beach

- great food and indie shopping at the outdoor, dry-season-only Mindil Markets

- a 2 day rough-and-tumble camping tour in Kakadu with a very fun guide in a 4x4 SUV via Kakadu Dreams

- a flip-flop day tour of Litchfield park waterfalls and holes with regular unexpected stops by the tour guide to show everyone a wide range of different plants, animals, and their significance

- a sunset boat ride across the bay to another peninsula to learn how aboriginals make rope and throw spears - only to get cut just a little short by the first storm of the season (they say if you're out in the first storm of the season it washes away your bad luck from the previous year)

All this after a week in the outback and I'm pretty done with the heat.  Perfectly, I arrived in Cairns today to breezy, sunny weather and a beautiful rainforest.  Even with so much more to look forward to and enjoy right now, it's almost hard to stay in the moment with so many great memories :)

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