Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory – It was not the information we wanted to hear. As the receptionist showed us the long 4-wheel treks to the famous waterfalls at Australia’s biggest park, he shared that a German tourist had died at one of the falls just two days earlier. Outside it was an infernal 110 degrees at 80 percent humidity. It was hell on earth. The hiker had evidently made it to the Jim Jim Falls but died of dehydration on the way back. The rangers knew that because they saw pictures of the falls on his phone. I was saddened but not surprised. This was rough country, perhaps the roughest I had ever seen.
Kakadu National Park is a place of awe, majesty, and wonder. Beautiful and incredible, it has few parallels on earth. But it also seems to have so many ways to kill you what it would truly humble that new comedy about the American West.
Having married an Aussie and knowing the community here from my two years in Sydney as a student, I travel back to Australia to visit family, lecture, and promote books about once a year. Ever since being enthralled by Ayer’s Rock (Uluru) in Australia’s red center and the remoteness of it all, I wanted to go back to the outback near the top of Australia at Darwin City. Debbie and I had four days in between my lecture appearances in Sydney and Melbourne and decided to make the trip.
Darwin is deceptive. Firstly, Charles, the founder of evolution, never made it here. Rather, his ship the HMS Beagle did and they decided to name the town after their former naturalist. It looks in pictures like perfect tropical beaches, the waters turquoise blue. But it’s a tease and you can forget about swimming.
I asked the concierge at the hotel which are the best swimming beaches. “Oh, you can’t swim in the beaches here. Not now. Not ever. If the sharks don’t kill you, the saltwater crocodiles will. And if they don’t tear you limb from limb, the jellyfish will sting you to death. Of course, even if you survive you’ll step on a rock fish and get the nastiest pain of your life. But you’d probably make it.”
Oh, positive news at last! He seemed to be enjoying sharing with me the many ways I might meet my demise.
And if the wildlife doesn’t kill you in the Northern Territory, the Japanese might. Australia is isolated and has never experienced anything near an invasion. But, unbelievably, Darwin was bombed extensively by Imperial Japan in the Second World War, something that brings tourists from all over.
But what could kill us in Darwin was nothing compared to what could finish us off at Kakadu. On the road to the famous National Park the first thing you need to contend with are the dead kangaroos on the side of the road, probably one every ten miles. Yes, I said it. Dead kangaroos. For us Americans to see a real kangaroo in the wild, hopping contentedly, is the thrill of a lifetime. For Aussies they represent roadkill. If you’re unlucky enough to hit one – and they’re jumping all over – you might not live to brag about seeing one.
The heart of Kakadu is Jabiru (yes, this park has the greatest names ever) where there is a uranium mine. A big uranium mine! I never got the chance to ask if it’s the uranium from which they make nuclear bombs. There was enough death surrounding me and I decided it was better not to know.
We stayed in a lodge that night. It was air-conditioned and pleasant. The next morning we got up to see the ancient Aboriginal rock art. The heat, humidity, and sweat was indescribable. Mindful of the tragedy of the German tourist, we took a small lake of water with us. The flies assaulted us non-stop and I regretted not buying netting for our heads and faces. Two Irish tourists taught us the trick of holding a branch with leaves and waving it around constantly. It worked. It also made my arm feel like it was falling off. The rock art was colorful, incredible, truly ancient, and well worth it. By the time we got back to our car our clothing looked like we had jumped in a swimming pool.
I had only once before experienced such intense heat and that was 1000-odd miles to the South when we visited Ayer’s Rock. It was easily the most unique place I had been, veritably the surface of the moon. But the heat was beyond imagination, like being in a gas-fired oven. Kakadu was nearly as hot but with the added humidity.
That afternoon we took the Yellow River cruise, easily the best river cruise I had ever been on. We were immersed in bright, croc-infested waters surrounded by countless colorful birds. Big birds and birds as small as the human thumb. There were big crocs, what the locals calls “Boss Crocs.” You quickly learn that there are salt-water crocs, which are big, ferocious, and utterly deadly, and freshwater crocs which are smaller, ferocious, and utterly deadly. As to your own mortality, the difference between them makes little difference. And here I was simply trying to remember that there was a difference between the alligators I had grown up with all over South Florida and the Aussie croc.
My wife told me that the crocs would eat my feet just as revenge for the shoes I was wearing. I reminded her that they were “Crocs” in name only and were made of plastic. She seemed disappointed.
The tour ended and people gathered to watch the beautiful and majestic sunset. But the professional guides were facing the opposite direction looking at a completely different natural fireworks. In the distance was something everyone had waited for since April: the first rains of the monsoon season.
Kakadu is famous for getting so much rain between November and February each year that nearly the whole park is flooded under meters of water. It’s another thing that can kill you as you drive your vehicle past flood lanes with their multiple warnings of flash floods. But boy do the rains make the most dramatic electrical storms. Giant white electric lines filled the darkened night sky in the distance. Disneyworld on the 4th of July could not compete.
About an hour later, after we had thankfully made it to our hotel, the heavens opened up and it rained so hard that I thought it would take the roof off. It was impossible to sleep. It was exhilarating to be under such a ferocious display of mighty nature and I hadn’t seen such an electric show since Kruger National Park in South Africa, which I filmed because of its intensity.
The next day we hiked to a spectacular swimming hole with a waterfall. It was magnificent. But all along the way there were warnings that crocodiles might have gotten into the freshwater swimming hole, even though park rangers make a practice of removing the saltwater crocs who get in at the beginning of each season. We took our chances, thinking it would be better to be eaten by the crocs then die of heat exhaustion. The rains were supposed to cool everything off but the heat was still infernal. Just to be sure, I sent my wife in ahead of me to make sure everything was safe.
We drove from there to Katherine, one of the most remote towns in the Australian outback, to see the Katherine Gorge. This is all Aboriginal country and it belongs to the Aboriginal people. It’s still difficult to see a lot of interaction between white Australians and Aboriginals, although, admittedly, I wasn’t there long enough to make any judgments. Still, white Australians and Aboriginals interact, it seems, as two distinct peoples, both Australian, from vastly different backgrounds and enjoying vastly different experiences. Major efforts, however, are being made to bridge the gap.
The Katherine Gorge was sprawling with wallabies, very friendly, almost letting you pet them.
There are countless mines littered throughout this region. This is the real source of Australian wealth. Here mineral gold comes straight out of the ground. The men and women who work the mines are incredibly hard-working. I saw one man come in to buy an ice cream at a remote gas station dark as the midnight sun from soot from a mine. He told me they were looking for either gold or uranium. He said he was covered, if I remember correctly, in cobalt and that “it was almost impossible to get the stuff off. Could take weeks, mate!” From the looks of things Australia is only destined to get richer given that such a small fraction of this huge continent has been dug up, and given that it seems to have endless mineral resources.
Bottom line. The Northern Territory is a fascinating place to visit. It left me with that strange feeling that one gets when one is utterly detached from civilization. A feeling of isolation, loneliness, forlornness. But also a sense of limitless adventure, deep introspection, and the beauty and scale of the place left with a feeling of my own insignificance and God’s infinite power.
If you can brave the sharks, crocs, heat, humidity, and roadside kangaroos you’ll have a jumping good time.