Having heard rave reviews of the region, I asked the Northern Territory Tourism Commission to put together a travel itinerary, and then headed off Down Under.
It’s always a bit daunting to land in a new town, especially when you have to find your way from the airport to the hotel in a hired car. The Avis lady kindly pointed out of the window to our destination: the Darwin Airport Resort was just a boomerang’s throw away. After leaving Singapore around midnight and getting in at some ungodly hour after no sleep on Jetstar, it was a relief to not have to drive anywhere. There are two hotels at the airport, and ours had just opened the night before.
It was perfect. Our accommodation was made up of two separate bedrooms and an open-plan living and dining area. It had a washing machine and tumble-drier, always handy when travelling with children.
We had a lovely swim later and a relaxed dinner around the pool in the evening.
In the morning, we headed to the new Crocosaurus Cove in central Darwin. Apart from crocodiles and the Cage of Death (you can choose to be lowered into the pool with the crocs!), there are fascinating exhibitions of other reptiles including turtles. The feeding and information sessions were so interesting that we spent about three hours there.
Just out of town is an older and more rural spot, called Crocodylus Park, which is still popular. There wasn’t much shopping in Darwin but Casuarina Shopping Centre, near the airport, has all the big chains including the budget Kmart plus plenty of interesting boutiques.
On our return trip, we stayed in another new property, the Mantra Pandanas in central Knuckey Street, where our apartment-style accommodation included two inter-leading double bedrooms. Again, it had kitchen and laundry facilities. It was contemporary, clean and very nicely done. The same hotel group owns an older property, right on the Esplanade, which also looks good.
At the favourite children’s attraction, Aquascene, youngsters get to stand in the sea and feed hundreds of fish. Apart from the sea being full of deadly stingers and “salties” (saltwater crocodiles), I thought it was a bit overrated. Also, I don’t think that fish should be fed bread.
The famous Mindil Beach Market is set up every evening in the dry months (April to October). Thousands of tourists and locals alike head there for organic produce, arts and crafts and a huge variety of international food, and to hear musicians playing a mix of international, Aboriginal and other home-grown Australian music. The main attraction, though, is the incredible sunset over the sea.
On the Road
Getting out of Darwin along the Stuart Highway was fairly simple once I remembered that Avis had provided a full set of maps!
It was exhilarating being on the open road. Our first stop was to be the Territory Wildlife Park, but the sign for it was at the same place as the turn-off, so we whizzed passed it. There are quite a few places where this happens, and on roads like this the best way to avoid overshooting the turn-off is to keep an eye on the kilometres.
The girls had just started their first video on the little portable player we had bought at the airport, so were not keen to stop. So much for them absorbing the scenery! I later learned that you really need a full day to enjoy the park, and as we would have had only two hours it was a good thing we had kept going.
We were staying in the old mining town of Batchelor that night, on the outskirts of Litchfield National Park, and we stopped on the way to see the famous magnetic termite mounds. These giant structures are magnetically aligned so that their eastern side is evenly warmed by the sun, and look like tombstones in a cemetery.
Of the several pools with waterfalls, we chose to visit Florence Falls. We took the ten-minute walk down to the pool and found it very pretty but fairly busy. There were children and the odd adult jumping in from varying heights, and we christened our new Olympus underwater camera by taking photos and videos of each other in the water. No crocodiles here! Our host that night told us that if we had gone a little further to Wangi Falls, we would have found it even prettier and a bit quieter.
Batchelor was famous as a mining town and as an Allied Air Force base in World War II, but became a ghost town when the uranium mine closed in 1963.
Since Litchfield was declared a national park in 1986, it has become a major tourist destination, and Batchelor along with it. Its population of about 300 is spread out in old miners’ houses and small holdings, and served by one tavern, a petrol station, a general store and a tourist information kiosk. It felt like another world, and my children initially viewed it and our accommodation with suspicion.
Built on stilts, with slatted-glass windows and mosquito netting, the old mine manager’s house is now a bed-and-breakfast called The Historic Retreat, which has been lovingly restored by co-owner, butler, housekeeper and marketing manager Robert Hobbs. He even made and served us breakfast in the morning!
The original wooden flooring is shined with pride and the gardens are beautifully kept. I slept with the fan and no air-con, and the dawn chorus from the more than 33 species of birds in this little town was incredible!
For about A$60 per night, this piece of Australian history makes a great base for exploring the area. By the next morning, the girls had become quite attached to the place.
The nearby camper-van park has an open-air restaurant which is good for dinner with a view of the setting sun. Beware of driving at night, though: we narrowly missed a wallaby and there was regular road-kill along the way each day.
The stretch between Batchelor and Katherine took us about four hours, with a break at Pine Creek. The interior of the little corrugated-iron museum there must have been at least 40˚C. The lovely man on duty mentioned that they had been promised fans a while ago, but the funds hadn’t come in.
Sadly, the gold mine in the area had recently closed down, making the future of the town uncertain. The simple museum displayed fascinating mine artefacts, an old telephone exchange and telegraph machine, in addition to Chinese pieces donated to the museum by the descendants of some of the more than 3,000 Chinese who came to work at the mines after the discovery of gold in the 1870s. Surprisingly, the girls were totally absorbed by the place, and we all learned a lot.
Katherine Gorge, a series of 13 gorges along the Katherine River, began forming 23 million years ago. Also known as Nitmiluk National Park, the area is home to historic rock paintings, water buffalo, wild pigs, and of course crocodiles. After booking into our motel, Knotts Crossing Resort, we decided not to walk, cruise or paddle the gorge in the heat. We were going to do it in cool style, by helicopter! The flight over the gorges was the highlight of our holiday. We saw plenty of game, the views were incredible, it was exhilarating fun, and we had an entire billabong, or water-hole, to ourselves.
After landing on a fairly flat area at the bottom of a gorge, we were led to a crocodile-free billabong at the end of Katherine Gorge. The still, dark-blue water was surrounded by high rock-faces and trees that seemed to grow out of nothing, and the waterfall trickled persistently, waiting for the rainy season. It was beautiful and peaceful, and we wished we had brought a picnic with us.
That night we shopped at the local supermarket and prepared an instant meal in our self-contained motel-style room. Then, smelling the food at the little restaurant near the pool, we wished we had gone there instead.
A Long Day
We headed off for the Kakadu National Park to be in time for the Yellow Water Cruise at 5pm. This was probably our longest drive, about five hours, broken by lunch at the Mary River Roadhouse.
I loved the place names. The cruise was on the Yellow Water Billabong on the Jim Jim Creek, a tributary of the South Alligator River. Watching the huge crocodiles swim alongside us was as simultaneously scary and sublime as it sounds.
We were surprised by the variety of different birds and plants, including beautiful lotus flowers, and found our guide enthusiastic and informative. As the sun sank over the wetlands, the sky filled with various flocks of thousands of birds flying in formation. Although the morning cruise might have been cooler, the impressive sunset made us glad we had taken the later one.
We arrived in the tiny town of Jaibru after dark, but managed to find the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn easily. The hotel is in the shape of a crocodile with a pool at the centre, which our room opened up onto – a fun concept. There was a safety fence in between so that you don’t have to worry about children wandering off.
Our spacious room had a queen-sized bed and two singles. The excellent buffet was free for children, and there was an extensive aboriginal art display.
Nourlangie Rock is about 30 kilometres from Jaibru, with plenty of aboriginal rock-art to see. Be prepared to walk a couple of kilometres. Sunrise or sunset are excellent times to visit, as is the case at Ubir. At the Bowali Visitor Centre we watched videos of Kakadu National Park and Arhnem Land.
On the way back to Darwin, we stopped at the wetlands to view the birdlife. The air-conditioned information hubs along the way have interesting displays and botanical, zoological and geological facts and figures that kept the children engaged.
There’s a lot more to do than we had time for, and we found plenty of help and information for tourists. We were generally happy with two meals between the three of us most of the time
as portions were big, even for the kids’ meals. Beware of buying frozen meals from supermarkets. Some of them were terrible, and they don’t always work out cheaper than a restaurant, either, especially when you have to throw the stuff away.
Our hired Toyota was a great drive. I had requested a smallish engine, but the 1600c was perfect. It did not guzzle fuel but still had enough guts to overtake the occasional, long, snaking train truck. I would have preferred to visit between June and August, when it’s cooler, to be able to do the walks and see more of the rock art. The jumping crocs on the Adelaide River are said to be an amazing sight.
I had wanted the girls to experience something different from the usual resort holiday. They did complain about the heat and the flies, but I think they learned a lot from the trip. Visiting somewhere so completely different from Singapore gave them a new perspective.
|Darwin Airport Resort
The Historic Retreat
Knotts Crossing Resort
Katherine Gorge Cruises
Yellow Water Cruises
Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn
The Mantra Pandanas
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