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Falls, Rocks, Crocs
Touring Australia’s Top End
Story and photography by Matthew Crompton

— May/June 2018 May/June 2018 —
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“MATE, I'VE SET THE TRAPS AT MAGUK – a large clear pool reflecting blue sky, a waterfall 130km southwest of Darwin, without having to
I wouldn’t swim there.” plunging into it over the walls of the escarpment – meet much traffic along the way.
Billy was a ranger at Kakadu National Park and with a cry, leapt into the cool clear water. It was the end of the dry season and the
in Australia’s Northern Territory. I’d run into Surfacing, treading water alone in the emptiness country running south all along the flat Cox
him on the fourth day of my tour at a pub in Pine of gorge, I could have been in Gondwanaland, Peninsula Road was parched, dry red earth and
Creek, the old gold rush town just outside the some primeval Earth long before time, the insects dry scrub plants and scraggly thin gum trees
park’s southern border. humming in the trees and timeless predators from which I startled flights of red-tailed black
“You see, freshies, they’ll just take a bite out perhaps waiting for me to paddle unwisely into cockatoos as I passed. I churned along all day
of you.” He was holding forth on crocodiles, and their path. This prehistoric feel was exactly what in that meditative state you get spinning at a
paused to drag on a cigarette. “But the salties, they I’d come for. steady pace, sun hood pulled up around my face,
won’t just kill you – they’ll stalk you to kill you.” *** the road turning from pavement to dirt and
It wasn’t an idle threat. Saltwater crocodiles, back to pavement again, no towns to see, only
by many reckonings the world’s most dangerous I will concede at this point that the Top End – tracks leading off through the bush to remote
large animal, were everywhere in tropical the local’s name for the northern extreme of the Aboriginal communities.
northern Australia. As a species they’d failed to Northern Territory – is a questionable location It’s worth mentioning that the Northern
get the memo that humans were predators rather for a bicycle tour. The shocking heat, ever-present Territory is also Australia’s indigenous heartland.
than prey, a disconcerting fact for an aggressive crocodiles and sheer remoteness are all Badly marginalised throughout most of the
ambush hunter that grows up to seven metres in arguments for taking a leisurely pedal around the country, Aboriginal Australians not only make
length and often weighs north of 500kg. They’d Australian wine country instead. Yet the Top End up 15% of the Territory’s population (versus
killed more than 100 people in Australia in the is also exactly the Australia that people so often 3% nationally), they also own 49% of the land
last 40 years, including one in Kakadu, where I dream of: a vast, wild and unpopulated landscape here, and it’s arguably the area of Australia
was headed, just a year before. that not only teems with life but is ever-changing where Indigenous culture and identity are both
Yet when I arrived at Maguk gorge the thanks to its yearly cycles of drought and flood, strongest and most visible.
next day in the withering 38˚C heat of midday, the Dry and the Wet. I’d come for the wildness of the landscape, to
filthy and sunburnt from cycling 60km up the Almost a week before, I’d started the tour be sure, but there was also the chance to gain a
highway and a further 10km along a heavily back in Darwin, loading up my fat-tyred titanium fuller understanding of the ancient, human heart
corrugated red-dirt road, I was so cooked I was Muru Cycles Mungo with supplies and taking of Australia, of the oldest continually-existing
willing to take my chances. I locked my bike the pre-dawn ferry across the bay to Mandorah culture on the planet, at home for 40,000 years
to a tree at the end of a narrow sandy path and on the Cox Peninsula, a route that would get me or more on this vast southern continent. That
scrambled over the rocks to the gorge itself – to my destination of Litchfield National Park, night, having set up camp and cooked and eaten
at Litchfield’s Wangi Falls, I bathed in the pool
below its high twin cascades, the water silvered by
the half-moon, knowing that my anthropological
ambitions might have to wait: first there was the
Reynolds River Track to negotiate.
Running 29x3 inch rubber on pavement, as
I was, is not exactly a recipe for speed. But for
the Reynolds River Track, 44km of rocky, rutted
dirt road with numerous river crossings, it was
just about perfect. Traversing Litchfield’s western
edge, the Reynolds was one of the main things
that drew me to touring the Top End in the first
place, and as I turned off the pavement the next
morning and started bombing down the sandy
track, rolling over fist-sized rocks, I was amped
and ready… for about three minutes.
Then I hit the first crossing. More than a
hundred metres across. Bumper depth on a Land
Cruiser. Opaque with mud, and a crocodile
warning sign right at its edge. Yeah, nah. I leaned
NOT SUCH A SWEETHEART the bike against a tree well back from the water’s
A five-metre croc in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern edge and settled in to read a book. In time, a POOL PARTY
Territory in Darwin, known for a series of attacks in the 1970s. couple of good ole Northern Territory boys came Buley Rockhole in Litchfield National Park.

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“Being here, it’s still about Country,” said Highway was smooth and flat and the country park, huge saltwater crocodiles haunted the water
Mary. Country with a capital C. “Our kids, they was arid and empty – rivers marked as sometimes at low tide, submerging and surfacing like toothy
go to school, but school holidays, we don’t let submerging the road to two metres were now just submarines. I turned south onto a narrow dirt
them forget – we take them out to Country, teach dry runs of sand. Even the birds seemed to keep track running amongst the sandstone outcrops of
them the stories, show them how to eat that good to the shade. the backcountry, riding the rollercoaster of small
bush tucker. Help them remember they belong to Yet though I would not have believed it undulating hills.
this place.” before I came here, a sense of its sacredness was The day was like a furnace. I parked the bike
Over the course of those hours we covered seeping into me. Seeping into me as I watched in the shade and retreated into the mouth of a
the variety of Aboriginal kinship relations the incandescent sunset from my camp with the shallow cave, watching the landscape outside
(dizzying), the problems with alcohol in the sweet smell of burning grass filling the air. As I shimmering in the heat and wondering at the
community (serious), and the best way to cook a watched waterbirds take flight from a billabong resourcefulness of a people who could not
turtle (in the shell, buried in the ground with hot at dawn, and as I walked beneath rock ledges only live but thrive here for tens of thousands
coals), but it was the profound significance of the the next morning at Nourlangie, where for of years. As if in answer to this thought, my
landscape to the people here that struck me most. 20,000 years humans had painted stories of the hand found a deep, smooth depression in the
In much of the world, people had built churches Dreaming, of Namarrgon the Lightning Man, rock I was sitting on: a mortar-stone, used to
and temples, enclosing what was numinous in a who brings monsoon storms to renew the land. grind grains and berries foraged from the land.
shell of human making. Yet here, above all things, All too soon, I was nearing the end of the Surprised, my eyes searched the cave, and found
it was the land itself and all the creatures in it that road. I rode onward through the park’s main a single handprint in blood-red ochre pressed
were sacred. town at Jabiru (luxuriating for a day in the high up on the wall.
My days on the bike began to follow a wonders of cheese and fresh fruit) and then to I knew these were small things, but they felt
pattern: I rose in the dark, packed my kit, and the northeast, where the wild stone country of weightier to me now. My tour of the Top End was
was on the road at first light, cycling through the Arnhem Land rose beyond the road like the walls over, but I left feeling that like this cave, I would
BIKEPACKING BESTIE morning and again in the evening if necessary of Mordor. bear its marks – of the landscape, of the people
The author’s trusty Muru Cycles and resting through the heat of midday, which At Cahills Crossing, the causeway across the and their stories – inwardly, for a long, long time
Mungo at Cahills Crossing.
now occasionally touched 40˚C. The Kakadu East Alligator River that marked the edge of the to come. AA

by in a jacked-up truck, both drinking beer in was quickly asleep. white and indigenous alike mixing around the
the cab and happy enough to ferry an idiot on a I pedalled 60km the next day, rolling hills bar tops and pool tables. I spent three hours PRACTICALITIES best time to go, and when water crossings air to the rest of Australia and to nearby cities in
bicycle across the croc-infested waters. beneath the brutal sun on a good-quality dirt there talking to ranger Billy (of croc-warning will be safest, though be aware that some Asia. The Mandorah Ferry links Darwin to the
Safely on the other side, the Reynolds was road all the way to Pine Creek. With only fame) and Mary, a 60-ish woman of the When to go waterfalls will not be flowing and fresh water start of the route on the Cox Peninsula, which can
everything I’d dreamed – red earth beneath 700 or so people in the town, on any given Wagiman people, who bantered with each other The landscape and weather of the Top End may be hard to find along some sections of otherwise be entirely ridden.
big blue skies and giant, alien-looking termite night a significant percentage of Pine Creek’s in creole and patiently answered my questions change enormously depending on where you the route. Toward the end of the dry season
mounds three metres high dotted across dry population could be found at the Lazy Lizard about what it meant to them to be Aboriginal in are in the cycles of dry (May to October) and temperatures and humidity can also rise to Contacts
grasslands. Lean kangaroos scattering into the pub, and so it was this night. Tourists and locals, the Northern Territory. wet (November to April). In the Wet season extreme levels. The National Parks offices for Kakadu
bush and colourful parrots in the trees. And much of the national parks will be closed and (kakadunationalpark@environment.gov.au)
best of all, not a vehicle in sight (save for a truck roads will be impassable. Towards the middle How to get there and Litchfield (phone only, +61 8 8976 0282)
bogged to the headlights in the deep, clear, or end of the Dry Season (August-Oct) is the Fly into Darwin, which has good connections by should be your first stop for information.
swift-flowing Reynolds River itself, in the process
of being winched out as I forded the crossing). Further info
I ended that day, as I did most days on the Road conditions on the Reynolds River Track
tour, at a swimming hole – the lovely stepped and elsewhere in the Top End can be found
rock pools of Surprise Creek – and slept in a dusty at http://nt.gov.au/driving/safety/check-road-
grove beneath bright stars, stripped to the skin conditions. Though it can be hit-or-miss, the
and sweating in my tent even deep into the night. community forums at Darwin 4x4 (http://
The heat was a prelude to the next day, darwin4x4.net/) can also be a great resource
15km south to the tar at the end of the Reynolds for up-to-the-minute road conditions,
River Track and a further 100km east to Grove including the safety and depth of various river
Hill through empty country, fighting a 37˚C crossings. Be aware that crocodiles are a real
headwind like a blast from a convection oven. LEAFY LODGINGS and constant danger in the Top End; look
I arrived dead in the saddle at the ramshackle Twilight campsite in a dry grove in the for the crocodile safety info page on the NT
south of Kakadu National Park.
Grove Hill Pub Hotel in the twilight, consumed government’s website, http://nt.gov.au
my bodyweight in cold beer and meat pies, and

— May/June 2018 May/June 2018 —

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