Australia’s Top End
The rugged landscape of Gregory National Park. (Lindsay Brown/LPI)
No more than five minutes out of Darwin, and the suburbs have already given way to outback. A shimmering highway runs straight into the distance until it is broken up by heat and a metallic blue sky. Dust is seeping into our four-wheel drive, settling on our supplies of drinking water and emergency snacks, our spare tyres and satellite phone. I can even taste it on my lips, dry and salty – the powdered essence of Australia.
Ahead of my companion Catherine and I stretches a journey through some of the wildest and most sparsely populated country on the planet. This is a land where there are areas larger than Ireland without a single town, where farmers lose dozens of cattle a year to crocodiles, and whole communities are cut off by flooding for months during the rainy season, known as 'the wet'. The Top End, as locals call this northern tip of Australia, is known for its characters: real 'Ozzie battlers', who came north to make their fortunes and never went south again. These are people to whom a fence ripped up by a wild buffalo, or a head-high flood, is as normal as a rush-hour traffic jam is to the rest of us.
The high rises of the city have been replaced with termite hills, some three metres high, which tower over the wattle trees. I gaze at the road that will take us from Darwin on the north coast to Broome in the west. It's a journey of hundreds of miles over tarmac and dirt tracks, and into the very fabric of Australia's past: a mere 150 years or so of 'whitefella' history, and the quiet millennia when the Top End belonged only to the Aborigines.
Kakadu National Park, 152 miles
Sitting on the warm sandstone at the top of Ubirr rock and peering over the edge to palm trees far below, I am dizzyingly aware that the scene before me has remained unchanged since prehistory. In the distance, the craggy lines of the Arnhem plateau stand out against the azure sky. Beneath it, stretching all the way to the feet of Ubirr, lies a huge and perfectly flat, lettuce-green flood plain, through which the lazy curves of the East Alligator River meander.
During the wet, water cascades off the plateau and submerges thousands of acres of the Top End, turning dozens of sandstone outcrops such as Ubirr into little islands. The temperatures rise to 45°C, with 100 per cent humidity, and there is little to be done but to sit the season out. For as long as 60,000 years - since humans first crossed into Australia - Aboriginal peoples have been gathering on this very rock during the rains, to take shelter in its nooks and crannies, to rest and talk.
We know this not only by the strange, shiny grey appearance of the sandstone - caused by centuries of polishing by human skin - but also by the fluent lines of Aboriginal art on the overhanging rock face beside me. Saratoga fish and pignosed turtles, complex depictions of myths, and simple handprints are layered on top of each other, the evidence of generations of storytellers and listeners. I hold up my hand and fit its shadow into Marlee Ranacher gets to work at Bullo River Station, preparing to brand her herd of cattle an ancient handprint. The beauty and immediacy of the paintings is striking enough, but seeing them here - where the descendants of the artists are still living, and practising many of the rituals and bush skills that these images refer to - makes the connection to the past seem much more tangible, as warm as touch itself.
We stay at the Kakadu Culture Camp, in tents beneath the woolly bark trees. As night falls we sit around the campfire and listen to the camp's owner, Jenny Hunter, talk about traditional Aboriginal bush skills. Jenny is half Bininj, the word for the indigenous people of Kakadu. 'If we want something,' she says, 'we just go out and get it from our supermarket - the bush. Everything we need is there. These green ants - they taste citrusy: good for colds. This paperbark tree, we call it 'the tree with a thousand uses'. We use the bark to wrap things up, or as oven gloves, to make canoes, or to cook food in.'