Bugs, crocs and bushfires: a million ways to die in the Top End

Shortly after leaving Kununurra, we crossed the Western Australian border into the Northern Territory. Despite having travelled through the Kimberley outback in our campervan for several days, we now felt we had finally hit the frontier.

Tourism boards and travel companies sell the Northern Territory as the real Australia – where you’ll get the rough-as-guts, true blue, fair dinkum ozzy experience, with big rocks, big crocs and small concern for the fragility of human life. We were keen to put this stereotype to the test as we drove up towards Darwin, with a plan to visit iconic NT destinations like Litchfield National Park, Kakadu National Park, Alice Springs and Uluru.

As soon as we crossed the state border we noticed the difference. It was still warm at 37 degrees celsius, but it felt even hotter due to everything being on fire. The bush along the roadside was under attack. Some parts were alight with fresh flames while others smouldered, sending thick grey smoke into the air. After a few kilometres the fire would die down and we’d pass the smoking, blackened skeletons of trees for a while until we reached a new copse of victims readying themselves for the siege to come. A hasty google told us that this was all controlled burning managed by state services and local aboriginal populations in order to prevent much larger wildfires. But, as Shelley is from bushfire-prone Victoria and Gareth is the son of a fire chief, we were definitely on high alert. We noticed some backpackers camping in a rest area directly in the path of the fire and smoke and made a quick call to the fire brigade just in case they were silly enough to stay there.

Highway bushfire Katherine Northern Territory
No burning without a permit
Bushfire, Katherine, Northern Territory
Burn baby burn

What lurks in Litchfield?

We continued our roadtrip north past Katherine to Litchfield National Park, seeking some relief from the heat in its natural swimming holes and waterfalls. After a short inspection of the graveyard of magnetic termite mounds and enormous ‘cathedral’ termite mounds, which can be over 6 metres tall, we hustled to the pools.

Even though Litchfield is an oasis for travellers and locals alike, it’s by no means a safe haven. When you swim in the cool, green water there’s always a risk that a crocodile is lurking underneath your feet. The probability is much lower than in other liquid bits of the NT though, and that’s good enough for most. It definitely didn’t stop us. Although within the month there were two attacks from a rogue freshwater croc.

Wangi Falls, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory
Wangi Falls
Swimming hole, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory
Time for a dip
Waterfall, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory
Litchfield stunner
Man in rockpool, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory
Shallow pool, deep thoughts
Magnetic termite mounds, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory
Magnetic termite mounds
Giant termite mound, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory
6 metre cathedral termite mound

Down and out in Darwin

We were looking forward to our pit stop in Darwin between national park adventures, having heard a lot about Australia’s only tropical capital city from friends. We really enjoyed the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory with its fantastic indigenous art collection and creepy cyclone simulator. The Darwin aviation museum also had some great relics, including a huge B-52 bomber and the wreckage of a Japanese fighter shot down in the 1942 air raids on Darwin. But on the main street things were a little grim.

We went to Crocosaurus Cove which rehomes the mad and bad saltwater crocodiles that torment the Top End. While it seemed like an ethical enterprise on the surface, there’s something a bit depressing about watching a continuous stream of tourists being lowered into the ‘Cage of Death’  – a tank which is placed next to the crocodile while an attendant attempts to provoke a reaction by waving a bit of meat in front of its ambivalent head.

Spoiler alert – the tourists never get attacked, not even the fat ones. We left feeling quite sorry for the crocodiles. It makes you hate people a bit to see a species as old as the dinosaurs reduced to jumping for scraps.

Our attempts to find food in Darwin were thwarted by the city’s lack of interest in feeding its human citizens.  Everything bar McDonalds was closed between 2pm and 6pm, so we shook our fists at Mitchell Street and left town.

B52 in Darwin aircraft museum, Northern Territory
B52 reigning over all
Nose of fighter jet, Darwin aircraft museum, Northern Territory
Fighter plane at Darwin aircraft museum, Northern Territory
Jaws in plane form

Fighter plane at Darwin aircraft museum, Northern Territory

Feeding saltwater crocodiles, Crocosaurus Cove, Darwin, Northern Territory
Hasslin crocs

Aint no party like a billabong party

On our way to Kakadu we passed through the Mary River Wetlands, which is home to the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world. Rather than watch another humiliating jumping crocodile show we decided to take an eco cruise of the Corroboree Billabong and this turned out to be one of the best tours of our entire roadtrip. The guide was really passionate and informative and we were lucky enough to see a couple of saltwater crocodiles up close, just chilling in the mud. We also saw Northern Territory wetland birds like the iconic jabiru and the smaller jacana, which race across the lily pads on their tiny twig legs. We spotted a mated pair of sea eagles, some kites, magpie geese and a tiny, jewel-coloured kingfisher. The wetlands were beautiful and completely unlike any Australian landscape we had seen to date.

Bird drying feathers, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Drying feathers
Waterlily close up, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Lotus pose
Lotus roots, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Lotus seeds
Jabiru, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Mama Jabiru
Lily pads and pink waterlily, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Perfect lily
White bellied sea eagle, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Serious as a sea eagle
Billabong with lily pads, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Billabong beauty
Jacana bird, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Jacana skipping lily pads
Kingfisher in tree, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Tiny kingfisher

Surviving the insect invasion

The downside of the wetland environment, and what NT residents call ‘the Build-up’ where the humidity rises for weeks on end with little rainfall until the storms of ‘the Wet’ begin, is the mosquitos. They don’t care much for Gareth’s English blood but they love Shelley. In the evenings she had to lock herself up in the van while Gareth cooked outside, passing him ingredients through a hole in the mosquito net. One night the NT took it to boss level. Returning from the shower, Shelley was about to get into the campervan when Gareth pointed out an enormous spider perched right above the bed. As big as your outstretched fingers, it was a nasty piece of work with big twitching fangs. As the sun was setting we had no choice but to remove it,  and Gareth managed to catch it in a bowl and then throw it a few metres away (defs not far enough). It was a bit of a hollow victory as we were now suspicious of Moby’s every nook and cranny. It took quite a while to repair the sanctity of our mobile home, but such is vanlife…

Highs: Watching two baby jabirus play fight in the billabong. Adorbs!

Lows: Feeling the need to call the fire department three times in three days

Baby jabirus, Corroboree Billabong, Northern Territory
Baby jabirus playing

6 thoughts on “Bugs, crocs and bushfires: a million ways to die in the Top End

  1. Great writing and photos! We’ve only just dipped our toes into Australia at this point. Your blog encourages us to return for longer and see much more than just the east coast.


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