The ultimate road trip to Australia's Northern Territory, home to Mick Dundee

It’s 30 years since the release of Crocodile Dundee. To mark the anniversary, Isabel Conway visits Australia’s Northern Territory, home to Mick Dundee.

The ultimate road trip to Australia's Northern Territory, home to Mick Dundee

Crocodile Dundee may be old ‘bush hat’ to some but he’s still my hero showing off those sexy survival skills as he fends off ferocious crocodiles and calmly brushes away stinging, biting venomous creatures in the remote bush of Australia’s Northern Territory Top End.

After countless Christmas viewings of the movies I longed to visit this far flung place (with a 4x4 on standby), bathe in its natural rock pools (minus lurking crocs) and mount ancient escarpments (with a younger Mick Dundee)

At long last I have made it up to the Top End now to locations from that first Crocodile Dundee movie that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, like the spectacular rock art site of Ubirr, looming Nourlangie, verdant Bang Bang Billabong and more.

Remember Burt the monstrous crocodile that had us on the edge of our seats as he grabbed Sue by the strap of her water bottle?

Aged 90 he still jumps out of the water to catch the chicken wings visitors feed him off fishing rods at Darwin’s Crocosaurus Bay reptile attraction.

A Kakadu sunrise
A Kakadu sunrise

The Top End boasts a national park (Kakadu) half the size of Switzerland with 40,000 year old Aboriginal rock art sites and flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet.

There are 1500 species of ants and nearly as many crocodiles as inhabitants.

Arriving in Darwin, whose impressive high rise skyline was partly created by Irish workers who came after the construction collapse at home, the “dry” will soon give over to the “wet”.

That’s when some folks go “troppo” (bonkers) up here, explained our barmaid Louise from Dublin.

You can’t even cool off in the sea, she says.

From October to April the ocean off golden Mindil beach swarms with box jelly fish.

No larger than a sponge their tentacles have enough toxicity to kill instantly.

The humid tropical monsoon is also cyclone season.

On Christmas Eve 1974 Cyclone Tracy flattened the city and that blood curdling shriek of wind and sounds of a town being ripped apart is replicated at Darwin’s fascinating Museum and Art gallery.

Our late September six day tour of Top End highlights was perfectly timed with cobalt skies and bearable heat.

Mosquitoes, stinging horseflies as big as your palm and other nasty creepy crawlies were on walkabout and the seasonal invasion of killer crocodiles into rock pools and water holes had not yet begun.

The pavement ends and the out back starts on the Stuart Highway the only road south of Darwin stretching 1400km all the way to Alice Springs.

Clouds of red dust rise up from rutted tracks off it and we only meet a handful of vehicles in the four hour drive to wild Nitmiluk Aboriginal National Park.

Dense Eucalyptus forests and bush scrub grazed by feral donkeys and wild horses who are relics of mining times envelope the horizon.

Towering structures like rocks are termite mounds.

At Pine Creek, the first signs of civilisation for hours, we detour for a look at spooky Grove Hill Hotel that displays the world’s largest gold nugget in front.

The picture of desolation and decrepitude the former hotel is strewn with cobwebs and debris.

Faded dusty photographs show Cork born Bill Lucy and his wife Margaret (nee O Shea).

They built the hotel to cater for hordes of miners and gold diggers that came through in a bygone age.

Our elderly driver-guide has met a few “dangerous creatures out here” in his time.

Graeme Hockey has charted swathes of the Northern Territory, visiting ranches where herds of 150,000 head of cattle roam and whose boundaries take a day or longer to reach.

“The nasties were usually the two legged human kind” he chortles surmising that sunstroke will probably kill me quicker than anything else in the bush.

A small waterfall and pool with clear water, at Kakadu National Park
A small waterfall and pool with clear water, at Kakadu National Park

In the days that follow we see numerous crocodiles on magical early morning and evening cruises of Kakadu’s most famous wetlands, world famous Yellow Water Billabong, Guluyambi in the pristine wilderness of the East Alligator river and later the natural wonders of the Mary river floodplains.

I visualize terrifying sightings of snakes, scorpions and rats that grow as big as cats.

But the closest we came to a snake was the recently shed skin gleaming in the twilight beside a Medusa of tree trunks as we downed glasses of fizz watching a blood red sunset near Mary River’s wetlands.

The Top End’s gentle creatures came out to play instead.

Dozens of species of bird life flew, waded and chattered on the edge of the Billabongs and wetlands.

On the tricky climb across massive boulders to a Garden of Eden rock pool at the famous Edith Falls a splendid frill necked lizard appeared and frightened big eyed gekkos darted into crevices.

A dawn chorus of squawking, yellow crested cockatoos were our wakeup call in Jabiru’s Ambinik indigenous Kakadu Resort.

Clusters of cuddly wallabies scampered under our balconies at wonderful Cicada Lodge next to Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk while rainbow lorikeet parrots streaked the sky with colour everywhere we went.

The Northern Territory is home to the largest indigenous population on the Australian continent so I looked forward to talking to some about their lives and history.

Sadly I met few and those I did come across kept their distance, looking far away, as if in another world.

Success stories notably centred on excellently run cruises and accommodations that are indigenous owned and operated in Kakadu and Nitmiluk National Parks.

These ancient lands with their sacred Aboriginal rock art sites returned to their original rightful owners in relatively recent times.

Ancient Rock Art in Kakadu National Park Northern Territory Australia
Ancient Rock Art in Kakadu National Park Northern Territory Australia

In Jabiru, Kakadu’s small and dusty metropolis of pre-fabs for transient mining staff, a few restaurants and some tourist accommodation a circle of Aboriginal women sat on the ground for hours gambling their weekly social security payments away in a winner takes all card game called “Lucky”.

Hours before flying home from Darwin I watched an ABC TV programme reporting that the indigenous population have the highest rates of suicide while alcoholism illiteracy and poor health is widespread.

Experts debated how the system continues to dismally fail their First Nation who still suffer post colonial trauma, in the past robbed of their identities and treated as “feral natives”.

On the lookout for a real Crocodile Dundee character at last I find him on the Mary River.

Bearded weather beaten Sean Chisholm (Chizo) a wildlife ranger-guide at Wildman Wilderness Lodge is the real deal.

Demonstrating life jacket drill before our morning cruise he chuckles “not that you are going to need them in these crocodile infested waters”.

He narrowly missed being eaten by one earlier in the year.

“I heard this huge clunk – a big croc was munching into my boat.

“I wasn’t worried though, if your time is up, it’s up. It’s our way of living out here in the Outback where you’re 170km away from a doctor if you get bitten by a mean snake.”

Mick Dundee would have approved, because goes on Chizo to add, “But it’s the place we love and call home”.

GETTING THERE

Getting There:

Isabel flew from London to Singapore (14 hours) with Singapore Airlines ( www.singaporeair.com  whose new premium economy class (from £1,925 return) features a generous seat pitch, recline and leg rests, priority check in, on board champagne and other extras in the separate cabin.

The four hour onward flight was with its sister carrier Silk Air.

Where to Sleep:

Darwin has the full range of accommodation options. Try The Vibe Hotel on the Waterfront ( www.tfehotels.com ) and downtown Oaks Elan hotel suites ( www.oakshotelsresorts.com ).

Cicada Lodge ( www.cicadalodge.com.au ) at magnificent Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National park is in the bush serving local delicacies like seasoned crocodile tail and kangaroo fillets.

Wildman Wilderness Lodge ( www.wildmanwildernesslodge.com ) on the edge of Mary River wetlands is another authentic outback experience but with all the little luxuries.

In Jabiru check out the bizarre crocodile shaped Mercure hotel.

What to see:

Kakadu National Park’s Yellow Water Billabong, spectacular rock art site of Ubirr at sunset, mysterious Nourlangie, a dinner cruise at Nitmiluk (Katherine)Gorge and daybreak on the Mary River floodplains.

Check out Darwin’s hop on hop off bus tour for all the sights including Crocosaurus Cove ( www.croccove.com ) and An Outback Float Plane adventure ( www.outbackfloatplanes.com.au ).

When to go:

The best time to visit is from May to late September. Tropical summer Nov-April is intensely hot and humid but flora and fauna flourish.

For further information see www.tourismtopend.com.au  and www.kakadutourism.com

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