It was hot. Very hot. The air was dry and you could taste the remnants of the dust in your mouth. The beer was cold. The water murky. Sounds of an unknown creature kept you up at night.
The people were tough and unapologetic. They were survivors – surviving the barren, harsh and unforgiving landscape – and subsequently their exterior was rough and hardened.
One city slicker and a coastal girl travelled in this dense, unrepentant wilderness with only two backpacks, a map and a frying pan. We were naïve yet thirsty to learn and catapult ourselves headfirst into a land unknown.
It was Australia’s red centre, and these were most poignant adventures.
Australia’s greatest natural signifier: the largest known rock in the world. Here, it protrudes proudly from the flat, sunburnt land. It burns with a natural energy and dynamism, and is majestic in its enormity.
We camped near the rock for four nights. It was dry and hot during the day, but freezing at night. It was also the start of our culinary love affair: meat and eggplant roasted on the barbeque. It was cheap, cheerful and juicy.
We stayed at a small trailer site. There was one pub and one convenience store – although, there was nothing convenient about it. It sold the bare minimum at an exuberant price. A can of tuna set you back $6, and bread was $12. A packet of chips was $12 and a frozen kangaroo’s tale came in at $25.
Needleless to say, we didn’t have the money to eat. Rather, we enjoyed the local splendors of the ‘Thirsty Dingo’, also known as the pub. It had live music and one thing on the menu – camel burgers. The only tipple of choice was cold beer.
Breakfast was a little tricky – we couldn’t afford to splurge. Rather, we became the parasites of the buffet style breakfast for the foreign tourists who had all-inclusive package deals. My partner distracted the waitress with mindless and mundane questions, while I helped myself to the confectionery (and the odd croissant). Naughty and dishonest, but highly necessary.
Darwin’s an outback, country-fied city. The fact that it’s awarded with the title of ‘city’ is slightly comical. Really, the locals abhor all expression of ‘city’ status, and rather prefer the more grimly and tangible, ‘outback, country, tin hole, mining town’.
It has one street which is punctuated with three or four pubs. There’s the dirty pub, the lady’s pub, the backpacker’s pub and the dive on the corner where locals go for their early morning pint, at 7am.
We arrived rather timely, it was Lady’s Night in Darwin and all the broads, sheilas and grannies were out for a good time. I have never seen so much overweight, soft, pulsating and rosy marrow in my life. The bartender was wearing a corset and the men were dressed in budgie smugglers covered in glitter, evidently on a half-naked mission to try to entice the passersby.
Ordering two cold beers I was also privy to a side of tits (bar tender in corset). Palpably, she took a fancy to me. I got them on the house.
It has the highest density of salt water crocodiles in the world. It really is an anomaly, a swamp like area rinsed with billabongs and dangerous flora and fauna. This was utterly encapsulated on our first night. Camping in the wild and eerie Ubirr, we decided to cook some meat on the open fire.
No sooner had we set the bloody substance on the coals when a large ‘bang’ could be heard from the dense bush behind. Something could smell our roasting dinner.
Ever the troopers and hungry too, we endeavored to continue our culinary pursuit. No sooner had we added another steak to the barbie then the large crash continued. It was coming closer.
We scurried into the car and slept there for the night. The unknown beast enjoyed a dinner of salted beef and peppered steak.
Billabongs and Breakdowns
We had one day that was so adventurous, dangerous and death defying that it’s almost unbelievable.
We were driving off the beaten track, when we became stuck in a hole of sand. We were lodged into this dry precipice, with no hopes of escape. ‘Shiiiit’ – I yelled. We had no car insurance, no phone, no network and no one to help us.
A terror besieged me – I was going to die in the bush. No sooner had I been gripped with my own premature fear than a car approached full of foreigners. They were absolute gems and somehow managed to lodge us out of our trapped situation.
Jubilant and joyous and onto the next adventure were we. The sun was slowly dipping, but we had time for one more walk, no?
We decided on a secluded billabong walk with a sign to the entrance which highlighted to ‘beware, crocs might be on the path. Stupidly, this only titillated us.
The trail was unformed and had been grown over. Evidently, it had not been used in years. It was wild and slightly unnerving, and it was only when we had to maneuver around some mangroves near the billabong, I suggested we turn back.
‘Don’t worry – the car is just around this bend,’ came my partner’s response.
So, we continued, but not before we were stopped dead. There he was. An enormous boar with sharp, protruding tusks and mean, brown eyes. He snorted at us, loudly.
I inhaled sharply, my partner held my hand – and, we continued. No sooner had we stepped one foot forward than the boar was joined by his offspring. He grunted loudly and began to move his right front foot back – he was going to advance. Here we were, in the middle of a dense bush, surrounded by wild animals and a boar was going to attack! If we drew blood we were assuredly dead – surrounding us were many hungry mouths.
My partner picked up a sharp stick, ready to gallantly defend if need be. We stepped back, and then began to back. It was a 5-mile return run and the sun was slowly dying – we didn’t want to get stuck in the darkness.
It was a scary, haunting experience. We were the only people for 50 miles and we had no way of communicating for help.
We made it to the car and that night we celebrated our survival with a meal out. What did we eat? Crocodile, boar and kangaroo – we wanted to reinstate our status as the warriors, not the victims.
We were incredibly fortuitous to have visited Gunlom. Our map was insistent – only accessible with a 4X4. We, did not have one. Rather, a three door Fiat Punto was the cheapest thing to hire.
I don’t know what compelled us to take the risk and drive down the rocky, unsolicited and unscaled dry dirt road to Gunlom. We just knew that we really wanted to go. It was a place considered unprecedented in its natural beauty, and the plunge pool awarded a view over the whole flat plain.
Four hours, one change of tire and countless prayers later, we made it.
It was indeed beautiful and a highlight of our trip. We took a massive risk (we couldn’t afford car insurance), but it paid off, and for next time we know: never, ever travel through central Australia without a 4X4.
We were coming to the end of our trip, and our supplies were scarce. Two minute noodles anyone? A lonely jar of vegemite? And a pack of Toohey’s? Our diet was increasingly sporadic.
Pubs being a local favourite, we assumed that upon entering Litchfield that there would no doubt be one. Wrong. No pub. No overpriced convenience store. Nothing.
We had no fresh or drinkable water, and instead had to tentatively approach the billabong to fill up our bottles. It was unhealthy and we’re so lucky that neither of us got seriously ill.
We fried our noodles on the barbeque and ate the packets of soy sauce and condiments for desert. We had four days of malnourishment, accompanied with 5 mile daily hikes.
Somehow, we survived and to reward ourselves as we were leaving the national park, we pulled over for a much-needed coffee.
‘That will be $7 please.’
Our travels around central Australia and Kakadu continue to be our most poignant adventures. We reminisce constantly about ‘that time’ while camping together.
It cemented our relationship and highlighted something else: we both have a thirst and love for travel and adventure. We’re both hungry to discover new places and learn new things. And we both love camping out under the stars and eating overcooked, charcoaled meat from the barbeque.
I don’t need 5 star travel, I don’t even necessarily want it. Fun and adventure begins with the bare minimum.
Your most poignant travel memories are from those adventures that are the most raw. A beaten-down car, a backpack, frying pan and an open mind is all you need.
All I can say is travel to central Australia and Kakadu – you will never forget or regret it.