A to Z of Adventure Travel: D is for Darwin

3 02 2009

katherine-gorge-1-mw1“Keep your fingers inside, they’re are crocs down there!         (Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory)


Anyone who has seen Baz Luhrmann’s recent epic ‘Australia’, will be familiar with the city of Darwin. The capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin is a modern and cosmopolitan city which was almost entirely re-built twice, once after the Japanese air raids during the Second World War that feature in the movie, and a second time after Cyclone Tracey in 1974.


Located on the Timor Sea closer to Asia than Sydney, Darwin marks the end of the line for the legendary Ghan train from Adelaide and has a friendly, small-town feel and kilometres of unspoiled beaches. Boasting a tropical climate, Australia’s most northerly major city offers a dry season from April/May to October and a wet season punctuated with tropical cyclones, monsoon rains and spectacular thunderstorms from December to March. Although sadly overlooked by many visitors, Darwin is not only a great destination but is also the gateway to some of Australia’s best natural treasures: Kakadu, National Park, Litchfield National Park and Katherine Gorge.


Kakadu is half the size of Switzerland, covering an area of almost 5,000,000 acres. The park’s diversity supports a huge variety of animal life and more than 280 species of birds – approximately one-third of the entire country’s bird species. It is also renowned for its quintessentially Australian billabongs and offers some outstanding examples of Aboriginal rock art in rocky outcrops that have provided shelter for thousands of years.


Southwest of Darwin sits Litchfield National Park, a slice of the bush home to a vast variety of bird and wildlife and some of the country’s most beautiful water falls. Not only do the falls attract thousands of visitors every year, but they are also a magnet for birds and reptiles.


Finally, Nitmiluk National Park – formerly known as Katherine Gorge National Park – borders Kakadu and is located southeast of Darwin. The park includes a series of gorges on the Katherine River and Edith Falls that have great ceremonial significance for the local Jawoyn people. The gorges can be explored by canoe or for the less-energetic, on cruises aboard flat bottomed boats. Katherine Gorge itself is a spectacular cataract comprised of thirteen gorges, with rapids and falls and is perhaps best appreciated by helicopter.


All of the parks offer a variety of accommodation from well-managed campsites for independent travellers or adventurers, to luxury permanent camps for a comfortable bush experience, and deluxe lodges.


Although not attracting as many visitors as Sydney or the Great Barrier Reef, the Northern Territory offers a superb Australian experience with unrivalled scenery, birdlife and Aboriginal culture….just watch out for the saltwater crocodiles!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan


Vertically Challenged

20 10 2008

“Would you please not stop our rotor blades with your camera?” (Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory, Australia)

If humans were meant to fly, they would have been born with wings. If helicopters were meant to fly, they would have been born with doors. When I spotted the doors of my helicopter lying on the dew-soaked grass, I began to have second thoughts about my imminent flight.


I’m a sucker for sightseeing flights. Whether balloons, helicopters or light aircraft I can’t help but plonk down a stack of hard-earned dollars, clamber aboard and get the full birds-eye view.


I am particularly fond of helicopters not only for the great photographic opportunities they provide, but also because I always feel like a famous celebrity as I walk hunched-over beneath the whirling rotor blades, climb in, fasten the double-buckle and don the fancy headset and mouthpiece.


Australia’s Katherine Gorge is a rugged canyon carved in the Northern Territory’s outback just south of Darwin. Explored from water level, the gorge’s cliffs rise from the meandering Katherine River providing shade for the crocodiles that lounge on the small stretches of white sand. It is a beautiful spot that has been immortalised in art, photography and movies.


Not content with the view from the river, I headed to the local dirt air strip for a sightseeing flight. The sun was barely up and the air was perfectly still. The helicopter had already set off on its first flight of the day. I completed the paperwork in the small utility hut and gazed at photos of the diminutive Robinson R44 helicopter that would soon whisk me off on my flight. This was clearly no normal sightseeing helicopter. It was small, tough and clearly meant business. The photos showed it mustering cattle on vast Australian ranches the size of Texas the way horses or ATVs were used on more sensibly-proportioned properties. When not mustering in the outback, the helicopter and its pilots headed north for sightseeing.


With my life signed-away, I heard the distant sound of the helicopter and stepped outside to await my ride. It was then that I noticed the doors.


They were red and lying on the grass as if forgotten or abandoned. At first I thought perhaps they were spares, but then, as my air-chariot came into view and the dawn sun shone straight through the aircraft’s body like dolphins through an aquarium hoop, I realised my error.


The helicopter slewed to a landing. The previous occupants dashed away from the whirling blades. The pilot motioned for us to keep our heads down and climb aboard.


I have long boasted of my lack of fear of heights, a boast that is perfectly true when I am on terra-firma but proves a little less certain whenever I embark on inappropriate activities like skydiving or face-first rapelling.  Helicopters without doors seemed to be in similar company.


With unmolested ease I climbed into the back seat. There were unfortunately only two seats, both of them perilously close to the large openings where the doors should have been. With no centre child-seat option, I chose the left seat and fastened my seatbelt tightly enough to sever all bloodflow to my legs. My feet began to tingle, then all feeling was lost. We promptly lifted off and my fears were allayed as the helicopter gently tilted nose-down and moved straight forward skimming across the treetops. This wouldn’t be so bad after all I thought, lifting my camera to my eyes to snap a few photos…and then we banked…to the left…dramatically.


In the space of a few seconds I went from thinking I was going to fall out and die to wanting to fall out and die to end my pain and suffering. The helicopter angled sharply and from the corner of my bulging eyes I stared transfixed at the hard ground several hundred feet below as we pirouetted in a tight circle. My seat belt strained under my weight while my feet dangled at a peculiar angle in mid-air. I gripped onto the seat edge tightly until my camera swung into the void and I grabbed it back again. We soon levelled off, I caught my breath and attempted to take unblurred photos despite my shaking hands.


Banking to the right wasn’t as much of an issue and gradually I became accustomed to my precarious platform. On the way back to the landing strip we tickled the treetops startling water buffalo and egret before once more looping over on the left and landing on the grass. A small group of victims stood pale-faced awaiting their trip. As we passed each other beneath the whirling blades I gestured to the doors.


“They fell off as we took off.” I shouted over the noise, shaking my head somberly and continuing straight past them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 20

7 10 2008

I feel so alien.                     (Wycliffe Well, Northern Territory, Australia)


 “The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
 – G. K. Chesterton





Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 9

30 07 2008

 Freshies 1

 “Stop complaining…you’ve still got nine toes left!” (Northern Territory, Australia)


“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

J.R.R. Tolkien



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Rocking Downunder

4 04 2008


Uluru sunrise

The Black Sea is not black, except at night when there’s no moon and you’re wearing sunglasses to look cool. Despite Global Warming, Greenland is still largely white while Iceland is mostly green. Blondes are often brunettes; a mug of green tea and milk is only bright green when it’s been sitting in your cupboard forgotten for several months; and the only time I’m actually blue is when I am choking on a gobstopper and not when I’m depressed.

But Australia’s Red Centre really is Red.

Bright, ochre red. Sunset, sunrise, tomato soup, chilli powder, poppy, blood orange, mail box, clown nose, bull’s-eye…red.

From the very heart of the Red Centre rises Uluru. The legendary monolith of sandstone that soars from the arid ground and levels into a muscular plateau that seems to pulse with other-worldly energy, glows silver and purple during electric storms, neon-red as the sun dips, and then disappears completely against the night sky. It is more of an epic statement than a mere natural phenomenom and is every bit as sacred and spiritual as any flying-buttressed, minaretted edifice in Christendom, Judaism or Islam.

As we huddled in the bitter darkness of a pre-dawn winter morning, a park official asked that we do not scale their site. Sadly, for far too many, the fact that Uluru is there is reason enough to climb it despite the objections of those for whom it means the most. In years past, when the wishes and sensitivities of the aboriginal people were largely ignored, many thousands hauled themselves to the top of the rock by way of a chained path that crossed a sacred traditional Dreamtime track and continued up its steep and precipitous slopes. More than a few slipped off to their death or died of heart attacks along the way. These accidents caused enormous grief and heartache for the local Anangu people.

Respecting their wishes, a small group of us instead set off to trek the 9 kilometres around the base of Uluru. We began in pitch darkness and soon became staggered along the narrow track leaving each of us alone in contemplative silence.  The wind gusted down the slopes, across the plains and rustled through the grass and bushes. A billion stars scattered overhead and a splinter of red light knifed along the horizon and quickly seeped skyward, illuminating the rock and the dry grass. As the sun climbed, the wind dropped and we removed the jackets and fleeces that had warded off the earlier chill.

With every step the mountain changed colour. It varied from an inky blackness that was visible only by the sea of brilliant stars it blotted out in the cathedral sky, to browns, yellows and finally a rusty red. We passed sacred spots that went unexplained but which we were requested not to photograph, and saw ancient rock paintings.

We finished our trek back where we had begun and gathered again in silence. There was nothing to say. It had been an undeniably spiritual experience and one that none of us would ever forget.

Too often in life places that you have seen only in photographs or film fail to meet your expectations when seen in person. Uluru is not one of those. There is a magic to that monolith that no photograph properly captures and which is best appreciated in early morning solitude.

If you open your mind, amid the rustle of the grass and caress of the wind on your face, you may just feel the spirits of the land.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008