The Top End with Travel Freedom

I was really excited to head back to the Northern Territory, this time to explore a new region and parts of the Top End which I hadn’t yet made it to. The Northern Territory is truly is one of my favourite places in Australia and the world; the natural beauty, culture and that night sky are all second to none.

Arriving in Darwin after a short flight from Brisbane, I headed straight to Youth Shack Backpackers to unload my luggage, re-pack my camera gear, grab my tripod and set out on foot in the direction of the beach where I wanted to spend sunset.

I don’t do much ‘research’ about each destination before I visit. Instead, I like to be surprised by what I find which can have both positive and negative outcomes. On one hand, my approach usually forces me to think on my feet and encourages organic creativity. On the other hand, it can be frustrating when I miss opportunities due to minimal pre-planning. What I learnt is that Darwin sunsets never fail to disappoint.

On the bus journey from the airport to the backpackers, I rode up front and asked the local bus driver for her opinion on the best place/s to watch the sun go down. She mentioned Mindil Beach where I could see the sunset over the ocean. Being from the east coast of Australia, I could only think one thing - perfect! A short 45 minute walk (approximately) and I arrived at Mindil where I made two new friends, one with a camera in hand who turned out to be Heath, my tour guide for the next 3 days! When I travel alone, I always make an effort to chat to ‘strangers’ and meet people as it can lead to wonderful experiences like spending my first afternoon in Darwin watching the sun go down with my new travelling companions.

Day one on the road with Territory Expeditions began at 6:30am. Knowing I’d be on the road and camping for a few days, I grabbed a quick coffee from around the corner at a local café called Alley Cat’s. The Manager, Elle, was really lovely and excited to have me around exploring her home. I didn’t have time to try anything on their menu, but I did make a mental note to come back after the 3 day tour as I basically salivated over the in-house baked treats I could see!

We piled into the truck, dedicated a moment to introductions, and hit the road ready to explore the beautiful Australian Outback. It’s easy to see why Kakadu National Park is World Heritage listed - it’s only 3 hours from Darwin, but you can immerse yourself in the natural and cultural wonder of rugged escarpments, rich rainforests and waterfalls, wetlands and Aboriginal heritage. Of the 860+ recognized World Heritage sites, Kakadu is 1 of just 25 that are listed for both cultural and natural values.

For an hour we cruised up the Adelaide River with Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruises. We spent the morning learning about crocs in the wild, their ecological importance, and the ongoing protection efforts for these apex predators over the last 30 years. There are now over 1,000 Australian saltwater crocs (Estuarine) found in the Adelaide River – which is 100% fresh water.

After a short lunch stop and a salad ‘sanga, we headed to Ubirr, Stone Country. The Bininj/Mungguy people say “Come up here, sit on the country and listen. Feel the spirits of this country. And go home and feel the same way.” We spent the afternoon admiring the “main gallery” of Aboriginal rock art sites created by the Dreamtime ancestors of the traditional owners, followed by a short hike to the top of the rugged escarpment (approximately 1.6 billion years old) overlooking the stunning views of the Nadab floodplain which sprawls and stretches out in every direction, 360 degrees around you.

“Kakadu’s rock art is world class – it’s one of the reasons for our World Heritage status. The paintings provide a fascinating record of Aboriginal life over thousands of years. With paintings up to 20,000 years old, this is one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world.”Parks Australia

At the park we learnt about the Mimi spirits, heard Aboriginal dreamtime stories and learnt the 6 seasons of the land - how traditionally the life cycle of the land was used to predict the changing of seasons and what weather was coming next. Known as the “Laws of the Land”, it means to know and understand what nature is doing.

In Kakadu National Park you can observe the evolution of a culture that's still rich in practice today. Like most places I visit, I am constantly taking notes, asking a million questions and trying to absorb as much knowledge and information as possible. Originally I wanted to write about all the things I learnt along the way, but instead I encourage you yourself to GO. Go and see this breathtaking ancient land! Connect with the ancestors and heritage of this land that is so deeply enriched with spirituality and wonder...

Later that night we arrived at a Madrigal Camp and after some veggie burgers and a cider, I spent time lying on the ground underneath the sky full of stars talking about life, love, the cosmos and everything in-between. The Milky Way shun so brightly above while stars shot across from one end of the sky to the other. We lay there a long time until the moon began to rise over us… until we realized it had become early morning and retired to the camp for a few hours of sleep.

Day two started with a 6am wake up and a short walk to a nearby billabong to watch the sky change from pink to burning orange; the sun was a fiery orb as it illuminated everything around me. I’ve said before that sunrise is my favourite time of the day in any situation, but there is something extra special about being the only people around for miles and closing your eyes to feel to the magic of the morning as day breaks.

A quick cold shower, fruit salad breakfast and strong black coffee down the hatch and we hit the road again. We were en route to Yurmikmik in the back of a truck with 9 other travelers, no mobile reception and plenty of time to swap stories - yet another thing I love about travelling so much.

As incredible as it is to venture far and wide and visit different countries, I’m very passionate about spending time seeing Australia. In fact, I think the further away I travel, the more I realize just how beautifully diverse this country is and how I absolutely love seeing it through the eyes of others who have travelled from across the globe to be here. I found happiness watching their faces light up as we arrived at Motor Car Falls after a long, HOT bush walk through the open woodlands. Arriving at a shady creek plunge pool and beautiful waterfall never looked more inviting!! I enjoyed observing the mix of apprehension and curiosity turn quickly to appreciation and joy as they tried bush tucker for the first time. We Australians are so, so lucky.

Our day ended with sundown in the historic town of Pine Creek as we perched on the hill over the river. We felt peaceful as that last light lingered and burned across the sky. The Top End sunsets are really something else. After dinner, Heath and I walked back to the lookout again, laid down on the gravel and looked up and out at the stars surrounding us.

A good night’s sleep and we were up back on the road, this time on the Stewart highway by 7:30am and singing along to the classics, bound for Litchfield National park. A quick roadside stop-off for educational purposes included a mini lesson about the termites in this region. I stood underneath the 5m tall Cathedral termite mound, admiring the handy work of these interesting insects and their intricate designs. We arrived at Buley rock hole - a series of natural spas and whirlpools fringed by beautiful bushland. I watched locals back flip into the 3m deep plunge pools and proceeded to jump in myself. There is no way you can resist the early morning charm of a refreshing dip and sitting underneath the waterfall uncontrollably laughing, it’s Nature’s medicine.

Just a short trip down the road was Florence Falls, and probably the highlight of my journey. It was my kind of afternoon as we enjoyed a lunch picnic next to, and swum beneath, the tumbling twin torrents of Florence Falls. I spent the afternoon calmly floating and gazing up at the beautiful vine forest gully.

We arrived back from tour just in time for me to check-in to a different backpackers (Chilli’s this time) and head straight out to Minidl beach. It was there I met another kind new friend Alvin and witnessed the sky explode with colour. I had been watching the clouds all afternoon on the journey from Litchfield National Park to Darwin and I’m so glad I pushed myself that little bit further, despite the exhaustion of a few days on the road, because that sunset was easily one of the best sunsets I have ever witnessed.

I spent the better part of the following morning walking around the beautiful town, enjoying the perfect mixture of a slower paced lifestyle blended with the buzzing tourists. After coffee and a delicious, delicious pumpkin haloumi sandwich from Alley Cat’s, I set out to the parks and spent time paying respects to the Aboriginal culture and chatting while sharing stories with the traditional owners of this beautiful land.

That afternoon, aboard the Charles Darwin, I silently watched a beautiful lightning storm dance across the sky and relaxed along the cruise before retiring to bed with a full belly, blissfully in love with the Top End and not wanting to leave the next day. There’s so much left to see, explore and do. I already cannot wait for my next return… and it’s soon!

M. x

Many thanks to Travel Freedom and Do The Top End for having me.

* All Photos of me by Heath Whiley