Northern Territory, Australia
In a camper along canyons, rivers, mountains and waterfalls
Northern Territory measures over 1,349,129 square kilometers, but has a population of only 200,000. It also has dozens of nature reserves, among which a large part of the barren Outback with highlights like Alice Springs, Ayers Rock (Uluru), Katherine River Gorge, Kings Canyon, the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) and the MacDonald Range. The wild nature can be explored very well by camper van.
Travelogue & photos: Geja Rijsman
Because chances that we'll see reptiles in the wild are slim, we visit the reptile center of Alice Springs before we begin our trip through Northern Territory. We see lizards that look like dragons and devils, like the frill-necked lizard (chlamydosaurus kingii), a giant lizard with an enormous collar, and the thorny devil (moloch horridus), a lizard with prickles all over its body.
The next day we pick up our camper van and leave for Ayers Rock. On the way we visit Rainbow Valley. After the exit to Rainbow Valley the asphalted road changes into a grit road riddled with potholes. During the last leg our van sinks into the sand.
Rainbow Valley has beautiful rock formations in different colors, depending on how much iron they contain. Just outside the area is a dry lake. All together, this makes for many good photo ops. On the way to Ayers Rock we see many kangaroos: dead, by the side of the road.
After the exit to Ayers Rock we see our first living wild life: a pitch-black bird, gleaming in the sunlight. It's probably a black falcon and it's huge. And then we finally see Mount Conner and then Uluru and Kata Tjuta. When we arrive at the camping site of Yulara, it's already dark.
Ayers Rock and the Olgas
Visibility is at least 150 km (100 miles)
The next morning we get up early to see the sunrise at Uluru/Ayers Rock. As expected, the rock is coloring a beautiful red in the first rays of sunlight.
Then we climb Ayers Rock. It's overcast and we see a small rainbow. When we reach the top, the clouds have almost dissolved and the view of the Olgas (a group of dome-shaped rocks), Mt. Conner and other mountains in the surroundings is wonderful. Visibility is at least 150 km.
After our climb we drive to the Olgas, where we walk in a canyon between two enormous Olgas. The side that's in the sun is orange, the one in the shadow more like brown-red. Deep into the canyon are benches where we sit down for a while to listen to and look at the pretty little birds that fly around here.
In the afternoon we take a walk in the Valley of the Winds. It's beautiful, but too crowded with visitors. The first part of the walk leads into the valley, after that it's possible to walk around three of the Olgas.
Dingos howl and bark all around us
It's still early the next morning when we leave for Kings Canyon. After a last look at Uluru we drive toward a rain shower.
We get gas in Curtin Springs and are handed a jerrycan with gas for an aboriginal family who are stranded 30 km from here.
We stop when we see two large birds of prey sit on something (a cow?). Unfortunately they fly away immediately. Then we see the aboriginals. They are happy with the gas. The man tells us that they have been there since last night.
During lunch we see live kangaroos for the first time. No less than five, but they are behind a fence.
In Kathleen Springs we stop to take a walk. At the end of the trail is a pool with a story that is very much like the one of Loch Ness, but here the monster is a snake.
When we arrive at Kings Canyon late in the afternoon, we first take a walk on its edge at Kings Creek. There we have great views of the canyon and the surroundings.
A lizard allows us to get very close. Only when our shadows reach it, it bolts but sits still again just a little farther.
We spend the night in Kings Canyon Resort. Dingoes howl and bark all around us. At night I wake up because of birds or bats that fly over our roof screeching.
The 1,200 palm trees are watered by subterranean sources
The next morning we drive to Palm Valley. The 4WD proves its usefulness when we plod on in a river bed. The surroundings are stunning, though.
We drive to the end of the valley, where we walk the Mpulungkinya trail. Along it are 1,200 palm trees which are watered by subterranean sources. During our walk we see some little birds and one bird of prey, which is scanning the cliff above us. As short climb takes us to the cliff. We cross it and at the end we descend to the parking lot.
The way back to the camping site seems even steeper and bumpier than before. For me the highlight is when I spot a kangaroo or walibi. It's not close, but it sits still.
West McDonnall Ranges
You can see the mountains from far away
Our tight schedule sends us to West McDonnall Ranges this morning. The first leg of the Namatjira Drive winds through a bare landscape. We take the 4WD route to Gosse Bluff, to see a meteorite rock's impact there. From a great distance we see the mountains where the meteorite crashed.
From Tyler Pass we have a great view of Gosse Bluff. On the way to the observation point at Mt. Sonder we see our first dingo. As we expected, they look very much like dogs, but their shiny, golden coat gives them something special. From the observation point we see Finke River and the McDonnall Ranges.
Our next stop is Glen Helen Gorge. We walk to the gorge, which sourrounds a lake, and have lunch with extremely luxury sandwiches in the restaurant.
At the end of the afternoon we look for a place to park our camper van in the neighborhood of Ormiston Gorge. When we have parked for the night, we walk to a sandbank to take a look at the breath-taking view into the gorge.
The next morning we drive to Alice Springs. On the way we stop at the narrow Serpentine Gorge. We walk toward it on a level path. Meanwhile, little birds keep us entertained: they wheel around us on all sides.
We also visit Ellery Creek Big Hole and Simpsons Gap. Ellery Creek Big Hole is a beautiful gorge with a stunning lighting. At Simpsons Gap we notice a sign "Swimming not allowed" at the center of a sandy plain.
Just before Alice Springs we spot five large birds of prey in a tree on the side of the road. Michael turns the car only after we have left them behind us and then quietly approaches from the other side. He is successful: the birds don't feel threatened and stay where they are, sitting in their tree, so we have ample time to take pictures of them. We have lunch and shop for groceries; then we leave Alice Spring quickly. It's already dark when we arrive at a camping site in Tennant Creek. We'll leave early tomorrow morning. We hope to arrive in Bungle Bungles in two days from now.
The landscape on the way is bare and level. We see lots of birds of prey: falcons and sparrow hawks.
After we have driven for a few hours, the surroundings get rockier and hillier. Just after Dumara we take the ramp onto Buchanan Highway. We see a kangaroo, which stares at us when we turn, but then quickly crosses the road behind us. In the light of the sun, its fur is colored a beautiful red.
Soon we see more kangaroos, one which crosses the road, tunnels itself to the other side of the fence and then bolts. Then we see two together. The large one sits still for a while, but when we approach, it flees. On the other side of the fence they keep looking at us until we leave.
The next morning we drive on a plateau; the only vegetation here is tall grass. There is hardly any traffic. We take pictures of sparrow hawks wheeling a few feet above the road and also of little white parrots which fly up when I walk toward them.
A little while before Old Halls Creek the landscape becomes hilly. We cross lots of little rivers. Just before Halls Creek we take the exit to China Wall, a "wall" of white stone, which runs - just like the real one - over a mountain ridge.
It's late in the evening when we finally arrive in Bungle Bungles. The dusty roads have meanwhile covered our camper inside and out in a thick layer of dust.
High rock walls tower over us
On the way to Echidna Chasm we have a nice view of the colorful rocks of Bungle Bungles. We see a large bird that looks like a kori bustard. We find out later that it is an Australian bustard.
Echidna Chasm is a long gorge that gets narrower toward the end. High rock walls tower over us, the sun reaches only their upper parts. In one spot we see the sun reflected in the rocks, which causes a red glow at the bottom of the gorge.
As we get deeper in to the gorge, we have to clamber over huge rocks every now and then. After a little over a kilometer the gorge comes to a dead end at a sheer wall of rocks.
Next we hike to Mini Palms Gorge. At first we walk on a sandpath and have to pass through two "fatness meters": if you can't get through this narrow passage, you have to lose weight.
What follows, is a tough leg through a river bed and finally some clambering on the natural stairway in the gorge. According to our guidebook we should have a view of a plaza with mini palmtrees at the end of the route, but we can't see them well at all and the mysterious gorge isn't really mysterious, but it's pretty here. And wonderfully quiet.
The next morning we leave for Cathedral Gorge. First we walk part of the Dome Trail and then visit Cathedral Gorge, which has an overhanging rock which gives a sense of being in a cathedral. After that, we walk a part of the Picannilli Creek Trail.
Walking in a river bed is tough and it's also a hot day. But we enjoy the beauty of this place. We expected the Domes to be separate, but they are linked.
From Bungle Bungles to Katherine
Signs warn swimmers that there are crocodiles
We leave Bungle Bungles and are on our way to El Questro. After 80 we have reached the Great Northern Highway. Michael drives to Turkey Creek, where we get gas. Several birds of prey wheel around the parking lot, skimming low over the cars.
The surroundings are pretty, we drive over hills and mountains. It's rather dry, though and the vegetation has hardly changed. When we have progressed through most of Gibb River Road, we hear a weird bang in the back of the car.
We don't know what it is and don't pay attention to it. But at Emma Gorge I notice we have a flat tyre. Together we figure out how to change it and we succeed.
Because the accommodation in Emma Gorge is much more expensive than we expected and we don't have much time for sightseeing tomorrow anyway, we decide to keep driving to Kununurra, where we arrive without any problems.
The next day we have the flat tyre fixed and then soon leave West Australia. We're back in Northern Territory and have to adjust our watches: two hours ahead.
In Keep River Park we drive to the Jurburnn camping site, where we take a walk to the observation point where we have a view of the Mini Bungle Bungles and the rest of the park (a plain surrounded by hills).
The hiking trail leads along the Mini Bungles. Later we are surrounded by high fringes of reeds and at the end we still have to walk for 2 km through tall grass to the parking lot. On the way we only see quail doves, which have trouble flying up, but then continue flying skilfully up along the rocks.
We continue on to Timber Creek, where we spend the night at a camping site in Gregory National Park.
These days we run into "road trains" more often. Passing a road train takes good planning, as it will take several kilometers and so can only be done when there is no oncoming traffic to be seen at all. At night the road trains are beautifully illuminated and remind us of the Coca Cola X-mas commercials.
When we get up the next morning the sun has just risen. When Michael walks to the information billboard, he sees a small kangaroo hop away. >From now on we'll see kangaroos more often.
We stop several times on the way, but don't take big walks. But at Old Victoria River Crossing we clamber on the rocks in the river for a while. Then we take a road towards the Victoria River. The path gets worse and sandier as we progress. It leads to a dead end. On the other side a kangaroo hops on the river bank. We are lucky not to get stuck when we turn and drive back to the road. We continue on to Katherine.
We take a swim in a river with rapids in a park south of Katherine. The water is cold, but that's nice in this heat.
Then we walk to the nearby hot springs. Not as hot as expected, but nice. And crowded. There are many people here who are staying at a nearby camping site.
Katherine Gorge National Park
Twenty kangaroos sit on the meadow of the camping site
After lunch we drive to Katherine Gorge National Park. We find a spot on a camping site. Just when we have installed our sun screen (finally found out how it works), we see an ants nest nearby. So we move.
A colorful parrot sits on a water tap. Michael is watching it from close by with some potato chips in his hand and another bird boldly steals a piece.
We take a walk, hoping we'll see kangaroos. A large kangaroo rummages about at the end of our row of campers. We keep walking and see four kangaroos. They bail, but the next group stays a little while longer. Then a guy tells us that there are even more on the meadow. Indeed, there are at least twenty.
When we walk back, we see enormous numbers of flying foxes (a fruit-eating bat) in the trees.
The next morning we take a boat trip. We sail through part of the gorge; at a rapid we climb over some rocks and get into another boat a little farther.
Freshwater crocodiles are spotted four times on the way, but we only see two of them. We are disappointed that we hardly see any waterbirds: just two kinds of herons and a cormorant, a crow and the cheeky birds of the camping site. We change boats twice and only go until the third rapid.
The next day we leave for Edith Falls. It turns out to be a nice large pool with a small waterfall on the other side. We don't feel like swimming, so we just walk around the pool for a bit and then are on our way again.
Kakadu National Park
After our arrival in Kakadu we drive straight to the camping site in Gunlom. We walk to a large pool in which a beautiful waterfall crashes down from great height. We take a short swim in the shallow part. All those croc-warning signs have scared us a little.
When we are dry, we walk to the observation point. It's a hard climb. But it's worth it: at the top of the waterfall are several pools and another, small waterfall.
At night I wake up a few times because of branches hitting the roof of our camper and I think something came in. Then I get a smack in the forehead. I jump up and wake Michael.
Now that I'm a little awake, I realise it is a grasshopper. The light is on, but before Michael has found his glasses, the grasshopper attacks him in his neck. Now he's awake, too, and jumps around in the camper van to avoid the grasshopper. After a few minutes, Michael has caught it in a towel and releases it outside. Meanwhile, I take cover under the blankets.
Early next morning we walk to a nearby billabong (creek) and the East Alligator River. On the way there we see a couple of cockatoos and we hear lots of parrots.
There is some water in the billabong, but unfortunately it is far from the path. We see a little egret and there is a little white bird of prey in a tree nearby. When a sparrow hawk lands next to it, it flies up and we see it is holding a fish in its claws.
By the end of the morning we drive to Jabiru on the main road. We take a short walk at the Bukbukluk observation point.
We continue on to Maguk, some 10 km from the main road. We have to drive through a water pool to get there. From there we walk to the Plunge Pool.
I expected a short walk and am wearing my slippers. But it is much longer and we often have to clamber over rocks. But it's worth it. The pool is large and it has a beautiful waterfall.
We plunge in the water and enjoy its coolness. There are lots of fish. I don't go too far, because I'm afraid of currents and freshwater crocs. But when I notice that others swim to the waterfall, I follow them anyway. On our way back to our camper we see lots of traces of freshwater crocs.
On the road again we pass some beautiful termite mounds. A jabiru (stork with black neck) sits on the side of the road and almost collides with our car when it flies up.
After checking in at the Cooinda camping site, we drive to Yellow Water and take a stroll on the boardwalk, where we see herons, an ibis, a little frog, a stork and two ospreys on their nest.
A man points at a hollow in a tree: there's a tree snake in it. It has a small and narrow head, but is long, about 70 cm. It slithers from the hollow up in the tree.
At the end, by a jetty, we see a large kingfisher, a cormorant and two kinds of heron. We wait here for sunset. Because of the clouds, it sets in two stages and that is a pretty sight.
Early next morning we take a boat trip from Yellow Waters. When we leave, it's still hazy, but after an hour the sun breaks through. Still on Yellow Waters Billabong we see, behind reeds, a jabiru, geese, ducks, a little egret and an ibis.
Between them lies a croc in wait until a bird gets near enough... Very close to the boat is another croc in the reeds.
We sail on the South Alligator River, where we see more crocs and herons, kingfishers and a white-bellied sea eagle.
We arrive at flood plains. There are gorgeous water lilies here, many crocs and jacanas (waterbirds with enourmous toes) walking on the water.
After the boat ride we leave for a camping site located a little farther south. There we take the Mardugal Billabong Walk along the river.
Then we drive to Merl camping site near Ubirr, where we create enough shadow to read. I take pictures of a buzzard in a tree above us.
After this break we take the Manngarre Rainforest Walk which has views of the East Alligator River. Once, we see a large croc come up and float on the current. A little farther on the other side of the river are two white-tailed eagles and a different kind of eagle which chases the two away, screeching loudly.
We drive to Ubirr, where we have a great view of the flood plains and the sunset. We stay until the sun has disappeared completely and the majority of people who were watching as well, too.
The next morning we get up when the sun has just risen. We take the Barde-djilidji Walk which has intermittent views of the East Alligator River. The trail takes us along nice rock formations and once through a tunnel and by a cave.
After our walk we cross the East Alligator River in our camper. There isn't much water, so the current doesn't affect us.
Though I doubt that this is allowed, we stop by a billabong, where we enjoy the view and the many birds. As it turns out later, we were not allowed to stop there at all.
When we cross the East Alligator River again, the water level is even lower than before.
On the road to our next destination, Mirella Park, we see a big lizard, running on the asphalt road with its long legs. Michael turns and keeps an eye on it, so he knows where the animal disappears in the grass.
I get out and soon see it in the grass. It lies flat, but its long, yellowy tail betrays its location. When I move, it bails and just misses Michael as it runs away. Michaels legs shake: the lizard really gave him a scare.
After preparing our spot on the camping site, we take the Bubba Walk. After a while we arrive at a junction. We choose left and it turns out that this route leads to the billabong.
With the sun in our backs we have a great view of the water and water lilies. I take pictures of an osprey who skims over the water. We return to the junction take the other path. Again we arrive at a billabong. The sun is a gorgeous deep red and nearby is a large group of bee-eaters.
The next day we sleep in and then drive to Jim Jim. The road is excellent... for the first 40 kilometers. After that it's still 8 kilometers meandering on one of those real 4WD roads. Deep sand, trees immediately next to the path and every now and then we have to cross a river.
Still it takes us less than two hours to arrive at the starting point of the trail to Jim Jim Falls. To get to the Falls, you have to climb high rocks. We take a right and end up on a beautiful white sandy beach. But it is in the sun, so we go back over the rocks to the side that is in the shadow.
As soon as we are in the shade, we sit down on a big rock to rest. A group follows our example and they point at something that hangs from a tree just above the water surface: a rotting pig's leg, in other words: a croc trap. We just crossed right beside it.
We don't see a cage, so probably this is only to check if there are any "salties" (saltwater crocodiles) left. We walk on to the Jim Jim Falls. They end in a beautiful, deep pool. We are surprised to see people swim here. We heard that that wasn't allowed because of the risk of salties.
Back at the camping site we take another walk. I almost step on a snake that slithers over the path. It's a small, thin snake, approximately 1 m long, its skin is dark. I call "snake, snake, snake!" at Michael and step back. Michael grabs the camera and sprints to the other side of the tree. But the snake doesn't appear and hasn't got into the tree either. Michael takes a stick and carefully moves the leaves. It turns out there's a hole in the ground and we suspect the snake disappeared into it.
When we leave early next morning, we see a dingo sneak away on the road to the camping site.
Just before Nourlangie Rock Michael sees black cockatoos in the trees. They allow me to get close to them.
Then we take the Anbangbang Billabong hiking trail. We see many herons, some geese, ducks with ducklings, and cormorants. And gorgeous water lilies.
After our walk we drive to Nourlangie Rock. There we admire the cave paintings. They are more beautiful than those we've seen so far, but we're not really interested that much.
We drive to Mamukala Wetlands, where we watch, at the observation point, jacanas, magpie geese, kites and little egrets. When we're about to leave for a walk, I see a walibi near the observation point. I call at Michael to get back, but then the walibi hops away. When we walk on to the bird hide we see more walibis. Sometimes near the path and not very shy.
At th picnic site on the South Alligator River we see four kookaburas which we stalk for a while to get pictures and video recordings. They are fantastic birds. We'd alread seen a documentary about them at the visitors center and now we see them in reality.
Almost immediately after we leave the next morning we see a monitor lizard and Michael immediately turns the camper. The monitor sits still, but now a car from the opposite direction arrives, so Michael has to turn again. Now the monitor has had enough and bolts. When I get out of the car, I can still see leaves move 5 meters into the bush. It measures around 2 meters from head to tail. Then we leave Kakadu National Park.
Adelaide River and Fog Dam
A boat ride with jumping crocs
We drive to the Adelaide River. There we take a boat ride to see crocodiles jump. The crocs are made to jump by holding up a piece of meat. Most crocs are three-meters-long females, but there also is a six-meter-long male.
The kites are also fed. There are forty of them, wheeling around the boat and diving when food is thrown. When we sail back, a white-bellied sea eagle gets some meat, too.
We drive to Fog Dam, where we hardly see any birds on our walk, due to the dense fringes of reeds.
Back in the car we decide to drive over the dam. We see a large monitor, which bolts when Michael approaches. We drive back and then I see the monitor and we stop again. It is rummaging about in the mud and we are happy when at some point it walks straight towards Michael, who stands at the foot of the dam. Better safe than sorry, Michael quickly returns to the road.
The monitor sits still half way down the slope. After half an hour we leave it alone and drive on. Suddenly we see a turtle cross the road, it's a long-necked turtle (chelodina longicollis).
When we see another one, I get out of the car and take some pictures. The turtle decides to go back where it came from and makes us laugh when it bumps into a termite mound in its hurry.
Litchfield National Park
To the right a big waterfall, to the left a smaller one
We spend the night at a camping site in Berry Springs and the next morning we see walibis there, peacocks and even a red kangaroo.
We drive to Litchfield. The road it quite bumpy every now and then. We haven't gone far when a giant lizard with big collar crosses the road. Then there is a monitor in the middle of the road in the shade. Michael doesn't see it and drives over it. We don't feel anything and I hope we didn't hit it. We go back and fortunately we don't see anything on the road. Then I discover the monitor on the roadside. It looks unharmed.
We drive to Wangi Falls. To the right a big waterfall, to the left a smaller one. We swim to the smaller one and discover a higher-lying pool. We clamber a little and we're ready to get in. But Michael thinks it's too deep and too dark and is afraid to go in. I get in the pool, but am too afraid to stretch my legs into the deep.
On the way to Sandy Creek Falls we almost miss the exit, but slipping and sliding, Michael takes the corner anyway. The 9 kilometers with 4WD are tough. First we cross a stream. Not deep, but very wide. After that, we experience the washboard impact, which makes the car seem to float off the road.
We walk to the waterfalls, a simple stroll and fortunately for the most part in the shade.
The Sandy Creek Falls are gorgeous. At the top it's not much more than a dripping tap, but then it increases to a wide water stream. The water is ice cold. Michael slips off a rock, so he's immediately acclimatized, and swims to a spot in the sun where the water is warmer.
I have a little more trouble to surrender myself to the cold water, but when I do, I love it.
We don't swim very far, because the water is very dark. Later, four more people join us in the water and they aren't afraid. One of them discovers a monitor which is sunbathing on one of the rocks in the water. The tip of its tail hangs in the water.
This morning we visit the Northern Territory Wildlife Center, a large and beautiful zoo. Some animals are in cages, but many roam more or less free. We walk through the large cages of kangaroos and walabis.
We watch a show with birds of prey. Three perform their tricks. The owl skips closely over our heads. The black kite is joined by a wild one of the same kind, who steals most of its reward. The black-breasted buzzard flies away at the end of the show.
We like the building with nocturnal animals very much, because you really have to look for them and sometimes they turn out to be right in front of you.
Then we leave for Darwin, to return our camper van. Tomorrow we fly back to Sydney: our trip is over.