Journey to Australia, the Original Oz

Journey to Australia, the Original Oz

Scorching deserts filled with birdsong, a coast dotted with life-restoring aboriginal fires, rivers pulsing with crocodiles. At once the most dangerous and beautiful place on earth, Australia's Northern Territory is the true outback that legendary explorers couldn't conquer.

By Rene Ebersole/ Photography by George Fetting
Published: July-August 2006

The following morning, Newhaven volunteer Barry Gilmourgives me a brisk introduction to some of the station's birdlife. Gilmour is a retired ambulance medic, ham radio operator, and avid "birdo" from Wagga Wagga ("Which means man who wanders," he says). He's a jolly guy with a black-and-gray bottlebrush beard, and he has traveled most of Australia collecting life birds--so far more than half of the continent's nearly 800 species. Gilmour jerks his pickup truck to a halt whenever we see or hear something new through the mud-splashed windshield and open windows--a willy wagtail, for instance, hopping about, swinging its tail from side to side, or a crimson chat zipping through the woody scrub. 

We follow a trail of green that runs down the belly of the road toward a red sand dune the size of a four-story building. Two storms are developing on either side of the dirt track. "This year could be a ripper for rain," Tindall had told me. "Most years the rain comes between Christmas and March, but this year it seems earlier. When we do get that one-in-10-year rain, we get black swans in the salt lakes."

It's too early in the season for even a chance to see swans, but an arduous climb up the sand dune rewards us with a gorgeous little turquoise bird with a reddish crown and black banditlike streaks through its eyes: the rainbow bee-eater. True to its name, this bird eats bees, though first it uses its long black beak to knock the insects against a branch--so they won't sting when they're swallowed. Perhaps sensing two black-breasted buzzard kites hovering overhead, the bee-eater sits motionless in its tree. While these kites prefer rabbits and reptiles, they will sometimes snatch a bird.

Back in the car, raindrops begin to sprinkle the windshield as the stark primary colors of the desert soften to pastels: pink sand, buttery yellow spinifex, violet sky. The ever-changing color of this vast, open country is one of the reasons Gilmour will be volunteering through the scorching summer months. "This place is the closest you'll ever get to paradise," he says. "Seriously."

 

My train departs Alice Springs the next afternoon. Named The Ghan for the Afghan camel drivers who helped lay the tracks for the first railroad from Australia's south coast, it has ferried travelers from Adelaide to Alice Springs since 1929. The plan was always to extend the line the last 882 miles to Darwin, thus connecting the country's south and north coasts, though no one thought doing so would take until 2004.

Despite the new tracks, the long silver train is sluggish as we leave Alice, conjuring up the slow departure of Burke and Wills from Melbourne back in 1860. Their caravan consisted of 19 men, dozens of horses and camels, and roughly 20 tons of equipment, including cedar dining tables, rockets, a bathtub, and a Chinese gong. Stuart traveled lighter and faster, returning to Adelaide twice before he finally reached the north coast on his third try. First he was ambushed by aborigines 500 miles short of his target; on the next attempt he turned back after a five-month slog through thorny, mosquito-infested bush that left him and his men "nearly naked" in tattered rags.

In February 1861 Burke and Wills discovered a spot in the mangrove swamps near the Gulf of Carpentaria where the water was salty. Satisfied that they had reached the shore, they turned home. Seven months later a search party discovered their bodies next to Cooper Creek. Stuart finally reached the sea beyond Darwin later that year. He returned to Adelaide to the sound of blaring trumpets on January 21, 1863, the same day Burke and Wills were buried in Melbourne.

Now that The Ghan makes the full trip from Adelaide to Darwin, it literally traces Stuart's footsteps. Leaving Alice Springs, we crawl past an aboriginal shantytown, a cluster of industrial buildings, and a railroad crossing filled with T-shirt-clad tourists, waving and snapping photos. Twenty minutes later all signs of civilization are lost, and the train rolls into the night.

The next morning the color of the sand outside has faded from flaming red to dull taupe. Termite mounds, the size of an infant near Alice, are now taller than a grown man. We're only an hour away from the deep, blue waters of Nitmiluk, Katherine Gorge National Park, often described as where the outback meets the tropics.
 
Stuart named Katherine Gorge in 1862 for the daughter of one of his expedition sponsors. When the Jawoyn aborigines received the title to the land in 1989, they renamed it Nitmiluk, or "cicada place." Carved within the sandstone encasing the Katherine River are 13 natural gorges. Jawoyn believe the rainbow serpent rests here, and therefore will not wade, swim, or even drink from the clear water. Tourists often go for a dip, but not today--a saltwater crocodile large enough to eat a person has been reported in the gorge. Usually only smaller and more docile freshwater crocs patrol these waters, but they, too, are vulnerable when a salty is around. Park staffers have set out traps in hopes of catching the intruder.

As we motor between jagged rock walls, a white-bellied sea eagle eyes us from a tree arching over the water, and an Australian darter is sunning on a rock. "See that, she's got her wings spread out," says Jacko, our captain. "What she's doin' is tellin' us the size of the last fish she caught."

A whistling kite swoops in on an osprey perched on the knobby ledge of a sun-dappled cliff. Farther on down the gorge, a white-faced heron hides in a shady crevice. Then someone spies the snout of a croc sticking out from beneath a rock. Could it be? No, the skinny nose gives it away. "It's just a freshie," says Jacko.

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