Waltzing through the Aussie Outback

In Darwin, home is where the hikes are long and the heart hammering. A passerby runs into travellers who stayed more than the night.  
Darwin
Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land hugs hulking escarpments, coastlines, savannah woodlands, and a wilderness unsoiled by civilisation. Photo courtesy: Tourism Australia

Once a jolly *swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolibah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited till his *billy boiled,

You’ll come a-waltzing *Matilda, with me

“Oi, how’s it going?” A sun-flushed hiker grins at me on his way down from the upper pool of the Edith Falls, as I try to squeeze past his troop in the opposite direction. We are in Nitmiluk National Park, three hours from Darwin city in Australia’s Top End—the northernmost section of the country’s Northern Territory. Usually, this cue to exchange a minute of mild banter before going our own ways—a cultural quirk I was finding to be typical of NT—would be met with equal enthusiasm. Today however, I’ve been Humpty-Dumptying along the uphill trail leading up to the waterfall in a swimsuit (“It’s a short hike away, my guide Adam had promised) so I nearly pass on the offer. But surely our man here would know if the water up top is worth the bruised knees? “Great swim,” he flashes a thumb, as I beam back and resume the climb.

Perhaps the hustle would seem easier if I caught up with Adam, got him chatting. Adam Mattner has the best stories, and he does a fine job of telling them.

 

Adam, Who Fell in Love

*Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda,

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me,

And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.

Darwin 3

Natural colours fashioned from earth, minerals or vegetation are used by some aboriginal groups as body paint (left); Kangaroo meat, enjoyed as steaks or in burgers, has a deep, earthy taste (top right); Some forms of aboriginal music make use of the didgeridoo, a wooden wind instrument with a rich, sombre sound (bottom right). Photos by: Photo courtesy: Tourism Australia (tattoo and band); Digital Mammoth/Shutterstock (food)

It takes me two timeouts, but I’m finally on Adam’s trail. “Not the screwpine! It’s sharp at the edges.” The warning comes just in time, so my fingers graze, don’t grab the blades for support. Of course he knows all about the screwpine, the palm-like foliage north Australia wears like a head of punk spikes. I would have remembered its genus name—pandanus—and the fact that it is used by aboriginal people to weave ropes, baskets and objects of daily use, had I not been led astray by the bacon and red grapes at a forest picnic the day before. It was over the Famous Five-ish meal of cheese, crackers and lemon fizz that the 33-year-old revealed his deep enchantment with the Outback to our traveller’s group of five.

It’s not just the pandanus that Adam knows closely. He can tell you where along your hike you might run into a frilled-neck lizard, skulking. He knows where to stop on Stuart Highway for a bottle of cold Coopers beer, and why the scaly woollybutt trees lounge topless. (Their barks thin out bottom-up). Natural, for a man who spends his waking hours acquainting people with the boorish beauty that surrounds the Territory towns of Darwin, Litchfield and Katherine. Even holidays are for running back to the wild with wife Melissa, he admits. I imagine the pair walking the escarpments, watching six o’clock suns scud along skies of Fanta orange, thanking sugar gliders and rainbow bee-eaters for stopping by. It makes me happy, and it makes me curious. Having been on the road with Adam, I know he is from the southern city of Victoria. We’ve split Jumpy’s kangaroo-shaped chips and investigated his sympathy for freshwater crocodiles (“Freshies are cute, it’s the salties you got to watch out for”). By southern, I mean 3,753 kilometres south of our port-side haunt. Why would a man move vertically across the heart of his country, lock stock and barrel, leaving behind all but wife for life in Australia’s least populated capital city? Adam would have been living in Darwin for three years this dry season. (Top End’s weather is split into the sticky, stormy wet season between November and April; and the dry season through May to October.)

“Growing up, my parents took me camping a lot,” he launches in. “But dabbling in dairy farming and telecommunications as an adult did nothing for my travel bug.” Darwin revealed itself to Adam in 2008 when he visited it as a tourist, its big burlaps of sunshine and leafy waterfalls planting in his head the possibility of a life on the wild edge. “When my wife snagged a job here, we had to make the jump,” he grins. If travelling for nature is worth it, so is laying down roots for it, I suppose. “See, it’s a capital with a laid-back town vibe, a great work-life balance, and access to some of the best wilderness in Australia, if not the world,” he reasons. Balmy, activity-friendly climate, cheerful locals and the prospect of a wallaby or two sizing you up with casual interest on your way home can be tempting for many. For Adam and wife, it was irrefutable. Of course, it meant recalibrating careers, but for the tour guide slash croc-handler slash charter-boat skipper, it was all part of the charm. These were the jobs that had him juicing up the northern sun in the company of olive pythons, finches and columns of frangipani trees. In Darwin, five flight-hours away from home, Adam was finally home.

 

All Along the Outback

Down came a *jumbuck to drink at that billabong,

Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,

And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his *tucker bag,

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.

Darwin 1

Darwin’s city centre is a zany mix of croc-souvenir stores, Korean cafés and street art (top); The star-punched Outback sky is lovelier for its association with the aboriginal tale of The Seven Sisters, which references the Pleiades cluster (bottom). Photos by: Sohini Das Gupta (street); Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images (car)

Wading through stories and turkey bushes, we finally near the plunge pool. My legs refuse to call the trail short but my heart’s sunny because it wasn’t. Rinked with more pandanus, the water is glassy and green as my cat’s eyes back in Calcutta. By now, I have also learnt that in 1839, a ship called HMS Beagle sailed into the waters of what is now the Darwin harbour. It was helmed by English admiral John Stokes, who went on to name the harbour after his former shipmate and evolutionist Charles Darwin. While Darwin himself never visited the continent’s crest, sometime in 1836, the 26-year-old had sailed across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans on the same ship, and into the Sydney Harbour. His time in Australia, around Sydney and west of the Blue Mountains, found effect in his seminal work On the Origin of Species. It seems poetic, that the city of Darwin (then Palmerstone), unbeknown to its namesake, should be surrounded by this universe of wonders, by nature’s logbook of all creatures great and small. But the one creature I’d rather not meet in the water is the crocodile. Adam explains that the higher plunge pools are usually safe bets, as the Territory’s resident pool-party pooper cannot drag itself up the ridges. Before he’s finished, I’ve launched myself in the clean, cold water. I swim with the poise of a Labrador, which means I cannot go near the sheer drop where the water is deep and moody, and curls inwards at a sudden break in the landscape, creating a natural infinity pool. But that’s all right. Between the rustle of gum trees and the breeze wearing its monsoon forest perfume, I am a very happy Labrador. Over the next few days, our group tries to soak in all that is extraordinary about the Outback. A tall order, given it is home to the Jawoyn, the Warrai and Larrakia people, who, along with a dozen other aboriginal tribes have kept ticking the ancient heart of their homeland. “They were here before any of the white settlers set foot on the continent; they were here with their souls sworn to the mountains, woods and gorges—taking from nature only the amount they could give back,” points out Adam. Together, we trundle around Nitmiluk, which, in local tongue means ‘the song of the cicadas’. We learn about Mimi, the benevolent ancestral spirit who painted in earthy reds, yellows and whites on sky-high rock ceilings. At the beginning of creation or ‘Dreamtime’, he, along with other guardian spirits, taught the people laws of the land, which vary from one group to another. We are told about the Rainbow Serpent, a legend whose shape mimics the zigzags of the land’s many rivers.

Along our way, we’ve crossed the Mary River and the South and East Alligator Rivers. The last two are misnomers for boarding not alligators, but gnarly grandpa-skinned, yellow-toothed crocodiles in great numbers. Close sightings having quenched my need for mortal thrill, I am glad our boat ride along the Katherine River is more about the sweeping landscape. This is a river around which 13 sandstone gorges stand sentinel, their creamy ledges darkened over time due to water and soil erosion. Craggy and orange under the setting sun, they look to me like the gobbled-up side of a giant carrot cake, left behind by a picky eater. We even manage to slink our boat into the ‘swallow cove,’ a rock-shelter that the birds make their home every winter. I do not see any swallows, but in the middle of May, I am dazed to have seen winter. Winter in the Top End is still about the tropical sultriness, pickled round the year. This means we break a mean sweat while climbing the ledges of the Arnhem Land plateau, but the sun we catch dripping down the western horizon, just behind the savannah, is sweeter for it. On top of the 400 metre elevation, where we crouch in silence like well-mannered bush animals, Adam hums a stanza of “Waltzing Matilda”—in his words, “the most Aussie song ever.”

And just like that, I’ve picked up my first souvenirs from Down Under, up north—a mouthful of slang.

 

Kaylee, Who Stayed Back

Up rode the *squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.

Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.

Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.

Darwin 5

The sunrise cruise at Nitmiluk National Park takes you through floodplains teeming with crocodiles, whistling ducks and water buffaloes (top); Mossy rock pools in and around Kakadu make for some sweet water lounging (bottom). Photo by: ARCO/F Vnoucek/Arco Images/Dinodia Photo Library (boat); Photo courtesy: Tourism Australia (pool)

Darwin 4

Aboriginal lores ascribe the rock art (top) found around Arnhem Land to Mimi, a benevolent ancestral spirit who taught indigenous people the laws of the land; The Katherine Gorge (bottom) in Nitmiluk is home to sunsets in screaming tangerines. Photos by: Peter Schickert/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (rock art); Louise Denton Photography/Moment/Getty Images (river)

 

The last few days in Top End, spent in the city, tosses me in the way of more characters like Adam—drifters from different parts of the country and the world that decided to put down anchor in Darwin. There’s Mia, who’s not seen the aurora borealis skedaddle across the skies of her hometown, but can tell you what movie Deckchair Cinema—Darwin’s cinephile society—might be reeling this week. Having travelled from the Swedish Lapland 12 years ago to meet a pen pal, the tourism coordinator never went back. There’s Vanessa from the pearl shop at the town centre, whose lilting French accent has not quite faded, but five years into her life in Darwin, she cannot imagine living elsewhere.

Kaylee Cleverley, I meet on Sail Darwin’s sunset cruise that takes tourists from the waterfront and into the Arafura Sea, stretching out in dark, velvety rolls towards the neighbouring nation of East Timor. Tall and lithe in her cruise chef’s clothes—she rustles up a buttery barramundi en route—Kaylee had travelled to Australia from Essex, England, three years ago. Since then, she has bumped into boyfriend Jack, the captain of our cruise; set out on a road trip along the Queensland coast up to Darwin; and polished her culinary skills, landing this bohemian’s dream job. While she serves juicy cuts of beef or prawn cocktails to guests, “the most electric sunsets” over the harbour stoke her appetite for beauty and adventure. When not on the water, Kaylee and Jack drive around in their 4WD ‘troopy’ (named Travis), dust-kicking their way around the Northern Territory. As with Adam, Kaylee’s first year in the city was up before she knew it, sailing for a living, discovering favourite haunts like the Gunlom Falls, attending rodeos, music events, fishing competitions and simply “feeling free.” She doesn’t even mind tip-toeing around the crocs. “Jack had once asked what the most dangerous creature back home is, and I could only think of badgers,” she laughs.

 

I, Who Loved and Left

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me

His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.

Oh, You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.

Darwin 2

While spotting a kangaroo or wallaby on the road can be exciting, drivers in NT have to ensure that the sudden sightings don’t result in accidents (top left); The Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise sees the Adelaide River residents vault for meaty treats (top right); Driving around the Top End, you will cross paths with the wallaby, a macropod reminiscent of, but smaller than, the kangaroo (bottom right); The galah cockatoo is only one of the many bird species found in the Kakadu National Park, a 19,000 sq. km. protected zone near Darwin (bottom left). Photos by: rybarmarekk/Shutterstock (signboard); Still Learning…/Moment/Getty Images (crocodile); Andrew Michael/Pixtal/Dinodia Photo Library (wallaby); EcoPicture/Fotosearch LBRF/Dinodia Photo Library (bird)

Seven days in and around Darwin, and I’ve dog-eared my own stories in the book of wild. I’ve met the gabby whistling ducks around Yellow Water billabong; tasted stringy, earthy kagaroo meat, darker on the palate than wallaby-in-barbeque-sauce, and a rather flavourful crocodile cocktail. I have spent mornings tree-gazing from the weedy waters of Buley Rockhole, stepping out to pick Billygoat plums (aka Vitamin C bombs!) off the floors of Kakadu’s forests. Anxious to not let a single memory slip through the cracks, I have come to liken its trickling sap to the stickiness of sunsets, best tasted with your back to a dusty old rock. One that might, on closer inspection, reveal a millennia old sketch of an aboriginal hunter or a kinga (crocodile). The snatches of city or highway life in between have seen me crack open every alien ale and lager. I have refused to play favourites between Victoria’s Mountain Goat beer, glossy on the tongue, and the bulkier homebrew Great Northern.

If the things I find along the way startle me—the brilliance of stars spread out like croc eyes; the taste of chicken salt on potato spuds—it is nothing to how much I am surprised by my will to keep moving. I, with my metropolitan inertia, am happy to hustle amid nature. The dust on my skin is proof that I’ve heard paper bark trees rustle in a scared nook of the earth, where ancient spirits sleep, unruffled. The rich tan on my already-brown cheeks tells me I have chased as many trails as I have missed. Even the fresh bruise that smarts against my knees has the strange sweetness of a mid-read paper cut. In Darwin, I’m in perpetual motion. In Darwin, I’m happy.

I, however, am not Adam or Kaylee. I am yet to learn to stay back for love. The love I feel for the lone second-hand bookstore at the city centre is strong, as is my memory of the Milky Way reclining across the Australian sky. But neither, I know, will stop me from flying back home. In another day I’d be sprawled on my belly in my Bombay bedroom, convinced it was all a dream. That is until my playlist auto-shuffles to Slim Dusty’s version of “Waltzing Matilda”—and I start hatching plans for a life in the wild, years from now.


A Rookie’s Guide to “Waltzing Matilda”

Swagman: A nomad travelling on foot with his belongings bundled in a swag or bedroll.

Billy: A tin can with a lid and a wire handle over it.

Matilda: Another word for swag/bedroll.

Waltzing: Travelling on foot.

Jumbuck: Sheep

Tucker: Food

Squatter: A landholder through occupancy, not purchase.

“Waltzing Matilda” is Australia’s unofficial anthem, penned by bush poet and journalist Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson in 1895. 

Essentials

There are no direct flights from India to Darwin. Most flights from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata require one or more layovers in a Southeast Asian gateway city like Singapore—including ones offered by Singapore Airlines and its regional wing SilkAir.

  • Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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