During the final three days of our 12-day Ghan trip, we hung around in Darwin and took a day trip to Kakadu National Park. It was our first trip together to Australia’s “top end,” and a chance to visit – albeit briefly – its largest terrestrial national park. Established in the late 1970s, Kakadu covers about 7,700 square miles and is home to 2,000 species of flora and fauna.
[This post is the final in a series of five posts about our Ghan train trip nearly 2,000 miles across Australia. If you missed the previous posts, you can find parts one through four in order at these links: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, Marla and Alice Springs, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and Alice Springs and Katherine.]
When we woke up in Darwin our first morning, we were elated to have the whole day to spend at our leisure – no tours, and no firm plans. This was especially sweet since we had been on the move every morning during the preceding several days.
We started off by paying a visit to Crocosaurus Cove, only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. V is not the hugest fan of reptiles, but as it turned out, he liked it there more than I expected. We embraced the scary native predators and had a great time.
Here we also got to see the 80-year old star of the original Crocodile Dundee movie, Burt the crocodile. Burt starred in the film after his 1981 capture near the Reynolds River (along the Northern Territory’s Litchfield National Park). He was taken in after a string of attacks on cattle, and apparently he never changed his ways; according to CC staff, he remains a lifelong bachelor due to a tendency to attack any female “keen to be his mate.”
We also went into the reptile house and saw a variety of Australian frogs and snakes, including a Western Taipan.
Temps in Darwin were a complete reverse from freezing cold Adelaide. We broke out our summer clothes and took advantage of the nice day with a Mediterranean lunch by the water.
It was wonderful to be in 90 degree temperatures in the middle of Southern Hemisphere winter! Canberra (where we live) in particular is one of the coldest places in Australia, if not the coldest, so I soaked up the wine and the sun. Since we were on the west side of town and only had a few hours of museum time remaining, we headed to the Darwin Military Museum for the “Defence of Darwin” exhibition.
Unless you are a WWII buff (or Australian!), you might not realize that in February 1942, several weeks after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and four days after the surrender of Singapore, the Japanese also attacked Darwin. The attacks were different; the Japanese used six aircraft carriers and 350 planes to attack Honolulu and kill thousands. By contrast, they used only a few submarines, four carriers, and 242 land-based bombers against Darwin, and at least 235 people were killed, including 100 Americans and many Australian civilians.
However, the impetus for Japan’s attack on Darwin was to stop Allied forces in the Pacific – including Allied resistance to the imminent Axis invasion of Timor – and gain control of a strategic staging post. The Japanese ended up exploiting their position in Darwin for over 20 months to conduct at least 100 further raids, displacing a large part of the Northern Territory population and causing chaos and interruption to governance and utilities. Fortunately, seeing some of the writing on the wall, Australian Cabinet had ordered a civilian evacuation of Darwin one week after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Ultimately half of Darwin’s population fled in fear, and many did not return.
The Bombing of Darwin remains the single largest attack on Australian soil by a foreign power, and the attack is still commemorated every February 19 with an air raid siren. In 1959, a Japanese company bid and won the contract to clean up Darwin Harbour, and the owner of the company, a pacifist, did a lot of the work at his personal expense to help make amends. These days, of course, the U.S. and Australia are great allies and partners with Japan.
This museum also had really interesting exhibitions on WWI and the Vietnam War, and a lot of military vehicles including a 1942 U.S.-made Willys Jeep, an icon that I recognized instantly as American although I did not initially know what it was called.
After the museum closed at 17:00, we headed back down to Darwin’s central business district and strolled around Port Darwin.
We enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner at Crustaceans on the Stokes Hill Wharf. The Australian wine, the setting sun, and the delicious food really made us feel like we were on vacation rather than on a “trip.”
The next morning we awoke bright and early for a day trip to Kakadu National Park. Our tour guide was supposed to pick us up from our hotel really early in the morning, like before 06:00. To my chagrin, our pickup was almost 20 minutes late and when it came, almost all 20+ seats in the shuttle were taken, except two together in the very back (behind two chatty ladies that talked over the guide and never seemed to take a breath).
With some water, Dramamine, and bagged breakfast from the hotel, I kept my life together and we headed off down the road. After another pickup or two, I began to realize that our guide was excellent and if he had been late, it was probably because of oblivious passengers on the tour.
It took a good four hours (and a couple of roadhouse bathroom breaks) to make it all the way to our first Kakadu stop – the Ubirr Rock Art sites.
Ubirr is one of Australia’s most famous outdoor galleries of Aboriginal rock art, depicting ancestral stories along a one kilometer walking track. It was so hot outside that I swapped my heavy-duty hiking boots for tennis shoes, which fortunately I had stashed in my day pack.
We headed along the track to hear our guide talk about the rock paintings, and enjoyed a chance to stretch our legs by climbing up to Nadab Lookout with some of the more enterprising people on our tour.
Although we took our share of pictures after our rocky climb above the floodplains, we also took heed of an Aboriginal request to be intentional about enjoying nature, and to take some time to quietly observe and listen for spiritual guidance in this part of the park.
Aboriginal people (two of our three guides this day were Bininj) are said to have lived in the area for 65,000 years. They have incredible knowledge of this land and how to protect it, make use of its features, and conduct strategic control burns to avoid raging bush fires and the takeover of invasive, non-native grasses.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a homestyle picnic lunch prepared ably by our guide, and then headed off to the nearby East Alligator River. The river is the boundary separating Kakadu National Park from Arnhem Land (that still belongs to the Yolngu traditional owners), and is somewhat ironically named; there are no alligators in Australia – only crocodiles.
Arnhem Land is one of five areas in the NT, measuring about 37,000 square miles. About 16,000 Aboriginal people still live there and in 1931, it was declared an Aboriginal Reserve. You need a permit to travel there and heavy financial penalties apply for crossing into ceremonial lands without an invitation.
Our group and one other boarded two boats and headed up the river, each with an Aboriginal guide. On one side of the river is Kakadu; on the other, Arnhem Land.
Our guide pointed out different plants and trees along the shore that could be used for food, medicine, or to build tools, and demonstrated the proper use of a spear. Along the shores, crocs sunned themselves. Our guide cautioned that crocs are always alert and situationally aware, even when they appear at ease. As top predator in the animal food chain, I guess they don’t have much to worry about!
We had heard from our tour guide that the Aboriginal guides were shy and might not make eye contact with us, but that they loved to talk about their culture.
So we were really touched when they not only invited us to cross the river and step onto their land, but also talked to V and I separately from the group.
One reached into a paperbark tree and ripped out a handful of leaves, telling us that they traditionally use them to season fish. We would have never presumed to remove something from their land or from the national park, but we received it as a gift when he offered it to us.
I felt really honored and humbled that he would give us something from the bounty of their land, so I double-wrapped the leaves inside a Kleenex pack and sealed it tightly. (When I came home, I put the leaves in a labeled Ziploc bag and shelved it with our spices now destined for Mexico. We will honor their people with a fish dinner once our household effects (HHE) shipment arrives in Ciudad Juarez about a year from now.)
That evening on the way back to Darwin, I watched the sun sink lower in the sky, lighting up billabongs and marshy lowlands where brolgas, herons, and magpie geese hunted and tried to avoid becoming croc food. We fell into a comfortable silence, knowing the last tour of this spectacular adventure was coming to a close, and the brief visit to Arnhem Land was a highlight.
The next morning we had breakfast and hung out with some ibises in Bicentennial Park, across from the bay.
I also picked up some souvenirs from Aboriginal Bush Traders at Lyon’s Cottage. I had been on the hunt for ethically-sourced items throughout this trip, but unfortunately for me, I wasn’t quick enough, couldn’t find something I loved, or once, embarrassingly, tried to buy something that was not for sale. So I was happy to get certificates for these items and learn more about the artists that made them.
From https://tjanpi.com.au: “Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yakunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, working with women in the remote Central and Western desert regions who earn an income from contemporary fibre art. Tjanpi (meaning grass in Pitjantjatjara language) represents over 400 Anangu/Yarnangu women artists from 26 remote communities on the NPY lands. The NPY lands cover approximately 350,000 square kilometres across the tri-state (WA, SA, NT) border region of Central Australia (please see the map below) and Tjanpi field officers regularly traverse this area to visit each community. On these trips, field officers purchase artworks from artists, supply art materials, hold skills development workshops, and facilitate grass-collecting. While out collecting grass, women are also able to spend time on Country and maintain their culture through gathering food, hunting, performing inma (cultural song and dance), and teaching their children.“
As I have mentioned, the Ghan train tracks themselves are 1,880 miles long. But out of curiosity, I ran some numbers on our trip to see *how far* we really travelled, and by what means. I was astonished when I added up all the movements. We really covered Australian ground on this trip!
Total trip stats:
Airplane miles: 3,481
Train miles: 1,880
Car/bus miles: 1,336
TOTAL: 6,697 miles
I’m not going to do a full trip review here, but suffice it to say I have a few observations about this trip and advice for anyone planning something similar.
First off, this trip was definitely worth it! It was also very expensive (think north of $12K), between the train tickets, flights, hotel, and activities we tacked on to the Great Southern Rail (GSR) “Heartland Voyager” package. That’s probably why most of the folks on the trip were retirees. Not a big deal, just something to be aware of and plan for.
Second, I wish I would have booked the trip directly through GSR directly, or used a proper travel agent. The people we dealt with were “Great Trains” (that I thought the link on the GSR initially led me to?!). They were essentially a third party vendor pushing out packages they didn’t pay close attention to, especially for what we were paying. They overall were unprofessional, inattentive to detail, and struggled with communication and follow-up. They also insisted on the entire trip payment at once, and although I had the money and paid it outright, it later occurred to me that a deposit with the balance due later would have been more standard. Others on our tour had similar feedback. The rep also messed up one activity on our trip and when I called him from the train to sort it out, he answered the phone with his company name, but once he realized who we were, he sputtered, “We’re closed on weekends!” Wrong answer, and we did not let him off the hook. As a pretty seasoned logistics officer with experience working on itineraries for high-level visits from Congress and the White House, let’s just say I was unimpressed by their “itinerary” that was missing basic things like addresses and confirmation numbers. And when I contacted them to follow up, they acted like I should just blindly trust them on the details.
Third, tours are great for relaxing, looking around, and letting someone else worry about the driving, logistics, and details. But it also means you have less control about how much time you spend where, and with whom. There were some awesome people we met on our tours, and honestly, several we could not wait to get away from! I was already well aware it would be this way, but in the future I will mix up the tours and the under-our-own-steam activities a little differently.
And finally, I wish I would have planned a few more days in Uluru, and flown there from Alice Springs rather than taking the bus tour rolled up in our package. Frankly, it was ridiculous to spend one night there. Again, I think I put too much faith into the “package” instead of thinking about other possibilities that would have suited us better. Most of the Ghan packages have different excursions attached to them, but if you’re willing to get into the weeds there is more customization possible than you think. Work with GSR directly (not third-party clowns) to plan the best possible trip, look closely at the distances and modes of transport, and question the details and options.
With those somewhat negative things said, none of it really impacted my experience during the trip in terms of enjoyment. I was in awe of how well things worked once it all got going and of course the train itself was magnificent. I will be forever grateful that we did this trip, that we saw everything we saw, and that we saved it for the last several weeks of our time here. What a beautiful country and a beautiful way to understand its history, geography, and sheer breadth.