#WPLongform, bats, Bitter Springs, blue-faced honeyeaters, flying fox, Jawoyn People, Katherine Gorge, Mataranka, Nitmiluk National Park, Northern Territory, photography, road train, The Top End, travel
20-21 April 2015. It is time to stop. Driving south from Kakadu National Park we have reached the small town of Pine Creek and it’s time to stop for a break and a cup of coffee. Getting out of the car we immediately hear it: a continuous kind of screeching squealing noise. What is that? A fleeting thought that it’s birds is quickly dismissed. Following the noise across the road to a small park we look up into one of the trees and our jaws drop. The tree is jam-packed with bats! Hundreds of them. And the tree next to it, and the one next to that. Hundreds of squealing fruit bats, or flying foxes, as they are more accurately known. We watch them for a while, captivated.
I’d forgotten about the bats, and the noise they make. I’d seen them a few years earlier, trees full of them, in the Botanical Gardens in Sydney. And years before that when I lived in the desert town of Dampier in Australia’s far northwest. Walking out in the cool nighttime air we’d frequently see them flying overhead. They are about the size of squirrels, and they pollinate and disperse the seeds of many native plants. Even in daylight hours they are restless. At night they really come alive.
Travelling anywhere in the far north it’s impossible to avoid the road trains, an iconic symbol of Australia’s vast empty land, and an efficient means of freight transportation.
These two are only four ‘carriages’ long, though we saw five a few times, and one train with six. They are used to transport goods from the south to the remote towns of the inland desert and the far north. They are also used to transport cattle from remote cattle stations to market, and ore from equally remote mines. They are banned on most roads in the populated southern and eastern states. All of northern outback Australia relies on the road trains with ore, cattle and fuel, along with general freight, being the most common loads. They are over fifty metres long, and can weigh up to two hundred tons. They can’t slow down in a hurry, they can’t turn in a hurry, and they definitely can’t stop in a hurry. We keep well out of their way.
Travelling south from Pine Creek we come to the town of Mataranka. Mataranka thermal pool is a little slice of outback luxury where we float off the dust of the drive in crystal clear emerald green warm water. The pool is spring fed and the water is about 34 degrees centigrade. Gentle dappled sunlight filtered by the surrounding paperbark and palm forest dances on the water. We feel as if we’ve wandered into bliss. Unknown to us there is even better to come just down the road at Bitter Springs.
After our soak in the pool we decide to go for a walk along one of the many trails in the area. Since it’s the end of the wet season, much of the land is still flooded,
and the Roper River, normally gently flowing, has spilled its banks and rushes forward in disarray, all over the land.
For a while the trail is clear but we soon find ourselves wading through water, always on the lookout for crocodiles. It feels to me much like hiking in Canada. In Australia’s north it’s crocodiles, in Canada it’s bears. There’s always something that could leap out and get you: it’s great to be out hiking, but we never quite relax. Anyway, finally we decide we’ve crossed sufficient stretches of wayward water and have gone far enough. Instead of going on to complete the trail loop we return the way we came, eventually getting back to higher ground.
From Mataranka we drive the short distance to Bitter Springs. The only reason we know about Mataranka is because my sister had been there years before and told us about it. It is not one of the main tourist destinations in the Northern Territory in the way that Kakadu National park is. And it is only after arriving in Mataranka that we find out about Bitter Springs. We have no idea what to expect except that we know it is another thermal pool in the area. We are greeted with a natural fairyland: a river of sparkling emerald thermal water surrounded by a pretty forest of gums and palms, sunlight flickering through the leaves, dragonflies dancing on the lilies.
There are a few other people there, though it is far from crowded. Some are on the shore near stairs leading into the river, some laze in the water holding onto the stair railing to keep from being pulled downstream. It’s a thermal pool that is also a flowing river. The place to float is about one hundred metres long with an exit point at a small bridge. Like Mataranka thermal pool the water is crystalline, and like a warm bath. A fellow visitor lends me a pool noodle, which really helps. With a noodle, or other flotation device it’s possible to really let go and let the water carry you along. Starting at one end we float gently downstream. It is another slice of paradise.
and pure relaxed bliss. She has her crocs, the safe plastic kind, hooked around the ends of the pool noodle for the walk back.
22 April 2015. Walking from the Nitmiluk Visitors’ Centre down to the dock at Katherine River I hear it again, that screeching squealing noise. I immediately look up into the tall trees and there they are, the flying foxes, hundreds of them. I watch them for a while and as I’m focused on photographing them I suddenly hear a loud thud. Not three metres from where I’m standing a python has fallen out of the tree wrapped around one of the bats. I watch as the python strangles and begins to consume the bat, its jaw stretching wide enough to encompass it, the bat silent, no doubt suffocated by now. Nature in the raw. I am shocked. And fascinated. I have no fear. The python has no interest in anything other than its meal.
Don, having lost interest in looking at the bats, had wandered away. I join him at the dock and we embark on a cruise through Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park.
For four hours we travel down the river through the gorge. The land is rugged, imposing. It bears down on you with an ancient force. The gorge is twelve kilometres long, most of the sheer rock cliffs more than seventy metres high. There are in total thirteen gorges creating a maze of waterways sculpted from sandstone over millennia.
This is Jawoyn country. We stop to look at rock art that is forty-five thousand years old. The Jawoyn lived here until the pastoralists came in the 1800’s and claimed all the land. The first land claim by the Jawoyn People in 1978 was rejected. They were later able to take the ministers responsible on a tour of their land showing them all they knew about it: the location of rock art and sacred sites, and their knowledge of the land and its plants and animals, to prove it was originally their land. Finally after an eleven-year struggle they won their land claim in 1989. They then leased it back to the government to create a National Park with the motto “Sharing Our Land”. I am moved to tears that they could be so generous after all that has been done to them: the displacement, the lack of respect, the loss of dignity and their way of life, but it is an elegant solution in which everyone benefits. The sole tour operator in the park is owned by the Jawoyn People. The town and the river were both named Katherine by an early explorer in the late 1800’s. After the Jawoyn regained title to the land it reverted to their original name for it – Nitmiluk, meaning ‘cicada place’. Nit nit is the sound the cicadas sing hiding in the grass on hot summer evenings.
Continuing down the river we pass numerous small sandy beaches at the bottom of the cliffs, cliffs that look as is they’ll fall down on top of you, a few tall thin waterfalls, and crocodiles.
Eventually we come to some rapids and can go no further. It’s time to hike – past young Mataranka palms outlined against the sky,
past shimmering lily ponds,
through dry grasses, sometimes clambering over rocky ground, eventually arriving at Lily Pond Falls,
and yet another swim in yet another beautiful un-crowded isolated crocodile-free plunge pool. We are surrounded by cool soothing waters and red dragonflies.
Returning from our cruise we stop for coffee at the visitors’ centre. It appears that the blue-faced honeyeaters have long ago figured out that the terrace of the visitors’ centre is a great place to cadge a meal. There are at least half a dozen of them flying around, peering down from the rafters, landing on tables or the backs of chairs, on the alert for a safe moment to grab an abandoned crumb or a piece of sausage or pie, or, in my case, get their greedy beaks into my coffee cream.
Walking a short distance from the visitors’ centre we see several wallabies grazing peacefully, unconcerned by our presence.
Wildlife count for the day: six wallabies, two crocodiles, several red-bodied dragonflies, thousands of fruit bats, one python, and half a dozen blue-faced honeyeaters who stole my coffee cream.
Next post: Oh yes – more about crocodiles: the best croc story yet! Magnetic anthills that point north-south, a fishing monitor lizard, the bubbling waters of Litchfield National Park, and Darwin’s beautiful Mindil Beach.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.