24-27 April 2015. From the village of Batchelor we drive to the Banyan Tree Caravan & Tourist Park in Rum Jungle. It’s about a fifteen-minute drive out into the middle of nowhere. Batchelor is a dusty rambling little town with no apparent main street, and a population of about four hundred. It’s already in the middle of nowhere, out whoop whoop as the Aussies say. The Banyan Tree Caravan & Tourist Park is further out whoop whoop with nothing around it but grasslands and a few trees.
Rum Jungle is a district that’s pretty much uninhabited. There used to be a uranium mine somewhere close to Batchelor, and now there are three caravan-and-camping parks a few kilometres apart, but there’s nothing much else there.
Long before the uranium mine, back in the 1880’s there was a railway line that ran south from Darwin, with a station at Rum Jungle although it wasn’t known as that. There’s not much left there today but the name. In the late 1890’s the John Bull gold mine was at its peak. Some miners arrived in the district carrying 750 ounces of gold. They met a teamster who bragged of his cargo of rum, and generously shared it around. When the miners had passed out from the rum the teamster made off with their gold and their horses. He was caught months later, and no doubt punished for his sins. His heritage is one of Australia’s more colourful place names.
The Banyan Tree Caravan Park is all a bit shabby; old, tired and dusty, and I’m really glad we aren’t actually camping there, but we are well welcomed. Our cabin, one of several in a row, lacks even the remotest hint of elegance, and features peeling wallpaper and orange plastic chairs, but it has all we need for three nights, and there is a pool for us to cool off in. Most importantly it is on the road to Litchfield National Park, the next stop in our explorations of the Northern Territory.
The Litchfield we discover is all monsoon rainforests, flowing water, plunge pools, waterfalls, hiking and swimming. Greenant Creek to Tjaetaba Falls, a climb up over the top of Wangi Falls, water everywhere
and a shy, almost hidden Rainbow Pitta bird.
It’s a liquid kaleidoscope of red rocks, green forest, blue sky and rippling waters.
Buley Rock Pools is a seemingly endless cascade of river and deep pools stepped down one after the other. We swim there one day, but the next day is a Saturday. We couldn’t even find a parking place. All of Darwin had escaped the city to swim and picnic at Buley Rock Pools.
We hike for an hour or so alongside Florence Creek from Buley to Florence Falls, a spectacular double waterfall.
You can climb the 120 steps down to the pool from the car park above, or hike from Buley as we did and arrive right at the pool.
The first thing that attracts my attention at Florence Falls is not the pool, or the waterfalls. It is this:
It’s a monitor lizard, about three feet long, or maybe more. It’s hunting around in amongst the rocks by the river that flows from the falls.
Ha! Dinner! They are so fast. I watch as it moves around the rocks, in and out of the little pools of water at the edge of the river, its forked tongue flashing in and out. Suddenly it snaps forward into a pool and catches dinner. There is no mercy in nature.
One of the most extraordinary, if not visually spectacular things we see in Litchfield are the magnetic termite mounds. Unlike the enormous cathedral termite mounds seen elsewhere in the north, magnetic termite mounds only grow to a height of up to two metres and are thin wedges. They are all aligned north-south.
From the signs at the site: For a delicate little insect magnetic termites (amitermes meridionalis) live in a pretty tough environment, temperatures soar during the day and plummet at night, and everything gets sodden in the Wet Season.
Many species of termites escape extreme temperatures by burrowing underground but this is not an option for the magnetic termite. A home above ground is required, safe from the annually waterlogged soils of the Wet Season. Food for the colony must be well protected from bacteria and fungi. The smart structure of these mounds keeps the termites above the water table in the Wet and provides them with sufficient space for well-ventilated food storage near the mound’s surface.
Living in a wedge-shaped tower may be great for food storage but if the tower is oriented to catch the sun’s heat it can become a solar cooker. Scientists conducted experiments and found that when the alignment of the mound was changed the temperatures inside the mound rose significantly. To avoid this problem the termite mounds are aligned to use the sun to balance the internal temperature and ensure the optimum conditions are maintained. By aligning in a north-south orientation one side will always be in the shade.
The termite mound builders are little Worker termites. As they are completely blind scientists can be sure they do not use the sun to guide them in building to a north-south alignment. It was suspected that they have an inbuilt compass to guide them. To test this theory scientists artificially changed the direction of the magnetic field using magnets. The termites dutifully followed and built repairs to their mound in the alignment of these magnets and not to the Earth’s magnetic field.
So we’re in a boat cruising down the Adelaide River about an hour’s drive from Darwin. We’re inside the boat, downstairs, next to an open window. Holy leaping crocodiles Batman! Suddenly this comes jumping out of the water right next to the boat:
Soon we see another in the water. The great grandfather of all crocodiles!
Then another comes leaping out of the water.
Above us on the open top deck of the boat, standing on a small overhanging fenced platform, a young woman is tempting crocs by dangling a bundle of raw meat.
Actually there are two young women, one on either side of the boat, taking turns to dangle temptations to whatever crocs may be around. They’ve been doing it for years. Long enough that they recognize some of the crocodiles, though there’s no knowing which ones will show up on any given day, if any.
It’s pretty busy in the middle of the river. The kites can smell the meat too and there are several of them overhead.
Suddenly, as a kite dives at the meat, a crocodile leaps out of the water to grab it. The crocodile wins. The kite escapes with its life, though I’ve seen a photo online of a crocodile leaping out of the water and catching a magpie goose for dinner.
Crocodiles are truly prehistoric, having existed unchanged for nearly two hundred million years. They are also the largest living reptile in the world and can grow to a length of five metres or over sixteen feet. In the Northern Territory three people have been killed by crocodiles in the past year. One was a local man fishing not five hundred metres from the cruise boat dock on the Adelaide River. He fished there often. Crocodiles can stalk their prey for up to a year before attacking. It’s likely that the crocodile that took this fisherman had been stalking him for a while. They are also opportunity hunters. There is no mercy in nature.
There are over 80,000 crocs in the Northern Territory, with as many as 10,000 in the Adelaide River system. Seeing a croc jumping is extremely rare. Jumping is how they take their food. With the exception of the Jumping Crocodile Cruise, if you do see a crocodile jumping you’ll never see it again.
This is the last post about our time in the Top End. I’ll finish with a couple of photos of Darwin’s lovely Mindil Beach. It’s a beautiful beach to play on, and to watch the sunset, and to splash in the shallows with the dog,
but don’t even think about swimming there, because crocodiles. And sharks. But you don’t need to worry about the sharks. The crocs eat them.
Other posts about the Top End, the northern part of Australia’s Northern Territory:
Water World with Bats, Pythons, and Crocodiles
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.