Australia’s exotic Northern Territory

This is tropical Australia, the Northern Territory, the Top End, a region so exotic and on the edge that it doesn’t seem to fit in the big Aussie picture. It’s a land of swirling, near-phosphorescent, ochre dust, Rocky Mountain-high thunderclouds and sky-shattering storms — a region of pawpaw (papaya) and mango farms, pearl oyster meat from the pearling industry, farm-raised alligator and Thai spices. Indigenous people still dive for lily roots and burn the forests to trap game and make passage through the undergrowth possible. To journey through this land and taste it was one of the greatest privileges of my travel-writing life.

This is a land that demands a four-wheel drive truck. Early in the dry season — April or May — is the best. Dragonflies dance on the wind in celebration. The climate hasn’t reached its steamy saturation point, and the forests are still green. The city markets, with their tropical fruits and Asian flavours, are just opening.

Darwin is the state’s capital, and a visit there helps put everything into some sort of context. The city was heavily bombed in the Second World War and later nearly totally destroyed on Christmas Day 1974 by cyclone Tra, Australia’s largest national disaster. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory not only chronicles these events but also showcases the earliest history, which dates back some 50,000 years.

Barramundi fishing is at its best at the end of the wet season. These freshwater fish are great fighters, and being out in the mangroves of the West Arm across Darwin Harbour intensifies the experience. Like the heat, the smells of the swamp flow: first, there’s hot mud, then, the musk of flying foxes, bats with curiously fox-like heads.

The foods of the Top End are unique. Darwin is so close to Asia that it’s much easier to head to Singapore than Sydney. Immigrants of every Asian culture have brought their foods and cooking traditions. At Darwin’s Hanuman, Thai Nonya cuisine meets Tandoor Indian: soak up the lemon grass and basil-flavoured sauce drenching the grilled rock oysters with warm naan bread.

At the weekly Parap Village Market and Mindil Beach Sunset Market, cultures collide in a colourful culinary collage that ranges from Thai tom yum soup and perfect ripe star fruit (carambola) to freshly tapped coconut milk and handmade green papaya salad liberally laced with fish sauce.

Out in the country, aside from the $35 million mango business, entrepreneurs are beginning to understand the potential of other tropical fruits. Chris Nathanael is one such pioneer and has devoted much of his adult life to growing special fruits that suit this particular climate. He, like a handful of other growers, has invested heavily in research, and his trees are being shipped to markets in Indonesia, Vietnam and Timor. He has acres of sweet red grapefruit and thick-skinned pomelos, star fruit and guavas, sapodillas and fiery pink dragon fruit (pitaya). The kaffir limes are so rich in their pungent oil that the skins of the fruit run with it when rubbed. His produce, including some 15 varieties of mangoes, is seen in food stores such as Parap Fine Foods, run by the Pantazi family, Greeks by ancestry, Aussie to the core. It was there we collected our picnic gear before setting off for Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The road from Darwin to Kakadu goes by Window on the Wetlands, an interpretative centre that describes the hardships of those who tried to tame this mad, radiating landscape. Further along, a panting dingo trotted across the roadway near a billabong, its stagnant surface afloat with water lilies. Huge flocks of hawks swirled over a controlled burning area of grassland waiting for fleeing marsupials and lizards.

The sun was still blazing down when we pulled into a picnic area beside the Mary River. No wooden tables here — everything was concrete to withstand massive flooding and the termites, whose mounds stand like massive sentinels along the roadway. The dusky river flowed nearby, but the warning signs were real — this was serious crocodile country. Watchfully, under the gum trees, we feasted on honey smoked ham and cervelat sausages from Western Australia, marinated artichokes and capsicums and small balls of marinated goat cheese from Tasmania, and a glass or two of Aussie wine. We fed the last few bits to a hawk and then fled back into the air-conditioned truck.

Writing about Kakadu National Park is an exercise in finding words to describe the extreme. The heat is different here, profoundly hot, bouncing off roads and billabongs and any human who travels through it. During the day, the land dozes fitfully, but at dusk, the monsoon rainforest turns into layers of sound, unrecognizable to someone from the northern hemisphere. Bordered by the ocean coast of islands and estuaries and the 500-kilometre escarpment of the Arnheim Land Plateau, which rises to 300 metres, Kakadu is extraordinary.

The Bowali Visitors Centre on the edge of the park, just before the town of Jabiru, is the place to begin. Make sure to find out which areas are open. During the wet season, several routes may be impassable.

The eucalyptus forests and woodlands are rich in fauna with 60 species of mammals, 289 species of birds, 132 species of reptiles, 25 of frog and some 10,000 insects, many of which we collected on our windshield on one late night drive. Goannas (large monitor lizards) reared up in the headlights, and a herd of small black pigs surrounded the truck at one point before scurrying away.

Here, one can begin to understand the Aboriginal spirituality. Their Dreamings are the basis of their creation stories and the prescription for life. Rock paintings, spread all over the 20,000-acre expanse, date back some 25,000 years and right up to recent times. The greatest art site in Kakadu is Nourlangie Rock, with dozens of paintings and the most significant in the park, Lightning Man.

One must climb to the top of Ubirr Rock. It’s an easy hike, taking you by an art gallery painted over the millennia by those seeking shelter under the cool rock overhangs. The best time of day is several hours before sunset. Sitting atop Ubirr, the Narbab floodplains sweep west, ringed with the trails of wild pigs. If you’re lucky, the moon will rise behind you over the desolation of Arnheim Land.

The Warradjun Aboriginal Cultural Centre describes bush foods, tracing the food ways of the traditional Aboriginal owners (Bininj) from the harvesting of the poisonous cheeky yam and the processing that makes it edible to diving for water lily roots and the hunting of wild creatures such as magpie geese, file snakes and goannas.

Accommodations in Kakadu are excellent, ranging from camping parks to four-star hotels. The Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn is located in Jabiru, and one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Australia was in its palm-shaded courtyard. There, we discovered a barbecue and, in time-honoured Aussie tradition, fired it up. The kitchen provided the ingredients — marinated “roo” and alligator, a fillet of barramundi, some bush tomato chutney and a good salad. The wine was a perfect Tamar Ridge pinot noir from Tasmania we’d brought with us from Parap’s in Darwin. Under the stars of the Southern Cross and serenaded by fruit bats, we toasted and blessed this magnificent, ochre-stained land.