TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

AUSTRALIA’S TOP END

NEDA VANOVAC, NORTHERN TERRITORY CORRESPONDENT FOR AUSTRALIAN ASSOCIATED PRESS, TALKS TO ME ABOUT LIFE IN AUSTRALIA’S ‘TOP END’. SHE HAS LIVED AND TRAVELLED HERE AMONGST INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, STUNNING NATIONAL PARKS AND FEROCIOUS CROCS FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS.

 

Neda, hello! When we started chatting about having you on the site, you mentioned to me that you campaigned hard to get the job in Darwin, despite having never been to the NT before. What drew you to the region? And what preconceptions did you have of the area before you moved there?
Northern Australia for me had always been this amorphous, mysterious place with a culture completely foreign to the Sydney I’d grown up in. I love the still magic of deserts, and I spent a lot of time travelling and living in the tropics in Asia and Latin America so I didn’t think the oppressive heat would overwhelm me. I was bored of Sydney and craving an adventure (without wanting to find a new job), and so when I heard the correspondent gig was available I wasn’t shy in telling my bosses that it was the only thing I could see myself doing, so please give it to me, pleeeease?

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I have twice before moved to foreign cities without ever having set foot in them or having much of an idea of what they would be like. I spent a year living in Lyon, France, in my early 20s, and had fixated on it as a city I thought I’d like. I wasn’t wrong. I also spent some time living and working in Medellin, Colombia, and it totally stole my heart. For me there’s a thrilling freedom in deciding to love a place without having yet seen it. In all cases I went with open arms and an open mind, determined to see the good but without ignoring the bad. Looking at a place through the prism of “home” while it is still foreign helped me instantly feel connected to life as a local.

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What were your first impressions when you arrived?
Darwin
is SMALL. I’ve never lived in a town of fewer than a million residents, and in all my fantasizing about the romance of correspondent life in a remote region I didn’t understand what that really meant. My first afternoon walking through the city centre, I gulped as I began to realise what I’d gotten myself into. Downtown is made up of about a dozen main streets on a grid with mostly single-storey buildings. Many days I wouldn’t be surprised to see a tumbleweed blow down the main drag, bless its heart.

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But small-town living has been a wonderful lifestyle change. Darwin is a rare place that punches above its weight in terms of providing national and international news, but where home is still a jungle retreat 15 minutes from the city centre.

Correspondent life means a lot of travel around the NT and south-east Asia, and I was on the road from the get-go. The plunge into NT life was an exhilarating, instantaneous adventure, visiting places that to me are still incredibly exotic, an Australia I’d only ever read about in newspapers. Just the poetry of the community names makes me swoon: Gunbalanya, Milikapiti, Pirlangimpi, Peppimenarti, Mutitjulu…

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Do you have much contact with the indigenous communities there? What have you learnt from them?
Yes and no – Darwin itself is quite a segregated town. I live along the city coastline between three indigenous town camps: Minmarama, Bagot and Kalaluk, which are Aboriginal enclave communities within city suburbs. As a result, daily life in my hood is much more culturally mixed than in the city. Darwin is about one-third Aboriginal but that isn’t always apparent.

Through my work, I get to meet lots of people I wouldn’t usually run into and I get to travel extensively across the Top End. It still stuns me that one hour in a tiny plane out of Darwin you can land in some of the most remote communities in the country, where English is a third or fourth language and in many cases to communicate properly you’ll need an interpreter. This Australia seems to exist in a parallel universe from the one I thought I knew. Here, people live on country, fully immersed in their own culture and language. I feel keenly aware of my status as interloper.

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Last month I was in Galiwinku when two ten-year-old boys flanked me on their bikes as I strolled around town, teaching me Yolngu Matha [an indigenous language] and peppering me with questions about my life. They didn’t have much English and it struck me how little they’d need it, until they venture off the island into the rest of Australia, which must be as shocking as a slap in the face.IMG_2959

I’ve learned a lot about being quiet and slowing down, no mean feat for a news reporter. I’ve learned that there are as many Australias as there are people living here, and that expectations are best left behind. I’ve learned that the politics governing various communities and regions are complicated beyond belief. I feel a deep shame and frustration about the way successive governments have interacted with indigenous people. I would never pretend life there is some sort of utopia – there is plenty of dysfunction and violence as a result of generations of genocidal and paternalistic policies.  I would never pretend to have the answers for how to improve things, but I do think you can’t go wrong by actually asking the people you’re planning for what they think.
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There are some incredible national parks where you are – Litchfield, Nitmiluk and Kakadu National Parks all come to mind. Have you done much adventuring through these areas?
Camping is the best way to get up close and personal with the NT. It’s the weekend escape of choice for Territorians (along with fishing) and the only way to experience the sheer variety of wildlife that still flourishes up here.

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The parks are so vast up here and there are so many places to roam that most of the time you’ll be blissfully alone. And as always, the further you venture from the city, the greater the reward.

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When there’s a full moon it can be hard to sleep outdoors, with that natural spotlight shining in your eyes. Once in Kakadu I was woken in the early hours by a herd of wild horses crossing through our campsite, snuffling at the sides of our tents. I’ve had wallabies with little joeys still in the pouch watching me cook dinner; I’ve had expensive cheese snatched out of my esky by a magpie with well-developed tastes. Driving into Kakadu at dawn I have been dazzled by a dingo snatching roadkill off the highway in the rising mist, watched flocks of cockatoos rise as one and scatter across the sky, and have seen kangaroos bound down the road alongside my car.

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I can’t overstate the beauty and wildness of this place, and it’s hard to describe. That feeling of hiking an hour along rough bush paths into a network of waterfalls at Edith Falls, watching the setting sun turn the rocks a brilliant orange before it dipped behind the escarpment. Completely alone with my friends as we slipped between rocks in the pitch-black water under a quilt of stars – right up until a curious fish nipped me and I leaped squealing out of the water. You can never be too paranoid about crocs.

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I’ve seen crocodiles gobbling snakes in a billabong, I’ve been chased by wild pigs while digging for mangrove mussels, and I’ve eaten honey ants, turtle and magpie goose on the Kakadu floodplains. I’ve watched birds of prey wheel and scream as they swooped and seized the entrails of ducks I’d helped pluck and prepare for dinner; I’ve seen water buffalo carcasses rotting on the side of interminable highways. This place is about death as much as it is about life, that endless recurring loop.

I’ve swum through the mossy aquamarine world of the Mataranka hot springs on chilly dry-season mornings, with countless spiderwebs slung overhead as turtles nosed submerged tree trunks down below.

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I’ve kayaked through the dizzying stone walls of Katherine Gorge, hiked in the sweaty, scrubby bushland of the tropical savannahs and plunged with deep gratitude into pristine waterholes.

I’ve run from electrical storms over those vast plains, seen art thousands of years old, and known that no matter how long I keep doing this I can never hope to see it all. But I’ll keep trying…

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How has your relationship to nature changed since moving there?
I grew up as an inner-city Sydney kid, and have been astounded at how much nature pervades my life up here. At home, you’re kept awake at night by the squawks of bush fowl, the amorous croaking of green tree frogs, the rustle of possums in the trees so close to my bedroom window it feels like they’re inside the house. The bush rats in our roof can erupt into startling squabbles, while outside we have resident fruit bats (Batti Smith and Bat King Cole) and two tiny ghost bats who volley around our deck in the evening (Bat Cash and Bat Rafter, natch!).

Over our pool, precariously but painstakingly suspended from a palm frond is the nest of a tiny couple of wrens who have raised two sets of chicks over the past wet season. A python is terrorizing our neighbours’ chickens. Crickets land on our faces as we sleep and geckos patrol the ceilings. This life offers an always-surprising connection to wildlife I never take for granted.

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Out the back of our house is a mangrove forest with mud flats that are so vast at low tide you could land a jumbo jet on them. Just up the road we have the long, lonely coastal reserve beaches with their towering cliffs and huge tides that sweep way out before rushing in and pinning you if you’re not careful.

The Darwin sunset each night is the time I feel most grounded in this place. This is a town that worships the departure of the sun. During the day it can be oppressively, mercilessly hot, but every afternoon you’ll see people unpacking camp chairs and laying out picnic rugs all along Darwin’s lengthy, red and white marbled coastline, champagne or beer in hand as they end their day. For six months of the year without a cloud in sight the sun is a big orange ball that hurtles down into the Arafura Sea.

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But in the wet season the violent electrical storms and monsoons make for some truly dazzling skies. This is a place where you really are at the mercy of the elements. There are days when I have to pull over because the heavy rain is blinding through the windscreen. There are nights when thunder shakes our house to its foundations, the walls vibrating, feeling it deep in my gut.

This place allows you to perch daily on the precarious edge of nature at its deadliest, where you can feel the current of the earth running through you and feel truly connected in a way that I rarely felt in a big city. It scares me, and that daily dose of unpredictability is thrilling and just what I need.

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Which places do you think are must-sees for people travelling to the Top End for the first time?
Buley Rockhole and Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park, as much of Kakadu as you can manage, and kayaking and camping at Katherine Gorge are all incredible experiences. If you can afford a trip out to the Tiwi Islands, or up to Bawaka in East Arnhem Land, go. Take a couple of weeks to drive around Alice Springs and the red centre – it’s breathtaking, no matter how many times you’ve seen it on TV. Travel in the Northern Territory is not cheap, but it’s always worth it.

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Finally, why do you think it’s important for people – Australians especially – to travel to the Northern Territory?
The outback, as a character, is such an integral part of Australia’s foundation story. Whether you’ve lived here for seven generations or just moved here last week, you’ve likely formulated some idea of the vastness of this place, its savage beauty and unforgiving harshness and how it has shaped the people who live in it for tens of thousands of years. It’s Australia’s heartland, and if you were only to cling to the coastlines you would fail to fill a gap inside yourself and your own understanding of just how far and wide this country reaches, how lonely it can be, and how transcendent.

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To not see the Northern Territory is to deny yourself a life-changing experience in the guts of the country, a place where nature will eat you up if you let it, but that can make you feel more alive than anywhere else.

Also, it’s fucking beautiful.

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IF YOU WANT TO SEE MORE PICTURES FROM THE LIFE OF A ROVING NT REPORTER, YOU CAN FOLLOW NEDA ON INSTAGRAM
@bookhopper


TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE

Vibe Hotel, Darwin Waterfront to be in the centre of the action.

Cicada Lodge at Nitmiluk National Park if you want to adventure in comfort and style.

Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel at Jabiru for the novelty of sleeping inside a giant crocodile-shaped hotel in Kakadu.

EAT THERE

Cornucopia Café for breakfast, lunch and dinner while getting some culture and history at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Pavonia Place for delicious modern Australian cuisine and the best service in Darwin.

Chow for scrumptious mixed Asian dishes with a street-food flavour.

The Darwin Ski Club, a Darwin institution, for sunset drinks.

Eva’s Café at the Darwin Botanic Gardens for the historical atmosphere of one of Darwin’s oldest cottages surrounded by lush rainforest.

The Cav for unpretentious beers with the locals. 

SEE THERE

Kayak all of Nitmiluk National Park‘s 13 gorges.

Spend a few days driving around ancient rock art sites and camping in Kakadu.

A Jumping Crocs tour on the Adelaide River to see these beasts as close as you should ever hope to get.

 

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