Australia’s tropical Top End

Great Australian Outdoors writer Dick Eussen provides a glimpse into a sultry paradise

South of Darwin is the Top End’s Litchfield National Park, a wonderland of plateau-created waterfalls, running streams and verdant patches of palm-dominated monsoon rainforest. A fully sealed ring-road starting from the former uranium mining town of Batchelor connects with the Cox Road to the north. Litchfield is popular with locals because it offers year-round crocodile safe swimming.

The Cape York Peninsula is arguably Australia’s most popular 4WD adventure escape, with some 45,000 vehicles heading there during the dry season from June to August. It’s expected that the Peninsula Developmental Road will be fully sealed soon, while a bridge across the iconic Jardine River, the largest perennial stream in QLD, has been partly funded. However, it will not mean the end of the off-road adventure as the eastern entrance, via the Starkey Track and western entrances from the Burke Developmental Road will remain to test everyone.

Chillagoe, west from Cairns, in the Northern Gulf country, is home to the most remarkable limestone karst tower system in Australia. They are scattered in a narrow belt from east to west and ranging to the north for some 200 sq km. The towers also contain the largest network of limestone caves in the country. Ranger conducted tours of caves operate daily from Chillagoe.

The tropics only have two seasons – a Wet and a Dry. The dry season is noted for bushfires, most which are man-lit and can burn for weeks, especially in Arnhem Land. The smoke plume drifts over the Indian Ocean and into Africa. Early fires kill many breeding seed-eating birds and are on the increase due to the traditional owners being paid carbon credits.

Australia has two species of crocodiles, the Johnstone or Freshwater crocodile (pictured) and the miss-named Estuarine or Saltwater crocodile that like the ‘freshie’ can spend all its life in the upper reaches of the tropical freshwater streams. The ‘freshie’ has a fox-like “bark” and can walk a long distance between drying waterholes to survive.

Saltwater, also known as Estuarine crocodiles, can often be seen walking up narrow channels in the tropical mangrove estuaries where they hunt mud crabs and fish that swim down the channel when the tide goes out. They also use the channels to access the dry banks behind the mangrove fringes to bask in the sun on cool days.

The Bush Thick-knee, also known as the bush curlew, is common in the tropical farmlands and the bush. It’s sometimes called the ‘screaming woman’ bird, due to its eerie whistling, even though that title rightly belongs to the Rufous owl. Thick-knees gather in flocks of up to 40 birds and their combined cries is an awesome experience to hear on a ghostly moonlight night.

Feral pigs are out of control in many parts of Australia. Donald Thompson travelled in the Cape York Peninsula and Arnhem Land in the 1920s, noting in his book Mammals and fishes of northern Australia that even then the wild pigs were damaging large areas of wetlands and endangering small marsupials, reptiles and ground birds.

Magnetic termite mounds are a feature of many flood plains on the Cape York Peninsula, Arnhem Land and the Top End. They are designed to take full advantage of the sun’s warmth by creating a thermally stable condition in at least one part of the mound all day, no matter how hot it is. They are often found in huge cemetery-like tombstone cities.

Road trains, transporting cattle, are common on the Outback roads during the dry season when stations muster cattle and send them off to the markets and for live shipping export. Take great care when passing these 50m long ‘trains’ as they trail fist-sized rocks behind them. Avoid windscreen damage by slowing down and moving off the road.