SWEETHEART, WE’RE GOING TO LITCHFIELD

The prospect of finding work on a boat to Indonesia was becoming frustrating. I had been to all the marinas in Darwin but to no avail. I decided I need a distraction, and nothing distracts better than a museum. Especially one that houses a 5.1 meter male saltwater crocodile named ‘Sweetheart’ (named for the lagoon it was hauled from – Sweets Lagoon) that had made a reputation for itself back in the mid-70’s.

IMG_2793Sweetheart had destroyed over 16 dingies, tinnies (aluminum boats) and outboard motors, (sending some of the owners into the water but he never harmed a human) during his 5-year reign of destruction (’74-’79) in the favoured fishing lagoon.

He was finally trapped and sedated with plans to relocate him to a crocodile farm for breeding. Unfortunately, the tranquilizer shut down his body’s anti-drowning abilities and getting entangled with a submerged log probably didn’t help either.

The crocodile drowned and his body donated to the Darwin Museum where it has been mounted since 1979.

 

At his time of capture, Sweetheart weighed 780 kg, had a 2.3 meter girth and a snout length (including vent) of 2.4 meters. Although he is not the largest crocodile ever caught, it’s still an impressive size for a 50-something year-old dinosaur.

From his mounted body, I went down to the display of the abundance of wildlife – past and present – that can and used to be found in the Northern Territory. Creatures like the Box Jellyfish (the only animal on the planet that can kill a human within 2-3 minutes), the Taipan (world’s deadliest land snake), venomous seaweeds and fish (painful with rare instances of death) and how the mangrove eco-system works.

I then walked through the Cyclone Tracy display, beginning with a replica family living room, passing through a pitch-black room with original recordings of the wind and flying debris from when the cyclone hit Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974 and finally stepped into the destructive aftermath that completely destroyed and flattened the city in a matter of hours with wind gusts of 260 km/h.

After Tracy moved on and eventually died out at sea, of the 48,000 people who called Darwin home at the time, the city was evacuated to 10,000 to reduce the spread of disease, looters and to make the clean up process a lot easier.

Building codes were changed and the new buildings had reinforced bathrooms that would act as cyclone shelters should it happen again.

What astounded me was the quick reaction of the government at the time and the complete rebuilding of the city of Darwin from it’s pancake state to what it has become today – a thriving, northern gateway to Australia.

Unlike a certain government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina (I endured the tail-end of that horrific storm driving through the state of Kentucky) where whole New Orleans neighbourhoods still show the affects of the aftermath to this day – and not for display purposes.

The museum ended with a maritime display of large boats and indigenous canoes that were used from previous centuries to trade with the Top End of Australia.

That evening we (the family) headed out to the Mindil Beach market. Hundred’s of food stalls, home-made jewellery, clothes, garden displays, tours to the national parks and a whip-master who, using two whips simultaneously, cracked a rhythmic tune around his head with live music provided in the large grassy area along with a jumping castle to preoccupy the kids. IMG_2801

IMG_2792A band was set up opposite the public toilets, at the west-end of the market, parallel to the beach. A high-end jungle-drum ‘n’ bass group called eMDee that play sounds using just two instruments: A homemade drum kit built by drummer Lucas Bendel that seemed to comprise at least fifty different percussion pieces (including bicycle spokes!) and a 4-piece didgeridoo mastered by Mark Hoffman.

Although I’m not into their genre of music, I had listened to an album at the house and enjoyed it as it wasn’t the heavy kind of drum ‘n’ bass but rather the play-it-in-the-background-and-smile kind of easy-going lounge music.

They played a half-hour set (that went for 45 minutes) which had hundreds of people head-bobbing in the small area that surrounded them. It had the local indigenous people dancing into a frenzied sweat. I was spellbound by the drum kit and Lucas’ talent.

The night ended with some free watermelon that a fruit stall gave us as they were shutting down and ridding themselves of everything they couldn’t keep fresh (the market is held twice a week – Thursday and Sunday nights during the dry season).

With the long weekend coming up to celebrate the Queen’s birthday (who was born in April – don’t ask), we had plans to visit Litchfield National Park.

Friday morning we were supposed to have left the house by 08:00 to beat the crowds. When I woke up at 08:21 I had a feeling that it would be a later departure than planned.

We hit the road at 10:30 after packing Damo, Izzie and their two adorable kids into the car.

The 140 K drive south started by taking the turn-off from the Sturt Highway to the Sturt Highway (seriously, don’t ask). An hour and a half later we had entered the Litchfield National Park (named after Frederick Henry Litchfield who was a member of the Finniss Expedition from South Australia in 1864).

P1020987Litchfield attracts a quarter of a million visitors per year due to its proximity to Darwin. Well, that and its abundance of waterfalls, swimming holes and bush walks. We passed through Batchelor, a small township regarded as the ‘gateway’ to the park and a further half hour drive through wooded roads brought us to Wangi Falls with a large plunge pool.

We could hear the falls from the car park as we gathered our bags. We camped ourselves under the shade of a tall, leafy tree, just off the banks of the pool.

I suited up with my snorkel and underwater camera and headed out for a swim, passing under great white arachnids hanging mid-air in the center of their webs. The water was colder than most of the places I had swum in during my time in the Northern Territory.

 

The occasional silver-haired tour groups popped in, made a splash and, at the call of their guide, disappeared and left the 20 or so travellers to nature’s soundtrack of a thundering waterfall to the far right while on the left was a slimmer trickling splash of water.

A large sandbar rose in the middle, its deepest point might have been 2-3 meters at most. The plunge pool had two very deep sections to either side of the sandbar (the pool’s deepest point is 14 meters), kinda like a continental shelf.

I swam about, observing in awe at the amount of tree bark sprawled out around the sandbar, whole trunks and P1020999branches looming up from the dark depths. The sun’s rays crowding around me as my shadow blocked the rest out. I swam above large catfish and zipped out of the way of some mid-sized barramundi (I think).

Smaller fish had come up to me, one daring to inspect my feet, barely budging as I moved my leg, expecting it to zip off (I guess when a quarter of a million people visit each year you get used to the constant flow of guests).

I swam towards the large waterfall, grappling at the red rock wall that encased it. I clambered along and sat under the water, assuming that the volume of water would flatten me. I was surprised when its gentle cascades provided a tolerable neck and shoulder massage.

I headed back along the rock wall to the smaller water fall and climbed up to a 3-meter deep water hole that had luke-warm water and room for no more than two people at a time. I found myself alone in the hole, the bottom blocked by large rocks that must have fallen in. About 15 meters above my head were green hanging vines over a dark, cave-like entrance, where another small waterfall flowed into the darkness.

I swam back to the camp and enjoyed a sandwich of curried eggs that Izzie had made. They had just dressed the kids in their bathers and flotation devices and after we all ate, I headed back in with them. We swam over to a large pile of submerged logs that we could sit on. My feet were itching for a hike so I clambered back out, smashing my left knee on the first step, not realising that this was the ledge.

I hobbled out and headed to the track that would take me up to the top of the water falls and back down on the other side.

As I hiked, I passed a huge Golden Orb spider that hung with infinite patience in the centre of its web. A sign next to it explained that the females grew to 5 cm (but add in the leg-span and they become the size of a dinner plate) while the males only grow to 5 mm (with this species of arachnid the males usually survive the mating procedure).

I continued up through the jungle-like forest that blocked out some of the sun but not the flies.

Or the mosquitoes.

I slapped at one and then another. As I climbed higher and the temperature changed from the humid shoot-me-now swamp warmth to a cooler, I-could-live-here climate, I was left only to deal with flies that had bright orange abdomens. And like most Aussie flies, they were as persistent as a Middle Eastern market stall holder.

Water flowed in secret creeks through rotting logs and clusters of trees, collecting in small pools before continuing downstream. At the top, small rock pools gave the deceptive notion of calm waters even though just a few meters downstream it suicided itself off the cliff to the Wangi plunge pool below.

As I headed back down and the climate changed again to facilitate blood-thirsty mosquitoes, I returned to the camp site where I enjoyed a cold beer with Damo. We headed back to the water and, letting Damo use my snorkel, I did what I enjoyed the most – I dived down and swam underwater for as long as I could hold my breath (my personal best is 2 minutes back when I was 16. Nowadays, I’ve been clocked at just over a minute), chasing fish and avoiding head-butting the submerged logs.

As the family continued swimming about, taking their kids all the way to the water fall. I headed out for a second beer and relaxed on a rock, sunning myself like a lizard.

The sun started its decent over the horizon when we began to pack up. We drove a few kilometres down the road to where the Magnetic Termite mounds were.P1030040

Magnetic Termites are so called because the tiny ants build their huge mounds on a north-to-south axis of the sun so they don’t get cooked from the extreme heat the area attracts. According to scientists, these termites have a built in magnetic compass that allows them to build in accordance to the sun’s position so that they always have a shaded area in their colony.

One mound, called a Cathedral mound due to its towering 5-meters, is believed to be over 50 years old.

As the sun set over a long but enjoyable day I passed out in the back seat along with the kids as Damo drove us back to Darwin.

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Australia, Northern Territory | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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