The Arrernte people indigenous to central Australia call Mount Gillen Alhekulyele, after the spirit of a wild dog that sniffed around the desert here near Alice Springs, looking for a mate. “Our ancestors tell the story that dog protected this area,” says Doug Taylor, an Arrernte aboriginal guide leading a tour at the Alice Springs Desert Park, near the base of Mount Gillen (indeed shaped like the snout of a basset hound). “You protect it as well.”
Taylor’s smile reveals his evenly gapped Chiclet teeth. The afternoon sun is beating heavily on his brown bush hat as he ushers our group and a trail of ear-buzzing flies through the sand country, woodland, and desert-river habitats within the park’s 123-acre exhibit area. “If you’re ever out in the wild and dying of thirst, look for the little budgies and zebra finches,” he says, pointing to a mob of small green-and-yellow parrots and carrot-beaked, striped finches flitting about an outdoor enclosure. “My dad always said, ‘Have respect for those birds; they’ll lead you to water.’ ”
He strokes a beanlike stem of nardoo, a fern his people have relied on for centuries as an important type of bush “tucker,” or food. The plant’s spores are harvested to make “damper,” bread baked beneath the hot coals of an open fire. The secret to damper, says Taylor, is in the preparation—a tip that, combined with the earlier one about finding water, might have saved the lives of explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. Cannons were firing in the U.S. Civil War when Burke and Wills became the first Europeans to complete a south-to-north crossing of the Australian continent. Unlike their rival, John McDouall Stuart, however, they perished in the desert on their return trip.
In many ways Australia’s Northern Territory is as wild today as it was then. Towns and highways have risen from the sand, and each year more than 348,000 tourists trek to the Red Center for a snapshot of one of the world’s largest monoliths, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), a sacred aboriginal landmark. But the region—encompassing 300 million acres, an area the size of France, Spain, and Italy combined—contains just one percent of Australia’s total population, or about 200,000 people, including aborigines on walkabout. Thus there is still a lot of wild country to explore.
The last time I traveled here, 11 years ago, I posed for a photograph with an eight-foot-tall termite mound and climbed past Japanese women scaling Uluruin high heels. I later learned that although the aboriginal landowners tolerate tourists mounting their rock, they don’t understand it. And they would prefer that visitors (I hear they sometimes call us minga, or ants) skip the climb.
For this 10-day trip, I’ve planned another kind of outback experience, one that explores the Northern Territory’s birdlife and aboriginal culture while tracing part of the route blazed by Stuart himself. Isolated from the other continents for millions of years and largely devoid of people, this is a land of unfathomable emptiness, thorny bush, and sweltering heat that is home to some of the planet’s most unusual wildlife—the largest living crocodiles, carnivorous marsupials, thorny devils, and kookaburras.
"People think deserts are barren places, but they’re actually full of life,” Taylor says while acquainting me with some of the 350 types of birds I might encounter in the wilds beyond Alice Springs. Rumbling northwest out of town on a strip of tar passing for a road, I find the desert is a stunning panorama—a layer cake of terra-cotta sand, topped with grasses in every shade of green, from celadon to teal, azure sky, and white icing clouds. It’s easy to imagine that the chain of rocky hills in the distance is a sleeping dragon, its spiny back and tail formed by squat acacias interspersed on the ridge with tall desert oaks.
Halfway through the five-hour drive to the remote outpost where I’ll be staying for the next few days, the tar gives way to a sandy thoroughfare pocked with puddles. Wildlife pops up, it seems, out of nowhere. A brown falcon glides overhead, exposing its buff-colored underbelly, then banks for a swift landing in a dead gum tree. A dingo flashes out of the brush and races parallel to the car, maybe a dozen feet away. Up ahead what appears to be a log in the middle of the road transforms into a three-foot-long monitor lizard, or goanna, sunbathing. A huge bird with a long white neck and brown wings spooks from the spinifex grass. It’s the Australian bustard, also known as the “Australian turkey.”
“This land belongs to the Ngaliya people,” reads the sign at the boundary of Newhaven Reserve, a 650,000-acre cattle ranch turned wildlife refuge that’s just east of the Great Sandy Desert and bounded by aboriginal lands on all sides. In 1999 a biologist surveying raptors here alerted Birds Australia that the owner was talking about selling. The group quickly raised more than $1 million (Australian) and added the property to its collection of managed bird reserves. Newhaven represents all of the major inland Australian desert environments, including rocky mountain ranges, giant salt lakes that look like mirages in the desert, towering red sand dunes, scrubby woodlands, shallow depressions known as claypans, and spinifex grasslands spotted with ghost gums.
Just before sunset I arrive at Newhaven’s nerve center, a smattering of metal dwellings that include a few caravanlike abodes called dongas.Property manager John Tindall, a former cattleman, lives with his wife, Marjory, in the reserve’s only permanent structure. The dongas are for volunteers and researchers; tourists stay in a campground equipped with showers and pit toilets.
The following morning, Newhaven volunteer Barry Gilmourgives me a brisk introduction to some of the station’s birdlife. Gilmour is a retired ambulance medic, ham radio operator, and avid “birdo” from Wagga Wagga (“Which means man who wanders,” he says). He’s a jolly guy with a black-and-gray bottlebrush beard, and he has traveled most of Australia collecting life birds—so far more than half of the continent’s nearly 800 species. Gilmour jerks his pickup truck to a halt whenever we see or hear something new through the mud-splashed windshield and open windows—a willy wagtail, for instance, hopping about, swinging its tail from side to side, or a crimson chat zipping through the woody scrub.
We follow a trail of green that runs down the belly of the road toward a red sand dune the size of a four-story building. Two storms are developing on either side of the dirt track. “This year could be a ripper for rain,” Tindall had told me. “Most years the rain comes between Christmas and March, but this year it seems earlier. When we do get that one-in-10-year rain, we get black swans in the salt lakes.”
It’s too early in the season for even a chance to see swans, but an arduous climb up the sand dune rewards us with a gorgeous little turquoise bird with a reddish crown and black banditlike streaks through its eyes: the rainbow bee-eater. True to its name, this bird eats bees, though first it uses its long black beak to knock the insects against a branch—so they won’t sting when they’re swallowed. Perhaps sensing two black-breasted buzzard kites hovering overhead, the bee-eater sits motionless in its tree. While these kites prefer rabbits and reptiles, they will sometimes snatch a bird.
Back in the car, raindrops begin to sprinkle the windshield as the stark primary colors of the desert soften to pastels: pink sand, buttery yellow spinifex, violet sky. The ever-changing color of this vast, open country is one of the reasons Gilmour will be volunteering through the scorching summer months. “This place is the closest you’ll ever get to paradise,” he says. “Seriously.”
My train departs Alice Springs the next afternoon. Named The Ghan for the Afghan camel drivers who helped lay the tracks for the first railroad from Australia’s south coast, it has ferried travelers from Adelaide to Alice Springs since 1929. The plan was always to extend the line the last 882 miles to Darwin, thus connecting the country’s south and north coasts, though no one thought doing so would take until 2004.
Despite the new tracks, the long silver train is sluggish as we leave Alice, conjuring up the slow departure of Burke and Wills from Melbourne back in 1860. Their caravan consisted of 19 men, dozens of horses and camels, and roughly 20 tons of equipment, including cedar dining tables, rockets, a bathtub, and a Chinese gong. Stuart traveled lighter and faster, returning to Adelaide twice before he finally reached the north coast on his third try. First he was ambushed by aborigines 500 miles short of his target; on the next attempt he turned back after a five-month slog through thorny, mosquito-infested bush that left him and his men “nearly naked” in tattered rags.
In February 1861 Burke and Wills discovered a spot in the mangrove swamps near the Gulf of Carpentaria where the water was salty. Satisfied that they had reached the shore, they turned home. Seven months later a search party discovered their bodies next to Cooper Creek. Stuart finally reached the sea beyond Darwin later that year. He returned to Adelaide to the sound of blaring trumpets on January 21, 1863, the same day Burke and Wills were buried in Melbourne.
Now that The Ghan makes the full trip from Adelaide to Darwin, it literally traces Stuart’s footsteps. Leaving Alice Springs, we crawl past an aboriginal shantytown, a cluster of industrial buildings, and a railroad crossing filled with T-shirt-clad tourists, waving and snapping photos. Twenty minutes later all signs of civilization are lost, and the train rolls into the night.
The next morning the color of the sand outside has faded from flaming red to dull taupe. Termite mounds, the size of an infant near Alice, are now taller than a grown man. We’re only an hour away from the deep, blue waters of Nitmiluk, Katherine Gorge National Park, often described as where the outback meets the tropics.
Stuart named Katherine Gorge in 1862 for the daughter of one of his expedition sponsors. When the Jawoyn aborigines received the title to the land in 1989, they renamed it Nitmiluk, or “cicada place.” Carved within the sandstone encasing the Katherine River are 13 natural gorges. Jawoyn believe the rainbow serpent rests here, and therefore will not wade, swim, or even drink from the clear water. Tourists often go for a dip, but not today—a saltwater crocodile large enough to eat a person has been reported in the gorge. Usually only smaller and more docile freshwater crocs patrol these waters, but they, too, are vulnerable when a salty is around. Park staffers have set out traps in hopes of catching the intruder.
As we motor between jagged rock walls, a white-bellied sea eagle eyes us from a tree arching over the water, and an Australian darter is sunning on a rock. “See that, she’s got her wings spread out,” says Jacko, our captain. “What she’s doin’ is tellin’ us the size of the last fish she caught.”
A whistling kite swoops in on an osprey perched on the knobby ledge of a sun-dappled cliff. Farther on down the gorge, a white-faced heron hides in a shady crevice. Then someone spies the snout of a croc sticking out from beneath a rock. Could it be? No, the skinny nose gives it away. “It’s just a freshie,” says Jacko.
Back on the train we continue our creep toward Darwin. Most people say the Top End of Australia has two distinct seasons: the dry and the wet. However, the Bininj, as aborigines are known in this part of the country, observe six. I arrive in Darwin in gumeleng, the gradual buildup to the monsoon, when waterbirds flock to the billabongs (wetlands), and crocodiles are getting ready to lay their eggs.
“Everything that will bite you and sting you lives around here—sharks, crocs, box jellies, sea snakes, you name it,” says private bird guide Mike Ostwald, shortly after we rendezvous, as he watches a fisherman cast into ominous waters along Darwin’s shores. Ostwald is a man of many trades: real estate, insurance, horses, farming, gold mining, and most recently bird touring. He is the great-great grandson of an Irish convict sentenced to Australia for five counts of armed robbery during the potato famine, and the son of a man who hunted possums and other wild game during the depression. In fact, that’s how Ostwald first learned birds. “We used to shoot them and eat them,” he says, “so I know them well.”
His plan is to score as many “specialty birds” as we can on our way from the territory’s capital city to his lodge on the Mary River, where we will bunk for a night before heading north to Kakadu. We’re off to a good start at our first stop, the Casuarina Coastal Reserve, where the trees are filled with the colorful fluttering of a red-headed honeyeater, a yellow oriole, and a lemon-bellied flycatcher. At George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens we find a family of rufous owls napping in the canopy. Off-trail in the monsoon rainforest at Howard Springs we spot the elusive rainbow pitta hopping on the forest floor. “When he flies, he’s a flash of color,” Ostwald says, admiring the bird’s cobalt-blue wing bar and emerald feathers. At Knuckey Lagoon a black-and-white tuxedoed jabiru stands among the pygmy geese, two brolgas doing their high-stepping crane dance, and several little curlews strutting in the low grasses.
The majority of the more than 170,000 travelers who visit Kakadu National Park each year sign up for its famed Yellow Water Cruises. The big draw is the ginga—saltwater crocs, several of them 13 feet or longer—that reside in the billabong at the end of Jim Jim Creek, a tributary of the South Alligator River. But it’s the birds Ostwald and I seek, and we’re lucky to be assigned to boat captain Murray Hunt, one of the few park guides who knows exactly where to look for the real rarities. “There,” he says, pointing to the left bank, “a white-browed robin flying across the river. He’s a skulker—he likes to hide.” Hunt quickly sets up a CD player and broadcasts a recording of the robin’s fluting tune: tu-tu sweet-too; ch-ch-choo. Some movement in the thick mangroves suggests our quarry might be wooed, but alas we cannot see it.
Kakadu supports more than 280 species of birds, from comb-crested jacanas tiptoeing across colossal pink lotus lilies to the electric-blue little kingfisher we find peeking from the cavity of a dead pandanus tree. But as fruitful as Kakadu’s birdlife appears, Hunt says numbers have dipped, even since last year.
A variety of destructive forces have been converging on Australia’s Top End. As is happening on Louisiana’s coast and elsewhere, rising salt water is penetrating Kakadu’s freshwater wetlands, threatening this World Heritage Site. Scientists debate the probable causes: natural sea level rise, changing rainfall patterns, storm surges, global warming. In addition, invasive species like feral buffalo and pigs cut channels with their hooves, while cane toads are poisoning native wildlife, including the catlike quoll (one of Australia’s carnivorous marsupials), goannas, and birds.
Toward the end of our cruise, we see ribbons of smoke rising from the riverbank. It’s from a bushfire lit by an aboriginal woman who is trying to defeat the buffalo grass choking the marshlands that provide her family with food. Violet Lawson is a petite, 54-year-old with ebony skin and a whisper of a voice that belies her tenacity. “This is my land. I’ve lived here all my life,” she says. “Lily was growing all through here.” The lotus lilies produce seeds that taste a lot like peas, she adds, and her protein comes from the geese and file snakes that thrive in lily habitat. “The buffalo grass took over about 10 years ago. Now there’s no billabong left. We come here just like a supermarket. When the grass really took over we had trouble finding food.”
Aborigines, who have lived in Kakadu for at least 50,000 years, have long used fire to manage the area’s grasslands, thus promoting the diversity of plants and animals. When Captain James Cook charted Australia’s coastline in 1770, he saw their fires ablaze. As Europeans began exploiting the region in the late 1800s to mine gold, graze cattle, and hunt introduced buffalo, the old aboriginal way of life nearly vanished. For most of the next century, buffalo provided a surrogate for aboriginal fires by munching on the floodplains and keeping the grasses low. But buffalo have been mostly banished from Kakadu in recent decades, and the grasses are now flourishing, crowding out the lilies and transforming rich bird habitat into little more than turfgrass. “It’s important to keep the fire, to keep the grass down,” Lawson explains. “It’s good for everything, everybody—people, wildlife, and the birds.
“Come with me,” she says. We wade through the buffalo grass until cool water rushes into our shoes. Facing downwind, she strikes a match and tosses it into the grass. A smolder soon becomes a small flame. Lawson lights another. The grasses now crackle, and hungry whiskered terns swirl in the puffs of smoke, periodically plunging into a wave of grasshoppers trying to outhop the heat. “We’ll probably have the lilies back next year,” she says, continuing to pitch matches in our footsteps as we back away from the flames, the smog growing darker. “See the brolgas out there standing on the bank where it burned? They’re thanking us. They’re happy. I’m very proud of this. I like to see everyone happy.”
On my last full day in the outback I return with Mike Ostwald to his lodge on the Mary River for one final cruise. Piloting our pontoon, he yells to a 15-foot-long croc he calls Cow Cruncher hiding beneath the trees. “G’day ol’ Cruncha! (He’s probably waiting for dinner—baby bats that fall from the roost).”
We pull ashore on a small sand island, only a few miles from the point where Stuart crossed the Mary on his way north. I sit in a plastic beach chair, happily wiggling my toes in the sand, watching the sun sink behind the mangroves as the blaze of our campfire grows brighter. Ostwald serves up his wife’s homemade rosemary damper, beef stew, and mugs of hot “billy tea.”
But the evening ends too swiftly. Thunder, lightning, and 13 pairs of crocodile eyes in the darkness beyond the metal fence circling our campfire signal to Ostwald that it’s time to pocket his harmonica and head back to the lodge. We reluctantly gather our things. Passing pots and coolers to other guests already on the boat, I ask Ostwald if he’s ever been tempted to stay the night on the island, since it’s fenced. He tells me the barrier would be no match for Cow Cruncher and his mates after the fire burns out. “If you slept out here, you wouldn’t be here in the morning,” he says, offering his hand as I step aboard. Suddenly, I feel like cruising.