Australia: Tales From the Top End

  • Visitors to Bullo River Station experience life on a working ranch, from learning to crack a bullwhip to mustering cattle on the back of one of Bullo’s trusty steeds.

    Visitors to Bullo River Station experience life on a working ranch, from learning to crack a bullwhip to mustering cattle on the back of one of Bullo’s trusty steeds.

  • A swimming hole on Bullo River Station, the Cascades offers cool respite from the heat of the outback.

    A swimming hole on Bullo River Station, the Cascades offers cool respite from the heat of the outback.

  • Blazing trails in a four-wheel drive.

    Blazing trails in a four-wheel drive.

  • A “jillaroo” (cowgirl) at Bullo.

    A “jillaroo” (cowgirl) at Bullo.

  • A ranch mare waiting to be saddled up.

    A ranch mare waiting to be saddled up.

  • A Bullo drover heads out across the ranch.

    A Bullo drover heads out across the ranch.

  • World War II– era machinery at an airfield south of Darwin.

    World War II– era machinery at an airfield south of Darwin.

  • Aboriginal rock art dating back thousands of years can be found all over Bullo, as at this escarpment just off the ranch’s main drive.

    Aboriginal rock art dating back thousands of years can be found all over Bullo, as at this escarpment just off the ranch’s main drive.

  • Feeding time at a Bullo paddock.

    Feeding time at a Bullo paddock.

  • Harness in hand.

    Harness in hand.

  • At Tiwi Design on Bathurst Island, ground ocher is heated over a charcoal fire before being made into paint.

    At Tiwi Design on Bathurst Island, ground ocher is heated over a charcoal fire before being made into paint.

  • A ranch hand’s saddle.

    A ranch hand’s saddle.

  • Essential outback fashion.

    Essential outback fashion.

  • A boab tree at Bullo River Station.

    A boab tree at Bullo River Station.

  • Bullo River.

    Bullo River.

  • Regis Pangiraminni, a guide and potter on Melville Island.

    Regis Pangiraminni, a guide and potter on Melville Island.

  • Nitmiluk Gorge, a maze of waterways and weather-sculpted sandstone bluffs near the township of Katherine.

    Nitmiluk Gorge, a maze of waterways and weather-sculpted sandstone bluffs near the township of Katherine.

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Above: More than double the size of Singapore, Bullo requires its own airstrip.

Soon to star on the big screen in Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” the remote tropical reaches of the Northern Territory have cinematic scenery to spare, as well as crocs, cattle ranches, and the surprisingly multicultural milieu of Darwin, the region’s laid-back capital

By Carrie Hutchinson
Photographs by Catherine Sutherland

“Keep your eyes open for a buffalo.” The crackling voice comes through my headphones as the helicopter dives to the left. “Bloody thing’s been damaging the fences.” For the next few minutes I’m not sure which to concentrate on: spotting the bovine vandal on the ground below us, or keeping down my breakfast. It’s early morning at Bullo River Station, and we’re heading to an isolated swimming hole known as the Cascades. I’m here for the scenery, but since Bullo is a working ranch and there’s something useful to be done en route, I find myself instead gripping the seat in front of me, my eyes trained downward. The buffalo—alerted by the thwack of the chopper’s rotor, I expect—doesn’t make an appearance, so we fly onward, over the scrub and red ridges, winds buffeting the tiny aircraft.

There’s no need to panic, though. We’re in the capable hands of Franz Ranacher, who, along with his wife Marlee (daughter of author Sara Henderson, who made Bullo River Station famous in her best-selling 1993 memoir From Strength to Strength), owns and runs the cattle ranch. The Robinson R44 helicopter is part of daily life on the property. It has to be—when you’re talking about 1,600 square kilometers of land (more than double the size of Singapore), you can’t exactly stroll up to the top paddock to check on the cows.

Thinking that the pools at the Cascades might still be a little cool for a dip (the sun has only been up for a couple of hours, after all), Franz makes an unscheduled landing near a huge outcrop, where he shows us some rock art that is estimated to be 10,000 years old. He discovered the paintings, which depict creatures and totemic spirits from the Aboriginal creation stories of Dreamtime, by chance only a couple of years before. “This old rock just looked interesting, so I thought I’d have a look around,” he recalls. You have to wonder what else is yet to be discovered in some uncharted corner of this landscape.

For guests at Bullo River Station, situated some 800 kilometers southwest of Darwin, life on a ranch is laid bare. You can share in the farm chores, learn to crack a bullwhip, or partake in a slew of outdoor activities. Or you can just relax around the homestead, reading beneath a bulbous boab tree, the station’s logo. I’m here, along with a photographer friend from Sydney, because director Baz Luhrmann’s epic movie, Australia—a period piece about love and war in Australia’s Top End, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman—is due to hit cinemas in December and, as a result, this part of the world will soon come into sharp focus. Bullo, although in the Northern Territory, is close to the Kununurra area of Western Australia where the cattle-driving scenes for Australia were shot. Luhrmann, Franz tells us, spent some time at Bullo when he was scouting locations.

One can understand the attraction of this environment for a filmmaker. It’s a land of dichotomies—harsh and beautiful, awe-inspiring and terrifying, all at once. From dawn to dusk, the landscape changes color: a misty, mossy hue at the start of the day; startling reds, oranges, and purples as the sun goes down. At night, in the well-appointed guest annex near the homestead, I have to leave the bathroom light on because it’s too dark for me to sleep. For someone accustomed to streetlights filtering through her window, I find the inky blackness disconcerting.­ Not quite as disconcerting, however, as the temperature of the water in the swimming hole. The Cascades is one of those places that would be pictured on postcards if it weren’t so remote. A series of pools tumbles down a ridge, joined by waterfalls and surrounded by walls of red rock. Franz drops the chopper onto a tiny beach near the top pool and leads the way down a natural staircase. “This is it,” he says. The pool can’t be more than 20 meters across, but could be twice that deep for all I know; though the water is crystal clear, there’s no bottom in sight. Franz jumps in from a rock platform three meters above the surface. “Is it cold?” I ask, teetering on a much lower ledge. “Yeah, a little bit.”

I hit the water and the air is sucked from my lungs. As my head breaks the surface, I gasp and start paddling to the edge where Franz is sunning himself on a rock. “You ’right?” he calls out, and then laughs. “Knocks the breath right out of you, doesn’t it?” I’m no expert on water temperature, but I figure that it has to be about 13 or 14 degrees Celsius—at least 10 degrees cooler than the air. Getting out almost as quickly as I jumped in, I lie on the rocks to dry off.

My next aquatic adventure is far warmer, but a lot scarier. We’re off to hunt barramundi, a fighting fish that lives in the brackish rivers around here. From the chopper, we spot a group of Franz’s other guests at Steve’s Hole, a bend in the snaking Bullo River. We also spy a five-meter saltwater crocodile disappearing into the murky water about 200 meters from where they are perched on the bank. These prehistoric beasts are everywhere up here—we’re just inland from the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf—and they are perfect killing machines. Two days earlier, Geoff Pike, who runs a cruise along the nearby Victoria River, told me about a stock horse having to be put down after an enormous “saltie” lunged out of the water and bit into its hindquarters. “They move at about 60 kilometers an hour out of the water over the first six meters,” he said. “After that, you can outrun them.” His words flash through my mind as I cast my fishing line into Steve’s Hole. Across the water, I can see another huge reptile sunning itself on the sand.

Franz has left us with Trevor Bennett, Bullo’s angling guide. In the warm wet season up here, he says, fishermen pull barramundi in all day. But it’s cold during our visit (at least for the Northern Territory) and so the going is slow. We haul in just one fish before Bennett decides it’s time to pack up and move on. Half an hour later we arrive at a rock weir called the Crossing. Eager to have another go at the elusive fish, I jump out of the four-wheel drive before it comes to a complete stop. A friend chides me jokingly for being so eager. “Well, you can’t catch anything if your line’s not in,” Bennett says. I’m not sure if he’s talking about fishing or if this is a metaphor for life.

“You’ve got a lot of good sayings, Trev.”

“So did my dad,” he shrugs. “You had to polish ’em up a bit, though.”

Much of the charm of Australia’s north resides in its people. Geoff Mark, who runs Marksie’s Stockman’s Camp Tucker Night in Katherine, 460 kilometers north of Bullo, says that when he arrived in the Northern Territory, someone told him there were only three types of people who ended up in the Top End: missionaries, murderers, and misfits. Spend any amount of time here, and you’ll realize that’s an outrageous exaggeration even by outback standards. That said, from the stockmen working on the stations to the Aboriginal guides at Nitmiluk Tours, which runs cruises along Nitmiluk (a.k.a. Katherine) Gorge, these are not folk who’d take well to city living. They tend to be from all walks of life—Franz himself is from Austria, and was on a working holiday when he and Marlee fell in love and got married—and have a rare, humble humor.

As we saddle up our horses one morning to go mustering at Bullo, stockman Evan Houston, a former rodeo rider from Victoria who has worked here for 11 years, tutors us in basic horsemanship. “This is your steering wheel,” he says, holding up the reins. “Pull this one to turn the corner, the other one to go the other way, and both of them to stop.” He pauses for a second. “Yep, that’s about all you need to know.”

With that advice we head out into the paddock to bring in a herd of Brahman yearlings. Getting the livestock used to being herded and interacting with the stockmen is part of the routine, so we push the youngsters toward the cattle yards. One brindled cow makes a half-hearted attempt to break from the group, but is easily cut off with the horses barely at a trot. Safely corralled an hour or so later, the animals watch inquisitively as we wander around taking photos and clucking over their soulful brown eyes.

The Northern Territory isn’t ALL about crocs and cattle stations. Darwin, the capital and another star of Luhrmann’s movie, is home to an amazing confluence of people from all over the world. The population may only just tip 100,000, but it comprises about 50 nationalities, as well as indigenous peoples. In 1942, this was where World War II came to Australia. The Japanese bombing of Darwin Harbour on the morning of February 19 features in Australia’s final scenes, and all of the footage looking out to the water was shot on location. Because Darwin has been rebuilt twice—once following the war, then again three decades later after Cyclone Tracy demolished the city on Christmas Day, 1974—the smaller Queensland town of Bowen (more than 3,000 kilometers southeast of Darwin) was dressed up to look like the northern capital circa the late ’30s for the film.

Retired civil servant Les Penhall had moved to Darwin from Adelaide in November 1941 and remembers having to start evacuating women and children from the city the following January. On the morning of February 19, Les was sitting at his desk overlooking the Esplanade when he heard the sound of aircraft and noticed formations of warplanes coming in over the harbor. “All of a sudden the sun started to glint off something that looked like darts coming out of the bottom of the aircraft,” he recalls. “That was when I thought, ‘Christ, they’re not ours.’ ”

His stories and those of the veterans who tried to defend Darwin are chilling even today. The Australian troops were hopelessly undermanned and under-resourced compared to the superior Japanese forces. The air raids continued for 20 months and Darwin was all but completely destroyed, having had more bombs dropped on it than Pearl Harbor. Today, you can still see some evidence of those dark days. Steve Noble, who runs Darwin Walking Tours, shows us the bullet holes left in the fence of Burnett House at Myilly Point, a heritage precinct that juts out from the mainland around Hope Inlet. Designed and built in 1939 by Beni Burnett, this is one of the only examples of Darwin’s early tropical architecture still standing; today it’s a popular spot for afternoon tea on Sundays. Noble also takes us to Christ Church Cathedral, where servicemen took stone from the city’s post office (which was destroyed during the bombings, along with the postmaster, his staff, and his family) and built a doorway to commemorate the lives of the people who died defending northern Australia.

The best view of Stokes Hill Wharf, one of the first areas attacked during the Japanese raids, is from the water. Grant Rubock is the skipper of the Anniki, a 1956 pearl lugger that was chartered by the crew of Australia for two months during filming. “For the amount of filming they did here, the preparation was astronomical,” he tells us. The boat, completely stripped of any modern hardware, appears in a scene where Kidman’s character, Lady Sarah Astley, returns to the city as it comes under attack. “They filmed from inside the wharf,” Rubock explains as he steers the Anniki right up to the pier. “It was re-created to look as it did during the war. All the steel was either removed or hidden from the cameras.”

Late that afternoon, we head to Mindil Beach, where the city’s sunset markets attract crowds of people on Thursday and Sunday evenings. Here, the diversity of cultures in the city becomes apparent. Every type of Asian food you can imagine is on offer, alongside handicrafts and souvenirs. We finally decide on roti wraps and head down to the sand, where every evening the sun sets spectacularly over the Timor Sea. Tourists and locals alike settle in to watch the show. As the sky darkens into night, fire twirlers wander the beach and kids splash about at the water’s edge.

Eighty kilometers north of Darwin and accessible by light aircraft are the Tiwi Islands, home to a number of Aboriginal communities and an excellent place to learn about the culture and art of Australia’s original residents. At the Munupi Arts and Crafts Centre on Melville (the larger of the two Tiwis) we’re met by Regis Pangiraminni, a local potter who once worked as a police tracker. Pottery is a relatively new form of expression for indigenous artists, having been introduced to the Tiwis in the 1970s. European shapes like vases and bowls dominate Regis’s work, though each comes with a depiction of a Dreamtime creature rendered in dots and crosshatching.

Under a corrugated iron shed, a group of women are creating the colorful paintings that the islands are famous for. They daub natural ochers and less-traditional gouache and acrylic paints onto canvas using brushes and wooden combs, often in abstract depictions of the birds and sea animals that figure so prominently in the islanders’ lives. A nearby building is reserved for the men who make the Tiwis’ equally famous carvings.

On neighboring Bathurst Island, our guide is the soft-spoken Romolo Tipiloura. He takes us for morning tea with the local community, where three elderly women are weaving baskets. When everyone has had tea and their fill of damper—an outback version of soda bread, cooked over an open fire—Tipiloura, some other men, and “the morning tea ladies” (as they call themselves) perform totem dances. There is much foot stamping, arm movement, singing, and banging of clap-sticks as legends involving crocodiles and buffalo are reenacted. From there it’s a trip to Tiwi Design, another artists’ community. In the pottery shed, the old-fashioned fire kiln, superseded by an electric one, is now covered in odd pieces of sculpture. “The old kiln was too much work,” Tipiloura says. “You used to have to sleep near it to stoke it up during the night.” With daily temperatures often reaching 34 degrees, the added heat of the fire is not a pleasant thought.

Both of the scrub-covered Tiwis also played their part in Australia’s war history, relics of which are showcased, along with Aboriginal Dreamtime lore, at the tiny Patakijiyala Museum on Bathurst. Here you can see the radio used by Father John McGrath to warn Darwin of the impending Japanese attack. Apparently, his message got through but wasn’t passed on to the correct commanding officer, so the attack came as a complete surprise. There are also photographs of Matthias Ulungura, who captured the first POW when a Japanese plane came down on Melville Island. He crept up behind the unharmed pilot ­and stole his gun. Local legend has it that Ulungura was a fan of John Wayne movies and told the enemy airman to “stick ’em up.”

As the day draws to a close, we head away from the townships and through the dense bush to an inland waterhole. The rest of the group I’m with goes off for a walk around its edge, but I decide to slip into the water to cool off. Tiny fish swim around my feet and birds hop among the branches overhead. The setting is completely unspoiled, much like the vast majority of the Northern Territory. This is a place where the outback and coast collide, as do people of every description and background. Even as an Australian, I feel as though I’m a world away from my life at home in Sydney—privileged to discover a slice of the country that so few get to see.

THE DETAILS
Australia

Getting There

Jetstar (jetstar.com) flies twice daily between Singapore and Darwin. From there, it’s a three-hour drive to Katherine and another five-and-a-half-hour drive to Bullo River Station. Charter flights direct from Darwin to Bullo are offered by Barrier Air Charter (barrieraviation.com.au). In Darwin, four-wheel drives can be hired from Avis (avis.com.au) and Budget (budget.com.au).

When to go

During the November–March wet season, the weather in the tropical Northern Territory is hot, humid, and stormy. For everyone apart from serious barramundi fishermen, the Top End is best avoided then.

Where to Stay

Darwin’s Skycity (Gilruth Ave.; 61-8/8943-8888; skycitydarwin.com.au; doubles from US$153) is part hotel, part casino, situated right on Mindil Beach amid tropical gardens. Farther south in Katherine, Knotts Crossing Resort (Cnr. Cameron and Giles Sts.; 61-8/ 8972-2511; knottscrossing.com.au; cabins from US$82) has basic motel rooms and cabins. A working ranch with more than 9,000 cattle and 12 guest rooms, Bullo River Station (61-8/8354-2719; bulloriver.com; from US$649 per person) is closed to visitors during December and January.

Tours

Steve Noble runs Darwin City Tours (61-8/8942-1022; darwinwalkingtours.com) and operates both walking and cycling itineraries taking in historic sites. Aussie Adventure Holidays (61-8/8922-2706; aussieadventure.com.au) can arrange visitor permits and air tickets for the Tiwi Islands, while Nitmiluk Tours (61-8/ 8972-1253; nitmiluktours.com.au) runs the Nabilil Dreaming Sunset dinner cruise through Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge, with Aboriginal guides on hand to tell the stories of this spiritual place. Get up close to saltwater crocodiles from the safety of a boat on a Victoria River Cruise (61-8 8975 0850; victoriarivercruise.com), or explore Darwin Harbour aboard the Anniki with Australian Harbour Cruises (61-8/ 8941-4000; starchaser.com.au). –CH

Originally appeared in the October/November 2008 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Tales From The Top End”)

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