Later, we visit the ruins of Blythe Homestead, where Tess says her Aunt Esther’s family grew up, eking out a frugal living from the nearby tin mines. Outside are the rusting 44-gallon drums that once held food stores to get them through the tough times. Tess shows us how to forage for bush tucker, sucking on green ants, which explode lime-sour in the mouth. Interspersed between her quips and blooming laugh, the conversation ranges from indigenous philosophy to the harder issues affecting “her mob”—alcoholism, high rates of detention, lack of education, and poverty. “I want people to understand why Aboriginal people suffer. I want to give a different perspective that we’re not just people who spend our time sitting on welfare. We are very wise people and have a deep understanding about country. In the Northern Territory we are trying to live in mainstream society, and struggle and scratch through a culture that’s not ours. We do the very best we can.”
Two swims and a walk across the top of Florence Falls later, Tess drives us back to the Litchfield Safari Camp, where we’re staying in raised tents. But before we get there, she promises us a final treat that “will make our eyes water and tastes better than chocolate.” The boys’ eyes light up as they picture ice cream, but smiles turn to bafflement when Tess pulls off the road and leads us to a red termite mound, asking everyone to find a leaf with which to spoon a little dirt off the top. These rock-solid formations, standing between two and four meters tall, pepper the park, with one group, the Magnetic Termite Mounds, rearing up like giant headstones in a cemetery.
“Now don’t be scared, just taste it. Don’t crunch—enjoy the flavor and swallow.” I can see Jaspar is really struggling. “Tess, I thought you said this tastes like chocolate!” he moans.
“You weren’t listening, I said it’s better than chocolate.”
This final bush delight tastes of fire and scorched earth and is eaten for its high content of zinc and other minerals. The boys are ecstatic. Tess succeeds in sealing a little memory card in their hearts.
After two days at Litchfield, we drive 270 kilometers south to Katherine and the famous Katherine Gorge, or Nitmiluk (“Cicada Place”), as the local Jawoyn people know it. Accommodation in the surrounding Nitmiluk National Park ranges from chalets to the exclusive Cicada Lodge, our luxury high-note of the trip.
Situated above the Katherine River, the Jawoyn-run lodge seems to hover in the pristine landscape as if it, too, is a passing guest. Walkways connect 18 tin-roofed rooms to a central pool deck and dining area. Each room combines sophisticated finishings, from the fancy coffee machine to the monsoon shower, augmented by ocher-toned colors and handwoven artifacts. They also come with private balconies that look out to a distant escarpment, a view shared only with the agile wallabies that congregate at dusk.
Canapés are served at sunset and as we sit down to dinner, a brilliant afterglow casts this ancient sandstone country into hues of burnt orange. We start with a generous tranche of kangaroo loin and astringent pomegranate sauce, followed by wild-caught barra-mundi and, for dessert, a Jane Austen–style rose-water milk pudding. If the wine list is rather minimal, the enthusiastic chef makes up for it, serving us with a flourish.
We’re up early the next morning for a 7 a.m. breakfast cruise with Nitmiluk Tours, a Jawoyn-owned operation that co-founded Cicada Lodge. As the boat glides between the high sandstone cliffs, a guide explains how the Jawoyn believe that Bolung, the rainbow serpent, created the gorge in his image, snaking through the land. As he must not be disturbed, no one is allowed to fish in the deepest parts. Millions of years ago, the Katherine River carved 13 separate gorges through this escarpment, but only the first two can be reached on the cruise. To explore farther, we later rent canoes.
After browsing the displays at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre, which describes the region’s six different seasons, its history, and its flora and fauna, we walk slowly back to the lodge. It’s pushing 36°C, sapping even the lively chatter of the boys, who declare the rest of the afternoon be spent poolside. I had thought I might try one of Cicada’s basket-weaving classes, but the sun loungers look too inviting. Before I know it, a blissful few hours have slipped by, and it’s sunset canapé time again.