Outback Australia: Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park covers 7,646 square miles of Australia’s Top End in the Northern Territory. How big is that? Well, you could fit both Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks inside of Kakadu with room to spare for all of the fanny packs (that’s bum bags for you Aussies) that would be roaming around. In other words, it’s massive. It’s also the native homeland of several groups of indigenous peoples. It’s a living history of Australia’s Outback story and a great place to begin a trip to the Northern Territory.

You can drive to Kakadu from Darwin in under four hours, and that’s exactly what I did. Be forewarned, though, that once you’re a few hundred kilometers out of Darwin, you’ll probably only get one radio station (ABC) that is a combination of NPR and local news talk radio. But if you’re a travel geek like me, you’ll enjoy listening to local music and hearing about the regional political conflicts as you scan the endless horizon for any sign of a town or passing vehicle. Along the way, you won’t pass much and you’ll quickly realize that the Northern Territory is defined more by what isn’t there than what is. It’s a land of natural beauty and devoid of much man-made structure. And Kakadu is the epicenter of much of that scenic wonder.


The first thing I noticed upon entering Kakadu were the signs for the East Alligator, West Alligator and South Alligator rivers. The second thing you’ll notice is that there are no alligators in Kakadu. Or in the Northern Territory. Or in Australia. In the early 1800s, an English navigator by the name of Phillip Parker King visited the region fresh off of a trip to Florida. He mistook Australia’s crocodiles for alligators and the misnomer has stuck ever since. Just another quirk in an already quirky country.

And those crocodiles are prevalent in Kakadu. You’d be foolish to swim in any of the billabongs or rivers that you find in your travels. However, there are plenty of opportunities to safely observe these descendants of dinosaurs safely. One of the best is on the Yellow Water Cruise. Don’t let the odd name fool you. The cruise takes you through some of the most serene areas of the park and allows you to view wildlife from crocs to jabiru. It’s a great way to spend a morning and both kids and adults will be in awe of the creatures and landscapes that you witness. For the best experience, sit in the back of the boat with the guide and stand on your seat to take pictures without fear of blocking anyone’s view.

While Australia’s most famous inland natural wonder, Uluru, is several hundred kilometers south of Kakadu, the park is not lacking for dramatic rock outcrops. Nourlangie Rock (Burrunggui in the native language) features some pristine rock art and breathtaking views of the wide expanses of the Northern Territory. You can clearly notice paintings of wallabies and hunters (pictured), as well as many of the traditional spirits who are the central characters of the indigenous people’s Dreamtime or Dreaming. These are the oral traditions that make their history of the universe and their land and the art provides a window into how the native people lived thousands of years ago.

Similar to Burrunggui, Ubirr Rock has a “gallery” of art that dates back thousands of years. Park guides regularly host scheduled talks at various art sites to explain the pictures and their significance to the native people. I was beyond pleased to see several aboriginal guides working at the park and sharing the stories of their heritage as they had learned them as children.

Ubirr Rock is a popular destination for park visitors because of its breathtaking sunsets. The good news is that the view is even better than advertised. The bad news is that you’ll be sharing the experience with several hundred of your newest photo-crazed friends. Anticipating a rush of people around sunset, I elected to climb Ubirr (it’s a fairly easy walk) in the mid-afternoon. The top was nearly devoid of people during the hottest part of the day and I looked out onto the flood plains and water buffalo grazing areas in quiet solitude. It wasn’t until around 5:30 that the hordes of tourists with their cameras and boorish behavior arrived en masse. By then, I had enjoyed several hours of peaceful reflection high atop the Outback with nothing to keep me company but welcomed breezes and the occasional white breasted sea eagle.

That said, the sunset at Ubirr was phenomenal. As the evening approached Kakadu, the sun itself seemed weary after a long day. It relinquished its position high above the plains and seemed to sink meekly towards the horizon, as if conceding that the moon had once again claimed victory in this daily battle.

For a true sense of the Northern Territory’s size and scope, Kakadu National Park is a must-see. Many travelers camp or stay in camper vans while visiting. Others stay at the crocodile-shaped Holiday Inn in the mining town of Jabiru (not to be confused with the bird). No matter where you lay your head at night in Kakadu, however, you won’t wake up far from some of the most beautiful vistas you’ve ever seen.

One could easily spend several weeks in Kakadu lingering in various sections of the park and interacting with the land. Sadly, I had only a few days. Thankfully, I stayed in some incredibly unique accommodations that helped me learn about the park from the people who grew up there. And that’s what I’ll be covering tomorrow.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.

Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Aborginial Nature Tour

Many things make Queensland different from the other Australian states, including its tropical climate, the presence of the Great Barrier Reef and the fact that its population is the fastest growing in the country. However, the aspect that intrigued me the most while I was there was its indigenous population. The size of the aboriginal population in Queensland is second only to New South Wales. However, unlike their counterparts to the south, many of the indigenous peoples in Queensland still reside in regional and rural areas rather than urban sectors. Therefore, Queensland offers some unique opportunities to meet aboriginal peoples who have opened their communities to guests in an effort to share their culture and educate others about their land and history.

One such group of aboriginal people, the Kubirri Warra brothers of Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours, offer walks in their ancestral home in Cooya Beach. I walked through the wetlands and mangroves with our guide, Link’s family has lived in the region for more generations than he can track. Many believe that Australian indigenous peoples are the oldest surviving civilization in the world, so Link has more of a family forest than just a tree. As we fished for mud crabs, sampled native remedies and trudged through shin-deep mud, I found myself lost in the natural beauty of both the landscape and the aboriginal culture.


Cooya Beach is located just north of Port Douglas in North Queensland. The still waters and dense mangroves make the region feel even more tropical than the other lush areas of Queensland, and I very quickly realized why we were offered bug spray upon our arrival. Even during the “dry season,” the air (and mud) feels thick and sticky in Cooya Beach. Somehow, though, the quicksand-like nature of the mangroves and the unique flora only added to the sense of adventure that I felt as Link guided us through the land that his people have foraged and hunted for centuries.

As we walked, Link we point out plants that his people have used for medicinal purposes, including berries that excrete a solution so similar to saline that it is used as eye drops. Perhaps the most intriguing example of living off of the land that Link demonstrated was his people’s affinity for licking the rear ends of Green ants. Why lick an ant’s behind? Because they expel a tangy secretion that tastes refreshingly like a combination of lemon and lime. My curiosity piqued, I grabbed an ant off of a nearby tree and followed Link’s simple instructions: “Lick its butt.” It did, in fact, taste remarkably similar to the aforementioned citrus fruits. I’d happily create a line of Green ant excretion salad dressings if it wasn’t for the anticipated marketing difficulties.

We walked down the coastline and through the tidal pools that showed evidence of rays having been in the sand when the tide was in earlier in the day. Within these snow angel-shaped divots often reside mud crabs. Carrying long, slender wooden spears, we followed Link while poking in small pools and holes, waiting anxiously for a crab to grab a hold and challenge us to a game of tug-of-war. A large mud crab makes an excellent addition to any barbecue, and we were all anxious to find one of our own.

Gradually, we approached the beginning of the mangroves. The mud below us began to get wetter, looser and less stable. Our feet sank in deeper and, as we struggled to extricate ourselves from our sinking terrain, each step made the sound of a fork entering a bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese. The mangroves, unlike the tidal pools, were a serpentine maze of trees, above-ground root structures and mud that seemed clingier than some of my ex-girlfriends. Within the mangroves, Link pointed out mussels that, to our untrained eyes, were seemingly undetectable. I stared down at the ground, determined to find one and prove my hunting skills in some capacity.

After 30 minutes in the mangroves, our legs were covered in mud, we had all suffered a near slip and Link had single-handedly outscored us 6-0 in the mussel collection department. I couldn’t help but marvel not only at Link’s aptitude at distinguishing flora and fauna in this ecosystem, but the pride that he exuded as he taught us about fishing and hunting in these wetlands as a child. He explained that he was never formally taught any of the techniques that he was demonstrating for us. As a child, once he was old enough to keep up with his father, uncles, cousins and older siblings, he simply followed them out into the mangroves and mimicked what they were doing. As if through osmosis, he learned how to contribute to his family.

As my mind wandered to thoughts of what it must be like to grow up in this habitat, maintaining a close relationship with the same land that your ancestors hunted thousands of years ago, I was knocked back into the moment quite literally when I tripped on a root and had to grab hold of a nearby tree to keep myself from falling face-first into the mud. Serendipitously, however, that root was sheltering a mussel. As I looked down to see what had nearly caused me to become fodder for a humorous anecdote over drinks later that night, I saw my trophy mere inches from my foot. Victoriously, I grabbed the mussel and showed it off to the rest of the group. I had found sustenance.

We made our way out of the mangroves thanks to Link’s uncanny ability to distinguish differences in seemingly identical collections of trees and roots. One could easily lose themselves in the mangroves for hours, as disorientation seems to be the norm once you get a few feet inside the densely packed mud forest. We walked back down the coastline, poking at more holes in a desperate attempt to find a mud crab before our time with Link was over. Sadly, we would not feast on mud crab that day. I told myself that Link probably didn’t catch a crab the first time he followed his elders into the wetlands. I used that as my rationalization as I struggled once again to remove my foot from the ever-sinking mud below me.

We returned to Link’s home where he showed us various types of boomerangs that were used in different hunting environments. He also had a collection of shields and native artwork that he explained in great detail. There was something about hearing the stories from Link that felt very natural. It dawned on me that aboriginal history is steeped in oral traditions and storytelling. The indigenous people’s ability to speak in great detail about their heritage is magnificent, and we seemed to hang on Link’s every word. As day turned into night and the heat and humidity gave way to a gentle sea breeze, our time with Link drew to a close.

I’ve been on countless tours around the world and few have been as enjoyable as my time in Cooya Beach. This was more of a cultural immersion than a tour, and it is something I would recommend to anyone visiting Queensland.

To extrapolate that point into a more general sense, I would recommend that you always seek out tours that allow you to experience a way of life rather than just observe it. Learn a craft. Shadow a artisan. Or simply walk where people have been walking for thousands of years. Just make sure you don’t lose a shoe in the mud.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.

Mega Native American New Year’s Pow Wow: Where will you be when the sun rises January 1, 2008?

“Where will your spirit be when the sun rises?” is the question asked by the organizers of the New Millennium First Peoples’ World’s Fair and Pow Wow. At the end of December 1999 to January 2000, tribal nations gathered in Tuscon, Arizona for the first celebration of their survival, and to honor “Mother Earth,” showcase their culture heritage and highlight their contributions to the world. The changing from one century to another was significant to the multiple day event.

This year marks the third mega celebration. Slated to happen every four years, this New Millennium First Peoples’ World’s Fair and Pow Wow called “Thunder in the Desert” (Dec. 28-Jan. 6) will be bigger than the last. More than 150 tribal nations from North America, along with indigenous people from other countries, will gather at Rillito Raceway Park for 10 days of sharing traditions and customs with each other and offer the bounty of their art, crafts, music, dance, story-telling and food to the public who is invited to attend.

I browsed through Thunder in the Desert’s happenings and they look superb. I can’t imagine how a person could go to this event and be disappointed. These are the best dancers, the best artists, the best story-tellers around. The hard thing will be picking between the options.

The Web site also has a link to lodging in Tuscon. Proceeds to this event will help pay for scholarships. If you can’t make this year’s, the next one will be Dec. 30, 2011 to Jan. 8, 2012.

Facial Tattoos in Taiwan: A Columbus Connection

I just met Nick Wolnak who is a friend of a friend of mine. He’s one of those totally cool guys who happens to be a world traveler that life has brought to Columbus, Ohio. It’s not rocket science to figure out why I might find him interesting. Nick just got back from Sierra Leone on a trip that was focused on visiting his friend who was finishing up a gig with Doctors without Borders. Nick’s official role was observer but, as he rediscovered, merely observing doesn’t exist in some parts of the world. There he was, the owner of two hip Columbus establishments, High Five Bar & Grill and Evolved–a tattoo and body piercing parlor, helping to deliver a baby during a difficult birth, and after that, spending a lot of his time feeding malnourished kids.

After he recounted his Sierra Leone experience, we wandered off into other travel talk and Taiwan came up. Nick’s been there three times. Even though I lived in Taiwan for two years and traveled extensively around the island and I knew about the indigenous groups, I didn’t know specifics about the Atayal who have a cultural heritage of facial tattooing. If I did know at one time, I’ve forgotten. Nick filled in the blanks. He is an expert about the Atayals. From what he said, that not many folks in Taiwan knew about this group either–even the tattoo artists in Taipei. Here’s why. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan, they outlawed tattoos. Eventually, those with tattoos dwindled in number and were thought to be barbaric. And since they mostly lived in the remote regions of the country like in the mountains near Hualien, after awhile most people didn’t even know these folks existed.

Nick found out these details through his research trails and travels that started with his own interest in tattoo art. Eventually, through a lot of information digging, Nick was able to locate and interview two people with these tattoos. One of them, a woman had only one tattoo in the middle of her forehead. This is the first tattoo the Atayals were given when they were four or five. She was five when the Japanese first occupied the country so that’s why she doesn’t have the tattoos that were given at a later age. Today she is considered a National Treasure.

Here’s an article about the Atayal that appeared in the Taipei Journal after Nick’s visit. And here is a web site about Taiwan’s ten indigenous groups. The photo posted by tangent on Flickr is from a photo exhibit on the indigenous people of Taiwan that was at the Scott Laurent Galleries in Winter Park, Florida last year. He also wrote this article about the exhibit. If you click here, you’ll see a larger version of the Atayal woman who is in the picture in the top row on the right.