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MY FIRST OVERNIGHT HIKE with a pack was in New Zealand. I didn't enjoy it all that much. My pack was uncomfortably heavy and my sodden boots squelched with every step. I've come a long way since then and most holidays will see me lacing up my boots, hoisting a pack onto my back and heading out into the wilderness.

So much so that I've become addicted to hiking holidays, their simplicity and freedom. Top of my 'to do' list is putting one foot in front of the other to reach that night's campsite. The day's pace is determined by my own physical effort as I negotiate the landscape. Along the way I have the luxury of time and absence of distractions to totally engage with the environment around me.

The region that keeps drawing me back is Northern Australia. Last year I was fortunate enough to hike twice in the Top End during the dry season. The first was an eleven-day hike in Kakadu National Park visiting Aboriginal rock art sites, followed by five days walking along the Katherine River and Nitmiluk Gorge.

The spectacular escarpments and stone country of Kakadu and the high red sandstone cliffs of Nitmiluk Gorge are inspiring surrounds. The colours and textures, even the heat and dryness, all makes this country feel so ancient.

It felt a privilege to be walking there, particularly with the opportunity to see so many rock art sites. I do not have the knowledge and stories behind the paintings, but their impact was still powerful and intriguing. They gave me a glimpse into the cultural beliefs and traditions of Aboriginal people in this region and I appreciated them as forms of artistic expression. There are many different styles and periods, some painted over an earlier piece, showing the progress of time. Animals feature strongly. A kangaroo with distinct and extravagant long eyelashes, or another showing a wonderful sense of movement and unusual perspective as it bounds away; just two examples that show an artist's personality. The sites themselves are also impressive, often with large rock overhangs. They are lovely cool spots to stop and rest.

The repetitive and meditative act of walking is a wonderful way to slough off city skin and anxieties. That, and the sweat built up by the northern Australian heat. The rivers, creeks and waterholes, away from any saltwater crocodiles, are one of the delights of northern Australian hiking. To jump into their cool waters after a hot day's walking is bliss. When I dived beneath the surface and opened my eyes to this watery world, I got to experience another layer and sense of connection to the country.

Walking through this region in the dry season, you feel the crunch of the crisp earth underfoot. We passed through flat, open woodland, sections of thick scrub and some areas that have been burnt out. One afternoon, after a long stretch through burnt country, we spotted a mob of emus. For 10 minutes we watched these long legged, soft feathered birds. They didn't ever come too close, approaching a little then retreating, but near enough to see the feathers on their bottoms bouncing up and down like a ballerina's tutu.

On a hike, I revel in the fact that I can be grubby. I like the feeling of dust and dirt on my skin. When I returned home after my first trip to the Kimberley, I was so enamoured with it that I didn't want to wash the dust out of my clothes. Even after finally putting them through the washing machine, I kept the ring of red dirt around the trough's plughole for a couple more days as my final link to that country and experience.

There is a wonderful rhythm to hiking days. Each begins with the glorious dawn bird chorus and ends with a softening light and deepening sky until the appearance of the stars. For some months in the NT you can sleep under a mosquito net, giving you an uninterrupted view of the night sky. Most nights I fought sleepy eyes from closing just to make this extraordinary experience last as long as possible. Waking up in the night and turning over in my sleeping bag, I could track the moon's path across the huge black arc of the sky.

On our last night in Nitmiluk Gorge I was lucky enough to witness a total lunar eclipse. To get the best view, I rolled my sleeping mat out onto a flat rocky ledge above the sandy riverbank. On rocks still warm from the day's heat, surrounded by the high cliffs of the 8th gorge and the dark still waters of the Katherine River, I couldn't quite believe I was somewhere so magnificent.

There is no other place I would rather be.
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Author:Runnall, Jen
Publication:Habitat Australia
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2019

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