The Northern Territory is an hour and a half later than W.A. So it’s easy to get up at dawn, just past 5am, and start the day. We pack up the bed, jump in the car and drive the 20kms back to the Escarpment Walk. It’s beautiful time of day as the morning sun does for the east-facing ridges what the setting sun does for the west facing: a soothing panorama of orange-red warmth.
The view from the top is splendid, down to the Victoria River, across the winding escarpments to the north and the vast emptiness of the land beyond in all directions. The highway below is also empty, with only an occasional car or truck sending a low rumble up the valley.
We stop back at the campground for breakfast. As we leave a white panel van pulls into the camp. A woman driver waves us down. “Howya goin’? Good camp?” She’s middle-aged, a mop of frizzy hair pulled straight up and tied on top of her head so the frizz cascades down around her ears and face, which she frequently brushes aside. White owl-eye sunglasses over-take her thin nose, lips and chin. Barking dogs sound from the back of the van. “Hey, shut up back there! Sorry…” She tells us about all the hot spots she's seen so far, hoping to swap some travellers’ tales. We tell her we’ve just come from the west, that there’s a great walk 20k down the road.
“Well…I got these dogs in the back, ya see. They done a bad thing back in Darwin town. Twelve stitches, ya get me? I’m just taking ‘em away for a while. Don’t want to see ‘em put down.” She tells us one or maybe two of the dogs belongs to her “well, sort of ex-boyfriend”, who won’t get out of jail till April 16th. She’s just going to explore the outback till then. Maybe she’ll sell her property just outside of Darwin – she’s tired of all the ‘Darwin Drama’. She’s heard it’s worth over a million now – and move to Queensland. Pretty nice over there.
Time to move on – cheers, good luck to you! We drive the 200kms to Katherine, the Northern Territory’s third largest town (after Darwin and Alice Springs). This outback town has a bit more flair than ones we’ve seen in northern W.A. towns. The mobs of black fellas still sit about on any available grassy nook. But there seems to be more order here and at least an attempt at cleanliness. But after a quick stop at the Visitor Centre and lunch beside the river, we’re off again. Towns and cities don’t appeal to us as much as that big empty that sits between them.
We’d thought to check out Katherine Gorge, 30kms out a paved road east of the town. But Johan’s hesitant, suspecting tourist hype and overpriced amenities. And the day’s getting on and we won’t have time to do the hike and get to our camping destination, 50kms north up the Stuart Highway. So we turn around and head toward Edith Falls in Nitmiluk National Park. The campground is situated on a beautiful pool, lined with the ubiquitous red rock canyon and fed by a five metre high water fall. It’s rustic but well groomed and suits us just fine.
We head up a trail to the “Upper Pool”, a hot sweaty climb to a cool tranquil pool with yet another water fall feeding it. A couple back at the campground recommended it for a swim. Despite the croc warning signs at the lower pool, the road sign at the entry to the park said the Upper Pool was open for swimming. This and the testimony from the day-users gives us enough courage to strip down and sink in. Ahhh! The pure pleasure of an outback swim! The pools of water where the sun is shining through seem safe, but many deeper ones lay in the shadows. Johan is fearless and swims out into the depths while I cling to the edges, keeping a meagre look-out for any craggy eyes lifting from the surface.
As we hike out of the canyon we pass a group of young people, six boys and a girl. They’re friendly and confident, towels slung over their shoulders. We stop at the look-out and watch them down below, climbing the rock faces and jumping or diving into the deep pool just to the side of the waterfall. “If I’d seen that before we went for our swim, I wouldn’t have been so scared,” I grimace.
Back at camp we take our sundowner to the edge of the Lower Pool. The signs are clear: don’t go near the water’s edge between 7pm and 7am, crocodiles’ feeding time. Johan opens the beers and sits on the edge of the concrete swimming jetty, feet dangling over the sides, toes just kissing the water. “Why do they put a swimming platform here if there’s croc danger?” he responds glibly to my nervous flutters. “It's safe during the dry season, but not yet,” I counter, believing the signs. He grudgingly agrees to pull his legs up. “It must be so frustrating to travel with someone like me,” he smirks.
When I take my mind off these jittery fears, suddenly an amazing sight brightens up in front of me as though projected on a brilliant wide screen: the setting sun on the canyon walls, shining crimson gold, like heaven.