Sunday, March 30, 2014

Day 15 - Litchfield National Park

We have truly arrived in the tropical north. The weather’s been humid since arriving in Port Hedland and Broome, but the Top End increases that factor by 10 – or at least so it feels. It’s common to write the weather up here: ‘actual temperature: 30 degrees; feels like: 40 degrees’. And so it does.

We stop for the night at a commercial caravan park at Mary River. The grounds are lush and green and the cabins and décor remind us of Bali. So does the dripping air – and the mosquitoes. As soon as sundown hits, so do the mozzies, to a factor 10x what we’ve had so far. Or so it feels.

We make our way via torch to the pool. The temperature and humidity don’t feel much different inside the pool than out, but at least the mozzies can’t swim – though our heads are covered in them any time we surface. We race back to the van and douse ourselves with Deet. The small spray can we bought at the beginning of the trip, meant to last for two weeks, is finished already. But we have a store of mosquito coils, which we burn throughout the night. The mozzie hazard is too high to leave the hatch open so we turn the fan on ourselves and hope for the best. It feels very claustrophobic after two weeks of sleeping in the fresh open air.

In the morning we make our way to Litchfield National Park, favoured playground of Darwin locals and our last bush adventure before heading in to Darwin. Like much of the Kimberley and Kakadu, the roadside view is nothing spectacular, but the pull-outs take you to some marvelous sites. We drive in to Wongi Falls, reminiscent of Edith Falls with a rock canyon circling a clear pool. The falls is three times as high as Edith however and creates quite a current in the pool. Because of this and the risk of crocodiles, signs are very clear: no swimming. But standing on the viewing platform, the distant spray from the falls and the strong breeze they create feels cooling and refreshing.

We hike up through the tropical rainforest, a tangle of trees, vines and greenery that condenses the moisture in the air even further. I spot a strange looking sight, not far off the track and we investigate. What at first looks like a giant slug, turns out to be a giant snake, possibly a python or a boa constrictor, coiled around itself with some strange black plastic-looking thing protruding from its centre. Johan wants to agitate it to satisfy our curiosity but I’m still feeling jittery and tell him to leave it alone.

The trail is closed across the top of the falls so we turn around and descend the way we came up. I stop and peer over at the snake as we pass. He’s partially uncoiled and his head is slithering around the circumference his giant body makes. I step closer, trying to make out what the strange black thing is still sitting in its centre but larger than it appeared earlier. Is it a trap? Some horrible wound extruding from its body?

The snake senses me and turns its head, its slippery little tongue jutting out at me. We sit frozen in a mutual stare until the heebies get the better of me and I step back on to the trail. That seems to satisfy the snake as it goes back about its business. I watch, curious, fascinated. The snake pokes its head around the black thing protruding out of its centre. Slowly it wraps its body around it, molding and compressing it into some sort of tube. He’s not in any hurry. Four seconds of action is interrupted by two minutes of absolute stillness. Whether he’s sensing the possible danger of my presence or he’s just taking his time, it’s not clear. But it requires patience and persistence on my part, fed by my curiosity.

Then I get it: he’s killed a fruit bat, the size of a large seagull and preparing to eat it. I watch transfixed as he opens his mouth, unhinges his jaw and begins to ingest this gigantic morsel of food. It’s grotesque and utterly fascinating. Slowly, slowly the bat disappears inside the snake, its form clearly visible inside the snake’s relatively smaller body. The whole process takes ten maybe fifteen minutes, interrupted by repeated periods of absolute stillness. As the last wing-tip goes in, the snakes head morphs back into its normal size and he starts looking around, tongue slithering. I’m quite sure he’s too full to come racing after me for a delicious desert, but I can see he’s got his eye on me again. I stand partially hidden by a small tree trunk, only three metres away from where he’s just consumed his dinner. Time to leave him be.

The public area around the falls is empty. Johan’s either gone hiking up the other trail or back to our camp. The sun is low and the solitude is inviting. I sit on the bench watching the hypnotic tumble of the falls, hoping for and fearing another wildlife experience. Maybe a croc sighting? As long as it’s not one jumping out of the water at me. 

A large raptor, maybe a kite or a kestrel, flies low overhead and alights on a branch not far from me. We watch each other for a while.

Back at camp, nursing a twilight beer, the fruit bats, hundreds of them, start their nightly silent soar across a sapphire blue night sky.

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