It's in the suggestive lost village of Erlunda's red Outback that we join the spaced traffic on the Stuart Highway.
Named after the pioneer of the same name, this road connects Adelaide to Darwin, via Alice Springs, for an endless 2834 km. Vehicles of all types travel through it at enormous intervals, from the most ancient car relics to sophisticated road trains made up of dozens of trailers.
A few kilometers after the early departure, the “Track” – as it is also called – leads us to cross the imaginary line of the Tropic of Capicorn, marked, without much pomp, in an armillary sphere planted on the edge of the asphalt.
We continue towards the top of the Great North and come across the first historic stop on the route: Barrow Creek.
Barrow Creek to Wycliff Wells: an Outback from Stuart Hwy, at Least, Surreal
The ghost town appeared on the map like a telegraph station lost in the middle of nowhere in Australia.
It soon became famous for the permanent conflicts between settlers and Kaytetye aborigines that it was the scene of, originated by the theft of cattle and sabotage of the line by the latter and fueled by consequent bloody revenge and counter-revenge.
Only the ruins of the issuing building and the small prison remain from the original village. Nearby, the fuel pumps and the local pub have recycled their station status from the Outback, to which they attributed, today, supply functions.
Marco, the resident bartender, complains that he hasn't left the home business for a long time: “here everything is too far away. We are condemned to this renewed fate of seeing it pass…” The poetic outburst is interrupted by the request for two more paints of Millers and rescues him from the arid reality of the bush surrounding.
Meanwhile, customers, all foreigners, ignore the counter and the endless cricket test and wander along the wooden walls like second-hand intellectuals, marveling at the creative inconsistency of the works on display.
There are old notes from all over the world, newspaper clippings with unusual news, dusty trophies and other unlikely trinkets. The gallery is being retouched every time more travelers arrive. Sarah and Rebecca, English from Liverpool, post two comical postcards.
Still amused by the contribution, they return to their tiny rented Twingo and disappear over the horizon of Stuart Hwy.
Vegetation height increases as latitude decreases. Also part of the climatic and landscape dynamics, the white clouds that dot the blue sky take on particular shapes and announce the next esoteric experience of the route.
Wycliff Wells to Devils Marbles: a Red, Huge and Unusual Australia
Located four hundred kilometers north of Alice Springs, the next village, is just a tiny point lost in the vastness of the Australian map, but, relying on several testimonies, it seems to have conquered a prominent place in the Universe.
Lights in the sky, rotating discs with blue domes and their silver beings teleported to the surface, there, red from Earth, all seem to be common in Wycliffe Wells.
Lew Farkas, manager of the local service station and caravan park, for some twenty-five years, not only decorated his premises with statues and motifs from another world, he assures me “…I've had half a dozen sightings myself, only this year”.
And, so that there are no doubts, he concludes: “the previous owner warned me right away when he gave me this … with him, and with several aborigines here, it's exactly the same thing”.
Positions remain extreme. The most skeptical analysts say it's all actually due to the Northern Territory's high alcohol consumption and the need for locals to add thrills to what are considered the most monotonous lives in the country.
On the opposite side and without any complexes, the locals rejoice with the frequent visits of reputable UFOs, participate in conventions and describe experiences to the specialized international media.
As you pass by the Devils Marbles – two huge yellowish rocks, round and sacred to the aborigines who balance on a rocky platform – the sun is more scorching than usual. It provokes a desperate search for the shadow that ends up precipitating the match.
Daly Waters to Catherine Gorge: The Australian Red Going Greener
Three hours later, Daly Waters is announced. The arrival is accompanied by a smooth transition to the tropical climate of the Top End and clouds now cover the sky. Trees worthy of the name appear and rivers extrapolate the bed that force us to deviate and cross field bridges.
The village reveals itself to be another cluster of abandoned wooden houses that have nearby what is left of Australia's first international airport, built to fight the Japanese invasion, in World War II.
Daly Waters shows signs of life only in the pub of the same name, yet another aberrant and welcoming Outback den that seduces and retains ozzies and foreigners as if the Stuart Hwy's function were just to get there. The chaotic decor of any thriving junkyard and the offer of the best Australian beers are repeated.
Beside the counter lie the inevitable snooker table and a TV on which the same cricket test issued the previous afternoon at Barrow Creek is about to last.
The accumulation of kilometers and the thickening of the rainy season leaves the Red Outback behind. The long-awaited Top End inaccessible territories appear.
With no way to reach Matarranca and the curious hot springs of the same name, we went straight to Nitmiluk National Park (a place where the cicadas dream, in aboriginal dialect jawoyn). There we discover that his Katherine Gorge is also largely out of reach.
There is a panoramic view from the top of the cliff, right at the entrance to the gorge, which reveals the green expanse of the stewed bush, broken by the overflowing flow and full of crocodiles from the Katherine River.
Lichtfield and Kakadu Parks. And the Top End Tropical Appears Flooded
The scenario is repeated throughout the neighboring national parks, Lichtfield and Kakadu, irrigated by suffocating humidity and rain, sometimes scarce, sometimes flooding, always present.
Only the main roads, such as the Stuart and Arhnem Highway, escape flooding and impose frequent amphibious crossings whenever we deviate from them.
The Nadab plain is a territory privileged by nature. From it are projected ferrous plateaus that contrast with the dominant green.
They were long ago chosen by the aborigines as shelters and supports for their art.
The Intriguing Aboriginal Rock Art
Ubirr stands out for the number of inscriptions in a surprising state of preservation describing hunting scenes, ceremonies, mythology and magic.
To the ecstasy of lovers of Australian fauna and prehistory, among drawings of local fish, turtles and wallabies (small kangaroos), a painting of a thylacine, the recently extinct Tasmanian Tiger, stands out.
Due to its location, in the extension of the Arhnem plateau, the flow of the Mary river overflows from December to April.
It creates around a huge area of swamps, marshes and river ponds which, with the arrival of the Gurrung (one of the six Aboriginal seasons, from mid-August to mid-October), become the great Australian oases, the billabons.
Until then, a conflicting community of salt and fresh water crocodiles share the green and waterlogged landscape with a varied fauna that includes herds of brumbies (wild horses) and water buffaloes.
The impossibility of traveling through the flooded territories to Kakadu's famous Jim Jim Falls makes Lichtfield National Park's many waterfalls an alternative itinerary, sought after by Australians in the capital Darwin and by all travel agencies operating in the Northern Territory.
One after another, Wangi, Tolmer, Tjaetaba and Tjayanera appear invaded by groups of restless young people who, armed with glaciers full of beer, celebrate every minute away from Darwin and its punishing jobs.
1500km of Stuart Road Then, Finally, the Uncharacteristic City of Darwin
With 120.650 inhabitants, the most modern and populous city in the inhospitable Northern Territory, it is, at the same time, the smallest of the country's state capitals.
Erected, facing the Timor Sea and the Indian Ocean, as Australia's northern gateway, Darwin has a complicated past and a promising future.
It was destroyed and rebuilt on two separate occasions. In 1942, 188 Japanese fighters – the same fleet that would then attack Pearl Harbor – began a series of incursions that left the city in ruins. In the seventies, Tracy, the most devastating of the cyclones that visited it to date, destroyed 70% of the buildings erected or recovered after the end of World War II.
The new reconstruction underlined the modern features of its architecture, which welcomed a multi-ethnic society enriched by immigrants from the four corners of the world who continue to settle down to work in the mining industry and in the growing local tourism sector.
Darwin makes an effort not to disappoint those who reach the end of Stuart Hwy. Lives up with original festivals and other events. This mission proves to be thankless.
It's just that, from Alice Springs to this distant Top End, the strange Australia of the Northern Territory has always made a point of dazzling us.