Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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HomeVolume 27The Centre or the Top End: Tourists' dilemma

The Centre or the Top End: Tourists’ dilemma


Alice Springs and the Top End are competing for the same tourism market: Who’s in front? To cast some light on this the Alice Springs News undertook a four-day reccie last month.

Given its vast size, our foray including Kakadu was little more than putting a toe in the water, risking it being bitten off by a crocodile.

But our nearly 800km round trip from Darwin had unforgettable experiences: One was Ubirr, 36km north of Jabiru, with its rock art thousands of years old, and providing from its peak a breathtaking view of the wetland plain.

The art shows people, fishes and turtles. A big rock overhang (photo above) for millennia provided shelter and a place to sleep, cook and yarn in what is a country of plenty, as a display in in the Warradjan Centre at Cooinda suggests.

AT LEFT: “Jedda’s leap” in the Katherine Gorge where the climax of the 1955 Australian movie by Charles Chauvel was filmed. It starred Alice Springs identity Rosalie Kunoth Monks (below) who died in January.

The second breathtaking experience was a boat trip through the canyons, up to 70 metres high, of Nitmiluk, or Katherine Gorge.

It was the first tour I’ve experienced with a leader’s commentary that wasn’t a jumble of trivia. And she also drove the boat.

She told us about the sandstone geology towering above us, and its cultural significance for the Jawoyn.

Important information for swimmers: Freshwater crocks in the gorge are going to leave you alone because they are interested only in prey they can swallow whole. Salties – rare in the river – will gladly bit your leg off (or more).

You watch the little freshies motionless on the bank or a rock, their mouths open to keep cool.

It was a brilliant idea for the guide to be silent on the way back: “Let the gorge speak to you,” she said.

Nitmiluk Tours is 100% Jawoyn owned. It has 17 boats, all but two with 60 to 66 seats.

At $100 a head, $80 for concessions, for the two hour trip, it’s a money spinner in 2021/22 turning over $14m. There are several trips a day during the height of the tourist season, many are booked out.

The company has 44 permanent staff and 120 in the high season, 30% of whom are Aboriginal.

The Top End’s attractions are a long way apart.

The distance from Darwin to Jabiru is 250km.

About half way is the Bark Hut Inn which has plenty of atmosphere, a big open dining area. Bangers and Mash are made from buffalo meat and the staff is friendly. But there is little more to do than going for a walk in the camping ground, much of it bordered by gamba grass.

Swimming in the near-by Mary River is not recommended (see above) but there is a boat ramp. Given the size of the reptiles you would need something a lot bigger than a dinghy.

Inevitably, unless you’re on a tour or are travelling in a camper van or with a tent, accommodation becomes a preoccupation.

The Bark Hut Inn has clean cabins with facilities for $110 a night. Jabiru has similar cabins without facilities at twice the price.

The Crocodile Hotel at Jabiru (above), owned by the Gaagudju people, charges $650 a night and is booked out.

The fairly basic cabins ($110) we found in Katherine, with shared bathroom and dunnies, were on the banks of the Katherine River where you can go for a dip in delightful thermal ponds.

Salties in the river? Sometimes.

We gave the prize for low-cost accommodation to the Banyan Tree Caravan Park at the entrance to Litchfield Park, $110 a night for a brand-new comfortable room with facilities and a verandah facing the sunset.

Another clever feature is the evening meal (at right). The menu: Pizza or hamburger. Simple. No agonising decision making.

And the meals are on your table within minutes. Our pizza was great and no-one seemed to be complaining about their burger.

Katherine also has what Alice Springs is still waiting for: an Aboriginal  cultural centre, although it’s actually a bit more subtle than this term allows.

It has a strong focus on the region’s “unique Indigenous demographic”, but a commitment to serving the whole community with a “two-way” philosophy .

The Godinymayin Yijard River Arts and Cultural Centre is conveniently located on the South Stuart Highway.

It has two components: An art gallery with changing displays (currently an exhibition of Djilpin Arts) and a large civic performing arts meeting space hosting anything from weddings, funerals, AGMs, board meetings to theatre performances – an asset for the whole community.

The NAIDOC ball will be held there. For it the space will have tables and a dance area. Moveable seating can provide an auditorium for stage performances.

The 10-year-old building and grounds are appealing in their simplicity and highly accessible.

Their value is $10m to $12m, according to director Eric Holewacz.

A cafe, an amphitheatre and a dry season deck are in the process of being added, and the cafe and retail shop will be moved to the new building. Cost: $5m.

It is noteworthy that this adds up to $17m, $3m less than the NT Government is ready to provide for a cultural centre in Alice Springs of which there is still little sign of progress.

Litchfield National Park has a large number tourism locations. Some are accessible, some are for admiring waterfalls from look-outs.

You can swim in seven places, including Florence Falls which we were sharing with lots of people, tempting us to say: “Excuse me, this is my place in the water.”

The problem with Top End tourism travel is the distance between beauty spots and their accessibility.

In The Centre, the 133km drive from Alice Springs to Glen Helen takes the traveller right through the magnificent West MacDonnell Ranges, with some 10 attractions on the way, almost all on bitumen roads.

The 250km from Darwin to Jabiru are fairly boring – except when you realise the abundance of pandanus palms which for thousands of years have provided building and art materials as well as food.

Combine that with the nourishment from the Adelaide, Mary, Wildman, West, South and East Alligator Rivers, and birds from the wetlands, you wonder what us whitefellers have been doing, wrong cramming ourselves into cities.

The self-drive traffic in Kakadu has obstacles. The cost of a 2WD hire car is around $150 a day. If you take it off a sealed road your insurance becomes void. Insurance costs $35 a day. Extrapolated to 365 days the annual premium would be an absurd $12,775. They don’t even try to justify that. I asked.

So to get to many of the beauty spots you need a 4WD. They are around $450 a day. But you are not allowed to take them to the magnificent Jim Jim Falls because you have to drive through water.

And so it goes.

The view from the lookout above Ubirr.

To cut a long story short, the West Macs would need only two very short road seals: To access Gosses Bluff and Ellery Big Hole. With that almost all of the tourism region would be accessible by 2WDs and caravans. Palm Valley could have a feeder service from Ntaria (Hermannsburg).

A string of privately built wilderness lodges, served by electricity and water provided by the government, would make the West Macs park a major commercial asset for the region.

Two problems: The government doesn’t give a damn for The Centre, and the movers and shakers don’t move nor shake.

As the Katherine courthouse shows, the administration of justice does not need a grim face.

And the town’s museum takes a broad view of the community: Local wedding dresses (above) and Aboriginal history (below): the recognition of Gurindji rights, with Gough Whitlam pouring sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand.


Brett Bush, Barramundi Billabong, in the Katherine Godinymayin Arts Centre.

The Litchfield park’s Florence Falls from the lookout.


  1. Track into Ellery Ck Big Hole off Namatjira Dve was washed away early in 2022 while being upgraded for sealing. It is open again but not yet sealed (info from local Alice Springs resident).

  2. The West Daly region has been an area which often gets forgotten. There is a new operator called Watjan Guided Tours.
    Pretty spectacular and given it is a tag along tour, it is very cheap.


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