Justine Tyerman sees 'crocs' everywhere as she cruises up the Katherine River in Australia's Northern Territory - and later tries to evacuate The Ghan
I came face-to-face with a 'rockodile' on day one of my train journey from Darwin through the Red Centre of Australia to Adelaide on the famous transcontinental Ghan Expedition.
Having left Darwin mid-morning, The Ghan pulled into the Northern Territory town of Katherine early in the afternoon to be met by a fleet of coaches waiting to take us on a variety of excursions. After much consultation with Aaron, my hospitality attendant, I chose a cruise through two of the 13 gorges on the Katherine River in the magnificent 292,000-hectare Nitmiluk National Park. The cruise also involved a hike, a token attempt at justifying the consumption of alarming quantities of delicious food and beverages served to passengers on the four-day, three-night Ghan Expedition.
We boarded barges and cruised slowly up the first of the spectacular steep-sided sandstone gorges, carved by the Katherine River over millions of years. The commentary of our skipper-guide Sam added wonderful layers of meaning and history to the experience.
"Nitmiluk means 'cicada country' to the indigenous Jawoyn people," she said.
"Listen and you'll hear the buzzing sound. It's especially loud in the evenings."
The white sandy beaches alongside the river looked like idyllic spots for picnics and swims until Sam drew our attention to the signs: 'Crocodile nesting area – do not enter.'
They're mainly freshwater crocs here not the monster 'salties' I'd seen in Darwin but you still wouldn't want to get in their way. Thereafter I imagined I saw many crocs submerged in the river, some right alongside the barge near my dangling hand, but they were "probably rockodiles" according to Sam. It was the word "probably" that had me worried.
The kayakers we passed on the river must have been incredibly brave or foolhardy – I couldn't decide which.
Turning my attention upwards while keeping my arms and hands well clear of the water, I was awed by the staggering height of the sheer cliffs on either side of our barge, reaching 60 to 100m depending on the depth of the river. The Katherine rises up to 9-10 metres during times of flood and the extreme sideways lean of the trees are an indication of the strength of the current.
But today the river was so low we had to hike over rocky terrain between the two gorges, boarding another barge on the other side.
Sam pointed out aboriginal paintings etched in the rock walls high above us, still intact after thousands of years. Some indigenous art in the region dates back 40,000 years, the oldest known art form on the planet.
As we neared a deep pool in the upper reaches of the second gorge, Sam told us a Dreamtime story of the indigenous Jawoyn people.
"According to legend, Bolung, the rainbow serpent, carved the gorge in his own image then laid to rest in the 40m deep pool right below us.
"There's a whirlpool there and Jawoyn people won't swim, fish or drink water from the pool for fear of a flood or other calamity.
"The serpent is one of few common threads in aboriginal culture. Indigenous people in the Flinders Ranges area have a similar story."
Sam explained the kinship system of the aboriginal people whereby a skin name is handed down by your mother meaning those of the same name cannot marry. The penalties for breaking the rules are severe – a spear to the back of the legs.
She pointed to huge gashes in the rocks on both sides of the river indicating fault lines, and trees like the paperbark used as cooking foil, and the larruk with anti-inflammatory and insect-repellent properties.
Our barge passed beneath a towering cliff known as Jedda Rock after the 1955 Australian-made movie of the same name, the first feature film to star aboriginal actors.
The rocks in the Katherine Gorge are around 1.6 billion years old, Sam said.
Near the end of the cruise, I spotted a large cage on the water's edge.
"It's a croc trap," she said, explaining that troublesome creatures are relocated.
I thought of the kayakers and shuddered.
Jay, a cheery lad with a huge smile shouted 'boh-boh' to us as he tethered the barge to the jetty and we disembarked.
"The Jawoyn don't say 'goodbye', they say 'boh-boh' – 'see ya later'," said Sam.
We called out "boh-boh" in reply.
A huge plume of smoke threatened to obliterate the sun as we bused back to The Ghan. The sunset was unusually dazzling, the huge fiery red orb descending in the hazy western sky. The haze factor should have been a clue, but I blithely entered the shower and luxuriated for a few minutes, washing Katherine's terracotta dust off my skin, hair and clothes.
It's risky to go to the bathroom on The Ghan at the best of times for fear of missing thrilling sights. As I emerged dripping from the shower and glanced out the window, I uttered a scream which would have reverberated throughout the entire train had it not been for the background noise of the twin diesel electric locomotives and their 38-carriage entourage.
Flames were leaping high into the air within metres of the train, a spectacular, heart-stopping sight against the darkening night sky. I was riveted to the window, transfixed by the broad red-orange arc of the fire front and the smoking stumps and blackened earth in its aftermath. The Ghan is known for its astonishing scenery but travelling through an Aussie bushfire was not on the itinerary. Within seconds, the spectacle was over and I was left standing in a puddle of water, wondering if I had imagined it and if not, should I be alarmed?
I glanced at the video I'd managed to capture on my phone, and it sure was real . . . and the tail of the 903m train was still passing through the fire zone.
Throwing on some clothes, grabbing my back-pack and roaring out the door just in case we needed to evacuate the train, I collided with some of my new-found Aussie mates in the hallway. They appeared to be completely unfazed by the fire and in their usual understated and slightly condescending manner, explained we had just travelled through a routine controlled burn-off of undergrowth. A few eucalyptus trees had caught fire which had added sparks and drama to the scene, but, no, there was no need to evacuate the train.
"Put your jumper on the right way, ditch the back-pack, join us for drinks and dinner and we'll tell you some real bushfire stories," they said.
Once my heart rate and clothing had returned to normal, I was entertained in inimitable Australian style with tales of the epic and often tragic bushfires they had experienced over the years.
For dinner, I just had to try the crocodile sausage entrée with a lemon aspen sauce. Having been warned by my Aussie mates that croc meat was bland, I found it surprisingly tasty. It went well with the South Australian chardonnay I had developed a taste for . . . and all the hair-raising croc stories I was told.
Sticking with exotic, I had an excellent chickpea saffron dahl served with pickled okra and basmati rice as a main course, and yummy ginger and macadamia nut pudding with caramel sauce and coconut icecream for dessert.
"More hiking tomorrow," I told myself as I polished off every last crumb. "Lots."
Back in my cabin, I found my bed beautifully prepared and a piece of chocolate fudge on my pillow, along with postcards and a pen. Aaron said the staff would post them at the next stop. As I snuggled into my super-comfy bed, I replayed images of the day in my mind. I found the grandeur of the Katherine Gorge quite overwhelming. The deeply-furrowed, weathered old faces of the rocks towering above the river gave me a powerful sense of the ancientness and dignity of the land, wise, all-knowing, all-seeing. How insignificant, puny and transient we are by comparison. I understood the spiritual relationship and veneration the aboriginal people have for the land. They regard the Earth as their mother.
At some point, the Aussie bushfire invaded my dreams and tongues of flame seemed to be licking my feet, but they were quickly dealt with once I ejected my hot water bottle.
• The Ghan Expedition is a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the 'Red Centre' of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide.
• Justine travelled courtesy of international rail specialists Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.
• Visit Rail Plus for more information on The Ghan and for other epic train adventures around the world.