Australia accommodates everyone’s idea of a perfect holiday, from four-year-olds to grannies, reports travel writer Pippa Jacks.
Three milestone birthdays seemed a good enough reason for three generations of one British family to make a long-awaited antipodean journey together.
With his mother Annette turning 60 just a week before his own 40th birthday, and his partner Livia about to hit 30, musician and publisher Jarvis Smith planned a multi-generational, three-week tour of the Northern Territory and Queensland. Also joining the party was four-year-old daughter Sophia, her maternal grandmother Gill, and Livia’s sister Millie.
Admitting that the trip was ambitious and mindful of its environmental impact, Jarvis explains: “Because of the long-haul flights, we were keen to see as much as possible. Above all it was the Aboriginal significance of the Northern Territory and the ecological importance of the Great Barrier Reef that excited us. There could be no more memorable way to mark our birthdays than by sharing these experiences.”
The Top End
The first leg of Jarvis’s family odyssey was a flight from London via Singapore to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory. This is only half the size of neighbouring Western Australia, yet is still so vast that Spain, Italy and France would all fit comfortably inside it.
Two very different regions, the tropical Top End and the arid Red Centre, encompass some of Australia’s greatest biodiversity, much of which is well looked after within the territory’s 24 national parks and 73 nature reserves.
Historic Darwin was the perfect starting point to explore the Top End, including the forests and wetlands of Kakadu and Arnhem Land, and the gorges and rivers of the Katherine region. With a population of just 120,000 and a laid-back, multicultural atmosphere, the Smith party found Darwin the ideal place to unwind after a long flight.
The city’s natural harbour is even larger than Sydney’s, edged with marinas and bays where the family enjoyed freshly caught barramundi and soft-shell mud crab at Jarvis’s 40th and Annette’s 60th joint birthday lunch. “I tried the succulent Moreton bay bugs, which tasted rather like lobster. It was the best seafood I’ve ever had,” enthuses Livia.
Darwin’s beaches are off-limits for swimming due to saltwater crocodiles and jellyfish, but regeneration of a former industrial site has created a man-made lagoon and wave pool where the family could swim. A big hit with Sophia was Aquascene in Doctors Gully, where for a few dollars visitors can hand-feed hundreds of milkfish, catfish and bream at high tide.
The Smiths were fortunate to be in town for the annual August Darwin Festival, 18 days of art, music and comedy. Another highlight was Mindil beach sunset market (every Thursday and Sunday between April and October), where they joined hundreds lured to the beach by entertainers and delicious food stalls.
From Darwin, the family set off to find the wilder side of the Top End, driving 250km east to tropical Kakadu national park in a six-berth Maui campervan.
With five adults and a small child in one van, Annette admits they had to be super tidy and considerate during their four nights on the road: “We grandmothers had to top and tail to make more space in our bed, but it was great fun.”
Jarvis advises hiring from Maui or sister company Britz, both of which take their environmental responsibilities seriously. They encourage customers to volunteer on an environmental project during their holiday, and Maui claims to have the most fuel-efficient fleet on the road. Customers are asked to stay only five nights in any one place; to leave areas as clean, or cleaner, than they found them; and to dispose of all rubbish and drainage liquids appropriately. Jarvis chose eco-certified campgrounds listed on the Northern Territory tourist board website where possible: “Many used solar power and had very advanced recycling facilities to minimise their impact.”
The family was frequently joined at dinner by the wallabies and wallaroos that bound around the national park. They went bushwalking and on a billabong cruise to try to spot some of the other 66 mammals, 120 reptiles and 290 birds that make Kakadu their home.
The Northern Territory is ‘Crocodile Dundee country’: it has around 150,000 saltwater crocs and 100,000 freshwater ones, making a ratio of almost one crocodile to every human. It was on a cruise on Yellow Water billabong in Kakadu that Sophia saw the freshwater version of her favourite animal up close: “A really, really big crocodile, he had very rough skin and I watched him eat his lunch.”
At sites such as Nanguluwur and Nourlangie they marvelled at Aboriginal rock paintings depicting creation stories dating back as far as 20,000 years; at Bowali cultural centre and Warradjan Aboriginal cultural centre they learnt more about the indigenous people who have lived in Kakadu for 50,000 years.
A short drive south from Kakadu to Nitmiluk national park brought the group to the spectacular Katherine gorge, formed from not one but 13 gorges, carved into the sandstone by the Katherine river over a billion years.
The family joined a breakfast cruise to explore the rockpools, waterfalls and sandy beaches hidden in the gorge’s shadow, with a guide pointing out the canyon’s flora and fauna along the way. “The wildlife was incredible. I saw five different species of kingfisher in one morning,” says Jarvis. “Before the tour, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish one from another.”
The Red Centre
The next stage of the adventure took them on a flight south to Alice Springs in the Red Centre, the hub of Australia’s gold and gem mining in the 1900s. These days Alice Springs is better known as a base from which to explore the vast desert of the Red Centre, from 4×4 tours and camping under the stars to tackling the Larapinta Trail – a challenging 223km trek running along the spine of the West MacDonnell mountain range.
Jarvis and clan picked up another campervan and drove 310km west from Alice Springs to Watarrka national park and Kings Canyon, a colossal chasm in the George Gill mountains. Sheer cliff faces of rust-red sandstone tower 100 metres above the canyon floor, giving vital shade to plants and animals, and hiding water pools and a sheltered valley known as the Garden of Eden.
To appreciate the canyon’s scale, most visitors do one of two hikes: a 2.6km gentle walk along the gorge’s floor, or a more demanding 6km climb up to the rim of the canyon. Even Sophia tackled the longer walk, which, says Gill, “is well worth it for the unforgettable views.”
Visitors to the canyon generally stay, like the Smiths, at Kings Canyon Resort, which has camping and a budget lodge as well as a hotel. Some of the hotel rooms have spa baths with floor-to-ceiling glass looking out into the canyon. “From my bath I could watch scores of green parrots in the tree directly outside my window,” recalls Gill.
A trip to the nearby Lilla community, to visit sacred sites and hear about bush foods and medicine, is a new way to learn about Watarrka’s heritage. Almost a quarter of the Territory’s population are Aboriginal people and, since ancestral land was returned to its indigenous owners in 1976, around half of the Territory is Aboriginal-owned. To help visitors find authentic Aboriginal experiences, the tourist board has created hubs in both the Red Centre and Top End to promote and support small indigenous operators.
One of the most significant Aboriginal sites is Uluru (Ayers Rock), a sandstone mass 348 metres high, with a circumference of 9km. It’s a controversial site and Jarvis was surprised that some visitors ignore the local Anangu people’s request not to climb this sacred landmark and the government is reluctant to enforce a ban. At Uluru, as at other sites of Aboriginal significance, visitors are asked not to go into restricted areas, not to pick fruit or flowers, and to ask indigenous people before taking photos of them.
On a morning walk around the rock’s base, the Smiths heard stories, and saw paintings depicting how the rock was created and sacred points where Aboriginal women still sit to encourage fertility. The most striking time to see Uluru and the 32 dome-shaped rocks of nearby Kata Tjuta is at sunrise or sunset, when dust in the air filters out the blue of the sun’s rays, turning the sky a spectrum of colours. Watching the magical sunset together, from their campground at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, was a moment the family say they will never forget.
Hamilton Island, Queensland
After one final Uluru sunrise, Jarvis and his tribe left the Northern Territory for the conclusion of their odyssey by flying to Hamilton Island off Queensland’s coast.
The island, at the centre of the Whitsunday archipelago, marks the southern gateway to the 2,600km string of coral known as the Great Barrier Reef. At 5km by 3.5km, Hamilton is one of the largest of the 74 Whitsundays, and has a huge choice of hotels and facilities – and an activity that appealed to each member of the party. Jarvis made the most of Hamilton’s 740 hectares (1,829 acres) by following walking trails around its protected bushland, while animal-mad Sophia enjoyed the koalas in the wildlife park.
An Aboriginal-inspired massage at Spa Wumurdaylin was booked for Annette as a birthday surprise, and Gill looked after Sophia while Jarvis and the sisters explored the coast by sea-kayak, spotting dolphins, turtles and huge shoals of tropical reef fish.
Hamilton Island is within the largest marine protected area in the world and huge efforts are made to run it as sustainably as possible. Electric buggies are provided for guests on the car-free island (the few remaining petrol-powered buggies are being phased out), and a glass-recycling plant has been constructed which crushes glass to be used in garden beds instead of shipping it to the mainland.
On the group’s final day in Australia, they took a catamaran out to Fantasea Reefworld, a floating pontoon on the reef. Jarvis, Livia, Millie and Annette donned ‘stinger suits’ to protect them from jellyfish as they snorkelled, and they came face-to-face with one of the reef’s most inquisitive residents: a three-metre long Queensland grouper called George. While lunching on the pontoon they also spotted humpback whales making the annual migration north, a particularly memorable moment for Livia: “They were so close to the pontoon they gave me a fright when they suddenly shot water out of their blowholes.” The pontoon has equipment for scuba diving and an underwater viewing chamber so even non-swimmers can see the bright corals teeming with fish up close.
Fantasea Reefworld is one of three operators in the Whitsundays that has Eco-tourism Australia accreditation; its marine biologists try to educate visitors about reef ecology and the threats the reef faces. The Smith family learnt to identify some of the reef’s 1,600 species of fish, 133 sharks and rays, and 30 kinds of whale and dolphin. They also heard about the work carried out by the Fantasea Foundation, which funds monitoring of the effects of coral bleaching and climate change on the reef.
“We didn’t just have a fun day out; we learnt why it’s so important to protect the reef,” says Jarvis. “The biologists’ passion for the reef was contagious.”
All the family were beguiled by Hamilton Island’s natural charm and, says Jarvis, this is being carefully preserved, “because the height of all new buildings is restricted and 70% of the island will be retained as bush and rainforest”.
Back in Surrey, there was consensus amongst the family that Australia had been the perfect destination for their adventure to celebrate a collective 130 years of birthdays. “Apart from some of the more challenging treks, there was very little that Sophia couldn’t manage,” says Livia.
While each has a personal highlight of the trip, they agree that it was sharing it with their closest family that made it so extraordinary. “Eight days in a campervan is a lot,” says Jarvis, “but the shared experiences en route made every minute worthwhile.”
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