One annoying side-effect of getting back to the hostel at 2:30am was the fact that I wasn’t going to get much sleep. I had to be ready to get on a bus at 7am that morning for the trip I’d booked. Jeanine (apologies for spelling), a German girl in our group from the night before and also in my dorm, was going on the same tour but had elected to leave the pub an hour before the rest of us. Smart thinking.
We were both exhausted when we were picked up by our guide, who apparently used to work at the hostel the last time Jeanine stayed here, so they got on like a house on fire. After a quick stopoff to pay off the balance of the tour and to collect the entire group, we drove out to the Park.
It’s only an hour or so outside of Darwin to the park outskirts and it’s a fair size once you’re inside. We stopped once for drinks/loos and the next place we pulled over was the Jumping Croc tour. Here, we got to handle a swamp python called Medusa. Lovely thing and she really took a shine to me. Every time they handed her on to someone else, she started working her way back over to me! Must be my deoderant.
The croc trip lasted maybe 45 minutes. With us all packed onto a fairly small boat, we rumbled up and down the river waiting for crocs to spot us. When they got near the boat, one of the staff dangled some meat on a stick over the water, dipping it in occasionally to create vibrations. The crocs would then swim underneat then launch themselves upwards – often their entire body bar tail – out of the water in a bid to get the meaty snacks.
This actually wears the croc out, and the amount of food it gets as a “reward” once it’s done this just about makes up for the energy it expends. It’s also something they do naturally – crocs will “leap” out of the water to catch birds and animals on low overhanging tree branches. For this reason, the rules clearly state that all limbs should be kept within the boat otherwise they would be labelled “lunch”.
After the trip on the river, we got back into out bus/tank/thing and drove deeper into the park. Next stop was an area with many termite mounds. There are three distinct types – two build by termites which eat plant material and one by termites that eat wood – the ones you don’t want next to your house!
The first mound we saw was roughly 6m tall, which means there is also about 2.5m of mound below ground. At a rough guess, this makes it almost 100 years old, which means that the original queen must have produced a queen egg, allowing her to be replaced. Queens have a lifespan of around 50 years and when they die – unless they “replace” themselves, the mound decays as there is no way of producing more workers, soldiers, etc once they themselves die. The mound itself is very tough despite being made of nothing but dirt, dead vegetation and termite saliva. The wrinkles in its structure are designed to regulate the air temperature. Regardless of what time of day it is, the interior of the mound is always the same termperature and of the same humidity. As an estimation of scale, were humans to build something similar, it would cover a base area of 8 city blocks, reach a height of 3km, and all the workers would be blind and following instructions that one person keeps in their head.
The second termite mound was much smaller and attached to the base of a tree. These were the wood-eating termites, and their job is to either detroy your home or make didgeridoos. This native Australian instrument isn’t carved by man, but eaten out by insects – or at least it is if you want a genuine one. The trick is to find a tree with an attached family of termites. Bang the trunk with a rock and see if you can hear termited and eaten wood crumling and falling down inside. If you can, you chop the tree down and you have a long piece of wood with a hollow interior – this interior will remain untouched by tools of any kind. Only the exterior is carved, polished and painted.
As an aside, the word “didgeridoo” was coined by a German who heard them in the distance when he visited Australia – it’s onomatopaeic, describing the sound it makes. The instrument itself has over 100 names, depending on which Aboriginal nation you’re visiting at the time. Each have their own language and therefore their own word.
Termites of type three build what are known as “magnetic” mounds. Again, these are not wood-eaters, instead munching on other vegetation and soil. Their mounds are much smaller than the first ones, but still stand maybe 1m to 1.5m tall. Rather than being rounded, they’re shaped like a “blade” which always points magnetic north/south. It’s unnerving to look at a field containing maybe 100 of these, all pointing the same way. In experiments, the top half of one of these structures has been chainsawed off and replaced pointing east/west. The termites destroy the “wrong” part, and rebuild it pointing north/south.
Termite mounds, as I said, are extremely durable. During WWII, they were gathered, crushed, mixed with water to make a paste and laid down for use a runways. When they dried, they made an extremely durable surface, several examples of which still exist in the area today despite having hundreds of aeroplanes taxi up and down them.
Enough of insects, and we jumped (well, oozed – it was very hot) back into the tank to go to our first swim of the day. The park has many waterfalls and pools with very clear water. This first one was spectacular with two waterfalls and a lovely deep pool to play in. It can also be home to freshwater crocs… These are not dangerous unless threatened, so they are left alone in the area if found. It’s the saltwater ones you have to be scared of! So, technically – or at least potentially – I have been swimming with crocodiles. Possibly.
Lunch was served after the swim and then we moved on to two more waterfalls for more splashy fun.
The day ended at around 7pm when we were dropped off at the hostel in time to freshen up before going out for our free dinner – as part of the package, they pay for the Vic’s dinner. OK, it’s only a dollar but it means that aside from ice lollies, I didn’t pay for food all day.
We came back soon after dinner – being tired was the main factor – and I sat up till after midnight talking to a Danish girl who had arrived that morning and who was trying to stay up late to beat jetlag.