For the aboriginals of the Top End, the sounds made by cicadas resemble nit nit – hence the name of the national park, Nitmiluk, which I visited last week. Tooling down the Stuart Highway from Darwin, my visual overdose of Aussie bush was luckily interspersed by gigantic termite mounds, ancient cycads and outback pit-stops. The coffee wasn’t great, nor was the grub, but at one of them I visited a surprisingly moving ‘bush’ cemetery. Then, about 4 hours later, I entered Jawoyn country, the park and finally the electronic gates of Cicada Lodge.
It’s pretty rare to find a high tech lodge in the Top End – i.e. the northernmost chunk of Australia’s Northern Territory, in the monsoonal tropics. This one, built to order by a Darwin architect, Michael Sitzler, stands on the edge of the stupendous Katherine Gorge – in fact a series of 13 gorges that snake through a vast sandstone plateau for about 15 km. You run out of superlatives here, as everything is on a huge scale, and extremes rule. Weather is one of them – whether cyclones, lightning strikes or Australia’s heaviest rainfall, which leaves entire communities marooned for months on end, accessible only by air. No need to fill the pool then.
Cicada Lodge intends to stay open throughout the wet season (December to April), insisting that they can pick people up by choppa if they get stuck on the road. At a cost, of course. It the first season for the lodge, so that policy may well change but I’d actually love to be there during the wet, as electrical storms in that immense landscape have to be spectacular – and frequent. A week ago, as the dry season is coming to an end the water level in the river was low, so not visible from my balcony. But the morning birds were more than visible, as well as extremely audible, from cockatoos to bower birds. Down by the river, more unusual (for me at least) was a treeful of flying foxes, looking like laundry hanging out to dry. The shallow water didn’t stop canoeing, sheer bliss early in the day with the waking world and lower temperatures. By midday they hit the mid-30s, so definitely not the time to be in a canoe or panting along a trail. Time to retreat to the lodge.
It’s a magical place, where towering sandstone cliffs take on the most incredible glowing tones and relief with the setting sun, the air is cristalline and crocodiles are (mostly) innocuous. It seems the park staff are ultra careful about removing any aggressive salties, though harmless freshies are around. The entire area is rife with local Jawoyn legends too, stories of Bolung, the rainbow serpent, of Bula, the creator of the land who came from the north, and of Nabilil, a dragon-like figure whose death at the hands of a cave-bat led to the creation of Katherine River. I love those stories, as despite their great vintage (tens of thousands of years), they are incredibly detailed. I also came to understand on this trip that they are not just about landmarks and topography, but also form the basis of a very clear moral code. Art is important (a phenomenal rock art site was discovered here a few years ago) and this young girl, Tennalle, helped out her uncle at an arts and crafts session.
Rooms at the lodge are unexpectedly luxurious for the bush, the monsoon shower is heaven, and even the wi fi works perfectly. There’s a small pool on the main deck, and best of all the food was exquisite thanks to Kenneth Clapham, a dapper chef sporting matching yellow crocs (shoes not reptiles) and watchstrap. After cooking his way round the resorts of coastal Australia, he seems now very much at home in this inland ‘remote’. I sampled rare combinations of flavours like wallaby on a pearl couscous salad with pomegranate and a divine barramundi on sweet potato confit. His desserts were consistent killers too.
All good things come to an end though, and after three days of reveling in the wild setting of Cicada I was back on the road to Darwin and onwards to Melbourne. The impact of that red ochre hasn’t quite left my retina though, nor the bounce (and flavour) of the wallabies.