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Water near Biddlecombe Falls

It’s 6am and I’m perched next to a waterfall on towering, creamy yellow rocks, high above a verdant river valley, watching the sun creep over cliffs opposite and spread across the terrain.  I wash the stickiness of the warm night off in a crystal clear pool, lingering in the cool lazy waters for a minute before preparing for the day’s walk.

It’s day 4 of a trek along the Jatbula Trail, a 58km hiking route linking Katherine Gorge with Edith falls in the Northern Territory. It winds through diverse habitats, from sparsely vegetated cliff tops and rocky escarpments to lush, marshy valleys filled with pandanus palms, ending each afternoon in campsites next to picturesque rivers, waterholes and waterfalls.

Spending four nights on the trail is the best way to enjoy it, allowing time for a leisurely pace during the mornings then relaxing afternoons at the four main camping areas, Biddlecombe Cascades, Crystal Falls, 17 Mile Falls, and Sandy Camp. The walking is not challenging, but the heat can be punishing for hikers unaccustomed to it, and keeping hydrated is a constant priority.

Crystal Falls

Five tips for getting the most out of the trail

1. Book early! Because the trail is only walkable in the dry season, spots fill up fast. If you miss out and happen to be in the area anyway, it’s worth checking on the morning of the day you’d like to depart. At the moment there is no incentive for hikers to turn up so they get a lot of no-shows.

2. At each campsite, explore the surrounding areas. You might find some rock art, secluded pools or spectacular waterfalls just a few hundred metres away.

3. Use a good insect repellent. Trying to sleep in a warm tent with excruciating insect bites is not fun.

4. When setting up camp, check the ground for excess leaf litter, and move away from those areas. Large bats inhabit trees around some of the campsites and are very active during the night, dropping branches, nuts and fruit, excreting, and flapping about noisily, rendering sleep almost impossible.

5. When we passed through, Sandy Camp had no toilet, so the constant traffic has left the more secluded areas away from the water packed with little surprises for the unwary explorer. If you do have to go, avoid digging up a landmine by looking for spots where people have been kind enough to mark their territory with sticks.

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There are some days when I really feel like I live in paradise. Dripstone Beach is fifteen minute bike ride from my place, and it’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen. Sure, most of the time you can’t actually go in the water, but walking along the shoreline in the evening is a wonderful relaxing way to end the day.

Located about 250 km from Darwin, Umbrawarra Gorge is a surprisingly accessible camping and swimming spot.  The road turns off the Stuart Highway, shortly after Pine Creek on the way to Katherine, with about 20 km of unsealed road varying from easy when freshly graded and dry, to difficult when deeply corrugated and criss-crossed with washouts after heavy rain.

An excellent campsite with fire places and toilet facilities provides an ideal base to explore the gorge itself: a beautiful narrow water way lined with towering cliffs, deep pools shadowed from the afternoon sun, here by smooth rock faces, there by a craggy lasagne of stone.  Pick your way among the scattered boulders and it gets better the further along you go, water holes teeming with tiny fish, monitors stalking the surface, tongues flicking, or lying flat on exposed rocks soaking up the sun’s rays, sandy beaches dappled with leafy shadows.

Edith Falls middle pool
Finding beautiful swimming spots in the Northern Territory is easy, if you don’t mind sharing the water with deadly creatures.  Fortunately, while the lower pool at Edith Falls is surrounded by crocodile warning signs, the middle pool pictured above is clear.  It’s worth climbing the rocks behind the waterfall to the upper pool and taking in the scenery, perched between glass-smooth waters and a torrent of water.

“You won’t be able to do the Mereenie Loop in your car, not after the rains.  Sections of the road have been completely washed away.  There’s another track you could do though, Ernest Giles Road.  We came through there the other day in a Camry, so you’ll be fine.”

The sign at the turnoff promised 100 km of unsealed, heavily corrugated red dirt and sand, just what we were looking for.  A short cut through to the Stuart Highway on our way to Alice Springs, it was also a chance to push our car to its 4WD limits.

I began tentatively, cautiously easing the car over the deep corrugations as we bumped along, gear clattering away in the back.  While the state of the track was an impediment to speed and comfort, it was relatively clear and wide, and apparently quite safe.

I picked up speed as my confidence grew, and the bone-rattling furrows in the road flattened out.  Soon we were flying along at 80 km/h, clouds of red dust billowing behind us.  We were looking good for an early arrival at Alice Springs – we’d be able to relax, maybe find somewhere with a pool, have a few beers and get some much-needed rest after several days in the outback.

Almost imperceptibly at first, the steering wheel took on a mind of its own and the car began to drift, tyres losing their grip in a deep bank of sand covering the track.  I gunned the engine, hoping to maintain forward momentum.  There was no need for panic; the road was straight, wide and clear in both directions, and the sand drift petered out after a few hundred metres.

Suddenly a metal post, three quarters buried in the sand and almost invisible from a distance, reared up at a 70 degree angle in front of the car.  Braking sharply or swerving on the treacherous surface was impossible, and we braced for the inevitable impact, hitting with the crunching sound of metal tearing against metal.

I started to panic, jerking the car to an inelegant halt just beyond the sand drift.  Throwing the door open, we leapt from our seats to assess the damage.  Visions flew through my mind: shredded tyres, fuel tank torn open, spewing petrol onto the hot gravel, an engine hopelessly mangled by slivers of metal, axles mutilated and useless.  Imaginations running wild, we inspected the car.

Tyres looked ok.

No obvious fluids leaking from the undercarriage.

“Oh shit.”

Protruding from between the rear axle and the exhaust was the metal post, dangling about 10 centimetres above the ground.  I dropped to my knees to examine the damage, but the ground was baking hot, making a detailed assessment impossible.  Grasping the post, I made an ineffectual attempt to shake it loose, to no avail.

“What the hell are we going to do?”

200 km from the nearest petrol station and mobile phone reception, we had few options.  We could wait in the car with the air conditioning running, hoping someone passed by before our water and petrol ran out.  We could set out for the main road on foot, hoping we didn’t die of heat exhaustion before we found help.  Or we could drive the car back to the main road, hoping not to exacerbate any damage that had already been done.

We resolved to try driving back, figuring we would find out pretty quickly if anything serious was wrong.  After about 10 minutes of nervous staring at the temperature and fuel gauges, we arrived at the intersection.  The car seemed to be operating fine, but we still had the metal post hanging from its underside like an arrow emerging from armour.  We had no idea of the severity of the wound beneath, but seeing as we had made it that far, decided we might as well strike out for the petrol station at Eridunda.

By the time we reached Eridunda we had travelled more than 200 km, with no apparent problem other than a constant rattling of metal under the car.  My heart rate was beginning to return to normal; although Eridunda is little more than a road house and petrol station, at least there was a constant flow of traffic.  There was also a source of shade there, allowing us to clamber underneath the car without burning ourselves on the blistering hot ground.

There didn’t seem to be any serious damage.  The post was aluminium, a soft metal heated even softer by the sun, and had merely bent itself around the axle.  Relief washed over me.  We were going to make it to Alice Springs on time, our car was not going to need an expensive repair job, and we were safe.  With the assistance of a local, we extricated the warped, torn post, and soon were flying down the highway again, this time with a new resolve to stick to sealed roads until we reached our destination.

When a crocodile bites down it exerts around 350 kilograms per square centimetre of force – that’s around eight times what a Great White Shark can do.  I always thought it would make a snapping sound, but it actually sounds more like someone banging two wet surfboards together really hard, a THUNK noise that suggests you really should stay as far away as possible.

With that in mind, we headed down to the Adelaide River, about an hour from Darwin, to get up close and personal with a few crocs on a “Jumping Croc Tour.”  Initially I wasn’t that interested, it seems pretty cheesy to watch a guy waving meat around and coaxing crocs into jumping out of the water (not to mention unfair on the poor crocs), but a few recommendations convinced us it was worth a look.

Within five minutes on the water I’d completely changed my tune, after seeing a six metre croc about 30 centimetres from my face, flying out of the water and snapping at a sizeable chunk of meat.  These reptiles are awe-inspiring: huge, prehistoric in appearance, with a glare of intelligent hatred in their eyes, and amazingly patterned skin.  Their speed and agility in attack is fearsome, especially when contrasted with their apparent laziness.

We definitely got our money’s worth – the tour was an incredible opportunity to see these giant predators about as close and as deadly as I’ll ever see them and still live to tell the tale.

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Vietnam is a fascinating country.  From the moment I touched down in Ho Chi Minh City I was bombarded with a dizzying array of sights and sounds, riding in a taxi from the aiport through busy Sunday night traffic.  I’ve never seen so many motorcycles in one place, as young couples cruised the streets, mingling with people transporting babies, chicken coops, even fridges, on the backs of their bikes.  Crossing the street is like playing Frogger on Legendary difficulty.

As a marketer, I’ve been struck by the differences between a developing country like Vietnam, and the relatively mature, sophisticated market in Australia.  The scope for growth is so immense that competition with other players is less important, and just getting consumers to realise your product exists is half the battle.  The distribution networks rely much more on small businesses and face-to-face contact.  Mobile telecommunications dominate fixed infrastructure.  Most businesses are so labour-intensive; I reckon the simple act of installing automatic doors into every building in the country would put about 10% of the population out of a job!

I spent a whirlwind four days in the country, mostly locked in negotiations in a hotel room in Hanoi, so I didn’t get to see much of the real Vietnam.  I’m definitely hoping to return soon for a more leisurely stay.