Outback adventure in Kakadu
YOU know you're really in the great outdoors when your guide pulls the truck over, leans into a pond and pulls out half a turtle.
Shell broken, innards hanging out, stench unmissable. But our World Expeditions guide Steve holds it by one foot, standing only metres away from water that is no doubt croc-infested, and poses for photos. We're only about an hour into our journey deep into Kakadu National Park and we're beginning to realise what sort of trip it's going to be.
Don't get me wrong, none of us were naive enough to think our Outback adventure wouldn't have its fair share of creepies, crawlies and crocs, but I don't think any of us expected such a graphic introduction into the wilderness.
We're at Fogg Dam, a catchment area of the lower Adelaide River about an hour from Darwin. It's our first stop en route to Kakadu and we're all in awe of the scenery and serenity.
Steve pulls out a map of Kakadu and talks us through the trip; where we'll drive each day, where we'll camp and what we have to look forward to. He tells us we need to drink about three litres of water a day and that although he's happy to make as many toilet stops as we need, actual toilets will be practically non-existent.
Now, anyone who knows me will tell you I don't stray far from my creature comforts - my hair straighteners to be specific. But, I was up for the challenge and looking forward to the adventure.
Fogg Dam was stunning and we saw plenty of birdlife including Australia's only stork, the jabiru but soon we were back on the road and heading to our first campsite in northern Kakadu for two nights.
With the jubilation at seeing a shower and toilet block worn off, it was time to get down to business. After a quick tutorial from Steve we all pitched our tents and rolled out our swags.
A couple of glasses of wine later (New Zealand sauvignon blanc I might add) and we were all tucking into our first taste of Steve's culinary genius. We thought the amazing platter of cheese and crackers was the definition of being spoilt while camping, but the barramundi caesar salad stole the show.
The food was one of the highlights of the trip and something Steve deserves copious amounts of credit for. He likes good food - he's big on presentation - and served us dishes that were divine, including perfectly seasoned lamb on couscous, salmon and asparagus fettuccine with a creamy sauce and even pancakes for breakfast. We were served gourmet picnics every day next to picturesque billabongs or among beautiful paperbark trees.
Perhaps the only thing that topped the food when camping was going to bed at night, under the starry Northern Territory sky. Because it never rains here, our tents consisted of just the mosquito net inner shell.
Admittedly, I was a bit nervous on the first night. When you camp in New Zealand the weather is your only worry. But lying in the outback with just a millimetre of netting between me and nature, I started wondering how many dingos, snakes and other delights were slinking around in the darkness.
Soon though, the vast view of the night sky was all I could think about. There is something really peaceful about sleeping directly under the stars and I highly recommend it for anyone needing to relax.
Day two consisted of a trip to Nourlangie to check out the Aboriginal rock art. We walked just under 2km under the searing sun to get to the gallery. It was my first time seeing Aboriginal rock art up close and I wasn't expecting to be so blown away.
It was surreal to think the simple images had been there for up to 20,000 years. We spent more than an hour at the site listening to Steve talk about each of the drawings and what they meant. He is passionate about Aboriginal culture and certainly knows his stuff - trust me, guiding a trip of five female journalists, there were a lot of questions and he answered each one without faltering.
We walked up another part of Nourlangie in the afternoon - up a bare, steep rock face to a spot where we could see nothing but the vast expanse of Kakadu. Steve reckoned the part we could see was only about 20 per cent of the entire park. He pointed out significant Aboriginal sites on the cliffs in the distance as he walked us up to another rock art gallery.
That night we embarked on the Yellow Waters Cruise, a two-hour jaunt along the river where we were treated to more Outback wildlife. Wild brumbies grazed in a field beside the river, sea eagles sat atop stark trees and we encountered countless ducks, egrets and even a pelican. But it was the crocs that caused the most excitement.
There seemed to be a croc at every turn, basking on the bank or cruising slyly along in the water beside the boat. To see a giant croc, its jaw open to show off an array of teeth or swimming silently along beside the boat leaves you feeling a mixture of nervousness, anticipation and awe. Then, unfortunately the sky clouded over just before we got to see what would have been a picture-perfect sunset.
After another night under the stars, and a shower with a cute frog that delighted in jumping around at my feet, we headed south to our next campsite. But first, a trip to Barramundi Falls. We were all ready for a walk - and gagging for a swim at this stage - so no one minded the steep rock climb to the falls. The deep rock pools (croc-free) were pristine and unlike anything I have ever swum in before. The water was beautiful and the views on the way up to the pools phenomenal.
On the walk back we stopped for "refreshments". Steve pulled a few green ant-covered leaves off a nearby tree and rubbed them together in his hands. Once the ants were crushed, he invited us to have a taste.
Initially, I was apprehensive about eating bugs. But being the only Kiwi on the trip, I had to man up. The ants had a strong lemon-lime taste to them - quite refreshing really, though I'm sure they would taste better on ice with vodka and soda.
From here we headed further south to our next camp at Koolpin. It's a permit-only area; only 40 people a day are granted access to the amazing area beyond the padlocked gates. We crossed streams and bumped and bounced our way over 10km of unsealed road, stopping only to collect wood for the campfire and take pictures of a small herd of wild buffalo.
The campsite was more beautiful than the first. Some of us walked the last few kilometres to camp with the setting sun casting magnificent colours across the sky. Tents were hastily put up and we settled in by the campfire with a glass of wine and a glorious dinner to hear about the next day's activities - a full-day hike into the Koolpin gorge.
As I retired to my swag I was torn between two thoughts: what the hell have I gotten myself into; and, I can't wait. The latter finally won as I drifted off to sleep in the bliss of the Outback.