There are places that you run from, and places that you run to. Australia has always been a place I ran to, whether as an exchange student, a graduate student or a tourist. The place has always enriched me.
When Tourism NT (Northern Territory) invited me to explore Darwin and the Top End, I immediately said yes even without looking at the itinerary. Later, I was alarmed to see crocodiles as the main attraction. The itinerary promised up-close encounters with Australia’s iconic saltwater crocodile at the Crocosaurus and the Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise.
An uncle, Alfredo Roces, who learned of my visit to Darwin, immediately connected me with his artist friend, John Altomonte. The guy e-mailed back, “Your niece looks like a kindred spirit. It’s either she’d be bored to death in Darwin or be blown away by the place.”
Within minutes from the touch down of Silk Air’s inaugural flight, John was at my hotel raring to show me his Darwin. A gorgeous lady with long black curly hair and a bright orange flowing dress met me at the lobby. Amal, an Australian of Egyptian descent, is John’s warm and charming Australian partner.
Tall, darkish, with salt and pepper hair tied into a ponytail, John fits right in with the laid-back vibe of Australia which he has called home since the mid-’80s. John’s Italian father first brought him to Sydney in 1969 to expose him to the art scene. The visual artist has done book illustration, painting and massage work in the ’90s, specializing in the mind-body connection.
For about seven years, John visited the sacred mountain of Mt. Banahaw every chance he got. When he couldn’t, he would pay homage by painting it. But at some point, he realized he had exhausted the material and depleted inspiration from his home environs in NSW. “Nothing was grabbing me,” the artist admitted.
But 2 ½ years ago, John and Amal visited some friends in Darwin and found themselves invigorated. “Darwin’s energy is so powerful,” John said. As he used to do during his treks to Mt. Banahaw, his habit of talking to the land has helped him understand the landscape. He again felt the sacred space in Darwin, especially in Kakadu National Park.
The Northern Territory is the most barren and least populated area of Australia, with its 200,000 population scattered around a state. But its Kakadu National Park has been included in the list of World Heritage sights, and is known for its stunning Aboriginal rock art and amazing wildlife. About half the land in NT is still owned by the Aboriginal people.
John’s favorite place in Darwin is the Darri-ba Nungalinya. “It is a sacred site meaning Old Man Rock. From around the area where Rapid Creek, or Gurambai, flows out to where the waters of Arafura and Timor Seas mingle, one can view in the distance a rocky island that makes itself visible during low tides. That is Darri-ba Nungalinya, in honor of the first Larrakia man, Nungalinya.”
He explained, “The Larrakia people are the traditional custodians of the land in and around Darwin in the Northern Territory. It is believed that Darri-ba Nungalinya protects the Larrakia people and their lands. It is only fitting that when one visits this sacred site and its surrounds, one does so with respect and recognition for the powerful energies that are present in abundance.”
With the warm welcome of the Larrakia people, John has taken photos and painted images from this sacred place that were developed into a book—“One Kilometre: Conversations with Darri-ba Nungalinya”—released recently.
Meeting John and Amal set the tone for my exploration of Darwin. The next day, our group took an aboriginal cultural tour with Robert Mills, a senior Larrakia man. Experiencing Darwin through the eyes of its traditional owner can shift one’s perspective. Robert gathered the women in the group to one side, explaining, “This is women’s land.” On the other side, he took the males to men’s land. As he looked out to the trees, the water and the land, he declared: “Out here, this is my life.”
A fowl quickly crossed our path. Robert pronounced its name in his language, and explained that it has only one partner for life. “You cannot eat it, otherwise its mate becomes widowed. You must leave it alone.” He then pointed to the ocean, where we see a huge jellyfish swimming. The Larrakia people can tell the seasons by animals. It was now jellyfish season. When the dragonflies abound, summer is approaching.
As we walked, several Aboriginal brothers from Western Australia and Uluru came to visit Robert. Having owned the land for thousands of years, they welcome people into their land as part of tradition. Robert did the same and asked for safe passage for us. We walked to the sea where Robert poured water on our hands and on our face, saying, “On behalf of my Larrakia people, I bless you and welcome you into my grandfather’s land.”
Unlike most groups of tourists who walk mindlessly through the land, Robert walked in silence. He is deeply connected to the land and recognizes it as sacred, where he gets everything he needs including food and medicine. He sang and danced with his clapping sticks, then bade each of us a warm goodbye.
The group continued on to Bamurru Plains, a wild bush luxury resort in the coastal floodplains of the Mary River Delta. We arrived in time for sunset. At the gate of the vast property of thousands of acres of bush land, we met our guide, Cat, and the resort manager, Al. We were giddy to ride an all-terrain safari vehicle. A plethora of birds flew over our heads to welcome us. Over 4,000 water buffaloes are bred in this farm, freely roaming the land. Some look like the carabaos we see in the rice fields in the Philippines while others have long extended horns or curly bangs. Here they breed the best variety for buffalo meat and cheese, and export some as work animals for farms in Indonesia.
At dusk, when they sky turned a magical canvas of orange and purple, we stopped by a billabong. In the wetlands, the buffaloes frolicked and played. It was one of the most magical sunsets I had seen in my 13 years as a travel writer. Wild horses gracefully trotted around us. Agile wallabies, smaller species of kangaroos, darted around the property. The birds sang one last song before they tucked into their nests.
The next day, restful sleep in safari bungalows ended early as Cat awakened us at 5 a.m. Before sunrise, we boarded an airboat to commune with nature in the wetlands. We heard birdcalls made by magpie geese, the very birds this resort was named after. They sat perched on the tree, watching us as we watched them back. Cat turned on the airboat again, promising a different scene. She delivered. All around us were the biggest pink lilies we’ve seen. We “oohed,” “ahhed” and snapped as many photos as we could. Then Cat brought us to another spot, where we saw white-bellied sea eagles nesting. We spotted more birds and even heard the machine-gun sound of the forest kingfisher.
We ended our trip at Litchfield National Park, an hour and a half’s drive from Darwin. It boasted of cascades, rock pools, rainforests and usual rock formations. We stopped by Wangi Falls, the most popular attraction in Litchfield, and ended our trip in Florence Falls, a spiritual place. The creek promised peace of mind.
Despite being in the company of over a dozen tourists from Singapore sharing the falls with me, I quietly found my spot in one of the natural pools. I sat by a smooth rock, where I could best admire the two waterfalls. It was both majestic and soothing. I could not help but utter a prayer, a deep intense prayer like that which flowed within me after witnessing the sunset at the billabong where the buffaloes roamed. It was an intense prayer of gratitude, an outpouring of thanksgiving for allowing me to experience such profound beauty. I was not asking God for anything, just being deeply grateful for this moment and all His Creation. Just like John, just like Robert and the Larrakia people, I was intently conversing with nature.
Sitting in the bus headed back to Darwin, I nudged my seatmate and pointed, “Look it’s a rainbow.” He said he has noticed how I keep seeing rainbows. True, this was the third rainbow I’ve seen in three days. But there was something magical about Darwin, and its beauty and magic are available to those who wish to see it. •
Many thanks toNT Tourism (www.australiaoutback.com), Bamurru Plains (www.bamurruplains.com) and Silk Air for making this adventure possible. Silk Air now flies from Singapore to Darwin four times weekly.
For more golden delicious moments in food and travel, follow her on [email protected], read Maida’s blog, www.themaidastouch.blogspot.com or e-mail her at [email protected] Maida Pineda is also the author of “Six Degrees of Expatriation: Uncovering Lives of Expats in Singapore” and “Do’s and Don’ts in the Philippines.” Maida has a Master of Arts in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu and the University of Adelaide.