From Top End to Tasmania: Two Very Different Sides of Australia

Posted October 30, 2018 10:53 a.m. EDT

On East Alligator River

“What do you want? What are you doing?” my riverboat guide, Miyakoo Garnarradj, asked a crocodile who had slid off the muddy bank and was gliding through the water behind us, like a scaly Jean Valjean. Presumably, the croc was hoping to snack on the small children onboard, or perhaps lodge a complaint about the indignities of having to make his home in northern Australia’s East Alligator River, which, according to local lore, got its name from a 19th-century British colonialist who couldn’t tell his aquatic reptiles apart.

Garnarradj, who is handsome, in his 20s, and also goes by Tyrone, grew up along this river in Australia’s Top End, the northernmost part of the country’s Northern Territory. His people, the aboriginal clan of Barrbinj, can trace their roots back to these subtropical wetlands for some 65,000 years, and live much as they did before Europeans showed up to give dumb names to places that already had names “in language,” as Garnarradj put it. When he is not taking tourists around in a motorboat for the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise, part of the only tourism company wholly owned and operated by local aboriginals in Kakadu National Park, he spends his free time hunting barramundi with spears he crafted from hibiscus wood. He also creates everything from shelters to dishes out of the flaky, waterproof bark of the paperbark tree (also known as melaleuca).

“I can use it as a plate and throw it in the fire,” he said.

The East Alligator River runs between Kakadu, with its campers set for hikes and waterfall plunges, and Arnhem Land, 75,000 square miles of outback that the Australian government set aside to be run by aboriginal custodians in 1930. Both fall under UNESCO World Heritage designation as sanctums of aboriginal culture. Kakadu is traditional land that the parks department leases for recreational and educational purposes, while Arnhem Land requires a permit to enter and feels like a separate country that you can only reach by driving through the river, water splashing up to your windows.

On an escarpment on the Arnhem Land side of the river, Garnarradj pointed out rock art. For thousands of years, his ancestors have been using mineral pigments, such as red hematite and yellow limonite, mixed with adhesives like water, blood and animal fat, to illustrate aspects of their culture on the sides and ceilings of rock shelters used during monsoons. Kakadu has two protected rock art sites, Nourlangie and Ubirr, set along walking paths and behind barriers. But in Arnhem Land, new art shows up constantly, often painted on top of older images. Garnarradj said he uses the paintings to find fish: “When I see a rock art on an escarpment I don’t know, I know this is where I can find barramundi,” he said.

The company that runs the Guluyambi cruise also offers an Arnhemlander four-wheel drive tour that visits rock sites rarely seen by tourists, as well as Injalak Arts, where you can watch women weave traditional baskets and men paint intricate spirit stories on bark with brushes made of grass. Injalak and the tours make up an important source of revenue and employment for a community that struggles with alcoholism and homelessness. So do movies. One, called “High Ground,” about Australia’s horrific history of indigenous murder, and starring a mostly aboriginal cast, plus Simon Baker of “The Mentalist,” was shooting in Arnhem Land while I was there.

Top End is also one of the few places where the 1986 smash comedy “Crocodile Dundee” comes up regularly in conversation. Several scenes were shot in Kakadu, including a scene in which Mick Dundee, played by Paul Hogan, grabs a snake that’s headed for his love interest, Linda, and declares he’s just saved her from a king brown.

“I’ve seen the movie and it wasn’t a king brown, it was a water python!” Garnarradj said. He then laughed as if the mistake was hilarious and I loved him even more.

A Taste of Tasmania

If the color green had a flavor, I imagine it might taste like fresh asparagus picked on a tiny countryside farm in southern Tasmania. I’d never known asparagus to taste like it did that day — it reminded me of the sugar snap peas I used to eat off the vine when I was a kid visiting the home of a Kenyan woman named Wairimu, who had somehow managed to grow an African garden in the high desert of New Mexico.

“I think it’s one of the great food experiences,” said Rodney Dunn, who co-founded The Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School & Farm 11 years ago with his wife, Séverine Demanet, on the grounds of an old schoolhouse, about a 40-minute drive from Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. Last year, they opened a farm-to-table restaurant nearby, in a building that was once a mental asylum.

The key to the flavors I was experiencing, Dunn said, was Tasmania’s uniquely hot summer days and cold nights. Here, vegetables ripen slowly and gain complexity. “It’s amazing what these vegetables that people treat with disdain can teach us when we have them the way they’re supposed to be.”

He picked a purple leaf out of the ground and handed to me. It was mustard greens, which I’ve always appreciated for their spicy kick, but had never known to be this subtle on the tongue.

The contrast between Top End, with its sweltering heat and camper-van aesthetic, and Tasmania’s farmer-chic sophistication was jarring. Traces of indigenous culture are also notably harder to find, the result of massacres and mass resettlements; Tasmania’s history in that regard is particularly bleak. Several Aussies I’d met had made jokes about Tasmania seeming to be a tad behind — something that can happen when a state is founded as a colony of convicts that builds a society in isolation. But as I visited its wild coastlines, its cheesemakers and vodka distillers, I wondered if the island state of Tasmania had fallen so far behind the rest of Australia that it had inadvertently become the leader of the country’s agrarian movement. When Dunn and Demanet moved to this area after running restaurants in Sydney, the state already had a reputation for amazing produce, but unless you turned up at farmers’ houses and asked to peruse their gardens, it wasn’t obvious.

“People in Tasmania know that at a certain time of year they go down the road and Jim grows pink-eyed potatoes, and from Don down the other way, I can buy peas from his front gate,” Dunn said.

They’d founded the Agrarian Kitchen to fill that gap, but couldn’t have anticipated the way the food market would move to all artisanal all the time.

“That culture of people growing their own produce came back into fashion,” Dunn said. “But here it never went away.”

Dunn and others told me they can trace Hobart’s foodie renaissance to the opening of Mona, on an old winery on a peninsula outside the city. The name stands for Museum of Old and New Art, and just getting there on a ferry painted in black and white camouflage, with four plastic sheep that people can use as seats, is an event. Inside the museum was an atrium-size installation in which keywords from current news stories dropped from the ceiling in bursts of water droplets (“Harry” and “Meghan,” for example, since the royals and I had almost identical, simultaneous itineraries).

The stream of art tourists who come to see Mona and then make a week of it, was enough to sustain the kind of restaurant culture that Tasmania’s half a million residents could not.

Over six days, I ate better than any other single destination on this 52 Places trip. On the hipster stretch of Elizabeth Street, it took me four tries to find a place where I could just get a takeout sandwich instead of table service. And that sandwich was an artisanal veggie burger with a cauliflower patty and a matcha bun from an “innovative plant-based” vegan restaurant.

Armed with my weight’s worth in brochures from the tourism information center, I drove to gorgeous, fertile Bruny Island for fresh Camembert in a microbrewery that made a lovely India pale ale, and to the Tasman Peninsula for lunch on a lavender farm just a short drive from the kind of sea cliffs that inspire epic poems. In the apple-dominated Huon Valley there are cider tastings and Grandvewe, which makes a sheep whey vodka that was the top winner in the 2018 World’s Best Vodka Awards.

And if you don’t have time to drive, the Salamanca Market on Saturdays and the Farm Gate Market on Sundays, brings all those growers to Hobart.

Practical Tips

Top End

Timing: Locals will tell you Top End only has two seasons, dry and wet — or hot and hotter — and during the height of wet, some of Kakadu’s floodplains are only passable by boat. I rearranged my itinerary to get there by the end of the dry season in early October, and even then, many tourism companies were starting to shut down.

Planning: I did a combination of self-driving and day tours that I set up through Tourism Top End, which offers free booking services. Palms City Resort in Darwin was the perfect, affordable, urban hideout for getting over my jet lag. Within the park, my base was Kakadu Lodge, an outback motel with communal bathrooms in the town of Jabiru. On Thursdays and Saturdays in Darwin, you’ll find most of the city at Mindil Beach Sunset Market, a delightful mix of live music, Asian food stands and delicious fruit smoothies.

Eats: Be sure to try barramundi, fresh fish and oysters. In Kakadu, there’s good Thai food at Ubirr Border Store and Anbinik Kakadu Resort (from the same owners). Their lime crush slushies and lemon grass iced teas are life-changing in the heat.

Side trips: Forty minutes outside of Darwin on the way to Kakadu are several companies that offer jumping crocodiles cruises. Another half-hour down the road you can do the Corroborree Billabong Wetlands Cruise, which offers good bird sightings. Set aside a full day to explore the waterfalls wonderland that is Litchfield National Park, or Darwin’s beach, as one resident called it. Crowds are bigger than in Kakadu, but when you’re plunging into a pool next to a waterfall, do you really care?


Stay: By the time I left the 150-year-old Hadley’s Orient Hotel in Hobart, I felt like I was leaving my family. It had a faded glamour and the nicest, most helpful staff.

Eats: I could have spent my entire trip just eating my way around Hobart, with multicourse tasting menus for around $50, paired with Tasmanian wines, and then rolling myself back to the hotel. Try Fico, Templo, New Sydney Hotel, Franklin Bar & Restaurant, and Dier Makr, an upstart, minimally decorated restaurant without a sign, where the chef Kobi Ruzicka served my courses himself — including wallaby, which I tried but couldn’t finish because of a guilty conscience. (Tasmania is the only place in the world where it’s legal to harvest wallabies for meat.)

Side trips: The 30-minute drive up to the top of Mount Wellington for sunset and watching wallabies is a must. The best way to see the jaw-dropping cliffs of the Tasman Peninsula is by water on Tasman Island Cruises. Follow it up with a trip to the Port Arthur penitentiary site a short drive away. My favorite side trip was Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in an area full of wineries. I fed free-range kangaroos; learned all about wombats; and saw a near-blind Tasmanian devil that had been orphaned when his mother caught the facial tumor disease that has wiped out much of the species. Entrance fees support the park’s operations, which include a wildlife rescue service and Tasmania’s first wildlife hospital.