A rapid Outback odyssey
TURNING off your car ignition is not usually a big deal but at the end of an epic road trip across Australia, arriving back in your home driveway becomes a poignant moment of reflection.
What started as a wild idea over a beer with a mate - to escape our busy, domestic lives for two weeks and roam the Outback - had become reality and now it was over.
While many just talk and dream about the great Australian road trip, we had done it - a daunting drive from Mittagong, south of Sydney, all the way to the top of Kakadu - and back. All up, 8600km, including side trips, and all in 15 days.
Day one of our daring adventure began with a restful bush camp beside the Murray at Robinvale before we pushed northwest through Renmark, Burra, Port Augusta and Coober Pedy along the seemingly endless black belt that connects Australia's top and bottom - the Stuart Highway.
The lure of the open road and the big horizons of the Outback was compelling. Two middle-aged mates chasing freedom and adventure on a boys' trip across the continent. As we ate up the kays we played music loudly, solved world problems, shared life stories, laughed till it hurt, daydreamed out the window, ate too many roadhouse meals, slapped together sausage camp dinners in world record time, toasted sunsets over campfires, stayed in some dodgy motels when camping seemed too hard, shaved our full heads of hair as a desert dare, encountered swarms of flies immune to Aerogard, visited pubs in the middle of nowhere and met so many colourful characters along the way - each with an emotive back story worthy of reality TV treatment.
And when something interesting grabbed our attention, like the eye-dazzlingly white expanse of Lake Hart, a huge salt lake near Woomera, we stopped in awe and did a nudie run, as blokes do! Just for fun.
While our destination was Kakadu and its wild swimming holes, our trip was all about the journey - the magic of unfolding scenery, the overwhelming scale of our great continent, the simple joys of moments unplanned and our own pursuit of happiness. Each day promised new discoveries.
Finally crossing into the Northern Territory, we treated ourselves to a bit of luxury with a night at the Double Tree by Hilton in Alice Springs, with its soft beds, fine dining restaurant, inviting resort pool and relaxing jacuzzi.
Back to camping, we pushed further north past the intriguing Devil's Marbles boulders at Tennant Creek, had a soak in the tropical, thermal pools at Mataranka before arriving in Katherine for a two-day stay at the boutique Cicada Lodge at Nitmiluk Gorge. The highlight here was a Nitmiluk Tours helicopter ride to a remote waterfall and swimming hole in the gorge and a dip at the paradisiacal Southern Rockhole waterfall.
And then, far from home at the other end of Australia, we were in Kakadu - Australia's largest national park, embracing 20,000 square kilometres of timeless landscapes, fresh and lush and pumping with water after the summer wet.
Based at Cooinda Lodge for two nights, we busily bagged a series of experiences we had dreamt about - swimming at impossibly beautiful waterfalls - Motor Car Falls was our favourite - seeing crocodiles on the Yellow Water Billabong and flying over spectacular Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls with Kakadu Air - another must if you want to take in the majesty of Kakadu but are short of time - or need to drive over 4000km back home as we did.
While our trip north was filled with anticipation, our journey back south the same way was more melancholic and on the last night, camped by the Murray again near Mildura, we relaxed by the campfire and reflected on our great escapade, vowing - from now on - to feel the freedom of the open road every year. In the endless pursuit of happiness.
Best wild swimming places in the Top End
Here are seven of the best wild swimming spots in the Top End of the Nortern Territory.
1. Southern Rockhole, Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine
A beautiful waterfall that plummets into a gorge-cradled pool. A 4km walk with gorge views from the carpark and a 10-minute ferry boat trip back via Nitmiluk Gorge, best in March/April after the wet before it dries up.
2. 'The Swimming Hole', Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine
This mysterious place doesn't have an official name but that's what local chopper pilots call it. It's a remote and beautiful hideaway only accessed by joining a thrilling, two-hour adventure swim helicopter trip offered by Nitmiluk Tours, which will fly you over the gorge and land you at this deserted waterfall and lagoon that you can enjoy all by yourself
3. Edith Falls, Nitmiluk National Park, Katherine
North of Katherine, this idyllic pool is fringed by paperbark and tropical pandanas and is open most of the year, with camping and kiosk facilities. Best of all, it's an easy stroll from the carpark, with a 2.6km loop walk taking you to an even more beautiful upper pool and waterfall.
4. Mataranka Thermal Pools, Mataranka
A little piece of paradise south of Katherine where warm, turquoise thermal pools soothe the muscles year-round, shaded by a jungle of palms. A must-stop place for a swim on the drive north.
5. Motor Car Falls, Kakadu National Park
This deep, little-known pool, fed by a majestic waterfall and hugged by cliffs and lush, monsoon forest, is a real find, offering a shady hideaway from the Top End heat. Accessed by a 7.5km return walk and usually available year-round.
6. Boulder Creek, Kakadu National Park
An easy 2km loop walk from the Motor Car Falls carpark takes you to a series of little, cascade-fed, crystal-clear pools, each more beautiful than the next. They're shaded by the jungle and you'll likely have your favourite swimming hole all to yourself.
7. Gunlom Falls, Kakadu National Park
This natural infinity pool, offering sweeping vistas across Kakadu, is one of the Top End's most magical swimming spots and has become an Insta hit with tourists around the world. There's a bottom pool but a short, steep walk takes you to the spectacular upper pools and falls, which beg a luxurious dip while you admire the view. Best straight after the wet in April/May and arrive early in the day to soak up the serenity.