By Joan Larsen
Flying by small plane, low over Australia’s Northern Territory, we are present- day Crocodile Dundees, wanting to be one of the first to go exploring a desert world that most travelers will never see.
Our delightful, agreeable pilot seemed more than happy to chase down the only large inhabitants in the empty desert below – kangaroos or wallabies – who roamed this barren land at will, stopping suddenly and almost posing for our cameras, their little joeys peeking out of their pouches. How could we want more than this, I thought.
But we were in for a surprise. There in nowhere, an outcropping of rocks, aptly named Devil’s Marbles, stood out in the landscape. The pilot circled and circled some more as I snapped photos that easily could have graced magazine covers. Gorgeous.
Our destination – and the only town of any size between Alice Springs and Darwin – was a town called Katherine. One glimpse and I was reminded of an authentic town of the old West of many years ago in the United States. To those living in remote ranches, few and far between in the Never-Never, its one main street, the one supermarket and a few stores in Katherine were the ranchers’ gathering point. The people? Warm, extremely talkative and open to me – this woman that I am, who had questions galore.
Katherine Gorge, outside of town, was said to be a rather secret but wondrous sightseeing paradise, with signs warning of what lay beneath the placid waters. . . fresh water crocodiles of great length. We didn’t have to be told twice to keep our hands inside the boat!!
Fruit bats hung upside down from the trees, jacana birds (sometimes called Jesus birds) could walk on the water, and birders would have been in a sort of paradise with the most colorful species we had ever seen, just “hanging out” there. The waterfalls around every bend of the canyons took my breath away.
But now, to one of the unforgettable moments in my lifetime – my evening in Katherine… forever to be my “OMG, I can’t believe this” time of my life.
At dinner that night, our wildlife guide — who had checked us in to the only motel – mentioned to me that the manager at the desk was originally from Chicago, of all things, and he had told her that I lived in Chicago. Now, Katherine was – to those of us from the big city – one step beyond our own “wild west.” It was in nowhere. NOWHERE. What was this woman doing here?
I was soon to find out.
Later, the room phone rang… and the manager, from Chicago, told me that in 3 years living there, I was the first visitor to Katherine from her home town. We really hit it off, like only old friends would. We couldn’t stop talking. We had even worked in the same building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. When she suggested we go out for a drink, I was alive and awake once again. Why not? So there was this lovely young woman waiting for me, and we walked toward the outdoor bar right at the corner. (Did I say that the weather at night was at least 90 degrees?)
I remember we were laughing as we headed for a table… and waiting for us were two of the best looking cowboys I had ever seen. She had no idea I was married or that I was a good 15 years older than she was, she had dates for us. “Dates” – definitely too awkward… and I could only handle it if I thought of them as just “her friends.” The men were actually geologists who flew back and forth to NewGuinea (not that far) but considered Katherine home. In that heat, beer is the drink of choice. In the next three hours, we found out everything about each other – talking, laughing so much that the others there were wishing they could join us. The Chicago gal who had set this up had come to Australia on a trip, loved it and never ever planned to go back. Long after midnight, when we four walked up the street again, one of the cowboys stopped at his truck, bringing out bags of oranges and fresh fruit galore, already having heard that I was heading north on a dirt road by van and saying I would crave these goodies before a few hours were up the following day. I have to admit I was blown away.
My husband? Well, upon hearing the whole story, just shook his head and laughed… and may have said: how do you get into these things anyhow? He knows me well.
As for me, the town named Katherine in the Never-Never – the town with one of Australia’s scenic wonders at its edge — will always be lodged in my mind as a place I would not have missed for the world.
But I must admit: my “date night out” in Katherine will always remain in memory as the frosting on the cake. It was a time out-of-this-world… and completely surreal!!
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”