Journey to Australia, the Original Oz
Scorching deserts filled with birdsong, a coast dotted with life-restoring aboriginal fires, rivers pulsing with crocodiles. At once the most dangerous and beautiful place on earth, Australia's Northern Territory is the true outback that legendary explorers couldn't conquer.
"Come with me," she says. We wade through the buffalo grass until cool water rushes into our shoes. Facing downwind, she strikes a match and tosses it into the grass. A smolder soon becomes a small flame. Lawson lights another. The grasses now crackle, and hungry whiskered terns swirl in the puffs of smoke, periodically plunging into a wave of grasshoppers trying to outhop the heat. "We'll probably have the lilies back next year," she says, continuing to pitch matches in our footsteps as we back away from the flames, the smog growing darker. "See the brolgas out there standing on the bank where it burned? They're thanking us. They're happy. I'm very proud of this. I like to see everyone happy."
On my last full day in the outback I return with Mike Ostwald to his lodge on the Mary River for one final cruise. Piloting our pontoon, he yells to a 15-foot-long croc he calls Cow Cruncher hiding beneath the trees. "G'day ol' Cruncha! (He's probably waiting for dinner--baby bats that fall from the roost)."
We pull ashore on a small sand island, only a few miles from the point where Stuart crossed the Mary on his way north. I sit in a plastic beach chair, happily wiggling my toes in the sand, watching the sun sink behind the mangroves as the blaze of our campfire grows brighter. Ostwald serves up his wife's homemade rosemary damper, beef stew, and mugs of hot "billy tea."
But the evening ends too swiftly. Thunder, lightning, and 13 pairs of crocodile eyes in the darkness beyond the metal fence circling our campfire signal to Ostwald that it's time to pocket his harmonica and head back to the lodge. We reluctantly gather our things. Passing pots and coolers to other guests already on the boat, I ask Ostwald if he's ever been tempted to stay the night on the island, since it's fenced. He tells me the barrier would be no match for Cow Cruncher and his mates after the fire burns out. "If you slept out here, you wouldn't be here in the morning," he says, offering his hand as I step aboard. Suddenly, I feel like cruising.