Take a road trip through Australia's Northern Territory, from Darwin to Alice Springs, and you'll have all sorts of weird and wonderful wildlife encounters en route
As chat show presenter Michael Parkinson famously discovered in one of television’s treasured moments, upsetting an emu is an unpleasant experience.
But while his was a puppet in a studio, mine was 45kg of live flesh and feathers in Australia’s Red Centre. The world’s second largest bird, standing nearly two metres tall, fixed me with a gaze from his beady yellow eye, trotted towards me and jerked his beak in my face.
I jumped back and made a hasty exit through the gate of the kangaroo and emu enclosure at Alice Springs Desert Park, where you can see creatures of the outback in a – thankfully – controlled environment.
Wildlife predominates in the Northern Territory, as we discovered when we travelled for over a thousand miles by motorhome through its tropical grassland, rocky gorges and arid desert.
Crocs and canoes
At the Katherine River, two hours south of Darwin, we are met by Snowy, a real-life Crocodile Dundee and one of the elite Savannah Guides, who is to take us for a day of canoeing and kayaking on the river. In a decade of guiding, Snowy has never had a serious mishap with crocs. His most intimate experience with one was when he was called to help capture a crocodile that had swum into the flooded local department store.
Our day starts at 7am with a 60-minute off-road drive, slaloming our Toyota Land Cruiser over sandy tracks between giant termite mounds. Our only companions are wallabies and euros (wallaby lookalikes, with bigger bodies and smaller heads).
At the river’s edge, Snowy lights a fire to heat up the billycan, then fills it with river water to make tea. "The river is safe during the dry season because the crocodiles are less aggressive than in the wet,” he tells us. "You can drink the water and swim in it, although it’s safer to swim where you can see the bottom - the deeper water might have crocs lurking beneath. Anyway, most of the crocodiles here are freshies, not salties, and they won’t hurt you”.
The thought of only encountering a smaller freshwater croc, rather than the man-eating monster from the deep, is only marginally reassuring.
We begin paddling the 4km downstream before navigating a couple of rapids, then stop for a picnic lunch on a small beach. My sons decide to go for a swim. Still wearing their lifejackets, they jump in at the top of the rapids and shoot down the natural water-slides. "No worries,” says Snowy. “The water’s too fast for freshies, and anyway they prefer fish – they don’t want to bite off more than they can chew”.
Later we return to our kayaks and paddle further down the river in search of crocs. “Don’t bang your paddles against the sides of the canoe, and no talking,” says Snowy. “Crocs think boats are other crocs invading their territory and don’t always take kindly to them,” he explains. Every log seems to have eyes.
Rocks and reptiles
Later in the day, we make our onward journey down the Stuart Highway, a straight ribbon of tarmac that stretches for 3,245km (2,016 miles) from Darwin to Adelaide.
At Alice Springs, we trade in our motorhome for a tough 4WD and head off on to the rough corrugated track of the Mereenie Loop and Kings Canyon. The canyon is one of the unsung wonders of the Red Centre, a rock formation as wonderful as Ayers Rock (now renamed Uluru), but one that has so far escaped the commercial exploitation of its neighbour.
At dawn, we follow the rim walk around the canyon. It's an easy two-and-a-half hours, even with children in tow, and we rarely see another human being. The views are dizzy-making, and the gusty wind means you must keep away from the edge.
Finally our road journey reaches Uluru, the mighty monolith that is the spiritual home of the Aboriginal people of the Red Centre. The rock itself is surrounded by a strictly regulated national park, with the actual resort of Yulara a 20-minute drive away across the desert scrub. Accommodation ranges from the ultra-smart Longitude 131, via Sails in the Desert, to the more modest Outback Pioneer Hotel.
Reptiles are never far from our thoughts. This time it is a Brettle python, so big that he can swallow a whole wallaby. His companion in the grass in front of us is a perenti, Australia’s most deadly lizard, which shoots venom, and behind him slithers a fully-grown king brown.
Fortunately, these creatures all belong to snake-handlers Kevin and Cherie, whose daily show, 'Predators of the Red Centre', leaves you understanding the flora and fauna of the outback. One hundred different wild plants are edible. Wattle seeds from trees are crushed to make damper (bread). The grubs found in the witchetty bush look disgusting but make a nutritious meal when cooked. Snodygobbles grow on a vine and taste like honey, while the chocolate bush tastes like its namesake.
All of these are no doubt titbits that may come in useful one day, but how do you deal with an excited emu? “Oh, that’s easy,” says Bluey, an Aboriginal tracker who promised he had put his theory to the test. “You put one arm above your head and bend your wrist. The emu thinks you’re another emu and leaves you alone. Unless, of course, he’s a boy and thinks you’re a lady emu...”