Northern Australia: Darwin and the Top End
In Australia's untamed northern reaches, if you've got the time, you can hang with crocodiles and wild kangaroos for $20 to $30 a day
Big-game safaris have become too darned big-ticket; even a cheap one to Africa typically hits you for $2,200 a week. So how can a frugal addict of Survivor or National Geographic live like Marlin Perkins for pennies? The backpackers know. They're not thronging Africa, paying luxury rates and dodging rebellions. They're in exotic Australia, where you slice prices in half to get the rough cost in U.S. dollars.
Australia's secluded, tropical Top End is the cut-rate home of your wildest Discovery Channel dreams. Unlike ecosystems in the rest of Oz - ravaged by feral cats, rabbits, and pigs - here there have been few extinctions since Europeans arrived. Better yet, a sensational exchange rate comes with nearly free access to thousands of square miles of pristine wilderness, English-speaking locals (well, sort of), and the best-preserved pockets of Aboriginal life anywhere in the world.
Leave your tent at home, because there's a safe place to sleep. Like the best seaside hangouts, quirky Darwin (the only settlement you could call a city up here) lures folks who drop by and never want to leave. Mitchell Street, the sluggish heartbeat of budget Darwin, hosts an eternal pub crawl where clean hostel beds are $10 and every other bar offers a trough of free meals (stir-fry, lamb, rice) to anyone who buys a $1.25 beer (prices cited in U.S. dollars).
Though it's tempting to spend listless weeks swilling beer from a "stubby" on the shore, the real draws to the Top End are two of Australia's least-tamed national parks, Kakadu and Litchfield.
Kakadu, larger than Connecticut at 7,336 square miles, is a World Heritage-protected site, and with good reason. A virgin wilderness in a country renowned for funky flora and fauna, Kakadu is home to a third of all Australia's bird species, many breathtakingly big. Not to mention termites that build 20-foot towers, a welter of wallabies, and 1,000 species of flies - most of which, sooner or later, will attempt to explore your nostrils. Many animals, including the endearingly named black wallaroo and chestnut-backed button-quail, are found only here. Others, such as the menacing saltwater crocodile, lurk in their thickest populations on Earth. On the nearby Mary River, our pontoon recently pulled nose-to-nose with dozens of dozing crocs, which set our teeth chattering nearly as loudly as our camera shutters. The Crocodile Hunter would have tinkled his khakis.
Down under on the down low
Yes, there's that pesky matter of getting to Oz, but light expenses on the ground will balance your initial transportation outlay. Happily, the Top End is best seen during its warm and dry winter, from June through August, when round-trip airfare prices from Los Angeles to Sydney (13 hours) ebb as low as $800. In fact, don't bother with the Top End during the sultry Aussie summer, because roads turn to pudding, animals disperse, and the sweat flows freer than Victoria Bitter. If you arrive via Sydney, you can fly to Darwin one-way (five hours, or about the same distance as Washington, D.C., to Phoenix) for $190 using Qantas's Boomerang Pass (800/227-4500), purchasable only in the United States, which gets you discount fares within Australia and New Zealand based on how far you fly. It's definitely the way to go if you want to hop around Oz. Then again, because Darwin is close to Southeast Asia, you might choose to tour Asia by flying Malaysia Airlines from Los Angeles (via Taipei and Kuala Lumpur) to Darwin (around $1,500 round-trip).
If you have time, go by road. Greyhound (011-61-7/5690-9888, greyhound.com.au) charges $386 for a six-month pass including unlimited stops along the East Coast from Sydney to Darwin. For $448, Oz Experience's "Fish Hook" route does Sydney-to-Darwin via the Red Center, stopping all you want for a year (011-61-2/8356-1766, ozexperience.com). I recently took an unforgettable drive south from Darwin, out of the tropical rain belt and through the eerie Gold Rush ghost towns along the dusty Stuart Highway (there's plenty of food and fuel), ending four days later at legendary Uluru (better known to some by its European name, Ayers Rock).
Australians, who cherish the family road trip in a way Americans have forgotten, also pride themselves on saving money, so most hostels provide plenty of private rooms, with communal bathrooms and kitchens, for couples and kin. In Darwin, the YHA (69 Mitchell St., 8981-2560, yha.com.au) and the more rambunctious Globetrotters Lodge (97 Mitchell St., 8981-5385, globetrotters.com.au) both charge $10 for a spot in a four-bed room, and double rooms go for just $23. If you don't like those, Mitchell Street in Darwin offers many others. Motels are plentiful, too. Value Inn (50 Mitchell St., 8981-4733, valueinn.com.au), smack in town, and The Capricornia (3 Kellaway St., 8981-4055), near Mindl Beach, lead the pack at $39 for a standard (but spotless) room, with A/C and TV, sleeping up to three. For its Tales of the City vibe, I favor the Mississippi Queen (4 Gardiner St., 8981-3358), inhabited by colorful misfits, where very basic beds ($17) are aboard retired campers, and the beer is served aboard an aging railway car.
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