I love big cities.
Hong Kong. London. New York. Bangkok. Losing myself on a crowded metro, people watching in cafes and bars. And on my travels, I’ve made it a point to spend a lot of time in them.
But eventually, if you’re really honest with yourself, they do start to get a bit same same. A big statement bridge. A central square. A high street. A dilapidated (or futuristic) metro system that locals love to hate and confounds tourists despite the fact they’re the same the world over. Galleries, museums. A red light district. They’re not entirely unpredictable and in a shopping mall, you could be in Bangkok, Dubai or middle America.
Some of my most memorable travel experiences – and the ones I seek out – have been those that happen outside the city – a week’s drive from the nearest city, even. 4-wheel driving across western Tibet, the sparse Mongolian steppe, trekking in the Peruvian Andes and Guatemalan highlands – these are the experiences that come to mind when I think of remote, off-the-beaten path (well, sometimes) travel.
In my own country, I generally seek out those city experiences (or failing that, the beach).
I am as guilty as anyone of forgetting just how remote my own country can be.
After all, we are on the arse end of the world. You can fly for six hours and still be in Australian air space. Perth is often called the most remote capital city in the world and Darwin, in the country’s top end, must come close, perched as it is on the very edge of the continent, looking precarious as though it could break off at any time and drift even closer to Indonesia.
In any remote place, there is an element of danger and perhaps that’s what makes it so exciting – beautiful scenery and long drives aside. In Mongolia, one of my companions passed out from hypothermia one frightening afternoon. Closer to the Russian border than to the Mongolian city of Ulaanbataar, a four day drive away, there are no such things as satellite phones or even clinics. No one’s government was going to send us a helicopter. She was okay but it was a stark reminder of how far away from help we were – we were truly on our own.
Okay, so you’re never really on your own in Australia, no matter how far you go. So long as you’ve got a satellite phone or an emergency locator beacon, the incredible services of the flying doctors are never really all that far away.
It might take them four hours but if your van rolls into a crocodile infested creek (and in the territory, this is not uncommon) help will eventually be on its way.
But a thousand kilometres from anywhere of note, you can drive for a day on the dirt tracks of Kakadu National Park and not see another vehicle.
It is heavily touristed – this is obvious when you arrive at the check box sites and camp grounds and there are campers and land cruisers and grey nomads galore and you wonder – where did all these people come from? The camp sites are incongruous with the landscape, so large and remote it is.
So what’s my point?
Whenever I visit the Northern Territory, I am always struck by the fact that I can have these experiences in my own country. 95% of Australia’s population is clustered along the coast, on a land mass whose size dwarfs most of Europe.
Coming from Sydney, the country’s most crowded city, it spins me out. I can drive for hours and not see another vehicle. Food becomes expensive, trucked up by road trains, fuel stops few and far between, drinking water scarce. It’s a part of the world that should be taken seriously, where travel requires preparation. It’s not enough to throw a mattress in the back of your van or a surfboard on the roof and go.
The Northern Territory is a whole other world up there.
And it deserves a whole lot more attention from travellers.
Disclaimer: My trip to the Northern Territory was supported by Tourism Northern Territory and Canon Australia. All views are my own. Images in this post were taken on either the nifty new Canon 650D or equally nifty Canon Powershot D20.