Katherine

It was a bracing 43 degrees when we rolled out of Alice Springs early yesterday. This morning, in Termant Creek, it's a balmy 72. We're definitely in the tropics.

It's a straight shot up the Stuart Highway today, 400 miles of what should be the easiest traveling we've done so far; our first full day with no dirt roads.There's more Traffic today, including a lot more road trains. Imagine an American big-rig with another two trailers tacked on the rear.That's a read train.These supersized semis are about 175 feet long nose to tail, with 16 axles and 62 tires all up, and weigh 120 tons fully laden. The prime movers

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NORTHERN EXPOSURE Big rivers, big crocs, and even bigger road trains dominate the landscape north of Katherine Gorge (top).

are usually top-shelf American stuff—Australian-assembled Kerrworths and Macks rule—with 500-600-horsepower diesels under the hood. The truckies have these babies running at 60 mph whenever they can, which means overtaking one requires patience and planning.

The Stuart Highway looks like we're back in civilization; that the real adventure is behind us. But it's only a mirage: This country is still too vast and too empty to be tamed. As we pass by Daly Waters, famous for its pub, built in 1893 and one of the oldest buildings in the Northern Territory, I radio that the Outback's trip computer is showing we have 1 miles worth of gas in the tank, and that the next gas station is 100 miles up the road.

I can tell the math, hasn't quite computed with my American colleagues, as they're happy to push on. But a half an hour up the road, as the fuel needles sink toward E, there are one or two calls back on the radio: "Er, how far until we can gas up again?" In America, you pass gas stations every 20 miles or so on the Interstates;in the Outback you have to plan your journey around gas stops. Forget EVs;you can get range anxiety here in a car that runs on regular unleaded.

We take a 20-mile detour out to Katherine Gorge, a spectacular chain of 13 waterholes carved in deep into the sandstone rock by the Katherine River. The river is a raging torrent during the tropical wet season (November through March), but we have to walk over rocks between our boat rides on the two closest waterholes. Katherine Gorge is sacred :o the Jarwon aboriginals, who call the place Nitmiluk. As we drift noiselessly on the tranquil water be:ween the towering rock walls, it feels like we're in a cathedral.

DAY 8: KATHERINE TO JABIRU

Today we're heading into the heart of the Top End, as the locals call it, right into Kakadu National Park. Our destination is Jabiru, a mining town on the edge of Arnhem Land, a largely trackless 37,000-square-mile wilderness of thick scrub and crocodile-infested rivers.

This is "Crocodile Dundee" country—literally. We turn off the Kakadu Highway just past the Mary River Roadhouse and onto the dusty, badly corrugated road to Gunlom Falls. Several scenes from the movie were filmed right next to the main waterhole. We hike up to the tcp of the falls (now dry) in the steaming heat to find a couple of big pools of cool, clear water stepping down to the rock lip where the creek cascades to the main waterhole below It doesn't take much to persuade several of our party to dive in.

There are signs at every river and creek crossing warning of saltwater crocodiles.The warnings are rio joke; one or two people are killed by crocs up here every year. The irony is the saltwater crocodile was nearly hunted to extinction in the early part of the 20th century. My dad, who drove to Darwin with a buddy in 1953 to shoot saltwater crocs, often says: "Fortunately, we never found one!'And he's only half joking: Now a protected species big males often reach 20 feet or more in length.

We get up close and personal with our first crocs at Yellow Water, where a sunset cruise on the wetlands of the South Alligator River—mistakenly named by an explorer who though: the crocs were gators—reveals an astonishing array of wildlife. Mostly the crocodiles are catching the last rays of the sun on a mudbank, bu: every so often one slides silently into the water and glides noiselessly alongside our boat, mere feet away. The crocodile hasn't changed all that much since dinosaurs roamed the planet, and it's a chilling experience to come eye to eye with one of these primordial killing machines jMaasâ iVk^jazfrias iter M

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