Like the drone of a giant insect, the hum of the didgeridoo filled the hot afternoon. To the syncopated rhythm of the singing sticks, near-naked natives chanted a cacophonous medley. Hypnotized by the strange sights and sounds, I watched one of the oldest rituals of man performed by some of the most primitive people on earth in one of the most remote and least-known parts of the globe. The ceremony was a native corroboree, the people were Australian aborigines, and the place was that continent's Northern Territory, one of the last of the world's great wildernesses.
Spread over more than half a million square miles, the Northern Territory covers a sixth of Australia yet supports less than 2% of its population. It is a land of infinite resources and of riches beyond compare, but it is also a rugged land that has stubbornly resisted all efforts to tame it. Today the territory is still a place of empty spaces and broken dreams, of rivers with too much water or none at all, of towns without people and crossings without roads. By jet it is only 1,000 miles from Sydney, but it might as well be a million. For most Australians, the territory is that vague and shadowy somewhere they call the Never-Never or the Top End. But for the sportsman, the explorer and the adventurer, it can be the most exciting of all hunting grounds.
The main city and the gateway to the Northern Territory is Darwin, where civilization suddenly stops. At the city limits streets give way to trackless bush, houses to row upon row of towering anthills and people to buffalo, feral cattle and wild horses. There is only one proper road out of Darwin. It runs through Katherine south to Alice Springs. The route from west to east has no name. It is only a dirt track through the bush. Here and there along the track is a clearing with a store of sorts where a traveler can rest while he refuels his vehicle and himself.
There is such a store at Jim Jim, 190-odd miles east-southeast of Darwin, at the edge of the area known as Arnhem Land. It is a tiny box of a place set upon stilts and occupied almost entirely by a counter and several refrigerators filled with beer and soda pop. The store is owned by an expatriate Englishman named Tom Opitz, who runs it with his wife.
There are only two seasons in the Top End: the Dry, which runs from April through October, and the Wet, which for half the year turns the territory into a watery wasteland. In this season, when the east-west track is under water and floods rise partway up the stilts of their store, the Opitzes are cut off even from the occasional passing wayfarer.
The Wet had not yet begun when we flew into Jim Jim last October. We landed on a crude strip hacked from the jungle behind the store. With me was a photographer, Vic McCristal, and a hunting and fishing guide, Brian Craig. Brian's assistant, a young New Zealander named Bert Silver, had trucked our safari equipment and supplies in from Darwin the previous day.
We set up camp the first evening at the edge of one of the most beautiful lagoons I have ever seen. It was several miles long and in places half a mile across. Patches of water lilies floated on the surface, and dozens of bays and inlets probed the jungle. Along the shore pandanus trees dipped their roots into the water, providing shelter for myriad fish.
Just before dusk we gathered fishing equipment, backed the truck to the water's edge and launched the small boat we had brought with us. Fish broke the surface as they fed. Every now and then there was a splash, louder than the others.
"Barra chop," Brian said. "Cast towards it."
I was using spinning tackle with a silver-colored surface plug similar to one we might use for bass in this country. I cast, then rapidly retrieved. Suddenly the water erupted around the plug. A fish ran with the lure, leapt, turned and raced toward the boat. I raised the rod, still reeling. Five minutes passed before I finally maneuvered it to the net.