5-weeks in northern Australia and southeast Indonesia garnered diverse images: a total eclipse of the sun; the world’s oldest living rainforest and largest coral reef; Aboriginal rock art; exotic wildlife; wild waterfalls; turquoise crater lakes; and Lamalera village, famous for ikat-weaving and ongoing 600-year whaling tradition.
Starting on April 3rd, 2023, we flew from Seattle to Tokyo, then to Cairns for exploring from rainforest to reef. From Darwin, we cruised for 15 days from the Kimberley to Indonesia and back, then drove a caravan (camper) on a 9-day circuit through Northern Territory parks.
Photo highlights below are gleaned from Tom’s full trip portfolio, “2023 Apr: AUSTRALIA + INDONESIA.”
Total solar eclipse April 20, 2023
Above: Neither words nor pictures can capture the emotional experience of a total solar eclipse. Seen from a ship in the Timor Sea offshore from Broome, our minute of totality was bright, brief, and truly awesome (at 11:49am April 20, 2023, Perth time). When perfectly blocking the sun, the Moon resembled an eerie dark hole. The sun’s corona radiated exquisite wisps as bright as a full Moon into the dark sky. Fiery red prominences—100 times brighter—blasted light from the sun’s left side, safely visible with the naked eye only during totality.
Our eyes can see a much broader dynamic range (from bright to dim) than any single camera shot. To compensate, exposure bracketing is required to create an HDR composite photo, as done above. [I manually combined three images in Photoshop—exposed at 1/12,800th, 1/1250th and 1/125th second—shot handheld with a Sony RX10M4 camera using 600mm equivalent lens, at f/5.6, ISO 400.]
We avidly signed up 18 months in advance for Wilderness Travel‘s total solar eclipse cruise “From the Kimberley to Komodo.”
Departing Seattle on April 3, 2023, the most direct route to Darwin took us overnight via Tokyo’s cherry blossoms in early April to sunny Cairns. Based in a cottage at Cape Trib Farm B&B in Queensland, we explored Daintree National Park and immersed in a snorkeling excursion, where the world’s oldest living rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. A modern gondola plus the 1891 Kuranda Railway transported us round trip from Cairns over the Great Dividing Range via impressive Barron Falls to Kuranda—where we relished Birdworld, Koala Gardens wildlife park, and the Southern Hemisphere’s largest Butterfly Sanctuary.
A short 2.5-hour flight reached Darwin, where Crocosaurus Cove introduced us to the saltwater (estuarine) crocodile—the world’s largest reptile species—many of which we saw later in the wild. Wilderness Travel’s 15-day cruise revealed the remote Kimberley coast of Western Australia, Indonesia’s Komodo dragons, turquoise crater lakes, and Lamalera villagers weaving ikat fabrics and whaling with paddle power.
Lastly, a 9-day caravan (camper) circuit from Darwin around Australia’s Top End explored unique tropical wetlands, wildlife, and Indigenous rock art of the National Parks of Northern Territory, including Litchfield, Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge), and Kakadu. Return to Seattle was May 9th.
This second trip nicely rounded out our interests in Australia, last visited in 2004.
Above: Rolling our carryon luggage all the way, we rode the monorail plus subways from Haneda Airport to downtown Tokyo to see spring flowers in the park for several hours. (See Flight Notes at bottom.) Catching the end of cherry blossom season, we shared the Japanese passion for hanami — the act of flower-viewing — on April 5, 2023 in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
Cairns, Queensland, Australia
When to visit Cairns: the May through September Dry Season avoids the sweltering discomfort of the Wet Season. Hikers will be more comfortable June–August. Early April 2023 in Cairns was the beginning of Dry season and uncrowded for our week-long stay, but every day hit 92-94 degrees Fahrenheit (33-34 C.), made uncomfortably sweaty by 80% humidity. For better sleep, we pre-cooled and dehumidified the room using air conditioning, then slept with overhead fan on, and AC off (to burn less fossil fuel). By morning, outdoor temps settled to a more comfortable 80 degrees F. but with unsettling 90% humidity.
Below: Did you know that sharks evolved before trees existed? Our five weeks of sightseeing finished spectacularly at the Oceanarium tank and other exhibits at the Cairns Aquarium.
Cape Tribulation, Queensland
Above: Elegantly circular fronds of the Australian fan palms (Licuala ramsayi) along Madja Boardwalk, a beautifully-designed estuary walk in Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation, Queensland. This palm is one of the few species able to survive in oxygen-poor, waterlogged soil. As the world’s oldest living rainforest—around 130 million years old—Daintree Rainforest is much older than the Amazon. In a short walking distance, the fascinating Madja Boardwalk goes from rainforest to mangrove forest, where “the native plants represent the culmination of 400 million years of evolution.”
Above: A tower at Daintree Discovery Centre overlooks the stunningly biodiverse rainforest which survived the dinosaurs’ extinction. The Daintree Rainforest extends from the Daintree River, north to Cooktown and west to the Great Divide.
Below: Ocean Safari offers the quickest commute to the Great Barrier Reef—25 minutes. In April 2023, we enjoyed the morning snorkeling tour from Cape Tribulation.
Above: Mackay Reef appeared vibrant with sea life such as this coral fan, though seemed to lack fish larger than 8 inches long. Scientists recorded that the reef lost half of its coral cover between 1995 and 2017, due to climate change and coral bleaching. By the end of the pandemic years 2020-2022, reef life visibly bounced back due to a pause in the fishing industry, said our guides in 2023.
Atherton Tableland, Queensland
Australia’s Great Dividing Range contains a large plateau called the Atherton Tableland, which enfolds very deep, rich basaltic soils supporting rainforest and agriculture. In these fertile highlands, the Barron River was dammed to form Lake Tinaroo, an irrigation reservoir.
Above: The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway crosses Barron River en route from Cairns to Kuranda, in Queensland. A fun loop ticket starts with a gondola ride at the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway’s Smithfield Terminal to reach Kuranda village, boards the Kuranda Scenic Railway train to Freshwater Station in Cairns, and returns to Smithfield via bus.
Above: Kuranda Scenic Railway crosses a bridge over Stoney Creek on its return to Freshwater and Cairns Stations. In this downward direction, find a seat on the righthand side to see Stoney Creek Falls, where the train slows for an impressive view. To more safely link a rich gold mining area to the sea, the Kuranda Railway was built in 1891 from Cairns, over the Great Dividing Range, to the town of Kuranda on the Atherton Tableland.
Above: Birdworld Kuranda is well worth visiting to see a variety of tropical birds, including the Southern cassowary, also known as the Australian cassowary (Casuarius casuarius). This large bird lives in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and in Far North Queensland, Australia (where it is listed as endangered). It mainly inhabits tropical rainforests but may make use of nearby savannah forests or mangroves stands. The casque on top of the Cassowary’s head continues growing throughout its life. It’s the third heaviest bird on earth (after the Somali ostrich and the common ostrich), up to 85 kg (187 lb) and 190 cm (6 ft 3 in) tall.
Below: Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo (or Leadbeater’s cockatoo / pink cockatoo / Lophochroa leadbeateri) is native to Australia and occurs across the semi-arid and arid inland, in south-west Queensland, most of New South Wales and South Australia, north-west Victoria and the south-west of the Northern Territory. This proud bird can live for 70 years. (Photographed at Birdworld Kuranda.)
Did you know that 60% of all bird species came from Australia? A DNA study in 2019 reports that all perching bird species, called passerines — more than 60 percent of all birds — originated in Australia 47 million years ago. Passerines have a distinctive toe arrangement — three pointing forward and one back.
Above: Can you name this cuddly creature? These are the claws of a napping koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) at Kuranda Koala Gardens wildlife park. Koalas sleep 18–22 hours per day to conserve energy for digesting eucalyptus leaves. The koala is found in coastal areas of the Australian mainland’s eastern and southern regions, inhabiting Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.
Above: A Cairns birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera euphorion) sips nectar from a red flower at the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda, the largest butterfly flight aviary in the Southern Hemisphere. Visit early or late in the day, and midweek, to avoid crowds at this beautiful attraction. The Cairns birdwing is the largest of Australian butterflies and found in rainforest along northeastern Australia from Mackay to Cooktown. The female’s wingspan can measure 18cm. As soon as adult butterflies hatch they mate quickly because they only live for 4 to 5 weeks.
Above: A young girl feeds a Mareeba rock-wallaby mother carrying her joey in her pouch, at Granite Gorge Nature Park, in the Atherton Tablelands Region, near Mareeba, Queensland. These rare and endangered Mareeba rock-wallabies readily approach visitors for a handout, as this private park sells food pellets.
Above: South of Cairns, Babinda Boulders features lush rainforest and a popular swimming hole. Boulders Scenic Reserve is managed by the Cairns Regional Council, adjacent to Wooroonooran National Park in far north Queensland.
Above: Curtain Fig National Park, just outside Yungaburra on the Atherton Tablelands Region. Curtain Fig National Park protects an endangered mabi forest and a large green fig tree (Ficus virens) which uniquely extends a curtain of aerial roots 15 meters down to the forest floor. This fig’s roots strangled the host tree causing it to fall into a neighbor. The 500-year-old strangler is about 50 meters tall and 39 meters around. Awkward boulders kept settlers from clearing this small patch of the Atherton Tablelands for agriculture. Much of the rainforest around Cairns has been transformed by sugarcane fields and cattle ranches.
Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia
Tip: visit Darwin from mid May through mid October, during the cooler part of the Dry season. The Wet season is oppressively hot and humid.
Above: In Darwin, the Cage of Death exhibit at Crocosaurus Cove thrills visitors with a close encounter with a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). Also known as estuarine crocodiles, they’re the world’s largest reptile. Living up to 80 years, saltwater crocodiles can grow up to 23 feet long and 2,200 pounds. This ancient species first appeared in its present form 240+ million years ago. The name “crocodile” comes from the Greek word krokodeilos, “pebble worm.” Previously hunted almost to the point of extinction, in 1971 they became a protected species, ensuring healthy populations today. Crocosaurus Cove also displays the world’s largest collection of Australian reptiles.
Below: Among many other fascinating reptiles, Crocosaurus Cove hosts the central/inland bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), which is native to the deserts of Central Australia and can grow up to two feet long. More of this species are kept and bred as pets in the Northern Hemisphere than exist in Australia.
Wilderness Travel / Coral Expeditions cruise from Kimberley to Komodo
Carol and I eagerly signed up 1.5 years in advance for Wilderness Travel’s 2023 total solar eclipse cruise “from the Kimberley to Komodo,” featuring lively lectures by astrophysicist Alex Filippenko, who we met in Türkiye in 1999.
From Darwin in Northern Territory, we cruised the remote Kimberley coast to Indonesia and back from April 14–28 aboard the Coral Geographer, an Australian ship run by Coral Expeditions, chartered by Wilderness Travel tour agency.
Pandemic notes: In Port Darwin, Coral Expeditions wisely required a pair of COVID-19 tests in the 24 hours before boarding—an anxious hurdle, luckily passed by nearly everyone. Sadly, one person out of 120 guests tested positive for COVID and couldn’t board immediately (and also declined the rejoining option in Broome five days later). Passengers were requested to wear masks in corridors, at buffet serving areas, and when embarking and disembarking. Most people complied, especially the crew, who were most diligent. Two days into the voyage, two more guests reported symptoms, tested positive for COVID-19, isolated for 5 days, then rejoined social mixing after testing negative. By May 2023, with widespread COVID-19 inoculations reducing most serious symptoms, and most countries worldwide eliminating travel restrictions, the pandemic had become endemic—the “common COVID.”
Kimberley coast, Western Australia
The Kimberley is the northernmost of the nine regions of the state of Western Australia.
Above: On April 15, 2023, heavy outflow from recent Tropical Cyclone Ilsa raised mist which reflected a bright double rainbow at Oomari Falls / King George Falls (eastern branch), which plunges 80 meters in the Kimberley. Below is the western branch of this dual waterfall, explored by Zodiac boat excursions from two larger Explorer tender boats, launched from the Coral Geographer.
Above: During low tide, a torrent of seawater cascades out of the emergent Montgomery Reef, the world’s largest inshore reef. At low ebb, the entire reef platform emerges from the ocean, creating a vast spectacle—hundreds of waterfalls pouring seawater up to 13 feet vertically down the exposed reef. Situated between Camden Sound and Collier Bay, Montgomery Reef forms part of Lalang-garram/Camden Sound Marine Park, along the Kimberley coast of Western Australia. “Inshore” is defined as sea areas within 9 miles from land and up to 90 meters deep.
Above: Zodiac boats from the Coral Geographer zipped through the Horizontal Waterfall of Talbot Bay (Ganbadba), a notable tidal race. Notice the line of dark gray stains marking tide levels on the red sandstone.
Our excursions from the Coral Geographer to Indonesia visited the following islands, all within East Nusa Tenggara province: Padar, Komodo, Flores, Lembata, and West Timor.
Padar and Komodo islands: Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park is honored on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Above: The spine of Padar island (Pulau Padar) affords a spectacular coastal panorama in Komodo National Park. As of 2023, a small number of reintroduced Komodo dragons survive on Padar island, but are rarely seen.
Below: On Komodo island, we visited the world’s largest lizard species, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), which grows up to 10 feet long and 150 pounds in the wild. Komodo dragons live on only six islands in southeastern Indonesia: Flores, plus five islands within Komodo National Park (Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, Gili Dasami, and Padar). On these rugged and hilly volcanic islands covered with forest and savanna grasslands, dragons hunt on the smallest home range of any large predator in the world. Their main natural prey is the Timor deer, plus they also eat snakes, dead fish along the shore, pigs, and water buffalo. Aside from a reliable water spring built for their survival, Park regulations forbid feeding the dragons. Dragon populations are currently stable but endangered by climate change, habitat loss, and deer poaching. Komodo dragons usually avoid encounters with humans—but as a precaution, Park guides carry 5-foot-long sticks with double prongs. On Komodo island, this 7-foot long female dragon sunbathing in the middle of the trail was interrupted by our group of 20 people, so she roused slowly, tasted the air with frequent tongue flicks to catch our scent, then wandered away into the forest:
Above and below: Komodo Island’s Pink Beach offered excellent snorkeling to admire diverse sea life, such as coral sporting fluorescent shades of orange, yellow, green and blue.
Flores Island: Ende town and Kelimutu National Park
Located within East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, Flores island is named after the Portuguese and Spanish word for “Flowers”.
Below: On Flores island, we visited popular Kelimutu National Park on Monday, April 24, 2023, during the Muslim Eid holiday time which granted leaves for public servants. After the month of Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr week—“Holiday of Breaking the Fast.” Flores has 1.5 million people—60% Roman Catholic and 40% Muslim. While Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and is 86% Muslim, Flores island is predominantly Catholic due to its colonization by Portugal in the east and early 1900s support by the Dutch in the west.
Lembata island: Lamalera whaling village
On the island of Lembata, Lamalera village still seasonally hunts sperm whale and other deep-sea species for subsistence. This 600-year hunting tradition using only sail and paddle power is allowed under International Whaling Commission regulations concerning aboriginal whaling. Some conservationists worry that commercial whaling also takes place, and that hunters use their engine-powered boats year round to catch other protected species such as manta rays, orcas, dolphins and oceanic sharks. However, Lamalera and Lamakera (on the neighbouring island of Solor) are the last two remaining Indonesian whaling communities.
Below: Participating in a longtime tradition, a local woman weaves ikat fabric in her home in Lamalera village on Lembata island, in Indonesia. Ikat is an elaborate Indonesian fabric-creation technique where resist dyeing of the yarns prior to further dyeing and weaving makes uniquely patterned textiles.
West Timor: Tablolong Bay, near Kupang
Above: Wearing traditional local hat and costume, a musician strums the sasando (Lontar palm harp or zither) at a beach along Tablolong Bay, near Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara province, West Timor, Indonesia.
Northern Territory parks: 9-day caravan loop from Darwin
Above: A 1942 aerial attack launched from Japanese aircraft carriers antiquated Darwin’s 9-inch guns which were built before World War II—exhibited at Darwin Military Museum, East Point Military Complex, in Darwin, Northern Territory. On February 19, 1942, more than 188 Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin’s harbour and airfield, in the first and largest foreign attack ever mounted on Australia. The attack was launched from the same aircraft carriers used to attack Pearl Harbor on Hawaii. In 1943, over 110,000 armed forces personnel were based in Darwin and nearby areas. From Darwin, General Douglas MacArthur launched his campaign to liberate Manila and reclaim the Philippines from Japanese occupation. During World War II, Darwin was bombed 64 times over almost two years, with the first two raids on 19 February killing an estimated 243 people.
The Territory Wildlife Park
brilliantly encapsulates the natural history of the Top End of the Northern Territory in a mix of zoo-type exhibits and natural bush, spread around a 4km loop road linked with free shuttle trains and natural walking paths. The Main Station Cafe, Nocturnal House and Aquarium are airconditioned. To reach this must-see destination, drive 45 minutes south of Darwin city.
Above: An old helicopter and jeep with grabber arm for rounding up feral water buffalo are memorialized as sculpture in the Territory Wildlife Park, at Berry Springs. In the 1800s, water buffalo were introduced to northern Australia for hides and meat. But after hunting them grew too expensive, the beasts became a feral, invasive species which mauled local wetlands. Unfortunately, the cost of culling wild water buffalo using jeeps and helicopters is commercially uneconomical, and they remain a problem.
Below: Some live water buffalo are exhibited at Territory Wildlife Park.
Below: A barramundi (also known as Asian sea bass) swims in the Aquarium at Territory Wildlife Park. The barramundi is widely distributed in the Indo-West Pacific, spanning the waters of the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania. This fish inhabits rivers and descends to estuaries and tidal flats to spawn. In areas remote from fresh water, purely marine populations may thrive. Barramundis are fished internationally and also raised in aquaculture worldwide. It can grow to a length of 4–6 feet and weigh up to 130 pounds.
Litchfield National Park
is well worth a visit along the National Parks driving loop from Darwin.
Above: Woodland flora bloomed along the Tolmer Creek Walk, including Turkey bush (also called Kimberley heather, Calytrix exstipulata, in the myrtle family Myrtaceae), which is endemic to western Australia.
Below: Litchfield Hibiscus (Hibiscus petherickii) is a pink flowering plant endemic to Litchfield National Park. The cycad plant (Cycas calcicola) in the background is a species found only in isolated spots in the Top End of Northern Territory.
Above: A cathedral termite column rises 8 feet high at the Magnetic Termite Mounds area in Litchfield National Park. Cathedral termites build their columns on well-drained soils (unlike magnetic termites, which build their gray-colored mounds in areas of seasonally flooded black soils). This 1986 national park is named after Frederick Henry Litchfield, a pioneer who explored areas of the Northern Territory from Escape Cliffs in Van Diemen Gulf to the Daly River in 1864.
Above and below: The Zebra Stone private geology museum fascinated us with unique rock patterns, just outside of Litchfield National Park (address: 895 Litchfield Park Rd, Rum Jungle, NT, Australia, 0822). Zebra stone is a very fine-grained siltstone/claystone, formed 0.6 to 1 billion years ago — first discovered in 1924 by T. Blatchford, near the old Argyle Downs homestead, in Western Australia.
Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park
is on the lands of the indigenous Jawoyn people, 290 km south of Darwin and 60 km north of Katherine town on a sealed road, in the Northern Territory. Nitmiluk means “place of the cicada dreaming.”
Below: Nearby, we spotted red-winged parrots (Aprosmictus erythropterus), which range from the Pilbara in Western Australia to Cape York Peninsula in Queensland and as far south as northeast South Australia.
Kakadu National Park
Below: Yellow Water Billabong (Ngurrungurrudjba) brims with native flora and fauna, best seen on the sunrise boat tour with Yellow Water Cruises, booked through Cooinda Lodge, in Kakadu, Kakadu National Park.
Above and below: A crocodile lurks patiently for a chance to snap up nearby food, then moves on to its next haunt. Its powerful tail can launch fast attacks from underwater.
Above: Spotted here at Yellow Water Billabong in May, magpie geese (Anseranas semipalmata) are native to northern Australia and southern New Guinea. This common waterbird is an important seasonal food source for Aboriginal people and popular for recreational hunters.
Below: The group of rock outcrops known as Ubirr rise on the edge of the Nadab floodplain in Kakadu National Park. While most of its present paintings were created about 2000 years ago, Ubirr’s rock faces have been continuously painted and repainted since 40,000 BCE, right up to modern times.
Above: This rock painting of a thylacine at Ubirr was presumably done before the species became locally extinct, making the artwork at least 2000 years old. Thylacines once lived in Kakadu but are now extinct, after dingoes came to Australia 3500 years ago, which hastened the mainland demise of thylacines by 2000 years ago. This carnivorous marsupial is also called the Tasmanian tiger due to its aggressive hunting style, its striped back and its last refuge in Tasmania, ending with the death of the last one in a zoo in 1936. On Tasmania, ranchers persecuted thylacines as alleged pests.
Above: At Ubirr rock art site, this painting of Mabuyu with fishing gear reminds Aboriginal people to tell an old story which warns against stealing. Cave dwellers who stole Mabuyu’s fish were killed by him blocking their exit with a huge rock.
Flight & transit notes: Seattle–Haneda–Narita–Cairns–Darwin
Google Flights only supports up to five Multi-City (one-way) flights per booking search. So for our 6 flight legs, I separately booked three round trip flights nested over five weeks (SEA–HND, NAR–CNS, CNS–DRW). Adding lots of leeway (24+ hours) between each leg added flexibility to our itinerary. Compared to other airlines, Delta Comfort+ offered the best value for 3 inches of extra legroom from Seattle to Tokyo. This choice of Delta Airlines required us to change airports in Tokyo to reach Cairns, which became a nice excuse for viewing flowers in the city. To offset jetlag, we appreciated walking just five minutes from the airplane to stay overnight at the Villa Fontaine Grand Haneda Airport hotel, which served a bountiful Japanese/international buffet breakfast in the morning. After first getting Japanese yen cash at an ATM, we each purchased a PASMO card for seamless payment on Japan’s transit system. At Narita Airport, we caught Jetstar’s evening flight to Cairns. Business Class was a good value overnight. Five weeks later, for the return to Seattle, Jetstar’s daytime flight using Economy Flex Bundle was the best value. Checking no luggage for all six flights allowed us to breeze past baggage claim. Our worthwhile Global Entry passes shortened TSA lines at SeaTac Airport for departure, and for arrival through United States customs.
Recommended books for Australia
- Lonely Planet Australia 21 (Travel Guide) Paperback – November 23, 2021
- Lonely Planet Australia’s Best Trips 3 (Travel Guide) Paperback – November 23, 2021
- Lonely Planet Best Day Hikes Australia 1 (Travel Guide) Paperback – March 16, 2021
- Lonely Planet East Coast Australia 7 (Travel Guide) Paperback with Folded Map, April 20, 2021
- “A Town Like Alice” on 3 DVDs released in 2020, TV mini-series from 1981 with Helen Morse and Bryan Brown, an all-time favorite romance, based on the 1950 book by Neville Shute, a must read classic which captures your heart.
- “Australia” (2008) Blu-ray movie, epic and romantic action adventure starring Hugh Jackman (Actor), Nicole Kidman (Actor), Baz Luhrmann (Director)