When British photographer Tom Parker set off on a tour of Northern Australia’s Top End and the Kimberley, home to some of the planet’s largest stretches of wildnerness, he discovered an other-worldly landscape that was both a test of his skill and a profound inspiration.

By Tom Parker
September 29, 2017
“Cathedral Gorge in Northern Australia’s Bungle Bungle range is a difficult place to shoot,” Parker explains. “The hole in the roof lets in light only when the sun is at exactly the right angle.”
Tom Parker

I’ve traveled to nearly 90 countries in my work as a photographer — among them some of the most remote, extreme places on the planet. But the scale and emptiness of northwestern Australia was unlike anything I had seen before. It’s one of earth’s last great wildernesses. That’s often my main motivation when I travel: To take pictures of places that are still relatively untouched by man.

The area I covered was vast. I landed in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, and spent the next seven days driving eastward, through Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land — a 13,000-square-mile area the government gave back to the Aboriginal community around 50 years ago. Then, using small desert planes and helicopters, I flew some 900 miles to the Kimberley, an even more remote region of northwestern Australia. The Kimberley is the same size as California, yet has a population of just 38,000. There’s almost nothing there except this ancient, incredibly wild landscape.

“One morning I woke up before sunrise and took a boat to the floodplain of the Mary River. We ended up in a melaleuca-tree forest full of crocodiles — the experience was otherworldly.”
Tom Parker

Along the way, I flew over the Bungle Bungle mountains, which were only “discovered” by the outside world in 1982. The geology is very complex, and there’s a lot of texture there, but it can be tricky capturing that unless you’re able to shoot from above. Flying overhead in small aircraft meant I was able to take aerial photographs that really give a sense of how unique the topography is.

I was lucky enough to travel with a legendary guide named Sab Lord, who grew up in the Australian bush and had the air of an understudy for the role of Crocodile Dundee. He is the real deal — exactly the kind of guy you’d want to have looking out for you in this part of the world.

“I lit up these spectacular beehive rocks in the Bungle Bungle range with the headlights of our car,” Parker says. “You have to experiment when doing a shoot like this.”
Tom Parker

Lord, who has an amazing knowledge of Aboriginal culture, is one of very few people allowed to take visitors into Arnhem Land. Aboriginal people don’t like having their picture taken, and you can’t photograph the towns where they now live without getting permission from the government. As with any shoot where there are cultural sensitivities at play, it took a few hours to figure out how to find the photographs without offending anyone.

For me, the great thing about Lord — and I heard this from a few different people on the trip — is that he can bridge the gap that still exists between Australian Aborigines and the rest of the population. He introduced us to some inspiring Aboriginal people, and his stories about their way of life were mixed with hilarious anecdotes about getting into scrapes in the bush as a child.

This part of Australia is the true outback. In Kakadu National Park we traveled down a river teeming with crocodiles. At one point, a 20-foot-long animal drifted past us, dwarfing our boat, which already felt very low in the water. Lord assured us that this crocodile was a bit of a legend in the area and had never proved himself to be particularly interested in floating wooden objects, but some of our party got pretty nervous anyway. It felt a bit like coming across a dinosaur.

Left: “In Kakadu National Park, I went out to photograph wallabies at night,” Parker says. “It gets surprisingly cold after dark, so one of the guides lit a fire when I got back to the lodge.” Right: “I wanted a close-up of a crocodile, so I took a tour of the Adelaide River. The guide would hold up bait to lure them out of the water. This one was inches away from my face."
Tom Parker

Even though we traveled in May, which is winter in Australia, there was a scorched feel to everything. The area is incredibly arid, and gets drier and more deserted the farther inland you go. We saw a lot of forest fires. In the heat of the day the landscape felt quite angry, but as soon as the sun started falling, the depth of the colors and the contours of the rocks would reveal themselves. That was when I took many of my best shots.

It’s a tough place to photograph in many ways, as it can be visually quite homogeneous. But that is the great challenge of being a photographer: to look for beautiful images where on the surface there don’t appear to be any.

The Details: What to Do in Today's Northern Australia

Getting There

To reach Australia’s Top End, the northernmost section of the Northern Territory, fly to Darwin via Brisbane, Melbourne, or Sydney. From there, you can access sites including Purnululu National Park and the Berkeley River.

Tour Operator

Epic Private Journeys: A Brisbane-based operator offering bespoke and group travel itineraries throughout Australia. Top End trips from $787 per person per day.

Darwin

Stay

SkyCity Darwin: This resort is within walking distance of Darwin’s city center, but its five restaurants and 24-hour entertainment complex make it a destination of its own. doubles from $204.

Arnhem Land

Getting There

Take an hour-long flight from Darwin to Jabiru, then drive two hours east on dirt roads.

Stay

Davidson’s Arnhem Land Safaris: Located in the bush, this camp has a lounge, library, and pool. Guests stay in the surrounding private cabins. cabins from $591.

Berkeley River

Getting There

Transfer from Darwin to the Berkeley airstrip via a 100-minute flight aboard a light aircraft.

Stay

Berkeley River Lodge: Situated high on a dune, the private villas provide stunning views
of the Kimberley coastline and Berkeley River. villas from $1,537.

Kakadu National Park

Getting There

Drive two hours southeast from Darwin, or take a 45-minute flight in a light aircraft.

Stay

Bamurru Plains: Each of the nine safari suites at this lodge is raised on timber platforms
and designed to provide total immersion in the terrain. doubles from $488.

Purnululu National Park

Getting There

Take a 90-minute flight from Darwin to Kununurra, then transfer for an hour-long flight.

Stay

Bungle Bungle: Spend the night in one of the tented cabins before enjoying a three-course breakfast and exploring the nearby beehive domes. doubles from $386.

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