THERE is something surreal about waking up to the sound of a didgeridoo and opening your eyes to the undisturbed landscape of the Northern Territory. And on this World Expeditions adventure to the Kakadu National Park, there was no time for sleeping in.
During the week our aptly named guide Steve Trudgeon (that's "Trudge On" to most of us) had taken us trekking over boulders, up rocky hills and among 10-foot termite hills. Every day I was left speechless at the magnificent views. But what I didn't realise was that I hadn't seen anything yet ...
On this, our last day in Kakadu, we set off at the crack of dawn on our full-day hike into Koolpin Gorge, packs filled with water bottles, swimming gear and lunch provisions. The walk is only about 4km return but the terrain and the unrelenting Northern Territory sun make it a full-day adventure.
We start by climbing up and over a decent-sized rock wall, which is a little tricky at first. Knowing where to put your feet and hands takes a bit of getting used to, as do the precarious angles you find yourself in as you climb. But it's not too long before I find my climbing feet and start to enjoy myself.
Once over the wall our first stop (and there's one every 50 or so metres) is beside a picturesque pool. No swimming, though, as a croc was hauled out of here earlier in the year. All waterholes in NT are potentially croc-filled, but apparently the higher we go, the less likely it is we will come across any.
Looking up in the direction we are travelling is slightly daunting. It seems unbelievably steep and unforgiving, so I bravely try to focus on the breathtaking scenery rather than the scary bits. Soon I'm scrambling up boulders that are taller than me, enjoying the problem-solving aspects of the hike - left foot here, right hand there - and finding it really satisfying to get to the top.
We clamber up narrow tracks along steep cliffs and stop for the second time on a rock face that gives us a new perspective on where we've come from. From one side we look over the pools we have passed. On the other side we look into the Black Hole, the first croc-free pond on the day's journey. But still no swim. Trudgeon has better things in store for us first.
We clamber up another steep track and stop in the shade for a photoshoot. Trudgeon calls them "hero shots" - photos of people balancing precariously on rocky outcrops or boulders, with awe-inspiring scenery as their backdrop.
We march on as the sun gets hotter and finally reach our first swimming spot. The water is deep, cool and drinkable. It's absolute bliss diving in and following Trudgeon upstream to the highlight of the day. Surrounded by rock walls and flowing into a pure, deep pool, the waterfall here is itself worth the trek.
Floating on the surface of the water with the waterfall splashing behind me, I am the most relaxed I have been in a long time.
We swim for an hour, then indulge in a delicious poolside picnic before we have to move out of the sweltering sun. Relaxing in the shade, soaking up the unspoiled surroundings, it's really hard to imagine ever going back to the hustle and bustle of the real world.
Eventually we tear ourselves away after one last swim and trek back to that first rock wall. The entry to our adventure is now the exit, and with more than a tinge of sadness I climb back over into the real world.
The sadness, though, is soon surpassed by a huge sense of pride that I've managed such an amazing hike - and by a new appreciation for a totally unique environment.
World Expeditions is offering discounted Australian itineraries booked by September 30, 2010.
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