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The Top End: Australia in the rough


ARNHEM LAND, Australia (CNN) -- The north of Australia is called the Top End -- not a place where you'll find guardrails, signs or public transportation. It's Australia in the rough, a cornucopia of brightly colored insects, savage crocodiles and traces of the past normally seen in a museum.

Many tourists who want to take in the wildlife opt to go on an Aussie-style safari. Max Davidson leads safaris through a 420 square-mile (1,092 square-kilometer) area of wilderness, offering practical advice on flora. The milky plum, for example, may be a sweet snack, he says, but its leaves are prized for their medicinal use.

"If you happen to have a chest infection and diarrhea have a couple leaves and it's supposed to cure it," he says.

Tune in to CNN Travel Now on Saturday, September 23 for a journey into the Australian Outback
CNN's Carolyn O'Neil reports on the fascinating island off Australia's coast

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    Davidson has a keen eye -- and strong stomach -- for fauna too. After sampling a green ant, he declared: "Just like lemon."

    Think that's nutritious, how about termite mounds?

    "We have some we call Cathedral Termite nests, and they're up to 15-20 foot (five to six meters ) tall," he said. "Aboriginal women and men did use part of the termite nest, by eating part of this dirt. That's a mineral replacement."

    Along the water, the animals are not so small, or docile. Crocodiles in Arnhem Land can grow more than 12 feet (four meters) long.

    Art and mythology

    The safari also includes an outdoor art gallery of sorts. The cliffs hold paintings that date back to ancient times. Davidson discovered a sketch of what the indigenous peoples call a rainbow serpent.

    "A rainbow serpent is part of the mythology of the Aboriginal people," he says. "(It's) usually credited with creating waterways and waterholes. Every area would have a variation of a rainbow story."

    The paintings have lasted for tens of thousands of years because they're done on sandstone, Davidson says.

    "When it's painted on, in the dry season particularly, the sandstone is very porous and it goes into the rock, and bonds with the silicas in the rock," he says. "It's rock painted on rock, bonding with rock. The only way you could lose it then is by actual surface flaking away or abrasion."

    Visitors can get close to the artwork with a permit and the help of safari camp leaders and guides like David Mobbs.

      CAVE ART

    "It's all guided and in small groups," he says. "Therefore we can actually take the people in. We can virtually stick our noses up near the art but without touching it."

    Sydney resident Angus Ross came to Arnhem Land searching for adventure. What he found was a new perspective on his nation's past.

    "You just don't realize how ancient the aboriginal culture is," he says. "You think of Australia as just only being settled for just over 200 years and this is just mind-blowing that people were able to do this.

    "Coming from Australia you see a very different view of Aboriginals in the community. And this is something that I wish I'd seen a long time ago because it would have given me a greater appreciation of how the Aboriginals really were in their element -- and this is sort of the more pure stuff."

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