THE NORTHERN TERRITORY, Australia — Kakadu National Park covers an area of 7,646 square miles. That’s roughly the size of Slovenia, or, in American terms, bigger than Connecticut but smaller than New Jersey.
It is the country’s largest national park, in the very top, very middle of Australia, a vast area known as the “Top End.” There are two seasons here, wet and dry. During “the wet,” as it is called, it is so hot and humid and flood-prone that anyone who can avoid it does avoid it. Many businesses shut down for half of the year.
That includes Border Store, a shop and restaurant run by Michael Brown and his wife, Rattana Mana, who leave the Top End each year during the wet. The shop — in the middle of the park — sells postcards, packaged chips and candy, and serves a full menu of Thai food.
There are very few businesses out here, and one town, Jabiru, which was built to support a uranium mine that will soon close. About 40 minutes from Jabiru, you’ll find the Border Store next to one of Kakadu’s most popular attractions.
Ubirr, a rock formation that juts out over the Nadab floodplain, is home to a collection of stunning Aboriginal rock paintings, many of them thousands of years old. Kakadu is notable for its incredible natural beauty and its cultural significance to the people who have inhabited it for tens of thousands of years: the Bininj and the Mungguy people, who are the land’s traditional owners.
Border Store sits just outside the Ubirr parking lot. Families sprawl on the patio, eat packaged ice cream bars and swat at flies. It looks like your basic souvenir and snack shop, a place to buy a bottle of water before undertaking the hike up Ubirr. But as you wind through the patio toward the door to the shop, you may notice some tables laden with noodles and aromatic soups.
Ms. Mana is originally from the Phayao Province of Thailand, but the couple did not serve Thai food when they took over the store in 2011. They made sandwiches and salads for the busloads of tourists who came through, and Ms. Mana eventually started adding the occasional stir-fry or curry to the menu. It was her Thai dishes that began attracting the locals, people who lived and worked in Jabiru and beyond.
On first look, Border Store’s menu seems fairly standard, if you discount the fact that there is almost nothing to eat this far into the wilderness, let alone lovingly cooked Thai classics. But Mr. Brown and Ms. Mana grow their own herbs. Vegetables are fresh and never frozen. Curries are made from scratch.
Ms. Mana’s pad Thai is darker and richer than the classic version, but no less inhalable. Her jungle stir-fry has a bright, low burn to it, which doesn’t distract from the clarity of flavor of the vegetables and protein. (You have your choice of silken tofu, beef, chicken, prawn or squid.)
When you order at the counter, the cashier — often one of the couple’s daughters — will warn you when something is especially spicy. They may recommend a cooling drink as counterbalance. In the Kakadu heat and humidity, I cannot think of anything more revitalizing than Border Store’s watermelon cooler, which tastes of fruit and ice and nothing else.
Ms. Mana’s cooking has a slightly cultish following among the full-time residents of Kakadu. The Northern Territory is so immense and sparsely populated that it seems reasonable for a modest pub in Alice Springs to run advertisements on television in Darwin, a 16-and-a-half-hour drive away.
The most common way to get to Kakadu is to fly into Darwin, drive south, then turn east at the town of Humpty Doo. There are sporadic gas stations along the way, and places to camp, but mainly you’re looking at wide red desert vistas punctuated by rivers. Termite mounds rise from the ground like nobbled alien gravestones, and brush fires often burn along the side of the road, usually as purposeful back-burning to keep the threat of deadly bushfires at bay.
There are no electricity lines out here; Border Store is powered by a generator. When I visited, one of the toilets out back was closed. Or maybe it wasn’t? A sign on the stall door read, “Snake in the toilet! Beware.” Welcome to Australia.
With all that in mind, you can understand how Border Store might inspire intense dedication from locals with limited dining options. People I spoke to who live and work in the area talked about the excitement that mounts each year as Border Store’s opening approaches. That opening is not always set in stone — the couple generally aim for mid-May, but this year the road to Ubirr was flooded through May, and Border Store did not open until early June.
In 2018, Mr. Brown and Ms. Mana took over an outdoor cafe space attached to Anbinik, a resort park in Jabiru that provides simple cabin accommodations. It is one of the only alternatives to camping or staying at “the Croc,” a large hotel shaped like a giant crocodile.
The menus at the two locations are similar; Ms. Mana cooks during the daytime at Border Store and then leaves in the late afternoon to work the dinner service at Anbinik. I had a perfectly nice lunch there, a mild yellow curry sweetened by pumpkin along with buttery pastry-enveloped curry puffs, but my advice is to eat wherever it is that Ms. Mana is cooking.
Mr. Brown and Ms. Mana close up Border Store on the last day of October each year, after a full season of working seven days a week. They usually head to Thailand for the wet season, to recharge and spend time with Ms. Mana’s family. Most years, it has been a last-minute decision whether they’ll return to Kakadu and the Border Store. But these days, Mr. Brown sounds more certain of his and Border Store’s future.
“People appreciate us, and that makes a huge difference,” he said. “We would not have stayed without that appreciation and support.” But after six months of flooded roads, snakes in the toilet and nonstop work running two businesses, Mr. Brown said “I am absolutely looking forward to a holiday.”
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