Alice Springs, Australia, February 08
Australia (Part 5)
Last Saturday afternoon we left Cairns and the eastern coast of Australia to head to Darwin in the Northern Territory. In the tropical Top End, as it is known, we would begin a week-long trek of adventure tours down through the middle of Australia. The time had come to see some real, live Australian Outback. Before leaving Sydney, we had booked ourselves onto the Northern Territory Adventure Tour's "Red Rocket" tour. The week would consist of three different camping trips: two days in Kakadu National Park, three days travelling down the Stuart Highway to the "Red Center" and Alice Springs, taking in the sights along the way, and finally two days seeing Uluru and King's Canyon.
We had debated some about whether coming to Darwin this time of year was a good idea. February is right in the middle of the monsoonal wet season, and the Top End pulls down about 2.5 meters (that's *meters*) of rain per year. Some of the sights within Kakadu would be inaccessible due to wet season road closures, namely Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls. But in the end, we decided (somehow) that camping in the rain could be fun. We envisioned huge rumbling skies, booming thunder, exhilirating electrical storms, and torrential downpours. If nothing else, we thought, that would make a good story, so we decided to go for it.
As it turned out, we arrived in Darwin to find that the Northern Territory was experiencing the dryest wet season for a long, long time. A veritable drought. Though it was humid (but not like Cairns), there weren't many clouds in the sky during our time there. For the most part it was just hot. We checked into our mercifully air-conditioned room at the Melaleuca Lodge and took advantage of some free meal vouchers offered by a nearby pub. (And the food was actually very good!)
The most notable thing about Darwin was the presence of Aboriginal people. Up until then, we had not seen any of Australia's indigenous inhabitants. Kakadu and the neighboring Arnhem Land have been inhabited by Aboriginal people for an estimated 50,000 years, though their numbers have dwindled significantly. Most occupy remote settlements across the Arnhem Escarpment, but about 300 still call Kakadu home. Those communities still largely follow their ancestral traditions and maintain the Aboriginal culture. We later found out that those who we would see in the towns and cities had typically chosen or were forced to leave these communities, often as a result of alcoholism. Apparently, Aboriginal people do not possess a certain gene responsible for an enzyme which breaks down alcohol. The result is that when they drink, they are drunk for a long time, sometimes for days. Over the years, this sad fact has had a serious impact on the Aboriginal communities and caused many of them to become homeless and destitute. It seems that predjudices still run high in Australia, and although some efforts at social reforms are being made, any change is going to require a long, slow and painful process.
Before sunrise the next morning we had checked out of the hostel, stored our large backpacks, and were packed into a 4WD truck with twelve other people on our way to Kakadu National Park. Our guide, Nile, was a pleasant, soft-spoken guy about our age and fit the part perfectly dressed in a khaki shirt and shorts, bush hat, and gum boots. Before actually entering Kakadu, our first stop was the Mary River Wetlands where we took a nature cruise up the Mary River and a few of it's lily-covered billabongs. (Billabongs are areas of the floodplain where water from the wet season rains collects and remains as the dry season heat begins the process of evaporation.) Our guide for the cruise (can't remember his name, but he was basically Crocodile Dundee) pointed out all of the flora and fauna along the river, including a couple of small freshwater crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks. "Freshies" are the supposedly "harmless to humans" variety and are only found in Australia. The ones to watch out for are the saltwater crocodiles ("salties") also known as estuarine crocodiles. That species is much larger (2-3 meters, often larger) and aggressive, with a particular taste for humans and their pets. According to Mick, we'd be lucky to spot any at all because it had been so dry that most had not migrated down from the coastal estuaries yet. If any were there, they were probably staying on the bottom of the river. He recounted one cruise from the previous wet season where they counted 84 salties on the banks of this same river! We ended up not seeing any dangerous salties, but other wildlife included an enormous water buffalo, majestic sea eagles, cormorants, egrets, and a little bird called the jacana, also known as the "Jesus Bird", because it runs across the tops of the waterlilies making it appear to walk on the water.
After a bush lunch of boiled hot dogs, we entered Kakadu National Park on the western border via the Arnhem Highway. We carried straight on through, crossing the South Alligator River (named a long time ago by a guy who thought the crocodiles were alligators), and ended up at Ubirr, close to the eastern border of the park. Along the way we had to cross a section of road that was slightly washed out; about a meter of water was running over it. Several Aboriginal children from a local settlement within the park were splashing around in the water and they gave us big smiles and waves as we passed. It was quite a change from the Aboriginal people we had seen in Darwin. As it turned out, that was the only time we saw any Aboriginal smiles during our whole time in Australia.
Kakadu is Australia's largest national park at 20,000 square kilometers and, as I mentioned earlier, contains a rich heritage of Aboriginal culture. To quote from the Kakadu Visitor Guide:
"Kakadu is a cultural landscape. It was shaped by the spiritual ancestors of Aboriginal people during the Creation Time. These ancestors or 'first people' journeyed across the country creating the landforms, plants, animals and Bininj/Mungguy (Aboriginal people). They brought with them laws to live by: ceremony, language, kinship and ecological knowledge. They taught Bininj/Mungguy how to live with the land and look after the country."
Kakadu is jointly managed by its Aboriginal traditional owners and the Commonwealth organization Environment Australia. Following is a quote from Brian Baruwei of the Wurrkbarbar clan, an Aboriginal traditional owner:
"If you respect the land,
then you will feel the land.
Your experience will be one that you
cannot get anywhere else in the world."
Ubirr is the home of several Aboriginal rock art sites. Some of the paintings are believed to be 25,000 to 50,000 years old, making them among the oldest known artwork in the world. They were created mostly using red ocher pigments, which over time has become part of the rock itself. The paintings deal with various subjects including depictions of the ancestral beings which created the world during the "Dreaming" (or Creation Time) and also traditional stories. The Aboriginal peoples are made up of many different geographical clan groups, each with their own distinct languages and history. There was no written language, so all knowledge was passed down to younger generations through the spoken word, and often using the rock paintings to illustrate some historical or moral lesson. For example, we saw paintings representing the creation of crocodiles during the Dreaming (and how they should be avoided!), and also one more recent painting which depicted a white man, complete with rifle.
Unfortunately, at some point in the past, vast uranium deposits were discovered in parts of Kakadu. At the time, the traditional Aboriginal owners were somehow convinced that allowing mining companies to lease these parts of the land was a good idea. They feel much differently now as the mining companies have apparently caused quite a disturbance environmentally and culturally in those areas, but the government position is that the lease must be honored. (I think it goes on for another fifteen years or so.) Nile told us that for thousands of years the Aboriginal people had been aware of something different about the areas where the uranium was discovered. They named those areas the "Sickness Land" and it was said they were inhabited by evil ancestral spirits. Some of the rock art at Ubirr depicts a person who had lived in the Sickness Land with painful swollen joints - typical of exposure radiation sickness.
After looking at all of the rock art and hearing the stories and symbolism from Nile, we climbed up to the top of a rocky outlook for an unbelievable view of the Nardab floodplain stretching out to the north and west and the sandstone escarpment of the Arnhem Land Plateau to the east. Nile told us that a scene from one of the Crocodile Dundee movies was filmed there in which Mick describes the area as "his office".
That night we camped at the tour company's permanent camp site in Jabiru, which was more comfortable than we expected. They even had a swimming pool. Nile cooked up some barbeque mystery meat and we did the dishes.
The next morning we were up early to drive down a rough track and then hike a few kilometers to the Gubara Pools. Gubara is a section of the Burdulba Creek where the water has formed some natural deep pools among the rocks. After Nile assured us that there were no dangerous saltwater crocs in this area, we had a refreshing swim and explored the area a bit. Allow me to quote another passage from the Kakadu Visitors Guide which I found just recently:
"Due to the risk of estuarine crocodiles in the park, the only public place we recommend you swim is in the Jabiru swimming pool. Some visitors choose to swim at their own risk, in selected natural plunge pools and gorge areas such as *Gubara*, ... These areas are surveyed for estuarine crocodiles prior to opening each dry season. Estuarine crocodiles have been known to move into some areas ... without detection."
Nice. Thanks, Nile.
Later in the day we went to Nourlangie Rock, the site of an ancient Aboriginal shelter and several art sites. Nile again explained the meanings of some of the paintings by telling us the Aboriginal stories.
The story of Namarrgon, otherwise known as the Lightning Man, is one of the more prominent paintings at the Anbangbang Gallery. Namarrgon is depicted with axes coming out of his knees and elbows which he uses to make thunder and his lightning is shown as a band connecting his arms, legs, and head. He and his wife Barrginj are parents to a type of grasshopper which appears just before the first storms of the wet season. Another interesting painting is of Nabulwinjbulwinj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam. After exploring the rock art we took a climb up to Gunwarddehwardde Lookout for some more great views of the park.
Later in the day, some of us said goodbye to the group (who were on a three day tour), and we headed back to Darwin. On the way back we stopped off at a small didgeridoo shop by the side of the road because our new friend Johan from Sweden (Sue just calls him The Swede) was interested in buying one. We browsed around for a while and actually were able to watch an Aboriginal artist painting some original work. The owner of the shop was a hardcore Aussie outback guy. He had a blown-up picture on the wall of his brother sitting on top of an 18 foot saltwater croc (which was dead). The guy's brother was over six feet tall and sitting on the back of the dead croc his feet didn't touch the ground. That's how big it was. Like something out of "Jurassic Park". The croc had eaten some fisherman who was wading through a river, so they had to hunt it down. (Apparently, they hunt down all crocs who have eaten someone.) They tried to capture it alive, but drowned it by accident in the process.
The next morning Johan, Sue, and I joined a new bunch of people for the next leg of our trip, which would lead us into the real Outback. We boarded a bus of 1963 vintage named Priscilla and headed south along the Suart Highway into the "Never Never" of Australia. Over the next three days we would travel 1500 kilometers down the Track (as the Stuart Highway is known) to Alice Springs and the middle of the Outback.
The long stretches of riding the bus ahead of us were made bearable, even enjoyable, by the informative banter of guides Rob and Yvette. They were both well-travelled and veterans of the outback. They told us a great deal about the various Aboriginal clans of the areas we were passing through and of the social injustice and attempted reforms over the years. One story in particular stands out. A while back, the government tried to improve their lot by providing modern subsidized housing. Basically, they transplanted some of the Aboriginal people from their bush communities directly into typical white Australian type houses, without a thought to providing some type of transitional education. In the bush, Aboriginal people were accustomed to relieving themselves outdoors, and often used rocks as a substitute for toilet paper. Well, not long after the housing project was underway, the government found that the plumbing in all of the houses was damaged - the toilets were filled up with rocks.
After driving the whole morning, we stopped at Katherine Gorge National Park in the afternoon for some recreational activites. In the language of the local Jawoyn Aboriginals the area is called Nitmiluk, which is translated as "Cicada Dreaming". The Katherine River flows through the bottom of a series of gorges making up the park. In the wet season, the flow of water largely restricts access beyond the first gorge. Using two-person canoes, we all made our way along the river to the end of the first gorge where we disembarked to look at some Aboriginal rock art. On the way back up the river, we stopped off for a short scramble up a rocky trail to swim in a deep plunge pool at the base of a large waterfall.
The most notable thing that we saw in the park were the hundreds of "flying foxes" (bats) hanging upside down from the branches of the trees between the parking area and the boathouse along the river. These bats were about a foot in length from head to tail with brown furry bodies and large, leathery black wings. Most of them had their wings wrapped around them, flapping slightly to keep cool.
That night we camped at the tour company's permanent campsite near the town of Katherine. Sue and I had our own little half tent, half cabin to sleep in. The inside was about an 8x8 foot area with four walls made of screens and two wooden bunks. We had to use a rock to keep the screen door closed and (most of) the insects out. In the middle of the night, the almost unbearable humidity finally broke and we were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm. The wind was blowing hard and the rain penetrated the screens a bit, which was refreshing. In the morning I commented to Sue about it and found out that she had slept through the whole thing.
Our next stop down the Stuart Highway was at the Mataranka Homestead where there is a thermal pool. Before going down the trail into the thermal pool, we had to wait about twenty minutes while rangers with rifles were clearing out the bats which were hanging out in the trees over the pool. (They weren't shooting them, just making enough noise to scare the bats away.) From the general store area where we were waiting we could see large groups of black flapping shapes taking flight just above the treetops. It kind of looked like the flying monkey army from "The Wizard of Oz".
The rest of the day was spent on the road. By late afternoon we reached the town of Tennant Creek, which had been an important mining area in years past. Now, all of the mines are closed down. We stopped briefly to refuel Priscilla and some of the coolers and then headed just out of town to a horse farm which would be our campground for the night. To our surprise, the dusty little place in the middle of practically nowhere had a fairly new looking above-ground swimming pool. We made good use of it.
After dinner, guide Rob informed us that we could sleeping outside for the night, just like the outback drifters of days gone by. These "jolly swagmen", as they were known, would roam around the outback with their "swags" (bedrolls), in which they wrapped up all of their belongings (such as their "billy cans" (cooking pots)). As the first lines of Banjo Patterson's Australian folksong "Waltzing Matilda" says:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled
You'll come a-waltzing matilda with me
The loneliness of the outback lead to the term "matilda" as an affectionate way of describing one's swag, so that "waltzing matilda" came to mean packing your swag and hitting the road.
Rob had us all gather around and pulled a rolled-up swag out from a storage shed. These modern swags were basically a thin mattress enclosed in a zippered canvas sleeping bag. Rob suggested that we each unroll our swags in the well-lit kitchen area and check under the mattress for any critters that may be hiding there, which he proceeded to demonstrate. As he unzipped the canvas and reached for the mattress, I leaned forward to help him lift the mattress. As I did so, a coiled up black snake leapt up from under the mattress toward my face! In the split second that I realized the snake was a fake planted and thrown by Rob, I naturally uttered the sound of someone about to be bitten by a snake. For the record, though, I have to say (and Sue can back me up on this) that at least I didn't scream like a girl.
Later in the evening some of us built a fire and sat around listening to guide Yvette tell us stories from the area, past travels, and other outback tours. After the fire died down everyone wandered off to different parts of the camp to bed down. Sue and I slept quite comfortably in our swags beneath one of the biggest star-filled night skies we have ever seen.
In the morning we rolled up our swags and headed to the nearby Battery Hill mine, which was purpose built as a replica for tourists. It was dusty and loud and claustrophobic, as a real mine should be, and the guide was another no-nonsense outback character. We even got to wear hardhats.
Continuing south we came across an area dotted by large, almost spherical boulders. These bizzare rocks, which are created by some geological phenomenon the name of which escapes me, are known as the Devil's Marbles. Some of them are as large as seven meters square. The Aboriginals of the area claim them to be the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent, deposited during the Serpent Dreaming. We walked along a trail which wandered near some of the more interesting rocks and afterward gathered everyone together for a group photo.
For the next few hours we drove on down the searing Track, stopping only for roadhouse toilet breaks and a brief look at the forlorn monument marking the Tropic of Capricorn. Finally, we crossed the city limits into Alice Springs with a rousing cheer. Alice is the largest town in the Red Center of the Outback and is commonly referred to as the center of Australia (which it technically is not). It is a major transport hub though, considering that it is about halfway between Darwin in the Northern Territory and Adelaide in Southern Australia and it also has an airport servicing domestic flights. Considering the postcard images of barren red sand stretching to the horizon, we expected Alice Springs, and indeed the whole of the outback surrounding it, to reflect the same type of landscape. However, as in the Top End, we discovered that the "Red Center" of Australia has been experiencing an unusually long period of moisture (measured in years), making it more of the "Green Center". Alice Springs itself was fairly pleasant, with trees and grass and an almost urban feel. The wilderness beyond was mostly covered with green scrub brush and some areas even had a decent number of trees.
We pulled up to our hostel for the night, the Melanka Lodge, and everyone wearily dragged their packs into the reception area. Sue and I asked to upgrade from dormitory accomodations to a double room. We were told that the doubles in the hostel were currently under renovation, but they would put us up in a room at the motel next door for the same price. The room turned out to be fabulous, complete with air-conditioning, TV, bathroom, and clean sheets. It was the perfect way to end a three day camping roadtrip! Sue threw in some laundry while I attended a meeting detailing the next segment of the tour and then we joined our group at the hostel's bar/restaurant for a free and below average meal.
Water Lilies, Mary River Wetlands
Black-necked Stork, Mary River Wetlands
Freshwater Crocodile, Mary River Wetlands
White-breasted Sea Eagle, Mary River Wetlands
Freshwater Crocodile, Mary River Wetlands
Jacana or "Jesus Bird", Mary River Wetlands
Water Lily, Mary River Wetlands
Ubirr Main Gallery, Kakadu "X-ray art" - barramundi fish
Ubirr Main Gallery, Kakadu; "X-ray" art - barramundi fish
Ubirr, Kakadu; Aboriginal hunter and long-necked turtle
Lookout near Ubirr, Kakadu
Lookout near Ubirr, Kakadu
Lookout near Ubirr, Kakadu
Floodplain in Kakadu
Lookout near Nourlangie, Kakadu
Nourlangie rock art, Kakadu; Barrginj, Namandjolg, and Namarrgon the Lightning Man
Nourlangie rock art, Kakadu; Nabulwinjbulwinj - will hit you with a yam!
Dave, Nile, and Suzanne; leaving Kakadu
Flying foxes at Katherine Gorge
Swimming to the waterfall, Katherine Gorge
Didn't know about the crocs...
The waterfall again, Katherine Gorge
Kookaburra, Katherine Gorge
"Hey, Sal. Whatcha up to today?" "Oh, just hanging around."
"Australia's Most Remote Traffic Light", Daly Waters Pub
See New Jersey? (Daly Waters Pub)
Dunnies? (Daly Waters Pub)
Rock pickerupper, Battery Hill Mine
Battery Hill Mine
The Devil's Marbles
Spinifex Pigeon, Devil's Marbles
The Devil's Marbles (2)
The Devil's Marbles landscape
More Devil's Marbles
Cracked Devil's Marble
Still more Devil's Marbles
The most improbable Devil's Marble
Tour survivor's group photo, Devil's Marbles
Outback farming (at some roadhouse along the Track)
Guide Rob and Priscilla, Tropic of Capricorn