South to North

Frosts. Enough already! But it was heavy rain with milder conditions greeting me at five o’clock in the morning bound for Canberra Airport. Despite very little traffic, every light was red, the automatic check in counter didn’t recognise me and I was, with some sympathy, relayed the news that I was too late. I looked forlorn, beaten, empty. I felt as much.  But throw in a few calls and they managed to arrange some fog in Brisbane to delay my flight and leave me with a 12 hour trip to Darwin. Annoying but also blessed.

It is hard to be anything but languid in the tropics. I felt the odd man out putting on trousers and shoes to undertake work. But in between there were outdoor coffee stop laptop catch ups, esplanade strolls, and post-work reduced-price eating at the Mindil Beach Night Markets. And there were shorts, fully taking advantage of The Dry, which provides an unstinting predictability of blue skies and 33 degrees. Darwin grew on me, but mainly because it wasn’t The Wet. And I’m not sure I could live here, because it only seems to attain adequate on the coffee measurement scale.

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NT02Having come so far, I was determined to explore beyond Darwin during The Dry, so tacked on an extra night to squeeze in what most people would probably do over two or three days. An early start on Saturday and speed limits of 130km/h help, and I found myself entering Litchfield National Park before ten; just in front of the procession of tour buses (invariably named things like Crocco Tours, The Top End Crocosaurus, NT Outback Crocclebus etc etc) entering the parking area of Florence Falls.

I had been here in The Wet and it was, undeniably, very wet (there is a blunt truth to many a Top End expression). Today, there was still plenty of water gushing from the twin cascades and into a perfect swimming hole, which soon became populated by sagging swimsuits and shocking Speedos (the tour buses had arrived). No wonder the crocs keep away!

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Off the beaten track just a little, a path leads back to the car park following a small, shady creek. It’s called Shady Creek. Again, I remember this in February, when the path was subsumed by the creek and crossing took a bit of arms-linked watch where you put your feet and hope there’s not a snake there kind of affair. Today, with barely a soul venturing this way from the pools, it was a masterpiece of tranquillity. And still devoid of snakes.

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Rejoining the Stuart Highway I noted Alice Springs was a mere 1402 kilometres south. And between there, not very much at all. Apart from Katherine, which for quite a long time I pictured as a cute, small-town feel kind of spot nestled in a rocky valley beside the tree-lined meander of the Katherine River. It might even have a nice organic coffee place with homemade Hummingbird cake and copies of The Guardian.

About one hundred clicks out, and with the road trip feels returning to my synapses, I remembered to readjust my expectations. I’m glad I did; not that there was anything wrong with Katherine, but I was restricted to Woollies and Red Rooster for dinner. Nonetheless, it didn’t matter, for Katherine was purely a functional base from which to enter Nitmiluk, more commonly known as Katherine Gorge, a place I had neither been in The Wet nor The Dry.

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The benefit of a long drive was arriving in the latter part of the day, with the air cooling just a smidgeon and the light all radiant amber. It was so good, so captivating, that I hiked for a little longer than I planned, detouring an extra few kilometres through rocky valleys and verdant oases to Pat’s Lookout. Grand and serene, primeval and elemental, it was a surprise to be joined this late in the day by a couple of backpackers. But we didn’t say much, other than accented helloes, perhaps because we were just a little beholden by the world we were in.

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The light sunk lower as I headed back down towards the visitor centre, confident that I would make it before it became too dark. And indeed, my timing was only a little out, as the last red hues of the sun cast the top of the escarpment aflame. These are the scenes you live for in the Australian outback, these are the memories that never fade.

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Almost everyone who comes to Nitmiluk goes out onto the water. My restricted time meant the only option was the Dawn Cruise the next morning, before a race back to Darwin Airport. I think even if I had longer to linger, this would still have been the best option, with only a scattering of people aboard to witness the calm commencement of a magical new day.

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Quick tour guide factoid 1: there are actually nine gorges in Nitmiluk, inevitably named Gorge 1, Gorge 2, Gorge 3 etc. During The Wet, the natural rock barriers between each get flooded, allowing saltwater crocodiles a little greater room for exploration.

Quick tour guide factoid 2: the park rangers undertake a Saltie capture and release program to clear the gorge when the waters have subsided. This was in operation now. But Freshwater crocs are there all the time. Like over there, quick, look, just to the right of the boat. But the worse a Freshie can do is tear off your arm or some such.

Quick tour guide factoid 3: we have now come to the end of Gorge 1, so it’s time to get out of the boat and make your way for about 400 metres to the next boat and Gorge 2. It’s all rather gorgeous.

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As the sun slowly rises into a field of dotted high cloud, it intermittently breaks through to illuminate massive canyon walls topped with precariously positioned trees. The water flickers with a murmur of wind. A cormorant sits statue in a branch half submerged by water. Sandy beaches and mangroves are interspersed, sometimes disappearing into the fissures and fault lines of the massive sandstone plateau that stretches far into Arnhem Land.

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I could never ever pretend to understand what it is like to be an Aboriginal Australian. To be one of the Jawoyn people who have lived with this land for tens of thousands of years, way before a British Lieutenant was a twinkle in his father’s eye. To live, to breath, to die upon a land that they do not see themselves as owning but of being one of itself. It was a land that was a privilege, just for a few hours, to be a part of. And it seemed strange, very strange indeed, to know that I would be back in an artificial white man’s capital, a freezing white man’s capital, later that day.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography Walking

Umbrella

We need to talk about the weather. It’s part of my DNA: within one of my chromosomes that have also determined a reticence to introduce myself to strangers and a fondness for orderly queues linger a few cells dedicated to obsessing about the weather. I think they may be GB cells. They surfaced when I was relatively young and manifested themselves in an early career goal to be a weatherman. A rough outline of the southwest of England was etched on a sheet of A4 and stuck on the inside of my cupboard door. Other bits of paper were cut up and made into various symbols for sun, cloud, thunder, snow and rain, to be stuck on the map with blu-tac. The rain symbols tended to get worn out the quickest.

The association with rain makes it natural for me to see the umbrella as a very British thing, whether jauntily swinging along with pinstripes and bowler hats, colourfully huddled together overlooking a covered up centre court, or propelling erstwhile nannies across the streets of London to shove spoonfuls of sugar down children’s throats. However a quick bit of research (i.e. scanning Wikipedia and not really reading much of it) suggests the brolly goes back to ancient empires but – get this – it was used to shade Egyptian cats or something from the fiery orb of the angry celestial sun god (like I say, I didn’t really read much of it). Shade from the sun? In the UK? Even Mary Poppins made more purposeful use of an umbrella than that!

I have also vaguely potentially read somewhere that the Eskimos have fifty different words for snow; in the UK a similar linguistic phenomenon exists for wet stuff from the sky. So on any one day across the British Isles it could be raining, drizzling, mizzling, spitting, chucking it down, pouring, precipitating, suffering deluges, downpours, cloudbursts and sheets of rain, and, fantastically, raining cats and dogs. Which is all a bit Shih Tzu. Meanwhile in France it just pleuts and pleuts.

The crazy thing with all of this watery bombardment is that the umbrella is frequently useless, turned inside out by the howling gales kindly delivered by Atlantic storms. There is no more iconic sight than a mangled umbrella dumped despairingly into a bin on a railway station platform. Because you have been there yourself, you can easily picture the struggle that befell its former owner and the sodden mess in which he or she arrived at work, uncomfortably damp for the rest of the day. Hence the alternative or additional and very fashionable cagoule…the tasteful pack-a-mac, which I am pleased to discover is of British origin [1].

Something else distinctly British is a summer trip to the seaside for a picnic in the car. Outside the sea and sky are leaden and the mid teens temperature is quelled by a cooling hurricane and squalls of rain. Inside, cheese and cucumber sandwiches are squashed and soggy while the windows are steaming up. Clothes are sticking to bodies and bodies are sticking to other bodies wedged in like slightly more animated sardines. All the time pack-a-macs are at the ready for when the rain becomes slightly less heavy and a scramble along the promenade to the dilapidated pier can be braved.

The good thing from familiarity is that Britain is generally prepared for rain and carries on carrying on regardless. There are always things to do for ‘rainy days’ such as popping out for tea and cake, or sheltering in the dark protective womb of a U_monkeysmedieval tavern, warmed by warm ale. There are amusements and fudge making demonstrations and bric-a-brac sales in the village hall, with more tea and cake thrown in. There are theme parks and zoos, where even the monkeys have the good sense to seek shelter while humans negotiate driving rain and wade through puddles to come and look at them [2].

By contrast of course Australia has this sunny image of Lara Bingle on a Whitsunday Beach sounding dumb and asking you where the bloody hell you are [3]. It would surprise some people that it does actually rain in Australia, a fact not usually depicted in adverts for that local beer that everyone drinks…what is it…Fosters or something. Neither, unfortunately, does a test match get washed out. Instead, sun-baked pitches form chasms that swallow English batsmen whole, and the only rain is that of plaudits lauded by the partisan commentary towards Mitchell bloody Johnson.

Still, there is a tendency to assume that when it comes to the weather, she’ll be right. Plans can be made for weeks in advance with the assumption that all is going to be dry and sunny. Wet weather contingency plans rarely feature and, then, if it does rain or even just a few grey clouds appear, whole events are cancelled and people shelter in their suburban homes drinking Fosters and watching Lara Bingle be Lara Bingle. I just think, when it comes to a little bit of rain, Australians are…well how to put this delicately…a bit soft, like Mitchell bloody Johnson before he had that fearsome moustache and bowled a few lucky long hops that got wickets.

I can of course include myself in this catch all generalisation of Australians. I too have become accustomed to assuming that days will be dry, which makes it even more frustrating when rain appears. Summer weekends down the coast can be grey and cool and interspersed with rain, which at least makes for a nice car picnic. Sydney can live for weeks with easterlies blowing of the ocean and dumping moisture in endless waves. And in Darwin, well, in Darwin they have a whole season dedicated to rain: the wet…

My one and only visit to Darwin came in February. February: the peak of a hot Aussie summer, when even locals are getting bored of barbecue prawns and one day cricket. But while most of the country basks in a self-satisfied glow, up in the north it is the time when most people in Darwin, if they weren’t already, go mad. The ‘wet’ is a typically Australian to-the-point description of the summer weather in the tropics, a few months shrouded in monsoonal lows and the occasional cyclone. It delivers warm, humid rain, a climate for steamed up glasses and camera lenses and consistent dampness that never goes away. It seems to me, quite horrid.

Holed up in a hotel room it appears as though the rain never eases, never stops for the briefest of interludes. There is no waiting for it to pass and so you have to embrace the wet, taking a tokenistic umbrella which will make very little difference to how damp you actually become. Leaving the sanctum of air-conditioning the humidity is instantly sapping, the pavements and roads and gutters a sheen of water, a danger zone for human aquaplaning and thong blow outs and hidden crocs. But you still push on for an ice cream regardless.

Out of Darwin the landscape is transformed by the season and it seems ninety nine percent of the haphazard interior road network is under water. In Litchfield National Park a bitumen road somehow survives above fields of sodden brown, transporting you to waterfalls that roar like a space shuttle during lift off. Hiking requires some wading – the water is warm and only mildly tumultuous where winter paths usually meander. Goodness only knows what sort of things are in there with you, but there is enough ground above water to stop and observe and inch your way closer to pools that would be idyllic for swimming if there wasn’t ten billion gigalitres of water plummeting off a cliff and directly into them.

Elsewhere, Kakadu National Park is one of the most well-known and iconic preserves in Australia, encapsulating a blend of tropical jungle, vast wetlands and rugged rocky outcrops daubed with ancient art. Here again much is under water and many roads are closed off until at least June. A few lesser sights and vistas remain accessible and it even seems to stay dry for a bit too. Walking among the landscape feels a little less soggy and it is easier to appreciate the wonderful composition of vivid green long grasses, contorted trees, and rocky outcrops. Even the waterholes are calmer and more inviting, save for the signs that say something along the lines of ‘whilst we have done our best to clear this area of crocodiles there can be no guarantee that a six metre monster called George has not moved into the area and is looking forward to tasting foolish tourist flesh.’

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Despite what turns out here to be a drier interlude it remains handy to keep an umbrella at hand. The rain is sure to return [4]. Not only will the umbrella help with this imminent rainfall but, in conjunction with a fetching cagoule, it can maintain a clear British connection and sense of identity in an alien, slightly hostile environment. Plus should George the six metre croc appear, the cagoule can be thrown over his thrashing jaws and his eyes can be poked with the umbrella’s pointy end. And then of course, even if that fails (which I doubt), there is chance of a Mary Poppins style escape over the floods and far away to a world of diabetic, tooth-decayed children. Back, of course, to the umbrella’s natural home: Great Britain.


[1] Again, according to Wikipedia…and who am I to argue with an important ministerial source of information. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cagoule

[2] This could be where the theory of evolution goes awry.

[3] Perhaps more evidence of evolution gone awry.

[4] Unless it happens to be one random day in the middle of the year when the big tap is turned off and the ‘dry’ commences…which is all a bit weird

Links

Another great day to be beside the seaside: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X4chzObTFY

Way to get around: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BHoDW9f7vY

NT tourism: http://www.travelnt.com/

Mad as cut snakes: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/croctastic-nt-news-devotes-front-page-to-five-crocodile-stories-on-one-day/story-fndo48ca-1226509077565

A to Z Australia Great Britain Walking