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

There’s something about Alice

Well, it is quite something to be thrown back into the thick of it, and quite something again to be thrown into the thick of it in the thick of it. With a hop, skip and considerable jump there could be no pretence of being in England anymore. No tranquil ponds and croquet-worthy lawns, no afternoon teas and broadleaved avenues, no ubiquitous sarcasm and cling-filmed sandwiches. Just right bloody ripper sunbaked Straya with Utes and flies and glad-wrapped beetroot sangas and drongos in high-vis and Aboriginals under trees, with rarely a hipster in sight.

That probably does Alice Springs an injustice to be fair. While there are plenty of Utes and flies and a fair share of drongos, it struck me what a right multicultural melee Alice is. An African taxi driver took me to my resort hotel, filled with – among others – softly-spoken British baby boomer couples and their lairy transatlantic cousins. Here an immaculate receptionist of Southeast Asian heritage checked me in and I passed what passed for a chambermaid from the Middle East. Later, on the way into town for a bite to eat (friendly Asian service again), I strolled along Todd Street Mall to the sounds of German and French backpacker accents and something more rarely heard in other Australian towns and cities: Aboriginal dialects, which are many and varied. For better or worse, it really is a right little melting pot in the middle of nowhere.

There is an oasis town aura to Alice – albeit a little rough around the edges – which perhaps draws these people in. Approaching from north, south, east or west it is probably the first place with a Woolworths and Kmart for a thousand miles, or something stupidly noteworthy like that. You can finally get a cappuccino, but do beware. And there are public showers so you can attempt to wrench off layers of sand and dirt and flies that have attached to your skin while ploughing through the Oodnadatta Track in your big fuck off truck. Frankly, if only more towns in Australia had such facilities, it would have been most welcome.

alice01On the other hand, natural oases appear more limited. The Todd River is mostly a river in name only. Usually it’s just a dry, wide, and sunken swathe of sand meandering through town, almost as if a dreamtime serpent had once there slivered. It is quite striking and also quite beautiful in a way: grasses and short and stocky shrubs flower along its banks and a parade of River Red Gums indulge in a majestic arrangement of bulbous roots, variegated bark and twisted, stretching branches. There really is not a better Eucalypt in all of Australia, in my uneducated opinion. It just looks like it belongs here.

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As well as dry (semi-arid is the tour guide word of choice) Alice is – it will come as no surprise – frequently hot. However, having endured a scorcher of a week in Canberra, it actually felt quite pleasantly temperate for my stay. A nice ambient thirty degrees with a bit of a breeze and occasional cloud cover. Pah, call this hot?

Anyway, venturing into the outback from Alice – once work duties have been completed – it doesn’t take long to feel a long, long way from anywhere and anything. You can sense it would be really, really nasty on a proper hot day. Flies would multiply tenfold, crickets would pulsate loudly before passing out, the cracked earth would literally bake a goanna, while giant birds would circle for unsuspecting Englishmen lost in their quest to find a tea shop.

Fortunately, this particular Englishman was on a minibus tour today, taking in the West Macdonnell Ranges. Not the entire length of the ranges mind, because they stretch virtually uninterrupted for something like five hundred kilometres. Technically there are three separate ranges in the ranges, if that makes sense. Named after British conquistadors who got a bit lost, I suspect. I cannot remember, because instead of taking in everything the tour guide was saying, I was kind of mesmerised by the almost repetitive pattern of sweeping ridges rising from scrubby red plains.

Scenery passing by the window, I noticed how once every few kilometres the ridgeline dips and is eroded to varying degrees. In some spots this has created a significant gap and a way through to the north, sometimes narrower than an American tourist. This is where waterholes and gorges form – Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery’s Big Hole and the like – providing opportune stops for purveyors of sightseeing day tours. They are stops worth making, for there is an air of magnificent serenity in such sheltered grandeur.

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Further down the road there are some ochre pits, imaginatively marked on the map as ‘Ochre Pits’ (it is a rare thing indeed to find any ambiguity whatsoever in modern Australian place names). The pits offer evidence of mining long before unscrupulous Queenslanders and Chinese corporations arrived. I never realised how rare ochre was, this being one of only nine such pits in Australia. Quite coincidentally I had been to one other, down in the Flinders Ranges, a couple of years ago. And I remember just as many flies there as there were here today.

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Beyond noon and the sun was starting to become a little fiercer and, of course, the flies had been stoked into action. Time for a cold beer and a feed I would say. And quite astonishingly there is a place just for that. At Glen Helen Gorge – which really does appear in the middle of nowhere – someone has decided to build a resort. It’s not your resort in the Abu Dhabi or Port Douglas sense – think more shack-like and rubble-strewn. But it has a pub, a pub with cold beer, along with a plethora of touring essentials like fly nets and trail guides and fridge magnets. And just down from the pub you can stagger down to the next waterhole.

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Refreshed, you may like to take a post-lunch dip and float on the waters that have collected in the hollows of Ormiston Gorge, ten minutes or so up a side road from Glen Helen. Or, like me and several others, you may wish to feel the full force of the early afternoon sun on a short but steady climb to an overlook. Perhaps it is the sweat from collective hordes of visitors that gathers in the open air swimming pool several hundred feet below?

Still, it is all worthwhile toil, for the view is pure red heart of Australia stuff. With trails and river beds and curiosity beckoning on every rocky ridge top, you can begin to see why Aboriginal tribes were prone to wander. For food and water for sure, but there is also something captivating and enticing about this landscape which is hard to describe. It wants to lure you in, to see what is around the next corner, and, in doing so, to fool you into a frazzled state of bewilderment and possible death because you are not part of it.

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Thankfully, an air-conditioned minibus was enough to tempt me away from disappearing into a chasm, but I have made a mental note of the Larapinta Trail – or parts thereof – for future reference.

The pleasingly cool bus happily commenced its return to Alice with another waterhole stop – where you could invariably change into swimmers, bathers, togs, swimsuits or just go stark bollock naked – to come. And then, what will later be re-created as an episode of pure outback horror for some, commenced. A puncture, hordes of flies, hot afternoon sun, circling vultures, probable snakes, likely serial killers. Would we make it back in time for our dinner reservations? What about our flights tomorrow? What if we get eaten by kangaroo zombies? Anyone want any lamingtons? AGGGHHHHHH, lamingtons, help!!

Mercifully, the tyre got changed, with just a little help from yours truly. Being the only male of a certain age on the bus I felt obliged. And a touch heroic, vanquishing the oily grime from my hands with a wet wipe from someone’s handbag. What. A. Man. We still might make the waterhole stop now, and not have to eat lamingtons to survive. Unless we get another puncture, but what are the chances of that?!

alice07And so, ten minutes later with a flat front right, someone opened the lamingtons while others flagged down help to get a message back to Alice for another bus to be despatched. Certain overseas visitors couldn’t fathom that there was no mobile reception here, and it was not as simple as getting a rescue helicopter so they could still make it in time for their dinner reservation. One hour in, an extended family resorted to playing the ABC game and I desperately hoped they would ask me to join in. Two hours, and restlessness heightened. People needed to pee in the bushes and generally say what they would have done differently with the eternal benefit of hindsight and no experience whatsoever travelling in the Australian outback. A man with binoculars scanned the road on the horizon, each occasional sighting of a vehicle bringing brief hope before its despair.

Two and a half hours in, one more vehicle sighting provided another glimmer of hope. With sunlight dipping, the time when kangaroo zombies stir from the caves was nearing. I had resisted the lamingtons thus far and wanted to keep it that way. The vehicle slowed and revealed itself to be an identical minibus, apart from some livery telling us it’s the airport shuttle. Jeez, that’s some transfer, so let us hope it’s for us.

And of course it was, for this isn’t really an outback horror tale at all, just some inconvenient episode that soured a fine day but will find use in a vacation anecdote (or maybe even an inane post on an obscure blog). It may have already appeared on Trip Advisor, thanks to the ruining of dinner reservations. And of course, it’s just another reminder that you’re back in Australia Neil, the real ‘Straya. And there aint a lot you can do about anything in the real ‘Straya, so suck it up, maaaate!

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography

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