Back in Darwin here is our log for the past four days.
Wednesday 1st October 2014. Day 23 Tripping out
A very early start with the alarm going off at 5.15 am. Darwin taxis succeeded in adding to our stress levels this morning as the taxi booked for 6.00 am did not arrive until 6.20 am, the time we were due to be collected from a nearby motel. When we arrived at this location there was no sign of the tour company and we were just about to head into Darwin to their base when a phone call informed us that our guide was running late too. Eventually the 4 wheel drive tourist bus hover into view and it turned out that we were the first collected, with the benefit of being able to choose the best seats. The delay resulted from 6 extra passengers being added at the last minute, resulting in a full bus. After a tour round Darwin’s hotels we arrived at the adventure centre for the full complement.
Any tour of the top end involves hundreds of kilometres of driving to take in the key sights. We headed south out of Darwin towards the Litchfield National Park. We stopped just past Batchelor for a drink, at a café decorated with stuffed jeans, and then reached the magnetic termite mounds. These termites need precise orientation of their narrow mounds to ensure optimum temperatures. They are found in open areas and the site we visited reminded Eric of the megalithic stone rows at Carnac, although the illusion was somewhat shattered when a wallaby hopped on to the scene. Also in the area are cathedral mounds, shades of Gaudy that can reach over 8ft high and 8ft circumference near the base. Joyce was particularly bothered by the flies which constantly dive bomb into your eyes, nose and mouth, oh for a crocodile Dundee hat or a Scottish anti-midge hat.
Our next stop was Florence Falls, a double fall over a conglomerate cliff. A swift descent via 135 steps led to the base of the falls where Eric joined the throng splashing about in the plunge pool. We then walked back to the bus alongside Shadey Creek.
We retraced our route out of the park, stopping for a salad lunch at the picnic tables provided by the same roadside café, before heading back towards Darwin on the Stuart Highway. The long distances involved are not relieved by very much variation in scenery. The savannah forest is fairly uniform in structure, variegated only by the soot marks from localised fuel load control burning and by some variation in density of plants. There is little obvious wildlife and the topography is largely featureless and low amplitude with shallow valleys interspersed with low hills and rocky outcrops. Within the vegetation the termite mounds form a visual counterpoint, varying from the simple conic through the more slab like to the convoluted cathedral with its conjoined columns, varying in size from a few inches to many feet and varying in colour from deep laterite red, through limonite yellow to at least 54 shades of grey.
Off the main roads the traffic was very light. The most remarkable aspect of transport are the road trains, massive trucks with three trailers, hauling 120 to 150 tons and running on $45,000 worth of tyres. The traffic lights have a warning beacon 260 metres in front of the junction to allow these behemoths of the road time to stop as they traverse their 32 gears.
Just before Darwin we turned south east on the Arnhem Highway, stopping briefly at Humpty Doo petrol station, headed for Corroboree Park and the Kakadu. Mid afternoon we stopped for an introduction to the local aborigine culture, being welcomed with the word “poopoo” as water was sprayed over each person’s head, from the mouth of the interlocutor. This was followed by a look at the local plants and their practical and medicinal uses, a demonstration of the didgeridoo and the discipline sticks and then a look at the construction of the various dilly (collecting) bags,for use in water or on land, mats and baskets.
This ended with a delightful wetlands cruise on Corroboree billabong, covered with pretty lotus plants, and giving sightings of myriad birds including fish eagles with their fledgling, jacanas (lily runners) and a trio of local saltwater crocodiles.
A short drive brought us to the Bark Hut Inn campsite at the where Joyce was delighted to find that our tented accommodation boasted real beds. A meal of barramundi, local catfish, completed the day’s entertainment, followed by an early night, as we are breakfasting at 6.00 am tomorrow. Although we both feeling a little better and have our appetites back normal service has yet to be restored, with Joyce suffering the most.
Thursday 2nd October 2014. Day 24 Kakadu – du – du
We arose just as dawn gilded the eastern skies and made a sufficient breakfast of coffee and toast. We were soon packed and on the road by 7.00 am. We entered the Kakadu National Park fairly soon and headed to the rock art site at Ubirr. On the way we stopped at the Mamukala billabong, with a wide variety of birds and a crocodile.
The Kakadu, established as a National Park in the late 1970’s has in the past two years been given back to the local aborigine tribes, who have reclaimed their birthright as custodians of their land. Running of the park is now firmly under their control and they are taking steps to reduce tourist impact, whilst maintaining the attraction of the area. They are also actively ensuring that the traditional, rather than European, names are used.
Rock painting is an ancient part of the aboriginal culture and represents an important part of their relationship with the land, of which they see themselves as custodians. The drive for survival has led to a culture with a clear set of rules, ensuring that proven practice is maintained whilst restricting potentially dangerous innovation. The art reflects this in that the heart of each representation, whether figurative, mythological or animist acts as the encapsulation of a story, with a moral that reinforces tradition. Each piece of art has to be repainted, traditionally every three but now every two generations, to maintain its reality. Repainting is necessary because the mineral pigments, however fixed by sap or animal fat, does not penetrate rock deeply enough for long term preservation. The ochre red is best, penetrating 10mm, then the yellow, 6 mm with white the least long lived as it only penetrates 3 mm. The act of meticulous repainting the image and retelling the story associated with it preserves the clan memory and validates the lives of the forebears.
Painting was carried out in caves and rock shelters, where the overhang offered some weather protection. Ubirr illustrates a range of ages of painting, some originally painted thousands of years ago, whilst others are more recent such as those showing clothed figures of the earliest European settlers. Many animals are shown, including the giant kangaroo plus many fish species. The visitable sites have lost their custodians, hence their spiritual significance, allowing them to be seen by anyone.
Having enjoyed the galleries on view we climbed to the top of the rock and enjoyed a panoramic view of the Arnhem escarpment, of which this is an outlier, and the flood plain which supports the Kakadu wetlands. We are visiting at the end of the dry season and it is hard to imagine the ‘Wet’ when metres of rain falls within a few months, aided by cyclones. This amount of water can lead to significant flooding, with markers on roads crossing creeks indicating up to 4 metres over the road.
From Ubirr we drove to the campsite at the Kakadu Resort in Jabiru, where we had lunch. In the afternoon Joyce decided to visit the medical centre, where she was given more dioralyte and then spent an hour in the air-conditioned lobby of the Crocodile Hotel, watching documentaries. Eric went with the group to Nourlangie rocks, where there was another fine display of art, including more recent work. Art is one area where change is possible and there is a distinctive modern style.
Returning to camp Eric joined Joyce for a swim in the resort pool, followed by a Thai green chicken curry meal and an early night.
Friday 3rd October 2014. Day 25 Croc complications
Dawn again caught us breakfasting and we were again away at 7.00am. Today is the swimming day and we visited Gunlom and Edith Falls for refreshing swims. Again the distance covered are great to reach these sites.
On our way to Gunlom, Guy, our guide, handed round a newspaper reporting a sighting of and subsequent search for a saltwater crocodile. In this area the freshwater crocodile is the most common but the saltwater can find its way inland during floods and is the greater danger to humans as it will go for prey larger than it can swallow, which the freshwater rarely does. As a result the plunge pool at the base of the falls is closed, although the pothole pools above the falls are still open.
When we arrived at the 90 metre falls a notice confirmed the situation. We therefore made our way up a steep and rocky path to above the falls where there are three pools, separated by rock bars. The fall itself has only a tiny amount of water passing through it, enough to be heard. Joyce found the ascent a real challenge, but made it to the third pool where she paddled from the polished rock poolside. Eric swam the length of the gorge, admiring the interlocking series of potholes that have been formed as the river cut down.
The descent proved even more of a challenge and Eric proved a reasonably able alpenstock for Joyce as we picked our way down the very steep path. On reaching the bottom we returned to the bus where a picnic lunch was laid out for us.
Once lunch was over we drove to Edith falls, which lies in an adjunct to the Kakadu, the Nitmaluk National Park, via Pine Creek. Here the swimming pool is very impressive, the 5 metre falls less so. Braving the foot biting fish Eric swam to the falls and back and then assisted Joyce into the water. After a short dip on Joyce’s part we sunbathe before returning to the coach.
Departing Edith Falls we drove to Katherine, the base for the last stage of our adventure, also in the Nitmaluk National Park. Here we camped in the grounds of a homestead and enjoyed a meal of pasta and Bolognese bean sauce. There was great excitement at bedtime because the ladies toilets became inaccessible with one frog sitting inside a toilet and another frog sitting on the other toilet, a brave man rose to the challenge and succeeded in dispersing one frog, the other one stalwartly remained in place.
Saturday 4th October Day 26 Darwin again.
The luxury of a lie in with breakfast at 8.00 am, departing at 9.00 am to enjoy a tour of the accessible parts of the Katherine gorge system, which consists of 13 sections, each separated by a rock bar which represent rapids or waterfalls during the wet.
As we waited for the tour to depart we watched the local wallabies grazing the greensward and the parakeets and blue winged kookaburras cavorting in the canopy.
The tour itself was excellent as the boat carried us between vertiginous cliffs of multi-hued stained sandstone, cleft by deep joints which break the sandstone locally into columns and which, in places, have been eroded into caves. At the end of the dry season only one and a half of the usual five visited gorges are accessible. On reaching the first rock bar, with its pothole pools, we were taken to see some rock art then walked to the jetty for the boat to take is part way along the second gorge. This took little time and once this had been accomplished we had time for a swim in the large rock pool between the gorges. We then re-embarked to traverse the first gorge back to the starting point.
Returning to camp we enjoyed a lunch of bacon and egg and salad, then boarded the bus for the 5 hour trip back to Darwin. Stopping briefly in Pine Creek we again enjoyed the facilities of the Lazy Lizard tavern, built of bricks manufactured from crushed termite mounds. Pine Creek was a gold rush town and the remnants of this can be seen in the railway heritage centre and the displays of old machinery near the centre of the settlement.
We were back in Darwin by 5.30 pm after 1,700 km of driving, dropped off directly at our hotel as the very first stop in the town. This gave time for laundry and log writing as we prepare to fly to Alice Springs tomorrow, ahead of our next camping trip.