The Land of Oz

Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
Trip End Jun 11, 2011

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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Thursday, May 12, 2011

We're not in Asia anymore, toto.  Welcome to Oz!

We certainly felt like we were in a fairy-tale after spending 9+ weeks in Asia from China to Thailand...we saw only Westerners and heard only English.  We see only chips (french fries to you Americans) and $100+ per night hostel rooms.  Where are we?!  It was definitely a shock to land in Darwin, Australia after an overnight flight with no sleep.  We sailed through customs and immigration although it was our most intense inspection yet (Dave's Reese's almost didn't make it).  It was 4am local Darwin time and we'd heard that many day-trip tours to the local national parks leave the city around 6am or 7am but we hadn't wanted to book anything until we arrived just in case we were delayed or didn't make it.  So our first stop after clearing customs was the Top End (another name for the tippy-top region of Australia) Tour desk which was miraculously open at this hour and staffed with the most helpful and friendly agent.  After 20 minutes of review and deliberation, we booked a day tour to Litchfield National Park.  The largest national park is Kakadu where you can see loads of wildlife, but it's at least 3 hours away each way and after not sleeping the night before we weren't sure we were up for that.  Litchfield is about 2 hours or less away and this tour also included a jumping crocodile river cruise on the Adelaide River, a tour of the magnetic termite mounds in Litchfield, and then multiple waterfalls in the park where you can even jump in and swim.  The tour promised to return us by 7pm so we went with this option.  Uschi, our new travel agent, booked the tour, put us on the shuttle to our hostel and off we went into early morning Darwin.

It was still dark outside so it was hard to make out the city.  Our nice shuttle driver dropped us at our hostel which we found out was affiliated with the YHA hostels.  We were only planning to stay in Darwin for one night (two days, one night) and for some reason all accommodation options were ridiculously expensive.  Not to mention that we've just come from SE Asia prices so needless to say we had quite a bit of sticker shock.  Although we'd planned for the Australia/New Zealand leg of our journey to cost quite a bit, while we've been gone the last few months the Australian dollar has skyrocketed while the US dollar has plummeted a few cents per day.  Now, the Australian dollar is worth 93 US cents.  So for a hostel with a private twin room and shared bathroom to cost $75 Australian dollars, that's like $85USD which is ridiculous.  But, to look at the bright side, this was the only place we've stayed with a shared bathroom and we're only here one night.  We dropped off our luggage, changed clothes and packed a daypack in the shared bathrooms (since our room was of course not ready at 6am) and shortly afterwards we were picked up for our day tour at 6:30am.  Luckily we were one of the first people picked up for the day so we got a nice seat in the minibus.  It took some time picking everyone else up as there was some confusion about one hotel overbooking seats and we had 2 too many than we had seats for.  Once all was straightened out we were off on our way to Litchfield.

By this time the sun was starting to rise so our guide introduced himself and then we all went around doing the same.  I can't remember his name so we'll call him Dundee after Crocodile Dundee as we are now officially in the Australian Outback (technically it's the Top End in the Northern Territory).  Dundee tells us a bit about the city of Darwin, it's history and the surrounding suburbs.  I won't repeat the details for you not because they aren't interesting and worth sharing, but because by this time the no sleep and jet lag caught up with us and we officially passed out cold for the entire ride to our first stop.  We awake pretty groggy a few hours later and hop out of the mini bus to a cafe at the entrance to the Jumping Crocodile Cruise on the Adelaide River.  This was just in time as we needed a shot of coffee and some breakfast to keep going.  Two lattes, a muffin and a Snickers bar cost no less than $16AUS.  I'm not going to complain about every price for everything but to us this was astronomical.  We could have stayed in a guesthouse in Siem Reap with air-con for one night less than this.  We could have enjoyed 3 Thai full body massages for this price.  I could keep going, but I think you get the point.  Fully charged, we board the two story boat with another tour group so that now there are well over 40 of us and head off down the river in search of crocodiles.

Not two minutes into the ride we spot a medium sized crocodile lazing around the river on the left-hand side and our boat saddles up to him.  The guide explains that there are large male crocs who 'own' anywhere from 1-4 kilometers of river and they also own all of the women in this space.  The amount they own depens on their size (the bigger they are, the more they own) and they constantly have to fight off wandering males who find themselves in unknown river territory and may steal their women.  The guides are very familiar with all the crocs in their tour space and have named them.  To entice them to jump for us, they have trained guides who attach a huge piece of meat (bone and all) to a long rope at the end of a stick.  The trainer holds the meat just above the water and splashes it to make it look like an actual prey.   The croc mosies on over and just as he's about to open his jaws the trainer will yank the meat up a few feet so that the croc has to rise up out of the water to grab it.  We're assured that this doesn't hurt the croc nor is training them as they only feed each croc once a day, max.  That being said, each croc who was tempted by our bait seemed to be lying in wait for it but whatever, what do I know.  Things are different here in Australia!  The first time we see this act it's pretty amazing, and the crocs are very large and their jaws are even scarier.  We could potentially fall out of the boat and easily become prey so that was exciting.  After a bit the other tourists got in our way as all 40+ are scrambling for the pictures as the crocs are jumping and I was elbowed by a few Asians (you'd think I'd have learned to fight back by now) so we took a sideline view of the show.  The highlight was definitely when the largest male in the territory made an appearance.  They named him Bogart because he has more girls than Humphrey Bogart had (that's a lot!) and he's missing 3 of his 4 legs from fighting in his 70+ years.  He was quite impressive.

On the way back down the river when we'd run out of croc bait the trainers started throwing some different pieces of bait into the air and these types of hawks swooped down and caught the bait in their claws and then passed it directly to their mouths to eat.  It was hard to get a picture or video of this as they moved so quickly and they came so close to the boat we almost got side-swiped at one point.  But very cool to see live in action.  We made it safely back to the port and re-boarded our trusty mini-bus to head to lunch en route to Litchfield.  About an hour later (and another nap for the Cohens) we stopped at an antiquated lodge where we were the only vehicle in sight and cobwebs everywhere.  If we weren't so out of it we would have thought it was creepy.  We were offered one glass of juice or champagne (odd choices for the middle of the outback) and then lunch of cold salad, cold chicken and cold cuts.  For us, the food was terrible and we realized that we really weren't in Asia anymore.  I guess that while we were there I became a huge fan of all Asian cuisines from Chinese to Malay to Indian, and medicore Western food was very strange to see let alone eat.  We also took this time to chat up some of our tourmates who were all interested in us since we were at least 30 years younger than they were.  I guess most tourists our age would rent a car or a camper and do this on their own, although in our condition I'm glad we weren't driving! 

Back on the bus we headed to Litchfield (finally).  The first stop was at a sight to view the magnetic terminte mounds.  No joke, I'd heard of this before.  Built by termites, they are amazing architectural feats complete with arches, tunnels, chimneys, insulation and nursery chambers. The mounds are aligned north to south to minimize the exposure to the sun but this was once thought to be because they are magnetic.  In any event, we were able to hop out of the bus for a few photos of some truly spectacular mounds and explore them a bit.  Since we were on a tour we didn't have much time to explore many of them although we'd have liked to stay longer. 

We hopped back on the bus and ventured further into the park to see the waterfalls.  There are several fantastic falls to see and you can swim in some of them and not in others.  We visited the falls that we couldn't swim in first and then were going to end at a final waterfall where swimming is allowed.  The type of season (wet and rainy or dry) determines if the waterfalls are safe for swimming.  We first stopped at Tolmer falls and they were beautiful for sure.  The next stop was Wangi falls which are specatcular falls but you can only swim in them during specific times and this wasn't one of them.  Apparently a Japanese girl drowned in the falls recently because there is a hidden whirlpool where she was trapped.  So we just enjoyed their splendor until we saw a black python half in the water and half up a tree.  We decided that it was time to leave but our guide showed us that there was a short pathway you could explore first, deep into the rainforest where you can see how the monsoon season can create a natural forest.  We ventured in a bit, but since we were spooked by the snake we quickly headed back to the bus to change into our swimmers (Australian for bathing suits) for the next falls.  Buley Rockholes was our final stop where we had over an hour to swim.  Our guide told us this was better to have this much time at one set of falls rather than split time between here and Florence Falls which involved a 140 meter climb.  We would have much preferred checking out another falls and Florence is supposed to be spectactular but I guess this was the wrong type of tour.  We did enjoy Buley quite a bit and were even carried over the rocks at one point so we've got some battle scars. 

Afterwards, we changed back into our clothes as to not have to wear a wet swimmer the rest of the day and lost our seats on the bus. So we ended up in these strange seats in the back of the bus for the 2 hour ride home.  It was broken up by a rest stop in a very touristy shop that sold meat pies (our first sight of them in Oz!) and Nescafe for $4 a cup.  We didn't buy anything but had to wait for the half hour obligatory stop to end before we could continue on back to town.  On the way back we learned that the Darwin Thursday night market was going on and the driver offered to make a stop there for those who were interested.  Of course we aren't going to ever miss a market no matter how tired we are (and we needed dinner anyway) so we opted to hop off there.  This market was what we'd call a street festival in the US with loads of food stands, souvenior shops and everything you could imagine for sale.  We enjoyed some street food (Greek chicken gryo for Dave, prawn spring rolls and skewer for me) and shopped for a few minutes but by now we were so beat we had to call a taxi and head back to our hostel.  We were so exhausted but welcomed by the hostel staff, and I'm glad we were too tired to worry about the cleanliness of the bathrooms and of the room (which were very questionable).  After 35.5 hours of being awake (save the naps on the mini-bus) we were out like a light! 

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