The Land of Oz
Trip Start Mar 08, 2011
84Trip End Jun 11, 2011
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.