Hellish hot

Trip Start May 27, 2009
Trip End Nov 14, 2009

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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Sunday, October 18, 2009

I couldn't resist – before leaving Alice I had to buy a piece by one of the Aboriginal desert artists – but in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands, and it was in a sale. I bought it at one of the galleries which specializes in women’s art   and which I knew from my hostel roommate was fair to the artists. You can buy cheaper stuff from street sellers but you are never sure whether the money will go on 'grog’ which is a big problem here. The piece I bought features desert colours and I can’t wait to get home to get it framed – in the meantime it will become part of my hand luggage as I would rather not mail it.

The next leg of my trip involved catching the Ghan train from Alice to Darwin, a trip of over 1800 km and which took 24 hours. The Ghan is one of Australia’s famous long distance trains which travels between Adelaide and Darwin, basically following almost a straight line through the middle of Australia from south to north. It can be travelled in luxury – in Gold Kangaroo class or in mild discomfort in the Red Seater Kangaroo class – unfortunately I was in the latter –  plenty of legroom – not that I need much but the seat cushions were brick hard and I’m not sure that I have quite as much padding as I used to. I had a window seat which was good, although for about half of the journey it was pitch black outside. When I could see, what I will remember are the termite mounds as I am not sure that I have ever seen these anywhere before – they were thousands of them in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes

My seat companion was a young Dutchman who spends most of his working life in the UK, specifically Heathrow as his company are responsible for the new baggage handling system at Terminal 5 and before I said a word, he was quick to point out that the early problems were not their fault! He had been on the Ghan since Adelaide and had also done the other great Australian long distance trip on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth, maybe it was a reaction to so many flights as part of his normal routine.

The train stopped at Katherine in the morning for a few hours to allow us all to take the benefit of a few whistle-stop tour options – I opted for the coach transfer to the Katherine Gorge area and then went for a walk – well climb to a lookout point over one of the gorges – my first thought had been to do a canoeing trip but I heard the stewards on the rain saying it was not recommended for novices – it was self guided and there were crocodiles in the water so definitely scratched that as a plan. It was good to get out and stretch the legs after being in various uncomfortable positions overnight but I started to get an idea of the heat I would be facing – it was 35 degrees and not a breath of wind. Back aboard and just over 4 hours later we arrived in Darwin. The station was well out of town and surprisingly given the size of the train there weren’t that many taxis/shuttles around. After such a long journey I just wanted to get to my hotel, have a long shower and relax so having to wait was annoying. The hotel I had booked on internet was in a really good central location, not that I went out again that night – shattered by travel and the heat.

So what next?  I was now in Darwin, it was only the 7th of October and I didn’t fly out until the 18th. I knew I wanted to visit both Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks but most of the organized trips were only for 2 -3 days. At the tourist information office I picked up various leaflets , including one for a campervan hire company which coincidentally the chap at the information desk also recommended as he had used them – it wasn’t a con as he was also able to give specific information about the campsite he had visited too. He was honest about them being cheaper than everyone else basically as their vans were older and had seen a lot of use. They were based just out of the main centre so went for a look round and chat with the guy in the office and decided to go for it. So having sorted that, I spent the afternoon in the Museum of the Northern Territory which had an unusual mix of exhibits which included an enormous stuffed crocodile called Sweetheart (bet he wasn’t), a feature on the devastating impact of Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and very contemporary Aboriginal art.

The heat and humidity are beyond anything I have experienced so far and sweat was literally pouring from me so after a full day of being out and about all I could summon up the energy for was the finishing of the last blog entry

I picked up my Hitop campervan next morning – definitely older and tattier and less features (main one being – no toilet) than the one I had in New Zealand but smaller and easier to manouevre. It was cheaper than comparable sized vans from other companies but not sure that it was much cheaper than my last so value for money wise – the Kiwis have it! Didn’t go too far out of Darwin on day one, taking time to sort out van and if any problems I could easily get back to base. The fact that it was so old and with almost 490,000 km on the clock and that I would be heading out into the middle of nowhere was a tad worrying. Luggage all stowed away – not sure how you could possible get three people in this.

After shedding another litre of sweat I drove back towards Darwin for the ‘famous’ Mindil Beach sunset market – apparently one of the city’s main attractions. There were hundreds of stalls – some interesting arts and crafts but a lot of pap/schecht/crap /rubbish in any language, also live entertainment, including pythons with human assistance of course and every type of food. I did manage to get a photo of sunset over Fannie Bay, although by the time I caught it the sun had gone behind a cloud. What was I doing instead of watching the sunset – well for the first time ever I had a Tarot card reading! Easy to say it was crap as I have no point of reference – we will see – I am revealing nothing.

Headed off next for Kakadu National Park where I intended to stay for the next three nights at several of the campgrounds in the park – choosing only the options with showers. I stopped at the Window on the Wetlands which has exhibits and a panoramic view over the wetlands – I have never been to a wetlands area on this scale – don’t think you can compare this and Lincolnshire somehow – and it is amazing to think that in a few more weeks and it could all be under water. Also stopped at Mamakula which is a huge watering hole which attracts absolutely thousands of birds, in particular Magpie geese – and what a racket they make? Also annoyingly prevalent in this part of the world seem to be black flies which seem to have had a campaign meeting before I arrived which involves dive bombing – mission target Anne’s ears!!!!! I have taken to wearing a towel over my head so they can dive all they like I just won’t hear them.

I camped near Ubirr which is one of the most famous Aboriginal rock art sites in Australia and a popular spot for watching the sunset over the wetlands. Not many people were around when I was climbing up but at the top – well there were literally busloads of them – but luckily all in quiet contemplative mood. The rock formations are weird and are reminiscent of abandoned Aztec/Inca cities. I have tried to capture some of the art but it is difficult as mostly it is in sheltered rock overhangs and is fenced off for protection. Some are quite recent, well only 2,000 years old! Most often they were used for storytelling but sometimes for educational purposes as there are some detailed drawings of the anatomy of important animals and fish.

With the heat during the day the campervan at night is like an oven and I think every night I sweat off the 4 – 6 litres I drink during the day – not fun. It would be good to be able to keep the van doors open but there are so many flying/crawling/and jumping creatures around I am not that brave.

Had a short 2.5k walk next morning round the rock formations near the campsite and then in the afternoon went on a cruise on the East Alligator River hoping to see some saltwater crocodiles in the flesh – not alligators – whoever gave all the rivers their English names got his species all wrong as you don’t get alligators in Australia. The cruise is run by a company owned by local Aboriginal people and was excellent – I saw loads of crocodiles from babies to huge adults – most were just lazing in the mud on the riverbanks but others were swimming. I think the boat people entice the crocs to their part of the river with fish as I saw a few Barramundi floating in the water, but at least it wasn’t as false as being on a Jumping Croc cruise where they get them to jump feet out of the water to feed. The Aboriginal guide was concerned that with crocs being so clever that they might adapt their jumping skills to other situations and other ordinary boats.

Across the river is Arnhemland which is exclusively Aboriginal territory and a permit is required to visit but the guys from the boat were allowed to let us land on the Arnhemland side where they showed us more rock paintings and demonstrated spear throwing techniques and explained what different types were used for, including one which had a jagged point like a bee sting which was used for punishment- ouch. Visited another rock art site at Nourlangie which looks out over Arnhemland – beautiful and just as in the desert I can see why people in the low lying wetlands would be drawn to the high rock formations whether for shelter or ceremonial reasons.

At my next campsite, there was no ranger at the gate to collect the $10 fee so I thought I would get a freebie but no there I was in my oven/van having stripped off to cool down and opened all the doors when I saw the ranger appearing round a corner. Fortunately I had a sarong close at hand otherwise I might have been charged with more than a camping fee!

As all of the campsites are in the middle of the Kakadu Park you are surrounded by wildlife and I saw a group of 6 or 8 wallabies grazing in the late afternoon but as soon as another vehicle drove in they all hopped off. There is not much of a twilight here and within minutes of the sky being a lovely blue/pink colour it turns pitch black but as in Alice because you are so far from any artificial lighting the stars are so clear – this must be one of the best countries in the world for star gazing

And so onto Litchfield National Park which is famous for its waterfalls and plunge pools. My destination was Wangi Falls which was a really delightful spot with a great campsite close to the falls. The campsite was very busy compared to those in the Kakadu Park but I discovered why – the fees here are paid at an honesty box – but they were only $6 so I paid up – well for one of my two nights but probably one more than most campers. The swimming area was very easy to access and although quite busy there was space to swim around and helpfully there was a daily crocodile check!  I did surprise myself by getting in to swim at all and even more so by swimming across the width of the pool as I a bit of a fearty (scaredy cat for you English readers) when it comes to water where I am out of my depth.  

I also visited Florence Falls which was a bit of a hike to reach it was much smaller and looked rockier and darker so no idea of depth – so give swimming a miss. The next stop was Buley Rockhole which I had nearly bypassed but glad I didn’t – it was a series of naturally carved pools all fed by clear flowing water – a perfect natural spa resort. It must be a great spot to bring a picnic and spend a day as it is not far from Darwin

For my last couple of nights in the campervan I relaxed at a site only about an hour from Darwin called Tumbling Waters. It had really friendly staff, good facilities and all sorts of creatures wandering about, I am sure I heard something poking about at my water bucket during the night – so very glad I had kept the door closed over. No swimming here at the natural springs due to the presence of a high level of bacteria or was it a 4 metre crocodile – maybe getting my stories mixed up but either way no swimming!

Handed back the campervan and found Darwin still unbearably hot so spent my final afternoon indoors at the cinema – Mao’s Last Dancer – an Australian made film so not sure if it has had a wider release – worth a look if it has. I also visited the very swanky new waterfront area which has a fabulous wave lagoon – it looked like great fun but not for me – packing and a plane to catch.

And so farewell Australia – again I have only managed to visit tiny parts of this vast country. I loved my camping trip, all of the aboriginal art, renewing old acquaintances and making new ones. I won’t miss the uncomfortable heat in the Top End or the flies. I would do the campervan again but would make sure I had some way of keeping cool. A 4WD version would have given much more flexibility about destinations so maybe a driving course when I come home?
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janeybabe on

I agree with Aileen
Wonderful stories and pictures I think it will take a weekend at least to see everything!

Hope the journey home is hassle free Jane x

maddogbert on

Beats post cards eh?
What a shame this is the last blog - it has been great to see what you have been doing on your trip - beats post cards any day. Isn't technology fantastic?

Audrey on

Oh life is going to be so boring for you when you come home! I agree with Wendy perhaps writing travel articles, becoming a tour guide might be worth persuing rather than sitting behind a boring old desk again. Yet more brilliant photos and blogg. Aud xx

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