We survived - just!

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Maleleuca on Mitchell

Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Sunday, June 30, 2013

 




Broome to Darwin via Kimberley and Kakadu 15th - 29th June




We survived our camping trips, just, but where do I start describing them? The 9 day journey across Western Australia and into Northern Territory was fantastic. It is not everyone's vision of bliss as we travelled long distances over rough roads, constantly covered in red dust (and black soot when collecting firewood), climbed and clambered over rocks and escarpments, had 3 showers (2 warm) in 9 days and worst of all, the pleasure of bush toilets – trowel and paper, which in hard stony country is quite a challenge. When we first boarded our vehicle Jim and I both had the same thought, what on earth have we done? Especially as we hit our heads climbing aboard for the first few times. Jim's head was so bloody it was gruesome.




In fact, the time flew by and we loved every minute. I have never laughed so much, every day was full of priceless moments, or perhaps we just became hysterical!




As expected we were far and away the oldest. David and Hauke, school friends from Germany and Stephanie and Daniella from Switzerland averaged 20/21 years of age, Marjorie from Belgium is 26, Saxon from Sydney, 36 (I think) and our amazing leader/driver/chef Tommy is 26. It seems strange to describe a 26 year old this way but Tommy is probably the most charismatic person I have ever met. The last one who came near was in 1977! He is the most patient, caring and joyful person imaginable, so skilled that he seemed to include everyone effortlessly, energise the group and make everything fun.




David had his guitar with him, and Hauke a small bongo so most evenings we had live music which was lovely.




Our first stop was the famous prison tree near Derby, a huge hollowed out boab tree which was used as a prison in the early pioneering days. This is not only an amazing tree but also gives an insight into the relationship between the early settlers and Aboriginal people of the Kimberley. I am not sure that relationship has improved very much. Next we headed to Windjana Gorge, a huge gorge cut into the ranges over millennium to reveal beautiful scenery of high vertical cliffs, sandy beaches and meandering creek. We hiked about 4km at Windjana which doesn't sound much but when it is up and down rocks it seems much further. All the gorges we visited were more beautiful than I had expected as each one seemed like a secret oasis hidden deep in the rocks with different combinations of plants and waterfalls, water of different colours, and even warm springs.




We collected fire wood each afternoon on our way to a camp. Most nights we camped in the wilderness in the bush and soon learned the routine. Collect wood (great big logs and branches not little sticks that I think of as fire wood, some of them already blackened by bush fires hence the soot), load on the top of the vehicle, find somewhere to camp, light the fire, put up the tents, unload the swags and camp seats and snap open a beer. Honestly, you cannot imagine how good that tasted. Then Tommy would start to prepare a meal in the camp ovens.




These work really well despite their appearance. They are cast iron deep containers which are placed on hot ashes and then a lid is put on the top which has space to pat down more hot ashes to cover the pot. Tommy cooked casseroles, damper (cross between bread and cake) amongst other things and Jim was persuaded to make cheese scones which were delicious. Saxon, our Italian recipe expert, as well as fire maker, cooked a superb pasta and risotto.




The tents were really only mosquito mesh bubbles and provided no privacy but breathtaking views of the stars. They did have a cover to put on top if it rained but we didn't use them usually as they made the tent too hot. The swags are like sleeping bags made of thick canvas with a 2” foam mattress inside. We put our own sleeping bags inside the swag and a couple of cold nights we needed both sleeping bag and swag fastened up. I have to say the swags are quite comfortable even on stony ground. As we were in a desert type climate the days were very hot and the nights cold. The amazing thing is that most of the areas we crossed are under water during the 'wet', as much as 10 – 15 metres under water. That was very hard to visualise. (See notes on pictures – click on them to see if there is more information).




On day 2 we visited Tunnel Creek which is an amazing natural phenomenon and holds great significance to the local Aboriginal people. It is a 750 metre long stretch of creek which runs underground through one of the oldest cave systems in Western Australia. Many aboriginal rock paintings are present in the cave and it was a hideout of the aboriginal warrior, Jandamarra in 1897 for 5 years. Here we clambered up a very narrow chasm to find a curtain style stalagmite that glistened like icing on a cake.




From Tunnel Creek we went on the Gibb River Road, a 700km long outback dirt road which runs between Derby and Kununurra, the track was often rough, there are a number of deep water crossings. However it's an amazing travel route as along the length of the Gibb River Road are vast tracts of wilderness and numerous rivers, gorges and waterfalls to explore.




The first water fall we went to was Bell Gorge. After a 20 minute walk/climb we came to a beautiful Creek which flows through the centre of this impressive gorge and cascades over numerous falls. A deep swimming hole at the base of the main waterfall, surrounded by shady ledges and high cliffs, provided an ideal lunch spot.




From Bell Gorge we pushed on along the Gibb for a little before finding our 2nd bush Camp for the night, another remote wilderness location where again we collected firewood, set up camp and settled in for the night.




The next day we visited Adcock and Manning gorges, each one seeming even more beautiful than the last. When we stopped to collect fire wood that afternoon I went to stand under the open side of the trailer for protection as the taller people passed the wood up to Tommy to stack on the top. Unfortunately a large log escaped somehow, curled around and fell through the gap between trailer side and top. The first I knew was an awful pain which felt as though someone had tried to kick my head off my shoulders. Amazingly, when the pain had subsided, despite our fears, I was totally unmarked and did not even feel sore afterwards. Definitely a sign I was “toughening up” as the Aussies like to say if anyone whines.




The days continued following the same pattern as we crossed the Pentecost River, and visited Ellenbrae and El Questro Stations, stopping at one for delicious scones and cream/jam, which seemed really bizarre in the middle of nowhere.




One night we stayed in a real camp site and a large organized group of older people camped next to us. They were very well equipped with 2 vehicles, 25 tents and 2 guides. About 8.30pm they went quiet and ten minutes later as we sat around the camp fire we heard a strange noise which gradually grew louder until it seemed like a weird symphony concert . It was the group snoring! We were falling off our seats in laughter as you would have sworn there was an orchestral conductor in charge.




The next day David had an accident. He misjudged the position of a rock and over extended his knee. He was in agony and had to crawl, pull and hop his way back to the car park. Because the terrain was so rocky it was difficult for anyone to give him any help. Eventually he made it but we were concerned that he was going into shock so on the recommendation of a first aider we made a detour to the hospital in Kununurra, a round trip of about 170 kilometres. Luckily the doctor there quickly identified that a ligament had been pulled out of position and put it back – another agonising couple of minutes for David. Then she told him to rest his knee for 2 weeks. When he said he was in the middle of a trip she said, ok, carry on. I love the no nonsense get on with it approach. After 24 hours David was more or less back to normal thankfully.




We stopped at the Zebra Rock Mine where a uniquely patterned rock can be found, produced it is thought by the effect of magnetism on liquid magma. I would have loved to buy some but it is not something that can be carried easily. The owners are very hospitable and provide free freshly made scones and coffee while Ruth gives a talk about the rock and one of the listeners holds her baby. Saxon cleverly avoided this duty – acknowledging that he is better at fire lighting.







We travelled on to the Bungle Bungles range and then had a spectacular hike though the bee hive formations to Cathedral Gorge. The gorge itself is one of the most impressive geological formations I have seen and the group spent some time just lying down and looking up at the rocks and having a few minutes quiet time.




From Kununurra we headed to Lake Argyle which is a huge freshwater lake teeming with wildlife, from wallabies on the rocky shores, to freshwater crocodiles and birds. We boarded a boat and Matt, the captain showed us the lake. We had a great swim from the boat and then Matt said he would show us the crocodiles. Everyone's face was a picture of shock and horror as they realised we had been swimming in croc infested waters but in fact there was no danger as they are 'freshies' in the lake, not the 'salties'. We watched a beautiful sunset from the lake and then camped on one of the remote islands taking only what we needed for the night with us, tents, swags and food. Matt and Tommy cooked on the barbecue left there and we listened to Matt talk about the lake. He cleared up a mystery for me. I did A level geography but could not remember a lake in that area and it really bothered me, then Matt explained that the dam was built in 1971/2 and the lake filled up by 1975, all after I left school. When we went to bed the moonlight was so bright it was like day and the next morning we were up at 5am to watch sunrise.




The next night, and our last one on tour, was at a remote crocodile farm. One of the workers, John, in fact a 'Woofer' (Willing Workers on Organic farms – volunteers who receive free board and food in return for work) joined us at our camp fire, bringing crocodile steaks with him. He came for a week 5 years ago and is still there. He kept us enthralled with tales from the croc farm, including how his boss, Bluey (Ozzie nickname for a red head) was bitten by a croc and has the stitches across his chest to prove it. When the females lay the eggs, Bluey goes out in a helicopter and hangs down over the nest to gather eggs. One day he unclipped and let the helicopter go off to find other nests when a concealed croc came out of the undergrowth and clasped him in her jaws. Luckily he had one hand free to press the contact button with the helicopter which returned immediately and hit the croc with a skid so it let go. Bluey was very lucky. Then we had a hilarous few minutes when John described how to decide the sex of a croc, definitely not appropriate for the blog, it is enough to say that according to John it has to be a woman who carries out the test.




After he left (and after he demonstrated how he shoots anything that moves to feed to the crocs, by firing his gun, to the delight of Hauke and David) we carried on talking. Someone told a funny story and I took a drink of beer just as the punchline came. Bad timing! I started choking as the beer went down the wrong way. I stood up and walked away from the fire to try and catch my breath but the next I knew I heard voices saying, 'Are you ok?' As I did not know who I was, or where I was apart from on the hard ground I rather ungraciously said, “No, I am not ok” but after another 30 seconds everything came back to me. It seems that unable to breathe, I had fainted and dropped on the spot giving everyone a shock. David said he thought I had died of a heart attack and he had been trying to work out how they could get my body back to civilisation. With 4,000 crocs on the farm I am sure there was an easier solution, but luckily it was not necessary.




Our last day dawned and it was my turn to sit at the front next to Tommy. Unfortunately it was the only stretch of track that had gates as they separated a horse ranch from a cattle station and the crocodile farm. Sounds crowded but they are spread out and seem like just more wilderness with gates in the middle of nowhere. I managed to open and close the first 3 gates without difficulty but the 4th gate was much bigger, each gate about 12 feet wide and very bouncy and flexible. I worried that I might not be able to bring them close enough together to wrap the metal chain around them. After a couple of minutes of intense concentration I proudly succeeded, then looked up to realise I was on the opposite side of the gate to the vehicle. Oooops! For a split second I thought that as I was directly behind the trailer I might squeeze through the bars without anyone noticing, until I heard the peals of laughter from the van. When I had stopped laughing enough to be able to bend down I crawled under the gate. Opening it up again to walk through seemed defeatist somehow.




When we reached Darwin it was sad to say goodbye to the team and we met up for a last drink and bite in a bar, but as Saxon had already flown out it felt odd not to have him with us. We had had a wonderful time, seeing amazing scenery, fascinating geological formations, meeting unique outback characters but most of all enlivening the journey in the van with jokes and games. The 'most embarrassing moments' stories will stay with me forever, as will the image of Daniella washing her hair in a bucket in the bush and then shaving under her arms to the bewilderment of the men, and the drying (and eventual burning) of shoes by the fire after canyoning. Marjorie's shoes shrank and Saxon had a burnt toe to travel on to Bali. I hope they let him on the plane. Thank you all guys for a great time and especially Tommy and David for providing helping hands up and down rocks. Sorry I didn't manage to catch you David but I did tie your shoe lace!




After that the 3 day trip around Kakadu seemed an anticlimax and sterile. The seats were more comfortable as it was a larger vehicle with forward facing seats but there was little sense of team, the driver was doing his job and little more, and the food was nothing like Tommy's. Kakadu itself is beautiful and has a variety of landscapes from wetlands to rock areas and savannah, together with views of the Arnhem Land escarpment which stretches for 400 kilometres. I was lucky to spot 3 Pacific Bazzas and a Black Necked Stork, as well as a banded tree snake and a possum. It was very sad when we arrived at Jim Jim Falls as a man had just drowned in the waterhole there. The rangers closed the area until the police and divers arrived to recover the body. What a dreadful situation for his wife. Jim and I were shocked to hear some of our group express irritation that they were prevented from visiting the Falls.




Our backpacker accommodation in Darwin was a mixed blessing – good position and facilities but very crowded and noisy. We were able to leave excess luggage there while we went camping. The travelling backpackers tend not to be too noisy as they are also between trips and tired. The problem is that a lot of the people staying there are residents, with jobs in Darwin. There is a waiting list for long stay rooms. We heard accents from all over Europe and the UK but most of the residents are from Ireland and it has to be said that most of the voices screaming and shouting during the night had Irish accents, as had the majority of the drunken people cavorting around the place – not good ambassadors for their country. Of course I am sure there are many more who are quiet and well behaved but they are not as visible. I don't know if the employment situation in Ireland is particularly bad at present and that is the cause of the influx here and in Broome.




We are now at the airport for a flight to Sydney and tomorrow we should fly on to Bangkok. Where we hope to find a quiet beach for a couple of weeks to recover.




Ps We made it to Sydney but on Sunday missed our flight to Bangkok. The flight time had been brought forward so now each day it is 3 hours earlier than when we booked. We arrived at the airport as the flight closed. As it is school holidays all flights are full this week so tomorrow we have to return to the airport and wait on stand by, and if we don't get seats we have to repeat this the next day. We tried getting tickets to anywhere in Asia but again they are sold out or prohibitively expensive.




Apart from messing up our budget staying over at an airport hotel this would not be too much of a problem apart from the fact that our visas run out tomorrow. I phoned the Immigration Office to see what we could do. He said if we over stayed they would fly us out of the country. I joked that that might be quicker than Qantas but he was not amused and was very stern with me. Clearly visas are a serious business. Once I showed due remorse for my flippancy he was fine and said that if we notify them online and l put pressure on Qantas (?) we should be allowed out without prosecution if it is within 28 days and we would then be eligible for another visa in the future. We will let you know if we manage to escape.


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