Top End Explorer

Trip Start Sep 28, 2003
Trip End Sep 29, 2004

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Thursday, September 2, 2004

Well as ever, the train got me to my destination in one piece. The train station in Darwin is quite a way from the centre, and so several buses were laid on to meet the Ghan and deliver us into the town centre for a small fee.

What I didn't realise is that it was cheaper if you got a ticket from a YHA representative on the station before you get onto the coach, I didn't even see the YHA person. I did manage to get the refund in the end, however getting the ticket first would have been easier. The coach takes you to the coach station in Darwin. It is at the back of the YHA and to get there it is just a two minute walk around the front with your bags.

After settling into the hostel I went for a walk to go and get some food, I happened to bump into to Jeff and we went decided to get a curry at an Indian buffet cafe. After this we went on to a Irish Pub, where there happened to be a quiz on and we ended up helping a team with some of the answers.

The next day was the start of the Top End tour that I had booked. Bright and early again, I was picked up by Gus our tour guide and after picking all but one of the other group members up, we went to the base for the tour company, which was another hostel in town. Gus wanted us to leave even more of our stuff behind, so we didn't have as much stuff on the trailer, making it easier to get at stuff when we needed it. I managed to leave behind around a quarter of my stuff as I had not got a massive amount. Some of the others had to leave much more as they had bought their huge rucksacks. We also sorted out the ticketing and park fees here.

So we all jumped back into the Land Cruiser (they are very popular for this kind of tour) and we continued on our way. Our next stop was to pick up Alastair, the only other Brit on the tour. He was staying with friends in a residential area of Darwin on the way out of town.

Finally the group was together and we were on the move. Our next stop was to get some breakfast at a Petrol Station on the main road out of town. Gus told us a bit more about the trip and what we would be doing throughout the tour.

The ground that we were to cover included, Litchfield National Park, Katherine Gorge and of course Kakadu National Park.

After we had all grabbed a bacon sandwich or other food and a drink to sustain us. This was to make up for the fact that we had all got up so early, and probably had not already eaten.

After we had driven for an hour or so, we arrived in the Litchfield National Park. Gus stopped and pulled over for us all to take a look at some magnetic termite mounds. I had already seen some in WA. However there were loads of termite mounds at this particular spot and Gus explained why the termite mounds are built in this way.

He also explained that you could see if a particular mound is active or not, by making a small hole in the side. If it is active, a stream of termites will appear to make repairs to the mound. Some of the mounds were huge - upto ten feet or so high.

The first stop on our trip was at ... We all piled out of the LandCruiser and followed the trail down to the water. It was a stunning location and the first of several that the tour company had a special pass to allow their groups to visit. The temperature was pretty warm and it did not take too long for us all to strip down to our swimmers and jump into the water. The water was in a crevice between two sections of rock.

Our next destination was a pool with a waterfall. The trees surrounding the car-park had recently been burnt in a forest-fire. So recently in fact that some of the wood was still smouldering. Gus advised us that this was normal, there had been a bushfire through the area in the last day or so, however we were in no danger being where we were.

Getting there from the car park involved a walk through a wooded area, a few minutes later we were rewarded by the site of an amazing pool and a waterfall. The water was safe to drink, so we all filled our bottles with the cool refreshing water after we had swam around and enjoyed the tranquil surroundings and the waterfall. We were lucky in that while we were here we only saw one other family and no other tour groups. We would not be able to avoid tour groups at all of our stops, but throughout the tour we did not do too bad in that we frequently got some scenic spots to ourselves.

Beyond this, I can give you a list of everything we did on the tour, but I am afraid that afterwards I cannot remember every single Waterhole and Billabong we visited in order to write about each one. There are some highlights that stick out however. This trip was certainly my favourite of all the tours I took in Australia. The fact that the temperature stayed somewhere between fairly warm and very hot, made a bit of a difference!

The next day we spent at Katherine Gorge on a canoeing trip. This trip was just amazing and I wish I had taken more photographs, however I think I was too busy looking at the scenery. We canoed through a gorge with rock faces high on either side of us. This is one of the most peaceful and awesome places I have ever been to. At some points along the way there were many more people - with canoes or kayaks - particularly the portages between the different gorges. At each portage, there tended to be many people because of the time taken to move each canoe or kayak (without dragging them!) over the rocks. Between us we also had a few barrels (supposedly - water tight) of personal stuff including cameras, food and other bits and pieces. At this point it was good that we had two people to a vessel - the effort involved in getting each one through the portage was huge. Had we had double the number of canoes, it would have taken much longer to move them. On the way out I was shared a boat with one of the Japanese girls - Mayumi I think. Due the way we were quickly despatched with our canoes (to get us out of the way for further customers) I ended up with a double ended paddle while Mayumi got a single one. This meant that we had a bit of a steering issue to start off with, however I soon got used to compensating by doing an occassional double paddle on one side.

We spent the day paddling up the gorge having a couple of stops - including lunch - along the way. To come back, we were in a bit of a hurry to get through the portages and through trying to manouvre some of the canoes back the pairings were shuffled around a bit and so it worked out that I was in a boat with Bettina.

Another highlight was the day we spent at Jim Jim and Twin Falls. The walk from the car park to Jim Jim falls was amazing. I decided not to take the plunge on this particular trip and just spent the time admiring the scenery instead. Gus noticed where I was when I was sat on a rock by the side of the water, and told me to pass down my camera as it happened to make a good shot. It came out very well - as you will see in the gallery.

Later on that day we went to Twin Falls which was nearby. Due to the crocs having been noticed in this area from time to time, swimming is not allowed through the gorge as used to be the case. Rangers now run a boat service up and down the gorge, to give access to the base of the waterfall - which would otherwise be unaccessable. This is a nice but fairly short trip and the wardens will spot wildlife for you and tell you more about the area. Again there were some great views to be seen and photos to be taken.

We were told that we were able to top up our waterbottles from the waterfall, which we all did before heading back to the boat for the return leg back to the car-park.

On arrival back at the car we had lunch and prepared for our next excursion. This one was to be in the same area, but from a different perspective as we were to head up to the plateau above the falls. We were lucky in that Wilderness 4WD Adventures were on of the companies to have a special permit allowing us access to this area. This was a walk and a half (6km return) and I think Gus reckoned the temperature was very hot indeed, I seem to remember him thinking that it was about 40 degrees C! Gus made sure that we had loads of water for this trip and that we all stopped frequently to drink some. This was probably the hardest walk I have ever done in my life, if you factor in the heat. It was absolutely roasting!

When we did make it to the top we were rewarded by some shallow fresh water pools that part of the system feeding the waterfall. After admiring the view, we all spent time wallowing in the water to cool down. Before returning to the car Gus showed us some more rock art which was nearby to the shallow pools.

We also visited a place called Ubirr in Kakadu. This is an area where lots of rockart has been found and it is now a rock art centre - a bit like a gallery of rockart. Except that all the rockart has been left in place and signs are now in place to explain the significance of the different pieces.

The rockart site has some amazing views of the area - including some views out towards Arnhemland. Arnhemland is a very sacred area of the Northern Territory which is owned by the Aboriginal People. Very few groups have permission to enter this area - and Wilderness 4WD the company I was with, did not. I had spent quite a while selecting the best trip and had picked this tour in the end, over other tours which did take in Arnhemland also.

Another stop for us, was the visitor centre for Kakadu which is at a place called Jabiru. It takes the form of quite a modern building with different exhibitions including among other things: the different wildlife, details of the local Aboriginal communities. There is even a gift shop, for those wishing to buy something special (often handmade locally) to remember the area by! However be warned, some of the items are not exactly cheap!

The final exploit on our trip, was when we we met up with a couple of other tour groups that had been on other tours with the same company ending on the same day as us. We met up at a service station, before travelling in convoy on to where our Mary River System boat tour was to go from. This meant a boat trip in a large flat bottomed boat with the other groups and an amazing tour guide. I wouldn't say that the river was bristling with crocodiles, just that within 2 minutes of launching the guide said "I reckon maybe 30 crocs have swum under our boat by now - they know we are here!" Gulp! This was swiftly followed by a warning to ensure that we sat down at all times in the boat and that we should not stick our hands (or anything else) out of the boat!!

The guide we had for this bit of the trip was truly amazing. He knew many of the birds and some of the crocs by (not just the species - he knew the actual individual!) sight and could often relate a tale about them. An example of this was when he pointed out a baby bird of a specific variety, and said that he was so pleased that the parents had had a baby - he had not previously seen it.

Bearing in mind our proximity to the crocs, I found it quite amusing that one of the girls (from another group) insisted on going to the toilet. She could not wait until the end of the trip and the guide had to take the boat to the bank so that she could get off... There was even a scuffle of a croc near the bank at the time, but after things had settled down, and the croc swam off, the guide was happy for her to go behind a tree and do what was necessary.

We then completed our boat trip and headed into town as our five day tour was now over. The whole group met up that evening at a local eattery come bar, where we had a few drinks together.

Some of us also met up the next night for Sushi at a Yo Sushi like restaurant. I had never had sushi before me and I am not sure that I am convinced - However I managed to try some. Along with plenty of Japanese beer to help it down. We then all returned to the apartment where the German guys were staying and watched their video of the trip, which was really good.

I had a day or two left in Darwin. I spent some of the time walking around exploring different corners of the town. I visited the museum, which was reasonable, going on the scale of museums I had visited already. There was a very good exhibit to explain the huge impact of Cyclone Tracy upon the residents of Darwin. The cyclone hit Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974 and resulted in the evacuation of over 30,000 (75%) of the residents of Darwin.

There were also lots of different types of Aboriginal artwork on display.

That just about concluded my trip to Darwin and the next day I was back on the train for my return to Sydney. Another three days on the train! Still as a seasoned traveller this could not be too bad surely.... not unless the person next to me managed to fall asleep with their head at such an angle that would inflict with their unsavoury bad breath. MMmmm an interesting thing to be kept awake by. Also, the person in front (English) did not seem to understand that it was phsically impossible for him to move his seat back any further (it kept hitting my knees) despite me informing him of this.

Luckily I only had two days on this train and then a swift changeover back onto the Indian Pacific at Adelaide to return to Sydney. As usual (I am a regular Red Kangaroo Rider now!) the Indian Pacific was far less crammed and I got two seats to myself. Unfortunately the film selection was not much better. So the MP3 CD's I made up, became useful - yet again.

On arrival back in Sydney, I made my way back to Helen and Lucas' flat in Drummoyne near where my home for 6 months was. They kindly put me up for the couple of nights until my parents arrived to see me for a couple of weeks.
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