Before we left Cairns, the campervan got a service and I got a long overdue haircut. From here on, we always kept a full spare tank of petrol, water and supplies in case we broke down or got stranded by floods. It would be a long haul around the country, but not as long as it will take you to read about it! You may need a map (or a nap) to take it all in.
Our first destination was to head west across northern Queensland into the Northern Territory. There was a new road that would save us driving all the way back down to Townsville and across on the usual highway. Gratefully, we would see no more rain until Darwin, two weeks later.
Climbing up through the Atherton Tablelands, southwest of Cairns, there was a continuation of World Heritage Wet Tropics areas, where the variety of green colours taxed my imagination to describe them. Imagine every shade of green that you can think of and then double it.
The rising, twisting 'scenic route' took us up to a plateau of wooded valleys, pastureland and crater lakes. Millaa Millaa had some nice waterfalls, but I was more interested in the village statue that seemed to portray a farmer sticking his arm into a rearing cow's behind while attempting to milk it. An overturned bucket lay nearby and a dog stood yapping at the cow. I'm not sure if it related to a local story or that they hadn't quite got the hang of milking cows yet.
Ravenshoe proclaimed that it was the 'highest town in Queensland', which at around 1000m wasn't that high, but it was certainly cooler than Cairns. Nearby, on the hills, was a 'wind farm' with over 30 gigantic white steel wind powered turbines with three long blades each to generate power. These were the first I'd seen in Australia. With all the wind around the country (much emanating from the politicians), I thought there would be more. Denmark is covered in the things.
The Kennedy Highway took us away from the greenery. It was a single-lane-surfaced road surrounded by yellow savannah grassland vegetation and lots of dust. Whenever something came our way, both parties would be forced to pull onto the unsurfaced side and pass each other. But the ferocious 50m long road trains gave no such quarter. They stuck to the middle of the road and it was up to you to either play chicken with a 30-ton monster barrelling along at 110km or get the hell off. Stones would splatter our windscreen as they passed, with me cursing "Thank you so much" ala Basil Fawlty.
After the picturesque '40 Mile Scrub National Park' (picturesque as in shady gum trees, red dirt, a lot of dust and 40 miles of scrub), we reached Undara, home of the famous 'Lava Tubes'. About 190,000 million years ago, a volcano erupted in the area and it's molten lava flowed down a dry riverbed. As the top layer quickly cooled and crusted, the fiery flow below drained outward leaving a series of long, dark hollow tubes. It sounded interesting but not interesting enough to fork out £12 each to see a couple of dark tunnels.
As with many tourist attractions in Australia, they force you onto tour buses for a "2 hour long guided tour of the area". This allows to them to charge a lot more and pad the trip out with the same kind of information you get on any outback trip. All we wanted to do was drive up, have a quick look at the tunnels and bugger off.
This is Australia 3: The word "Bugger" has now become one of the words most used in Australia. There was an advertising campaign for something or other, where something always went wrong and it ended with the victim sarcastically saying "BUGGER!". You can now get T-shirts of cartoon animals getting flattened by the word 'Bugger' and stickers for your car. One of the funniest sights I saw was a nice shiny 4WD with a dent in the door. The owner had stuck on a 'Bugger' sticker with a drawn arrow pointing to the dent.
So we buggered off and headed out on the recently sealed one-lane 'Savannah Developmental Way' across to the Gulf of Carpentaria. This area known as the Gulf Savannah is a vast, flat and sparsely populated landscape of bushland, saltpans and savannah grasslands, all cut by semi-permanent rivers that feed into the Gulf. During the wet season (Nov-Mar), the roads are usually flooded, but it was totally dry during our crossing in April. It is mainly cattle country in this remote, hot and tough region and the isolated cattle ranches are the size of small countries. The 'Outback' like this has a new name. The GAFFA. It stands for 'The Great Australian F*** All'.
On a long two day drive across to Normanton, with our radio airwaves completely silent, we consequently saw a lot of dry yellow savannah grasslands, acres of tall narrow pointy orange termites nests, a lot of dry dust and an awful lot of cows grazing by the side of the road. Clouds of pink and white galahs screamed their heads off and vast birds of prey soared above on the hot thermal currents. Some dead cow and kangaroo 'road kill' lay rotting and filled our van with that terrible smell of decaying flesh. Serves me right for putting one in the back. I also saw my first 'wild boar' road kill.
This is Australia 4: Someone, somewhere in Australia is apparently proving to his friends that he can live off "road kill' for an entire year. He drives around, picks up the choicest, most recent animal corpses he can find, cooks them and swallows it. When you see my road kill statistics at the end of my Australian adventures, you'll see that he has an unlimited menu.
A beautiful multi-coloured mackerel cloud sunrise appeared on the second day. I awoke to find my groin bitten to shreds by midges (oo-er). Jo had left the backdoor up all night to stay cool. Back on the endless flat stretches of single-track road, traffic almost disappeared, and even the road trains were few and far between. We crossed many empty creeks. The water lay beneath the sand. They would reappear quickly with a decent storm.
From out of nowhere, the vast metropolis of Croydon appeared with tall office blocks and traffic jams. I'm sorry, I just had a flashback. Unlike Croydon in London, this was a one-horse town of 220 inhabitants. It was an old gold mining town that had once boasted 5000 goldmines. By World War One, the gold had gone and it was now a ghost town. Come to think of it, that sounds just like London's Croydon.
At the end of the road on the Gulf, lay Normanton, originally the port that supplied Croydon. With a population of 1100, it was the largest place we'd seen in two days. The old wide streets with the Victorian architecture still retained its charm, and there was not a shopping mall in sight. A group of drunken aborigines sat and laughed in the dust.
Heading to Cloncurry 300km south to rejoin the main highway, the trees disappeared and it was a long monotonous drive across flat grasslands and red dirt. The 'Bang Bang Jump Up Rock' was the only hill anywhere to be seen.
This was the area where explorers Burke and Wills made their way north to reach the Gulf of Carpentia in 1861 to become the first men to cross Australia. Leaving Melbourne in the far south, they were attempting to win a large reward if they discovered the mythical 'inland sea' which supposedly existed somewhere in the outback. It was a disastrous expedition and in the end Burke and Wills and two others left the support group to make a final two-month dash to the Gulf and back again before their supplies ran out. One man died and when they staggered back to the arranged meeting place two months later, they discovered that the rest of their party, having given up waiting, had left just the day before.
Before they left, the support group, had buried supplies for Burke and Wills beneath a tree with a large 'DIG' carved on the tree with an arrow pointing down (to hide it from the local aborigines). But even though they camped a few feet away, Burke never saw the tree. Completely distrustful of aborigines, Burke and Wills ignored their offers of help and literally starved to death in a land of plenty. The third member, John King did use aboriginal help and lived to tell the story. The 'DIG' tree is still there, in southern Queensland, in the middle of nowhere. On our travels, we would see the occasional memorial cairn to indicate where they had passed through. South of Normanton, we passed the 'Burke and Wills Roadhouse' which obviously wasn't there in 1861 or they would have survived. I assume that the expression "What a Burke! (i.e. idiot) became popular after this episode.
The English have Captain Scott who messed up at the South Pole and the Aussies have Burke and Wills and Ned Kelly - all failures but with a romantic death wish about them, that has helped forge the Australian identity.
At Cloncurry, we joined the Flinders Highway, which took us to Mt Isa. We had covered 800km in one day. Not bad considering our maximum speed is 100kph in the van. On our earlier trip - (See Australia Part 1b - From Arsehole to Breakfast in the Outback), we had passed through Mt Isa and Cloncurry coming from the N.T before heading south to NSW, so we were back on familiar ground.
This time we turned west from Mt Isa and retraced our route back across the majestic Barkly Tablelands that I will not bore you with again. Suffice to say, as we left Mt Isa, we saw a backpacker hitching (you see very few nowadays, even though I did enough of it in 1985). He turned out to be a 19 year old Aussie kid called Lochlan, from Noosa Heads who was working his way around Australia in order to see some of his country. He was headed for Darwin 1500km away and we could get him halfway there in one day. He climbed in the back and went to sleep!
Meanwhile we crossed the Barkly Tableland, passed over the N.T border again and kept pushing on. The 'wattle' bushes were in currently in full bloom. This long stretching and reviving mass of small yellow flowers contrasted vividly with the bright red soil and cloudless light blue skies. I spotted tall crane-like Brolga and Jabaru birds by waterholes. At the Three Ways junction on the Stuart Highway, we turned north for Darwin. It felt good to be back in the Northern Territory again.
The road took the highest contour (to avoid flooding), which was still rather low, but as we drove along we could see flat bushland stretching for hundreds of kilometres in every direction. After another long 750km day's drive we were exhausted and holed up at the Renner Springs Roadhouse, to get the last available site. It was a dusty old forgotten place in the middle of nowhere with water restrictions and a dubious looking 'spa pool' round the back. It was a murky pond. Lochlan slept in his hammock tied between two trees.
A long road train full of stamping cattle and a beautiful orange sunrise awaked us. A frozen Lochlan was up early the next morning to start hitching, but possible rides were non existent. One car would pass about every 15 minutes. I'd told him that we could take him further north if he was still waiting when we left. So he hopped in again and off we went to start touring some more of the Northern Territory.
This is Australia 5: Rental campervan touring, especially in the N.T. and Western Australia has become all the rage for European tourists. The most popular company called 'Britz' is German owned. They must be doing a good fly-drive deal, because half the traffic in the N.T seemed to be Panzer Divisions of spanking brand new, gleaming white, all mod con, Britz vans roaring along the roads between Darwin and Ayers Rock and all points in-between by European couples of all ages.. Every major caravan park was full of them. The younger backpackers are reduced to using extensive bus passes and we sometimes saw their sad, bored faces when their bus pulled in for a Roadhouse rest.
It was a bit of a shock to have the occasional car or road train come past us at the speed of a Porsche, until I remembered that there is no speed limit in the N.T. There are also no speed cameras and few police cars outside the towns. Speeds of up to 150km + may be frowned upon by the traffic cops, but some people get away with a lot more on the flat stretches where only a wandering cow may be the only hazard. Hog heaven or what? Still, a fat lot of good it did us in our trusty old campervan.
Newcastle Waters, another old ghost town would be our first sight and I didn't believe the sign that said "Town Closed Due To Flooding". How can it be flooded? We hadn't seen rain in a week. So we continued along the side road until a wall of water stopped us. A recent downpour had filled the river beyond capacity and it had swamped the flatlands. There was now a torrent of floodwater flowing over the road a couple of feet deep. We saw a 4WD drive just about get through but we wouldn't stand a chance.
Daly Waters, further north was as dry as a bone. During World War Two, with the threat of Japanese invasion, this whole area of Australia became a mass of military airfields and bases. There was sod all here before then and there is very little even now. Daly Waters was one of the main military centres. Now it is just a hamlet with the famous 'Daly Waters Pub' (est. 1930) which had women's underwear hanging from the rafters and walls. Jo refused to donate to this collection, embarrassed by the state of her 18-month long travel weary knickers.
It also boasted 'Australia's most remote traffic light'. Outside the pub stood a set of traffic lights in a place so small, we counted 4 vehicles. It was just for show. As was the comical sign for dogs with a cartoon and a message telling them 'Dogs - make the most. Last chance to take a piss against a post'. The tiny garage across the one road was 15ft long and had three pumps outside it. It was one of those few and far between places left in Australia that is retaining some unique character. Its biggest boast was that Amy Johnson had landed here when she finished her London-Australia solo flight. Therefore they had to be, no argument about it, 'Australia's First International Airfield'. Check this place out if you are in the N.T.Photo of Daly Waters Pub
Trees began to appear along with thousands of tall pointed termite nests, some over 10ft tall. Their rock solid red structures glowed in the sunshine. Mataranka loomed and we bade farewell to Lochlan. "You were real pearlers, mate". One ride from Mt Isa had got him to within 400km of Darwin.
In the 1880s, the N.T became famous for the 'Overlanders' Trail' where vast unclaimed tracts of land were settled by cattle owners who literally marched in their herds and laid claim to the land. Mataranka became the most well know area because of a book. "We of the Never Never". Written in 1908 by Jeannie Gunn, she told of her life on a cattle station called Elsey Homestead in the outback at the end of the 19th Century. It is one of Australia's most famous books and a movie was made back in 1982.
Mataranka is now equally famous for it's 'thermal' pools near the replica of the Elsey Homestead. I remembered visiting this before. I climbed off a bus that had brought me up from Alice Springs overnight and wallowed in the lovely luke warm water while foul smelling fruit bats hung upside down from the tropical palms and mangroves, squawked loudly and dropped shit on everyone's clothes.
Today, the fruit bats were gone and somehow the pool was not as beautiful as I remembered it. It all looked a little scruffy, but another dip was still as welcome. The pool is not actually thermal for the 34'C temp water is normal for water heated by the sun here. Soldiers in WWII built it so the officers could have somewhere to relax. Which was nice.
We found the fruit bats at our caravan park just outside Katherine. Noisy buggers. Katherine had boomed into 10,000 people since my last visit. It was some turn around, considering that the place went underwater big time back in 1998. I saw a flood water level on a tree, which was at least 10 ft above the ground. They even have a Woolworth's Superstore now! Open 7 days a week! It was even stranger to see local aborigines pushing shopping trolleys around.
30 km outside Katherine, lies the beautiful, politically corrected 'Nitmiluk National Park' but everyone still calls it Katherine Gorge. It is actually 13 gorges carved out by the Katherine River over 12 km and separated from each other by rapids. I had camped in the park before and a tame kangaroo had adopted me, or rather my food, for a couple of nights. It even slept in the tent! My old campsite was now a new impressive visitors centre. How times change.
It is a major tourist attraction and everyone does the Gorge River cruise. But seeing how I'd done that before and Jo needed another boat trip like a hole in the head, we decided to take advantage of the new walking trails around the area which would allow us to take in the gorge from the cliffs above. So of course, I picked the longest one and it nearly killed us with exhaustion.
"Let's walk to the Lilyponds" I said, having had it recommended by an aborigine ranger. "It's only 20km return". Setting off at 8am, we climbed up the steep rocky escarpment overlooking the river and continued in raging heat, looping across the plateau along a dry dusty track, along which, emergency water tanks had been set up. Not that we ever saw another person doing any walking. It was far too hot. Eventually we started to pass by some secluded green coloured waterholes with the fragrance of the sweet smelling blue waterlillies lying on the surface. We skirted around the pools on rock ledges and made our way to the cliff edge which gave us a wonderful view over the second gorge and along to the third. The 4 hour boat trips get this far, and 300ft below us we could see the passengers having their lunch and swim by the river.
I had my own private luxurious waterhole far above them. A waterfall descended at one end, where I could wallow butt-naked in my own spa pool, then do lengths of 100ft surrounded by the rocky ledges and trees overhanging the edges. It was a perfect setting, and one of the nicest places I found in Australia.
Refreshed, we headed back on the same route and still the sun burned on around 35'C. There was another trail where you could walk down through the 'Butterfly Gorge' which was only about 5km return, so I decided to do it, while Jo kept going. This trail took me down, through dark lush vegetation and the odd butterfly, to a bend in the river at the entrance to the First Gorge. It looked spectacular with its vertical red cliffs looming on either side above the river. The silence was ruined by yet another boat with loudspeaker booming "And on the right, you'll see some poor knackered Pommy guy who should have taken the boat". Then I had to climb back up and return to the main route.
7 and a half-hours of walking 25 km up and down cliffs with only water, I was sunburnt and suffering from severe cramp due to dehydration. Jo looked in much better shape. A new low. All those long hours spent behind the wheel were starting to remove my stamina. I hadn't felt this bad since I saw a Ronald Reagan movie. I must have been tired, for the next morning I drove off without my sneakers, which were under the van. Or maybe I didn't want to see them again.
The world famous Kakadu National Park was our next destination. En route, we took in Pine Creek, an old historic gold town from 1871. The enormous old open cast mine had been flooded into a lake. The mine now lay beneath 135m of water.
On my previous visit in 1985, I had reached Kakadu's boundaries from Darwin in the north by bus. I met a friendly Australian couple in the campsite swimming pool who were having a short break from Darwin. The next morning, seeing me attempting to hitch into the park, they put a fold up chair in the back of their open board 4WD 'Ute' and for the next couple of days we explored the sights along the rough and ready unsealed roads. It was a magical experience to sit on the back with the sun and dust in my face and take in all the fabulous scenery. During my visit, the first 'Crocodile Dundee' movie was being filmed there, though it was called 'Crocodile Jim' then, before they changed the name.
Wendell Wright, my hospitable 60's something driver was an interesting character. He had worked in construction in Katherine and as a hobby, built a full sized operational fishing boat there - 300km from the coast. The locals called him Noah. To the media's amusement, he built the boat in two halves and had them shipped up to Darwin on two enormous road trains and fully constructed. It was now fishing off Australia. A few months later in New Zealand, I met an American girl who'd worked on his boat as the cook. Small world.
This time, we entered from the south. In 1985, to my knowledge, the Kakadu Highway from Pine Creek to Jabiru inside the park did not exist, or must have just been a track. With the enormous numbers of tourists, it is now an excellent fully sealed road that passes through all the major attractions. While this was great news to our campervan, I felt that the park had lost some of its attraction because it was now so easy to get around. I missed the challenge of the dusty gravel roads and forded rivers.
It was here that I had seen an amazing sight that had seemed so Australian. We had pulled up behind a 4WD at a river to be forded. Next to the track was a sign that said 'Danger. Crocodiles'. Inside, behind the wheel of the 4WD, sat a man with his smoke, reading the paper, while his wife, had her dress hitched up around her thighs. She had waded into the middle of the river to test the depth of the water while he had his 'smoko'. What crocodiles? Unforgettable.
Kakadu National Park is on the World Heritage List for numerous reasons and is one of Australia's most prized cultural and ecological treasures and rightly so. It covers 20,000 sq. km all the way to the northern coast and is a virtually inaccessible area. The foreboding red granite escarpment of Arnhem Land Plateau dominates the horizon. This enormous geological wonder is a conglomerate of faults, crevices, caves and waterfalls. Beneath the escarpment stretches the flat floodplains, which during the wet season (Dec-Mar) are flooded by heavy monsoon rain, which then dry out in the sun. Then it becomes nature's McDonalds for every living thing.
There are eight major landscape types: stone country, monsoon forest, savannah woodlands, billabongs, hills and ridges, floodplain, tidal flats and coast. Add to this: 1,600 plant species, 275 bird species, 75 reptiles, 25 frogs and 10,000 species of insect and what you end up with is a state of the art ecosystem. Most importantly, it is the fact that we humans have made so little intrusion into the place that the original, unique and delicate ecosystem is still thriving.
But for how much longer? I had seen herds of black water buffalo in 1985, which had been introduced from Asia by Aussie cattle farmers in the early days and were messing with the ecosystem. They had since been all culled and killed off by snipers in helicopters in the last decade. Now there was a bigger threat. The infamous Cane Toad had been spotted a week before we arrived for the first time, and the Park authorities were not happy.
The Cane Toad was introduced (from somewhere) by Queensland farmers to kill off the beetles that infected their sugar cane crops. But this blighter eats more than insects and it has two poisonous sacs behind its eyes. Cane Toad on the menu of any animal is the last meal it ever eats and as an introduced species, it has no natural predators in Australia. These toads are hungry and hopping at a rapid pace around all tropical environments from their base in Queensland. The cold weather seems to hold them up so their southern sortie has been halted in New South Wales. Now they are staying in the warm, headed west and Kakadu is their next stop.
It is the 20th Century equivalent of the 19th Century rabbit epidemic in Australia. But these are not fluffy cute bunnies, which bit the bullet with bunny diseases. They are ugly wart covered mongrels about 3" square that don't know when to quit. If the Cane Toad establishes itself in Kakadu, it will mess around with the food chain and the ecosystem will suffer. Irrevocably, the conservationists scream.
This is Australia 6: Unfortunately, the hatred of Cane Toads is such that, if there are sightings anywhere, people start killing any frog or toad they can find just to be sure. Cane Toad Golf is a new hobby in the outback. If a place is overrun, you just take out your golf clubs and tee away using a cane toad instead of a golf ball. I wonder if they yell "Toad!" instead of "Fore!" ?
We had arrived at the end of the wet season in late April. It cost £6 each for a 14 day pass which was very reasonable. It was a shame that within 10 minutes of getting it, Jo's pass blew out of the window never to be seen again. Doh! Not that anyone checked once you paid at the entrances.
The minor unsealed roads were still flooded and we even had to ford the main road twice through a foot of water for two hundred feet. We passed through the 'wetlands' with forests growing out of the residual monsoon water. Red tailed black cockatoos sat in the trees above the Jabiru, Brolga and white egret that paddled around the water. Black kites soared overhead. The termite nests were like mini skyscrapers with their enormous bulbous blocks of dried red hardened dust. Eroded by rain, towering pinnacles were often left - some over 30ft high. I also discovered that the large black ants that shared these nests had a nasty bite.Photo of Termite Mounds
Kakadu is one of the most sacred aborigine sites and they have been doing walkabout here for about 20,000 years. There are still many areas containing their ancient cave paintings, which are acclaimed as the best in Australia, and the Nourlangie Art Site has some of those riches.
For more information on Aborigine art, Jo wrote in her diary: "Aboriginal art is some of the most ancient in the world. The cool rock overhangs where Aborigines sheltered and lived were ideal places for portraying important events, foods, animals and spiritual figures. Their materials were simple: smooth rock walls for canvases; brushes made from hairs, bark fibres or feathers, sticks, hands and mouth spraying; local minerals for paint (yellow from limonite, white from chalk/kaolin, red from hematite and ferrite, black from charcoal - some of the ochre were cooked to darken the colour). These minerals were crushed on stone and mixed with water or egg yolk before use. Some ochre pieces have been dated to 50,000 years ago, and it is known that the silica coatings that cover some of the paintings take a very long time for form, but it is difficult to date the art exactly".
"The most reliable method is to study the subjects and styles and compare these to climatic and geological evidence. The plain red ochre paintings are supposed to be the oldest, while “contact art” marks the arrival of non-Aborigines and portrays settlers with their hands in their pockets telling Aborigines what to do, and carrying guns and axes. The most recent style is “x-ray painting” where life forms and spirits are depicted by a stylised arrangement of skeletal or muscle structures. The paintings are fragile, erased over time by rain, the rubbing of animals, wasp nests and insects. Many newer paintings have been superimposed on older ones, and this complicates the dating process further." Thank you Jo. It saved me typing it out.
Beneath towering red cliffs, we followed the walkway around and saw paintings of Namarrgon - 'lightening man'. He was depicted by the lines joining his head, arms and feet. The objects attached to his head, elbows and knees were stone axes. He made lightening and thunder by striking those axes against the ground and cliffs. Since Kakadu gets some awesome thunder and lightening during the wet season, it was easy to see why he was a symbolic Dreamtime character to the Aborigines. Even as we walked around, dark clouds loomed on the horizon. Expect to see 'Lightening Man' in the ring next season at the World Wrestling Federation circus. Nearby, there was another Dreamtime creation being called Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent.
In the rock art galleries we also saw mouth-sprayed hand stencils, hunters carrying barbed spears and fish, birds and animals depicted in a x-ray style revealing the internal organs and bone structures. Many of these fabulous paintings at Nourlangie had actually been repainted in 1963 by a local aboriginal artist, which sounded a bit of a con, but they would have faded away without a touch up.
Jabiru, the main town in Kakadu, had changed beyond comprehension. In 1985, it was a dusty, grubby little place to support the newly opened Uranium mine next door (in a World Heritage National park? - don't ask). It was now a rather pleasant blossoming community, and fully-fledged tourist centre. The roads were paved, tree lined and numerous hotels had been constructed (including a huge one in the shape of a crocodile called, surprisingly, the "Crocodile Hotel"). A supermarket had arrived and if Crocodile Dundee ever returned, you'd probably find him hanging out at the Hilton rather than the Walkabout Hotel. Even our expensive (£9) caravan park had the largest landscaped swimming pool (complete with side bar/cafe) we'd seen in Australia. Where did all the dust go?, I wondered, as I sat in the pool with a beer and watched another lovely tropical sunset of orange and purple shades disappear above me (as you do).
The new Bowali Visitor's Centre was excellent, trying to capture what it sat in the middle of. We watched a documentary on the Dingo called 'Watchdog of the Supernatural' (nature documentaries run all day), a multimedia slideshow portraying the different seasons, and well laid out and informative exhibitions on aboriginal culture, wildlife and the landscapes.
There is only one way to capture the immenseness of this area. Get up in the air and fly over it. I'd done this before, but I didn't mind repeating the experience. A one hour scenic flight cost £44 and was worth every penny. On my previous trip, the pilot had yelled over the roar of the Cessna if he wanted to tell me anything or just pointed. But he could also detour off the flight path and we flew over the 'Crocodile Dundee' film set (cries of "Cut! Bloody Planes" no doubt) and ended up over Arnhem Land.
In 2001, the trip had become a lot more professional in an annoying sort of way. The pilot didn't talk to you, he had a set flight path and you wore soundproof headphones and listened to a droning narrative by someone telling you how much you should be enjoying your flight and all that useless information that you don't need.
The tape was supposedly timed to perfection - from the twinky Aussie folk music while waiting to take off, to when you were passing the waterfalls ("Standby and have your camera ready"). But we were delayed on take off so the droning was out of sequence. There we were flying around the circuit and Johnny Bore would be telling us how great the place looked at a different time of year (it is so nice to know that you are visiting during the crappy season), but the tape would be off by 5 minutes, so we'd get the narrative first and by the time we saw the sight, he was off warbling about the next "spectacular view". I took off the headphones, preferring the noise of the Cessna 207 engine, which was deafening.
Kakadu doesn't need a presentation like this. It is better to just gaze out of window and just look down. Uninhabited territory as far as the eye can see in every direction. We cruised over the floodplains, much of which were still underwater with bright green turquoise coloured lagoons contrasting with the of darker greenery of the bushland. We soared along the edge of the wonderful Arnhemland Plateau with it's massive rock outcrops and well-weathered, red and yellow sandstone cliffs, and took in the Twin Falls and Jim Jim falls where the water tumbles over 200m into narrow rocky gorges. From the air, the size of these was difficult to fathom. 'Deaf Adder Valley' was still a vast aboriginal hunting ground off-limits to white people. We shot rolls of film (most of which did it a great injustice) and returned over a cracked granite plateau and the Ranger Uranium mine (3rd largest in the world). It was still as good as my memory served me and simply unmissable. It made you feel very small.
To reach the Ubirr Art Walk Site north of Jabiru, we had to ford more rivers. Two days previously, the newly sealed road was still impassable. There were more aboriginal cave art of fish, turtles and stories but it is the stupendous view from the top of the rock outcrop that you remember. Before you, lies an endless flat marshy swamp with painfully bright green grass broken up by red and yellow sandstone. It took a 6 photo panoramic pan to record the moment. In blistering mid afternoon temperatures, we had the site to ourselves before the organised groups rolled up for the sunset.
As we made our way west out of Kakadu, the roadsides were full of large lizards sunning themselves or rushing across the road. ("Damn! Missed it again!"). The South Alligator River, the only river in the world to start and finish within a National Park marks the western boundary. It was named by someone who didn't know the difference between alligators and crocodiles (come on, that's an easy one!) for there are no alligators here. This is 'Crocodile Central'.
In 1985, I had taken a long 5-hour boat ride up the sleepy waters while crocodiles lay on the low cliffs above the river or at the edge of the water and sea eagles sat in the trees. The 'tourist gimmick' was to stick a piece of meat or a red rag on the end of a 10ft pole and hang it 4ft above the water. Suddenly a crocodile would leap vertically out of the water, using its tail for propulsion and grab the object. Not something you see everyday. That boat company had disappeared but you could still see the same thing at nearby rivers outside the park.
What we did find at South Alligator River, apart from a lot of mosquitoes, midges and loud black rooks at our campsite, were three fisherman who had just come back from a day down the river. They had each caught 2 enormous barrimundi cod. Every one of these fish weighed 20lbs each. They could hardly hold them up while I took a photo for them. There be good fishing' in these parts. Jo was simply delighted.
Just before we turned back onto the Stuart Highway for Darwin, we passed through the strangely named Humpty Doo. The isolated pub there used to be a real outback experience on a Sunday afternoon (so I discovered while trying to hitch from there). Now the hamlet had grown into a small town. There was a 'Hard Croc Cafe' and numerous tourist attractions. This country was developing so quickly.
At the tip of the Northern Territory, Darwin is a real outpost of Australia and has a really interesting history to match. The Oz tourist blurb said it was "an exciting blend of adventure, intensity, disappointment, disaster and achievement”, which sounded like my sex life.
It started as Australia's gateway to the north and the rest of the world. In 1870, it began as the terminus of the Overland Telegraph Line from South Australia and when gold was discovered soon after at Pine Creek, it became a major port. Things quietened down. By World War Two, it was a sleepy backwater until 1942 when the Japanese decided to bomb it into oblivion for the next 2 years. Post WWII, it was rebuilt only to be flattened again on Xmas Day 1974 by Cyclone Tracy. In 1985, when I had rolled up, it was full of Vietnamese boat people and gangs of bare chested, tattooed construction workers still rebuilding the place. I am pleased to announce that it is now almost finished and that noone names their daughter Tracy in Darwin.
When the wet season hits Darwin (Nov-Mar), it really hits it hard. The heat and humidity gradually build up until breaking point. Over a third of the population used to head south during this period. It became famous for its remaining residents going nuts in the incessant humidity and rain. 'Gone Troppo' explained everything from the upturn in domestic abuse, murder and generally uncivil behaviour. How times have changed.
Darwin is now a brand spanking new city, still growing rapidly and it is completely bathed in air conditioning systems everywhere. The 70,000 population is multi-cultured and young and the relaxed, almost country town atmosphere generated a friendly reception. The modern city centre with an excellent infrastructure (a good bus system for starters) was surrounded by lovely parklands next to the coast. Many of the attractions were free. I liked Darwin a lot. I could live here and still take my holidays in SE Asia just over the water.
This is Australia 7: Darwin used to be famous for the 'Darwin Stubbie'. This was a 60 fluid ounce bottle of beer (over 2 pints), the largest beer bottle in the world. It symbolised the rampant Aussie manhood of living in the outback. If you were a real man, you could handle double the amount of beer that anyone else could. Alas, those days are gone. I only found one in a bottle shop in a presentation box. And it wasn't even cold! They are now only infrequently produced in Victoria for the tourist market. Darwin has gone lightweight on me. Shame on it.
It was post-wet season on our arrival with a comfortable 32'C temperature and 'Slip Slop Slap' suntan lotion was being sold. The roads were full of cars with their own personalised rego plates with things like 'R U MAD', 'AUSSIE', and 'LAB RAT'. There was a small outdoor 'Deckchair Cinema' where you could watch movies. Not in a car, but a deckchair! At other cinemas, you could rent thongs/flip-flops if you turn up barefooted. Dress code is pretty relaxed here. You can go shopping bare chested! In my dreams! I sent a large package from a post office. In and out in 10 minutes which was 2 hours 20 minutes faster than doing it at any Indian post office. Darwin also boasts some of the worst hairstyles around. That old favourite, the 'mullet' is still a goer here.
The front page of the 'This Week in Darwin' freebie offered something different: 'Furlanos of Fannie Bay - Learn to Dance or Dance Socially'. Is there such a thing as unsociable dancing? Oh yes, everyone's uncle who turns up to every wedding disco.
The multi-cultured population was best illustrated by the cuisine. There were eating places with Swiss, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Irish, British, Malaysian, Italian, Indian, French, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Mongolian, Creole and good old Aussie tucker.
At the 'Magic Wok' with an unlimited lunchtime buffet for £8, you could try: buffalo, crocodile, fish, prawns, beef, turkey, chicken, lamb, kangaroo, camel, pork, deer, emus, scallops, baby octopus, clams, mussels and squid. I thought I'd gone to heaven.
Darwin now has a famous night market of 300 stalls that operates once a week and is host to all these cuisine. It was the seasonal 'opening night' on the day we arrived. But late afternoon as we set up camp, a deluge of water descended over the city. One of those massive cats-and-dogs monsoon rainstorms that produces rivers in gutters within minutes. We cancelled the visit to the night market. It was just as well. The following morning, the front page of the newspaper recorded that it had been completely flooded out. That's Darwin for you.
It was nice to just soak up the atmosphere of the place. The East Point Reserve and Lake Alexander was a lovely 200-hectare recreational area with natural forest and mangroves, a pony club and old WWII gun emplacements. From here could look back across the bay at the city landscape.
Who could resist a suburb called 'Fannie Bay'? Here we found the Fannie Bay Gaol, which was used from the 1880s right up to 1979. It is now a historical site, but it was strange to wander around an open prison that had only closed 20 years before. It was designed to handle the tropical weather where air circulation was paramount. Apparently, conditions and security had a reputation for being so 'soft' here, that during headcounts, they discovered people who had sneaked in to try and stay and get some decent grub.
We got chatting to the friendly young custodian who had moved from his family's cattle ranch in Queensland and loved Darwin, especially since Government workers here get additional pay bonuses just to live in Darwin. He was very proud of his new car, which he had just purchased and was parked within the prison. "How come you don't park it outside?" I asked. "Place is full of criminals around here" he said, waving at the compound.
We had a look at the visitor's book where someone had memorably written "Had to take a shit. Really nice". I wonder where? All the old toilet bowls in the prison were filled with sand. "Oh Christ", he muttered "That book gets inspected by my manager just to make sure I'm doing a good job". So I made sure that 'Hugh G. Rection' got an entry.
Fannie Bay also contained the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (free entry) which had an extensive and fabulous collection of aboriginal work, the best I'd seen in Australia.
In the Museum, we saw a pickled Cane Toad in a glass jar. Nasty looking critter. Part of the Museum was dedicated to Cyclone Tracy. You went back in time to what Darwin was like on Xmas Eve 1974 just before it struck. Then you entered a small-darkened room to listen to actual recordings of the wind roaring and debris being thrown around.
When you re-emerged, you got to see what the results were and old TV coverage of the following morning. It looked like the place had imploded. Houses blown away, cars and planes turned upside down and corrugated iron twisted and blown for miles. Amazingly, only 64 people died. The infrastructure was doomed. The city was practically evacuated afterwards. The journalist on TV sat there in the rubble on Xmas Day, describing the aftermath. He ended, dog faced, a tear in his eye with the words "... This is what is left of Darwin. It used to be a bloody nice place to live". It still is.
The latest edition to Darwin's splendour is the new (1994) Northern Territory Parliament Building. It stands where the old 1871 Telegraph/Post office stood before those cunning Japs decimated it in 1942. An interesting free tour took us around a lovely, shockingly clean, white airy building designed for climatic control. An overhanging roof and shaded arcaded verandas screened the main walls from the sun. It was all beautifully designed in white with Tasmanian wood and granite tiled floors. High ceilings. Lots of light. Beautiful art works and state of the art air conditioning which felt like you had entered a freezer. It was also designed with energy conservation in mind and is apparently 'cyclone proof'. This has yet to be tested.
The Northern Territory has 20% of Australia's land area, but only 2% of its population (less than 300,000 people). The Legislative Assembly Chamber only had 25 members. Our happy lady guide was proud of the fact that because of the low population, most people got to meet or at least see their representative in person. Rather than locking themselves away behind bureaucratic offices until election time, they kept a high profile on the streets and genuinely tried to meet the people. Turning up at schools for presentation days etc.
What I didn't realise was that the N.T is still not an official 'state'. It is still run and completely funded by the Federal Government in Canberra. Without that, it couldn't keep going. It is still lacking sufficient population and development to be rewarded independent status. But things are happening.
The Australian military machine is being relocated en masse to the N.T just in case SE Asia decides it needs the land. And after about 100 years of promises, the railroad that was built from Adelaide to end in Darwin, but only reached Alice Springs, is finally being giving the go ahead.
Within the next 5 years, Darwin will have a rail link to Australia. This will allow imports to arrive from Asia by boat and be shipped by freight train around the country. Passenger trains will allow easier access for tourist. This will really boost the local economy, encourage migration and increase the population. It is a city of the future that I found was also the most appealing in Australia. We were genuinely sad to leave.
Returning south, we passed Darwin's new southern suburb of Palmerson, which with 20,000 people is the 'fastest growing city in Australia'. The shopping malls had gathered there in anticipation.
As we motored back down the Stuart Highway behind a three-section road train, one of its rear tyres exploded into large rubber strands in front of us and then came hurtling towards our windscreen. Fortunately, we were 100ft behind and missed the bombardment. These road trains have 36 wheels on them, so it was a minor problem. It took us 5km to finally pass it and indicate to the trucker about his tyre. Stuck up in the cab, 50 metres from the blowout, listening to his radio, he wouldn't have noticed a thing until he next stopped.
Litchfield National Park was our final exploration of the N.T. This park, which did not exist in 1985, had become very popular. Many people preferred it to its larger cousin at Kakadu, possibly because the scale of only 143 sq. km was more manageable. Many Australians had recommended a visit, and it fully lived up to expectations.
We stayed at the quiet Banyon Tree Caravan Park, which was full of, er, Banyon trees. The plump old man who ran the place, escorted us personally to our site, plugged in the power lead, gave us a run down of facilities and invited us in for a cup of tea to watch the 'footie'. What more can you ask? Well in this heat, a swimming pool. But the caravan park had one of those too. And you can get me a beer while you're passing.
Litchfield NP offered monsoon forest, perennial spring fed streams and waterfalls, magnetic termite mounds and eroded sandstone outcrops. It was a Sunday, when locals descend to enjoy the cool waterholes, so we set off early to tackle the compact area which is very manageable on the sealed roads in a day. The colours of the park were beautiful: bright orange sandy trails with fields of bleached yellow grasses swaying in front of bright green woodland and overlooked by a light blue sky with streaks of white clouds across it.
Magnetic termite mounds are rather different from the normal towering red blob formations we had seen so far. They only reached up to 2 metres but the mounds' thin edges pointed north south while their broad backs and fronts faced east west. Why? (and not a lot of people know this or probably care). Because they have been constructed by the termites as a natural built-in temperature control mechanism, allowing only the smallest possible area to ever be exposed to the baking sun. You learn something everyday. From a distance they looked like a ramshackle collection of old dusty gravestones set among acres of tall wispy yellow grasslands.
Tolmer Falls was a spectacular waterfall tumbling 100m between two high red sandstone escarpments into a distant plunge pool below. The gorge was so steep that you could only view it from a lookout. Wangi Falls were wider and shorter and the water made an enormous roar as it crashed into a large wide pool. This waterhole is very popular for a dip, but it was closed, due to, wait for it, "flooding'! How can a waterhole be flooded? The next thing you know, they'll be shutting down the waterfall due to "excessive water". So instead, we did a walk along a lovely trail up through some monsoon forests, over the falls and down the other rocky side.
I finally got my anticipated swim at Florence Falls which provided another superb sight of a double waterfall set amid the lush green monsoon forest and cascading into a lovely light green swimming hole of clear water. Walking down to it, there was a wonderful panoramic view of the area. With two dozen others there, it seemed crowded but acceptable.
When we reached Burley Rock Hole, Florence Falls seemed like the Garden of Eden and I realised how lucky I'd been. Burley Rock Hole is really just a series of pretty small waterfalls and rock holes but they were teeming with 'Oz Experience' backpackers, every Britz van this side of Alice Springs, plus the locals and then some. Every pool looked like a crowded spa full of people. I call places like this 'Penguin colonies'. I walked past a kilometre's worth of geriatric Germans, skinny Swedes and boring British and thought 'Bugger this'. But my disappointment was removed by finding a huge 4ft monitor lizard that did not flinch when I approached it and I finally got a decent photo of these reptiles that usually scuttle away.
Time we were, leaving! Leaving the increasing onslaught of Sunday afternoon visitors we got back to the very familiar Stuart Highway. My father had told me to check out a water buffalo at Adelaide River. This was the monster animal from the first "Crocodile Dundee" movie that had blocked the road and had been hypnotised by Mr Dundee. "You'll find him next to the war cemetery. He's a real star". The famous water buffalo was nowhere to be seen. There were no signs, nothing about it in the tourist blurb and for all I know, it may now actually be in the cemetery rather than across from it, a victim of old age, a better deal somewhere else or possibly removed during the Kakadu buffalo cull. All together now - arrr! There goes the only reason to visit the town of Adelaide River.
Overnight, at our previous caravan park near Katherine, I retrieved my lost sneakers that I'd left behind over a week before. "They smelt so bad, we nearly burnt them" the woman owner laughed, handing them back in a fumigated plastic bag before passing out.
Western Australia beckoned, it was a full day's drive southwest from Katherine along the Victoria Highway. The familiar flat, wooded terrain full of cattle, suddenly changed as we entered Gregory National Park. The tropical vegetation abruptly died away into a rather beautiful semi arid region with long sloping red rocky escarpments on either side of the road. We saw our first boab trees - fat, plump trunks shaped like a bottle with a bunch of short poky branches sprouting from the top. Nature's 'Darwin Stubbie'. The barks are so thick, people can carve their names into them in huge letters and many were covered in wooden graffiti.
By early afternoon, we were motoring along a completely empty road at 100kph, the sun was high and it was 30+ 'C . The views of the escarpments were great and we were only an hour from the Western Australian border, 100km away. This was the life.
Then we heard a shockingly loud and dynamic explosion from beneath us. It was like a grenade going off. Jo, driving, suddenly had to pull the steering wheel violently to hold the van in a straight line. She let the van slow from 100kph without using the brakes and we pulled off to the roadside. Climbing out, we found the front right tyre had blown out and was shredded. It was our first puncture in Australia and we were 100km from anywhere.
We turned, looked at each other and simultaneously exclaimed "BUGGER!".