Friday, 23 October 2009

Things I have learnt

  • The early bird in the hostel catches the hot showers and the free internet
  • The first question to ask in a new town, after "Where is my bed?", is: "Where is Woolworths?" (Someone volunteered this information to me in Perth; at first I thought they were directing me to the pick'n'mix, but it turns out to be a supermarket over here.)
  • Ear plugs are a Good Thing
  • So is handcream (I know, bizarre)
  • Never, never take a white towel on tour
  • Vanity is also surplus to requirements. And any pretensions one might have had towards hygiene
  • The fastest way to make friends is to share a campsite with no toilets. And a bus after no showers. Odd, though, that this doesn't work in London
  • I can make myself comfortable anywhere. This might not come as a surprise to those of you who've seen me leap into pyjamas at the slightest provocation, but it was news to me and I think it's pretty cool!

Blimey, what a scorcher

Today's the day when I'm going on a jumping crocodile cruise on the Adelaide River, and at 9am it was already hotter than a London heatwave! So I'm just grabbing a bit of an air-conditioning hit before heading out again, and updating everyone on my Kakadu adventure. It was more luxurious than I'd anticipated, as we were put together with another tour group to make up numbers - only one night's bush camping, which was brilliant as usual, and the other nights in fixed tents - beds and mattresses, no less! Very comfortable, though I'd have preferred to rough it - maybe the sun's gone to my head...

Other than that, it was great - there were 13 of us for the first three days, then four disappeared back to Darwin and we had nine hardcore campers for the rest. We were mostly older, which was nice (ie in our thirties or late twenties), and no teenagers this time. The first day we went to Litchfield, to have a dip in Florence Falls and Buleh rockhole, then it was swiftly on to what was billed as "culture camp" - actually a very informative few hours with an Aboriginal man named Graham (plus his staggering mullet), and his brother and daughter. We were taken on a bush walk to identify fruits and trees that were useful, as well as ones that would kill you (invariably the ones that look the tastiest). We also had a masterclass in didj playing, and basket weaving - something only the women do. The latter in particular was immensely skilful - from collecting the pandanus leaves and preparing them for weaving, which takes three years of drying, to dyeing them and then weaving them into baskets or bags. The whole thing was a delight - all three of them seemed so confident and happy with their lives, sharing their culture but not giving it away to the tourists, that it felt really optimistic. (I got the same feeling about art class with Manuel, on day four: he's attached to an art gallery in Katherine, and tells stories about his family and growing up in Arnhem land to tour groups, then teaches them how to draw rarrk (traditional northern Aboriginal crosshatch drawing; dot painting is a central Australian tradition) with sticks - though you do get to touch up the mistakes with a Western brush. Again, he seemed incredibly happy with what he was doing - and also got some good belly laughs out of our woeful attempts to copy his painting.)

After that, we were into Kakadu for a few days, clambering over boulders and shimmying up rocks to get to Barramundi Falls, Jim Jim Falls (or Jim Jim No Falls, because it was the end of the dry season!), and Twin Falls. I'm definitely getting fitter - one track was billed as 900m, but it was surely the longest 900m in the history of the world, as there wasn't a flat part on it! Even so, I kept up with everyone else - by the time I've tramped around New Zealand too I'm going to be a champion walker. My favourite route was to Twin Falls, however, because we got to travel on a ferry in the middle of it - with the gorge rising on either side of us, and the water cool and green underneath the boat, it was beautifully peaceful. The only hint that it could erupt into danger were the crocodile traps along the banks - the rangers try to move the salties into other areas like billabongs where they'll be more comfortable (ie where they won't kill tourists, I imagine!). We did do another cruise along a billabong where there were a few salties out for the afternoon, one a mere 25ft away, but like us they feel the heat and most were underwater.

And it's not just the water that can be dangerous - on the fourth day we were on our way to Gunlom to visit the waterhole when our guide discovered that there had been an unplanned forest fire - started either by arson or stupidity. We'd seen other places burnt out on purpose - at the end of the dry, the rangers burn certain parts to clear up the leaf litter and long grass and make the area less vulnerable to lightning strike - but this was really melancholy. It had jumped the road and on either side the fire had got too hot and taken out the trees too. It was smouldering all over, and in places tree trunks still had flames licking out of them. And it was amid all this desolation that we shredded a tyre - saved only by a couple of rangers who were passing and helped us wrestle it off. It turned out the next day that the spare had a slow puncture also, but thankfully we were in bustling Katherine by then and near to a mechanic's. We still swam at Gunlom, with the smell of scorching in the air, but didn't stay long.

The last two days were spent down in Nitmiluk national park, near Katherine - climbing up Edith Falls (which actually had some falls even this far into the dry), and canoeing down Katherine Gorge. Myself and Daniela, a German doctor working in Melbourne, were Team Europe, and we may not have been the fastest pair on the river, but with the amount we were zig-zagging from side to side, unable to steer, we certainly went the furthest. Eventually, Emily and Michael, a lovely Australian couple from Newcastle (NSW, not upon-Tyne), gave us some paddling tips and we made it back to base - it had been a very long 6km!

Another lovely tour, another lovely group of people. The next one is learning to dive at Cairns from Tuesday, before heading out on to the Great Barrier Reef to see what's what. Fantastic. But first, the jumping crocs...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Tropic thunder

So, here I am in Darwin at the start of the dreaded "build-up", and I'm bearing up well. Actually, having been told that, as a bloody Pom, I'd die in the heat, I'm pleasantly surprised - judicious spells in air-conditioned shops aside, I'm more of a mad dog and out in the midday sun (plenty of sunblock, water and a hat my constant companions, of course).

In fact, Darwin is great all around - I love the tropical weather and plants (there's a coconut tree outside my window, for heaven's sake, plus little geckos running over the walls and making great cries), and there's plenty to look at, as long as you do it languidly. I've been over the botanic gardens, which have all those tropical rainforest plants I've only ever seen in glass houses before, and along one of the many beachfront walks to the art gallery. This, as well as having another good Aboriginal art collection, also has a chilling section devoted to Cyclone Tracy. I knew that the city had been badly damaged by Japanese bombs in 1942 (there are memorials dotted all over the city), but didn't know that it was also razed to the ground by this cyclone on Christmas Day 1974. The newsreel footage is devastating, and there's also a sound booth with a recording made by an intrepid clergyman as the storm was raging - in the darkness it's absolutely terrifying. Truly, Darwin is a testament to resilience.

It's also closer than most places to nature - notably of the crocodilian sort. Today I headed up to Crocodylus Park, to watch the salties [salt-water crocs] being fed. There's a mix of rescued and rehomed crocs there, many with horrific injuries sustained in territorial disputes. The really horrible part about this, from a human perspective (or from mine, at least) is that they can heal themselves. So not only can crocs hear your car pulling up near to their waterhole, smell you, see you (particularly at night) and sense you through their skin, but they can also generate a powerful antibiotic to recover from astonishing wounds. No matter what my guide says on the trip to Kakadu/Litchfield (starting tomorrow, 6.30am), I'm not going to risk swimming in any waterholes! Particularly at the end of the dry season, when there's less water about for us to be fighting over - the salties can have it, with my blessing. They're cute when they're little, though - I have a picture of me cuddling a baby one (its mouth safely taped shut for the tourists). Not as cute as the turtles, however - no cuddling, sadly, but the long-necked one in particular was absolutely enchanting, like some Disney cartoon.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Alice: a wonderland?

At first sight, yes. It's a shiny, clean, modern town nestled in the shadow of the Western Macdonnell ranges - from the main street you can see the mountains rising up behind the buildings. It has the magnificent setting of those bush towns, without being bleak. Closer inspection reveals more problems, however - Aboriginal people are everywhere on the street (it's an outdoor culture), but somehow utterly separate. There is evidence of poverty and alienation, and signs up banning alcohol in public places, which - as in the communities - clearly don't apply to Westerners. Two peoples are living uneasily side by side - UK's assimilation problems are nowhere near as severe as this.

Having said which, I continued to be a tourist too. I visited the Royal Flying Doctor Service museum, which is absolutely fascinating. The "mantle of safety" continues today, mostly funded by the public, which I think is scandalous! The states pay for the running costs, but the planes and their kit are paid for by donation. I've been dropping money into RFDS tins since I've been here, but having learnt that I'm going to have to step it up. Elsewhere, I visited the Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame, in the old gaol (again, fascinating - great stories about the women who gave up everything to come and make a life in the bush in the 19th century). And climbed Anzac Hill to get amazing views of the town and its gorgeous surroundings.

Even more touristy was my hot air balloon trip - I thought I would die when I had to get up at 3.30am the morning after the outback trip (the balloon has to get in the air before sunrise because the wind picks up then), but I've recovered now and have a certificate and photo souvenir to make up for it! I must confess, for the money it wasn't the most amazing experience - we were 16 in the basket, in cramped conditions, which made it less than peaceful, and it was hazy over the horizon so the sunrise was less than spectacular. However, I can say I've done it, and it was rather special to take off silently, to see the trees below us with kangaroos hopping about, and being so high that the birds were flying beneath the basket. Plus, the gourmet breakfast was as delicious as billed.

Actually, I'd have stayed in Alice longer, but had already booked the Greyhound so was on my way in only two days. I've passed through Katherine, which was something of a lost weekend - the hostel was booked up (it's a one-hostel town), so I had to get a motel room (shame!), and it was so nice I mostly stayed there! Not very intrepid, but I am going to the falls on another tour so I don't think I missed much, and I needed the time to recuperate by a pool. And now I'm in Darwin, back in hostel world, and preparing to go out and explore. I'll let you know what I find...

"If you panic, you will die": Part Three

Once we were on the road again, it was mostly a case of escalating superlatives: first Uluru, which was awe-inspiring, from close-up and from a distance. We did the base walk (only the teenagers wanted to climb it, listening to Jarrod's carefully balanced explanation of why it was a sacred site and shouldn't be disturbed, and then asking how long it would take! It was moot in any case - the top was closed due to high winds). The base walk alone is about 9k, giving you some idea of what a bloody big rock it is. Then we headed to the sunset viewing point, passing by the coach parties with their canapes and magnums of champagne, carrying our filthy coolbox with its sparkling wine and cheese biscuits! We had the best view, though - and the next morning too. Jarrod had found a campsite far away from the crowds, where we slept in our swags on the sand dunes and saw Uluru at dawn, our own private viewing. Absolutely beautiful.

The next day was Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), which is a site sacred to men (Uluru is more a women's place). That walk was far more taxing, but consequently more beautiful. Once you've scaled the path for 3k you can see down the Valley of the Winds, with the red rocks rising and falling around you. It's just on such a massive scale it's hard to comprehend. You can see why the Aborigines told these Dreaming stories about how their landscape came to be - it's hard to imagine it happening by accident; one needs to pull it down to a human scale.

The day after that was Kings Canyon, and that was more spectacular still. The first 10 minutes of the walk (or 20 in my case!) were straight up, and then you were on the top of the canyon, which in itself was beautiful enough, but there was much more to it. There was a natural amphitheatre weathered out of the rocks at the top, and a waterhole filled with palms and birdlife (called the Garden of Eden), mulgas [bush trees] growing out of the rock... And once we'd finished that, we headed off to camp in the bush again, by the River Todd, with dingoes howling in the distance - one of the many experiences from the trip that will stay with me forever.

Actually, there are so many: the kindness of, particularly, Audrey and Romu when I was struggling with the walks - they hung back so I didn't feel I was holding people up so much, and encouraged me to keep going up the steepest parts. The nights by the campfire, drinking Fucking Good Port (seriously, that's the brand name; it lives up to it, too). Listening to Radiohead on the long drives, the perfect soundtrack to the desert (Jarrod is a major fan, and we heard it a lot to my delight). Getting an extra day because of the delay at Mt Dare and just five of us heading off to Palm Valley outside of Alice, which is like some kind of prehistoric landscape (the palms are the only ones of their kind in the world, descended directly from the age of the dinosaurs). Climbing the rocks on top of the lookout, despite my vertigo, with everyone cheering me on. Being the camp clown - I'm not sure what was wrong with me, but I tripped over everything from camels to rocks, set fire to the pot when it was my turn to cook, broke my camera, my boots and hat fell apart (literally - the last few walks I was sticking them together with gaffer tape) and I am still covered in bruises! Not to mention getting locked in the composting toilet at Dalhousie hot springs and breaking myself out with a pair of tweezers. All of it, the good and bad, was brilliant. It was just a sensational, unforgettable trip and I loved every filthy, exhausting day of it.

Friday, 9 October 2009

"If you panic, you will die": Part Two

So, to take up where I left off, our band of happy campers are stranded at the Mt Dare Hotel, waiting for a new Land Cruiser - but what a cool place to be stranded. We all enjoyed the rest and the comparative luxury (most of the places we stayed had no facilities at all, and none had showers; we drove into campsites every three days or so to wash and by halfway through I was dirtier than I've ever been before!). We played cricket in the bush (England may have won the Ashes, but we lost this game comprehensively I'm afraid), and headed out for an evening walk to see the sunrise (this is the origin of the phrase above: Jarrod couldn't come with us because he had things to sort out, so cautioned us against treading on anything that looked like a King Brown snake, gave us a bandage to keep the poison from spreading too quickly if we were bitten and told us not to panic. Defence against one of the world's deadliest snakes - a piece of crepe and meditative breathing. After all that we were quite disappointed to see nothing more exotic than some camel tracks!).

The birds around the camp were amazing, too - actually, they were amazing throughout. I was surprised that there were so many of them in the desert - galahs, rainbow bee-eaters, black and white cockatoos, clouds of budgerigars, crested pigeons, wedge-tailed eagles, peregrine falcons, emus... We also saw kangaroos (of course!), a colony of yellow-footed rock wallabies, which were incredibly cute, wild horses and plenty of cattle out for a stroll. The place is teeming with life despite looking so barren, with the saltbush and mulga trees supporting a huge range of animals. I'm not sure I'd live out there, despite the really cool outback attitude - if you don't have it, improvise, and take it easy while the parts arrive; when life is more basic you strip away a lot of the bullshit. It was great to do it for a day or so, though, before getting back on the road (Part Three of the trilogy of the trip to come).

Thursday, 8 October 2009

"If you panic, you will die": Part One

Have landed at Alice Springs after 11 days on the road, and so much has happened I'm going to have to do this in stages! First off, to introduce our crew: Jarrod, our guide; Audrey and Romuald, a lovely French couple who have been travelling for six years now, via Scotland, Canada, USA and Fiji (basically, barring Scotland, my journey in reverse); Julian and Elisabetta, an Italian couple at university; Kevin, an extremely taciturn Dutchman; and four German teenagers ranging from 15 to 17 - Charlotta, Roxana, Stefan and Victor. We piled into a Land Cruiser on 28 September and very quickly became acquainted - sitting face to face and shoulder to shoulder will do that, particularly when you have to disentangle your legs from each other when you hit a dirt track (and we hit plenty of those).

First up was a "quick" walk up Devil's Peak - devilish indeed, particularly with the tail end of a satanic cold; I never made it up to the top, I confess, though I did get to sit in the bush and the sun (hallelujah!), watching lizards and soaking up the scenery. Then on to Quorn and a camel ride through the bush into our camp for the night, before going yabbying at the creek (yabbies are small crayfish; we didn't catch much, but enough for hors d'oeuvres; the food throughout the tour was excellent, particularly when Audrey and Romuald took over cooking duties - any hope I had of losing weight went right out of the window!). That night Jasper, a local Aboriginal man, came over to our campfire to tell us some stories about the landscape (the Rainbow Serpent; Yurla, the kingfisher spirit, and so on); it was fascinating, but quite uncomfortable - understandably given how they've been treated Aboriginals are usually fairly stand-offish, and it felt unnatural to have someone performing for us. Very interesting, but for a white colonialist oppressor not a cosy experience.

The next day we visited Wilpena Pound, a huge crater surrounded by mountain formations, one of the many geological phenomenons of the last 11 days and at one time a sheep station, though how they got the animals to market with no viable road I don't know. We also climbed to some Aboriginal rock paintings - some claim them as 30,000 years old, and though that's unlikely they're certainly thousands of years old. We don't know what all the markings say, as that's a closely guarded secret that the oldfellas only pass down to the initiated; it's a good guess that they relate to good waterholes and food sources, and the tribe's responsibilities under the law. Aboriginal law is written only in paintings such as this, which is partly why the community is in so much trouble now - as it's passed down orally, the Stolen Generation lost touch with their roots completely. Apparently there are some moves afoot to teach the languages in school, but much of the lore has gone for good.

Day 3 was mostly spent on the road - we were now into the Outback proper, in towns that had once grown up around the old Ghan railway line and are now windswept places where you can see the desert on either side of the high street. Cook may have been a ghost town, but some of those places are not much more lively, and certainly just as inhospitable. We fetched up that night in William Creek (pop. 3 - one at the airfield and two at the pub), near to Lake Eyre, and next morning took a flight over the salt lake - absolutely beautiful. Sadly the birdlife that comes when it fills had disappeared - they can only stay about two weeks because of the extreme salinity of the water - but the sweep of the salt flats was amazing to see, contrasted with the red sand around it. I've waited 20 years to see the outback, and it is as beautiful and awe-inspiring as I thought it would be.

It's also just as eccentric. On Day 4 we hit Coober Pedy, really everyone does live underground. Fortunes have been made and lost and made again on the opal fields, and it's a great Australian story - no big companies have moved in because opal mining is hit and miss; you can only guess where you're likely to find it and hence a lone miner is as likely to be lucky as a conglomerate. Thus an eccentric outback town has grown up around the mining - it's slightly less lawless than it was (at one time, only 10 years ago or so, people resolved arguments with gelignite; the local bobby who tried to put a stop to some of the antisocial behaviour had his car blown up twice before he got the message and left them to it!), but pretty rough and ready. The houses underground are great, though - it was pelting with rain (we went through the driest part of the driest continent, which is lucky to get 4in of rain a year, and saw 16mm in a night). Thankfully we were allowed to sleep indoors at this point, and living underground in a place hewn out of the rock is actually pretty cosy; I'm not sure I want to try my luck mining for opals, but perhaps those green people who are building under hills in the UK aren't so eccentric after all... Though they wouldn't have a kangaroo orphanage, run out of an art gallery. Here a couple take in joeys, usually ones who've survived their mother being hit by a car, and try to release them in the wild once they're weaned. It doesn't always work - Bella frankly didn't want to go back into the wild and now lives in their home, toasting herself in front of a gas fire! If I don't come back as a koala in the next life, I'm coming back as that kangaroo.

From there, the weather cleared up beautifully and we were on the road again via the Painted Desert just after dawn, which was sensational (every sight we saw was more spectacular than the last), and on to Dalhousie hot springs. These are bang in the middle of the Simpson desert and large enough to swim in; they're about 37C, bathwater hot, and surrounded by birdlife and native mulgas and red gums. We bathed in the afternoon and under the stars that night, which was a magical experience. It was also a riot with Romu and Julian, who decided they needed to form a human pyramid for the photo album and roped in Roxana. Actually, the photos turned out pretty well, despite Julian nearly drowning!

And then we were on the road towards Uluru - or were supposed to be. Most of the driving was four-wheel drive on dirt roads, and that was the good stuff. We were luckily not far from a way station when there was a grinding of gears and the car stopped, for good: the rear axle had sheared straight through. As misadventures go, this one was fine - Jarrod got on the CB to the Mt Dare Hotel (pub, campground and mechanic's, though we never did discover where the mountain was) and a fantastic bloke with a beard the length of my hair and swagman's hat came out to give us a tow. There we stayed while Heading Bush drove through the night to bring us another vehicle - quicker than getting a part from Alice, which takes three days. And here ends Part One, with our intrepid crew stranded in an Ocker pub. But a pub with showers - the luxury was indescribable!