Friday, 23 October 2009

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...

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