Monday, March 31, 2014

Day 16 - Leaving the Outback

By now it's probably pretty clear that I love water. One of my principle pleasures of life in the hot outback is the freedom it affords this water-loving traveller to enjoy getting wet, repeatedly, without the threat of ending up shivering and having to don layers of clothes. Moving between wet and dry is effortless and a supreme pleasure.

Such was our last day in the wilderness. After packing up camp at Wongi Falls we drove back up the Litchfield Highway and stopped at Florence Falls. A one-kilometre track took us up and through a savannah (dry) forest and then down into a tropical rainforest along the river that fed the falls. Water flowed, gurgled and shimmied through curvaceous rock pools and meanderings through the dense dripping natural gardens. At the falls, yet another deep pool provided an excellent swimming spot for hot tourists -- of which there were a few too many for our liking.

We moved from there to the Buley Rockhole, a spot a bit further up the river. The span of rockpools spread wider here and so did the tourists, each finding their own little nook or cranny to take a delightful plunge in. We found one as close to perfection as you can get in the wild: spanning eight or ten metres across and lined with smooth orange flat rocks, perfect for lounging, the pool quickly dropped into an abyss maybe ten or twelve feet deep. Clear, cool, continuously fed by a soft-falling water source that kept it clean and pure. I turned into a water seal and swam deep and long in this watery bliss.

And that was the pinnacle and end of our outback journey. Though curious about Darwin, my enthusiasm for spending time in a 'cosmopolitan city' (which it advertises itself as, despite it's relatively puny size: 125,000 occupants) isn't high. Checking into the Hidden Valley Caravan Park just outside of town felt a bit like taking a child who's had a free reign in the glorious outdoors, back into the confinement of her home, with all its rules, regulations and orderliness. The grouchy lady who checked us in could have been someone's mother, tired of her relentless captivity in work and chores, silently resenting the child who has the freedom to play and be wild.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Day 15 - Litchfield National Park

We have truly arrived in the tropical north. The weather’s been humid since arriving in Port Hedland and Broome, but the Top End increases that factor by 10 – or at least so it feels. It’s common to write the weather up here: ‘actual temperature: 30 degrees; feels like: 40 degrees’. And so it does.

We stop for the night at a commercial caravan park at Mary River. The grounds are lush and green and the cabins and d├ęcor remind us of Bali. So does the dripping air – and the mosquitoes. As soon as sundown hits, so do the mozzies, to a factor 10x what we’ve had so far. Or so it feels.

We make our way via torch to the pool. The temperature and humidity don’t feel much different inside the pool than out, but at least the mozzies can’t swim – though our heads are covered in them any time we surface. We race back to the van and douse ourselves with Deet. The small spray can we bought at the beginning of the trip, meant to last for two weeks, is finished already. But we have a store of mosquito coils, which we burn throughout the night. The mozzie hazard is too high to leave the hatch open so we turn the fan on ourselves and hope for the best. It feels very claustrophobic after two weeks of sleeping in the fresh open air.

In the morning we make our way to Litchfield National Park, favoured playground of Darwin locals and our last bush adventure before heading in to Darwin. Like much of the Kimberley and Kakadu, the roadside view is nothing spectacular, but the pull-outs take you to some marvelous sites. We drive in to Wongi Falls, reminiscent of Edith Falls with a rock canyon circling a clear pool. The falls is three times as high as Edith however and creates quite a current in the pool. Because of this and the risk of crocodiles, signs are very clear: no swimming. But standing on the viewing platform, the distant spray from the falls and the strong breeze they create feels cooling and refreshing.

We hike up through the tropical rainforest, a tangle of trees, vines and greenery that condenses the moisture in the air even further. I spot a strange looking sight, not far off the track and we investigate. What at first looks like a giant slug, turns out to be a giant snake, possibly a python or a boa constrictor, coiled around itself with some strange black plastic-looking thing protruding from its centre. Johan wants to agitate it to satisfy our curiosity but I’m still feeling jittery and tell him to leave it alone.

The trail is closed across the top of the falls so we turn around and descend the way we came up. I stop and peer over at the snake as we pass. He’s partially uncoiled and his head is slithering around the circumference his giant body makes. I step closer, trying to make out what the strange black thing is still sitting in its centre but larger than it appeared earlier. Is it a trap? Some horrible wound extruding from its body?

The snake senses me and turns its head, its slippery little tongue jutting out at me. We sit frozen in a mutual stare until the heebies get the better of me and I step back on to the trail. That seems to satisfy the snake as it goes back about its business. I watch, curious, fascinated. The snake pokes its head around the black thing protruding out of its centre. Slowly it wraps its body around it, molding and compressing it into some sort of tube. He’s not in any hurry. Four seconds of action is interrupted by two minutes of absolute stillness. Whether he’s sensing the possible danger of my presence or he’s just taking his time, it’s not clear. But it requires patience and persistence on my part, fed by my curiosity.

Then I get it: he’s killed a fruit bat, the size of a large seagull and preparing to eat it. I watch transfixed as he opens his mouth, unhinges his jaw and begins to ingest this gigantic morsel of food. It’s grotesque and utterly fascinating. Slowly, slowly the bat disappears inside the snake, its form clearly visible inside the snake’s relatively smaller body. The whole process takes ten maybe fifteen minutes, interrupted by repeated periods of absolute stillness. As the last wing-tip goes in, the snakes head morphs back into its normal size and he starts looking around, tongue slithering. I’m quite sure he’s too full to come racing after me for a delicious desert, but I can see he’s got his eye on me again. I stand partially hidden by a small tree trunk, only three metres away from where he’s just consumed his dinner. Time to leave him be.

The public area around the falls is empty. Johan’s either gone hiking up the other trail or back to our camp. The sun is low and the solitude is inviting. I sit on the bench watching the hypnotic tumble of the falls, hoping for and fearing another wildlife experience. Maybe a croc sighting? As long as it’s not one jumping out of the water at me. 

A large raptor, maybe a kite or a kestrel, flies low overhead and alights on a branch not far from me. We watch each other for a while.

Back at camp, nursing a twilight beer, the fruit bats, hundreds of them, start their nightly silent soar across a sapphire blue night sky.

Day 14 - Kakadu in a Day

During my 23 years living in Australia, “Kakadu” carried a mystique and an allure that was unparalleled anywhere else in Australia. “Pristine wilderness”; “world heritage listed”, “the ultimate outdoor adventure”, for those who liked backpacking or off road ventures. The wow factor was seriously piqued.

When we first looked at our route for this trip, Kakadu National Park seemed like the tipping point of an already full itinerary. Maybe…if we have time.

Turns out, we have time. We made good time, thanks to the low season, frequent closures of things we could have seen, and maybe a bit of drivenness in us – we both like to ‘move on’. In any event, we ended up north of Katherine with three more nights to kill before heading into Darwin. Why not take the 400km triangle route through Kakadu? We could stop half way through, at one of the nominal bush camps and still have enough time to take in some hikes and sightseeing.

So we turn east at Pine Creek off the Stuart Highway and drive into the park. Our first reaction to learning we had to pay $25pp to enter the park meets with some resistance, but hey – for the “Kakadu experience” it has to be worth it. We stop at Goymarr Interpretive Centre to pay our fees, but are told by a German-accented young woman that they’re out of passes, we’ll have to get one at the next stop, another 75kms up the road. She gives us a map and points out all the look-out stops, hikes, aboriginal art, and a few commercial ventures we might be interested in.

The road in is very quiet. Not unusual to what we’ve met so far and it adds to the wild feel of the park. We stop at the first look-out, walk the 600 metre path to a nice, but not scintillating view across the expanse of the park. The vistas we saw throughout the Kimberley were better than this. We stop at the next look-out, 25kms up the road, but this walk is a 3km return to the look-out and it’s high noon and hot as anything. We move on.

The landscape along the road is bland bush. It reminds Johan of bush north of Albany on the highway to Perth. Tall enough to obstruct any long-distance views, but mostly they’re unappealing straggly trees with thin trunks.

The next stop is closed for the season. The next, Gagudju Lodge, is where we’re supposed to purchase our passes. We’ve been on the road for over an hour now. The experience so far has not been earth-shattering. We feel a slight grudge towards the expensive entry fee: putting a price tag on a wilderness experience has a sultry effect of devaluing the experience. As though we’re looking for our money’s worth rather than enjoying the free thrills nature so generously offers.

After a few minutes ruminating, we decide to drive the whole 400kms through the park – and skip paying the fee that entitles us to use the look-outs and the campgrounds (which incur an additional fee).

Even so, or just to tempt fate, we stop at Mirral Lookout. This will be our ‘quintessential Kakadu experience”, the one that made this 400km detour worthwhile. The carpark is empty and the sign says it’s a 3km return hike: steep. Indeed, it’s steep and rocky. At the top is a metal platform, constructed to give a 360 degree view of the park. Brilliant idea, but trees obstruct most of the views and seriously inhibit the ‘wow’ factor. We like the idea of having to work for our views, but wonder how elderly travelers, the unfit and disabled get to enjoy the views of the park when there are none from the look-out carparks.

Back at the car, we pull out lunch, a leftover salad from yesterday’s lunch. A crow flies onto a post near the bench where I sit. He coos and gurgles at me, noises I’ve rarely heard from the squawking crows back home. To be honest, he sounds like he’s going to be sick, but maybe it’s his coy way of asking for a handout. I assure him I don’t feed wild animals, he’s got plenty to eat in this abundant bush, but I’m happy to talk with him while I eat my lunch. He continues his weird and garbled noises, like he’s doing his best to impersonate a kookaburra. Instead of talking to him in my native tongue (English), I start mimicking his strange calls. His head cocks and he eyes my suspiciously. Friend or foe? For a moment he looks on the attack. I suggest to him (in English again), that’s not a good idea: I’m bigger than he is. 

We duck into Jabiru, the commercial center of Kakadu but it’s like a ghost town. Two boys, one on a bicycle, the other on a skateboard, amble down the road, but we see no one else and no cars either. Only a stray dingo. Probably a scavenger.

We head west out the town, back towards the Stuart Highway on the northern Kakadu road. The sun sits lower in the sky and enlivens the storm clouds forming up ahead. Once the trees give way to the wetlands the view opens up and becomes interesting, for the first time in our three-hour drive. We make a final stop at the Mamukala wetland bird exhibit. The walk trail is closed but the viewing platform is open. It looks out over a vast wetland lake with lilies and other water plants blowing gently in the humid breeze. There isn’t a bird in sight, despite the extensive display behind us that shows the hundreds of species of migratory birds that use this wetlands as a stopping ground, mostly in the late dry season, September-November.

A single bird alights upon the lily pads just in front of us: a Jacana, long orange legs, black body, orange hood over its head. We watch it peck at lily pads and strut around the shallow waters, as though he’s been assigned the job of entertaining the sole set of tourists that have stopped by this day.

Satisfied, we turn back to the car and head out of the park. There are no doubt wonderful things to see and do in Kakadu, in the right season and off the main roads. Or maybe not. Maybe the $25pp entry fee is meant to keep the tourists away. Mostly they have a reputation of trampling heritage listed sites such as this one. Maybe it’s a good deterrent to protect what’s left of the pristine nature of the park.

Singing in a late afternoon thunder-shower

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Day 13 - Katherine and Edith Falls

The Northern Territory is an hour and a half later than W.A. So it’s easy to get up at dawn, just past 5am, and start the day. We pack up the bed, jump in the car and drive the 20kms back to the Escarpment Walk. It’s beautiful time of day as the morning sun does for the east-facing ridges what the setting sun does for the west facing: a soothing panorama of orange-red warmth. 

The view from the top is splendid, down to the Victoria River, across the winding escarpments to the north and the vast emptiness of the land beyond in all directions. The highway below is also empty, with only an occasional car or truck sending a low rumble up the valley.

We stop back at the campground for breakfast. As we leave a white panel van pulls into the camp. A woman driver waves us down. “Howya goin’? Good camp?” She’s middle-aged, a mop of frizzy hair pulled straight up and tied on top of her head so the frizz cascades down around her ears and face, which she frequently brushes aside. White owl-eye sunglasses over-take her thin nose, lips and chin. Barking dogs sound from the back of the van. “Hey, shut up back there! Sorry…” She tells us about all the hot spots she's seen so far, hoping to swap some travellers’ tales. We tell her we’ve just come from the west, that there’s a great walk 20k down the road.

“Well…I got these dogs in the back, ya see. They done a bad thing back in Darwin town. Twelve stitches, ya get me? I’m just taking ‘em away for a while. Don’t want to see ‘em put down.” She tells us one or maybe two of the dogs belongs to her “well, sort of ex-boyfriend”, who won’t get out of jail till April 16th. She’s just going to explore the outback till then. Maybe she’ll sell her property just outside of Darwin – she’s tired of all the ‘Darwin Drama’. She’s heard it’s worth over a million now – and move to Queensland. Pretty nice over there.

Time to move on – cheers, good luck to you! We drive the 200kms to Katherine, the Northern Territory’s third largest town (after Darwin and Alice Springs). This outback town has a bit more flair than ones we’ve seen in northern W.A. towns. The mobs of black fellas still sit about on any available grassy nook. But there seems to be more order here and at least an attempt at cleanliness. But after a quick stop at the Visitor Centre and lunch beside the river, we’re off again. Towns and cities don’t appeal to us as much as that big empty that sits between them.

We’d thought to check out Katherine Gorge, 30kms out a paved road east of the town. But Johan’s hesitant, suspecting tourist hype and overpriced amenities. And the day’s getting on and we won’t have time to do the hike and get to our camping destination, 50kms north up the Stuart Highway. So we turn around and head toward Edith Falls in Nitmiluk National Park. The campground is situated on a beautiful pool, lined with the ubiquitous red rock canyon and fed by a five metre high water fall. It’s rustic but well groomed and suits us just fine.

We head up a trail to the “Upper Pool”, a hot sweaty climb to a cool tranquil pool with yet another water fall feeding it. A couple back at the campground recommended it for a swim. Despite the croc warning signs at the lower pool, the road sign at the entry to the park said the Upper Pool was open for swimming. This and the testimony from the day-users gives us enough courage to strip down and sink in. Ahhh! The pure pleasure of an outback swim! The pools of water where the sun is shining through seem safe, but many deeper ones lay in the shadows. Johan is fearless and swims out into the depths while I cling to the edges, keeping a meagre look-out for any craggy eyes lifting from the surface.

As we hike out of the canyon we pass a group of young people, six boys and a girl. They’re friendly and confident, towels slung over their shoulders. We stop at the look-out and watch them down below, climbing the rock faces and jumping or diving into the deep pool just to the side of the waterfall. “If I’d seen that before we went for our swim, I wouldn’t have been so scared,” I grimace.

Back at camp we take our sundowner to the edge of the Lower Pool. The signs are clear: don’t go near the water’s edge between 7pm and 7am, crocodiles’ feeding time. Johan opens the beers and sits on the edge of the concrete swimming jetty, feet dangling over the sides, toes just kissing the water. “Why do they put a swimming platform here if there’s croc danger?” he responds glibly to my nervous flutters. “It's safe during the dry season, but not yet,” I counter, believing the signs. He grudgingly agrees to pull his legs up. “It must be so frustrating to travel with someone like me,” he smirks.

When I take my mind off these jittery fears, suddenly an amazing sight brightens up in front of me as though projected on a brilliant wide screen: the setting sun on the canyon walls, shining crimson gold, like heaven.