ah, the wet season up north.
05.03.2011 - 08.03.2011 27 °C
intrepid [adj]: resolutely fearless; dauntless: an intrepid explorer.
Saturday, March 5
Psyched for a 4-day tour of the national parks around the Top End, I was waiting eagerly out the front of the YHA at 7 am for my Intrepid tour bus to pick me up.
Let's back up: a few weeks prior, I'd been researching trips I could take in March when all my Sydney friends went back to uni, flipping through stacks of Top Deck and Contiki brochures and talking to friends about places they recommend I check out. I came across a photo of Kakadu National Park up north, a sprawling, beautiful park full of great bushwalking tracks, waterfalls and Aboriginal history, and decided that was where I wanted to go. Just as I was preparing to splurge $2,000 on an 11-day Contiki tour all around the Top End and Outback, Travelzoo posted a sale on Intrepid tours - for 50% off in March. My friend Shellie had taken a tour with the company around Morocco and absolutely loved it - their itinerary is much less structured and involves more local interaction - so I figured that was the way to go. I booked a 4-day tour of the national parks around Darwin, a 3-day tour of the famous rocks around Alice Springs, and a ticket to ride The Ghan train in between, therefore saving myself $500. Score.
In a refurbished travel- truck, a small group of us - a couple from Norway, another from the south coast of Australia, a guy from Perth and a woman from Denmark (all close to my parents' age, mind you) rode with our Darwin-born and raised guide, Owen, through flat farmlands towards the Adelaide River for a jumping crocodile cruise. A "jumping" crocodile is a saltwater (estuarine, man-eating, extremely dangerous) crocodile that is lured to our double-decker boat by a slab of raw meat dangling on a fishing pole into the water. When the croc tries to catch the meat in its jaws, the fishing pole is raised up, causing the croc to follow it out of the water. They're quite deceptive, these crocodiles: around us, they acted very lazy and uninterested in our boat, but our boat driver assured us that if someone were to fall overboard (or perhaps even lean too far over the side), these creatures would spring into action and roll their prey underwater before anyone knew what was happening. Therefore, the boat didn't issue us lifejackets; there was no point, since no one would make it out of the water. Scary. On the fun side, I let the resident pet olive python, Ollie, wrap itself around my waist before we left.
From the river, we piled back into the truck and headed towards Fogg Dam, a marshy area teeming with wildlife. Because the road was so flooded, we were unable to get out and walk around, so we viewed the sea birds and turtles from inside the truck. The wet weather flooding (this year's being the most on record with 2.5 meters of rain since October 1st) also meant that the salties were able to more easily move around the area, so getting out of your vehicle was not encouraged.
Before hitting the road to Kakadu, we stopped off at the Adelaide River Inn to see... the water buffalo featured in Crocodile Dundee! (Remember the one Dundee trances into a deep sleep with his hand gesture?) According to Owen, the bar owner paid $5,000 for the buffalo when it was alive, and then a whopping $20,000 to have it stuffed after it died. It's now on display inside the bar next to a movie poster.
After lunch, we stopped in Pine Creek to grab cases of beer before heading to our campsite. In its heyday, Pine Creek was a booming gold mining town, but to give you an idea what this place is like now, Owen shared this story: He'd worked as a cook here a few years back (he's held all sorts of random, short-term jobs in his lifetime) and when he returned six years after quitting, two of the locals were seated in the exact same seats he'd last seen them in. One guy asked if he'd been on holiday, and the other inquired what the dinner special was that night. Clearly, not a lot goes on here.
We stopped for a swim in a locally-known swimming hole that featured this sign:
(In locals' terms, when it doesn't straight up ban swimming in the area, it just issues a warning, it's safe to go.)
Having covered 500 km (just over 300 miles) in one day, we all slept soundly at our campsite in Kakadu.
Sunday, March 6
By 6 am, we'd all assembled ourselves in the dining room for cereal and instant coffee before packing up and trekking into Kakadu to check out some ancient Aboriginal rock art, some dating back as far as the Ice Age. Pretty ridiculous. Along the pathway, Owen identified different plants and berries used as food and for their medicinal properties. As an accidental example, Owen stuck his hand on a hidden wasp nest and ran to grab a little green berry to help ease the pain of the sting. Needless to say, we believed his identifications had been correct.
Owen was a funny character: he'd spent his life jumping between jobs at pubs and travel companies, and had the scars to prove he was a true blue Northern Territory Aussie: a scar across his chest from a box jellyfish, his wasp sting mark, and a little bump in his finger where a piece of glass had embedded itself when Cyclone Tracy had caused the glass doors on his house to implode towards him and his brother. He was bursting with stories about his outback childhood and the funny tourists he'd had on previous trips.
Thank goodness he'd grown up here: the roads were still so flooded (March was supposed to be the end of the wet season!) that we'd had to detour along other roads and check out different areas of the park that weren't on the original itinerary. Most other tour guides would have probably gotten lost, but Owen was a pro.
We stopped at the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Center to learn more about the ancient ways of surviving this seemingly unhabitable place, then turned in to our campsite at the Springvale Homestead in Katherine (built in 1880, it's the oldest in the Territory). Thinking himself funny, Owen have each of us a slice of bread and encouraged us to go "feed the ducks" over in the flooded pond about 50 meters from our campsite. While there were ducks and turtles floating around, there were also about seven "resident" salties living in the pond, including a big one Owen referred to as "Elvis, because he likes to put on a show" (as in, pretending to lunge at people. Real funny.) Fortunately, we didn't see any of these "residents," even when we returned that night with flashlights and shaky knees. I would never survive living here.
Monday, March 7
Today we drove over to the Katherine Gorge to go jetboating. Normally, visitors have the choice to enjoy a 2-hour boat cruise or go canoeing through the gorge, but because the waterway was - you guessed it - too flooded - canoeing was out (there were salties abound. Freshies too, but they're not really dangerous unless you piss them off.) Fortunately, the flooding meant that we had access to three of the gorge's 13 waterways, so our jetboat experience was actually longer than most cruises (when the water levels are lower, folks have to walk on platforms between the waterways and board separate boats.)
Of course, this also meant that there were rapids tearing over the hidden trees and rocks along the way, and yours truly looked like she'd been on Splash Mountain at Disneyland by the time we got back to the dock. Lovely scenery though.
We had lunch at Edith Falls, and under normal weather circumstances, we'd be able to swim here. Damn flooding.
That evening, we drove to another homestead campsite at Mt. Bundy Station, a still-operating cattle farm located out in the boondocks. The place was awesome with all its animals roaming around - water buffalo, horses, cows, wallabies, etc. - and we enjoyed a nice last dinner together. Owen went all out and prepared crocodile sausages, kangaroo steak, damper (yeast-less bread), roasted potatoes, and steamed veggies. I went to bed full and exhausted, but was woken up around midnight by the sound of heavy footsteps and chomping just outside my tent door. Startled, I clung to my sheets and watched a dark figure outside loom closer, and with a loud snort, I realized that the culprit was a couple of hungry horses. I had a hard time falling asleep that night.
Tuesday, March 8
Off to Litchfield National Park! On the way, we stopped by the Adelaide River War Memorial (the only cemetary in the country where all the soldiers buried were killed on Australian soil; I saw one American tombstone).
The weather was dreary and rainy that day, but we braved the showers as we checked out the termite mounds (both cathedral and magnetic, some dating back forty years. That's a lot of work!) Inside the park, we visited three waterfalls: Florence (1st photo), which offered a lovely bushwalk and an even better swimming opportunity in a spot no other tour companies are allowed to access; Tolmer, viewed from a high platform that looks out over the rest of Litchfield; and Wangi (2nd photo), which I could hear roaring from the parking lot. The viewing deck for this one was almost flooded itself.
We grabbed lunch next to Wangi Falls before piling back in the truck for the drive back to Darwin. Keith and Sandra, the Australian couple on the trip, kindly invited me out to dinner when we got back to the city, so I was able to enjoy a lovely seafood dinner at Cullen Bay on my final night in Darwin.
For more photos of this leg of the trip, click here.