01 October 2009

Northern Territory, Australia - September 2009

I had the great pleasure of travelling with Ken Hart of Adventure Travels Australia for a few days. ATA operate quality adventure tours to all the iconic locations in Australia, plus remote outback adventures in 4WD vehicles. Highly recommended! Find them at

Days 1 / 2

Another visit to Australia, this time concentrated on the Northern Territory or ‘Top End’.
Flew to Darwin via Singapore Changi on BA (about 12 hours) and on to Darwin (4 hours 20 minutes) on economy airline Jetstar (which, although derided for service internally in Australia, gave good service on this international flight).
Some fitful sleep, but entertained by lightning storms over Borneo and Timor.
Arrived Darwin at the inhospitable time of 0230 and collected by the likeable Operations Manager for Adventure Tours Australia, ‘TK’ (derived from ‘tree killer’, a joke around his time as an arborealist in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens).
Darwin lies in the Tropics, so has high temperatures all year round, but the year is divided into a few key seasons, most notably the ‘Dry’ (June to September) when humidity is at its lowest, and the ‘Wet’, from November to March, when the region receives huge volumes of rain, get’s bashed by cyclones (Cyclone Tracy levelled Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974 with winds that reached well over 200kph) and large parts of the territory flood. In the build up to the Wet during October, the increasing heat and humidity creates some weird behaviour amongst the local inhabitants, usually fuelled by excessive beer consumption, known as ‘going Troppo’ or Mango Madness (mangos are grown in abundance in this area and ripen at this time).
It was certainly warm for my visit, with daytime temperatures around 35-36 degrees with moderate humidity. Hotel stop was the famous Cavenagh, principally a backpacker’s hostel but with some reasonable hotel accommodation.

Day 3

Awoke early with the usual jet lag and walked through Darwin’s Bicentennial Park, flanked by the sea to one side, and then around the modern Parliament House and Supreme Court buildings.
Later in the day, after some business, we toured the city, small by international standards, and visited the stylish and expensive Cullen Bay area, passed by the Mindil Beach Markets, and up to the East Point Reserve, featuring some wartime gun emplacements and a military museum (Darwin suffered more than any other town in WW2 from Japanese bombing and, by the end of 1942, there were 32,000 troops stationed in the region). A quick tour of the fast developing Wharf Precinct adjacent to Darwin Harbour before lunch with the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and some of his colleagues.
A good lunch, with particularly fine food...the Hanuman on Mitchell Street...recommended. Over lunch I had the pleasure of meeting Mick Burns, a successful local entrepreneur with sizeable real estate interests in Darwin, but best known for his crocodile farm south of the city and currently stocking 60,000 crocodiles, all destined to be converted into Hermes handbags and other leather goods. Mick collects crocodile eggs from their nests whilst dangling from a helicopter. Nuff said!
As a result of this meeting, the afternoon concluded with a visit to Mick’s Crocosaurus centre
 in central Darwin, home to some very large crocs and the most comprehensive exhibition of NT reptiles. Very well done, but with the added attraction of the ‘Cage of Death’, a Perspex cage into which victims are led, then slowly lowered into the crocodile pens, where they then wait to be attacked by these awesome creatures.
Yes, you guessed....yours truly was already booked into this madness. Worse still was this all happened in front of a big convention crowd who were having their post conference party there.
Into swimming gear, climb down into cage, then lowered into the first pen. The cage fills up with water, so you have to submerge yourself behind the perspex walls, and periodically float up for air within the cage, which has steel mesh on the top to stop any croc entry. Alas, the first croc wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in a middle aged Englishman. Nor was the one in the second pen. But then...lowered into a tank not normally used for the public and home to a male, 5.1 metres long and weighing 440kg. He did not appreciate me dropping by.
Within seconds this croc was having a good look, and immediately attacked the cage. Firstly at head level, then chewing the bottom of the cage (before losing one of its teeth in the process): suspect he really fancied the blood of an Englishman...

Stumpy becomes crocodile feed!
Awesome to see this animal at such close quarters. The colouration of the croc and the immense power and aggression will live with me for a long time!
A quiet first day in Oz then...

Day 4

An early start, to fly with Air North from Darwin to Broome, with a short stop in Kununurra, eastern gateway to the Kimberley, often called Australia’s last frontier. Air North are a privately owned business and run new Embrauer aircraft. Good service to Broome, about 2.5 hours in the air overall, with hazy views over the tablelands of the Kimberley, its tropical woodlands, big rivers and gorges, in an area about the size of Poland.
Broome is in Western Australia, situated on a peninsula amongst some of the most beautiful coastline I’ve seen. The sand is virtually white, and the sea an unbelievable blue, albeit a little opaque at this time of the year due to spawning coral. Basically a beach resort, but famous the world over for the cultured pearls grown just offshore and for great barramundi fishing. The wonderful Cable Beach runs for miles, although swimming has to be limited in the run up to the Wet due to plagues of box jellyfish. A chilled spot.
Our day finished with a beer on a terrace overlooking Roebuck Bay, with views across the low mangrove trees to the ocean.
Returned to Darwin later in the day...a long one!

Day 5

The one I’d been waiting for, a trip into the remote Kakadu National Park. This is a vast area of wetland to the south and east of Darwin, and bordered on the eastern side by the restricted area of Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal Reserve with a population of 16,000 in an area the size of the state of Victoria. Kakadu was named after a mispronunciation of Gagadju, one of the Aboriginal clans who occupy these lands.
The other distinctive feature of the Kakadu is the fact that it has the highest concentration of the estuarine or saltwater crocodile (‘Salties’) of anywhere in the world. The rivers also have large numbers of freshwater crocodiles (‘Freshies’), although these are said to be uninterested in humans. Not so the Salties, who, over the years, have taken many hapless souls who have ventured too close to their habitat. They grow to almost 6 metres and have a great turn of speed.
Yes, we’re in Crocodile Dundee country, and were to visit a number of the filming locations later in the day. Kakadu is also home to other reptiles such as the fringed lizard and many snakes, including pythons and file snakes, thankfully rarely seen. And, of course, millions of insects, from termites who build large mounds just about everywhere and mosquitoes, particularly in the Wet. Our visit was not too afflicted, only by occasional pesky flies which are endemic in Australia. Birdlife was also abundant, the area lying on three migration routes, and we were to see gaudy parrots, cockatoos, fish eagles, egret, magpie geese, jabiru (black necked stork) and ibis, to name but a few. Wallabies were also abundant, although mainly seen as road kills.
Driving down the Stuart Highway south of Darwin (a virtually straight road that eventually gets you to Adelaide on the south coast just over 3000km away), we turned left on to the Arnhem Highway at the curiously named Humpdy Doo, and were soon turning off the highway into the bush to meet with a clan of indigenous people who have recently established a small business to give visitors a real taste of their history and culture. This area, close to Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, according to their custom (known as ‘The Dreaming’) was created by a giant turtle, and their animist beliefs continue to this day, with adolescents still taken into the bush for their annual walkabout with the elders.

Visit to Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve, south of Darwin
I spent some time with the senior elder, a great chap who answers to Graham, and discussed how indigenous peoples have been able to claim back their historic land rights...quite simply, they have to demonstrate an intimate knowledge of the land under claim, but even so, the process can take up to 30 years.
Displays of didgeridoo construction and playing, weaving and spear throwing were well done and I wish them well.

Adelaide River, part of the Mary River National Park, Northern Territory
Next to Corroborree for a quick boat trip in the Adelaide River area. As this was the weekend, there were many fishing boats on the river and this meant that the crocodiles were not visible, preferring to keep away from all the commotion. But some good bird sightings and some wonderful expanses of huge pandana and lotus lilies, the latter with large lilac flowers which exhibit for about six hours before releasing seeds into the waters around. The crocs were lurking, but not seen on this trip, so on we travelled, turning north to visit the nicely isolated Point Stuart Wilderness Camp, a popular base for exploring the Mary River National Park. Here we walked through an area of monsoon vine rainforest (the type apparently defined by the humidity levels observed in the undergrowth...thanks TK!) where we hoped to find some spiders and snakes, but alas, not to be seen at this time of day, but some interesting vegetation nonetheless, and very steamy walking once you get beyond the periphery).
But what about the crocs? Fortunately, we were able to beg a lift with a local helicopter pilot (a ‘ringer’, a guy who rounds up beef cattle and buffalo on his nearby cattle station, which stretches across 6,000 sq km and has a herd of 3,500 animals). 

Buzzing crocs near Shady Camp
Setting off in a small but very agile helicopter we were soon on our way to Shady Camp, a popular fishing spot about 20km to the north and looking down on many large crocodiles, lazing in the river out of the heat (by now 37 degrees) and close to the many barramundi fisherman in their small boats (many of whom pack a hand gun just in case). Our pilot took us close to the river, causing the crocs to scuttle into the river from below the shady trees around, and it was here that you could clearly see the speed that they can move. A great way to see the highest concentration of saltwater crocodiles anywhere in the world.

Welcome to Kakadu!
Back on the road again, and into the Kakadu National Park proper. Crossing the West and South Alligator rivers, we passed by miles of bush and wetland before reaching our first objective, Ubirr, just west of Arnhem Land, which stretches away to the east on an escarpment of hard, metamorphosed sandstone. This was the setting for a number of memorable takes from the Crocodile Dundee films, and the place certainly had a spiritual aura about it, also helped by the fact that we visited during a quiet time in the late afternoon. Clamouring up to the highest spot, we were able to gain fine views west to the vast wetlands of the East Alligator River basin and the scrub covered escarpments rising to the east into Arnhem Land.

View east to the Indigenous Territories of Arnhem Land
'Crocodile Dundee' Lookout, Ubirr, Kakadu National Park
The main attraction of Ubirr is the significant number of Aboriginal rock paintings in the area, some dating back 8,000 years. Painted in water based solutions of ochre, charcoal and other minerals, these paintings give a real insight into the evolution of their customs, and a crude rendition of history, from the Tasmanian tiger, now extinct, but which once roamed these lands, to the arrival of the Dutch (pipe smoking and with hands in their pockets, as depicted in the paintings). 

Rock paintings at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park
We paid a quick visit to Cahill Crossing, the border with Arnhem Land (for which you need a permit to access), and scene of numerous deaths by crocodile.

Sign at Cahill Crossing...we have been warned!
Moving on again we passed hilly country southwest down to the home of the Park HQ at Jabiru, and the area declared ‘sickness country’ by the local Aborigines who unwittingly settled an area which has uranium in abundance (and mined further south). Finally we drove on to Cooinda, our base for the night at the busy Gagudju Lodge Cooinda, situated next to the famous Yellow Water wetland, where most people come for boat trips into the wetlands.
An early night...knackered! We only covered 550km today!

Day 6

Up early and on the road again, calling by a wonderful little camp site with waterfall and pool where it is safe to swim at a place called Moline. Not on the map, but a sweet spot.

Small termites they have here in Kakadu!
A fast drive took us out of the national park, through the gold mining town of Pine Creek, and south to Katherine, a sizeable town, heavily populated by the indigenous peoples and the largest settlement to be reached after leaving Alice Springs 1000km to the south. Katherine suffered from catastrophic flooding in 1998, when the town was destroyed by water which reached 2m above street level. When you observe where the base of the Katherine River is from the bridge north of the town, it is almost unbelievable that the water could have risen this much.
The purpose of our visit was to grab a helicopter flight into the Nitmiluk National Park to view the famous 12km long Katherine Gorge. This we did in somewhat hazy weather with winds gusting to 25 knots, so our pilot had some fun along the way. Fine views into a sequence of thirteen gorges, popular with bush walkers and canoeists alike. A good helicopter excursion with Heli-Muster NT, their name indicating that much of their work involves some acrobatic flying at low level to herd cattle!

Helicopter ride over the Katherine Gorge

Then a quick detour to have a refreshing swim at Edith Falls (Leliyn), 40km north of Katherine. Apparently the pool is home to freshwater crocodiles, which are harmless unless you go out of your way to feed them your arm!
The long drive back up the Stuart Highway to Darwin ahead, we stopped for a quick beer in Pine Creek, a scruffy little ex gold-mining town. Back in Darwin for late afternoon to find the ‘Cav’ full of folk enjoying an afternoon of beer and jazz around the pool...a nice chill after 700km of driving today, before dinner at the excellent Char restaurant in town...good steak! Tomorrow, the Red Centre beckons.

Day 7

Off early to catch a plane to Alice Springs for some business. Alice is a modern town of around 28,000 souls, and is sandwiched between the East and West MacDonnell ranges, set in the middle of the red sandstone desert landscape. The town itself is quite small and somewhat bland, with a high number of indigenous people idling their time away (and waiting for the bottle shops to open). Alcoholism amongst the indigenous people is a major issue here, and petty crime and drunken violence later in the evening a big problem. The town centre is mainly populated with Aboriginal art galleries, tour operators, and big Employment Centre. Hum.

With the office staff at Alice Springs!

After the conclusion of some business here, we flew to Connelan Airport, Yulara, a flight of under an hour, to reach the Ayers Rock Resort in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Interesting desert scenery all the way, including views to Lake Amadeus, a salt lake which periodically fills with water after rain storms. Apparently rainstorms are quite prevalent, and frequently make roads (the few that exist in this region) impassable, but with the benefit of enabling quite a lot of ground plants and trees to survive, ranging from hard and soft spinifex grasses, acacia, wichitee bushes (the roots of which are home to the famous wichitee grub in bush tucker...not recommended by people who really know!) and the elegant desert oak.

Camps run by Australian Adventure Tours
We took a ride to Ayers Rock, now more commonly known as Uluru, the magnificent red sandstone monolith, created from ancient sands laid down when sea covered the area, before being tilted 90 degrees by massive plate tectonics. We were especially privileged to be invited to a pre-viewing of the new sunrise viewing site to be opened the following week, following a AUD 20m investment by the NT government. 

New views at Uluru

Accompanied by Chris Hannocks, the local Tourism chief, we toured the perimeter of the rock, pausing to watch climbers descending the one (steep) path that 100,000 of Uluru’s 300,000 visitors actually clamber up each year. It’s an unpleasantly steep and exposed path, carries people up to the summit of Uluru against the wishes of the indigenous peoples who regard it as sacred, and has killed 35 people over the years. As you might guess, I’m not a supporter of allowing this rock to be climbed, and the expectation is that the local authorities will ban it within a couple of years.

The Uluru climb...NOT recommended
Uluru at sunset

Our evening was rather special. Over a couple of beers and some vintage Moet, we watched the sunset on Uluru. A special experience despite the hordes of tourists around us. And, thanks to Anele, who prepared a special supper for us in one of Adventure Tours Australia’s luxury tented camps.

Day 8

Of course, even though dinner was held in one of ATA’s camps, the night was spent in a rather nice hotel in the Ayers Rock Resort, the Sails in the Desert complex. Another early start, this time for another helicopter trip to view Uluru and the Olgas in the early morning light.

Uluru from the air
I travelled with Professional Helicopter Services, who produced a very competent service. The flight took about 30 minutes, first to view Ayers Rock, albeit from some distance as regulations prohibit close fly-bys and route the aircraft to avoid disturbing the indigenous community living to the west of the Rock.
Then on to the Olgas, more correctly known as Kata Tjuta (‘Many Heads’), and actually more impressive than Ayers Rock. They stand about 51km west of Uluru, and comprise 36 domes of monolithic rock, a weathered sandstone conglomerate dissected by a series of gorges, a favourite with walking groups. The highest point is Mt. Olga 1066m.

Kata Tjuta, the 'Olgas'

The 'Red Centre', red desert viewed from the helicopter
Then north east back to Yulara airport, attempting to find some of the big herds of camel that inhabit these parts. We didn’t see any. Apparently, there are some 2 million feral camels in the Red Centre, having been originally imported from Afghanistan in the arly years. They are actually now farmed for meat.
A long day ahead, with a drive back to Alice Springs on the cards. Taking the Lasseter Highway east, then north on the Luritja Road we drove on good tarmac with little other traffic around. 

Mount Connor
Over the day 700km was subsequently travelled, with some 200km on dirt roads, and we were to view Mount Connor (343m), a sandstone mesa to the east of Uluru and frequently mistaken for it, cross several ridges where the vegetation changes from sand desert to mulga (acacia) scrub desert and back again, and visit the ever popular Kings Canyon in the Watarrka National Park.

Kings Canyon

Cotterill Lookout, Kings Canyon
Here we took time out to walk the Kings Canyon Rim Walk, a loop along the west rim and then descent across the east rim. The walk starts with a short climb (known colloquially as ‘Heartbreak Hill’) then easy walking along signed paths through the red sandstone landscape, with some spectacular views from the steep canyon rim, quite vertiginous in places. The Cotterill Lookout is particularly impressive, overlooking the dramatic southern wall with weathering patterns. As you turn back through the palm filled gorge known as the Garden of Eden, accessed by a series of wooden ladders, you pass through an area known as the Lost City, a series of sandstone domes formed by erosion of rectangular faults in the underlying rock. Apparently very similar to the Bungle Bungles in Western Australia. The signs said that the walk should take 3-4 hours (for 6km?!), but with our time constraints, we got around in about 2 hours, very hot by the time we got back to car park. The authorities mandate that the walk is taken in a clockwise direction and this seems to work as it gives the impression of being relatively uncrowded, even when the path is thronged by walkers.

Garden of Eden, Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

Lost City, Kings Canyon
Leaving Kings Canyon, we had a close view of two dingo’s skulking in the bush. Periodically, we saw goanna, a large lizard, crossing the road ahead.
Then we began the long drive along the dirt road known as the Mereennie Loop Track (permit required), eventually becoming the Larapinta Road before reaching Alice, passing Carmichael Crags, and viewing a huge crater formed by a large meteor collision to the north.

Mereenie Loop Track
The journey was enlivened by my colleagues in the 4WD. Hurtling down the road we were, of course, subjected to the vagaries of the red sandstone road surface. Many bumps, loose sands on the edge of the road, and ample opportunities to throw Ken about in the back of the Toyota.
Our local manager, Pieter Bosch, was soon deemed to be an inferior driver compared to his long term boss and self-professed off road expert Ken, who then delighted in whacking Pieter around the ear for every minor transgression. Funny to observe and taken in good humour, but I’ll be called as a witness at some point in the future when Pieter, quite rightly, sues his guvnor for physical abuse. Well done Pieter … when Ken finally demanded the wheel we coasted, very slowly, along the last 100km into Alice. It might be an age thing ;)
Thankfully, we reached Alice Springs in one piece and spent the night in the unimpressive Crowne Plaza hotel. Good food at their Hanuman restaurant though. For your future guidance, the Mereenie Loop is only rarely graded by the road authorities and is usually very corrugated, so if you want to avoid a good shaking, it’s recommended that you drive faster than 80kph! We saw many tourists clearly not enjoying the experience...oh, and one other thing...some great Aboriginal humour to be observed along the way. An oil drum bearing the words ‘LIFT UM FOOT’ soon followed by another reading ‘PUTTUM BACK DOWN’ on one particularly rough part of the road.

Rest of the visit was work, work, work. Alice Springs to Adelaide. Adelaide to Melbourne. Melbourne to Sydney and on to San Francisco before heading home. I won’t bore you with the details, except to mention that the Salvador Dali 'Liquid Desire' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was a triumph. A spectacular showing of many of his works, beuatifully presented, and a great insight into the man. I was lucky enough to catch the last day of this one-off exhibition, having run successfully for four months. If you want a flavour of some of his work, have a look at the film Destino, a short animated film produced in conjunction with Walt Disney. Awesome stuff.

No comments: