Hello from hot and horrifically humid Darwin in Australia's "Top End". My 25 day Contiki tour of Australia ended here today, allowing me some much needed time to update my blogs on the happenings of the past 5 days. The last time I updated I was about to pay a visit to the Tennant Creek Hotel bar, which our driver had called an essential part of our cultural experience in the Northern Territory. It certainly was different! When we arrived at about 8pm there was disappointingly nobody else in there, so we played pool for a while amongst ourselves. But by around 9pm it was starting to fill up, and it quickly became evident that we would be the only white people in the building! The locals were mostly a friendly bunch though and a few of them came over to play us at pool. Me and Vincenzo managed to beat 3 Aboriginal pairings before finally losing to a bloke called Lincoln. He initially refused to believe that I was from a city of the same name and I had to get him to ask other people in our tour group to convince him! He was, like most of the Aboriginies, a pretty boisterous and outgoing person. I really struggled to understand his accent though, but he did manage to convey his sense of anger at the sector of the Aboriginal community who layabout the towns and drink all day. He correctly identified that this gave all Aboriginies a bad name, and that was certainly my first impression. There is no doubt the Aussies have a massive social problem with some of the Aboriginies here in the Northern Territory, but I was glad to meet some of the nicer ones in Tennant Creek.
The next day was our mammoth drive day up to Katherine. According to our driver Dean, the 450 miles he covered that day is the longest drive distance of any Contiki tour in the world. We of course made a few stops along the way, first of all in tiny Daly Waters, a favourite haunt for travel writer Bill Bryson. There really wasn't much in Daly Waters, but the town is world famous for an old pub there. It was initially built as a refreshment stop for passengers flying from Sydney to Singapore with the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service (Qantas) in the days before planes could fly long distance. The airport is no longer in existence and nowadays the only visitors to remote Daly Waters are people like us travelling up the Stuart Highway. It is a tradition for patrons to leave items at the pub to commemorate their visit. The walls were as such crammed with memento's from all over the world - from driver's licenses to bank notes, football shirts to flip flops, and license plates to bras. There was barely a spare spot on the walls. I could see why Bryson enjoyed his visit there.
Our next stop was further north in the Elsey National Park. By this point we had just crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the change in scenery was notable. The tropics are much greener than the red centre and there was a lot more plant life about. At Elsey we had a quick look in a reconstructed homestead where the author of the book "We of the Never Never" lived. We then went for a short dip in the Mataranka hot springs, which weren't that hot but a perfect temperature given the heat outside the water. The humidity up here in the tropics is often above 75% at this time of year and it really is sticky. You step outside and are wet with sweat within minutes - not nice!
After Elsey we were entertained on the bus with a short quiz, which I narrowly lost because I didn't realise the Northern Territory was not a state! It is infact a territory as its population is too small to be a state. The quiz was a welcome change from watching films which we often do on the bus. Normally they are terrible Hollywood comedy films, but on this leg we were subjected to the atrocious and cheesy film "Australia", starring Nicole Kidman who put on the most annoying English accent ever. It really was a cringeworthy Hollywood drama and I wouldn't bother seeing it. I much preferred watching the classic and original Crocodile Dundee 1 and 2 which we did later in the tour.
On arrival into Katherine we were dropped off at the supermarket to do some shopping for a picnic and evening meal the next day. Despite buying home brands I astonishingly spent what I would spend on a week's shopping as a student in England, which is an illustration of just how expensive Australia is. The town of Katherine wasn't especially nice. It is the third largest settlement in the Northern Territory with a population of 11,000, many of whom are Aboroginies. Even the shopping centre's Santa Clause was an Aboriginal, but like Alice Springs there were also a lot of them causing trouble. One guy had to be thrown out of the shopping centre when he launched a tirade of abuse at a checkout girl who wouldn't serve him beer because he was drunk. They can certainly be very initimidating at times. That evening we had a small storm, which caused the briefest of power cuts at our hotel. This time of year is the start of the wet season in the tropics and evening storms are a common occurance.
The next morning was still cloudy for our visit to the region's main attraction - the Katherine Gorge. I opted to take the optional 2 hour cruise up the gorges, which was well worth the money. The sandstone cliffs towered high above the river and we navigatetd numerous large canyons. We had to change boat halfway through and walk round a section of rapids, but the river level was still quite low as the wet season is only in its infancy. Fifteen years ago though the gorge was completely flooded in an especially wet period, which is pretty remarkable.
After the gorge we were taken for our picnic lunch at Edith Falls in the Nitmiluk National Park, by which time the sun was coming out. This was a very bad idea on behalf of our tour guide as the flies were out in force. It was hard to take a bite of food without nearly swallowing one, and most of us were forced back onto the bus as they were such a pain. Some people then went for a swim in the falls, but having spoken to a local person who warned of the dangers of crocodiles I stayed out of the water. I should really have gone in though as our tour guide had received safety confirmation from the national park authority before he told us to go in (only he didn't tell us that until after). From Edith Falls it was then a two hour drive north up to Kakadu National Park, which I'll cover in the next blog.