'Hanging out in the Top End'
It's been almost 3 weeks since I touched down in the Top End and I have managed to cover a bit of the Territory including Kakadu, Katherine, Tenants Creek, Alice Springs and Uluru.
My first week involved hanging out in Darwin itself. My friends that I am staying with live on the army base which is just a stones throw from the city centre. The base is also located by the coast and within minutes from their front door I can watch the sun set over the Arafura Sea. And boy do they have the most beautiful sunsets here!
Darwin is quite a small city (Didn't think there was anything smaller than Hobart - how very wrong was I) but very friendly and very busy being peak season at the moment. The weather is oh so perfect - BBQ weather every day.
Darwin is host to many markets that are held weekly. Mindal Market is held every Thursday and Sunday evening on Mindal Beach. It is a perfect spot to watch the sun go down while listening to the free entertainment. Mindal is held during the dry season (May - Oct) and has stalls compromising of arts and crafts and food (being so close to Asia the foods on offer include Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Sri Lankan). I have par-taken in the delights of this market three times so far and one of the great dishes that I have sampled is Paw Paw Salad (yummy) and I look forward to my next visit to sample more delights. But it doesn't stop there as there is also the Parap Market's. This market is held on a Saturday and is held all year round. It is tailored for the locals (Mindal is targeted for the tourists) and you can also pick up your fresh fruit and veg from here. These markets are also known for the best laksa in town and it is a ritual to have one each Saturday for lunch. There is also another market held on a Sunday morning which is the Nightcliff Market but I have yet to experience this.
After sampling the many delights that Darwin's markets have to offer it was time to get out and sample the culture, wildlife and nature that this Territory has. I booked myself on a couple of tours (tours are not something I am used to but with soo many km's to travel I did not fancy doing it by myself in a hire car on long empty roads - and there are no chicken buses out here). My first tour would include Litchfield Park, Kakadu, Katherine and then down through to Alice Springs. There I would pick up another tour that would take me out to the Red Centre to see Kings Canyon, The Olga's and of course the infamous Ayres Rock. To return to Darwin I booked myself onto The Ghan. A popular train journey that travels from Adelaide to Darwin.
Tour 1 - Day One - Litchfield National Park (Florence Falls - Bluely Rockhole)
Pick-up was at 6:30am only to have to wait until 7:15am. As the majority of the group had been already collected from various hostels and backpackers around town there was only 3 of us to get on a claim the last seats. This wasn't so bad as I scored a seat upfront (alongside an English guy) with a bird's eye view of the country side, road kill and anything else that decided to get in our way.
I was to be the only Aussie on the tour (and also the rest of my tours) and the oldest by ten years. Our group was made up of English, Welsh, French, German, Dutch, Koreans, Canadian and an Italian (who was really good value).
Our first main stop (there are many stops in between at service stations) was into Litchfield Park where we viewed termite mounds. There are termite mounds everywhere in the NT and the majority of the ones that I have seen are Cathedral Termite Mounds but at our stop we also saw Magnetic Termite Mounds. May not sound too fascinating but the amazing thing with the Magnetic Termites is that they build their mounds to face North-South - yep all of them and no-one cane really say why although there is one theory that they build them facing this direction so that when it rains the waters run past the slim side and not the wide part which would then surely see the water pressure knock them down.
Our next stop was at a beautiful swimming hole complete with waterfall known as Florence Falls. I'm not one that really goes for swimming in cold water but hey when in Rome and with it being 31 degrees out it is quite refreshing.. Then it was on to another swimming spot - a series of rock pools. The only downfall was having to share these beautiful spots with lots of other tourists.
Our last stop for the day before heading for camp was a cruise on the North Rock hole Billabong. The cruise went for 2 hours and was absolutely spectacular. Crocodiles were aplenty and we would of seen around 40 of them at least! The birdlife was also amazing and we had the pleasure in seeing a Jabiru and Brolga's not to mention the white breasted sea eagles, ducks, magpie geese, kite's, rainbow bee-eater's and many more. As we ended the cruise the sun was making its way down over the horizon on what was truly a memorable day.
Day 2 -Kakadu (Barramundi Gorge - Ubirr)
Today revealed another great swimming hole at Barramundi Gorge followed by some aboriginal culture at Ubirr. Ubirr is home to some amazing aboriginal rock art and I was amazed to see a painting of a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger). Apparently they roamed mainland Australia up until 4,000 years ago when the dingo was introduced which then wiped out the population. At Ubirr we also stayed and watched the sun set over the wetlands and at the same time we saw the moon rise. It was yet another memorable day.
Day 3 - Kakadu (Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls)
Today's journey required us to lock into 4wd. First up was twin falls, a beautiful set of waterfalls making their way down into the emerald green waters that were off limits to us as this was possible croc territory. A pristine white beach made its way down to the waters edge and we dared ourselves by dipping our toes in. Next was Jim Jim Falls, a deep plunge pool 130 metres long that is feed by a waterfall approx. 200m in height. The plunge pool did not see the sunshine and we were about to swim in it. Now as I had previously mentioned I am not a fan of cold water but I it just had to be done. Before even getting to Jim Jim Falls we had to walk for about 20 minutes over lots of rocks. Once making it to the beach area we then had to swim through one pool over some more rocks and then into the plunge pool. It was bloody cold and the other side looked a long way away. I made it though and stood just under the waterfall. What an amazing feeling but now I had to make it all the way back again to the other side!!!!
Day 4 - Katherine (Nitmiluk) Gorge - canoeing
Katherine township is a very undesirable place and if making a trip that passes through then that is what you should do - pass through - the Gorge on the other hand is worth a look. It is 26km's out from the township and you have the option to canoe, cruise on a boat, walk or take a helicopter ride. We all opted to canoe (cheapest option) and we did it in pairs (even cheaper). I paired up with Sylvia (from Italy) and we were about the 2nd canoe to head off. It was a lot harder than I thought and we couldn't get the canoe to go in a straight line no matter how hard we tried - soon we were over taken by most of the others (there where 2 groups that didn't get far before turning back). We canoed for about an hour and then stopped for a swim. As we where the last to arrive we decided to get moving before the rest of the group but soon enough we where over taken by everyone else and taking up the rear. That evening we sat around the campfire playing campfire games and toasting marshmallows and for some drinking maybe just a little bit too much.
Day 5 - Thermal Springs @ Mataranka - Daly Waters Pub
When one thinks of thermal springs you instantly think of many places other than the Northern Territory but there are actually lots of thermal springs throughout the Territory. At 8am when the air was still chilly (and we are heading south so it's a bit colder) we arrive at the thermal springs. We have been promised that the water temperature is around 30 degrees and we were not disappointed. It was like stepping into a bath at a perfect temperature that stayed at a perfect temperature without having to be topped up. After a bit though it got a bit tiresome and I was starting to look like a prune so I made the dash to the toilet to change into dry clothes. We then continued our journey down the Stuart Highway (the highway that runs form Darwin to Adelaide) making a side trip to the Daly Waters Pub. This is the most remote pub in Australia if not the World. A beer was enjoyed by the pool while lunch was getting ready. The visit was finished off with some of the guys playing a game of 10 pin bowls down the main street.
Day 6 - Devils Marbles - Alice Springs
The last day of this tour involved a stop to another outback pub which had some of the most disgusting toilets that I had ever come across (even in 3rd world standards they were pretty ordinary) and then to the Devils Marbles. This was to be the first of the red rock formations that we would see in Central Australia. And then we were in Alice - then end of my first tour
Tour 2 - Day 1 - Kings Canyon
Upon arriving into Alice Springs the day before I was advised that I was not able to get a spot on the Monday tour. I indicated that it was preferable that I get onto this tour and so reception said that they would see what they could do and I was to report back at 7:30pm. At 7:30pm I returned to reception to find out if I was unsuccessful in getting a seat on the next day's tour. It was not my day and I would have to wait until Tuesday (the problem with the Tuesday tour is that is returned me to Alice the same day I needed to depart on The Ghan so left very little time for error). I went back to the bar to continue my drinks with my tour and thought that I might as well make the most of the night as I no longer had to get up early. Fortunately for me a big night is 3 beers instead of 2 and bedtime at 10:30pm instead of 9:30pm and so when I was awoken at 5:30am to be told that my name was on the list for Monday's tour and a note had been left on the door to say they found a space for me. So there I was in a deep sleep being shaken awake and I was thinking where am I and what planet am I on. I then jump out of bed and start to get dressed and get packing. w*** I had washed the night before and my clothes are still damp - no probs just pop then on the heater and get them as dry as possible. Next thing I know I am up in the front set and on my way to the red centre - wow must be a record for getting dressed, drying my clothes and packing. Its daylight by the time we make our first stop at a farm that you can take a camel ride. I did not partake as I head already had the experience back when I was in Egypt and it is not the type of experience that you take up for the second time.
Today's agenda was Kings Canyon. A mini version of the Grand Canyon and I was eager to see it by foot as I was not privileged to see the bigger version other than from a helicopter and a short landing on the bottom of the north's rim over a glass of bubbles.
We spent approx. 3 hours walking around the rim of the canyon. First we had to tackle heart attack hill. I was worried that I would struggle as I am not a fan of hills, mountains or the like and so I took up the rear, after all everyone was 10 - 20 years my junior, but before I knew it I was up in the lead (everyone else was too busy taking photo's of the Australian Outback - even though it's a bit different to the Australian bush that I grew up with it wasn't all that much different and didn't deserve a photo every 5 metres). The rest of the walk was pretty easier and the views were great.
That night was my first experience in sleeping out under the stars in a swag. It's bloody cold this time of the year out in the dessert and it even dropped below zero for us but my swag was fairly toasty.
Day 2 - The Olga's, Uluru (Ayres Rock)
Not such an early start today and we were able to view sunrise from the top of the sand dune at our campsite. The view looked out to Mt Connor (Atila is its aboriginal name), another amazing rock that I feel is just as incredible as Uluru if not more so. It is located on private land and so can only be accessed by a tour hosted by the owners of the land. It is not a high as Uluru but much larger in circumference (approx. 30kms). Once another 50 photos of sunrise were taken it was time to head to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Our first stop in the park was The Olga's and a walk through the 'Valley of the Winds'. These red rock formations are truly stunning and our 3 hour walk took us through only a small section of these rocks.
After The Olga's it was on to the infamous Uluru via a stop at the cultural centre. Due to high winds the walk to the summit was closed so we had additional time up our sleeve to visit this well thought out centre. Once at the rock we took a short walk and our guide gave us some history about the rock and the aboriginals and what certain sacred spots of the rock meant. I must admit I have learnt more about aboriginal culture in this trip than ever before. Once we had our little history tour it was on to the sunset viewing point. It was quite beautiful and alongside us several hundred tourists also watched the sun go down.
Another night of camping under the stars. And boy are the stars out here amazing. Our guide was able to give us a bit of a talk about a few of them. I am a bit disappointed though as I cannot see the iron pot this far up.
Day 3 - Uluru
Our last day in the outback involved an early start (another one) as we needed to be at the 'rock' ready for sunrise. We arrived at the gate at opening time (6:30am) and made our way to the designated area for sunrise viewing. Once there we put the kettle on ready for a hot cuppa and got some breaky organised. The sun came up and more photos of the rock were taken. As there were no clouds in the sky there was nothing specky about the colours but it was beautiful anyhow.
Once we were back on the bus we made our way to the base of the summit walk to see if it was open for our chance to walk up. Unfortunately it was still closed so we headed off to do the base walk which was 9.8km's long. It was a chilly start but soon I warmed up (with the help of a 10 minute jog). It was a spectacular walk and took just a couple of hours to do at a snails pace. Once we reached the base of the summit again we saw people starting to climb the rock. It had just been opened and people were starting to make there way up like ants. Unfortunately we were unable to partake as we needed to be heading back to Alice Springs and we were already half an hour behind schedule. At least the decision had been made for me on whether I should take the walk or not (it is actually requested by the aboriginal land owners to not make the walk up as it is such a sacred sight for them).
.Alice to Darwin - The Ghan (Thursday 26th June 2008)
I only had one day to look around Alice Springs before departing on The Ghan for Darwin at 6pm. This was ample time to see the view from ANZAC Hill, check out some aboriginal art and take a tour of the Royal Flying Doctor's Museum, oh and a trip to Coles to stuck up on munchies for the train journey.
Rather than take the shuttle bus the short distance to the train we decided to walk as we would be spending enough time sitting on our butt's. The train left on time and we started the journey towards Darwin. We left just before sunset so once the sun had gone down there was very little to see. We found ourselves seats with a table in the lounge car and soon enough the cards were out and we passed away time playing various games. Around 11pm we arrived at Tennant Creek where we stopped for a couple of hours. Most people were sleeping by this stage in their seats back in the other carriage but a few of us were still chatting and playing cards. The train stops for 2 hours so that it doesn't arrive into Katherine to early the next morning and it also gives the smokers a chance to get off and feed their addiction.
The next morning I rose fairly early and went back into the lounge car to read as I was not getting any sleep in my seat. At 9am we arrived into Katherine, or rather we arrived 6km out from Katherine. This threw me as I expected us to be arriving at a station in the township (I was aware that the Darwin station was 20km out from town but thought it would go through Katherine). This meant that you had to catch a shuttle bus ($12 return) to go in and visit a s***ty town (this I was aware of from my previous visit). I thought that I might spend the time at the hot springs but there ended up not being enough time as the springs where about a 30 minute walk from the town's centre and considering we didn't arrive into town until around 10am and then the last bus back to the train was at 11:45am it would have been a bit of a rush, plus I was out of munchies and needed to restock at the supermarket.
I wondered up and down the main street which took all of about 20 minutes, there were no decent café's to stop and have a coffee at (great business opportunity for anyone willing to go outback for a few years) so I sat in the tourist office for a bit as it was clean and cool. I then did my munchie stockup and waited for the bus to pick us up. There were tours available during the stopover but as I had already done my canoeing in the gorge on the way down I decided that I didn't need to do another activity here. I was quite glad of this decision as my friends had decided to do the canoeing and it ended up that the activities on offer (also available was a nature cruise and helicopters rides) did not take place at Katherine Gorge (although I'm sure the helicopter flight would of). So Katherine ended up being a disappointment for all concerned.
The train was scheduled to depart at 2:30pm however we had to be back on the train at 1pm. The reason behind this is that we needed to be ready to move should a freight train come down from the north. The track is a single track only and so if there are any freight trains coming from the north then The Ghan needs to be able to pull off (or vice versa) into a designated passing track. We ended up departing an hour early (1:30pm) and traveled for an hour or so before we came to a freight train that was waiting for us at a designated stop. It took forever for us to move up and back and up again but we eventually got on our way again. We arrived into Darwin a half hour before our scheduled time. It was then a long wait for our luggage to come off during which time I was eaten alive by bloody midges (I reckon I have about 50 bites on me - nearly as many as my jungle trek in Colombia last year).
Finally we got our luggage, got on the shuttle bus (another $12) and made our way into the city.
Would I do The Ghan again - for the price definitely (you can get tickets as cheap as $79 from Alice to Darwin (and vice versa) or $99 from Adelaide to Darwin), but as a tourist experience - definitely not.
Now I am hanging out in Darwin for 3 weeks before heading on to Vietnam so plenty of time to sample more of the culinary delights that the markets of Darwin have to offer.