Thursday, I finally bid a sad farewell to Queensland and boarded the plane to Darwin. I love flying, and was excited by the prospect of a short enough flight that I was able to opt for a window seat without fear of driving the person sitting between me and the aisle to distraction by asking them to get up so I could go to the loo every half hour... I got to see some actual scenery! As it was, I had to loo-visit twice but luckily my aisle-mate was a very nice malaysian man, who I chatted with the whole way and didn't feel so bad about asking him to move. The scenery was cool, flew over the cape york peninsula then out over the sea before going over land again towards darwin. Crossed the coast then sea then some rocky, mountainous, red, barren bits that looked impressively remote and uninhabited.. the view was obscured slightly by an immense cloud of yellowy smoke from bushfires, but impressive nonetheless! Had been a bit apprehensive about the response of my gammy right ear to the pressurised cabin, but it survived! My ears popped a million times more than usual and my left ear kept doing the squeeky thing that I have become well used to during the numerous ascents and descents of my dive trip.. think I have changed my ears forever by all those pressure changes, but there was no pain! (Incidentally, my right ear is STILL ringing, over a week later, having tried aqua-ear-drops and wax-dissolving-drops and antibiotics and blah blah, no idea why it is still so w***ed).
SO.. sad to leave queensland but excited to be in darwin, in wow.. humidity! It was like a wall and had me sweating like a pig within 5minutes of leaving the airconditioned insideness... I seem to remember it being similar in thailand, but that was a LONG time ago and any acclimation that my body had whilst there has long since left me! Spent my first day just exploring, wandered around a lot, visited some underground WWII oil storage tunnels, whcih were pretty cool to walk through, each one held something like 3.8 MILLION gallons of oil, in reinforce steel tunnels to protect it from being blown up by japanese bombs dropped on darwin. Swam in the (TOO WARM to be refreshing) lagoon.. oh for some icy cold water to plunge into (ha!).
Saturday morning I was up bright and early (with my left eye mysteriously swollen shut overnight, presumably from the bite of some small b****** insect), to be picked up at 7am for a 2day 4WD Safari to Kakadu National Park. Kakadu covers an area of nearly 20,000 square kilometres, approximately the same size as Wales, and with a lot less people in it! The name Kakadu comes from Gagadju, an aboriginal language; generations of the main aboriginal tribes have lived and worked the landscape of the park for tens of thousands of years and it is very rich in cultural and natural history. Communities live in the park, there are predominantly white and aboriginal communities, in addition to resorts, although much of it is still very remote and unreachable and 'untouched'.
We drove first for over an hour, to the Adelaide River, where we boarded a very unstable looking boat for a 'jumping crocodile cruise'. Our fears about the boat were not diminished by the skipper who cracked terrible jokes and warned us not to move from side-to-side of the boat, or to change from upstairs to downstairs or vice-versa, as it was very unstable and likely to tip over.. hard to figure out if this was true, or if he was just trying to get the adrenalin flowing for the cruise.. certainly the boat had a list to one side that was corrected by moving two people from right to left... NOT encouraging! The aformentioned 'jumping' came about when the boat hand dangled a cube of meat of the side, on the end of a long piece of wood and rope. As soon as a croc was spotted, she started off, dunking the meat in the water so the croc could sense it, then yanking it out, seemed a bit like teasing the croc, getting in to rise up out of the water, til finally it jumped up and took the bait. It WAS impressive, although the pics were a bit weird-looking owing to the croc that jumped having no front legs! The boat was a terrible design! It had high sides and not bieng able to move around meant that you could only actually see the action that happened on your side, in your line of vision. After the crocs, and much more impressive, was when the deckhand started throwing small pieces of meat in the air, and kites swooping down to catch it.. black-tailed kites and whistling kites (whistling kites are the ones that make that "kee kee" noise forever embedded in my brain as a sound of down-under, thanks to the Rescuers Down-Under, a great film!). Next to arrive was an immense sea eagle, whcih started circling the boat! Again, a chunk of meat was held out and it swooped right in down beside the boat, showing us fully its 2m wingspan.. awesome!
We were glad to make it off the boat alive, then back into the truck and another hour along the road, briefly stopping at the entrance to the park. The main thing that struck me, driving through the park was the DIVERSITY of landscape there. I guess it's not surprising over such a big area, but it just made the view from the road (which at times in oz can be very much hours, even DAYS of the sameness) that bit more interesting... scrubby savannah woodland was replaced by wide flat floodplanes, above which the road was raised by 5-7m, the height to which the water rises during the "Wet". We crossed a couple of massively wide rivers, the Mary River, which has the highest concentration of saltwater crocodiles anywhere in the world, and the Alligator River, which is also croc-infested but NO alligators!
We had a brief stop at Corroborree Tavern, the kind of quirky bar cum cafe cum bottleshop cum petrolstation cum general store cum crocodile farm-sort of place that is only found in the middle of the bush then on to our lunch stop at Mamukala (or white lily billabong), where I was nearly driven insane by those flies that australia is famous for (my first experience of them).. there is nothing so guaranteed to make you scratch your own eyes out than trying to eat a sandwhcih while small black flies continuously land on your face, on your sandwich, on your eyes, on your neck and WILL NOT DESIST. Arg! Note to self: invest in a beekeepers hat before the next tour. As per usual, I presented myself as a slightly madwoman as I twitched and watched the lunch table out the corner of my eye ("please don't use THAT knife for the cheese, you just cut your meat sandwich with it".. "please DON'T put that salami on the salad platter", "please can you NOT cut the tomato with that knife, you just used it to open the packet of ham".. people just DON'T get it! Oh for another vegetatian to back me up in these situations!) then we wandered down to the viewing hut to look over the wetlands.. a fascinating sight in itself after driving for hours through arid, red, dustry landscape, with literally millions and millions of birds dipping and feeding and honking and socialising there.
Back on the road again (there was a lot of this today, we drove a total of 450km in one day) and our next stop was Ubirr, in an area of hills and giant rock ridges, very shaped by erosion so massive rock stacks were left standing, where a walking track lead us the most impressive aboriginal rock art I have seen yet..over 20000 years of art culture and history, which was very well expained by our guide, "brad". One area was a massive rock over hang covered in layers and layers of paintings, he described how you can date the art from its mode, sort of like western art.. there are "X-ray descriptive" and "X-ray decorative" designs, dating from different ages, and then the "contact art" which depicts white man and things that happened after the first white settlers arrived. In the rocks below were hollowed out dips where the artists ground up their pigments. Along the walk also got info about trees and traditional uses and plants n stuff. I actually didn't get on with our guide, Brad, I didn't like his sense of humour and thought he acted like everything was a bit of an effort when, hello, it was his job to help us out, but he WAS very knowledgable and gave us a lot of info, turning down the music in the car regularly to give us a little talk. After a bit of a climb, we emerged on top of a big rock stack to spectacular 360degree views over the floodplains and Arnhemland escarpment, and a couple of locations from Crocodile Dundee.. "micks place". Thrilled to spot, all on my own, a rock wallaby bouncing down the rocks, I am so unobservant I nearly always miss that stuff unless it is pointed out to me, so points for meeee!
By this point the temperature was up to 42C and very humid.. the back of the 4WD truck was not airconditioned and sitting in there was pretty hideous.. I HATE having to be near sweaty people, particularly sweaty boys and they SMELT! Spend the entire ride trying to keep my arms and legs close in to myself so I didn't touch up against them and get their sweat on me, whilst simultaneously trying not to appear like a freak for doing so.. It was very traumatic!
As the day drew to a close we arrived at Yellow Waters Billabong to watch the sunset there.. first a walk along a boarwalk and a log floating in the water, spotted by one of the english girls, Joan, which MIGHT have been a croc, but it didn't move for a long time and had grass growing on it so we dismissed it.. passing back past that point, it rose up in the water and started swimming.. it WAS a croc, with vegetation on its nose! Even if it doesn't look anything like a croc, it STILL might be! Moral of the tale.. here in northern australia, do not EVER think a log is actually what it appears to be. A couple of brave hardened aussie blokes in akubra hats returned from a fishing trip on the billabong in a little boat, motored up to the boat ramp, jumped out into the water and splashed around for a few minutes.. the one guy stood there TALKING to us about the crocs, knee-deep in water at the edge of the lake! Can't remember what he actually said, I was too busy hoping I wasn't about to witness my first crocodile attack! The sunset was splendid, a fat orangey red sun plopped down behind black silhouetted trees, turning the water of the lake golden and the sky pinky orange.
Then we made it to the camp. Having been prepared for tents and smelliness and flies and whatnot it was a pleasant surprise to stop at the showerblock on the way to out 'permenant camp' which was like a massive tent with bunkbeds inside.. luxury! Dinner was veggieburgers, veg and mash cooked on a bonfire then after clearup, brad took us on a nighttime bushwalk down to the billabong, preceeded by a talk warning us that the area is FULL of crocs and we must, whatever happens do exactly what he tells us and stay AWAY from the edge of the water, we set off (luncay!). I learnt to shine my torch on the ground, glittering blue points all over the grass, on closer inspection with the torchlight proved to be Wolf Spiders (small but all OVER the ground). Brad found a cane toad which he showed us and talked about, before squeezing its poisen sac to squirt out poisen on the ground.. they are SO poisenous, they have no predators, even some of the most deadliest snakes have been found dead with cane toads in their mouths, dead from their poisen.. the toad is dead too. Wandered through bush, with brad leading, looking to left and right, sweeping with his torch.. untill... "STOP!"... "see that glowing orange point of light over there?... CROCS EYES"! It was quite far away, over on the other side of the water, but still, being in pitch darkness in the middle of the bush, having a croc pointed out to you, is a sobering experience! Also saw a green snake "STAND STILL!", which disappeared into a crack in the ground. After the nightwalk we had a few drinks at camp then to bed, and exhausted, I slept so well!
Next day we were woken at 6am, I was sleeping in just my silk liner and it was refreshing to be a little bit chilly.. I relished it, knowing the heat of the day to come. After brek we were off in the truck again for a bone-jiggling half hour drive down a dirt track through sand and grit and rocks and pools of water to Twin Falls. (Incidentally, I finally discovered the function of the black pipe up the side of the windscreen of all 4WDs here... it is a SNORKEL, to allow the engine to breathe when going through deep water!) Twin Falls Gorge is massively impressive, we took a short boat ride up the gorge, between sheer high walls of rock.. used to be able to swim up but the aboriginal community downstream uses the water as a source for drinking and stuff and they objected to all the sunscream and mossie repellant that floated off backpackers sweaty bodies as they swam up the creek) then a walk up to the lovely beach. Also cruised past a steel crocodile trap, used to remove the larger estuarine crocs ("salties") in order to give the smaller "freshies" a chance to survive. The falls were completely dry, this time of year but could see where they came from down the rock into the river below, boardered by a white and beautiful beach, one of only two places in the world where a waterfall cascades into a pool next to a beach.
Back to the car and more jiggle jiggle jiggle to Jim Jim falls. The falls were reached by a 30-40minute trek accross huge boulders alongside the riverbed, accross land that is completely submerged during the Wet. It was heavy going, and good balance was a must for leaping and clambering from boulder to boulder.. a coulpe of times found myself muttering "this better be worth it".. and by god IT WAS. WOW! The falls itself, again, was dry but at the end of our walk was a deep green plunge pool, up to 40m deep surrounded on 3sides by sheer walls of rock 180m high. It was just awe-inspiring, to float in the cool water looking up to rock rock rock. I can't really describe it, it was just immense.. had a few fun minutes shouting JimJim into the wall to hear it reverberate and rediscovering my talent for making owl noises into my cupped hands.
We had a blissfull hour here, sliding on slimy rocks and floating and having our legs nibbled by the fish in the pool.. the pool was croc-free, in a way the 30minute boulder-clamber to get there was reassuring, easy to see how a croc could not make it up there!
After lunch we returned to camp to collect our stuff, and as we were running a bit early, had time for a 20min dip in the clean clear pool at the Gagadju Lodge Cooinda before into the bus for the 4hour drive back to Darwin. The airconn in the bus was broken, so we went the whole way with the door open and wet coths draped over our foreheads and necks... hit TWO wallabies on the way back, luckily they didn't come flying in through the open door, which woudl have been pretty unpleasant!
The drive home really underlined for me, for perhaps the first time, the immensity of Australia. Kakadu is considered a day, 2- or 3-day trip from Darwin, it is considered "close" to Darwin and Darwin is the closest place to it, yet it is a 4HOUR drive to get to the park, much of the park is inaccesible and yet more accessible only by 4WD.. it is just so remote and so vast, there are kms and kms that may never have been seen by anyone except the indiginous people that live there. It is impossible ever to "see" Australia, even if I were to spend my entire LIFE here.