It's warm, lovely and warm. We have arrived at Mataranka, a small town on the Stuart Highway about 100 km south of Katherine, famous for the world largest termite mound and thermal springs. We camped at Mataranka Homestead which is a caravan and camping ground at the Mataranka Thermal Spring. The spring is a lush 34 degrees and most importantly is free of crocodiles. We spent a lot of time just relaxing in the spring. Bitter Springs also in Mataranka is another thermal spring that is less developed, much deeper and much longer. You can hop in at one end and float downstream until you reach a footbridge and a sign that warns of crocodiles if you go any further. I probably wouldn't have gone in had I seen the sign first. Mick was much more relaxed in that pool than I was!
Each night a band plays at the outside bar/bistro area at the camp ground. Annie quickly found the dance floor in front of the band. The only person dancing, she stole the show. About 5 songs in she all of a sudden started to take off her pants and just as I launched forward she was about to squat on the dance floor. I grabbed her just in time much to the amusement of all watching. She looked at me and said 'but mummy I was just doing a wee'! Fortunately the wee waited until we had found an appropriate tree... She prefers trees to toilets now. I think we have been camping too long!
From Mataranka we headed to Katherine Gorge. We had been told that we wouldn't be able to kayak or swim as it was still closed due to crocodiles. Every wet season saltwater crocs make their way inland in the flood waters and they often take up residence in tourist areas. So after every wet season rangers monitor and trap/relocate any salties before they can open areas for swimming. I am sure the process is extremely comprehensive but there is still a part of you that thinks 'what if they've missed one', 'what if one was hiding all that time', 'what if there's a super croc able to walk long distances, over difficult terrain, in the heat because he's heard how many tourists will be ripe for the taking...'
So the idea of crocs makes me a little crazy but I'm sure once we have been here a while ill get used to the warning signs, croc jokes and the NT news stories, and will be able to switch off my paranoid crazy croc brain and enjoy the refreshing swimming holes.
We arrived at the gorge to find it was opened for swimming the previous day... Way Way Way to soon for me to be hoping in for a dip. Many more tourists need to test the waters (literally) before I go near it. Instead we did a 12 km bushwalk to the second gorge via butterfly valley. That night we went on a sunset dinner cruise with mum and dad. About half way through the 4 hour cruise mum was busting for loo only to find they were broken. After at least another 45 minutes of trying to fix the loos the guide realised mums predicament was getting serious. There was nowhere to land the boat as the gorge is surrounded by cliffs and it was dark - so going ashore was out of the question. So he called for another boat to make the 20 min journey downstream and meet us so mum (and by now plenty of others) could use it.
The gorge is spectacular and I would love to see it in the wet. Huge cliffs, crystal clear water, turtles, freshwater crocs and loads of fish. It was lovely.
Annie met Lauchie at Katherine Gorge. Lauchie is a gorgeous 4 yo boy who loved Annie as much as Annie loved him. Fortunately this was not the only time we would run into Lauchie.
We left mum and dad in Katherine and made tentative plans to meet in Kakadu if it worked out. We headed for Darwin to catch up with the lovely Paul, Bridget, Hamish (newly arrived) and Charlie (the gorgeous chocolate lab).
Paul and Bridget were so hospitable. We arrived to a list of activities in and around Darwin for us to do over the next week or so. It was relaxing to be in a house, sleeping in a comfy bed and surrounded by friends... life was very easy and we were worried we might not leave!
We were pleasantly surprised by Darwin. I think I was expecting a bit of a backwater, instead the city seemed lovely and relaxed with a nice infusion of culture. I guess we were there at the right time of the year as there were plenty of festivals on or about to be on.
We spent the week working through Pauls list of things to do in Darwin and our long list of chores. We rode our bikes around Darwin city, spent time at the museum, shopped, played in the Wave Pool, Fed fish from the boat ramp and spent and amazing morning fishing up Leaders Creek at Gunn Point. Paul had borrowed a boat from the Navy (a leisure runabout not a ship!) and took us on a fishing adventure which turned out to be a Crocodile spotting cruise as we weren't so successful catching fish. It was great to be out in the network of mangrove lined estuaries. Not only did Paul take us fishing he had just caught some huge mud crabs over his back fence which became delicious chilli crab. Yum.
We spent a day at Litchfield National park swimming in the beautiful water holes. At Florence falls we ran into Lauchie and family. The reunion between Lauchie and Annie was like a scene from a romance classic...there was running, hugs, shrieks and sharing of freddos. It was pretty cute.
Mindle Beach Markets were great, except we got parked in and couldn't leave. Mick's Dad John was in town for work so we met him at the markets with the intention of going somewhere easy for dinner. We ended up at the casino because it was the only place we could walk too and Annie was getting tired. It was great to see John again and what could have been a bit of a disaster meal ended up being really pleasant. By the time we got back to the car the idiot who parked us in had gone.
We were so slow leaving Paul and Bridget's partly because we didn't know where we were off too next but also we had to re-pack the car and trailer which is always epic and unfun. We said goodbye to Paul when he left for work in the morning but we were still there when he got back from work!
Finally we got away and headed for Berry Springs. It was only and hour or so south of Darwin. Berry Springs has two main attractions, the NT wildlife park and the springs themselves. The wildlife park was a really good, interactive example of the complex northern Australia ecosystems. It really appealed to the nerdy enviro scientist in me. After a swim in the springs we headed off to Mary River Station on the boundary of Kakadu . It was a great place to camp but the owls were very loud. I think there was one in each tree either side of our tent and they were hooting each other all night!
The next day we were Kakadu bound. Our introduction to Kakadu was pretty impressive. At the first stop (mamaluka wetlands?) we saw a snake, water monitor, brolgas and the best wetlands I have ever seen (again the nerdy enviro appears). Wetlands = insects so we got out of there pretty quickly slapping our legs as we ran.
We were headed to Cooinda campground next to Yellow Waters (another vast wetland system). Cooinda was pretty touristy but as with all touristy places it was for a good reason. Yellow Water was amazing. The wetland system was supporting so so much wildlife it was just inspiring to see. We went for an early morning walk along the edge of the wetlands where we saw our first Kakadu croc swimming past. Annie was strapped into the pram and not allowed out! On the way back we saw a feral pig in a trap and some rangers inspecting it. The pigs cause a huge amount of damage to the wetlands by digging up the mud and destroying habitat. As we kept walking we heard the fate of the pig as two loud shots rang out.
At Cooinda we met up with the gorgeous Woods family (who got stuck in Alice for 7 extra nights bc they lost a tyre off their van). We decided to travel the Gibb together assuming the timing all worked out. We were looking forward to sharing the adventure with Georgina, Jas, Charlie and Gill and felt happier knowing that the kids could play together and we could all laugh (or cry) together. After two nights at Cooinda we headed for the East Alligator River and the Woods headed for Darwin.
We re-stocked the fridge at Jabiru and headed up to Cahills Crossing on the East Alligator. We met up with Mum and Dad and camped at Merl campground a pretty hot and pretty mosquito-y place. The area is famous for the Ubir Rock Art, Ubir Lookout and the Crocodile infested East Alligator River. After setting up the tent we headed off to do the hour or so walk around the Aboriginal Rock Paintings. The paintings were phenomenal and we are so lucky they have been so well preserved. Unlike all the rock art we had seen throughout central Australia that comprised of symbols to tell stories, these pictures were really detailed drawings of animals, landscape and spirits. It was very impressive. We climbed up to the Ubir sunset lookout and looked across into the lush green paradise of Arnhem Land. I wished we could keep going and explore over in Arnhem Land but it would have been a big undertaking with Annie so we will save it for when she is older.
Kakadu is managed really well and if you have the interest and time it is possible to learn a huge amount about the environment and the indigenous culture. Talks, walks and slideshows are conducted by really intelligent rangers at all the major attractions in the park. We sat and listened to one talk about indigenous laws regarding family and the strict relationship practices that are enforced to prevent inbreeding. It was fascinating to learn that some people have 'avoidance relationships' particularly of they are related by blood and of the opposite sex. This means they can't interact unless someone else is present and often they have to interact using aggressive and loud tone (as if they are yelling). It was very interesting and provided some explanation for the yelling we had experienced in some communities.
The next morning we took a cultural tour up the East Alligator River starting at Cahills Crossing. The company is owned and operated by local indigenous people who provided us with an insight into traditional medicine and food. It was also a crocodile tour... so so so many huge saltwater crocodiles. I think we saw about 30 and we only travelled about 2 km up the river. It was a bit frightening. Cahills crossing is 95 km inland and the river is still tidal at this point!
That afternoon we headed back to Cooinda and the lush facilities and beautiful pool. The next day we went out to Twin falls and Jim Jim falls. The track to twin falls was appalling and involved a decent river crossing. It was nice to be with Mum and Dad for the first major river crossing. Mick did a brilliant job getting us through safely and without car damage. To get to twin falls we caught a small boat upstream and then walked (more like scrambled) along boulders and cliff edges to get to the falls. The falls were spectacular but we couldn't swim so after making a few sandcastles and taking some snaps we headed back along the track. Mum lead the way closely followed by Dad. We were negotiating with Annie to get into the backpack so were some distance back. All of a sudden we heard dad yelling. A 60 yo German man had fallen about two meters off a precarious ledge onto rocks below. Mum was first on the scene and held a tissue to his wounded head whilst his friends scrambled back to him. As his friends lifted him off the rocks he went into shock which frightened mum bc she thought he was having a heart attack. By the time we got there his head was bleeding badly and he seemed a bit disoriented and in shock. Dad had left to radio for help (don't think dad knew he could walk so fast). His friends were all supporting him and putting pressure on his head wound. As there was nothing more we could do we kept going. Poor mum was shaking from the adrenaline and was very nervous on the walk out so we helped her negotiate the rock hoping. After a good dose of rescue remedy and a bit of food we were all feeling much better.
We headed off to Jim Jim falls with two crazy German bike tourers in our car - they had hitched a ride in and we were giving them a ride out. Again the trek into Jim Jim was serious rock scrambling and the 1km took a lot longer than expected. At the end of the trek we were rewarded with a beautifully refreshing swim. By the time we returned back to the campground we were all pretty exhausted. I ran into the injured mans friend and asked how he was. They were just checking out and about to drive him to Darwin as the Jabiru hospital didn't have xray facilities... they were pretty philosophical and realised it could have been a lot worse.
Walking back to the tent I spotted a little brunette boy poking his head out the window of his pop top van saying hellooooo. Sure enough it was Lauchie who was very excited to see Annie's mum as that meant Annie was also nearby.
Mick and I hadn't really taken advantage of Mum and dad as baby sitters on the trip. Partly because they were keen to do everything we wanted and partly because Annie was also keen to do everything we wanted. I was busting to do a decent bushwalk. So at Nourlangie rock (another beautiful rock art gallery) we went on a lovely 12 km walk. It was just heaven to be out in the bush just the two of us. The landscape was enchanting and it was good to be walking. It's the thing I miss most since becoming a mum. Most people miss going out for dinner, drinks, movies etc, I miss bushwalking.
Kakadu is massive and is the only park in the WORLD that protects the entire catchment of a river system (South Alligator River). The park covers an area of 20,000 square kilometres and supports huge numbers of plants, animals, insects, birds (1/3 of Australia's bird species), reptiles, fish and plants. Driving along the main roads of the park you wouldn't be that impressed. To most people it looks like rough scrubby woodland. Beyond the woodlands though are wetlands, river systems, gorges, waterfalls, and amazing rock formations. The park is also essentially a living museum documenting aboriginal life from 50,000 years ago right through to European occupation, to now. Its awesome, I loved it. Yet we met heaps of people who were disappointed by Kakadu. I suspect they didn't allow enough time for all the different places (we were there for 8 nights in total) and loved it.
We left Cooinda , and Lauchie, (after 3 nights there) and headed to Gunlom Falls. A rough road into the falls meant that fewer people would be camping there. We set up in the campground next to the waterhole and went straight down for a swim. It was a lovely huge swimming hole at the base of an impressive waterfall. Most of the falls are starting to dry up by this time of the season however, the record wet this year meant that there was more water around than would usually be there.
The next day we clambered up a steep hill to reach the top of the falls. Here we were greeted by crystal clear swimming holes, a natural infinity pool (check out the pics) and views across the woodlands. It was paradise and we didn't want to leave. A few hours of bathing and relaxing on the warm rocks and we thought we had better go back down. Annie fell asleep in the backpack as we clambered down the rocks.
We left Kakadu the next day and headed for Edith falls where we had a quick dip and pushed onto Katherine. We had planned to stay at Edith falls but after 5 nights without being connected to power the freezer was starting to defrost so we thought we needed a caravan park (and power) for the night. We spent our last night with Mum and dad and celebrated with a delicious feed of Barramundi that dad had caught on the Daly River. After a teary farewell they headed east... And we headed west...