We spent two calendar days on airplanes, and in airports, traveling to Darwin, Australia, from Seattle. Coming from our rainy, windy winter, we were embraced by the humid hot air (36 C, about 95 F) the minute we stepped off the plane in the Top End.
Since we were keen to see the country, even with jet leg, we got out of town early next morning to drive to Kakadu National Park. Kakadu is the largest park in the country and was the site for the film Crocodile Dundee. The park and the adjacent Arnhem Land Trust consist largely of unspoiled, sparsely populated wilderness, dotted with rock art sites and other vestiges of Aboriginal habitation and spiritual practice. Access to remote areas is carefully limited. The 160-mile drive out the Kakadu Highway took us past vast grasslands with giant termite mounds (photo, Termite Mound), eucalyptus forests, and sleepy wetlands. November marks the buildup to the wet season, and the low tourist season, but the real monsoon doesn't start until early February. We stopped to take a short hike to the Bird Billabong (photo, Bird Billabong) on the Mary River Wetland. Along the trail we saw a big kangaroo jumping away from us, disappearing into the woods. Further up the highway, we saw a water buffalo and a big crane, or maybe an ibis, standing next to each other. After stopping briefly at park headquarters and in the little town of Jabiru, we headed up towards the northeast corner of the park. We spent a couple of hours touring the Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk, which features sandstone rock (photo, Ancient Home) formations created from sandy sediments in an ancient lake 1.5 billion years ago. Sandstone fig trees climb some of the rocks, their roots searching out the cool moist crevices, giving the trees a strong hold on the rocks. The walk took us past layered sandstones (photo, Sandstone Stacks), cool caves, and a monsoon forest corridor.
We decided to stay near Ubirr at the very far end of the park next to East Alligator River, where there is an army-camp type hostel and a general store, the latter closed during low season. The ranger at park headquarters told us the Ubirr hostel was closed, but we called the place anyway and got hold of the innkeeper, Ted, who doubles as a part-time park ranger. He told us he would be tending the rock galleries from 2pm until sunset, after which he would be in charge of the hostel. Indeed we met him at his station, on our way to admire the beautiful and mysterious rock paintings (photo, Vengeance), including one of the now extinct Tasmanian Tiger (photo, Tasmanian Tiger Painting). Just before sunset the sky opened up and released a torrent of pouring rain and brilliant lightning. We hurried back down to the hostel before Ted closed up the park gate. There were two more tenants at the hostel, plus Ted, so the total population in Ubirr that night was five. Even though the rain ruined our sunset viewing plans, it lowered the temperature by a good 10 degrees so we could sleep nicely even in the non-air-conditioned room, with big shiny green lizards crawling freely in and out. This place seems to be the end of civilization, since Ubirr is right on the border of the Arnhem Country, where some 3000 Aborigines live without "benefit" of sewage, electricity or running water, as much as they can like the way their people have been living for 40,000 years. Their traditional way of life does not involve ownership of anything. As nomads, they don't have permanent houses to live in or much in the way of personal belongings. Their traditional law requires each to share everything he acquires with his whole clan.
Our host Ted is a total hoot. He is well educated, widely traveled and full of adventurous sprits. He told us about a screenplay he is writing based on an episode from Australian history. He takes care of a wounded bandicoot in the neighborhood, who checks in every evening for some food. He found a strange red, skinny spider on a houseplant and was fascinated by it. We took a picture (photo, Spider) of it and promised to send him a copy. It was very fun to spend the evening chatting with him, no TV, no telephone, just a cool Australian sky dotted with bright stars.
We started for Nourlangie Rock early the next morning. Ted had told us to look for a Dingo (photo, Dingo) near the road on the way out, and indeed we spotted him, skinny as a fox, walking along the highway, hoping the drive-bys will throw some food. We also saw a little family of kangaroos apparently out foraging for their breakfast. At Nourlangie, we found the paintings at the Anbangbang Gallery (photo, Lightning Man and Friends) and Anbangbang Shelter vivid and colorful.
After the morning walk, we drove back to Darwin. We made the airport by noon and caught our flight to Alice Springs, arriving in time to climb up Anzac Hill to enjoy the sunset and a bird's eye view (photo, Alice Sunset) of the city and The Gap to the south behind. Alice Springs styles itself the capital of the Outback, and it manages to be a nice, pedestrian-friendly town with a number of excellent Aborigine art galleries. We shopped at the local Bi-Lo Supermarket for snacks, and set out on the 300-mile drive to Uluru early Saturday morning.
We thought the landscape surprisingly green along the highway to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Ayers Rock Resort. Perhaps the Red Centre is having an unusually wet summer this year. The green bushes and desert pines contrast vividly (photo, Red Centre Dunes) with the red soil and blue sky. We had expected more an unrelenting dusty brown landscape like the one the dominates the Mad Max movies. Along the way we saw wild camels grazing among the dunes, goannas and other lizards patrolling the highway, and various kinds of birds everywhere. We also caught a view of Mt. Conner (photo, Mt. Conner), which is sometimes mistaken for Ayers Rock. Uluru (Ayers Rock) (photo, Uluru) overwhelms everybody approaching with its textures, colors and sheer elemental presence. The monolith rises dramatically from the surrounding land to 1100 feet. After visiting the park cultural center, we decided not to climb the rock, though it is allowed by the park. The traditional owners of the land, the native Anangu, consider The Climb to have spiritual significance, representing the path of the ancestral Mala men upon their arrival at Uluru. The Anangu prefer visitors not to climb Uluru. Instead, we took 6 mile walk around the base. Along the trail we met a friendly local Aborigine man walking up the road with his family and three dogs. He asked us if we enjoyed the rock and the springs, and whether we knew about the Kangaroo Dreaming represented by a big gash in the stone just above us. By the end of the walk, we arrived at Mutitjulu, a secluded pool (photo, Mutitjulu Water Hole), beneath the scene of epic ancestral clashes marked by gashes in the rock. We felt so refreshed, cooled and full of peaceful joy. Uluru at sunset is utterly beautiful (photo, Uluru Sunset).
We stayed at Outback Pioneer Hotel at Ayers Rock Resort; there was a BBQ dinner served at the hotel restaurant and a resident artist entertaining the guests. Sunday morning we drove out to Kata Tjuta (Many Heads) (photo, Kata Tjuta) which is perhaps less famous but equally impressive as Uluru. This formation may have once been a single rock 10 times the size of Uluru, but has been carved by eons of weathering into 36 monstrous domes. Tourist access to the area is limited to just two walks. We took the longer Valley of the Winds Walk, a 5-mile loop trail, which affords views of the Kata Tjuta interior. Bush-walking and camping permits to Uluru, Kata Tjuta, along with the Arnhem Country are extremely hard to get. We heard there are tour companies offering these tours by charging $300-450 USD per person per day. We encountered less than 40 people all together during our two walks, which is a real treat. In busy season, they say it's hard to move along the path there's such a crowd of people. We are very happy to be able to enjoy both places in relative solitude.
Back to Alice Springs again, we drove north to one of the small outback towns to seek authentic art at a local price instead of the gallery price for tourists. Sixty miles north of the Tropic of Capricorn, we found a roadhouse doubling as general store, gas station, restaurant/deli and possibly a few beds in the back for overnight guests. Above the soda cooler we saw an offer for a humorous if bizarre funeral package: Coffin $400, save $80 by digging your own grave. The place offers a few dot painting done by the neighboring Aborigines, apparently we found their stock somewhat depleted by the Christmas rush. We took away a colorful representation of Seven Sisters preparing bush tucker.
The time zone in Northern Territory has a one and half hour time difference from Sydney, which we did not know, having assumed a one-hour difference. So our first five days in Australia, we lived a half-hour off from everybody. We laughed at the clock on our rental cars because they weren't accurate (by exactly half hour). The day we left for Cairns, we discovered our error at the airport. Luckily we did not miss our flight.
Cairns is so commercial compared to NT it is hard to get used to it after a week in the outback. We browsed the lively and crowded night market by the waterfront. We talked to a didgeridoo shopkeeper who turned out to know Richard's long ago didgeridoo teacher, Charlie McMahon, who is now a legendary didgeridoo player and band leader in Australia. We bought four of Charlie's CDs.
We fled Cairns first thing Christmas morning, and headed to Port Douglas, a resort town in northern Queensland. We continued our drive north toward Cape Tribulation, but had to turn around at the Daintree River. Due to the holiday the river ferry was closed from noon until 3pm. We spent our afternoon hiking up the Mossman Gorge in a very pretty jungle river country with lots of loud insects and varied birds calls going on all around. Lots of local people were celebrating the holiday with picnics and swimming in the cool creek. We completed the afternoon's driving tour by cruising up through Marabee and the pretty little town of Kuranda.
9:30 am on Boxing Day, we boarded the fancy Quicksilver Cruise to go out to the Great Barrier Reef's outer Agincourt Reef. There we took an excursion tour with a dozen other people on a small boat out from the giant cruise ship. Armed with snorkels, goggles, and wet suits (first time for both of us), we dived in and had the most amazing experience swimming and floating among the fabulous colors of the coral reef. The colors cannot be described in words but only be appreciated visually. The variety of tropical fish, their shape, size and color are so different from each other. The biologist leading the group picked up a sea cucumber from the bottom of the sea, the size of a liter coke bottle. The water was warm (28 C) and clear. We were in paradise.
Coming down from the sub-tropical north, we arrived at Brisbane. It is a nice city but traffic sure is confusing. Richard has been doing very well in terms of driving on the left with the manual transmission. The only problem is every time he goes for the turn signal, he ends up turning on the windshield wiper. In Brisbane, however, the road signs are somewhat inaccurate and self-contradictory. At one spot we circled a round-about two full circuits before figuring out where to turn out. The biggest attraction for us in Brisbane is the Lone Pine Sanctuary, the Australia's largest Koala sanctuary. Koalas (photo, Koala and another) remind us of pandas, in that they spend most of their time sleeping or resting. They are awfully cute, though not much active during the daytime. The reserve has many wallabies and kangaroos (photo, Kangaroo enjoying the shade) in an open paddock where we walk and sit around them. They eat from your hand and allow you to pet them. We also saw a Tasmanian Devil, fruit bats, several lizards, a sleeping spiny echidna, and lots of colorful birds. We have been hearing the bird songs all along but we finally met a few of them feather-to-face. Their colors are incredible. The S-shaped Brisbane River (photo, City Cat) dominates the city center. It was a lot of fun riding the City Cat Ferry along the river, where you get the best view of the city at the sunset.
We felt ready to be city people again by the time we arrived in Sydney. Due to this year's awful bushfires, the sky was thick with smoke and the sun was blood red at sunset. We walked from our hotel in Darling Harbor to the Rocks District, where we saw both the Opera House (photo, Opera House) and Sydney Harbour Bridge (photo, Coat Hanger). We dined at Doyle's on the pier and watched the moon come out in the color of an orange. We spent most of the next day riding the ferry from Darling Harbor to Circular Quay to Manly, a trendy resort suburb on North Shore. Like in Brisbane, the best views of the Sydney skyline are enjoyed from the ferries. We walked through the Botanic Gardens (photo, Sydney Botanic Gardens) and took in the Museum of Contemporary Art. Darling Harbor is vibrant after dark. We walked around and enjoyed a cute laser light show called Millennium Bugs, projected above the harbor onto a spray of water, along with perhaps a thousand locals and tourists. Just down the street in Chinatown, we tried the best abalone in Sydney's BBQ King Chinese Restaurant.
We drove out of Sydney on Dec. 30 in heavy smoke (photo, Hard Driving and more smoke) through the Blue Mountains toward Canberra. Our hearts went out to the all the people and wild animals living in the area. The smoke finally thinned out as we approached Canberra, the capital of the country and a lovely planned city. We toured both the old and new Parliament Houses (photo, New Parliament House), with their galleries and some political cartoon exhibits, which gave us a crash course in Australia's contemporary history. Canberra boasts a wonderful National Gallery, which has a great collection of native art, including a stunning display of Arnhemland ceremonial caskets (photo, National Gallery).
The drive from Canberra to Lakes Entrance along the southeast coast was pretty, though we ended up driving until quite late. Next morning we were able to enjoy the lazy sea resort atmosphere around the town, which is mostly a strip of resorts, hotels, campgrounds, and condos. It is said to be a surfers' paradise.
Finally we approached Melbourne, Victoria's rolling hillsides remind us of Washington state, with lots of trees, ranchland, sheep, cattle, horses. There are numerous creeks, little rivers and ponds. Our friends met us at the auto rental office where we returned our car. We haven't seen each other for 15 years, so we immediately set about catching up. Since it was New Year's Eve, our friends treated us in a fancy restaurant in downtown Melbourne's newly developed South Bank casino complex, overlooking the Yarra River. It was almost midnight after dinner and we enjoyed a fabulous fireworks show from the balcony (photo, New Years Fireworks).
On New Year's Day, our friends took us to the Shrine of Remembrance, the Royal Botanic Gardens (photo, Melbourne Botanical Gardens) and a trendy French Cafe for lunch. We drove to Philip Island, about 2 hours south, where we watched the Penguin Parade. Fairy penguins are the smallest of penguins and only exist in southern Australia. They emerge from the sea right after sunset and line themselves up in the groups of 6-12 to scurry across the beach to reach their burrows. Next to the boardwalk, they can be seen marching in a single file, losing a member every 30 feet, when a burrow is reached. Since this is a must-see sight in Melbourne, our friends were well-used to taking their visitors here. They joked that the penguins know them by name. December is the penguins' breeding season, so we saw a few chicks (photo, Hungry Penguin Chick) waiting impatiently at the entrance of their burrow for their parents to come back from the sea with dinner.
Our last day in Australia we visited downtown Melbourne's 52-story Rialto Tower. From the observation deck, the panoramic view (photo, Yarra River) was impressive. Melbourne is perhaps the most culturally diverse Australian city, it's population including a Greek community second only to the one in Athens. From the tower, the city seems not so spread out as Seattle, though it is a bigger city for sure. On our 20-hour flight home, we somewhat dread returning to rainy, cold Seattle. We are glad our trip was so much fun. Hopefully it will not be long before our skin can once again be tanned by the Australian sunshine, and our hearts warmed by the friendly Australian people.