Friday, 29 April 2016


After all my travel, money was getting tight and I was fortunate to fall into employment almost immediately. Right place, right time. I became a waiter at a seafood restaurant called The Jetty. It was a popular eatery in the city, partly because of its great value buffet and partly because of its location. The alfresco dining area was a deck that sat over the water with views of Darwin harbour and out to the Timor Sea. On a typical warm evening, it made the ideal place to enjoy a meal while watching storm clouds building and lightening flashing on the horizon.

Outdoor deck of The Jetty restaurant

Ideal for the restaurant patrons anyway. For us, it was usually bloody hard work especially if it was a Friday or Saturday night. Diners helped themselves to food from the buffet while we were flat out bringing them drinks and clearing tables. All I could think in those busiest moments was that at least I wasn’t slaving away in the kitchen washing dishes! In some small way, at I’d managed to move up in the world and I have to say that the meal we were given each night was better than Gilligan’s!

So with evening employment organised, I still had plenty of time during the day to explore the city and its surrounds. The central point of Darwin is the pedestrian Smith St Mall from where it’s a relatively short walk to the waterfront precinct. Aside from coming down here late afternoon each day for work, it was also I good place for fishing and catching sea breezes. A good walk that I always enjoyed was the path through Bicentennial Park that follows the foreshore to a point called Doctors Gully.

Rebuilt church with original facade

A highlight of Darwin is the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery. These galleries include a superbly presented collection of aboriginal art, including paintings from nearby Arnhem Land and carvings from the Tiwi Islands. Cyclone Tracy ripped through the city in 1974 and an entire room is devoted to graphically illustrating the devastation of that day. On my visit I got a photo of Sweetheart: a 5 metre long, 780kg salt water crocodile that attacked fishing dinghies on the Finniss River.

My home away from home was a wonderful hostel called the Wilderness Lodge. I loved my time there because the staff quickly became my friends and it wasn’t long before I joined them. My job in the morning was to clean the place in return for my weekly accommodation. There were a few others who were using it as their home while working in Darwin so we were given a room of our own. It always seemed to be in a shambles but it was always somewhere to relax and have a few laughs.

Wilderness Lodge hostel

A perk of working at the hostel was that I could borrow a bike whenever I needed it. Darwin is great for cycling and a series of bike tracks covers much of the city. Several times I did a sunset ride out to East Point Reserve spit to watch wallabies emerging to feed and the sun sinking into Fannie Bay. This ride goes past Mindil Beach which has an excellent night market during the dry season. Aside from the stalls selling all kinds of food, art, craft and clothing, I loved the rhythmic sounds of bands combining the traditional didgeridoo with contemporary music.

Also on the way to East Point is the old Fannie Bay Gaol. Like Melbourne’s old gaol, it is a grim but interesting insight into nearly 100 years of penal history. I took time to visit one weekend and learned about the prisoners that were held and the crimes they had committed to be there. Also on view are the gallows where two of them were hung in 1952. Later in the day I continued in a slightly different direction to an area called Nightcliff and Casuarina Beach. While Darwin is no beach paradise, the attraction of this particular stretch of sand is that it’s an official nude beach.

Mindil Beach night markets

One day between my two jobs I took a bike 5km out to the Charles Darwin National Park. This park offers a network of paths that explore wetlands, woodlands and some WWII bunkers. (There are some other intriguing reminders of WWII in Darwin including oil storage tunnels, gun emplacements and the military museum that commemorates Australia’s only wartime attack.) From the park lookout there is a sweeping view over the mangroves and across Frances Bay to the skyline of the city.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Litchfield National Park

About 140km southwest of Darwin is the delightful Litchfield National Park which offered a very enjoyable couple of days.  Although the park is smaller than Kakadu, Lichfield has similar scenery and is actually rated better by many locals. Because of its smaller size, most commercial tours to Litchfield are only for a day so camping is easy.  Also, there are no salt water crocodiles and you can swim virtually everywhere.  It was hot and in two days I had eight very refreshing swims. Litchfield-do; Kaka-don’t!

Refreshing waters of  Buley Rockhole

Again, without a 4WD our access to a few places was restricted but we still had plenty to enjoy on our little tour.   The first place we went was the magnetic termite mounds.  These were very interesting and the area looked similar to a graveyard.  The mounds were grey and resembled headstones scattered out in front of us.  The termites cleverly create these mounds so the broad faces are east and west.  That way the sun warms the interior and keeps it at the optimum temperature for the colony living inside.

Cathedral termite mound

There were also a few of the huge cathedral termite mounds.  These are quite different in appearance and colour.  They are light brown and grow to over five metres in height.  An amazing phenomenon when you remember the size of a tiny termite.  True to their name, the shape could be described as a rather wobbly looking cathedral spire.

After that, we visited three waterfalls - Florence, Wangi and Tolmer.  We camped at Wangi Falls with the campground being similar to those in Kakadu.  The falls had plenty of water because they are spring fed.  Florence has a couple of falls entering the picturesque and refreshing plunge pool below.  Wangi has two also but one didn't have much water.  The pretty Tolmer Falls was the only place we couldn't swim due to the fragile nature of the environment but there were some deep rock-pools not far away where we swam instead.

Florence Falls

Compared to Kakadu there weren't many hiking tracks in Litchfield Park.  I did a few short ones no more than a couple of kilometres.  The best one went through an open area before coming back through a monsoon forest.  It was interesting to note the temperature and humidity readings in both areas.  It was 41C & 27% respectively in the open compared to 38C & 55% in the forest. Either way, I was happy we could swim!

I think the more time you spend in the national parks of the Northern Territory; the more you appreciate its scenic beauty and wildlife diversity. It has places that are sacred to the indigenous people but also rich in their culture and history. The unique climate offers a fascinating range of seasons and a huge variation in the appearance of the land. There's a vastness here that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated and I'm happy that I took the time to do it.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Kadadu National Park

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Darwin but I was excited to arrive. Having recently been in the southern extremes of Tasmania, I was now in the ‘Top End’ of the country. It’s here that I’d gain more interesting insights into the aboriginal culture and how it forms part of the enigmatic feel of the tropical Northern Territory. Although the wet season was approaching and the humidity was increasing, the next few months would be perhaps the most enjoyable of my entire Australian experience.

We only stayed a couple of nights in Darwin before hiring a car and heading into the wilderness again. This time we’d be backtracking south to Adelaide River. The crocodile tours here make this is a popular destination but we were set to explore the remarkable landscapes and Aboriginal history of the Kadadu and Lichfield national parks…

A huge cathedral termite mound

Kadadu National Park is a huge area with a geographical size larger than Israel. It’s more than just a national park – it’s an educational and cultural adventure set amid extraordinary natural beauty. We had four days to see and experience as much as we could. Unfortunately we couldn't get to the scenic highlights of Jim Jim and Twin Falls without a 4WD but being so late in the dry season, the falls have fallen so to speak.  There is water all year but they are a lot more spectacular after the wet season in March or April.

There were other parts of the park which weren't accessible either but we still had plenty to see and do.  From Darwin, it's a 300km drive into Jabiru, which is town in the centre of the park. On the way we stopped at Mamukala to watch thousands of magpie geese feeding on the floodplain. Jabiru is Kakadu’s major service centre and even has a gold course but it exists mainly because of the nearby uranium mine. It’s possible to take a tour of the mine but we had to find a suitable place to camp.

Ancient Aboriginal rock art

We spent that night at a place called Ubirr which has a nice walk and some fascinating Aboriginal rock art.  It was incredible to realise that this work was done over 20,000 years ago! A park ranger was starting a talk as we arrived at one of the most significant sites.  We then followed him up onto the huge rock outcrop where he gave another talk about the floodplains and surrounding country.  Enjoying views of Arnhem Land and watching the sunset up there was a magical experience.

Crossing the river to Arnhem Land

The campsites of Kakadu are dusty earth and dry leaves. However the facilities were good and during the dry season there are often slide show presentations given by park rangers.  In our three nights, we heard talks on the six seasons of Kakadu, buffalos in the park and crocodiles. The six seasons recognised by the local Aboriginal people create an annual cycle through the wet and dry times of the year.

The next day we explored an area called Nourlangie Rock.  I did a couple of walks here including one along the East Alligator River.  I was hoping to see a salt water crocodile but unfortunately I never did. The second walk went through some fascinating rock formations where layers of weathered sandstone have created all kinds of interesting outliers. The Anbangbang Shelter in this area was used as a shelter for thousands of years and features artwork that was repainted in the 1960’s.

Lovely views from Nourlangie Rock

Unfortunately the crocodiles in the park mean virtually no swimming anywhere. (Kakadu becomes Kakadon't!)  The only totally safe places to swim are the pools at Jabiru and Cooinda.  With daily temperatures of about 38C, we swam at Jabiru before going to the nearby Bowali Visitor Centre.   Cooinda is in an area called the Yellow Water and where we spent our third night.  It was a lovely camp site with good facilities and green grass.  After a refreshing swim, I went on a final unsuccessful quest to see a crocodile.

Hiking in nearly 40C heat

We decided to take a shortcut across an unsealed road on the way home.  Everything was fine until we got to a river ford with about a foot of sand in the bottom of it.  I thought about going through but not for too long.  It would have bellied for sure so we had to go all the way back and an extra 300km around the long way.  I hate it when that happens but better safe than sorry as they say!

Friday, 8 April 2016

Northern Territory Road Trip

Our travelling group was abbreviated to just three while we were in Alice Springs.  One was returning home to New Zealand and another couple were going south to Adelaide.  So together with the Irish girls Denise and Bridget, we took on another campervan relocation adventure. This time it was a 4WD with a tent on the roof that popped up. There was also another tent for the ground and all the camping equipment that we could ever need, including a fridge and cooker. 1,500km to be done in three and a half days.

Another vehicle, another destination

Our first night was 400km north at the Devils Marbles.  The 'campsite' was the dusty earth of the car park.  No green grass here but plenty of the large and incredibly annoying outback flies. The only relief was sunset when they’d disappear but be replaced by mosquitoes. Never mind the dingos and snakes that were probably lurking out there. Oh the joys of wilderness Australia! Still, the mighty sandstone boulders are more impressive at sunset so I was happy to be there for that.

It was a restless night. A breeze came up and we spent more time listening to the tent flapping than actually sleeping. Amid an onslaught of flies, we quickly dismantled camp and got on the road the next morning. We stopped in Tennant Creek for breakfast and decided to use the toilet a local campground.  This turned out to be a bad idea because when the manager found us he demanded that we pay $10 or else he’d call the police and have us arrested for trespassing.

Tennant Creek Caravan Park

After an argument we declined to pay and got back into our vehicle. I thought that was the end of the matter until I saw in the rear view mirror the manager’s car looming large behind us. He began to chase us around the streets until I realised that perhaps the heat and flies had really gotten to this guy! I pulled over near the police station and pushed some money through a window I was too afraid to fully open. After receiving the money, he ranted angrily at us before going into the police station to report us anyway!

We had to follow him in to sort things out before finally getting on our way again. The local officer told us before we left that he has wasted their time before and almost apologised for his erratic behaviour! All’s well that ends well as they say.

As we travelled north up the Stuart Highway, I noticed a sign indicating that we were about to cross 'Tomlinson Creek'. When I got out for a look I realised how hot it was outside.  Although it was only September the temperature must have been close to 40C. The poor creek had nothing flowing in it so I did my little bit to help. We were grateful to finally make camp that evening at a nice little place called Dunmarrar.  Here we had grass to camp on and there was even a swimming pool.

Tomlinson Creek

Not far north and a few kilometres off the highway is Daly Waters, population 25. This little dot on the map has an interesting history as an important staging post in the early days of aviation. Nowadays it is famous for its pub that just about everyone stops at. Its liquor licence dates back to 1893 making it the oldest pub in the Territory. Decorated with business cards, banknotes, bras and other memorabilia left by travellers, it made a great place to break the journey with a beer and a laugh.

Daly Waters pub

Our final night was spent at Katherine Gorge in the Nitmiluk National Park.  It's a beautiful area and I'd love to have spent another day there.  We arrived about 5pm so just had time to walk up the gorge, get a few photos and have a swim in the Katherine River.  While swimming alone in the middle of this river at dusk it suddenly occurred to me that crocodiles may be lurking in the dark waters.  I quickly retreated back to the safety of the river bank!

Our last day included a stop at the Edith Falls in a different part of the park. I did a petty 45 minute walk and had a quick swim.  We had to have the camper back by 3pm and when we got to Adelaide River I realised we had just 85 mins to drive 120km!  We were told that even one minute late would cost us $300! So, the last leg of the journey became a rather mad dash and I was grateful for the absence of a speed limit in the Northern Territory.

Sunset at Katherine Gorge

We drove into Darwin at 2.45pm but we still hadn’t made it. We had to refuel the vehicle like a race pit stop and then locate the rental car office without the aid of a GPS. As we drove in the gate I glanced at the clock on the dashboard that read 2.58pm. We’d made it! It probably wasn’t a great way to arrive in a city that is renowned for its relaxed vibe but we were there on time, in one piece and very happy.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Alice Springs

Nearly 150 years ago Alice Springs was merely a lonely telegraph station located on the Stuart Highway approximately halfway between Adelaide and Darwin. Until 1933, its name was actually Stuart but it was changed to avoid confusion with the town of Sturt in South Australia. Although it is still surrounded by red desert sand and rugged mountain ranges, it has developed from a frontier town into a modern regional centre. I’d always dreamed of coming here to not only explore the surrounding area but learn more about the Aboriginal culture. I loved my time here.

The sandy Todd River

The city is built around the Todd River but for most of the year it's just a huge bed of dry dusty sand that awaits the drought breaking rain. Beside the river is one of the most interesting places - the old telegraph station.  Along the Stuart Highway are various reminders of the telegraph line that once linked Adelaide to Darwin and then to England via a submarine cable.  The whole project was completed in 1872 and was an amazing feat for that era.  Alice Springs was a vital point in the line and the original station is now a museum.

Old Alice Springs Telegraph Station

I visited the Royal Flying Doctor museum and communication base.  The Flying Doctor was the vision of a man called John Flynn. In the 1930's he wanted to develop a 'mantle of safety' for people living in remote outback locations and recognised that the plane was the only genuine way to make this a reality. The first flight was actually made from Cloncurry in Queensland but Alice Springs is a very important location in the modern service.

It was interesting to see how it has developed from that first flight in a plane that had no radio communication and very limited medical supplies.  Thanks to technology and a lot of hard work, it's now an operation involving 45 aircraft flying from 23 bases around the country and employing more than 600 people in various capacities. Altogether, these dedicated health workers provide 24-hour emergency medical service to an area of about 1.25 million square kilometres.

Memorial to John Flynn

I enjoyed my visit to the Olive Pink Botanical Garden which was named after a prominent anthropologist. The gardens are a network of meandering trails that lead through a lovely display of plants and trees that grow in arid zones. It contains over 500 central Australian plant species including bush food and medicinal plants. At the end of the day I did the gentle climb up Meyers Hill to watch the sun set over the city. The other good city viewpoint is across the riverbed at the top of Anzac Hill.

On my final day I hired a bike and did the ride out to a place called Simpsons Gap in the MacDonnell Ranges National Park.  Most of the 25km is on a beautiful smooth cycle track through a harsh but very beautiful landscape. Simpsons Gap itself is where millions of years of erosion and weathering have created a gap in the quartz rock.  It was difficult to imagine how any erosion could possibly happen while I was standing on a bed of sand!  Still, it’s an area of stunning beauty I was lucky enough to see a few little rock wallabies while I was there.

Simpsons Gap 

Being September, we were fortunate to be in Alice Springs while the annual Desert Festival was on. It started with a street parade and free concert down beside the river.  For the next 12 days there were various events such as art/craft displays and workshops, concerts, story telling, dance and theatre etc. I could easily have stayed a bit longer but the road was calling my name again and this time we’d be heading north to Darwin.