A 'PROPER' WINTER

July 14, 2015

The town of Katherine has real charm. It has changed enormously since the days when an 18 year old Julian camped under the bridge at the end of the main street, cooking fresh catfish from the river over an open fire while hitch-hiking to Tennant Creek. Realising that times have changed when it comes to camping in the main street (and hitch-hiking for that matter) we settled for coffee and fresh rations at the Finch Cafe, then headed up the road to camp at Bitter Springs near Mataranka for the night. This was the first of many campgrounds beside crocodile-infested waters but we bravely erected our tents anyway and woke the next day to find we had all escaped unscathed.

The road is ever-changing and we were surprised by the dramatic transition of vegetation between Tennant Creek and Mataranka.The landscape very quickly morphed from the orange and yellow of the dry, arid desert to the lush subtropical greens of palms, vines and waterholes. So beautiful to see tropical plants and warm weather, albeit with the first real sign of mozzies.

 

Equally surprising but very welcome was the sudden change to warmer weather.  It was still winter; though not as we’d known it in Canberra. 

 

By the time we reached Kakadu we had finally thawed out. Cate and the kids were by this time also due for their last rabies vaccination in preparation for the rabid bats of Spain. We had been painstakingly carting the precious cargo of 3 inoculations in our car fridge since we left Canberra, meticulously ensuring that the temperature never strayed outside the required 3-8 degrees Celsius. As a former paramedic, Julian was prepared to give the shots, much to the kids' trepidation. How happy were the kids then, when as luck would have it, while in search of ice cream, we happened to park outside the Jabiru Community Health Centre. Could it be that easy? We meandered in to the reception counter to enquire and 20 minutes later, all three shots were done and dusted, thanks to nurse Erica (who interestingly grew up in Woolgoolga, NSW of all places, 5 minutes from where Cate’s parents live). A friendly and relaxed rural healthcare setting. And how fantastic to finally have space in the fridge for even more important cargo such as chocolate. The kids enjoyed the ice creams that followed but seemed especially grateful not to have Julian inflict/practise his patented painless injection technique upon them. 

We were by then becoming quite the experts at setting up and packing away our camp, with individual activities being progressively replaced by teamwork. Our fridge and camp kitchen also makes life easy and Cate has been cooking amazing curries with fresh ingredients most nights. Who says camping needs to involve roughing it? 

Finally it was warm enough to camp without the tent fly. Sensational to fall asleep watching the stars at Merl campsite and many others.

The dry season ‘winter’ in the Territory creates warm days, cool nights and perfect camping weather. 

Kakadu is truly beautiful. We hiked waterfalls, gorges, plunge pools and rock art trails, each one seeming more stunning and awe-inspiring than the last.

 Ubirr Rock in the north was a highlight with spectacular views across the wetlands, that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Crocodile Dundee.

We didn’t have time to visit Arnhem Land, as much as we would’ve loved to, and you need a permit in any case. This is the glimpse we saw at the East Alligator River crossing but we’ll be back with more time and a permit at our first opportunity. 

 We also paid what seemed like an outrageous $100 per person for a two-hour sunset cruise of the Kakadu wetlands on South Alligator River, but it subsequently turned out to be great value and a highlight of the trip to that point. 

 

 

 

Scenery was spectacular and the birds and saltwater crocodiles were plentiful. We saw so many salties in fact, that by the end of the cruise they might as well have been just oversized lizards for all the attention they ended up getting.

The German skipper of the boat seemed very knowledgeable and friendly but we were left wondering if he was perhaps illiterate. Every 5 minutes or so, he would be on the public address system to say “please keep your arms and torsos inside the boat as I don’t want to have to fill out the paperwork!”. 

Also saw plenty of bird life including Brolgas, Jabirus and Sea Eagles. It was amazing to see disproportionately tall Jabiru sillhouettes perched on top of the distant trees, like someone's cocktail decorations.

 Mother nature really turned it on for us again that evening with a stunning but surprisingly brief Kakadu sunset.

When we got into the boat, the sunlight was sizzling and we were grateful for our sunglasses, hats and long sleeves. In what seemed like a matter of minutes, the light went from searing white to deep rust and crimson, then finally disappeared beyond the horizon with a splendour of burning sky.

 

At one point the water looked like rippling lava, the colours were so intense. All across the Top End, sunsets have been consistently spectacular and have driven our end of day schedule to find a suitable viewing location.

 

The next day we checked out the local art galleries. Some of the art is pretty good, but not the sort of thing you could take home with you.

With paintings up to 20,000 years old, this is one of the longest historical records of any group of people in the world. Much of the art we see now is actually painted over the top of previous paintings.  

This piece for example was only a thousand or so years old apparently, being a relatively recent renovation to someone’s home. 

There are some very cool portraits but we’re sincerely hoping that they are not accurate representations. 

We also couldn’t resist taking a detour to take a look at the contentious Jabiluka uranium mine before making our way to Darwin.

Darwin 

Using AirBNB for the very first time, we spent 5 relaxing days in a serviced, 2-bedroom apartment in Cullen Bay in Darwin, a pleasant interlude from the mosquitos and daily relocations. As well as running water, the apartment also came with Darwin's amazing views.

Darwin is definitely a place we could live. Highlights included 2 visits to the fabulous Mindil Beach Night Markets, Barramundi dinners, sunsets every night on the beach and pleasant hours in a cafe on the turquoise waterfront where we finally managed to get on top of our personal admin and create the bones of our blog.  It was a big relief to get our never-ending list of things to do finally under control.  

Sunsets from the Sailing Club are simply spectacular and seem to get better and better as you watch them morph into the starry night sky.

Jupiter and Venus hovered in the evening skies beside the crescent moon, their reflections shimmering on the tips of the midnight-blue waves.

The freshly caught Barramundi dinners also quickly gained our attention though, and very nearly took over as the main attraction.

 

From Darwin we headed South, stopping at lunchtime at the same excellent cafe in Katherine that we’d discovered on the way through. (The Finch Cafe for those of you who are passing through and appreciate good coffee, panini and a shady courtyard.) The road then led us East to the Victoria River Roadhouse for the night in the middle of the beautiful (and happily overlooked) Gregory National Park just before the WA border.

 

Despite being right beside Highway One, where the road trains are the biggest in the world, it was surprisingly quiet. In this part of the world few people willingly drive at night thanks to the unfenced roads and wandering cattle.

 

We then camped for two nights in the Bungle Bungle Ranges which are absolutely stunning and a definite highlight.

The road into Purnululu National Park is described as being for ‘high-clearance 4WD’ vehicles only.

 

Aside from a couple of thigh-high water crossings that serve to cool the hard-working shock absorbers, it is mostly the corrugations and tight bends that turn the 50km road into a 2 hour journey.

 

The Landcruiser chewed the corrugations up and spat them out effortlessly. It definitely reaffirmed the worth of our investment in upgrading to Koni shock absorbers. Either way, it is well worth the lengthy drive into this dry but spectacular Bungle Bungles. The World Heritage status of this unique region was surprisingly only negotiated as recently as 2003.   

By contrast, we had just spent the previous two nights at Lake Argyle. The lake is a surprisingly vast freshwater reservoir, nestled amongst a rugged billion year old landscape. After the central desert area, we hadn’t expected to find such a lush, water-rich area. With a usual storage volume of 6 million megalitres it is the largest reservoir in Australia and can potentially hold 35 million megalitres of water which would cover a surface area of 2,000 square kilometres. In short, it’s massive. It’s also even more beautiful than we had heard.  Like most places on this trip, it left us wishing we had more time - and a helicopter!  We consoled ourselves with the promise of many more and much longer visits to the Kimberley. 

Four weeks after leaving our hectic Canberran life, we are gradually unwinding. We’re in Kununurra today. It’s the mid-point of our eight week Australia trip and we are pausing in a cafe where Cate and the kids are completing online PADI Open Water Diver Theory exams. Next month in Exmouth they will do the underwater component of the training and we will dive the spectacular Ningaloo Reef together. It’s getting late in the season but with luck we’ll also snorkel with the world’s largest fish. Whale Sharks can be longer than a bus but are harmless (unless you happen to be macroalgae, plankton or krill). 

 

Oh, and of the many highlights, the one we are most grateful for?  It’s 28 degrees Celcius by day and 18 overnight up here. With commiserations to our friends in the south, we’re finally enjoying ‘a proper winter'.

 

 

 

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