Monthly Archives: May 2013

BANGGERRENG

I awoke with my ears still ringing from slapping at the mosquitoes during the night. I would have thought that  the immense buzzing would cease with the rising sun but apparently, when camped by a billabong, the sun means nothing but a light switch being turned on.

I stared at the netting on my tent. It was covered by hungry mosquitoes, like groupies rallying outside The Beatles hotel during their peak. I slipped into my jeans and long-sleeved shirt, donned the fly net, unzipped the tent and commando-rolled out into the cloudy morning.

There was no fooling the mozzies. They came at me while I brewed my coffee. I thought maybe if I headed to the water’s edge they’d leave me alone, thinking, ‘This guy’s crazy! There’s a dinosaur in them waters!’.P1020903

I stood at the top of the boat ramp, slapping at the flying insects when I saw bubbles explode at the surface of the water. And then a wake was created as something very large swam towards the boat ramp.

Not hanging around to find out what it was I headed back to my camp, inviting the Germans to sample my coffee. Skipping breakfast, I packed up the tent and jumped in the car – along with about 20 mozzies that decided to hitch a free ride.

 

Not on my watch. I unwound my window and as I navigated the dirt track, using my truck-drivers cap, I swiped at the persistent blood-sucking bastards. They’re worse than a relentless ex-girlfriend.

By the time I reached Warradjan Visitor’s Center I had dispatched most of my fury on the mozzies, which incidentally, almost had me crash into a tree. Indeed, mosquitoes can kill.

Warradjan means ‘pig-nosed turtle’ in the local indigenous language. The building itself was shaped like its namesake. I entered the display area that teaches a little bit about the culture of the local clans that still live in the area and are now responsible for the care-taking of the Kakadu National Park.

Traditional sounds of chants, rhythm sticks and didgeridoos played repeatedly over the speakers as I read about the Murumburr people who spoke Gun-djeihmi.

Aboriginal people call themselves ‘Bininj’ and non-Aboriginals are called ‘Balanda’. The three important languages of the region are Gagudju, Gun-djeihmi and Jawyon.

Jawyon is also the resting place of Bula, the creator of the land. It is regarded as ‘sick country’ due to it being the uranium deposits of the north. The people believe that if you enter Jawyon and disturb Bula great floods, fires and destructive earthquakes will erupt.

When the Australian Government began to mine the area for the sought-after uranium in the early 80s, they raised the debate on Aboriginal land rights and it was during that argument that Aboriginal rights and land ownership started to be returned to their rightful owners and the mining subsequently stopped.P1020930

In their story of Creation, the first people, called ‘Nayuhyunggi’ left marks on rocks – Gunbim – rock art – which can be viewed at Nourlangie. Some places are regarded  Andjamun – sacred and dangerous and can only be visited by senior men and women.

But throughout most of the Aboriginal clans around Australia the Rainbow Snake is the most popular story of creation, holding children in her belly as she went around the land, dispersing them in different locations and creating the seasonal cycles of animals and plants.

The rock art in Kakadu helped it achieve World Heritage status and is only one of 25 sites in the world that is regarded a cultural and natural site worth preserving.

Some local Aborigines are regarded in the highest respect as passing on ancestral stories and knowledge of hunting and gathering. People like Old Nym Djimogurr was regarded as a ‘Magic Man’ who possessed all the knowledge for all the ceremonial dances.

Nipper Kapi-ije held and shared his knowledge about the culture, boundaries of different clans and was one of the leaders raising the plight to get his people’s land back.

To maintain the preservation of Kakadu National Park, a lot of controlled ‘Gumak’ (fire) was used to spurce regrowth of vegetation and to clear the forests of sources for wild fires. This practice has been around for thousands of years, used by the locals to maintain their land during Wurrgeng – the cold wetter season – so that during the Gurrung – hot dry weather – wild fires wouldn’t destroy the land.

Banggerreng, meaning ‘knock ’em down storm’ (and my new favourite word) was refereed to the monsoon season – the wet season.

When the first European settlers arrived in the 19th century they brought with them alcohol and disease such as the common cold and influenza that killed thousands of Aborigines as they had never had to deal with it.

They also stole the land from the local indigenous populations, introduced water buffalo from Timor in 1820 (in the Cobourg Pennisula ) and later, in 1845, after abandoning their failed settlements, released 50 buffalo into the wild that bred and destroyed the environment (during the 70s, to control tuberculosis, the Australian Government reduced their numbers). The settlers almost shot the crocodiles to the verge of extinction. Aborigines were used to help in the hunting, skinning and salting of crocodile the hides before they were packed and shipped off to the European markets. They were payed in tobacco rations, clothing and food. No money was provided (may as well call it slavery).

There were 200 languages before the Europeans arrived. Now there remain maybe 50. It was Australia’s darkest period of its 200-year history including the displacement of children (The Stolen Generation) and forcing the conversion to Christianity by missions.

Today, a lot of Aborigines are still facing racism, high unemployment numbers, spend their day drinking to the verge of an inability to do anything (an act that their children witness and take on), have a lack of education and a lack of being involved in today’s modern society.

And with it being Reconciliation Week all around this great nation, Australia has so much to do to reconcile and fix the damage caused by the first settlers. Hopefully, one day we will all be able to come together properly as one nation (and not the Pauline Hanson kind).

Feeling a bit down from the destructive history, I headed on to the lookout point at Nourlangie. I saw that my fuel gauge was scratching the ’empty’ side of the tank.

With 20 liters of spare fuel in the can behind the driver’s seat (that had been keeping me on a steady high since Adelaide), I finally used it and filled up as I read the sign informing that the walking track around the billabong was closed.

There could only be two reasons – debris from recent floods or crocodiles – or both.

I headed up to the lookout view point on the sloping rock that overlooked the billabong and the rest of the national park, its majestic rock faces shadowing like a protective mother over the vast land.

Here I met Felicity, a young Aussie girl also traveling on her own. We chatted and I suggested that Gubara might have a swimming hole. I didn’t know for sure but a gut instinct told me that there was a high chance of one being there (and lately I was listening more and more to my gut).

She in turn recommended the rock art further down the road. We figured we’d catch up at Gubara as I headed down to see the rock art. Painted works that told stories from 5,000 years ago (although it is believed that Aborigines have been around for 50,000 years).

The last paintings were from 150 years ago showing ships and guns introduced by Europeans.

The sun was pounding and I was craving for a swim. I sped down down the red dirt track, sliding ever so slightly, feeling like I was in the Dakar Rally as I parked beside Felicity’s van, reading the sign – ‘Gubara Pool’. I yelped for joy, packed my backpack with water, mandarins and my loyal travel buddy, Animal, and practically ran – barefoot – the 3 K track to the pool.P1020941

I light-footed through tall grass, hoping that there weren’t any snakes that I might surprise (and in turn, they might surprise me), slapped flies off me and reached a rocky and wooded area. I followed the water pools to a small rock pool where a Frenchman and a German girl were chilling by the water and Felicity had just returned from exploring a little further up the creek.

Without hesitation I stripped to my bathers and jumped in the cool, clear waters, swimming about among fish that darted between the rocks.

I found a spot with sand and sat under water, a school of small fish surrounding me.

P1020949After splashing about for what felt like a few hours, I headed back with Felicity to the car park where we said our ‘goodbyes’ and drove off to Jabiru, the main town in the park, practically in the middle.

A small community with a petrol station, a supermarket, a pub, a Holiday Inn hotel shaped like a crocodile and two caravan parks. I pulled into the cheaper one, $13 to pitch a tent where I met Greg (American) and Lyn (Australian) and a German motorcyclist (whose name I didn’t catch).

 

We exchanged travel stories and again I found myself recommending Springvale Homestead in Katherine to both travelers.

I cooked a Middle Eastern dish called ‘Shakshuka’ and after a shower I headed over to the bar for a few well-deserved beers and to type away at the keyboard.

I headed to bed at 22:30 fighting off 2-3 mosquitoes, trying not to scratch at the 400 hundred bites I sustained at Jim Jim Billabong.

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ONCE A JOLLY SWAGMAN, NEVER BY A BILLABONG

You are the guitar man, jah?” said Marcus, implying that I mosey on over later with my six-string when the fire is lit.

“No worries,” I said.

I had camped next to Marcus and Vilma, a German couple, the previous night at Gunlom. The whole camp had heard me strum my guitar (I was surprised no one asked me to either burn it or stop playing) but I only bumped into them at the top of the Gunlom Waterfalls in the rock pools.

P1020867I had climbed the steep ascent after a breakfast of eggs and a salad. Rounding a boulder I almost fell back. My eyes had to be playing tricks on me.

Before me three separate rock pools with crystal-clear waters surrounded by red rock were laid out like a therapeutic spa. Sandy beaches lay at the foot of gum trees standing proud, watching over the visitors that came to swim.

Without hesitation I splashed between pools, clambered over rocks exploring one of the most astounding places I had ever set foot in. I conversed with the Germans about travels, the Middle East, Oktoberfest, life in general.

As we played about, Marcus suddenly noticed a Mertens Monitor (known as ‘Burrarr’ in the local indigenous language), a large black lizard about a meter in length, with small yellow dots all over its body, resembling a starry night sky. Its underbelly was a light, creamy colour. It lay on the edge of the rock pool basking in the sun.P1020879

Marcus and I climbed up to the higher rock pool where we we’re both taken aback by the gorge the water was carving its way through. A small, Jacuzzi-like pool just above the small waterfall beckoned me to sit in it.

I simply could not believe that I was here in this glorious part of the world, untouched (so it seemed) by the hand of destructive human. Clambering over a fallen tree trunk, I almost stepped on a dead black dung beetle, the size of a chicken’s egg.

As the sun climbed higher, I bid the German’s farewell. Kakadu was the size of a third of Tasmania, about 20,000 square kilometers. There was much too see and do. I drove up to Gungurul, a campsite and lookout point on the South Alligator River. I climbed the hill only to discover that the view was obscured by trees. I could just make out the green blanket of forest spread out over a red sheet of Outback earth. I walked the 250 meters to the South Alligator River, passing a bright yellow sign with large red letters that didn’t hold back in typical Aussie manner:

‘EXTREME DANGER VERY LARGE ESTUARINE (SALTWATER) CROCODILES INHABIT THESE WATERS’

Known as ‘Ginga’ in the local indigenous language, salty males can reach 5-7 meters (and sometimes more) while the females were slightly smaller at 3-4 meters.

I was the only person around which made everything more eerie and horror movie-esq. I walked as quietly as I could to the banks of the river – only to discover that it was all a dry sandy beach with tall gum trees standing at odd angles with huge chunks of debris collected at their base.

I was about to turn back when I noticed another embankment in the middle. I assumed that the other side would have water – and crocs. I threw off my sandals and crept up as stealthily as possible; feeling very vulnerable if there just happened to be a 5-meter dinosaur on the other side that might be catching some rays (I was also on the lookout for snakes and prehistoric-sized spiders).

I breathed slowly as I saw that the ankle-deep water was clear. I looked each way; staring at rocks for prolonged lengths of time until I was satisfied that it wasn’t one of nature’s highly tuned killing machines.

I headed back to the car and traveled onwards to Jim Jim Billabong, slowing down to watch a majestic chocolate-brown wild Brumby cross the road. Further on, a couple of wild donkeys crossed the highway.

Jim Jim Billabong is a $5 camp site with a compost toilet block, concrete picnic tables and fire pits. I parked at the furthest table from the watering hole, donned my fly net and began to collect firewood for the night. I lingered by the water, watching it with the intensity of a predator tracking its prey, only that I was the prey.

The billabong is surrounded by thick trees, the only opening being the boat ramp. I stood far enough from the edge of the water to feel just a little bit safe. I was getting a strange feeling that I was being watched so I backed off and went to pitch my tent.

A French family pulled up in a hired Landcruiser. We exchanged ‘bonjours’ and just as I finished cooking a tuna pasta dish surrounded by green tree ants, the Germans rolled up.

As the sun began to set . I began to feel the mosquitoes bite so I changed to jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and added socks to go with my sandals. My only exposed parts were my hands as I kept the fly net on. The Germans began to prep their own dinner as I brought over the wood I had collected and my guitar.

I lit the fire while a constant buzzing sound grew louder as the sun disappeared and I realised that camping by a billabong on a humid night was about as smart an idea as having Tony Abbott run for Prime Minister.

I was sweating due to the humidity (dry season my ass), trying to play guitar while slapping away at the mozzies that had the special ability to pierce through jeans and long-sleeved shirts.

“Jesus Christ!” I yelled out, trying to complete a whole song without stopping to slap at an insect.

The buzzing grew louder and pretty soon all we could hear was the roaring fire and the buzzing of  mini-Messerschmits.

The Germans shared their white wine while I tried desperately to provide some musical entertainment. I managed to suffer through two hours of bites before giving up.

“I’ll see you guys in the morning,” I said. “I’ll make coffee,” I promised and devised a strategy to leap into my tent without getting the mosquitoes to follow. I somehow managed to give them the slip and zipped up the netting in lightning speed.

I lay down to try and sleep but the constant buzzing drone of a jazillion mosquitoes kept me up. I may as well be sleeping under an engine of a jet plane going through the wind tunnel test. I seriously thought that the mozzies would pick up my tent and drop me in the middle of the billabong.

And if that wasn’t enough, weird animal noises were penetrating the night. Creatures kept crashing into my tent with high-pierced squawks, as though something were killing it and dragging it off to feed its family.

The howling of dingos nearby did not add to the nightmarish soundtrack. All I could do was hope that none of the mosquitoes would find a way in, like semen trying to fertilise an egg. The ones that did penetrate through were dealt with formidably.

That night I was not a jolly swagman camped by a billabong. Whoever wrote the words to ‘Waltzing Matilda’ forgot to mention that the mosquitoes will, like an investment bank, suck you dry.

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KAKADU-KAKADON’T

P1020784I was strumming Led Zeppelin’s epos, Stairway to Heaven, on my guitar as I casually looked up at the moonless starry sky. It was just past 19:00 and the Milky Way was as clear as a red wine stain on a white rug. I knew it would be a good day which started out by waking up at 07:00, the sun not yet warm enough to scare off the morning chill. As I brewed my Turkish-Lebanese coffee blend in the communal kitchen, I looked over to the banks of the lagoon.

Grumpy was nowhere to be seen.

 

Chatted with an Australian fisherman over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and tomato sandwiches, he gave me the title to the piece.

“Kakadu, kakadon’t,” he said when I told him of my travel outline.

I left Springvale Homestead feeling springy, stopping at the now open Trash ‘n’ Treasure shop which stocked the machine head I needed for the guitar which I fixed at the counter and bought a new set of strings just in case.

On the road I pulled in at Edith Falls, about 46 K’s north of Katherine for a quick swim. No one else was in the water which made me paranoid as I was freaked out enough about the possibilities of crocodiles sharing the water. I’m all for sharing, just not with them.

P1020782After a quick dip (and I mean quick. I jumped in, submerged and jumped out), I continued on to Kakadu National Park, a World Heritage listed park, the only one in the world to have a protected tropical river running through it – the Alligator River (even though its home to crocodiles).

“You should be able to drive up to Gunlom in your 2-wheel drive,” advised the ranger when I bought my 14 day, $25 pass at Mary’s Roadhouse at the southern entrance to the park. He marked out the $5 (with pit toilets) and $10 (with hot showers) camp sites and where it was safe to swim. “Gunlom, by far, is the best place in the park,” he recommended.

I took the first left off the Kakadu Highway and hit the dusty red track that took me to Yurmikmik walking tracks. I grinned as my car was finally covered in a thin layer of red, Outback dust. I went for the 4-K Motorcar Falls trek. It was an extremely hot day so I packed 3 litres of water.

I came across a retired couple halfway up the track who informed me that, “Once you climb over the boulders, you’ll reach the plunge pool.”

I kept walking, diverting slightly to the Yurmikmik lookout that showed off the grandeur of the Kakadu National Park as far as a good eye could see. It was as green as a lush botanical garden.P1020789

I returned to the track, noticing its dullness. It was through dry bushland, covered with mighty-sized ants that I had to skip over so as not to physically trip over. I came across a young British couple who repeated what the retirees had said, “Brave the boulders and you’ll see it. It’s beautiful.”

After a further 35 minutes I found myself in a thick wooded area with small pools of clear water and planet-sized boulders. I clambered over them, scattering tiny black frogs (or were they grasshoppers?), weary of the huge webs orb spiders had booby-trapped everywhere as I stepped lightly. I came up to a moon-sized boulder which I scaled with the ease of a mountain goat (if I do say so myself – and I do say so myself). Upon reaching its peak I had to stop.

I started to laugh, almost maniacally although it was from pure joy. Before me was a crystal clear pool of water, about P1020796as big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Surrounding it were tall cliffs of red, yellow and black rock reaching up almost a hundred feet to scratch the blue sky. From the top of one wall, a waterfall cascaded down gently into the water.

It was as if I had fallen into one of Monet’s water-paintings. I was in complete awe as to how something as simple (and complex) as nature had created this slice of paradise. And after such a dull hike, to be rewarded with this…

P1020797Three weeks ago I was 3,500 K’s from this spot and now I was in heaven.

I tore off the shirt sticking to my back and, although I knew that there wouldn’t be (and shouldn’t be) any crocs around, I still checked vehemently until I was absolutely certain that it was safe to plunge in.

And plunge I did, swimming out to the centre of the pool, basking in the sun, an irremovable grin smeared across my face. I splashed about, the only human around (which would make me an easy – and bony – meal for any croc).

Sunning myself on the rock like a basking lizard, I looked around again, exploding in joyous laughter. “I can’t believe this is real,” I said aloud, the spiders and frogs (or were they grasshoppers?) my only audience.

I gathered my things and began to head off when something caught my eye. A flash of orange and black came into focus as an orb spider the size of my small hatchback hung in the middle of its house-sized web just off the rock I was standing on.

I had to force myself to pull away and get back on the track as I was in complete awe by the magnificent arachnid.P1020816

I hit the trail, head down to make sure I wasn’t about to step on a snake, tiny black frogs (or were they grasshoppers?) or disturb one of the many ant nests I had come across. When I did lift my head it was because I had reached a gate I didn’t pass on the way up.

Huh, I shrugged and continued on. Must lead back to the car park.

When I passed the sign that read, ‘Tour Vehicles Only’ I knew I had made a wrong turn. Hopes were dashed of reaching the car park when the track reached the red dirt road I had been driving on.

Shit.

The full force of the Outback sun hit me like a runaway train. My gut instinct told me to go left and for the first time in my life I decided to listen to it. After a few metres I heard the rumblings of a car and flagged down a campervan driven by a French couple.

They offered me a ride to the car park where I was headed. In return, I recommended the Springvale Homestead for camping as they were headed towards Katherine and gave them my map of the town.

I continued down the road a further 11 K’s to Gunlom where I pitched a tent at the $10 campsite. I hiked over to the rock pool which was bigger than the Motorcar Falls and had a taller water fall flowing down.

“This is incredible,” I said aloud, taken aback by the majestic beauty of nature’s handy work. I swam in knee-deep water (it was getting late and it is recommended not to swim after 19:00 even though it was only 16:00) before heading back to the campsite.

P1020857I collected wood for a fire, fixed a new G-string… to my guitar… paid the $10 fee to the ranger doing the rounds and cooked up a dinner of canned pumpkin and sweet potato soup, adding in chunks of real potato. While washing the dishes I bumped into the British couple from the Motorcar Falls track. “Come round later,” I invited them. “I’ve got marshmallows to roast and a guitar to play.”

They came by just as I lit the fire and strummed my first chords on Ol’ Red since leaving Melbourne some 3,500 kilometres ago. I shared my marshmallows and they shared their carton of red wine. Just after 21:00 they headed off to their tent. I watched the moon rise over the cliff-side, spreading an almost warm white light, the outline of the rocks creating a stairway to heaven.

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YIPPIE KI AYE MUTHERFU-

I received a message on Facebook from Kim who was up in Darwin explaining that there was a rodeo festival over the upcoming weekend in Mataranka.

I’ve never been to a rodeo (or to Mataranka). Plus, I’d have the chance to catch up with her. Cookie was desperate to get a job and start it off right away. Unfortunately for her, time meant nothing to me.

We stopped for breakfast in Larrimah, home to the Pink Panther Pub. It was quite fitting that I had Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme on my phone and played it as we rolled up to the pink building. In the back they had a snake room which housed three snakes although there were about fifteen enclosures.

We drove on to Mataranka, a small town consisting of just 250 locals. It has an overpriced supermarket that doesn’t stock fresh meat, a general store at the petrol station, a library next to the museum and a post office which was just a post office.

The original name of the town, Bitter Springs, was given due to the bitter tasting water in the springs. 30 million litres of water push through from the Roper River (discovered and named by John Roper in 1845) every day. These crystal clear springs are at a consistent temperature of 32 degrees.

P1020544

Dr John Gilhurt, a veterinary (and locally hated man) failed to make Mataranka the capital of the north and a sustainable agricultural centre for raising horses and cattle.

He had the name officially changed in 1926 (as he was from New Zealand, it is thought that the name is of Maori origin although no one knows its meaning). When he finally left the town, the locals joined in chorus, ‘For he’s a jolly good failure’ (can’t please everyone).

 

 

We established camp at the Matarnaka Cabin and Caravan Park, just a kilometre from the springs. Mataranka is also the gateway to the Elsy National Park which has the Mataranka thermal pool (also crystal clear), Stevie’s Hole (not so crystal clear and a 1.2 K walk from the thermal pool) and the Mataranka Falls.

All attractions listed are free so I hit the water immediately while Cookie played with her phone. I hiked on to Stevie’s Hole, encountering a lovely retired couple, John and Jeanette. We walked together to the hole where I discovered that there was a strong current and nobody swimming.

Here I encountered my first, ‘No Swimming. Crocodiles may be present’ sign, reminding me that I wasn’t in P1020888Melbourne any more. I was also disappointed to discover that the 10 K track down to the Roper River was closed due to the amount of debris piled up from recent floods.

Back at the camp I chatted with everyone that came into the communal kitchen, all retirees towing caravans. Most caravans had satellites hooked up but thankfully we had camped as far back from them as possible (and they were considerably quieter than the hard-to-understand Scottish woman’s TV at Devil’s Marbles).

I started early the next day with breakfast and a swim at Bitter Springs. I floated through the pristine warm waters looking up at the huge orb spiders that had spun webs that covered every patch of air above the water.

P1020500The water carried me to a bridge where I had to get out (it was impassable) and walked back a hundred metres to the main swimming area.

I then headed out to the Mataranka Falls, a 7-K drive out of Mataranka where I walked a 4.1 km track – one way. I set off barefoot when I encountered a swarm of bees that made me stop. I realised that I, wearing a red T-shirt and Animal  (for those unfamiliar with Animal he has a purple head of hair… er, fur?), were right in the middle of about a hundred bees.

There were no pollinating flowers around and we were the only brightly coloured things in a bush full of green leaves and red-brown dirt. I reversed slowly to reassess the situation.

 

I had only one option – to go around the swarm to the right, the only possible place to walk. I took the track slowly, staying as far to the right as I could, hoping the bees wouldn’t notice, come check me out and then realise with a vengeful sting that I or Animal weren’t, in fact, a pollinating flower.

Animal and I made it through and trekked onwards, alongside the Roper River. The river itself was as wide as Melbourne’s Hoddle St and the water an aqua green. Here too, there was no swimming due to the possibilities of crocodiles.

These dinosaurs have barely changed for the 200 million years they’ve been around. And I’ve seen the documentaries on National Geographic and the BBC to know that this is one creature that has no mercy, no matter how calm David Attenborough’s narration is.

I met a young Aussie couple, Mim and Dave, along the track and together we found a small rock pool to cool P1020630ourselves from the hot sun. We chilled in the pool, exchanging Kingston biscuits for mandarins.

After about an hour I headed back the 4.1 K’s. The bees were gone and besides stubbing my foot and cursing loud and long enough to make any crocodile know that right then would not be a good time to fuck with me, I made it back to the car.

Driving along the road I spotted a Black-headed Golden Tree snake by the road. I stopped and noticed it was dead as ants had already reached it.

For dinner I whipped up a massive spaghetti bolognas with roast beef strips. After dinner and a shower I counted 92 (92!) bites of some sort of insect that had decided that the area around my right knee and above my right ass cheek was the juiciest. My suspicions lied with bed bugs as it wasn’t mosquito bites.

Saturday was rodeo day. After cooling off with a swim at Bitter Ssprings, I hiked the 3 K’s to the event. It was the first rodeo to be held in Mataranka and it showed. The bulls had arrived a half-hour late, the kids event was held between three kids in the under 9s section and three girls in the under 18s section. And the time between events dragged on due to technical difficulties i.e: lack of co-operation by the animals.

Just as the sun set the bulls were brought out to show. The three brown ones were pretty big. A white bull was big enough to feed a whole village but the black one, looking exactly like the one in the Looney Tunes cartoons, was big enough to feed a small country.

And he looked pissed off, like a bear that had been woken up early from hibernation.

The event started with the bucking broncos. Two horsemen on horses were ready to go in once the bronco bucked his rider. I wasn’t sure how they got the horses to buck like that. They certainly weren’t wild horses. Once the rider was bucked off, the two horsemen rode their steed up to the still bucking bronco and sandwiched it. One rider would then release the rope that was squeezing the bronco’s private area.

So that’s how they did it.

And that’s when I realised that I was partaking in an event that was completely – and wholly – abusive towards animals. I hate it when animals are used for our entertainment. Circus’, Seaworld, horse and dog racing, bull fighting and now rodeos.

I wonder how the riders would like it if someone strapped there balls in a knot and had an 80 kilo sonofabitch on their back. I wasn’t happy with what was happening and naturally, I was all for the animal, hoping it would stomp its buck.

Then the bull riders came out.

I ain’t ever seen a more pissed off animal than a bull with his scrotum strapped. The time the riders need to stay on is eight seconds. Most of them were flung off in two. Then the big angry black bull was released. ‘Sleeping Disorder’ was his name and when he threw his cowboy off he also went for him. Almost got him, too. And you can believe me I was rooting for the bull.

The rodeo clowns tried to distract the massive horned beast to trot out to the holding pen but he wasn’t having it. He wanted his 15 seconds of fame and he was going to get it. He charged at the fence, barging right into it – where all the kids were and boy did they run off screaming.

I was standing by the fence when the toro eyed me. I backed off, respecting it’s anger at having its balls strapped. One unlucky girl, crouching next to me, was trying to get a close-up picture. Toro looked at me, then looked at her and then at me again. It was as if he was saying to me, ‘Check this out,’ and he charged at her giving her the fright of her life as she fell back and zipped up the hill to be comforted by her boyfriend.

Who was laughing along with the rest of the crowd.

It all ended at 20:00 and although there was karaoke until midnight, I’d had enough and wasn’t in the mood. I left with a bad taste in my mouth (may have been the 4X beer) and hiked back to the camp. Noises from the bush had me on alert. The night was almost day as the moon was out in full in a clear sky as I hit the sack at about 22:32.

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DALY WATERS

NTDaly Waters is, believe it or not, the home of Australia’s first international airport back in 1930 something. A lot of towns were involved in supplying service men and women during WWII and protecting Australian shores from the Japanese invasion.

We pulled into the welcoming township only to be stopped by the most remote traffic light in Australia. It’s always red and stands just outside the pub entrance. That night promised live music with a three gig line-up starting at 16:30 (happy hour) and going all the way until 21:00.

The pub’s claim to fame is for being the first Outback pub in Australia. It’s world-renowned for its famous Beef & Barra dinner – a 300g steak served alongside a slab of freshly caught barramundi with salad and either veggies or chips.

But the first thing that caught my eye (and if I were blind, probably my nose) was the long line of bras, knickers and boxers hanging above the bar with a line of hats opposite. Currencies from all over the globe lined the back wall while the front of the bar was covered with student ID cards, drivers licenses, work cards, business cards – any kind of ID card you could think of – from all over the world stuck all over the joint. It was almost like walking into a wardrobe minus the kingdom of Narnia.

The camp site came with hot water showers so after setting up and watching more and more caravans roll in, I went over to the jewellery shop where I asked, “I’m not getting my hopes up, but what are the odds that you’ll have a machine head for an acoustic guitar?”

A man in a blue singlet (known colloquially as a ‘wife-beater’ – the blue singlet, not the man. Well, I don’t know his history but you get the point) and a large round-brim hat turned to me and proceeded to tell me the story of how just a few days ago he had sold one of his guitars for $400.

“I wasn’ eva gonna sell it,” he glanced off to the recent memory.

“Cheers,” I said as I managed to walk out before he went on about his $800 guitar.

After a refreshing shower, Cookie and I hit the pub for happy hour which was steadily filling up as the guy playing between 16:30-18:30 (covers of Paul Kelly and other classic rock favourites) had finished. The next act was a one man show with back-tracking support taking everyone through the early days of rock ‘n’ roll from the 50’s. I had a sneaky suspicion he wasn’t really playing the guitar he was holding.

Then the headline act came on at about 20:00. His name was Chilli (don’t ask) and he turned out to be the, “Sold me ol’ guitar for $400,” rambler from the jewellery shop. He may not be able to answer a question directly (or even produce an answer within accordance to the question) but he sure knew how to handle the crowd, telling stories of the Outback and mixing in songs that he wrote in between a projected slide show.

The crowd were eating out of his hand while Cookie and I were busy getting to know our new Dutch friends, Ben and Petra, who had arrived a half-hour after we did. Being slightly tipsy Cookie was talking as loudly as one does at the pub.

This didn’t impress the almost senior woman behind her who turned and said in her best Outback accent, “Why don’t you talk a little louder, hun? Can’t hear him yet so just turn it up a bit would ya?”

“Excuse me,” I piped up. The woman had turned her back on us and completely ignored me, “you can ask nicely. Besides, this is a pub, a place of social gathering.”

Now it’s not like we were right up against the stage and interrupting the act. We were in the far back, beside the road, behind the wall so we couldn’t even see the act. We could barely hear Chilli as his amp wasn’t that loud (I guess there are noise restrictions in place for the four people who actually live here).

And the woman who complained? Her partner was the opening warm-up act so they’d seen the show quite a few times and probably knew it better than Chilli himself. They eventually got up and moved as we showed no signs of quietening down.

As Chilli wrapped up a local man had come where we were sitting, holding a 6-foot Grey Python, wrapped around his arm.

“Just caught it,” he announced proudly.

Unfortunately for the snake, the man holding it suffered from Parkinson’s and his right arm was shaking like a Polaroid picture. It was also the arm holding the head of the snake, and like Elvis, it was all shook up.

Cookie decided to save it, if for a few moments, and jumped up at the opportunity to handle the reptile, surprising everyone around her at her keenness to hold a wild snake. The shaking snake-handler placed the snake around her neck, giving it a chance to stop feeling like a paint can in a mixing machine.

At 22:30 we played pool against the Dutch where, although I knew I would, I pocketed the black ball along with the white. We wrapped up the evening and went to bed in the warmest night we had experienced in the Outback.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Australia, Conservation, Northern Territory | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

ALICE PLAYING WITH THE DEVIL’S MARBLES

The piercing howl of a dingo erupted in the dark of night as I roasted IMG_2743marshmallows over the camp fire at Devil’s Marbles with Ben and Petra, a Dutch couple I befriended at the camp site. They had never experienced marshmallows on a fire.

The howl was too close for comfort and I made sure my flashlight was on at all times. It seemed I was surrounded by howls. Just that morning in Alice Springs howling winds awoke me at 07:42 just as Paul was returning from the bathroom.

“We’ll be heading off in five minutes,” he said. I awoke Cookie and we hugged our ‘goodbyes’ with our newly made life-long friends that helped make Uluru and Kings Canyon an unforgettable trip.

After Cookie and I repacked the car and filled up oil, we headed into town just past nine in the morning. Our first stop was the Coles supermarket in the shopping precinct where we stocked up on pasta, canned tuna, fresh produce and bread. The second-hand store was just in the corner of the precinct.

“All my guitars are in storage as I don’t have any guitar hooks to hang them by,” said the impatient owner.

“Uh-huh,” I grunted, eying a guitar case at the far end of the store. “What’s in the case?”

“It’s empty,” he said, sounding like a flat line on a life-support machine.

He did, however, direct me to another second-hand shop on Gap Rd. “You can’t miss it. There’s a 12-foot hand out the front of it,” he called out as I left.

Of course there is.

And like all big things in Australia, I assumed its claim to fame was it being the biggest hand in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cookie spotted it first.

“Looks more like 8-foot,” I measured.

I walked in and called out for attention.

“Yes?” An elderly woman appeared from a back room.

“Do you have any guitars?” I asked with high hope.

“No, but there is a store called the Roxy Music Shop that does repairs and sells guitars,” she showed me on a map.

I drove to the other side of Alice Springs and saw the large guitar-shaped sign of the Roxy Music Shop. My heart was a flutter even though the shop looked suspiciously closed. I parked and walked up to the door and read the, ‘Sorry, we’re closed’, sign.

You’ve got to be shitting me.

I read the explanation on the sign next to the door that, ‘Due to family health issues, the shop will be closed on Tuesday, May 21. Sorry for any inconvenience’.

I looked at the date on my phone.

May 21.

You’ve got to be fucking shitting me.

I sat back in the car.

“What’s wrong?” asked Cookie.

I threw the gear into reverse. “Out of all the fucking days that I’m in fucking Alice, the one fucking shop that I needed is fucking closed on the fucking 21st of May.”

Un-fucking-believable.

Cookie laughed as I launched us out of Alice and back onto the A87 towards our next stop, Devil’s Marbles.

We fuelled up at Wycliffe Wells, the UFO capital of Australia. IMG_2734

A few hours later we pulled into the tiny town that welcomed us with a sign that read, ‘Caution! UFO landing site’. I fueled up at the pump, the building that was the service station painted black with stars and UFO related images.

There was, what I presumed to be, a life-sized model of a UFO complete with green men out the front of it.

“Where’s the UFO Centre?” Cookie inquired inside.

“In the diner,” informed a worker.

We walked in and besides the green covered table tops, the only thing that provided any information about UFO landings were the tabloid newspaper clippings pasted along the walls.

“This is it?” I said to no one in particular as I realised that the whole UFO thing was a gimmick to get people to stop in.

496 K’s later we pulled into the Devil’s Marbles Conservation Park, a sacred Aboriginal site called Karlu Karlu . It comprises huge granite rocks that look like someone had stacked them on top of each other. But this was 1700 million years in the making when the area was surrounded by large granite solid rock forms. They broke down due to wind and rain – called weathering – creating the formations seen today (in a few thousand years it’ll all be sand so get in quick to see it).

The formations were balancing precariously like in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Others were split down the middle, still more were perfectly round in shape.

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P1020431At the free camping ground (complete with a compost toilet) at the base of the largest formations we pitched a tent between the caravans.

 

 

 

Cookie had retired to bed by 19:00 after cooking us a dinner of pasta with tomatoes (which she peeled), onions and carrots. It was here that I met Ben and Petra. They loved the gooey form the marshmallows became over the fire. They also provided me a VB beer and a hookah waterpipe.

“Coca cola flavour,” said Ben, a semi-pro indoor soccer player when I asked the tobacco flavour.

Petra had her own camera store back in Holland.

I looked up and stared in disbelief at the ¾ moon that was lighting the Outback. A perfect cloud ring in a diameter of what I could only presume to be a few hundred metres had encased it.

“I guess that’s the UFO’s they meant,” I suggested as we all looked up in awe.

It was when we discussed worldly travels that the blood curling howl erupted not 20 metres next to us, among the nearest pile of rocks.

“Dingo,” I confirmed.

But it wasn’t the sound of a howling dingo that annoyed me. Hell, they were only the size of a German Shepherd. It was the sound of the TV blasting out from our neighbouring caravan, whose satellite dish I had noticed earlier.

After the Dutch couple retired to bed and I had scrapped gravel over the remains of the fire just after 21:33, I walked over to the caravan.

“Excuse me,” I politely tapped on the screen door and waited as the Mrs opened it. “Was wondering, if it’s possible, could you turn it down a bit?” I smiled my Sunday best at her.

“Bit low is it?” said the woman in a Scottish accent.

“Sorry, what?” I leaned in.

“Bit low?”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Lo-ud,” she emphasised  (the ‘dags’ scene from ‘Snatch’ hitting me in the head).

“Ah, yes,” I said.

I hit the sack, the TV still loud in the background and as soon as head touched pillow rain came down like a waterfall. I guessed it was about 3 AM when I awoke to a noise that sounded like some animal sniffing at the tent. I stared into the darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust. I couldn’t see a shadow but something was making sniffing noises right up against the tent.

I slapped my hand on the tent and the noise stopped. I didn’t hear any paw-steps and made a mental note to check for footprints in the morning. A late night howl echoed out before I could settle back to sleep.

In the morning I woke up at about 7 AM, just as the rain stopped. But that’s not what woke me up. It was the morning show the Scottish woman was blasting from her TV in the caravan.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Australia, Conservation, Northern Territory | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

THE KING IS BACK

IMG_2698“I don’t believe it,” said Regina, staring at her iPad, the SD card plugged in. “Please tell me I didn’t just do that.” She seemed to be talking to the tablet rather than to us. She lifted her head and the shock that was settling over her usually lit-up face was all the indication we needed.

“You’ve just deleted a bunch of photos, haven’t you?” Paul said softly.

She turned to him, turned to us and back at him. “I just can’t believe I did that,” she repeated over and over.

174 photos of the Uluru sunset had vanished into cyber air at the tap of her finger.

“Well, we’ll just have to go back to the rock and do it again,” I attempted to cheer her up.

“I just can’t believe I did that,” my line fell on deaf ears. “I’m absolutely devastated.” She starred at Paul who could only embrace her in a hug.

“Did you delete the files or format the card?” I asked, taking control of the situation.

“Deleted,” she said. “I just can’t believe I did that.” She was in a trance.

“Well” I raised hopes, “when we get to Alice Springs I can look online for software to download and retrieve the files. They’ll still be on your card.”

She looked up at me. “I just can’t believe I did that.”

We continued on to Kings Canyon, driving down the Lasseter Highway, passing a wild camel and two wild dogs – not to be confused with dingos. These beasts seemed to be a mixed breed of we-will-eat-you. They stared at us hungrily as we zipped by. They gave off the kind of vibe that implied them having the ability to chew through the car door to get at the fresh produce inside – and I don’t mean the vegetables.

386 kilometers later we arrived at the Kings Canyon Resort – which was cleverly camouflaged as a caravan park. A sign advertised that the evening’s entertainment offered at The Thirsty Dingo Bar was a bush bash with a duo called, The Roadies between 6-9 PM.

After we pitched our tent and Paul and Regina parked, I attempted a second go at fixing the machine-head of the third string on my acoustic guitar. After taking it apart, Regina and I discovered that the cog was worn out and needed replacing.

“Guess I’ll have to wait till we get to Alice,” I said glumly.

I was really craving to play the six-string I’ve packed from Melbourne. I was happy to trade it in for another guitar if I could only find a second-hand store that would agree to such a deal.

“In Alice,” was the general consensus wherever I asked since leaving Kulpara, South Australia, some thousand-and-a-bit K’s ago.

Regina proved her point of being a Masterchef with dinner that evening. On the menu, a pork-based carbonara. And although I don’t eat pork for taste reasons, I wasn’t going to starve. And a good thing cause it was amazing (although it had pork in it).

After a few drinks we headed over to the Thirsty Dingo Bar to catch the live entertainment. We walked into a crowd of about 20 people, all part of an American film crew that were filming a 13-part documentary on the Brumbies, the Australian wild horses.

They had caught analpha-male, broke him in and by the end of shooting, they had given him to a local Aborigine boy.

Beside the stage outside sat a table of mixed Asians. The stage housed a guitar and mic, set up and ready to be played but there was no band.

“It’s quiet tonight so they’ve called it early,” informed us the bar maid.

I looked at the clock behind her. 20:25. Looking at the small stage I turned to Paul,

“Wanna hit the stage with me?” and before I realised what I had said, Paul lead us outside and talked The Roadies into letting us play.

I sat at the guitar with Paul on the mic. We ripped into The Commitments, Mustang Sally to a resounding sing-along from the 5 people that were outside (including our groupies, Regina and Cookie).

Some of the Americans came out to listen and clapped along to my rendition of U2’s, Desire which was followed by a failed attempt of Men At Work’s, Land Downunder.

“One more,” said Peta, one-half of The Roadies.

I ripped into Lynard Skynard’s, Sweet Home Alabama, and we left the stage to a deafening applause from our groupies.

And two other people that had stayed outside to suffer… I mean, listen.

The Roadies were quite pleased with our rusty performance. “Are you here tomorrow night? We can play together,” Ruben offered.

“Sorry mate,” said Paul, “we’ve got a gig in Alice Springs,” and we both cracked up.

Our improvised performance landed us a free beer – to share between the two of us. We moved on to a game of pool where Cookie pocketed the black ball in a tense two-on-two battle against Paul and Regina.

We befriended the Americans. One of them, Clinton Anderson, a famous horse whisperer (as we were told) teamed up with his mate Rick to play pool against Paul and Cookie.I stood by Regina who was sitting on a stool against the wall.

About 15 of the film crew had habitated the couches that surrounded the pool table and when Regina went to the bathroom, I sat on her stool. Just as she returned, timing it with an accuracy of an atomic clock, I released a silent IEF (improvised explosive fart) and stood from the stool, returning it to Regina in a gentlemanly manner.

“I kept it warm for ya,” I grinned. As she sat on it I added that, “I also farted on it.”

“What?” she stared at me as I walked back and stood by the wall, waiting for the carnage to unfold, knowing my abilities of clearing a school balcony of 50 kids with a downwind.

It was Clint who took the first hit as he went to grab his beer. “Jesus Christ Almighty!” he screamed out as he lurched back, hit by the shock wave. Regina followed suit and within seconds screams echoed around the bar as people scattered, running for the door, wiping tears of distress from their eyes. Flies were scraping at the glass windows – to get out.

“It burns! Oh my god, it burns!” someone gasped.

The smell lingered, a special talent I have, as Clint searched out the infidel responsible. He was about to blame Regina as she had leaped from the stool like a human cannonball when he saw me laughing uncontrollably in the self-designated safety zone.

“You!” he pointed at me as heads followed to see how I, or any living thing, was capable of releasing something that was against the Geneva war conventions. “Did you crock-pot it?” he demanded as I wiped away tears of laughter. I bowed before my teary-eyed public as Clint said, “I’d rather shove my head up a dead camel’s ass than smell that again.”

“We should send in a canary to make sure it’s safe,” suggested Paul as Rick high-fived me. It was a bonding moment.

“This is why I don’t eat pork,” I explained.

By the end of the night we were telling jokes, hearing Rick’s unrepeatable stories of his womanising days and how he and Alex, another Yank on the crew, drove to Darwin and back in one night (it’s a 17-hour drive from Kings Canyon – one way).

We hit the sack at 22:30 for a 7 AM rise to walk the canyon which was discovered in 1872 by Ernest Gilles (the same explorer that discovered Ayer’s Rock). On his expedition he had taken camels and horses and came across the Aborigines that lived in Kings Canyon, as it held enough water to sustain life. They had never before seen horses or camels, let alone a white man.

There were two walks: the 3-hour-6-K-round-the-rim-trek or the one hour return into the canyon.

Regina had woken up with a powerful headache. “Must have been the gas she inhaled last night,” joked Paul (although he could have been serious). I found a Tylenol in my first aid kit and gave it to her.

“We’ll head out,” I said, “and worst case, we’ll meet ya at the G’day Mate caravan park in Alice.”

Reaching the canyon, Cookie decided to do the one hour return while I opted for the 6-K round-the-rim. Noticing that the track was all rock, I threw my sandals into my backpack and hiked barefoot.P1020416

I climbed the terrace-like steps of red rock and hiked up to the rim, passing people who gave me quizzical looks when they saw that I was barefoot. I didn’t care. I was one with nature. I had the energy of a kid in a candy shop and was practically running the track.

Red formations, stylised by millions of years of weather beating down on the rock created the art gallery. I finally reached the bottom of the canyon, rightfully called The Garden of Eden. It was a lush green habitat full of trees and rock pools filled with black water, surrounded by the red rock that is the Australian Outback.

I continued on around the rim, agreeing with the guides that lead groups of Germans and French that I was perhaps, “Crazy to do it barefoot!”

I took a break, sitting on the edge of a cliff peeling a mandarin, feet dangling above a hundred feet or more of air, enjoying the vastness of the Outback that stretched out as far as a good eye could see. I met Cookie at the car exactly three hours later.

“Paul and Regina will be back in about 15-20 minutes and then we can head out to Alice Springs together,” she informed me as I made up a couple of peanut butter and honey sandwiches.

It was a 4-hour drive to Alice and I was hoping to get there before 17:00 to sort out my guitar. We hit the road at around 11:30, sighting another dingo by the side of the road that looked at us with hungry eyes. Just as we hit the Lasseter highway the clouds let loose and for the next four hours it rained non-stop.

We fueled up at Kings Creek and had a half-hour break at Eldrunda, at the intersection of Lasseter Highway and the A87 Sturt Highway.

As soon as we hit Alice Springs the rain subsided and completely stopped as we rolled into the G’day Mate caravan park just after 17:00.

“Next to the Coles supermarket there’ll be a second-hand shop where you might be able to find a guitar,” the owner satisfied my inquiry of finding a guitar.

That night was our last with Paul and Regina. After I found the proper software I retrieved the 174 deleted files – “I don’t believe it!” She continued with her chant as she awarded me with a big kiss on the cheek and a seat beside her during dinner.

We shared an evening of spaghetti meatballs ala Masterchef Regina which had my taste buds thanking me all night (Cookie doesn’t like tomatoes with the skin on so Regina went all out by peeling the tomatoes) and laughs provided by Youtube.

I found a skit by the American stand-up comedian, Pablo Francisco who does an amazing movie-guy voice impersonation with an Arnold Schwarzenegger overture which I had to show Paul.

We cried tears of joy watching the master at play. Paul then picked a skit by Robin Williams, interpreting the invention of golf by the Scots. Cookie picked Rhob Gilbert’s story of losing his luggage on a European flight as well as a ventriloquist skit by Nina Conti. Paul, Regina and I were all familiar with Jeff Dunham’s, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, which we introduced to Cookie.

I washed up the dishes while Paul and Regina cleaned out the campertruck prior to returning it to the Apollo rental company in the morning.

At 22:32 we said ‘goodnight’.

Howling winds put me to sleep as I calculated the 3,274 K’s I’ve put my car through.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Australia, Conservation, Northern Territory | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SMELLING ROCKS

“I just can’t believe it,” I yelled over the music the band on the stage was blasting out. They had been flown in from Sydney for the occasion, playing covers from Stevie Wonder to Bruno Mars and doing them fucking well.

“What?” yelled back Paul.

“We’re here, at Ayer’s Rock, dancing to the sounds of a band under the Outback sky. It’s just too surreal.”

“It is!” laughed Paul as the music went up a beat and we danced amongst the rest of the revelers who had turned up for the ball, the after party of the Camel Races.

It all started 738 kms ago. A drive which began from Coober Pedy all the way to Uluru with a break every couple of hours to stretch out the legs. We stopped at Marla, the last town in South Australia before crossing the border into the Northern Territory. It was here that I somehow managed to break the handle of the passenger-side window of my car, leaving Cookie without the ability to open the window.NT

Learning from our experiences in Coober Pedy, I donned my fly net and headed outside to make myself some peanut butter and honey sandwiches before fueling up at $1.99 per liter.

Our next stop along the desolate A87 highway was Kulgara, a rest stop that was the border between the southern state and the Northern Territory. Along the way we spotted emus, wild horses known as ‘Brumbies’ and wedge-tailed eagles feeding off the carcasses of dead cows and kangaroos.

At Erldunda we took a left onto the Lasseter Highway towards Uluru. We passed Mt Conner which, for some reason, we assumed was Uluru. At Curtain Springs we learned that the owner of the station had buried his dead wife on the mountain top (which was a flat top of rock, kinda like something you’d find in the Utah desert). The Aborigines believe that due to that the mountain has bad spirits and only one tour company takes people up to it.

After fueling up at $2.20 per liter, we continued on the last hundred K’s, passing more cows and sighting our first dingo. Then Uluru greeted us with a red smile as the second largest monolith (the largest being in Western Australia) came into view.

We camped at the only facility available – Ayers Rock resort, located a half hour drive from the national park that housed the monolith.

Ayers Rock was named  by Ernest Gilles, an English explorer that also discovered Kings Canyon in 1872. He named the rock after Sir Henry Ayers, governor of South Australia at the time.

“You’re in luck,” said the girl at the reception as we paid the $36 for a tent site. “This weekend we have the Yulara Festival.”

“The what?” I asked.

“The Yulara Festival. It’s the annual camel race. After the races there’s a ball. Frock up and rock up. There’s a free shuttle bus service to take you there. Starts tomorrow night at 8 pm and goes on until 2 am.”

Cookie and I looked at each other. “Good timing,” I grinned.

We pitched the tent and Cookie went off to check out the local market as I made dinner for myself. After driving almost 800 kilometers in one day, all I wanted to do was get some food in me and keep my legs in a standing position for as long as possible.

As fate would have it,  a couple were running to catch the sunset on a hilltop behind me. While passing by, the fella called out, “I’ll have two steaks, medium rare,” as I was cooking by the barbecue.

“No worries,” I called back, playing along with the banter while I stirred my tuna pasta in the dish, grinning at them. They came back after the sun had gone.

“I’m Paul,” said Paul. “This is Regina, she’s from Germany.”

We hit it off immediately and I invited them to join me for dinner as I had, “Made too much food.”

They came back to cook their snags and shared their gin and tonic with me as we chatted away. It was evident that we’d become friends as soon as the Schwarzenegger impersonations came out.

“Anyone ever tell you you look like Hugh Jackman in ‘Wolverine’?” Paul said as he looked at me as one does when trying to figure out who you look like.

“A few times,” I said, laughing. “It’s the sideburns.”

We agreed to carpool for the sunrise the next morning. That evening we hit the bar.

Some things are expected when going to a bar in Australia: a bouncer (usually from New Zealand) will have a power trip and decide to not let you in because he thinks you’re drunk even though your just a happy-go-lucky chum. A bartender who’ll ignore you while everyone next to you gets to put their order in and some idiot who always spills their drink – on you.

In the Outback things are a little different. For one thing, the roof was made of tin. Everybody is drunk by 8 pm and the other thing that was a little hard to miss were the two single hump camels being exhibited for the people who had gathered to ‘buy’ a camel – placing a bid for the races the next day. It was the only time you could place a bet on a camel.

Australia is home to the largest population of wild single-hump camels (also known as dromedary), released when the explorers of the 1800s had finished exploring. They also released donkeys and horses, all sustaining themselves and becoming wild animals.

Just as we walked in, one of the camels urinated on the carpet they were standing on. “House-broken, I see,” I said in passing.

We had a few rounds sharing laughs with the locals, getting caught up in the action. One guy bid $900 on a camel.

At 22:30 I called it a night as I wanted to be fresh for the early rise to catch the sun, predicated to light up Uluru at 07:16.

06:30

After I brewed my Turkish coffee, we hit the road for the half hour drive to the rock. Paying the $25 for a three-day pass, we entered the national park just as the sun peaked over the horizon, splattering the rock with colours of pink and bright orange red.

I stood, shell-shocked, not believing that I was really there, at the place that I had only ever seen in photos on postcards and in National Geographic magazines, an elongated dream finally achieved – driving through the Outback to Uluru.

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The culture center teaches about Uluru’s significance to the local Aborigines, the Anangu people, who maintain the park. It’s their Mecca, a sacred site to their way of life. It was here that the story of Tjukurpa – the Creation period – happened (not to be confused with the Dreamtime).

The men have sacred ceremonies at the top that are so secret, they are not allowed to be spoken of or discussed to anyone outside of the tribe and those who aren’t initiated. The women also have their sacred spots on the rock. These sites are forbidden to be photographed as the indigenous people believe that photography steals the spirit and soul of what is being photographed.

It is also disrespectful to climb the rock and although they don’t enforce the rule, they ask that visitors don’t climb it. But there are those who do. 35 people have died attempting to climb the rock since it was opened to tourism in the late 1950s.

As a strong believer in Karma, I refused to take part as did Cookie and our new friends. We watched tourists clambering up a very steep incline to the summit of 345 meters. We did walk the 10.6 km base around the magnificent structure.

I was surprised at how green the surrounding bush was, complete with red gumtrees and an abundance of wildlife.

“I really feel the spirituality of this place,” I noted to Regina who agreed.

Cookie and Regina got acquainted while Paul and I walked together for most of the hike, quoting ‘The Princess Bride’ and other movies, continuing our Arnie impressions and discussing farts.

“Ever noticed that when you fart in the shower it’s as though, by adding water, it becomes a chemical weapon of mass destruction?” I said as Paul laughed. “And there’s no better feeling than farting while you’re peeing,” I continued as Paul stopped to water a bush. “It’s about the only time a man can truly multitask.”

I told Paul of the legacy I had left at my high school some years back in Year 12. “I can’t remember why but I decided to go on this fruit diet which turned out to be a pretty bad idea. I have never farted such a rancid, toxic scent. One day I was at school and on our lunch break we were all chilling on the balcony. There were about 50 kids out there when I needed to release. I knew it would be silent. I also knew it might be deadly but it was a risk I was willing to take as it’s been scientifically proven that people who fart are happier than those who hold it in. So I released and knowing the outcome I stepped back and waited to watch the carnage unfold,” I paused for effect. “You know how some farts linger around for awhile?”

Paul nodded as he laughed.

“Well this one held on to anything it could due to the down wind that should have taken it away from those poor kids. I watched quietly as they ran around screaming, eyes burning. It was though someone had released a tear-gas grenade, which I think is what they would have preferred rather than endure the torture they were undergoing.”

Paul cracked up.

“To this day I’m forever remembered for that one moment,” I reflected proudly.

We finished the walk in 4 hours and headed back to the resort for a quick lunch and an afternoon chillout until we would meet up for the camel races.

At the dusty race truck, we were greeted by a small number of revelers. Paul noticed the face-painting corner and asked me to distract Regina while he went to get his face done.

The only way to purchase alcohol was by presenting a special permit that was provided when checking in. I suggested we  go to the bar and get some drinks.

“You need glasses for the beers,” said the bartender to Regina who grabbed two beer glasses from the stand in front of me. They were still in plastic wrapping. When the girls ordered wine for themselves, “You need wine glasses,” said the bartender.

I was standing next to the stand that had the glasses set up and grabbed a couple.

“Hang on, mate,” the vendor grabbed them back, “you gotta pay for them.”

“What?” I said, Regina looking as baffled as I was. “Your saying it’s not enough I’m purchasing the beer and wine I also need to buy the container it needs to be contained in?”

“Yup,” he said flatly.

“How much are they?” I asked

“Six bucks.”

“Six bucks?!” I almost yelled.

Regina turned to the bartender and asked for plastic cups. We realised that we had just managed to unintentionally steal two beer glasses to keep as souvenirs.

Good thing we didn’t climb the rock.

Paul had come back and was wearing his hat low over his forehead. His face had the look of someone who had done something mischievous and Regina knew right away.

“You’ve gone and done something stupid, haven’t you?” she said.

Paul looked shocked. “Do I have ‘stupid’ written on my forehead?” he said as he removed the hat, revealing a stenciled ‘S-T-U-P-I-D’ written on his forehead.

The camels were presented around the track and then the final race was won by camel number 2. The winner took home over three thousand dollars after ‘buying’ the camel for just $250.

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From the track we headed over to a hilltop to view the setting sun over The Olgas, casting a purple colour over Uluru. We shared a bottle of Rose that Paul and Regina provided as we took photos and laughed our heads off by doing stupid antics as the sun set, providing entertainment for the French and German tourists that were also there.

 

 

Back at the camp we cooked dinner together. I made an Israeli salad while Paul barbecued porterhouse steaks and corn cobs.

“You know, Regina was the German Masterchef winner,” he announced proudly when she went for a shower just before we served dinner. We had some wine and beer and by 21:30, besides being drunk, we lumbered off in good spirits to catch the shuttle bus to the ball which was being held at the race track.

“Excuse me,” I turned to a security guard, “where are the toilets?”

“Anywhere in the dark, mate,” he grinned.

As I peed in the darkness staring up at the Milky Way, I realised that it was all just too surreal, with Uluru casting a watchful eye somewhere from within the darkness.

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Australia, Conservation, Northern Territory | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

GOING UNDERGROUND

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An early rise at 07:15 brought me out to the kitchen. Mat and his parents, Sharon and Colin, were seated around the dining table, breakfasting on porridge, cereal and toast with Vegemite and butter whilst watching the morning breakfast show on the telly.

I brewed some coffee from my Turkish\Lebanese blend with cardamom seeds.

The previous night, Mat had brought out coffee that he had purchased in Vietnam.

“It’s weasel coffee,” he said as he presented the tin which had a weasel on the label.

“Lemme guess,” I guessed, “it’s coffee beans that have passed through the digestive system of a weasel.”

“Yup,” he grinned.

“I gotta say,” I began, “I’m curious to know how the first person to see a pile of weasel shit with coffee beans in it thought, ‘Hmm, that would taste amazing!’”

I didn’t try the weasel coffee but they did enjoy my Turkish blend. I gave some to Sharon and explained how to brew it:

“If you fill the pot up, the way I measure it is 4 teaspoons of coffee and then 6 teaspoons of sugar. If it’s half a pot then I’ll do 2 teaspoons of coffee and 4 teaspoons of sugar. Let the water boil and as it does, the coffee will open up, releasing the flavours and aroma. When it boils, the coffee will rise. Just as it’s about to spill, take it off the heat, let it settle then repeat and you’re done.”

After the morning beverage, Mat took me around the farm showing me the shed for housing the tractor equipment, the old sheep shed that now housed his old Camry and his brother’s Holden and the shed that housed his brother’s motorbikes and the lay of the land.

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It had rained during the night and was still raining as the ute slipped and slid up the muddy track. As we reached the hilltop, I could see the Southern Ocean and a rainbow that was sliding out from the clouds into the water.

At 10 AM I thanked the Millards for their warm hospitality and along with Cookie, drove out towards Port Germein, our post-breakfast stop.

Port Germein used to be a happening town back in the days of the late 19th century. It was the gateway to the world as one of the busiest port cities around.

When we drove through the town it seemed to be deserted of any living creature, except for the one seagull that pestered us as I fried up an onion omelette on the electric barbecue.

It was once home to the longest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere until a storm took the end off it, shortening it to a mere 1,532 meters from its previous 1,800 meters (the record is now held by a jetty somewhere in Western Australia).

We headed onwards to Port Augusta, the last stop before turning north into the Outback. An hour later we drove through the busiest town we had seen since leaving Adelaide complete with several traffic lights. We made a beeline to The Outback Centre (which for some reason, had the giant head of a dinosaur as an entry point) for information.

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“Your closest free campsite to pitch a tent is in Woomera, about 60 km north,” said Di, an elderly short haired woman scratching 60, volunteering behind the counter. She wasn’t much for smiling and had a ‘mis-information provided here’ feel about her. “There aren’t any petrol stops between Woomera and Coober Pedy. The water after Woomera is bore water. It’s salty and dirty and I wouldn’t drink it. You can refill water at Coober Pedy. 30 cents will give you about 20 litres worth. The Sturt Highway between Woomera and Coober Pedy will be closed due to missile testing from the nearby air force base –”

“What?” I jumped in.

“As of next Monday,” sighed Di. “So if you make it to Coober Pedy before next Monday, you’ll be fine. Watch out for road trains as they’ll be at least four trailers long.”

A road train is a truck that has anywhere from three to seven trailers (taking the 18 wheeler to 70) that flies along the Sturt highway at speeds that would flatten a town if one were in its way, spitting out rocks, kangaroos and anything else it might hit right out the back and straight into your windscreen.

I looked at the giant dinosaur head. Besides resembling the woman informing us, it was a sign to hit the road.

Thanking Di’s sour face, Cookie and I stopped at a service station to fill up the tank (which was half full). I asked the cashier if she had any old newspapers she was about to throw out that we could use to light a fire with. She enriched us with 4 editions of the Sunday Mail.

We hit the road and I turned right onto the A87 Sturt Highway (also known as the Explorer’s Highway) leading to Darwin. The Outback began almost immediately. And almost immediately I felt the isolation that came with it. The red ground was covered in six-foot shrubbery stretching out as far as a good eye could see, the black road cutting the only tarmac path through it.

The next (and what turned out to be the last) sign I saw placed Woomera at a distance of 177 km. Cookie brought out the map and we could both see that Woomera was at a greater distance than 60 km from Port Augusta.

I kept one eye on the clock and one eye on the road. It was 15:20 as we left Port Augusta. We had until about 17:00 to make it to the camp site otherwise, we’d be camping by the road.

As cars passed us on their way south to Port Augusta, the drivers would lift an index finger to signal ‘hello’. This was customary in the Outback and I raised mine to every car, ute and road train that flew by, applying a new meaning to ‘giving the finger’.

Cookie was immersed deep in her book as I spotted a wedge-tailed eagle chewing on roadkill on her side. It was big enough to take my little car off to feed its young – with us in it.

I kept the speedometer on a consistent hundred K an hour (even though the speed limit was 110) as the outback went from trees and shrubbery to barren, back to shrubbery and trees. Cows were strewn about in the… well, I wouldn’t exactly call it a field… along with sheep and a couple of emus that walked about looking like they were doing the Egyptian.

“Holy shit!” I called out, looking at what appeared to be a, “A pack of dingos!”

The animals seemed to be creeping up to the emus. I slowed the car down until I realised that,

“Hang on,” I said, “don’t worry about it,” I sped up, “it’s sheep covered in red dust.”

As I overtook a three-trailer road train, the sun had started to set in the west. Clouds to the east had red underbelly’s, the colour reflected off the red earth. Without a single sign on the entire drive to Woomera, I was getting concerned as to whether we would get to our campsite before dark.

After almost two hours of driving past dried up salt lakes, a jutting red hill here and there, dusty off-roads and barely visible fences, we finally saw a sign (and signs of civilisation) as we took a left to Woomera via Pimba.

We continued a further 6 k’s down the road to the town that had a replica space rocket on a launch pad positioned at the entrance. I pulled into a caravan park and asked the fella at the reception where the free campsite was.

“Pimba. Spud’s Roadhouse. Gold coin donation.”

“That lady was full of shit,” said Cookie.

I was dying for a piss but I really wanted to set base camp before dark. I sped us back to Spud’s Roadhouse which was filling up with campervans, caravans and roadtrains. I pulled in with my Hyundai Excel hatchback, getting the kind of look one gets when rolling into town with an unusual vehicle.

Inside the roadhouse we were greeted by a diner-styled restaurant\bar with a pokies room (slot machines for the elderly to dispense their life savings), a souvenir shop and petrol station. Number plates from every state (and a few international ones) covered a wall and hand written messages on two surfboards (?) hanging from the ceiling which was also covered in messages from passing travellers provided light reading.

One in particular stood out: ‘Nurses do it with more patience, Jodie, 2011’. I laughed as my eye caught the special’s board. On the menu was ‘Today’s roadkill’.

I dropped a $2 gold coin in the donation box. The lady at the counter had thinning purple-dyed hair and seemed to lack the ability to produce a smile. The lady who served us food was the complete opposite, showing off black-stained teeth along with her sunny misdemeanour.

It wasn’t the greatest meal but I had just driven 448 kms in a race against the setting sun and wasn’t about to get fussy. As the sun set, we pitched our new tent, using the old one as an extra layer to cover the gravel.

The setting sun painted an incredible colour of yellow, purple and orange as the blue sky darkened to pitch black with the stars popping out one by one with the quarter moon overseeing it all.

“Tomorrow,” I began to suggest, “I reckon we get up at dawn, pack the car, make coffee, hit the road for two hours, stop for breakfast and then make a straight run for Coober Pedy.”

“Sounds good,” Cookie smiled as we sat back in the roadhouse so that I could write and she could read. She was keeping me updated on the plot of her book.

“I’ll let you know what happens in my next book,” she said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“I’d rather get bitten by a taipan,” I said as she laughed. “I’ll give you Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’.”

The night was surprisingly warm. The lady in Port Augusta had said that the forecast for the week would be 15-24 with the nights dropping to 7-14.

Then again, she had also said that Woomera was 60 k’s away.

Returning to the tent, I almost tripped as I was distracted by the gazillion stars watching my every move. I sat at the entrance of the tent in my boxers (it was that warm), wrapped in a fleece blanket and simply looked up until my neck hurt.

I awoke at 07:00 the next morning and as the coffee brewed I stirred Cookie to rise. I repacked the car, checked the oil and water and fixed the horn (a disconnected wire) while Cookie had a shower.

As soon as we had left Melbourne, I noticed the difference in petrol prices. I had fuelled up at $1.39 per litre in the sports and culture capital of Australia. In the City of Churches (Adelaide) it rose slightly to $1.45 per litre. Here in the middle of nowhere, it was a staggering $1.67 per litre.

“I think I’ll ask the lady inside how far it is to Coober Pedy as I don’t trust the information the lady in Port Augusta gave us,” I said to Cookie who agreed.

“It’s 367 kilometres,” said the cashier.

“So about 4 hours?” I said.

She nodded as I wrote our names on a wooden barrel used as a table – ‘Nomad + Cookie 2013’. IMG_2647

The roadhouse was all started by  Spud who established it as a resting place for travellers and truckers. The number plates were from cars that had broken down (this was before there was a sealed highway) and food and petrol was free (except for Christmas Day). Anyone who walked through the door wearing a necktie was either refused entry or had his necktie cut off and pinned to the wall.

Spud retired to Mildura in Victoria in 1989 and passed away in 2007.

We hit the road at 08:35. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the wind was refreshing and I was discovering new ways to put my feet up so as not to lock ‘em into a constant long haul flight position.

As I’m driving a manual (and as there’s no need to shift gears until you reach a town that’s bigger than two tin sheds), I would place my left foot to the left of the steering wheel on the dash and after a hundred and fifty kilometres, control the accelerator with it while my right foot hung loosely on the side-view mirror, the wind whipping between my toes.

At exactly 10:24 I pulled into a rest stop and decided that for breakfast I would make shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish with a tomato-onion-garlic base. At home I’d add red capsicum, mushrooms, fresh basil leaves and a chorizo sausage but being in the Outback I kept it to the base.

As soon as I opened the door of the car I was attacked by a squadron of flies, relentless at trying to get to my eyes that I had covered with my sunnies. It didn’t stop them from trying to land in my ears or get up my nose. As soon as I started cooking, the smoke helped disperse them, leaving me to deal with big black ants that had jaws that could puncture a truck.

We ate in the car as I decided that, “We’ll clean up at Coober Pedy. Fuck doing it with these flies about.”

Cookie agreed as I drove us back onto the A87 and onwards to the underground town.

The name is a derivative from the Aboriginal kupa piti meaning ‘white man’s burrow’ (the town used to be called Stuart Range Opal Field, named after John McDouall Stuart, the first European explorer to arrive there in 1858. It was renamed ‘Coober Pedy in 1920). It’s the opal capital of the world with the precious stone being discovered in 1915 by a 14 year-old boy that had joined his father, Jim Hutchinson, on a gold-prospecting expedition.

Returning service men from World War I came up with the idea of underground dwellings to beat the heat and the flies (can reach a soaring 60 degrees Celsius. It also has the lowest rainfall in Australia). Living underground gave a consistent temperature of 24 degrees.

We hit the mine-infested town with 367 registering on the car’s odometer. Warning signs of deep shafts were placed everywhere. Old mining machinery was scattered about as we passed mounds of dirt where shafts had been drilled. At the information centre we were provided with a map and some details of attractions. I rolled up the attractions paper and used it as a useful weapon against the flies.

Since arriving in South Australia, we had passed large billboard signs that simply read: ‘Stop Creeping’.

“What does that mean?” I asked the girl behind the counter.

“It’s an advertising campaign against falling asleep while driving, making you creep over the speed limit,” she informed us. “I guess it’s only used in South Australia ‘cause you’re not the first to ask.”

Why not just have it say: ‘Don’t sleep at the wheel’? Or ‘Stop when tired’?

We headed down the main drag of Hutchinson St. Every shop had a sign that advertised something about  being underground, having the ‘best prices’ for opals or having underground opals at the best price.

We went through the underground opal museum which showed fossils and remains of prehistoric sea creatures, Aboriginal history and how they were involved in the mining of opals (which they had known about for centuries just never saw any monetary value to it. Since the white man arrived, they discovered that the stones could be exchanged for food rations).

The underground backpackers had dorm rooms at $35 per person so we decided to go to the underground camping grounds. At the reception Rick, the owner, a former opal miner, tried to sell us a mine tour that began at 19:00.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive tour,” he said. “Goes on for an hour where I tell ya basically everything there is to know about mining opals and how to do it. It’s $22 per person and your accommodation is free if you take it.”

I looked at Cookie so that she could tell him that, “I’m not too fussed about it. I think we’ll be going into town for drinks at that time.”

“Not a problem,” he smiled.

“How do I connect to the internet?” I asked as I had yet to post a blog.

“You can’t,” he said. “It’s broken.”

Of course it is.

He lead us outside and pointed out the, “Showers over there, kitchen over there and if you drive round the showers, pick an alcove and pitch your tent.”

We walked down a tunnel that lead underground and Cookie picked the biggest alcove. P1020171

It was here that I realised that when travelling through the Outback, if you forget extra petrol, water, food, you’ll manage. Absolutely no worries in the Aussie tradition. There are plenty of travellers on the road that may (or may not) stop to help out. But if you forget some sort of face netting to keep out the flies, prepare your local insane asylum for your accommodation because these tiny little Messerschmitt’s will take your sanity and shit all over it.

“You are camping underground?” asked a Norwegian backpacker as I cooked dinner.

“Yup,” I replied.

“Just be careful because we camped there last week and my girlfriend found a Western King Brown snake not far from our mattress because we don’t have a tent.”

The Western King Brown snake is a sub-sepcies of the cobra family, the longest venomous snake in the world (making the Aussie second). It is also number 8 in the top ten most lethal snakes in the world and has an aggressive nature that might end up with you being chased by it.

“What did you do?” asked an extremely worried Cookie.

“We got the manager and he killed it.”

Cookie looked at me. “If that happens you’re killing the snake.”

“Er, no. I don’t kill snakes.”

“What?”

“We’re in it’s territory. I’ll get the manager but I won’t kill it.”

After dinner we hit the town for a couple of drinks and a few games of pool (3-0 to yours truly) and the drunk locals recommended making a straight drive to Uluru as, “There’s not much between here and there.”

We hit the sack at 22:30 after I made sure that no snakes were around.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Australia, South Australia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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