Monthly Archives: June 2013

WITHOUT SURF WHAT IS LEFT?

ImageI’m standing on the beach, an endless run of surfers running for the water like newly hatched sea turtles, leaving me to watch as I have no board. I stand, jaw-gaped in awe at the huge 30-foot waves coming in.

They flow like an endless waterfall, glassy, holding their shape. The conditions are perfect. They crash on the hidden sandbar when on the horizon a rogue wave – had to be 60-foot – rises like Poseidon from the depths.

 

It lingers patiently as every boardrider in the water paddles for it. It’s big enough to accommodate all the surfers, many more still running in.

And me, still standing without a paddle.

As the wave momentum peaks and the lip closes over, the white stream of wakes from all the boardriders heading left (goofy) and right (natural) look like a Blue Angels maneuver.

And then I wake up, wide-eyed, a light buzz and whir coming from the overhead ceiling fan reminding me that I was still in Darwin.

Still unable to find a boat to take me to Indonesia.

Still in a seaside town where entrance into the water is as safe as lighting a cigarette at a petrol station.

The lack of surf has now taken on the form of an IV drip bag, slowly dripping insanity into my well-being. The waters here in Darwin are of a green, brackish shade. Its got me looking at the sky for a daily dose of blue.

Sigh.

I need a new strategy. I made up new signs to post at the yacht clubs. I’ve headed down to the Darwin Sailing Club on their busiest night of the week. I mingled with sailors and skippers, got email contacts, tips on when to come and ask for basic sailing experience (Sundays, when they have local races), when to find the boat owners (morning, when they head in for their morning routine or the better option, afternoon when they sit around with a drink and surf the web) and when my best chances of finding crew would be – in a few weeks when most of the boats taking part in the Sail to Indonesia rally will arrive.

I’ll be starting my fourth week in Darwin next week where I’ll be moving to the boat where I’ve been doing some volunteer work as I’ve stayed longer than I should have at the Sariks, a wonderful and accommodating family that took me in without question, fed me, provided a shower, a bed and some good times.

“You’ve earned a week’s accommodation,” said Jackie, owner of ‘Jaz’.

I figure if I do some more volunteer work I could stay longer.

My guess is that I’ll only be hitting the water in about three weeks on one of the yachts taking part in the Indo rally. If I’m really lucky (and generally I’m not) I might be able to go earlier, in mid-July to Dilly, East Timor, cross the border to Indonesia by land and ferry it across to Bali.

I looked up volunteering positions in Borneo, Malaysia to help with the conservation of the majestic, and very much endangered, Orang utangs and Pygmy elephants.

I emailed an organisation and received a prompt response. They were very excited in my interest and even took it upon themselves to place me on tentative booking. All I need to do to confirm my place was pay the £195 deposit. “The remainder payment should be made as soon as possible.”

I was confused. I’m pretty sure that offering to volunteer hands-on meant that by giving my personal time and effort was reward enough and self-satisfaction once the objective was complete.

Has it come to this? That in order to volunteer my services in saving the planet I need to pay money? To help save animals whose habitats are being destroyed for money I needed to put in some greens?

This was to be one of the main objectives of my world-wide expedition – helping animals in need of help. Protect the endangered from the greed-hungry corporations destroying what they can to earn a buck.

Isn’t that why they have fundraisers and pledges? Telethons and vast amount of flyers and brochures pleading for you, the good citizen to donate a buck or two for the cause? “All donations are tax deductible” being the collective catchphrase to entice you to give the loose change hiding in your couch to a good cause.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

I was disappointed.

My new plan of action will have to be to show up on their doorstep and say, “G’day, I was in the neighbourhood and wondered if you needed a hand.”

I’ll be saving costs and paperwork for the organisation and being a persistent bastard, they’ll have no choice but to let me help.

Of course, I need to get to Indonesia and its surroundings first.

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

WAX ON, WAX OFF

“I’m looking for work on boats, trying to gain experience,” I said as I stopped my bike beside the owner of a grey-hulled catalyst-sloop at the Dinah Cruising Yacht Association.

“Aw yea’,” replied the bearded skipper. “I gotta couple of hours tomorrow morning if you wanna swing by. Pay ya $20 an hour.”

Sweet! “Yeah, sounds good,” I replied, keeping down the excitement rising inside of me like a Darwin tide (7 meters!).

“I’m Rowan,” he stuck his hand out.

I shook it back, giving him my name when I noticed John, who runs the bar (and I reckon he manages the Dinah Cruising Yacht Association), next to his Harley Davidson

“I’m not giving up,” I grinned as I rode up to him.

“On life or something more specific?” he toked from his rolled up cigarette.

“On looking for work for passage,” I couldn’t stop smiling from scoring with Rowan.

“Come back in a couple of hours. I’ve got some work for ya. Need to sand out some rust and repaint the hull on my boat (hull = bottom of the boat visible above the water). Pay ya $15 an hour.”

Finally, after almost two weeks in Darwin getting no where with the boats, I scored two jobs in one day.

“See ya in a couple of hours,” I grinned, noticing the number plate on his motorbike – ‘Nomad’. Meant to be, I thought as I rode into the city for breakfast with a smile.

From where I ‘m staying with friends, it’s a 10-K ride to the Dinah Cruising Yacht Association. To the Darwin Sailing Club it’s 16 K’s. From Dinah to the sailing club it’s 3 K’s. From Dinah to Bayview Marina it’s 2 K’s and from Dinah to Tipperay Waters Marina it’s just up the road.

For the last two weeks, besides gaining calf muscles the size of crocodiles (and losing my weight in sweat), I had been riding twice a day to the marinas in search of work – morning and afternoon. I figured it’d be easier – and more respectful to the boat owners – that I come with some skill rather than none and to show that I’m willing to work hard and do my share.

NanyaI returned to Dinah after breakfast and moseyed on down to the poles where John’s boat was tied. The tide was out so the entire boat was on land.

“Bought her in Bali,” John reflected. “Sailed her down here. Now just fixing her up before I head out on me own adventures.”

“Reckon she’ll be ready for the Dilly race?” I fished around to see where and when he might be sailing.

“Nah, she’ll never be ready by then.”

And with that he gave me a pair of ear plugs, a dust mask and wrap-around shades that had seen better days. He taught me how to take the rust off the hull without taking the off hull.

“Just use the lead on the wire brush.” He explained why I was sanding her down after, “Gotta create what’s known as a ‘key’ for the paint to bond to.” He looked at my legs. “Want some bug spray?” he asked.

“Nah,” I replied firing up the wire brush. “That shit doesn’t work.”

John neglected to mention that there was indeed, an abundance of mosquitoes hanging around. Last time I was feasted on this much was when I camped by Jim Jim billabong in Kakadu National Park. Three hours later, with the clock ticking past three, John paid me for a good day’s work.

“You play bass guitar?” I had overheard him mention it last week when I came in looking for work.

“Yeah, you play anything?”

“Guitar.”

“You any good?”

“I’m not a shredder but I can play a tune.”

“We’ve got open mic night on Friday’s here. You should come down and play.”

Another strategy point to meet potential Indo-going skippers. If my music doesn’t scare them off first.

I enjoyed a beer at the bar and then Skye came by for a few drinks before we headed our separate ways. I hopped on the bike that Isabel had kindly let me use and pushed off tiredly along the road.

I enjoy biking around Darwin. For one thing, it’s flat. There are bike paths everywhere which are safely off the road. You only have to watch out for pedestrians who seem to possess the ability to actually move when a bike appears before them.

Unlike the ‘freeze mid-stride in the middle of the path’ city dwellers who are kind enough to let you, the rider, be the decider of how many curses to use (in as many languages as you know) as you fly off the path to avoid hitting them.

And there’s hardly any traffic in Darwin.

The only downside to riding a bike in Darwin is the extreme heat at 09:00 in the morning. And the humidity. And the scorching sun. There’s also the mozzies that presume you’re the free delivery dinner when riding at dusk.

And if you’re paranoid like me, then the parts of the path that have dense tropical plants growing beside (and over) them seem to be most fitting if I were a deadly snake-spider-dragon-sized lizard waiting to surprise a cyclist – even if it’s just for shits ‘n’ giggles.

The next day I rode back out to Dinah to work on Rowen’s boat.

“We need to buff her up with this,” he brought out a bottle of Q-Cut, a product that takes off everything that isn’t paint on the hull of a boat. “Then we’ll wax her with this,” Rowen brought out a bottle of wax – that was identical to the bottle of Q-Cut.

Seeing what would probably happen if I wasn’t paying attention, I separated the two and began work with the Q-Cut, starting from the stern and doing the whole port-side (port = left) while Rowan began the starboard-side (starboard = right).

Within an hour of work my upper body felt heavier, as though my shirt were stuck to my body. I looked down and noticed that it was completely drenched from my sweat. I guess holding a buffer weighing roughly 5-8 kilos over your head for a prolonged period of time will make you evaporate in 30 degree heat.

As the sun hit it’s peak just past noon (and Rowan had gone for his pre-appointed massage), I had waxed and polished the entire port-side.

By the time Rowan was back (at around 13:00) I had already begun the wax-on-wax-off process on the starboard side. My arms felt like rubber but by 15:00 I had finished the entire hull of what would soon be christened, ‘Thunderchild’.

“From the H.G. Wells novel, ‘War of the Worlds’,” explained Rowan, a 5-week-on-5-week-off commercial ship worker. “‘Thunderchild’ was the planet’s last hope in the story,” he grinned as he stared up at his pride and joy.

He’d been working on the boat for 7 years, yet to be put in the water.

“Where’s her maiden voyage too?” I asked, hoping he’d reply with Indonesia rather than,

“Me Mrs is pregnant so I’m gonna sail her down to Victoria where we’ll have the baby. After that hit the Pacific.”

Damn it. Still, I was working in the sun (which I haven’t done since 2004 – agriculture), gaining new skills on boats. And mingling with the right people.

“Help yourself to a cider, mate,” Rowan gestured to the ice box. “Done good work today.”

I grinned as I sipped from the Tasmanian-brewed ‘Mercury’ cider. Finishing up, I thanked Rowan and rode over to Skye’s place (she lives just behind the club). I had a shower at hers in preparation for that night’s trivia night at her workplace. But as soon as I sat down after the change of clothes, my body signalled to me that trivia night wasn’t going to happen.

“You alright?” Skye asked as I limped forward across the table.

“I thi I’m z-oh-ssed,” I mumbled.

“What?” she asked.

“Ex-haus-ted,” I managed to articulate with the same amount of energy it takes the sun to release a solar flare. “Don’t think trivia will happen for me tonight.”

She suggested I go home and get some rest and although she was kind enough to offer me a ride home, I insisted (for reasons unexplained) to ride the 10 K’s in my worn-down state.

I reached home at about 20:00 and was knocked-out in bed by 20:33.

I’m glad crocodiles don’t ride bikes, I thought as my eyes closed.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Australia, Northern Territory, Sailing, The Timor Sea | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

SWEETHEART, WE’RE GOING TO LITCHFIELD

The prospect of finding work on a boat to Indonesia was becoming frustrating. I had been to all the marinas in Darwin but to no avail. I decided I need a distraction, and nothing distracts better than a museum. Especially one that houses a 5.1 meter male saltwater crocodile named ‘Sweetheart’ (named for the lagoon it was hauled from – Sweets Lagoon) that had made a reputation for itself back in the mid-70’s.

IMG_2793Sweetheart had destroyed over 16 dingies, tinnies (aluminum boats) and outboard motors, (sending some of the owners into the water but he never harmed a human) during his 5-year reign of destruction (’74-’79) in the favoured fishing lagoon.

He was finally trapped and sedated with plans to relocate him to a crocodile farm for breeding. Unfortunately, the tranquilizer shut down his body’s anti-drowning abilities and getting entangled with a submerged log probably didn’t help either.

The crocodile drowned and his body donated to the Darwin Museum where it has been mounted since 1979.

 

At his time of capture, Sweetheart weighed 780 kg, had a 2.3 meter girth and a snout length (including vent) of 2.4 meters. Although he is not the largest crocodile ever caught, it’s still an impressive size for a 50-something year-old dinosaur.

From his mounted body, I went down to the display of the abundance of wildlife – past and present – that can and used to be found in the Northern Territory. Creatures like the Box Jellyfish (the only animal on the planet that can kill a human within 2-3 minutes), the Taipan (world’s deadliest land snake), venomous seaweeds and fish (painful with rare instances of death) and how the mangrove eco-system works.

I then walked through the Cyclone Tracy display, beginning with a replica family living room, passing through a pitch-black room with original recordings of the wind and flying debris from when the cyclone hit Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974 and finally stepped into the destructive aftermath that completely destroyed and flattened the city in a matter of hours with wind gusts of 260 km/h.

After Tracy moved on and eventually died out at sea, of the 48,000 people who called Darwin home at the time, the city was evacuated to 10,000 to reduce the spread of disease, looters and to make the clean up process a lot easier.

Building codes were changed and the new buildings had reinforced bathrooms that would act as cyclone shelters should it happen again.

What astounded me was the quick reaction of the government at the time and the complete rebuilding of the city of Darwin from it’s pancake state to what it has become today – a thriving, northern gateway to Australia.

Unlike a certain government’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina (I endured the tail-end of that horrific storm driving through the state of Kentucky) where whole New Orleans neighbourhoods still show the affects of the aftermath to this day – and not for display purposes.

The museum ended with a maritime display of large boats and indigenous canoes that were used from previous centuries to trade with the Top End of Australia.

That evening we (the family) headed out to the Mindil Beach market. Hundred’s of food stalls, home-made jewellery, clothes, garden displays, tours to the national parks and a whip-master who, using two whips simultaneously, cracked a rhythmic tune around his head with live music provided in the large grassy area along with a jumping castle to preoccupy the kids. IMG_2801

IMG_2792A band was set up opposite the public toilets, at the west-end of the market, parallel to the beach. A high-end jungle-drum ‘n’ bass group called eMDee that play sounds using just two instruments: A homemade drum kit built by drummer Lucas Bendel that seemed to comprise at least fifty different percussion pieces (including bicycle spokes!) and a 4-piece didgeridoo mastered by Mark Hoffman.

Although I’m not into their genre of music, I had listened to an album at the house and enjoyed it as it wasn’t the heavy kind of drum ‘n’ bass but rather the play-it-in-the-background-and-smile kind of easy-going lounge music.

They played a half-hour set (that went for 45 minutes) which had hundreds of people head-bobbing in the small area that surrounded them. It had the local indigenous people dancing into a frenzied sweat. I was spellbound by the drum kit and Lucas’ talent.

The night ended with some free watermelon that a fruit stall gave us as they were shutting down and ridding themselves of everything they couldn’t keep fresh (the market is held twice a week – Thursday and Sunday nights during the dry season).

With the long weekend coming up to celebrate the Queen’s birthday (who was born in April – don’t ask), we had plans to visit Litchfield National Park.

Friday morning we were supposed to have left the house by 08:00 to beat the crowds. When I woke up at 08:21 I had a feeling that it would be a later departure than planned.

We hit the road at 10:30 after packing Damo, Izzie and their two adorable kids into the car.

The 140 K drive south started by taking the turn-off from the Sturt Highway to the Sturt Highway (seriously, don’t ask). An hour and a half later we had entered the Litchfield National Park (named after Frederick Henry Litchfield who was a member of the Finniss Expedition from South Australia in 1864).

P1020987Litchfield attracts a quarter of a million visitors per year due to its proximity to Darwin. Well, that and its abundance of waterfalls, swimming holes and bush walks. We passed through Batchelor, a small township regarded as the ‘gateway’ to the park and a further half hour drive through wooded roads brought us to Wangi Falls with a large plunge pool.

We could hear the falls from the car park as we gathered our bags. We camped ourselves under the shade of a tall, leafy tree, just off the banks of the pool.

I suited up with my snorkel and underwater camera and headed out for a swim, passing under great white arachnids hanging mid-air in the center of their webs. The water was colder than most of the places I had swum in during my time in the Northern Territory.

 

The occasional silver-haired tour groups popped in, made a splash and, at the call of their guide, disappeared and left the 20 or so travellers to nature’s soundtrack of a thundering waterfall to the far right while on the left was a slimmer trickling splash of water.

A large sandbar rose in the middle, its deepest point might have been 2-3 meters at most. The plunge pool had two very deep sections to either side of the sandbar (the pool’s deepest point is 14 meters), kinda like a continental shelf.

I swam about, observing in awe at the amount of tree bark sprawled out around the sandbar, whole trunks and P1020999branches looming up from the dark depths. The sun’s rays crowding around me as my shadow blocked the rest out. I swam above large catfish and zipped out of the way of some mid-sized barramundi (I think).

Smaller fish had come up to me, one daring to inspect my feet, barely budging as I moved my leg, expecting it to zip off (I guess when a quarter of a million people visit each year you get used to the constant flow of guests).

I swam towards the large waterfall, grappling at the red rock wall that encased it. I clambered along and sat under the water, assuming that the volume of water would flatten me. I was surprised when its gentle cascades provided a tolerable neck and shoulder massage.

I headed back along the rock wall to the smaller water fall and climbed up to a 3-meter deep water hole that had luke-warm water and room for no more than two people at a time. I found myself alone in the hole, the bottom blocked by large rocks that must have fallen in. About 15 meters above my head were green hanging vines over a dark, cave-like entrance, where another small waterfall flowed into the darkness.

I swam back to the camp and enjoyed a sandwich of curried eggs that Izzie had made. They had just dressed the kids in their bathers and flotation devices and after we all ate, I headed back in with them. We swam over to a large pile of submerged logs that we could sit on. My feet were itching for a hike so I clambered back out, smashing my left knee on the first step, not realising that this was the ledge.

I hobbled out and headed to the track that would take me up to the top of the water falls and back down on the other side.

As I hiked, I passed a huge Golden Orb spider that hung with infinite patience in the centre of its web. A sign next to it explained that the females grew to 5 cm (but add in the leg-span and they become the size of a dinner plate) while the males only grow to 5 mm (with this species of arachnid the males usually survive the mating procedure).

I continued up through the jungle-like forest that blocked out some of the sun but not the flies.

Or the mosquitoes.

I slapped at one and then another. As I climbed higher and the temperature changed from the humid shoot-me-now swamp warmth to a cooler, I-could-live-here climate, I was left only to deal with flies that had bright orange abdomens. And like most Aussie flies, they were as persistent as a Middle Eastern market stall holder.

Water flowed in secret creeks through rotting logs and clusters of trees, collecting in small pools before continuing downstream. At the top, small rock pools gave the deceptive notion of calm waters even though just a few meters downstream it suicided itself off the cliff to the Wangi plunge pool below.

As I headed back down and the climate changed again to facilitate blood-thirsty mosquitoes, I returned to the camp site where I enjoyed a cold beer with Damo. We headed back to the water and, letting Damo use my snorkel, I did what I enjoyed the most – I dived down and swam underwater for as long as I could hold my breath (my personal best is 2 minutes back when I was 16. Nowadays, I’ve been clocked at just over a minute), chasing fish and avoiding head-butting the submerged logs.

As the family continued swimming about, taking their kids all the way to the water fall. I headed out for a second beer and relaxed on a rock, sunning myself like a lizard.

The sun started its decent over the horizon when we began to pack up. We drove a few kilometres down the road to where the Magnetic Termite mounds were.P1030040

Magnetic Termites are so called because the tiny ants build their huge mounds on a north-to-south axis of the sun so they don’t get cooked from the extreme heat the area attracts. According to scientists, these termites have a built in magnetic compass that allows them to build in accordance to the sun’s position so that they always have a shaded area in their colony.

One mound, called a Cathedral mound due to its towering 5-meters, is believed to be over 50 years old.

As the sun set over a long but enjoyable day I passed out in the back seat along with the kids as Damo drove us back to Darwin.

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DARWINISM

I woke up just past 07:00 and joined Greg, Lyn and the German motorcyclist in the communal kitchen preparing breakfast. I invited them all to try my coffee (which they loved) and after ‘goodbyes’ I left Jabiru with an air of excitement: Darwin was closer than it had ever been and I could feel that phase one of my journey was about to come to an end with phase two just a kickstart away.

I drove out to the Bowali Culture Center to learn more about the local clans, animals and to ask about further swimming places.

“There aren’t any places to swim,” said the woman behind the counter.

“Not even at Twin Falls?” I asked.

“The road is closed,” she replied.

“Nooo!” I said without hiding my disappointment. “Really?”

“And so are all of these roads,” she pointed at every track in the northern part of the park.

I stared blankly at the map. “So, essentially, you’re saying there’s not much to do between here and Darwin.”

She shook her head. “We have the wetlands and heaps of birds that migrate here if that’s your thing.”

It wasn’t. I mean, I like birds, I admire them – especially birds of prey like the wedge-tailed eagle, the white bellied sea eagle and the black kite (which were in abundance like the pigeons of New York – especially in Mataranka. Watching them circle over the roads made me wonder if they even bother to learn to hunt anymore as they’re always munching on some roadkill) but other than that, I wasn’t really a bird man. I figured I’d check out the display and decide what I’ll do next.

I walked around reading about how I can check out more information about the local clans at the Warradjan Culture Center. This center focused more on the animals with life-sized models, pictures and stories and a croc skeleton. An interesting section was the part where you felt as though you were walking through a billabong – underwater – with the typical animals that reside there (oddly enough, not one mention of the abundance of mosquitoes).

There was a 4-meter crocodile hanging from the ceiling so you could see what it was like from the depths of their watery world.P1020972

An hour later I stepped back into the sun and headed towards Darwin. I stopped at the Anbangbang wetland with its bird lookout. I crept up to the platform that hung over the water and searched (while swiping away flies and mozzies) for a croc. Anything that was remotely dark in shadow became a croc [and I would never know if it were just a shadow, log or rock (most of them turned out to be black birds)].

Just past noon my stomach began to growl. I reached the Aurora Kakadu Hotel where I fueled up and decided to walk around the billabong. It was a 3.8 K trek round trip that began by the camping grounds.

I walked through a thick wooded track, arousing butterflies that dodged me at the last-minute, raising the alarm for mosquitoes to buzz me (the butterfly effect). I shuddered and wiped off every cobweb that I encountered (I mistook a curl of my hair for a leg of a spider and froze mid-stride). I slapped at every fly that landed on me and scared off a red kangaroo. I skipped over a Huntsman spider (which looked dead but I didn’t stick around to find out) which lay right in the middle of the walking track. I hopped over ants nests and when I reached the water I stopped at the sign that read: ‘Crocodiles have been sighted close to the walking tracks. Use extreme caution’.

Of course, I was the only human around (if a croc attacks in a billabong and there’s no one around to hear it, do you still make a sound?) so I switched to stealth mode and walked quietly by the water, watching everything.

The amount of mosquitoes and flies had me beeline for the metal chain gangway that went out over the lily covered water. I searched long and hard and could not find a crocodile although the eerie sense that something was definitely out there did not surpass (I was probably just paranoid but still).

I realised that my search to find and see a saltwater crocodile in its wild element would not happen for me in Australia.

Might find one of y’all when I hit Africa, I thought to myself.

I made it out safely and found my way through the camping grounds to my car. I drove off to find the nearest park with shade and picnic tables. I found what I wanted at Mary’s River Park where I boiled up a couple of sweet corn cobs to add to my tuna salad.

Feeling sleepy I tried to nap (which the flies were completely against) so I brewed up a cup of strong coffee that kept me going to Darwin.

As I hit the city’s light traffic I began to smile which widened into a grin as the past 17 days flashed in my head like a powerpoint slideshow: The drive from Melbourne, all the amazing people that I had met and befriended, all the natural wonders I hiked through, swam through, relaxed in, the 5,000 kilometers of road that my little car endured and didn’t once complain.

IMG_2785I was laughing by the time I reached my friends place where I was fed my first home-cooked meal of chicken tacos and slept in the first proper bed since the Millards had so wonderfully hosted Cookie and I way back south in Kulpara.

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