Read further for my adventures in the Australian Outback at The Good Men Project.
Read further for my adventures in the Australian Outback at The Good Men Project.
The Goodmen Project are re-publishing my adventures. Check out their amazing website, changing the men think, behave and having that conversation no one else is having with or about men.
This one’s about my time being almost carried away by mosquitoes while camping in Kakadu National Park. Enjoy
I’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.
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.
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.
Sweetheart 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.
A 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).
Litchfield 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 branches 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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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!’.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
I 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.
After 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.
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 as 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…
Three 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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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 Melbourne 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.
The 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 ourselves 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.
Daly 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.
The piercing howl of a dingo erupted in the dark of night as I roasted marshmallows 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.
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.”
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.
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.
At 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.
“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.