Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Top End and The Land of Never Never

As we drive North from Alice Springs toward Darwin there is a sign, about 20 km into our trip. It is the Tropic of Capricorn. As important as that might be, the girls choose not to get out of the car. I learned in school a hundred years ago about the imaginary lines on the map, the Equator, the latitudes and longitudes. The tropics. Yeah.

The Tropic of Capricorn

After that for the next 1100 km there is nothing. The drive is on the "Stuart Highway", roughly the same path that Mr. Stuart used 140 years ago, exploring the outback and establishing the telegraph line. Every 1-2 hours there is one roadhouse, source of water, alcohol and fuel. Besides that, desert, but the outback we came to expect, a lot of vegetation on the red ground. I call it vegetation, some might call it bushes, it is mostly spinifex, a fire resistant sort of grass that is toxic to most animals but some sort of mice. It is warm during the day but not too bad. At one point we see a mango farm for sale. At another point there might have been a vineyard. Or maybe not.
After the first 400 km there is a sign for the "Devils Marbles", interesting rocks in the middle of nowhere. Like formations that we saw in the Red Center, they have a geological explanation, it makes sense, supplementing some scarce information about the religious and cultural significance to the "original aboriginal owners."

Devils Marbles

Devils Marbles
The first resemblance of a town comes after another 100 km, Tennant Creek. We refuel but are advised to spent the night within the walled confines of a holiday park, because "the blacks" are known to drink too much and can become agitated and noisy. We drive further to the "Three Way", the only major intersection in the Outback, where the road toward Queensland meets the Stuart Highway.

On the second day we have another 650 km to go. Flocks of tiny birds flicker in front of the car for several seconds. The vultures hang a little bit longer. Slowly some tiny whitey shades appear on the sky, slowly they would grow bigger and bigger. In the same time, almost imperceptibly, the bushes grow bigger and bigger until hours later they come to resemble trees. Then the trees grow stronger, taller and denser. This is the transition from the desert to the tropics, in the front seats we experience it gradually in the course of the morning. When we arrive at Mataranka, the children get their heads out the books and are surprised by the dramatic change in scenery. When did we get in the jungle?
Sometimes you don't realize when the desert changes to jungle

Rover river in Elsey National Park
There is a famous book in the Australian literature "We of the Never Never", written by Jeannie Gunn. They made a movie after it, and they have the house built for the movie set, next to the parking lot at Mataranka. I would read the book a little later and marvel at the description of life in the beginning of the 20th century. This lady was the first white woman to make it here. Elsey National Park was then the Elsey cattle ranch, the lady followed her husband and gave the first account of how it was back then. It was a tough life, but those people loved it and would not have changed it for anything. They had all their possessions on their back and loved the free life, they even became philosophical when talking about it "next worst thing to being chained up was for a dog to drag a chain round when being out for a run." She only spent one year here, it was special and "cattle have died this year that never died before."
The Mataranka Homestead recreated for the movie

This upper part of the Australian Continent is a beautiful but difficult place to be. Six month per year it rains, they call this time "the Wet". The next six month, no rain, they call it "the Dry". When it rains it rains, sometimes for many days in a row, tropical storms, apocalyptical floods, that would cover everything in water. During the dry the scorching heat makes life almost impossible, wild fires would burn everything to ashes. The aboriginals, who think they were here since the beginning of times, have always started fires at the beginning of the dry, it would prevent some of the bigger fires later. They describe five or six different seasons and they figured out ways to make a pretty good life. When "the whites" came, they thought they could use these lands for cattle grazing, the farms were the size of European countries. They competed for the limited resources, occasionally having conflicts. We would learn more about this as we went further north.
Small fires cleaning up the grass in the wetlands
Somebody else looking for crocodiles

We learnt about crocodiles. The freshwater ones are small, inoffensive unless disturbed. The saltwater ones, also called estuarine, are huge, violent and dangerous beasts. They were all hunted almost to extinction, but lately they are protected and made a resurgence. We arrived here in the first official week of the dry. Maybe a bit too early, during the wet, estuarine crocodiles move around freely and can end up in places where they shouldn't be. The rangers close the natural pools during the wet and only reopen them after they made sure there are no bad crocodiles. In Elsey's we saw the first "plunge pool". We couldn't swim there, they didn't clear it yet. We had a good lunch using the picnic gear that came with the van.
Picnic in Elsey National park

Mataranka Hot Pools
We moved the car a few kilometers to the hot pools. Despite being crowded it was nice to soak and swim in the natural warm springs of Mataranka. When we left, we passed by the gas station and the sign warning us that there is no other facility for 106 km. I checked, we had another third of the tank full. When we had 60 km left the warning lamp came on. It would make for an interesting hour. I slowed down significantly and didn't touch anything on the car, trying to conserve the fuel. Hard to describe those moments, but when I filled up at the gas station I was able to put 76.66 liters in a 75 liters tank. Like Ileana said, the last few minutes we rode on fumes of gas, the tank was surely empty.
Katherine is "a big city" in the Top End. It has almost 9000 people, that is huge. It has several gas stations a visitor center and a supermarket. We only stayed for a few minutes and decided to go on, we had another 30 km to the Nitmiluk National Park, otherwise known as the Katherine Gorge. It is one of the most famous attractions in the whole of Australia. There are 13 gorges, pretty nice. We took the touristic boat for the first two. There is a longer trip, going to three gorges, but there were no more seats available on that. People might also rent kayaks and explore all the gorges in several days but I think the short trip is enough to get an idea. As a traditional area of the Jawoyn tribe, it was returned to them and they administer it along with the National Park rangers. We learned a bit of their legends and habits. The most interesting is what I would call "fishing by mangrove." They call the mangroves "fish poison," they throw mashed leaves of mangroves in a pool. That would take enough of the oxygen out of the water that the fish would faint. When fish faint they turn belly up on the surface of the water. The aboriginals collect enough fish for their meal and then send the young children to play in the water. The kids splash and play and in the process re-oxygenate the water, the faint, left over fish would recover and go on by their business until the next fishing day would come. Amazing isn't it?
Plenty of wallabies in the Nitmiluk National park
Entering the second pool at Katherine Gorge

The iconic second pool image

During floods the water can go up another 15 meters

Tough environment - only a few flowers around

We spent some more time at the visitor center, here we were even allowed to take pictures, then went on to the other end of the park, the famous "Edith Falls". Another plunge pool where we could have swum under the falls, unfortunately it was not yet opened. We just soaked our toes in the water, watched for crocodiles and took on further up the road.
Watching for crocodiles...

What I liked most at Edith Falls

It's been a dream of ours for many years to get to Kakadu National Park. We knew something about it, the name was easy to remember. I didn't plan for us to get there, it was an open schedule, depending on how our ride north would go. It is huge, half of Switzerland, and difficult to access, especially at this time of the year. The season was about to start, but with the campervan, most of the roads would not be accessible to us, and we didn't have too much time. We made it!

As we left Edith Falls, we refueled in Pine Creek and took on the Kakadu highway. I mention this, because in the 1870, Pine Creek was a major gold mining place, the train got here from Darwin (!), while Katherine was just a settlement with a few families and one pub. Now, with the touristic park, Katherine is a "city", while Pine Creek is a little sleepy village of 500 with a few rusted engines in a mining museum and a run down gas station. They have a sign as "gateway to Kakadu," but I doubt many people notice that. The park is still 150 km away. As we drove on, we learned from leaflets and guidebooks what we might be able to see. Basically Kakadu is a unique ecosystem developed over 200 million years and inhabited by traditional aboriginal tribes over the past 50000. That includes the last glacial age, with a lot of water caught in glaciers at the poles the ocean level was lower and the land of Australia extended another 300 km north from here! There is an extraordinary diversity of wild life in the vast park, and in places, cultural icons from at least 20000 years ago. It is a Wold Heritage site for both its natural and cultural marvels. But that is not easily discovered and we only got a glimpse of it. Having quite low expectations helped, in the end we were pretty happy with what we saw.

A cultural center, interesting exhibition and a gift shop where Ileana would buy a T-shirt
"Two months after my birthday, I finally get a T-shirt!"

Nourlangie area

They have some pretty big spiders around here

Rock paintings, some as old as 20000 years, some fairly recent

Angbangbang gallery

Talk about a tough climb

This was a road open for traffic. We turned around

Flooded forest with extra light

Ileana liked another campervan better. It had a stair and she could sing as loud as she wanted

Wetland flora

I haven't seen many people from Romania around here!!!
We spent two nights, in Cooinda and Jabiru, we visited the Bowali Visitor Center and the Nourlangie region. We returned, smartly, from the flooded road toward Ubir and got out of the park through the northern Arnhem Highway. Besides the wetlands vegetation we only saw a bird or two, but it was good nonetheless. Before we knew it, we were out of the park, and getting back on the Stuart Highway we were now driving South toward Litchfield.

As people prepare for a trip in the Top End they hear a lot about Litchfield National Park. Being much smaller and much more accessible matters. The scenery is much more varied than Kakadu, it is simply said, something different. There are a few falls, termite mounds and tracks in the wilderness. The magnetic termite mounds are perfectly aligned north to south, designed to protect the insects from the huge seasonal changes. They rise to heights of 5 meters, huge, huge, huge. The most beautiful fall, Wangi, was closed for swimming, these crocodiles again. But we swum in the Cascades and Ioan and I even went in the plunge pool at Florence falls. It was a good trip. Before we knew it we saw everything we aimed for, with two nights left until our flight to Bali. Time to go to Darwin!
A fifty year old magnetic termite mound

Wangi Falls

Wangi Falls detail

A Litchfield park spider 

The lower Cascades

Florence Falls from above

Florence Falls at water level

Magnetic mounds field (just a little section)

1 comment:

  1. Amazing! Stark and beautiful. Thanks for taking me along. :) 'Hope you are all well.

    Mary Ellen


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