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 Way Out

We’re looking for a place to spend the night. “If you want to sleep in town you have to go to a gated camping. The blackies drink too much and cause problems” says a well intended white. We press on a little further, at Three Ways, where one of the campers is not happy, we should have backed in our lot. It is something that we are going to see in all the camps, we’re supposed to follow the rules, but we’re not very good at it. Water here has a yellow tint, a metallic taste, but it is clear and safe to drink. It is brought with cisterns and kept in huge drums. It is free! Or you could buy a plastic bottle and have it on your conscience, because there is no recycling outside big cities. 
The straight road isn’t fun. We have 700 km to drive until we stop for the night. There is nothing that catches our eye: grass, shrubs, an occasional tree. But at the end of the day we realize we have some clouds, there are more trees (and they’re not eucalyptus), flocks of birds that fly in the sun, and many hawks eating roadkill. Driving after sunset is not recommended, not because there are no lights to see the road, but for the animals, who, after the heat of the day, become active and start foraging. You don’t want to have a collision with a euro (a big kangaroo), or to flatten a possum or a wallaby. And beside this, if you have an accident, there’s no one who can help you until morning.
As we’re driving, we pass through small communities, the petrol station (gas is for cooking), the grocery store, some disheveled looking houses. The few people sit where the action iswaiting on a bench, looking at you as you get down from the car, as you fuel, scrutinizing the way you walk, talk, your gestures, looking for something to remember, to have something to talk about long after you’re gone.

We stop at the Mataranka hot pools. They are surrounded by large tall trees, stations for the flying fox bats, on their way of following the flowering season. 

As soon as we enter the forest the air changes, more humid, more fragrant, full of sounds. My mind searches for an explanation: why are the hot pools hot? There is no geothermal activity here, no history of it... It is a misnomer, they are not hot, just warm. In the Wet, the rainy season, the water is soaked up in the hundreds of miles of sandstone, to be released here, after being warmed by the rock. A string of three blue pools, steps on one side, mossy rock and vegetation on the other. The first one, the deepest and warmest, is occupied with elder people, one of them having his oxygen bottle. Some Czechs and a family with a happy, questioning boy and a tiny daughter were admiring a huge spider in the second. 

These are BIG spiders

We can’t wait to take our clothes off and change that sticky feeling. One step, another one, careful not to slip ... the water is soft, an incredible sensation, like caressing liquid fingers. We move around the occasional rock, exploring the borders, looking at our toes, swimming under water. It feels so good to be here...

Refreshed, we continue toward Katherine Gorge. When something goes wrong, you look back and try to find the mistake, but I can’t find ours. Water and fuel are essential in the Outback. You can’t find them on the side of the road and the next living station is tens of kilometers away. The water reservoir was full, and we had a third of gas tank for 160 km (100 miles), so maybe you understand our surprise when the red light decorated the dashboard with 60 km to go. We didn’t know the RV’s specifications, how long can we drive after the light turns on, it’s supposed to be a new car and the gauge to function. Mihai immediately changed the driving style, lowering the speed, accelerating slowly, not passing. My mind raced: there were few cars, would they stop to help us, maybe they were carrying cans with diesel, or they could take Mihai in town to buy there, do they sell small cans for diesel and so forth. The sun was setting and I had visions of the campervan on the side of the road with just the desert around. The kilometers were rolling very slowly, and though we entered Katherine a few minutes ago, we still had a long way to the fuel station. I think the last hundred of yards we rode on fumes. “Which one do you want—the one on the left or on the right?” Mihai asks casually and I realize he is right, we could choose, seeing that there are two facing gas stations. Euphoria sets in, making the children wonder what happened with us.
Now it’s my turn to watch them, perched up in my vantage car seat. People walk barefoot, dressed scantily. They spring up after the heat of the day, going about their businesses. I’m more curious about the Aboriginal people. They are apart. I would like to have a magic window, to look through it and see their way of life, their rules of behavior, their dwellings, in the village or in town, to understand their society. Then I feel guilty: they are people, not exhibits! 
I would get a glimpse as we stop to buy groceries. On the walls there are slogans like “Don’t drink your money, do this!” Some are dressed clean and nice, some look like they just got out of a fight. There is a smell around them, of sweat and fire-smoke. And as we get out of the parking lot, a drunken couple sits on the tarmac and laments. Between two civilizations there are those who don’t know which one to choose.
We spend the night at Katherine Park. Wallabies are grazing around us, like it’s the normal thing to do. Hey, they’re seeing tourists every night, it’s us who marvel at their eyes and feet and way of walking!

In the morning we take our time to get ready. The park is big, with plenty of things to do that require time and energy, but we don’t have time so we choose to see the visitor center and take a cruise on the first two gorges. People come here for vacation or for the weekend, trek all 13 gorges or canoe through them, enjoy the natural beauty of the place.
On the boat, elder people and one family with two small children, our RV neighbors. Turning around to look for his children, he found them playing with a string in the dust. “YOU were supposed to stay CLEAN for ten minutes!” The guide tells us about the Jawoyn, the people who lived here, he shows us some crocodiles (their homes marked with colored plastic balls), points to some trees (when their bark changes from white into red, the seasons change). 

The gorge came into being in the Dreamtime, one snake made it happen and he still lives in the deepest part of it, coming up for punishing the greedy fishermen or those who don’t respect the rules of skin groups and intermarriage (a child inherits a skin group from his mother, and another identification name from his father, both dictating whom he can marry). We float between sheer cliffs and sandy beaches, but we are not impressed. Not even when we had to walk to get to the second gorge. 

Since we finished so quickly, we decide to see Edith Falls. In the sky there are cumulus clouds regularly spaced like they came out from a factory. 

On the sides of the road grass 3 meters (10 feet) tall waves in the wind. It is beautiful. The waterfall is short and slanted, emptying itself in a lake where we wiggle our toes, admire the striped fish and watch for those evil crocodiles. Fresh water crocodiles are OK, they will not attack you, but the salt water ones...They grow big, strong, territorial.
Kakadu National Park. Finally. It is a large territory encompassing a diverse land and its waters. Life is made easier for us: because we have a 6 bed RV we can drive only on the sealed roads and that leaves us just enough to explore. Add to this the flooded ones and we’re almost without options.

Visitor Centers are the place to be. They are air conditioned! Outside there are 35 degrees Celsius combined with water vapor and kamikaze flies who enter your mouth as soon as you open it. For the last one we have solution: the nets, lovingly sewn by myself. 

These are hiding, waiting for a good opportunity. 

Here we learn that Aborigines have five or six seasons. 

From 6 o'clock, clockwise,  Gudjewg (monsoon), Banggereng (harvest time), Yegge (cooler but still humid), Gurrung (hot dry time), Wurrgeng (cool dry season), Gunumeleng (pre-monsoon season)

We see the bags, the baskets, the mats woven from palm fibers, colored with natural ingredients, the many kinds of fish traps, the everyday tools for hunting, digging, all gifts (and the knowledge to make them) from the Dreamtime ancestors.
 We read about working for the cattle farmers, catching the calves, branding them, in exchange for tobacco and alcohol and later, for the uranium mine, the protests against it ignored. Again I realize that the differences between those cultures, Aboriginal and European, are big. One stays with me: burned fields are a sore eye for the white man, destroyed vegetation,

 but for the native it is a beauty, it is the signal for new growth, new life.

Anbangbang is a teaching place. We walk between towering stones and look for painted figurines. 

Namarrgong is the Lightning Man (the one that has antennas down to his feet) and Barrginj is his wife (her body is white and she has two round eyes). Their son is Aljurr (the big guy in the middle), and for those who can’t see him as a spirit, he looks like a brightly red and blue colored grasshopper. The people here are a group family going to a party. And you can fish that kind of fish nearby.

We stop at the Mamukala (Mar-moo-car-lar) Wetlands. In front of us is a carpet of water with big blue lotus flowers and small white ones. Behind it, a forest of old lotus leaves, witness of Wet’s height. A hawk flies down to catch a fish, but only washes its talons. Though is late in the day, there are plenty of birds to watch stepping dainty on the round leaves. Dragonflies add their hum to the incessant sound. 

The scenery is so different; we entered a grassland and we exit through a marsh. 

Jabiru, a bird 6 feet tall!

We drive toward Litchfield Park, another wonderful space. It is like someone collected interesting waterfalls and their pools, and merged the rocks. 

Wangi Falls (One-guy)

But our first stop is at the termite mounds, brown “icebergs” sheltering endless tunnels, air shafts and the graves of past workers. The colony lives underground, subsisting on grass. There are many kinds of termites, you can see from the shapes of the mounds, though the guide books will tell you only about magnetic ones. No, they don’t attract metal, they are merely built on a North-South axis, exposing the least amount of wall to the sun.

A fifty years old colony.

You could consider this park the backyard for Darwin. People drive here in hordes in the weekend, sleep in tents and bathe in its waterfalls. It is quiet now because not all the pools are open, there might be some crocodiles left. We spend a glorious morning in the Cascades, terraced waterfalls where you can get a deep tissue massage, cool in deep blue water and play with pink sand. The boys will try their skill at Florence Falls too, still, the fishes swam better then them.

Darwin, a phoenix city, razed by Hurricane Tracy on Christmas Day, 1974 has new buildings with roofs anchored to the foundation.

Those upside down tripods are tethering the roof.

 It has a modern feeling. We visit the waterfront, with empty white sand beaches. You can’t take a bath, there are poisonous stingrays. The streets are almost deserted, just a few people braving the heat.
Next is the museum, and as you guessed, we start with the native part. We learn that the land’s tribes made themselves a flag in the 60‘s, to claim back their land (because that’s what captain Cook did, claiming Australia with a flag for the British Crown). Now they are recognized as the original landowners, but they live somewhere else. There is a sculpture of a mermaid, the feminine version of the Rainbow Snake in the Dreaming. We learn about burial poles, that are hollow logs painted and decorated, that will protect the bones, after the body was exposed in open air. The art is simple, fluid, with cross-hatching, rarrk, the more dense, the more ancestral power in the place that it depicts.  

There is a painting by Kathleen Petyarre, Storm in Atnangker II that mesmerizes me: white dots, ochre dots, rotating on a brick background.

Courtesy of Museums and Art Galleries of Northern Territory.

We walk through the exhibit about that Christmas Day, with videos and sounds and pictures and how it changed surroundings and people. And another, made by students with wires, paper, photos, clothes and paintings, expressing the same things: feelings, moods, grace but in a fresh way. Why do we have to leave the museum?
Because we’re hungry! We eat at Mindil’s Market, a conglomeration of stalls with clothes, jewelry, knickknacks and food, next to the beach where we could watch the sunset. And because we need to pack our bags, as we are leaving for Bali the next day.
Australia, such a young country, still carrying the old ideas of the British Empire, changing from white supremacy to self determination, such differences between metropolis and village, such diversity, desert to wetland, mountain to beach, so many things to experience and learn about, so little time. Thank you for everything!
The aborigines don’t like to say good bye, but “See you!” 
Boo-boo Australia!

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