Sunday, July 15, 2007

Days 9 to 11: Kakadu and Litchfield

Day 9 saw us learning about termite mounds. Termites need to keep their temperature to 31 degrees C and the shape of their mounds helps them do that. First up were the Cathedral mounds, named for their 'buttresses'. Most of the very big mounds have disappeared, as it was discovered that ground up termite mound made an excellent runway surface during WW2.

Next up was the magnetic mound, found away from trees in full sun. They align themselves to get full sun in the morning and evening and less sun at midday when the sun is overhead.

There was a third kind that I never photographed - the kind you find at the base of trees. Contrary to what you might think, these termites 'help' the trees by eating out the old wood in the centre: it makes the trees more flexible when cyclones blow so they can bend rather than just break under the onslaught. These termite-eaten branches are what genuine didgeridoos are made from as well.

At 4pm we were due for a cruise on the Mary River. This was wonderful. There was an absolute abundance of both saltwater and freshwater crocs. Yikes! Lots of birdlife as well. Our tour guide was quite a birdwatcher and he found a new one for his 'list' today. It was interesting watching how the various birds moved around the crocs that lay sunning themselves on the banks.

Day 10 brought a swim in what must rate as one of the best swimming holes I have ever been in: the top pools in Barramundi Gorge ( Maguk). You can swim in the lower pool: 'they' have done surveys and *think* there are no salties in there. But our guide preferred to get us to walk up a bit to the top pools. Soooooo worth it. Views were spectacular again. So were the pools. You let yourself into the first deep pool... swam across to a few more rocks and crossed them into a second pool, then swam between some tall rocks into the third section where there was a waterfall splashing down. Just superb!

Day 10 afternoon we went to Nourlangie Rock. On our walk here we saw Aboriginal art. There was not much 'old' art as you might expect in other places. The rock walls were often used to teach children, or leave messages, and new bits just got scribbled over the top of old bits.
We climbed up on this walk to get a wonderful viewpoint over Kakadu. In the distance we could see an escarpment that used to be where the coastline was. Also, our guide pointed out where they are mining for uranium. "Safe" they say, but there have been cases of radiation sickness hushed up according to our guide, from the tailings.

Here is our group posing at Jim Jim Falls, before quite a few swam in the icy-cold waters. The view they got close up of the waterfalls sounded amazing, but I decided to pass this chance up!
Very last thing was did before heading back to Darwin was go to Fog Dam wetland. This was 'man-made': it was originally set up to try rice farming... but birds came and ate the rice... so they forgot about the rice and left it to develop as a wetland. Magic place. So many birds.

Back to Darwin, then a marathon trip home. Flight left Darwin at 1.30am (groan) - but amazingly, I slept for most of the flight to Sydney, and was only woken by the noises / smells of breakfast being served. We landed at 6.06am , just as the airspace was reopened for the day. Maybe we were the first plane, or maybe the plane from Perth just beat us... Then at 9.10am I left for Wellington, to arrive into a wet, windy and cold southerly!!!!! Had to wait for the train with no waiting room there anymore, but at least the cold kept me awake. Arrived home at 8pm, 'ready' for work the next day!!!!!

OK that is the last of the photos I will post. Might write more when I get a chance. We did lots that I haven't even mentioned. It was a wonderful trip.

Days 6 to 8: Alice Springs to Darwin

I have to be a bit quicker with these postings today as I need to get ready for the return to school tomorrow! First photo shows us at the Tropic of Capricorn.... a pre sunrise shot at about 7am.

Our driver joked that we were on the "servo tour" to Darwin... ("servo" being the oz word for petrol stations.)
We had some 1500km to cover in 3 days.

These next two shots were taken at "Devil's Marbles". These are old granite rocks that overtime have eroded along cracks.

Banka Banka station was our campsite for Day 6. Big open spaces. Here is a tree at sunset taken at our campsite.

Our campsite outside Katherine on Day 8 felt very remote.... especially when we arrived to find it surrounded by fire!!!! However, it was a 'controlled burn'. We passed many of these over the next few days as we reached the "Top End". Aboriginal people have used fire for tens of thousands of years. Some trees need fire to help their seeds germinate alive. Many trees are fire tolerant. Some non fire-tolerant trees take over if they are not controlled. And a big reason up here for 'spot' burning at this time of year, early in the 'dry season', is that it protects against devastating huge wildfires later in the year. The controlled fires are lit under Aboriginal guidance when the grass etc is at the right point to catch but then burn itself out, as the burn is quite "cold". Later in the year, the fires become much hotter and more engulfing. Anyhow, it was a little strange going to bed knowing there had been fires right close to our campsite during the day.... but all was well.

The last photo here is here just because my mother's maiden name was Lalor!

And I have no photos of the most exciting part of these three days: on Day 9 we had only 300 or so km to get to Darwin.... and we spent three hours in the morning, canoeing on the Katherine Gorge. Wonderful! They had containers for gear that you could take on board the kayak.... but I am such a klutz I fully expected to overturn the kayak at some stage getting in or out of it. The kayak was more stable than a canoe though so I never managed that! I am quite glad I never overturned it: there are freshwater crocs in the Gorge. OK OK I know these ones can't kill us like the salties... but if I accidentally annoyed one.... Katherine Gorge had not been reopened for canoeing that long either. In the wet season there are huge floods in this part of Oz, and the salt water crocs manage to swim into other waterways, as they can actually survive in both salt and very low-salt waters. They do thorough surveys / trapping etc before they reopen Katherine Gorge each year..... but......

Finally we arrived in Darwin to stay at the Cavenagh. My first impression was OMG! The music was rocking, the crowds had been on earth was I going to sleep for my next early start!!!!! However, it turned out that the music just rocked until 7pm. The place was very welcoming and I scored a four person bunkroom with a very comfy bed. Also, when I asked about getting an airport shuttle from there on my return from Kakadu, even though I wasn't staying another night, I was assured that was fine... and I could have a shower and store my luggage for free too, until I was ready to go to the airport. Great stuff Cavenagh, thanks!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Day 4: Glen Helen to Alice Springs

Day 4 we got to 'sleep in' - 7.30am- quite the very latest morning on the whole tour. But because I was sleeping under the stars in a swag, I woke at the 'normal' early time, and got to see the sunrise anyhow. I watched the stars get dimmer as the sky lightened.... and the tents were silhouetted.

You can see what the swags looked like. We all slept with hats on. These are the last two to get up this morning!

Our first visit for the morning was to the Ochre Pits, not far from Glen Helen, where the Aborigines have collected ochre for painting from. There was another steepish climb, to the top of Serpentine Gorge, again rewarded with wonderful views.
Then the afternoon took us into real 4WD territory, as we headed down the dry Finke river, over boulders and through sand, up to Palm Valley. A beautiful walk awaited us here. This valley was drowned two hundred million years ago. The sedimentary rock is porous (you can hear the 'hollow' sound as you walk over certain rocks) and water was retained. So there are two 'relic' trees here that 'should' have died out as Central Australia warmed up. There are cycads and rare palms that have survived here.

It was a very interesting day. We returned to Alice Springs early evening. I had a 'day off' in Alice the next day and visited the "Desert Park" which showed the main ecosystem types we had been seeing, and had many, many birds. There was supposed to be a 'birds of prey' show, but they had to call it off: the wild wedge tailed eagle from the cliff above came down and made threatening passes over the trained birds below!!!
Oh, and something else I learned. Alice Springs area is not desert. It gets too much rain per year, even though it mostly evaporates away: it is a semi-arid zone. And after several days travelling it looked quite green- the sedimentary rocks retained so much moisture that many plants could access via their roots.

Day 3: King's Canyon to Glen Helen

Clarke, our guide, gave us a big talk last night about "Heart Attack Hill" that we had to climb to get up to the top of King's Canyon, and told us of the easier valley option. I really wanted to see the views but have become much less fit over recent months while I have been studying and munching chocolate.
But I decided I was still going to try! I was the slowest in the group, but Clarke stayed behind me so I could just take the climb slowly. And it was soooooo worth it. The views up the top of King's Canyon were just magnificent!
Photo 1 shows Clarke sharing some of his extensive knowledge about local trees.

Again, the red was only 'skin deep'. There were places where you could see the very white sedimentary rock, made from white beach sands.

The tree here is not a palm, but a much more ancient beast. If I remember rightly, and I might have muddled it, this tree is a cycad.

After our walk we had lunch at King's Canyon resort. Here are a young Dutch couple, Hilco and Coby, cooking our burger meat.

We arrived at Glen Helen before dark, which gave a wonderful chance to sit quietly beside the water as the sun went down.

Day 2: Uluru to Kings Canyon

Lots of early starts on this trip. I came to think of it as the "sunrise and sunset tour" as we seemed to see them all!

Monday July 2 saw us rising early to be walking around Uluru before sunrise. It was very special to see the silhouette of the rock before sunrise.

Most of us then walked around the base of Uluru. I guess what surprised me most was how uneven the whole surface of Uluru was: it looks so very even from a distance. But close up you see the erosion you would expect on such an old rock.
Another surprising thing was that the red of the rock was only skin-deep. The rock was originally a grey sedimentary one. Iron sand was blown over from Western Australia, and with the addition of bacteria and water, the red colour developed. This shot shows Clarke, our tour guide. He knew a lot he could impart about plants especially and also geology.

We drove back down the road to where we got a great view of Mt Fularoo (Mt Connor). Uluru is one piece of rock. Kata Tjuta broke into bits. Mt Fularoo (so called as some think they have seen Uluru when they see it, and head on back to Alice Springs), has several layers. There is a thin sedimentary layer on top, then a layer hard as titanium underneath, then sedimentary under that again. It is actually more U shaped from another side, and was formed by glacier action. To Aboriginal people, it is known as Atila, and they think the weather gods reside there.
It was an interesting drive to Kings Canyon, as we drove along near the George Gill ranges.

On arrival at Kings Canyon we were quickly into some vegetable preparation as our meal was going to be cooked in camp ovens on the campfire. (And it was very delicious!)
Sunset this evening was observed from a little knoll near the campsite, and again the red colour drained from the rock as the sun left it. This time we had the sunset to ourselves, only our group.

For the second night, I slept in a swag under the stars. Afternoons were warm, but nights were cooler, though warmer than the week before by all accounts. I had my three season sleeping bag, my long johns, a hat on my head, and I slept comfortably under the stars in an Aussie swag. This is basically a big canvas bag with a mattress in it that you wrap yourself up in. Being able to sleep like this for three nights, going to sleep next to the campfire, was one of my favourite parts of the trip.

Uluru sunset

"Sunset" is the tourist thing to do in Uluru. Every tourist within 150km must have made it there. The big tour buses had their tables set up with white tablecloths, elegant wine flutes, and a selection of tasty nibbles. We had our backpacker crackers and dip on the Eskie ;-) We were supposed to have some bubbly too, but the driver carrying our glasses was running late. (Ne'er mind: those who wanted it had it for dinner later!)

I guess what amazed me most about the sunset was how quickly it seemed to happen. One minute, there was a golden glow on Uluru, and the next it seemed that the colour had all drained from it.

Day 1: Alice Springs to Kata Tjuta & Uluru

Well before sunrise we were heading off from Alice Springs in our 4WD vehicle, south along the Stuart Highway. First stop was the Camel Outback farm where a couple had camel rides. The "red" soil was already becoming omnipresent.


was a lot of driving before we reached our campsite at Uluru for lunch. The "permanent campsites" we stayed at were all very well set up. We had a kitchen /dining tent, and mattresses raised on a base in the tents. In this part of the country there was also a place for the firewood we had found easily en route, and a safe place for a campfire, surrounded by seating.

After lunch we headed to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). These were very beautiful, and perhaps my only disappointment of the tour was that we only had time for quite a short walk here, in the heat of the afternoon, as we needed to rush back to Uluru for the tourist "must do": sunset.