19th July – Darwin

We’re back in the hostel in Darwin, and tonight’s our last night in Australia! I can’t believe how close we’re getting to the end of the trip – we leave for Singapore tomorrow, and get home next Thursday! We’ve had a brilliant few days in the Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks, and a lovely evening tonight at the Mindil Beach Markets – now we’re back in our room, enjoying the air con, finishing off our last few pear ciders, and preparing to say goodbye to Australia!

The day after we wrote the last blog, also from Darwin, we got up early and had showers (Chris had to go wandering down a floor, as the bathrooms on our floor are women-only!) and packed everything up and loaded the car – by that time it was 9 a.m., so we hadn’t got quite as early a start as we planned! We went to the supermarket to buy food for a couple of days, after a hasty inventory of the cooking equipment we’d been given – it was pretty basic, so I worked out what meals I could cook with what we had, and then bought ingredients for them! We bought ice, and went and packed everything into the car, and by the time we’d done that it was 10 a.m. and the bottle shop was open, so Chris went back in and got some pear ciders, and we loaded the cool box with ice and drinks, and finally set off!

The drive to Litchfield Park was only about an hour and a half, mostly along the main highway south to Alice Springs, the Stuart Highway. We came off at a town called Batchelor, right at the edge of the park, and stopped at the information centre to pick up some maps and things – they had all the information for Kakadu, as well, so I took a big pile of leaflets away with me! We drove into the park and found it was really easy going – there’s a loop road that goes round all the main visitor attractions, with big brown signs pointing off the road to each one, and when you get there, there’s an information board with maps of the walking trails, safety warnings etc. We just followed the road and stopped everywhere that looked interesting! It was often only a few minutes between places – it’s a very small park, especially compared to Kakadu, which is one of the biggest. Our first stop was at a viewing boardwalk for the magnetic termite mounts – there were termite mounds all over the park, some of them huge, but these were particularly interesting as magnetic ants build their mounts as flat towers, facing the sun to use the heat for air circulation. The field of mounds from the viewing platform looked like a cemetery full of headstones! Chris was explaining the science of it to me as we wandered around, it’s a very clever system – and amazing to think tiny little ants manage to build these huge things!

Magnetic termite mounds

A huge (non-magnetic) termite mound

It was enormously hot – we’ve been SO hot this week, and the sun is so strong! We’ve been wearing hats (both) and sunscreen (just me!) whenever we go out walking, and carrying water bottles, and edging round car parks trying to find the shadiest spot to leave the car, and blasting the air con when we get back in, and all those hot-weather things you forget about until you’re in it again. It’s been lovely, almost all the time, to be so warm and be able to stay in shorts and t-shirts all evening, and we’ve just had to be a bit careful not to get overheated or sunburnt, which we’ve done pretty well with! We’ve had one or two over-hot moments, most notably when the car air con decided to pack up on the first afternoon in Litchfield – we cursed the rental company for an hour or so, with our windows open, on a dusty gravel road! It recovered itself the next morning, though, and although it’s been a bit temperamental it didn’t actually break again. We definitely got what we paid for with the car, though… the petrol gauge only works intermittently, there’s a funny noise from the anti-roll bar bush, the tent was the crappiest little tent I’ve ever seen, with no tent pegs and one of the two poles a section short… but with the weather being so lovely and hot and dry, we could just laugh it off and put it up as best we could, knowing it wasn’t going to rain!

From the termite mounds, we drove on to Buley Rockhole, where a short walk took you to a set of pools and small waterfalls, working their way down lots of levels of the river. There were lots of people there – it had a real public swimming pool feel to it, everyone leaving their towels and flipflops on a rock somewhere and going for a dip, and people sitting drying off in the sun, some of them even with folding chairs and coolboxes and books to read! We dropped our things on a rock and went for a dip, slipping and sliding over the mossy rocks, and soon learning that the trick is to get as low as possible, as soon as possible, and let the water take your weight and stop you from slipping! We splashed around in the pools and slid on our bums down the little waterfalls, and had a lovely cool dip for half an hour.

Buley Rockhole in Litchfield Park

Buley Rockhole in Litchfield Park

Chris trying to look comfortable (he wasn’t)

Buley Rockhole

Then we got out and wrapped our sarongs round us and wandered back to the car, where we got our folding chairs out and sat in the shade for ten minutes, reading our books and letting the heat dry us off a bit! From there we drove down the road to Florence Falls, where 135 stairs led down to a plunge pool at the bottom. Same story – lots of people there swimming, so we dropped our things in a corner again, and picked our way across the rocks to get in for a swim! It was a lovely big pool, chest depth for a while near the rocks, but deep enough to swim into the middle – we swam right across and under the falls, although we went together, so no photos! Later we went and got the camera and took a few photos of other people swimming. It was a lovely place, so lush and green, and the falls were beautiful – another lovely refreshing swim! All these pools are checked for saltwater crocodiles (the dangerous ones – freshies are only little and don’t attack people!) at the start of each Dry season, and any that have made their way into the swimming holes over the Wet are trapped and moved out of the park, so it should theoretically be safe to swim once that’s done!

Florence Falls, the waterfalls are much bigger than they appear on the photos

Florence Falls, the person in left waterfall gives an idea of the scale

We walked back up the stairs and stopped at a viewpoint to take photos, then went back to the car and drove on to Tolmer Falls – they were lovely, but you’re not allowed to swim or to walk down to the plunge pool at the bottom, as it’s home to a rare colony of ghost bats. We took photos from the lookout, and then drove on to Wangi Falls, which is the most popular at Litchfield. It’s a big swimming hole under another lovely waterfall, with a big grassy area under the trees where people sit and have picnics. We took photos and went for a walk round the edge of the pool, but decided we didn’t need another swim, as we’d had a couple already! We decided to leave Litchfield and start along the road to Kakadu, and find somewhere to stop for the night along the way.

All of the big land features in Oz seem to be random huge rocks poking out from a flat landscape

Tolmer Falls

Wangi Falls, as packed as Dovedale on a warm bank holiday!

We left via the road to the north of the park, which headed back towards Darwin – as it turned out, we had to go almost all the way back to Darwin to get onto the road to Kakadu. We drove along 40km of gravel road – with the windows open as the air con had died! – and eventually came out of the park and stopped at the first caravan park we came to, as we were sick of driving by then! It was a lovely place called Tumbling Falls holiday park, and the chap pointed us into the big camping field, with a good tip-off that the big tent at the end was empty at the moment as the people had gone on a couple of days’ side trip, so if we camped close to them we wouldn’t be disturbing anyone – good tip, as the field was very crowded, so the best way to get our own space was to head off next to this big tent. Chris set up our crap tent, amidst giggles from both of us, while I pieced together supper with our limited equipment and one-ring gas stove – we had a couple of ciders while we ate, and then it got dark, and the mozzies came out, so we decided to go straight to bed! The tent was so hot we ended up opening the tent outer, and lay there cooling off and listening to little birds and animals poking around in the grass outside – very rustic! We didn’t get a great nights’ sleep, sleeping in this tiny tent with just our sleeping bag and a fleece blanket to keep us off the ground – we thought it was fun to do the basic camping thing, but we’re very glad it was only for a couple of nights!

Our crappy little tent and quirky car

In the morning, we got up and showered and had fruit and choc chip muffins for breakfast (decadence!) and then packed up (plus point for the tiny tent, it took all of two minutes to pack up!) and headed off towards Kakadu. It was a three hour drive to Jabiru, the main town, but we were driving through the park most of the way – it’s an absolutely huge place. Most of the landscape is scrubland, red dirt with eucalyptus trees and bushes, and then it also has a number of rivers with flood plains, wetlands, tidal and estuarine flatland, and sandstone rock escarpments – a very mixed set of landscapes. It has dual World Heritage status, for its environmental and cultural content. It’s owned by the various Aboriginal peoples who are the traditional owners, and managed by a trust made up of representatives of the traditional owners and Parks Australia. 30% of the Parks staff are indigenous people, which is great – it’s a way of keeping the next generation interested in the culture. We learnt an awful lot about Aboriginal culture over the few days we were there, and it definitely helped to clarify our ideas after our experience at Uluru. It does seem very clear that the culture is all about identity with the land – with country, and living off the country, and managing the land. Stories about the land and the Creation Time and the ancestors are told in levels, we were told during one of the talks, and so children are told a basic story and then depending on gender, young men and women are told the next bit, and then married men and women, and then those with children, and then elders – so you’re always having new material revealed to you, you keep learning the culture throughout your life. Tourists only get the children’s stories, because we’re not initiated into any further levels. That sort of explains the secrecy, and the sense of reluctance to share anything, that we felt at Uluru.

It actually seems like a fascinating culture, with immensely complicated family structures, hundreds of dialects and language groups, hundreds of separate clans with similar but distinct Creation stories and knowledge of the land. And the best thing we learned is that in isolated communities away from the cities, thousands of Aboriginal people are living fairly traditionally, hunting and fishing, managing the land by selective burning, monitoring the changing landscapes and seasons, passing on stories and knowledge to successive generations. They live in houses and use modern tools and weapons and cars and things, but they follow the old ways in a lot of ways. I’m so glad to hear that, because it takes away some of the sadness I felt listening to this chap telling stories at Uluru, and it makes me think he wasn’t in the sad state I took him to be in, it’s just that he didn’t want to talk to us about most of it. All the talks we heard at Kakadu were from white rangers ‘on behalf of’ the traditional owners, and one of the rangers told me when we were chatting afterwards that the indigenous rangers don’t like to do the talks, because it’s a culture that tends to secrecy, and it’s just not their way to talk about it and answer questions – so, although they have agreed that it’s important for tourists to learn about their culture, and have worked out what stories and details the rangers are allowed to share, they don’t like to do it themselves. It was really interesting, finding out all this stuff.

One of the talks was about Kingship structures, and how people are arranged into family groups and skin groups – the generation you’re born into, on your mother’s side, determines your skin group, and all people in your skin group are considered your sisters and brothers, and you can only marry people in certain corresponding skin groups, and you have to have ‘avoidance relationships’ – where, from puberty, you’re not allowed to look at or speak to each other – with your opposite-sex skin group members, and certain other relationships. Genetically, it’s a clever way to keep from any bloodlines getting too close, particularly given they’re generally living in small communities – to Western ears it’s a pretty strict system, though! Apparently people take it very seriously even now, and there are certain rangers who have to sit at opposite sides of the room during meetings, to keep to their avoidance relationships. Fascinating stuff!

Anyway, when we arrived in Jabiru, we went first to the Bowali Visitor Centre to pay for our park passes, and also booked a river cruise for the next morning, and picked up a copy of the ‘What’s On; guide that listed all the ranger-led talks and everything. We went into Jabiru – which is the main town in the park, but is basically a petrol station, supermarket, bakery, and two hotels! – and checked into the campsite there, at Kakadu Lodge. We went in and found a nice spot under some trees to pitch our tent, and left it there (weighed down by our chairs and table, as we had no tent pegs!) after we had lunch and headed off to carry on sight-seeing! We went to the Mamukala Wetlands, which had a viewing platform where you could stand and watch birds flying around over the water. We spent some time there, and then decided we had an hour to spare before we went on to catch the ranger talks at the Ubirr rock art site, so we went back to the campsite for a swim! The pool was lovely, and had a big shady canopy over it, so it was nice and cool – we really appreciated the chance to cool off!

Mamukala wetland

We drove up to Ubirr at about 4.30, in time for the first of a series of three talks. The ranger was arriving as we did, so we followed her in, and chatted along the way – she was actually an English lady whose family are from Uttoxeter, very close to us, and the couple walking behind us overheard and told us they were from Burton, so we all laughed at what a small world it is! We walked up to the first of the rock art galleries, and followed her round each gallery as she gave a talk about different aspects of Aboriginal culture, talked us through the artworks, and told us some of the Creation Time stories. One of the things we loved was the way the rock artists depicted the Westerners they came into contact with, that they called Balanda – they’re always drawn with their hands in their pockets, as they stood around watching their servants do all the work! We climbed up the rocks to the lookout for the final talk, and realised there were about another 200 people there, waiting to watch the sunset. So when she finished the talk, we went and found ourselves a nice spot to perch on, and settled in for half an hour to watch an absolutely stunning sunset. Then we clambered back down the rocks back to the car, drove back to the campsite, cooked supper in the dark (glad we brought the head torch!) and ate at a picnic table in the camp kitchen, where it was light, and then went straight to bed!

At Ubirr waiting for the sunset

The view from the rocks at Ubirr

Sunsetting at Ubirr

This morning we were up early again as the ground was feeling rather hard under us! We had showers and breakfast, did the washing-up from last night, packed up and headed off to Nourlangie rock art site, and got there just after 8 a.m. The first talk was at 9, so we spent an hour wandering around the galleries, trying to spot things in the art by ourselves with our new-learnt knowledge from the day before, and then climbed up the rocks to the lookout where the ranger was starting her first talk. There weren’t many people – maybe 10, as opposed to the 50 at the talks yesterday – so we got to chat to her quite a lot and ask lots of questions, which was possibly even more informative than the actual talk! We followed her down to the second talk, but had to leave before the third one, as we had to make it to our river cruise.

Approaching one of the Nourlangie rock art sites

One of the art galleries at Nourlangie

The Information board tells us “This is Nabulwinjbulminj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam. His name is pronounced Nar-bull-win-bull-win.”

We drove down to Cooinda and picked up our tickets for the cruise at Gagadju Lodge, and then drove down to the boat jetty at Yellow River. We had a little walk along the boardwalk, but there were people getting on the boat already, so we went and found seats and were soon heading off on the wildlife cruise. It was absolutely brilliant, we were so glad we’d decided to do it – the guide / skipper was very knowledgeable and talked non-stop, pointing out birds and crocodiles, and steering the boat in closer so we could see them, and telling us all sorts of interesting things about them. We went from the Yellow Water Billabong, to join the South Alligator River, and went downriver and then upriver, stopping when we saw something – which was often! Lots of crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks, and a few in the water, although he said there were a lot more we wouldn’t see. Huge Jabiru, black-necked storks, flying past us low to the water and then landing and walking around on the bank – huge, spectacular birds, especially stunning to see them in flight. Tiny little red-headed birds that stepped lightly from one lily-pad to the next, looking like they were walking on water and earning them the common name of ‘Jesus birds’! Various eagles and cormorants and kingfishers – Chris will remember the names better than me, but I loved seeing them all! The hour and a half passed like five minutes, and before we knew it we were back at the jetty.

Our cruise boat on the Yellow River

A saltie!

A Jacana, Jesus bird, or lilly trotter

A Jabiru, or black necked stork (the neck isn’t black, it’s a bright blue)

A juvenile Jabiru

Pretty photo of lillies

A pair of rainbow bee-eaters (the male (on the left) has the thin long feathers on the end of their tail)

We drove back to Jabiru and went for lunch at the bakery – bacon and egg quiche, yummy! – and then drove back to Darwin, with a brief stop for a powernap, as we were both getting a bit tired. We got back to Darwin around five, and checked into the hostel, then drove straight down to the Mindil Beach Markets. They’re only on Thursday and Sunday nights during the Dry season, and it was absolutely packed – we parked on a grass verge off the main car park, wedged in between cars, and hoped no one would park blocking our access route over a storm drain! We took a couple of ciders from the coolbox, and walked through the markets – there was one strip of food stalls, and another of craft and clothes stalls, going on for miles along the beach. We walked along the food stalls trying to decide what to eat – so much choice, Chinese and Indian and Vietnamese and Greek and Italian, smoothies and icecreams and crepes – in the end we went for a Chinese stall, where you could fill up a plastic takeaway container with whatever you wanted from the hotplates. While we were looking around, we bumped into Peter, who we met first in the caravan park in Port Douglas! Small world – he and his wife Pauline have made it to Darwin and are here for a few days before moving on. We had a chat about our travels, and told him about the tips of theirs we’ve followed, and how it’s all gone – it was very nice to see him, as he actually gave us lots of useful tips, right at the start of our Australian adventure!

Sunset on Mindil Beach where we ate our chinese

Yes, that chinese

Sunset from Mindil Beach

Once we’d got our food, we walked out onto the beach, and found ourselves among hundreds of people, all sitting on the sand, with their drinks and their food, settling in to watch the sunset. We found a patch of sand and opened our ciders, and ate our Chinese food, and watched a beautiful sunset, and toasted our trip and our last night in Australia. After sunset we picked our way back through the markets, stopping to watch a fire show for a few minutes, back to the car, and back to the hostel, where we’re now relaxing with another drink, and doing all our last bits and pieces of laundry, packing, blogging etc. in preparation for leaving tomorrow. Our flight’s not till the evening, so we’re going to have some time to wander around Darwin tomorrow – then we have to drop back the car, and head off to Singapore for the last leg of our trip! We’re starting to look forward to getting home, and seeing everyone, and settling back into our lovely lives at home – but we’re still enjoying every minute of these last few days!

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