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Wonders of The Top End

Imagine a giggly girl, hopping on the spot, clapping her hands in glee with a big shiny smile on her face.  Think cheerleader.  There’s no way I’d be caught dead doing that, but it does reflect how I felt coming back to the Top End.  For those who don’t know, I lived in Darwin for two years (1990-1991) and have fond memories of all the places there.  Be prepared for a bit of “Years ago it used to blah, blah, blah.”

There’s not a lot to see or do between Devil’s Marbles and Mataranka.  We broke the trip up with an overnight stay at Daly Waters.  What a cracker of a pub!  This place was full of personality with an overwhelming amount of memorabilia. My favourite thing was the thong tree.  We’ve blown a few pluggers on our trip and it was such a fun idea for that one good leftover thong.  The sign said:

Due to the introduction of exotic species such as Reef Sandals and the Swedish Masseur, the native thong, which can be found throughout Australia, has experienced a drastic reduction in numbers over the last decade.  We at Daly Waters are attempting a captive breeding program.  If you would like to make a donation and assist us by increasing the gene pool, please see bar staff.

Just after we left we read in the news that the pub was up for sale.  I hope that whoever buys it continues to collect, coins, thongs, hats and number plates.

I’d been to Mataranka Thermal Pools in 1991, as I was travelling to my next posting.  This time around we decided to stay at Bitter Springs.  Many other tourists recommended it over Mataranka and we’d have to agree.  Bitter Springs is still in a very natural state apart from a few stairs that have been built to get in and out of the water.  Early in the morning, you’ll see the steam rising off the water.  The water isn’t too hot either, more like a pleasant bath temperature.  Best bet is to grab a pool noodle, get in and float down to the last set of stairs.  Hop out and do the ‘I’m wet and it’s colder out than in jog’ to the start and do it all over again.  The current is gentle but those deciding it’d be better to swim back than get cold walking back seem to find it an effort to go against the current.

Mataranka Thermal Springs
Mataranka Thermal Springs

Mataranka Thermal Spring has a lot more infrastructure than I remember.  I only remember one concrete wall but it could have been two, anyhow these days there is a concrete wall on both sides, with steps, ledge and paved walkways.  It was also packed with people!  We are smack bang in the middle of the NT school holiday period and grey nomad season, so you can’t really expect anything less but I do find the crowds off-putting.  I got in with the rest of the mob, just to say I was there again, but got out shortly after imagining the worst with so many people in such a confined space… in warm water… with suspected poor bladder control.

The creek either side of Mataranka is pretty small and during the war, soldiers enlarged a section to form the pool.  Which was then only for use by officers. Typical!  The landowner opened it up to tourists after that and in the 70’s it became part of NT’s National Parks.  Craig and the kids had a good time there but we all agree Bitter Springs was better.

The new campground pool area
The new campground pool area

I have a really great memory of visiting Katherine Gorge with a group of friends and was very much looking forward to going again. The campground is no longer down near the water of the first gorge.  Because of a couple of previous floods, they moved the campground to higher ground well away from the water.  The new campground, which was nice and had a great pool, could’ve been anywhere.  This was one of the biggest changes from the past.  Okay that and the fact that I was 25 years younger, with a bunch of like minded singles, no kids, more campground pranks, more alcohol and more time in the water.

I imagined being down by the waters edge with the family, jumping in the water and canoeing. Instead it is a turfed area of little activity.  The only time you see people there, is when they are lined up to go on a boat tour.  No canoeing in the first gorge either as they suspected a salt water croc was in the area.  This was based on a photo from the air and traps had been in place for two years with no results. I guess you can’t be too cautious when it comes to Crocs but it was a shame  we couldn’t paddle in the river.

The only way to explore the gorges was to go on one of the boat tours.  The guide was super informative, funny and very open with information.  The Jawoyn People were given back the land around Katherine Gorge in 1989.  It is now called Nitmiluk.  They are doing an excellent job in partnership with National Parks at welcoming, involving and educating tourists.  It was so very different from other places where tourists aren’t allowed to swim in that water hole, or climb that rock, or know the legend and why you can’t take a picture.  On this tour, tourists were encouraged to take photos of everything and many stories and legends were told.  When we got back to a large pool in the second gorge for a swim we were told “the adults of the tribe would not swim in this water due to their Dreamtime legends, but you white fellas can!”  It’s a tricky balance.  It’d be great to be able to experience everything fully, yet many tourists are disrespectful of the place and we later heard about a site at the Bungle Bungle that has been closed to the public because of looting.

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Kapok Bush

One of the main things I’ve found fascinating about traditional culture is how their stories not only teach morals and tribal law, but also teach about living on the land and caring for the environment.  In a previous blog, I mentioned how they use animal totems to prevent overfishing or hunting of animals and on this tour I learned how they take note of changes in the environment with calendar plants.  One of these is the Kapok bush, at the time of the tour it had yellow flowers atop long skinny branches with little to no leaves.  This meant that freshwater crocs have eggs inside them.  When the seed pods grow it means the crocs are laying their eggs, and when the pods open to reveal their fluffy white seeds, the crocs are hatching.  Throughout our time in the NT and northern WA, I would notice the Kapok plant and get excited at the different stages of the croc’s lifecycle.

Jedda's Leap
Jedda’s Leap

Nitmiluk also has a link to the film industry.  There is a sheer cliff face in the gorge that is called Jedda’s Leap.  The story of two young aboriginals who fell in love but were forbidden to marry due to having the same skin names.  They leapt to their death in favour of living apart.  This was made into a movie in 1955 called Jedda.  The other film was Rogue, which was about a crocodile that was terrorising tourists.  I haven’t seen it but apparently the only good thing about that movie was the scenery.

We climbed to the top of the gorge to see the sunrise and stood on the lookout platform in the predawn light.  25 years ago, there was no platform and I distinctly remember standing close to the edge of the cliff and feeling the pull of gravity.  I’m not scared of heights but I do remember thinking I’d just go over the edge without any say in it!  Anyhow, we are standing there as the world starts waking up around us and I heard a bird call down in the gorge.  It sounded something like “War, war, wark!”.  I said “Shhh, listen”.  As it sounded again Craig said with a serious expression “It’s Kevin.”  You know the bird from the movie ‘Up’.  That set us up in a fit of giggles, ruining the serenity for the others because as you know Craig is a loud laugher!

More bad dad jokes on the way back included – What do you call a tree that’s good at spoken word? Poet-tree.  What do you call a polite tree who lays his coat over puddles so ladies don’t get their feet wet?  Gallant-tree.  What do you call a tree in Parliament? Minist-tree.  What do you call a tree that can build a house? Carpen-tree.  What do you call a tree that guards you?  A Sent-tree.  Had enough?  Yeah, I did too but they get worse.  What do you call a royal tree?  Majest-tree.

We indulged in a helicopter tour over all thirteen gorges and the surrounding area.  I got the gunshot seat at the beginning because when we flew over Heart Reef in the Whitsundays, Craig had the front.  I was stoked!  From this birds eye view you could see all of the falls and waterholes, and the walking track that takes you all the way to Edith Falls.  It looked great!  We even landed at the top of one of the gorges to have a look around and Craig called gunshot!  Whaaaat!!!  No fair.  Guess I shouldn’t complain.  I had a seat to myself, unlike the kids who were sharing a seat and each had half a bum cheek hanging over the seat!  We could see a few of the campgrounds, with small tents and people lolling around in the water.  They limit the number of people in there at any one time, so that’s a bonus as it’ll never be busy!  Another walk to add to the list!

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Patsy and her sister with their catch of Magpie Geese
Patsy and her sister with their catch of Magpie Geese

Kakadu is a magic place.  One of my favourite places in Australia.  The environment is still so pristine and the work the National Parks are doing, in coordination with traditional owners has to be applauded.  We bought a DVD from the Info centre called ‘Kakadu’ that we watched in the evening before the kids went to bed.  It showed the work the Rangers do with the land and animals and was pretty funny too.  In particular I’ll remember Patsy the elder who was out shooting magpie geese.  She’s a pretty good shot, but would mumble in frustration if she didn’t bring one down.  I’m sure in those mumbles was a fair bit of swearing.  She aims her barrel toward the sky, pulls the trigger and watches a bird fall to the ground.  She pauses looks toward the crew and says “I don’t eat chicken much”.  I bet she doesn’t!

We based ourselves at Jabiru and took day trips to all of the falls and waterholes.  The walks involved a lot of bouldering and aren’t classified as easy, still there were fair few people at every attraction.  Craig loved the shape of Jim Jim Falls.  We walked over all the boulders and went right to a secluded sandy beach.  I could have happily camped there for a night!  Traversing back around to the actual falls, we saw a heap of backpackers braving the cold water for a swim.

On the way to Twin Falls the car had another water crossing.  Yay!  We love water crossings now.  They had some unseasonal rain so the water level was at around the 800-900mm mark.  Enough to get the bow wave over the bonnet.  The water was still flowing at Twin Falls where I saw a rainbow (representative of the rainbow serpent)  in the spray of the waterfall and a couple of croc traps were clearly visible.  No swimming at Twin Falls!  Ginga (saltwater crocs) are about.

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We went on a Yellow Water cruise and saw an amazing array of birds and animals.  It was an unusually cold morning and we weren’t dressed for the cold.  Kids come first right?  So they took our outer layers to try and keep warm.  I’ve mentioned before, being cold is one of my least favourite things.  However, I was so distracted with spotting wildlife it wasn’t such an issue.  This was the first time Craig and the kids got to see a couple of decent sized Saltwater Crocs up close.  We had a really lucky morning with seeing a lot of the regular wildlife such as magpie geese, egrets and whistling ducks, but also spotting Jabiru, Sea Eagles, Crocs, Brolgas, an Azure Kingfisher and Jacana.  The Jacana are these small birds with crazy long toes.  They traverse across the lilypads and vegetation under the water and it looks like they are walking on water.  Jesus birds.

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At Gunlom Falls we met a family from Philip Island with two boys and have been bumping into each other throughout our travels.  Great for the kids to have some familiar friends and hang out with like-minded people.  The water was very ‘refreshing’ and we chose to swim in a large waterhole behind the pools just above the falls.  It was nice to warm up afterwards on the rocks that had been nicely heated by the sun.

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Ubirr has some magnificent rock art and a beaut view to boot!  The art was everywhere, hence a lot of photos.  Couldn’t help it, it was amazing.  We also played around with the panorama function on the iPhone at the very top which worked out pretty well.  The kids liked to find the art and pick out the images they knew.  The signs were fairly informative as well in explaining the symbolism of many of the figures.

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We ducked down to Cahill’s Crossing to see if we could spot a large croc, because let’s face it, you just can’t get enough viewings of crocs can you?  We spotted some whoppers!  One either side of the crossing.  There were a couple of guys walking around and fishing off the crossing.  Risky!  The croc swimming around on the right looked naughty and up to no good.  Plus he was the same length as a small boat that cruised close for a look.

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IMG_7717Darwin is ‘same, same but different’.  There is a lot more urban spread and the city has been gentrified, yet their still seems to be the old cheeky, ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude.  School holidays and the peak nomad season probably contributed to the number of people around and made town seem crowded.  It’d be nice if all the tourists could bugger off so we could enjoy being tourists in my old stomping ground.

The waterfront is a new precinct that is comparable to South Bank.  Safe water to swim in, hotels, eateries and shops.  Lots of parkland to lay around and enjoy.  Visited some of the old haunts such as the Mindil Beach Markets, Casuarina Beach and Casuarina shops.  We caught up with an ex-Raafie Margie and her family at the markets and Casaurina.  It was so nice to reconnect and Margie and Wade were generous with their knowledge of the Kimberley, our next destination.

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Another new thing we discovered in Darwin was PokemonGo.  I gave in to the hype and downloaded it on my iPad without telling the children.  There I was walking around the caravan park like a plasmatized zombie trying to work out what the hell I was supposed to do to find these bloody Pokemon.  Confusion turned to excitement when I actually caught one, then two, then three!  Time to fess up and tell the kids.  “Kids, I’ve checked out this PokemonGo thing for ‘you’ and you can play it if you like’.  They are ridiculously excited and I let them walk around the park trying to find some Pokemon.  Craig is shaking his head in disappointment at us, until a day or so later he’s got it on his phone and is catching them too.  Thankfully the novelty wore off after a couple of days and it’s no longer even thought about.  It also probably helped that we were in a place where there is so much to do outside anyway without having to catch Pokemon.

Darwin feels like home and I could certainly do another stint living up here.  Although I wonder how I’d cope with the wet season.   Back then I was younger, fitter and leaner, I preferred no aircon in the house as it was too much of a shock walking from a cool inside environment to be hit with the humidity every time you stepped outside.  And that’s the whole point of living up there, being outside!  There is so much to explore.  While we rushed around Litchfield visiting multiple spots in one day, if you lived there you would go and spend your days off or at least a whole day at one waterhole at a time.

Jumping Croc
Jumping Croc

Years ago, I took my sister on a croc jumping tour and back then thought nothing of it.  Now, I feel a little differently about coaxing these beasts towards boats and people.  If you’re not on a tour, the last thing you want is a croc following your boat or trying to jump at you.  That being said, doing the tour all those years ago certainly left an impression on me as to how large they are, how fast they can swim and how powerful there jaws are.  Craig and kids did go on a Croc Jumping tour and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Here are their field notes:
Despite school holidays, there weren’t many tourists on the boat which meant the kids pretty much had the run of the downstairs area.  They started dangling bits of pig off the boat and the crocs started coming down off the riverbanks.
The biggest croc called Agro (6.1m) doesn’t jump but at 90 years old, who could blame him.  Scary jumped out so far you could see his belly.  A brave Sea Eagle swooped in about a foot before the croc’s mouth and stole his bait.  It was a dazzling display of speed, prowess and bravery.  Scary swam up close to the boat and when he jumped he was so close to the boat he was practically rubbing the side of the boat.  A story they were told was of an albino croc called Michael Jackson.  Once a guy who was fishing, dropped a 50c lure and he went into the water to retrieve it, in the process stepping on MJ’s head and the croc ate him!  Unfortunately the only witness was the man’s wife.  To rule out foul play on her behalf, Michael Jackson was caught, killed and dissected to recover the mans remains.  A rare croc was lost all because of a 50c lure.

We spent a day, trying to explore all that Litchfield had to offer.  It was probably too much to fit in, in one day.  A majority of the waterholes and attractions are easily reached from Darwin and holiday makers were everywhere.  The waterholes are still very, very beautiful though and the kids loved jumping in the water and off small rock ledges.  There weren’t too many people at the Lost City, as it’s a bit off the beaten track and mostly accessed by 4wd vehicles.  Craig said he felt like he was in an Indiana Jones movie.

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The last things to tick off the list for the NT were Edith Falls and Douglas Hot Springs.  We camped out at the Lazy Lizard in Pine Creek and that first night the tavern had bikies and bogans at the pool tables, a beat up piano for decoration and the jukebox was pumping.  Looked like heaps of fun and I wanted to go join in!  Not quite a family environment, so I listened from afar.  While I might not have been amongst the fun, I can’t complain.  I was snuggled up with the family in our cosy van and that’s not so bad.

Another really fond memory from my youth, is of a camping weekend at Douglas Hot Springs.  The place has really changed with formal camping areas and the place was a lot more popular than when I first visited!  The landscape of the springs had also changed as I remember a clear division between the cold creek and the hot spring with just one area where the hot water came across.  Floods and possible man made intervention means the division between the hot spring and the creek is no longer clearly defined.  The hot springs were hot!  Really hot!  You could see the hot water bubbling up in various spots through the coarse sand.  It would get too hot in places to sit or stand and we were constantly moving about to find a spot where the water was ‘just right’.  The kids loved seeing the signs about quicksand and their imaginations were running wild with what would actually happen to them if they got stuck in it.

 

Everyone in our family enjoyed the NT and agree it’s a special place that we’d happily revisit.  So, until we visit these wild lands again, we can dream of them… and watch the Kakadu videos.  “I don’t eat chicken much!”

Rock on! Kings Canyon, Uluru and Kata Tjuta

I’m going to have to warn you straight up, there are going to be a lot of photos of rocks in this one.  A lot!  Like, seriously lots and lots.

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While travelling between the East and West McDonnell Ranges, we stopped through Alice Springs and met a Sunny Coast couple who had relocated to Alice and  taken over The Overlanders Steakhouse Restaurant. So we booked a table for the night of our reunion with The Stolls.  That booking was then expanded to include The Tafai family, who we met at Palm Valley the day before.
It was great to see The Stolls, although I was reluctant to give them a hug after five days out bush without a shower and mostly two changes of clothes (I had to layer up due to the cold). What a fun night. We laughed till our cheeks hurt, thrust our hips around to the ‘home among the gum trees’ song and tried to pass Sol Tafai off as ‘The Rock’ on social media. A few people fell for it but most saw through my bluff.

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Sunrise over King’s Canyon

We travelled to Kings Canyon Resort and took in the magnificent views from the Rim Walk at Kings Canyon. Rainer did the hard yards carrying Nathan up the steep ascent at the beginning. Craig also ended up doing some hard yards as Amelie decided to run up the climb. It could be that we’ve been watching a few Rocky films and she’s inspired to push herself or it could be that she chose to wear shorts, t-shirt and a flimsy jumper and needed to warm up! The rest of us were feeling the cold especially on the windy sections and were rugged up in puffy jackets, beanies and gloves.  As Amelie and Craig reach the top of the steep section, she turns to her slightly out of breath father who had to actually work to catch her and said “I want to be an athlete when I grow up”.  She is changing her mind about what she wants to be every week but I’m loving her choices, astronaut, teacher, doctor, scientist, veterinarian and now athlete.

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Cotterral’s lookout was worth the extra walk and rewarded us with spectacular views.  The other side trip we did was Eden’s Garden.  That place was very serene, with remnants of rainforest vegetation a stark contrast to the red rock and spinifex.  The Creek walk was blocked so we scrambled around the barricades and boulder hopped along the creek for a while.

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Kathleen Springs was just down the road so after an epic days walking already, we made the kids do some more.  It was an easy walk with cattle mustering ruins, hairy caterpillars, piggybacking bugs, “what are they doing dad?” along the way.  At the end is a small waterhole. I didn’t read the sign and was imagining how much fun it would be to jump down from the cliff into the waterhole. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT jump into the water. I was quickly put in my place by Craig who read the sign about the aboriginal legend where they believe the Dreamtime serpent lived there and if you swam in the water, the water would dry up.

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Not Uluru

We’re off to The Rock!  Craig got a little excited, as did we when he pointed out Uluru and then got on the UHF and pointed it out to the Stolls.  About 5minutes passed before it twigged that it was actually Mt Connor.  Common mistake apparently.

Uluru a.k.a ‘The Rock’ is impressive. Almost as impressive as the two backpackers in onesies, cooking pancakes for breakfast in the parking lot.  Seriously, Uluru has a feeling of ‘something’.  I don’t know if it’s the enormity of it or is there a sense of spirituality?  Okay, now for the big question – did we climb it?  No, we didn’t.  The kids really wanted to, Craig had climbed it many years ago and I was in two minds about it.  We had a healthy discussion about why the local aboriginals don’t want you to climb it and should you be able to.  On the actual day the decision was taken out of our hands as the climb was closed due to forecast rain. The small walks along the bottom were great with informative signs of how the aboriginals used the small caves and overhangs, and explained some legends and stories about the rock. The majority of the base walk did not have much info and was very restrictive about photographing certain sections.

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We all agreed Kata Tjuta was awesome! Walking in and among such large formations of rock offered great views pretty much everywhere you looked.  It was also a fun walk with steep sections and a bit of bouldering.  I don’t really know what else to say about this place that would do it justice.  If I could whisper in print I would whisper “I liked it better than Uluru”.  Shhhh.

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At the Yulara campground Laura and I headed off on the bikes to buy groceries.  Riding the fat boy bike definitely increased my street cred.  Wearing a helmet, any helmet, leaves me looking like a mushroom as I have a small head and long neck so it all evens out.  The point is, I felt cool even though I stopped and got off to ‘jump’ the gutters.  Riding along however, people were giving the fat tyres appreciative nods and smiles.  A gap toothed local gave me a massive grin and said ‘wicked!’  We met basketballer Joe Ingles who I let have a ride on the fat boy.  Didn’t know who the hell he was and as usual was being cheeky.  Laura found out he was competing at the Olympics and I said “Well, I suppose I’d better get a photo with you.  You might be famous one day.”  Laura googled him later and he earns over $2million US dollars playing for a team in the States.  That and making the Australian Olympic team… yeah he might be famous… one day!  Joe (sounds very casual), Mr Ingles (no, too formal), you know who I mean, anyway he loved the bike, so if you see any photos of him riding a fat boy, it’s because of Craig’s bike.

Laura suggested doing a dot painting class with an aboriginal elder.  I thought this was a great idea.  Alice spoke in her native language, drew and explained the art symbols in the sand while a University graduate translated for us.  Each painting pretty much tells a story.  At Hermannsberg in the Western McDonnell Ranges, we saw many paintings depicting the story of the ‘Seven Sisters‘.  We were told to tell our own story in a painting.  Now, I love playing with art but I didn’t do so well at dot painting.  I think, I tried to tell too much of a story in one painting.  Painting dots of a uniform size was a challenge and I couldn’t believe how long it took to paint dots.  The kids really enjoyed it and it was great to see everyone’s story interpretation.

Our time with The Stolls, is coming to an end.  We’ve seen so many rock formations together that it seemed fitting our last campsite together was near The Devil’s Marbles.  After a pub dinner and kids playing in the starry light display the only thing we had left to do on this adventure with The Stolls was race to see who’d leave first in the morning.  Stolls won!

We loved hanging out with those guys and while it was sad to part ways, they were looking forward to an island adventure before heading home, and we were dead keen to visit all the Top End has to offer!

McDonnell Ranges – Gorging on Gorges

Ruby Gap is actually full of garnets
Ruby Gap is actually full of garnets

Tent, check. Sleeping bags, check. Remainder of camping equipment, check. East MacDonnell Ranges here we come! Ruby Gap is as far east as the Ranges go and we decided to make that our first stop. All the guides advise this track is only for high clearance 4wd with experienced drivers. Our Ranger has stock road tyres and standard suspension. High clearance as defined by the National Parks is 20cm clearance from the ground. We’ve got 23cm so technically we make it even though we are locked and not lifted! The experienced drivers bit is debatable.  After our Cape York adventure we are feeling a little more confident at being able to explore this track.  Now when I say ‘we’, I mean Craig, he’s the one doing all the driving!

Another car arrives while we are filling in the camping permit at the track entrance. They go through first while the kids and I venture down to the riverbed. The kids are picking up garnets that are littered across the top of the sand. There are millions of them, all quite small but the kids have got the fever upon them and are scooping up as many as they can stuff into their pockets.  Hence the name Ruby Gap.  Early settlers mistook the garnets for Rubies.

Ruby Gap campsite

Driving along the sandy creek bed we caught up to the other car so we piggyback the lead along the track, keeping an eye out for each other on the more difficult sections. The track consisted of a steep water crossing, lots of bouldering and sections of driving through deep river sand. I hate to admit that my heart was in my mouth and every time we scraped along a boulder or banged on a rock I either said ‘Shit’ or made a high pitched intake of air sound. I was worried that we would do some damage to the fuel tank or something serious and be a looong way from getting towed out! Mostly it was the side steps copping the bangs as they are quite low. We made to the the end of the track where a sign stated ‘No vehicles beyond this point’. Fair enough. We had a beautiful camp spot uphill from the river and enjoyed the sun reflecting off the red cliffs and the sound of a babbling stream. Note to self, as nice as a babbling stream is, it also make me want to pee more often than usual.  The kids continued to collect garnets and I’m sure Xav was thinking of how much money he was going to make. We had to break it to him that they were all too small to cut and polish therefore not of any value.

Just after the crack of dawn we set off on foot to check out Glen Annie Gorge. We crossed creeks, walked through scrub, mud and more river sand until the water and cliffs cut us off from going any further. Despite the earlier sign, there were car tracks quite far into the gorge. A couple of guys with cameras asked us about the gorge and when we told them it was nice they said with their heavy Eastern European accents “No! We will not walk further!” Okay then. They had parked near our vehicle and as we were taking it pretty slow offered that they could go first “No! You can go first”. Okay then.

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We shifted camp to Trephina Gorge for a night. Who should turn up but ‘The Eastern Europeans’ with wives and teens in tow. Of course I go over and say hi. Why? Not sure if I’m friendly or weird. Possibly a mix of both. I asked the not so friendly guy from yesterday where they are from and he says with his heavy accent “Australa. Why?” Unfriendly and a smart-arse. It was a fine line to remain friendly or flip him the bird. Seeing as we were sharing the same camp ground, best to let it slide. Anyway it turns out they are from a country that borders Russia and perhaps that was why he was a bit cagey.  Probably had some secrets or were on a mission or are in hiding.  A healthy imagination is a good thing okay. Anyway, we then refer to them as ‘The Russians’ and use our best KGB accents.

We get up early to climb around the gorge. The kids are killing these walks. I’m timing them and they are undercutting the estimated walk time with a fat margin!

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Cold, cold nights in the MacDonnell Ranges
Cold, cold nights in the MacDonnell Ranges

Now I haven’t mentioned how cold it was getting a night. Let’s just say, I was waking up grumpy every fricken morning! There is that saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. I’m sure there’re exceptions but in our case it’s probably true. Planning which clothes to take while still on the sunny, warm Sunshine Coast, I’d probably underestimated how many cold nights in a tent we’d be having. In an effort to get warm at night I was wearing a singlet, tshirt, a long sleeve shirt, a jumper, ‘active wear’ tights, tracky-daks, flanny pj bottoms, two pairs of socks AND shoving my feet down the sleeves of a second jumper, and only then getting inside my sleeping bag. The area was very picturesque and I did want to explore it, so it was just a case off having to suck it up and lasting through a few cold nights.

A hop through Alice to restock on groceries and we are out to the West McDonnell Range. Simpson’s Gap was just a quick stop which ends at a small waterhole and very narrow gap. A cranky ranger yelled at some guys who had climbed the rocks. Fair call, there were signs that asked you not to as they are the habitat of the rock wallaby. One portly fellow was having all sorts of trouble getting back down from atop a large rock he’d climbed and I know it’s wrong, but it made me laugh.  He had none of the characteristics of the nimble rock wallaby.  He was desperately trying to get down after being roused on and was stretching his legs trying to make his feet touch the ground.  His butt cheeks were holding onto the rock.  His friends were trying to assist by holding his hands, but I think he actually needed to use them to lift his butt cheeks up.  Definitely not PC to find this amusing but probably karma for not respecting the wildlife.

Setting up camp at Ellery Creek Big Hole we bump into a group of three families from the kids’ school.  Kids had fun catching up with some old friends.  The Rock pool was really cool actually pretty fricken cold.  In the afternoon the light reflecting of the high walls of rock felt magical.  We met some Larapinta walkers and it was fun to hear of their adventures and discuss lightweight gear.  All of us want to do it!  Kids may have to wait a couple of years but Craig and I could have a practice run.  As long as one set of grandparents would be available for duty.  Anyone?  Anyone?

We ducked into Ormiston Gorge for a walk and some lunch where the local spinifex pigeons were hopeful of a few crumbs. We explored  Redbank Gorge and a couple of times we thought we were at the end but decided to check out what was on the other side of the next set of boulders. We finally got to a point where we could walk no further and a large pool of water that disappeared through a narrow crack in the gorge. If you had a Li-Lo you could probably float through but nothing bigger. While we were enjoying the scenery we were lucky enough to spot two super agile rock wallabies on the other side of the gorge. Walking out, who do we see, none other than ‘The Russians’!   Now I think they are following us.  The fact that they are tourists just like us is more probable but also boring.  So I greet them with “Ah, it’s the Russians!”  This did elicit a couple of grins from a few of them and one of the ladies and I exchanged greeting kisses.  Okay, highly likely they are not KGB.

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There is a free camp opposite to Glen Helen Lodge called 2-mile, which is along the Finke River. It’s mostly driving on coarse sand and you just pick a spot, any spot. It was beautiful and peaceful there, and probably my favourite campsite in the Western Ranges.

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Time to tackle Palm Valley. We set up our tent and get ready to go four wheel driving. We come to the first river crossing and two cars are stopped in front of us. We get out to check it out and it does look a bit sketchy. To get across requires a couple of tight turns that you can’t see as the path is under water. If you venture off the path you risk your wheels falling over the edge and getting stuck. A guy waiting with his family asks if he can follow us through as he’s not very experienced. Ha! It’s the blind leading the blind, or as Craig said the ‘Beginner Advanced’ leading the ‘Beginner’!

Craig and I have a pretty good walkie talkie system going when backing the van into caravan parks so we decide to use this system on the track. I’m barefoot in the water with walkie talkie in hand and he’s on the UHF in the car. “Right, now left, left, straight, you’re clear! Go, go, go.” So we continue this with me talking Craig over the obstacles and then the next family vehicle.  It works well for us but I then have to jog barefoot back to our car to the next obstacle. I suspect Craig was sneaking in some cardio training for me as the distances he was stopping at seemed to get further and further along.  We made it to the end with no complications and see a tour bus with complications. The cabs over and a mechanic is hard at work. We can’t offer any mechanical assistance but did offer use of the satellite phone if needed. No, they are all good, so we head off on our walk. The other family we were with were so nice we ended up walking and chatting the whole way.

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We get back to camp and get a call on the UHF from the tour bus asking if anyone had a satellite phone.  They broke down again!  I bet the patience of some of the passengers was running thin by then.  Craig drove off to take the sat phone to them.  In the end they had to leave the bus and another one came out to collect all of the passengers.

Back at camp the kids of the family we met were of a similar age and all got on really well. We all hung out after dinner and worked out we’d be in Alice Springs together the next night when we planned to meet the Stolls. We made plans for Alice and packed up early after our last cold night in the McDonnell Ranges.

In hindsight, if we did the East and West McDonnell ranges again, we might have set up camp in a central location and drive out to each spot from our base location. It would have saved us much time with set-up and pack down of the tent, airbeds etc. However, like teenagers at their first all you can eat dining experience, we couldn’t help trying out all the different camp sites and staying at all those different camps was pretty good, so maybe not.

Albert Namatjira's house, Hermannsberg.
Albert Namatjira’s house, Hermannsberg.

Hermannsberg was an interesting little town we stopped into on the way back to Alice Springs.  It is also the birthplace of Albert Namatjira.  His story is an interesting one and we visited his little two room home.

Lutheran Pastor Carl Strelow, was one of the first settlers to take an interest in the local aboriginals.  He studied their culture and documented their language.  The locals respected him and his son very much.  So much so, that they gave them tribal skin names.

We are hooking up with The Stolls in Alice for our next adventure to the big rocks!  The Red Centre stories shall continue…