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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!”

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