It’s time to leave Dunmarra and the last bit of the true Outback on this trip. If you recall, we were greatly amused on our drive up by some dressed up termite mounds we’d passed but hadn’t had a chance to photograph. Well, now we were looking for them and we found them!
Lunch was at Three Ways, not a sexual reference but where three roads meet. As usual, I order barra and chips (about the only non-meat option on any of the roadhouse menus), then sneak out to take pictures of some dogs we’d seen lurking about the place. I don’t think they were very well cared-for; they were skinny and unfriendly. I felt very bad for them. At most caravan parks we have seen “no pets” signs, so dogs as pets may not be a popular concept in these parts…
As soon as we turned the corner from Three Ways (change of course for the last leg of the trip), the weather also changes, drastically
Clouds again! I’m doing the (photographer’s) happy dance. They’re heavy with rain, but they’ve dumped their load somewhere other than on us. However, we’re not out of the woods: the check-engine light has come on in our truck… after a brief discussion, we decide to tempt fate and press on to our next destination. As we are no longer in peril of dehydration within minutes, and there is more traffic, it is not as dire to break down here as it was on the Track.
Because we have spent so much of our time on this trip driving, it has helped to have a project during those long hours to keep things interesting. If we aren’t driving, we’re listening to music, writing, snoozing, or taking pictures. Since Vernon and I have been doing the lion’s share of driving, I end up sitting in the front with him. When I’m not driving I chose a subject to shoot in drive-by mode. This could be anything from tree skeletons, termite mounds, clouds, charred patches, road trains… It keeps me alert and interested in the scenery. Thus, as road trains have been such a big (in every sense) part of the trip, we’ve all been trying to capture them in motion to better help convey their size. In Northern Territory (NT), they can be up to 53.5 meters (175 feet) long. It is impossible to describe what it’s like having one of them bearing down on you on these narrow, two lane roads. So…. This is what it’s like to have a road train coming at you.
That one was a biggie, 4 trailers long – the max. The vehicle on the left is a regular semi…
And this is what it’s like to pass a road train
Just so’s you know, we’re traveling at about 120 kph (75 mph)… So you can see why the roads are covered with such wildlife carnage.
Speaking of wildlife, ll of us are quite shocked at the lack of it anywhere on this trip. Even JimLyn commented (during a phone call we had) on how few creatures they saw on their part of the trip. So a sighting of something is very rare and causes much excitement. During my turn at the wheel I had a ‘roo cross the road in front of me. They are as ridiculously stupid as they are cute, and 90% of the time, after spotting an oncoming car, will flee from it by jumping across the road in front of it. Fortunately for this one, I see him in time and slow down, so no ‘roos were harmed in this encounter. Despite the check-engine light being on, we make it to Barkly Homestead without incident, although the clouds clearly dumped their load here:
After checking in, I go explore the premises, which includes (as many of these roadhouses do) a cage or two of creatures. Here they have black cockatoos,
a Major Mitchell cockatoo (he would not raise his crest for me),
and guest field mice
who had dug tunnels all over the bottom of the cage and were enjoying all the free seeds.Guinea hens strutted around on the grass outside the cage,
and the sun played hide-and-seek with the clouds. It was a glorious afternoon.
This is the point of the trip where we start the journey home. There are still many days of adventure ahead of us, but there is a definitely change of mood- at least for me. Though we have been on the road for over 3 weeks, I’m not yet ready to think about ”going home”, civilization, schedules, commitments. Even though we’ll still be in the middle of nowhere, the raw wilderness we experienced on the Oodnadatta Track is gone. There is now vegetation everywhere we go, sometimes more, sometimes less. But the vast stretches of absolute nothingness are behind us. Most especially here, where it is practically tropical.
We have heard such conflicting explanations about the fires that we no longer know what to think. According to some, they are ritual fires set by the aboriginals which benefit the ecosystem. Others say they are arson, set by disaffected aboriginal youth and are immensely destructive to the ecosystem. As with all such things, the truth is likely somewhere in between.
Cockatoos have also made a comeback, though they’ve really never disappeared. They’re the pigeons of Oz.
Having left quite early (as we have a looooong driving day today), we stop for breakfast at Jabiru, the largest town in Kakadu, where the aboriginals commissioned an architect to build a crocodile-shaped hotel. As the restaurant there was closed, we were sent to a tiny café, where we picked up lunch, and I saw this interesting packaging
Then it’s back on the road, where we encounter Aboriginal drivers. You may note the foot out the window. That is not the driver.
As you might be able to tell, my obsession for boabs has been replaced by one for termite mounds. (Which is good, as the boabs have gone away…) So many different shapes, sizes, and colors. There are some blobular, rounded ones look like Lot’s wife – after she turned to salt. Sure wish I’d gotten a picture of one of those… I haven’t mentioned this before, butI find many of the aboriginal names to be quite humorous. This one makes me feel like I’m clucking
The signage around here, however, does not make it inviting to hike about. Or swim, even though it is quite toasty.
We pass tons of tiny termite mounds. Each of these different shapes represents a different type of termite. Apparently, only about 5 of the hundreds of different species eat houses.
Finally, after a quick lunch in Katherine at the Coffee Club, we make it to Dunmarra by sunset, where my favorite horse awaits.
I still cannot get a close up picture because he picks my pockets. He practically jumps the fence to get at the tangerine I was eating, so I share it My hopes for another night sky star shot are over now; it has either been too much light from the towns, too many clouds, or too much moon. I’ll have to be comforted with this boab.
SPIDER ALERT. There is at least one (or more) scary spider picture(s) in this post. Proceed at you own peril.
The scenery has changed a little….
Although our digs are great, they’re still quite a ways from Kakadu park itself. After consulting with the folks at the reception, we decided to limit our sightseeing to stuff near the cabin, and set off to our first stop, Fogg Dam. One of the attractions there is the waterlily field, just a brief walk through the forest. Although it is almost unbearably steamy, we are eager for the rare hike as most of the time we are sitting. But we run into fellow travelers on their way back from the viewing point who said it is nothing but a dried out field at the moment. As it is hugely humid and hot, we take their word for it and walk back with them to the parking lot, stopping to take a picture of a ghost gum, one of the most lovely species of gum trees, whose bark is butter smooth and ghostly white:
Fogg Dam is another earthen structure like Arglye Dam, but a fraction the size, and only one lane wide.
It has a couple of turnouts in case two cars traveling towards each other, meet. At one such turnout we stopped to take pictures of waterfowl in a portion of the wetlands still containing water.
Time out: One of my deepest fears when contemplating this trip (especially when I thought we would be camping) was coming face to face with the fabled Aussie spiders – most notably in the most defenseless place of all: the latrine, with my pants down. And I did, in fact, meet a “baby” huntsman, in the latrine at our very first campsite. Fortunately, there was another stall, without a spider in it, but my worst fears had begun to materialize…
Although we ended the camping format pretty early into the trip (and that portion of my nightmare was GREATLY reduced), my vigilance at every stop, in every room, and most especially in every bathroom has never waivered. And thus far, have avoided any further encounters with the eight-legged demons. Now, back to Fogg Dam.
While wandering a few feet for a better angle of the birds, something caught my eye. When I turned to inspect it, I was frozen by simultaneous explosions of dread and fascination; it was not one, not two, not 10, but a SHITLOAD of them on an 8 x 10 foot spider web “wall”.
A mere sliver of the web “wall”
These are golden orb spiders and are about 4 inches long from the front legs to the back… No, I did NOT!!!!! walk into it or (I would have died from a massive coronary and would not be here now writing about it), nor did I get too terribly close. But I DID have my telephoto lens on and took a bunch of pictures. That alone will have my mom and brother wondering who is REALLY writing this blog…
Many of them were guarding egg sacks (thank GOODNESS they hadn’t hatched yet or there’d be millions of them running all over the place…),
and some were jumping on, and catching, flies. This one caught, then shrunk-wrapped it into a fly taco in about 2.5 seconds (if you cared to look closely, you could see the silk coming from the tail end of the spider).
After a few minutes we all began to feel itchy and left to catch the jumping croc cruise a few miles away. The drive to the river took us through some interesting territory:
Yes, we’ve already seen jumping crocs in Darwin, but those were captive. And young. And small. This cruise was on the Adelaide River, and these were wild crocs. And quite big… Incidentally, crocs are not trained to jump, they learned how to do that all by themselves in the wild, and a 15-foot croc can propel at least half its body out of the water and grab whatever is above it. Just in case you thought you’d be safe up in a boat…Right off the dock we were met by a young female croc who’s learned that the sound of the motor is a dinner bell. She swam right up, and our pilot/captain put a buffalo steak on the end of a rod, and the croc jumped up and got it.
Then we motored on, followed for a bit by the croc, who clearly wanted more dinner.
After a while and a couple more crocs, we met Charlie, a hawk who had also learned that the boat means dinner had arrived. Our pilot called him by name, and Charlie swooped down to grab the piece of meet that had been flung into the air for him.
He also stuck around for a while.
The highlight of the cruise was, of course, 23-foot Bruttus, whose picture has now put this tiny cruise operation on the map and into overdrive.
Yes, he is THAT big. And kept eyeing a stupid tourist hanging over the side of the boat to take a picture and stubbornly disobeyed the captain’s orders to get back in. The buffalo steak was no match for the big fat meal just above Bruttus’ head. Had Bruttus decided to have Tourist for lunch, I’d have caught the whole thing with my camera as I was sitting 5 feet from the idiot. No, Bruttus did not jump that high for us. But he IS missing one front leg, which clearly isn’t much of an impediment. On the return portion of the ride, we came across two female crocs who didn’t like the other one in her territory. They actually provided us with a NatGeo moment by having a croc fight, but of course, I had the wrong lens on…
Next on the program was the Sunset cruise on the Adelaide, but with a couple of hours to launch, we stopped for lunch at the Corroboree Roadhouse, which is where we would be picked up later by the cruise company. And which is where I managed to capture one of my very few pet portraits on this trip:
Then we were chauffeured in a mini-bus over a dirt road (ah, such fond memories) to the launch site, and had a beautiful little afternoon cruise, narrated by a very knowledgeable lady captain, who pointed out all manner of river wildlife, including whistling ducks and Jesus birds (so called because they appear to walk on water),
white chested sea eagles,
and cormorants (who are not water-resistant and must dry out like this),
We had our second NatGeo moment of the day (a cormorant had just caught a fish and a sea eagle swooped in and stole it away), and again I missed it because I was on the wrong side of the boat. Curses!!
A few minutes later, we spotted this enormous saltie half-hidden in the vegetation. He was at least as big as Bruttus, possibly larger.
According to the captain, he was courting the female saltie we saw just a few yards away. As I mentioned previously, I am pathetic at spotting crocs, unless they’re jumping out of the water, and never DID get to see the female croc in question. But I was very proud to have been the only one to spot this “freshie”, which was hanging out dangerously close to the two salties:
We finally got to see the waterlillies, which had just started to bloom.
The captain stopped the boat and we floated with the lilies while she told us of their many properties, and harvested some lotus beans for us to try.
It was so peaceful and beautiful. The light was beginning to turn golden and a pleasant tranquility settled on the group. The rest of the ride was the return home in the approaching twilight. We passed some wallabies, and a jabiru – a very large crane – hunting for its dinner.
Just before the sun set, we stopped to enjoy the beauty of the moment. A couple of guys were fishing in the glowing light, directly across the river from the giant courting croc on the shore.
I wonder if they knew.
On our way to Kakadu, we visit Litchfield National Park, which is full of interesting rock formations and water features, , including Tolmer Falls (where we saw this well camouflaged cricket)
Wangi Falls, Florence, Falls, a total change of terrain…
and Buley Rockhole, which would have been wonderful to enjoy on this sweltering day:
This is also the only place where I’ve seen termite mounds built against trees, although elsewhere I’ve seen them build around obstacles
But I am most excited to see the “magnetic” termite mounds, found almost exclusively in Litchfield National Park. I’d been reading about them, and this is one of the very few places on earth where they are found. Finally, we got to the magnetic termite mounds, found the walkway, and experienced what was to be my biggest disappointment of this trip… The mounds are famous for two things – their narrow, wedge-shaped structure, and the fact that they are all built on a north/south alignment. The walkway was a) about 500 feet from the mounds (which are protected), and b) facing their wide side, so the narrow aspect is not visible. Who designed this ride????? Fortunately, there is one direction-challenged termite group who built a mound slightly off-north, so we can get a somewhat on-edge view:
This group shot is the only view to be had of the mounds. If you think it looks like a graveyard, you’re not alone…
For reference, that is a cathedral mound in the background, probably measuring over 10 feet.
This one is about 15 feet tall – Vernon is 6’1”…
If you’ve seen Life of Brian, you’ll know what they’re doing. The road to Kakadu is guarded by these giant cathedral termite mounds
The sun had started its race towards the horizon when we finally pulled into Mary River Wilderness Park, our home for the next couple of nights. As we drove up the rustic driveway, several wallabies foraged just a few feet from us, and a sulfur-crested cockatoo (the first we’ve seen) enjoyed an afternoon shower.
This is a nature park as well as a caravan park, and there are more wallabies here than we have seen the entire trip.
We also see cane toads for the first time, which are the biggest, most destructive plague to hit Australia. They have decimated the native species, and are heading south. Locals say they have not seen a frill-necked lizard in four years. These guys were frolicking about 20 feet from me, and two of them almost ran me over as they fled when they spotted me
A special feature of this park is the helicopter for emergency evacuations, such as heat exhaustion, croc attacks, and snake and spider bites. Oh joy…
With Vernon away for the day, we were left to our own devices and sense of adventure. It did not amount to much…
On our drive into Howard Springs, we passed a sign for a town by the name of Humpty Doo. I do not think it is possible to pass a sign like that and not go investigate, so that is what we did. Humpty Doo is not a joke played on unsuspecting tourists; it’s an actual town,
with a long history, and a “famous” hotel, where we bought t-shirts. Yes, I own a Humpty Doo Hotel t-shirt.
Here’s the history of the town.
This was our waitress.
The primary school (which let out just as we arrived, so we got to see juvenile Humpty Doodians):
and hardware store
And that’s all we did today. Then we went to pick up Vernon at the airport.
Awoke to a peacock and three peahens on our porch. I was so startled to see such a sight, it didn’t occur to me they were looking for a snack. One of the peahends clearly saw me on the other side of the glass and just looked at me before calmly strutting off. Too late I remembered we had a bag of sunflower seeds. Today was an immensely lazy day, and we could just not get motivated to do very much. As Vernon is flying out to Cairns tonight to do a film, and will return tomorrow night, today is about winding the clock down until we need to drop him off at the airport. Before leaving the cabin, I did some stretching on the giant bouncy pillow outside.
Howard Springs is about 25 km south of Darwin, and though it’s not difficult to get there, it does add about a half hour to the drive in each direction. Went into town late and had lunch at our new favorite place, Coffee Club. After lunch, we parked next to the Parliament,
and went looking for the WWII underground storage tunnels. I’d read about them in the tourist brochure and it sounded fascinating. I was right.
The tunnel we entered was 171 meters long!!!
It does not seem to be heavily visited, and when we got there, they were on the brink of closing. Fortunately, the guy let us in, giving us some history on the place, and then advising us to stomp on the ground when we got to the end of the tunnel. The resulting thumping echo traveled to the very end of the tunnel and back, creating a bone-quaking rumble. We were too hot to contemplate returning to our car via the 300 stairs we had descended, and the guy from the tunnels told us we could take the elevator up to street level over at Wharf One, a residential, retail, and commercial complex. This beautiful development features a little lagoon (one of the few places in Darwin where you can swim in the “ocean”, as it is free of salties and killer box jellyfish),
and the Darwin Convention Center.
There is a wave pool next the Convention Center (visible at the bottom of the photo), but it had stopped producing waves by the time we got there. So instead, we stopped for drinks at one of several places ringing the lagoon, and rehydrated. The heat and humidity are debilitating. On our walk back we passed the Government House,
and on a couple of trees, noticed these incredible green-bellied ants on the trees next to the walkway.
They are green tree ants, who had made a huge next by fusing together several of the tree’s enormous leaves. The soldier ants were on high alert! Before we knew it, it was time to drop Vernon off at the airport, which we managed without any fanfare. On the way home, we noticed a tiny little church in the middle of the field. The light was fabulous as the sun was already low, but there was no direct access to it. As I was driving, and I refused to give up, I found a way to it, and although the magic light had already passed, it was just such a special spot.
Possibly my favorite little church anywhere. Sweetie and I are in disagreement about how many people could fit in it, and I stand by my less-than-20 number.
It is clearly more of a meditation chapel than a “church”, and seemed to still be under construction. Then we headed back to the cabin after a stop at the village “shopping center” – a large, cinder-block structure housing the supermarket and a handful of other tiny retail storefronts – for dinner fixings. Incidentally, a head of iceberg lettuce (the most popular lettuce in these parts) was $4.95…
To start the day off right, Grace and I go out to the bouncing pad right outside our cabin, and carry on kids while Vernon snapped shots of us. Then I got Grace to jump for MY camera…
Finally, it was off into town to do truly touristy stuff: visit Crocosaurus Cove, where we were finally able to see saltwater crocs (“salties”) up close and personal.
You could even get up close to the babies:
Some people were foolish enough to swim in the Cage of Death
It is impossible to convey just how massive and impressive these guys are in person. It would certainly be a heart-stopping encounter in the wild. Even so, as massive and terrifying as they are, they do seem silly when viewed from underneath:
There was also another reptile house (which we visited)
But in reality we were just biding time until the croc-feeding tour. These guys exert 3,000 lbs of pressure per square inch and their jaws are massive. So massive in fact, that when they snap them shut, there is a booming sound reminiscent of a gunshot.
Part of the tour featured a juvenile croc tank with a giant glass wall where you could watch the animals from both above and below water. Willing visitors stood in an enclosure above water, and were handed fishing rods with a piece of raw chicken hanging from a paper clip. Then they hung them over the side, and the juvenile crocs literally jumped out of the water to get to the chicken.
Although they achieve almost full clearance of the water at this age (you can see one partially out of the water in this image), when they reach their largest size, only about half their body leaves the water when the jump. That would be only about 7-10 feet of giant croc… Just before heading out of the park, I spoke to one of the staff, who encouraged us to do the croc fishing, which we did:
Leapin’ Lizards, Batman!
Totally out of the water!!!
We spent all afternoon at the croc park, then found our way to the famous Mindil beach market, which everyone swore was unlike anything in the world. Frankly, if you’ve been anywhere in Mexico or to Venice Beach, you’ve pretty much gotten the idea.
It’s like a tianguis at the beach.
The food section was possibly the most interesting part, and the aromas were divine. But as we were to meet up with friends of Vernon later for dinner, we passed on sampling the goods. I was, however, really impressed with beach itself, which was at low tide. Those people in the center of the image are walking on sand, not swimming in water:
As with every other outdoor market, there were products from all over, including Germany, India, even a Peruvian musician playing “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” on his pan pipe… All that was missing was the smell of kielbasa…
But there were many didgeridoo stalls (no, we didn’t try to play one…)
and a fabulous band composed of just a drummer and didgeridoo player (playing FOUR didgeridoos!!!).
I did buy a croc tooth, though. It came with a certificate that this was from a legal, farmed source. In any event, the teeth fall out, so no crocs had to go to the dentist to provide me with my trinket. Finally, we set of to the Darwin Ski Club, to meet up with Duncan and his lovely family. The eating area was a large grassy clearing under a huge, beautiful tree.
At the edge of it was the shore, which was exposed for about a quarter mile, as it was low tide. I just had to go for a walk on it (I was literally walking on the bottom of the sea), photographing both the beautiful formations
and the gorgeous children playing on the usually submerged rocks.
Then we settled down to dinner, and to contemplate the sunset under that gorgeous tree, while a small rock band played covers of the Beatles, the Stones, and 80′s classics.
This morning we’re headed back to the park to do some canoeing before setting out for Darwin. On the way we pass the town’s cemetery – one of the larger ones we’ve seen on this trip, which have ranged from only two graves to this much larger one.
It amazes me where people are buried… We pass other interesting debris on the side of the road…
and you have to wonder how it ends up there. The sides of the road continue to be charred, which continues to provoke a duality of responses from me, both awe of the stark beauty and heartbreak at the destruction, the patches of red and black earth punctuated with perfect vertical black lines of the tree trunks.
At Katherine Gorge the team suits up for canoeing – sweetie has been documenting some of our adventures with the GoPro 3D, and affixes it to the front of his canoe. Just as he’s about to launch, I idly wonder why he doesn’t tether it to something, and immediately after the GoPro plops off the canoe and into the water. I leave the scene of the crime because I cannot stifle my laughing…
While Vernon and Grace are paddling about, and sweetie is fishing his camera out of the river, I’m photographic a new discovery: Pink trees
And King fishers
Then it’s back on the road. The termite mounds are back and have grown in size. We are now beginning to see “cathedral” mounds, the largest of all termite mounds:
We arrive at the Big4 Howard Springs caravan park (on the outskirts of Darwin), our home for the next few days. Our cabin is the last one on the row next to pool with spa
Though it is hot and humid, we are all in the pool within 15 minutes of arrival. The water is divine and does much to soothe our road-weary bodies. Most charmingly, there are ibis everywhere,
as well as a peacock
And black cockatoos (too far to capture well) de-leafing the tree over the pool. Dinner is at Howard Springs Tavern, just down the road from us, and as country kick as you can get.
Off to a late start and an ibis is strutting around our campground.
Once we get organized, we drive 26 km south to Cutta Cutta Caves. We arrive between tours (you’re not allowed access without a guide), so we take a stroll down a service road towards the other (closed) caves. Although we do not get to the second cave system, we enjoy a leisurely stroll, spotting about 4 wallabies on the way. There were many of the trees with the rough lower trunk bark and white upper branches bark:
It being in the low 90s, it was exhausting, even at our strolling pace, and we returned to the visitor’s shack. The guide was finally available for the tour, and our foursome was joined by another couple. In the 600 meters walk from the parking lot, we all worked up a sweat. But the rock formations (obviously volcanic) were very cool on the way:
A lot of people are uncomfortable in caves; I’m not one of them. I’m fascinated by the formations and the extraordinary length of time that went into making them. In this particular cave, which is a “dry” cave, the stalactites grow at 1 mm per year – incredibly slow. There are very few stalagmites because the ground is either too sandy where the drop falls, or the accumulation gets washed away in the rainy season.
And a face in the rocks:
The sparkly stuff is calcite, which is rare and incredibly beautiful, and is my favorite:
We returned to town for a terrific lunch at the Coffee Club, a very unassuming yet delicious café in the middle of “town”. Then we set off for Katherine Gorge, 26 kms out of town in the opposite direction. In this national park, little wallabies and their joeys were all over the place. Quite used to people, they fed within a couple of feet of us.
A hike up to the sunset point was a bit unrewarding, as we’ve seen far better views on this trip, with far less work involved. We STUPIDLY did not have enough water, it was blisteringly hot, and I began suffering from the heat. The first thing we did when we got back into town was stop to buy water.
Our evenings have been a rather pleasant and relaxing ritual. After dinner – whether eaten out at a restaurant, or prepared in our kitchen, if there is one – we all recede to our separate corners to decompress from the day and get some “alone” time. Most of us are on our computers, checking news from home, and/or processing images and/or writing. Communal yet private. It takes a special group of people to enjoy this sort of togetherness and respect each other’s need for personal time.
Hopelessly behind in my blogging. So much happens each day, with so many pictures to edit. But we have intermittent internet access, and each post takes me 2-3 hours to write and edit images.
I miss the remote wilderness of the Oodnadata Trail, its harsh and unforgiving beauty. The further north we travel, the more civilized it seems to me, the less far from home, the more “normal”. The road is paved and divided in spots (like any decent highway); the vegetation is becoming much lusher, and although different still feels familiar; the billboards are properly printed and displayed. Gone are the signs hand-scrawled on scrap metal, propped up on rocks, hanging from bushes; no longer are we scanning the horizon for impending emu stampedes, or hoards of hopping ‘roos to imperil our drive. It’s not that there are no kangaroos in these parts, it just doesn’t feel like they’d behave as erratically. Of course, there is ample evidence to the contrary, as there are dozens of joey carcasses littering long sections of the highway.
Even the roadhouses are more genteel. We can drink the water from the tap.
Today was our first leg on the return trip, and already I’m angsting about our adventure coming to an end. We have been gone 5 weeks, 4 of them on the road. I miss my own bed, but I confess that driving on the right side of the street is going to seem very strange.
I have only posted through the 19th – 10 days ago!! There is so much you don’t yet know, about the Bungle Bungles, and the caves, and the crocs and the spiders… And I so love writing these posts because I get to relive them all again. Everything but the spiders…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. So please forgive me for not keeping up to date, and just enjoy the ride. Would love to hear from you