August 23, Part 2

The river is wide, the barge is slow, plus one must land at a place where it is possible to easily disembark the barge and find the road. However, the crossing was wonderful, so we didn’t mind that it took a while.

Angalarri River

Angalarri River


Disembarking
On the far side of the river, we continued on, rocking and pounding down the track. After a nasty jouncing, we left station property and joined the Victoria Highway not far west of Timber Creek. The highway is sealed, which is not as romantic as crashing through the wilderness, but it is more relaxing.

We were heading now for Keep River National Park, which is about 40 kilometers east of the Western Australia border. The pleasure of driving on a sealed road was short lived, but this time, it was because of construction, rather than wilderness.

Phenomenal beauty continued to surround us: massive formations of weirdly broken red rock covered with kapok flowers and boabs; huge stretches of shattered, red-rock walls that look like the ruined fortifications of some ancient civilization; tumbles of boulders; golden grass and even more, larger boabs. It is absolutely wonderful.
GrassTreesBlueSky
Suddenly, the terrain was again flat, gum tree-dotted savannah. Then hills again, but this time low and rolling, worn rather than shattered. And then flat again, an endless sea of brown and golden grass and eucalypts, with only occasional scatterings of kapok, boab, and melaleuka. Then, in the distance, mountains.

Among the trees, red-tailed black cockatoos were conspicuous both because of their large size and their noisy calls. It was late enough in the day that they were returning to their roosts from feeding, so we saw a fair number. Wonderfully impressive birds.
Finally, we pulled into camp at Keep River National Park. I set up my tent and then dashed off to take photos before the light was gone. I’m happy to report that the flies are not nearly as bad here. It is, in fact, a really lovely location, surrounded by screw palms, gum trees, and high, red cliffs.

Keep River Campsite

Keep River Campsite


Excellent evening again with my charming traveling companions. Another great meal (thanks, Kate). John came around to sign us up for helicopter rides at two sites still ahead of us (areas remote enough that helicopters wouldn’t just be there without someone ordering them). The rides are a bit pricy, but I’ve spent enough money just getting here, it seemed a bit foolish to miss this opportunity in the name of frugality. These two flights are, after all, considered to be among the highlights of the trip.

Conversation, star gazing, and listening to bird calls, and then off to our tents by 10pm. (I should probably have tried for an earlier hour. I’m still fairly shattered from the trip over—plus I’ve read that it takes about one day per time zone crossed to completely recover from a really long flight, even without the added problems. However, it is sometimes hard to end so pleasant an evening.)

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Trip 3:Wednesday, August 23 Part 1

We’re leaving Menu Camp today. We were up early enough, and collapsed and packed our tents and sleeping bags swiftly enough, that we were all in time to photograph the sunrise. Then we had breakfast (toast and Vegemite, hurrah!–I’ve missed it), packed up the truck, and hit the road.

It’s winter, the dry season up here, so the sky was clear and brilliant. The scenery changed frequently, with varied plants, and animals punctuating the remarkable landscapes. Began to see boabs, those weird, bloated tree that you only see in this corner of Australia.
Boab
We traded eucalypt savannah for weird, lunar desolation and dead trees, then back to savannah. Smoke on the horizon again. Guessing it’s the annual burn-off that Aborigines have so long done in this region, and which more recent arrivals have learned to do, to prevent uncontrolled wild fires. A massive, ancient, red-rock escarpment rose to our right, the jumbled slopes and flat top covered with trees, but the perpendicular red walls, bare. So many grasses: short and golden, tall and red, like sheets of velvet in some places, rigid tufts in others, green, yellow, tan, from a few inches up to seven feet tall.
Escarpment sharper
Rapid-fire wonders: bustards, huge black cockatoos, clouds of corellas (small, white cockatoo species), “ant” hills (really termite mounds), kapok flowers, feral donkeys (one with a small, black foal), butcher birds, and bursts of small, dark swallows with white breasts. At a large waterhole, we saw cormorants and egrets, and the trees were filled with galahs. Melaleuka scented the air, though they were outnumbered by gum trees. Still, the constant background for these changing vistas was heat, dust, and rocks.

Into Bradshaw Station complex. Not a planned stop, but the trailer hitch needed to be fixed. We took advantage of the stop to photograph flocks of cockatoos, the imposing escarpment, purple-flowered wild tomatoes, yellow-flowered kapok, and pink-flowered turkey bushes.
Cockatoos

Kapok Flowers

Kapok Flowers


Hitch fixed, we were on our way—though only to the edge of the Angalarri River, which feeds into the Victoria River, the largest river in the Northern Territory. Joe Bradshaw, for whom the station was named, was the first white man to settle the far side of the Victoria River.
The only way across the Angalarri is by boat, but there is a barge here that is used for moving equipment, supplies, vehicles, and livestock, and it is plenty big enough for our 4WD and a bunch of campers. We crossed the river at an angle, which gave us the opportunity to see a considerable amount of wildlife or signs of wildlife. This is a tidal river, so there are saltwater crocodiles here, and we saw a fair number of crocodile “slides” down muddy slopes into the water. Kangaroos and wallabies watched us from the banks. I was delighted to see mudskippers hopping along the shore. Wattles, with their fragrant, yellow flowers, grew in large clumps. Birdlife included black cormorants, whistling kites, and a white-faced heron. We also saw a number of gorgeous white-breasted sea eagles, which prompted the gentleman driving the boat to relate the mating rituals of these impressive birds. To get the attention of the female (which is the larger bird), the male catches a fish, takes it high in the air, then drops it, going into a power dive and catching the fish again just before it hits the water. If the female is impressed, the two fly high into the air, lock talons, and spiral toward earth, letting go just before they crash. They mate for life.
White-Breasted Sea Eagle lighter

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August 22, Part 2

There were places along the steep side of the gorge where the roots of trees that were growing on the cliffs above wove across the stone wall, looking like a living cascade or woody web. Remarkable. In some places, the only place to walk was a narrow ledge along the stone walls. (Click the thumbnails to see more detail.)MenuGorge-Roots adjusted MenuGorge-StoneWall lighter

 

 

It was not an easy transit, but it was rewarding. After two hours, we reached a lovely series of short waterfalls that tumbled from pool to clear pool. Calcium deposits had formed around the falls and tiny plants grew among the formations. We dropped our daypacks and pulled out our swimsuits. The dense vegetation made it easy to change and remain modest. We spent a fair bit of time—half an hour I’d guess—splashing in the largest pool and drinking from the nearest waterfall. It was absolutely wonderful. We had lunch there as well, sitting on the rocks, chatting and drying out.
MenuGorge-Trees and Water lighter
It was a day of amazing beauty, but also of a considerable amount of difficulty. Of course, fatigue wasn’t helping me, but even weary, I didn’t want to leave my camera equipment behind—which may not have been my wisest decision. As we headed back up the gorge, I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d survive the return trip. I did, of course, survive, though I’m now pretty well covered with scrapes and bruises, from having stumbled a few times. But with one last surge, I made it up the stone wall to the broken rocks that marked the top edge of the gorge.
MenuGorge-TopSide lighter
After hiking back to camp, I enjoyed a cool shower in the creek-water shower. (Yes, we swam in the gorge, but the temperature is around 100 degrees and it was a long hike back, so the cooling effects of that dip had long since worn off.) Pleasant late afternoon in camp. The sunset was beautiful, but is appreciated for more than its splendor—it means the flies go to bed.

Now, it’s time for dinner and another amiable evening. Dinner was great: steak, grilled onions, pumpkin, and jacket potatoes. The cool of the evening made the heavier meal more enjoyable. (Hard to eat a lot when you’re hot.)

I haven’t gotten much sleep lately, but with a good meal and after a day of fresh air and considerable exercise, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble sleeping tonight.

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Trip 3:Tuesday, August 22, Part 1

It’s 6 am, and through my tent flap, I am watching the gradually brightening sky. Bursts of noisy bird
calls presage the advent of dawn. The air is cool and sweet and smells of grass.

By 6:30, the sun has still not made an appearance, but the stars have faded and, as was the case yesterday at this time, the crescent moon was still visible, in a silvery lavender sky that got paler the closer it was to the fiery horizon. Time to get up—not just to face the day, but also to photograph the spectacular predawn sky.
Day2Predawn
Unfortunately, the flies awake early, as well. (Kate says she has never seen them as bad as they are this year. Great.) The flies are attracted to everything, but especially to light colors, so I also photographed the back of the white t-shirt of one of my traveling companions—just in case anyone wonders if I’m exaggerating. (By the way, if you click on the thumbnails, you can see the images at full size. Lot more detail visible that way.)
Day2Flies adjusted
After a good breakfast, we were off and hiking up to and then down into Menu Gorge. We headed away from camp through the tall, golden grass, across flat, broken, black and red rock, to a place where we could descend a steep tumble of huge boulders to the base of the gorge. Pandanus, paperbark trees, and thick vines crowded in on either side of a narrow stream that runs down the center of the gorge.

We hiked through more tall grass and deep leaves, over “streams” of rocks (no doubt stream beds when there is more water during the rainy season), and scrambled up and down massive piles of boulders and ragged rock walls. The stream became wider as we headed up the gorge. The water was so clear that we could see the bottom, as well as the fish that were swimming among the submerged rocks and branches.
MenuGorge-Cliff adjusted
I loved the look of the pandanus, despite the serrated edges that clawed us as we passed. At one point, made our way through a beautiful grove of screw palms. Because the day was already heating up, we stopped by a pool, where the stream widened a bit, to take a drink and splash ourselves with water.

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August 21, PART 2

The earth became redder as we continued on, and the trees became greener. The road was rough, the weather hot, the flies, dreadful, the scenery, brilliant. In the distance, we could see smoke rising from a brush fire. It must have been a big one, as the smoke rose to the clouds from an area miles long.

We eventually rolled onto the historic Bradshaw Station, an area of roughly 3,475 square miles. The remoter areas of the station are now used by the military, and we had seen evidence of that back in Pine Creek, where a fair number of jeeps and gents in camo had also stopped.

This part of the station is known for the antiquity of its Aboriginal rock art, which apparently appears throughout this region, and the afternoon held a stop at a rock “gallery” where huge stone outcrops offered both shade and “canvas” for ancient paintings rendered in white and red. Clouds of butterflies heralded our arrival and pandanus lined our route as we hiked amid the rock walls. It was surprisingly cool in the shadow of the rock.

Pandanus

Pandanus

Butterfly

Butterfly


The paintings were, on the whole, less complex than many I’d seen in Kakadu National Park, on my first trip. However, they were still fascinating, and one could easily recognize many of the creatures depicted, along with the handprints that connect painters with the rock and their work.
Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal Art


Then back on the road, across the harsh and ancient land. My heart sang, resonating again to that special something that this land possesses that so touches me.

Pulled into Menu Camp around 5pm. This area was a spot where drovers used to stop to eat, which is how it got the name Menu. There was a nice campsite set up already. It is, in fact, permanently here, just for the camping outfitter with whom I’m traveling. It offers a screened dining area, a creek-water shower, and a dunny (outhouse/toilet) that faces the sunset.

This is a spot of great beauty—but also of many flies. After putting up our tents and getting our gear stowed in the tents, Athena, Belinda, and I set off to explore a little before dinner. We wandered amid trees and then down to the creek, which is narrow but clear and lushly surrounded by pandanus.

Menu Camp

Menu Camp


Dinner was great fun. This is an excellent group of bright, charming people, and Kate is an excellent camp cook. After dinner, we sat around the campfire, sipping coffee and admiring the dazzling splash of stars overhead. I was delighted beyond measure to see the Southern Cross again.

Then we headed for tents and sleeping bags, as we have another early start tomorrow. Alas, the coffee proved to have been a mistake, as despite what by now was full-fledged exhaustion, sleep evaded me for far too long. Sigh.

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Trip 3: Monday, August 21, Part 1

It is 6:30 am, and I am packed and at the door, awaiting my departure. It is a remarkably beautiful morning. The moon, a huge crescent, has not yet set, and the sun has not yet appeared, though the sky is silver and orange at the horizon from its approach.

The cascade of bougainvillea just outside the door, the palm trees outlined against the brightening sky, and the chirping and singing of dozens of birds make the difficulty of getting here kind of dissolve into unreality. I am overjoyed to be back.
By 7:00, I was safely planted in a khaki-colored 4WD and on my way. We rolled around town, picking up other travelers. We stopped outside the Hotel Darwin, which I’d hoped to visit when I thought I’d be arriving much earlier yesterday. Sigh. Through the front doors, I could see the ceiling fans of the Green Room, which seemed unchanged from when Judy and I had enjoyed drinks there during my first trip.

Then we were on our way, heading south on the Stuart Highway. The weird beauty of the surrounding savannah delighted me: the slender gum tress, the palms and pandanus, and the stretches of dry grass and brown-red earth. The air is wonderful, clean, and scented by eucalypts.

Termite mounts, from little ones all the way up to the giants, are now frequently visible from the road. Paperbark trees and yellow-flowered kapok bushes also appear on occasion, but mostly we just see miles of various gum trees and dry grasses spreading across the plains and blanketing the frequent hills and ridges.

We drove through Adelaide River, a tiny town that became remarkably important during WWII. It was a huge center for troops and airfields, especially after the Japanese bombed Darwin, and it became an important supply and communications base for the Australian armed forces. Along the road, we saw signs identifying where each of the many WWII airfields was once located, as well as a sign for the Adelaide River War Cemetery. I think much of the world forgets (or never knew) the impact the war had on Australia.

As we drove, I began to get acquainted with my traveling companions. All were from Sydney, it turned out, with the exception of our guide and cook. John, our guide, originally lived in London but now makes his home in Darwin. Kate, our young, vivacious cook, hails from Victoria. The Sydney-siders included Don and Leslie, Graham and Shirley, Hazel, Marianne (Min), Athena, and Belinda. Everyone of course thought it rather remarkable that a woman from the Chicago area would be on a trip that would be heading into such a remote area of Australia. Little do they know…

We had a morning break in Pine Creek, an old gold mining town that is a popular place for travelers to stop—largely because there aren’t that many places out here where you can stop. While the population is less than 700, it still manages to rank as fourth largest town between Darwin and Alice Springs. I was amused by the roadhouse, which identified itself as a “Hard Rock Café.” While food and drink were on offer, as is the case with so many of these remote outposts, it also serves as post office and market for both locals and travelers. Deep pink bougainvillea, wildly perfumed pale pink frangipani, and noisy birds made the small settlement charming.

In Pine Creek

In Pine Creek


Turning westward, we left the sealed (paved) road behind, so transit became a bit bumpier—but for me, that always feels like adventure. It was a spectacular, brilliantly clear day, with the sky a fabulous, unblemished blue. We continued to be surrounded by that strange, undulating sea of eucalypt-dotted dry grass savannah that could not by any means be described as beautiful, but which delighted me none-the-less, since it carries so many memories for me. Large birds—I’m guessing kites—gracefully dipped and rose on rising thermals, sailing over the dry land in search of food or perhaps looking for a mate.

Lunch was at a beautiful location on the banks of the Daly River. As always in arid regions, one can recognize a watercourse from a distance because of the sudden intensifying of vegetation. Here, bright water wound between flourishes of green and stands of gum trees taller than those that dot the dry plains. It looked inviting, as the weather was hot, but we were warned to stay clear of the water, as it is inhabited by saltwater crocodiles. This is definitely a region where it’s good to have a guide.

Daly River

Daly River


(By the way, if I use words that aren’t familiar, my book Waltzing Australia has a glossary of commonly encountered Aussie terms, and you might find it a useful resource—and it gives a bit more background on Australia in general.)

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Trip 3: Trying to Reach Oz

 August 18–20

And I’m off again, this time, back to my much-loved Australia. I am departing on a spectacularly clear, blue-skied day. As I had hoped at the end of my last trip, I didn’t have to wait as long for this trip as I did for trip two. I’m sitting now at the gate for my flight, beginning to relax after the rush to get everything settled and arranged at home before heading off for a month. But now I am ready to depart—and truly ready to get back to Australia.

…Oops. Turned out, getting back was not as easy as I thought it would be.

Normally, the flight over—not just to Australia, but to anywhere—hardly seems deserving of comment. Even a really long flight generally consists of little more than sitting around. But this time was different. This time, the effort to reach my destination was sufficiently challenging and time consuming that it became its own saga—or more like a comedy of errors.

Actually, the flight to Los Angeles was uneventful, but shortly before we were to land, a flight attendant came on the intercom and cheerily said she had an update. I was thinking maybe a gate change. Instead, she announced that the flight to Australia was cancelled. My heart stopped, and then raced. Of course, the airline was frantically trying to come up with a solution to the problem, as an entire jumbo jet full of stranded passengers would not be a pleasant situation for them, either.

We were herded around the Los Angeles airport for a couple of hours, as they tried to get us on flights to San Francisco, where there was another flight to Sydney schedule to leave in a few hours. If they could get us all to San Francisco in time, they thought they could accommodate most of us on that other flight.

They found me a seat at the back of a 727 headed north, and then, a few hours later in San Francisco, they found me a seat on the 747-400 headed for Sydney—though it was a middle seat in the middle section of a packed flight. But I was on the plane. The flight had been held for us, and once we had arrived and the requisite number of volunteers had decided to stay in San Francisco, there was a mad scramble to get us into the air. There are strict rules about how long a flight crew can be on the plane, and we were quickly approaching the limit. Cross that line, and the flight gets cancelled. (I found out later that we took off with only five minutes to spare.)

After 14 hours of quasi-sleep interspersed with turbulence and the occasional meal, we were landing in Sydney. Unfortunately, I was far too late to make my connecting flight to Darwin, and the next flight wasn’t until evening. The airline told me they had already booked me on that flight. I asked them to also call the hotel in Darwin and tell them I’d be arriving late.

The airline had also arranged a hotel room for the day. When I arrived at the hotel, there was a message waiting for me—the hotel in Darwin didn’t have a reservation for me! Fortunately, the hotel contacted the tour operator with whom I’d be traveling, and the tour operator called to tell me I was really booked in a different hotel. Nice of them to let me know. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had to call.

For one crazy moment, I thought I’d try out the hotel swimming pool. I then decided that, after almost two days in transit, I’d be better off taking a short nap followed by a shower and changing into fresh clothes. The nap helped, but I was fairly staggering by the time I arrived back at the airport for my next flight. At the airport (and I’m not sure why I would be surprised by this after all that had happened) I found out the airline had actually booked me on a different flight than they one they told me about, one that stopped in Cairns first—and that flight had already left. The charming ticket agent, probably noticing the color draining out of my face, found that there was a seat left on the 6:10 flight to Darwin—a non-stop flight. So actually, a better option.

One bright spot in the evening, as I took off (an hour later than scheduled) was seeing Sydney below me, a broad glitter of lights spread beneath our wings. I could see the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, and I could see Sydney Harbour outlined by the lights on shore. It was the first sign I’d had that I’m really in Australia. (Because seriously, airports are all the same place, no matter where they are.)

I finally reached my hotel in Darwin by 11:30 pm (midnight in Sydney—I was reminded on arrival of the half hour difference in time zones). I’ve spent more time in transit than I can calculate at this moment. I got a drift of warm, fragrant air as I carried my luggage to my room, but it was too late to think about stopping to enjoy it. My tour is going to be picking me up in six hours, and I absolutely must get a bit of sleep in before I take off on my camping trip. So goodnight, Australia. It’s good to be back.

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