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 (Mim), 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.
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.
(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.)