Kuranda- Village of the rainforest.

From the Tjapukai Centre we walked the short distance to the nearby Sky Rail which would take us up to the village of Kuranda. The Sky rail would afford us an ariel view of the tropical rainforest located near Cairns in the north of Queensland. The Barron River (Bibhoora) is the main waterway in the Atherton Tablelands of North Queensland. At 103 miles long, following its traverse through Kuranda it tumbles and tosses down the 850 feet high Barron Falls, a sight we would be able to see from a vantage point high in the Rainforest, where its energy has long been harnessed into hydro electricity.

As we boarded the sky rail, 4 of us to each carriage which we shared with the Rabbit and the Platypus, it began to rain confirming its status in case we were in any doubt. As we powered toward the edge of the landing station the cart swung back and forth and lunged forward dangling from the overhead cables and offering us a breathtaking panoramic view of the forest. The density and greenery of the forest are immediately obvious, it is difficult to see what lies on the ground or get a sense of how high up you are as the canopies from the trees act like giant umbrellas keeping the rain but most importantly the sun at bay. 99% of the forest is canopy, light is life here so most of the animals and plants have adapted to their surroundings just to survive, as we would see on the ground. The Barron Gorge and Falls have been successfully eroded by the powerful Barron River, this feat considerable since it is a mountain range that would rival the Andes of today.

The Rainforest has been part of the world heritage list since 1988 and consists of wet tropical land. It’s value cannot be underestimated since the Rainforest cleans the air we breathe and regulates the water cycle. The Rainforest here also contains the world’s best record of the major stages in the evolutionary history of the world’s land plants. The Pandanis trees are plentiful, evergreen conifers reach some 100 feet into the sky. The Pandanis trees offering in its sap something that is ten times stronger than coffee, kids are not allowed to drink this, according to our Aborigine guides. The tree bears a fruit, which is very difficult to get into and only the male is edible, the peanut contained within the tough exterior, we were advised must be dropped into hot water to suckle the fruit and reach the peanut which is a great delicacy. Walking around at the first station, we see how trees have adapted to the loss of light, some growing roots downward. Birds, insects and animals essential for the transference of seeds and pollen.

The stop at Barron Falls was spectacular, some rain had fallen recently and there was enough water to make the impact of this powerful landscape and escarpment a visual pleasure. After a short stroll through the forest by way of a neat and tidy decking area, we climbed back into the Sky Rail and headed for Kuranda the village of the Rainforest. Many staff are deployed at each of the stops, to control the entry and exit from the Sky Rail but also to clean and sweep the pathways. There is a pride in the work they do each and everyone of them with a welcome smile and spring in their step.

Kuranda at the summit is linked by road, rail and more recently this Sky Rail. The village itself full of tourist wares, cafes, aboriginal art, bars and restaurants. It was pretty but lacked the draw of Hahndorf. We sauntered down the Main Street and stopped for a coffee where the locals were full of interest in our tour and willing to share what life was like here. Despite its rurality it was pretty busy and the added attraction the Kuranda Scenic Railway was one of the best aspects of the day. It is considered the greatest engineering feat of the time, built in 1891 it took 19 years to complete. The terrain was unforgiving and equipment simple. It has 2 kilometres of tunnels and 2 kilometres of bridges, at one point the train negotiates a hairpin bend and you can see the front of the train as it waddles along the track, rather cautiously and slowly.

For 2 years men worked on the tunnels using only picks and shovels, in the humidity and heat you can only imagine how conditions were back then. We sat in the comfort of this beautiful train ignorant of the difficulties that must have faced them trying to complete it. 132 men lost their lives building this railway line, most in accidents but many to illnesses associated with the rainforest and its inhabitants. Over 1500 men in total were involved in delivering this challenging project, they lived in tents and were isolated for long periods from families and friends.

The views are beautiful and the little train stops intermittently on the way down to allow you time out to view the scenery. It is opposite the Skyrail so does provide a very different perspective. We all started to nod off on the way down, the busy day taking its toll on our energy levels, sapped by the humidity and the amazing experiences we had encountered in Tjapukai and Kuranda. Glad to have had the time to explore this beautiful area and meet its people and grateful to those involved in delivering this fantastic rail journey. It was not the Ghan but each of these railways in their own way was a considerable achievement of endeavour and hard labour. Hard to miss out on this journey if you have time you won’t be sorry.

Tjapukai-An Aboriginal centre

You cannot really blog about Australia and not mention the indigenous people. I have, on one or two occasions. mentioned them on our travels to Alice Springs and Darwin not always in detail because we were advised, quite strongly, these tribes did not want to interact nor be photographed and to respect their privacy. This made it difficult to speak to them and find out anything. The closest I came to a conversation was with an Aboriginal woman who was painting at the Art Centre in the Outback, she told me her painting depicted women gathering leaves to make medicine. She spoke quietly as she worked and nodded only in response to my questions keeping eye contact to a minimum.

The indigenous people were thought to have come here from Sri Lanka many thousands of years ago, when it would have been easier to transverse the vast lands of our planet long before the seas were imploded by the melting glaciers. Their history is well documented in Australia and makes for shameful reading; when Cook arrived here in 1770 he declared the island uninhabited, ignoring the indigenous people, their land rights and more importantly what they knew out this environment. Early settlers did not appreciate the ways of the Aborigine people and there were many battles, even massacres with the loss of entire families, foreign diseases imported unwittingly by the visitors devastated the indigenous people’s numbers in the early days. Christian groups in the early 1800’s with every good intention tried to protect them by locking them up but this invariably led to them being incarcerated or held against their will unable to move freely for fear they would be harmed. Today there is sill a high proportion of indigenous people locked within the criminal justice system as a result of the historic inequalities and pathways they have been forced down.

In Alice Springs, at the telegraph station, we learned about the 1970’s children born of aboriginal women and white men who were removed to children’s homes often by force, separated from their mothers. This tragic set of affairs was to be referred to as the ‘Lost Generation’ and appalling stories are still emerging today from that period. Today Australia is trying to make amends for the deeds of the past, we read that Adelaide was the first City to fly the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian Flag but it was evident to the tourists eye, this symbolic gesture has a long way to go before balance is achieved. The lands that have been handed back to the Aboriginal race were as a result of lengthy law suits and not through any altruistic attempt to right a wrong done. It will be a complex journey and it is clear it varies from state to state and territory.

After the Outback experience and the Darwin encounter with the Aborigine peoples, the indigenous people of Cairns, as we were to discover on our visit to the Tjapukai centre, provided an entirely different perspective. The map of Australia greets you but it is an Aboriginal Map constructed in the 1980’s to better inform people, a task the indigenous people could not have completed alone since the Aborigine people themselves would have little understanding of the size and scale of the area before the early explorers arrived. There are around 500 tribes and 300 dialects. Within Queensland alone there are 6 dialects spoken. tribes may know neighbouring tribes but rarely further than that and often marry between neighbouring tribes. Dreamtime legends and stories were passed through the generations from men on long hunting expeditions. The Djabugandji and Tjapukai tribes, known as the Djabugay people of the Kuranda area of Cairns rainforest, reflect the nuance and difference between tribes, they have different songs, traditions, dances and music from other tribes. In Australia, of those that completed a census, only 3.3% of the population, around 649,100 people identified as Aborigine.

Dreamtime is a term identified by scholars and now used universally to describe the cultural worldview and beliefs of the Aboriginal people. In Tjapukai the Dreamtime story of creation is based on their belief that following creation there were two seasons; Wet and Dry. Animals, Fish, mammals, plants and people are either wet or dry. If the father is traditionally of the Wet side (fishing) the son or daughter must marry into the Dry side, to create harmony. They believe two brothers from the wet and dry sides fought over superiority, the dry side was murdered by the wet, returning as a crocodile eating the wet side brother as he fished, on his death he became a mountain on the dry side. The simplicity of their view does have a familiar ring to it and makes sense, you can also relate it to a religious link with the creation and the story of Cain and Able in the Old Testament.

Our guide called herself Ruby however her aboriginal name, given by her grandparents, was Rainbow (Guti Guti). In aborigine families the grandparents name the children since they have more knowledge of the culture and systems of the tribe. She was a beautiful girl, black wavy hair pulled off the brow to reveal an open and warm face,with a wide smile revealing well cared for teeth (not like others we saw), tribal clothing covering her petite frame accompanied by delicate patterns of white and ochre body paint on her shins and arms. Rainbow was very engaging and willing to share stories and information about her people with anyone interested to hear them.

In addition to the history we also had a go at throwing a boomerang and spear. After our initial introductions we went to the grassed area for our Boomerang lesson. Only males use boomerangs or spears, women foraged for medicines while men hunted for food. The boomerangs shaped different for left and right hands, were intended to give the appearance of a flock of birds, it was not unusual for 10 boomerangs to be released at once. The Lion had a good technique and managed to return it twice when it was his turn. I on the other hand would have been more of a snake than a bird since my throw stayed close to the grass, 5 feet in front to be exact, suppose I might have been better at foraging.

Next up was the spear throwing; the spears were bamboo stalks with holes at either end, a wooden peg with a hook carved into the tip like a crochet needle, slid into the bamboo hole pinched close to the speak creating a spring to launch it toward the target. This ingenious weapon took a bit of practice but I was better at this than the boomerang, getting it at least near the running Kangaroo target. One thing for sure this little venture brought out the competitiveness amongst the alpha males in the group. With an invitation for anyone who wanted another go 6 of our team, all men, fought for pole position to do so. It was clear they wanted to demonstrate their innate hunter gatherer to their women but it was clear all of us women would be starving if that was the case.

Our next station was to observe tribal dancing, and the centrepiece activity, the Digeriedoo. Carved from red or white gum trees this is the oldest wooden instrument in Australia. If termites have already infested the tree there is a good chance it will be hollow and most of the work to hollow it out will have been done by the little pests. The cut and length of the instrument determine the pitch, much lower if longer etc and that can also be altered if it is soaked in water for a few hours . They use beeswax to soften the mouthpiece and fill any holes in the trunk. To create a sound (it’s not like playing a trumpet) the lips softly vibrate, like blowing a raspberry but constantly and air is taken in through the nose at the same time. A bit like the scuba diving, a tricky combination, we were invited to try to do this as he made it look so easy but we failed. It’s a practiced art to breath and raspberry at the same time.

The dancing and clothing worn has symbolic meaning for everything, the paintings on the body represent animals, ladies wear grass skirts and men, animal skins. The men also have animal tails or grass rolled with hair dangling from their waist like tails to decorate the outfit. Paint is naturally derived producing ochre, yellow and red, white or charcoal from the ashes. The dance they performed described the Cassowary, native to the rainforest and the symbol of the Djabugay people, its forage and encounters with other animals. This bird also appears in the paintings; paintings here differ from the Outback Aboriginals who paint in dots mainly, whereas here animals and people were evident. we buzzed with excitement at the chance to speak with the Aborigine people here, a very enjoyable presentation, informing us a little of the insight to the rainforest people of Kuranda.

And with that we ventured into the rainforest and to its lonely village of Kuranda by Skyrail, a tale I will provide in the next blog. For now lets enjoy the Djabugay people and their stories.

Great Barrier Reef- Scuba Diving for beginners

Our boat moored alongside a giant pontoon, almost as tall as the boat but much wider. This little city on the water was where we would begin our underwater exploration of the reef . Safety of course is premium so we spent 30 minutes on board discussing the skills necessary for the dive. It was my first ever, I have never snorkelled or been very good at diving at all so this was completely out of my comfort zone. On board the safety drill was provided with a real tank, jacket and mouthpiece. We had to observe not try it out here. It’s amazing what fear does to the brain as I watched every detail and forced it into my memory lest I forget when it got down to it. There were three of us doing the introductory dive, a young man in his 20’s, the Hyena in his 70’s and me. Me and the Hyena were already pals, this was going to cement that friendship and acting as a team was helping to conceal my fear, he was a good pal.

Once we berthed it was getting so real. First port of call was to get fitted out for a wet suit. There were rows upon rows of these in a variety of sizes all lined up like deflated penguins waiting to be handed out and filled up. The suit is necessary since it was stinging season for the jelly fish, I suspect this was a bit of a fib, since none of the other instructors or staff wore them, that is other than the Marine Biologist. Now he was a handsome young man, slim, bearded with just the right amount of fluff but he appeared with what I might describe as s designer wet suit. Camouflage, grey in colour it had a little flap across the front of his hips should he need to visit the toilet and slipping out of the skin tight outfit was likely to take time. This little flap drew your eye automatically to it because it was so peculiar. Trying not to seem impertinent I tried to look away , feeling less than ravishing in my penguin suit,without a toilet flap. It did have gloves though so none of my skin was left too visible. All wrapped up I then ventured to the rear of the pontoon where the scuba diving equipment was stored. Stacked neatly against the seating area with life jackets open and ready to wear. A range of tubes, I’d been instructed on using on the way here were flapping around waiting for the action to get underway. I eyed this arrangement cautiously because I’d already forgotten what they were all for. Soon I would be wearing it. I frantically tried to recall the three skills needed on this dive but no matter how I tried my brain froze with fear.

The tutor from the boat seemed uninterested in my anxiety and advised me to try snorkelling first just to get the hang of having my face in the water. I think secretly he thought I’d never do it. He did suggest I could do a helmet dive, but this just made me more determined. With my flippers in hand, mask and snorkel I made my way down to a stainless steel shelf with seating around the edge slightly submerged in the water. A small guy with ‘Snorkel Supervisor’ on his tee shirt eyed me with interest. I told him I was planning to dive but had never snorkelled before, to which he responded that diving was easier than snorkelling. Great news but I needed to feel that first. I sat on the bench and attached the flippers, feeling like Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate, I fixed the mask in place and ventured tentatively into the water. Failing to grasp the basics I inhaled a considerable amount of water through my nose as the mask filled with the sea water when I first put my face down. Gasping and spluttering I made my way back to the safety of the steel landing area. I tried again, but couldn’t manage to fix my mouth securely around the mouthpiece and water once again flooded in. Back to the den before the kindly supervisor suggested I sit on the edge and just face plank while trying to master the breathing. This seemed to work. Slowly but surely I managed to breath through my mouth and put my nose out of commission. With this renewed confidence I pushed off the edge and floated face down looking for the first time at the GBR. I smiled with delight at what I was seeing only to realise this lets water in and once again I was back up fighting for breath. The sight of the fish and coral were too exciting, inviting me to stay and have another go and before long I had the hang of it.

Parrotfish, butterfly fish, tiny plankton swam around me. The colours differ in reality, they were more bland than the enhanced photographs because your mask is probably not the best quality visor. The coral was high at some points, but delved deeper in others, small and round or long and bony the fish darted in and out feasting apparently unconcerned by my presence. Or the other 40 odd people in the water. After half an hour I felt quite pleased with myself and got out ready to face the dive. I found the Hyena and we approached the dive bay. I was feeling more confident now I had mastered the snorkelling. A heavy belt with lead weights was attached to our waist. The life jacket as next with its tendrils of tubes and the all important tank was then attached and secured to our torso. We were asked to stand up but I could not move for the weight was so heavy. With assistance I got to my feet. And we descended into the abyss.

The Lion was frantically photographing me for posterity purposes. I waddled down the stairs and we ran through the skills again. The removal of the mouthpiece to blow bubbles frightened the hell out of me. I was relieved to learn however that this was not expected during the dive but a necessary precaution just in case. I had to master blowing my nose to clear the mask, snot and water splashing around my mask as I tried to follow the instructions given. Suddenly the Hyena’s weight belt fell off and as the instructor tried to fix it I was asked to submerge and practice the breathing with the air tank on. Kneeling down on the ledge, holding on to the barrier for dear life I breathed slowly in and out unaware that the Hyena was having more trouble with the mask now.

I stayed put focusing on slowly breathing in and out when the Instructor appeared and scribbled on a white board that the Hyena was not coming. Giving me the OK signal that we would go alone we left the safety of the ledge and took hold of a rope. Lowering myself down I glued my eyes to the man who held my life in his hands. My ears felt the pressure immediately and I had to pinch my nose and blow to clear them. Mastering this underwater is a bit different than on the aeroplane and water started to feed into the mask. I felt slight panic but managed to master the technique quicker when the pressure was on. Then without warning the instructor tugged my hands off the rope and we were diving, or swimming or whatever you call it. I was doing it. I was actually doing this thing I never thought I would ever do in my entire life. Weightless I felt nothing of the heavy belt of tank. I just swan and looked in awe at very single thing down there. he jerked my attention upward and there was a sea turtle swimming 2 feet in front of me. We followed it for a bit as it looked for food, faster in the water than out, it set a bit of a pace for this beginner but I was determined not to let it out of my sight. A large blue Maori Wrasse swam past, much larger fish were on the sea floor and I fleeting wondered if they were sharks. I was smiling again forgetting the seal and the rush of water into my mouth set me into a panic. The instructor took me to the surface where I apologised and steadied myself. But I couldn’t wait to get back down. We swim freely around the coral taking the sights in only in my memory since I didn’t have a camera to take underwater.

After 45 minutes we headed back to the sea pontoon, I was exhilarated jumping for joy once the weights were off and hugged the instructor for giving me that opportunity and one on one instruction. What an experience. My first thing though was to fetch a cup of tea, the taste of salt water in my mouth was too much and I needed a refreshment. I saw the Lion from the sun deck looking out to sea, no doubt frantically trying to see where I was. I left him wondering as I savoured my experience for a few minutes more all to myself before sharing it with anyone else. I dived at the GBR. Go me!!

Cairns- A city of sunshine and sea

In the state of Queensland, the tropical weather continued at our next destination; the north eastern coastal city of Cairns. The 5th most populated area in Australia. There is a very different vibe here notable as soon as you arrive; holidays, summer, sea, ice cream and fun. Although it has no beaches of note (there are mudflats) the area is of course host to the Great Barrier Reef and we were promised a whole day there creating a buzz of excitement for us and our fellow travellers. Our welcome to the Hilton included a lovely glass of wine, one of the first hotels to offer this. It was a grand and beautiful lounge and reception area, creating the essence of the sea with its blue art and hints of the aboriginal heritage. Our room, to our absolute delight offered us a fantastic uninterrupted view overlooking the river Barron, our gateway to the Reef. The esplanade skirted the river and the hotel offering us a good walking opportunity with the option to see plenty of scenery, wildlife, swim in the man-made lagoon, shop, eat and drink. This walkway links the hotels with the speedboats, catamarans and reef tour boats so there was plenty to see and do within walking distance.

The city began life in the 1830’s as a seafaring port on the Trinity inlets, much of its history reflected in the buildings that can still be seen dotted around it like the Post Office. The esplanade is planted with mango and frangipani trees that scent the warm air, but do little to mask the stink of ‘eau du tar’ from the road works or the construction going on around Cairns. I couldn’t fail to hear the driver of our coach claim ‘they’ are ruining his town with all this construction, giving a little hint of the local’s perspective on progress. The tigress pointed out the covered night markets which ignite around 4pm with the usual fare of tourist tat and food stuffs but if you care to you might want to spend a bit more money in the Galleria where Louis Vuitton and Prada might be more to your taste. I’d need to spend a bit of time in the Casino if I wanted to shop there! While it was very close to our hotel we didn’t go, therefore I didn’t buy anything expensive and that’s all I have to say about that.

Spectacled flying foxes and giant fruit bats are very common in the tropical North, they dangled upside down from the esplanade trees. Asleep for most of the day, around 530pm they jumped into life to forage across the river to the rainforest for food. Thousands of these animals twittering as they flew, filling the dusk with a continual high pitch squeal as they made their way across the esplanade out into the estuary heading for the rainforest for their evening meal. This lasts for about half an hour, the sky is filled with the spectacled flying bats, sometimes a fruit bat can be seen alongside them but they seemed much happier strutting around Cairns in the absence of their smaller kin.

In the evening we could wander along the esplanade and enjoy fantastic seafood or steak in one of the many restaurants. Steak and a bottle of wine around $80 AUD is about £42 our money. The wash of the sea, the squeal of the bats is almost forgotten as you are tempted by the aroma of food, soaked in spices, herbs and garlic. The staff were friendly, often international travelling around the country, keen to know you, find out what you are doing here and share a bit of their own story. Tipping is not as much of a thing here as it is in America the approach is quite relaxed, if you feel it warrants one then they are happy to accept it but they won’t chase after you for it.

Our first big trip in Cairns was out to the Great Barrier Reef on Saturday, we joined our sizeable craft about 9 am full of anticipation and excitement. I had wanted to scuba dive but there had been some concerns about a previous passenger falling ill after the experience and that made me hesitate. It was just as well we had to book it on the boat. The Lion booked a helmet dive and I intended to join him but his medical history put paid to that. Having had this cancelled I turned my attention back to the scuba dive, the Hyena, a little older than me and a Yorkshireman, had also signed up for it. If he could do it then I would and so following a rigorous checking of my health matters I signed on the dotted line. I was exhilarated with the decision made if more than a bit apprehensive. The information sheet was quite explicit about the risks, the trick was to look right through most of these and find the joy secreted within.

An informative presentation by the on board Marine Biologist advised us that the Reef was 2600 kilometres long and covered an area of 344 400 square kilometres. In 1770 Captain Cook’s ship ran aground here and he was not quite sure why. Following a recce up Lizard Island’s mountainous terrain he noted blue channels between the reef and how he might steer clearly when he left. The area was populated by the indigenous Gurang aborigines at that time. Their Dreamtime stories of the development of the Reef appear to link with the scientific information available. There are around 3000 reef systems within the Great Barrier, these are either 1) fringing reefs which are extensions of islands, 2) ribbon reefs which run parallel to shore but do not have lagoons and 3) the patch reefs, horseshoe in shape which is where we would be berthed. Estimates place the Reef at over 1 million years old with changes affected by the ice age the latest of which was 18 000 years ago. Nowadays the Reef is a world heritage site, protected and monitored for change and deterioration. It is both animal and plant, a living symbiotic organism that adapts to this relationship, its environment and those which depend on it.

The Reef itself consists of a variety of over 600 types of coral, boulder coral, stag horn and leather corals. The marine biologist advised we were going to encounter some of the 6000 species of fish that thrive in this environment. They would be colourful and adaptive in their evolution to maximise their food intake; the Butterfly fish with its long snout to suck out the contents between the coral, the Surgeon fish with a sharp appendage on its tail to fend off predators as it feasts. The famous large Bumphead or Maori wrasse, known affectionately as Willy and Parrotfish that eat coral, grind it down and excrete it as sand back into the sea. The Triggerfish would look very obvious from their pouty mouth. Sea Anemone, giant clams, reef sharks, jelly fish and skates not forgetting 6 of the worlds species of turtles would be out on the reef waiting to meet us.

The rest of the journey we were invited to reflect on the environmental impact we humans were having on the Reef and how this was being combatted. Our Marine Biologist offered a wealth of information about the work being undertaken to counter this. We would see some bleaching caused by global warming. Work is still needed to deal with the antiquated fishing methods in the area, described as work in progress it is clear there is much to be done to protect it. As we neared our destination the anticipation and the anxiety about the dive grew. I knew one thing, this was going to be an absolute highlight of the holiday.

 

Darwin-A city in the North

We left the Ghan behind disembarking in Darwin, Australia’s northern most city. It’s a small city in comparison to Melbourne the population here about 150 000, around about the size of Dalkeith in Midlothian, but here in Australia it is a City. Darwin is a natural harbour and closer to Indonesia than it is to Southern Australia. Its climate is tropical and the heat and humidity are instantly identifiable. Darwin has two memorable events in its history that of the bombing by the Japanese in World War II in 1942 and Cyclone Tracey in 1974, both devastating the City and resulting in a rebuild.

Darwin was a strategic communication link following the development of the telegraph links with the south, a gateway to the rest of the world. During the war it was also of strategic importance for the Allied and American forces fighting in the east. We learned that the bombing of Darwin Harbour was much more severe than that of Pearl Harbour, over 200 planes led by the same pilot responsible for Pearl Harbour hit the Neptune on 19 February 1942. Although some two months after the Pearl Harbour assault, little was shared beyond Australia about the loss of 42 lives that day or the devastation to the City. We would learn that there was almost a complacency apparent in Australia’s leadership at the time of this attack which might well have contributed to that perception and the fact that little preparation or planning had been considered in the wake of America’s experience.

This disparity was sharply contrasted in the story highlighted at the must visit ‘Bombing of Darwin’ exhibition. Captain Etheridge Grant an American, was only too keenly aware of the impact of unpreparedness in Pearl Harbour. His seaplane ship the William B. Preston was well prepared for any potential attack. His crew briefed, his ship prepared, even though he was absent when the attack on Darwin occurred, his ship just as much of a target as it anchored in the harbour. His forethought, preparatory work and procedures he enforced beforehand ensured the safety of his ship and his men when the attack took place. The Awkward Truth; the bombing of Darwin 1942 by Peter Grose tells this story in more detail.

Following the devastating cyclone in 1974 much of Darwin has been rebuilt, as a tourist there are a few cultural nuggets to digest but overall the short stay was probably all we required. The Star Cinema is worthy of a visit, stepping back in time when the Cinema was the equivalent of Instagram. Posters advertising Buffalo Bill and High Noon were typical films of the time. Locals would crowd here on Wednesday nights to watch Cowboy films and then reframe themselves with hats, lasso and spurs when they got back onto their old ranch to emulate their hero’s.

The waterfront at the harbour has seen huge investment, artists enhance the experience with quirky but relevant artwork that intermittently pops up as you stroll along the skywalk and take the lift down to the lower water levels. There is no beach here but they have created a fantastic wave pool for families and a beach with volleyball net and safe swimming area. It was a roasting 37 degrees the day we sauntered down in that direction and what I would have given for a plunge in that pool. Cafes, bars and restaurants with the odd shop line the harbour walkway and you can idle many hours away here. But it was unearthly quiet at this location, the result of the corona virus curtailing many ardent explorers. Not us though.

Don’t expect fine dining here, food mainly consists of Parma chicken and burgers. We did find a little diamond at the rear of the Mantra hotel where we stayed, called Alfonso and their Pizzas were simply exquisite.

There was a bit an historic moment while we were in Darwin visiting the Bombing exhibition, as we waited in the queue ready to mention our tour company for the requisite discount when the teller asked whether I was a senior. I’ll let that sit with you for a moment, as I did. Did I look like a senior, if so I’m mortified with my appearance, or is this a standard query for the majority of older patrons? I had to admit this, although pointed out the Lion was yet to achieve senior status. Nevertheless she allowed us in for the vastly reduced price and off we popped to enjoy everything the centre has to offer, old age has its benefits. It is an experiential centre with virtual reality headsets and bomb alerts and shuddering, providing you with the real throbbing and noises of war in the relative safety of the exhibition.

Almost immediately the local Aboriginal people were apparent; the Larrikia People who are the indigenous peoples of Darwin who provided the first settlers in the area with food. Initially despite conflict and marginalisation the two peoples lived amongst each other, but this has not lasted. Most of the Larrikia people live outside the city. They have the longest running land claim in the Northern Territory but it has not yet been returned to the indigenous people the way other areas have. Whether this had some bearing on our experience of the aboriginal people I cannot say but it was one of despair, aggression and frustration. Most of them drinking all of the day and shouting or violent toward one another or anyone they did not like. Some of the group were laying by the pool when a group we recognised as causing a bit of aggression around town, came boldly up to the pool opened the gate and jumped in. Those around the pool watched this with interest as the staff poured outside to ask them politely, it must be said, to leave. Soaking from her recent fully clothed dip the aboriginal woman cursed us, soaking the Lion as he lay trying to be nothing but nice. She scurried away shouting expletives but leaving us in no doubt that we were not welcome in her country.

Out and about in Darwin that evening, it was like a Saturday night in any town, but aboriginal people were the ones fighting in the street, shouting, drinking and looking the worse for wear. It was clear there was a real intolerance for the indigenous people here.

As we wandered along the esplanade giant fruit bats took to the sky as dusk started its descent. Their high pitched squalling apparent at the busy streets where trees lined the walkways and roads. Hundreds of these massive bats could be seen as you watched the sunset over Darwin Harbour a beautiful sight with flurries of bats swooping and curling around you. Away from the pubs and busy streets in the main areas of the city the atmosphere is more congenial and you could enjoy looking at the old buildings here, not many of which are left. I did like Darwin but felt an increasing sadness about the people there. Perhaps if the land case was agreed things might start to work toward a partnership, a shared understanding, but as it is the hostilities evident in WW II were just as apparent today as they are now.

 

Nitmiluk National Park Northern Territories

It’s easy to see why the expeditions to the North were so challenging before the road and rail advances that exist now. It’s a long journey with harsh terrain and mountain passes. One of the highlights of the Ghan was the stopover at Nitmiluk National Park, one of several mountainous areas in Australia, its magnificent gorges have been carved out by the Katherine river over millions of years. We stopped here on the way to Darwin to explore the wonders of this breathtaking landscape by boat.

We disembarked the Ghan train at Katherine where a coach drove us a 30 kilometre journey into the Nitmiluk Park. Joining our fellow travellers from the Ghan from other carriages we waited in line to join the open sided boat that was to take us deep into the gorge. The trip included a 30 minute walk into the gorge to see the variety of rock art ancient Jawoyn people had created but overnight rain had flooded the path and disappointingly that was no longer available to us. Nevertheless our boat trip promised us some breathtaking scenery.

The native people of Nitmiluk- the Jawoyn’s- have a Dreamtime story which suggests the area was created by a river serpent, carrying water in a bag which it would not share with thirsty birds along its journey. So while it slept, the birds pecked the bag for a drink and it burst, flooding the mountains with this great river. The explorer John McDouall Stuart named it the Katherine river and gorge after one of his benefactor’s daughters disrespecting the aboriginal people who knew it as Nitmiluk. Today the Jawoyn people own the National Park reclaimed, as with other areas of aboriginal land, from the state who failed to realise its significance as ceremonial land to the indigenous people when the first explorers claimed it as their own. Having gained it back the Jawoyn people now work in partnership with the government to ensure that it remains protected. The area around Katherine bore slogans and businesses mentioning the Jawoyn people, indicative of their visibility and engagement in this small rural community.

Our crewman, the Puffin, was knowledgable in all matters pertaining to the gorge, so he narrated its historic and environmental aspects as he also steered the boat. It was a wide craft with three seats either side covered by a canopy to provide you with shade. Some people hungry to capture the essence of the gorge from pole position poured into the front seats where unfortunately the canopy did not extend any cover from the sun. They soon realised it was not the best seat in the house after all and all but one vacated their seats for the shadier rear of the boat. We sat smugly in the midway section shaded from the intense heat but more than able to see the view. Aside from the heat the humidity is fierce, at its worst in October-November this aspect of the climate can drain you of energy. Water was provided continually on our trip by our hosts and we were constantly reminded to hydrate.

The big draw, aside from the scenery was the prospect of seeing a crocodile, we knew they occupied the site and were eager to see one. Of course this interest would only be piqued from a safe distance and after it had eaten. The puffin prepared us for this probability with information about the creature but interestingly no safety briefing suggesting a sighting or encounter was highly unlikely. In the unlikely circumstances that we might see one, the puffin informed us there were 2 types of crocodile in these waters. The saltwater crocodile was a large, hostile and dangerous predator that entered the river during the wet season whereas the freshwater crocodile was a smaller more timid animal, both living off dingo, foxes or other creatures that ventured near the water. The saltwater Crocodiles were captured and returned to their own domain and the freshwater Crocodiles left in situ. Laying their eggs on small inlets of beach along the banks of the Kathrine these had protected status and where eggs were buried if disturbed by walkers venturing onto the site to have a look, might earn them a fine of 2000 AUD per egg.

The cliffs rose up intimidatingly out of the water towering some 200 feet above us, the tropical climate encouraging the sounds of birds and cicadas as we meandered along the still murky waters of the Katherine River. Cabbage Palms intermittently dotted the clifftop landscape like long fingers reaching for the sky. The chalky apple tree lining the route of the river bank does bear a fruit which is best eaten days after its been in the water. The Pandanus tree, palm like in appearance with attractive leaves, are of huge value to aboriginal people providing medicine, fruit and weapons. River red gum trees produce a resin self healing cracks or holes caused by weather, fires or animals. This is primarily to prevent a little grub gaining access called the borer which infests and damages the inner trunk. Cycads; the oldest living plant in the world has been around for 250 million years and has adapted to its surroundings over that period. Looking much like a Palm tree but not a Palm it produces poisonous fruit that looks appealing but is best left out of the salad.

Nitmiluk translates as the place of many Cicadas an insect common throughout the world that uses song to attract a mate, sounding much like a single tone scream to the human ear. This sound filled the air as we sailed toward the gorge. Cane toads added depth to the sounds of the river, they were introduced to Australia from South America to counter the cane beetle which destroyed the sugar cane growing in the east of the country. Sadly nobody sent them the memo that the cane toad was out to get them so they climbed higher into the cane and the toads found easier prey closer to the ground. Despite not completing the job they were introduced to do they went forth and multiplied pretty vigorously making their way across to the west of the country and now a pest themselves in the Northern Territories. The toads are poisonous animals, carrying venom on their backs to protect them from predators. However as we know nature has its own way of adapting to such circumstances and the Corvus, a large crow arguably the most intelligent of the bird species, has discovered that flipping the toad over onto its back reveals the unprotected juicy belly. Cane toads are considered a pest and found in plentiful numbers in the Nitmiluk.

The Nitmiluk has 13 gorges in total the ancient sandstone rock follows the Katherine River all the way to Kakadu in the north and has rapids and falls throughout the route. Most of the falls we observed along the route were minor in nature, the remnants of overnight rain gushing in some areas, trickling in others. The real falls would be visible from our gorge walk but it had been cancelled, as it was we snapped every trickle or gush of water along the way. The sandstone coloured with yellow and red and occasionally blackened by an algae changed colours in the sunlight. Although steep and flat there were gully’s and caverns giving the landscape interest as it wound its way along the river bank. We could see the rapids in the distance and I did hope the little flat tourist type boat gave them a body swerve as we would have been tossed, turned and considerably wet if that was the case. Thankfully the little boat came to rest ahead of where these gorges converged and the currents competed in a rapid fury for prominence.

Our little boat, shy of the rapids made its way back along the river to see more of the gigantic cliff tops, before heading back on the bus to the Ghan where a light refreshment or two might be needed. No question Australia has some beautiful sights to see……

 

 

The Ghan- living the dream.

Having successfully mastered the narrow walkways and links between carriages we joined our fellow travellers in the bar. Large sofa type seating provided sectioned off areas with little walnut side tables. We joined the group and ordered a round of drinks, little nibbles and canapés were provided to tide you over till dinner time. We had an 8.30 sitting and so would have time to have a few preprandial’s before we needed to shower and change into dinner attire. The sparking wine flowing too well during this first stint, meant the return to the cabin for the shower and dinner change was a hoot.

The birthday luggage looks fabulous but storage in the carriage was at a premium so we couldn’t find a place to keep from falling over it. The Lion was becoming frustrated as we tried to unpack in what felt like a phone box that constantly swayed, clicked and rattled as the train chugged along. I had carefully rolled up my outfits, knowing that there was no iron on the train, but both looked slightly worse for wear when I pulled them out. Hanging them up did little to masque the crease marks. The toiletries were minimised to enable us to maximise shoes on the carry ons as of course there were multiple functions for shoes on the trip. Sitting, walking and looking nice.

We managed to locate everything we needed and drew straws for the first shower. I won, knowing full well that was a fix, given the time needed for me to get ready. I got inside the neat little toilet, thankful I was not much taller than I was and less round than I easily might be. The colourful ribbon released the shower curtain and I skilfully pulled it all the way around to protect the loo and skink from getting wet, leaving less than 2 feet in diameter in which to shower. The first mistake was not testing the water, so pulling it on I was immediately scalded and found no where to jump clear of the gushing flames masquerading as water. I pushed it off, meanwhile the Lion, recognising a drama when he hears one, sat without uttering a word and ignoring my shouts for assistance. I wiggled the tap a bit to the left and tentatively turned it back on, the flames subsided – the water much more bearable now. However the soap and shampoo were behind the curtain and this was my second mistake, it meant a further fight as I became entangled in the wet shower curtain now clinging to my skin like a leech. Fighting back the area it was designed to keep dry now swimming in water. As it continued to cascade I managed to return it to its position and exhausted, eventually was able to commence my ablutions.

Finally it was time to return to the spacious cabin and try to get dried and dressed. Humidity filled the room from the steamy bathroom as I stepped onto the little mat and tried to get dried. Now I knew why I had won as I explained all of the things not to do when the Lion first encountered the shower. All our toileting complete I was glad to have set maximum time aside for this, given that we had not done it before. Still feeling jolly from the wine I had earlier, we made out way back to the bar carriage where we felt obliged to enjoy even more wine before dinner.

The dining experience is fantastic, food is served to you on white table cloths, with sparkling wine glasses and sliver cutlery. A little tight, but nevertheless promising the romance I desired. We were fortunate to dine with the Tigress but our other diner was unknown to us, not to worry we knew everything there was to know and more by the time she had finished and so did the rest of the dining carriage. That said we drowned our her musings as we tucked into our fabulous beef cheeks, prawn starter and cheese and biscuits with port and Cabernet Shiraz providing the refreshments. Not quite squiffed yet I returned to the bar high on life before realising there are no public toilets on the train which meant another lengthy walk back to the cabin. A little unsteady on my feet from the wine and port, I found to my alarm it had been raining. Each of the links between carriages had long since served passengers well enough to stop the rain from leaking through, makeshift tarpaulin was now all that stood between me and the onslaught. I thought I might try to fix it since it seemed to be letting in quite a bit of water but this only resulted in my second shower of the evening and I was drookit once more.

Given the wine was making me sleepy and carefree, the Lion thought it best to curtail my enjoyment by packing me off to bed before I crashed and burned, with clear instruction to sleep in the bottom bunk. I was delighted to see the Parrot had made the beds ready and a set of stainless steel ladders lay invitingly against the window. Having been advised against it, I lunged upwards to the top bunk, managed to put in my ear plugs and drift off to sleep without a care in the world. You can imagine my horror when the disco lights started flashing at 6 am, the Lion wanting to make sure I was up and ready for the day. Breakfast is served between 630 and 830 so he felt we needed to be there early since we had a trip to Nitmiluk at 9 am. Turns out he had not put in his ear plugs and the jolts and clicking of the gauge and rail did not lull him into a sound sleep, he was not alone. He had been awake all night (apart from his time in the bar of course) and had now morphed into the Gruffalo in the process. Grumpiness does not make for a conducive arrangement for the morning ablutions in a confined space and so we bumped and huffed silently as each of us tried to take turns at getting ready. Half an hour later we made it to the dining carriage with our happy faces on.

This was the first breakfast that had been served to us the entire trip, most hotels now favouring the serve yourself arrangements. It was an indulgent pleasure we welcomed. Coffee and tea poured, the three courses began leaving you satisfied and ready for the day, but at the same time wondering how you might manage to find a space in there for Lunch. Following our trip out to Nitmiluk National Park ( more later on that) we returned to the train 20 minutes ahead of our Lunch slot. Dismissing the experience with the shower out of mind I opted to have another more informed and less messy affair this time. Emerging fresh as a daisy we made our way along to the dining car where it was immediately apparent wine would again be the order of the day. Consciously trying to avoid over doing it a second day, the Lion, through lack of sleep seemed to have the alternative view. He struck up a friendly banter with the Cheetah who was the manager on the train. The friendly banter turning into a bit of a competition and soon they were playing tricks on each other. The cheetah at one point walking by pretending to drop a hot coffee all over him. The fellow travellers were in fits of laughter at the normally quiet Lion who seemed to have emerged from his cage for the last part of the journey. With minutes to spare before we disembarked the final jokes and hilarity waning we wandered back to our cabin, nicely prepared for our leaving by the Parrot. Gathering our luggage together we took in the Northern Territories as we disembarked from this marvellous train. Had we been here on our own, a couple of lone travellers, I seriously doubt it would have been half the fun and games that it was. The Ghan did not disappoint in its majesty and comfort and a massive thanks to everyone on the trip for making it all about friendship and fun.

The Lion and the Cheetah