No blog for ages sorry.
[To see larger clickable versions of the photos, see the gallery at the bottom]
Thought we would write a few lines about a recent trip around the Northern Territory.
Mount Isa is only about 200km (2hr) drive from the Northern Territory border. In fact although we are in Queensland, we treat quite a lot of patients from towns and stations on the other side of the border. We’d been meaning to do a road trip in NT for a while, and had to squash a hell of a lot of driving into 16 days in order to see all the stuff we had planned.
In total we drove about 6,000Km
We overheard a fellow campsite dweller near Kings Canyon say “yeah basically you stand on a rock and look at another rock.” A remark that whilst glib, does rather succinctly describe the tourist experience of ‘the red centre’, the southern part of NT that includes Uluru (Ayer’s rock) and Kings Canyon. But WHAT ROCKS THEY WERE!
The pull at the ‘top end’ of NT are lush tropical areas like Kakadu national park, with the famous saltwater crocs.
Initially we went west out of Mount Isa until we hit the road that runs north/south through NT. We headed south for central Australia and camped at Karlu Karlu/Devil’s Marbles. They are interesting large granite boulders which look they have been placed or suspended. The night sky is spectacular in central Australia. The milky way is very clearly visible and there are stars right down to the horizon. The ‘twinkling’ effect of bright stars I am rarely able to appreciate but it was so clear here.
From here we drove down to Alice Springs. We both like ‘A Town Like Alice’ and it’s actually Sinead’s favourite book, but far from the picture painted in the novel it actually pissed it down the majority of the time we were there!
From Alice we took the ‘Mireenie Loop’ through the West McDonald ranges. My favourite stop was Gosses Bluff crater, a large meteor impact site, 5km in diameter. The rim of the rocky ridge is easily visible in the distance as it arises from the otherwise flat landscape, and you can take a 4wd into the centre. I understand there is a fairly unique ecosystem within the crater, and as you could imagine it has a special significance for aboriginal people who have lived around it for millennia.
A little further round the loop was King’s Canyon. Like Gosses Bluff it rises impressively from the otherwise pretty flat landscape, and channels which have eroded through it over time have created canyons with streams and water holes, with lush plant life. It’s very much a classical oasis in the desert, and has been life saving to European folk who were tramping about central Australia working out the best route from Adelaide (in the South) to Darwin.
The rain we saw in Alice had flooded several parts of the dirt track we had been taking. The car didn’t have any problems (aside from getting pretty muddy!) but we did find a couple of people who had got their truck completely stuck in the thick sandy mud and would probably have had to dig it out in a few days when it had dried out!
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Uluru ( Ayer’s rock) was pretty spectacular despite the fact it was so overcast. It’s an incredible monolith that dominates the landscape, standing over 1000ft high, with a circumference of 10km, and it looks that characteristic red colour from a significant distance away. In the latter part of the 20th century aboriginal people from this area had to fight very hard to regain their claim to it’s ownership. In 1985 the area was given back to it’s traditional owners, who lease it back to the Australian government as a national park. The park is jointly run by aboriginal and non-aboriginal people from the top level down to the park rangers. Park rangers throughout the Northern Territory have adopted some of the Aboriginal ways of managing the land, most notably controlled burning. Fire is a part of the Australian ecosystem, and controlled patch burning helps to stimulate growth, as well as reducing the risk of fires becoming completely out of control. I didn’t realise quite how terrifying these fires are. Some of them can sweep through the whole width of the state unchallenged. They generate so much heat that they can ‘jump’ many kilometres, hopping over wide rivers. Once established they simply can’t be put out.
We spent most nights camping by rolling out a swag (basically a foam bed with sheets and duvet contained in a big convas bag) in the back of our 4wd (just about acceptable leg room for me with the doors open). In central Australia there are often dingos about and we first heard them howling after sunset in a cartoonish wolfy way which was quite fun!
We ate either on a camp stove or from roadhouses, causing burger consumption to increase sharply during the trip! Coffee hand grinder and aeropress were brought with us to ensure decent brews along the way.
After Uluru we start the long drive up NT towards Mataranka. Mataranka is a small town which is famous for a few hot spring sites. In foresty areas warm 36 degree water rises through porous rocks forming crystal clear streams that have been widened in a few places for swimming. You can float down small sections on your back looking up at the parrots in the sunshine on the top of the trees, or take a snorkel and look out of freshwater turtles sharing the water with you.
Mataranka is also the setting for Jeannie Gunn’s autobiographical novel ‘We of the Never Never’, another story of a young women starting a life on a station(set in early 20th century). Sinead picked up the book and started it in a breezy cafe amongst purple bougainvillea, selected as it served a cream tea! (Good scones but not clotted cream!)
From Mataraka we started into Arnehmland for the Barunga festival of Aboriginal culture, sport and music. Its was probably about 50% indigenous/non-indigenous people. There was some stuff aimed at tourists like art you could buy and didgeridoo workshops etc but the most fun for us was the music. There were a few traditional sets or music and dancing, which were ace. Although the didgeridoo is a sort of Australian national symbol, its actually only from Arnhemland, the northwest part of NT. Aboriginal people elsewhere in the country don’t use it in their traditional music. The combination of the bass drone of didgeridoo (which is apparently the white fella name for it..), the minimalistic rhythm of the clapstick (more ubiquitous across Australia) and mournful singing, are together pretty powerful. This was accompanied by dancing which was acting out some event, like a hunt. But in addition to the traditional music there were also loads of Aboriginal blues bands, metal bands, hip hop and ballady pop groups. I think the blues was my favourite, and there is clearly a lot of scope for the subject matter in terms of the plight of aboriginal people in the last few hundred years. The whole festival had really good vibes, black kids and white kids dancing and playing with each and that sort of stuff. It was reassuring to see such a positive side of the culture, as we deal with a lot of the consequences of deprivation and badness in Mount Isa emergency department so tend to see more of the dysfunctional side of the community.
Also there were swarms of bloody flying foxes (bats) intermittently flying about and shrieking, with many more roosting in the trees.
From Burunga we went to Nitmiluk national park, home of the famous Katherine Gorge. It would have been nice to do a longer hike here but time was limited and we moved quickly on to Edith falls, a really fantastic swimming spot you can reach after a shortish walk in the northwest part of Nitmiluk national park. At this distance from the coast you need to start thinking about the possibility of crocs but fortunately Edith Falls was croc free, allowing anxiety free swimming around the waterfall!
From Edith Falls we drove to Jabiru, which is the main settlement in the spectacular and expansive Kakadu national park. We did a boat tour of a wetland area, which was a bit ‘touristy’ but this absolutely did not detract from the experience, it really was stunning. We went onto the water just before sunrise, and the amount of wildlife was incredible, the guide who was pointing things out just couldn’t keep up. There was a huge variety of bird life and also we saw a number of saltwater crocodiles floating around and sunning themselves on the bank. They are terrifying things. Pre-historic looking. Often around 5m/15ft in length and weighing half a tonne.
Once of the other draws of Kakadu is the well preserved ancient rock paintings. Indigenous Australians can lay claim to the oldest continuing/practicing culture in the world (I think?) and we really didn’t appreciate the timescale involved here. When I think of ancient cultures, egyptians, mesopotamia and all that, they about 5000-ish years ago, but aboriginal people have been around in Australia for about 40,000 years, and there is really a strong sense of cultural conservatism.
Some of the rock paintings are educational, with fish drawn in ‘xray’ format to teach kids where the guts, bones and tasty bits are in fish. Some of them depict dreaming stories about creation, and some depict events, like encounters with Europeans drawn with guns, the nationality of which can be deducted from the shape of their hats!
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From Jabiru we popped across to Darwin for 24 hours. We went to an outdoor cinema which was showing a cult British comedy ‘The legend of Barney Thompson’ which had Robert Carlisle playing a murderous barber with a very thick Glaswegian accent that we were impressed the Darwinian audience managed to understand!
The following day we began the 18 hour trip back to Mount Isa.
We only have a couple of months left in Isa and are starting to feel the pull of Blighty, despite all the crap that’s been going on. Look forward to seeing you all soon!