A chronicle in 5 parts about traveling through Australia.
-The top end-
Some time later we found ourselves tickled to add another adventure. We got the chance to participate in the maiden flight of the biggest hot-air balloon in Australia (???).
For some reason I never warmed up to balloon-flying. It seems so utterly passive and the burner makes me deaf.
Even though I wasn’t quite so hot about it to begin with this flight turned out almost as a disaster. We were 12 passengers, all old farts, and one hyped-up captain who didn’t entirely know what he was doing. The trip went fairly well until we started to drift off over densely wooded ground. You cannot steer a balloon, I know, but you should know that you can’t and plan accordingly. It all got very tense; he finally had to go down. He touched the ground at one spot and unloaded all passengers. He gave me a rope – I was the only one physically capable to do anything. Then he rose just over the tree tops and yelled at me to pull and drag this thing toward a small clearing. There was still some air movement and the balloon wandered quite a bit. It was a mountainous terrain with valleys and canyons, so at times I ended up flying Tarzan-style hanging on and dangling from the rope until I found ground again and could dig in to resist the drag. I was sweating like pig. The captain just kept yelling; he was desperate. In the end I actually made it, and he brought the thing down without damage. I was dirty, scratched, and exhausted. And I tell you, he barely said thank you, and the customary Champaign breakfast fell through also.
* * *
For weeks now white friendly beaches are our playground and backyard, graceful palm trees whisper in the warm tropical breeze and shade our temporary porch. Every beach has its own character, its own kind of shells, its special sand, its own mood, but each one is charming and beautiful.
Slowly we make our way north along the coast toward the equator. Quite a distance beyond Cairns, somewhere at Cape Tribulation, (most of the geographical names date all back to James Cook), the road finally deteriorates into pure mud. It leads all the way up to Cape York, 1000 km north. It’s only drivable for about 8 weeks a year in the dray season. I think it’s not a good idea to try it without 4×4. We already had managed some 2-feet deep river crossings, but I don’t want to test our brave bus anymore.
Somewhere at the Daintree River, deep in the dense jungle we found our turn-around point.
* * *
This is the house of Walter Starck., a great marine biologist and well-known specialist on everything concerning the Great Barrier Reef. He once invented a revolutionizing scuba diving breathing device and did numerous films on marine life. He and his wife Janice lived an alternative life on the Solomon Islands before, and it was there that he picked up the idea for this unique space-ship like jungle house close to Daintree.
Elevated over the ground it doesn’t need mosquito screens and is said to be very comfortable even in the wet season.
He was constantly busy exploring and doing research on the reef and had his own research vessel equipped with a little ultralight airplane and with this under-water vehicle. Both were highly useful dealing with the vast distances to be covered over the reef.
Not far away lived yet another character John in his unique Robinson-hut without walls, in which the palm-tree leaves hang right over the sofa, where butterflies dance around the teakettle, and where you can occasionally see a crocodile float by in the creek right underneath the balcony. In front of his house under a gorgeous hibiscus tree, groaning under the load of its thousands of blossoms stands the most romantic bathtub I’ve ever seen, heated very simply by an open fire right under it. A bird was sitting on the telephone while we talked and admired his hermitage idyll. He gave us a piece of magic wood with a wonderful smell, which keeps all the bugs and nasty insects out of our bus ever since.
* * *
One day we head west again into the void of the Australian outback. We cover the windshield with towels to make some shade leaving just a little window to peer through onto the empty endless road. After 5 days of glaring sun and sizzling heat when we began to hallucinate over water pools and some shady palm oasis it actually turned up right out of nowhere. Mataranka, the name is magic already, a marvelous gift for the weary traveler on the sun drenched Northern Territory plain.
It is a little oasis, a tiny dense green forest of palm trees, a wonderful natural hot spring of 34 degrees C, and a fantastic natural pool with crystal clear cool water. Mysterious weirdly shaped roots cover the banks; the bottom is white fine sand. For days we sit and swim around, huge ferns swaying over us, rope-like air roots dangling down. No mosquitoes, hundreds of birds, it’s hard to believe that it is not somehow fake but totally natural.
* * *
And then we finally reach Darwin, the forbidding city at the top end, where temperatures hardly ever drop below 30 degrees C and soar up around 40 most of the time together with unbearable humidity.
Almost as expected by now the town turned out to be a lot nicer than we thought. We found a pretty different type of people there, not the tough, gnarled bush character of the outback but rather beautiful, open faces, and cosmopolitan types. A great place except of the climate!
* * *
Not far from Darwin is Kakadu National Park.
Although a No.1 tourist attraction its real value is its function as a contained protected fabulously rich ecosystem. Many of its features are of solely scientific relevance.
The mosquitoes in Kakadu are truly frightening!
A lot of its beauty is gone in the dry season and the wet season is more for survival freaks.
* * *
What we really liked very much was the Katherine Gorge at the outskirts of the Arnhem Land: A most beautiful deep river canyon with sheer rock walls, delicious, clean, cool, quiet water, a lot of tropical flora, a unique pleasant micro climate on the river so close to the merciless heat up on the rim.
We found a chance to rent a canoe, (I’m sure there is a big tourist business by now), packed our tent and camping stuff, and went for a pretty extensive trip into the gorge system. (Oh, how we enjoyed to paddle a canoe again! One of our favorite means of travel next to bicycling). There was a wonderful stillness on this river. Quite often we could paddle in the shade of the tall walls and only heard bird song echoing from the cliffs and spring water trickling from the rock, whispering a timeless mantra into the silence. Only one time we had to carry the boat over some rapids, but the rest was a pure delight.
At night somewhere on a lonely sandbank we could see wallabies hopping around, a snake slinking by, crocodiles in the water – we had been assured that we would only encounter ‘freshies‘ there. We marveled at a monster Praying Mantis a foot long. We saw some of the funny Archer Fish; they can spit out a jet of water and literally shoot down an insect up to 3 feet over the water surface. See this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzsYdYAXBmk
Again and again we laughed about that big bird that makes, with incredible perfection, a sound of crumpling paper. We saw Cockatoos and Parrots, and we listen to the Butcherbird, the Nightingale of Australia, an unsurpassed master of creative birdsong. We could watch them from very close up and see how they even make great theatrical gestures with their body kind of emphasizing the phrases of their songs, which are endlessly amazing in their inventiveness. Check ot the sample: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVrLsGg6caw
And from Katherine we reached out to the next adventure: West Australia.
* * *
It was hard to believe that the sense of emptiness of this continent could even increase, but in Western Australia one finally really loses all common sense for distance and space. There are 400 km stretches without a petrol station, without any sign of human presence, just nothing. (further south, though, you can be completely alone for even over 2000 km on unpaved tracks)
Australia can be brutal in many ways:
Washboard roads: All natural, loose ground surface, be it sand, clay, or gravel, becomes, when driven on fast enough, a washboard, a grooved surface with an incredibly constant pattern. Such corrugated surface makes any driving a nightmare. The ultimate physics of this effect is, surprisingly enough, still a bit of a mystery. Research has shown that it has actually little to do with the dynamic, kinetic parameters of the suspension or the flexibility of the tires. The only way to avoid it is to drive dead slow; and that is of course unrealistic. In practical terms, when you have to deal with washboard, you can either endure it at medium speed and risk damage to man and machine or drive really fast and risk even more damage but get it over with a bit sooner. It is no surprise that everybody sooner or later ends up with the latter solution. The wheels basically just fly over the ruts and only touch the tips. This way contact with the ground is minimal and the vehicle therefore is bound to behave more like an airplane. It feels deceptively good on a straight road until you have to slow down and inevitably go through the catastrophic rattling nonetheless.
I strongly believe that dealing with washboard is much more a psychological problem than a technical one. The infamous Gibb Road up in the remote Kimberleys gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on both approaches while rattling the fillings out of my teeth.
Several wonderful tropical gorges in the Kimberleys kept us occupied for some time. These are canyons in extremely ancient, huge coral reefs, slowly lifted up to a mountain range billions of years ago and then gnawed and eroded by water, wind, and time. There are pools left over from the wet season full of crocodiles, and the lush trees under the sheer cliffs are alive with Corellas (a kind of Cockatoo)
Windjana Gorge is one of them:
Swimming among crocodiles had a profound effect on me. Of course it was exciting, but also beautiful and peaceful. If you are careful they let you come pretty close. They were ‘freshies‘ for sure.
By far the dominating impression made the immense flocks of Corellas. Their crowds would darken the sky and the noise was deafening when they flew into the gorge every morning. They are extremely animated; their white fluttering and wild croaking filled the air all day long. When they swarmed out into the bush again at sunset the whole sky seemed to get alive.
Rosellas are much more docile. They are almost tame even in the wild.
* * *
At another place a “Tunnel Creek” has carved a long cave into the coral. Equipped with a flashlight, wading and splashing between stalactites and dangling roots you can play all day long while it’s sizzling outside.
Followed by Australia V
Klaus April 2012