CHAPTER 4 – NORTHERN TERRITORY
(Bert) Before Shari rises I walk along the highway in the opposite direction of last night and find a wide gravel road leading to Fountain Springs, which from the sign I gather has something to do with a rich vein of quartz. With the sun still below the horizon, the residual night air feels cool. With subdued shrieks, flocks of small green parrots jet past and the only other color I notice is red foreheads, so they must be Varied Lorikeets. By the time I return to the RV Shari is up and ready to go. We drive to Mount Isa, pass through the copper mining town and head south to a place I read about in a birding book. I park at Mica Creek and walk in the quartz-laden dry streambed, listening to the many singing birds. I stop to photograph an attractive bird decked out in a rufous tuxedo, white ascot and gray coattails: a Rufous Whistler. I see another honeyeater species–I wonder how many I’ve identified so far this trip–and this one is almost like Yellow Honeyeater, but different enough to be a Yellow-tinted Honeyeater. A flock of Variegated Fairywrens is the last for the morning before we head north.
(Shari) Another day of driving through nothingness scenery reminds me of the Panhandle of Texas. Speed limit signs indicate I can go 130 kph which translates to 81 mph. Thanks, but no thanks. Going 55 mph is fast enough for me. The road may be straight as an arrow but it is patched and uneven in places. We go through only one major town of about 30,000 people, owing its existence to copper mining. Bert spends about 90 min. searching for a wren while I eat breakfast and read about our future travels in the guide book. Parked on the side of a one lane road, little traffic passes by and I can hear bunches of birds. He should be able to find a lowly wren, don’t you think?
We stop for fuel on the border between Queensland and the Northern Territory. Here again, the bump in the road is bustling. With a one-stop shop, the gas station, motel, campground, dine in and take out is ringing up sales right and left. The hamburgers look so good that we decide to eat lunch here until six people show up ahead of us. With one cook who groans at the large order, I change my mind and think we can have sandwiches in the camper faster. The Northern Territory is not a state and was denied that status as recently as 1996. Only 200,000 people inhabit the territory, 25% of them aborigines. Seventy miles into the territory, I have not seen any people yet, other than the occasional traveler either coming or going.
(Bert) If you have an Australian map, you can trace our route from Cairns, almost due west to the base of the Gulf of Carpentaria at Karumba, then due south to Cloncurry and west to Mount Isa. Now we are heading northward and then westward on Barkly Highway in the direction of Tennant Creek, thereby rounding the base of the gulf. At the onset one sign reads “UNFENCED NEXT 190 KM” and another announces “KANGAROO NEXT 190 KM”. Mostly a straight-arrow two-lane highway with wide shoulders, the speed limit starts at 100 kph, raises to 110 kph, and toward the end of our travel day is 130 kph. While 130 would be easy for my Nissan convertible, I limit my speed to 120 on the campervan. By lunch time we reach Camooweal on the border between Queensland and Northern Territory. I refuel and Shari pays the piper $1.669 per liter, our highest so far. It was ONLY $1.265 at Mount Isa, but Camooweal’s price converts to about US$5.36 per gallon. No matter, it is the only fuel station we see in the 481 km we drive today.
Although few birds are obvious along Barkly Highway, I do identify a Black-breasted Buzzard attracted to a road kill kangaroo and watch an Australian Hobby cut the sky in typical falcon fashion. At the Soudan wayside Shari pulls over to switch driving and then starts talking to a couple sitting in the shade. I follow her and then quickly return for my binoculars and camera when I see a flock of a hundred Zebra Finches drinking from a small pool of water collecting under a water spigot. I raised Zebra Finches and these colorful small birds are instantly recognizable. We decide to continue on, Shari naps while I speed along at 120 kph, not stopping until I see a large windmill and a cluster of RV’s gathered near a few trees. We stop for the day at Wonarah Bore. In a day’s drive we passed through only one town, passed no buildings except at the town, and encountered only two other roads, both meeting ours in T-intersections, one labeled and one unlabeled. This really is The Outback!
(Shari) Again we park at a rest area I read about, a lovely spot with about 15 others already parked at 4 PM. It is hot and everyone is outdoors just vegetating on their lawn chairs under shade trees. It is even hotter at night. I can’t remember being that hot at night since 2001 when I met my friend/guest wandering the camp at Isla Aguada. Then again in Merida, where we went shopping at a department store to escape the heat. We sit outside and talk to our neighbors, who full-time in TWO Class C motor homes. A his and hers, so to speak. They share meals and chores, but sleep separately. In their seventies and only married six years or so, they periodically go their separate ways to visit family from the past. After dinner, I am so hot that I have to go outside hopefully to catch a breeze. Our neighbor is outside and he shows me the 4-star constellation called the Southern Cross resting on its side on the Milky Way. The Milky Way here looks actually milky and stretches from one end of the sky to the other. I have never seen so many stars. The night turns out to be a hot one and I vow, tomorrow to have power so to run the a/c.
(Shari) Bert thinks it strange that no cars are on the highway when we depart at 8 AM. A bit later we learn the reason. A couple, standing next to their RV pulled to the side of the road, flags us down as we make our way west. At first we think they are in trouble but learn they want to know about the accident in the direction from which we just came. They were told not to leave their camp until the road clears. A bit later while getting fuel, Bert learns that one of those truck trains hauling three trailers of hazardous cargo tipped over on the roadway at midnight last night. Apparently he was rounding a curve when the rear two trailers tipped, but the tractor and first trailer remained upright, so the driver was uninjured. They don’t expect the road to clear until noon, a full 12 hr. after the accident. The drive is more of the same today, West Texas. We stop for fuel at every chance since fuel stations, usually roadhouses, are located every 100 to 200 mi. apart. We turn north on the Stuart Highway and come to a town. The guide book calls it a cattle town. Stopping for fuel, I notice most of the people milling around are dark skinned, but the clerks in the store are white. I see a dark skinned family around a picnic table in the shade. A group of male teenagers, again around a picnic table in the shade. Three single individuals, again dark-skinned men, are departing the store with beer and walking across the street. Two sets of women with babies in tow and a young couple getting into a fancy yellow green car. We had thought of staying here for the night but upon looking at the garbage littering the shoulders of the road and discarded junk in all the yards, we think better of it. Mexico all over again!
(Bert) Another red-white-and-blue day! Blue skies, the shade of blue deserving sky-blue designation. White clouds, cheerfully fluffy, big above us, prospectively smaller to the horizon. Red earth, red gravelly soil, red termite towers, reddened grass stems. Add to this lime green trees, a vibrant shade boldly announcing an unusually wet dry season that has brought desert dryness to life. The land is nearly flat and the air is crystal clear. On occasional rises in the highway, just high enough to overcome the 15-20 ft. trees, our view extends to the curvature of the earth. While plant life suggests recent rains, the creeks signed along the highway are all dry but one. Again today, we drive a nicely paved highway, airport runway straight, due north. No stop signs, one town for refueling, named Elliott, so small it isn’t recorded on our GPS unit. While I like the scenery, it certainly is repetitive with little variance. Wildlife, if present, avoids the heat of the day, so my sightings are limited to perpetual ravens and Black Kites, a few flocks of Galahs and one spectacular find, a Wedge-tailed Eagle. We are barely underway this morning when I spot the huge eagle in a tree near the highway. I quickly stop the campervan and jump out with my camera and binoculars. Fortunately it stays in the tree beside a raven that looked miniscule by comparison and I photograph it and again when it takes flight. It has the oddest tail, with the innermost rectrices much longer than the outer tail feathers, thus forming a sharp wedge. I also see what I first take to be a 4-ft. snake crossing the highway until I notice it has legs, undoubtedly the longest lizard I’ve every seen. We finish the day at a roadhouse called Dunmarra, 545 km since our start this morning.
(Shari) Boy, am I glad I decided to move on because we soon find a great place to spend the night. We are still over 400 mi. from Darwin and at a bump in the road called Dunmarra we stop at a quaint roadhouse. Parked under the shade, we have power and our a/c is a pumping away. Groups of people are cooling off in the swimming pool while Bert and I enjoy the cool coming out of our roof vent. I use the public telephone outside the take-away diner and call the toll free 800 number to make reservations at a campground tomorrow. That means we can diddle and sightsee to our hearts content, knowing that we will have a spot. I am running out of clothes to wear and will either have to buy some or wash the dirty ones piled in the laundry basket. At 5 PM, the park hosts a happy hour with $3 beers and then at 7:15 they plan on showing a movie on a screen set up outside. We talk with four other Australian couples, all with gray hair, all from the south of Australia and all friendly. At 6, the managers tell a couple of long story jokes and a drawing is held for $20. All you need to know is that we did not win. The Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson is the movie and we join about 20 others sitting on lawn chairs and watch the movie projected on a large stretched white sheet. No bugs, cool air and a sky to die for. This campground has been a serendipitous discovery on the long road to Darwin.
(Shari) Bert is not happy with me as I have trouble getting up this morning. Finally I lumber out of bed at 8 and Bert is ready to depart. No way! I tell him to give me an hour and don’t talk to me. He slams the camper door and stalks off with his long lens camera in tow. By the time he comes back, I am talking and he is happy since he got another lifer. When I take a turn driving, all I have to do is shift 4 times (if I miss a gear or two) or shift 8 times (if I hit a gear or two twice), put it in cruise control at 60 mph and steer for the next hour. The road is still straight and smooth with very few cars approaching and fewer passing me. I count a car every 30 to 90 sec. with 85% RVs.
Termites sure have a foothold in Australia. We have seen termite mounds for days. Looking like dunce caps on the landscape, they are interspersed 5-10 ft. apart and stand 1-4 ft. tall. They build their mounds with saliva, dirt and excrement (a euphemism for poop). The mounds can be gray or brown or reddish depending upon the soil used in the mixture. I read that the mounds are as strong as cement and can last up to 100 years. The queen inside the mound lays 2000 eggs per day and lives up to 50 years. That is a lot of termites. Today we see the mother of all mounds, an artificial monument in Mataranka. It measures well over 10 feet tall and has a plaque on it that tells about the termites (white ants). Ninety species of termites inhabit Northern Territory. The colonies consist of a king, a queen, soldiers, nymph and young, and the workers. Each colony can contain a few hundred to several million individuals.
We stop for groceries in the first town of any size we have seen in days. Only 11 000 people, it seems bigger and has a very large grocery store in a mall. Our Big 4 campground is so pleasant that we decide to extend our stay another night so we do not have to rush to wash, to go church and to sightsee. This puts me behind a day on my schedule and I wonder just what part of Australia I will have to miss. If left up to Bert, we would probably still be in the Atherton Tablelands section, as he would be hunting every last bird available and not letting a single stone unturned so to speak. Maybe worse, I bet he’d still be in Brisbane where we started.
(Bert) Three hundred twenty kilometers today to Katherine takes us within striking distance of Darwin. Scenery today has been much the same, although Shari tells me we have transitioned between dry and wet. The most obvious difference is the height of the trees, now 25-35 ft. high. Even though I find little time to bird when we are doing so much traveling, at each stop I find something new. This morning it is Paperbark Flycatcher and Fairy Martin. At a rest stop I find White-gaped Honeyeater, Gray-crowned Babbler and Black-faced Woodswallow.
We arrive in Katherine in the heat of the day. Here July-August feels just like July-August in Texas, except theirs is winter and ours is summer. Katherine is the biggest town we have reached since Mount Isa, 1346 km ago. We have a large grocery, a choice of three fuel stations, at least one church and there are hundreds of RV tourists milling around. Even though there are many campgrounds, we see Full signs, so it is a good thing that Shari made advance reservations yesterday.
(Shari) The historical weather chart I saw shows the COOLEST average daily high as 92º F. That is the coolest and it happens in June. Now in August, the coolest average daily high is 99º. Needless to say, we want to do everything in the cool(er) morning hours. At the campground we hear about an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast at 8 AM. Good, we have just enough time to enjoy the buffet and catch the 9 AM service at the Anglican Church. We walk over to the open air bistro next to the pool and arrive 15 min. early. We are told that the breakfast won’t begin until 8. We say that is all right, we just want to be first so we can attend church. By 8:15, they are still not serving and by now we are getting irritated and mumble about how they should not post an 8 AM start when it is really 8:15. Bert asks how much longer before they serve and the lady says it will be ready at 8. Bert says it is now 8:15. No, it is not, says the lady as she shows him the clock with hands showing 7:45. Bert shows her his watch that clearly says 8:15. Guess what? There was a half-hour time change somewhere during our travels this past week, perhaps when we crossed into Northern Territory. Boy, I hope no one heard us mummer our displeasure at the slow service. Breakfast is served at promptly 8 and we have our tummies full by 8:20, giving us plenty of time to get to church. The Anglican Church here in Katherine is connected with the Lutherans but uses the Anglican prayer book, hymnal and order of worship. The only Lutheran influence I see is the set of drums in the corner, the choice of songs, and an announcement at communion of not partaking if you … (mumble, mumble, mumble by the announcer too far from the microphone). The church is attempting to reach out to the indigenous population in the community and seems to be doing a better job at that than reaching out to whites. Ten of the 40 people in attendance are of dark color, nine are men. I do not know the number of visitors as the pastor does not introduce them or us, a missed opportunity here. Only one woman is particularly friendly, inviting us to tea after the service. The sermon talks about our greed and how we can’t take possessions with us in the end. And that does not mean to eat, drink, and be merry now for tomorrow we may die, but it means to do something useful with the possessions we have.
After service we drive to Katherine Gorge, a national park with a river traversing it. Separated into 13 distant gorges that can only be seen by walking (too hot), helicopter (too $), and canoeing (too hot and too $). Bert hikes a 4 km loop trail while I wait in the nice air-conditioned visitor center. Internet access is $2.50 for 15 min., a bargain by Australian standards, so I read my e-mail. I take pictures of a bird stealing French fries from a plate on a table at the outdoor café and then I drink bottled water and watch a TV show while Bert swelters on the path up and down the gorge cliffs.
(Bert) Integrated or segregated? Dark men, so dark skinned it is hard to make out facial features, sit in the back pew. White people, scattered among the other pews, fill a quarter of the seats. We stand for songs, upbeat modern songs, sit when we follow the liturgy and the sermon on the topic of greed. The dark men do not stand and do not sing. At the announced time for passing the peace, the congregation mingles among each other and cheerfully passes on God’s peace to one another, including us and including the back-row dark aborigines. Communion, The Lord’s Supper, is offered and individuals are invited to come forward without direction from ushers. Almost everyone comes forward, little by little, including all of the dark men. It is then that I notice some come barefoot and one lady is barefoot also. In fact, I’ve noticed in the past week that walking around barefoot is not at all uncommon. One morning I saw a man my age, nicely dressed, who had been tent camping at a small park where I was birding and he was carrying nicely polished black leather shoes, but walking barefoot. I asked him why he was carrying his shoes and he said because he didn’t want to get them dusty before he went into the city. This morning I wore shorts to church, as did almost all men, including the pastor, although his were hidden under a robe. The dark men wore long pants.
(Bert) Conveniently, our campsite borders Katherine River at a place called Low Level and that is where I walk at sunrise while Shari sleeps. Agile Wallabies are quick to notice my presence and bound off through the underbrush, then pause and stare back at me. I see some larger marsupials, probably Antilopine Wallaroos. Every time I climb a ridge or come out from behind a tree, I seem to scare up wallabies and wallaroos. The river runs clear and swiftly. It looks cold, though probably is not. I hear dozens of chirping noises across on the other side and look up into the tall trees to see hundreds of megabats hanging by their feet, bodies wrapped in webbed wing cloaks. Some are tossing in their sleep, rearranging their attached black bedclothes, huddling as if cold, although I doubt that is the case. Through binoculars and camera lens I can see reddish collars on otherwise black-furred bodies, making this species to be Black Flying-fox. Their large size (10 in. bodies, 3 ft. wingspan), sleek black fur and cute dog-like faces are appealing. However, when they open their mouths I can see sharp needle-like fangs and at the bend in their wings I can make out sharply hooked claws on what would be a thumb on other mammals.
Another ruckus erupts from across the river. This one I cannot see. Soon small flocks of cockatoos wing overhead. They are called Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, although I have yet to see a red tail. Instead, they are enormous black parrots with long tails, very long wings and a kingly crown of feathers. I’ve now seen these many times, but this is the first time I am close enough to photograph them in flight. Flock after flock flies over the river and disappears above the forest. I also find lorikeets. I know these are Rainbow Lorikeets, but they look different and I take many photos of their bright colors. They are Red-collared Lorikeets, a distinct subspecies.
(Shari) Another late start but Bert chose it because he saw good habitat for birding within walking distance of camp. It is much cooler today and bearable to be outside. If I had a picnic table at my site, I would have my morning tea outside. Before we hit the road, Bert has to show me something. The other day he had a whole pocketful of spiral seashells to give me. So I wonder what it is this time. We drive to the river and he tells me to get out of the car and bring my binoculars. Then he says look across the river. I see a whole slew of huge bats, looking like huge footballs, hanging upside down on tree limbs. These are what they call flying foxes. They do not even look like foxes and I am disappointed. I guess I was expecting to see a teensy weensy fox with wings. Here it is just an ugly fruit bat. At birth they catapult out from the mother and the mother has to catch them in her wing so they don’t fall to their death. Now I wonder where she puts them then. The book did not tell me. Nor did it say how many young she has at a time.
We only travel 130 km today and stop close to Litchfield National Park, a place we want to browse in the cooler morning hours. Our campground is a gem and even has entertainment at 5:45. They come in first by ones and then twos and then by the droves. Dressed in all sorts of colors, they seem to know what is to come. Finally a man enters with two buckets and the miners come in to feed. When seed, cheese, and porridge are put out on the ground, the Rainbow Lorikeets and Galahs go crazy. They act as if they had not eaten all day and feed voraciously right before our eyes. Two circular plates are surrounded by the birds. I see why they have rainbow in their name as their feathers show all the colors of the rainbow. It is a marvelous sight. The bigger Galahs seem to be the shyer of the two species and don’t push and shove, but wait for an opening. I love it when they fly in, showing their hot pink underwings. Feeding in the back of the open area, are the corellas. When two of these white birds try to come up front, they are shoed away by the caretaker who says they know that they are not supposed to feed up front. We are the last ones to leave the feeding area and I am ready to come again in the morning when the process is repeated.
(Bert) We head north again and in mid afternoon we stop at what Shari thinks is an open market. It is not and, instead, a sign announces Picnic Day which I later learn is a Northern Territory holiday, today. A few miles farther we stop at the real market, way to small however for Shari’s tastes. I strike up a conversation with one of the vendors and knowing I am an American he mentions all the World War II airstrips we will see between here and Darwin. The city and area were bombed by the Japanese many times and the U.S. built airstrips here for the war. In fact, our campground tonight is in Batchelor which was a U.S. airbase opened in 1941. I ask him about Australia’s military presence in Afghanistan and he tells me his son is serving there with thousands of other Australians. His is a three-generation military family, as he served in Vietnam and his father served in WWII.
Commencing at 5:45 PM at our campground is bird feeding time, an activity carried on for 20 years. And the birds know it too. At 5:35 they begin to gather. Flocks of lorikeets, dozens of corellas and a few dozen Galahs fly to the trees and boisterously announce their enthusiasm for the coming event. The campground owner comes out with a few coffee cans of birdseed and hand feeds a few Yellow-throated Miners, then scatters the seed below the trees for the corellas and puts some in a feeder box for the lorikeets. Then he produces two buckets of a pasty white slop that he pours in two overturned garbage lids. He barely steps aside and hundreds of lorikeets and Galahs descend to the feeding trough. Rainbows of bright feathers – reds, yellows, greens, blues, pinks, oranges – light up the circular peripheral of lids. The large Galahs edge in among the smaller lorikeets and the lorikeets shove for position. The feeding frenzy continues for a half-hour until every drop of the slop is lapped up.
(Shari) Now that is the mother of all termite mounds, I think. Well over 20 ft. tall and 9 ft. in circumference, it towers higher than the trees next to it. We park at a pull off that is labeled “Magnetic Termite Mounds”. On a sign I learn more about termites than I care to know. Did you know that there are a number of species and that they build their mounds according to weather conditions? Termites like a constant warm temperature so here they build them rather flat with a north-south orientation. The termites we saw earlier near Karumba are the flood plain termites and they build mounds to withstand the water. Scientists think that the termites learn how to build genetically because if you take termites from one area they do not build the right type of mound and they perish. We take lots of pictures of the flat tall structures, separated by ten feet and covering many football fields. They look like sentinels guarding the forest beyond.
(Bert) We have been seeing termite mounds for a thousand miles and today we come to the best display of all. These are giants by comparison. The mounds come in various shapes and sizes, built by termites of different genus. We have noticed those that build against the side of tree, called tree-piping termites, and others that look like silos. Cathedral termite mounds, the most spectacular, are tall columns that are grooved much like an upended Phillips screwdriver, with groves extending from top to bottom. The base is fluted buttresses, so the overall shape resembles a mediaeval cathedral. These are the ones we have seen most often in Northern Territory and are built by Nasutitermies triodiae. I take a photo of Shari dwarfed beside one and read that the mounds can exceed 20 ft. in height. This one almost does. We are standing beside a field of magnetic mounds, built by magnetic termites. All of them are flat plates orientated along their north-south axis, producing a graveyard effect across the grassy floodplain. Perhaps the graveyard analogy is apropos, as the termites bury their dead at the top of the mounds. The flat-plate design is a temperature control method to deal with shade and wind and extreme heat. They are angled to catch the sun and the termites move to eastern faces in dry season mornings and to the center of the nest during cool evenings. The magnetic termites are genetically enabled to sense the magnetic pole and align their building project by its axes. Natural selection has allowed those that have that instinct to survive, while those that do not, fail to carry on their genes to successive generations.
We continue on through the national park, past several turnoffs to waterfalls until we come to Wangi Falls. Water cascades over the high cliff into a deep pool of water where fish and turtles swim along with humans. Swimming is only allowed in the dry season as the torrents of rain in the wet season attract saltwater crocodiles which are not good swimming buddies. Surrounding the pool is dense forest with a high canopy. Even with the sound of pouring waterfalls it is not hard to hear the chirping of hundreds of Black Flying-foxes as they cling to the upper branches in restless sleep. We follow the path through the forest and then up the side of the hill. Shari stops halfway and I continue to the top where I can see the clear streams merging toward the cascade in a Garden of Eden type setting of vibrant palms, palmettos and luxuriant flowers.
(Shari) It is pleasantly cool and I walk the path to the treetop observation platform at Litchfield National Park. At Wangi Falls people are swimming in the pool underneath the two falls. I choose not to do it for three reasons: 1. It is too cool, 2. I cannot see the bottom, and here is the biggy - 3. Signs warning of crocodiles.
Back in the RV, heading to Darwin, I try to nap but have to get up too often to ever get to sleep. The frig opens up, the door opens up and the cabinet in the bathroom opens up. All these require me to crawl between the seats and shut them. I finally tape the frig door with duct tape. We are in Darwin now and I call Kea for an appointment tomorrow to have an oil change (we have travelled well over 6000 mi. so far) and get our “to do” items repaired. Besides the doors not staying shut, we have an oven handle falling off and two DC outlets not working. May, our GPS, uses DC so we cannot do without those outlets.
Before dinner we take a swim in the pool, which is too cold for me to submerge. I sit on the edge talking with a couple from Melbourne. He is a volunteer fireman and tells us of the horrible fire they had 18 mo. ago where 500 homes were burned and 178 people killed. It was over 140º outside and he was fighting a fire. I cannot imagine what that felt like. Then he tells me he doesn’t like cold and has no desire to see the snows of Alaska. What a shame!
(Shari) I am glad I don’t see the sign until after I walk the 1.8 km track. I give Bert a 15 min. head star before I depart from the camper. Within 5 min. I catch up to him. As he peers into his binoculars, he excitedly says to me “It is all black”. Is that supposed to mean something to me? I assume he is talking about a bird, but I continue past him. When I finish up, I read the sign about the 18 different species of snakes I should be aware of in the park. Now they tell me! Six of the species are pythons. Luckily the only things I saw were some fish and two turtles. The trail is nicely signed explaining its three habitats of wet, dry and in-between forest that is uniquely able to withstand floods, intense heat, fires and monsoons.
(Bert) I’m watching a Shining Flycatcher when Shari passes me on the footpath. It is a life bird for me, but not one on my short list of birds I really want to see in Australia. Not a written list, but a mental image of unusual birds that caught my attention while perusing photos and books. One of those, and a particularly bright-colored one at that, is a pitta. I know the pitta stays on the forest floor and I listen for it scratching among the leaves. I’m diverted twice by Orange-footed Scrubfowl digging and I suspect I need to listen for something quieter, as the pitta is only about 7 in. tall. Halfway around the loop I hear it and then see it deep within the undergrowth: pitch black head and breast, bright green back and wings, a wide sliver of glowing turquoise patching the wings, a crimson red belly and a subtle brown crown stripe. Buried deeply in cover, I can barely make out the jewel of a bird and revert my long lens to manual focus to keep it from zeroing in on peripheral leaves. I get several good photos and show them to a young couple just happening to pass by as I was crouching on the ground for the shot. As luck would have it, about 10 min. later I find another Rainbow Pitta and after patiently waiting for a few minutes this one pops out right in the open and I leisurely take a dozen close-up photos. Later, when I consult my bird book I read that Rainbow Pitta is confined to the Top End of Northern Territory and does not extend to New Guinea as other pittas do, thus it has a very narrow range where it can be found.
(Shari) We take the Kea in for its oil change and fix-it list. They give us a loaner 4-wheel-drive Toyota and I hate it from the minute I get in. I almost need a step ladder to get into the front seat. No way can one go from the front seat to the back. The back is accessed from the bumper door and there you really need a stepstool. I notice an ice chest under some cushions. If we rented this, every time we wanted to get at something we would have to open the back, crawl in, rearrange the cushions, retrieve our items, and rearrange the cushions again. The little floor space available is taken up with two lawn chairs and Bert’s backpack and computer and camera. The turn indicator is on the right of the steering wheel and the windshield wipers are on the left. I have to laugh because the windshield wipers go up and down an awful lot during the day, coincident when Bert is making a turn.
(Bert) We drop off the campervan for minor repairs and an oil change at the dealership and get a loaner 4WD truck built for off-road driving and even with a breather tube for flooded river crossings, not that we expect to find any in downtown Darwin. I drive to a park on the east end of the city, where layered stone cliffs look over a tranquil blue ocean. I find a beach where hundreds of shorebirds gather and attempt to identify them. They look like drab Texas wintering birds with subtle differences and are too far away for me to identify so I take dozens of photos and will try to sort through them later. [When I check the photos I identify Eastern Reef Heron, Whimbrel, Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Pacific Golden Plover, Gray (Black-bellied) Plover, Lesser Sand-Plover, Pied Oystercatcher and Silver Gull, plus another species I cannot identify.]
Shari wants to visit harbor sites with shops and restaurants. On one of the
piers I see a plaque commemorating WWII and occurrences in Darwin. Although I
have visited Pearl Harbor and am familiar with the devastating Japanese bombing,
I do not recall reading about Darwin before our visit. Just 10 weeks after Pearl
Harbor, on 19 February 1942 the same military commander who lead the previous
attack, lead another military force of 188 Japanese aircraft on mainland
Australia at Darwin, dumping more than twice as many bombs and destroying parts
of the main wharf, killing 21 workers, sank or disabled 21 ships and wrecking
much of the town area. Two hours later a second force of 54 bombers damaged the
RAAF base. Unlike Pearl Harbor the barrage continued for 62 more air raids, up
until 12 November 1943.
(Shari) We head to Stokes Wharf for lunch, via May. She leads us to an industrial looking area that just does not seem right. We park, decide to move, decide this is correct anyway, circle the block and park again in the same spot. The guidebook describes it as a bustling place to shop and eat from vendor stalls on the wharf. We see no vendor stalls nor see the famous restaurant that should be there. We get out and walk anyway to an area that is under a roof. As we walk we find closer parking and do find food vendors on the wharf but only one shop, selling pearls. Bustling I would not call it but a pleasant place to buy fish and chips and eat outside, overlooking the sea. I finally have that famous fish, barramundi, and it is delicious. We then drive to the Esplanade where all the parking places are used up. Next is Cullen’s Marina, described as upscale dining and shopping. The only shops I see are ones connected to tour boats and marine goods. A lot of restaurants are there getting ready for their dinner crowd, but by now I have lost interest and am hot and tired. We read a sign warning not to go swimming because of the dangerous box jelly fish. What a shame as the water is a beautiful shade of blue, crystal clear and very inviting. My shopping will have to wait until tomorrow when we are taking the bus from the campground to attend the famous Mindil Beach market. I hope my expectations are not too high for it. By now it is almost 3, so we decide to head to Kea and retrieve our camper. They have it all fixed up for us. On our way to the campground, we stop to buy camel steaks and camel salami. By the way, we ate the kangaroo steaks the other night and they were very tender and delicious with a definite “wild” taste that many people would not like. But to me, it was like the venison I ate from my father’s hunting trips. I’ll let you know about the taste of camel. The roadside vendor had camel, alligator, kangaroo and a huge variety of fish. Too bad my freezer is full.
(Bert) One of the campground managers tells me it was Art Linkletter who invested in a rice farm about an hours drive from Darwin. After a few years the operation failed and this morning we visit Fogg Dam. An earthen dam, really a dike to hold back waters for the rice operation, now floods a waterfowl paradise. Hundreds of Magpie Geese and white herons (both Intermediate and Great) and smaller numbers of Green Pygmy Geese, Royal Spoonbills, Black-necked Storks, Comb-crested Jacanas, Pied Herons, and a dozen other species. At the end of the dike, I am photographing the Pied Herons when colorful finches catch my eye and in the bush in front of me I see Crimson Finches, the males intensely red and the females about half red and half brown.
(Shari) Today’s agenda is a little bit for Bert and a little bit for Shari. This morning in almost cold temperature we depart for a conservation area I read about. When we arrive Bert gets a good 45-min. head start down the path as I eat a leisurely breakfast. About 15 min. after I start the trail, I meet Bert. That is all the farther he has gone? I love these boardwalk trails with signs designating the flora and fauna of the area. Many of you readers are looking up the birds Bert mentions in his posts. Well here is my list for today. 1. A blue bee eater (I think) 2. The tall steely Jabiru (a big stork with a black neck) 3. Pygmy green geese (a duck with a evergreen green back) 4. pied heron (looks like our little blue) 5. Royal spoonbill (big wading bird with a spatula on the end of its long bill). After 4 hr. of birding, we head to “Windows on the Wetlands Center”, a nicely detailed aboriginal presentation of the ecological relationship of dry and wet to the plants and animals. We stop for groceries and I get a quick nap before we board a chartered bus for the market.
Mindil Beach Markets, known worldwide (well, maybe only Darwin-wide) attract a huge crowd. We are so happy that we did not drive as there are thousands of cars already parked when we arrive. I was worried that 6 until 8:30 would not be enough time for me to browse the vendor stalls, eat dinner from the food hawkers, and watch the sunset over the beach. I should not have worried, since we are done with all three things within 90 min. and still have an hour left. I suppose if my friends Ginny or Ermine were with me, we could have browsed longer. But Bert is a pain in the …. He can never just stay behind me and I constantly have to look for him. The crowds of people are horrendous and I have heard that over 10 000 bodies go to these markets held every Thursday and Sunday evening. People of all ages are there, dressed in ratty casual, as am I. Too hot for any good clothes! We buy a sausage on a stick, gyro wrap, satay chicken on a stick, ice cream and fruit smoothie. Other choices include corn on the cob, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, grilled steak kabobs, and a host of Asian dishes with noodles or rice. Although I shop every booth, I do not buy a thing other than our food. To tell you the truth, it all looked like junk. A lady on the return bus thought the same and she says the markets near Melbourne, where she lives, are more cosmopolitan. A lot of vendors were selling clothes from India that was made of cheap materials. I suppose if we could overcome the issue of getting the goods back to the states, we may have purchased some aboriginal art. There are three areas where entertainers can perform for tips. We see a sword eater and a juggler. Same talent performs here as at state fairs in the USA. The last 30 min. of the market are the best. Hundreds of people gather around a booth where two men play music, one on the didgeridoo and the other on the drums. They are good and a group of young people start to dance. Bert has a better view and hopefully he will tell you about it. At 8:25 the performance is still going strong, I cannot find Bert so hope he went to the bus. At the bus, he is not there and he is the only one left. Finally he comes rushing up the steps and everyone claps. I guess, he enjoyed the performance and lost track of time.
(Bert) In the evening we attend one of the events on Shari’s wish list. We ride with a bus of 50 other campers to an ocean side beach along with 10 000 others out for a good time at the Darwin market. We buy small portions of tasty foods at the dozens of stands, sampling skewered water buffalo, stuffed clam claws, peanut-battered chicken, a gyro roll, Macadamia Nut ice cream and a smoothie. We watch a demonstration of whip cracking with the expert performing sequential cracks in the beat of a song. We watch a crimson and orange sun setting below the sea. Best of all is a half-hour performance by an excellent drummer and an even more impressive musician playing an array of four didgeridoos. Although traditional instruments and original sounds, his didgeridoos produce a fast-paced music that brought out the young men and women in energetic dancing. The non-native dancers twisted and turned to the beat but when three indigenous young ladies started up their gyrating, hip-swimming, body giggling it is so fast the lines on their clothes blur. The music commences just as it is time to board the return bus and I rush to the location to the applause of everyone on the bus as I’m the last to arrive and Shari tells me she doesn’t know me and I can sit in the last seat by myself.
(Shari) This area of the Northern Territory is called “The Top End” and Darwin is at the top of the top end. It is reminiscent of a California coastal city with charming bays, parks on the waterfront and fancy condos at the marinas. Darwin was bombed in World War II and many plaques, memorials, museums and attractions commemorate that era. In the 1970s a typhoon leveled the town, so many of the buildings are new and modern. Too bad it is so hot. I have learned that the wet and the dry season are divided into six seasons, each with a varying degree of heat, humidity and rain. Right now we are in the hot dry season when leaves are turning brown and crackle underfoot. The plants and animals have unique ways of coping with the lack of or abundance of water. Only those that can survive submersion remain. Hence we see a lot of mangrove forests and trees whose roots like water. I do wonder where the wallabies go. There are no kangaroos this far north. But to me, all the animals are kangaroos, just of a different size starting with the rat kangaroo, then the bigger pademelon, then the agile wallaby, then the wallaroo and finally the biggest, the kangaroo.
Today we head to Kakadu National Park. It is a World Heritage site not only for its diverse habitats but also for it unique aboriginal culture. The park is run by the aborigines in conjunction with the park service and the entrance fee is a stiff $25 per person. The only place to buy the pass is at the visitor’s center and a few stores. Bert purchases two passes, but since nobody checks to confirm we have a pass, I bet a lot of people get in the park free. We stop at one place that has a nicely shaded blind overlooking a swamp. During the dry season, wildlife comes to it for water and Bert sees lots of birds. To me they look like the same ones we saw yesterday. Our camp for the night is in Jabiru. Its large artfully-designed swimming pool, complete with waterfalls and gently sloping shallow end, is shaded by a canopy. It is surprisingly cold and it takes me awhile to get all wet. But it is so refreshing.
(Bert) The sign said 4 km to Bird Billabong, but when we reach the parking lot we find only a trail and the billabong is still a 2.5 hr. hike. Shari tells me I have 30 min. Just enough time to add Little Woodswallow to my life list and renew my acquaintance with White-throated Honeyeater, but not enough to see the lake. From Mary River National Park we continue to Kakadu National Park and stop at Mamukala. By now the morning has warmed up considerably and I appreciate the shade of the bird blind. A thousand birds spread out across the marsh, all now familiar to me. A British birder asks me the identity of one flying and later an Australian birder from the south asks about the same bird. Strange that they should ask me, with only a month’s practice in Australia. Yet I know the bird–a Gull-billed Tern–as it is the only one of the 21 species in view that also occurs in the U.S. The bird that is new to me is along the path leading to the marsh. Here, I find a Golden-headed Cisticola, an attractive Old World warbler that looks and behaves like a sparrow.
We reach our campground by mid afternoon and park near the swimming pool. The water looks inviting, a circus-like tent spans over the pool and a rock waterfall trickles into one side, and chairs and tables gather on the green lawn surrounding the pool. I am soon at the pool and Shari is close behind. Surprising, though, is how cool is the water. One would think with the hot days that the water would be warm. Instead, it is cold enough that the timid–think Shari–step into the depths only an inch a minute. Refreshing!
(Shari) Kakadu National Park has seven geographical regions with seven varying ecosystems: the hot plains, the hot forest, the hot swamp, the hot coastal plains, the hot escarpment, etc. You get the picture. We get to the escarpment as soon as the gates open in order to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures. Here we see aboriginal rock drawings, perhaps dating to 50,000 years ago when aborigines first lived among these rocks. The act of drawing was more important than the picture itself and many of the sketches are painted one on top of the other. They depict the relationship of man to nature with the Rainbow Serpent a prime subject. Mostly thought of as female and the first spirit being to grace the earth, her presence reminds the people to take care of the land and their families. The paintings have levels of significance and some are for public viewing and others only the higher level clansmen can see or disaster will strike all of mankind.
By 10 AM, it is too hot for me to continue on any path whatsoever, but Bert still birds another hour before even he quits. We are at our next camp by 2 PM waiting for the sun to go down. Tomorrow we are booked on a river cruise starting at 6:25 in the morning. Ugh!
(Bert) Ubirr is famous for its rock drawings created by aborigines thousands of years ago. I’ve seen pictographs elsewhere, but what strikes me about these is the details of some of the drawings and the stories they can tell. Dating the artwork is difficult, yet the first one we see, depicting stylistic running figures, apparently was drawn 5000 years ago and the second set dates 2000 years ago and shows a stick man with great details of his hunting weapons and attire. It is part of a story warning against stealing. Others are more recent as they depict the arrival of Europeans wearing shoes and carrying guns. I’m most impressed with the animal drawings. The fish are not only recognizable, but the species can be determined by the shape, backbone details and internal organs. One drawing, so high up on the cliff that I wonder how they reached the site, is of a wolf-like marsupial with markings that easily can be interpreted as a Tasmanian Tiger, now extinct, the last one dying in a zoo in 1936. As depicted in the rock painting and in the last photo of the zoo specimen, the wolf-like animal showed stripes on the hind side, undoubtedly leading to the tiger naming. Being a marsupial, it is neither related to wolves, tigers, or for that matter, Tasmanian Devils.
I’ve done particularly good at finding new species today, starting with the Little Bronze-Cuckoo at the Ubirr site. We stop at another location I’d read about and while Shari takes a long nap I find Little Friarbird, Partridge Pigeon, Black-tailed Treecreeper and Broad-billed Flycatcher. On the way out of the area we see a Monitor Lizard cross the road, standing high on legs, a pronounced and elongated head and a body and tail length that dragged half way across the right hand lane.
(Shari) Some days are more worthy of pictures than others and today is a
5:45 AM. Get up! It is dark outside!
6:00 Walk to bathroom. It is still dark!
6:15 Walk to bus loading area. It is still dark!
6:30 Walk to boat docking ramp. It is still dark!
6:45 Tour starts; dawn arrives
7:00 Sunrise. Gorgeous!
I have trouble deciding if I should look left at the 17 ft. crocodile skimming the water’s surface or right at the red dawn of a new day. Right? Left? Right? Left? I do both and snap pictures first of one and then of the other. It is funny to replay them and see sunrise interspersed with crocodile pictures. I thought we might miss this tour as Bert went back to the RV for his jacket because it was so cold this morning, and the bus driver wanted to leave. So again, my husband is the last to board the bus (but more buses follow us). When we get to the dock, I see Bert’s heart sink as he thinks he will be in the third seat from the outside, way in the back of the 65-passenger boat. Not a good place for an alpha male with a big lens. Luckily they are taking three boats this morning and we are the first ones on the second boat. Our front row seats are perfect for seeing everything. We have seen signs and heard warnings about the crocodiles in Australia, but have yet to see one. Not to fear, we see about 50 today in a short 2 hr. timeframe. Malevolent, silent, and moving with nary a ripple, they own this river. A dominant male about every 500 meters with 12-15 females in his territory, they swim without fear, their beady eyes just above the surface looking for prey. We see a male dive for a fish and boy is it spooky as big fast rising bubbles come to the surface as if something is struggling for life. Another time, we see a croc swimming past our boat, scarcely moving his tail for forward motion. We see birds too. Not much new, but views of them to die for. I personally like Australian kingfishers. I have mentioned the Azure Kingfisher with the brilliant blue back and orange belly. Today get a great view and great pictures even with my little camera of a Sacred Kingfisher. It has the most brilliant turquoise feathers on its back. We also get to see the Forest Kingfisher with its brilliant blue-green back. All this wonder of nature has a setting that calms the soul. A mountain reflecting in lakes does that for me. This is the first time a river has done it. During the wet season, as far as the eye can see, everything would be covered with water. Today, as far as the eye can see, everything is green grass or lily pads in dazzling flower. The famous lotus flower shows off its big red bloom and our guide tells us the seed pods are used in tropical flower arrangements. Sure enough, I recognize the cup-shaped pod with holes like a pencil holder. Artful trees grow in the grasses suggesting big Japanese Bonsai. I cannot take enough pictures.
(Bert) The first orange light of the morning pierces the swamp horizon as we settle into our first row seats on the river boat. Pushing from the dock, it is only minutes when we see our first Estuarine Saltwater Crocodile. I’ve seen American Alligators in Florida and Texas, Caymans in Mexico, Morelet’s Crocodiles in Belize, Saltwater Crocodiles in Costa Rica, but none compare in size to this Australian crocodile. Different in size, shape of head, tooth arrangement, projecting spikes on its tail and its ornery nature, this creature does not suggest timidity. Our pilot and tour guide tells us the boat is equipped with life jackets, but they would be of little use in these croc-infested waters. Her best hope is to crash the boat headlong into solid land and evacuate. The crocodiles are a wonder to behold and certainly gather the majority interest among my shipmates. My focus, though, is in the myriad birdlife that is so abundant at Yellow Water. Thousands of Plumed Whistling-Ducks cluster shoulder to shoulder at the muddy edge of the river, safe in numbers, soaking up the warm morning sun. A pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles stand guard on a tall tree, regal in their strikingly white plumage from head to foot, with offsetting gray wings.
Someone notices a Dingo trotting across a drier part of the marshlands and behind it are four Brolgas, so tall that even at a quarter mile they are recognizable. Our guide points out an immature Nankeen Night-Heron and soon we find dozens in the short trees riverside. Rarer is the adult, though we see a few and in good photographic range. Other species I’ve had trouble photographing before because of distance are now so close I can get full-frame shots. I especially like my photos of Comb-crested Jacana and Black-headed Stork. The guide points out the stork’s nest and the huge pile of branches high in a tree looks identical to those constructed by Jabiru in Belize. In fact, the alternate name for this stork is Jabiru. A recurring high-pitched call is identified by the guide as Sacred Kingfisher and she seems keen on showing one of these to the group, but warns that they fly away when she gets the boat in their vicinity. A half-hour later I spot one perched distantly about 8 ft. above the water and I direct her to the spot. Fortunately, this one stays perched as she propels the bow straight for the shore and I have a front row seat to great photo ops. Two hours on board seems like both a long time and too short of a visit to this wildlife bonanza.
(Shari) After our tour, we head west and then south towards Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. Stopping for the night at a place Bert heard had a bower bird’s nest. The campsite is a dump and I do not want to stay the night but Bert says it is already 3. So? After he plugs in our power cord, he is off, long lens in tow. Soon he is back and has filled up his photo memory card. He says I need to look at the nest as it is only a few feet from the camper and in the shade. As I approach a lone tree near the side of the road, I see a bunch of twigs mounded about 12 in. high. When I get closer, I see a path of mostly white stones, but some green and blue glass on top, emanating from two ends of the mound. When I bend down to look inside, I see more of the stones lining the tunnel-like structure of twigs, open on each end. So, this is what a nest looks like. Pretty cool! Now Bert is off to find the garbage dump, while I continue to write this. He says he has already gotten a life bird just while he was looking for the bower and as all birders know, garbage dumps are great places for birds.
(Bert) You will have trouble finding the location of the two names mentioned in today’s heading. The first was suggested by a Townsville resident I met while hiking at Litchfield National Park, who told me where I could find the bower for a Great Bowerbird. Finding a bower is on my short list of things I wanted to see in Australia, so that is where we camped last night. I found the bower about a hundred feet from our site, pitched under a short shade tree. Constructed grass stem by grass stem, the stiff dried stalks form two sheaves that lean toward each other, creating an archway, with a front entrance and a back entrance. Piled inside the bower and for an 18-in. arc on each end of the bower are white stones and an odd collection of small discarded items, all colored either white or silver. Even a small coil of thin wire is in the collection. I found the bowerbird visiting his palace several times, reassuring himself that everything is in place. In case you don’t know the story, the male bowerbird invests his life in bower building, hoping his masterpiece will be the one chosen by a female. Some bowerbirds are so successful they induce several females for breeding; others get none. The genes of the best builders get passed on to future bower builders. Now, when it comes to incubating or taking care of the chicks or gathering food or any household duties the female might like performed, the male is an absentee father.
This morning we get our earliest start ever, leaving at first light. It is so early we see a show we missed other mornings. Raptors are out in force and closely inspecting the roadways for last night’s killings. Wallabies and perhaps a few other species are barely cold while the raptors dine on breakfast. Most are Black Kites, but probably a few are Whistling Kites too, as I see several in flight. Best of all is a substantially larger very dark bird and as I zoom past I say to Shari, “That looks like a Wedge-tailed Eagle”. She looks it up in the bird book and is hesitant until I see another and pass it more slowly. Amazingly, a few miles farther we see a third eagle and this time I come to a complete stop and we can see its wedge-shaped tail pressed flat against the pavement. I want to take photos, since it is not leaving its kill. Just at that moment a road train explodes past me, giving my pulled-over RV a wide berth and scaring off the eagle.
We stop at an historic pub a few kilometers from Stuart Highway and order a huge breakfast. While I am waiting for its preparation I wander around the area and see two Great Bowerbirds zoom into a grassy sheaf. I’ve found another bower and as I am inspecting it, a lady tending the lawn sprinklers tells me there is a bigger and fancier one behind back. I find it and it is similar to the one last night except this one includes green objects as well as white and silver. Bottle caps feature highly in the décor, probably gathered from the nearby pub. I find my fourth bower a few feet away, this one unadorned so either in preparation or abandoned and robbed of its precious collection.
After breakfast the proprietor of the bar and restaurant tells me of parrots that gather now behind the swimming pool and that she also occasionally sees Gouldian Finches, which are a threatened species in Australia. I don’t find the Gouldians but I do find Double-barred Finches and Long-tailed Finches, as well as Cockatiels, a first for me. The Cockatiels look very much like the ones you see in pet stores, though a bit plainer than the cage-bred varieties.
(Shari) “See, we should have stayed the night here like I wanted to do”, I tell Bert after he tells me this is a great birding site. He found three bowers with attending bowerbirds, some parrots, a finch and a cockatoo all while waiting for our breakfast to get cooked. I also saw those birds and love the bower. It is all decked out with a path of white gravel stones on its entrance and exit and inside lay shiny green glass shards awaiting the approval of a mate. All four of the bower bird nests I have seen so far have the same tunnel shape about as big as what you would put on a toy train set placed on a table tennis board. Each nest must be built stick by careful stick, all intertwined to make a tunnel that will not collapse.
We retrace our tracks of last week, heading south. Then I did not know that the land is quite different and there is a dividing line between the Top End wet region and the dry region. Even though the southern part is said to be the drier part, I find it greener. The trees are fewer and farther apart, the soil is dark red gravel, so dark it looks wet and the weeds and grasses are green. On top of that, the temperatures are just perfect. We get an early start because I want to stay the night at Devil’s Marbles National Park and catch the sun setting on the rounded stones. We arrive at 3:30 and find plenty of open spaces to park. This is my favorite type of campground no matter what country I am in; a scenic national park with wide views out my camper windows. The sky is perfectly clear blue and the stars should be in abundance tonight.
As the sun begins to set, I walk to the west side of the “marbles” in order to catch the light shining on the strangely shaped outcroppings of huge round boulders precariously balanced one upon the other. They seem to glow from within and I take hordes of pictures. One picture in particular is neat. My shadow shows on the face of a rock and my legs seem to be 100 ft. long approaching the rock and my body is small on its facade. I have wave my arm and I look like a pictograph on the rock. What a magical sight and again I thank God. He has blessed us and life does not get much better than this.
(Bert) A desert coldness chills the early morning and without electricity to run the heater I am quick to put on an extra layer of clothes. The sun has not yet risen, though a dozen young people sit atop the highest Devil’s Marbles waiting for it to pierce the horizon. When it does, it is like a magnesium fire and I cannot look in that direction. The red-orange rocks reflect sunlight as if on fire. I walk through the desert setting, looking for birds. They seem to be waiting for more of the sun’s warmth before stirring. A mouse of a bird scurries from one bush to another so quickly I’m not sure of what I saw. I watch closely and see it twice more. It is a quail, less than 6 in. in size, appropriately named Little Button-quail.
We drive south again today and stop for a photo-op at a display marking the Tropic of Capricorn. In the tree behind the display is a pair of active White-plumed Honeyeaters that avoid a good photo. We stop another time at a side road near Alice Springs. I’d like to take the road to a birding site, but I have only enough fuel for a few miles before heading to Alice Springs for refueling. I take a short walk instead, amazed at how vibrant is the habitat. My image of the Alice Springs area is of a desolate place, virtually uninhabited and uninhabitable. Instead, it is alive with trees, yellow-blooming bushes, almost green grasses and a plethora of birds. Flocks of Zebra Finches buzz past me, chattering their friendly song. Aborigine fathers and grandfathers teach young boys that if they are ever lost and in need of water, they should listen for Zebra Finches as the small seedeaters require water every 45 min. and therefore are always within 3 km of a source. Swifter fliers, the Budgerigars zoom past almost too fast to identify. One lands long enough for a photo. This is the green parakeet that so many have as pets, calling them Budgies. I find a larger parakeet, green and yellow, called Mulga Parrot. In the distance, an Australian Hobby glides to a perch. Reluctantly, I return to the campervan and find Shari impatient to continue down the road.
(Shari) We travel down the spine of Australia in territory called the Red Center. The dirt is red, the gravel is red, the rocks are red, the sand is red, and even the water in the billabongs (ponds or lakes) is red. Not really a red, but more a burnt orange or rusty red. The guide books call this a desert, and I had it pictured flat with all sand and no trees but maybe a few cacti. It is more of a desert like South Texas with lots of bushes, green grasses and clumps of green weeds. And it is cold! I keep my sweatshirt on all day. Funny, how a few hundred miles south makes a big difference. To me, the temperature is just right. Driving is easy, flat and straight and we stop every 100 to 200 km to get fuel or to stretch our legs. The roadhouses along this highway are missing the boat as far as I am concerned. None of them sell cinnamon buns, my favorite of the Alaskan Highway. Every day we would have bought some. We did buy a meat pie at one of them. They all advertise meat pies, as it is a popular Australian snack. It looks like a pot pie in a 6-in. aluminum pie tin filled with meat, usually beef, moistened with gravy. It is quite tasty. So now we are in Alice Springs, a town like Whitehorse, YT, multiplied by five. Only 25 000 people but 400 000 tourists visit per year, with lots of downtown traffic and lots of native people loitering about. We see a line of 15 to 20 taxies in front of a take out tavern. All the taxies are full of people with dark faces. I wonder if some welfare check came in today or if it is always like that. We stop to buy groceries before we head to the Big 4 campground. Tonight they are having a star gazing talk by a local astronomer.
(Bert) The highlight of the evening is an astronomy talk, complete with a high-powered telescope. The very knowledgeable speaker lines the telescope on Venus and slowly, very slowly, allows the children to study its crescent shape. Meanwhile, he tells us about the night sky. Besides Venus, we can see Mars, Saturn and Mercury. I am surprised at how high Mercury is above the horizon, as the only time I have seen it in the northern hemisphere is just barely above the horizon and caught in the glow of sunrise light. Finally I have a description of the Southern Cross that I can understand, as several others have tried to point it out and I couldn’t follow what they were describing. I also see now how you can use the Southern Cross to point to the South Pole. He describes many other constellations that I’m sure I will forget by the time I study the night sky again and finally Shari and I get our turn to see Venus, a bright white circular light with a chunk taken out on one side, just like the moon in three-quarter phase.
(Shari) We stay an extra day in Alice Springs because Bert wants to bird the sewage ponds–yuck!–and Simpson’s Gap. The Gap is a pretty neat place. A short walk along a river, takes me to an opening in rock mountains, hence the name gap. The rock of course is red and some green bushes grow near the stream which has just a bit of water. With the morning sun beaming on some of the rock faces, the color is intensified. On our way back to town, we stop at the Alice Springs Desert Museum, an outdoor museum much like the one in Tucson.
(Bert) Simpson’s Gap is a surprise. I was not expecting something so beautiful. We have been traveling a side road paralleling a ridge of mountains called the MacDonald Range, then turn toward the mountains where we can see a gap. The break in the red rock mountains descends clear down to a thin stream that we follow until it fills the gap and our progress stops. I can look straight up at the jagged cut, too steep for any vegetation to get a foothold. Soaring very high above me is a Wedge-tailed Eagle and my photos clearly show off its wedge tail. While I am peering up though my camera lens I see that the eagle repeatedly is being harassed by another raptor, much smaller. When I study the blown-up photos I see the other bird is a Grey Falcon. The falcon looks so small compared to the eagle’s 8-ft. wingspan. In the rock rubble below the cliff I catch a quick movement and focus my binoculars on the spot. A Black-footed Rock Wallaby stares back at me. I see a second one and when I catch up with Shari I tell her about the wallabies, but we don’t get another chance to see them. Later, though, when hiking through a wooded area I find a Dingo. This one must be crossed with domestic dogs, as it shows less of the features of the wild breed.
(Shari) Bert throws me some crumbs when he asks “Would you like to go shopping?” Now that his birding is done for the day, I am tired from getting up at the crack of dawn and he can nap anyplace, he makes that offer. I take him up on it though and peruse the shops in downtown Alice Springs. I take care of all my souvenir and gift purchases in one shop. The three-block shopping area along a pedestrian street is closed to traffic with various areas set aside and landscaped for park usage. About 50 people loiter in these areas, all with black faces. Two men ask me if I have a light for their cigarette. I do not like being approached like that and feel uncomfortable, as the body language of other tourists also indicates. Later I have to decide if I want to cook dinner or walk to the pizza restaurant. I am too tired to do either but we walk to the restaurant and order their supreme. It sounds good but this is the third time in Australia that we have had pizza and the third time I have been disappointed. From my small survey of three, Australians seem to like thin cardboard crusts, very little bland tomato sauce, hardly any cheese and few other ingredients. We do not even finish it but package it up to take home where I can add stuff to make it taste better another day. So pizza is still not out of my system. We should have had a sandwich and gone to the dessert cart in the campground to buy Pavlova or pancakes with strawberries and ice cream.
(Bert) In my mind, Alice Springs and Ayers Rock are almost side by side and on a full-scale map of Australia that is just about the way it looks. Nevertheless, we leave Alice Springs early in the morning and do not arrive at the rock until mid afternoon, a distance of 444 km through unpopulated desert except for two or three roadhouses for fuel and camping if we chose to stop. For much of the distance the desert looks like Alice Springs: heavily vegetated with mid-sized trees. After we turn west from Stuart Highway at Erldunda, the desert is barren, especially behind the barbed wire fence set off the road by a hundred yards. I see a few cattle and the land looks overgrazed, as there are big patches of grass up to a foot tall on the ungrazed roadside, but only a green color of inch-high grass in scarce islands within a sea of red earth on the other side of the fence. Uneaten short bushes remain, but almost no trees. Cattle undoubtedly require huge acreage of this type of habitat and their effort has exhausted the landscape. An hour later along the road the cattle raising stops and the desert resumes its more natural state. I’m interested in the trees, which are surprisingly tall, perhaps 40 ft. or so. They have the trunk and branch structure of pines with long, very thin leaves that droop straight downward, a bit like a weeping willow. They are not needles, but leaves, and the reduced surface area and vertical attitude reduces moisture loss. It is called Desert Oak, Allocasuarina decaisneana, not related to North America oaks.
Still about 50 km away we can see Ayers Rock sticking out at the horizon, a crudely shaped red dome. Shari tries to take a photo though her window, but short nearby hills keep intervening before she snaps the shutter. Our campsite is an oasis in the desert, almost in view of the Rock.
(Shari) From the moment I wake up, I am tired and stay that way the rest of the day. I stay awake long enough to drive for an hour before letting Bert take over again. We still seem to be driving in West Texas and when I have my eyes open, the scenery is quite pretty. More curves and bumps to the land with some mountains in the distance. The east and west McDonald Range cuts through the center of Alice Springs and at one time was as high as the Himalayas. Over time they have eroded to a ghost of their former selves and I doubt they are as high as the Davis Mountains in Southwest Texas. We never get to drive up them but only along side, on flat ground. As we approach Ayers Rock, Bert wakes me up and I see it 44 km away. It sticks up from the desert floor and rises some 1200 ft. Looking like a huge rusty loaf of bread, I am anxious to get up close. We will let that for tomorrow. Now we are parked in the only campground in the area. The park is owned by the aborigines, leased to the government and jointly run by the two entities. Strangely, dark faces are absent. The whole complex has a monopoly on accommodation, food and gas. It is the only game in town, if you could call this a town. They do allow a number of tour companies to run various trips, but that is all. A free shuttle takes the guests from one area of the complex to another. Accommodation of all budgets is available each with its own swimming pool and restaurants. The place is huge.
(Shari) An American and an Australian were on a bus tour of Colorado’s Grand Canyon. The American says to the Australian, “Bet you don’t have that in Australia”. Without missing a beat and with a straight face, the Australian retorts, “Nah, but we have a rock that would fit in it”.
(Bert) Words fail, photos may illuminate, but this is one of those places you
must experience to really understand. Uluru (pronounced ooh la roo) is one big
rock! In sunlight it glows; in shadows it hides. Smooth graceful curves,
crater-sized pock marks, 500-ft. cracks, dark waterfall lines. As an elephant
touched by blind men, it changes perspective at every turn. With a composition
of sandstone, 70% feldspar, its burnt orange color is striking. The enormity of
a single rock is overwhelming, especially if standing in its shadow and looking
up to the sky. It is the downspout for desert rainstorms, though they maybe as
infrequent as seven years. Gushing waterfalls bring the water to the base of the
rock and submerge into red sand, a bit remaining for a small pool surrounded by
tall ironwood trees. Mostly, though, Uluru is surrounded by a vast, flat desert,
so arid that aborigine survival depended on knowing where waterholes existed. In
the distance we can see a collection of rock mountains called Kata Tjuta, a half
dozen marbles on the horizon, a 45-min. drive by car on good highway, but if an
aborigine were to hike to the location, another source for water, he would head
off at a 45º angle to an intermediate water source, as he could not reach Kata
Tjuta in a direct line without dying for lack of water.
(Shari) Ayers Rock, now more properly called Uluru ever since the land where it sits was deeded back to the aborigines in 1985, consists of one piece of sandstone, 2.25 mi. long, 1.5 mi. wide, and 1142 ft. high. Plus 3 mi. are beneath the earth’s surface. I was not real excited about seeing it, and as we approach it, it looks just like a rock. Its magic does not grab me until I get close. It is huge and really does just pop out of the surrounding flat ground. What I did not see from afar is the varying cracks, crevices, curves and holes it has. At one point a wooded section grows beside a pool of water that is permanently there from rain runoff; otherwise the landscape is rather barren.
We park our car in the car park (Australian for parking lot) and wait for our guided ranger talk at 10 AM. Tim greets the 20 or so people that show up for his tour and begins to tell us of the land and its people. He has been here for 15 years and just by listening to him, you can tell he loves it. The rock is a sacred place to the local Anangu people and they are happy to show their land for they believe it belongs to all of us and they are its caretakers. However, dark faces are conspicuously absent and Tim tells us why. They do not like to have their pictures taken. He compares them to movie stars and we, the tourists, are paparazzi. Whether because they are shy or because they are tired of it or because they believe they lose part of themselves with every image, we have to respect that.
Strangely, Tim tells us that they are both Christian (Lutheran to be exact) and Anangu. On Sundays they go to church and pray and during the week they follow their age old traditions. Christianity tells them what happens in the after life while Anangu tells them how to survive for today in a harsh environment. In their society, one must live by the rules. If the rules are broken, punishment is swift and unforgiving because their very survival depends on the rules established generations ago. The indigenous people we see in the cities loitering around, Tim says, are the outcasts with no place else to go. Now I understand. The age old rules of survival are passed down from generation to generation by means of stories and rock drawings. I will never look at a piece of aboriginal art again without looking for the concentric circles designating water, or the U-shape designation of people. Our 2-hr. walk around a part of Uluru is way too short and I could listen to Tim all day.
(Bert) Tim is a park ranger that guides us on a 10 AM walk around a small portion of the rock. His knowledge of Uluru and the aborigine culture is vast, especially for a young Australian of European ancestry. Where we stand is quite close to the center of the Australian continent, but Uluru existed before the Himalayas were formed and at a time when a great sea lay between drifting continents. What we see today is analogous to the tip of an iceberg, as the single desert rock extends below the surface for 8-10 km. I find the stories Tim retells fascinating as they interweave features of the rock with tales of man-animals that are part of the indigenous people’s verbal codex. We stand at the opening of a shallow cave, a vaunted rock ceiling arched like a huge wave about to curl. On the wall are rock paintings and in the sand Tim traces symbols, the same as the paintings, explaining waterholes, pathways, animal tracks. All are teaching methods, often in the form of stories that are the battles between semi-gods or ancient tribes that are both man and animal. A symbol drawn with three lines thusly –> looks like an arrow to modern man, but I also saw in the way Tim sketched it in the sand that it could be the footprint of an Emu. He continues the story and I find I am right. Thus the source of water is not in the direction of an arrow, but rather in the opposite direction, the path the Emu takes as marked by its succession of footprints.
(Shari) I sure do like the fact we carry our house with us. We eat lunch in the parking lot before heading off to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), another set of rock formations within the national park some 50 km distant. We do not have a lot of time to visit but do get to see them before we have to head back to meet another tour. An aboriginal woman meets a group of 31 and speaking only in her native tongue introduces herself to us, interpreted by a young oriental woman. The ingenious lady seems shy or bored, I do not know which. She is barefoot and dressed in a skirt and fleece jacket, somewhat worn and soiled. She talks, the interpreter talks, she talks, the interpreter talks, etc. She takes us to more rock art and tells the story of the serpent-woman. She shows us traditional bush foods and from where they gather them. Although seeing and hearing an indigenous woman is interesting, all in all, I learn little that Tim had not already told us.
(Bert) Late in the afternoon, we take another walk, this one with an old indigenous woman who speaks in a pidgin form of her native tongue. Curiously, translation is provided by a young Japanese lady and within our group another translation is provided in Italian for the benefit of a half-dozen other visitors. Traditionally, the indigenous people did not wear clothes and this woman is only removed from the practice by two generations, as her grandparents traveled naked. We view features of Uluru as she relates a story that has been repeated for thousands of years. It is a very long story with many chapters and we hear just one chapter and I will summarize that in a few sentences. Woman-python traces her serpentine path across the face of Uluru and you can still see it today. Woman-python assumes her womanly body and kneels, leaving imprints of her knees and the circular hole where she pushes her walking stick into the rock – and you can still see it today. Woman-python encounters Giant-poisonous-snake-man and a battle ensues. Woman-python strikes Giant-poisonous-snake-man with her stick, leaving a vertical mark against the rock. She strikes him again, leaving an even longer vertical mark, and you can still see it today. Finally, in a death stroke Woman-python slices off the nose of Giant-poisonous-snake-man and you can still see the sliced rock and the nose on Uluru. That is why all poisonous snakes in this region have stubbed noses. Giant-poisonous-snake-man lies coiled in the rock and you can see its head and one eye still today. Nomadic indigenous people who know the story can find this place and see the rock markings and thus they have found a water source. Knowing the entire story, chapter by chapter, they can travel 2000 km across the center of the Australian continent and find water sources.
(Shari) We then drive to the sunset viewing lot where about 100 cars are parked facing the rock. It reminds me of a drive-in movie. I can sit in the car and watch the ever changing light on the rock. Unfortunately, Mother Nature does not wholly participate and I only get one really good picture of the top portion of the rock seemingly lit from within. Too many clouds blocking the setting sun! We are one of the last cars to depart and this sunset was the close to a special, full and tiring day.
(Shari) All of the day is spent driving through scenery already described, making me doubly appreciative of just how big and desolate the Outback of Australia really is. Where in North America can one travel for five or six days continuously in a north-south direction or east-west for that matter, coming to only two towns over 50 people and with only roadhouses between. Even going to Alaska is not that desolate. The country may be desolate in population, but not desolate in plant life and animal life. Daily I am surprised at how green things appear. I do hear that this is an unusual year with more rainfall than normal. Ayers Rock can go for six years without rain I am told.
Stopping at 3:30 at yet another roadhouse, we attend their $1 off happy hour. I invite myself to join another couple who seem pleased by my “invitation in reverse”. After all, what is a happy hour without some social contacts? This Australian couple retired two years ago and they are full-timers, traveling in a 21-ft. trailer pulled by an SUV. They did a stint of house sitting last year in Cairns, have three children, one who is in Wisconsin right now visiting her family from when she was a high school foreign exchange student. They were spending the winter in Darwin and stayed at the same campground we went to there. They had to cut their time short and head south because she found a lump in her breast. She wants to have it looked at in Adelaide where her daughter-in-law is a nurse. When we said goodnight to each other, I tell her I will pray for her and she is surprised and pleased at the same time. Back in our camper, we have soup for supper which hits the spot on this cold and very RV-rocking windy night.
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