footloose and fancy free in oz

A bloke, his better half, and a 4WD truck, in the wild blue yonder of the red continent

Into the red hot centre

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After we got our replacement ‘house batteries’ sorted in Darwin, we hung around for about a week.  Still a bit bruised by the experience, we weren’t quite ready yet to head back into ‘the Big Empty’; we didn’t feel like roaming hundreds and hundreds of kilometres away from basic infrastructure, let alone anything else.  And as the bloke bluntly pointed out, it didn’t help that I, as an accomplished “worrier”, kept dreaming up all manner of scenarios of what might go wrong. Needless to say, it took a while to get our mojo back.

Our plan was to head west along the Top End into the Kimberleys and onto Broome. But the 3-week delay had brought us closer to the dreaded wet season and we were now well into the meteorological pattern they call “the build-up to the wet”, which is basically two months of rising humidity, high temperatures and electrical storms. In addition, this year they were talking about an early onset of the Wet. We had been forewarned ages ago, but were pretty relaxed about it. Our standard retort was “we don’t mind the heat and are used to high humidity from Auckland”. How hard could it be?

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Billabong at Nourlangie Rock (Kakadu National Park)

Well, it transpires that hanging out any place other than in air-conditioned comfort is actually not a whole lot of fun. The body doesn’t seem to be capable of doing much more than producing vast quantities of perspiration – around the clock. Even during the coolest time of the day, in the early morning, the mercury doesn’t drop below 26°C. We now know that it’s possible to break out in a sweat between showering and reaching for the towel.

When we realised that further travel along the top would have us hot and bothered 24/7, we decided to change the direction of our ‘western loop’ by going clockwise; down through the centre, rather than across the top and down to Perth. It was deemed a perfect opportunity to exercise our renowned flexibility muscle.

We hadn’t yet given up on our plan to travel to the very remote Coburg Peninsula at the top of Arnhem Land though. To get an idea about road conditions, we talked with a local mechanical contractor who covers that general area. He roared with laughter. “You’ll have fun getting up there”, he cackled, and then he explained that the road was “very bad at the moment … quite a bit worse than usual”. He added that some of the river crossings were “real nail biters”. When he showed us photos and videos on his phone, we realised we didn’t suffer from adrenaline deficiency and flagged that idea without any further discussion.

We happily exited Darwin southwards via the small town of Humpty Doo which deserves an award for most cheerful location name.

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Ubir (Kakadu National Park)

Glorious Kakadu

After our tantalisingly fleeting visit last year, returning to Kakadu was a given. It combines incredible ecological and biological diversity with outstanding cultural heritage within what appears to be a well-run National Park, especially as far as indigenous Australians are concerned. In fact, it’s the first jointly managed National Park in the world.

The first thing you notice is its vastness – at 20,000 km2 it is Australia’s largest National Park. But beyond size, it’s also a very remarkable place – aptly described as a cultural landscape – with an accessible and continuous history that is so rich, relevant and ancient, it leaves you gob smacked.

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Rock painting of Nabulwinjbuwinj a spectacularly named spirit prone to eating females after hitting them with a yam!

Getting up close to rock paintings that depict scenes dating back up to 45,000 years was unforgettable, as was contemplating the views from various rocky ridges across flood plains. Our Kakadu experience and general cultural understanding was immeasurably enhanced by attending half a dozen superbly informative ranger talks – notably presented by non-aboriginal rangers. Among other things, the talks provided some insight into baffling cultural concepts such as the aboriginal kinship system which governs social interactions, relationships of obligation and avoidance, and marriage. Accordingly, a husband is, for instance, banned from talking directly to his mother-in-law (not a bad idea, I hear you say?), and marriage is prescribed between certain “skin names” and consequently clans.   It’s said to be the most complex kinship system in the world and amazingly is still widely practised by non-urban aborigines.

It’s difficult to get your head around it, which perhaps explains why the (white) Australians with whom we’ve discussed this were entirely in the dark about it. There’s clearly a substantial lack of understanding which may be just the tip of the iceberg of mis/disinformation afloat in a sea of racial disharmony.

The aboriginal issue on the whole is of course a touchy topic. Moreover, it seems to be suffocated by guilt, exploitation, corruption and impotence. And while I’m ill equipped to discuss it, it pains me that this oldest “living culture” is – at least in our experience and observation – tragic in context of most everyday ‘touch points’.  It’s difficult to see it as anything other than a disgrace for a first world country.

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Looking across the floodplains of Arnhem Land

Swinging by Edith and Katherine on the way to Alice

It was time to say hi to some famous ‘girls’.
First off Edith Falls: a beautiful park within Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge National Park). Its notable feature is an attractive escarpment – a rocky corset for the Edith River which flows and tumbles through a series of cascades and deliciously refreshing pools – ostensibly safe for swimming courtesy of a crocodile management program.  However, copious disclaimer signs alerting swimmers to the danger of estuarine crocs, not to mention a crocodile trap a mere 20 metres from the entry to one of the most popular swimming holes, made the experience somewhat unnerving; as did a sign that declared the swimming hole closed from 7pm to 7am to allow the reclusive freshwater crocodiles to remain undisturbed while feeding.

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Popular Edith Falls swimming hole

It took me a while to muster the necessary faith in said crocodile management program and to ignore questions about the clockwork-like eating habits of freshies. (Do they know their allotted feeding time? What happens if they get the munchies at lunchtime? Do they observe daylight saving hours?) Anyway, once the mercury topped 40°C we were in the water like a shot, though always remained upstream of live bait, I mean other swimmers.
You can never be too careful …

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Swimming hole atop the escarpment at Edith Falls. It was so hot that I burned my hands on the rocks as I clambered over them!

On that note: the high 40s temperatures we encountered on the escarpment made hiking to the upper pools almost a weight lifting/endurance discipline on account of the copious quantity of drinking water you need to carry. The amount of water one consumes while climbing a reasonable gradient is quite staggering – which, incidentally, is all we were capable of after a while.

And then there was the 3-metre Olive Python that didn’t quite manage to hide all of itself under the water tank while digesting something big.

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Hide and sneak Python

Next up was Katherine, specifically the attractive Katherine Gorge which is a major tourist attraction. Due to the topographical feature of the gorges, it’s said to be best experienced by air, which our financial planner excluded as an option. We made a mental note of some superb multi-day walks though, which we’d love to do should we return to this area during the cooler months.

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Katherine Gorge

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Chasing the Global Solar Challenge

After a wee side-step to refresh ourselves in the crystal clear waters of the Bitter Springs at Mataranka (the concept of ‘cooling off’ becomes tenuous when the spring water is 32°C and the air around 40°C) we had the great fortune that our timing and route coincided with the Global Solar Challenge.  The world renowned solar car race from Darwin to Adelaide is run every two years and attracts 40-odd team entries from around the world with many leading universities deeply involved in the event and showcasing latest solar development.

We practically raced out of Mataranka (as far as it’s possible to ‘race’ in a sluggish 6-ton truck), and had to cut short a morning get-together with delightful fellow travellers, Karen and Brian, so we would make it to the race check point in Dundowran  and see the fastest cars come in that afternoon.

With Lady luck as our travel companion, we arrived in perfect time, got chatting with some of the organisers, scrutineers and official race observers before the first three teams came in for their compulsory 30 min break, checks, driver change etc.

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The Japanese Tokai University team car arrives at the Dundowran race stop

We marvelled at the pit-stop precision and professionalism of some teams (particularly the Dutch Nuon team that eventually won the challenge, and the second placed Japanese Tokai University Team); we were aghast when we saw the enormous entourage of the multi-million dollar teams (Michigan University turned up with a massive semi-trailer complete with comprehensive engineering workshop along with a substantial convoy of support vehicles) and admired the ingenuity and commitment of several under-funded teams that were afforded no budgetary wiggle room whatsoever. The Malaysian university team had a mere $50,000 budget; in context of rental cars and accommodation costs, not to mention development, support and transport to Australia they’re doing it “on the smell of an oily rag”.

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As soon as the car arrives in the pit lane, the ‘lid’ with its solar panels comes off and is tilted towards the sun for maximum charge. The Dutch Nuon Team (pictured) performed extremely slick – we weren’t surprised that they won the challenge.

It took around a nanosecond for us to become completely absorbed by this exhilarating and inspiring event and we eventually spent three days trailing the race. We camped with the teams and hung out with the various people involved. In absence of any other contenders for the role (given the über remoteness of the location) we became official groupies of sorts. We were urged to consider volunteering as official observers for the next race, gave an interview to the ABC, and generally relished the whole experience.

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Sun worshipping panels: The front car notably doesn’t have a detachable ‘lid’ and sits in its entirety on a frame for maximum solar gain. Not a problem as none of the cars weighs more than 150kg.

 

A propos of media; we were amazed by the substantial press contingent that had arrived from all corners of the globe to travel 3000km across Australia to cover the race. A Belgium reporter who had landed in Darwin the previous night was still fairly shell-shocked. He had trouble coming to terms with the vast nothingness of the Outback and the fact that place names on a road map often don’t amount to more than a service station. Poor chap. It evidently wasn’t quite the junket he had expected.

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Last minute chat with the driver before getting back on the road (Nuon Team)

For us, of course, it was the best entertainment along what would otherwise have been a monotonous and potentially tedious 1180km drive from Katherine to Alice Springs. Mind you, on Day 3 – about 300 km out of Alice Springs – the entertainment value unexpectedly gave way to moderate panic.

Keeping up with the solar car racers (the fast ones achieved top speeds of up to 130km/h!) meant that our fuel use was a bit heavier than normal. The bloke accurately calculated that we would refuel at the Ti Tree race check point. By time we trundled in there, all of the solar teams and their vast entourage had already left. What we didn’t anticipate, however, was that they would deplete the service station’s diesel supplies beforehand. To make matters worse, the fuel supply truck wasn’t due for at least three days.

Well, we weren’t going to make it to the next service station and in a last ditch effort we were told to try our luck at the Mango Farm up the road. Who would have thought, it was still our lucky day? They indeed had some diesel that they kindly sold to us – possibly feeling sorry for the bloke who would otherwise have had to contend with a nervous wreck of a woman until the end of the week. In any event, it taught us something about relying on scheduled supplies … and the high use of fossil fuels that goes hand in hand with sustainable energy use vehicles. The irony was not lost on us.

Check the bottom of the post if you’d like to see more photos of this exciting event.

A town like Alice

The Alice, as this most famous Outback town is affectionately known, was quite a surprise to us. I can’t quite explain what our expectations were, but they were surpassed in any case. We immediately found it to be a delightful town, with attractive public spaces, set in a most beautiful natural environment and with a pleasant atmosphere. The cynic might suggest that an onerous 1500km drive through desert nothingness could generate a predisposition to like whatever it is you encounter when you get there.
We were genuinely taken in by the place.

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As in Darwin and Katherine, you’ll find a high proportion of indigenous people, often sitting around in groups under the shade of trees. Here in Alice, you also see many predominantly female artists among them, particularly in the centre of town, where they may have a council permit to paint and peddle their art to the never ending stream of tourists; much like the numerous galleries that specialise in indigenous art, though at a very different price point, without much sophistication, and largely as a means of income and independence. Cecily and her cousins, who we chatted with a number of times, lives in the bush but comes to Alice to make some money … which she spends on pubs and pokies.

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Cecily (pictured left) is one of the licensed artists in Alice Springs. She’s a cheeky soul and asked for $10 after giving me permission to take a photo.We had a good old chat about alcohol, pokies and the police.

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Cecily’s cousin (or sister according to the aboriginal kinship system) lives happily separated from her abusive husband and appreciates the independence she gets from her art.

As the day wears on, the effect of alcohol becomes apparent across the public spaces, police patrols turn up, bottles of booze are emptied, noisy altercations ensue and huge amount of litter is left behind. Pubs are also doing a roaring trade going by their patrons’ level of intoxication. Alcohol sure is a demon spirit around these parts.

Distance learning

When you drive through the outback for days on end with signage for faraway stations being the only indication of human habitation (sometimes more than 100 km up a gravel side road), you sometimes ponder the practical implications of such isolation, for instance children’s education. Well, kids don’t go to school as much as school comes to them. It’s called the School of the Air and it was inspired into existence by the Flying Doctor Service.

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The School of the Air has 140 students in a catchment area of 1.3 million km2

With its offices in Alice Springs, the school provides primary and secondary school education for children on remote stations throughout the NT and bordering SA. The children participate in interactive classroom lessons via a satellite connection that, along with all other relevant equipment, is provided free of charge through this public school.

They currently have an enrolment of 140 students spread across an area the size of central Europe with some class mates living up to 2000km apart. It’s a cliché, but things sure are different around here  … and I can’t help being fascinated by it.

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More pics

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Head first into the refreshing swimming hole at Maguk (Kakadu National Park)

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The spectacular arrangements of boulders that make up the Devil’s Marbles are the result of a breaking down of rocks. They are remnants from a solid mass of granite and cover a rather large area south of Tennant Creek.

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Edith Falls Pool

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Cool, oversized and welcoming. Art at the Outback station, Aileron.

If you haven’t had your fill of solar powered cars, feast your eyes here:

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Solar car with the lid off. Note the red covers that hides some of the ‘guts’ from view.

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Hive of activity as three teams and their entourage arrive at the check point.

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This year’s Solar Challenge includes the 4-seater “Cruiser Class” for the first time.

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One of the few lady drivers in the otherwise male dominated event.

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Our best “solar buddy” John was part of the organisational team. He is a teacher in his day job and had previously entered the Solar Challenge five times with his students. He was worked off his butt and yet generously and passionately shared information with us.He made the event for us!

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Last but by no means least: the inspirational High School entry of a Japanese school.

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