Saturday, April 26, 2014

Darwin, and the Long Trip Home

After Kakadu, I had a mere three-hour drive to get to my last destination, the tropical city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory. I had to change a flat while in the park, but through the powerful work of prayer (Praise Be!), the spare tire held until I made it to civilization.

I rented a vacation apartment in Darwin so I could do dishes and laundry and all the un- and re-packing I had to do to get home. It was a lot of work to dig all my stuff out of the vehicle, clean everything, and reassemble everything that belonged to the rental agency. While I did so, I discovered an entire second set of bedding, including a second pillow that I could have sorely used to supplement the single tired-out one I found on my first day. Oh well!

Then, I had to take Princess back.

Go on, now, go! Don'tcha understand, I don't love you anymore! So get out of here! Go on, go!
That left me with a few days in Darwin without a vehicle. I rode my bike to the beach one day, but a) it was 90 degrees F and heavy humidity, so any exercise was a mess, and b) the beach in Darwin isn't really a beach, more like a long tidal flat. After that, I pretty much retreated into the air conditioning, pool, and shaded balcony of my apartment.

I put the bicycle up for sale on the Australian equivalent of Craigslist, but I didn't get a legitimate offer in the day and a half I had left. So I carted it to a shady spot on the esplanade and left it, along with the helmet and the spare inner tube, with a "FREE" sign, thinking it was too bad I wouldn't get to see who got it.

A few hours later, I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment, which is a good ways from the esplanade and faces in the opposite direction to boot. I saw this old guy pedaling hesitantly along on a blue bicycle, a too-small helmet perched unbuckled on top of his head. Could it be? A peek through the binoculars proved it--dude had my bike! It made my day.

I spend the rest of my time in Darwin on that balcony, eating ice cream, grilling up a kangaroo steak, and trying to photograph the crow-sized flying foxes that flapped by every few minutes at dusk.

Never really got a good shot. They seemed to fly slowly, but not slowly enough to turn on and focus a camera.
That, and some really fantastic tropical thunderstorms, which happened nearly every evening.

Darwin is not really a city so much as a medium-sized town that happens to be the only civilization for 1,000 km. I had a nice meal at a pub, and I enjoyed a coffee and ice cream by the waterfront, but there wasn't a whole lot to do. In general, I was content to prepare for the long flight home.

My domestic flight from Darwin to Perth gave me an entire extra day in Perth, which was quite comfortable after I dropped off my luggage in a locker. I was surprised I didn't feel particularly sentimental about the place, though I spent the stunning day (70s, sunny, breezy, and dry) along the river, in the parks, and in an outdoor shopping-plaza pub. Then, it was a very long, very unpleasant flight home (middle seats and infants the whole way). I was happy as hell to get off the plane and be back in Boston, where the weather was actually about the same as it had been in Perth. It felt good to be home!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kakadu National Park

... is Australia's largest national park. It's about the size of New Jersey, and it protects some of the continent's most important wetlands.

The Australian tropics have two main seasons: wet and dry. During "the wet," the flat lands of Kakadu become like a temporary Everglades, flooding and filling with plant and animal life. During "the dry," the swamps evaporate into smaller and smaller billabongs and rivers, concentrating the wildlife into tiny areas and drying out the rest. April is the cusp season, when the wet ends and the dry begins. Kakadu is at its greenest, but it remains largely inaccessible other than by air and boat.

Some of the campers on Lady Musgrave Island insisted that I spend the cash to go on a wetland cruise, specifically the one that departs before sunrise. We braved the mosquitoes to float across billabong, a river, and a floodplain as the sky grew light. We were rewarded with the sight of hundreds of birds and the subtle, but beautiful, blossoming of the wetlands under a cloudy dawn.

Lotus leaves, some the size of trash-can lids
Lotus flowers
We also saw about ten crocodiles in two hours. At every tiny speck of water, from major rivers to muddy puddles, the park puts up comically dire signs warning visitors not to approach the edge, lest they get chomped.

You don't have to tell me twice.
It was pretty rad seeing a crocodile in the wild. During my few days in Kakadu, I also saw plenty of wallabies, cockatoos, cranes, and one scrawny dingo. The most abundant and striking wildlife, though, was the insects. Kakadu has the most amazing assortment of colorful butterflies, some with transparent panels in their wings, like stained glass. The average wasp was as orange as Blogspot's logo, and even the ants were a golden color with fetching lime-green abdomens.

There were less lovely bugs as well. My first night in camp, I was in the vehicle getting ready for bed when I kept hearing mosquitoes. I'd turn on all the interior lights, hold very still, and search around the van. Nothing. The whining kept going, no matter what.

Eventually I realized that the whining wasn't coming from inside the truck. It was coming from every window, all around the vehicle. I was surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes, like something out of a nightmare. I couldn't imagine how I would get from the car to my tent. Eventually, I had to put on a hoodie, long pants, and socks in the sweltering humidity, just to sprint 10 yards. Once inside my tent, the cloud gathered around and hovered there all night. It was like falling asleep to an infuriating Phillip Glass composition.

Even after the heat of the day set in, the mosquitoes would, like, roost in any shady spot they could find. Shady spots included the toilets, on my hanging bath towel, and on every surface inside Princess. Disturb them, and end up with a swarm in your hair and nostrils.

The only upside to the mosquitoes was that they attracted scads of tiny, tiny frogs.
Approach them, and they leap from floor to walls to ceiling like gravity has no meaning.

One frog figured out that my tent was an all-you-can-eat buffet and perched there every night, but the little guy could fit maybe six mosquitoes in his tiny tummy, so he didn't make much of a dent.

Kakadu is also has an incredible concentration of Aboriginal rock art. I imagined Aborigines in Australia would be like Native Americans in the states: basically invisible, except in isolated pockets. But Aborigines have a much larger population--and play a much larger role--in Australian society than Indians do in American society. Parts of Kakadu are fully tribal-owned, and require separate permits to visit. There are also sacred rock-art sites that visitors are never allowed access to. The visitor's centers do an excellent job of introducing the landscape and culture from a first-person Aboriginal point of view. Despite this, the true meaning of any individual rock art remains unrevealed.

 Kakadu was fascinating, but it reinforced something I've always known: I'm not meant for the tropics. The last few days have been a perfect storm of stuff that's particularly horrible on my fussy New England Irish skin: Sun, dust, humidity, mosquitoes. I spent the days plastered in a sticky mess of SPF, DEET, squashed mosquito corpses, and my own BO. I broke out like a band geek, and I had horrific hair and puffy eye bags from tossing and turning all night in the wet, motionless heat. Give me a long, cold winter any day, or at least some air conditioning.

Nullarbor Ain't Nothin'. Driving The Outback

Not the Subaru Outback. The actual one.

To make it from the coast of Queensland to Darwin (or first, to Kakadu National Park, about 3 hours east of Darwin), I had to drive across the Outback--the only Outback trekking I've done, aside from the Nullarbor. The Nullarbor runs close to the coast, and as I mentioned, I was quite taken by the scenery there. So I was hopeful that this drive might hold similar pleasant surprises.
 Western Queensland is unceasingly flat, hot, treeless, and dry. The above street view is about where I hit the eagle, and it displays the landscape in an unusually green mood. My view was golden brown. If you drop the Google dude somewhere around Winton (the town where I had the windshield replaced--also, the home of "Waltzing Matilda," so there!) you have to do a lot of clicking before you see anything different.

I spent five days traversing this landscape, stopping only for roadhouse ice cream, pee breaks, and the dusty caravan parks that crop up every 300 kilometers or so. Drive, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat. There was one belching copper mine at the town of Mount Isa, about two and a half days in, and that was it.

It was relentlessly sunny. My protection method was to take a lightweight cotton button-down shirt (the key desert gear, according to my Grand Canyon guides), put my driving arm into the sleeve, and then drape the rest over my shoulder, chest, or lap as needed depending on the time of day. I stopped well before sundown, because Princess has had quite enough close encounters with wildlife, thank you. I was up before dawn to get as many daytime kilometers under my belt as possible.

As I edged northward into (very slightly) greener country, the landscape became studded with termite mounds. They ranged from lumps a few inches tall to 10-foot monstrosities that looked like Medieval cathedrals, all composed of the reddest Australian soil. Apparently, I'm not the only one who was bored, because quite a number of the mounds sported T-shirts, hats, bras, and underwear. Some were convincing enough to startle me into thinking that someone was standing alongside the road.

On the last day, I finally passed into the Northern Territory, where a blissful 130-kph speed limit (about 80 mph) shot me to a guidebook-recommended stop not far from Kakadu, a settlement centered around a thermal pool.

The swim was blissful, and the caravan park was full of odd wildlife.
As evening came on, flocks of flying foxes streamed across the sky. I returned to the pool for a wonderful dip the next morning before setting off, enjoying the perfect solitude. It was a nice end to a very long and somewhat troublesome trip across the Outback. If anything, I got a sense of the sheer emptiness this continent is capable of.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Back Out to the Outback

I'm currently making a 4-day trek west from the Queensland coast to the Northern Territory, and then up to what they call the Far North. My schedule gives me one extra day for either transportation or camping. That's turned out to be a very good thing.

The highways of the Outback are littered with roadkill kangaroos. Like, one every hundred yards. And the freshest bodies are swarming with carrion birds--crows, hawks, and big, heavy wedge-tailed eagles. The birds almost always take off well in advance of your approaching vehicle. Almost always.

About 80 kilometers outside the nowhere-town of Winton, Queensland, an eagle took off from a carcass and flew straight into my windshield. Luckily, the only auto-repair shop in town happens to have the right size glass to fit the Princess, but I have to wait in a shabby motel while the adhesive sets overnight. It could have been worse--I could have had to wait a week if they didn't have the part. (I also could have had a half-dead eagle flailing around in my passenger compartment, but luckily it bounced off and the safety glass remained intact.)

Here's to this being the biggest speed bump of the journey.

The Great Barrier Reef: Lady Musgrave Island

So: The crown of the trip. Camping on an island in the Great Barrier Reef, nth wonder of the world.

Lady Musgrave is a coral cay, an island formed where a reef breaches the ocean's surface. The coral around Lady Musgrave forms a ring, with a calm, shallow lagoon in the center. The island is a part of that coral ring, like a gem on a necklace.

Web photo. I cannot fly.
I booked a campsite for three nights, and arrived at the nearest caravan park, in a town called 1770, a full day ahead of time to pack and prepare. I spent the day alternately organizing my gear and going to the beach. In the evening, I made friends with some grizzled (but friendly) bikers, and we shared a few beers and a tasty meal at the only pub in town, set right on the shoreline and packed with local characters.

1770 is situated on an estuary, so the sun set across the water.
There are these little crabs, see, and they grab claw-fulls of sand and run them through their little mandibles in order to filter out anything edible. As they spit out the sand, they form it into tiny little sand-spheres. By evening, the entire beach along the caravan park looked like it was made of Dippin' Dots, the Ice Cream of the Future.
Caravan parks in Australia are an institution. My poor little Princess looks lonely and unadorned compared to the sprawling structures the average Australian unpacks from his camper-trailer, complete with multiple-room tents, full kitchens (and pantries!), and a "living room" of camp chairs sheltered by expertly erected tarps. By evening, a popular caravan park looks like an Eisenhower-era fantasy suburb, full of children bicycling in the warm evening air, neighbors sharing a laugh over plastic tumblers of wine, flavorful smoke rising from the barbecues. It felt nice just to walk around and take it all in.

The next morning, I awoke bright and early to board the boat to Lady Musgrave. A cruise company gives daily tours of the reef and the island, and they also pick up and drop off campers. The trip is about two hours.

Now, I've been on the ocean a couple of times, and while my head gets woozy if I try to read or watch TV in a moving vehicle, I've never been seasick before. But something about this particular voyage hit me hard, and I was sicker than a dog the entire time. I went through about five "emesis bags" and had to sit with my head between my knees even after the boat passed into the shelter of the coral lagoon.

After I recovered, though, things looked positive. This was going to be my home for three days:
Lady Musgrave
The boat as seen from the island, with rich reefs and unreal blue water all around
A smaller boat delivered us to the island, but not directly across the aquamarine lagoon. It went around the island, to the north-west side, where the reef runs right up to the beach. So the campsites weren't near the sheltered waters and the great snorkeling; you had to walk across the island for that. They were also on the sunny side of the island, where it got extremely hot in the middle of the day.

After setting up my tent, the second disadvantage of the campsites quickly became apparent. A sea bird called the black noddy roosts and nests in the trees of Lady Musgrave Island.
Returning from a hard day at sea, getting ready to shit on everything I care about.
Over the course of three days, the birds shit on absolutely everything I owned: My tent, my sleeping bag, my backpack, my beach towel, my bathing suit, my snorkel gear. Miraculously, I escaped being actually shat on myself, but it didn't much matter, since everything I touched was coated in guano. And sea birds have especially vile, fishy-smelling shit. 

Turd machine.
So during the day, it was either blazing sun, or reeking bird shit. I tried to alternate between them as each became intolerable.

My fellow campers were all very friendly. As evening came on, several people in one group brought out guitars and ukeleles and invited everyone for a singalong. Given that my family unironically gathers around the piano for carols at Christmastime, this could have been right up my alley. Here's the thing, though: I'm the worst singer in my family, and I can at least carry a tune. I don't know how many times they blundered their way through that Israel Kamakawiwo'ole mashup without ever once making it over the rainbow.  They were all so nice, but every time the clumsy chords and off-key singing started up from the next campsite, I thought to myself, Jesus, give the ukeflailey a rest already.

My escape was the water. The Great Barrier Reef is everything they say it is. Since my camera isn't waterproof, I couldn't take photos, but imagine being small enough to fit inside a really expensive aquarium. Everything is so beautiful that it almost looks fake. The colors, the shapes, and the diversity are all miraculous and alien.

There are countless species of fish, from tiny neon-blue minnows to flashing schools of metallic long-nosed gar to big, ponderous parrotfish. As you swim along, different fish react to you in different ways: some dart and flee, some investigate, some ignore you, and I swear to god, if a fish could shrug. It's fun to chase some, it's fun to swim along with others, and it's fun to just float there and watch while others defend their territory or chew the coral. We discovered a sea-turtle "cleaning station," where the turtles let little fish pick their skin free of parasites while they make facial expressions like a gentlewomen at a spa. We saw rays and colorful sharks and giant clams, which have surprisingly gorgeous mantles, decorated with neon stripes and spots. It's like visiting the Na'vi planet from Avatar, but everything is real.

After night fell, all the kids on the island would troop around the beach with their flashlights, and when you heard them squealing, you knew they'd found a nest of baby sea turtles hatching. Everyone would crowd around and turn their lights off to watch the little guys flap across the sand, making their way toward the moon, which guided them into the sea. I saw a few go down the gullets of seagulls, but we managed to guard and save as many as we could. Adult sea turtles were so common in the lagoon that we eventually stopped pointing them out to each other.

While it was a visually beautiful place, the birds and the heat and the relentless sun made for difficult camping. I'm glad I did it, but I was also happy to get back on the boat and return to the relative comfort of Princess and the mainland (making sure to buy some seasickness tablets before we embarked).

Great Sandy, the Queensland Coast

I did end up "skipping" Sydney, or at least giving it just a few hours on my way up the coast to Great Sandy National Park and Frasier Island.

I didn't get much of an impression of Sydney, other than that it's a big city, and parking is very expensive. I spent an afternoon strolling under the Harbor Bridge and past the Opera House, through the Rocks neighborhood (the oldest European settlement in Australia) and into some of the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was pleasant, but I didn't have much time to actually get to know its character. I mostly stopped just to say I did.

From Sydney, I journeyed two days up the coast to Queensland, bypassing Brisbane to get to Great Sandy National Park, home to Fraser Island. Fraser Island has nothing but 4x4 tracks through soft dunes and across beaches. I needed "permission" from Britz to take Princess there, so in the interest of time, I opted for the mainland section of the park. It too boasts miles of pristine beaches and a very lovely campground that, turns out, is at the end of a 4WD-only track. I locked the hubs and figured that since I didn't need permission to visit this section, it couldn't be that bad.

Mmm.. soft, squishy sand!
I've never done any 4-wheel driving before, so I don't have anything to compare it to, but a 10-km track made of nothing but 8-inch ruts in soft sand seems like a decent challenge. The way into the campground was down a gentle decline, so even though it was nerve-wracking, I didn't get in too much trouble. But entire drive, I kept thinking, "There's no way I can get back up this."

Obviously, I did have to get back up one way or another. The next morning, I unloaded as much loose clutter I could from the back of the campervan into my tent and made a practice run. There were some hairy moments, but I didn't get stuck or slide off the track once. And when I got to the top, my reward was this:

Suck it, New England!
Perfect beach, brilliant sunshine, warm water, and big, fun waves, all a thousand kilometers from any development, yet patrolled by the world's best lifeguards. If I could only tolerate the tropical sun a bit better, I would have stayed there all day.

The beach by my campsite wasn't bad, either, but because of the local currents, swimming is "not recommended."


Somewhere above Brisbane, the landscape started to look really tropical. The plants got greener, palm trees sprouted wild instead of just in gardens, and grazing land gave way to banana and sugar plantations. Even the clouds looked more equatorial.

On my way out, I paused after conquering the 4WD track to take a nature walk through a small section of tropical forest a bit back from the coast.

Strangler fig!

Palm trees just growing like they grow there!
Everything--the birds, the plants, the soil--seemed new and exotic. Once I got back on the road, it was a quick hop even further north, to the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.
I think the reason Europeans were baffled by Australia--why explorers kept throwing themselves into the merciless Outback despite finding nothing but death--is that the continent is a painful rebuke to the Christian idea that God made the earth for Man.

Royal Botanic Gardens, central Sydney

Monday, March 31, 2014

You Can't Get Good ________ in Australia

  • iced coffee: See previous posts about coffee-flavored milk. I think they just don't get the concept. It doesn't help that all their coffee is based on espresso, so anything that works better with a milder drip brew simply doesn't happen.
  • weather forecasts: I grew up in a place where the local Public Radio features a 20-minute weather discussion, and it's riveting. When I look up the weather for Australia, I literally get the weather for Australia. Can you narrow it to maybe one time zone?
  • bread and baked goods: No idea why, when most of the food is so good. They're all spongy. I finally found a good loaf of sourdough in Melbourne, but it was a rarity.
  • Mexican and Latin food: I can't pretend to be mystified on this one, but I didn't think about how much Latin flavors add to American cuisine until they weren't there: hot sauce, tortillas, cheap late-night burritos, etc. I had a mojito last night and I was like, it's nice that you tried. Speaking of which:
  • cocktails: Not part of the culture, generally. Australia doesn't have any "native" distilled spirits like American bourbon, while beer and wine are huge, so they don't bother. They do, however, have piles of canned and bottled "cocktail drinks," like pre-mixed Jack and Coke or vodka and lemonade. They look vile.
  • baked beans: I don't normally go for these, but I'm doing a lot camping, and it's no fun sleeping in a plastic envelope unless you've had a good dose of beans. Australians eat British-style beans, which I find watery and tomato-y compared to bacon-y, molasses-y Boston-style beans.
  • incandescent light bulbs: Screw you, planet. Compact fluorescents are flickery, buzzy, and mad unflattering.

Where To Next?

Now that the end of the trip is in sight, I'm realizing that I don't have as much time as I'd hoped. I booked a campsite on an island in the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland for next week, and after that, I have about ten days before I give Princess a bath and put her to bed.

The trouble is, Google Maps informs me that the drive between coastal Queensland and Darwin, where Princess is due, is a punishing four days through blank Outback.

I thought hard about changing things up. From where I'm staying in Canberra (motto: "It's not that bad. Come on, it's not!"), I was going to make a beeline to Queensland, and then drift back down the Sunshine Coast to end the trip in Sydney. I'd have to miss the Outback and the far north, but I'd give myself much more time to enjoy the journey. I wrote out a blog post that had a map and everything.

Then I called the rental agency. It turns out Princess has a very important date with her next suitor, and he's picking her up in Darwin. Darwin is right near Kakadu National Park, a massively popular 4WD destination, and it's the big Easter holiday weekend, so changing her plans is a no-go.

So I guess I'm driving to Darwin. I'm trying to look on the bright side--I'll see the Outback! I'll cross into the Tropics! I'll visit every state on the mainland! The Northern Territory has no speed limit! I'm going to Kakadu, too! --but four days of un-scenic driving is big chunk out of a trip that only has a few weeks left.

The other bad news is that I have to sacrifice at least one must-see to make it from here to Queensland to Darwin on time. I'll miss either the dunes and dingo-habitat of Fraser Island, or I'll miss Sydney. While I feel ridiculous having come all this way only to miss the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge, I'm leaning toward bypassing Sydney, or at least making only a whirlwind stop. I feel like I may have seen the best of urban Australia in Melbourne, and the north-eastern coast is rumored to be foreign and intriguing in a way that Australian cities, as charming as they are, simply are not.

Tomorrow morning, I'm getting up early and ditching Canberra (motto: "The city that's all suburbs and no city!") to drive to Sydney. It's a short hop (for Australia). Once there, I'll make a game-time decision whether to enjoy one more night in a city, or head out after afternoon tea to make the northern beaches in good time. Given the hard travel of the next two weeks, you may not know which I chose until I get back!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Snowy Mountains

The web site for Australia's largest ski resort beckons visitors to come and "touch your first snow." But there's no snow on the mountains this time of year. Gosh, too bad I missed it!

Now that we're rounding into April, I'm getting pressed for time. Instead of dawdling all the way around the coast from Melbourne to Sydney, I took an inland cutoff through the Great Dividing Range and Kosciuszko National Park (pronounced "Kozzy-osco").

Kosciuszko is the highest peak in Australia, and while it doesn't compare to the Rockies, it's got about 1,000 feet on Mt. Washington. The national park protects an enormous area of wooded highlands all around it. I found a great camping area on a meadowy flat by a pretty river. The place was just stuffed with kangaroos.

This is how they spend most of the day. They're as docile as livestock.
Lil joey
I also spotted a platypus swimming in the river, but they're extremely shy and too fast for photos, even with my new camera.

Unfortunately, it rained on and off through the two days I was there. I managed to get in a walk and some quality wildlife-watching, and the clouds cleared long enough for one spectacular sunset over the range.
Foggy dawn
Kookaburra near the river

A pair of crimson rosellas, ridiculously common parrots