Originally published: 18th August 2008
Australia! Land of big empty spaces and evolution gone wild! Where nature can kill you quicker than you can say ‘Let’s go swimming in this waterhole’!
Australia is big. Really big. We knew it was big before we got there, but that doesn’t make its bigness any less big. It has big roads that stretch for thousands of kilometres. It has big deserts that eat planes, cars and people. It has big hearted citizens that welcome you into their homes. And it has a big, big sky.
This was a conundrum. We asked around, researched and conjectured, but we couldn’t figure it out. Australia’s sky looks and feels so vast. We both noticed it. Is it because of the curve of the earth? The large, flat expanse of land? The deep blue colour? The lack of clouds? Who can say, but it was definitely the most grandly imposing atmosphere of our trip so far. (Seriously, if any of you guys CAN say, we’d love to know).
Darwin & Around
Our first stop was a farm just outside of Darwin where we volunteered to help out through the WWOOFing scheme (Willing Workers On Organic Farms). The wonderfully accommodating Plaxy and her daughter Bryony were our hosts on their family land which stretched to 300 acres. Luckily for us, Plaxy only needed help on the small vegetable gardens that she kept and not the entire 300 acres. So, in exchange for food and accommodation, we spent four hours a day weeding and planting and watering and raking. The rest of the time was spent learning about Australian life, not locking doors or windows ever, and relishing Plaxy’s incredible tales of daring where she and a friend basically take a tent and go and get lost in the furthest reaches of the Bush.
And, in case you’ve forgotten, Australia is BIG. It’s incredibly easy to go walking and not see anything man made for probably months. And if something happens like, say, your campsite burns down, it’s pretty serious. It’s certainly not like England, where the worst that could happen to you is that you walked for a day only to find that the village you stumbled upon doesn’t have a pub. Intrepid stuff.
The most interesting bit about the city of Darwin itself was when Plaxy took us to the Mendle Beach Markets, which were full of interesting folk art and good food and which also gave us our first experience of Drum’N’Didj. It was a live drummer and didjeridoo player playing Drum’n’Bass style music at an incredibly frenetic pace. It was also one of the most totally awesome things we have ever seen. We bought a CD.
After we bid a fond farewell, we jumped into our rented campervan (whom we named Augustus) and started off down the Stuart Highway (or ‘The Track’ – in Australia, if it doesn’t have a nickname – ‘The Track’, ‘The Alice’, ‘The Coathanger’ – then it is abbreviated – brekkie, mossies, servos, etc.). This long, long, long road cuts down from the topmost coast of Australia, through the Top End all the way down to the Red Centre. It’s 40 million kilometres long (possibly) and, according to the map of Australia on the wall of the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service museum in Alice Springs which had a superimposed image of the outline of the UK on it, is longer than the entire length of the UK.
Litchfield & Kakadu National Parks
We didn’t stay on it long. Our first side trip was to Litchfield National Park, where we got to enjoy the humongous starry skies in our little borrowed tent (thanks to Plaxy) at our own private and incredibly peaceful campsite next to our own private waterfall and swimming area, which was nice because all of the other waterfalls were a little more…commercial. They are still amazing, and are set into very peaceful and beautiful surroundings, but only once you’ve walked the 500 metres away from the car park, past the coffee gift shops.
After Litchfield we headed to Kakadu National Park which contained even more examples of amazingly vast and dramatic scenery. Australia does this type of scenery very well.
Then it was crocodiles. Having seen one croc in the wild as we ate lunch by a river, we needed to see more so we joined the Yellow Water Cruise and went looking for the big ol’ reptiles. There were other birds and stuff that we were shown for the first hour which were pretty interesting and whatever but all we really wanted to see was the Main Attraction – the scourge of unwary fisherman throughout the Top End, the devourers of German tourists silly enough to ignore the amply signposted warnings about not swimming cause crocodiles actually are really fricking dangerous.
And, like Australia, they were big. And close. They were hiding in the rushes, basking in the morning sun, swimming next to the boat and generally looking fierce and scary. We learned all about the death roll, where before you can say ‘holy crap it’s a cro…’ they have grabbed you and dragged you underwater where they spin you round and round until you drown. Gruesome.
It was pretty humbling to feel second place in the food chain for once. To see a place Where Humans Fear To Tread. Oh, one other thing that we saw in Darwin was a stuffed former-croc called Sweetheart that was 20 metres long. I know, right? Big.
Katherine Gorge & Manyallaluk
Katherine Gorge, further down The Track, was big and dramatic. Taking our little hired canoe down a river surrounded on both sides by 50 metre high walls was amazing. The lugging it up across rapids (portage is the correct term here I believe) was less fun, but was more than made up for by the fact that you could stop by little rocky islands and just go for a swim (they clear out all of the dangerous 20 metre long saltwater crocs for the tourists, leaving only the more docile freshwater variety) which was nice and refreshing cause it was pretty damn hot despite it being winter.
After all this excitement, we decided that we would spend a more sedate day with an aboriginal community learning to paint using environmentally friendly brushes (fibrous plants) and paints (ochre and clay mixed with water), throw spears, eat kangaroo (we politely declined this one), and weave baskets. I also bought a genuine didjeridoo (made by our guide) which is all of the sides of awesome and is, I hope, on a boat on its way home as I write this (update: it made it!).
Devil’s Marbles & Alice Springs
Then we continued down The Track, spending our anniversary swimming in peaceful hot springs, driving 700kms and spending the night at the Devil’s Marbles, a crazy rock formation where some impossibly complicated geological events happened to create large round boulders that look almost nothing like marbles. Still bloody impressive though (almost as impressive as the fact that Erin and I have been together for 9 years – go team!)
The next day we drove the remaining 500kms down to Alice Springs which is…a hole, frankly. But they do have Hot Air Ballooning over the desert which was fun despite the fact that it involved a horribly early start. Still, drifting over the Bush watching kangaroos before literally crashing down to earth then being fed a huge breakfast together with way too much alcohol for nine in the morning is no bad way to spend your day.
Geeky fact: Every hot air balloon landing is considered an emergency landing because being an emergency landing gives the balloon owner the right to enter other people’s property and retrieve the balloon. Important when your vehicle has neither velocity or directional controls.
Uluru & King’s Canyon
Uluru was next – the iconic symbol of the desert in Australia. It was…developed. It was also very magnificent and, if you blocked out the hundreds of other people that were there, enchanting at sunset as it went through a kaleidoscope of colours (most of them in the orange to dark brown range) as the light faded. We have pictures, but you’ve already seen them.
King’s Canyon, the nearby and oft-ignored neighbour was next, providing us with the opportunity to get up close and personal (the aboriginal owners of Uluru don’t like people climbing the rock) with the incredibly random formations that exist out in the middle of, basically, nothing. Flat desert for miles and miles around then, suddenly, as if dropped by Martians, these huge red rocks. There are scientific explanations for these formations involving such crazy concepts as erosion and geology and stuff, but I like the Martian idea better. More drama, like the black obelisk in Kubrick’s 2001.
Back to The Alice then, to stay with another accommodating Aussie (and friend of Plaxy) Nicole, where I got to flex my legal muscles and remember some of my Employment law training and also pack sweets. See, Nicole runs a sweet stall at a market on a Sunday so her house is literally rammed full of tasty tasty sweets. Oh yes it was a bountiful evening. One for the bag, one for me, one for the bag…
Flying! To Sydney! Sydney is awesome (though up close the Opera House looks distinctly seventies – all brown tiles and brown glass) and we looked at property prices but, unfortunately, it’s also stupidly expensive.
There were art galleries and restaurants and really disturbing theatre (some in the audience were properly crying, others sat stony faced, we were cheering loudly – hurrah for controversy). We also stayed in an amazing hotel with stupidly awesome views of The Coathanger (harbour bridge) and the Opera House. Goodbye budget, we never liked you anyway.
New Zealand next. It rained. A lot. Which made it look a hell of a lot like England. It’s weird, we’re on the other side of the world and we’ve never felt more at home. Except in England you can’t go…
Snowboarding! It was awesome! We carved up the slopes all good and proper. I caught some mad air and was throwing tricks like confetti and racing down the hard black runs like they was nothing. Sweet as, bro. Also, I learned how to put on snow chains and I learned how to drive up thin, icy mountain paths in rented cars.
Afterwards, glacier walking at Fox Glacier. Also incredibly excellent. Plus, we got to go in a helicopter. Helicopters are the maddest modes of all the transports except for maybe skidoos and I’m going to get one to go on my yacht. The glacier was also really interesting cause it moves like a metre a day and it’s still advancing which means that soon it’s going to eat New Zealand. Possibly.
We got to see huge crevices that swallow men and cows then spit them out of the Terminal Face of the glacier four or five years later fully preserved. We walked through snow caves that were supporting literally tons of ice (each cubic metre of glacial ice weighs about a ton). And we got to wear crampons! We’re getting to do all the cool stuff this trip.
Then skydiving! Jumping out of a plane is pure madness, madness I tell thee! We did this at Lake Taupo which sees over 30,000 jumps a year. Taking a little prop job up to 12,000 feet, we were then thrown out of it attached to a trained professional and allowed to fall to earth for 40 heart-wrenching (and really bloody cold) seconds, before a parachute kindly opened and took us safely home.
Erin was lucky. She just got thrown straight out pretty much as soon as the door was open. Me, not so much. I was left dangling out the plane, my feet flaying about above all these clouds, for about a minute while my tandem master waited for a clear spot. Then he dragged me back in. He did this twice more before we actually jumped and made it easily the most scary part of the whole experience. No one wants to be hanging out of a plane however many parachutes and other people are attached to him. I now know what my heart tastes like. Absolutely crazy experience.
Now we’re in Auckland and it’s STILL cold and it’s STILL raining so we’re leaving early to go to Fiji where it’s warm and it has beaches. It’s too much like England in the winter and so now we need a holiday (heh heh).