Saturday, August 29

More winter blues

I’ve dashed across the Tasman Sea for a couple of quick days with my parents. Australia’s sublime winter weather has followed me. We’ve had a wonderful day of sunshine and blue sky in Mount Manganui today, reaching a high of 20C. However, Mum keeps telling me I cannot call this place a beach resort. I’m not sure I can agree. This morning Dad and I wandered down to the beach to feed the seagulls. The photo above is the scene that greeted us - an empty beach patrolled by a lone gull.

This afternoon we went to the hospital to have Dad’s mobile chemotherapy tube removed. This is his second round of monthly treatment. It’s made him rather tired each day, but otherwise the side-effects have been minimal. Mum and I then set off for a late-afternoon walk around the Mount. As always, the view was breath-taking, with craggy Pōhutukawa trees framing an impossibly iridescent blue ocean backed by an equally blue sky. Sorry Mum. You’re living in a seaside resort.

Friday, August 28

An afternoon at Hugo's

Australia is sweltering under the hottest August on record. Across the nation winter temperatures have hit new highs. Brisbane has had its hottest winter day ever with the mercury climbing to 35.4C, while coastal areas along the New South Wales and Queensland border have recorded their warmest days for the entire year. It’s hard to imagine winter temperature surpassing those of last January and February, at the height of Summer. With only days to go, meteorologists expect the average temperature nationwide to finish more than 1.6C above normal.

This superb weather created the perfect excuse last weekend for a leisurely afternoon on the harbour front in Manly. This is one of Sydney’s iconic beach suburbs, nestled on a narrow spit of land separating the city’s majestic harbour from the Tasman Sea. Less than five hundred metres separates a pine-fringed, white sand beach from a scenic, sheltered harbour wharf.

The most enjoyable way to reach Manly is by ferry, which is exactly what we did on Sunday. The day dawned with clear blue skies and warm sunshine - perfect weather for a ferry ride. I can honestly say that nothing revives the soul better than Sydney harbour at its best. As we pulled away from Circular Quay, the Opera House and city skyline unfolded in picture-perfect harmony. Manly beach was equally picturesque upon arrival. I had to pause and remind myself this stretch of sand littered with sun-baking locals was in fact a winter scene.

My best mate Brendan booked us into Hugo’s, a new restaurant that’s opened on the Manly ferry wharf. Hugo’s has a popular and well-established venue in town so we were keen to try its latest expansion. The restaurant is open to the air along two walls and furnished with large, comfortable leather sofas. We spent 4.5 fun-filled hours enjoying the view, great wine and mouth-watering food. I even taught the bartender to make fresh ginger Caprioskas – a cocktail Garry and I discovered earlier this year in Milan.

Our return ferry ride was just as memorable. We departed Manly at sunset, just in time to witness the sky transforming itself into silhouetted orange and purple hues. By the time we glided by the floodlit Opera House it was almost dark. The city’s iconic building glowing on the harbour’s edge seemed to bookend a perfect day with friends. These record-breaking winter conditions suit me just fine!

Saturday, August 22

Winter BBQ

It's Summer in London. Last Sunday the temperature hit a comfortable shirt sleeve high of 25C. It's Winter in Sydney. Last Sunday the temperature hit a comfortable shirt sleeve high of 25C, although some coastal areas reached a high of 28C. Given such perfect weather it seemed natural to organise a BBQ lunch for family and friends while we're visiting Australia. As you do in Winter, we spent an entire afternoon sitting outdoors, cooking meat on the BBQ, drinking wine and watching the kids play cricket. Most were in short sleeves and some in shorts.

In the week since, almost every day has dawned sunny and warm in Sydney, with bright blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon. Yesterday, Sydney's temperature peaked at 26C, while London reached 21C. I even rose at 6am yesterday morning for a relaxing 90-minute stroll around Grand Drive, the ring road encircling Centennial Park. With the exception of a mid-week high of 28C in London, Sydney's daily temperature has been within a few degrees of London for much of the week. Should anyone ever ask why I have no plans to retire in the UK, let them simply read this post.

Finally, this post wouldn't be complete without mentioning a few names. During last weekend's BBQ, friends complained bitterly that they weren't starring frequently enough on this blog. So this final paragraph is dedicated to; Chris, Keri, Danny and Ag. It was wonderful to see you and the kids again. Our stopovers in Sydney seem all too short (and Ag you make the world's most delicious Potato Bake). A special mention to Nicole and Jason as well. I'm sure they'll be commenting if they go unnamed. It was wonderful to see you and the kids too.

Friday, August 14

Spending up big

Today we made our way back through Litchfeild National Park and on to Darwin. We started our day with a short stop at Wangi Falls, one of the park's most popular locations. Here the falls plunge into a large, deep pool that's popular with swimmers. We also discovered its a favourite roosting spot for native Flying Foxes. We could see hundreds of them hanging from trees along the water's edge.

Our next stop was Tolmer Falls. The falls can only be viewed from a distant lookout as the gully floor and its many caverns are home to a couple of rare bat species; including the Ghost Bat, Australia's only truly carvivorous bat. While the view of the falls was spectacular, I was almost more taken by the opposing view across the edge of the plateau. There's something magical about Australia's varst blue skies and ever distant horizon.

We made Buley Rockhole our final stop before heading to Darwin. This is a series of small waterfalls and rockholes upstream from Florence Falls. They make ideal swimming holes - and as the heat of the day was rising - were the ideal place to end our Top End tour. Garry and I spent a leisurely hour soaking up the fresh river water in our own private plunge pool before reluctantly packing up to make our camper van return deadline.

As we drove north we were surprised to discover the side of the road was also home to numerous abandoned World War II airstrips. I counted at least four on the way north. We arrived in Darwin with 20 minutes to spare - or at least - we thought we had 20 minutes. Garry soon discovered we were actually a day late returning our vehicle. He'd miscounted the number of hire days.

One hefty penalty and an extra day's hire later and we were A$320 poorer. The error also meant that our Darwin hotel charged us a cancellation penalty and we had to rebook our room at a less favourable rate. That extra day has proven rather pricey. However, this evening's ocean-view sunset has more than made up for the extra expense. Moments after taking this photo the sun transformed itself into the largest glowing red ball I've ever seen. The ultimate way to farewell another Summer vacation.

Thursday, August 13

The long trek home

Our last full day with the camper van involved a drive north from Katherine to Litchfield National Park; a distance of just over 250kms. The day got off to a rocky start when warning lights and ominous messages (i.e. ‘engine failure 136’ and ‘service required’) began flashing on the dashboard minutes after starting the engine. A series of calls to the rental company eventually resulted in us being told to ignore these warnings. Much to Garry’s indignation, the van manufacturer’s service centre told us someone had called with the same problem on the same vehicle a week earlier.

All these trials set our plan back several hours so we decided to pace ourselves as we drove back up the Stuart Highway. With no cellphone coverage and temperatures hovering in the mid-thirties we weren’t keen on breaking down miles from civilisation. We stopped briefly at Pine Creek, Adelaide River and Bachelor. You quickly learn that most towns in the region are associated with the Overland Telegraph Line, or the railway - often both.

Pine Creek was once the southern terminus of a railway line extending south from Darwin. Visionaries had foreseen it as the start of a trans-continental railway line running to Adelaide; a line that was never built. Today the town hosts a series of old rail infrastructure including a working steam train – which wasn’t operating when we visited. Instead we drove to the town’s lookout where a deep blue lake dominates the view. This was once a working, open-cast gold mine. The pit was flooded in 1993 after the mine closed.

Adelaide River was also steeped in fascinating history. After the Japanese air raid on Darwin in February 1942, the entire township of Darwin was evacuated to this remote place 226kms inland. For the next three years, Adelaide River became Australia’s World War II front line. Thousands of military personnel were based here along with all of their logistical support, including a full military hospital.

Today a poignant reminder of the town’s wartime heritage - an immaculately manicured war cemetery - can be found on the edge of town. 63 civilians and 434 Australian, British and Canadian servicemen and women are buried here. It's also the final resting place ofseven postal workers killed during the first Darwin air raid. They died when a bomb exploded in a trench they’d taken shelter in outside the local Post Office. Garry and I stopped briefly to pay our respects. As was the case at ANZAC Cove in Turkey, the young age at which so many died saddened us, reminding us again of savagery of war.

Our first stop in Litchfield National Park was its famous magnetic termite mounds. Here magnetic termites build oddly flat, oblong mounds oriented in almost perfect north-south axis. The termites build their mounds in this manner to ensure a constant daytime temperature inside the nest as the sun traverses the sky. The end result is an incredible sight. We were greeted by a field of these mounds stretching into the distance like an old, abandoned graveyard.

The final stop of the day was at Florence Falls where we spent a leisurely hour swimming in the icy plunge pools at the base of the falls. Once again, local rivers proved a perfect antidote for the afternoon heat. I’ve been swimming every day for the last three days. I can’t remember the last time I spent so much time in the water. We’ll be stopping off to see several more such falls tomorrow.

This evening as I type this blog Garry and I are sitting under an incredible canopy of stars. Our last night with the camper van has proved a winner. We’re 50kms from the nearest town, on a moonless night, and thus the sky is truly pitch black. Above us the Milky Way is spread from horizon to horizon in a distinctive dusty band. There are stars everywhere, all twinkling. I’ve even spotted, just briefly in torch light, a wallaby bounding off into the bush. It’s the perfect end to our Top End adventure. Tomorrow we’re back in Darwin for two final days chilling on the ocean front.

Wednesday, August 12

Katherine Gorge

Katherine Gorge, or Nitmiluk Gorge as the Aborigines know it, is one of the Northern Territory’s most iconic sights. Here the Katherine River, swelled by millennia of Summer rain storms, has carved a series of dramatic rock canyons. Tourist literature describes 13 individual gorges; yet every map shows a just single river flowing through the area. I was left confused until the day we finally visited.

As each map shows, the river has indeed carved just one gorge through Nitmiluk National Park. However, at numerous locations along the gorge, natural rock shelves dam the river, thus separating it into 13 gorge sections. Only the first five are accessible by boat. The remainder progressively start to resemble a gently cascading series of rocky river gullies.

After a lazy morning in Katherine (read: sleeping in until 10am) we booked ourselves on a relaxing four-hour river cruise. This took us through the first three gorges. However, transferring to the next gorge meant disembarking, walking a short distance and boarding another boat. By far the most spectacular gorge was the second one. Here the river narrows and passes through a canyon of towering rock walls. It’s the stuff of postcards and brochures everywhere.

The third gorge was relatively dull by comparison as the river began to flatten out into a more genteel gully. At its far end a short walk over rocks carved into all manner of flowing shapes offered a view of the fourth gorge which in all honesty looked more like a traditional rocky, river bed than a gorge.

On our return journey down the river we stopped at a series of plunge pools. The location was another postcard-perfect scene. Our guide encouraged us to pause for a swim. In the afternoon heat we needed little coercing. We spent 45 minutes enjoying the cool, fresh waters. As I remarked to Garry later, this was probably the first river I’d ever swam in where I’d moment earlier taken photos of swimming crocodiles. Our guide assured us these were freshwater crocodiles; timid creatures that prefer to keep well away from humans.

However, two young children in the tour group soon discovered a brown snake gliding through rocks on the edge of our swimming hole. Our guide identified it as a freshwater-loving Rough-scaled Snake. He confirmed that it was poisonous and that we best keep our distance. I can now boldly calm to have swum in a river filled with crocodiles and poisonous snakes. Not a feat I plan to repeat any time soon.

Tuesday, August 11

A mid-winter swim

After relaxing much of yesterday at Yellow Waters, today was officially designated as a heavy driving day. We left Cooinda shortly before 10am. Ahead lay more than 260kms of remote highway as we made our way south to the township of Katherine. I’ve always dreamed of seeing nearby Katherine Gorge, possibly one of the Top End’s most iconic beauty spots. We plan to spend two days based in Katherine before heading north to Litchfield National Park, then back into Darwin.

We broke up today’s journey with a short (by North Territory standards) 40km detour to Leilyn, also known as Edith Falls. This picturesque water hole sits on the western fringe of Nitmiluk National Park. The same park is home Katherine Gorge on its southern flank. Our journey was broken twice by an enormous freight train making its way south. As we waited for it to pass by our level crossing, Garry counted no fewer than 95 wagons of all shapes and sizes. Some were even loaded with a double stake of 40-foot containers.

We reached Leilyn shortly after 1pm, just in time for a leisurely lunch as the heat of the day hit its mid-30⁰C peak. It proved to be the perfect panacea for the heat. Leilyn sits on the banks of the Edith River, whose cool waters have cascaded down from the Arnhem Plateau towards the Katherine River. This section of the river contains no fewer than five idyllic plunge pools, each carved over several millennia by a trio of postcard-perfect waterfalls.

It took little prompting to swap our driving rags for swimmers and trek up to the most scenic stretch of water, known simply as the upper pool. As we crested the hill we were greeted by the most divine sight of a white, plunging waterfall and a series of shimmering rock pools. Only three other people were in view as we reached the water’s edge and carefully eased ourselves in. The icy waters were heavenly. The 1.5 km trek back to the van took past more plunge pools and waterfalls, as well as a spectacular view of the entire falls zone at Bemang Lookout. All too soon it was time to go, as we were keen to reach Katherine before sunset.

Tonight we’re camping on the banks of the Katherine River under the shade of scented gum trees. Naturally we felt duty bound to enjoy a quick dip in the local hot springs (well, warm springs actually), located just 400 metres from our campsite. The springs are free to enter, having been discretely landscaped into channels adjoining the river bank. The result is a semi-natural, tree-shaded swimming hole, supplemented by modern access stairs and facilities. I’ve already promised myself a pre-breakfast dip tomorrow morning. Two refreshing swims in one day! I’ll do winter in the Top End any time.

Kakadu Escarpment

Arnhem Land is dominated by an enormous sandstone plateau that stretches for more than 200kms south and 100kms east. The edge of this old and weathered land is marked by a sheer rock face that rises dramatically from the lowlands and floodplains below. In place the escarpment towers almost 400 metres, and extends for almost 350 kms - a huge natural barrier between the interior and the coast.

From the moment Garry first mentioned the Kakadu Escarpment, I knew I had to see it for myself. However, there are only two ways most tourists can view it; a two-hour four-wheel drive along a 60km bone-jarring dirt track or by air. I chose the latter route. We weren’t disappointed.

A quartet of us ventured out to the Cooinda airstrip to catch our eight-seat, single engine aircraft. The airstrip was a classic outback location. It was little more than a dirt track, extending for a kilometre, surrounded by bush. The local terminal was a simple corrugated, lean-too shelter, open the hot, sunny weather. Crocodile Dundee would have been proud. (We later saw the actual bush strip made famous in the movie from the air).

What followed was a magic hour-long flight over Kakadu. We flew over Yellow Waters, where the cruise boats could be seen in action, across the wetlands and dry bush towards the edge of the Kakadu Escarpment. The view that then unfolded was breath-taking. The sheer wall of jagged red rock didn’t fail to impress and neither did the ravine-filled tableland behind it. Garry and I took photo after photo. It was hard not to.

Other highlights of our flight included the Ranger Mine. Commissioned in 1981, this orderly scar on the landscape, supplies 16% of the world’s uranium. Its lease was recently extended and is expected to remain in production for at least another decade. From the air the site looked remarkably well managed and not the ugly, chaotic blight on the landscape that I expected. Royalties from the mine are used to maintain and improve many of the facilities that Garry and I had been enjoying in Kakadu, including the lonely 200km Arnhem Highway we’d driven along days earlier. As our pilot pointed out, the typical sealed highway costs about A$1million a kilometre to construct.

Crocodiles were also a highlight. Naturally, we were prepared to see the Gagadju Holiday Inn in Jabiru which is shaped like a giant, green crocodile – a layout that’s only evident from the air. However, I was stunned by the sight of numerous crocodiles swimming along the mud-brown South Alligator River.

One in particular caught my eye. Even from 600 feet up, it was easy to spot. Its body was easily five metres in length, leaving a long, swirling wake as it made its way up river. The river itself was barely 15-20 metres wide at this point so the scale of this animal simply left me in awe. This beast was big! I’ll need no further reminder to never to go swimming in the Top End.