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So when James got his days off, we headed to the east and Kakadu.  Now this is one serious trip.  All the literature tells you to make sure that you keep your vehicle fuelled all the time – I wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed or not.

We headed out about 8 am and made a stop first at Parap Fine Foods to take a gander and get a few nice things to take with us.  One of the problems James has is that working sometimes every day, he doesn’t get much of an opportunity to scour the local food providores.  I can tell you (as most of you would know) that I was happy to oblige!  Local Buffalo Mozzarella, Spanish Manchego and some French Camembert were joined with Cinnamon Dried Figs, Chilli crusted turkey breast and some Pastrami along with a lovely Pumpkin Bread and Coriander Salsa.  Yu-um.

Next stop was at the local TNT office to collect some Gellan Gum that James had ordered.  Those who watch Heston’s work or even Masterchef may have heard of it.  Then finally we were able to hit the open road.  Open road – now that is an apt description!  As we head away from Darwin and through Humpty Doo (yes, that really is the name of the town) we pass huge mango plantations.  The first fruits are just now ripening and being picked – most propbably to be sent to the southern markets and all those slobering consumers who want all fruits all year round!

Kakadu National Park is enormous, covering 20,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory to the east of Darwin.  We had booked accommodation at Jabiru – part of the eastern most section of the park.  It is a 3+ hour drive from Darwin – without stops.  But of course, stop we did . . .

Our first stop is at the Window on the Wetlands Centre near to the Adelaide River.  This is the first opportunity we have to get high and above the floodplain to gain some sort of an understanding of the relationship between this land and the water that is its lifeblood.  Dave, the indigenous guide is a wealth of knowledge and helpful and friendly to boot.  He fills in missing information when we have a question, offers hints and tips and makes a booking for a cruise that we want to get to. The displays are excellent and explain the former and current uses of the floodplain that in the past have carried experimental crops of sugar cane and rice.  There is a lone water buffalo in a purpose built pen – they monitor the numbers wandering across the lush grasslands so that a careful balance is maintained.

From here it was just a short drive to the Adelaide River where we stopped to join a cruise on the lookout for CROCODILES.  And yes, we found plenty.  We were lucky enough to see all three of the large dominant males in the area – Stumpy, Bogart and Rambo, along with a whole lot of their female girlfriends – about 30!  Some were taking the warm air on the banks, but many were in the water.  And they are deceptive staying deep below you until they reach you – and then then just appear.  When they go under the water, they reappear seconds later quite a distance away – man they can move fast in the water!  The cruise we were on feed the crocs so that you can get an appreciation of how they can jump and what a real threat they might be.

Me, I’m happy to sit near the centre of the boat.  We had  joked with the captain when he asked during the safety briefing where our nearest exits were and we pointed out over the side of the boat.  His suggestion was to don life vests and wait until he had rammed the front of the boat on the nearest bank.  Not sure that even that is safe given the number of crocs we saw on the banks!

Duly educated, after a 1.5 hour feeding cruise we landed safely back at the jetty and began the now 2 hour long drive deepinto the wilderness.  The landscape doesn’t change much as you drive east – lots of rivers, creeks, channels and tributaries – all with the obligatory danger – crocodile signsa in about twelve languages.  The plants are presominantly pandanus, kapok and acacia.  Again, the soil is not all that rich and the grass cover is patchy.  At the moment, much of the land is burnt following back-burning operations either by the local Aboriginal tribes, of the Parks rangers.  I can’t say that I have ever noticed before just how totally the Australian gum trees burn.  And they must burn hot.  There are the powdered skeletal remains of trees, pure white and outlinging the shapre of the fallen tree perfectly lying on the blackened earth on to which it fell.  Quite eerie to look at!

And eastwards we continue.  Michael and James snooze on and off and when he is awake, Michael, sitting in the back continues to read Edward Rutherfurds’s novel New York – he is ploughing through it!  Its not too long before we enter into the Park proper.  Michael and I have had to purchase a $25 per person pass and I had assumed that there would be someone at the entry to check it.  Nope – guess they are just hoping that most people are honest!

We arrive at Jabiru just before 5 pm, take a quick whirl through town and then head over to our accommodation for the night Kakadu Lodge.  Jabiru is a small settlement with just over 1100 residents counted at the 2006 census.  In the Dry Season however, the population swells, primarily with the grey nomads – retired people traversing Australia in their caravans.  The Park is large and much of it laid out in concentric circles – yes, Canberra’s influence can be felt even right up here!  Our cabin is compact, but large enough for a night.  There is a double bed in the bedroom and a pull out sofa bed in the lounge ready made for James.  AND the air-conditioning is on – bliss.

Unpacked, we head over to the pool area and the bistro for dinner – we are famished and could eat a camel!  Turns out while that is not on the menu, Michael chooses Kangaroo and James Duck while I opt for a gourmet chicken burger.  The meals are surprisingly very good and decent sized portions. Michael, ordering the meals meets a Scottish lass who promptly tells him that Neil and Carol at the Bowmore Hotel on Islay are selling up – OMG what a small world it is!  It certainly doesn’t feel like two years since we were there.

So we return to our beds pretty weary after a long day on the road and just a little in awe at this big land up here!  Its not long before I hit the sack while the boys sit up and watch telly!

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Hi folks, long time no see.  The year has been a busy one and although I have often thought about posting, I just haven’t found the time to do so – not sure what that says!  Anyway, we are coming to the end of a ten day break in the Top End with son James, and now, I AM finding the time!

We flew up from Brisbane Friday a week ago on the midday flight and seeing first hand the diversity that this amazing country offers.  From the parched dry outback that stretches as far as the eye can see, with dry creek beds and cattle tracks criss-crossing the landscape, to the lush, clear waters where the ocean creeps in to the land in the floodplains of the Gulf of Carpentaria.  Apologies for the muted colours – looking through a plane window does not give the best colour!

Once we got closer to Darwin, over the Northern Territory, lots and lots of fires were evident.  Guess they use this time of the year to back burn as much as they can!

And then we were here, with James gleefully greeting us.  Don’t tell anyone, but I think that he was really pleased to see us!  He has lost quite a bit of weight since his health scare earlier in the year and looks much  better for it.  Once outside of the air-conditioned airport, we were hit with the full brunt of the northern winter – gosh, give me one of our summers any day!

James does not have the whole ten days off – in fact, he works all week until the Friday of the last weekend.  But his work at The Coffee Club, Darwin Waterfront is literally a hop, kip and jump across the forecourt in front of the apaprtment he shares with the lovely Gina.  Very handy – especially I guess, when it is pouring down here as it does for about 5 months a year!

So each morning we head over for breakfast and try most of the choices on the menu.  A lot of the week is spent very lazily and I am averaging a book a day!  I haven’t read that much since last Christmas.  Michael took a walk one day and came back with a copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s latest offering New York and has his head buried deep in this big book.  He is half-way through and for those who know Michael’s reading predelictions, that is some feat!!!

We planned to hire a car, but on doing the sums have decided to wait until later in the week and so, joined a tour company for a day in Katherine early in the week.  An early morning pickup just after 6 am is a rude shock to the system, but as the coach is air-conditioned, it is not too bad to bear.  Turns out there are only 12 of us travellng today – bit different to two days earlier when the coach was loaded to the hilt with 46 passengers!  Must say, I prefer this number.

The trip to Katherine is about 3 hours by road, but our trip is broken into stages with a breakfast stop at Adelaide River and a quick stop at the War Cemetery followed by another short stop at Edith Falls.  We could have taken a dip, but as our stop was a mere 20 minutes, only one fo the group did.  It is a beatiful spot though and you can easily see why it is popular with locals and tourists alike.

One thing that is amazing me as we travel through this small part of the Top End is the ruggedness of the landscape – not sure what I expected, but I got as much of a surprise as I did when we travelled through Broken Hill many years ago.

Yes, the land is wide and open for much of the time, characterised by open savannah forest and healthy clumps of pandannus.  We travel up slight rises from time to time and then we are in very rocky country where there hardly seems enough soil to hold the miserly trees that grow here.  George our driver tells us that we are in fact travelling across the top of a broad escarpment that has been weathered and carved by wind and water since time immortal.  Ah, that explains how you get waterfalls and rock pools (yes, I know I should have been able to work that one out with my love of geograpy – BUT WE ARE ON HOLIDAYS and the thinking is at a mimimum!)

Before long, we arrive at Katherine, the third largest town in the Northern Territory.  We dont stop in town, but head straight out to the Gorge within the Nitmiluk National Park where we are booked on a lunch cruise.  This is where we pick up our local guide Chris.  A member of the tribal clan whose land we are visiting, he could not be a better ambassador for his people, his country or his employer is he tried harder.

He was charming – laid back, a little bit cheeky with the odd joke, knowledgeable and respectful – everything we could have asked for.  Young and genuine, he makes a great tour guide and is very well suited to the job!  Katherine Gorge is amazing for those who have not been fortunate enough to visit it.  At this time of the year the walls of the Gorge tower over us, affording themuch sought after shade from time to time.  You can clearly see the effects of the laying down of the sandstone layers and the weathering that has attacked them since that time.  Truly amazing and beautiful and with fewer than normal of us, at one point we drift quietly and can hear the ghosts of the millenia past whisper their knowledge to us from deep with the chasms and caves amoungst the cliffs.

There is plenty of people using the Gorge – canoeing and even swimming – even with the possible threat of crocodiles!

All too soon, the day at the Gorge is drawing to a close and we head back on to the Coach for the trip back to Darwin.  A 30 min stop in Adelaide River for a Barra and Chips dinner at the Pub that could not possibly be adequately described.  All that was missing was the newspaper wrapping!  Man, I could live on this Barramundi up here – don’t care whether it is fresh or salt-water – it all tastes amazing.  And then we dozed or chatted with each other all the way back.

Yep, an amazing day that continues to affirm why the land we live is is so great!

I’ll share more of our week tomorrow!

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Australia is a big country.  A very big country.  And to best appreciate it, take a long road trip across a very good portion of it.  The trip from our home in Maryborough, Queensland to visit Antony and Amanda and the kids in Kapooka just outside Wagga Wagga in New South Wales is one such trip.  Each way it is 1415 kms, making a round trip of 2,830 kms (plus local trips while we were there) and a very tiring weekend!  This trip would equate to driving across Spain, or German or France or down the length of Italy in a day and for much else of Europe, across numerous borders.

And in doing such a trip, my minds harkens back to that quintessential Australian poem, ‘My Country‘ by Dorothea Mackellar with its chorus stanza:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

For much of out trip, we passed through scenery that is reminiscent of all her words.  We departed Maryborough in the dying light of a Thursday afternoon and drove through to Goondiwindi on the Queensland / New South Wales border, arriving after 10:30 pm.  Then the next morning we headed off in patches of fog that seemed to dominate any low point of the land or near watercourses.  Now, there is a special feel to the early morning light behind a fog, where trees and landforms are seen as a blurry rendition of themselves.  Finally the fog that was in places as thick as a lake suspended just above the ground, melts away like wisps of smoke.

It wasn’t too long though before the day heated up and as we continued to head south, the day brightened so that you saw the landscape in the true rather hard colours of the Australian bush, where the greens are grayer or more yellow that what you see in Europe.  The earth is a dark brown with sections of very fertile redder soil on the flood plains of the big river systems we are passing.  This land was looking much greener than it has been for many years after good rains saw flood waters pass down through here earlier in the year, but it is still disappointing to see so many of the rivers either totally dry or just pools of water rather than flowing.  Guess we can lay much of that blame on the broadacre cotton farms that the northwest is known for – gross water users.  For many of us neither this nor the rice grown much further south are suitable, sustainable crops to be grown in Australia. 

Fields lay fallow in many parts having been ploughed ready for planting as soon as the cold of the winter nights has passed.  In other areas, stubby stalks stood in their rows, having been stripped of the milo or wheat they once supported.

This is the land of the B-double and Road Train trucks.  Out here, you do not ever see a single trailer truck.  The roads are long and straight and at times there are two or three of these vehicles in front of you.  They carry everything out here from sheep and cattle to grains and general goods.  Why stick to one trailer when the truck is capable of pulling 2 or 3?!  Where those trucks have passed, spilling bits of grain from their loads, we come across hundreds, no, make that thousands of Cockatoos and Galahs – all eager to eat their share of the spill, and they hardly seem to care about the traffic that at times passes within a foot or so of where they are wandering.  And we see a lot of cotton heads littering the side of the road, all dusty and dirty now that they have been mixed in with the earth onto which they fall, no longer pristine and white as they are when plucked from the plant.

 And so we push on further south, passing through towns with names that to non-locals seem as foreign as anything we went through in Europe last year.  Places like Boggabilla, Edgeroi, Coonabarabran, Gilgandra and Terramungamine!  We make our lunch stop in Dubbo about 1:30 pm and at the Hogs Breath Cafe eat the best Guiness Pie we have had since leaving England.  Just a quick stop before we push on, just in time to have a half hour at ‘The Dish’ before it closes to the public for the day in the late afternoon.

If you are an Australian born before 1980, you will know what I mean by ‘The Dish’.  But for all the rest of you, let me explain.  ‘The Dish’ was the name made famous by the movie of the same name for the CSIRO Radio Telescope near Parkes.  And what made it so famous?  Well, it was this telescope that worked in conjunction with the US Goldstone facility and Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra to follow the Apollo 11 mission and the historic first walk by man on the moon.  While this made for a great film, the work of the telescope at Parkes is, in reality, quite different from the way it was depicted.  Read about it here.

From here we push on into the waning light and towards Wagga Wagga.  We arrived well after dark, after 9pm, tired and happy to have arrived.  Two very quick days with our little family, sharing time with our precious little grandkids and then on Monday we got back into the car, this time heading north for home – and all in one day.

We left about 6:40 am in very heavy fog and light rain.  Traffic was surprisingly heavy heading towards the Kapooka Army Base, but as we moved through town, it fell away and we had a good start to the day.

Back along the same route, although instead of taking a back, back road through Mendoran we chose to go through Gilgandra thinking that the highway would be faster with light traffic.  Wrong, of course.  There was stretch after stretch of major roadworks so that the traffic as light as it was  constantly bunched up.  We estimate that we lost about an hour on this stretch.  Next time dear Kate, I promise to follow your route – without question!

Past Gilgandra where the land flattens out into the wide plains, the horizon is filled with the wondrous shapes of the Warrambungle Ranges reminiscent for us of the Monserrat Ranges in Spain.  This is the remains of an old extinct volcano and they are fabulous, rising straight from the plain floor.  All too soon they are a decreasing dot in the horizon and soon we are on the wide open Moree Plains. 

This is big open country and again my mind wanders to Dorothea’s poem.  The sky is big and wan, washed out – as though it has given everything to scorching the earth beneath it.  There is a light breeze now and yellow grasses and roadside weeds wave lazily as we pass by.  This is the country I love to show visitors, this is the ‘real’ Australia imagined by so many.

North from Moree we drive and in the now late afternoon we are treated to a feast with the sun slipping slowly over the horizon and as we are travelling north, we enjoy the setting scene for a little longer.

All too soon it is fully dark and where we were so recently travelling under the big endless skies by day, bu night there is a whole other view.  Far away from the light pollution of large cities, the night sky is amazing.  Set into the inky blackness that envelopes you, there are millions of dazzling lights in the star constellations of the southern hemisphere.  You will never see such an array even here in Maryborough and while we travelled in the US last year, we bemoaned the fact that in New York you cannot see a single star for all the light.  Venus has risen brightly and sets the example for all those lights that follow her lead into the night sky.  It is a wondrous sight (but the camera is not good enough to capture it without stopping and re-setting it and use a tripod).

We push on, getting more and more tired.  Back into familiar country from Kingaroy, I can almost set the car on autopilot.  And at the end of a very long trip on a very long day, we pull into the driveway at home at 11:40 pm, almost 1,500 kilometres later!

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