DARWIN: CROCODILE COUNTRY

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Tuesday July 7, 2015

I won’t blame you in the slightest if you’ve grown tired of waiting for this final Oz Report. I completely understand if you’ve lost interest altogether and, instead, buried yourself in a good book or plonked yourself down in front of a roaring television set. Because, let’s face it, the last time you heard from me was a week ago, when I left you in Darwin, sitting on the edge of your seat and nervously biting your fingernails, worried sick that we might get eaten by crocodiles.

Well, as it turned out, we didn’t. But thank you for worrying. The truth is, most of our intrepid Kiwi travellers are safely back in Godzone by now. However, our final few days in Australia’s Top End were pretty darn good. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll tell you (belatedly) what happened, and show you a few of our pix. Okay?

Darwin, I have to say, surprised us. This northernmost city of 80,000 fair-dinkum Aussies (plus a further 50-60,000 coming-and-going construction workers and military personnel) is actually very attractive. At least the bits we saw (the Botanic Gardens, East Point Military Precinct, Mooring Basin, Stokes Hill Wharf area, and the back-end of a Chinese Temple) were. Most of us knew little-or-nothing about the deadly bombing raids carried out by the Japanese in WW2 … and only a little bit more about tropical Cyclone Tracy’s flattening of the city on Christmas Eve 1974. But we’ll never forget our Jumping Crocodiles Cruise on the Adelaide River (those prehistoric reptiles really can jump, let me warn you!). And our Sunset Dinner Cruise on the balmy (32 degrees) Darwin Harbour was oh-so-luverly.

Darwin (you may or may not know) is jumping-off point for Kakadu National Park … 20,000 square kilometres of tropical greenery, tranquil waterways, spectacular scenery and brilliant wildlife! And our adventuring over the next couple of days (Nourlangie Rock, the Yellow Water Billabong, the Warradjan Cultural Centre, the East Alligator River, and Kakadu’s stunning Wetlands) brought us face-to-face with ancient Aboriginal mythology and art … Aboriginal spear-throwing, hunting and gathering … huge jaw-crunching man-eating saltwater crocodiles, and their smaller, longer-nosed, fresh-water cousins … plus more squawking/screeching/chortling/splashing birdlife than we could shake a stick at.

Too much of a good thing is wonderful – right? But talking about it can get pretty boring. So I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. (Acknowledgement: about half the photos which have appeared throughout this Ghan Blog, were snapped by my amateur-photographer-wife on her cheaper, not-so-fancy camera, damn it!)

Our Mad Midlife south-to-north romp through the empty Red Centre of Oz is (as I’ve already signalled) over. It’s been a BLAST, this once-in-a-lifetime train-trek, and our respect of and appreciation for Australia has grown in leaps and bounds.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I can’t think of a better way to do it than the way we did it: aboard The Ghan.

IS EVERYBODY HAPPY? YOU BET YOUR LIFE WE ARE!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

A TOWN LIKE ALICE

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Tuesday June 30, 2015

We’re actually in the air as I’m writing this. Our Oz Adventure is all but over, and we’re flying from Darwin to Brisbane aboard a Virgin Australia 737. But the last two chapters of these oh-so-sketchy travel-jottings have yet to be written, and I’m in catch-up mode. So come back with me a few days to the Red Centre …

You may remember reading ‘A Town Like Alice’ – a classic tale of love and war by author Nevil Shute. Published in 1950 (then turned into a film and, much later, a TV mini-series), it follows a young Englishwoman from the Malayan jungle during World War II to the rugged Australian outback.

Well, we spent last Thursday in that same remote town – namely Alice Springs … visiting the Royal Flying Doctor’s base (where we learnt how medical aid reaches those who live in the Red Centre’s remote wop-wops) … the School of the Air (that allows Outback kids to receive their education via radio and, these days, the internet) … the historic Telegraph Station (where we watched devoted Morsecodians tap-tap-tapping away on their ancient devices) … and Simpson’s Gap (for some spectacular rocky landscapes set in the surrounding bushland).

Last but not least, we got dropped off at the railway terminal – where The Ghan was waiting to take us on the final long overnight leg of our amazing train-trek to Darwin, on Australia’s tropical northern coast.

We were old hands now on The Ghan, and, after dining that evening on barramundi, kangaroo steaks and crocodile (no kidding), we slept like babies in our compact, comfortable cabins. Then, following breakfast next morning, we made a four-hour stop in Katherine – gateway to the Nitmiluk National Park and (for us) a small-boat cruise along the truly gorgeous Katherine Gorge with its 25 million year old canyons.

Talk about Nature’s artistic wonders! We’ve been getting an eyeful, I tell ya!

Then we were ushered back on the train, arriving early evening (in the middle of yet another glorious sunset) at Australia’s Top End. Temperature? A balmy 32 degrees! We’d covered a total of 3000 kms on The Ghan (Adelaide to Darwin) … and motored another 1500 kms on our coach, criss-crossing the fascinating Red Centre (Alice, Kings Canyon, Uluru, etc).

But there was more mileage awaiting us …

STILL TO COME: Darwin gazes out across the Timor Sea – and is jumping-off point for Kakadu National Park. This is the Northern Territories’ legendary Wetlands … ancient homeland for the Aboriginal peoples … crocodile-country (wow, is it ever!) … and roosting-place for countless birds. Don’t go away ‘coz it ain’t over yet!

PEOPLE-NEWS: The final ceremonial handing-over of quacky yellow ducks occurred last night at our Midlife Madness Farewell Dinner:

  • Tony won our “Here’s How You Handle A Smorgasbord” Award – for arriving at our table with his soup in one hand, his main-course in the other, and a couple of bread-rolls hidden in his trouser-pockets. Rumour has it there was also a side-salad down there, plus some cheesecake for desert.
  • Bruce & Julie are the joint winners of our “They Can’t Have Gone Far” Award ­– for, well, it was like this: in the coach yesterday we suddenly noticed the Julie was upside-down, bum in the air, head under the seat, searching for something. Rumour has it (although they emphatically deny it) that Bruce had lost his teeth while enjoying an open-mouth nap. Investigations continue …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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THE ROCK … & OTHER ROCKS

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Friday June 26, 2015

Yes, I know. I’m running several days behind with this blog. But I’m not gonna apologise, because you would be running behind, too, if you’d been as busy as I’ve been, exploring and adventuring and enjoying the Great Aussie Outback.

Several days ago our coach-driver, Craig, took us south, and then west, of Kings Canyon in search of the world-famous Uluru (or, as we all used to know it, Ayers Rock). But he wouldn’t let us see The Rock until we’d first seen some other rocks in the nearby Kata Tjuta National Park.

(Footnote: I say ‘nearby’ because it looks nearby on a map – but, in actual fact, nothing out here in the middle of nowhere is really ‘nearby’ – on the contrary, everything is a zillion kilometres apart – well, maybe not a zillion, but an awful long way in a coach  and an even longer long way if you choose to walk – which is what the Aboriginals have been doing for zillions of years – well, okay, not zillions, but you know what I mean …)

Kata Tjuta is the name the Aboriginals gave to a collection of humungous domed rocks that loom up to half a kilometre high above the flat surrounding desert. There are 36 of them in all, and with their rich reds, iridescent oranges and burnt yellows, these rocks are nearly as stunning as The Rock itself (just 30kms away).

The closer we got the more humungous they looked … and the more insignificant we felt. (Honestly, you had to be there …)

We ventured up a gentle rocky slope between two of Kata Tjuta’s towering monoliths, and came away understanding why they rate amongst this country’s most popular natural attractions.

Then, on the coach once again, we drove to what the Outback’s traditional owners regard as the spiritual heart of Australia: that iconic symbol of the Red Centre, source of myth and legend and never-never stories, the timeless World Heritage-listed Uluru.

This giant lump of ancient weathered sandstone

  • rises abruptly from the desert floor (like the previously-mentioned other rocks)
  • has a girth of 9.4 kms (we drove right around it)
  • changes colour constantly throughout the day (we saw it do just that) – from rosy pink to blood red to murky mauve to dark brooding brown
  • is even bigger than it looks, because at least two thirds of it, according to geologists, lies beneath the surface (like some land-trapped glacier)
  • rightfully claims to be the world’s Most Famous Rock.

We ate an outdoor BBQ dinner that night … watched a blazing desert sunset turn Uluru’s looming bulk a glorious orange … and finally, when it all went black, marvelled at a night-sky laden with stars. Then, next morning, we were up before the sparrows (kookaburras?) in the freezing pre-dawn, standing at a lookout on the other side of The Rock as the sun rose on a new day and changed Uluru’s colours all over again.

Later, after downing a boxed breakfast, we got up-close-and-personal with the shadowy monster, as an indigenous guide took us into some of Uluru’s canyons and crevices, shared the secrets of this sacred site at the Mutitjulu Waterhole, and showed us some of his ancestors’ rock drawings.

Finally, before taking the long road back to Alice Springs, we visited the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre and joined an art-class by a local Aboriginal artist (with the chance to create our own artistic mementos).

THE NEXT DAY OR TWO: We visit the Royal Flying Doctors’ base … learn about the School of the Air … practice Morse-code at the Telegraph Station … hike down Simpson’s Gap … and catch The Ghan for the final long leg of our amazing train-trek to Darwin. So stay tuned …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Another couple of quacky yellow ducks have changed hands:

  • Iris received our “You Can Leave Your Hat On” Award – for losing hers over the side of a small boat (up a beautiful gorge that I’ll tell you about later). The boat’s skipper rescued it and returned it to Iris, and they got married and lived happily ever after. (No, they didn’t – just kidding – Iris is already married!)
  • Marilyn received our “Knock Three Times” Award ­– for forgetting the number of her hotel room and trying desperately and for some considerable time to unlock (wait for it …) the hotel’s linen cupboard!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

INTO THE RED CENTRE

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Wedesday June 24, 2015

I’m not a morning person, and I don’t often see the sun rise. But, over the past few days, I’ve seen it happen twice – and both times it’s been spectacular.

On Monday morning, my wife and I and our Mad Midlife friends (plus a couple of hundred other rail-roaders) climbed from our beds at 5:30am, stepped off the train into the pitch darkness of Central Australia, and waited for the sun to rise. We were in the middle of nowhere, it was just 1 degree outside, and we were in danger of freezing our butts off. But the nice folk who run The Ghan had coffee, tea and Milo brewing plus some fires blazing from drums alongside the tracks. So we huddled there trying to keep warm as the endless Eastern horizon slowly turned red, and a big golden ball thrust itself yet again into our world.

We had boarded the legendary Ghan the previous afternoon, unpacking in our compact Gold Service cabins and sitting down to a yummy, classy meal in the dining car, while our 2979 km Great Train Journey from Adelaide (at the bottom of Australia) to Darwin (at the top) got underway. Darkness fell as our hotel-on-wheels clacketty-clacked through South Australia’s Spencer Gulf and Port Augusta – and as we snuggled into our top-and-bottom-bunk beds, this famous luxury train rock’n’rolled its way northward, following the tracks that would take to Alice Springs (think Neville Shute’s ‘A Town Like Alice’) – smack in the middle of Australia’s vast Red Centre.

Next morning, having duly witnessed the sunrise, we ate a take-your-time brekky on the train and watched the lush panoramas of the south give way to the flat, rusty landscapes of the Australian Outback. Scrawny bushes, clumps of spiny grass, and a gazillion acres of red sand flashed past our picture-windows. A few random cows were scattered here and there (some people apparently farm parts of this barren land) but the only kangaroo we saw in 1500 kms was a dead one!

“There’s lots and lots of nothing out here,” we were told by Craig (our driver/guide) when he met us early afternoon upon our arrival in Alice Springs. And, leaving the rail terminal, we drove (for the next four-and-a-half hours) through endless stretches of that nothingness, past the West MacDonnell Ranges and along some of the longest, straightest roads we’ve ever travelled on, to our hotel for the night: Kings Canyon Resort.

Kings Canyon is part of the Watarrka National Park – and, I kid you not, it’s gorgeous! The sheer red sandstone walls that soar above dense forests were formed when small cracks eroded over millions of years – and the canyon, today, is a refuge for more than 600 species of native plants and animals, many unique to the area. We began yesterday today with a discovery-walk along the boulder-strewn canyon floor, peering up at its jaw-dropping vertical cliffs, learning about its flora, fauna and ancient history, and taking way more photos than we needed to.

But that’s what you do when you’re on holiday – right?

LATER YERSTERDAY: Our coach tooks south, and then west, to the Kata Tjuta National Park and the world-famous Uluru (we used to know it as Ayers Rock) for a sunset and our second sunrise. But it’s now past midnight, so that’s gonna have to wait until my next spell-binding report …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Two more keenly contested quacky little Midlife Madness ducks have been claimed:

  • Barbara N won our “Make A Mess Why Don’t You?” Award – for holding the carton upside down while trying to pour milk into her coffee at last night’s barbecue dinner, and pouring the stuff all over her.
  • Bert won our “First Up, Best Dressed!” Award ­– for waking up this morning, getting dressed, packing his suitcase and heading for the hotel lobby to meet our coach … only to discover that it was 1:30am, not 7:30am as he’d thought. Fortunately, Bert had the presence of mind to head back to bed for some more sleep.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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ADELAIDE’S VINE-SMOTHERED VALLEYS

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Saturday June 20, 2015

Sorry. I’ve been a bit remiss. We’ve been so busy romping around beautiful South Australia that I forgot to report back. I forgot to update you. And I suspect I’ve become more forgetful than usual because of all the wine we’ve been sampling. But more on that shortly …

Our five-hour direct flight from Auckland was uneventful enough – and we were greeted by an Adelaide that was cold, cloudy and wet – much like the grotty weather (wouldn’t you know it!) we’d left behind in Godzone.

Our cheerful coach-driver, Rob, told us that Adelaide was known as the City of Churches … which explained why we saw so many of those en route from the airport to the Stamford Plaza Hotel. He also assured us that, unlike most other Aussie cities, Adelaide had not been founded by convicts … which made us feel safe that afternoon as we wandered freely around Adelaide’s elegant downtown. Some of us even headed underground through the Central Railway Station and across the nearby River Torrens for a peep at the city’s famous sports stadium, the Oval.

Next morning, once we’d been fed and watered, Rob drove us up into the Adelaide Hills, stopping first at the Mt Lofty Lookout, for some panoramic views of solid fog. (I kid you not!) We then enjoyed a guided tour of ‘Cedars Gallery’ – the house, rambling cottage-garden, and historic working studio of Australian landscape artist Sir Hans Heysen – following which we checked out the European cafes, arty-farty outlets, galleries and boutiques in the German-settled village of Hahndorf. Our afternoon ended at McLaren Vale with a visit to the Chapel Hill Winery where, because I forgot to spit, I quickly got my rieslings and shirazes muddled up with my sauvignons and pinot noirs.

Ahh (hiccup), what fun!

But wait: our wine-tasting had only just begun …

Adelaidians (if you don’t already know it) have been producing world-class wines for more than 150 years. And the endless, gently-rolling landscapes to the north of this very southern city are carpeted with vineyards (naked and minus their leaves) that stretch to the horizon, plus more classy wineries than you can shake a stick at.

Which is what we’ve been discovering these past two days as (with our second cheerful coach-driver, Neil) we’ve explored, firstly, the famous Barossa Valley, where we dropped-in on the Saltram Wine Estate and sampled some of their fruity blends (followed by a visit to Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop where we came away with bags full of her delectable goodies).

Today we motored along more country roads lined with gorgeous white-barked gum-trees, passing more wall-to-wall vineyards in the equally beautiful Clare Valley, where we stopped at the famous Sevenhill Cellars for still more tasty tasting of fine vinos (followed by a fascinating tour of Burra – a quaint historic village in the middle of what was once a thriving copper-mine).

There’s lots more I could say about Adelaide, but I’ve forgotten most of it and , if you don’t mind, I’d rather go to bed. Suffice to say it’s been a truly lovely Chapter #1 of our Grand Aussie Adventure!

TOMORROW: You’re gonna be soooo envious! Come midday, we’re joining the legendary Ghan for the first leg of our 2979km train journey to Darwin. This, dear friends, is what we’ve been waiting for …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Three of our hotly sought-after Mad Midlife Awards – those ever-popular quacky yellow ducks – have already been claimed:

  • Lorene has taken away the “Revolving Door? I Can Manage a Revolving Door!” Award – by tripping and falling and whacking her head whilst going through the revolving door at the Auckland Airport’s Novotel Hotel. (One group-member down for the count … and we hadn’t even left home!)
  • Rob, our friendly Adelaide coach-driver, walked (staggered) off with our “Heavy? These Bags Aren’t Heavy!” Award ­– after tripping whilst he unloaded our luggage from underneath the coach, and falling into the gutter!
  • Garth takes home our “Hello? Hello? I’m Waterlogged” Award – for dropping his cellphone into the men’s loo yesterday. Garth bravely plucked it from the depths of the bowl, dried it off in the hand-drying machine, and reckons it’s working fine. However, no one else is all that keen to borrow the thing … (I can’t think why, can you?)

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)