Going Bush

Our first impressions of Australia were not what we expected. Tommy already wrote about their strict customs inspections upon arrival. We were also shocked at the number of rules and fines posted all over the airport. Our impression of the Australians we had met around the world was that they were cool, laid-back people; arriving at the Darwin airport, however, we felt like we had never seen a country so uptight.

Or expensive. We rented a Subaru Forrester for our excursion into Kakadu National Park, and with all the fees tacked on at the airport, it ended up being a bit more pricey than we expected. We arrived at our hostel late at night, and when we woke up we thought we would get some breakfast, but choked a bit when we saw the prices. Pancakes for $8? Eggs for $7? Coffee for $4? We were suddenly homesick for Asia. Grocery shopping proved to be no cheaper; in fact, we started to wonder if we had the exchange rate wrong. Unfortunately, we didn’t. Although when we left in January, the rate was 1 Australian dollar to about 85 US cents, now it is pretty much 1 to 1. We found the prices in Darwin more comprable to those in London than anywhere else. It was an unfortunate blow to our wallets.

Still, we were excited to have an SUV full of supplies and hit the road to Kakadu. No amount of expensive groceries could keep away the charm of being in Australia. We drove along to “Down Under” by Men at Work and admired the fun signs we passed (our favorite near Darwin marked the area of Humptydoo). We eventually stopped passing buildings and the landscape became drier and more like the stereotypical outback. I was especially excited to be in Australia because it had long been one of my dream birding destinations. Due to its isolation, Australia has an extremely unique flora and fauna, and so nearly everything on the continent was new to me. When I spotted a big white bird in a tree on the side of the road, I screamed to Tommy to stop and back up, and got my first sighting of a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. They would end up being quite common in the park, but I was still ridiculously excited.

Darwin is surrounded by National Parks, and Kakadu is probably the largest and most famous. It’s mostly dry, scrubby forest, but it is bordered by a steep escarpment, on which the Aboriginees have made beautiful rock art. But there are also rivers, wetlands, waterfalls, and even rainforest. It took us about four hours to get out to the park, and it was getting on to late afternoon when we pulled over at our first stop, the Mamukala wetlands. It was an unexpected treat for our first day on the continent. Not only did we spot wallabies, but we kept seeing bird after bird as we walked the circuit trail. I was frantically trying to look them all up. It was a wonderful introduction to the park.

Since the sun was setting when we left, we drove to the nearest campsite and parked our car. We didn’t have any camping equipment with us. While it would have come in handy at several times on this trip, for the most part it would have been an unnecassary hindrance, so we don’t regret leaving it out. We managed to make three days’ worth of meals without needing a stove. That night we enjoyed bread and cheese and our first bottle of Australian wine. However, sleeping in the car wasn’t as comfortable as we expected. At some single, unspecified hour, the air thickened with mosquitos. I mean multiple species of big, scary, blood-sucking bugs. We rushed into the car and resolved not to leave it if possible. It was pretty cool at night in the park, but we couldn’t roll down the windows, lest we be devoured, and it got pretty warm in the car. We decided we would need to figure out something else for the following night.

When we woke up, we went for a morning walk around the Burdulba billabong and broke into the 800 gram box of Milo cereal we had purchased for breakfast. America has yet to catch on to the advantages of heat-treated, long shelf life milk, but it’s pretty popular throughout the rest of the world, and allowed us to eat milk and cereal every morning without refrigeration. After breakfast we headed to Jabiru, the town at the center of the park. We stopped at the visitor’s center to get some maps and information, and ducked into the supermarket to purchase some mosquito netting. Then we drove south to Nourlangie, one of the Aboriginal rock art sights.

The Aboriginees have been inhabiting the lands of Kakadu for tens of thousands of years, and of course when the first white settlers came to Australia, their way of life was severely disrupted. Now Australia is doing some things to try and make amends, including putting the Aboriginees back in charge of land management in Kakadu. They refer to them as “traditional landowners.”

After a short hike, we reached the rock art at Nourlangie. Much of the art at this site is relatively modern, and some of the artists are known. In addition to traditional themes, there are depictions of Europeans and ships. Hands are a recurring theme, and some of the ones shown at Nourlangie are wearing European-style gloves.

From Nourlangie we drove north for some time, to the Manngarre rainforest walk. This patch of monsoon rainforest provided a great spot for more birding and an afternoon walk. We even saw a crocodile sunning itself on the side of the river nearby. We ate a dinner of tuna and veggies and watched the sun set over the river valley from the Ubirr lookout. Since the only campsite in the northern part of the park was a pay site with showers and running water, we instead slept in the rainforest walk parking lot. We had bought a small mosquito net actually made to cover a hat, and cut it up into a square so that we could roll down one window and tape the netting over it. It worked fairly well, although we ran out of duct tape so it wasn’t well secured, and we found a few stray mosquitos in the morning.

We went for another brief rainforest walk, during which we spotted Flying Foxes hanging in the trees. We went back to Ubirr to see the view during the daytime and to look at the rock art on some of the cliff faces. Some of this art was much older. One outcropping of rock in particular has protected the paintings made below it in all their detail and vivid color, and it was a spectacular sight.

We drove south next, and took a dirt road to Jim Jim Falls. After several kilometers, the road becomes limited to 4WD vehicles, one of the reasons we opted for the Forrester. Still, it’s a smaller SUV than the many Toyota Land Cruisers we were seeing, and when we came to an area where the road was flooded with fairly deep water, we balked and weren’t sure if we should risk the rental car. We watched several big SUVs with their exhaust pipes extended to their rooves make it across without problem, but it wasn’t until one brave little Kia fearlessly drove right through that we decided to risk it. Although one big bump at the end sent red muddy water splashing onto our windshield, we made it through without a hitch. It was worth it, too. After a hike down a river gorge filled with lovely forest, we came to Jim Jim falls, a tall dual stream of water falling into a lovely grotto of blue-green water. People were swimming and picnicing all around. The water was quite cold, but Tommy took a brief dip.

That night, we drove further south to our chosen campsite. We had stopped in Jabiru for gas and to purchase more duct tape, and rigged up a beautiful setting with two windows netted over. We slept very comfortably and mosquito-free. We did a morning hike and then drove south out of the park to try and get gas, but the only station was out. Luckily we had enough to do our planned excursion to Gunlom falls and make it back to a gas station in the park. Gunlom wasn’t as nice as Jim Jim, but the campsite nearby had showers, so we both cleaned off before moving on. We visited the Aboriginal cultural center, which was very interesting. The most striking thing was that it is part of Aboriginal culture that the name of a person who has died should not be spoken or written for some years after their death. Images also should not be displayed. So many of the names and photos on the displays were covered, with an explanation of this custom on top.

After getting gas and one more stop at the Mamukala wetlands, we headed out of the park. It had been a really nice few days. Renting a car is always one of our favorite ways to travel, because of the independence it gives us. We enjoyed seeing the lovely sights in the park. I saw some really spectacular birds, including four species of cockatoo.

After three days of canned fish and crackers (and lots of Milo cereal), we had been looking forward to a real meal. We found a street in Darwin positively lined with restaurants, but we couldn’t afford a single one. Finally we found one with entrees in the $12-15 range instead of $18-25: the Hog’s Breath Cafe. It was clearly a chain, but it wasn’t until we were already seated and looking carefully at the menu that we realized what it really was: an “American” restaurant the way Outback Steakhouse is an “Australian” restaurant. They had burgers, tex-mex, a few “Cajun” dishes, and even a Mississippi Mud Pie for dessert. The walls were lined with baseball memorabilia, NASA photos, and American license plates. It had been a long time since we had been in a restaurant like this. In Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the restaurants we would eat at were usually small, family-owned places where you were immediately seated, your order was taken as soon as you were ready, the food came out surprisingly fast, and was usually cheap and absolutely delicious. Here we waited in a line to even be seated, and then were left staring at our picture-filled menus for a good twenty minutes or half hour. When our overly-excited waiter did come to introduce himself, give a prepared speech about the menu, and say he would be “taking care” of us tonight, along with an assistant of some sort who was in training, the generic nature of the whole thing completely turned us off. We forgot what it was like to eat at these places. We never did see our waiter again, although we did wait a good forty-five minutes for our mediocre burgers. It was all show and not much substance, whereas in the rest of the world we had been struck by the lack of ambiance but real quality of food and service we encountered. It’s one thing we’ll miss when we get home.

We drove to the airport and slept in the rental return parking lot until 4 am, when we stumbled inside to catch our flight to Cairns.

Photos from Singapore

Photos from Kakadu

5 Responses to “Going Bush”

  1. american restaurants usually serve foods that are high in protein and also in saturated fats *

  2. most american restaurants serves fatty foods that is why sometimes i avoid them ,;”

  3. herbata says:

    Thank You for sharing this! It’s a pity that it’s short:)

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  5. Martin says:

    Spent a few hours walking in the gorge myslef in January 08, loved it and it s certainly different from the Blue Mountains, but just as spectacular, I would definately recomend it even though the wild life is well hidden.

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