"Arctracer" Letters

Touring in Northern Territory, Australia, Aug 2005

We've just returned from a great 4-day camping trip here in the Northern Territory (NT) in a rental car that we were not allowed to take off the paved roads onto 4WD tracks. We left Darwin on Monday with our friends Robbin and Warren. They are travellers and artists, specializing in coconut spoons and jewelry. They have been cruising for over twenty years, and we met them in Darwin on their sailboat "Cuchara." They regaled us with cruising stories and were stalwart campers, passengers, hikers and birdwatchers.

The first day we bought breakfast food for the trip and sandwich makings for lunch before heading south where grocery stores and water are few and far between. We visited some magnetic termite mounds and the twin falls of Florence Falls at Litchfield National Park. We were there in the middle of the day with a temperature of 30C+ degrees (86F+) so we only took short walks to see the two places. The magnetic mounds are often 6' tall and always long and thin in cross-section, with the long axis aligned north-south. This helps to warm the inside quickly in the morning sun, which must be helpful. These termites build on relatively moist areas, so this configuration may help them deal with "the Wet" here in the NT. Parts of the mound are underwater during the months of December through April. We saw many other termite mounds of different shapes and sizes varying from a few inches to about 12' tall throughout our drive. They were all built to deal with the sun and designed to use breezes for air conditioning.

A few hours before arriving at our campsite we stopped at Ah Toy's general store, the only one for many miles. There wasn't much inside, and the prices were almost double those in Darwin (which are higher than anywhere we've shopped at in Australia). We didn't purchase a thing. Luckily we had enough lunch food left for dinner!! Needless to say, Ah Toy's was mentioned a few times later in the trip when we were thinking about food. We camped at Edith Falls in Aboriginal-owned Nitmiluk National Park. We had a chance to take some photos of the falls there and it was a good swimming hole with no crocodiles. Since we wanted to do a walk on some trails around the campsite we didn't take the opportunity to swim. There were showers available here and drinking water. On the walk we saw several birds including the crimson finch, some red-winged parrots, a kite, some galahs and cockatoos. That night the temperature dropped significantly, and we all were bothered by the hard ground and the chilly air.

Every day we were done eating muesli and were drinking coffee in the car, on our way, about 8 am. The second day we went to Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park to look at the displays at the Visitor's Center and to take a 2-hour cruise in 2 of the 13 gorges on the Katherine River. After buying the last tickets for the 11 am cruise and while waiting to board the boat we saw a blue-faced honeyeater and a kookaburra. The rock formations of the gorge are beautiful and we imagine you can see some of them on the Internet. Our boat captain was also our guide. He pointed out freshwater crocodile tracks on sand banks where females had just laid eggs, and explained a little about the rock art. We were fortunate to take the boat tour before the water got any lower in the gorge as Captain Taffy had difficulty in a few places and hit a few rocks. He told us that the water level in the gorge was 21 meters (over 68') higher in 1998 during the wet season flood, and the current then ran at 40 knots!

(view Katherine Gorge photos)

After the tour we stopped in the town of Katherine where Robbin found a real Aussie hat complete with net to keep the flies off her face. We sure did encounter numerous flies during our walks and at the campgrounds before dark! They were a real nuisance. Warren bought a thicker pad to sleep on after being very uncomfortable the first night and we found a real grocery store where we bought a cooked "chook" (Australian for "chicken") and some coleslaw for dinner. That night we put our tents up in very fine dirt over rocks at the free Gungural bush camp. There was a "long drop" (no flush toilets) and there was no water but we knew in advance to bring our own into Kakadu National Park. We took an evening walk down to the Alligator River where we saw lots of bamboo and some large holes dug in the sand probably by crocodiles - a little spooky. Then we hiked up the steep hill to a lookout where we had a 360 degree view and saw a beautifully colored rainbow bee-eater, some large swallows and a colorful little mistletoebird.

Wednesday was spent in Kakadu National Park. Underway in the morning we saw the large red-tailed black cockatoos - both the female (yellow on tails) and male (red on tails). We also got a photo of a wallaby as we approached the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Center. We viewed some nice exhibits and saw lovely baskets made by local aborigines using natural dyes. Since most of them were well over $100 we didn't take any out of the shop.

We drove to Nourlangie Rock with its Aboriginal Rock art which included "the Lightning Man" - important because of all the storms in the area during the wet season. We had lunch at a billabong (water hole) where we saw many magpie geese, little corellas, pelicans, plumed whistling ducks, ibis, herons, and cormorants. During "The Dry" when the waterholes are shrinking many birds and animals gather around what little water is left, so it is easy to see lots of wildlife in a small area. From here we visited the Bowali Visitor Center and saw a video of the difference between what we were seeing and what it is like in "The Wet."

On the way to the village of Jabiru we speculated about what form of grocery store we would find. We did find one with decent food for lunch and dinner that day, but it wasn't nearly as large as the store in Katherine. On the drive to the highly advertised Ubirr Rock Art Site we saw smoke from numerous bush fires. They seem to burn almost continuously during the dry season. We also saw flowering kapok trees, much smaller than those we saw in the West Indies. There were always many hawks in the air. We could sometimes identify the whistling kites but it was difficult to identify which of the 26 similar species we were seeing since many of them have slight variations of brownish colors.

The rock art at Ubirr was amazing. We saw more sites in that area than we'd encountered anywhere in our Australian travels. We also enjoyed the 360 degree views of the wetlands/floodplains from the top of the huge sandstone rocks. Just before dusk we drove to the Mamukala Wetlands observation platform where we were hoping to see two huge birds common in the area - the jabiru (black-necked stork) and the brolga (a crane). We didn't see these, but we saw hundreds of birds including the jacana that walks on lilypads. Everyone voted to stay at a campground with a shower this night so we camped at the Aurora Kakadu Campground for $10 each. Although there were no picnic tables, the showers were worth the price.

In the morning we watched hawks and crows, and Jerry was lucky to get a good photo of a mother wallaby with joey in her pouch. Our last day was spent driving to wetland areas to look for birds. First we drove back to Mamukala Wetlands and did a 3 km walk. We couldn't believe how many birds we saw, thousands of them - many up close and many more way out in the swampy areas. Although we didn't see any new-to-us we enjoyed seeing the enormous numbers of birds. We also saw 5 wallabies near the water in various places. At the South Alligator River we saw a large flock of Little Corellas, including some feeding their rather-large young. Later in the day we watched another huge flock of corellas - playing in trees, swinging on the ends of long thin branches (sometimes bottomside up), laying on their backs in the grass, and rolling on the ground in pairs. Their antics were fascinating to watch. Robbin and Warren were especially interested as their pet galah is closely related to these corellas.

Just before we arrived at the Kakadu Parks Wetland Lookout, Warren saw our first jabiru. It sure was large - about 2 meters tall! We saw another one a few minutes later, then we saw another one at the Lookout. Also at the lookout they had many interesting interactive displays and several water buffalo around the waterhole. Next stop was the Fogg Dam nature reserve. The dam was built in the 1950s to store water for growing rice, but the enterprise wasn't successful. There was a little water left when we visited in mid-dry season. We took a 3-km walk, then drove quite a distance on top of the low dam. We were very lucky to see brolgas flying overhead and feeding in the distance. We saw them also from a lookout tower, but they were too far away to to see the red on their heads. We saw forest kingfishers, an azure kingfisher, the large pheasant coucal which we'd never seen before, green pygmy geese, radjah shelducks, crimson finches, 9 rainbow bee-eaters on one bush waiting to catch their insect dinners, magpie larks, willy wagtails, and an orange-footed scrubfowl.

(view Kakadu National Park photos)

Back in Darwin the wind was blowing from the boats towards the beach. Warren and Robbin took all of our camping equipment way out to "Arctracer" in their powerful dinghy so we didn't have to row. Then we drove the rental car to a big supermarket and started a major restocking of food that we don't anticipate being able to get in Indonesia. We filled both the trunk and back seat of the car, which is probably an overload for a catamaran. It took Jerry two rowing trips to get everything back to the boat. Finally, about 9:30 he was able to relax for a few minutes before going to bed pretty tired. Jerry drove approximately 1400 km (870 miles) in the four days and only turned on the windshield wipers six times when meaning to use turn-signals. He used the 5-speed standard shift with his left hand pretty well, but it was a relief to finally return the car.

Today, Nina washed some of the huge accumulation of laundry by hand and spent several hours storing food while Jerry returned the rental car, picked up our Indonesian visas, got email, ordered charts of Indonesia, picked up the new regulator for the engine (escaping $90 in fees and taxes that the Sydney customs officers wanted to charge us, thanks to a friendly Darwin customs official), and organizing the trip's digital photos.

We're hoping to head north to Indonesia by the middle of next week after a few boat projects, getting charts, more supplies and buying Indonesian rupiahs ($1 US = 8000 rupiahs). We'll be millionaires if we change $500 US into 4 million rupiahs!