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Kakadu National Park and on to Darwin

Kakadu

Kakadu covers an area of almost 20,000 square kilometres. It is nearly all unspoiled bushland and most of it is inaccessible, even to four wheel drive vehicles. The only blot on the landscape is the Ranger Uranium Mine which operates in the middle of the park, serviced by the small town of Jabiru. However, the park is so vast that we would never have known the mine was there, even though we visited Jabiru.

Naturally we'd heard a lot about Kakadu but even so, we were unsure what to expect. The Kakadu Highway runs east from the Stuart Highway and eventually we came to the park entrance. There was no fee to enter. Our destination, Cooinda, was a further 110 kilometres inside the park. We felt a little disappointed by the landscape we drove through. Not that it wasn't beautiful, unspoiled bush, but it wasn't a whole lot different to the bush at home in Western Australia. There are some very picturesque features in the park - rivers, waterfalls, towering rocks, wetlands and billabongs. But they are widely spaced and sometimes only accessible by driving down rough tracks for an hour or two in a four wheel drive vehicle. And even then, only in the dry.

As we drove through the park we came across several burn-offs along the road. This old Aboriginal tradition dates back thousands of years. It is their method of renewing the land when they have exhausted the stocks of food in a particular area. They set fire to the countryside at a time of year when there are no high winds, then move on to pastures new. The vegetation regenerates stronger than ever when the next wet comes, and the animals and birds return and breed, repopulating the area. In modern times this practice has continued, partly to reduce fuel levels so making subsequent unwanted bush fires easier to control.

Kites waiting for prey

Kites settle back onto the road after our passing to await prey driven in front of the fire.

But back to our journey. At one point a fire was raging through dry grass. The light breeze was blowing it towards the road where a flock of kites had alighted, waiting for insects and small animals fleeing before the flames. Others were circling low overhead, hoping to spot prey first and dive upon it. Pretty tough on the poor little animals, they just reach the safety of the road, breathe a sigh of relief . . . and are eaten by a kite. Life can be a real bitch!

Kites are renowned for their use of fire in this way and have even been known to pick up a flaming twig and drop it into fresh fuel to extend the blaze. Pretty damned smart! They were clearly unimpressed by our insistence on driving through their midst, several swooping on us in a very aggressive manner. Kites number in the tens of thousands in the Top End at the start of the dry but six months later they are gone. Where they go to isn't known . . . or wasn't when our copy of The Birds of Australia was published.

On reaching Cooinda we set up camp then took a boat cruise on the Yellow Waters Billabong and up the South Alligator River. The names are interesting; nobody knows where the Yellow part of the billabong name came from, though, as usual, there are theories. The South Alligator River was named by a man who had travelled in America, seen alligators there, and assumed the crocodiles in this river were alligators. He was wrong but the name remained. In fact, there are two other rivers similarly named - the East Alligator River and the West Alligator River.

The boat cruise was wonderful. The wetlands through which we passed teemed with bird and plant life. Oh, and fish and reptiles too. We lost count of the crocodiles we saw and these were NOT the supposedly benign Freshwater Crocs, these were the tourist-eating Saltwater variety.

Crocodile

A Saltwater Crocodile. Wouldn't you love to cuddle him? Or actually, her.

The Aboriginal guide told us that Saltwater Crocodiles, also known as Estuarine Crocodiles, live mostly in fresh water and they are only called Saltwater Crocs because they have a salt gland . . . or something like that. Perhaps I should pay more attention. Personally they can call them whatever they like as long as they stay well away from us. There are notices wherever water is found in the park, warning of the danger from these critters. We didn't need reminding, we were very cautious when we visited another billabong the next day. Pam walked in front, leaving me free to keep a good lookout.

Billabong

Two views of the Mardugal Billabong. Just look at the reflection of the trees and
cumulus clouds in the right hand picture. Magic!

We also visited the Nawurlandja Lookout and saw some spectacular views of towering Nourlangie Rock across the top of a treetop canopy.

Scarp

Two more views, this time from the top of a lookout (strenuous climb) across the treetop canopy. Wonderful country.

Aboriginal Season Chart

We later called at an Aboriginal Cultural Centre and the town of Jabiru. The Cultural Centre was very interesting, far more so than the town.

The more I learn of the real Aborigines (as opposed to the town fringe-dwellers) the less certain I am of my earlier beliefs. Could it perhaps be possible, just possible, that they have had it right all along and we have got it totally wrong?

Think about it - they lived here for 40,000 years (give or take a day or two) without doing any harm to the environment. In fact, they cherished it. We, on the other hand, have been here for a mere 200 years and in that brief time have wiped out countless species, destroyed most of the forests, wrecked vast areas of land, perhaps permanently, by clearing the bush so the salt has risen to the surface and little will now grow. We have introduced animals such as cats, rabbits, foxes, pigs, camels and the cane toad that have run wild, multiplied, and are decimating native flora and fauna. We have polluted the rivers, the atmosphere and the ocean and destroyed the Aborigines way of life to the extent that it's doubtful whether they would be capable of returning to it now even if the clock could be turned back. Not an impressive record, is it?

There are effectively just two seasons in the 'Top End' (as the north of Australia is known), the 'wet' and the 'dry'. The Aborigines, however, divide the year into six seasons as shown in the diagram, each season having its own name. Have a look at the descriptive translation for their Banggerreng season.

When we left Kakadu we took a different road out, the Arnhem Highway, which took us back to the Stuart Highway close to Darwin. The good old Stuart Highway, which had brought us all the way from distant Port Augusta, terminates in the centre of Darwin. We had a couple of interesting stops along the Arnhem Highway, once at a billabong which teemed with bird life and once to see the 'Cathedrals of the North'. Both are included with more pictures of Kakadu on a separate page - click Cathedrals of the North.
Darwin

Lizard and Ibis

On arriving at Darwin we were greeted by a friendly lizard wandering around (left).
There were once again ibises - this time the Sacred Ibis (right).
Each bird looked as if it had a black nylon stocking over its head with a ladder down the back revealing pink skin.

Allow me first, dear Reader, to give you a little general information about Darwin. The capital city of the Northern Territory, Darwin was established in 1869. It was originally called Palmerston but later re-named Darwin after the world famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, the man whose evolutionary theories turned the scientific world upside down and which still give the 'creationist' Jehovah's Witnesses apoplexy.

In 2001 the population of Darwin was 71,347 compared (for example) to Perth's one million so you can see it's a fairly small place. The city of Darwin has survived two traumatic episodes during its relatively short existence; the WW II bombing by the Japanese in February of 1942 and, perhaps even worse, the devastation wrought by Cyclone Tracy during the Christmas of 1974. Much of the tourism effort is focused around these two events.

The daily temperature range in Darwin is very predictable. The maximum temperature, almost every day of the year, will be between 29º C and 33º C though it often feels hotter because of the high humidity. At night it seldom falls below 16º C. The lowest ever recorded was 10º C in July of 1942.

Possum and Howard Springs

Left: A possum at the caravan park.
Right: Can you spot good old Pam watching the water bubble out of the ground at Howard Springs?

During our stay we camped at the Howard Springs Holiday Park about twenty five kilometres south of Darwin. The spring was named after Captain Frederick Howard of HMS Beatrice, the ship that brought the first settlers to nearby Escape Cliffs. Never heard of him, his ship or the cliffs, I hear you muttering. No, me neither, so let's move on.

In the Holiday Park we found a lot of interesting and different bird life, even at night. We were warned, on arrival, to expect the noise of Barking Owls. They make various calls; an explosive dog-like double bark, a wavering human-like scream, a grating trill and various growls. But far worse was the noise from the Stone Curlews - more correctly known as Bush Thick-knees since they don't belong to the curlew family. They, too, are nocturnal and their call is a very loud, high pitched mournful wail. Between these two types and their bloodcurdling cries it was sometimes like sleeping in the House of Horrors. Possums, (above left) sometimes added to the cacophony.

Anthony In the daytime there was a different type of aerial activity as the R.A.A.F. was in Darwin to carry out exercises using Hornet and Hawk jets. As it so happened, one of the Hawk pilots is a friend - I have known Anthony Slaven since he was five or six. His justifiably proud parents, Wal and Ann, are also good friends. Both are pilots so you could say that Anthony was born to fly. But only the very best get to fly fast jets in today's Air Force.

A front line 'fighter jock' in his natural habitat.

Anthony was a solo glider pilot before he was old enough to drive a car, and a gliding instructor while still in his mid teens.

We met up with him in Darwin for what he described as 'a cheeky beer'. Most days we'd hear the jets roar overhead but they were too high and too fast for us to see them clearly, however we took every opportunity to tell our neighbours that we'd known one of those pilots for many years. Then we'd sit back and bask in the reflected glory.

B52 Wheel bay



Darwin possesses an excellent aeronautical museum which houses, amongst many other aircraft (and parts thereof), an American Boeing B-52 G Stratofortress.

If you are asking So what?, consider that this aircraft has a wingspan of 56 metres (185 ft) and the top of its tail is 14.5 metres (41 ft) above the floor. Just to house it meant building a vast new hangar for the museum. In its flying days it would burn 81,000 litres of fuel just to take off and climb to its cruising altitude. I calculated that to refuel it from empty would cost a quarter of a million Aussie dollars at today's pump prices. Fortunately that will never be necessary as the Americans who donated the B-52 took out its eight jet engines.

If you ever look up and see something like this above you, you are probably standing in a B-52 wheel-well.

But I fear I dwell too much on aeroplanes so let's move on. I mentioned earlier that second world war relics had been made into tourist attractions. One such 'attraction' is the site of the WWII Oil Storage Tanks. I thought this a very strange choice initially but the story behind it is quite interesting.

When the Japanese Air Force popped over to Darwin for a spot of bombing practice in 1942, fuel oil for the Australian naval vessels was stored in eleven large tanks sitting on a small hill near the harbour. Their capacity totalled around 64,000 tonnes - or would it have been 'tons' in those days? Either way, quite a lot of oil. Anyway, on the day that a hundred or more Jap bombers came visiting, they were spotted before they reached the Australian coast and a warning was sent to Darwin. On receipt of this warning, the authorities promptly . . . did absolutely nothing. So when bombs started falling everyone was taken by surprise. And in any case, Darwin's defences were woefully inadequate.

It isn't the sort of thing one says while staying in Darwin, but those Jap pilots were damned good. It appears that they were the same bunch that had, a few days earlier, visited Pearl Harbor and really spoilt the Americans' day. They were obviously ace pilots and many of their bombs scored direct hits. Soon several ships, including an American ship, were sinking in Darwin Harbour. The Japanese intelligence also seems to have been good because the Post Office was the centre of communications at that time. It received a direct hit, killing everyone in the building. The jetty also received a direct hit.

And there, on a hill, sticking out like sore thumbs, were the Navy's fuel tanks, painted a nice bright silver so they were hard to miss. What a gift! The Japanese didn't miss. They wrote off several tanks then went home for tea.

Pam in Oil Tunnel



The authorities, however, were quick off the mark and built new tanks . . . of the same type and in the same place. Next time the Japs came over they were delighted. This was a good game! So they messed up some more tanks and then went home again.

Not to be outdone, the authorities quickly built some new ones . . . of the same type and in the same place.

This was the gist of our tour guide's rhetoric. I'm not sure how long that situation continued but slowly it dawned on the authorities that the Japs were about ten-nil ahead in the game and something had to be done.

I know, they said, We'll build some secret new tanks underground! That'll fool them.

Mrs B disappears into the bowels of the earth under Darwin.

So lots of workers who, for one reason or another, were not in the forces, were put to work to dig large tunnels under Darwin. This took a long time because the authorities wouldn't allow them to use explosives or any mining machinery. It all had to be done by hand because it was secret. The tunnel walls were reinforced with concrete and lined with steel. But before they were ready for use, the war ended and the tunnels never contained one drop of oil.

They are still there to this day, the steel linings now rusted, water trickling in, and jagged holes in the pipes. Don't be fooled by the pristine appearance of the tunnel in the picture - that was near the entrance. In fact, most of the tunnels are closed to the public because the Government says they are dangerous. One is said to run directly beneath Parliament House. Come back, Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven!
The Northern Territory Parliament House.

View from NT Parliament Gallery


One day we visited Parliament House for a free tour. Again it turned out to be very interesting because the tour guide was excellent.

For a long time the Northern Territory was administered from New South Wales or South Australia. In 1978 self-determination was finally granted - they could make their own laws. Or so they thought.

The floor of the N.T. Parliament from the
public gallery. And no, that's not Pam.

Being a fairly progressive mob, the N.T. politicians looked at the problems of the terminally ill and, after much soul-searching, decided that if a patient's life was totally unbearable, he or she should be given the right to terminate it with dignity. And so they enacted a euthanasia law along those lines. It was a courageous move and any fan of Yes Minister would know that Jim Hacker would avoid a 'courageous' decision like the plague. And perhaps he was right, for the Australian Federal Government promptly accepted a private member's bill which removed the right of the Northern Territory government to enact such a law. And that was the end of that.

The N.T. population was outraged, but to no avail. When, one day, they achieve statehood, they may be able to make such laws. Or maybe the politicians of that time will decide it's too 'courageous'.

If you look carefully at the picture above you will see the Mace on the near edge of the table in front of the Speaker's chair. It should not be there. Our tour guide had placed it there to illustrate the following story:

Mace

On achieving self-determination the Territory Government decided to include the whole population in the celebrations. The Mace was first sent to be displayed in Alice Springs. It was returned in pristine condition. Next it was flown to Tennant Creek. Some lads in a ute* were sent to meet the plane. They placed the specially-made case containing the Mace on the tray of the ute and set off for town. Along the way the road was uneven and, lads being lads, their speed was a little excessive for the conditions. The case left the back of the ute and was seen to overtake it. The lock on the case held but . . . the hinges didn't. The Mace continued, unprotected, down the road for some way. A close look at the Mace reveals that the Maltese Cross on the left end is significantly bent. Our guide said she was glad it had never been sent to the panel beaters as it would spoil her story!

*Note: A 'ute' is a utility vehicle known in many countries as a pickup truck.

Pam

The man from the university.

One day the tour guide, affectionately known as Mrs Bucket (pictured), discovered that an astronomer from the university - let's call him the Man From The University or M.F.T.U. for short - was going to be at a certain coastal park in Darwin, at a certain time, with a telescope, to do a presentation on the stars and other celestial bodies. She wanted to go so, of course, we went. She packed a picnic tea for the two of us and we arrived about half an hour before sunset so that we could photograph the sun going down.

This all went according to plan and the sun did set, just as expected. While we ate our healthy, low-fat meal, the M.F.T.U. arrived with his equipment and set it up right next to us. Perfect . . . except that two metres in front of his telescope was a cliff-like drop to the beach.

The sun set at 6:32 and by 7:00 it was fairly dark. People were gathering around and Mrs B., as ever scrupulously honest despite all the training I've given her, had hastened to be the first to present him with our $6 per head. She particularly wanted to see his laser pointer with which he was to indicate the star about which he spoke.

Unfortunately his laser pointer wasn't working. He would, he said, point at the stars with his finger. Not an auspicious start but worse was to follow. His telescope, he said, was programmed to automatically track each star once he'd aligned it. But each time he inserted the plug, smoke came out of the telescope. Never mind, he said philosophically, technology is great when it works. He'd track the stars manually.

Sunset

He aligned the telescope with Jupiter or Saturn or some other dim dot in the sky and warned his audience - the few that were listening - not to pull on the instrument or it would have to be re-aligned. Children could stand on the small step ladder he'd brought with him. Children, in fact, were already climbing all over the ladder and his telescope. Several times they dragged it out of alignment. The M.F.T.U. meekly set it up again. He patiently asked people to queue up to look through the eyepiece.

Some obnoxious little brat had dragged the step ladder close to the telescope then climbed up it so that adults had to twist themselves around him to get close enough to see through the eyepiece. Loud queries from an irate geriatric gentleman (myself) regarding the ownership of the child produced no response and attempts to accidentally tip the ladder unfortunately failed.

Initially, as darkness fell, Mrs B and myself had expressed concern for the children's safety, a steep drop being so close in front of the telescope. Half an hour later we secretly hoped that some of the spoilt brats would fall over the cliff. An hour later we were close to pushing them over, together with their totally inconsiderate parents.

By this time some moron and his family had set up a picnic about ten metres from the telescope, their possessions (unattended) being safeguarded by a powerful and blinding halogen lamp. Why, I wonder, did they suppose the M.F.T.U. had chosen such a dark location to look at the stars? The M.F.T.U. made no comment. In fact, even if he had, nobody would have heard him above the general din of women gossiping, men drinking and discussing football, and kids whining.

Periodically the M.F.T.U. interrupted his barely audible rhetoric to ask, in an apologetic tone, if those who had not paid (the vast majority) would perhaps like to contribute as the university expected him to show a profit. His insipid plea fell on deaf ears.
Well . . . perhaps later, he added weakly.
We wanted to shake him! By this time yours truly (a.k.a. Grumpy) was spitting his dummy. The ever-tactful Mrs B dragged him away and we returned to the caravan having seen one image that resembled a blurred doughnut in the telescope for an outlay of $12.

On the walk back to the car a mother following behind us was explaining about Saturn's rings to her two small kids. We learned more from her than from all the rest of the evening put together. And she was probably making it up as she went along.

Fish feeding

Fish Feeding at Doctors Gully

One of the attractions we visited in Darwin was a beach where, for fifty years, fish in the ocean have been fed at each high tide. They are now so used to the routine that many hundreds turn up on cue and people pay to go and hand feed them.

Fish feeding. The white object against the trees is a slice of bread thrown by the guide (in blue, standing near the lifebuoys).

We asked why the sharks didn't follow the fish in and were told, Why should they bother, they know which way the fish go when they leave.



Cheap Wine!

Another attraction, one that really excited us, was a winery that sold wine at bulk prices. We had to join their club (free - just complete the form) then each time we visited we were let loose, unsupervised, in the vault to sample as many wines as we desired direct from their vats. Then we could fill either 750 millilitre bottles or 2 litre casks with our selection. You could take your own bottles or they would supply them. The cask bladders were provided free. Wine prices started at $3.65 per litre for a dry white! The caravan tyres looked rather flat when we'd finished stocking up.

Magnetic termite Mounds

One day we spotted some interesting and different termite mounds in the bush. They were not pillar-shaped like previous mounds we'd seen, they were long and flat, more like a wall, but tapering in thickness to a sharp, serrated edge at the top. They are known as 'magnetic' termite mounds, not because they are in any way magnetic, but because they are always aligned north-south to present the lowest possible profile to the fierce midday sun. Even the sharp top supports this theory as the summer sun is directly overhead at midday.

Magnetic Termite Mound

The front and end view of a 'magnetic' termite mound.
The shadow shows the afternoon sun is starting to sink in the west.

Do the termites in some way know which way to develop their home? No, we were told, it's just pure chance. The communities that happen to align their mounds with the flat sides facing north and south will prosper and grow. Other mounds will overheat and fail. But is it really as simple as that? If so, why don't mounds that grow in the shadow of trees prosper regardless of alignment? My personal feeling is that there's more to it. What do you think?
Humpty Doo

Pam outside Humpty Doo Pub

That same day we visited a little town with the strange name of Humpty Doo. Now isn't that a great name? The only reason we called there was to try and determine the origin of the name and where better to enquire than at the pub? And, of course, you can't just walk in and ask questions in a bar without buying a drink, can you?

Mrs B. on her way into the Humpty Doo Hotel. Is that big smile just the shear joy of being alive in such a wonderful country . . . or eager anticipation?

Alas, the origin of the name, like so many others, appears to have been lost. As usual we were given several theories but none sounded very plausible. Strange that the origins of so many wonderful names have been lost in such a comparatively short period of time. The origin of the name of our old home town in the U.K. can be traced back to Roman times.

However, an ice cold beer and a glass of red for the lady almost made up for our disappointment.

Fogg Dam

Before leaving Darwin we just had to visit some wetlands called Fogg Dam in the Humpty Doo area. Back in the 1950s and 1960s developers decided that the wetlands would make an ideal location to grow rice. Rain was plentiful and the vast Asian market was on the doorstep. However, like many ideas that sound fine in theory, in practice it went belly-up leaving a dam spanning the wetlands.

Crocodile Sign

On arrival a sign asked us nicely to park and walk, which we did. We walked for some time along a narrow bitumen road on top of a two metre embankment which ran through the wetlands. Eventually we asked somebody how much further the dam was. About another kilometre, he replied.

Eventually we came to raised look-out platform at the end of the road. The dam for which we were looking was, in fact, the embankment that we'd been walking along. Ho-hum. We had expected a curved concrete wall with a lake on one side and a big drop on the other.

Crocodile Safety indeed! Those critters are protected.
How about our safety!

The wetlands teemed with birds but there were also Dusky Rats and Water Pythons in huge quantities. We know this because the signs told us so, though we saw neither. The wetlands are supposed to support around two and a half thousand Water Pythons which grow to 2.5 metres - or over eight feet - in length through feeding on their neighbours, mainly the Dusky Rats. In a good year the floodplain can support up to eight tonnes of Dusky Rats per square kilometre. What a strange way of measuring population! Suppose a sports venue boasted it could seat two and a half thousand tonnes of spectators? Anyway, 8 tonnes of Dusky Rats equates to 100,000 animals - 'snake snacks' if you like - per square kilometre. What happy pythons they must be! The average rat must weigh 80 grams.
Goodbye Darwin.

Finally our time in Darwin came to an end. There are no roads to the east or west coast from Darwin so travellers must backtrack south for some way. In our case, as we intended to head east to Queensland, we needed to backtrack along the Stuart Highway for about a thousand kilometres to Tennant Creek to join the Barkly Highway east towards Mount Isa and Townsville. This was, in some ways, fortunate as it gave us the chance to see many of the places we'd missed on our northward trek. Litchfield National Park, of which we had heard very good reports, was the first of these.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 9 was completed on 3 March 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.





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