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Travel blog I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast, but I'm intercontinental and I eat French toast (Beastie Boys) | | | Photos available at www.istockphoto.com/georgeclerk

Alice Springs to 'The Top End'

AUSTRALIA | Tuesday, 3 June 2008 | Views [4261] | Comments [2]

I had five days in Alice, and apart from catching up on sleep, reading and putting pictures onto iStock, I joined Chris and Dave (from the tour up from Adelaide) for meals and a couple of cinema visits.

Alice seemed a bit of a strange place. One mystery is Pine Gap, the massive American intelligence base nearby. I tried it on Google, which came up with a host of UFO pages, including one from 'abovetopsecret.com', titled 'Pine Gap - Staging point of an American/Alien World Take Over?' Other than that, it seems to be a huge intelligence place and co-ordination centre for military strikes all over the world. Not sure why they decided to put it in the middle of the Aussie outback though!

The other thing was - as far as I could tell from only being there a few days - a big division between Aboriginal and white people. The two seemed to live totally separate lives in the same town, barely noticing each other. Lots of aboriginal people walked into town across the bone dry Todd River in the mornings, and many spent hours hanging around the central reservations of roads, while most whites seemed to drive everywhere, mainly in flash 4x4s.

Unfortunately Alice isn't the safest place either, with an extremely high violent crime rate. We were advised not to walk the streets after dark at all. I didn't come across any of that though - the only thing was a fight in the hostel between a drunk Aussie and a Canadian!

In the Desert Park (which was very good even though the town is in the middle of endless desert anyway!) I was very pleased to come face to face with a couple of thorny devils, who are in the picture at the top. They were calmly eating ant after ant off a tree stump. There was also another type of lizard which has no legs, i.e. it looked and acted exactly like a snake, but is actually a lizard. Apparently something to do with the shape of its tongue.

They had a great 'bird show' where birds circling around high above flew down on demand to do some party tricks, including this black breasted buzzard which flew in, got a stone in its beak and used it to whack an emu egg until it cracked open.

After a 15 hour Greyhound bus journey up the Stuart Highway (passing the place where Peter Falconio was murdered), I arrived for two nights at a homestead near a town called Mataranka. Here I joined multitudes of retired Aussies. By the way, it's common to come across retired couples touring the country, catchphrases 'fair dinkum, we bloody well deserve it' and 'we're on the road - nothing to go home for except the bloody kids, and they're old enough to bloody well look after themselves!' We were all skilfully entertained by a singer and her karaoke machine at the outdoor bar, with 'Sweet Home Mataranka' bringing the house down.

The homestead was near a warm-ish, crystal clear natural pool, busy with retirees, where three separate times in just a few minutes I heard new arrivals ask 'How's the water' to get the eye-rolling reply 'It's wet, mate!' which was followed by much hilarity each time.

Staying there was a good example of how expensive accommodation in Australia can be. After weeks of swags and crummy dorms, I was looking forward to a motel room, which at $90 (£45 ish) a night surely had to be pretty good. But what I got was a tiny, musty, spider-infested (at least there were no flies!) room, complete with a main door so warped that when it was shut, the bottom part was still well ajar, and a (literally) dribble shower. But at least I got two peaceful nights sleep in the polyester sheets!

Since I was told that there weren't any 'salties' nearby at the moment, I decided to try my best to emulate Steve Irwin and went off as a lone (freshwater) croc hunter.

Straying carefully from a path and along the nearby river, I was soon surrounded by strange noises - the place was teeming with life - with wallabies, all sizes of bird - including a kingfisher, lizards, ants, various fish mulling about the muddy waters, and these huge spiders in almost every direction. Sadly I never saw any crocodiles, but did get a fright when I slipped and ended up in the murky water while trying to get closer to one of the spiders for a picture!

The next day I was back on the Greyhound, and on seven more hours up to Darwin, which is about halfway across the northern coast of Australia.

Darwin's been pretty much demolished at least twice, once in 1942 , when 188 Japanese aircraft, flown by the same pilots as the Pearl Harbour bombings, used over twice as many bombs over Darwin and the fleets in the harbour. Then on Christmas Day in 1974, Cyclone Tracy re-flattened the city, demolishing the vast majority of the city's buildings. So it's pretty much all modern.

The Parliament building for the Northern Territories

This 'salty' looks pretty aggressive, but they actually lie for hours with their mouths open like that, to keep cool

Next I was off to the gigantic Kakadu national park for three days. On the way we stopped at the Mary River to cruise around looking for crocodiles. I expected to maybe see one or two if we were lucky, but they were all over the place, both 'freshies' and 'salties', mainly keeping cool with their toothy mouths wide open, but occasionally cooling off by lazily swimming around the river.

We were really hoping the croc would snap up this stupid bird, but it couldn't be bothered!

The billabong where they filmed the 'shooting' of Mick at the end of Crocodile Dundee. That smoke in the background's from bush fires.

Once in Kakadu, we went for some long hikes up to viewpoints in the tropical heat, and cooled down with swims in waterfall plunge-pools and billabongs, which were known to only have freshwater crocs. Along the way we saw quite a lot of Aboriginal cave art, dating from a fairly recent (with paintings of the activities of the early white settlers) to 30-40,000 years ago.

An 'x-ray' painting of a fish, showing internal organs and bone structure

One thing that distinguishes the Aboriginal cave art in Australia from the cave art in Europe, e.g. in Lascaux, is that - despite the fact that often the age is similar (the Lascaux art is reckoned to be about 16,000 years old) - the meaning of the Australian cave art is still fully understood by people who've kept the cultural information alive, whereas with European Stone-Age stuff, it's all down to the best guess of a bunch of archaeologists.

Swimming hole at the bottom of a huge waterfall

I was pleased that this big water lizard got as annoyed as me about flies - no matter how many times you shake them away they still come back!

A green ant. We were encouraged to pick them up, then bite off the green bit at the back, or at least lick it.  The taste was halfway between a very bitter lemon, and sticking a 9 volt battery on your tongue!

Elsa, one of the three Dutchies (that's what they called themselves!) on the Kakadu trip had similar plans to me after we returned to Darwin, so following a night out with everyone and a day back in Darwin to recover, we split the cost of hiring a car and headed off on a 'road trip' down the Stuart Highway, towards Litchfield National Park, where we had some quality picnics and swims amongst the waterfalls.

After that we continued south for several hours, eventually finding a small town called Pine Creek which had both food and accommodation. Here there were some funny examples of the impact that a long legged, pretty blond can have on a one-horse Australian outback town, as Elsa caused quite a stir, getting drinks bought for both of us, and at one point literally stopping traffic when a truck swerved off the road to a halt for the driver to check 'Are you two... like... boyfriend and girlfriend?' When the answer was 'No' the driver did the best he could to get her to 'hop in the truck, darling - you're bloody beautiful!!'. Also the barman enthusiastically showed Elsa his four large and very heavy solid gold nuggets, from a nearby gold mine, then later asked her if she wanted to work there.

Waterfall in Litchfield

Small bit of Katherine Gorge

The next day we continued south to Katherine Gorge, and took a helicopter ride over the huge series of gorges which go on for miles and miles - hiking for about a week is the only other way to see them. After that we headed north to Edith Falls, for a final swim, then began the long drive back to Darwin, making 1,000Kms in total.

As it got dark over the last few hours, we had the spectacle of raging bush fires, often very near the side of the road, making half the sky go dark red under huge orange flames, and the road difficult to make out through all the smoke. It felt like we were on TV in a car commercial, though I doubt if the makers of our little car from 'Cheapa Rentals' would have gone to such expense!

Elsa flew off to Broome the next day and I headed off to Crocodilus Park, where captured salties are and fed up for their meat, for fancy handbags, and - in some cases - for public protection, as some get a taste for targeting tourists and their boats!

Tags: alice springs, australia, darwin, kakadu, katherine gorge, litchfield



A singer and 'her' karaoke machine? Five words of warning: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Careful now....

  Will Jun 4, 2008 7:24 AM


Ha ha - actually come to think of it, she was a bit of a diva, and had quite a deep singing voice. And an obsession with the Aussie rules game that was on!

  George Jun 15, 2008 12:50 PM

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