Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 5 – Katherine)

Beyonce has returned!! Our vehicle which suffered a cracked brake line has been returned to us but with no guarantees. The mechanic believes the repair will last for our trip, at least, but someone, somewhere in the future, will suffer the same fate, he predicts.

It appears that the original modifications to the vehicle were not carried out to spec and this has led to the brake problem.

Roger wants to see Katherine Gorge so we decide on a two night stay in town. We book into the Katherine River Lodge. It is clean but based on room size, cat-swinging is prohibited. The motel has a large resident population some of whom appear not to like each other much. Our neighbour has pasted a large sign on the pole outside his door “Don’t touch my laundry you bitch”.

Good relations among the motel residents

The next room to our neighbour’s is occupied by a young Chinese woman. We approve of her ability to adopt Australian ‘tea leaf’ practice but we wonder if she is into cross-dressing, since she is, allegedly, stealing male underwear, .

The first night brings another major decision. Will we stay at the motel and partake of the $15 pasta night or get takeaways. Kaylee vetoes the pasta night. She has seen a picture of one dish which she describes as looking like excreted tape-worms covered by a dollop of pasta sauce. We want Thai but the nearest Thai restaurant is at the Border Store in Kakadu some 200 kilometres away. So Chinese takeaway it is.

We use Katherine to finish numerous jobs. Roger has a job application to write. Among other jobs I have my tax return to complete so that I have something to live on for the next few weeks. Kaylee has to change her phone over from Optus to Telstra Pre-paid so that she can get reception. For Kaylee, dealing with Telstra is as desirable as an Abbott Government or walking on hot coals. Katherine is the start of her Telstra saga, a saga that will last a week or two.

With numerous jobs to do that require internet we become permanent members of the Coffee Club which provides free internet, half-decent coffee and air-conditioning. By the time we leave town we are on first name terms with most of the staff. Jill and Roger are unaware that I have invited all of them to stay with Roger and Jill at Bundagen. Surprises are good things in life.

A key task for Kaylee is to get her Telstra sim card working so that she can occasionally have phone and internet access on this trip but, more particularly, on her subsequent 1000 km bushwalk along the Bibulman track through south-west Western Australia. Currently she can get phone calls but she cannot get data.

There are no Telstra shops in Katherine, so Kaylee is on the phone to Telstra. Telstra advises Kaylee that it is not their problem but that of Optus because the phone must be locked to Optus.

Katherine Gorge

Kaylee calls Optus who advise that it is not their problem as it is not locked to Optus. By this time there are a long stream of expletives emitting from the vicinity of Kaylee. She abandons the issue, for now, as it is time for her, Roger and Jill to decamp to Nitmiluk, where Roger and Jill will go kayaking up the gorge. I am left to the pleasures of tax returns and similar tasks.

Later Kaylee calls Telstra again. After an hour on phone to Telstra most fragile objects within metres of Kaylee are at risk of imminent destruction. But apparently the problem has been resolved. Or so she believes. I think pigs might fly.

Chrystal Creek, Katherine Gorge

Roger, Jill and Kaylee return from Nitmiluk. Kaylee has multi-tasked by responding to a call from Energy Australia which she received while at the lookout at Nitmiluk. This is another of her favourite tasks. Two months after installation, Energy Australia advises her that they have been unable to activate her solar panels because Adam Cartwright, her electrician, failed to tick box six on the form which he submitted two months ago.

In keeping with the extraordinary level of customer service in Australia, rather than ringing and advising Kaylee of the issue, they decided the customer should use their omniscience to automatically know that there was a problem.

Kaylee has suggested that one of the helpful Energy Australia staff could perhaps ring the electrician and directed them not to call her for two months since she wouldn’t be answering her phone.

While Kaylee struggles with Telstra and Energy Australia, I am dealing with Australia Post. My parcel which I had hoped to receive in Darwin and which I had asked to be forwarded to Katherine is still lost.

Abandoning all hope of receipt I have concentrated on other tasks. A tour of Katherine’s op shops has delivered me a long sleeve shirt and a mossie-proof pair of long trousers. With my exceptional packing skills I had ended up with 6 pairs of jocks, 6 cords to charge my phone, 8 pens, a tube of punctured rectal cream which leaks through everything and  enough warm clothes for Antarctica (very useful in the tropics) but no long trousers or long-sleeved shirt or coffee maker.

My walking boots which gave me blisters walking 200 metres down Ann St in Brisbane have, however been replaced. My consumer blitz also delivers me a new espresso maker and a head torch (another useful omission during my packing frenzy).

Post Katherine Gorge kayaking we meet back at the Coffee Club. We are now life members. Jill and Roger report that they covered the Katherine Gorge sprint of 3.2 kms in the unparalled time of 30 minutes. Since the Olympic record for the K1 2000 metres is about 30 seconds, some Olympic training is still required, but I don’t mention this.

During their absence I have discovered the joy of the Katherine library which has also set a world record for a public library internet access charge of $6 per hour. A good book burning is deserved as retaliation for the library’s unrivalled exploitation of the public.

We have some final tasks before we leave. Woolworths is calling, as is shopping for a few car spares. We head for Repco to buy hoses and belts among other things but leave empty handed. Katherine’s biggest car spares shop has no spares for Australia’s second most popular four-wheel drive.

Our time in Katherine is almost at an end. Time for a barbie at the hot springs and a moonlight swim. We head out to the springs for dinner. It’s the last supper in Katherine.

See all collection from which these images were selected on Flickr:
Katherine: https://flic.kr/s/aHskx3dtCG
Katherine Gorge: https://flic.kr/s/aHsiYhi6DU

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr
  4. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 3 Yellow Waters and Gunlom

The end of week one sees us heading for Cooinda to do the obligatory Yellow Waters cruise and, beyond that, to head further south to Gunlom and Koolpin Gorge.

We are booked in for a sunset cruise and arrive in time to set up camp and head down to Yellow Waters, a part of the South Alligator wetlands. I last did this cruise 20 years ago. Then there was one boat with about 15 people on the evening cruise, now there are four boats each with forty people on board.

The Yellow Waters sunset cruise used to be one of the truly great wetland experiences, particularly later in the year when up to a million magpie geese feed on the wetlands along with thousands of other water birds.

I am cynical that with 160 people on four boats it will be anything other than a very superficial tourist experience, but am pleasantly surprised. You still get to see much of what you would have seen in a smaller boat and the guide is excellent. The only drawback being one can’t really ask the questions one used to be able to ask.

We spend the night at the Cooinda Hotel camp ground. It’s not the most peaceful or natural of locations and, for pretty much every resident of the campground, sleep was an intermittent exercise up until about 2 am. This is when the group of ten or so Indian tourists, who had apparently been attempting to imitate a Bombay Indian wedding with a thousand guests, decided to turn in.

Dinner duties were allocated to Kaylee and I, but Jill decided that, after about 36 seconds without food, she was hungrier than a bear after winter. Jill has a metronomic gastric system which requires replenishing with tea at about 10 minute intervals and food about every two hours.

As a result, when Kaylee and I decamped for pre-dinner drinks at the hotel, dinner duties changed hands. This was to later cause mayhem in the dinner stakes since she and Roger cooked dinner with unauthorised ingredients, without informing us, thereby throwing succeeding dinners into chaos since the ingredients for those planned dinners had already been consumed.

Reflections 2

The stress involved in the our discovery of the theft of Kaylee’s and my dinner ingredients leads to an urgent requirement for relief for Jill. This involves plugging her earphones into her iPod, closing her eyes and performing a public dance routine. That routine involves a cross between rap, salsa, a brolga dancing, yoga, and giving birth. But it seems to work for Jill and provides some degree of hilarity for the rest of the campground.

On Monday July 7, we decamp for Koolpin Gorge and Gunlom. When I lived in Darwin Gunlom was known as UDP (Uranium Development Project Falls) so-named, rather romantically, by mining companies at the height of the 60s uranium boom.

We had planned to visit Koolpin first but we discover that it is closed due to a large saltie having been spotted. It’s now almost 50 years since crocodiles were hunted almost to extinction and they are no longer scared of humans. As the number of crocodiles has increased the smaller crocs have been forced further upstream. Places where it was perfectly safe to swim 20 years ago are no longer safe.

With plan A foiled by too much crocodile sex, we head for Gunlom. Jill has attempted to reach back into her memory synapses and has convinced us that she once visited Gunlom and that it was the highlight of her previous trip to the NT…astoundingly fabulous. She has talked it up so much that she is now nervous that we will not be impressed.

All of this area, including Koolpin, was once excluded from Kakadu. The Hawke Government promised to include it as a third extension of Kakadu, the original area of Kakadu having already been expanded once. At that time the two grazing leases, Gimbat and Goodparla, which comprised the proposed stage 3,  were resumed (the leases were re-purchased by the Federal Government) with the intention of including them in the park.

The proposed Stage 3 extension was stymied by the discovery in the 1980s of gold, by mining company BHP,  at Coronation Hill adjacent to the South Alligator River.

As a result there was a 10 year struggle to prevent gold mining before Kakadu was eventually extended in 1991. This area has a special significance for me as I was part of that campaign, for three years, while I lived in Darwin.

For a week in February 1988, Richard Ledgar, another local, Scott Wootten, and I sat on BHP’s drill rig and loader at the exploration site at Coronation Hill to highlight the illegal nature of the exploration permit.

(for more on Coronation Hill see: https://theemperors-clothes.com/2014/08/05/on-top-of-coronation-hill/ and images at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/29402953@N02/sets/72157606707022747/detail/ )

As we drive towards Gunlom the butterfly wings start beating again. Kaylee comments that she has heard an odd noise under the vehicle but, in our desire to avoid having to do anything, we all rush to reassure each other that chaos is not about to befall us again. Along the way to Gunlom we pull in for a short walk up a gorge to a another waterfall.

After a quick leg stretch we are getting into the car and Jill notices a bit of metal hanging down beneath the car. We check it out. The metal plate that protects the underside of the radiator has buckled. Not much we can do. But Jill, decides on immediate remedial action and “deliberately” removes the loose metal plate by backing over the largest rock in the car park. That fixed it. No more loose metal. We pick it up and chuck it in the back of the Nissan. As we are driving to Gunlom, Jill comments once again on the spongy brakes.

We arrive at Gunlom at lunchtime and after a quick lunch head straight for the plunge pool for a swim. There are about 10 people swimming and a conversation ensues about water temperatures at various beaches including WA.

This leads onto the the issue of WA shark attacks at which point I politely point out that the WA Government’s policy, which advocates killing sharks, could only have been designed by a bunch of ignorant, ill-informed fuckwit bogans. The man on my right demurs and a conversation ensues in which it turns out our fellow tourist believes that anything that threatens human life should be exterminated, including all crocodiles.

I refrain from telling him that he is Richard Head or pointing out that his knowledge of ecology could fit into a box of matches, so peace is restored.

We are standing around after swimming and chaos theory activates for the fourth time. A passing tourist tells us he has noted a leak near the rear passenger wheel. He thinks it might be transmission fluid. We check it out and it is clearly a brake line issue. At this point there is no mechanic, no phone line, internet or mobile reception, so we cannot call anyone to get it fixed.

The four of us enter bush mechanic mode. This is a state of delusion in which all Australians apparently know everything about repairing cars and are able to undertake that repair with bog, fencing wire and cable ties.

It appears the join between the metal brake line and the rubber brake line is leaking. We opt for a bodgy repair using two pack bog which we borrow from our neighbours. If we can slow or stop the leak we figure we can get to Pine Creek on the spare lot of brake fluid we have purchased from the campground caretaker

Eventually Roger locates the exact source of the leak which is a crack on the upper side of the brake line. The bog will clearly not work. We now need to find something to bind the pipe. It must be non-porous, highly flexible and resistant to brake fluid.

We debate where to find this magical repair material. Eventually Jill suggests dental floss. The brains trust considers this. It’s a wax coated nylon, thin and flexible. Perfect. Roger and Jill go to work and, in an hour, the brake line is perfectly bodgied with dental floss and white cable ties. The white cable ties are chosen, of course, to coordinate with the dental floss. It is another victory for Australia’s bush mechanics, albeit one that is far from perfect – the fluid is still leaking but more slowly than before.

The following morning we leave Gunlom. Roger is on the wheel and I am on the handbrake. We make haste slowly. The process is that at each creek crossing Roger slows the car with the gears and where necessary I add extra braking with the park brake. We try to avoid doing doughnuts (handbrake turns), wherever possible, but soon the excitement is getting too much for us and Roger and I decide to form a rally driving team on our return to civilisation.

At 10 am we arrive in Pine Creek sans accidents. I call Nathan the company owner and explain the dilemma. There is nowhere in Pine Creek (a town comprising one horse and a pub) where we can get the brake lines fixed and we cannot buy more brake fluid to replenish our supply.

Nathan cannot send a replacement vehicle because he is not allowed to risk the safety of his mechanic who would need to return to Darwin in our dodgy vehicle.  But, for us it’s ok to drive on. No worries. Let us travel, without brakes, to Katherine where we can get the brakes repaired. Boldly we press on using our patented gears and handbrake technique.

Roger and I are bonding nicely and we decide, in addition to our rally driving venture, to form a band based on our shared knowledge of Patti Smith and the Grateful Dead. The conversation mutates into one about road trips. I reveal that, in 1992/3, I toured the US, Canada and Mexico in an $1100 blue and white Kombi purchased in Oregon and equipped with everything a person could wish for; namely a reconditioned engine and a Grateful Dead sticker. Could any human being be more cool?

Finally we roll into Katherine and overshoot the location of our designated mechanic when the gear/handbrake stop is not effectively coordinated. By the time we eventually stop we are in downtown Katherine where, cleverly avoiding an oncoming road train with an extra notch on the handbrake, Roger and I drop off Kaylee and Jill at the Coffee Club.

our newly formed Rally Drivers Association then manages to turn around and drop the vehicle off at the mechanics. At this point we have no prognosis on the recovery of our vehicle which we have named Beyonce.

In the absence of any future plans other than an indefinite stay in Katherine town, a place which would feature only one star on any reputable trip advisor, we decide to drown our sorrows with alcohol. We ask a local shopkeeper which is the best pub. She wouldn’t recommend any. I translate for Jill and Kaylee. She means we have a chance of encountering Aborigines in them which, apparently, makes them undesirable destinations. It appears the RSL is the drinking hole of choice for the colonial white population. Absent other recommendations we decamp for the RSL.

Wandering the streets of Katherine while Roger goes to check up on the vehicle, we are hailed by a passing motorist. She is worried that we appear lost and has seen a group of blackfellas approaching. Our safety is of concern, apparently. She is extremely friendly and offers us a lift to the RSL but her attitude epitomises the state of race relations in Katherine which veers between fear, distrust, contempt and pure racism and hostility.

At the RSL we must remove our hats…it’s important, apparently, to respect dead people but not the living ancestors of this ancient continent’s original inhabitants.

We settle in for a stay in Katherine, which remains the shit hole it always has been.

See all collection from which these images were selected on Flickr:
Gunlom– https://flic.kr/s/aHskx3cTub
Yellow Waters – https://flic.kr/s/aHskujUCvo

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls
  3. Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr

 

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3) – Kakadu, Pt 2 – Nourlangie and Ubirr

After departing Twin Falls, we head for Nourlangie Rock. As we approach the Kakadu Highway, the main road between Pine Creek and Jabiru, Kaylee complains about the brakes. They are spongy and it takes a while to stop. But we think maybe it is just dust or water in the brakes. But, hey, there isn’t much to hit out here so who cares.

The car park is packed. It is a chaos of buses, cars and a parade of 4WDs in all shapes and sizes. Two rangers are checking park entry tickets. They are being harangued by a French man in his 50s who appears not to understand that it is not the rangers’ fault that he is apparently functionality illiterate (at least in English) and cannot understand signs with the simple words “park entry permit required”. I wish I had a baguette and I would stuff it somewhere he deserved to receive it.

It is the antipodean version of my experience in France where ignorant English speakers would behave like ill-mannered louts if someone couldn’t speak English. First ask your question. If you don’t get the answer you want repeat the question, just louder until you are shouting. I Always felt like I should hand them the quotation that says “the definition of stupidity is repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome”.

We do a lazy tour of Nourlangie, admiring some of the world’s finest indigenous rock art, and then climb to the lookout. We wonder why the parks service still insists on retaining signs calling it Nourlangie when the interpretive signs clearly say that the traditional owners want it renamed with its traditional name. Renaming would have the additional advantage that a large proportion of visitors would no longer be able to find it and would make the visit of the remainder much more pleasant.

Most of the visitors are blissfully ignorant that if our Governments, of both political persuasions, had got their way, Nourlangie Rock would have been blessed with the sound and dust of a proposed uranium mine only a couple of kilometres distant.

The proposed Koongarra mine lease was excised from the park back when it was established in the 1970s and was only added to the park this year (2014) due to the persistent opposition of the Aboriginal traditional owners to mining at the location.

 

Lunch brings us to Jabiru, the mining town created for the Ranger uranium mine. It is a little oasis of neo-colonial white development on Aboriginal land. The Ranger mining lease existed before the park was created and prior to land rights, so traditional owners had no right to veto it, even had they wanted to.

Tidy quarter acre blocks bake in the sun, each with their ugly brick veneer home. In common with most communities in the NT, Jabiru has a major drinking and domestic violence problem.

Ranger Mine (now closed as at 2021)

For white people those social problems are hidden behind the neat facades of modern Australia, whereas for the black community the issues with alcohol and violence are played out on the streets. This means that society can look down on Aboriginal people as being hopeless drunks while pretending their own issues don’t exist.

Ranger has been operating for about 35 years. It is a model of mismanagement, regularly enduring accidents, leaks of contaminated water and similar malfunctions. But neither Federal nor NT Governments really care since both are client states of the mining industry. So Ranger, which should have been closed years ago, goes blithely on.

Our party of four continue on our un-planned way. Even though we plan nothing we still operate more smoothly than the Ranger mine.

Sun and smoke over the Magela wetlands

We have forgotten that it is Saturday, so our planned shopping expedition suffers credit card interruptus because the supermarket closes at 3 pm. As a result we are forced to decamp sans the espresso maker I planned to buy. Mawson was forced to eat huskies and I shall be forced to drink earl grey. In fact I shall apparently be forced to drink it very often.

So far we are two days behind schedule, solely and only because Jill insists on stopping for tea about every 17 minutes. Few first world problems could be more daunting than earl grey tea every 17 minutes and no coffee.

Last sun from the top of Ubirr

Next stop is Ubirr. The road, which was a windy dirt road of many creek crossings, often closed in wet season, is now sealed. The crossing of Magela Creek, once  an expendition in its own right, is now a routine exercise. Many of the side roads down which one could venture to the flood plain have been closed and locked with gates. The camp ground which used to border the East Alligator is now set back 3 kilometres from it and the Border store which was once an archetypal remote store now has a Thai restaurant.

Ubirr is not only a major rock art site but also one of the best places in the park to experience the interaction of flood plain and stone country. I have visited it more than 20 times over the years to experience the sublime sunsets from the top of the rock and the unequalled sense of the spiritual.

Some of that remains although the numbers watching the sunset have increased more than 10 fold and there are more than 200 people enjoying the Kakadu equivalent of Uluru’s sunset strip when we arrive.

Jill is so seduced by the elixir of sunset and flood that, despite her alleged fear of heights, she thinks she can fly. She moves ever closer the the rock edge much to Kaylee’s consternation, who, as a result, has her  experience of the tranquility of Ubirr severely undermined.

Jill contemplating flight

Dinner time brings us to the Border Store, which is arguably Australia’s most remote Thai restaurant. We eat duck curry surrounded by $1000 art works all of which lean crazily on bits of wire. The food and coffee are good. But there is no dessert…Kaylee is devastated and she suffers dessert withdrawal symptoms.

This lack of dessert and its associated sugar hit appears to lead to some sort of memory loss over coming days…such as thinking she has lost her phone which she plugged into the charger only 30 seconds ago. She also manages to  go for a shower with no soap, towel, shampoo, or change of clothes, but takes her phone as a substitute for those items, meaning she has to do another 100 metre return trip to the showers.

Before leaving the Ubirr area we embark on a short walk around the rock country near the East Alligator River. As with almost of Kakadu there is rock art on most of the rock outcrops. Crane your head and some figure or creature appears; the entire landscape is peopled by the spirits of 40,000 years of occupation.

Finally we head down to Cahills Crossing where one crosses the East Alligator from Kakadu into Arnhem Land. The crossing is a sort of mythical divide between Aboriginal Arnhem Land and the rest of Australia and is impassable in the wet.

The occasional person has become crocodile bait here. In 1987, when I was working in the park, a local miner imbued with alcohol immunity waded into the downstream side of the crossing to fish one evening, despite warnings of sightings of a large black crocodile. He was reported to have said that he had been fishing there for 15 years and had never had a problem. Minutes later he was dead. So it goes.

Most years people get caught out by a sudden onset of the wet and get trapped on one side or the other; in 1988 a sudden wet caught dozens of vehicles on the Arnhem Land side and the Gagadju Association did a nice business towing vehicles across using its grader. Cost $200 a pop.

See all collection from which these images were selected on Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHskwuKZAM

Other posts in this series:

  1. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)
  2. Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Kakadu Part 1 Twin Falls

Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)

Chaos overtakes one very quickly on long trips. The butterfly wings start beating as soon as the aeroplane engines stop, and disorder instantly overtakes order. I am arriving in Darwin to prepare for a two month trip travelling Northern Australia through the NT and the Kimberley .

After a single overnight in Brisbane, the disappearing fairy has already been in action. Missing are one camera lens, at least one pair of the ten pairs of reading glasses that will be lost en route, the camera manual and miscellaneous other items. But I am redeemed since, in compensation for my sins, I have lent my house to my friend, Jane Lyons, who is able to find the things I left behind and mails the items to me in Darwin.

Stepping off the plane in Darwin, one descends into the maelstrom of Darwin airport. It’s a model of Australian transport planning where Government guesses approximately how many people it thinks will use the airport in five years time, then having redeveloped the airport to accomodate the planned numbers.

But these numbers did not include an entirely new oil industry and some new mines, nor did it allow for the fact that the redevelopment took twice as long to as planned. Hence it is already too small before it is even finished. Perfect; it can join Sydney’s roads and railways as an example of political foresight.

Darwin, more than 26 years after I “permanently” departed, and years after my last long visit, is bizarrely familiar.

The airport is full, literally, with Darwin’s mixture of human hundreds and thousands; the terminal is teeming with black, brown and brindle from every corner of the world, every profession and every attitude. Tourists, rednecks, hippies, professionals, public service, oil industry.

I head for David Cooper’s flat in Nightcliff. David and I shared a house together in Darwin in 1986 and have remained firm friends through Simpson Desert trips, a multitude of partners, jobs and changes of residence. On some foolish night over beer and pesto, long ago, I was created his daughter’s Godless Father, with the responsibility of making her irresponsible, corrupt and Godless. Sadly only the last succeeded and she remains a model citizen unlike all my erstwhile contemporaries who are all Godless communists, fornicators, and conservationists.

David, like Darwin, changes little. At 56 he owns two plastic spoons, a broken boom box, 3 CDs, five milk crates, a saucepan for boiling water and three sets of sheets. Not one shred of wifi microwaves has ever passed his door and to communicate with the world he uses semaphore. The ultimate conservationist, he puts us latte and chardonnay sipping neo-conservationists to shame. But, crucially, his house is full of beer, coffee and other essentials

We can understand the importance of good coffee by referring back to a 1990 trip across the Simpson when on arriving in Broken Hill we circled the town looking for good coffee like vultures looking for carrion. On spotting a cappuccino sign we descend like ravenous timber wolves and order four coffees. The machine is on, the proprietor removes the handle. We are slavering. Then he reaches for the tin of Pablo (definitely the worst instant coffee ever made) and a collective psychic groan is emitted that can be heard in Newtown and Fitzroy. We leave without coffee.

There are more than 60 nationalities living in Darwin. It’s very multicultural communities with a highly visible Aboriginal presence but it’s also home to one of the most redneck, racist Governments in Australia, both historically and currently; something hard to believe given the profile of the Queensland, WA and Federal Governments.

The most visible changes to Darwin are Mitchell St where hordes of backpackers check each other out and estimate, from beneath the effects of eight Coronas, their chances of a one night stand. Failing that they can compete in projectile vomiting the dollars they have just earned.

Darwin’s population, including Palmerston has grown 50% in 25 years from 80,000 to 120,000, but it’s still hard to get a decent meal out in most parts of Darwin. However, in keeping with Australian culture, one no longer has to rely on one cafe, the Roma Bar, for decent coffee. In recognition of the coffee drought that will surely descend once we leave Darwin, we coffee up.

Darwin’s city buildings are outstandingly some of the ugliest to have ever graced a capital city but it does have one of the best small city museums in Australia and elsewhere, in which still ‘lives’ Sweetheart a six metre crocodile which was drowned in the Daly river when he was being re-located.

I am in Darwin for four days patiently waiting for my parcel and the rest of the road-trip crew. On the morning I am due to pick them up at the airport I call our 4WD hire company to arrange collection of our vehicle. Nathan, the owner tells me the vehicle has disappeared. It is overdue.

My package, courtesy of Australia Post, is also lost in action. The butterfly wings are beating rapidly. I borrow David’s car to pick up my fellow travellers from the airport, warning them that it is highly possible, given the disappearances of cars and parcels, that those losses will are be balanced by the karmic re-appearance of a piece of MH370 that has hitherto been lost in the stratosphere.

We are consigned to another night in Darwin due to the missing vehicle. That night turns out to be the night of NT’s celebration of partial self-government. Only in the NT could they celebrate ‘partial’ self-government (or, in other words the failure to get full self-government).

The night is an excuse for a massive fireworks display. But unlike the rest of Australia where Governments take the nanny state approach to protecting citizens from fireworks injuries, in the NT they take the Darwinian approach of the survival of the fittest. Anyone can buy fireworks and release them pretty well anywhere.

Mine host, David, and partner, Karen, elope from the flat to a hotel in deepest downtown Darwin which is a largely fireworks free zone. They fail to warn us of the coming mayhem. As a result Kaylee and I remain in his flat and are subjected to the biggest bombardment since the RAF murdered thousands in destroying Dresden during World War 2.

We awake in the morning to news of one blinding, a farmer who burned his entire hay store, 70 random bushfires, two house fires and numerous minor burns. It is Darwin hospital’s busiest day of the year. Another glorious celebration of partial self-government.

Our four-wheel drive is still lost. Finally at 2 pm the errant vehicle emerges. The party which was hiring the vehicle lost track of time and distances. Nothing has changed up here since Burke and Wills. And my package is still somewhere between Byron and Darwin. Australia Post can’t even track it since it appears the Byron PO forgot to scan the barcode properly. Byron being Byron, we understand how that happened. And of course it is likely that our friends in the Darwin PO have the same handicap.

Nathan puts us up in a Darwin Hotel while the Nissan is cleaned and serviced ready for our departure. Roger and Jill, our erstwhile travelling companions, demonstrate their long experience of boutique hotels by declaring our neo-3 star hotel as “luxurious”. Gina Rinehart eat your heart out.

Finally next day Nathan arrives at 8 am with the vehicle. We have a quick one-hour demonstration of how everything on the vehicle works which, it subsequently emerges, we all heard quite differently. As a result none of us know what does what. Consequently Roger tries to cook dinner the first night with the fridge. In recognition of my immense ability to lose anything smaller than a truck tyre I am prohibited from looking after the keys or the emergency beacon.

At 10 am we finally depart Darwin.

See the complete set of photos on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/29402953@N02/sets/72157665012654616

 

 

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