Our brief introduction to the intricacies of aboriginal culture was brutally cut short by the arrival at Cooinda of the 1996 Variety Club Bash. The campground was slowly filling with vehicles of all descriptions, the most memorable being a VW Beetle being violated from behind by a large, ugly, papier-mache brown dog.
The VW and the brown dog
Most of the bashers were due the next day, but those that had pulled in early all headed for the pub upon arrival, and therefore missed a very witty slide show given by the same ranger we had spoken with at Ubirr Rock. Alex peppered his commentary with scores of dry remarks. He warned us not to believe everything we heard from non-ranger tour guides, describing some of their more fanciful stories as "bus driver dreaming". The subject of the slide show was crocodiles, and Alex told the story of a ranger who had been attacked by a croc as he lay on the beach in Darwin. It had come out of the surf, grabbed the ranger by the foot, and then let go as it returned to the water. Alex said that if we had bitten into that particular ranger, we would have spat him out too.
Alex showed us a slide of three rangers engaged in the capture and relocation of a large crocodile. Each ranger was suitably attired in standard issue ranger gear and additional protective clothing, and the slide showed them sitting on the croc, which had been immobilised with ropes and nets. Alex chose to comment on the image by saying that it probably confirmed all our ideas about ranger sexuality - dressing up in leather and uniforms and getting into bondage and bestiality! He also offered us the heart-warming statistic that we were more likely to be murdered by our spouses than to be eaten by a crocodile. Since that night I have never looked at Karen in quite the same way.
After the slide show Karen and I wandered up to the pub, lured by the sound of good music. A young guy was performing solo, playing guitar and singing a variety of modern classics, and occasionally throwing in one of his own songs. These suffered in comparison, but were still good enough to keep us around for his whole show. We crawled into bed in the tent after 11pm.
We splurged on a scenic flight the following morning. Karen is not overfond of flying, especially after the traumatic return from Lord Howe Island at the beginning of the year, but she bit the bullet and agreed to the flight. The plane was small, and the day had warmed up sufficiently to provide us with a fairly bumpy ride. Karen felt crook for most of the hour we were on the plane but managed to keep her breakfast down. We flew over Jim Jim Creek, Deaf Adder Gorge, the incredibly intricate Arnhem Land Plateau and passed over Mount Brockman and the Ranger Uranium mine.
The Arnhem Plateau
The mine looked pretty ugly from the air, and when and if it closes down, only time will tell if the scar will ever disappear. The Gagadju Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru, however, built in the shape of a huge croc, can only be truly appreciated from the air, and shortly after we flew over it we reached the South Alligator River where a real crocodile, not much smaller, was gently cruising downstream.
The Gagadju Crocodile Hotel
Almost all of the bashers had arrived by the time we returned to the campground at Cooinda. After lunch and a walk along Home Billabong down to Yellow Waters, Karen and I joined the crowd at the bistro area for the final party of the Bash. The entertainer from last night was performing on an outside stage. He was followed by the Glenn Shorrock Band, which had changed its name to High Voltage as Glenn Shorrock was not around. A few other celebrities were in attendance, however, including Mal Meninga, the former Australian Rugby League captain, and two Olympic gold medallists, swimmer Jon Sieben and weightlifter Dean Lukin. Karen and I rubbed shoulders with the celebs for a while and toasted another minor anniversary. We had departed Sydney on this leg of our travels exactly six months previously.
The Blue Banana took us away from Cooinda the next morning and on to Gunlom Falls. A couple of other people had come and gone from the bus during the trip so far, the latest passenger being a South African psychologist named Stephen. At Gunlom, with Wendy waiting with the bus below, Stephen joined Karen and I for a climb up to the top of the falls where we all cooled off in the rock pools at the edge of the escarpment. We returned to the base of the spectacular waterfall for a look at the plunge pool, similar in many ways to Edith Falls, then it was out of Kakadu and on to Pine Creek for lunch.
Rock pool on the top of Gunlom Falls
We had spent about nine days in Kakadu. Many people had told us that we would be disappointed with the national park, and travellers all over Australia often referred to it as "Kaka-don't", but most of them had not taken the time to absorb the atmosphere, culture and beauty of the park. A day or two simply does not do Kakadu justice. Karen and I still regard it as one of the highlights of our travels.
The three day circuit taken by the Blue Banana bus consisted of Darwin to Kakadu, Kakadu to Katherine, and Katherine to Darwin via Litchfield National Park. From Pine Creek to Katherine Karen and I were now back on familiar territory, having ridden this section of the Stuart Highway only four weeks before. The bus retraced our route, turning off the highway for a brief visit to Edith Falls.
Karen and I re-introduced ourselves to the lady at the kiosk who had advised us where to find the hooded parrots and Gouldian finches. We asked how the bird count had gone. Although she had not been a part of it, she believed it had been moderately successful. She asked us how we had fared. We told her of our sightings, remarking that we had only seen the red-faced variant of the Gouldian Finch, and the kiosk lady clapped her hands together in delight.
"Wait till I see those bird counters again," she said. "I told them about that location, but they didn't think it looked a very likely spot so they went elsewhere. They didn't see one Red-Faced Gouldian Finch in all the time they were here!" That made Karen and I feel pretty good about our bird watching skills until we realised that while the bird counters had seen no Red-Faced Gouldian Finches, we had seen none of the more common variety.
The common Pied Heron
Stephen had intended leaving the bus at Edith Falls to follow a hiking trail which led to Katherine Gorge. He was soon informed by Andrew, the local park ranger, that travel along the trail was permitted in one direction only - from Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls - so Stephen stayed on the bus with Wendy and Karen and me.
Ever since we started travelling, I had been keeping a mental list of all the best looking females we had met. Karen, of course, had been keeping a similar list of males. I can still remember the shop assistant in the Tea Gardens general store, the blonde on the beach at Byron Bay, the East German teenager at Yeppoon, the girl with the tattoo at Cape York, Christina the German therapist for disabled kids at Katherine Gorge ... my list was endless. Karen's list was much, much shorter than mine, either because of an absence in Australia of good looking men, or because Karen is much more discriminating than I am. As far as I could remember, Karen's list consisted of a single entry - a fit, middle-aged guy we had spoken to at Nelson in Victoria. Andrew the ranger, however, doubled the size of Karen's list. After he had gone I spoke to Karen about him.
"Did you happen to notice how good looking the ranger was?", I asked her.
"Did you think so?" Karen replied, popping her tongue back into her mouth and wiping the drool from her chin.
"You mean you didn't notice?!"
"Well, actually, I did kind of notice that he looked alright," Karen admitted sheepishly.
"Alright?!" I said, "he was drop-dead gorgeous!"
"Yeah, he was, wasn't he?" Karen said, a far away look in her eye.
"I reckon," I said. "He made me wish I was gay!" That snapped Karen back to reality.
We stopped for the night at the Katherine Gorge campground. After dinner Wendy produced a cask of red wine, Stephen brought out a bottle of scotch whisky and Karen and I opened a bottle of red we had bought on our way through Katherine earlier in the afternoon. We all enjoyed a good after-dinner conversation until late.
Stephen left us in the morning for his walk to Edith Falls. The Blue Banana picked up Neil from England and Miriam from France and we talked about travel all the way to Douglas Hot Springs, our discussion only interrupted by a brief stop at the historic Grove Hill Pub. Wendy left us all at the Springs, carrying on to Darwin but promising to return the following day.
The Springs lived up to their name - they were HOT! Some pools seemed hot enough to cook in. We scooped water from these with our kettle, and it did not need much additional heating to reach boiling point. In the nearby Douglas River, hot water sprung up through the sand, with some areas too hot to stand. We swam in a deep pool downstream, where the hot spring water had mingled sufficiently with the cold creek water to produce comfortable, lukewarm conditions. The temperature of the water was especially surprising when we discovered that it was produced not by underground volcanic activity, but by the heat of the sun's rays warming surface rocks which in turn warmed the spring water beneath them.
Karen and I will remember Douglas Hot Springs for two entirely different reasons - lizards and toilets. The lizards were Gould's Goannas, probably named after the same bloke as the Gouldian Finch. They were mean buggers, about four or five feet long, and built like concrete crap-houses. A couple of them roamed the campground looking for scraps, obviously accustomed to regular feeds from the campers, and big and ugly enough to take no shit from anyone. One of the goannas was particularly aggressive. It charged at both Karen and myself on separate occasions, and at everyone else that got within cooee of it.
The second reason we will remember Douglas Hot Springs is its toilets. The campground accommodated between one hundred and two hundred people on the night we stayed there, and the sum total of its facilities consisted of two pit toilets and one water tap. I was approaching one of the toilets early in the evening, checking for occupancy through the two inch gap under its corrugated iron walls, when a little boy of about eight raced past me and stopped at the toilet entrance. He took a deep breath and stepped inside. Obviously been here before, I thought. Two seconds later he raced back outside, moving off to a distance of about ten metres where he inhaled and exhaled dramatically.
"Pretty bad, eh?" I asked.
The boy nodded. I went inside. It did not smell any better or worse than any other pit toilet I have experienced over the years. I went about my business, and soon emerged into the fresh air once again. The boy hovered nearby, trying to work up the courage for another visit inside.
"It might have been bad before, kid," I told him, "but it's a lot worse now!"
I love kids.
We were picked up by the Blue Banana at eleven the next morning and transported to Adelaide River for lunch. Karen and I had stopped here only briefly on our cycle north, but now had time for a meal of its famous barramundi and chips. We then visited the War Cemetery, and also had a look at Charlie, the water buffalo that Paul Hogan had mesmerised in the Crocodile Dundee film.
Charlie from Crocodile Dundee
At Batchelor we picked up another passenger - Betty, the estranged wife of Stephen the South African psychologist with whom he had been camped at Cooinda - then it was on into Litchfield national park and a camp at Florence Falls. We walked to a lookout above the falls for a photo, then later on in the afternoon we strolled down to the plunge pool for a swim. Our diary shows the night's activities as "dinner, shower (cold, but warm), mozzies and bed."
A surprising Dry Season rain-storm hit us sometime around 3am. Heavy rain fell intermittently, pinning us in the tent until eight o'clock. I strung our groundsheet from nearby trees using octopus straps and tent strings, and we sat underneath it on rocks to eat our breakfast. The rain cleared by ten. We visited the Buley Rockholes further up Florence Creek, stopping at other cascades and waterholes along the way. Later in the day we walked downstream from the falls, mainly for something to do. If we had had a choice, we would have only spent one night at Florence Falls, but the bus schedule forced us to stay for two.
We expected the Blue Banana at midday and were packed up and ready to go when a long-haired, bearded dude in a four wheel drive hire car rolled up and said "Hi, I'm your lift!" Because of the accident to her husband and repair of the second bus, Wendy had been doing all of the driving for the entire circuit. Only a small number of clients had been scattered along the route, and Wendy had found that she could juggle schedules and passengers and keep everyone happy on her own. Now, however, the business was beginning to pick up, and she had been forced to hire a driver and a vehicle in order to maintain the service.
Shortly after we piled into the back of the troop carrier, Betty spotted the turn-off to the Lost City. The track was dirt, and not a regular part of the bus route, but the replacement driver was a real cowboy and was driving a four wheel drive vehicle, not a mini-bus. After a quick discussion and vote between the passengers, the driver was quite happy to take us in. The road was full of twists and turns along its entire length, but the surface soon changed from good to bad, and then from bad to absolutely diabolical. At one stage I was sure that the vehicle was about to roll. Somehow we remained upright, but when a particularly nasty piece of rutted road appeared in front of us all the passengers quickly agreed to stop and walk the final kilometre into the formations of the Lost City. The rocks were fairly interesting, but something we would have been quite willing to miss if we had known about the state of the road.
We made it back out to the bitumen in one piece and continued on to Tolmer Falls. A colony of rare orange bats lives in the cave behind the impressively high falls, so access to the area has been severely restricted. A photo from the lookout was about all we could accomplish there, so it was on to Wangi Falls for the night.
The campground was packed. We drove around it three times and could not find one vacant campsite. The campground manager was accustomed to the crowds however, and soon had us slotted into a couple of bays which were already over-occupied. Betty was forced to set up her small tent beneath the fold-out extension of a neighbouring caravan. After setting up camp we all walked over to the falls. They were fairly impressive, but after Gunlom Falls, Edith Falls, Florence Falls and Tolmer Falls - all in rapid succession - we were all pretty much sick of falls and soon returned to camp. Later in the evening we attended yet another ranger slide show. According to Karen the slide show and the ranger were both excellent. Two rangers had now been added to her list in less than a week. I would definitely have to get me a uniform!
The night was cold. Karen even snuck into her sleeping bag early in the morning. If I had brought mine with me, I would have done the same, but I had left it in Darwin because it had not been necessary since we had reached the Top End.
Signs at Wangi suggested that the Rainbow Pitta could be found in the area, so Karen and I rose at 7am to follow the Waterfall Walk through the rainforest near the base of the falls in search of this elusive bird. Incredibly, we actually saw one almost immediately! The walk ascended to the top of the falls via a series of steps and platforms. Lookouts over the pool below gave great views of the entire area. We crossed the creek which fed the falls and made our way down to the campground again for a late breakfast.
Karen and I had a long swim in the plunge pool in mid morning, having fun in a deep pool below the left hand fork of the falls about three metres above the main plunge pool, and swimming around to the right hand fall as well. We lunched, packed and waited for a 2pm pick up. Wendy finally arrived at 3:30pm, and a few hours later we arrived "home" to Louise and Nev in Darwin.