Wendy and the Blue Banana bus picked us up from our front door and headed out towards our first stop at Howard Springs. We had picnicked there a week before, so our stay was short, just long enough to feed some prawns to the resident Barramundi and turtles.
We asked Wendy about the origin of the name of her company. She explained that she had seen a bus service named the Blue Banana in Ireland. When the time had come for her to establish her own bus run in Australia, and to give it a name, she had tried various alternatives but none of them had "grabbed" her. So she just stole the name.
Our next stop was at Fogg Dam, a man made wetland and a haven for countless birds. We saw magpie geese, wandering whistling ducks, egrets and ibis, all of which we had seen before, plus two birds that were new to us - the pied heron and the golden headed cisticola. A year later we would buy a book entitled "Where to Find Birds in Australia". When we looked up the cisticola in the book we were amazed to find that one of the best places to find them is at the Long Reef lagoon on Sydney's northern beaches, only a few kilometres from home. They had been under our noses all the time, but we had had to travel to the other side of Australia to find them!
The Blue Banana bus
The Blue Banana then took us over the Adelaide and West Alligator rivers to a lunch beside the Annaburroo Billabong. We could have stayed at Annaburroo, but Karen and I were anxious to get to Kakadu. We crossed the South Alligator river soon after lunch. As we were approaching it, Wendy told us that she often saw salt water crocodiles basking in the sun on the muddy banks of the river. Right on cue, as we drove across the bridge, a big salty climbed out of the water about a hundred metres downstream and deposited himself on the river bank.
The day also included a short stop at the "Window on the Wetlands", a large interpretive centre perched on a small hill overlooking an extensive infestation of mimosa pigra, a highly invasive weed. We eventually reached the Kakadu gates and somewhat reluctantly parted with fifteen dollars each for park entry, then it was on to Jabiru for a quick town tour before Wendy left us at the caravan park. We arranged for a pick-up the following day.
After a quick set-up and cuppa, Karen and I headed for the swimming pool to cool off. The pool was a focal point for most of the caravan park residents. Tables and chairs shaded by large canvas sails dotted the lawned enclosure, and Karen and I made good use of them between sojourns into the pool and down its water-slide. After getting into some dry clothes, we returned to the tables to read, write letters and postcards, and buy a yummy dinner of hot chips from the nearby kiosk. We also added another bird to our list, with the sighting of a partridge pigeon as we walked back to our tent. A surprising percentage of our bird list is comprised of birds first seen in caravan parks.
Overnight showers gave way to a dry day. Karen and I walked seven kilometres out along the road past the airport to the infamous Ranger uranium mine. We had booked on a morning tour, wanting to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about. Both of us are lovers of the natural world, and definitely opposed to projects which cause gross environmental damage, but we saw nothing at the Ranger mine to give us any real cause for concern. The site was remote, well maintained and compact, and the immediate physical damage caused by digging a huge hole in the ground could be repaired in the future. The only lingering doubt we have about the mine is the long term effect of uranium production on the entire planet, not just on a local area of a national park.
At the conclusion of the tour, Karen approached some other members of the tour group and scabbed a lift back to Jabiru for both of us, thus avoiding another seven kilometre walk along a rather boring service road. I tend to be quite reticent when it comes to asking other people for favours, especially total strangers, but Karen wades right in and lets fly. Two classic examples of this occurred when we arrived back in town. Firstly, Karen rang her mother.
"Hi mum. We're in Jabiru, in Kakadu. Yes, we're both well. The weather's hot, we had a bit of rain last night, but today's okay. Guess what - I was talking to Carla from Coke the other day and she has offered me three months work back in Sydney from September to November. Coke are even flying both Brett and I back from Darwin, and then paying for our return to Darwin afterwards. Yeah, it is pretty good. They are also paying me well, providing a company car and parking at the Opera House carpark just like I used to have. There's only one problem. We have not got anywhere to stay. How would you like to put us up for a few months?"
Just like that. Of course, Barbara and Kevin were probably getting used to us dropping in and staying for long periods of time by this stage. After all, we had stayed with them for about a week before we had first embarked on our adventures, between renting out our own house and actually starting the trip. Then we had stayed there for two weeks after returning from working at Lawn Hill and prior to sailing to Lord Howe Island. Another short stay had then ensued before we had stayed with friends in the country for a few weeks to help them with some fencing. After that we had returned for another week or two before starting the current leg of the cycle trip which had now brought us to Kakadu. Home, it is said, is the place where you are never turned away when you knock on the door. There was, however, one small fly in the ointment.
"What's Brett going to be doing when you're at work?" asked Barbara. "I'm not going to have him sitting home watching cable television all day while my daughter goes out to work to support him. If he is going to live here, he had better go out and get himself a job."
Ah, mothers-in-law. Don't you just love them. I suddenly saw my three months holiday back in Sydney going up in smoke. I suggested to Karen that as she did not want to ride down the west coast and I did, and as she was going to be busy for the next few months with work anyway, and as I had no particular desire to go back to work in Sydney, why couldn't I cycle down the west coast by myself. Karen could meet me in Perth when she finished work. Rather than pay for two return airfares from Darwin, Coca-Cola would only have to pay for a single one-way ticket from Darwin, and another single one-way ticket to Perth.
Karen vetoed the idea immediately. No argument. No discussion. No one was riding down the west coast. It was too dangerous, she said. With the option gone, it became obvious that I would have to look for work in Sydney. Karen suggested I ring Roche and ask them if they had any contract work that needed doing. It was not a bad idea, but I told Karen that I would prefer to wait until we got back to Sydney, hoping I could think of a better alternative in the meantime. "And anyhow," I said, a long distance call to Roche would be too expensive. I was deep into living cheaply mode, and the thought of possibly wasting money on a call that might result in no job was too horrible to contemplate. This is when Karen produced her next classic example of the way she tackles problems.
"Why don't you ring Roche and reverse the charges?" she asked.
"You want me to ring a company, reverse the charges and then ask them for a job?"
"Yeah! Why not!?"
"Don't you think it would look pretty cheap?" I asked.
"Maybe, but it's worth a try, don't you think?"
"No, I couldn't do it. I'll wait until we get back to Sydney."
Karen turned around, grabbed the phone and dialled a number.
"Hello. I'd like to make a reverse charge phone call to a Sydney number please." Karen gave the operator the details of the name and number she was after. I was amazed that Karen would actually have the audacity to try a stunt like this and angry that she had not listened to what I had been saying, but amused at the same time. It was typical Karen.
"Hello, Louise. It's Karen Davis here. Thanks for accepting the call. Brett wants to talk to you." Karen shoved the telephone into my hand.
"Hi Lou," I said. "Is there any work going at Roche at the moment?"
"Christ!" said Louise. "You haven't spoken to me in ages, and the first thing you say to me is 'Can I have a job?' How can you do that!?"
"Karen is teaching me..."
By the end of the conversation I had a contracting job back in Sydney too. Karen's mum would be pleased.