Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Auckland

I started to get the feeling at Auckland airport that people are extra friendly in New Zealand. Not that most people haven’t been friendly everywhere in the world, but you can just tell from little things. Like the person you order food from remembering you and giving it to you, instead of calling out a number. Or someone running out to pump gas for you, or bag your groceries at the store! When was the last time you saw a person actually employed bagging groceries (and being damn cheerful about it)? 

All this, and more, was awaiting us. We climbed aboard the airport bus (with announcements in English, Chinese, and Spanish. I wondered about the Spanish—evidently a lot of visitors come over from South America.) But it’s not the recorded announcements that made an impression. It was the extremely helpful bus driver, who introduced himself over the intercom: “Welcome to Skybus. I am your driver, Amman. Please let me know if you’re not sure which stop and I will be happy to help…” Did I mention this was Auckland, NZ’s largest city, with 30% of the country’s population?!

So our welcome was the first thing we noticed about NZ. The second thing was the weather. It is what I would call fall here. As in, leaves fallen on the ground, and cool weather. The rain reminded T. of England or Ireland, not that tropical kind of rain we got in Queensland or the Top End.

Of course, this means it is significantly different in temperature from everywhere we have experienced since Ireland (except at high altitude on Kilimanjaro). I was almost excited to get out some of my layers from that trek. What we didn’t realize, as we settled into our Auckland Airbnb, was that it would be cold enough for a space heater and an electric blanket, both thoughtfully provided. The enormous rectory-style house was colder than the outdoors; I’m sure of it.

We also weren’t expecting a typhoon. Well, I don’t think it was classed as one, but there were window-rattling winds that first night, and we were glad we’d flown in that day rather than the next day. We got up in the morning only to find that in many parts of Auckland, the electricity had gone out. We waited for ages for a bus into town, when finally one of those helpful, friendly New Zealanders popped along and informed those of us at the bus stop that no double-deckers were coming our way. There was a sagging power line up the road that they couldn’t get past.
We saw much worse damage to trees than this.
It was a blessing in disguise that we’d waited so long for a bus, because the rainy weather had broken, and the sun was threatening to shine on Mt. Eden, just opposite. So we walked up. Mt. Eden is the tallest volcano in Auckland and it was quite interesting to walk round the crater.

We also got good views all around Auckland and the harbour.

The mention of volcanoes reminds me that New Zealand is an extraordinarily young country, geologically. It formed and is forming all the time with volcanic eruptions, which I think must be quite disconcerting if you live here. Right now it’s hard to imagine the frothing heat of lava pouring down a mountainside. “It’s really cold for April,” people keep telling us. “You should have been here two weeks ago—it was summer then!”

NZ is also very young in terms of human habitation. Whereas the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia are the oldest continuous culture on earth, human beings have only been living in New Zealand for about a thousand years—which is nothing in historical time. The Polynesian ancestors of today’s Maori were themselves from somewhere else, and they have a better record of survival in the face of European colonization than most native peoples. Part of this is the Maori pursuit of war and treaty with the settlers who followed them, and part of it is the luck of NZ’s distance from other places. For example, a disease such as smallpox devastated North American communities when Europeans (unwittingly) introduced it, as they had no resistance. But these diseases never made it to NZ. It is such a long way from Europe that any sick sailors either died or got better before their voyage was complete.

Back at the bus stop, a young university student came by and told us she was on her way to a place where the buses were running, so we walked with her. She chatted with us the whole time. On the bus itself, we passed a movie theatre, started talking about what was playing, and got recommendations from the woman in the next seat! She worked for the power company herself, yet her power was still off. I am still adjusting to this spontaneous-conversation-from-everyone gig that is life in New Zealand’s biggest city.

We stopped at an outdoor equipment store so T. could buy a couple of thermal items. Not having climbed Kili, she was a little short in the mountain gear department. Eventually, we made it to Auckland Museum.

This neoclassical building is the type of great museum that isn’t fashionable these days: cultural artifacts on the ground floor, natural history above that, and on the top floor, a war memorial. Just to confuse matters, the whole museum is sometimes called the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It won’t surprise my readers that I love this jumbled kind of place. There's a giant Maori canoe downstairs, and upstairs you'll find the ice ax the most famous New Zealander of all, Sir Edmund Hillary, used to ascend Everest.


Skeleton of a moa
NZ’s isolation also gives it a unique evolutionary history. It split from the giant pre-continent comprising Australia, South America, etc. so long ago that no land mammals evolved here, except bats. Many of the roles played by mammals in other parts of the world are, or were, filled by unique birds. The various flightless types of moa are, sadly, extinct today.

NZ, or at least some of its outlying islands, also has a native lizard I remember reading about in my childhood: the tuatara. The tuatara has been around since dinosaurs were alive, and is distinct from any other living reptile. As far as I can see, the only reason the tuatara is not called a dinosaur is because dinosaurs are considered, by definition, extinct!

The war memorial part of the Auckland Museum was moving too. New Zealand punched far above its weight in wars of the British Empire, of which it was part (it even contributed to the American war in Vietnam). 
Anzac Day is coming, and poppies are being sold.

Most devastating of all was the First World War. At a time when NZ had only one million people, 100,000 men were abroad fighting the Great War—ten percent of the entire population.

Some wars, like the First World War, look more wasteful looking back on them in history. No doubt some genuinely believed that they were fighting a war to end all wars, but two decades later, the next generation marched past those war memorials (every town has one) to fight in the Second World War.

Looking back at the end of this war, by contrast, people must have had a stronger sense of what it was all for, as the full extent of Nazi atrocities became clear. This point is made well by an exhibition now on at the Auckland Museum, on the life of Anne Frank. Anne Frank’s story is well known through her famous diary. Primo Levi, himself a Holocaust survivor, is quoted at the exhibition as saying:
"One single Anne Frank  moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people , we would not be able to live."
The exhibition has many pictures of the Franks and those in their circle that I had never seen before, and goes on to quote a number of young people today on their experiences of prejudice, and the need to fight it. What I always find most moving about these stories is what we learn about those who did not have to go into hiding themselves, who were not Jewish, and yet took great risks to help people like the Franks. One of those, a colleague of Otto Frank, was Victor Kugler. He and another helper were put in concentration camps for their efforts, but survived the war. I always marvel at these types of responses when people like Kugler are asked what motivated them to help.

We made the most of Auckland in our limited time, but a Hi-Top awaited us. That was the type of camper van we took from Melbourne to Hobart, and we liked it so much we thought we’d do it again on the North Island. The remarkable friendliness of Kiwis continued at the rental place, where the guy helping us went over everything on paper (instead of making us fill things out ourselves on an iPad, as in Australia) and took his time showing us everything thoroughly. 

Handily, I’d seen a road atlas (and a lot of other good books) in Time Out bookstore the evening before. Right there in Mt. Eden, our neighborhood. It seems like ages since T. and I went to an independent bookstore, but they have some in Auckland. Get shopping! 

Then when we went to get sandwiches, we were talking about which route to take out of the city, so of course the man in front of us in line started talking to us. He and T. were so friendly that the woman serving asked if she was his wife! Then, corrected as to her mistake, she apologized—to me. 
Maybe she’d been on the horn to the Tiwi Islanders in Darwin.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Crossing borders: Australia to New Zealand

On our flight from Darwin to Sydney I was sitting in the middle seat as usual. The guy in the aisle seat, and the woman in the opposite aisle seat, were American. I heard them talking loudly, but that’s not how I knew they were American; one has to talk loudly to be heard across the aisle of a plane.

Darwin, even today, has a large military population and some of these are from the U.S. I’m not sure what the Marines are doing there, but the folks on the plane had been out with one the night before, and were laughing about the culture shock of someone “who’s never been outside the U.S.” On one thing they agreed with him though: restaurant service in Australia. “You have to order your own food at the counter!” “And then you have to go up to the counter and pay!” “And no tip!” Well yes, that’s your 15% savings for having to do it yourself. “I might as well have stayed home!”

Swimming pool opposite [some of] the Australian navy
I’m not sure what their business was in Australia, but they were funny to listen to. We were on our way to Sydney for a few days of R&R. I don’t mean by that the military euphemism, but a few days when we weren’t either 1) on the road, or 2) boiling hot. Just the ability to be outside without 95% humidity was a treat. Our cousins are out of the country for Maya and Ryan’s wedding, but their friend was housesitting and proved to be a more enthusiastic walker than I am! We walked all the way into Sydney and around the Botanic Gardens, finishing up outside our old haunt the Opera House. It was lovely.

Not content with having walked and taken the train across Sydney Harbour Bridge, the next afternoon we thought we’d explore it in a different way. Many years ago, T. had a ride on the back of a Harley motortrike in Sydney, and when we were here in February I considered doing it, but they were about to close for the day. This time we were in luck. Billy took us flying across the Harbour Bridge and back, spinning around a little on the side roads too. We paid for a fifteen-minute ride but he gave us extra, after stopping at the gas station for fuel. We drew a lot of attention there, and were so busy waving at people that Billy had to remind us to hold on before he took off again. It was faster than a tuk-tuk but then, we had motorcycle helmets and seat belts in Australia.
 We had other business in Sydney. Our friends Kim and Ibon and their daughter Kailani were expecting an addition to their family, and we got to meet her. Amelia had been born just four days before.
The weather was warm, but not too hot, and we enjoyed riding the ferry and seeing the harbour from many angles. But there was one more reason for us coming back to Sydney, and that was onward flights out of the country. Our online visas for Australia allow us to enter the country multiple times in twelve months, but we are only allowed to stay for three months at a time. And that was about to finish. What better excuse to book a trip to a country neither of us had ever visited before: New Zealand?

Now, we’d booked tickets to Auckland before we ever landed in Australia, because technically, the immigration authorities can ask to see evidence that you will leave the country within the allowed three months. Because we did not raise any red flags with the profilers, we ended up entering Australia without any of those questions, but we had this trip anyway—two weeks for which we hadn’t planned or researched whatsoever. And in our months in Australia, we’d gotten pretty slack. Domestic flights half the time don’t even involve an I.D. check, so we showed up at the Sydney airport all casual. I can’t even remember the last time we printed out any documentation.

Don’t make this mistake, Discreet Travelers. The airline wouldn’t check us in without proof that we would leave New Zealand. Our flight back is with a different airline, so it wasn't showing up as a round trip on their computer. Fortunately the airport’s free WiFi was working and T. managed to find it in her e-mail. Then the airline started insisting that T’s visa was about to expire, which was not correct. Her three-month stay was about to expire, but the visa gave us permission to enter multiple times until July, which T. eventually found in another e-mail. The airline official still had to get on the phone to immigration to confirm this, which made me wonder why their system didn’t show an accurate expiration date. This must happen all the time. (I don’t know why my visa didn’t raise similar issues. Canadian passport holders get something slightly different, though the terms are the same.)

Luckily we were at the airport in plenty of time. We finally got checked in, and I flew across the Tasman Sea wondering what hardass New Zealand border officials had in store for us. In the event, we didn’t even speak to one—just swiped our passports through an electronic gate! It was the easiest border crossing I ever remember. The only person we spoke to was a customs official, who was more interested in whether T’s gumdrops or our hiking boots raised any problems (they didn’t). Discreet travelers note: It can be the airline who has all the concerns about an onward ticket, visa, etc.—in case you get turned back at the border and have to return on their flight. We ran into this in South Africa and Mauritius as well.

I can’t leave Australia without mentioning the security official who, like many people we encounter now, had a look at the many flag patches on my daypack. “Hungary,” she said, “Slovenia. Where is Croatia?”

I recognized this woman’s accent. I heard it from the stewardesses on Croatian Airlines, who were much more direct with ignorant passengers than the usual “As the seat belt sign is still switched on…” “Will you please sit down!” I remember them saying. I assured the woman that I had been to Croatia, just not on this trip.

“That is discrimination against me,” she said solemnly. Of course, I was still in her line and hadn’t made it through the machine yet, so it was important to have a sense of humor. I actually get a kick out of these folks caring whether I’ve been to their country, and chatting for a moment about it. It makes a human interaction out of an otherwise dehumanizing process.

And so, we entered New Zealand for two weeks. Something we’ve learned on four continents now: However much we travel, we only ever get a taste of whatever country or region we're visiting. We never check off “bucket list” items on our travels; we only add more places.

So we already know that we are not trying to get everywhere in New Zealand, but just get a taste. This time. People keep saying “Ah, there are so many places to see, especially on the South Island”—even when we tell them we’re limiting ourselves to the North Island! But that is the way these travels have been. No matter how many months we spent in Asia, people want to know why we didn’t go to India or some other country. No matter how many European flags I have on my pack, what about Croatia?

The road trip through central Australia taught us not to try to cover so much distance next time, but to slow down and enjoy places more, rather than more places.
Auckland airport. Any Lord of the Rings fans know who this is?
And here, I have to acknowledge the arbitrariness of the “six continents” that we are visiting. Europe and Asia are by convention two continents, although anyone can see that they aren’t separated by an ocean, rather joined by Turkey and Russia. Likewise, this part of the world has Australia, a continent by convention, and a lot of other islands. Some of those islands are Australia, some are various South Pacific countries, and some are New Zealand.

What to call #4? The term Oceania is the most accurate one used to denote the part of the world containing Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, etc. I’ve never actually heard it said out loud. Anyway, we are here. And maybe it’s just as well there’s not a good way to lump Australia and New Zealand together, just because they are in the same geographic region of the world. Because as much as they are associated by people from far away—i.e., everywhere else—they are immensely different countries.

This shouldn’t surprise me. Immigrating to Canada from the U.S.A. was a steep learning curve in how different two English-speaking cultures can be. And having been steeped in Australian accents for months, I can clearly hear the difference in a New Zealand accent now. Doesn’t mean I’d have any confidence identifying someone from here or there abroad, though. I have to listen to certain sounds just to distinguish Americans from Canadians! Maybe that’s because I’m both.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Darwin, Northern Territory

As we rolled towards Darwin on the last day of our road trip, we noticed many signs for World War II airstrips along the route. Like many non-Australians, before I came here I was almost completely ignorant of Australia’s role in the war. Associating Australians with the British, I imagined they had fought in Europe. But the British Empire encircled the globe at that time, and as we saw in Hong Kong and Singapore, it was very much part of the Pacific war.

So there are many signs in the Northern Territory of Australia’s defense against being invaded by Japan. Oh, and it was bombed. The same Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor bombed Darwin in February 1942. But twice as many bombs were dropped on Darwin, and the bombing of Australia continued through 1943.
During the Vietnam war some of the U.S.’s allies were critical of decisions to bomb Indochina. Perhaps it was because those countries had memories of all the bombs that had been dropped on them. For all the American planes that have flown over other countries dropping bombs, it’s only happened to the U.S. once. But of course American ships were among the targets in Australia, and we got to learn more about them at an excellent, though quirky, museum. The “Willy B” and its commander both escaped skilfully; the U.S.S. Peary was not so fortunate. She was sunk on 19 February 1942 in Darwin harbor. 

There’s a memorial to the Peary along the esplanade. We tried to find it, but access was cut off by tree damage from a cyclone only a few weeks before. As we were to discover, periodic cyclones are a curse of Darwin’s climate. 

The real curse, though, is 95% humidity. I don’t know if it was exhaustion from our road trip (I hadn’t felt well for the last few days of it) but I do not remember ever being hotter than I was in the Top End. We have been followed by weird weather as have many people in the world these past few months: narrowly escaping the flooding in Queensland, just missing the warm beach weather in Adelaide. In the local Darwin paper I saw reports that it was the most humid April in 60 years. Given that the temperature was already in the 90s F, you can imagine it was pretty enervating.

Our first day in town was Good Friday, and the hop-on, hop-off bus guy offered us a deal: two days’ tickets for the price of one. Most attractions were closed on the holiday anyway. So the first day we just spent riding around in the breeze and checking out where we might like to go on Saturday. We were staying at an exceptionally nice Airbnb, where our hosts offered us home-cooked Thai food and even Easter chocolate! Not that we could eat the latter until Sunday, as T. solemnly forbade it.

As mentioned, there was a quirky museum on the harbor. It combines a virtual-reality experience of the bombing of Darwin with the seemingly unrelated history of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. I don’t really get the VR thing, especially given how heavy the gear is on one’s head, but T. seemed to get a kick out of it. Then we were treated to a hologram of Etheridge Grant, the U.S. commanding officer who was separated from his ship, the U.S.S. William B. Preston, yet survived the bombing. It was an interesting perspective and one of the few North American accents I’d heard in weeks.

The other hologram at the museum was of John Flynn, narrating his vision of what became the Flying Doctor Service. I had been intrigued by Flynn’s accomplishment since seeing the memorial to him at the Threeways junction.

At the museum one can climb inside a plane that was used by the flying doctors. It really brings home the life-and-death difference the mission has made to people living in far-flung parts of this land mass. Nothing makes you realize the vastness of a country like driving across it.

The other museum we went to was the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. It has the twin benefits of being free and coolly air conditioned—we appreciated both! The gallery had a number of exhibitions including contemporary Aboriginal art. The art works varied greatly in theme and material, but one of the most striking was this bust of Captain James Cook, by Jason Wing. 
A bust of Cook is on display in Sydney, representing the founding of Australia from a European perspective. The artist wanted to depict the face of colonization from another perspective: as armed robbery. To complete the picture, he surrounded Captain Cook by copies of some of the online criticisms he received on the work, showing how powerful people’s emotions still are about narratives of the past. Confederate statues come to mind.

There are several other exhibits in the museum including one of “Sweetheart,” a 5-meter estuarine crocodile who attacked many boats (but not people) in the area in the 1970s. An attempt to capture Sweetheart and rehome him in a sanctuary was botched somehow, and the ironically named crocodile was drowned. He became more famous in death than in life and is still one of the big hits of the museum today.

The other big story of Darwin also took place in 1974. Cyclone Tracy hit during the wee hours of Christmas morning, destroying more than 70% of the city’s buildings. Sixty-five deaths were blamed on Tracy but I find it surprising there weren’t more. The postwar rebuilding of Darwin had resulted in many houses on stilts with entirely louvered walls, to let in cross breezes and keep out the fiercest sun. Almost none of these could survive the direct force of a storm like Tracy.  

The combination of bombings by imperial Japan, and Cyclone Tracy thirty years later, means that there are few old buildings in Darwin. Some, such as four houses still standing at Myilly Point,  are the only surviving pre-war houses of their kind. Others, such as the old town hall, stand as ruins themselves, a kind of memorial to Tracy.

The next day, Easter Sunday, found me in Christ Church Cathedral. The only part of the Anglican cathedral that remains from the early twentieth century is its porch. On top of this, a large, incongruous post-Tracy church has been rebuilt. But buildings still have to acknowledge the climate: the walls of the church were wide open to let some cooling air in.

Darwin is a small city, with only about 120,000 people. For its size, it is surprisingly diverse, with many communities ranging from Greek to Timorese. It also has one of the largest Aboriginal populations of any Australian city, and this diversity was apparent from the moment I walked in, on the face of the greeter. In fact I can’t remember being part of such a rainbow congregation. The saying in the States used to be that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week. Well, in Darwin, church was at 9:00—any later and it would have been just too stifling!

Unlike Christmas carols, Easter hymns are limited in number, which means that pretty much anywhere I am on Easter Sunday, English speakers are going to sing “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today.” There is nothing like a little Charles Wesley to get me going. A bonus was the Handel tune recast as “Thine Be The Glory,” plus some organ playing of Messiah during communion time. The organist, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, played “I know that my Redeemer liveth”and “He shall feed his flock.” It was a wonderful celebration, with lots of kids present. But as I said, it was already uncomfortably hot.

Our hosts amazed us again on Sunday afternoon by cooking a roast dinner. Between the heat and whatever else was draining me, it had been some days since I’d been able to enjoy my food, let alone a glass of wine. But my appetite came through on Easter and we were made very much at home.

It does seem wrong that we spent a week in Darwin and never made it to Kakadu National Park. Kakadu is the famous place in this part of the world, but as I discovered, it’s too rushed to do from Darwin in a day; we’d have needed a multiday tour and to stay in the park. After all our driving, we weren’t up to getting another vehicle and visiting Kakadu on our own. There was also the matter of its being the wet season. Until the Dry kicks in, the Wet makes many roads four-wheel-drive only, or impassable. Finally, there’s the small matter of not being able to swim in Kakadu. At all. The waters are full of estuarine crocodiles, poor Sweetheart’s salty friends. And the heat was so oppressive that a day without swimming seemed impossible, even if only in the pool downstairs.

Our hosts recommended a closer and more doable day trip, to Litchfield National Park. We had an eclectic tour group—backpackers, a family with five kids, an older couple who were taking the Ghan train. We also had a manic tour guide who teased the kids and was full of seemingly endless information about the land. This guy has the kind of life that’s a story in itself: half the year he works really hard in Darwin, living out of a motor home. The rest of the year he goes traveling until his money runs out, snowboarding in Japan and things like that. “I’d rather be semiretired my whole life than retire at the end of my life,” he said.

We started our day at the Adelaide River, not to be confused with Adelaide. The town of Adelaide River has the largest cemetery of Australians killed during the bombings in World War II. But on the river itself, the attraction is seeing crocodiles in the wild.
Everybody who works on these crocodile cruises is a young woman. Maybe they’re the only ones with the nerve. I’m not sure how I feel about crocodile feeding although they say they do this in a sustainable way, making the crocs jump enough times to burn off the energy in the meat, so they don’t stop hunting for food in the normal way. It’s certain that I wouldn’t want to get up close to a crocodile under other circumstances.

Unlike the “salties,” freshwater crocodiles are not aggressive and flee human beings. That doesn’t mean I want freshies in my swimming area, though. Fortunately, Litchfield had some swimming holes that were croc-free, so we finally got a dip in the waters of the Top End. And welcome it was, too, in the relentless heat.

We swam at Buley Rockhole, an old-fashioned place where kids could jump off a rock into the plunge pool below. Later some of us hiked down to the bottom of Florence Falls. It took some strong swimming to get behind the falls. The hike back up was called Shady Creek and once again, the shade was welcome. We saw a lot of plant life on this walk, as well as birds and a large monitor lizard—one of the crocodile’s harmless relations.

Another feature of the Northern Territory landscape was the large number of termite mounds. We'd seen a lot of these on the side of the highway, some dressed in old shirts, which was a weird tradition. In Litchfield National Park we saw a particularly large example of a "magnetic" mound, found only in Australia. The termites build these so that the ridge facing north--which gets the fierce afternoon sun in the southern hemisphere--is the narrowest and gets the least heat from the sun, keeping the mound comfortable. I always thought of termites as insects that ate wooden houses, but there are many species here and they play a vital role in returning nutrients to the land.

Later in the week we decided to borrow our hosts’ bicycles and explore East Point Reserve. These kindly offered bikes were quite fancy mountain models, and to be honest, I was a lot more comfortable on junky one-speeds in Thailand and Vietnam. Nonetheless, we pedaled on past the Botanic Gardens and along the beach, whereupon the heavens opened! It was a real tropical thunderstorm, so we sought shelter at the only structure nearby: the public toilets.

As we reached the park, we could hear a group of people whose conversation was constant and very loud. “Those women are just fighting!” T. remarked; but a short while later, we saw that they were dancing. It reminded me of Cher telling the story of when she first met Sonny Bono’s family, and a fight broke out on the doorstep. Then she realized they were just saying hello.

We got to talking with this group, because they came to the toilet block for shelter also. We learned that they were from the Tiwi Islands. One of them, who introduced himself as Tim, had really been through the wars: he had facial burns and had lost his hands, so we fist-bumped. Upon learning that T. is from England, he called us “Poms” and said that they, i.e., Australia, would “kick your arse in the Ashes.” It’s a cricket thing.

One of the woman introduced another as “my wife,” by which we think she meant sister-in-law. T. responded by indicating me and saying “My wife!” This isn’t a term we use, but it certainly got Tim’s attention. By this time the rain was coming down so hard that we had to shelter in the women's bathroom. The mixed-sex group of people all crowded into the the one neutral bit of territory.

Where else would you want to party during a tropical thunderstorm but a disabled loo? We were almost sorry when the storm petered out and we had to finish our conversation. While Americans have the misfortune of always being asked about the president, British people abroad tend to get asked about the latest royal wedding. “I love Prince Harry,” our new friend with the “wife” enthused. “But Meghan got there first!”

It was unexpected fun hanging out with the Tiwi Islanders, but we hadn’t gotten to swim in the artificial salt lake, as we’d planned. You can’t swim in the sea around Darwin because of—you guessed it—crocodiles (plus stinging jellyfish and other tropical nasties). We made up for this by spending our last afternoon at the wave lagoon. Darwin, on the Timor Sea, doesn’t really get waves, except of course when a cyclone hits.

The many Asian and other communities in Darwin, which is just a short hop from Indonesia after all, mean that the city is blessed with an extraordinary variety of restaurants. I’m not sure we did the selection justice, but we did enjoy some wonderful tapas and sangria at a place called Moorish. And we could not resist going back to the R.S.L., the Returned and Services League of Australia. 

The R.S.L. exists, or is supposed to exist, in every town. Our friend Dev runs hers in their town, and the Alice Springs one used to have a museum of World War II history, at the base of Anzac Hill. Shockingly, we discovered it was closed. We had better luck with the dinner specials in Darwin.

We had a great time at the Top End of the Northern Territory, given the limitations of the Wet. It would be nice to be here a month or so later and catch the beach markets, or the Thai festival our host was rehearsing to be part of, or the renowned sunsets (Darwin is on a peninsula stretching southwest out into the water). And the hospitality here is extraordinary. Darwin has that small-town feeling and people are extra friendly compared with other cities, even just working in the shops.

But when the heat has outweighed the sunset, it’s time to move on to more moderate climes.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Kilometers driven: 3,826. Animals hit: 0 (not counting flies)

The best decision of this road trip was to press on to the Ayers Rock Campground before evening, giving us the next full day at the national park. Even though it made for a long day, it was worth it to get set up and relaxed before glimpsing our first sunset at Uluru. “The Rock” is iconic, one of the most famous images of Australia. But what I hadn’t even heard of before this trip was Kata Tjuta, the other area of the park, and these formations (also called the Olgas) are every bit as stunning.
Since stewardship of these landmarks has been joint between the Anangu people and Parks Australia, there are restrictions on staying overnight in the park itself. Climbing Uluru has not actually been banned, although it’s always being talked about, because the Anangu don’t believe in climbing it and a lot of people who do climb have been overcome by heat exhaustion or even died. There are spiritual reasons why the traditional custodians of Uluru don’t want people to climb it, but they wouldn’t have to tell me. In those ridiculous temperatures? Another excellent reason for getting there the night before was that before 11:00 in the morning is the only reasonable time to hike.

As it was, we got in plenty before the best part of the day was gone. A lookout five minutes’ walk from our campsite showed Uluru and Kata Tjuta at sunset.
Uluru
We’d seen some amazing stars on our journey, but nothing compares to the night sky over Uluru. Even though we’d emerged from a seemingly deserted highway to find that the world had descended on Yulara, it’s not a city, and there’s no light pollution to obscure the southern sky. Looking up at night, I felt like I could fall into the Milky Way. I’d never seen a sky like that before, even in rural Ireland.

The next morning, instead of being hours’ drive away, we got up before dawn and made our way (carefully!) to a viewing point to watch the sunrise.
As we drove around to different viewing points, Uluru seemed to follow us, appearing different colors at different times of day and more spectacular from each angle. I suppose one of the reasons it’s always seemed special is that it rises alone from the plain. The Anangu believe that sacred ancestral beings created Uluru and Kata Tjuta in the dream time.

Kata Tjuta from the sand dune viewing area
We made our way further down the highway to Kata Tjuta, which I’d read actually has the best walking in the park. Certainly there were fewer people there. First we enjoyed blessed shade in the gorge called Walpa.

It was only 10:00 and we hadn’t worn ourselves out yet, so T. suggested the first part of the Valley of the Winds. This whole hike is 4 vigorous hours return, but the first part goes to Karu Lookout and was worth doing in itself.

As I’d suspected, the rest of the circuit was closed from 11:00 as the temperature was forecast to hit at least 36 degrees C again! We were starting to get uncomfortable already, so we walked back and went to the Cultural Centre. On the way, we were confronted by probably the most famous view of Uluru—the angle crowds gather to photograph at sunset.

The Cultural Centre requests no photographs, but I can give you the gist of the Anangu story. Their tradition has been handed down orally since time immemorial, and now that the administration of the park is a cooperative effort, black and white are working together. Equal. Seems like such a simple and obvious thing.

We watched Aboriginal artists at work there. You can buy paintings, but the proceeds from everything you buy at the shop goes to the local indigenous community. Even the exceptionally nice lamington, a kind of sponge cake popular in Australia, that we tried at the coffeeshop. 

It was too hot to do anything in the afternoon so we just hung out in the campground pool! Once again, I was glad we’d come the day before and had the best part of the day to spend here.

The next day we made our way back to Erldunda Roadhouse, at the junction of the Lasseter and Stuart Highways. Kids running barefoot through the parking lot were another image of contemporary Aboriginal life. I learned more at our next stop, the Alice Springs Desert Park. While we had passed riverbed after riverbed that all appeared completely dry, I now know that that is true only on the surface. Aboriginal people know where to find “soaks,” areas of water in the creek bed, identified by which plants are growing there. It occurred to me that traditional knowledge is just a different kind of knowledge; it may not be valued properly by those who don’t recognize it. I’m sure Aboriginal people had no reason to value knowledge of firearms, until they faced guns in battle.

It is the misfortune of many indigenous Australians today to know four or even five languages, while living in a society where their fourth or fifth language—English—is the one that counts economically. If they lived in Europe and knew that many languages…but such is the unfairness of the world. Anyway, we saw a brighter side of contemporary Australia when we finally hit the big town of the centre, Alice Springs. Uncle’s Tavern, named after “Uncle” Ly Underdown in the 1950s, was a place where black and white were equally welcome, back when that was hardly the norm. It’s still a nice place with a diverse staff and clientele today.
Didgeridoo and beer list, Uncle's Tavern
Alice Springs was a bit of a shock, with the first traffic lights since Port Augusta (not to mention the first chain restaurants). The Desert Park was a nice place to visit in the afternoon. It features a nocturnal exhibit with many mammals and reptiles, some no longer found in the wild on mainland Australia. I was especially taken with the python, because we’d bought a small “dot” painting of Python Woman the day before. The price was reduced because we could only buy sections of the python—someone had already bought her head!

While we were at the park, a big group of people swooped in, like the birds of prey, and their tour guides kind of took over. These were the passengers on the Ghan, the (pricey) passenger train that runs all the way from Adelaide to Darwin, like us. I imagine it must be a very different experience to see the country from a train window and be taken everywhere. T. was less impressed with the Desert Park since no dingoes were to be found in the dingo area, and I’m starting to doubt the existence of dingoes myself. Emus, on the other hand, are everywhere.
Doug, local guide, gives a briefing at the Desert Park
The birds—magpie, barn owl, hawk owl, wedge-tailed kite—were impressive. I was glad we’d already seen so many of them in the wild (if the “wild” in the magpie’s case was Celia’s backyard!) After the park we went up Anzac Hill.

Anzac, of course, comes from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, but now refers to all armed forces personnel from this part of the world. Anzac Hill is a solemn memorial to all the wars in which Australians have served, and there have been many. I found this the most sobering:

A sign there says that Vietnam was the longest conflict in which Australians have been involved, but that is no longer true.

The hill is also a great lookout over Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges to its east and west.

There’s a lot to see in Alice Springs. We did our best to sample it, going by the historic telegraph station. The Alice was the first European settlement in central Australia, and it was through here that the Overland Telegraph Line, from Port Augusta all the way up to Darwin, first connected Australia with the outside world in hours, rather than months.

Before leaving Alice Springs, I have to make mention of our campground, Wintersun Caravan Park. We pulled in and I asked the woman at reception,“Have you got any caravan sites?” (Note British diction—I’ve been misunderstood saying tomayto and things over here.)

“We have lots of caravan sites,” she said. “And some of them are empty!”

“In that case, I wish I needed two.” (She found her own joke funny so it seemed only polite to laugh along.)

I regret not getting to know anything about lesbian and gay Alice Springs, as the town is supposed to be the mecca of central Australia in that respect. We got to town too late to visit the lesbian-owned cafe, and the Alice is Wonderland festival is no longer held post-Mardi Gras, as it was in the early 2000s. Nowadays, Alice celebrates Pride in September instead. Fans of Priscilla will recall that the road trip destination in that movie, and its eponymous bus, was Alice Springs.

But we were on the road again, and although it would be some time before the desert outback gave way to the familiar humidity, we did stop at the actual latitude of the Tropic of Capricorn.

We had a long way to drive to our stop on day 6, but we did take a short loop off the highway to view Karlu Karlu, also known as the Devil’s Marbles.

There’s a signposted walk from the parking lot and it’s supposed to take twenty minutes, but it didn’t even take us that long. Which was fortunate, because it was hotter by that afternoon than it had been in the morning at Uluru.
T. for scale
Tennant Creek was the next town of any significant size. Just based on the people walking around on the street, I got the sense of a large Aboriginal population. We only stopped to get diesel, though, as fuel is supposed to be more expensive at our overnight stop—the Threeways Roadhouse.

There were no black faces at Threeways. There was, however, an interesting mix of truckers and travelers, at the junction where the north-south Stuart Highway meets the Barkly Highway to Queensland. One group of people we met at the campground was traveling all the way from Bundaberg (seems so long ago now!) to Alice Springs via these highways. They were headed for a big archery competition there.

We already knew that more than five hundred people were participating in this competition, as someone at the Yulara campground had also been headed there. In this particular convoy was a woman who competed in the Commonwealth Games; unfortunately, this year’s Games on the Gold Coast do not include the elective sport of archery. One of the guys in the group proudly showed off her tattoo: “Delhi 2010. That’s our girl!”

The roadhouse bar was full of truckers dressed in orange. I can’t decide if the one woman trucker or the archer was more butch (and you know that’s a compliment coming from me). They were all pretty friendly but the chattiest was the other woman in the bar, who I think was just hanging out with her friends. In any case, we instantly doubled the female population of the bar. It was a relaxed place and I can only imagine the long, lonely days of someone who drives a 60-wheeled monster on this highway for pay.
T. asked if anybody minded her taking pictures
Before we left the Threeways junction, we paused at the memorial to John Flynn, founder of what is now the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The Reverend Flynn was a Presbyterian minister whose vision was for "a mantle of safety" over the remotest part of Australia.

By the time we got to Katherine, I was ready to “glamp,” and we did just that at Knotts Crossing. They have a motel and cabins, but we got a campsite, complete with our own toilet and shower “en suite.” They also had a restaurant and bar beside a very nice pool. Sheer luxury!

After our swim, we spent some time at the poolside bar, where I had one of the more surreal experiences of our travel. The bartender was from Singapore, which was a change after the outback, and before I could ask about his country of origin, he asked about mine. This happens sometimes when T. orders a Budweiser and I want to explain that it isn’t for me, but in any case he pegged me as being from the U.S., and so of course wanted to talk about the president. I said no more than “Well…” and off he went about the Clinton “scandals” and how one thing he thought Tweeter did right was to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, because he, the Singaporean barman, was a Christian. Try to keep up.

I should have taken the opportunity to say I do pray for our leaders but I was waiting for T’s beer, and so I just said something noncommittal about nobody being all bad (which may not even be true). Then the barman said he had heard that the vice president, Mike Pence, was a very strong Christian, and we need someone standing up for Christian values. Don’t we?

Well really, what could I say? How could I possibly convey to a devout Singaporean barman what Pence’s Christian values mean to a gay exile from America? In any case, there was little opportunity for me to speak. The barman was still marveling that although many Australian people and some European backpackers come through Katherine, “only once in a blue moon” does someone from America stop by. And he threw in a free bag of chips, and brought over a big pitcher of cold water, as if he’d just been reading Matthew 10:42 that morning. “Whoever gives…even a cup of cold water” —proving, once again, that the lasting impression of someone’s faith isn’t what he says he believes, but how he treats others.

The surreal part was that the entire time we were there, country songs were playing in the bar, such as I used to hear growing up in Tennessee. It was nostalgic and at the same time a little bit creepy, under the circumstances.*

At Leilyn (Edith Falls)
And so we emerged at the Top End, with one side trip into Katherine Gorge/Nitmiluk National Park. We didn't have time to swim in the upper pool, and the lower pool was closed because of crocodiles anyway! But we did hike up to the top of the falls, between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning. It must have been the humidity but it was the hottest I'd been on the road trip, possibly in my life.
Upper pool
There were a couple of things I learned from our taste of the outback. First, and we knew this going in, was that it was only a taste. The outback is absolutely enormous and most of it is only accessible by four-wheel-drive. There are vast deserts and tracks that require you to carry all your own fuel, water, everything. But even if you’re not that adventurous, with enough time and a well-prepared 4WD vehicle, the sky is literally the limit out there.

The other thing was that we could easily have spent twice as much time doing the trip that we did. Coober Pedy and Katherine could use at least a full day (there are great day trips from the latter), and Alice Springs more. And everybody told us to go to Kings Canyon, but it just wasn’t a feasible diversion given our constraints of time and 2WD. If I were to do this again, I would find a way to build in those extra days. If nothing else, having to put in all that driving was tiring, although we saw memorable things every day along the way.
*