The Bungle Bungles

We sat on the warm rocks overlooking the red escarpment. As the sun started to set the escarpment lit up in a series of oranges and reds. It was the perfect end to a wonderful few days in the Bungle Bungles, or now more correctly known as the Purnululu National Park. The National Park consists of a series of gorges or chasms and is most famous for its bungles a series of banded sandstone domes that some people describe as looking like Jaffa cakes. These unusual features were supposedly only discovered by the "white fella" in the 1980s as they are in quite a remote part of the Kimberley. Although the main highway goes relatively close by it's a rough 60km track across creek beds to get to the National Park. The park is world heritage listed for two main features - the areas incredible natural beauty and its outstanding geological value.  We had left Edith Falls the previous week and headed to Katherine Gorge where we had hoped that we would be able to go canoeing up the gorge. When we arrived though the water level in the river was still too high and they had not yet performed the checks for crocodiles so we had to content ourselves with a walk to admire the gorge instead. We headed west on a fairly long drive to the small town of Kunnunura. As we neared the town we crossed over the border into Western Australia where we had to turn the clocks back one and a half hours. This made no sense to us as it would now be getting dark at 5.30pm and then light again at 5.30am in the morning. So we decided to have our own time and just move the clocks back 30 minutes. It's not exactly as if we are doing much where we need to know the real time anyway. Although Kunnunura is only a small town it's the only town of any size for hundreds of kilometres so was a good base to stock up. One thing we needed to stock up with was beer. We had become used to the fact that alcohol was harder to buy in parts of the Northern Territories and Western Australia in order to curb alcohol problems in the local community but did not realise just how hard it was going to be. After finishing our shopping it was still too early to buy beer from the bottle store so we headed to the campground. As it was only a kilometre walk back to the bottle shop I headed back there that afternoon. When I went to pay I was asked whether was I in my car. When they found out I wasn't they politely said they could not sell it to me as they could only sell take away drinks to people in vehicles so I rather angrily returned to the campsite got in the truck and drove back to the bottle shop. Now confidently I returned to the counter with my beer. Having established I was in a vehicle they then asked me for identification. Now I know I still look pretty young but it must be 30 years since I have been asked for my ID when buying a drink. To be fair for some reason there were extra restrictions in force that day and each vehicle was limited to only one case of beer. We decided to stay an extra day in Kunnunura. The campsite was set around a pretty lake and it had a good swimming pool (still necessary in the heat of the day) and there were a few families staying so the girls had a great time with new friends. From Kunnunura we headed to the Purnululu National Park. Here we were also going to meet up with our friends Rhys and Jane who had left Queensland to tour the Centre and North West of Australia. Since we had met them last they had ordered a MAN truck and we're going to be having a camper built on the back, so lots of truck conversation ensued when we met. It was great to see them again and we had a number of wonderful evenings chatting, sharing dinner and enjoying a bottle of wine. The temperature was great as it cooled down nicely in the evening and there was the added bonus of hardly any insects as well so perfect for sitting outside. We spent our days (or more accurately our mornings before it became too hot) walking and enjoying the spectacular scenery of the park. It was a truly beautiful place. The Bungle Bungle Range is renowned for its striking banded domes. They are made of sandstone deposited about 360 million years ago. Erosion by creeks, rivers and weathering in the past 20 million years has carved out these domes along with spectacular chasms and gorges, creating a surreal landscape. It was wonderful to walk around the domes, admire views over them and then to enter massive Cathedral gorge. Walking to Echidna Chasm required getting the timing right as it is such a narrow chasm that the sunlight only pierces it for a very short time of the day. The chasm is 180 metres deep and very narrow and the rocks glowed orange as the sunlight hit them. Enjoying sunset on our last night we could reflect on how spectacular the park was how much we had enjoyed the last few days. After saying our goodbyes to Rees and Jayne we headed back to Kununurra to restock again before heading back out for more of the Kimberleys.

The Top End

DSC00591It sounds like the sort of joke the girls love: "How many Overlanders does it take to kill a mosquito?" The answer: "Three. One with the fly swat, one with the electrical mozzie zapper and one pointing them out while laughing manically and turning summersaults on the bed." DSC00583 Actually it wasn't just one mozzie but a whole cloud of them. Here in the Top End of Australia where one mosquito goes so does thousands of its friends, there is no shortage of them here. All of them searching for blood from an innocent victim. Almost to the second as the sun set, they come out in droves. To add to the evening's discomfort the temperature didn't drop much below 30°C, even at night, and there was over 80% humidity. We've decided it's the humidity that does it for us, we've happily coped in hotter climates but increase the humidity and tempers in the truck start fraying. The Top End might have the most amazing waterfalls; stunning wetlands; an Aboriginal culture dating back 20,000 years and a 500km long sandstone escarpment but you have to sweat for it. We started the week in Darwin, the biggest town in the Northern Territory, we took the bus into town to check it out. The architecture is pretty modern as the town was almost completely destroyed by Cyclone Tracy just over 40 years ago. Just as the sightseeing started getting too much for the girls, we took them down to the harbour front pool. What a cool idea for such a hot town, a special wave pool just a few hundred metres from the centre. Especially when the real sea, just metres away, is filled with killer jelly fish and saltwater crocodiles. We spent the afternoon bobbing up and down on the waves in rubber rings and boogie boarding DSC00533 Anything with air con starts to sound pretty attractive in this humidity so we headed to the Northern Territories museum before the sunset market at Mindil Beach. Actually the museum was really interesting and the air con - bliss! The market was lots of fun with assorted "crafty" jewellery sort of stalls and a whole variety of food stalls. We felt far closer to Asia, with the smell of spices and curries drifting from the woks, than the rest of Australia. Which I guess is technically true. We joined the throngs of people down on the sandy beach watching the sunset while slurping mango smoothies. DSC00538 Mindil beach market, Darwin Leaving Darwin behind we headed south east for Kakadu, on Aboriginal land, it has been leased back to the National Parks board. "The Wet" has only just finished but we were hoping that most of the park would be open. The local Aboriginal people actually split the year into 6 seasons. Not just the insufficiently descriptive "Wet" and "Dry" that the European Australians have. My favourite one is Banggerreng, the "knock 'em down" storm season when the 2m high spear grass gets flattened. Thankfully, we have just missed that one. Our first afternoon was a beauty. We first went right to the edge of the park to the East Alligator river where it borders Arnheim Land, Aboriginal land that we would require a permit to go to. There is a road causeway across the river that we read was a good place to see salties (saltwater crocodiles) - not alligators, there aren't any in Australia but the first European explorers up here got a bit confused. Thankfully, considering who we saw there, there wasn't any sign of the crocs. Just some Aboriginal families catching fish for their tea. Rather them than me I think, I was so cautious I wouldn't even let the girls off the viewing platform away from the water on their own. I think salties have a well-deserved bad reputation. DSC00552 From there we took in the rock art sights at Ubirr, some of the paintings are over 20,000 years old. I loved the X-ray style of the barramundi fish. We climbed up the sandstone rocky outcrops to a fabulously lush green view of the wetlands. The breeze was balmy, blowing away all the bugs, as we sat on sun warmed rock and watched the sun sink below the horizon. What a perfect end to the day or so I thought...... I was just tucking the girls in, next to the fans under wet sarongs is the only way to stop them overheating at night, when the mozzies attacked. Following Steve into the truck, the army of insects formed ranks and attacked. An hour later, no sleep had been had but the truck's ceiling was splattered with exoskeletons and human blood. From that night on we took the cowards way out, eating earlier and going inside the truck as soon as the sun's last rays fell. Sitting smugly inside, we watched the little buggers sense our presence and bash themselves silly against our excellent mosquito nets. Still a few got in and enjoyed feasting on our restless bodies throughout the night.Ubirr, KakaduDSC00570 DSC00577 DSC00574 Despite the heat we really enjoyed Kakadu, there was further rock art sites to explore. The 3 big waterfalls: Jim Jim, Gunlom and Twin falls were all closed as they had a lot of rain the preceding week but we found a croc free waterfall to swim under at Maguk. The loveliest morning was when we went out onto Yellow Water Billabong at sunrise. We really got to see the wetlands up close, see lots of birds and some crocs at a safe distance. DSC00618 DSC00639 DSC00657 DSC00665 Yellow Waters Billabong, Kakadu Yellow Waters Billabong, Kakadu DSC00674 DSC00683 DSC00685 The girls have been studying Aboriginal art and culture over the previous month, at the visitors centre we joined a local lady painting using the cross hatching and x-ray style. It would take a long time to develop her steady hand and technique but we spent over an hour having a go at it. A couple of days later in the south of the park a couple of delightful older ladies showed us how to weave bracelets out of pandanus leaves. The ladies explained which plants they used to dye the fibres and showed us how to strip the leaves, which they usually weave into baskets. Back at the campsite we tried our hand at the more familiar dot style paintings. DSC00587 DSC00701 DSC00707 Just south of the park is Nitmiluk National Park which has the double level Edith Waterfalls, as it had a tar road in it was open despite the recent rain. A half an hour hike uphill in the baking afternoon sun took us to the wonderfully cool top pool. The water streamed off the red sandstone above us into two big pools. There was a fast current of water between them which the girls loved zooming through. It was pretty and gorgeously cold. Another hike back down the other side of the falls took us to the huge pool under the lower falls for another cool off. DSC00731 DSC00726 DSC00722 It was another hot sweaty night in the park but Steve assures me that as we head south-west that the humidity should drop, let's hope the mozzies disappear with it too.

Up The Track

The Stuart Highway stretches nearly 3,000kms from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin. It is named after John Mcdouall Stuart who was the first recorded person to cross Australia from South to North and return in 1862. The road follows much of his original expedition and also the telegraph line that was completed in 1872 connecting Australia with the rest of the world. In the Northern Territories the road is often referred to just as "The Track". Leaving Alice Springs we were very quickly away from civilisation. The red outback loomed large once again and the tar road cut through it in a long straight line stretching into the distance. Traffic was light and was predominantly made up of road trains and "grey nomads" heading North now that the wet season was finished. According to one report we read, there are about 100,000 people constantly on the road in Australia travelling around their beautiful continent. Many of these are retired and slowly doing a circuit of Australia. They tend to move with the weather and whilst we had hoped to be slightly ahead of the pack as we pulled into the Devil's Marbles it looked as though they had all arrived here at once. The Devil's Marbles are gigantic boulders carved out of the rock by the forces of nature. They make a natural break at the end of a long days drive. The boulders are a special place for a number of Aboriginal groups and at both sunset and sunrise made for lovely walks in amongst the wonderfully shaped boulders. We broke the next day's drive by stopping in Tennant Creek and visiting the Nyinkka Nyunyu Aboriginal museum and gallery. This gave an excellent overview of the Warumungu people who lived in the area. There were a series of displays known as "bush TVs" which depicted life since the Europeans had arrived. It is not a pretty story and it's amazing some of the things that were still been done to these people even in my lifetime. Recently there has been a lot of change and progress with land been handed back to the local community. However there is still a long way to go and traditional Aboriginal life is as far removed as you could get from Modern Australian life. Australia is a land of immigrants and whilst it has its issues as every country does it has welcomed wave after wave of immigration and largely been successful in integrating them. It's a shame there has been less success with the original inhabitants of Australia. The museum also had a walk showing the different bush foods that grow in the desert. It's was interesting to see how life could be sustained in such a harsh environment and how important been able to find water and food was. We headed out of Tennant Creek and continued North. It was a long drive to the next place so we would need to break it at a rest stop or out in the bush. As the rest stops were full of caravans with the same idea, we followed a track down into the bush and camped in a gravel pit. The isolation was much better and we could hardly hear the road trains passing in the night. We had a lovely fire to cook on but it was hot again and getting sticky. During the day we had crossed the imaginary line from the red centre of Australia into the Tropical Top End. Driving each day was relatively featureless, the road was straight, and the scenery just dry bush. It was not without its minor incidents though. As we were driving we noticed a big flock of red tailed black cockatoos. They are large beautiful birds but obviously not that bright as when they took off one flew into our windscreen. Well actually it missed the windscreen but hit and smashed the protective sun visor we have on the top of the windscreen. Amazingly the bird survived been hit by a 10 tonne truck at 80 kmph and flew off into a nearby tree. We stopped to pick up our smashed plastic and the bird was squawking away in a tree, although I suspect it was not feeling too well. Our next stop was at the iconic Daly Waters pub. This is a Northern Territory institution and is one of the oldest pubs in the Territory. There was nothing for miles and miles around yet people flocked to the pub. The interior of the pub was lined with travellers memorabilia including bras, thongs and other items of clothing. We decided to stay the night and enjoy the traditional beef and barra barbecue. The food was good and the icy cold beer very welcome in the heat. I think Gilly and I were about 20 years younger than anyone else there (except children ), well Gilly was anyway. There was also live entertainment although the singer was only just alive. He belted out a series of tracks, none of which had been written since I was born. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable evening and certainly a different one out in the Outback. The town of Matarnaka is famous for been at the setting for the book "We of the Never Never". However we were there to visit something different. Bitter Springs is an oasis in the Outback and we spent a pleasant afternoon floating gently down the springs looking for turtles in the crystal clear waters. It seemed strange seeing palm trees and ponds that had formed in the wet season, particularly after the dry centre. It was a sign that things were going to change as we entered the much wetter Top End. The other important point was finding a place where I had an internet signal so I could follow an important football match back in England. And it was worth it. Middlesbrough are back in the Premier League! And I wasn't the only one interested in the result. From the town of Katherine, where we stopped to resupply, we had a choice. We could go east to Kakadu National Park or continue North up the track to Darwin. Our plan had been to go to Kakadu but we found out that as it was still early on the dry season not all the sights were open. The friendly lady in the information office told us that most would be open on a week so we decided to head North and go through Kakadu on the way back down. Before Darwin we headed into Litchfield National Park. Here some things were also still closed for maintenance. We eventually found a nice campsite near a large waterfall and if to remind us that the wet season was not that far behind us we had two big storms. It wouldn't have been so bad except the rain did not reduce the temperature and just made the humidity worse. Evenings were particularly unpleasant as it was hot and humid and you could not sit outside because of the mosquitos. The days were much better though as we swam in some beautiful rock holes and beneath a waterfall. It was lovely to sit in the cool water. The park is also famous for its Magnetic Termites that build their termite mounds in an exact North South direction so as to minimise the impact from the suns rays.   After travelling just over 1,600kms up The Track from Alice Springs we reached the tropical capital of the Northern Territory, Darwin.