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Blog Entries posted by tbutler

  1. tbutler
    Monday, May 12, we went out to swim with the whalesharks. We chose Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim as the company based on the information we could gather. We were picked up at our park at 7:15 and driven to the dock which is on the other side of the peninsula. There were 19 adults in the group plus three young children. We were transferred to the boat which was anchored offshore and then taken to a reef area. The snorkeling was partly a training exercise for the whaleshark swim which has to be executed very quickly to catch the shark as it swims by. You can swim for a while but eventually it will outpace even the strongest swimmers.
    The boat anchored off the reef and we were to swim to the reef for snorkeling. With the tide coming in and the boat being inside the reef it meant we had to swim against a pretty strong current. I wore myself out completely swimming against the current and just couldn’t get ahead of it. So I returned to the boat, a washout! Louise is a stronger swimmer than I and was able to get to the reef and snorkel there. Everyone came back with stories of a Manta Ray and other great sightings of fish. Once everyone was back on board we set out to hunt a whaleshark.
    The actual hunting is done by airplane. Pilots spot them swimming just below the water’s surface and relay their location to the ship. So off we went bouncing our way into the 2 to 3 meter swells of the Indian Ocean. As our guide said it could be rough as there is nothing between where we were and Africa just a whole lot of open water! Reaching a whaleshark we put on our snorkeling gear and once the boat was positioned ahead of the shark we jumped in. Off we swam to see the whaleshark. I got a look at it but it was a fleeting look still I had seen it. Whale sharks are large, this one was about 4 meters long from head to tip of tail.
    Returning to the boat, we continued searching for whalesharks. More rough seas plus the seawater swallowed while snorkeling began to hit a few of the adults. One woman was down and out from that point on. A second whaleshark was spotted and we got another chance to snorkel. This time I got an even shorter peek at it before it swam away. I couldn’t keep up with it at all. Louise got a pretty good look.
    We encountered a group of dolphins and circled them several times. There were about 20 dolphins in the group. They were not shy and stayed close to the boat. I went to the top deck and took some pictures. The telephoto lens doesn’t work for dolphins because they pop up and then are gone before you can point the lens at them. You have to aim a wider view lens at the area where they are and even then when you see them the lag time between realizing they are there and pressing the shutter relase can mean you get a nice picture of the ocean surface. I got a few good shots of dolpins before we left them.
    Shortly after that we found a third whaleshark. This one was swimming slowly and I was able to swim along with it for what seemed like a good length of time. I would guess that I was within 5 feet of the shark for a good 30 seconds, maybe more. I had time to look at the gill slits, to examine the fins and tail and to also appreciate the host of smaller fish that accompany this huge shark. There are different fish at what seem to be special locations. I had seen two long eel-like fish just below the belly of the shark with the first shark. There was also a school of about 20 tiny fish that were five or six feet below the belly of the whale. Several medium sized fish swam just above the shark and one colorful reef fish was swimming just in front of the tail. So the whaleshark has a whole community of fish that swim along with it. During this whole time I was the only swimmer along that side of the shark. Then the group caught up with me and I dropped out. It was the best experience of the day for me. Louise also got a look at this one but was on the other side with the crowd most of the time so she didn’t get as good a look. The photo with this article is one from the set the photographer for Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim took on the day we were swimming. They gave us a set of pictures taken during our swim.
    Finally a really large whaleshark was spotted. Our guides estimated it at 8 meters long. Louise was too tired and was feeling the effects of the motion of the boat and the saltwater she had swallowed while snorkeling so she sat out this one. I went in after it but never saw it. Louise told me I was right in front of it but must have somehow missed it. Anyway, I’d had a good experience and learned something about my limitations. I’m going to have to get more swimming exercise to get those muscles toned up for our coming cruise in Fiji.
    On our way back to the dock, we were traveling with the swell and it made the ride much easier. Everyone seemed to recover from their seasickness enough to eat lunch. We stopped just short of the dock to do one final reef snorkel and then returned to the dock and back to the campground. We spent the next day taking care of laundry and resting in the campground before departing Exmouth on Wednesday.
  2. tbutler
    I’ve seen pictures of the planet Mars, and this part of Australia sure looks like Mars. The landscape here is relentlessly red. The red is a deeper red than the red center. The desert is red, hills are red, sand dunes are red. Even the rivers look deep red, much deeper red than the Red River on the Texas-Oklahoma border. Our whole journey from Nanutarra Roadhouse to Exmouth had only minor elevation changes and only a few curves to move us around rather than over hills.
    Temperatures are moderating as we travel south. With a few clouds around mid-day we were able to shut down the air conditioner periodically as we traveled. Traffic was light until we reached the turnoff for Exmouth. Making that turn, we began traveling west and then north onto the Exmouth Peninsula.
    The town of Exmouth lies at the northern end of the peninsula. There is a navy base north of town. We learned that the navy base used to be a US base in the 60’s and 70’s. A large antenna array north of the base is used for VLF communications with ships and submarines. The antenna is still operated by the US but the base has been turned over to the Australian Government. The antenna array is similar to another we saw in central Australia. Twelve radio towers are arranged in a circle around a single larger tower. All the towers are connected and connecting cables support an antenna ring around the central tower. The town of Exmouth didn’t exist until the US built the naval base and the antenna. Exmouth was built like a US town until Australians moved in to support the base population with goods and services.
    Around Exmouth there are numerous national parks and reef areas. One of our goals here is to do some snorkeling. We didn’t get a chance to see the Great Barrier Reef and want to see some of the Ningaloo reef while in this area. There are numerous companies here that provide snorkeling tours, many feature a swim with a whaleshark. Whalesharks are large sharks, not whales. They are filter feeders like whales, thus the name. They have only small teeth at the back of the mouth. They feed on plankton in the water. The whaleshark has a large wide mouth with which it sweeps up small plants and animals for its food. The dive up to 2000 meters below the surface and feed at the surface. Being a fish, not a whale, they do not need to come to the surface to breathe. While they are at the surface snorkelers can swim near them without disturbing them. A whole industry has developed in Exmouth to support this activity.
  3. tbutler
    Port Hedland was an overnight stop, we left in the morning intending to drive to Exmouth on the Exmouth Peninsula to the southwest of Port Hedland. The road route is over 700 kilometers which was a surprise to me. I had looked at the map and figured the distances at something over 400 kilometers. When I programmed the GPS in the morning I thought it must have a different route in mind. So Louise went to the map and confirmed that the distance was going to be over 700 kilometers. We have driven 700 kilometers in a day but I wasn’t prepared for that this day. We had a grocery stop to make and the trip would require multiple fuel stops so we right away decided that any attempt to get all the way to Exmouth would not work. As we drove we discussed options including staying at some remote location without power or utilities or finding a campground. We decided to drive until late afternoon and then based on where we were, make a decision about our stopping place for the night.
    Leaving Port Hedland we were escorted by dozens of truck trains. Most were associated with the local mining but there were truck trains hauling fuel, heavy equipment, wide loads and more. In this case there is nothing to do but simply keep up with traffic. South of town the Great Northern Highway, which we have driven across Western Australia to Broome and now south, turns inland and so did most of the truck trains. We continued on south on the North West Coastal Highway. Truck trains drive this highway as well but their numbers are about what we have experienced on other highways in the Outback. The road is in excellent shape, we encountered no road work once out of Port Hedland. The terrain on this route is very flat. We could see ranges of hills or low mountains in the distance. The road managed to stay between these obstructions with few changes in direction. I set the cruise in the low 90’s and we rolled along quite comfortably.
    We pulled off the road in Karratha to eat lunch and top off the fuel tank. The next leg of the trip was over 200 kilometers without any fuel along the way. With a full tank we drove for three hours with a short restroom stop midway. We arrived at the Nanutarra Roadhouse about 5:00 p.m. and fueled the campervan. There wasn’t much discussion at this point. It was late in the afternoon the sun would be setting in an hour or so.
    We were seeing cows along and on the road and we had just come through a section which was damaged during recent heavy rains. There were camper swallowing pot holes in the road and places where the highway was so broken up they had put gravel in place to make it easier to drive. Guess how long the gravel stays with the truck trains driving over it. With no traffic in either direction, I could drive slowly and weave all over the road to take the safest way through the obstacles. Facing the prospect of driving through all this in the dark, it was an easy decision to stay at the campground at Nanutarra Roadhouse. Besides, tomorrow is Mother’s Day and Louise should have the deluxe accommodations, restrooms, showers and electric power! Happy Mother’s Day dear!
  4. tbutler
    Our next stop was 610 kilometers down the road, a full day drive. Port Hedland is south and west of Broome. The road follows the curve of the shore just inland from the Indian Ocean. We packed up and were on our way by 9:00 a.m. Between Broome and Port Hedland there is little for us to see. The only side roads from this section of highway are unpaved dirt roads. There is access to 80 mile beach but that also is an unpaved road. As you might suspect, 80 mile beach is an extensive beach similar to the one we were on the day before. I’m sure it would have been a great place but a four wheel drive vehicle would have been necessary.
    The other feature of significance on this drive remains just out of sight to our west and south. The Great Sandy Desert lies just inland from the Great Northern Highway. We could at times see dunes along the beach and at other times we could see dunes inland, at the border of the desert. It was a lonely stretch of road with road trains and a few campers on the move. There are two roadhouses along the route which provide food and fuel. Otherwise, we saw no power lines, no houses, only an occasional entrance gate to some private land. The road was unfenced and we were cautioned about livestock. We only saw cows near the road for a short distance.
    At the Sunfire Roadhouse I fueled up with enough fuel to get us to Port Hedland where fuel prices should be more reasonable. Louise was entertained by a flock of Peafowl. Peacocks and Peahens that roamed the parking area. There were at least a dozen. She had to feed the white one that came over to check out the campervan. I amused myself by counting the tires on one of the road trains parked there. Each of the trailers on the road train has six axles, three at the front and three at the back. Each axle has dual tires so that is four per axle for a total of 24 tires on one trailer. We see three, sometimes four trailers in a train. The front trailer has only three axles on the back and the tractor has three axles with the steer axle only two tires of course. So that is 22 tires on the tractor and first trailer and 24 tires on each of the following trailers. A full four trailer rig would have 94 tires! Makes an 18 wheeler look pretty lame! I’m glad I don’t have to pay for the tires much less the fuel these rigs use.
    We saw several strong showers in the distance but drove only through a very light rain late in the afternoon. As we approached Port Hedland traffic began to pick up. Port Hedland is a mining area and there were truck trains hauling ore. We were in the lane with the loaded trucks and meeting the empty rigs. They weren’t wasting any time so it was a busy highway. To get to our campground we traveled into town past a huge salt pile that was surrounded with salt evaporation ponds. Sea water is pumped into the salt ponds and allowed to evaporate then collected and stockpiled for shipment by sea. The salt collection and stockpiling operation goes on 24 hours a day our camp host informed us. There is a scenic viewpoint where you can pull off to view the operation.
    Campground prices were sky-high, $54 per night but the internet was free. We get a discount at the Big 4 park chain thanks to an alliance between Britz and the Big 4 Parks, 10%, so we got our site for $49.60.
    We are parked on concrete, something that happens only rarely here in Australia. Most sites are grass or gravel. Some have a concrete pad next to the parking site but very few have a concrete pad for parking. Thanks to the free internet and paying for internet in Broome, I am now caught up to real time. This posting should be on the morning of Saturday, May 10, as we are departing Port Hedland for our next stop, Exmouth.
    The clouds that were associated with the showers gave us an excellent sunset. Clouds make sunrise and sunset pictures interesting and I was out taking pictures when several other photographers joined me. We all agreed this one was spectacular. I put together a panoramic and will post it. We’ll see how the FMCA Web Site handles a panoramic photo. If you click on it you can get it enlarged.
    Here is just a little fun for the map and geography fans in the audience... Port Hedland is near 20 degrees south latitude so we are still in the tropics. We are moving further west and are now at 119 degrees east longitude. That puts us 61 degrees west of the International Date Line. A little further west and we would be 180 degrees from New York City! That would be 105 degrees east longitude and we won’t go that far west but interesting to think about. We are still closer to the US if we travel east rather than west.
  5. tbutler
    Our last day in Broome was a beach day. We drove to the beach about 11:00 a.m. and parked the motor home on solid sand at the upper part of the beach. Cable Beach is a large beach that stretches from near downtown Broome on the west coast for twenty kilometers. We were on Gantheaume Bay on the Indian Ocean. Waters were quite warm and the surf was mild, waves less than two feet made for a fun beach.
    There were vehicles all over the beach, many with boat trailers. This was a great swimming beach but locals also used it as a boat launch. It was interesting to watch them launch and trailer their boats from this shallow beach. But first, we wanted to get into the water. There are crocodiles in this area and most areas with crocodiles have strong cautions about staying out of the water. The reading we had done on Broome indicated that crocodiles were not a concern so we anticipated being able to swim here. There were several couples wading in the surf so we inquired. They were local and said there was no problem. So in we went, walking, wading into the mild surf and then getting out into deeper water to swim. We left the US in January and hadn’t been out in the water swimming since then. Under the tropical sun I called a stop after about 20 minutes. We retreated to the campervan and set up our chairs in the shade of the campervan. Louise fixed lunch and we had a light lunch.
    There was a steady breeze and warm temperatures which made for a great afternoon of people watching from the shade of the campervan. We saw boats being trailered while in the water with a tow rope to pull the trailer from the water. Others would back their four wheel drive out into the surf and load the boat onto their trailer at that point. It was still necessary for someone to wrestle the boat onto the trailer and pull the bow down until the ratchet could be used to draw the boat into its travel position on the trailer. One of the most unique was the boat that had three wheels, two at the stern and one on the bow. Once the boat was in shallow water, the wheels were lowered and you just drove the boat onto the shore. It could be driven forward or backward, it was steerable and if someone wanted to join you just lift the wheels until the boat was sitting on the sand. Once your passenger joined you the boat could be put back up on its wheels and driven into the surf to go out once more.
    Besides boats there were many sunbathers and swimmers. In mid-afternoon a couple of wind surfers showed up and they entertained us for the rest of the afternoon. A few people brought their dogs to the beach and let them run in the surf. Late in the afternoon one of the water jet devices arrived and we watched the operator rising up into the air supported by jets of water sprayed from nozzles on the platform they stood on. If you haven’t seen this device, it has a pump that floats on the water and is connected to the operator’s platform by two hoses and a control cable. The hoses connect to two nozzles which spray water down which raises the platform with the rider. It is sometimes referred to as a James Bond hovercraft.
    As sunset approached everybody and their dog showed up to watch the sun set over the bay. With the sun fading we went back for another swim then returned to the chairs to wait for the grand finale. We were not disappointed as there was a fine sunset over the water.
  6. tbutler
    Our second day in Broome starts with laundry. The park laundry facilities here are generally quite good. Here in Broome there are 10 washers and just 4 dryers. All the parks have clothes lines set up for laundry right next to the laundry room. Our campervan came with a set of clothes pins and a small clothes line. Washers here are $4.00 per load so she has been economizing by hanging the laundry to dry rather than using the dryers. It is always an adventure to do the laundry. Some machines take $1 coins and others take $2 coins. Most park facilities have one or the other. Last week the laundry in Darwin had some machines that used $1 coins and others that used $2 coins. There is no paper money in denominations less than $5 in Australia and there are no pennies. I’ve not heard the $1 and $2 coins referred to as Loonies and Twonies!
    The tropics have increased our laundry considerably. Clothes worn for several hours are quickly exchanged for dry clothes when we return home. The combination of humidity, bright sunny days and low latitudes with very warm temperatures make for quite a lot of perspiration with very little effort! Louise has quickly adjusted to doing laundry in the park laundry facilities. I try to do the running for Louise when she is doing laundry. So I make the trip to the office to get the needed coinage. I try to assist her also when hanging the laundry to dry and taking clothes off the line. It makes things go faster if someone is carrying things back and forth while another pins the clothes on the line or folding as they come off the line. She takes care of all the technical work, running the machines, arranging the clothes on the line, folding clothes. I’m the unskilled labor!
    We spent the afternoon at the Broome Bird Observatory. Most of our birding has been done on our own. I’m a casual birder. I don’t go hunting for specific birds. When we are hiking we’ll stop and try to identify any bird we see. Once we learn to identify specific birds we simply name them and go on, sometimes taking a little time to observe their actions and view them through binoculars. When we find a bird we don’t know we’ll first try to make a mental note of any field markings that might be helpful in identifying the bird. There is an extensive list beginning with the size and shape of the bird, the size and shape of the bill, color(s), length of legs and tail, etc. Then we get out our bird book and try to find the bird in the book. This all takes time and sometimes we don’t have enough information about the bird to be able to identify it before it flies away. So up to this time we’ve identified 92 birds here in Australia. At the Broome Bird Observatory we would have a guided tour with an experienced birder who can identify birds quickly and knows where to look for specific birds. This speeds up the process of seeing and identifying new birds. It also means that we don’t imprint those birds in memory quite as well as those we have identified ourselves. That will come later if or when we see these birds again.
    We had the option of driving ourselves to the observatory or being picked up at our park for the tour. We chose to be picked up for the trip. We knew that part of the trip was on dirt road and we’ve tried one of these and found the campervan to be very poorly suited for travel on these roads. So we got the experience of traveling in a four wheel drive vehicle on dirt roads in Australia. Having done that, we were glad we didn’t try to take the campervan on this road. There were spots where deep sand had been blown onto the road. Most of the road was well below ground level with dirt pushed up on the sides by graders. Washboarding was common and taking alternate sides of the road helped avoid some of them but others were impossible to avoid. There was little traffic on this road but when you did meet another vehicle you had to move far to the side. It was only 7 kilometers but it seemed like a very long drive at 30 to 40 kilometers per hour.
    Located on Roebuck Bay south of Broome, the Bird Observatory is one of the prime locations for shore birds in the world. The large tides make for ideal conditions for shore birds with miles of mud exposed at low tide, millions of shore birds find plenty to eat. Birds from all over eastern Asia migrate to this area during the northern hemisphere winter. Many of those are gone now but plenty remain. Our guide was able to pick out significant birds from a large flock along the shore. Using a large scope we were able to get good looks at birds without disturbing them.
    Shore birds are a weakness of mine. Living in Missouri most of my life I saw few birds that were shore birds. There are many species and their markings are sometimes not very distinctive. The mostly have long legs and long bills so identifying them is difficult and time consuming for me. They also occur in mixed flocks, groups with many different species all mixing together. This makes identification more difficult as they move about constantly and it is hard to keep track of a single bird.
    An occasional Black Kite or Whistling Kite would circle overhead and the whole flock would take to the air in a great flurry (see photo with this posting) only to settle back to their same location and return to their regular activities once more. Once the flock finally moved on further south we took a tour of the grass plains on a nearby cattle station. Traveling in the four wheel drive vehicle through the pastures we observed a great variety of birds as well as a few wallabies. We added 16 new birds to the list of 92 that we had seen before. It was a very productive day.
  7. tbutler
    Broome is a small town on the northwest shore of Australia. The pearling industry has been a strength of the area along with tourism. Broome isn’t the only place where pearl farms are found here, it is the center of a large region that extends from Darwin in the north to Port Hedland to the southwest. The largest pearl oysters are found here and the pearls we saw in shops are enormous. The downtown of Broome has a dozen jewelry shops specializing in pearls. We browsed our way through all of them! There are a few other shops and stores and we spent Tuesday afternoon drifting through downtown Broome.
    Adjacent to the downtown area is an old jetty which was at one time the place where the pearling boats docked. We walked the jetty, over 100 years old, to the end. At low tide we could see hundreds of red fiddler crabs on the mud below the jetty. Tides around Broome are very large with variations during spring tides up to 30 feet. Spring doesn’t refer to the season, spring tides the tides change very rapidly from low to high tides. This occurs each new moon and each full moon. At the first quarter and last quarter phases of the moon the tides are called neap tides. Neap tides change very slowly. You can imagine a spring tide going from low to high tide with a 30 foot change in water level in about six hours, the water would seem to spring up quite quickly.
    The downtown area is known as Chinatown though we saw nothing of China in the shops and stores. The Japanese were primary developers of the pearl farming in this area and much of that history is recounted in the historic plaques and signage. There is a statue to the three Japanese men who started the industry there. It was a very warm afternoon so we stopped at an ice cream shop and enjoyed an ice cream cone while sitting in the shade on the porch outside the shop. School was out and kids were stopping to get an ice cream treat on the way home. Several mothers with young children stopped by the shop. We stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few things before heading back to the campground for the evening.
  8. tbutler
    Fitzroy Crossing is named for the place where people could ford the Fitzroy River. The Fitzroy River has cut a deep gorge to the north of this area which made crossing in that area impossible. Exiting the gorge the river deposits huge amounts of sand after each flood. Choked by all the sand, the Fitzroy River fans out into multiple channels which would make crossing the river difficult because the multiple channels are constantly shifting. After each flood the channels would move as sand was deposited in old channels the river would cut new channels in the sand elsewhere. So the place to cross the Fitzroy was just below the canyon where the river was fixed in a single channel exiting the gorge. Fitzroy Gorge and the area around it is now a national park. We were able to hike along the river to see some of the canyon walls. Our hike ended where the river entered the narrow point of the gorge.
    The rocks that are the walls of the Fitzroy Gorge are somewhat unique. These rocks were formed when an ancient reef was buried deep under sediments. The reef was preserved by this burial and minerals deposited in the gaps in the reef made it a solid rock mass. As Australia was lifted and sea level dropped, erosion exposed the ancient reef. So these rocks don’t look like ordinary sedimentary rocks. They still show the structure of the ancient reef. This gives the walls of the gorge a really interesting and very rough shape.
    I’ve seen reef formations in rocks before. In Missouri where we used to live there is a mining area in the southeastern part of the state called the Viburnum Trend. The reef there is almost 1000 feet underground. One of the minerals found in this reef is Galena. Galena is lead sulfide, PbS2. The mines are lead mines and have been quite productive over the years. Missouri produced more lead than any other country for many years. Of course today we know there are environmental problems that must be carefully addressed when mining and refining lead. Practices have changed but some of the harm to the people and environment remains in that part of the state. The last lead smelter in Missouri closed last year.
    We enjoyed walking among these rock formations and seeing the ancient reef. When the Fitzroy floods the height of the water goes up over 50 feet within the gorge. As it emerges from the gorge the water spreads and its increase is over 20 feet in the parkland just below the gorge. This is truly a wild river. We are visiting at the end of the wet season, the beginning of the dry and the river is at a normal flow level. The next tropical storm will bring the next flood.
    Leaving Fitzroy Crossing at noon we headed for Broome, the next town on our way south and west. The highway continued with many one lane bridges and now an added thrill, we’re seeing open range. Much of the highway has been open range but in this section the cattle are close along the road and of course a few are crossing the road. Road trains, the huge three and four trailer combinations that travel these roads all have huge grill assemblies that protect them when they hit these animals because they have no way to slow if one suddenly crosses in front of them. There were a few dead cattle along the road. Fresh ones are usually on their side or back with their legs sticking in the air. Older ones are in the process of being eaten by birds and other carrion eaters. I had to brake hard one time for a cow that suddenly decided she needed to be on the other side of the road. This experience then slowed us for other groups of cattle close to the road and there were many as we came into Broome. Coming into town late in the afternoon we also began to see kangaroos crossing the road. It makes driving much like a video game experience.
    We were shocked by the prices for campgrounds in Broome. None offered free wi-fi and they were charging $45 per night. The norm in Australia has been $30 with a few charging a little more but we hadn’t seen any charging $45. So we tried several other parks. On our third try we found a park with a nightly fee of $37. I paid for a short term wi-fi so we could catch up with our internet business and family connections. The total for four nights was less than the $45 per night I would have spent at other parks.
  9. tbutler
    Leaving Lake Argyle on Sunday, May 4 we made a stop for fuel at the first town we came to, Kununurra. It is a small town. We found a grocery store and picked up some of the fruits and vegetables we hadn’t been able to bring across the border. Once that was done we were driving almost all day long. We made another stop for fuel at Halls Creek and ate lunch at that stop then were back on the road until we arrived at our stop for the night in Fitzroy Crossing. This is the place where the road crosses the Fitzroy River. We covered more than 700 kilometers, our greatest distance traveled in a single day up to this time.
    Traffic was very light on this section of road. The road surface was generally good but we encountered numerous one lane bridges. Because of the light traffic, we only had to wait at one but we had to slow down at each one so we could anticipate a stop if the bridge was in use by opposing traffic. We have encountered only a couple of one lane bridges anywhere else in Australia. They were common in New Zealand but not here. We’ll see if this continues as we drive through more of Western Asutralia.
    The road was straight and flat for huge distances with only an occasional dip through what is labeled a floodway. In times of heavy rain the depth of water on the road may be as much as 1 or 2 meters (3 to 6 feet) in some of these floodways. Rather than build bridges across small temporary stream channels the just let the water run over the road which speaks to the rarity of heavy rainfall in the area. It is an effective way to deal with roads if the traffic is light and the rain is rare. These are things we find in the US only in the most remote areas of the western deserts. I consider this an indication of population density which is very low in Australia along with a judicious use of sparse resources. The roads are just barely paved, seldom have shoulders and if shoulders exist they are usually gravel. Bridges are one lane or not used at all when the conditions will permit. This is the only paved road between Northern Territories and Western Australia. There is another paved road along the south shore of Australia. Two paved roads connect the western third of the country with the rest of the country.
    The scenery along this route is a mix of distant mountains and buttes, grasslands and plains with scattered trees. We’re still in the tropics and the day was quite warm and the vegetation had a tropical look. Palm trees occasionally, other small trees and the occasional Boab tree. Boab trees are strange looking trees with massive trunks and small branches. When the get larger the trunks can be four or five feet in diameter and the branches are still short and fairly small. There are some that are really old and their branches have the same massive quality of the tree but still remain relatively short. These trees are a unique symbol of this part of Australia.
    Along with the grasslands we are seeing cattle. The cattle are breeds commonly found in the tropics, Brahma or Brahma crosses. The cattlemen in this area were once described as kings in grass castles. We saw signs marking boundaries for some of the ranches or stations that were great distances apart. The size of these stations are very large with cattle able to graze huge areas. Water is the limiting factor for the productivity of the stations. We would occasionally see windmills which would be pumping drinking water for the animals but more commonly we would see the cattle around water holes, streams that still had pools of water. These will be drying up as the dry season is just beginning.
    We pulled into Fitzroy Crossing as the sun was setting. There are three campgrounds in Fitzroy Crossing and the first was the Fitzroy River Lodge. It looked like a nice enough place but the campground was in rather rough shape. Campsites were on dirt and were littered with sticks and leaves. The campground was large and many sites were empty. Keeping up with the trees and vegetation can be quite a challenge in the tropics and they were definitely struggling with the lush vegetation on the grounds. The electric box where we plugged in had a large walking stick on it when I plugged in at night and the next morning there was a medium sized tree frog on the inside of the cover. We were both surprised when I opened the cover!
    There were numerous kangaroos on the grounds. We’re seeing kangaroos more frequently as we travel west and we see them almost exclusively at dusk. Kangaroos are active at night and sleep during the day. We are seeing them only in a few areas. They are not as widespread across Australia as we thought they would be. The sightings are more a treat than a nuisance from our perspective. The natives may have a different view of their abundance but for a traveler they seem to be rather uncommon. Making a middle of the night trip to the restrooms I saw a half dozen kangaroos grazing on the grass lawn. They generally freeze or move away slowly when we are around. Most of these took off into the shadows once they saw me.
  10. tbutler
    We left Timber creek after discovering one more new-to-us bird, a Red Winged Parrot. These were in the trees near our campsite and we just had to pause to enjoy watching them. Then we were off down the road to Western Australia, the last of the 8 Australian states and territories. I couldn’t get a city programmed in the GPS because it only showed me cities in the US. I knew I was putting in a large enough city, it should be able to find it. Finally after three tries I realized that WA was Western Australia, not the state of Washington in the US!
    As we’re driving, Louise mentions Lake Argyle which is the largest freshwater lake in Australia. She wanted to go see it. The road from the highway was paved and was about 40 kilometers, 24 miles so we decided to go see what was there. There is a campground in case we decide to stay the day.
    Entering Western Australia we pass through a biological checkpoint. They check for fruits, vegetables and plants from the rest of Australia. We have a book which lists what can and can’t be taken from one state to the next. It is a good reference and Louise has been planning meals and shopping so we are able to move from state to state without violating any regulations. We thought we were OK but when Louise mentioned the carrot stick and green pepper those were taken from us. WA is the only state that has actually had an inspection and they are known for being quite strict.
    Once through the checkpoint we had only a couple of kilometers to the turn off for Lake Argyle. The road was paved but barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. The speed limit was posted at 100 km/hour but I barely did 80 and often was going much slower. Traffic was light so it wasn’t a factor. The scenery was spectacular on the drive in as we approached some rugged hills. The lake is the result of a dam placed in a strategic location on the Ord River in a canyon. A short earthen and rock fill dam holds back a lake which is three times the size of the harbor in Sydney. The primary purpose for the lake when it was created was irrigation for farming. Since then, generators have been added and it now produces the power needed for surrounding towns.
    When we arrived, the campground was packed with people. It was race day on the lake. These were not boat races but swimming races. They were holding a 20 km swimming race and racers and their supporters were there. Kids were everywhere. My initial reaction was that I didn’t want to stay in this park with all the commotion related to the races.
    We drove on to the dam and viewed it from an overlook. Then we drove across the dam to a picnic area on the other side. We parked in a shady spot and walked around the park. We spotted a Blue-winged Kookaburra and added it to our list of birds we have seen. Then we broke out the lawn chairs, the temperatures were the most comfortable we have seen in a while and we enjoyed sitting in the shade. We added another bird to our list while sitting there and saw several other birds we had seen before.
    After resting for a while we decided to return to the campground and see if any sites were available. There were powered sites available so we took a site, parked and began planning our evening. We tried the internet connection and Louise was able to get connected but my computer wouldn’t even show the campground internet site. I tried everything and couldn’t get it to show up. We went back to the camper and shortly discovered that there had been a time change at the border with Western Australia. We had to set our clocks back 1 hour and 30 minutes. Suddenly it was a lot earlier than we thought. That resulted in an early dinner and an even earlier bed time. It also helped us get up early and out of the campground before everyone was making the same move. I would love to be able to go back when the place wasn’t so packed. It was a really nice place to stay.
  11. tbutler
    Our time in the campervan is now down to three weeks and we have one third of mainland Australia to explore. Leaving Batchelor we drove south to Katherine to fuel up and stock up on groceries before turning west on the Victoria Highway toward Broome, Western Australia. Western Australia (WA) would be our eighth and final state in Australia to visit. Australia has eight states so we will have seen something of each of them before we conclude our trip. From Batchelor we will go 235 kilometers south and then turn west traveling another 285 kilometers to Timber Creek and we still won’t be to Western Australia until the next day.
    Keeping a promise to Louise, we stopped for lunch at the Lazy Lizard. We wanted to spend the night but the timing from the day before didn’t work out and this was the next best thing. We ordered up a pizza and had a delicious lunch. We were through Katherine by 2:00 and into the park in Timber Creek by 6:00 p.m. just before sunset.
    The last 90 kilometers were the hardest, traveling west into the sunset. Once we left Katherine, we drove for over an hour and only one car passed us. We met a few cars and some road trains but the highway was very quiet. The road was generally good but had little or no shoulder most of the time. We stopped at the Victoria River Roadhouse to top off the fuel tank then drove the final leg to Timber Creek.
    The campground at Timber Creek was along a tributary of the Victoria River. We parked and could look out at the river from the rear window of the campervan. There was no internet and no television so we got to bed early for an early start the next morning. We still had almost 200 kilometers to the Western Australia border.
  12. tbutler
    South of Darwin is a well-known park, Litchfield National Park. Several people we have talked to mentioned Litchfield as a must-see park. It was just off our planned route of travel so we planned to spend the day exploring the park. We decided to drive to the far end of the park, there is only one road into the park, not a loop through the park. We would be driving into the park and then seeing the sights on the way out. That was the plan but when we got to the first stop, the magnetic termite mounds we decided to make a quick restroom stop and see the termite mounds at the same time. Magnetic termites are found nowhere else in the world. The termites aren’t magnetic, neither are their mounds. Their mounds are long narrow mounds when viewed from above and the elongated direction lines up north-south.
    There are several waterfalls in the park which are easily visited. There is a short walk to see each of them. We started with the most remote of the falls, Wangi Falls. On our way to the falls I spotted a hawk attacking its prey across a large lawn. It must have missed because it came up quickly and landed in a tree not far from us. We identified it as a Grey Goshawk.
    This waterfall consists of two separate parallel falls. One is larger than the other and both were flowing strongly. As we reached the plunge pool to view the falls we saw a large Gowana (Australian for lizard) sunning on the rocks. I estimated the total length of this lizard at 30 inches from tip of nose to the tip of its tail. It sat with only minor movements until a hawk flew overhead. It watched the hawk carefully as long as it was in view then relaxed again. After viewing the falls we hiked up to a platform that overlooks the rainforest. On the way we saw numerous fruit bats in the trees. The trail normally loops over the river above the falls and then returns to the plunge pool but the bridge over the river was closed and the trail to the bridge was closed because of a controlled burn that had been conducted several days before. So we returned on the same trail.
    Before leaving we spotted another bird, a Great Bower Bird. This bird courts its mate by assembling a bower of miscellaneous objects in an area. Stones, sticks, leaves, sometimes manmade objects, shiny metal scraps, aluminum foil, glass, etc. This is done to impress the female. I guess it is something like an art project for the bird. I was able to approach quite close but never saw the bower itself, only the bird.
    After that it was two more waterfalls, Tolmer Falls is a high narrow falls which we viewed from across the valley while looking down into the plunge pool directly below us. The valley was quite rugged and the view was spectacular looking down the valley out to open country beyond. Above the falls was a natural rock bridge which just added a little extra to this beautiful falls.
    The last falls was Florence Falls. This falls is another dual fall with two separate falls. This is the only waterfall which is safe to swim in the plunge pool. The others are inhabited by crocodiles and swimming is prohibited for obvious reasons. We talked it over and decided not to climb down to the plunge pool for a swim though it did look quite inviting. It was the end of the day and both of us were ready to put our feet up for a while.
    Our park for the night was the Big 4 Caravan Park in Batchelor, NT. This park has Net 4 for internet. We signed up with them when we were on the east coast and used it numerous times but hadn’t seen a park with that internet service for quite a while. It was nice to have plenty of time with the internet and we made good use of the service while there. We got one final new bird at sunset. As I was showering I heard a cacophony of bird chatter outside. When I went out of the shower house I was greeted by a good size flock of lorikeets settling into the palm trees for the evening. A quick look with the binoculars and we were able to identify them as Red-collared Lorikeets. They have a dark blue head, red collar in back, red breast with a black band across the belly, some yellow around the legs and a bright green back and tail. This is definitely a wow bird. They quieted down after sunset and we never heard them until they were ready to disperse into the surrounding rainforest the next morning.
  13. tbutler
    Our last day in Darwin was spent visiting two interesting sites. Darwin National Park lies to the south of the city and is located on Beagle Bay. There is a nice view of the city from across the bay. The park itself is relatively undeveloped. During WWII the land was used for ammunition bunkers which are still there in the park. They no longer contain ammunition but are used for other storage today. One of the bunkers was open and contained exhibits from WWII when Darwin was under Japanese attack over 50 times. The bunker had holes in it from one or more of those attacks.
    We walked several trails there and saw numerous other bunkers. We also enjoyed walking through the rainforest listening to the sound of the birds. It is one thing to hear birds in a rainforest it is quite another to actually see birds. We did have one bit of luck as we started our return to the campervan. A bird flashed across the trail and landed on a branch right in front of us. It was a beautiful bright blue Forest Kingfisher. Identification on this bird was easy as it has two distinctive white spots, one next to each eye. Both the male and female were in the same place and we were able to watch them for quite a while.
    Leaving Darwin National Park we drove into town to visit the Australian Aviation Heritage Center. This is housed in a large hangar at the Darwin International Airport. The center piece of the exhibit is a B-52 bomber donated to the museum by the United States. The entire bomber was inside the hangar and it just about filled it completely. Other exhibits were beneath the wings, tail, nose, and around the sides. We were able to get a look into the cockpit and inside the bomb bay. Other exhibits included the wreckage of a Japanese Zero and a Mitsubishi (Betty) bomber which had been shot down over Darwin. There was an assortment of other British and French aircraft that had been flown by the Australian Air Force since WWII.
  14. tbutler
    The capital city of Northern Territories is Darwin. It is the smallest of the capital cities in Australia. We are at a park just south of the airport, Hidden Valley Tourist Park. It is a well maintained park but the rates are among the highest we’ve paid anywhere at $45 per night for the en suite accommodations. The regular accommodations without the private bathroom were $44 per night. All this and only minimal free internet, a two day pass for 100 MB and then you have to buy internet starting at $10 for two days or 200 Mb. The irony is that in one of the most remote locations we have visited we had one of the best parks in Lightning Ridge, NSW and the rates were $30 per night with unlimited free internet.
    Darwin is a town that was almost completely rebuilt after cyclone Tracy in 1974. Tracy arrived with Santa on Christmas Eve that year and demolished most of the town. It was category 5 and had wind recorded up to 230 KPH at the airport before the wind gage went missing. Tin roofs were the rule at that time and sheets of tin were flying everywhere. Most homes were leveled by cyclone Tracy. Afterwards they evacuated many of the residents, almost 30,000 by air and over 7000 by the highway. This was to avoid disease due to a total lack of utilities. Darwin is accessible by sea but the land route is at least a one day drive from the nearest town and it doesn’t have resources needed to help with the resulting damage so the clean-up and repair work was going to take some time. They rebuilt with new stricter building codes which as of today have been weakened by modifications. We humans have such a short memory! Forty years go by and we’re thinking it won’t happen here once again. This despite the excellent exhibit at the Northern Territory museum we visited. They had news reports from the national news, a model showing what was left of many houses in the area and a sound booth with a recording from the night of the cyclone that someone made. Want to know what it sounds like to be in a hurricane? That booth will show you. As we walked out I remarked to Louise, “That was why we left Cairns as the cyclone was approaching.” I can only imagine what it would have been like to go through that in a campervan!
    We spent the bulk of Tuesday at the museum. There is a collection of Aborigine art that is well displayed and explained. Everything from rock art to bark panels to canvas and carvings. They had burial poles, hollow logs that were decorated and held the bones of the deceased. They had a small woven decorated container for the bones of a baby that died before or during birth. The mother would keep this until the next baby was born so that baby would have the soul of the baby that died. Once another baby was born the container with the bones would be discarded. That child now lived in the one most recently born. We all have stories that help get us through tough times. You begin to get a better understanding of the culture and beliefs of the Aborigine from this kind of exhibit.
    Of course a museum in this territory would have to include a crocodile and they have a large one mounted in an atrium along with the story of its capture and demise. Known as Sweetheart, this rogue was attacking boats. Sweetheart would bite the boat and sink it but wouldn’t attack the escaping occupants. They had pictures showing boats with the bite holes. Best guess was that he saw the boats as competitors in his territory and just wanted to get rid of the boat. After several attacks they went out to capture Sweetheart. The whole episode is on tape and they have edited it into about a six minute presentation. There was no crocodile wrestling involved. They caught him in a trap. They wanted to capture him alive but it didn’t work out that way. Sweetheart became tangled in underbrush and drowned before they could free him. So they stuffed and mounted him!
    The last exhibit that we visited was a traveling exhibit on the work of Alfred Wallace. Wallace was a naturalist from Wales in England. He was a contemporary of Charles Darwin for whom the city of Darwin was named. Alfred Wallace traveled and collected specimens of animals from beetles and birds to plants in the Amazon basin of South America. On returning the ship he was traveling on sank along with all his specimens. He returned home broke, in addition to the scientific value of the specimens he also sold some to support his work. It was the custom at the time and a way to make a living. He gathered his resources and set out on a second trip this time to Malaysia, thousands of islands just to the north of Australia. This area was largely unexplored. He spent considerable time here going to many islands and collecting and cataloging species of animals and plants.
    As a result of his work he developed an understanding of the variety of living things and ways they are similar and different. He sent to Charles Darwin a paper that explained the mechanism by which the differences in species came about. Darwin had developed a similar explanation and together the two presented their ideas to the Linnaean Society of London. Darwin incorporated the work and ideas of Wallace into his publication of the Origin of Species and the two are considered co-discoverers of the theory of evolution. The exhibit illustrated much of Wallace’s work and outlined his long and productive life.
  15. tbutler
    Monday, April 28, we departed Jabiru at 6:00 a.m. on the way to the Nourlangle site in Kakadu National Park. This site has two things we want to see, Aborigine rock art or petroglyphs and a scenic viewpoint overlooking that part of the park. Our early departure is an attempt to cope with the extreme humidity and very warm temperatures that are common in this part of Australia. We are just 13 degrees from the equator so every day is a warm day and there is plenty of moisture.
    We got to the Mourlangle area just after 7:00 a.m. The area doesn’t officially open until 8:00 a.m. according to the sign at the entrance road but the gate was open so we continued to the site. The trail we chose took us to the viewpoint and then it continued to the petroglyphs and finally back to the parking lot. The trail to the viewpoint started level and paved but quickly turned into a steep rocky trail. Once at the viewpoint, we had spectacular views of the rugged dissected plateau that forms the southern part of the park. We spent time there enjoying the view as the sunrise lit the rocks that towered over us.
    Continuing on the trail we descended into the rainforest along the base of a cliff. Water dripped from the top of the cliffs, the result of rain the night before. We stopped to sit on a bench for a while to listen to the water dripping from the cliffs and the babbling of the brook that resulted. While sitting there, Louise saw a bird and directed my attention to its perch. I quickly found the bird and described it to Louise. She found it in our Birds of Australia book and we then confirmed its identification. We were looking at an Emerald Dove, found only along the tropic coast of Australia. It was a beautiful dove and a lucky find. That bird made our day!
    We left the bench and continued on the trail to the artwork we also wanted to see. The sites were along the base of the cliff protected from the weather by a large overhang. The first site was a startling array of artwork, a couple of dozen figures in varying degrees of sophistication from early primitive art to very elaborate drawings with good detail. The site had been occupied for 20,000 years and the artwork had accumulated over that time.
    We continued on the trail and saw an amazing series of petroglyphs with interpretative information explaining the meanings of various figures in the drawings. We spent an hour going from one set of drawings to the next. By the time we returned to the parking lot it was 9:30 a.m. We planned to visit two other sites before the weather became too warm so we were off to the next site.
    On the road we flushed a flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos. We had seen them fleetingly several days before when we flushed another flock but this time we went back to get a good look at them and snap a few pictures. When they take off they look like they could be a flock of big Ravens but their red tails catch your attention immediately. When they are sitting, their helmet-like crest and huge bills make them a really distinctive bird.
    Our next stop was at Mamukala, a large wetlands area with a bird blind for observing the birds around the wetlands. When we arrived there was one other couple there. We immediately identified several pairs of ducks as not ducks but Green Pygmy-geese. They were the size of ducks but had the long necks of a goose. Another couple from Britain came in and mentioned several birds they had noticed outside the blind on the walkway to the blind. They helped identify several birds we were working to identify. We continued viewing the area from the blind. Several buses arrived and groups of people came through the blind in droves. We visited with several and shared views through my spotting scope with a few.
    I won’t list all the birds we saw but we added at least half a dozen birds to our list of Australian birds we have seen on this trip. We also had some great chances to see other birds we had seen only once and not under the best observing conditions. A pair of Whistling Kites sat in a tree above the observing blind and whistled and squawked then flew circles overhead so we really got to see them well. We watched a pair of Rufous-banded Honeyeaters building their nest right outside the bird blind.
    By this time we had spent so much time at the first two sites we had to cancel our plans to visit the third site. We debated staying for another day at Kakadu National Park to see the third site but instead chose to continue on to Darwin to keep our trip on its planned schedule.
  16. tbutler
    There is a little bit of everything in Kakadu National Park but the heart of the park is the South Alligator River. The entire drainage basin of the South Alligator River is within Kakadu National Park. About the name, it was incorrectly named when the person who named it mistook the crocodiles for alligators. Once named I guess there is no way to correct the mistake. So there are no alligators in the Alligator River, only crocodiles. This goes along with a standing joke Louise and I have. If we see a feature named for some animal we seldom if ever see that animal in that feature. Swan Lake for instance would likely have no swans (at least when we see it). We’ve never seen a snake in the Snake River. Bear Meadow seems to never have a bear. You get the idea. If we cross Turtle Creek one of us will ask the other if there were any turtles in Turtle Creek.
    We are visiting the park at the end of the Wet. The rivers are running strong from rains received over the last three or four months. Much of the park is closed because roads are flooded. The park is one huge wetlands and they are at their prime right now. We took an early morning cruise on Sunday morning. Driving to the cruise the bus drove through roads that were covered with standing water, maybe 6 inches deep. We started out on the Jim Jim Billabong also known as the Yellow Water. Much of what we cruised on today will be dry ground in August at the end of the Dry. The park is a World Heritage Site which reflects the value of these extensive wetlands.
    On this boat trip we saw several crocodiles and a number of birds including the spectacular Black Necked Stork which was gathering nesting materials and then taking them back to its nest. We were able to watch it fly to its nest where it greeted the female by tapping their long beaks together. We also saw a number of Magpie Geese which are quite common here. Several White Bellied Sea Eagles were also in the trees and we had close up looks at several of them. All this and we were able to view a beautiful sunrise over the water. Breakfast was included in the cruise and they came through with a full buffet breakfast.
    After breakfast we returned to the campervan. We had an hour to get ready to check out. First on our list was to shower and get the insect repellant off and remove a layer of sweat. The tropics are being truly tropical, temperatures overnight in the 80’s and quickly into the 90’s during the day with humidity that approaches 90% constantly. It is quite a change from the first three months of this trip which have been quite cool weather at least at night if not all day. We were in the tropics in Cairns but the humidity was not nearly as high as it is here.
    We got off the site right on time and stopped at the fuel station here to top off the tank with diesel. The price was just 4 cents higher per liter than it was at the Lazy Lizzard in Pine Creek. This fuel will be enough to take us into Darwin on Monday. Today we headed east, further into the park. The visitors center is located deep within the park and that was our next stop. We pulled off at a viewpoint which involved a 1.3 kilometer hike to get to the viewpoint. Given our new rule, no hike starts after noon, we bypassed that hike and continued on to the visitors center. We spent about 30 minutes viewing the exhibits there before continuing on to our planned campground at Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park in Jabiru, NT.
    Jabiru is a small town that supports several mining operations which have mining leases to some of the land within the National Park. Their claims date back to before WW II so the mining continues today. One of the resources that is mined here is uranium. The area which has the uranium was known to the Aborigine people as a land of sickness. They must have experienced health problems when living there and the land became a kind of forbidden territory.
    The campground here is one of the better places we’ve found to stay in Australia. There is plenty of room, good shade and nice restrooms and showers. We arrived before 2:00 p.m. which is the usual check-in time but we were welcomed without hesitation. It was a relief to be plugged in again and have the air conditioning to keep us comfortable.
  17. tbutler
    Saturday, April 26 is another moving day. We left Katherine on the way to Kakadu National Park near Jabiru, NT. Kakadu National Park is a world heritage site. It encompasses a large area of land with several large rivers and lakes. It is known for its fishing, birding and crocodiles. There are no swimming areas in the park other than swimming pools. Crocodiles are found in the waters throughout the park. One person laughingly described this as Crocodile Dundee territory! We’re going for the birds, the scenery and the rain forest. The park is on Aborigine land and the Warradjan Tribe has a cultural center here that we’ll visit tomorrow.
    The road from Katherine to Pine Creek is the same road we will take on returning from Darwin next week. At Pine Creek we stopped to fill up with diesel as the prices there have to be better than in the remote areas of the national park. We stopped at the Lazy Lizard Caravan Park/Bar/CalTex Petrol Station. Inside I was greeted by an old gentleman who was as friendly as anyone we have met on the road. We conducted the transaction for the fuel and he began telling me about the establishment. Louise returned from the restroom which was in the bar and said that I needed to see the bar. He talked about the bar and some of the unique features.
    We walked next door and Louise was right, this was one of the nicest bars we had seen. The building was a block building which was made with blocks from termite mounds. Apparently the termites make some pretty good building blocks. The bar was typical for tropical buildings, it had no doors, the walls were mostly open to the outdoors, there were gaps in the walls with wagon wheels of various sizes, saddles set on top of several walls, there were tables inside and outside and in between, under cover but no walls. There were bar stools drawn up to the walls so you could sit and talk across a wall. There were a variety of fans stirring the air and much more. Louise insists that we will have to stop for the night on our return trip from Darwin. We’ll try to do so. It was just a fuel stop that turned into so much more.
    Leaving the Lazy Lizard and Pine Creek we turned onto the road that goes into Kakadu National Park. It is about 60 kilometers to the park entrance and a total of over 200 kilometers to the far eastern side of the park where we will pick up a different road that will take us into Darwin after we have seen what we want in the park. We were planning to stay at the campground at Cooinda Lodge and take an early morning cruise on the lake that is part of the park. We pulled in at 3:00 p.m. and went to check in. We were pleased to find space available in the campground and space also available for the first cruise in the morning. We will stay one night and leave in the morning following our cruise. Then we’ll head further into the park.
    An evening walk to the boat dock ended with a spectacular sunset over the water. We didn’t see many new birds but we did meet a couple who visited with us for half an hour. They were from Darwin and had suggestions for our time there. He was in the lumber sales business and she was a librarian and teacher. Now retired, they were camping here with her parents. He spotted my binoculars and said he had just purchased the same kind of binoculars. I have a harness which holds the binoculars without the strap around the neck. He tried mine out, had his wife photograph them, front and back and was talking about making or buying something like that. She and Louise were sharing poetry and talking books while all this was going on. It was just a bird walk that turned into so much more.
  18. tbutler
    Nitmiluk National Park is a small park just a few kilometers east of Katherine in the Northern Territories. The primary feature of Nitmiluk is the Katherine River which has cut a gorge into the rocks. The gorge is rather unique in that it developed as the rocks were lifted. With its path established prior to the rocks being lifted, it encountered resistant rocks and created a new path along the stress cracks in the rising rocks. These stress cracks are in a pattern with near 90 degrees angles between two systems of cracks. The result is a gorge which is a series of stair-step zigs and zags. In the case of the Colorado River, the meandering pattern of the river set the course for the Grand Canyon as the Colorado simply continued on its established course cutting deeper and deeper into soft rocks. In the case of Nitmiluk and the Katherine River, the rocks were very hard and thus played a role in establishing the pattern.
    Trails within the park provide access to viewpoints overlooking the gorge and the Katherine River. The river itself is navigable for short distances between falls and rapids so they have boat tours and canoe rental. There is no swimming in the river because of the crocodiles. That’s a good enough reason for me! We never saw a crocodile but I’m not going to put my toe in the water to test that observation.
    We spent some time in the visitors center. They had an excellent interpretative exhibit which explained a number of things we have noticed and/or wondered about. One of the most interesting was the information about termites and their role in the ecology of the tropical rain forest. Termites it turns out will eat the heartwood out of trees. The heartwood is the wood in the center which is no longer transporting nutrients and water to the leaves. In its place, the termites store organic matter which is another food source for them. This organic matter decays and fertilizes the tree. So as they attack the tree they are also beneficial to the tree. In addition, their hollowing of the interior trunk and branches of the trees results in hollow places in trees in which animals live. The exhibit stated that an amazing half of all mammals here in the rainforest live in cavities produced by the termites. But that wasn’t all, one fourth of all reptiles (think lizards) live in these cavities and one fifth of all birds in the tropics live in these cavities as well. The Aborigine used the hollow branches of trees to make one of their musical instruments, the didgeridoo. So, it turns out that termites aren’t all bad. At least when they are not attacking your house! As an aside, the utility poles in this part of the country are all metal poles, there are no creosote soaked poles here. My guess is that a wooden pole wouldn’t last long with the abundance of termites that exist here.
    Other exhibits showed the scientific explanation of the formation of the gorge as well as the Aborigine legends about the formation of the gorge. This was particularly well done with an exhibit that displayed both sets of information on a ribbon with one side being the science and the other being the legend. The entire exhibit area was one of the best and most informative that I have seen anywhere and I told a staff member just that.
    After exploring the exhibits we hiked to the viewpoint closest to the visitors center. Starting the hike we were greeted by a huge flock of fruit bats hanging in the trees along the river. These were the same kind of bats we had seen a month before near the visitors center in Boonah as we wound up our trip on the New England Highway. Here they were in their native habitat in the northern rainforest. Just as before they were flapping trying to keep cool on a bright sunny day. We noticed that they stopped their flapping and their noise stopped as soon as a cloud blocked the sun. It was an amazing change in behavior with just a little cloud.
    Continuing the hike, we climbed up the cliff face on a series of metal stairs followed by more stairs cut into the rocks. The rocks were fascinating with alternating layers of sandstone and conglomerate. Some of the sandstone looked like the sandstone at Uluru while the conglomerate reminded us of the Kata Tjuta.
    Eventually we reached a platform built out on the edge of the cliff overlooking the gorge and river. From there you could see both upriver and downriver along a good stretch of the gorge as well as looking out over the landscape in the area around the river. This was the lower end of the gorge so looking downriver there was quite an expanse of land visible.
    Just uphill from the viewing platform was a canvas shade with a bench. We made that our picnic area, breaking out a simple lunch, we had a great view, shade from the sun and a nice breeze on top of the hill. The trail continued on past the water treatment plant and water storage tanks for the drinking water at the park offices and campground. From that location we were overlooking the entire developed complex of the park.
    The trail followed the access road for the water treatment system back to the main park road and the visitors center. Hiking along the road we enjoyed flowers, rocks and birds. All these were new and different from what we see in the US as well as what we have seen here in Australia. The heat of the day began to affect Louise so we had to slow our progress and take advantage of the available shade. We had plenty of water with us so there was no emergency but we have a new rule now, no hiking if we aren’t on the trail by 10:00 a.m. The mid-day heat gets to be oppressive. Perhaps this will abate, this is fall in the southern hemisphere but in the tropics there are really no seasons like we are used to at the mid-latitudes. April is the beginning of the dry season here, referred to only as the Dry. That will last until August when the storms from the Pacific and Indian Oceans begin to bring rains to the area. That is known as the Wet.
    Our hike concluded at the visitors center where we found ice cream and cold drinks and air conditioning to drain away some of the heat of the hike. Returning to the campervan we changed into cooler and dry clothes and then returned to camp for a good shower.
  19. tbutler
    North of Tennant Creek is Three Ways, a small community near the junction of the Barkly Highway which we drove from Mount Isa to Tennant Creek several weeks before and the Stuart Highway which we are now taking on north toward Darwin. When we passed Three Ways we were in new territory again. As we drove along you could tell that there had been quite a lot of rain lately. We were seeing water standing in creek beds that would normally be dry. Further north the vegetation became thicker with little soil visible as we transitioned from the desert climate of Alice Springs and Tennant Creek to the tropical climate of the Top End. Water was more abundant in streams and lakes and the area took on a lush look.
    The land was mostly flat along this route. We could see occasional mountain ranges to one side of the road or the other but never had to drive through anything resembling a mountain or even serious hills. Flat, straight road was the rule. Roads were in excellent condition with only the occasional rough patch. We encountered no road work! There were frequent grids, the Australian term for a cattle guard. The road was posted as being open range and we were cautioned to watch for wandering livestock. Late in the day we did pass three cows grazing at the edge of the road. We also began seeing kangaroos, dead alongside the road. These were small kangaroos, a different breed than those we had seen earlier.
    We made one stop for fuel and lunch and then drove all afternoon without stopping until we reached our destination in Katherine. We arrived as the sun was setting, fueled up so we would park with a full tank and picked up a few groceries before reaching the park. Louise had called ahead and checked availability and rates at several parks before deciding on Knotts Crossing Resort. This was not one of the regular chain caravan parks. Knotts Crossing Resort has a hotel, cabins and the caravan park. The grounds are groomed as you would expect of a nice hotel and the facilities are quite nice. In this park, we have our own private bathroom right next to our campervan. They refer to this as en suite accomodations.
    We’ll make this our base for exploring the some of the sights around Katherine. Friday, April 25, is Anzac Day here in Australia. This is one of their premier holidays as they honor their veterans of foreign wars. The date is the day they suffered a terrible defeat in the battle of Gallipoli in WW I. The people we met last night said that Gallipoli was the last battle they fought alongside the British. After that they fought in association with American troops.
  20. tbutler
    I hadn’t looked at a map for a while so I pulled out a map to see where our coming journey would take us. I had a general idea but the specifics were foggy. The first thing I looked for and found was the Tropic of Capricorn. How close were we to the tropics? Well, it turns out we were really close. Alice Springs is only slightly south of the Tropic of Capricorn. We would cross back into the tropics in about 60 kilometers when we left town in the morning. In fact, the marker for the Tropic of Capricorn was one of the things we saw on the way south and wanted to stop to see on the return trip.
    The next thing I looked for was the logical campgrounds on the trip north. The first would be to return to Tennant Creek where we had stayed on the way south. There were a number of choices for the next night but the first real town was Katherine, the second largest city in Northern Territories. The problem with Katherine was the distance which was over 600 kilometers. There were only a few stations in between. So Katherine became our goal for the second night. Once there we were officially in the Top End as the Aussies call it. We would be less than 200 kilometers from Darwin and would be near several national parks that looked interesting for exploration.
    Now all we had to do on Tuesday morning was execute the plan. The trip from Alice Springs to Tennant Creek was somewhat relaxed. We needed to travel just 460 kilometers so we stopped at several markers including the Tropic of Capricorn. While there I helped a group of Chinese youngsters by taking their picture and then they returned the favor by taking one of Louise and I by the marker. There are many Chinese people touring Australia and New Zealand and we have had nothing but pleasant encounters with all.
    We fueled up at Aileron Roadhouse. We were attracted to the roadhouse by a large statue of an Aborigine warrior on the hill behind the roadhouse. There was an art gallery with Anmatjere art works associated with the statue. Outside the gallery there was an equally large statue of an Aborigine woman and child. The Anmatjere tribe owns the land that Aileron Station is located on and they are actively involved in all its operations. We browsed the artwork and found two pieces that looked quite interesting. We asked some questions of the proprietor and discussed prices. We finally settled on one of the pieces, a painting in modern Aborigine style which incorporates many of the traditional forms and figures seen in the older works. With that done, we continued on our way north.
    The remainder of the trip was a straight drive to Tennant Creek so we could get into camp before dark. We arrived in time to check in and watch the sun set while we had drinks at their outdoor bar. A couple from Western Australia were there and we had a nice conversation with them regarding things we should try to see in the area we were headed into. They also shared some of their experiences traveling in the US. Another of the many pleasant exchanges we have had with people in our travels.
  21. tbutler
    Our last trip to Alice Springs we were southbound toward Uluru. This time we were returning from Uluru and Kings Canyon. Our normal travel pattern is to avoid backtracking over the same route. If at all possible we will take a different road on a return trip. In this case there is one road from Alice Springs to Uluru. There was an alternate route from Kings Canyon that would cut off some distance and give us different scenery. That road was a dirt road. We gave it a try but found it badly washboarded which seems to be standard for the dirt roads here. The road was 99 kilometers long and the campervan rides like a truck. We decided it wasn’t worth saving the fuel and seeing some different scenery just to have the campervan fall apart around us.
    We rolled into town late in the afternoon and went immediately to the grocery store. Our tucker (Aussie for food) was getting thin. We spent $186 Australian, $174 US to restock the cabinets. Tucker is not cheap here in Australia. Then we headed for Wintersun Caravan Park. This is a Top Tourist park and we chose to stay here because the park we stayed in before had internet but it was so expensive and limited that I refused to use it. As we were checking in we asked about the internet and found out theirs wasn’t in service due to some kind of problem which couldn’t be resolved before we planned to leave. We decided to stay anyway, we could eat lunch tomorrow at McDonalds and take advantage of their free internet. We parked, put groceries away, ate dinner, showered and hit the sack.
    The following morning started with breakfast and then Louise wanted to get the laundry caught up. I helped her haul the three sacks of dirty clothes and linens to the campground laundry. She loaded the machines and returned to the campervan for a brief rest. Then when the machines were done she went back to hang the laundry on the line. All the parks here have extensive clothes lines for patrons to use for drying clothes. They almost universally prohibit putting up lines on your site. I joined her and carried clothes out to her to hang on the lines. With that done, we set out for McDonalds.
    The food at McDonalds is almost the same worldwide. There are some local differences, one of the biggest is that the McDonalds restaurants here incorporate a coffee shop much like the Tim Horton’s in Canada. There are two counters, the restaurant counter and the coffee shop counter complete with all the rolls, etc. We’ve used the internet at other McDonalds here in Australia and had reasonably good luck but this restaurant had really poor internet with very slow downloads and frequent interruptions in service. We gave up after accomplishing little in an hour. Our next stop was to get fuel for the trip the coming day. We headed for the Shell station on the north side of town. On the way we stopped at the local Britz office and had a couple of problems fixed. Britz has free internet at all their offices so we jumped at the opportunity while the repairs were being done.
    Back at the campground we collected the clothes from the line and put them away. Then we spent some time looking at the coming weeks and getting some idea of what we might be able to do with the time that remains for us in the campervan.
  22. tbutler
    Northeast of Uluru is an area known as Kings Canyon. The as the crow flies distance is about 120 kilometers but the road distance is more like 300 kilometers. It is a beautiful area of sandstone bluffs and canyons. There are several hikes of interest to us in this location so we spent Easter Sunday driving to this location. We arrived at the Kings Canyon Resort to find that all the powered sites were taken and the rate for unpowered sites were just a few dollars less than those with power. If we wanted to camp without power, we could do that free at some locations but none close.
    Being in the park in mid-afternoon we decided to take one of the short hikes. The hike we chose was about a half mile long and went directly into Kings Canyon along Kings Creek. The hike was an easy one being on paved or gravel walkway with a few bridges over Kings Creek. The scenery was spectacular as you looked up several hundred feet to the canyon rim. The rock walls consisted of a lower layer of sandstone in very thin layers overlain with sandstone in massive thick layers. The canyon walls were eroded in these steep walls because the thin layers eroded away more easily leaving the upper layers unsupported. The upper layers then collapsed into the canyon and were evident throughout the walk. Blocks of sandstone the size of houses littered the floor of the canyon. Weather would eventually wear these blocks down and the creek would carry them away.
    We enjoyed watching birds, photographing a lizard and seeing interesting plants including one that looked very much like a holly with small red berries. There was some interpretative information but nothing mentioned that plant. There was another trail that started where this one did and we planned to hike that trail around the canyon rim the next day. That trail was described as being difficult with a steep climb to the rim and with very dry warm conditions strong cautions about taking adequate water for the hike were posted. We took note of those cautions and begin planning for the hike.
    The only other campground nearby was at Kings Creek. This was a private way station just outside Watarrka National Park, the park that contains Kings Canyon. These stations are isolated and are high cost operations which also charge high fees for everything from fuel and food to camping. We were able to get a powered site at Kings Creek and it wasn’t as expensive as I assumed but the facilities were really rough. The shower house was in poor condition and the roads and campsites were on dirt or dust. Still, we had power and could use the air conditioning to cool down for the night.
    The following morning Louise woke up feeling poorly. She was suffering from a migraine headache which had become worse overnight. We decided to scrap the plans for the rim hike and head for Alice Springs where we would get some rest and catch up with housework before continuing north toward Darwin on the northern coast of Northern Territories.
  23. tbutler
    Our last evening at Uluru was spent on a camel ride with a sunset view of Uluru. We spent the earlier part of the day hiking in the domes of Kata Tjuta. Following that we returned to our camp to get showers and dressed for the evening. We were picked up at a bus stop just outside the entrance to the campground. It was a small, 30 person bus and we got the last two seats. After a short ride from the campground and we arrived at the camel stables. We were escorted into the office and given a short briefing before meeting our camels. They were all lined up, saddled waiting for us. The line of camels were all sitting on the ground. It is amazing how they can fold up those long legs and sit right on top of them.
    We were given the mount and dismount instructions and then assigned a camel. When we climbed on the heavier person gets the rear seat, that’s me! Mounting from the left, swing a leg up and over being careful not to catch your foot on the lead to the next camel in line. There is a lead rope tied to our saddle for the camel that is behind. There is also a small line with a clip to the nose of that camel. The clip on the nose is to keep the camel from regurgitating its last meal! It is a time honored solution to a messy situation. Catching a foot on either line would be unpleasant for the camel and also for me.
    Louise then swung into the saddle in front of me. The saddle was a single saddle, two seats, one in front of the hump and the other behind. We had stirrups for our feet and there were bars in front of each of us to give us a place to hold on. And hold on we did as the camel stood up. We had to lean back then the cameleer would tell the camel to stand giving it a prod on the hindquarters with a hand if necessary. Most of the camels would bray loudly at this point as they lifted their load raising to full height on their hind legs and then rising on their front legs. Our camel was no exception. We really weren’t that heavy a load. A camel can carry about 1500 pounds for great distances in the desert.
    Camels came to Australia many years ago and they have adapted well to the conditions here. There are numerous places where you find camels here and rides are readily available. As far as I know, there is only one franchise for camel rides at Uluru, Uluru Camel Tours. I would rate the quality of the ride as simply outstanding. The staff of a photographer, who seemed to be in charge, and seven cameleers plus a cook and bartender were all very engaging and did an excellent job of explaining what they were doing and answering questions about the camels and the operation at the camel stables.
    The camels were in two lines that traveled independently. There were ten camels in our line and another 15 in the other line. We led the way out of the stables across the desert up and down several dunes. From the top of the dunes we could see Uluru in the distance. As the ride continued the light and shadows changed on Uluru, the sky color changed and the shadows faded as the sun set. Watching the sunrise and sunset on Uluru is one of the major activities here. I took a few photos but riding on a camel, it was hard to be steady enough to get good photos. I took advantage of the pauses to snap some shots of Uluru as well as the rest of the group. In the end I purchased the CD with all the pictures of the event as well as a few pictures of desert critters, all done by the professional photographer.
    The lead camel was ridden by a cameleer so they had control of starting and stopping the camel train. Along side there was a cameleer walking and monitoring the behavior of the camels. The longer line had two cameleers. We were encouraged to ask questions and did so. Since we were in the middle of the line, the cameleer that was on foot was always somewhere near where we were and we carried on a near constant conversation with him. He was quite informative and told us about plants and animals found in the desert as well as his personal history of working there and some general information about Australia.
    As the light faded from the sky we returned to the stables and dismounted. Then we went into the office area and they had snacks laid out for us and a variety of drinks. There was also merchandise and the photos. We had a great time, there were drinks aplenty and the staff was there to explain everything that hadn’t already been discussed. The cook talked about the desert version of beer bread and also the ingredients that went into making this delicious bread as well as the dips. We went home well satisfied with our experience.
  24. tbutler
    The big red rock in the center of Australia is the source of much interest and is of great significance to the native Aborigine culture. When I speak of the Aborigine culture, it is not as a single culture for the entire nation. The Aborigine tribes were just that, local tribes. There were four tribes that inhabited the area around Uluru, AKA Ayers Rock. Of those one tribe was the primary tribe that interacted with Uluru, the Anangu. They operate the National Park at Uluru in conjunction with the government of Northern Territories. Most of the land around Uluru and it sister rock formation Kata Tjuta, AKA the Olgas, belong to the Anangu tribe. There are sites in both locations which are sacred and are prohibited to be visited or photographed. Climbing Uluru is an activity that the Anangu ask that tourists forgo as this too is a sacred activity done only by their adult men in a special ceremony.
    Visiting the park is a lesson in cultural sensitivity. Respecting the wishes of another culture is a sign of respect for the culture. It isn’t a culture that appeals to me nor is it a culture which is highly advanced. It is a remnant of an earlier age, largely based on superstition and tradition, it is not to be dismissed. These are the people who will survive when no other humans on earth will survive. Name your disaster, I’ll put my money on people who can live in the desert for centuries.
    We visited Uluru and hiked the 12 kilometers all the way around the base of the rock. We did not climb Uluru out of respect for the wishes of the Anangu. It is an amazing piece of sandstone standing above the surrounding desert. It is not alone, some 40 kilometers away is it companion, Kata Tjuta. We also hiked the canyons of Kata Tjuta. Both these formations are alluvial fans from previous mountain ranges. One is sandstone, the other is conglomerate. To the geologist that means that one is formed from the fine particles, sand, that washed out of the much older mountains. The other is formed of large particles, boulders, pebbles and rocks held together by a fine mass of rock. The boulders, pebbles and rocks were washed out of a mountain range also but settled in a different kind of place. The sand formed in quiet waters and the layers can be seen in Uluru while the boulders and gravel settled out of fast moving water that carried the sand on to quieter locations. Both were buried for long periods of time and were cemented by waters containing iron and other minerals that glued everything together. The iron is evident in the red color that stains everything in this part of Australia.
    To the Anangu, these spectacular formations were home. They moved from one to another as food supplies and water sources fluctuated. They made their homes here, living off the land and finding shelter and inspiration at each location. We saw caves where they lived, rested and taught their young. We saw from a distance sites that they considered sacred and we read of their stories passed down from generation to generation. They were stories that passed on lessons for living, much as Greek mythology contained lessons for life. Their gods weren’t Zeus, Jupiter or Neptune but were lizards and snakes, those creatures they knew from their experience. Just as in Greek mythology, some were good and some were evil and they battled each other. Out of the battles came lessons for life and these they passed on from generation to generation.
    We enjoyed all aspects of this visit. We reveled in the geology, learned much about the life of the Anangu and marveled at the changing appearance of Uluru at sunrise and sunset and the strange domes of Kata Tjuta. I read an article recently that was written about the things you don’t take home from a trip in a suitcase. Things that add to your understanding of life from the viewpoint of other people and other cultures and we will take home many such memories to share with our friends and family.
  25. tbutler
    Stick a pin in the center of Australia and you would come close to hitting Alice Springs. This is our next objective. We left Tennant in good time in the morning headed south on the Stuart Highway. We have the day to cover about 530 kilometers, somewhat less than our goal for the last two days. Fuel stops are more common now as this highway is more heavily traveled. This allows us to continue traveling for a longer period of time without stopping.
    Not far south of Tennant we encountered a scenic area. With fewer kilometers on our travel schedule for the day, we pulled off to travel through a short road paralleling the Stuart Highway. The road took us through an area called the Devils Marbles, Karlwekarlwe in the Aborigine language. For the Aborigine this was a sacred site. Groups from several areas would meet in this location each year for a social and ceremonial gathering. Stories from the Aborigine culture and information about the geology of the area helped us understand both.
    Other than that stop, we stopped at one bar/gas station. Diesel was $2.147 at this stop. I went in to pay the bill but had to go back outside to read the pump as they didn’t have a connection from the pump to the register. How long has it been since you have seen this? We made a note of other stations on the route in preparation for our return trip. We also noted a number of other stops we might make on our trip to Darwin on the north coast.
    Alice Springs is a good size town, the third largest town in Northern Territories. There is a large Aborigine population here and many seem to be unemployed or underemployed. The history of Australia and the treatment of the Aborigine is similar to the US history with the native Indian population. A clash of cultures and the looser suffered under years of persecution. Recovery from this situation is difficult but I can see the Australian people are making an effort to rectify the situation. Aborigine culture is part of almost every exhibit we have seen and Aborigine tribes have been given control of many lands that were historically theirs. This includes control of national parks or parts of national parks.
    We visited several sites in Alice Springs in our three day stay. On the top of the list was the historic part of town which had a number of historic buildings and a collection of art, cultural and civic museums. We started with the National Pioneer Women Hall of Fame. The exhibits honored women from all of Australia who were the first to enter a profession or to achieve great accomplishments, overcoming cultural practices that limited women’s choices of career choices. The stories were inspiring and the exhibit was really first class. We also made a quick visit near closing time to the Flying Physicians Museum which detailed the history of medical service to the Australian Outback.
    Our third day in town was devoted to flying. As a pilot, I need to fly on a regular basis to maintain my currency. When I travel for extensive trips in the US, I like to rent a plane somewhere and go sightseeing. In foreign countries, I would need to obtain an endorsement for my US license or a separate license in the country in which we are traveling. As an alternative, I can hire a flight instructor and take a flight lesson that allows me to fly a rental plane. It is a work-around and one that I welcome, I have flown with dozens of flight instructors over the years and have enjoyed learning from most all of them. Simon was no exception, he charted a course from Alice Springs out to Bond Creek where I made several landings on a bush field, or as he described it, a dust and dirt field. This was a first for me and I greatly enjoyed the chance to venture outside my normal experiences. We also flew along a mountain range to the west of Alice Springs and I enjoyed seeing the interesting rock formations. We left Alice Springs on Wednesday morning heading for Uluru, the big red rock at the heart of Australia, AKA Ayers Rock.
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