Kings Canyon – day 319/9

The usual morning routine (incl. breakfast) takes about two hours for the three of us. But, once everything was in order we had a final farewell up at the lookout to Uluru. Still looking like a prop at a pantomime, we couldn’t believe we were here or how beautiful a solitary rock could be. It was a striking image growing further away in distance as we drove back down the highway. 
We stopped at the service station near Mt. Conner lookout. The view from the yard was pretty awesome as we waited for the attendant to come out and unlock the handles. Not connected to the tills inside the shop, the whole transaction is carried out at the pump and we were on our way after more extortionately priced fuel would safely get us to Kings Canyon. At the only other stop en route for the bathroom, there was the most beautiful pet cockatoo in the tree outside the restaurant. Charlie was able to say ‘Hello’ and we contemplated stuffing him under a t-shirt and taking him with us. But, we arrived at Kings Canyon Resort, without our feathered friend and without a booking on the system. Ninjas sorted the whole situation out as I stayed in the car, nobody wanted to unleash the Kraken. 
A breather and a spot of lunch in the room and we headed off for the afternoon. The yawning chasm of Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park is one of the most spectacular sights in central Australia. Despite the map depicting a steep climb at the beginning of the trail and several AED’s, Emergency Call Radios and First Aid boxes dotted along the route we knew we could do it. The steep climb was the start of the 6km loop of the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. The canyon delivered better views the higher we climbed to the top of the cliff and we weren’t expecting it to get much better than that… but it did. Meandering through the beehive sandstone formations, over plains of rippled sandstone, past trees scorched and twisted from fire and through sections alive with vegetation the walk itself was slow going because we were taking so many photos. Then, we emerged from the honeycomb maze to start viewing the canyon from the middle of a cliff wall and the sheer drop.We traversed the new (and not burned down) metal bridge to Cotterills Lookout. It gave the most impressive view down the canyon with the height giving an eagle view of the creek below. It was also, when viewed from the other side of the rim, undercut and sticking out precariously with very little rock supporting it underneath. That wasn’t a very comforting thought to find out later on. However, until then, ignorance was bliss and the Garden of Eden, down a fleet of stairs was equally blissful. A lush pocket of ferns, prehistoric cycads (plants that have survived from the time of the dinosaurs) and red leaf gum trees surround a tranquil pool. Pooling on top of an impermeable layer of slate, giving life to plants and animals in the area, the pocket of serenity was worth the extra walk down. Tracey and I returned up the stairs to catch up with Katherine who was still recovering from over-doing it with what I think is a cold. We didn’t take as many photos on the last stretch of the walk. Namely we were filling up our memory cards with very similar photos of orange stone, also because it was slowing us down and we could see the storm clouds rolling in on the horizon. Not sure if it was going to hit us or not, the rumbling thunder echoed through the paths and the wind howled, giving a careful warning of what could happen if one was not prepared or cautious. So when we passed a family where the son had twisted his ankle we were eager to help and make sure everyone was down off the walk before any bad weather hit. I had a Panadol in my purse which was greatly appreciated and we caught up with the girls and told them to wait for mum and dad. When everyone was together we promised to wait at the car park until they were down safely. We didn’t do much in the end, but when the rain came and went and they came strolling (and hopping) towards the shaded hut in the car park they were grateful that we waited for them. 

The viewing area for the sunset behind the lodges was cramped and lacking the promised pop-up bar. Everyone milled around watching the canyons in the distance change slowly to a deep red. I have lost the ingenuity to describe the colours in different ways, but imagine that today’s scene was the transformation of an element in a toaster turning from a dull black to a warm orange. These hills changed from a pale yellowy orange with trees and bushes dotted along the slopes to one alive and vibrant, an intoxicating reddy orange that captivated the soul. It was a rare occasion where I was more transfixed with the view cast by the sunset rather than watch the sun set behind the hills and a bright sky. Plus, I didn’t even take a single photo and lived in the moment. Fortunately, Tracey did…Over to the ‘Thristy Dingo’, it was amazing to see how busy the dinner service was. The Ninjas enjoyed their first bottle of wine and I sipped a bit at the fruit cider before taking it back to the room and enjoying it with a film. Roll forward two hours when they stumbled back to the room, ‘Shitfaced’, and regaling tales of heckling the singer and kids coming up to give them goodnight kisses. I don’t know what antics happened and to be honest, what happens in the outback stays in the outback. Kat and I had some noodles and watched poor Tracey convince herself she could watch a film, passing out with Chicken Crimpys and the iPad on her bed. I should have taken it as a sign that Katherine would be the same with her passing out only a few minutes in to an episode of Friends.  

Sunday 21st August 2016

Kakadu – day 312/2

I should have stayed up and watched the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We love that film and it was on next when I clicked off the tv. The ninjas slept well and I didn’t, I at least should have had a good excuse. So, after packing up the car we headed back towards Darwin but turned off at Humpty Doo. Topped up with petrol from having chewed up a far ole’ distance on the highway already, and a quick pic with the boxing croc before we drove towards the Kakadu National Park. While en route we managed to purchase our park permits online. The 3G kept cutting out on Tracey’s phone but we got there in the end… only a few kilometres from where we could have bought ’em over the counter!

Continuing the adventure we missed the turn off for the croc tour. Oops, quick U-turn. Recommended by Ben yesterday to go with this company we drove a long way down a dirt track with the dust from vehicles in front being a small comfort that we were at least getting lost in convoy. 
We managed to get a slot on the 11am boat. But, with so many people turning up they stuck all the elderly and children on this boat and sent out the ‘cool’ boat for another group at 11:15 (much to the satisfaction of everyone on board). The guide had forgotten his bait stick so asked us to hold the steering wheel in position while he went ashore to find one. I have to say, personally, that I think that pushing the throttle forward a nudge was prudent in the situation as the boat was pulling off the jetty and surely he’d like both us and vessel still there when he returned. However, he didn’t find it acceptable and asked someone else up JUST to hold the wheel. Whatever! We only went a small distance across the Adelaide river to our first croc. Domino, a 5m male, had set up territory across from the jetties and was waiting patiently at the side of the other boat for the food to appear. We thus got our first glimpse of this prehistoric reptile with its head lurking out of the water next to a tin can with perhaps 20 people. Oh, and he was longer than the boat. And our boat was a smaller boat than their’s. Yikes! So, when he jumped from the water, a terrifying realisation that the side bars are nowhere near high enough and this is indeed an apex predator. We loved every second. Braving the edge and railings a bit more as the cruise went on, we got photos of a half blind female, other quicker, more nimble, higher jumping females, a scrawny little male and a couple of juveniles. Katherine and Tracey plied the skipper with questions to which everyone listened to the answers and we traversed up and down the river, zigzagging across the choppy waves to different territories. The adrenaline was magnificent and the new camera managed to capture some continuous shots of the morning. It was pretty epic and something we’ll never forget. 

Stopping at the weirdly beautiful transmission station down the road we were on the highway heading towards our UNESCO World Heritage Site #52. Katherine is delighted that we managed to achieve 1 WHS per week before we had been travelling for a year. What started as a route to decide our travel destinations is now something worthy of a Dave Gorman show and I think we need to sit down and work on the idea. The now obligatory photo of the UNESCO symbol at the site was provided by the lovely Tracey when she did another U-turn. Kakadu is a whole lot more than a national park. It’s also a vibrant, living acknowledgment of the elemental link between the Aboriginal custodians and the country they have nurtured, endured and respected for thousands of generations. Encompassing almost 20,000 sq km it holds a spectacular ecosystem and a mind-blowing concentration of ancient rock art. The landscape is an ever changing tapestry periodically scorched and flooded, apparently desolate or obviously abundant depending on the season. 

The charming navigator in the back seat planned our lunch break at Mamukala wetlands. A beautiful observation platform granted uninterrupted views of wading birds, ducks and the occasional passing raptor. It was serenely peaceful except for the birds and that’s totally acceptable and refreshing. We let grub settle down before hitting the road to Ubirr. Kakadu’s rock art has many fine examples at this site as well as stunning views over the landscape. Including depictions of traditional Aboriginal law and learning, and the abundant foods to be found in the area, the bus loads of visitors don’t disturb the inherent majesty and grace of the place. Layers of rock-art paintings, in various styles and from various centuries, command a mesmerising stillness. Part of the main gallery reads like a menu, with images of kangaroos, tortoises and fish painted in x-ray, which became the dominant style about 8,000 years ago. Predating these are the paintings of Miami spirits: cheeky, dynamic figures who, it’s believed, were the first of the Creation Ancestors to paint on rock (given the lack of cherry pickers in 6,000 BC, you have to wonder who else but a spirit could have painted at that height and angle). 

The magnificent Nardab Lookout is a 250m scramble from the main gallery. Surveying the billiard-table-green floodplain, the landscape changes dramatically from the soaring sandstone escarpments of Arnhem Land to monsoon forests and savanna woodlands and tidal flats in the distance. 

The beauty of the area is lost on the youth: the children are impatient and running amock and adolescents are more concerned about a unique selfie or dangerous pose over the cliff ledge. But, we enjoyed it and headed down with enough time to explore more paintings and head back towards Jabiru before sunset and darkness. I had saved on to the MapsMe app where our accommodation was for the the night. So, it was annoying that we drove in to this caravan park without any signs and not a reception or office in sight. I looked up the address of the place on the tourist map and directed Tracey to the other side of town to where the address said it would be – nothing. So, we drove around the town looking for somewhere that we could then ask for directions. Eventually finding the campsite, I was quite upset that we drove in to the same place as earlier. We had come in the back entrance of the complex (the only road marked on my map) and thus the little jog around town was a big waste of time. Tracey and I went down to the garage to get stuff for dinner and Katherine sorted out full SD cards for a change. It was pretty awesome cooking burgers on the barbecue and a late night dinner was had with a nice cool breeze blowing through the complex. Our ‘bush cabin’ was raised very high on stilts and the glamping vibe was quite nice to wind down after another action packed day. 

Sunday 14th August 2016

Kuranda – day 308

Having done our research late last night after completing the census, we knew we needed to catch a shuttle bus at 8.30am. Getting up early, showering, eating our free pancake breakfast we headed over to the bus station. After a quick dash to Coles to grab some apples to go with lunch, we waited for our bus. Watched the Kuranda scenic railway train leave from the stations as the bus pulled up. Only to find out that it didn’t drop off passengers off at our stop – it only picked them up! After a conversation with the driver, we found out that we could catch a bus from just outside our hostel. Retracing our steps, we managed to catch a bus to the Smithfield Skyrail. Felt like it was the longest bus journey in the entire world as it went around the houses and up every little back alley possible. It took us over an hour to go the 15km to the Skyrail rainforest Cableway. At 7.5km long, it is one of the worlds longest gondola cableway, giving a birds-eye view over the tropical rainforest and our 51st UNESCO World Heritage Site. Finally arriving at the ticket counter, we organised our tickets to catch the cableway up and the train back down to Cairns. Only to find that my card didn’t work… Slightly strange as I had topped it up last night, we grabbed a purchase number and stepped out of the queue to allow others to be served whilst we tried to sort it out. The free wifi in the centre wasn’t working so I turned on data roaming to check accounts. With no reason for it not to work, other than a technical fault with the bank, I transferred some money into Jayne’s account and we kept our fingers crossed that her card would work. Fortunately it did, but it was a rather stressful 15 minutes! Fortunately, there was no wait for us to get into a gondola and we were above the rainforest before we knew it. The Barron Gorge National park is stunning. Spread almost as far as the eye can see, there are towering tall green trees with an occasional glimpse of the road that runs through the rainforest. Our first stop was Red Peak station, where the gondola descended through the canopy layers and took us deep in the forest. Red Peak Station (545m above sea level) is nestled amongst pristine rainforest with a 175 metre boardwalk providing a perfect opportunity to explore the forest from ground level. The Station is surrounded by towering trees, lush palms, giant ferns and a diverse array of plants and wildlife.

We managed to catch a free guided ranger talk where Ranger Rob pointed out various plants along the boardwalk, including our favourite ‘Strangler Fig’ and the interesting fern baskets that only disseminate sideways. We then continued on to the second station of Barron Falls, where we enjoyed spectacular views of the Barron Gorge, a deep chasm lined with dense rainforest vegetation at a couple of different lookouts. Having explored the three lookouts, which provided breathtaking views of the Gorge and Falls, we headed off to the toilet area where Ranger Rob had told us that a wild cassowary had been spotted over the last few days. Walking quietly and peering around, we must have looked quite odd staring out into the vegetation trying to catch a glimpse of the worlds second largest bird. No such luck unfortunately so we headed to the information centre before catching the last section of the cableway to the Tableland village of Kuranda. Arriving in the village, we walked up to the main streets, looking into the aboriginal markets that are held here. Deciding to veto the zoos, we decided to compete a couple of the walking trails in the area. There are six walking trails around Kuranda from a walk through the village to a rainforest stroll through the undergrowth to a more strenuous hike back to the Barron Falls lookout. 

Conscious of the fact that we needed to get the train back to Cairns at 15.30, we opted to do the village walk and a couple of the rainforest ones. It was really nice having the trails mostly to ourselves as we explored the area. Our last walking tour dropped us straight outside the train station as we caught the Kuranda Scenic Railway back to Cairns. Winding 34km through picturesque mountains, the track was completed in 1891 by workers who had to bring their own tools or dig by hand, battling sickness, steep terrain and venomous creatures. The journey took just under 2 hours and had a running commentary throughout as well as slowing down at various significant points along the route to allow for photo opportunities. Back in Cairns, we popped into Coles to get some food for dinner before heading back to the YHA. Drinking far too much goon wine with our pasta, we headed off to bed deciding that tomorrow is going to be a rest day as we are both tired from our travels up east coast. Wednesday 10th August 2016