My last entry talked about the work of Australia Fifteen: the part that the grant covers. What about the fun? On Fifteen, a week of new places exploration happens first. I’m being joined for this leg by my frequent travel buddy Paul. He’s in the throes of getting a job in Perth (if I weren’t happy for him, strangulation would be in order). Last summer’s pleasure excursion, with both Paul and Louis, was in the central deserts of Australia: Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, and Alice Springs. This year, we’ll be further north, in the subtropics. After a lot of investigation, we’ve settled on a bipartite itinerary: splitting our time between the Kimberley Region of Western Australia and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. My initial urge was to just visit the Kimberley. Lots of desert and rocks – my kind of place. Then I realized that more than half of our waking time would be driving in order to glimpse the area’s highlights. This is normal in Outback Australia, but since this year’s field season will have a lot of driving, we’ve decided to focus on one spot: the Bungle Bungles Range, more recently named Purnululu National Park. The Bungle Bungles are my desert fix. It is one of those places that is strikingly and uniquely scenic, hard to get to, and largely unheard of outside of Australia. A rough analogy would be Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the US. I’ve wanted to go there since first hearing its name in 1985. It features lots of exposed sedimentary rock, which has weathered into a variety of gorges and “beehive” structures. It just looks like a fun place to hike, poke around, and photography.
Getting the Bungle Bungles will be the usual multi-tube adventure. After flying from San Francisco to Sydney, we take a domestic jet to Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. After a couple hours to feel jet lag, we fly on a puddle jumper to Kununurra, in the East Kimberley. With a night of recovery, we rent a 4WD vehicle and make the five hour drive to the Bungle Bungles, and start camping.
Eventually we’ll fly back to Darwin, rent another vehicle, and head east to Kakadu National Park. Kakadu was Paul’s idea. It’s not arid, so it was off my radar screens. Like the Bungle Bungles, Kakadu is another gem largely unknown outside of Aus. It’s a huge expanse combining river plains that drain north to the Gulf of Carpentaria (lots of birds and crocodiles) and a southern sandstone escarpment that’s cut into dramatic canyons. It looks beautiful and lush – even in the dry season, when we’ll be there. In addition to these natural charms, Kakadu has been home to Aboriginal groups for at least 40,000 years. The park has several significant rock art sites. These are stylistically more elaborate and complex than the petroglyphs I’ve see in WA and the NT. As I wrote last summer, I’ve gradually become more attuned to Aboriginal Australia; the art, the places, and the people. Kakadu is an opportunity to further this osmotic process. When I read the park literature, I sense that visiting Kakadu is not going to a park; it’s visiting part of cultural homeland. The Aboriginal culture persistent has persisted enough that I sense it through the overprint of colonization. Or so it feels from pictures and words. We will see what ground truth is like.