Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Top End

6/28: We arrived back in Darwin in the evening. In advance; it had seemed a good idea to make a hotel rezo for a night. I was curious about downtown Darwin; it’s an old town, has some interesting history (much communication with Asia, the Japanese Navy bombed it repeatedly during World War II, etc.), and hey, it was a new place. However, I did not realize that 1) I’d booked a hotel on Mitchell Street, the main area of nightlife, 2) the USS Peleliu, with several thousand sailors and Marines on board, would be in town, and 3) our room, while having two beds, was approximately 8’ x14’ in size. Paul was a good sport about all of this.

Well, what to do. The room had AC; the World Cup was on cable. We found a decent pizza joint. The waterfront provided a nice stroll in the humid dark tropical air. We saw a number of plaques dedicated to the servicemen and their units from WWII.

I stopped at the backpacker hostel associated with our hotel to do some internet prior to sleep. This became a bit strange when I realized that much of the room trade happening around me was just that: military personnel and their “dates”. The older looking enlisted men seemed to be doing better, as it were, than the ones who looked sixteen or so. I’ve not been around such an overt scene since I was in Indonesia, a long time ago. It was both saddening and distracting to see these events go on around me.

6/29: Leaving Darwin was not a problem. Some casting about and the related traumas of driving on the left in the new unknown city provided food, gas, and other supplies. A short stretch south on Rt 1, the Stuart Highway, and I turned our current vehicle, a Toyota RAV 4, east towards Kakadu National Park on the Victoria Highway. More subtropical landscape rolled by. Fruit plantations near Darwin gave way to tropical woodland; acacias and grasses (for a change) and a variety of broadleaf trees – myrtles, kapoks, and others. It was 34oC; I’ll guess humidity was in the 70% range. The air grew smoky; lots of spot fires in the bush. I assume that these were deliberately set for land management purposes. The Aboriginals have been doing this for up to 60,000 years, so it’s become kinda ecologically necessary. Mid-winter, i.e., the dry season – now – is the time to burn. It began to seem unlikely that Kakadu would provide much in the way of dramatic vistas.

The National Park boundary came and went. The Victoria Highway continues past the park further east into Arnhemland; this area is largely Aboriginal preserve; one needs a permit to stop there. Maybe on a future visit.

A stop at the Jabiru Visitor Centre gave us permission to stay in Kakadu, however. We found a campsite near Muirella Park, on Djarradjin Billabong. It was still 34oC. Being in the air conditioned RAV 4 seemed a good idea, so we drove to Ubirr, in the northeastern corner of the park, to see the sunset. Ubirr composes part of the sandstone escarpment of Kakadu; a series of ridges and jump ups that more or less divide the park into two parts. The lower, northern bits of the park – mudflats, mangroves, and monsoon forest - run up to the Gulf of Carpentaria. This part is largely swampy and inaccessible to Americans without boats, and who aren’t that into fishing or wildlife, especially birds or large carnivorous reptiles.

The escarpment at Ubirr also has lots of sandstone overhangs. Like Keep River, many of these cavities featured Aboriginal paintings. They were extraordinary, truly world class art. The paintings, in shades of red, ochre, and white, focused on Aboriginal mythology, such as the Rainbow Serpent, and X-ray style depictions of many of the important local and huntable things to eat – barramundi and other fish, turtles, wallabies. There was also a spectrum of humanoid figures; clearly male or female, but I was not clear on their importance.

Between these overhangs and the upcoming sunset, Ubirr was swarmed with people. It was difficult to get a decent look at many of the art sites; ranger talks and other tourists filled the spaces behind the fences (the art is all quite delicate, so is off limits, like in any good museum).

As sunset approached, I followed Paul up the escarpment trail to the primary viewing area. Unfortunately, this was to be a repeat of last year’s sundown experience at Uluru; we shared the vista with a good six hundred to one thousand of our tourist colleagues. The multitude included at least two tours comprised of high school students; their hormonal fizz added to the distraction of the people around us.

These human interferences were unfortunate. The 360 degree view from the escarpment was breaktaking – really. A wide open vista over green grasslands to the west was balanced by the stony cliffs of the escarpment punctuated by high gum trees in the east. It would have been lovely to sit on the edge in a comfy spot and watch the light change, the birds emerge, and swat the occasional mosquito. This was not possible. In addition, smoke from bushfires in the park gave the scene a slightly apocalyptic feel. We left early, and avoided the mass exodus of trucks, cars, buses, and other conveyances once it got dark.

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