As I write this on the evening of Friday the 18th of June in Watarrka National Park, Lisa and I have been in Australia the better part of two weeks. There’s no Internet in this particular part of the outback — not even a kiosk where you drop dollar coins in for a bit more time on Facebook. I hope to be able to post this tomorrow when we get to Uluṟu. Access to the web is not as pervasive — or as low-cost — as it is in the US. But that’s not really what vacation is really about, now is it?
We’re having a great time, and it’s hard to believe that our trip is half over. It took a while to feel like we actually were in a different country, despite having crossed the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the Equator, and the International Date Line on our way here. But I think it felt real after that first day with the campervan, having driven on the left side of the road through a strange landscape and then that night having seen the southern stars for the first time. Now, eight days later, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re a long distance from home — if only when measured by mileage.
We’ve been in the Northern Territory for the majority of our trip. First in Darwin and then in a string of national parks. Other than being on the Timor Sea and having a beautiful climate for the middle of winter, there’s really not a lot to Darwin. (At least not as we saw it.) The parks are pretty amazing, though.
But first: A few words about our temporary home away from home. We rented a 22-foot long, two-person Euro Tourer campervan. It wasn’t the biggest RV on the road, but it was definitely plenty big. And the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the vehicle — which makes sense, since it’s there to facilitate driving on the wrong side of the road. I think the only thing that saved me that first day was that it was an automatic transmission. It was a beautiful, almost blemish free vehicle with all kinds of amenities: toilet, shower, TV/DVD, air conditioning, water heater, fridge, etc.
It was blemish-free, and then I started driving it. Within the first 30 minutes I had made a nice big dent on the left side of the camper. The appropriate answer to my question of where to get groceries should not have simply been “Palmerston . . . just down the Stuart Highway.” It should have been a question: “How comfortable are you driving your behemoth machine in a tight car park at a mall where there’s a grocery store?” It was a split-second choice I had to make between getting very close to a tree on the left-hand side or another person’s car coming toward me on the right-hand. I thought the tree had it coming, so I let it have it. But I kinda freaked out while we shopped in the supermarket. A quiet freakout, but almost a complete “I just want to forget about this part of the adventure and go home and curl into a little ball and whimper” freakout.
But a few hours later, when we made it to Litchfield NP, I felt much better. Not perfectly secure in my decision to continue forth with the adventure, but much better nonetheless.
At first, I wasn’t so sure about these parks. In the Northern Territory, you drive for hours through the same scenery, and then — all of a sudden — you’re doing something truly amazing. In Litchfield it was looking at the beautiful waterfalls, swimming in the plunge pool of one of them, and seeing the southern stars for the first time.
After Litchfield, we went to Kakadu NP, which was on my list of things that I absolutely had to see while in Australia. I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to see this park, but I had a sense that it was something I had to do. Maybe it was the 20,000 year-old Aboriginal rock art. Maybe it was floodplains and billabongs that are home to crocodiles and 1/3 of Australia’s bird species. Maybe it was the pictures of the Yellow Water wetlands or Jim Jim Falls. Whatever it was, it turned out to be even more spectacular than I imagined. The 2-hour dawn wildlife cruise we took was more than worth getting up at 4:45AM to be at the jetty on time. And the rock paintings at Ubirr and Nourlangie are so amazing; it’s like they’ve come from a different planet.
Kakadu is also where I learned that vacation doesn’t always have to be packed full of action. In fact, sitting around the campground in the afternoon after a morning’s hike and before an afternoon’s swim in the pool can be quite enjoyable. Doing nothing but reading a bit or writing in my journal as the breeze rustles the leaves is pretty nice, too. (Australian national parks are quite a bit different than American ones, which are all about the nature. Here it’s all about the tourist experience.)
After leaving Kakadu, we started a long bit of driving to Alice Springs, 1500km to the south. The first day was short, only about 400km to Katherine. We stayed in Nitmiluk, another national park. And then we had a 600km drive — in a campervan, it’s worth remembering — to Tenant Creek. The last day was shorter, but even more lonely.
This drive was epic. Long, flat, unbending roads punctuated every 70-100km by an imperceptibly small town or (more usually) a roadhouse. The latter is a gas station attached to a pub/tavern with a few rooms and a caravan/campground nearby.* Staying there seems like it would be an act of pure desperation or the kind of thing one would do whilst on the lam. The straightness and flatness of the road allows for lines of sight in excess of 5km at a stretch and unbroken passing opportunities of 20km or more. The speed limit of 130 km/h is fast, and I never approached it in the campervan. It’s no wonder that we saw about a dozen overturned or destroyed cars and an uncountable number of swerve and skid marks that spanned the width of the road.
The road trains are easy enough to pass on the Stuart Highway, unless they’re carying an enormous piece of mining equipment. It just takes some extra caution and time to go around a cab towing four wagons that total more than 53 meters (170 feet) in length. It’s their highway, we just use it and try to stay out of their way.
Alice Springs is nice enough, and I’m glad that we’re going back for a couple days after we visit Uluṟu tomorrow and on Lisa’s birthday on Sunday. We stayed near the Todd Mall, a pedestrian walk with lots of Aboriginal art galleries and nicer restaurants, along with some more kitschy stuff, too. We’re going to see if we can find anything that we like when we go back. We don’t really know much of anything about Aboriginal art, and some of it’s unpleasantly close to modern and abstract art for Lisa’s tastes; but we’ll see if there’s anything we can’t live without that’s also within our price range. We just need to make sure that it’s authentic and not the typical knock-off stuff that you seem to be able to find all over the place here.
Yesterday we drove from Alice Springs to Watarrka. This morning we hiked Kings Canyon just after sunrise. It’s a beautiful canyon and has made my top-5 day-hikes. The six kilometer (about 3.5 miles) hike over two-and-a-half hours yielded an ever-changing view of the canyon and some beautiful light that never seemed to illuminate the same rock face the same way twice. The ghost gum trees and the spinifex provided nice contrast to the fiery rocks. It was a well-traveled path, and we were usually surrounded by a bunch of older walkers or a large group of college-aged backpacker folks on organized bus outings.
This part of Australia is much more picturesque than where we’ve been. And tomorrow we’re off to the most “iconic” Australian locale.
Details of our Trip to Uluṟu to follow soon.
* — Everything in Australia seems attached to a tavern, bar, or pub. I suspect that the Parliament house in Canberra is just a nice chamber attached to a pub.