Monday, 29 June 2015

Alice Springs, Australia - The Ghan Adventure continued

Alice Springs from Anzac Hill

The morning dawned with a glorious outback sunrise and before long we had arrived at our second destination, Alice Springs. Alice, as it is commonly known, is in the  geographical centre of Australia, midway between Darwin and Adelaide.  It is a
desert town, now primarily involved in tourism, with a population between 20,000 and 28,000 depending on the season. It is also home to the outback Flying Doctor service.

The Ghan stretched out through the middle of town
I had imagined Alice to be dusty, dry and slightly shabby so was pleasantly surprised to find it a fresh, attractive, tidy town, albeit one with a number of social problems. After a drive through the township our coach took us up to the top of Anzac Hill, passing memorials to every war Australia has been involved in, for a magnificent view over the township and to the majestic MacDonell ranges beyond.

Murals celebrating the history of transport in and around Alice adorn walls in the town.

A road train (truck with many trailers) passes through Alice
Alice began life as a service town for the surrounding farming stations and grew in size during World War 2 when thousands were evacuated there from Darwin which was under attack by the Japanese.  Nevil Shute wrote an acclaimed  book, later adapted as a play and a movie, called A Town Like Alice.  This brought fame to the town although Alice itself hardly features in the book.

The dry, dusty, waterless Todd River

Two popular real dinkum Aussie events are held in Alice annually; the Camel Cup where jockeys on camels race each other,  and the Henley-on-Todd regatta, a boat race on the completely dry Todd river where contestants carry their boats and indulge in mock battles armed with flour bombs and water cannons.  It sounds like a lot of fun and  is a hugely successful fundraiser for the local Rotary Club. It is also the only boating regatta in the world which is cancelled if there is water in the river as happened in 1993.  The river does occasionally have water in it but it is usually only briefly after heavy rain in the wet season.

Next we headed 4 kilometres out of town to the Telegraph Station. Dating from 1871 the telegraph station is the site of the first European settlement in the area.  The station was established to send messages between Darwin and Adelaide and also became the first line of communication between Australia and England.  It is located beside the Todd River and the springs, now dry, which Alice is named for.  The station site boasts beautiful warm golden, stone colonial buildings with wide verandahs and it was a delightful surprise to find tables set out for us complete with white linen table cloths and a buffet lunch befitting a wedding reception. Lunch was delicious but here, for the first time, we experienced the famous Aussie flies and by the end of lunch had become quite adept at the "Aussie Salute".  After lunch there was time for an exploration of the property and surrounds before heading off to our next adventure which must wait until my next post.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park, Australia - The Ghan Adventure continued

A few hours out of Darwin we came to The Ghan's first stop, the small town of Katherine. With a population of about 10,000 Katherine is centred around mining, tourism and servicing the large Tindal  Air force base. Before heading to the Nitmiluk Gorge, about a half an hour out of town, our coach driver took us for a short drive through the town centre.  He was very proud of the fact that Katherine had a McDonalds, a Coffee Club and a Subway as if keen to prove that this was a buzzing, go ahead, place, nevertheless, it still seemed to be quiet and sleepy,
                                                                                 although a pleasant enough town.  

Arriving at Nitmiluk we alighted the coach under trees thick with squawking bats.  Urggh!  I am not a fan. Fortunately the bats only perch in a couple of trees so it was a great incentive for us to move away pretty quickly and down to the jetty to board boats for a cruise. 

The Nitmiluk (meaning 'place of the cicada dreaming') National Park is home to the indigenous Jaowyn people who are custodians of the park.  The  flowing Katherine River has carved a network of 13 gorges out of the sandstone rock over a period of 23 million years. Our cruise through these high, golden rock cliffs, was awesome in the true sense of the word. The clean, clear water is home to fresh water crocodiles, which we spotted basking on rocks as sea eagles soared high above us over the cliffs.  Here and there we noticed small sandy beaches specially conserved as crocodile breeding grounds. Fresh water crocodiles live on fish and do not attack people unless they walk on their breeding grounds. From time to time salt water crocodiles, or salties as they are locally known, that do attack people, are found in the river and are captured and taken back to sea. 
Ancient Aboriginal rock art
In the beautiful Katherine Gorge

At the end of the first gorge we left our boat and walked a short distance  to board another boat to cruise the second gorge, stopping on the way to look at aboriginal rock art, dating back 40,000 years. If we had thought the scenery in the first gorge was wonderful we were absolutely blown away by the spectacular scenery in the second gorge.  Ancient, timeless, and stunningly  beautiful. A famous Australian film, Jedda, was filmed there in the 1950s.  It is places like the Nitmiluk Gorge that make you feel insignificant in the world.

The second gorge which is spectacular with cliffs much higher than a photograph can convey
We retraced both cruises to board the bus back and head back to the train.  I had read about Katherine Gorge about 30 years ago in a travel book and since then had  wanted to visit.  So...another thing ticked off my "to do" list and, even better, it had surpassed my expectations.

This you tube clip:   is of the cruises we took, although we did them in the reverse order to this film.  The film does not quite convey the majesty and awesomeness of these gorges but it does give an indication.  If you watch carefully you will see the small sandy beaches kept exclusively for the fresh water crocodiles breeding grounds.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Ghan Adventure - Australia's Great Train Journey

Excited!  A dream come true.
 I've always had this romantic idea of traveling one of the great rail journeys of the world and had talked about taking The Ghan for years but never quite got around to doing it. At last I got my act together and booked a trip for a few weeks ago which, unbeknown to me, was the Ghan's inaugural four day adventure trip from Darwin to Adelaide. Although this was the first "adventure" the iconic Ghan has rumbled through Outback Australia since 1929 - between Adelaide and Alice Springs and between Adelaide and Darwin since 2004. 

  I was literally bubbling with excitement when the shuttle bus arrived at my hotel to take me, along with a number of others, on the 15 minute trip to the railway station.  And there she was, The Ghan, all 700 plus metres of her, sparkling silver in the dazzling sun.  The train, which takes its name from Australia's early pioneering Afghani camel drivers, is so long that the shuttle bus drives along beside it dropping passengers off at their respective carriages where they are each greeted by their personal carriage attendant.

Once aboard a very warm welcome and tea and biscuits awaited in my cabin plus information on the various off train tours available.  The beauty of this adventure trip is that all food, drink and off train tours are included in the fare meaning that in  the four days I was aboard I never spent another dollar.  The cabins are immaculate, compact and very well designed so that there is a place for everything including a tiny, but thoroughly workable, en suite bathroom.  I sat in my room, happily sipping my tea and reading the tour information until, once all were aboard, we moved off.  Then it was time to explore the lounge, a wonderful place to meet fellow passengers.  With a glass of bubbly in hand I sat and chatted to all sorts of friendly, interesting people.  They were mainly Australian but there were a fair few New Zealanders, some Americans, Canadians and a couple of young tourists from France and Germany.  Everyone was happy and excited and looking forward to their Out Back adventure.  The barman was pretty busy I can tell you!

Meal times were allocated in shifts and Robyn, the restaurant manager, was a
magician, skilfully organising tables of four for every sitting.  One of the things I most enjoyed was dining with different people at every meal. It was an opportunity to have great conversations over a meal and a glass of wine, something I often miss as a solo traveler.   The food, prepared by on board chefs, was superb and the service friendly and efficient. I dined on all sorts of wonderful Australian food over the four days including crocodile, kangaroo, barramundi, and a desert of roulade with wattle seeds. After dinner most guests retired to the lounge carriage for more drinks or coffee and lively conversation. The passing scenery is not exciting, the outback is vast and flat dotted with scrubby bushes but the sunrises are spectacular.  We saw a few ant hills at the start of the trip and then just very similar scenery for hour after hour but I don't think the passing scenery is the point of this trip.  It is the on board life, the food and the tours arranged at each destination which make it marvelous.  Because this was the inaugural four day adventure trip a camera crew from an Australian television station traveled with us for the whole trip as did a still photographer.  Many people were interviewed but I managed to avoid it, thankfully.

My lounge seat converted to a bunk
Back at my cabin at the end of each evening I found there had been a transformation.  My day time lounge seat had been converted into a very comfortable single bunk, complete with chocolate on the pillow.  So it was off to sleep to the gentle rocking and clacking wheels of the Ghan.  Sweet dreams indeed.
The Ghan stretches into the distance

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Fun Times at Mindil Beach Market - Darwin, Australia

Mindil Beach, deserted at 5pm
All the brochures said this was a "must do" while in Darwin so I was off to see what all the fuss was about. The market is held, as its name suggests, on Mindil Beach, twice a week during the dry season - May to October. As luck would have it I was in Darwin on a Thursday, one of the market nights.

Arriving about 5pm I wandered up to look at the beach before venturing into the market.  It is a beautiful beach but was completely deserted.  You can't swim there because salt water crocodiles lurk unseen in the sea just waiting their chance and lethal box jelly fish are also present during the dry season.  The market stretches out  behind the sand dunes along the beach. There are around 140 stalls selling jewellery, clothing, arts and crafts, many with a Northern Territory flavour such as crocodile skin products and didgeridoos.  Some stalls promote tourism activities and they make for great entertainment.  It was fun to watch a champion whip cracker and to stroke a baby

Baby crocodile, note the black tape on its jaws
crocodile, thankfully its jaws were firmly taped shut.  I enjoyed strolling the stalls but as it neared dinner time started to feel a bit peckish.  Well talk about being spoilt for choice!  There are about 60 food stalls selling street food from many different countries including Thai, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Turkish, Indonesian, French, Japanese and many others.  The food on every stall looked delicious and I wandered up and down trying to make a decision.  In the end hunger got the better of me so I settled on an enormous okonomyaki from the Japanese stall and a  tropical smoothie, crammed with every tropical fruit you can think of, from the fruit juice stall.  I was well satisfied with my choice but would have so loved to try others.

An hour later the beach fills up with sunset viewers
The thing to do at Mindil Beach is to watch the amazing sunsets.  The sun drops right down into the sea opposite the beach, so, after eating my dinner, I walked up to the top of the sand dune and sat waiting.  Bit by bit the previously deserted beach filled with spectators to the point that it was packed with thousands all waiting for nature's spectacle.  It was an amazing transformation.  I enjoyed the relaxed banter with people around me and, yes, the sunset was glorious.

emdee performing at the market
Back at the market I was captivated by a couple of buskers. emdee consists of a

didgeridoo player and a drummer who have a very modern take on the traditional Aboriginal instruments.  They have played their unique music at the market for around 17 years and are tremendous crowd pleasers.   I  studied ethnic music at university, and have always loved it, so I was entranced and watched them for a long time as darkness slowly descended and the lights came on throughout the market.  Some local Aborigines danced to the music adding even more colour to a great performance.
 You can watch emdee perform here:

 I agree that Mindil Beach Market is a "must see".  The atmosphere is happy and relaxed, everyone is friendly, the food is's a heap of fun!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia - a sparkling, modern, tropical city

Fishing harbour
Until you visit a place your impression of it is naturally based on what you have seen
in the media or from conversations with people who have visited before you.  Since I have never really spoken to anyone about their trip to Darwin my mental image of the city was of the news items from the time when the catastrophic Cyclone Tracey hit the city on Christmas Day 1974.  Although that is a full 40 years ago those terrifying images were seared firmly into my brain, so, despite researching the city a bit before visiting, I was still expecting to find a small, dusty, outback town with old fashioned houses and little infrastructure.  How wrong could I be?
Cullen Bay
 Darwin is a lovely tropical city, modern, fresh, clean and sparkling in the sun shine.  For my few days there I stayed at Hotel Mantra on the Esplanade with a sea view from my room and a large, verdant park/reserve right opposite. The reserve was the perfect place to stroll among the huge, fragrant, frangipani trees early in the morning or to watch the sunset filtering through the palms at the end of the day. Mitchell St, the main street, and a stop for the Hop on Hop off bus, is through a short arcade behind the hotel. The bus costs $35 for a day pass and, with an excellent commentary, is good value.  I took the bus early one day visiting the Museum/Art Gallery which is some distance from the town centre. I particularly enjoyed the Aboriginal art and the display of unusual South East Asian boats but the most interesting thing to me was the Cyclone Tracey exhibition.  It is a wonder anything survived that maelstrom!  Winds of up to 240kms an hour ripped the city to shreds, destroying 70% of all buildings and killing 71 people.  There is a small darkened booth where you can hear sound recordings of the storm. It is terrifying to say the least but it is thanks to Cyclone Tracey that Darwin is now such an attractive city, it had to be virtually rebuilt.
An attractive colonial style house near my hotel

  With a population of around 140,000, half the total population of the vast Northern Territory State, Darwin is home to the Aboriginal Larrakia language group of people and includes ex-patriots from many countries. It is a city of culture, boasting its own symphony orchestra, holding occasional opera performances and supporting an annual sculpture exhibition. The large ex pat population also ensures plenty of ethnic restaurants to choose from.

The new Anglican Cathedral attached to the
original porch

After a complete circuit of the city on the bus I followed the City Walk map for a closer look at points of interest.  Many of the original old stone buildings, destroyed in the cyclone, have been rebuilt. The Anglican Cathedral is very modern but has retained the original stone entrance.  The attractive Governors Residence is a charming, shuttered, colonial style house which escaped the cyclone.  Parliament building, 
across the road, is large, square and ornate.  The local joke is that it is a wedding cake....white, beautifully decorated and full of fruit
and nuts mixed with alcohol.
The Governors Residence

There is a recently developed marine bay with modern hotels and restaurants and a popular wave pool for swimming, easily accessed by an over road walkway from the city centre.  NB: you cannot swim in the sea due to salt water crocodiles all year and the lethal box jelly fish which frequent the waters October to May.

Later in the day I once again boarded the bus.  The afternoon route includes a trip out to the Military Museum through the wonderfully named Fannie Bay to East Point Reserve.  It is a beautiful trip, past glamorous tropical houses, through the very pretty reserve and past a fresh water lake free of crocodiles and jelly fish, a popular swimming spot. 

The rest of my time in Darwin I spent strolling, swimming in the hotel pool, it was a hot 34 degrees, and relaxing.  One evening I went to Mindil Beach Market, fantastic fun which I will write about next time.

So, I am pleased to say that my old mental image of Darwin as a dusty, run down, outback town has disappeared and been replaced with the reality...a modern, sparkling, go ahead, tropical town, one I liked very much indeed.