|Final Statistics: Alex & Maz||Total distance: 93,550km|
|Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ||Now settled in Sydney, Australia|
|Final Statistics: Martin||Total distance: 79,698km|
|Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia||Now settled in Bristol, UK|
The Honorary Guinness Guru
Australia, Country 26, Diary entry 12th-26th September 2006, Total distance in Australia: 12000km (estimated)
I landed at Darwin airport and passed through immigration, customs and quarantine without issue, waited for about 45 minutes for the airport shuttle bus to take me into town and was entertained by the first of what will undoubtedly be many playings of Crowded House. That, followed by a quick wander around Darwin's city centre made it clear that this is one town blissfully untouched by the influences of modern life and still stuck in the 1980's, just as it was last time I was here 7 years before.
The familiarity was welcome after really getting quite drained by my drive through Indonesia. The availability of such wonderful fresh foodstuffs as steak, mushrooms, fresh milk and cheese was as much of a delight to the senses and the taste buds as any time before on the trip (though without the live frogs we'd seen in Carrefour in China) and I went a bit mad at the supermarket and had a struggle to get all my purchases home, which for the next few nights until the ship arrived with my car on it, was planned to be the Banyan View Lodge, a pleasant leafy hostel on the edge of the city centre. I ventured out to the pub the first night and enjoyed a cool refreshing Guinness - luxury enough being the first I'd had since Phuket in April - but much better here and served complete with a beer mat! It is strange the little things you notice after such an extended period outside the first world countries: there were people in wheelchairs zooming around everywhere on pavements wide enough and smooth enough to accommodate them, coffee was now difficult to find unless you wanted a latte or a cappuccino, the cars are driven in a relatively sane and controlled manner (even the buses!!) and it's simple to ascertain the price of an item in a shop - you just ask and they tell you the real price first time! The whole experience added up to quite a culture shock, but a very pleasant one.
The first evening's pub was to be Shenannigan's, an Irish bar I'd spent some time in last time I was here. Not knowing anyone in town yet, I hovered near the bar listening in to some teams' arguments over the answers to the pub quiz that was going on, and when I was confident my enormous knowledge of random facts included the answer to one that the nearest team didn't get, I leaned in conspiratorially and offered them the answer. So began my adoption by the Guinness Gurus - I was able to gain them a couple more points over the rest of the evening but they were already very good, as they should be, most of their members having attended every Tuesday night for the last several years!
I spent the next few days enjoying the luxuries of a developed city, mainly consisting of fruit smoothies, while organising what needed to be organised for when the car arrived. I made appointments with customs, with quarantine and with Perkins Shipping, enquired what needed to be done to ensure the car was road-legal with the motor vehicle registry and got some quotes for tyres and a new windscreen that I knew would be necessary to pass the roadworthiness inspection. I enjoyed the air-conditioned bookshops (where the Classics section included such works as The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter) and I could finally acquire some decent maps of Australia's roads and outback tracks meaning I could start to plan my route through Australia. I met up with Caroline from the Guinness Gurus and she offered to put me up in her spare room for as long as I was in Darwin, which was extremely kind of her - we'd only just met but she'd decided I wasn't an axe-murderer and was happy for me to have a key and come and go as I pleased while she was out at work or at university. I tried to make myself a welcome guest by preparing some meals without making too much of a mess of the kitchen, but most of the time just made the most of her hospitality by drinking innumerable cups of tea and using her broadband internet connection :)
Apart from that I have no idea what I did to fill the time (I don't think I need to tell you about meeting up with Tomi whom I'd met in Dili and the marshmallow eating competition at the Vic), but though time was filled and passing quickly, I was really starting to get itchy to get on the move again and becoming impatient for my car to arrive and start all its inspections to allow it into the country. I had put up notices advertising my passenger seats for the first part of the trip after the car arrived and met an American guy called Bob and a Korean called Shin, both of whom were easygoing and happy to wait until my car was through. I was pleased to have a couple of companions and sharing the fuel costs wouldn't hurt either!
Tuesday night rolled around again and of course I had to go and help out the Guinness Gurus in the Shenannigan's pub quiz who had so kindly adopted me the previous week. Caroline was in charge of the bar vouchers which were the prize from the previous week and insisted on including me in the rounds, which I thought was very nice of her and the whole team, but over the course of the evening I was able to gain them a few points they wouldn't otherwise have got which made the difference between second place and first, so that made me feel less of a scrounger and replenished their bar tab for another week - good luck to them keeping the run going.
Finally the day arrived for the various inspections to the car, delayed by mechanical problems with the ship. Caroline dropped me at the port and I got to meet in person the ever-patient Nandra in the Perkins office, after months of emails. The car was removed from the container and cut free from all its lashings, the quarantine inspectors arrived and guess what, the five days cleaning in Dili wasn't enough!!! I couldn't believe it. They were happy that the door panels and plastic trims were off, which made inspection much quicker, but due to the immense amount of junk I've got in the car, and because they wanted to check EVERY box and bag, including stuff on the roof and inside the tent, the inspection took an hour but they found some plant matter still stuck inside the radiator (including a tiny piece of plant that looked like an eyelash which was apparently a "Siam weed" - one of the nastiest things they want to keep out!), a dirty corner in the petrol filler recess and one pole on my dome tent had a bit of mud stuck inside it. This was enough to mean failure, but fortunately Perkins let me use their jetwash to clean the last traces of dirt from the car (and some of the paint and some of my skin too, it was pretty powerful!) and fortunately I managed to get an appointment for a retest the following morning.
The retest was successful (phew!) and customs came along to process the carnet de passage, then all that remained was to sort out the final payments with Perkins for the Darwin port fees and wait half an hour while customs updated their database for Perkins to allow the car out of the port.
So I was out of the port but I still had one more thing to do to be legal - the roadworthiness inspection and insurance at the Motor Vehicle Registry. The roadworthiness inspection was very basic (lights, brakes, bodywork etc.) - it was a special "lite" test for temporary importation using a carnet. They didn't test emissions, seatbelts or many of the other things one would normally expect. I failed on the windscreen (which I already knew I would, there being a big crack down right in front of the driver) and the wheel arch accident damage I sustained when I hit that sugar cane cart in India, but due to some quirk of the procedure for temporary imports with a carnet, they gave me a pass certificate if I promised to get those things fixed :) which I could then take inside the office, pay for the inspection and organise the compulsory third party insurance. With those two failure points fixed, I'd now be legal to drive in Aus!
I also wanted to replace my tyres before leaving Darwin. Though my old ones were still legal, which is pretty impressive seeing as they were the original set from the start of the trip and had done 70,000km over some pretty dreadful roads, I wanted to change them because I was heading for some rough dirt tracks renowned for eating tyres so decided I'd have less chance of punctures or damage on new tyres than old. I kept one of the old ones and strapped it to the roof just in case I was really stuck, and drove back to Caroline's place.
For my last night in Darwin I took Caroline out for a meal to say thank you for her hospitality and at her recommendation we walked around the corner to the Nirvana restaurant, with an eclectic mix of Indian, Thai and Malay foods together with a belly dancing show. If Caroline wanted my undivided attention she had brought me to the wrong place but I think I did talk to her a bit before and after the show. The food was excellent too.
The next morning after saying goodbye to Caroline I crammed my two passengers Bob and Shin plus all their stuff into the car and we set off from Darwin towards the world-famous Kakadu National Park. I had been there before during my previous time in Australia but hadn't seen all the sights there, and certainly wouldn't be seeing them all this time either as the park is vast, and my priority was to head to the Kimberley before the rains started. Still, it was worth taking a detour through the park for a couple of days rather than taking the boring highway straight to Katherine.
Our first stop was the Bowali Visitors Centre which had some interesting information about the local aboriginal tribes and their customs, and recommendations on the highlights to see depending on how long you have to spend there. I particularly wanted to see Twin Falls, which I hadn't been able to see the previous time. During the rainy season the whole area is underwater and the estuarine (saltwater) crocodiles - the dangerous ones - can come and go as they please. After the rains stop and the water falls the rangers remove any remaining "salties" and relocate them somewhere less inconvenient but being typically 4 or 5m long or often much more, if they don't want to be caught you have to respect their decision and just not allow the tourists in, especially as the approach to the falls involve wading 800m through a gorge, or using an air mattress to float along.
At the Bowali Centre there were signs saying that to reach the falls involved a water crossing requiring a high-clearance 4WD vehicle with snorkel... mine has no snorkel but we decided to give it a go anyway and see if we could watch anyone else crossing before us. We drove the 60km of corrugated dirt road and 10km of sandy track winding through the trees and passed the crossing without incident (it was pretty deep but no deeper than the river I'd crossed in Laos).
This visit, it is the end of the dry season so Twin Falls has been open for some time, but unfortunately things have changed - they decided it's too difficult to guarantee saltie-free waters and now provide a boat shuttle service along the gorge and swimming in the plunge pool is prohibited. The falls, though very beautiful, were a little disappointing because of this. We were hot and sweaty after our minimal exertions and wanted to swim, so after our photos were taken we returned to the car and drove round the corner to Jim Jim Falls. The falls stop flowing over the dry season but the plunge pool is impressive nonetheless with its 240m sheer cliffs towering over the vast circular pool of refreshingly cold water. We swam there for about an hour until we were put off by the cane toads shagging everywhere around us, and drove back along the dirt road to the main Kakadu Highway. Our camping spot for the night was a dedicated free bush-camping site with a toilet block, picnic tables and fire areas but no other facilities (no water). It made life easy that we didn't need to search for a spot where we wouldn't be disturbed as we were actually allowed to be there, but it was unfortunately close to a billabong so we fed a lot of mosquitoes that night.
The next morning we rose and headed to Ubirr, one of the main Aboriginal art sites for which Kakadu is famous. Fortunately our arrival coincided with two talks provided free of charge by the park rangers - one about the aboriginal kinship system (an incredibly complicated system that ensures inbreeding doesn't happen) and one about the rock art and its traditional use for education purposes. The art painted on the walls here is certainly thousands of years old in most cases and some of it is among the oldest works of art created by man anywhere in the world. Much of the artwork represents their spirits used to teach youngsters about their society and the laws and etiquette, I suppose the equivalent of parables in Christian society. Other artworks show animals such as fish and kangaroos so would have been used to teach about hunting and eating these animals.
Ubirr is also situated on the edge of a giant floodplain and after a short climb there is a lookout over the plains across to the Arnhem Land escarpment - beautiful lush and green, so no wonder this was one of the landscapes used in Crocodile Dundee.
Our next stop was Nourlangie Rock, basically more of the same - a great rock towering above the plain and with shaded fissures, making another ideal resting place for the roaming aborigines, and the art is again prolific and well preserved because of this. The walk was a gentle circuit of around 2km but in this heat everything is hard work so we pushed on to our last stop of the day, which was a new site for all three of us - Gunlom, or Waterfall Creek. This was another corrugated dirt road leading to another mostly dry waterfall, but there was a trickle of ice-cold water coming down the rock face, and though the cool plunge pool was again refreshing, somehow the breeze across the beach actually turned cold while we were in there making it difficult to get the enthusiasm to get out! But we had no real need to hurry, we'd already decided our next camping spot was to be at another free site half way along the dirt track back towards the main road which would take us out of Kakadu National Park just another few kilometres down the road.
So after an evening of homemade hamburgers cooked on the barbie by Bob and a couple of beers we got up and said goodbye to Kakadu, heartily recommended for the natural beauty and aboriginal significance, and amazingly accessible for no entrance, access or camping fees, the only exception being the Twin Falls boat shuttle. G'donya Australia! We started the long highway drive towards Western Australia and the Kimberley.
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