Category Archives: Australia

Darwin

Arriving in the Darwin, we have to agree with what everyone has told us. There isn’t a single nice caravan park in the city … and so we choose the one with mediocre reviews, closest to downtown. As expected, we had a unpleasant evening, with drunk neighbors, who were playing loud music until midnight. Every time someone asked them to quiet down, it resulted in shouting and swearing … even Lara thought they were “rude”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time that we had this sort of evening on a camp site in Australia 😦

The city itself turned out nice enough. Not really worth a trip in itself, but Finn and I enjoyed the Aviation Heritage Center and then we all went to the pool downtown. Due to the lethal marine life (stingers, crocs, sharks, …), many of the coastal cities turn their waterfront into public pools. We’ve seen it in Townsville, Cairns, Airlie Beach and have always enjoyed them. The one in Darwin even has artificial waves.

In the evening we went to the sailing club and celebrated Anna’s birthday … complete with local seafood, (loads of) wine and an incredible sunset.

Tomorrow we’ll return the camper and fly out to Thailand. After eight weeks we are all looking forward to getting out of the small van and having a bit more space around us. We’ve had our share of campgrounds for a while … in Bangkok we have an apartment waiting for us.

Litchfield National Park

Coming from Kakadu, it’s only a half day drive over to Litchfield National Park. This is the other famous park in the “Top End” and it gets great reviews from people who’ve been there.

Truth be told, we find it nice enough, but not the highlight that we were expecting. Like Kakadu, it’s huge, flat, featureless and a “boring” landscape. The big attraction are a few streams that flow over the escarpment, forming large waterfalls with swimming holes. These are “crocodile controlled” most of the year, which means that the rangers check for saltwater crocs for six consecutive nights, trapping and killing any that they might find. But, like in the Katherine Gorges, there is always the possibility of them “moving back into the area undetected” (as the warning signs say). The low water levels and the high tourist levels seem to make these swimming holes quite safe at this time of the year, and we decide not to worry. There are so many people swimming, that it’s unlikely that we’d be the first ones to be eaten 🙂

The swimming is fun enough, but two things are putting a bit of a damper on our days in the park. The refrigerator in the camper van has failed, there is nobody within a reasonable driving distance that can fix it, and the ice chest that we bought needs a constant refill of ice … also almost impossible to obtain out here in the bush.

On top, I haven’t been feeling well in the last days. It started with a cold, but now it’s turned into a bit of fever … with a constant headache thrown in. I can’t believe that this is the second time in the trip that I’ve gotten sick … usually I never do.

Tomorrow we’ll leave the park and drive almost up to Darwin, our final destination in Australia.

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu might well be the country’s best known national park, yet we’ve been told by many Australians not to bother with it.

“It’s pronounced KakaDO, but they should rename it to KakaDON’T. There really isn’t much to see.”

So our expectations aren’t high as we cross into the park around noon. And after driving for a while, we begin to understand why it doesn’t get the best reviews. The park is the size of Germany and almost completely featureless. Endless, flat bush- and wetlands stretching to the horizon … there really isn’t anything to see from the road. You could literally drive right through it (there is only one paved road) and, except for the signs, never realize that you just crossed Australia’s most famous national park.

Two or three hours into the park we stop at a campground, just in time to jump on a boat for a sunset cruise on the Alligator River. We were told, if we should decide to go to Kakadu, not to miss these two hour long boat trips out into the wetlands. And that was good advice … the cruise turned out to be so good that we booked a second one for sunrise the next morning. For those of you that have been to the Everglades in Florida … the Kakadu wetlands are a very similar landscape. Mangroves, complex river systems and open floodplains. Within a few minutes we had huge crocodiles beside the boat and the birdlife was not only incredibly numerous, but also in huge variety. Combine all that with an unbelievably beautiful sunset (or sunrise) and you have quite an experience.

For us, the other attraction of Kakadu are the Aboriginal rock paintings. There are a few sites that can be accessed by short walks, and apparently thousands more spread throughout the park.We joined two ranger-led walks, which were quite informative and, once we understood the purpose of many of the drawings, it made us appreciate them much more.

In the end, we liked the park so much that we ended up spending four nights in Kakadu … including a day in which we did absolutely nothing except hang out at the pool and catch up on a bit of schoolwork.

Here are a few pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634296247412

For us it was very much KakaDO instead of KakaDON’T

Katherine Gorge

Even though we arrive in the late afternoon, it feels a lot warmer when we open the car doors. No wonder, we’re more than a thousand kilometers north of Ayers Rock now and almost back in Australia’s tropics.

Katherine Gorge National Park is a series of thirteen gorges, with a river meandering through them. In the U.S. it might be a state park, here it’s considered one of the top sights to see between the center and the top end of the country … which shows you how few of them there are. The campsite has a pool and is quite nice (with dozens of wallabies looking for food scraps), so we decide right away to stay for two nights. We are tired of spending the days in the van and are looking forward to a day with a slower pace.

The next morning we realize that the only way to actually see the gorges is to either hike (a full day in the blazing sun and heat), take a very expensive cruise or to rent kayaks and paddle ourselves. We opt for the latter, but are a bit concerned about the crocodile warning signs. The girl at the visitor center tells us that they are mostly “freshies” (fresh water crocs), which don’t get too large and usually don’t bother humans … but you never know, once in a while a “saltie” might swim up the river (which would not be good). But she thinks we shouldn’t be too worried, they haven’t seen one in the last few weeks. Still, I’m a bit concerned about swimming, especially when we meet a French couple that told us they’ve seen a croc and turned around.

The gorge itself is nice enough for a day, nothing too spectacular, but we all enjoy doing something physical instead of just holding a steering wheel, book or iPad all day long.

By the time we return to the camper, the sun is about to set and a large colony of flying foxes is waking up for their nightly hunt. I’ve seen quite a few bats in my life, but never anything even close to the size of the ones here. The larger ones must have a wingspan of well over a meter and it’s quite spectacular to see so many of them flying out over the river and into the sunset.

I’ve put a few more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634296243472

Four Days of Driving – From the Red Heart to the Top End

After leaving Ayers Rock early in the morning, we make it back to Alice Springs (which we like slightly more the second time around) by nightfall. What’s in between? Nothing really. Eight hours of driving, flat dessert with a bit of bush, lot’s of red dirt and one or two “roadhouses” to fuel up and have something to eat or drink.

The next morning we switch campers, get rid of the four wheel drive and rent a small Toyota van for our last three weeks in Australia. Even though it’ll be a bit more cramped again, I’m happy to return our “box on wheels”. It really was poorly thought out, old and used unbelievable amounts of gas. The Toyota is much like the Jucy campervan we had in Queensland, the kids sleep under the roof, while Anna and I make our bed (thin mattress) below them every night.

From Alice Springs we head straight out on the only highway crossing Australia south-to-north, straight through the middle. We drive about six hours and then pull in at a free camping spot in the middle of nowhere, just before the sun sets. Driving at night is far too dangerous due to animals and drunk locals on the road. Only the road trains (with their steel bars on the front) don’t seem to mind. We’re told they are so heavy that they don’t stand a chance to brake for an animal and just drive straight “through” them … I’m not sure what they do with drunk locals.

Our neighbors invite us over to their campfire , we watch the sunset together and have (yet another) nice chat with a bunch of Australian retirees (who seem to make up about 99% of the camping population).

The next morning it’s back in the car and more of the same. Hour after hour after hour … low bushland, red dirt and the occasional dead cow or kangaroo by the wayside. We stop to stretch our legs at the Devils Marbles (huge round boulders), climb on a few of them, and then climb back into the van again.

By nightfall we’re at the famous Daly Waters Pub, apparently the oldest one in the outback and so well described in Bill Bryson’s book “In a Sunburned Country”. We have their famous “Beef and Barra” (basically the local version of Surf and Turf) and listen to live Australian Folk music until late at night … the kids have a blast.

Tomorrow we’ll stop at some local hot springs, before driving the rest of the way to Katherine Gorge National Park. Except for the occasional (normal) meltdown, the kids really handled the four days in the car amazingly well. Lara read a lot of Harry Potter to Finn, both did some school work … and significantly improved their “Temple Run”skills on the iPad.

A few more pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634291165203

The Rock from Above

I did a bit of research beforehand and was quite surprised that helicopter flights “over” (“near” would be a more fitting word) Ayers Rock seemed quite reasonable. Also, the kids are still light enough to share a seat, bringing down the cost even more … to about EUR 200 for the family.

Anna and I kept it secret until the last minute, so you can imagine their expression when the pilot comes to pick us up. It really reminded me of their first flight, four years ago in New Zealand (see here: http://familytrip2009.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/i-fly-hebicolor ).

It’s still early in the tourist season, business is a bit slow and we are the only clients this afternoon … which is great because we get to chat with the friendly pilot at length. The kids help to refuel the helicopter and then it’s off to see Uluru from above.

The actual flight is quite short, but we all feel afterwards that it was very much worth the cost. Only from above can you really see the rock in it’s setting … almost perfectly flat desert in all directions and to the horizon.

A few more pics here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634119751992

Tomorrow it’s back to Alice Springs to exchange campers. We’ll return our four wheel drive “box on wheels” and will get a smaller (and more fuel efficient) van … which we’ll take through half the continent and up to Darwin. There’s a lot of driving ahead in the next week.

Uluru (Ayers Rock)

We had set our alarm clock, and started early in the morning from King’s Canyon, figuring that we might make it just before sunset to Ayers Rock. And after another day of driving through the featureless outback, we pull into the “sunset view” parking lot with an hour of daylight to go. We had talked to a lot of travelers, who were rather disappointed by Uluru, but our first impression was quite positive. If it would be part of a mountain range, it wouldn’t really be worth a stop. But what DOES make it very special, is how it seems to smoothly rise out of its completely flat surroundings. Uluru almost doesn’t look “right” when you first see it … like it’s something artificial and doesn’t belong where it is.

Coming from the Mac Donnell ranges, where we saw only a few cars every day, it’s strange to be back among tour busses and large tourist groups from all corners of the world. We set up our camp chairs, have a few snacks and (like everyone else) crack open a bottle of wine … ready for the sunset. It feels a bit like a drive-in movie theatre, with camera tripods and video cameras thrown in. Unfortunately, the next hour turns out to be a disappointment. A layer of clouds hides the setting sun and the face of “The Rock”only turns from light grey to dark grey. Hopefully we’ll have better luck tomorrow at sunrise.

We didn’t. After getting up in the dark, disassembling the beds and strapping the kids into their seats (still in their pajamas), we’re at the “sunrise parking lot” half an hour before the sun comes up. Together with hundreds of other tourists we shiver (should have brought a thermos with coffee) until we see the first rays come over the horizon. The clouds (again in front of the sun) light up in a beautiful red, but block the first sunlight … again, not the effect we were hoping for.

Unlike yesterday, today turns out to be a hot day, but we decide to walk around the rock anyway. It ends up taking us almost four hours and, looking back, we should have done it at sunrise instead of noon. The heat is one thing, much worse are the dessert flies that are EVERYWHERE. They don’t sting, but are constantly crawling everywhere on your skin, buzzing around your head and trying to crawl into your nose or ears. No repellent works and we end up buying mosquito nets that we wear around our heads … looks a bit strange but it works.

In the afternoon we go for a pleasant walk at the Olgas (a spectacular rock formation about 50 km away from Uluru), but return before the sunset.

This time we finally get what we were looking for. The rock changes colors, from light orange to deeper and deeper tones, while the sky around it turns from blue into a salmon color. Quite spectacular, but hard to truly enjoy with hundreds of flies crawling all over you.

More pictures here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwefassnacht/sets/72157634040371178

Tomorrow is our last day here and we have a bit of a surprise for the kids.