‘Palya!’ (Welcome)

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Bear Bear and Roxie contemplate Uluru just before sunrise

Uluru

When we arrived in Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) the sign read “Palya!” (Welcome).

Wherever we travel in Australia, we’re continuously welcomed onto lands owned by the local indigenous population—in English, in Kriol, in Pintjantjatjara. “Welcome to country,” says the Aboriginal guide “Welcome,” reads the sign at Kata Tjuta, “Welcome,” says the Aboriginal artist in Hermannsburg. “Welcome.”

To receive this from a people whose lands have been taken, whose children have been stolen, whose culture was—for so many years—denigrated, does not cease to surprise me.

The world comes to Uluru, this majestic rock that began forming 900 million years ago when much of central Australia was a sea. They come by plane, by bus, in cars pulling camper trailers, like ourselves.

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Uluru: close up the caves and canyons are revealed

“Palya!” reads the sign, and then, a request: “Please don’t climb”.

This is a sacred site. Yet every day travellers and tourists ignore the sign and climb Uluru. 35 people have died climbing the rock. On our first night there three people were stranded at the top and needed rescuing. Why does the white person always have to claim it, climb it, stick a flag on top?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Times are changing. 20 years ago when Lee first came here as a backpacker, he climbed Ayres Rock, completely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on a sacred site. These days there is a large cultural centre explaining the significance of Uluru to the Anunga people. When you walk around the rock, signs point out, “the teaching cave” and “the kitchen cave” and special sacred areas where you cannot take photographs. A lot has changed in two decades. Everywhere we go indigenous names replace settler names. It feels as if a new wave of respect is passing over this vast continent.

My own children have never heard of Ayres Rock and wouldn’t dream of trying to climb Uluru. Instead, we walked and cycled the ten kilometres around the big rock. Magic.

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Uluru at sunrise

Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

These rocks, about 40 kilometres from Uluru, turn purple in the evening light. The four of us went on a long varied walk here, which was equally, if not more beautiful than Uluru.

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Warrtaka (Kings Canyon)

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Warrtaka

After four nights near Uluru, we travelled on to Warrtaka, where—yes, Alicia!—we heard the dingos howling at night. They also traipsed through our campsite, looking for food.

While there, we did the popular “rim walk”. It was a cloudy day, thankfully. The sun is strong in the desert even when it’s not hot.

On the initial steep ascent, R said, “Mama, a wheelchair couldn’t get up here. Why don’t they make it for a wheelchair?”

“Well,” I paused, for the thought had not occurred to me that this rugged 5.4 km walk should be wheelchair accessible. “It would be a bit hard to make a ramp up this mountain,” I explained.  She was nonplussed with my answer—a future disability advocate in the making??

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R climbs up to the rim walk.

The walk was other-worldly.

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We saw numerous “ripple rocks”, evidence of the sand shaped by ancient tides when the earth was warmer, the poles weren’t frozen and shallow seas stretched into much of central Australia.

Large dome rocks surrounded us. At the centre was an oasis, “the Garden of Eden”, green with plant life and in stark contrast with all that dry red rock.

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Oasis at Warrtaka

Ellery Creek Water Hole

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After three nights at Warrtaka, we carried on back to the West McDonnell Ranges and camped at Ellery Creek Water Hole, where it was just us and a two or three other campers and a billion flies. There were flies in our eyes and in our ears, flies wandering into our nostrils, flies making suicide jumps into the pancake batter. They all disappear when the sun goes down, however, and the sky reveals about 7,000 stars.

Ellery Creek Water Hole proved a deliciously cold place to swim and we had two beautiful long lazy bush days there.

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Home school at Ellery Creek

The waterhole was serene—a large oasis with two orange craggy cliffs either side, and a lone gum tree near the top of one cliff. A heron fished for most of the day in the shallows, undisturbed by our girls playing in the water nearby.

I’m reading We of the Never Never and there’s a quote in the book about travelling in the bush that—although written over a hundred years ago—feels apt today:

Sixty-five miles in three days, against sixty miles an hour of the express trains of the world. ‘Speed’s the thing,’ cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles and gain all that is worth gaining—except speed. –Aeneas Gunn

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On the Road to Alice

 

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Tennant Creek

The heat was relentless in the Top End and so we headed south, towards Alice. Our first stop was another hot springs: Mataranka. When it’s 39 degrees, 34 degree water is actually refreshing. The springs, under a forest of palm and paperbark, were a lovely turquoise colour.

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Dad and K in Mataranka Hot Springs

While in Mataranka, we poked our heads into the replica house featured in the film version of We of the Never Never. I’m now reading this 1908 novel, full of outback characters, written by Jeannie Gunn.

Then it was back on the road again . . . . It’s nearly 1200 kilometres from Katherine to Alice down a long, mostly straight road that cuts through the desert, or if not technically desert, very arid country.

We had a welcome rest at Daly Waters, the famous outback pub. Middies were a bargain $3.50 at happy hour and they gave the kids a lengthy activity booklet so that we could enjoy said beers in the shade. It was still well over thirty degrees at half five in the afternoon.

Daly Waters used to be a refuelling stop for Qantas flights from Sydney to Singapore. Now it’s full of travellers. We camped overnight and hit the road again the next morning.

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We drove to Tennant Creek, where we visited a museum of early pioneers, gold diggers. Interestingly, they made the floors of their houses from ant hills, patted down as these proved cool and kept the dust down. We’ve found a plethora of pioneer museums and monuments on our trip, all emphasizing how hard these overseas settlers had it. I can’t argue with that, but there don’t seem to be quite as many museums on the original inhabitants of this country, who’ve been here significantly longer. 

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Devil’s Marbles/Karlu Karlu

Devil’s Marbles, or, Karlu Karlu, is one exception. We stopped for lunch at this significant site for the Alyawarre people and I read this story about the people believed to live inside the caves and underneath the rocks here:

They’re real people like us. You can see them. A long time ago I went with my billycan down to the creek here to get some water. One of these secret people came out and started playing with me. I couldn’t go away.

My mother came and got me, saved me. After that we never camped at this place again, never. They’re kind these secret people, but they can make you mad. They can change you into one of them. They can say, “Follow me,” and you can’t go back.

It happened like that for my cousin. He disappeared. The old people made a big ceremony, singing the ground and the rocks to make them let my cousin come back. We lost that song now. We’ve got no song to bring children back.     —Senior Traditional Owner

At the end of a long driving day–500 kilometres–we finally reached Alice and cooler climes. Alice Springs is another misnamed town, as there are no permanent springs there. The Todd River runs through town, but that was—like so many rivers we’ve crossed in Australia—dry as a bone. Alice is an interesting town with a population of 25,000, many of whom are indigenous. There are bookstores and cafes and a low-key market once a month in the town centre.

At the Desert Park we learned about the reproductive system of the red kangaroo. When the female gets pregnant, she can halt the growth of her foetus for up to a hundred days or until she has a better food source. We saw an amazing bird show, where a barn owl flew silently overhead and a buzzard opened an emu egg with a rock.

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Red kangaroo lazing at the Desert Park
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K holds an Emu egg–half a kilo of protein (if you can get inside)

We spent two nights in Ormiston Gorge, 135 kilometres west of Alice. This was a stunning spot and a beautiful swimming hole. K and I did a long walk through the gorge, up and around it. They’ve had rain in the centre over the last few months and so there’s a surprising blanket of green and an abundance of wildflowers.

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Ormiston Gorge, NT
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R bundled up at Ormiston Gorge–ahhh, to be cold again!

Then we went back to Alice, where there were storms-the first rain we’ve seen in nearly three months. That night, a tree came down in the caravan park, crushing a four-wheel drive just meters from us and ruining one couple’s holiday. Good luck it didn’t come down on our canvas tent!

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The heavens open in Alice

I did a big shop, we packed up, got new moulds for K’s hearing aids, and were back on the road.

imageNext stop . . . “Uluru, baby!” says R in the back seat.

Scenes from the Top End

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Florence Falls, Litchfield National Park
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Termite Mound, Litchfield National Park
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Yellow Waters Cruise at Sunrise, Kakadu
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Sunrise, with darter
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Lily pads
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The South Alligator River (a misnomer) is home to thousands of crocs
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Nourangie in Kakadu–home to Aboriginal rock art that is thousands of years old
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Nourlangie rock art
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Gunlom Falls, Kakadu
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39 degrees: a hot hike back down from Gunlom
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K, R and Lee cool off in Edith Falls

 

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Clouds cover a searing sun as we enter into the “build up” before the “wet”
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Douglas Daly Hot Springs
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green tree frog in the toilets (there are far fewer since the cane toads moved in)
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Katherine Gorge–no swimming or kayaking because of recent croc sightings
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R reaches to point out the Top End

 

 

A Typical Morning in the Top End

5.30 I wake to the sound of birds in trees—a pair of barking owls, the screech of a cockatoo. It’s dark. R is next to me in bed and, on the other side, Lee. It’s the coolest part of the day—just cool enough to have a sheet on top of us.

5.45 I zip open the tent and see the last of the night’s stars. K is sitting in a chair outside the tent reading her kindle by the light of a lantern. She’s six books into the Little House on the Prairie series.  “I love the detail, Mom,” she explains and then tells me in Auslan about the Christmas they had after the blizzard of 1876. It all feels such a long way from the Top End in 2016.  And yet, there are similarities in the way these characters lived as pioneers 140 years ago and the way we’re living now.  K, who identifies with Laura, is completely absorbed in this family of daughters and Ma and Pa, who live on their own in the wilderness in such close quarters, with only each other to rely on.

6.00 I light the mosquito coil and make a cup of tea, then crepe batter. We’ve been on the road nine months now and I feel I’ve reached a sort of Zen state of camping. It feels natural to live like this, directed by the sun and where it is in the sky. I have all that matters to me here in this campsite: my husband and two girls. There’s no rush to get to school, no pressing emails to answer. Life is unhurried, deliberate.

6.15 R wakes and comes outside for a koala cuddle.  We identify the birds in the gum tree above—northern lorikeets, different from the lorikeets in Sydney—and mark them in our bird book. I serve crepes with canned peaches (we’re out of fresh fruit).

7.15 I put hats on the girls, who are drawing now. Lee gets up.

8.15 I put sunscreen on everyone.  It’s warming up. Temperatures are predicted to reach 38 for four days in a row.

8.30 I take R to the toilet. Just outside the toilet block a snake comes right up to R’s foot. I urge her away quickly and then point out the snake, now slithering towards the wall. It’s the second snake in two days. I saw a large python in the water with me in Edith Falls the day before.

8.45 The girls and I get on our bikes (R is riding her own bike now) and cycle to the hot springs, about 2 k away. Just what you need in 38 degree weather—hot springs! There are a few people drinking VB in the clear warm springs when we arrive. They go and some local boys come by and do backflips into the water, impressing us all.

10.00 We bike back to our campsite in the heat and have a second breakfast. Lee’s done the laundry and put up the canopy. K sews in the shade. R makes a leaf soup. I read my Guardian Weekly from two weeks ago. Lee makes a bacon and egg wrap; R eats half of it.

11.30 I take K to the library in town, which is air-conditioned. We’ve been advised not to do any outdoor activities after 11 a.m. The rest of the day will be spent lazing in the shade, or in the pool, swatting at March flies (a misnomer; it’s September) and then, when the sun starts to set, swatting at mosquitos and squashing sand flies. K will write a short story about two sisters and a bush fire. We’ll read and swim and eat and talk. It’s another good day and I feel lucky to have this year away.

Deaf in Darwin

imageThe close of another sunny day in Darwin.

Our time here is coming to and end. We thought about staying longer—there’s a uni where I could get work, Lee has work, and R is loving pre-school. We have a friends here and I’ve even joined a local soccer team. imageK and R hanging out with Ben, Moe and Pao Pao on a Friday evening at Casaurina Beach

Ultimately, we can’t stay because there are few resources for deaf kids in the NT.

There’s no deaf school in Darwin, and the only deaf unit in a mainstream school was closed over a decade ago.

The Darwin Festival was on while we were here, the biggest event of the year with an amazing line up of plays and performances. Not one event during the entire three weeks was interpreted.

In July, I took R to a story time at the library that was advertised as interpreted, but when we arrived, they said, “Oh, no.  We haven’t had an interpreter here all year, but we do advertise it.”

There are three interpreters for the entire city, one full-time, one part-time and one on maternity leave. One interpreter told me that deaf kids are lucky to get an hour and a half of interpreting each week at their school. Many deaf people here in Darwin have gone “down south” for school.

I met one successful young deaf woman who attended Darwin High School—and did well there—but her parents had to put up a fight just to get her a note-taker. She didn’t have an interpreter.

For the start of Disabilities’ Awareness Week in Darwin, they had a free screening of The Penguins of Madagascar. I rang ahead of time to make sure it was captioned.  They assured me it was, so, I told K, who was very excited. We rucked up early to get a good seat, the movie started and K’s face fell. “No captions,” she said.

And it was the opening event for Disabilities’ Awareness Week?!

On a positive note, when getting new moulds for K at Australian Hearing, we met an audiologist who’s studying Auslan at Deaf NT.

Deaf NT has been welcoming. They have a small office and a big workload.

K has been attending the local mainstream school. She wanted to give it a try. In the first week, she got assessed and the Department of Education concluded that she would receive no support—zero—because she’s not behind.

If we were staying in Darwin, I’d tell them she’s not behind because she’s had a full-time interpreter, three hours a week of an amazing itinerant teacher, and one day a week at a deaf school in Sydney.

The school, Stuart Park Primary, is a lovely place—truly multicultural, friendly and positive. At assemblies they give awards to students who’ve helped clean up the playground. K’s teacher is talented and well-loved. She’s good at using visual cues in the classroom. imageThe girls head off to school and preschool.

Unfortunately, there’s little deaf awareness at Stuart Park, and being the only deaf kid in school has proved challenging.

A number of teachers don’t look at K when they’re talking and don’t put the captions on for videos. For the school concert, K was given the role of a band member and told to lip-sync three songs that she couldn’t hear. At lunch time, she can’t hear the other kids and no one signs.

When she comes home and tells me these things, I say, “Imagine, this is what most deaf kids in Australia have to go through.” And I think to myself, and this is why deaf kids in Australia are a year behind, on average, in math and reading.

I offered to take K out of school, but she didn’t want to go.  She’s not one to run away—she’s stayed for our full six weeks, and she’s managed to make friends. But during lunchtime, she chooses to read in the library because she can’t hear her friends on the playground.

Despite the fact that K has not had equal access at her school, she’s had some positive experiences and we’re grateful for the effort the school has made.

imageK ready for her first school disco, with a 60s theme.

On Tuesdays, K and I taught Auslan to her class. I interpreted the assemblies every Friday.

Our experience here overall makes me realize how the big cities are really the place to be if you’re deaf.  And yet there is a small community of deaf people making their way here in Darwin and we’ve been able to meet some of them. They like Darwin for the same reasons everyone else does—it’s relaxed, easy and warm in more ways than one.

imageCooling off in Buley Rock Holes in nearby Litchfield National Park, a popular place with locals.

Separate Worlds in One Small City

Since the last post, we’ve moved up in the world. Literally.

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View from the balcony of our new digs

I found a luxury furnished flat for one-third the normal price. We’re now living on the 22nd floor of the tallest building in Darwin. It feels a long way from the scrapyard and it is so lovely to have a toilet of our own, hot water, fans, an oven, a couch. We even got to see some of the Olympics on TV.

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Darwin: a great place for graffiti

Although we’re no longer there, aspects of living in the scrapyard have stayed with me. There was an office worker who worked in front of our camp; he used the same toilet and so he walked passed us several times a day. I would always say, “Hello” and smile, but he never responded. He looked through me, as if I didn’t exist. This was unnerving. It made me feel like dirt. I tried to just get eye contact with the young office-worker, but he must’ve thought it disgraceful, the way we were living, camping out in a junk yard with our kids, cooking outside with the mozzies and the cane toads. I vowed to remember the feeling he gave me in future, when I see homeless people on the street, of which there are many here in Darwin. I only experienced this alienation from one person, but some people live a lifetime of invisibility—what that must do to the ego, I can only imagine.

Now we’re living at the other extreme: in a fancy two-bedroom flat with an expansive view of Darwin’s turquoise blue harbour.

On the way to school in the mornings, we bike past the scrapyard, past the same groups of Aboriginals living rough under the shade of a tree. I used to wake to the smell of burning rubbish as they lit fires in the mornings to keep warm.  This is Dinijanggama, or “heavy dew time” and it’s the coldest time of year. This morning got down to 22 C. When temperatures reached 13.8 C last month, the NT News ran it as a cover story.

We exchange morning greetings with the groups of Aboriginals as we cycle past, but not much more. Shattered glass from broken bottles lies scattered on the bike path along with bits of ash from the morning fires. There’s a Vinnie’s across the road where people can go for free coffee and toast.

This morning, after I drop K, I have rare moment to myself and pop into Sweet Brew and Co, a café on the Stuart Highway, just in front of the bike path. The breakfast offerings here (I resist) include: The Breakfast Box–House made muslie bar, Kale shooter, 100% rye toast, spiced avo, bircher pot and Celeriac puree, spiced cauliflower florets, house Za’atar, gooey fried eggs.

We’re just metres away from the bike path where a circle of men and women speak Kriol on the grass, and this air-conditioned café feels a world apart.

Racism is on the rise in the NT. A survey talked about on the ABC yesterday revealed 70% of indigenous respondents had experienced racism in the last six months in the Northern Territory. This is reminiscent of an earlier statistic I cited: 97% of kids in youth detention are Aboriginal.

With stats like this, one would expect to feel some resentment from the indigenous population of Darwin, and yet, in our five weeks here, we’ve experienced quite the opposite. There’s an Aboriginal man in a wheelchair outside of Woolies who likes to race four-year-old R on her bike, “I’ll beat you!” he says and she grins and pedals as fast as she can.

Still, one can’t help but see the segregation, which no doubt plays a role in the racism in Darwin and the rest of the NT.

The police cars here are specially designed utes fitted with a cage on the back, something a dog catcher might drive. This vehicle is not for dogs; it’s for Aboriginal people the police pick up drunk in the parks. And I thought the days of treating the first peoples of this country like animals were over.

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Police vehicle used in Darwin and the NT

And yet Darwin—more than any other city we’ve visited—has a strong indigenous presence. On the local ABC radio station, they give news updates in Kriol (the local creole, a mixed language) Online there’s news in Warlpiri and Yolngu Matha, local Aboriginal languages.

Last month the nation celebrated NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week and at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, there were free workshops with Aboriginal artists all weekend.

We got to try our hand at all types of Aboriginal art, from water colours to dot painting to basket making.

 

We sat on the floor in the shade next to an aqua sea and learned how generations of women have been weaving baskets for thousands of years. One artist, a mum about my age, showed us how to strip the palm. And then she checked a text on her IPhone. She spoke English to us and her local language to her mother.  She seemed effortlessly to straddle both cultures–old and new.

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I couldn’t, for the life of me, get how to strip the sand palms used for basket weaving and quickly gave up. But K hit it off with this Aboriginal artist straight away and they sat for ages stripping sand palms that were later twisted into twine and dyed, before being woven into baskets.

It was a lovely scene at the Museum (if not quite the norm)—people of one culture teaching another.

Dying the sand palm string, letting it dry in the sun, and the finished product.

Below, an amazing work of art on display at the entrance to the MAGNT, by Aboriginal artist, Michael, from Papunya, Central Australia:

This artwork was created as a representation of the journeys made by remote Aboriginal communities.  To travel across the desert, second had cars are regularly purchased and driven until they break down.  As it is often cheaper to by another second hand car than to fix the existing car, the broken down cars are usually left and become a part of the landscape. (MAGNT)

Living in a Scrapyard, Driving a Stolen Forklift

imageHow did we get here, you ask?

Well, dear reader, we’ll have start at the beginning, which was when we crossed the border in the Northern Territory, where the speed limit is 130 kms per hour and Territorians are lobbying to get rid of a limit all together. The population of the Northern Territory, 220,000, is considerably smaller than Cardiff. But the land mass is 1.4 million square kilometres.

            Photo courtesy of jazzclass.aust.com

But let’s briefly go back. After the Gibb, we spent five days of R&R in Kununarra, first at a lovely caravan park next to the “mini Bungles”.

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Mirima National Park, Kununarra

 

Then, at a fancy hotel for three nights, courtesy of my brother in China, who has a friend who owns the Kununarra Country Club. The kids watched TV. We slept in proper beds. And had our very own toilet! Ahhhh.

We drove to Lake Argyle for the day and spent an afternoon in and around the infinity pool that overlooks the lake—bliss. We swam, read, and tried to remember a bit of yoga. The pool was freezing, which kept the crowds down. And in the evening, we took the kayak out on the lake.

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K looking to see what’s beyond the infinity pool

 

Then we said goodbye to WA—after three and a half months in that vast state—and crossed the border into the unknown. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re weary of travel and so we booked it north along Highway One, overnighting in a caravan park in Katherine, where we partook of the hot springs in the morning, and drove to Darwin to meet up with friends.

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Hot Springs in Katherine
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Driving in the NT

Back in January, at the start of our journey, we met a family in Tasmania with a matching car and camper trailer and two kids, similar ages to our own. We stayed in touch. They’ve been living in a shed behind some empty shopfronts in the CBD of Darwin since May, working. They kindly offered that we could camp—not in the shed, that space is taken—but outside the shed, in the scrapyard filled with old broken down cars and busted up concrete, behind a locked gate. Lee likes to call it a “gated community”.

Because where we are isn’t zoned as residential, there’s no rubbish pick up and every evening, we have to open up the squeaky gate to the scrapyard and venture out on bicycles with a bag of rubbish, in search of a bin. There’s a cold shower, toilets and a washing machine and “rent” is $100 a week.

In Darwin, where the popular caravan park charges $459 a week for a family of four, this is a bargain.

That’s how we ended up on the side of Highway One, or the Stuart Highway, as it’s known here. We arrived to find, not only our friends, but the grandparents, Sandra and Russel. And for the first week and a half, we sat outside at a makeshift table next to graffiti walls in camping chairs and drank wine and ate dinner together, the ten of us, most evenings. Sadly, the grandparents departed on  Tuesday. We miss them!

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The Scrapyard: Home Sweet Home

I can hear the cane toads hopping through the fallen leaves as I write this and there are a million mozzies feasting on me, despite the fact that I’m wearing jeans and smothered in Deet. It will be a small miracle if I don’t contract Ross River Virus. And there are sand flies biting, too (even though there’s no sand!).  Lee says, “That’s the tropics for you.”

Cane toads abound. They aren’t harmful to us, but it’s sad to see these fat ugly creatures, who devour native fauna, including the cute little green frogs you find in the toilets.

Other than the cane toads and the mozzies and the heat and the feral cat who sometimes sprays our trailer at night, the scrapyard’s great. The kids love having constant playmates. And since it’s 32 degrees C every day in Darwin, there’s always water play. When we get fed up with the scrap yard, we’re a short bike ride away from the Darwin waterfront and the city library. Or we could visit one of two free waterparks, complete with waterslides.

I put both kids in school when we arrived. (They don’t have a deaf school, so K’s the only deaf kid in a mainstream school—more on this later). K came home from her first day: “The bubblers (water fountains) have cold water! And every classroom has a fridge.”

Lee started looking for work immediately. The job agency promised something (as they did in Perth and Adelaide) but nothing came through.  Luckily, someone new began moving into the shopfront we live behind as soon as we arrived. Lee asked if they needed a chippie. He now as the shortest commute to work imaginable.

And that’s how he ended up driving the stolen forklift, without a forklift licence. “It’s not exactly stolen,” Lee says. The last office space Lee’s new boss rented refused to give the bond back (someone hadn’t paid rent—he said it wasn’t him) so the boss took the forklift in lieu of the bond.

Apparently, the cops were around today and the forklift is being returned soon.

Meanwhile, Lee’s got work. K’s in school. R’s in preschool, only three hours a day, every day, an interesting system that insures mothers don’t return to the workforce too quickly. And we’re settling into Darwin in the Dry.

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Enjoying a mango smoothie, sunset at the Mindil Beach Markets

When people in Darwin talk about the rest of Australia, they say, “down south,” as if Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney are one and the same. Down south, you have access to everything, but up here, groceries travel a long way, as do doors, cars and everything else, so things are more expensive and harder to come by. This doesn’t seem to bother Darwinians; it just makes them more resourceful. Everything gets reused, as we learned when we went to the Tip Shop (the shop outside the tip) to buy cheap bikes for the kids.

Everyone knows Darwin is located in the far north of the Northern Territory and a few people have been to the northern capital on holiday, but it’s more common to fly over Darwin on the way to a cheaper holiday in Bali. Darwin and the NT rarely make the news, unless there’s a cyclone.

When I arrived here nearly two weeks ago, I realized how little I knew about this, one of the least populated parts of Australia, with the most Indigenous Australians per capita. It’s a different world up here. Strangers tell you how nice and cool it is when it’s 30 degrees and only 40 per cent humidity. People move slow. They have more time.

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It may be hot, but think twice before you jump in the water.

No one wears a helmet on their bike.

In the park people drink beer in front of “No Alcohol” signs.

It gives you a freeing feeling, the way people just break the rules up here. Until a baby dies in a car crash, as happened last week, because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt.

Or a story airs on Four Corners, like the one on the 25th of July, three days after we arrived.

Last month there was news from the NT, something shocking: images of kids in custody with bags on their heads, strapped to a chair reminded me of photos from Abu Ghrahib. It wasn’t as surprising to Territorians, however, who knew about this abuse and knew of the cover-ups, too.

97% of children in custody in the NT are indigenous; 30% of Territorians are indigenous.

It seems that some people can get away with a lot more up here, for better and for worse.

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Sunset at the Trailer Boat Club, Darwin

Rough as Guts (the last of the Gibb)

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K opening one of the many cattle gates on the station roads

Everyone said that the road up to Drysdale River Station was “rough as guts”. 

In fact, Lee and I hadn’t planned to take the Kulumbaru Road. But, after nearly two weeks of only solar power, the batteries were low and we needed to charge up; Drysdale Station had power.  We’d also run out of brake pads on the front wheels of the car, or so we thought, and were now trying to drive without using the brakes. 

Lee was worried about this, but I thought it would be an adventure to visit that out-of-the-way station.  Lee was sick of corrugation, “If you want to go, you drive,” he said and pulled over. 

So I drove.  And it made that road to Ningaloo Station seem like a smooth ride.  The corrugations were so deep, we couldn’t hear each other speak. 

There’s a road train that comes into Drysdale Station every week to deliver supplies and it goes out filled with cars that have broken down.  There were Jayco caravans at the station with kitchen cabinets that had fallen right off the walls.  We felt lucky that the only damage we sustained was a missing D shackle; the safety chain connecting the trailer to the car was dragging on the ground.  Luckily, Lee had brought a spare D shackle.

The highlight of our time at Drysdale was an afternoon spent on the Drysdale River with just us and a thousand birds. 

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I took the kayak down the river, lined with trees and palms.  The river was brown and still, calm and deep.  There was no one else. At first, I hugged the riverbank to get a better look at the birds.  A pair of rainbow bee-eaters flew right over me.  A dozen crimson finches came down to the water to drink.  Two Rufus night herons perched in a tree up ahead.  Several pied cormorants twisted their necks round in another tree. 

Then I saw a freshwater croc move from the riverbank and splash and disappear under the dark water without a trace, and I decided to stick to the middle of the river.

Paddling down that river for an hour, all alone in the wilderness of the Kimberley, on a river with no one but the birds, was sublime.  It felt timeless, as if I were lost in another world where only the present existed.  I was unable to think of anything else—what I was going to scrounge together for dinner, or how I was going to get K to memorise her times tables, or whether Trump would somehow win the election—I was just there, on the river with the birds and the occasional splash of a freshwater croc into water.

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Drysdale River

Ellenbrae and Home Valley Stations

After Drysdale, we drove back down that bumpy road, back to the Gibb, and stopped at the quaint Ellenbrae Station.  This was one of my favorite spots.  They make scones at Ellenbrae, which we devoured.  We set up camp and went to the river for a swim and a kayak.  That evening, the girls had a “donkey bath”, where the water is heated by a log fire.

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Girls in bath find a gecko on the ceiling

The next morning, we woke to light rain, unusual at this time of year.  I cooked pancakes under an umbrella and we packed up and moved on to the busy Home Valley Station, which was more like a caravan park than the bush.

At Home Valley, we camped right next to the playground and the kids played for hours with other kids, running themselves ragged.  Lee and I read books and went for walks.

And K got to go on her first ever horse ride.imageOne evening, we were playing Uno and having a drink at the bar, when we noticed a crowd gathering outside.  K went to see what it was: a whip-cracking show.  She came running back, “Mom, will you interpret?”  I came with my glass of wine and sat in front of her and it was the easiest thing I’ve had to interpret on this whole trip.  The whip cracker was a man of few words.

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The scenery at Home Valley Station

After three days at Home Valley, we said goodbye to the Gibb and drove to Kununurra.  Lee was overjoyed to be on a sealed road again.  I was a little bit sad to leave the Gibb.

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Goodbye Gibb

When we got reception and I looked at the New York Times online, I saw the terrorist attack in France with 81 killed by a truck and the attempted coup in Turkey with hundreds dead. It was strange to think we’d been swimming in gorges and kayaking down rivers and camping under the stars, blissfully unaware of the chaos elsewhere.

 

Gorges Galore on the Gibb

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Spot the croc

By the time we got to Galvin’s Gorge, we’d been on the Gibb 12 days, and I was getting into it.  So many adventures to be had!

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Galven’s Gorge, another great swimming spot

After stopping at Galven’s Gorge, we arrived at Manning Gorge campground in mid-afternoon and set up the tent in the heat.  It was packed with tour buses and camper trailers, caravans and tents and just three toilets for men and women. 

Then, just a few meters from the campsite, we saw why it was so crowded. There was a perfect swimming hole, complete with island rocks.  “It looks manmade,” Lee said, “like a resort.”  The water was clear and cool and there was a little boat attached to a rope so that you could pull yourself across the river, which the kids did all afternoon.

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Manning Gorge swim hole

That evening we dined on chicken Lee had bought at the roadhouse.  I looked at the label and noticed that it had been frozen for nearly a year, so I made a curry to mask the freezer-burn, but the texture was similar to an old boot.   

We were awoken before dawn by the sounds of heavy snoring.  Or maybe cattle?  When I zipped open the trailer tent and stepped outside, I realised it was both—the couple next to us snoring loudly (their son slept in a swag outside the caravan) and two cows moaning at each other in the next campsite.  Cows are everywhere on the Gibb, originally a “beef road”. 

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Road Train kickin’ up dust on the Gibb

K and I left early to walk to Manning gorge.  K pulled us across on the boat and we set off through grasses, past boabs, over rocks and boulders. 

As we walked, I taught K the terms “first” and “third-person” and we talked about the advantages and limitations of these different points of view.  K, who’s written four stories on this trip (three more than I have) talked about why she chose the POV she did for the various stories.  And I figured that was home school for the day. 

Soon, we were standing in front of the falls.  We’d walked there in just half an hour and it wasn’t crowded yet.   We were hot from the walk, which didn’t have any shade, and dove into the massive pool beneath the falls.    

A teenage boy did a backflip from the top of the falls into the gorge and I saw K watch with envy.  She’s not allowed to go more than a meter under water, or she could lose the rest of hearing.

When the boy came up, I asked how deep he’d gone.  “A meter and a half, and I’m 80 kilos.” 

“OK,” I said to K, “you won’t go too deep.”

K scrambled up the rocks to the top of the falls.  And stood, looking down, terrified.  I climbed up behind her. 

“You jump first,” she said.  I jumped and it reminded me of all the impossibly high rocks my late brother, Mark used to get me to jump off of when I was K’s age.  I plunged into the water and turned around to look at K standing anxious on the rock ledge.  I counted to three with my fingers and, to my surprise, she held her nose and leapt off the rock, flying through the air.  When she came up, she was exultant.  “I did it!” 

We had lunch on the rocks and another swim and walked  back to camp.

That afternoon, we read books in the shade.  It was hot.  K looked at me, her cheeks red, her hair stringy from the river water, and sighed and said, “I love the Gibb.”

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K looking out to the falls jump

 

Leonard Gorge, Bell Gorge and Charnley River

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One of many water crossings on the Gibb

We stopped at Leonard Gorge and went for a hike in the mid-day sun.  The sun beat down; sweat poured off of us and we lost the path.  Whose idea was this?  Luckily, we met another family on the same walk, shared our water, found the trail and became friends along the way.

They’d left their hometown of Bunbury when it got “too busy” seven years ago and had been traveling, on and off, ever since.  K ran ahead with the two boys, her face like a beetroot in the heat.  When we got to the gorge, there was no waterfall running and no place to swim.  The last wet season in the Kimberley saw little rain.

“Why did we come here, Dad?” one of the boys asked.  A reasonable question.

“Just a healthy walk, son.  There’s not a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.”

The boy seemed satisfied with this answer.

In 35 degree heat the boys and K proceeded to run up the hill, down the hill, over the boulders and all the way back to the car.  The parents and little ones followed behind. They told us about a free camp at Bell’s Creek with swimming and we followed them, but they soon drove ahead of us.  When we drove past the turn-off, the dad hopped in his car and drove after us.  We were grateful, as it was a lovely spot, right by a bubbling brook.

That evening we had a “bush bath” in the creek, which was running, but didn’t go too deep, for fear of freshies.

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Bush Bath

That night K helped the boys put up their swags and R played with their four year-old sister. The boys had a wonderful sense of adventure and were completely adept at all things camping—building fires and the like.  They made us look like amateurs.

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K helping the boys set up the swags–she wants one of her own now!

It was only us two families in this magic little free camp.  The stars were bright and the next morning we were awakened just before dawn by two barking owls (dingo birds).  I got out of the tent and saw one perched on a gum tree—magnificent.

Bell Gorge

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K and Mama relax at Bell Gorge

The next morning we drove to Bell Gorge, where we walked in and had a swim in one of the most spectacular gorges on the Gibb River Road.  This place, too, is full of birds, including the stunning rainbow bee-eater.

We stayed three nights at Silent Grove, a busy campsite close to the gorge.  We spent hot days down at the massive swimming hole.  The rocks were slippery and K liked to “skate” down them, into the cool water.

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One day, K and I ventured further down the river and swam through a large pool, over some small falls and then through another pool, feeling like explorers.  There were no other people. Then we got to a waterfall that dropped into another massive gorge, nearly as large as Bell Gorge, but I couldn’t see a way down the sheer rock face.  On our way back, we saw two goannas basking on the rocks and there was a small snake in the water, which we swam quickly past.

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R walks back from Bell Gorge

 

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The top of the gorge

 

Charnley River Wilderness Camp

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K jumping into Dillie Gorge at Charnley River

 

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Goanna at Dillie Gorge

Bell Gorge was stunning, but busy and filled with tour buses.  We were determined to get off the main drag and find some place with fewer people and so we drove up to Charnley River Wilderness Camp.  It had grass, which kept the dust down, and trees, which shaded us from that fierce Kimberley sun.

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Grevillie Gorge

There were numerous walks to gorges and swimming holes and a communal fire to sit around at night and share stories and marshmallows.  We’d have stayed more than three nights, but ran out of cash.  Charnley is expensive, but the money goes to preserving the wilderness and a program to try to rid the place of the destructive feral cat, something that’s almost impossible.  Every night in Australia, feral cats eat millions of native animals.

We had to bring our shoes in at night so the dingos wouldn’t take them.  They howled intermittently after sunset, an eerie sound in the night.  But at least there was no dust.  The dust on the Gibb River Road is pervasive—in the car, the tent, the clothes, the nostrils.  Every time I opened the food drawer or the fridge, I had to wash my hands again before I continued cooking.

By now, we were all feeling weary from traveling.  A year is a long time to be constantly in motion.  And I had a fierce longing for a washing machine—washing clothes by hand, the dirtiest clothes ever, gets old fast.  And yet it was all so beautiful: the kangaroos, the western kookaburras, the green pools at the bottom of all those dramatic gorges, the evening chats round the campfire at night, cuddling up with the girls, all in the same bed on cool crisp mornings, eating pancakes outside under a canopy of trees.  I know I’ll miss this when we do finally go home.  And when I think of marking all those papers, travelling feels a lot less tiresome . . .

R is officially tired of camping.  Lee is sick of setting up the trailer tent and packing it away.  He’s tired of the dust and the corrugation.  K and I could keep going, I think, but we’d also like to pause somewhere, go to school, get a job, settle.  We’ve started to talk about stopping in Darwin for a while.  For now, however, it was on with the Gibb.

When we ran out of bread, I cooked some on the campfire.  On our third and final night at Charnley River we sat under the stars and ate fresh hot bread, smothered in butter.  There’s nothing better.

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Kimberley Sunset, Silent Grove

 

 

Derby and the Start of the Gibb

imageThe morning we left Broome I went to Woolies and bought dehydrated peas, dried apricots, canned fruit salad, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cashews, kilos of pasta, rice, smoked salmon, smoked trout, 32 eggs, 15 litres of long-life milk, dried milk, bags of apples and mandarins, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, baked beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, two tins of salmon, tinned beetroot, a kilo of sultanas, a kilo of dried apricots, a large block of butter, a larger block of cheese, a bottle of olives, four packs of crackers, seven bars of chocolate and more, totalling $403.

It would be three weeks before I went to another grocery store.  In some ways, our entire trip has been a preparation for this: the Gibb River Road. But first, to Derby.

We said goodbye to the Indian Ocean and drove northeast to the next town, 220 kilometres and a world away from Broome.

Derby was 36° C and dusty in the middle of “winter”.  The caravan park was packed and there was no pool and no swimming in the sea because of salt-water crocs.  In the evening, Outback Paddy played for the Gray Nomads in the camp kitchen, which cheered things, but only slightly.

In the centre of town a playground stood empty, surrounded by unlikely grass and a few boab trees where a couple dozen Aboriginals sat in circles in the shade, drinking the last dregs of warm beer and waiting for the liquor store to reopen at noon.  As we drove by I saw a woman stand and with slow determination swing her backpack, squarely hitting a man in the back of his head.  He didn’t respond.

I’m reading Grog War, by Alexis Wright, an unsentimental look at alcohol and racism in Tenant Creek, and the fight elders had to go through to get a dry community.  She points out that most Aboriginals don’t drink, an important observation, especially for us travellers only see the drunks in town.

Wright describes the racist “2 kilometre law”, which forbids consumption of alcohol within two kilometres of a liquor store.  I noticed a sign in the liquor store in Derby, which read, Will not sell alcohol to anyone without transport.  Must show car keys to be served!

I also saw a cop in the parking lot of the liquor store, waiting for it to open so he could buy a bottle.

There was a swimming pool in town, thankfully.  But even the swim coach was harsh, yelling insults at the little swimmers who paddled up and down the pool as fast as they could. K, R, Lee and I jumped in, relieved to cool down.  Then, we were suddenly famished.  Luckily, there was a kebab shop across the street, where I went to buy hot chips.  The take away shop, run by Egyptians, was filled with souvenirs for sale: pyramid paperweights and miniature pharaohs.  It felt a long way from anywhere.

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R examines part of a seed from a Boab tree in Derby

In Derby I was reminded of a line I’d heard on Radio National recently, something to the effect of: every program the [majority white] government of Australia has tried to improve life for Aboriginals has failed.

And I was grateful for the positive images that my kids had seen of Aboriginal life in Cape Leveque, where our Baardi tour guide has blended his traditional culture with modern-day living in a way that attempts to educate the (mostly) white travellers and tourists.  I imagine this kind of blending of old and new exists elsewhere on communities I haven’t yet seen.  And I’m fairly sure not every Aboriginal wants to be a tour guide.

The more I learn about indigenous culture in Australia, the more I realise how little I know.

I’ve thought about visiting an Aboriginal community and though I’d like to, I’m reluctant.  I’m reminded of the numerous visitors who come to the deaf pre-school that both my kids attended in order to stare at the “cute little deaf kids signing”.  The director of the pre-school once said, “We start to feel like animals in a cage.”

The only thing more depressing than modern-day Derby is Derby’s darker history.

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Prison Tree, Derby

The prison tree is both a remarkable and heart-breaking site.  This boab, estimated to be over 1,000 years old (it’s hard to tell with boabs because they’re hollow and you can’t count the rings) was used as a temporary prison, transporting people to the goal in Derby.  Many of the prisoners were young Aboriginal men who were kidnapped, chained, and taken to Broome to dive for pearls, a form of slavery.

We were glad to see Derby in our rear-view mirror as we headed down the start of the Gibb River Road.

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Road shot–On the Gibb

The Start of the Gibb—Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek

The Gibb River Road is known as Australia’s “last frontier”.  Originally built to transport cattle, there are still road trains howling past in the night—mostly they don’t drive in the day because the Gibb is so full of four-wheel drives pulling caravans or camper trailers, like ourselves.

The Gibb is 660 kilometres of mostly unsealed road, with the attractions—mainly gorges—lying off the Gibb on rougher roads.  Some people take three days to drive the Gibb; others take three weeks.  We were grateful to belong to the latter category.  There are so many gorges to scramble downand swimming holes to jump into.  The birdlife is remarkable; the boabs majestic.

The start of the Gibb was lined with bulbous boabs of all shapes and sizes.  The spinifex grass was reminiscent of the landscape of the Pilbara.

Kaitlyn wrote of our first day on the Gibb:

Today we boarded the Gibb River Road.  It was sealed at first, then it got real bumpy.  Halfway down the road I needed to pee, so we stopped.  The ground was all cracked because it was so dry.  When we finally got to Windjana Gorge, the place we were to sleep, we were all sweaty and grouchy.  I brought out my water gun and started spraying everyone.  It was good fun.

Windjana Gorge rose up before us as we drove down a heavily corrugated road off the Gibb. As we come closer, a wall of ancient reef towered above the ground.  This was part of the Devonian reef from 360 million years ago.  It’s hundreds of metres high and two and a half kilometres long and really one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  When we stood next to the ancient reef and looked up, we were standing on what used to be the seabed.  Inside the reef were fossils of pre-historic fish and squid that look quite different from fish and squid today.

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Termite mound–made from termite poo!  And the ancient Devonian reef in the background.
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Spot the crocs in the water at Windjana Gorge

The campsite at Windjana was crowded—it was school holidays in WA, the NT, Victoria, NSW, France and seemingly everywhere in the world and we were far from the only family camping.  We set up the tent in the heat and then, as K said, got out the water pistols. 

The next day we drove further down that heavily corrugated road to Tunnel Creek, where we brought our torches and water shoes and waded through water in a pitch black cave. We got to a place where the ceiling had collapsed, revealing daylight, and then went further, all the way through the darkness to the other end, where a couple freshwater crocs lay, their eyes just above the water.

 

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Lee, who was carrying a nervous R on his shoulders, walked straight past a croc, shining his torch, looking for those orange eyes.  “Dad, look, it’s there!” K said, and he got a shock.

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Glowing eye of a croc in a cave at Tunnel Creek

The campsite at Windjana was dusty.  Every time a car drove past we got a mouthful of dust.  There was dust on the table and dust in our food, dust in the trailer and dust in our lungs and after two nights, even though this was such a spectacular site, we were happy to head further down the mighty Gibb.

Instalments two and three to come . . .