Monthly Archives: June 2014

Katherine Gorge, Land of the Cicada

We listen to our ranger guide. He tells us Katherine Gorge is Nitmiluk, Land of the Cicada.

I like the name. I can hear the cicadas chirping in it.

The park has thirteen gorges. We only have a few hours to spare so we decide to see two of them on a tourist boat trip.

Dying trees surround the jetty where we board our boat. They bend and sag, weighed down by fruit bats, or flying foxes. Thousands of the bats cling upside down to the branches, wrapping themselves tightly in their wings, like miniature vampires in their black capes.



A tourist wearing bright red lipstick, wrists laden with bracelets, shakes her head in disgust when the indigenous guide tells us they will leave only when they have broken down all the branches of the trees where they are roosting. “What pests!”

“No, no”, calls back our ranger guide. “It’s good for the trees. The bats prune them and fertilise them with their dung. They grow back to be much more healthy. When the bats have done their work here, they will move on and do some gardening for us further upstream. That’s how the system works. Everything has its place”.

The boat glides through the clear water between the towering amber red rock faces of the gorge. We shield our faces from the intense heat of the sun. The water sparkles and shimmers ahead of us. In the Wet, the water is 7-8 metres higher than it is today. The guide points out the marks on the sandstone rocks above us.

White, black and red ochre stains streak down the rocky walls, as if a giant artist has daubed paint brushes up and down in a frenzy of earthy colour. The rocks glow as we glide past, then darken as they fall into shadow behind us. Hardy trees sink their roots deep into crevices in the sandstone to find moisture and nutrients. Somehow they succeed and make their precarious homes on the rocky ledges above us. Twisted and knarled, they survive and provide shelter in the gorge for bird and insect life.

Freshwater crocodile

Freshwater crocodile

A crocodile lies snoozing on a small sandy beach to our left, her silvery scaled skin reflecting the sun’s rays. “Don’t worry, she’s a freshie, a freshwater crocodile. She won’t do you any harm. She might put a few holes in your arm if she’s rattled, but they only eat what they can swallow whole. You are quite safe”. I glance at the toddler sitting sleeping in his mother’s arms in front of me. Sleep safely little one.

Saltwater crocodiles on the other hand are extremely dangerous. “Salties” enter the gorge in the Wet, when water is flowing into the park from the estuaries where they normally live. Some of these prehistoric predators are left here when it stops raining and the water goes back down, closing off their exits. This is not great for tourism. The park rangers put out traps and relocate any they catch before the park is opened to tourists.

“We always feel a bit nervous when we send the first canoeists out there”, the ranger guide jokes. We all stare at the trap he is pointing towards and hope he really is joking.

We have to transfer to another boat half way through the trip, because the water is too low in the dry season to pass through to the next gorge. Our walk along the side of the gorge to reach the second boat passes an example of Jawoyn rock painting that is around 8000 years old. There are paintings dated 25,000 years old in other places in the park, we are told. They are some of the oldest artefacts in the world.

I find these periods of time almost impossible to imagine. The first fleet came to Australia in 1788, not much more than 200 years ago. We are so new to this land compared with our guide’s people. Our history here is recent even by our own Western standards. I sit and ponder this as we glide further into the gorge.

There are many paintings in the park that are kept secret as they mark sacred places. The painting we pass by is different. Rock art was also used to communicate information to travellers. It told them the type of food available and any fresh water nearby. We are reading signposts and tourist information maps from another culture.

In the second gorge the guide slips the boat into a small cave to one side. “Listen”. A high pitched squeaking sound reveals the presence of a population of tiny horseshoe bats. They snuffle around as we approach, keen to be left in peace to continue their siesta. They are the modest, shy cousins of the fruit bats we left back at the jetty.

Canoeists in yellow life jackets paddle by. Children shout and splash as they dive laughing into the water from a rocky ledge. Two men are fishing. The park is well used.

As the boat turns back towards the jetty, I look up in wonder at the beauty around me. It really is magnificent, how lucky we are that the Jawoyn have chosen to share it with us.

Parting of the Ways

The sad day has come.  It’s time for the convoy to go its separate ways.  We say our goodbyes and look forward to meeting again to share tales of our adventures.

Blog readers, you are welcome to join me as I make my journey back to the Marsh via Katherine, Alice, Kings Canyon and Uluru. If you decide to leave me here, farewell and thank you for travelling with us.

Adelaide River Races

We’re here!  4000 or so kilometres travelled across deserts, mountain ranges, freeways and unsealed dusty roads and the convoy has finally reached Adelaide River for the races. We’re in early to the show ground, choosing a shady area under some tall gum trees to set up camp.

We form a circle with the cars, like wagons keeping out the Indians in the Wild West.   From the comfort of our little compound we watch as the preparations for the race day get underway.  Food stalls are being set up.   Trees are trimmed.   Marquees are erected.

More campers arrive and the show ground gradually fills.   The first race is due to start at 2pm.   We kit ourselves out in the best racing finery camping will allow and head into the fray.

Young men with slicked back hair walk arm in arm with girls teetering on high heels.  The crowd is a glorious celebration of clashing colours and styles.   Denim shorts and cowboy boots stand next to satiny prom dresses in the queue for the first glass of chilled wine or beer.   Lacy fascinators wired into intricate swirling designs are perched atop freshly blow dried tresses.  Akubras add an outback charm to business shirts and dark trousers.

The setting is pure Australian bush.   The grass race track is surrounded by gum trees.  The scent of wood smoke is in the air from a bush fire the day before.  Plumes of smoke can still be seen in the distance.  The sky is bright blue with a few white clouds to shade us from the heat of the tropical sun.

Men drink beer cans branded XXXX or Bundy and Coke.  Women sip white wine from plastic wine glasses.   Corporate tents are filling up with the glamour set, while caterers work hard to prepare food for the masses.  There’s Asian style wok fried rice and noodles, pizza or roast lamb for the unaffiliated outside the marquees.

The racehorses are stabled at the back of the show ground next to the road for a quick getaway.  They are impatient to get out onto the racetrack, they paw at the sand and toss their heads.  Trainers hose them down with jets of cool water, leaving their lean muscled bodies gleaming wet in the sunlight.   As their turn comes to race they are led out with numbers fixed to their saddles to identify them to punters studying form.

Hosing down

Hosing down

A jockey dressed in bright colours, pink and white like the galahs flying overhead, mounts a fidgeting racehorse who skips sideways as the small boned man grips tightly with his knees.  Animals and men feel the tension, it’s all nerves in the lead up to the start.   Race goers leaf through their form guides, pencilling in cryptic comments as they watch the horses circle in the mounting ring. “I like the grey” whispers the girl next to me.

Jockeys in mounting ring

Jockeys in mounting ring

The loudspeaker on the PA system is working at maximum volume, distorting words and phrases and forcing us to shout to make ourselves heard. At first we are confused as races being held in other states are called out, excited commentary working itself to fever pitch of arousal before fading away as the races end and the results are known.  Then the first race at the show ground is underway.  We lean against the cold metal of the barrier to get a better look.   Hooves thunder around the track, horses flying through the air leaving a dusty haze hanging behind them.  They are magnificent beasts.

Finishing line

Finishing line

A man in an oversize hat punches the air.  His horse has won.   He listens for the confirmed results to crackle over the PA and hurries off whooping to collect his winnings.

I watch the whistling kites circle above us on the rising thermals as the heat grows into the day.  They swoop and glide, hovering over us to see if any little scurrying mouthfuls are disturbed by the human activity below.

It’s a family day.  A little chubby cheeked toddler in a pastel pink and yellow cotton dress scrunches up her baby face in offence when her daddy walks ahead of her, encouraging her to walk rather than sit in his arms as she would prefer.  She waddles after him with arms outstretched, sobbing, then is all smiles and kisses when he picks her up and strides away.

Bets are laid.  Money won and lost.  We are not big spenders in our group.  A few dollars on the nose.   A buck either way.   Beryl and Olive use their experienced horse knowledge to make some good calls, but we won’t make our fortune today.

Another race starts and I make my way to the barrier to watch.   They’re off.  As they gallop towards the finishing line I see a riderless horse running inside the circle of the racetrack.  His jockey must have taken a fall.  The horse runs alongside the others as they finish and I see red blood, he’s been hurt.    Race officials catch up with the horse and bring it to a stop.  I am shocked. I can see flesh hanging, he urgently needs a compress to stop the bleeding.  I look around, where’s the vet?   The sweating horse is bleeding profusely, it’s too late.  He tosses his head in convulsions, and staggers.   I involuntarily clasp my hand to my mouth in dismay. “That horse is going to die”, says Beryl, in a calm matter of fact voice.  

The St John Ambulance pulls up in front of the group of people standing helplessly by the scene.  A big man standing tall among them hangs his head and is patted on the back by a friend.  We assume he is the owner.  A screen is quickly unrolled to hide the dying animal from the few in the crowd who are nearby.  

We can only imagine the final moments of that proud creature.  In racing, risks are taken and today number eight has paid the highest price.

Few people in the main throng of race goers have noticed what has happened.   I feel slightly nauseated to hear them laughing and having fun as I walk through the crowd.   It’s not their fault, little reference is made to the fate of number eight on the crackling PA.

The sun is getting low in the sky.   Excitement builds as the horses make their way out to the start for the finale of the day’s racing, the Adelaide River Cup.   The beer and wine has been flowing freely all day and dresses are starting to look a little crumpled, fascinators sit at an angle, speech is slurred.  It’s been a big day.   The crowd pushes towards the barrier to watch the big race.   Cameras click, punters cheer their horses on and the racing day draws to an end as the Cup is won.

We retire to our compound to relax with a much needed cup of refreshing tea to chat about the day’s events and total up our wins and losses.

But it’s not over… the evening promises a band, the Funky Monks, and dancing.   As the sun goes down we head towards the music to party.

The heaving mass of arms, legs and heads moving to the beat of the thumping bass is almost impenetrable.  It’s intimidating, but we are here to party and we force ourselves in to the dancing throng.  It’s hot like a sauna.  We dance, sing and wave our arms to Wonderwall as the band begs the crowd to leave more room at the front.  “There are young girls getting crushed here, move back”.

We are dancing with giants, dwarfed by the men and girls around us.  Six foot is an average height here, they must be putting something in the water we laugh.   The volume goes up, we pump our arms and sway our hips to the rhythm, dodging elbows, arms, legs of those around us.   The crowd crushes tighter together and moves as one.  It’s a heady mix. You have to give up your individuality and become part of the herd, dancing, jumping, swaying, staggering.  It’s intoxicating without any need for alcohol.   Not in our twenties any more we can’t keep up the pace for long and we retire to sit and watch the antics around us.

That night, no one gets much sleep.  The band plays on well after bedtime for the Deans Marsh campers.  I hear the music shift in the last set of the night, Aussie rock favourites ring out, Khe Sanh, Working Class Man and Men at Work singing Land Down Under.  The crowd sings discordantly along.  I could only be in Australia.  Fire crackers bang, bang, bang above us in the early hours of the morning as revellers stumble their way back to their tents.   As the human noises quieten to just the snoring from the man sleeping in the back of his ute beside us, I hear the birds begin to greet the dawn.

It’s been a big day and a grand experience to complete our time together as a travelling convoy from Deans Marsh.

Bush Poetry #4

a day at the races

Teetering heels, thundering hooves

pink galahs in jockey colours, starting nerves

fascinators, orange, red, pink, fluorescent green

highly strung, horses and men, muscled and lean

pawing the sand, punching the air

cool water, cold beer.


Distorting PA, slurring speech

calls races in other states

emotions raw, thrills, loss and despair

winning, losing, dying, don’t care

whistling kite, cheering punter

warm hugs, a race down under.


Dancing girls, funky band,

keep to the beat, elbows, arms, hands

giants all, men and horses, sauna sweat

running, jumping, dancing, a bet

whistling train, fire cracker

men at work, land down under.


Queuing for coffee, laying low

eyes are open, brain is slow

plastic chairs, cups, plates, glasses all litter

showering, sitting, still sleeping, some fitter

starting engine, packing up tent

let’s do it next year, time well spent.

Is this paradise?

Palm trees and water lilies, fresh clear water, dappled sunlight – is this paradise?

With very few kilometres to go until we reach Adelaide River, we have time to detour to the water hole at Bitter Springs, just north of Mataranka. The water here is cool and inviting. Natural springs provide the perfect microclimate for palm trees.  They grow in profusion here.  No need to landscape.  Nature has created what many hotels and resorts try to emulate. There is no smell of chlorine, the water is kept fresh, clear and clean by the plants, insects and fish that call this home.

Pink water lily flowers decorate the fringes of the water hole. Tiny fish dart between rocks and tree trunks. Swimming, I look up through a crisscrossing network of spiders’ webs, strung like suspension bridges across the width of the waterhole. Huge black and yellow spiders are silhouetted in the sunlight.  Suspended above the water, they are motionless in the centre of the webs they have spun. I am reminded of a line of poetry I learned at school, “what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry”.  Fearful indeed.  I swim away.

We are headed today to Umbrawarra Gorge, just south of Pine Creek. The dusty unsealed road takes us through creek crossings, winding towards the gorge. The Nature Park’s camping ground is empty when we arrive. Tents are up in no time, we are getting good at this now. Swimming togs on, we head off to the gorge.

Umbrawarra Gorge

Umbrawarra Gorge

Is this paradise? It is an Australian garden of Eden. Water flows through the gorge over flagstones of pink rock, overhung with flowering gums that drip their golden blossom on to the path and into the water. Birds fly from tree to tree calling out a warning that the gorge has human visitors. The water collects in pools between rocky outcrops.  Shoals of fish can be seen swimming there between the shadows. An elegant grey brown bird stands watching, waiting to take her daily feed.

We climb over the pink rocks until the view opens out ahead. Pink and gold cliffs tower above us. Here’s the swimming spot. A perfect natural pool with a beach of crunchy golden sand.

We return in the morning to walk further into the gorge.



The morning sun reflects on the cliffs, deepening their golden hues. Above us there is a sacred aboriginal spot for women only. No photographs or men allowed. The climb gives the girls a cliff top view along the length of the gorge. The secret female artwork keeps its dreams to itself. The only art we see is found on the other side of the gorge: a male ancestor spirit drawn on a ledge high above the water.

Hot from the climb, we hurry back to the waterhole.  A monitor lizard suns himself on the bank, keeping a watching eye on us.  We plunge into the waterhole from the rocks, delighting in the refreshing temperature.  Can’t we stay here longer?

With our bodies and minds refreshed by our experience in this Australian paradise, we turn back to the camp and prepare ourselves for a mango smoothie at Mayse’s in Pine Creek before we head to our final destination as a convoy, Adelaide River and the races.

Party time

The Dixie Chicks vie with Sara Storer on the radio as we speed along the highway.  We laugh at the termite mounds along the road side that have been dressed with t shirts and baseball caps. Surreal sculptural shapes are used to comic effect.   Others are left untouched.   The high rise cities of the termites spread into the green belt around the road.   Huge skyscrapers in the centre of the cities shrink to modest mounds in the termite suburbs.

The vegetation along the roadside is changing as we near the Tropic of Capricorn.  Red holly grevilleas flourish alongside acacias and ghost gums.  We pass through Tennants Creek.  Telstra reception is back.  Emails are sent, mobile phone calls made.

Our roadside lunch stop hides beautiful pink, yellow and blue wildflowers and a wild calistemon.   Another secret botanist’s delight.

We stop briefly at Newcastle Waters.   Driving through the milky waters of the wetlands to admire the statue remembering the unsung heroes, the drovers, the pioneers of the cattle industry.  We recall Banjo Patterson’s verse: “As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing, for the Drovers life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know”.

We hurtle on down the highway.   Trees grow taller as wetlands branch out around us.   Huge road trains carrying four trailers thunder by.  We are nearing the top end, the north coast of Australia.

Tonight is party night at the caravan park at Daly Waters.   Huge meals of locally caught Barramundi or Northern Territory steak are served here.  Orders are for a fixed time, and names are called out from the kitchen when the meals are ready.  We wait in great anticipation and feel like winners when we hear Brett and Christine, Richard and Deborah, Olive and Malcolm, Max and Heather and finally Beryl and Howard shouted out to the packed restaurant.

Live music is provided by a one man band playing a guitar and singing rock and roll tunes against a backing tape.   No one could be more surprised than the singer when we get up to dance after the meal.  Max and Heather show off their dancing prowess in jive style.   Christine is a winner in Nutbush City Limits and The Timewarp.   We are joined by a table celebrating a birthday and demand an encore.  The surprised singer plays on for an extra half an hour as we all strut our stuff.

Party time at Daly Waters, we know how to enjoy ourselves!