Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sunny Darwin, rainy Gloucester

My parents have no power or drinking water and my friends are stranded in their homes in Gloucester... meanwhile I bask in 32C heat in Darwin. It's summer in England - winter in Oz...

Hmm going home suddenly seems so tempting. Of course, I'm missing out on the journalistic fun of it all and the cameraderie and solidarity of the Blitz spirit the brits usually display.

Normally, the people of Gloucester would be punching each other outside Liquid, moaning about everything and pushing their babies to their mums house on the way to school...

Instead, they are cheering the arrival of the army, getting their local rag delivered by canoe (seriously) and not taking showers.

Some of the pictures of the floods are crazy but if you will build half a city the flood plain of the River Severn... and as my dad put into perspective - 200 people were killed in floods recently in China but people getting their Barretts platforms a little wet in Gloucester are going mad.

Here in Darwin life is all about making enough cash to avoid having to return to Gloucester until December. So I'm working a cafe job, a nightclub job and doing casual events waitressing seven days a week.

Hours off (those rare ones) involve resting, sleeping, the odd moment of sunbathing or drinking.

English Jen's birthday was celebrated by us dressing as pirates and hitting the 'city'. Darwin is a large country town with two decent clubs and isn't a dissimilar size to the 'city' of Gloucester...

And like my hometown, you don't want to swim in the water here. Crocs to worry about in one city and skin-scalding pollution in the other.

The centre consists of a couple of supermarkets, about two fashion shops, a few pharmacys and eateries and souvenir shops.

But it has a lovely laid-back atmosphere, nice architecture and friendly people. There are swimming pools everywhere due to the intense heat, a deckchair cinema, wonderful markets twice a week by the beach. Last week, we went to watch the sunset on Mindil beach and wandered the markets where you can buy every kind of food under the sun and all kinds of trinkets.

So I may not be a hotshot journo covering the water crisis in Gloucester, but at least I'm warm. And dry.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Broometime to Darwin

Broome passed by in a bit of a blur. There is a saying up here that you slip into Broometime - and things just float along at their own pace. It's a bit like Thai-time.

Broome was packed full of holidaying families and backpackers but in a good way. We spent our days lying on Cable Beach - a wonderful curve of golden sand where you can watch the sun dip into the water and turn the sky every shade of the rainbow - catching up on sleep and meeting new people.

The four of us - me, Swedish Jenny, Jenny and Dan - headed to the races on Saturday. It was hardly Ascot or Cheltenham. More like Stroud races - which basically means hillbilly and local. But amusing.

Dan and I gambled our life savings (well, we put down $2 bets on each race which amounts to the same thing) and lost and won enough to come out vaguely on top, and we watched the locals parade their attire, perform belly dancing and line dancing and even a fashion show.

That night, we partied at Oasis, a nightclub open to the stars and with the worst DJ I have ever, ever heard in my life.

I met up with a friend from Perth, Lisa, and we saw dozens of people we'd met on our trip up the coast and eventually moved to a part of the caravan park (Robeuck park) where backpackers were hidden away from the general public. Here, we could play our guitars, drink, sing and not cause tooooo much offence.

It was lively, fun and too easy to get caught up in.

But we had to hit the road again to make it to Darwin. We picked up Belgian Joran to help with costs (and weigh us down more) and left hot, sunny Broome. So far we have travelled a great distance, covering the rest of northern WA in this time.

More than 1,000km from Broome now in two days, we have passed through dull flat terrain and great rugged red mountains. We've seen Boab trees - relatives of African trees which have huge barrel-like trunks and funny, sticky out branches, crossed dozens of dry creeks and passed through Aboriginal communities. Many of these are actually closed off to visitors unless you have a pass.

We spent a night at Halls Creek, the nearest town to Wolfe Creek, and managed to avoid a riot from the boys who wanted to take our hire car offroad to get a picture at said town - just for the horror film kudos.

Instead, we diverted them to Turkey Creek (Warun) where all except Joran took a 45-minute helicopter ride over the amazing Bungle Bungles (Purnululu National Park). The experience of flying over the plains below was worth every penny - but to skim over the craggy mountains and see the plate-like ridges below, soar over the dome-shaped huge mountains as they stretched below like a carpet, and delve into deep gorges, was just breath-taking.

The road to the huge red and black-striped domes is very bumpy and hardly suitbale for even a 4x4 so our Ford Falcon was just not going to make that trip. It's hard to believe that such a world treasure (it has been UNESCO listed along with sites such as the Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef etc) is so remote and so little visited.

In the distance we could see the distant mountains raped for the rich diamonds deep inside, and which have just two years left of mining in them. We saw remote Aboriginal settlements and the cattle ranches around the national park. It was such an experience.

Our next stop was Wyndham - a historic town at the end of the famous Gibb River Road (the remote 4x4 track through the Kimberley) where five rivers meet. We climbed to the top of a mountain (well we drove 3/4 of the way up...) to a wonderful viewpoint over the peaceful wide rivers. Remarkable to see so much water even in the dry season.

Later, we drove to Kununurra and stopped at a posh campsite for the night where we were clearly not welcome - being young and backpackers, and because there were five of us and we only paid for four...

But the attitude of the staff and even the other guests there was just appalling. Being young and travelling quite often gets you crap customer service in Oz.

So we moved to a smaller, friendlier, rougher campsite in Kununurra the next night and then explored. We visited Lake Argyle, a huge man-made lake, where the government flooded acres and acres of cattle ranches. There are still the tops of mountains above the lake which make it a peaceful spot.

On Sunday we crossed the border into the Northern Territory and made it to Katherine. The drive was wonderful this last few days with such changing scenery - from rugged outcrops in the Kimberley to the dry, flat lands in the Northen Territory.

In Katherine, we hiked a loooong way through the national park to stunning gorges where we could swim safely - despite the presence of freshies (crocodiles). We had to keep away from their nests but were told they were otherwise relatively (!) harmless.

After an 8km hike down to the gorge, we spent a few hours jumping off a high rock into the waters below surrounded by the cliffs of the gorges. Another hike took us to a different swimming area in the river - this time clambering over massive boulders and past dry waterfalls. We were shattered when we arrived. So, after a dip to cool down, we "bribed" a boat trip to take us back with them!

Now we are in Darwin - which seems like a really lovely place even if the "clubs" are shocking. It's now time to get a job or ship out for me. Time is running out for me in Australia when there is money to be earned and the rest of the east coast to see...

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

More whales, more wine...

It has been a wonderful few busy days.

Western Australia is so remote, so wild, so wonderful... There are virtually unexplored areas, long straight roads through desert-like scrubland, huge cattle ranches and rocky hills, hillbilly towns centred around a single bar and shop...

Our last few days in Exmouth were great fun. The whale sharking was postponed twice due to bad weather - but we saw a terrific sunrise during one early morning wake-up, and we managed to fill in the greyer days regardless.

We visited beaches around the area and watched sunset from a lighthouse, bought snorkels and saw a family of emus rummaging near some bins, saw a dugong (a sort of cross between a dolphin, seal and elephant!) at Lakeside beach and did a fantastic drift snorkel at Turqoise Bay. The latter involved floating along with the strong current looking at the corals, huge parrotfish, bannerfish, Moorish idols, butterfly fish etc.

I lost Dan and Jenny at one point and then spotted... a shark! Not a huge one but big enough when you're on your own. The current is very strong so you have to jump out before the sand bar - or risk being whisked out to sea.

Dan went on a fishing trip and caught us some tuna, snapper and we had a big fish barbecue when he returned. And then there was a bit of a panic when Caroline realised on Monday evening that her flight was on Tuesday and not Wednesday.

So a panic ensued to get her money back from the whale shark trip while we blew up balloons, bought cake and a present, party poppers and prepared some food. Not the easiest task when we'd been drinking sangria all afternoon to ward off the boredom of a rainy day.

We all popped on party hats and had a good giggle in the camp kitchen of the caravan park before heading out to The Pub - one of two pubs in town (the other is called The Tavern - original).

Here we met some locals on a night out. The oldest guy in the pub - in very short shorts - bought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate and then took Dan off "yo make a man of him" at the bar. He promptly asked Dan which of us he could have... Oh dear.

He'd asked us if we were on a Hen party to which we laughed and shrieked "God can you imagine!". There was a hen party behind us. Right next to her husband-to-be's stag do...

After a comedy end to the night (Stag to me: 'are you coming back to mine for a party'? 'No.' 'Fuck off then'), we fell into our tents for a sleep.

The next morning we waved goodbye to Caroline and crossed our fingers that we would get to go snorkelling with Whale Sharks today. Luckily the day was warm and sunny so we piled onto the minibus with the Village Dive crew and headed out to the beach.

Not much is known about whale sharks except that they can dive to more than 1,000 metres, and can grow as large as 18m. Ningaloo is one of the only places in the world they regularly visit. They have been around for around 250 million years and can live to 100 years or more.

The largest ever caught was a pregnant female at 18m long and she had 350 babies at different stages of growth inside her.

The trip was amazing. It started with a quick snorkel in the inner reef before heading through a break in the huge waves crashing from the outer to the inner reef - all of us hanging on for dear life as the little boat was rocked around by the mighty power of the swell.

We'd been warned we may not get a call from the spotter plane for hours but within minutes of finishing the snorkel we had the call. So a race between all the tour operators ensued. Luckily, we had one of the two fastest boats and got to the spot third.

Snorkellers jump in in groups on 10 and spend a few minutes with the shark before stopping and the second group go in and then the next dive boat get a turn etc.

It was very chaotic. I was the last off the boat and had to swim swim swim for my life to catch up - forgetting I had arms and just powering away with my feet. I kept popping my head up to see the spotters arm infront of us and the powered forward with all my strength. I was so concentrated on swimming the tough, long route that I missed it. Doh!

But our luck was in. Even though it was the end of the season for spotting these beasts, five were spotted because it was the first warm and sunny day in a while so the cold-blooded fish were rising to just below the surface to warm themselves. Any false move from us could see it diving back into the depth of the reef in seconds. When they want to, these beasts move fast.

Our time swimming with the sharks was extended each time - keeping a firm 3m from it and 4m from its powerful tail. It was all a bit frantic - people fins coming down on heads, salt water pouring down the snorkels, and actually finding it.

The largest we saw was 5m and the smallest - an inquisitive baby - 3m. That time I dashed off after the spotter first and banged into her when she stopped and started swimming in the other direction. So I followed. "It's behind you guys!" she yelled at us. I popped my head up. "It's behind you!" I turned around. "Put your head in the water!" Oh that's where it is! Coming straight for me....

In between our frantic swimming sessions (to keep up with the buggers), we saw humpbacks and a manta. And then suddenly it was time to go for a late lunch of huge prawns and salads and so on. A great day.

Fired me up totally for diving again and poked back my idea to do my divemasters course in Thailand and work there for a season...

Our next adventure was a loooong drive to Karinjini National Park. I drove for about five hours from Exmouth towards Tom Price, watching in amazement at the changing landscape - thick green bushland, flat plains with humps of deep red hills rising suddenly from the dry grass, huge boulders making mountains, brown dirt, red dirt, yellow dirt, long straight roads...

Dan then took over and we arrived in Tom Price just after nightfall. This is the Pilbara region where there are huge mines extracting iron ore from the world's oldest concentration of rocks.

It was freezing at night and we virtually caught our deaths overnight in the tents. But the next day was hot as we set off for the national park. We attempted to drive the unsealed road to Oxes Lookout - a meeting of four gorges - but we got a puncture and decided it was wise to head back to tarmac.

So we went to Dales Gorge which was stunning. We walked down to Circular Pool where Dan had a freezing swim and we ate our lunch and then walked along the floor of the gorge. Except that we crossed the river in the wrong place and found ourselves negotiating what must be an animal track, with thin ledges to edge across and stones to cling to... we had to turn back...

But we made it to the pretty Fortescue Falls and nearby stunning Fern Pool before heading back up the gorge, seeing a wild dingo and heading to a roadhouse.

Here we thought it wise to spend the night as cattle stand in the middle of the road to Port Headland at night, worrying even the road train drivers. But we made new friends - a group of drillers who had a huge camp fire and invited us to share beers and chat while learning the didge and looking at the southern skies at night - virtually unpolluted by light. Stunning.

Then it was another looong drive to Broome via Port Headland. But here we are in Broome and it's hot and sunny...

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