Saturday 30 August 2014

Two days to go...

On a dreary, cold, grey, wet Saturday afternoon when spring seems very much further away than just two days on the calendar, and when really the only sensible place to be would be tucked up in a cinema somewhere, it's masochistically pleasurable to remember how it was in the Northern Territory just three weeks ago. And still is, of course...

Warm, humid, colourful - exactly what Auckland isn't, today - the Territory is also full of birds and animals which for me anyway makes it even more appealing on top of its striking scenery, ripping-yarn history and glorious open skies. From that point of view, the evening cruise that we took on Yellow Water Billabong was the real highlight of our World Expeditions Kakadu Adventure. Dan took us to the jetty where we joined a sunset cruise for a couple of hours along the winding course of the South Alligator River. We sat in a tin catamaran and tootled along with Adam in the back spotting birds and crocs for us, and happily manoeuvring the boat back and forth so we all got a good look.

We saw so many birds! From the huge - a sea-eagle swooping on a fish right in front of us, and a stately jabiru (all jabirus are 'stately', it's a rule) stalking in slow motion through the shallows, to the tiny - bright red and blue kingfishers. The lotuses were pink and white, there was smoke from a burn off going sepia on the horizon, the pandanus and paperbark trees turned into black silhouettes, and then just as the sun was slipping below the horizon a great flock of, er, birds flew past, perfectly timed (by Adam, or so he claimed). Fabulous, dramatic and highly recommended.

Also, all over, sigh. Now it's just ring-necked doves nagging (gently) on the roof, sparrows on the seed feeder, silvereyes on the fat, and chickens in the garden. Oh, and Harley in the bathroom, rescued weak and wobbling 6 weeks ago, all mangey and maggotty, and now twice the weight on a steady diet of Fancy Feast, and raring to go back to the wild. Come on, spring.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

There's reasonable, and then there's not.

So far this week (and it's only Wednesday!) I've written and sold stories about Kakadu, Queensland, Thailand and pets on planes. As always, writing the stories is the easy part - what takes the time is sorting and editing the photos. Usually that's just because of dithering between similar shots, straightening the horizon (sigh), cropping, and fiddling with the exposure. Then they have to be filed, with captions, and a contact sheet made. All a bit tiresome, especially since I know that, more often than not, none of them will be chosen by the editor, entirely for reasons of cost, with a disappointing loss of relevance and impact on the final layout.

With both the Kakadu and Thailand stories, though, there's been an extra and time-consuming step: getting approval. Bangkok hospital's Medical Museum is anxious about respect and human rights, since its exhibits are dead people, there for teaching purposes rather than to be gawped at by curious tourists, some of whom are no doubt freak-show fans who don't give a moment's consideration to the losses behind the exhibits. Although Google is full of images from the various divisions of the museum (and I've added to it myself in this blog), for publication it has to be done properly, which takes time of course. But since I had a story published just a week ago that's been on the paper's files since April last year, maybe that's not important...

With Kakadu, as for any story about places in Australia with traditional owners, there's a quite remarkable amount of paperwork to be dealt with by media before being allowed in with our cameras and notebooks. In order to encourage the general public to come and enjoy them, and support the local businesses, you understand. Ahem. But that's ok, you don't have to spend much time in the Outback to know that there's an awful lot of making up to be done by the Government to the Aboriginal people. And, to be fair, there are a lot of sacred places that even ordinary tourists are discouraged from going to, and photographing - climbing Uluru is a case in point - so having to submit all your photos for approval is no more than an inconvenience, really.

But not showing images of people swimming in Outback waterholes? Now that's just silly - the official line is that it can never be guaranteed that there isn't a crocodile in there somewhere; and also that jumping into pools is dangerous because of rocks. Well, as our guide Dan said, "Jumping into waterholes is a human right." You can't walk through that desiccated landscape and come across a deep, green, perfect-temperature pool of water and not be expected to jump into it. Come on, already!

Thursday 21 August 2014

Possibly the best photo ever taken at Gunlom Falls...

Pardon me for boasting, but I really like this photo (despite the sky being a bit blown-out). I took it about 10 days ago at Gunlom in Kakadu, where I went with World Expeditions: there's a pretty magnificent waterfall from some stepped plunge pools at the top of the cliff, down 70 metres into the final one at the bottom. The rock is super-smooth, as you would be if you'd had 3 billion years of water flowing over you - polished, even, as you see.

I toiled up the rocky path from the camp site below intending to have a swim while I waited for the sunset, and by the time I'd picked my way up there, following the rough track and the orange triangle markers, I certainly needed a dip - hot and humid, don't you know. But, alas, despite the climb, there were lots of people disporting themselves in the inviting pool at the top and nowhere that I could, with propriety, change into my togs. Yes, of course I should have done it before I left my tent, I know that too. Say something helpful, why don't you.

So instead I sat near the edge of the falls and waited for the sunset, which was rather inconveniently just around the corner of the bluff, to lengthen the shadows and suffuse the gum trees below with orange, and to make the opposite cliff blush warmly. While I was there I sneaked this photo of the surfer dude lying completely at his ease right on the edge of the cliff, comfortably fitted into a couple of smooth dips in the rock. I countered his relaxation with extreme anxiety on his behalf that he would stretch, roll over, and disappear into the void.

And then, uncomfortably aware of how tricky the descent would be in the dusk, I teetered and tottered all the way back down again, still missing the path on the way and taking a precipitous short-cut; but was rewarded afterwards with a fabulous dinner of Scotch fillet, braised asparagus and broccolini, glorious cheesy scalloped potatoes - all cooked on the open fire - and then chocolate ripple pudding with whipped cream. Amazing!

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Is that barra really worth the risk?

So, a man's been killed by a crocodile in the Adelaide River, busy sorting out his fishing line when he was grabbed: "The attack is the third this year, after a boy was taken at a billabong at Jabiru in January, and another fisherman was snatched off his boat as he emptied a bucket in a Kakadu River two months ago."
I do keep harping on about crocs in the NT but that's only because they're there, in huge numbers, they regularly attack people, and - admit it - there's nothing more violently primitive than a human being eaten by an animal. I crossed the Adelaide River just over a week ago (the pub has a stuffed water buffalo in it that starred in 'Crocodile Dundee') coming back from Kakadu, where we got close to Jabiru and saw crocs in the South Alligator River as we took a sunset cruise. (The river was mis-named by an early surveyor, who wanted to correct the mistake but was told the maps had already been printed, so you know, sorry and all that...)
Our guide on the World Expeditions trip, Dan Rose, was rather scathing as we passed over the river about the tourist operations there that feature jumping crocodiles - the boats go out on the river, and dangle chicken carcasses on the end of a stick above the water, encouraging crocs to leap out to grab the bait. I haven't done it, but I've seen video, and it is impressive - these are big crocs, and to see them powering straight up right out of the water is to be reminded of a Saturn V rocket taking off, they're so massive, and seem to move in slow motion.

The obvious disadvantage though, as Dan explained, is that this is interfering with their natural behaviour, and encouraging them to associate people with easy food. There have been increasing numbers of reports of crocodiles muscling up to fishing boats and trying to upset them - than which I can hardly imagine anything more terrifying, can you?

Monday 18 August 2014

Droning on

Out on my constitutional today, while picking up litter on our suburb's little beach (you do that too, right? Takes a minute, and if we all do it, it makes a huge difference) one of the fish-threatening bits of plastic that I pulled out of the sand turned out to be a burst balloon. It reminded me of the night in Bangkok last month, when I was at the start of a festival put on by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, when at the climactic moment, hundreds of helium-filled balloons were released by the crowd into the night sky.

It was colourful, of course, and everyone, me included, snapped away with our cameras and phones - but I couldn't help wondering where all those balloons were going to end up, eventually, and how many fish were going to choke on them in the river or even the sea. Not that I am particularly drawn to the bigmouth catfish that are so populous in the Chao Phraya River - even though they took the bread quite gently from my fingers when we stopped to feed them on our cruise, in order to earn a little good luck - but it's a matter of principle. Admittedly, it was somewhat party-pooping, when all the organisers wanted was to whip up a buzz before the parade started.

That evening was notable too for the drone that was filming the crowd, zipping about rather excitably and ending up colliding with the awning over the stage, falling to the ground with a clatter - fortunately not on anyone's head. It (or a replacement) was up again shortly afterwards, so that was all right.
That was my first drone, but there was a second a week or so later, on my last trip, to Kakadu in the Northern Territory of Australia with World Expeditions. The official photographer was tasked with mainly recording video, and he was keen to try out his new toy. It got its first flight on the morning we did the Barrk Walk, climbing up an outlier from the main escarpment for wide, wide views over the plains towards the cliffs, all khaki-coloured gum trees, orange rocks and blue sky. Controlled by a gamer-type handset with his phone fitted into it, Anthony had the drone whizzing up and up, along, down and around, sending its pictures to the phone, and when it came back down again, was easily caught by someone else before it landed. Impressive!

But then, having walked across the top of this rocky prominence, we got to the other edge and another long view, and Anthony sent it up again. Unfortunately, he didn't notice that he was standing under a tree: the drone shot up, hit a branch, and came plummeting back down again onto the rock. It was sufficiently broken that it was out of action for the rest of the trip, sadly (because the film it took really, literally, added a new dimension to what we were seeing).

So, drones. Technologically right up there (ha) but hampered by the human element.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Kakadu magic

It was a week ago today that I woke to the last full day of our World Expeditions Kakadu Walking Adventure. The previous night had been so bright with the almost-full supermoon flooding my tent with light - it was so warm that we all removed the outer canvas of our dome tents and slept under the mesh lining - that I had to use an eyemask. Even then, I was woken by dingos howling and the shriek of curlews, which sound like someone being strangled. (They're not alone in this: to me most Australian birds sound like either attack victims or as if they're gurgling their last. They don't, as a rule, do tuneful.)
It was another hot day, and our walk through the strawy speargrass to Kurundie Falls was a sweaty business - and that was before Dan, our guide, took us off-track for a bit of "bush-bashing". We followed him through burn-outs and along a creek, scrambling over rocks and working our way up to what turned out to be a pretty decent waterhole, filled by falls from the overflowing upper pool and surrounded by smooth, shiny polished rocks 4.5 billion years old. Personally, I could have done with less age and more traction, but then rock-hopping isn't, I discovered on this trip, my forte. Nor is rock-climbing, and I couldn't make it up to the top pool, so I was glad when, after more sweaty work along tracks less travelled, we reached Motorcar Falls.
This was so worth the effort: a big, clear plunge pool beneath ancient orange cliffs down which a dainty waterfall drifted (it would be a very different scene in the Wet - the sign warns of 'turbulent water'). The temperature was perfect, and beside the bottom of the falls was a crevice in the rock that went about 15 metres into the dark. When I reached the far end and turned around, the light shining through the water from outside was the most glorious, and spectacular, green.
Though all this was just gorgeous, what made this waterhole perfect was the huge slab of flat rock beside it - perfect for our picnic lunch, and for sitting on the edge of watching a small drama between a presumptuous yabbie (freshwater lobster) and a turtle. Nobody wanted to leave.
But better was to come: perfect reflections in the plunge pool back at the campsite as the sunset turned the rock an even more vibrant orange, and then an amazing dinner of roast lamb with gravy, and roast vegetables with melted Brie, wine of course, and then chocolate, eaten sitting around the open fire it was all cooked on. And no mozzies! Magic.

Sunday 3 August 2014

Beer and betting...

... always a lively combination (if not what you'd call responsible). Here we have a gathering of interested Darwin punters bending their elbows in the Mall while bidding on horses running in tomorrow's Darwin Cup. It's a Calcutta, which means that if the horse you 'purchased' is placed, you get a proportion of the total bet. So, like a sweepstake except you get to choose your horse. Of course there was stiff competition for the favourites, and the highest price paid was all of $6,500. The return would be nearly $19,000 for a win - but still. Big money for a horse race (reckons she who never bets on anything).

You get your thrills where you can, up here, whether that's risking your savings on a 3-minute race, or dicing with the crocs when you're out to catch a barra for the barbie.

It's Sunday afternoon with a holiday tomorrow, the pubs in Mitchell Street are noisy with drinkers on the pavement, people are lying on the grass along the esplanade as bald ibises stalk around them and a welcome breeze rattles the palm leaves; and I'm just off for a wander round the Mindil Markets, hoping to find something tasty at the stalls, and especially for a good sunset from the beach. Best one I've ever seen in my life was here, years ago. Fingers crossed.

UPDATE: Pretty good. No afterglow to speak of, and I could have done without the oil rig on the horizon but, overall, not a disappointment.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Been there, done that. Sort of.

I've been around a bit since I started travelling at 23, especially over the last 10 years - but I wish I'd done it all properly. Almost right from the beginning of my travels, I've dipped in and out. My OE back in 1977 was abandoned just three countries in, in Singapore, when I realised I didn't have enough money to continue overland all the way through south-east Asia and beyond to Europe: I flew straight to London. In 1980 when I had a second go at it, it was less back-packing, more jet-setting, with only 3-4 nights in most of the countries we visited on the route back to the UK from NZ, through Australia, Asia, India, Russia, Scandinavia and northern Europe.

Despite living for nearly 17 years just across the Channel from Europe, I only got to France a handful of times, and then mostly to the same areas. On trips between England and New Zealand, I added more countries to my tally, but only on short visits. And now that I'm a travel writer, it's the pattern to swoop in, whisk past umpteen places, skimming over the top, and then return home again just a week or so later.

I envy my daughters, one of whom is making a thorough job of South America, going to far more places than I ever did (though some of them are the same, eg Iguassu, above) while the other is taking weeks to cycle the full length of France, from Cherbourg all the way down into Spain, and then across to Antibes. Their experiences are so much more thorough than mine, more real, more in touch. Good for them, but I wish I could start again. It's too late now, though, so I'll have to be content with a tasting menu rather than gorging myself.

At least I've done Australia properly - so well that sometimes I think I've used that continent up. But tomorrow I'm filling in a gap: back to the Northern Territory, one of my favourite bits, to do some tramping and camping in Kakadu. I'm really looking forward to it, crocodiles notwithstanding. No internet though. See you on the other side.


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