Our third trip to Australia, an exploration of the west and north, was exceptional, exceeding even our high expectations. Planning for the trip was initially a challenge. Barbara’s typically exquisite research showed exactly what we wanted to do, but finding a travel agent able to set it up was the toughest part. She eventually contacted the Australian Tourist Board to ask for recommendations. The first three agencies told her that what we wanted to do was impossible, but that they could set up some of it by bus tour. Yuck! The fourth agency immediately said that they could customize an itinerary for us, and the agent went on to list details that we wanted but hadn’t yet told her. The agent is a New Zealander who has traveled the Pacific Rim extensively, and continually updates her information with visits throughout the region.
We had about three days of rain during the entire month, but it didn’t rain much during any of them. We didn’t visit any zoos but we saw lots of wildlife in its natural setting. We started in Perth, which is a very pretty city with good restaurants and a gorgeous botanical garden. Western Australia, especially in the southern section, is renowned for wildflowers and Perth alone has over 450 identified species. We arrived just short of the wildflower season, but we still saw a profusion of beautiful blooms. We drove south of Perth to the Margaret River wine growing region and saw fields and fields of wild calla lilies, proteas and other flowers as well as three different types of colorful parrots, kookaburas, gorgeous caves, two dramatic capes with lighthouses and lots of lovely wineries. Barbara sampled some fine vintages and had some shipped home, and Stu drove, usually on the correct side of the road. While there we stayed at a lovely B&B on a lake in Yallingup, called Cape Lodge.
On our return to Perth we visited Fremantle, a pretty port city where they’d once held the America’s Cup Races, and bought exotic fruits for breakfast at their Sunday morning market. One day we took a boat trip down the Swan River and out to sea about 15 miles to Rottnest Island. This is a little jewel, with very little development and lots of scenic coastline reminiscent of Bermuda. You can walk, bicycle or bus around the island, and we decided to go by bike. We rode about 20 miles and the soreness in Stu’s bottom suggested that his natural padding may have shifted since he was a boy. A blue-tongued lizard, a very scary-looking but harmless skink, stood sentinel in the road, hissing at passersby and opening his huge mouth to expose his colorful tongue. We were fortunate to find quokkas also. The quokka is a rabbit-sized marsupial, native to the island. They’re adorable, but because of their long, hairless tails the early Dutch explorers who discovered the island thought they were rats (clearly, they had had too much grog), hence the island’s name, which means "rat’s nest." On the boat ride back we saw pods of dolphin in the river. This would be like seeing dolphin from the Staten Island ferry.
Our next stop was where we really saw dolphin. We flew up to Shark Bay by light aircraft to visit Monkey Mia. Barbara sat up front, as usual, volunteering for the sear before the ruggedly handsome Aussie pilot - right out of central casting wearing his Ray-bans and distressed leather jacket - could finish asking if anyone would like to ride up front. The airstrip was unpaved, there were no buildings at the airport except a supply shed but, typical of Aussie humor, they had erected a freestanding portal with a sign reading, "Welcome to Shark Bay International Airport." At Monkey Mia wild dolphin come to shore every day to mingle with humans in knee deep water and get an easy meal. You can’t believe how close they come! We saw lots, including a mother and it’s young calf. Barbara got to feed one. The whole area is breathtaking, with beautiful bays, bluffs and beaches. Even at high season there were no more than 50 people on the beach for the morning dolphin visit, after which the place all but emptied of people. On the beach we almost trod on a thorny devil, one of the most adorable little lizards imaginable. Its body was covered in spikes and horns, and it is capable of changing its color to blend in with its background.
Unlike chameleons, though, thorny devils have changing camouflage that resembles the random, multi-colors of U.S. Marine fatigues, though in earth tones of rust, sand and brown. The lizard stood as still as the sticks and leaves in which he was standing, confident that we couldn’t see him, even as we leaned in really close. We finished an exciting day with a hovercraft tour to some of the outlying islands in the bay. The next day we hiked around craggy coves and wandered among the deep piles of seashells on the aptly named Shell Beach.
After a couple of relaxing days at Shark Bay we headed north to Broome (which we could only do by flying south to Perth, and then flying north). Broome is an old pearling town, considered the gateway to the Kimberly, the northwest section of Australia that is one of the most wild frontiers in the outback. We stayed in a large, well appointed bungalow at an excellent resort called the Cable Beach Club, situated across the road from the exquisite Cable Beach. The beach is so deep that when the tide is out, you have to hike forever to reach the water and when the tide is in, only the barest crescent of sand is exposed. The food was terrific, not just here but throughout the trip. We had seafood almost every day, with a little bit of beef in cattle country and a sampling of lamb. We spoiled ourselves rotten with superb oysters, barramundi (a delicious fish with flaky white flesh) and Australian crayfish (clawless lobster) which are incredibly sweet and tender, and a bargain at the current exchange rate. On our last night, watching one of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve ever seen while enjoying a seafood buffet, we saw a troop of camels crossing the sand, silhouetted against the setting sun. It was a sight we’ll never forget. It also served to remind us that we really wanted to take a sunset camel ride and had forgotten about it until that moment. The sunsets in Western Australia are just about all showstoppers and we had the opportunity to see many of them. While in Broome, we rented a huge 4-wheel drive Mitsubishi Pajero and drove down a treacherous sand track to a very remote point called Cape Leveque. Most of the land at this cape is Aboriginal sacred land or reservation. The part we were allowed to visit was worth the long and difficult trek.
We drove from Broome to an unremarkable town called Derby that was the starting point for our exploration of the Western Kimberly. There are eerie trees throughout the Kimberly called boab trees that don’t exist anywhere else, although there is a similar tree in east Africa called the baobab. The trees look like something out of a witch’s tale, with squat bottle-shaped bodies and gnarled branches sprouting from the oddly narrowed crown of the trunk. Derby boasts a huge boab with an internal chamber that had been used as an overnight jail for Aboriginal prisoners being transported to a more substantial facility in town. Derby is also the site of the world’s second largest tide change, rising and abating 33 feet on an ordinary day. When the tide changes it resembles river rapids.
Our first stop outside Derby was at Windjana Gorge National Park. We hiked the gorge for about three hours, marveling at the scenery and wildlife. There are two types of crocodiles in Australia, the freshwater croc (or freshie) and the saltwater (saltie) or estuarine crocodile. The freshies are smaller, never larger than five or six feet, with long very narrow jaws. They are not usually aggressive unless harassed. The salties can grow to 25 feet with wide powerful snouts and are extremely cunning and dangerous. They are opportunistic feeders, which means that they will eat even after finishing a big meal. Or if the meal was huge, they’ll capture and kill their prey and then larder it under a submerged log. We saw lots of both types of crocodiles during the trip, but there were only freshies at Windjana. The trees lining one bank of the river were laden with black flying foxes, a variety of fruit bat with dog-like faces. They looked just like upside-down Draculas with their huge wings folded over their bodies like silky black capes. And just as in a TV special we once saw, there were crocs floating in the water under the overhanging branches hoping for a tasty bat snack. We also saw many interesting birds, including huge flocks of raucous sulfur-crested white cockatoos.
We rested up in a sleepy village called Fitzroy Crossing, and took a river cruise in Geike Gorge the following day. We saw plenty of freshwater crocs, pretty little birds called fairy martins, and rock wallabies. It’s very rare to spot wallabies during the day, since they usually rest in the shade, and forage at night, so this was a real treat. It was also a gorgeous gorge. In the wet season (their summer, our winter), they cannot run boat trips because the river is a raging torrent and the track (we hesitate to call it a road) to the gorge is usually washed out.
We drove back to Derby to catch a flight to Kununnurra where we began our exploration of the Eastern Kimberly. Here we were so deep into the bush that our choices were to camp or stay at a cattle station. Ranching is tough out there so some ranchers supplement their income with guided tours and/or bed and breakfast services. We went that route, and were picked up at the airport by one of the ranch hands, a middle aged Aussie woman. On the way she took us to a cold water swimming hole set deep in the red rock formations. We had to scramble down the sides to reach the water. We swam, and then continued the three-hour drive along the Gibb River Road to the ranch. During the wet season the Gibb is often flooded and impassible. In the outback people really get their money’s worth out of their 4-wheel drive vehicles. We laugh when we see all those people in U.S. urban and suburban areas with gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles who probably never put them into 4-wheel drive the whole time they own them. Certainly, the only "off-road" most of them do is onto the Little League parking field. After dark, along the way to the ranch we came across a young man at the side of the rode, warming himself by a campfire, carrying a motorcycle wheel and tire, and hitchhiking. He damaged his bike a few days earlier and hitched to town to get the wheel repaired. In all, he lost nearly a week, further proof of just how far into the bush we were.
The cattle station was no dude ranch, but 4-wheel drive and horseback trips were available. The buildings were made of corrugated tin, stones and concrete since termites quickly reduced dead wood to dust. Seeing termite mounds as tall as trees makes all this understandable. Home Valley Station, the ranch we stayed at, had its own power generator since there is no electrical utility service out that far from the Argyle hydro plant. An apparatus they called the "donkey" which heated water by means of a fire lit beneath it produced hot water. In the bathrooms, which surprisingly did have modern toilets, cute little frogs take up residence in the sinks and toilets after dusk, peeking out from drain holes, or brazenly sitting on the ceramic of the fixtures. When you flush the toilet, frogs hiding up under the rim are flushed down and scramble furiously up the slippery sides of the bowl to safety. We were so amused by this spectacle that we were tempted to waste water by flushing again just to see the frogs scramble. Even more amusing was the shriek from a European woman in the bathroom next door, who was shouting to her husband that she wasn’t going to sit down there since one of the frogs might jump on her.
During this section of our trip we also stayed at another station called Jack’s Hole, which is a pretty accurate description of the place. It made Home Valley feel luxurious by comparison. We were the only guests there and the employees were a lot of fun so we stayed up late talking and joking. When we booked this part of our trip our agent advised us that there would be a maximum of six people on the 4-day tour. In fact, it was just the two of us along with our charming guide. Sheldon was a 19-year old jackaroo (Aussie slang for a jack of all trades on a station - women with the same position are called jillaroos) from Sydney who really went out of his way to show us a great time. We drove over trails that made the Gibb look smooth, to some quite beautiful places. The whole time we were in the Eastern Kimberly, we drank water right out of streams and waterholes, it was so fresh and pure. Sheldon showed us Aboriginal rock drawings, magnificent vistas and isolated water holes.
We visited several waterfall sites where the waterfalls were dried up, which is normal for the dry season. The irony is that in the wet season when the falls are flowing, it is impossible to reach them because of flooding. You can only see them from the air. Still, the scenery is more than worth the bone jarring rides. We even saw some shy brush tail wallabies, bowerbirds and a huge water monitor lizard (a relative of the Komodo dragons). We picnicked by one falls and pool site accompanied by another ranch employee, a funny, delightful British woman working her way across the continent. We swam and relaxed for hours without ever seeing any sign of other humans - no cars, no planes, no power lines, no discarded Fosters beer cans - just unspoiled nature. Although we hiked quite a lot over rough terrain, we felt supremely relaxed and content.
The last night other tour groups joined us at Home Valley for the Friday silver service dinner, a ranch tradition where men wear ties and remove their hats. There were guests from all over the world, although most were from Australia, and we were the only Americans. On our last day Shel took us around Kununnura to a lovely geologic formation known as Hidden Valley, and to a working dairy farm where we drank thick, rich milkshakes and played a bit with a calf we christened Norman (after City Slickers). Then we took a scenic flight over Lake Argyle and the Argyle Diamond Mine to a place called the Bungle Bungles. It’s estimated that less than 30,000 non-Aboriginals have ever seen this place since the beginning of time, and the first white adventurer in the area only discovered it in the last 10 years. It’s a series of hundreds of closely spaced enormous silica rock formations and gorges covering a wide area. The formations are beehive in shape, and many have broad horizontal stripes of rock and lichen, so they were nicknamed the "beehives." The Bungle Bungles are an awe-inspiring sight, especially glowing in the soft, warm light of the late afternoon sun. It’s one of the most spectacular things we’d ever seen.
The next morning before flying to Darwin we picked up a rental car and drove to Lake Argyle for a cruise. This is a huge reservoir with nine times the water of Sydney Harbor - and Sydney Harbor is of mammoth proportions. We visited only a small percentage of the lake and saw freshwater crocs, lots of interesting birds and fish as well as three different varieties of wallabies, including a small kangaroo species called a euro. We pulled up to the shore of a small island and fed and pet euros, some of which had joeys in their pouches. Needless to say, this was a thrilling experience. In case you wondered, wallabies are smaller kangaroo-like marsupials, usually occupying rocky terrain. Their faces are somewhat pointed and rodent-like. Kangaroos are larger, are usually found on plains, and have faces resembling deer. Euros and walleroos look like small kangaroos but live in habitats associated with wallabies.
After our rustic accommodations in the bush we stayed in a luxurious hotel in Darwin, which is at the "Top End" of Australia. It’s on the Northern Coast near the middle of the continent is a state called the Northern Territory. Ayers Rock and Alice Springs (which we visited on our first trip down under) are also in N.T. We took a stroll in a pretty park overlooking the harbor, and found a rather touching memorial to the American sailors who helped protect Darwin during WWII. Later, we took a sunset harbor cruise before chopsticking the second best Thai dinner we’ve ever had (the best Thai food was at a different restaurant in Darwin later in the trip). There’s a large Asian population in Darwin so it is an interesting place with more diversity than you might expect. It also has some of the best Aboriginal art we saw. Darwin was our jumping off point to Kakadu National Park - indirectly made famous in the U.S. by the film Crocodile Dundee since several scenes were filmed there.
We flew down to Kakadu and started with a cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong (a billabong is a water hole). In the dry season the waterholes shrink dramatically so the wildlife is concentrated into a small area by the winter.
During our two-hour cruise we saw over 50 species of exotic birds as well as walleroos, a large monitor lizard, and lots of saltwater crocodiles, some quite large. The photos are sensational! The tour group was the largest we had, 11 people, but our guide was exceptional; a park ranger named Craig who scouts out Aboriginal art sites in his free time and is extremely knowledgeable. After lunch we visited Nourlangie Rock, a sacred Aboriginal site with some very beautiful and sophisticated rock art. Craig explained how it was done using natural pigments and tree gum, how to estimate the age of a painting, the iconography, the traditions and the associated myths.
Then he took us on a "bush tucker" walk where he showed us foods and medicines growing in the bush. We always considered ourselves omnivores, but until this trip we drew the line at insects. Craig got us to eat the abdomens of green ants. They impart a surprisingly sharp burst of citrus flavor for such a tiny bit. Aborigines mash up the green ants as garnish and flavoring for fish, etc. In addition Aboriginal women used green ants for birth control. People scoffed at this until analysis revealed that the abdomens contain a large dose of estrogen. We ended the day sitting by a billabong, watching birds, enjoying the scenery and talking about nature and Aboriginal culture and art. Our hotel in Kakadu was totally baroque but a real kick. It’s shaped like a gigantic crocodile - reception is in the mouth, we climbed up a leg to get to our room which was near the spleen, a courtyard in the middle contains a swimming pool shaped like the croc’s stomach, and the tail houses staff facilities. The restaurant was terrific.
The next day we took a four-wheel drive tour to Jim-Jim Falls. John, our guide, was a total delight, funny and well informed. After a grueling drive over rough track, we had to hike quite a way over rocks to reach Jim-Jim. Although the falls were dried up, the waterhole was lovely and we took a refreshing swim and had tea before beginning the hike back. We had along three young Japanese women who were camping in the park. At one spot Barbara pointed to the calm water and shouted, "Same!" (Japanese for shark). After an initial shock, they realized the joke and laughed quite a bit. After that we tried to communicate in basic English and shared more laughs. To get to Twin Falls, which were actually Twin Trickles at this time of year, you have to paddle down a gorge on air mattresses. We can’t describe how serene and beautiful this was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any pictures during this time since we had to secure our cameras in a "dry box." Once at the falls we picnicked (drinking from the waterfalls), swam and generally enjoyed the sun. In the gorge on the way back, Barbara paddled up quickly behind the Japanese women humming the Jaws music. They laughed and started shouting "Jaws, Jaws!" It’s amazing how our pop culture encroaches upon every civilization. At least it provides a common ground to begin communication. We had to drive through a stream on the way back from Twin Falls, and the Japanese women got such a thrill from it that John drove in a circle in and out of the stream several times to oblige them. There was also a nice middle-aged couple from Melbourne on the tour whom we enjoyed sharing the day with.
The next day we took a four-wheel drive tour of Arnhemland, an enormous Aboriginal reservation bordering Kakadu. Only 15 vehicles per month are permitted within the park so this was a rare treat. It’s an attractive area where we saw wild brumbies (horses as in The Man From Snowy River), a dingo (they’re generally rather elusive), lots of rock art and some sacred burial sites, including one very moving shrine where the painted bones of an important tribal woman were displayed. No photos were allowed at the sacred sites. Although our guide was Aboriginal, he was city raised and had remarkably little insight into the culture (or at least little that he was willing to share). He was the only disappointing guide on our whole trip.
We overnighted in Darwin, and then headed east to Cairns, in the state of Queensland, where we were picked up at the airport and driven north into the Daintree rainforest.
This is one of the rare places on earth where old growth rainforest meets coral reef. Usually rainforest runoff kills reefs and saltwater is not healthy for forests. Here you find lush tropical rainforest running down to spectacular white sand beaches buffered by thick mangroves. We stayed near Cape Tribulation at the Coconut Beach Rainforest Resort, a hotel tucked away in the forest, that has won prizes for ecological sensitivity. We took a rainforest orientation walk after our arrival and explored the beach. The following day was sunny and warm so we lolled around the beach in the morning and in the afternoon hiked for several hours on the beach to Cape Tribulation and back via a forest trail. That evening we took a night rainforest walk with a local naturalist. The most exciting thing we saw that night was an echidna - an adorable spiny anteater resembling a toy porcupine with a long, rubbery snout. He rolled up in a ball in fear but eventually gained the courage to waddle off into the bush.
On the following day we really lucked out. Although rainforests get rain year round, this was the dry season. However, there had been an unusual amount of rain for this time of year so the trails were very mucky. We signed up for a 4-wheel drive tour to Bloomfield, a scenic area further north on the peninsula. The trip hadn’t run for three weeks because of the road conditions and we were having some light rain that day. Our guide, Matt, and his assistant, Chris, decided to try it. Once again we got a private tour. Matt said we had about a 70% chance of getting there. We did get stuck once in deep mud, but Matt and Chris managed to get us out and we made the trip. It was fortunate because it was astounding. We walked through a lot of rainforest with Matt explaining the nutritive and/or medicinal qualities of the plants and trees, as well as pointing out some nasty poisonous or stinging varieties. We took a boat trip down the Bloomfield River where we saw salties, parrots, cockatoos, and on one island, a large colony of spectacled fruit bats. Unlike the bats we saw in Windjana Gorge, these had cute, round bat faces with huge eyes and golden ruffs of hair - the Marilyn Monroe of fruit bats. After the boat ride we feasted on all sorts of delicacies in a pretty riverside spot. Then we visited Bloomfield Falls, which were roaring even in the dry season, and we saw some more rock art. On the trip back we made several stops to see mangroves and other rainforest flora. Mangroves have a very short time to germinate their seeds since they have to take root during low tide. If you peel open a mangrove seed it contains a perfect miniature tree. The road back was bad, but Matt seemed cool. It wasn’t until Barbara pointed out a rainbow arcing across a magnificent vista down to the beach that he turned to us and said that he was amazed that Barbara was busy admiring the scenery while his heart was in his throat. Later, several people at the hotel remarked on what a risky trip it was and how crazy we were to do it. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The next morning we walked down the road to visit The Bat House, a bat research center. There we met a spectacled fruit bat, Suki, up close and personal. They’re very sociable and affectionate critters. We pet and fed her and learned quite a bit about bats - for example, she has excellent eyesight is a tender, caring mother, and loves chocolate, though the latter is an artificial behavior brought about by humans offering her unnatural, but interesting foods. The next day we had a personalized tour back down to Palm Cove (north of Cairns) learning a lot about the sugar industry in Queensland along the way.
Palm Cove is a picturesque seaside town and we stayed in a very charming hotel there called the Reef House. We wished we had more time to spend there. We listened to a rock group at a beach bar before a super dinner. The next day we joined a group for our dive trip on the Great Barrier Reef. We flew to Lizard Island where we had enough time to enjoy the beautiful beaches before boarding the dive boat, a 90ft. catamaran with very good facilities. Our room was larger and more comfortable than we expected. It’s the first time we ever tried a liveaboard because of Stu’s seasickness, but he wore a scopolamine patch and fared well despite some incredibly rough seas traveling to and from the outer reef.
Barbara confirmed her belief that she has a cast iron stomach, but there were lots of people on the boat who sacrificed their lunches to the sea gods. We got in two dives the first day, but skipped the night dive because we felt a bit chilled. It was a good move since those who went said it was murky and unexceptional. The dive sites were fair the first day. The next two days we did four dives each, which is exhausting, but the sites were worth the effort. We started before breakfast with an introduction to Cod Hole where huge potato cod congregate in hope of being fed. There were Maori wrasse, black-tip sharks, and morays at this site as well. After breakfast we went back down to feed the fish - some of those cod were enormous and quite gregarious. We won’t describe each dive site but each one seemed to get more colorful and crowded with fish. The highlight for Barbara was seeing a pair of cuttlefish. They’re large, squid-like creatures that change color as easily as a tap dancer does a time step. We also saw barracuda and giant tridacna clams with brightly colored mantles and pearly interiors. There were 26 divers and about 12 crewmembers. We met some great people and had a lot of fun. Though the food wasn’t the best we had on the trip, it was certainly good and plentiful, and the crew was very experienced, knowledgeable and safety conscious. We attended several lectures on sea inhabitants in between diving and sunning ourselves.
After we got back to shore we dropped our stuff at Palm Cove and went up into the Atherton Tablelands to a little tourist trap called Kuranda. The three best parts of this jaunt were the train ride back to Cairns on an historic train, a small flock of rainbow lorikeets - gorgeous blue, gold, red and green parakeets - in a tree exploding with red blossoms, and an art gallery which featured the work of a nature artist whose paintings we’d been admiring at both Coconut Beach and Reef House. We picked up a couple of pieces that seemed to capture some special features of our trip - one with galahs (pretty pink and gray parrots that are everywhere in Australia) and the other is of the Bungle-Bungles with a green tree frog on a tree in the foreground. The train was built for industrial purposes at a time when it was very difficult to carve roadbed in the rainforest and mountains, and the train is now run as a scenic tour offering spectacular views.
We knocked about Cairns a little bit, remarking on how much it’s grown since we were last there in 1989, before going back to Palm Cove. We had a sinfully lazy morning on the beach the next morning before regretfully packing up and heading down to Sydney. We had a large suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Sydney overlooking the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. We met our friend Linda, who we had met last summer in Moorea, and we walked about the Rocks (Sydney’s historical section) and over to the Opera House before driving to North Sydney for dinner. Linda chose a wonderful, small BYOB place called Fare-Go, where there wasn’t even the hint of a tourist. It was an extraordinary meal complemented by a very fine Australian wine from Linda’s cellar. Linda had recommended some excellent Margaret River wines to us last year and we were really pleased to get to sample them first hand on this trip. Although we absolutely hated coming to the end of the trip, getting to spend it with Linda softened the blow. Although there isn’t much time to mention them all, throughout the trip we were reminded why we like Australians so much - we met so many fun people and socialized quite a bit in our various stops along with all the solitary site seeing. We had just enough time to buy some books and wine and refamiliarize ourselves with Sydney before catching our flight back home. We took more than 20 flights during the trip, many in very small aircraft, and we had not a single problem with any of them.