We flew from Cairns to Darwin on Sunday night, and as a public service announcement I hereby make available for your edification the following sign that appeared in the restroom stalls in Cairns airport:
Glad we could clear that up for you.
Darwin is a bustling, very modern-looking seaside town of about 80,000, with another 40,000 people living in the suburbs. There is an excellent reason that it is so modern: it was razed to the ground by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve of 1974. More than 80% of the houses were destroyed, and the entire population rendered homeless and largely evacuated. Amazingly, only about 80 people were killed.
The city hosts a lot of backpackers and transient workers because it is undergoing a development boom fueled by the recent discovery of large natural gas fields. This has proven disruptive in a number of ways, one of which is economic — housing is scarce and prices sky-high — and the other demographic: the influx of workers and new residents is mostly men, giving the place a testosterone-soaked wild-West feel not unlike Alaska in the 1970’s when the oil pipeline was being built. (It is however about 130 degrees warmer here than Nome.) The male:female ratio here is something like 53:47, which is a pretty big skew. As our bus driver out it: “If you’re a woman looking for romance here, the odds are good but the goods are odd.”
Going back 175 years or so, the first Europeans to arrive here were the crew of the HMS Beagle, of Charles Darwin fame. And so of course the captain of the Beagle named the new settlement…..Palmerston. Lord Palmerston was the British Prime Minister at the time, and Mr. Darwin had actually disembarked in Sydney three years earlier. Palmerston later got demoted to a suburb and the city given its current name.
We set out for Kakadu by bus early yesterday morning. In case you have never heard of it, Kakadu is an enormous national park (~8000 square miles, i.e. slightly smaller than New Jersey) that is known for its widely varied terrain, large aboriginal territories, and — its centerpiece — a number of ancient Aborigine rock drawings at the base of a huge rock formation called Nourlangie. We were informed that the local Aborigines do not like that name and prefer that an older and to them more accurate name, or rather pair of names, be used. It is considered good form to refer to the upper part of the rock as Burrunggui and the lower part as Anbangbang. (Good luck with that.) It is in any case an enormous and impressive formation.
This is the area where the “Crocodile Dundee” movies were filmed. The was in fact a real person in the 70’s and 80’s after whom the movie character was modeled, a famous outdoorsman and bush guide named Rodney Ansell. Ansell eventually sued the movie producers and lost. He alas came to a bad end when he lost his money, ran afoul of the law, and was killed in a shootout with police.
We drove for a few hours to get to Nourlangie, mostly through a vast and occasionally monotonous flood plain, along a single straight highway across iron-red soil, the road lined by pandanus and eucalyptus trees stretching into the distance and dotted by frequent 2′ high termite mounds. The groves of trees were intermittently broken by burnt black patches the size of football fields, the result of controlled burns. And the road itself sported the occasional carcass of a wallaby that had been killed by a car or truck. They look like kangaroos, only two or three feet tall, and we saw several of them bounding cartoonishly across the road. (Their speedy bouncing locomotion notwithstanding, obviously not all of them make it.)
I should mention the trucks, since they are among the premier wallaby-killers. The cargo trucks here are like nothing you have seen elsewhere, three- or four-trailer 16-axle behemoths called “road trains”, over 160′ in length and rolling on over 90+ tires (three tires on each side of each axle, plus the cab). Some look like a chain of conventional semi trailers; others look like linked series of railroad coal cars, but carrying gravel for all the new development. Watching these monsters go flying down a straight, nearly-empty highway is quite the sight. You’ve gotta feel for the wallabies: those trucks probably have a stopping distance of about a half a mile.
We arrived at Nourlangie in an oppressive, moist heat, and I am proud to say that after walking around for a while I now finally know the answer to the question in this ancient childhood song:
There was an old lady who swallowed a fly / I don’t know why she swallowed a fly / Perhaps she’ll die
And the answer is, that she swallowed a fly because she came to this part of Australia and couldn’t help it. The damn things are absolutely everywhere, and it takes a significant amount of effort to keep them out of your face and, in particular, your mouth. Alice failed, and became the eponymous old lady of the song, except for the “old” part and, hopefully, the dying part. Some of our bus-mates had somehow obtained a local solution to the problem, which is essentially a tote bag made of mosquito netting that you wear on your head, as you see in the photo at left at I took surruptitiously. You do not want to be wearing one of these while going through airport security.
We followed a short trail to the base of Nourlangie, which as I mentioned is an enormous formation about 700′ tall. There is a lot of confusion in the tourist literature about the ages of the drawings that wind along its base: you read numbers like 20,000 years old. This is untrue. The site itself was in use that long ago, based on various archeological findings, but the drawings themselves do not last that long, the oldest being perhaps 1000 years old. They are made from four different types dye or ochre: clay for white, hematite for red, charcoal or manganese ore for black, and citronite for yellow. The hematite tends to bind with the rock surface and hence lasts for a very long time; the others fade (especially the white) so are periodically redrawn by succeeding generations of Aborigines.
Even so, a thousand years, or even 500, is pretty old for drawings that are exposed to the elements. They depict what you might expect: the hunt, creation myths, the arrival of the “white fella”. In order to preserve them, the walkway that runs past them does so at a distance ranging from about six to fifteen feet, close enough to see them in detail but well beyond arms’ length. The walkway is a wooden boardwalk on short stilts in order to keep foot traffic from kicking up dust that might land on and thus eventually coat the drawings. Here is one of the drawings, obviously depicting a kangaroo hunt:
To give you a sense of scale of the drawing, the hunter is about 2 1/2 feet high. He is carrying a spear over his head, attached to his hand with a cord “launcher” that enables the user to sort of flick the spear and get a lot of power and distance from the throw. No one is sure what he is carrying in his other hand; it may be his kit, his so-called dilly bag.
There are about ten such drawings some perhaps eight or nine feet across and showing varying amounts of detail depending on what they depict. The whole atmosphere of the place — the looming rock, the buzzing flies in the stifling heat, the termite mounds and eucalyptus trees — give it all an appropriately otherworldly sense. The Aborigine culture is quite alien to us — we visited a cultural center afterwards and basically couldn’t make any sense out of anything — and gives you a bit of sense of dislocation. That’s probably a good thing: in many respects the Australian cities are very much like their American counterparts, and something like this serves as a good reminder that this really is a foreign place.
On the way back from Nourlangie we made a pit stop at an odd little roadside snack bar/tourist trap called the Bark Hut, which featured among its rustic charms a fenced in area with some local fauna, notably a couple of emus and a buffalo.
At this point you are supposed to say “Since when does Australia have buffalo?” The answer, as it turns out, is 1820. That is when some enterprising farmer thought that they were better than cows for food and hide, and imported some and turned them loose. Now you absolutely know how this sort of thing always turns, and this was no exception: within a few years Australia was overrun with buffalo, and they became a serious pest. Now there are pests and there are pests, and I think we can all agree that we do not want our pests to weight a ton. (“Dammit, Martha, call the exterminator. The buffalo have gotten into the pantry again.”) So the authorities did the logical thing: declared open season on buffalo.
To this day there are still periodic culls of the buffalo population, a policy that the local crocodiles absolutely love. To escape being shot, the buffalo in this are will sometimes run en masse into the nearby croc-infested Yellow Waters river, which is jumping in a big way out of the proverbial frying pan into a very, very hot fire.
Our next stop was, as it happens, that selfsame Yellow Waters river, where we boarded a pontoon boat for a very enjoyable and interesting cruise for the next couple of hours. There were crocs aplenty, looking fat and happy indeed since there had been a buffalo cull in the past few weeks. Having recently eaten their fill, they were uninterested in us and would occasionally drift by the boat at not much more than arms’ length. The largest were a good 13′-14′ long, which is a whole of boots and purses, not to mention teeth.
The crocs were cool, of course, but the real highlight of the cruise was the bird life, vast flocks of water birds, song birds, and raptors of various description. The magpie geese were the most common, congregating in flocks of hundreds in the mud flats that lined the shore. Here are a couple of samples: a black-necked stork (whose neck is actually sort of teal colored) and a variety of kingfisher. The colors and sheer numbers were glorious… Well worth the sweltering we paid to see them.