Friday, May 29, 2009

On The Road - In The Bush

The next morning we started breaking camp as soon as daylight broke, and it took us about 1 ½ hour to be ready to leave – not too bad!
Soon we were back on Hwy 1 heading due south, and we made good progress down the road – there was very little traffic, so even though it is only a 2-lane road it didn't slow us down at all.
I saw a couple of the famous "Road Trains" big, no huge trucks with 4 containers trailing!
The landscape stayed pretty much the same – lots of termite towers, red as the soil, lots of gum trees and desert oaks as far as the eye could see. Now I understand why they call it the bush – I always thought it was pretty much desert, but it really is bush country with trees and bushes that have adapted to the heat and dry conditions, no cactus, so even though the landscape reminded me of Baja the vegetation is very different.
The distances are enormous; it can easily be more that 100 miles from one little roadhouse to the next – so not too many choices for lunch or pit stops! Jann and Ian had already made the track up, so they knew where to stop and where not! Consequently I didn't have any bad meals, only good, if standard, traditional Australian road grub. I can understand that after weeks of traveling it can certainly get old, but since I had just started my Australian journey it was all new and interesting to me. So I enjoyed a cold meat salad, a burger with "the lot", (see photo they pile everything on - including pineapple and red beets!) and other staples of the Australian outback over the next few days at the various roadhouses we stopped at along the way.
We spent the night in Tennant Creek, and the hotel we stayed at was surprisingly nice - a nice swimming pool and internet connection in the reception area - free! The hotel restaurant was not exciting as far as decor goes, but the menu was very innovative for the Outback, and the food and the wine was excellent!!
Ian and Jann were surprised, as they had also spent the night in Tennant Creek on the way up, but stayed in the other end of town at a different hotel (there's 2 to choose from!) and their first experience had not been something they wanted to repeat - so it was a very pleasant surprise!
It seemed like every roadhouse had tried to come up with something to set itself apart - we stopped at one in Wycliffe, you can see from the photos that they are "famous" for all the UFO's observed there over the years - it was a funny combination of Chinese decor and articles and artifacts about the UFO's.
A bit further down the road we stopped at Aileron which had a nice collection of aboriginal art - including the beautiful and impressive big black metal sculptures of an aboriginal woman with a child and the aboriginal man with his spear perched on the top of the hill behind the roadhouse. Inside I took a photo of a painting in progress - the local aboriginal painters come in to paint here whenever the mood strikes them, and the owner of the gallery supplies the materials - and sells their art for them, he told me.
Of course, we also had to pull off the road and take pictures of the statue and plaques that indicated that we had just crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and entered Central Australia!
The second night we spend in Alice Springs, where I was contemplating spending a few days after waving goodbye to Jann and Ian at Uluru Rock.
However, when Jann and I walked around to check out the various lodging possibilities for my return trip I was not convinced I would really enjoy several days there. First of all lodging was expensive, and Alice Springs is just a small town, and most importantly I was told from both Jann and Ian, as well as locals that it was not safe walking there at night - for a lone traveler with no car it would be a bit of a problem! So I decided to wait until we reached Uluru to decide what I wanted to do after Jann and Ian moved on.

Exploring Katherine Gorge By Boat!

I woke up around day break to the sound of the birds fluttering about in the early morning – so I stumbled out armed with binoculars and camera, and wandered around the camp ground following the chirping – I could hear and see a flock of Kakadus, but they were just out of camera reach!
Then I volunteered to do a coffee run, and enjoyed the walk over to the little café – and soon returned with our coffees, so we could get ready for our 9 AM departure from the boat ramp. Ordinarily it is possible to do the Gorge by kayak also, but they had spotted a few "Salties" in the river, so until they were sure none were there anymore, kayaking or swimming was out of the question!
So we boarded the river boat, and started up the first gorge, as our guide explained where we were going and pointed out sights along the way – among them the traps set for the salt water crocodiles – there are also the smaller freshwater crocodiles in the river, but they keep away if Salties are there – I guess they are also on the meal ticket of the big gluttonous Salties! Supposedly there is no danger kayaking when the freshwater crocs are around – they are not aggressive as the Salties are. I am not so sure I would feel completely confident to try out that theory!
The scenery was beautiful as we sailed along, and as we reached the bottom of the first gorge, we had to get out and walk over about ½ mile to the next gorge where a boat was waiting. Along the way there were several sites with beautiful aboriginal paintings on the vertical cliffs. We boarded the next boat, and sailed another couple of miles before we had to get out and follow the path to the third gorge where yet a boat was waiting to take us the short, but scenic ride up the narrow gorge to a path which led up over a rocky terrain to a picturesque swimming hole complete with waterfall. We had brought our swimwear to go for a swim, but Ian and Jann decided it was too chilly, so they just enjoyed the view, and Jann did test the water with her feet – and decided that was all she needed to get wet! I went for a swim – and yes it was refreshing, but when will I ever have the chance to swim in a swimming hole like this again? Afterwards it felt good to get dried off and enjoy a snack and a cold glass of mineral water.
We enjoyed the hikes and the boat rides on the way back, even though we went the same way back the light had changed and everything looks different seen from the opposite direction, and on one of the hikes I saw a beautiful snake!
When we got back to the camp we had lunch at the restaurant overlooking the river, and enjoyed the view and just being there.
We were all a bit tired from the morning's activities, so we went over to the pool area to rest and swim, and of course I was busy checking out birds, checking off the ones I had seen in my bird book, and soon I was dozing off in the shade of the warm afternoon sun. Later I went swimming to wake up, and then took a shower and washed my hair taking advantage of the nice facilities, so I would be ready for an early departure the following day, which was going to be a long day with a lot of driving to get down towards Alice Springs, which was still over 1000 KM away.
Ian grilled the lamb chops while Jann and I got salads ready, and we had an early dinner and I headed off to bed soon after!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Road Trip Begins!

Before 9 AM we had everything packed and there was just enough room for me to fit on the back seat as we set off down Australia's Hwy 1 - the Stuart Highway - heading towards our first stop Katherine Gorge some 500 km down the road.
The weather was beautiful, blue skies and sunshine, and the road was good with very little traffic. We pulled into the campgrounds at Katherine Gorge around lunchtime, and soon we were busy setting up camp in the lovely campground complete with swimming pool! I was thrilled with all the birdlife I saw right there – I had a hard time concentrating on getting the tent raised as dozens of colorful birds fluttered around in the flowering gum trees! In no time we had camp set up and it was time to explore a bit, and get our tour of the gorges arranged for the next day. I was so impressed by how well-equipped the campground was – as mentioned a beautiful swimming pool, complete with lounge chairs and the bathroom and shower facilities were very nice, much more updated and spacious that most American campsites. To my utter delight the shower and bathroom stalls were equipped with hooks – one of my pet peas – most American facilities are lacking in the hook department, which I always find extremely frustrating when you are trying to take a shower – there is no place to hang your clothes and towels to keep them dry while you shower!! Anyway, the Aussies got it down, I will say!
Of course their kitchen and barbeque facilities were top-notch as well. Not to mention the laundry facilities – washer, dryer, washing lines to hang your laundry on, if you didn't want to use the dryer – lots of wash basins if you wanted to do laundry by hand – and hot water everywhere – nice shade trees around the camp ground, and as mentioned – birds galore! After having taken care of all the practicalities it was time to check out the pool, and soon we were enjoying a refreshing swim, and lounging in the chairs until we were ready for a glass of wine at our campsite.
As we were sitting there the birds were feasting in the trees, and I constantly had to get my binoculars, camera and newly purchased Australian bird book out! As the sun was getting low a wallaby came hopping into the campground and she was not particularly shy – so I got a couple of good photos of my very first wallaby! Ian did the manly thing barbecuing the steaks while Jann and I got the trimmings ready, and soon we were enjoying a lovely camp meal under the night sky of the Outback! Ian pointed out where the Southern Cross was as the night grew dark and the stars shined brightly – we had another glass of wine, and then decided it was time to turn in, so we could be ready for the adventure of the Gorge in the morning.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Darwin And Dear Friends

After spending the day in Singapore in transit just doing emails and relaxing, I boarded my red-eye flight to Darwin – I had not been aware that I needed a visa for Australia, luckily in today's world you can get it right there over the Internet!
As I stepped out from Immigration and Customs there was Jann and Ian waiting for me!! You know you have friends when the get up to greet you at the airport at 5 AM no matter how much you protest!
We drove back to their apartment in the center of Darwin and had a cup of coffee and caught up with each other until it was time to go for breakfast in town. Afterwards Jann and I decided it was time for a shower and a nap, while Ian attended to some business.
When we got up feeling a lot more energetic, Jann and I went to lunch at a café and sat and watched the passersby and chatted until mid-afternoon. Then I went with Jann to shop for dinner at the local supermarket, and we had a lovely evening, catching up on everything that had happened since we last saw each other years ago! Actually I had not seen Ian since my last visit to Australia 10 years ago!! Time does fly, but it really didn't seem that long ago!
The next day we got our gear ready for out road-trip down to Uluru Rock which we planned on starting the next morning. It would involve some camping, so I really had to think about what to bring, as Ian and Jann already had a fully loaded car, since they had been driving up from Melbourne, and they were going to continue back down again after dropping me off in Uluru.
I was going back up to Darwin for another 2 weeks afterwards, so I could leave my stuff in the apartment, all I had to figure out what I would need for our trip.
Jann was in charge of the food supply, and I went shopping with her for the fresh supplies needed – they had this really neat solar powered camping fridge, so we could bring some fresh meat – Australians do love their meat and chops, and every camping place is sure to have excellent barbie facilities!
In the evening we went out to dinner with one of Ian's business associates, Ann, a lovely young woman, whom I had met briefly the night before. She lives in Darwin, and is my contact person when I return, in case I need something, so good to get to know her!
We ate a one of Darwin's premier restaurants – the food is a fusion between Australian, Indian and Thai – it's called Hanuman (the Monkey God in Indian mythology). The setting was lovely, and the food superb – not to mention the company – we had a great evening!

Kuala Lumpur Final Farewell

After a nice relaxing day in Kuching, just writing and enjoying a quiet cup of latte at my favorite café while it rained, I was ready to head back to Kuala Lumpur for a last visit with Marianne, John and Annabelle – I was looking forward to seeing them again and catch up with them, and also tell about my wonderful adventures on Borneo with the Humana kids, Orangutans and dolphins!
When I landed John's driver picked me up again, and as we pulled up to the front door Marianne was waiting with a glass of chilled white wine! How wonderful to be back again – I was just in time to keep Annabelle company and play with her dinosaurs, while Marianne took a shower after just having come back from a jog. Lynn, the nanny was on vacation, and the substitute had cancelled, on top of that there was a very contagious decease outbreak at Annabelle's school, so the school was closed! It's called Murphy's Law I believe! So Marianne had been busy keeping Annabelle entertained, trying to squeeze in a bit of time to get work done, not an easy task, as all parents of 3-year-olds know!
That evening Marianne had planned a ride for Annabelle on Pony Princess, then soccer and picnic on the big lawn at the Equestrian club in the hopes of tiring Annabelle out so she would be able to go to sleep at a reasonable hour. I went along and we had a nice time at the center, it's a pleasant time of day, as the sun sets and the air cools down just a bit!
When John came home we had a chance to catch up also, and I could tell him about my experiences on Borneo – he has spent a lot of time there himself, working with the plantations, so we had a good time talking while Marianne got Annabelle to sleep, so she could join us and we all had a lovely dinner reminiscing together.
The next morning it was time for Annabelle's swimming lesson, and I was so impressed to see how far she had come since last I saw her.
She now dove and picked up things from the bottom of the shallow end of the pool, and she swam by herself a few feet – she really was doing so well! Of course, she is a kid with spunk, so she sprayed her coach Sunny with her enormous water-gun when they were finished!
That evening we had dinner out on the lovely patio as usual, and John opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate our last evening together. It had been such a great time with them, and it was sad to think it was coming to an end, but hopefully we will see each other again soon, either in Kuala Lumpur or California!
The next morning I waved goodbye to them, and set off to catch a flight to Darwin via Singapore.
It is hard to believe that it is now 2 months since I left the States, and I only have 1 month left, which I will spend "Down Under"!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Irrawaddy Dolphins On The Santubong River

I had my heart set on paddling with the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins while in Kuching – unfortunately the kayak company didn't run any tours, so I had to hire a boat instead, because that was the one thing I really wanted to do while in Kuching!
So at 8:30 am I am picked up by my guide and we drive about 45 minutes to get to a small fishing village on the Santubong River where the boat driver and his brother are waiting for us.
We set out, and glide down the river with jungle on both sides – on the way out to the main river we stop by to chat with a local fisherman who is setting out traps in the muddy banks of the river to catch crabs, I think. As we enter the Santubong River we see a stork billed kingfisher – and a bit later I just see the splash of a small crocodile as it disappears into the murky water.
A bit later we see another small crocodile slowly glide from the bank into the river! Maybe I am better off in a motorboat instead of a kayak after all? After all where there are small crocodiles there are probably big ones too!
I enjoyed the scenery and the nice breeze as we meandered along the river, out to the delta area where we started in earnest to be on the lookout for the shy dolphins. We saw a fisherman taking up his nets and sailed over to ask him if he had seen any in the area, but it didn't seem like there had been any around while he was there, so we continued our search.
A little while later the boat driver suddenly spotted one, then another, and as it surfaced again I saw first one, then the other one surfaced, and I was just so thrilled!
We followed them for quite a while, and I got several good shots of them – they are quiet and shy, not at all like the rambunctious dolphins I am used to from the West coast, so there was no jumping out of the water or playing in our wake, just a gentle stealthy surface to breathe, then they silently disappeared only to resurface about 3-4 minutes later.
After a while they disappeared, and we started going back up the river when all of a sudden we spotted another dolphin, and we followed it quite ways up the river – actually much further up the river than neither of the boatmen or the guide had ever seen.
I was wondering if it would be in any danger from the crocodiles – but from what I was told it is a much too fast swimmer for that.
However, as we were passing a small fishing village they did tell me that one of the fishermen there had been attacked recently – survived – but lost an ear and a good chunk of his one side! Yes, indeed, maybe it was much better to be in a motorboat than a sit-on-top kayak! As we pulled up at the little jetty again, I was so thankful that we had had such a good day, and that I had seen the Irrawaddy Dolphins!
The drive back to town took about 45 minutes, and I was hungry, but so tired that I decided a nap was more urgent! However, the Internet was back on, and instead I ended up checking emails, and never really got to nap!
It was too late for lunch and mighty early for dinner, so I decided to invent a new mealtime – I call it lunner! Which I had at a nice café on the river, where I sat watching the people go by on the path below, and as it got later they started going across the river in the little sampans – probably going home to their villages after a day of working or shopping in the city.
As the sun was setting I walked home to Singahsana and this time there was no denying the need for sleep – so I went early to bed and soon dozed off.