Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What coup?


Our departure from Australia was bittersweet. We were excited to be going to Fiji, glad to be coming home, but sad to be leaving (especially me). A couple weeks before leaving Adelaide, a military coup occurred in Fiji. We were unsure if we should cancel our trip, or see if we could be re-routed through another country. In the end, after checking our government's travel warnings webpage, talking with a co-worker who just had friends return from Fiji, and the lack of Fiji in the news, we decided we would go for it. We were a bit nervous when we arrived, but honestly, you would have no idea that any thing was even going on there. A military checkpoint on the way out of the airport where we weren't stopped was one of the two things we noticed (the other was a similar checkpoint at the marina). The next day we began our seven day tour through the Yasawa Islands, said to be the most picturesque of the 333 islands in Fiji. We boarded the Yasawa Flyer (a catamaran), and headed north off the main island. It took us just over five hours to arrive at our destination, Nanuya Lailai Island, home of the famous Blue Lagoon (from the movie fame starring Brooke Shields). Upon arrival we were given lunch then were shown to our accommodations, a beautiful straw bure (pronounced boo ray) right next to the ocean (that is it pictured)! Kyle and I shared this little hut with sand floors, a mosquito net for the bed, and a small window cut out of the straw looking out on the ocean - it was absolutely gorgeous with its view and its simplicity. We had a short hike over the island to put us in the middle of lagoon, so that is what we did the first afternoon. The water temperatures were in the mid 80s, the water was a beautiful turquoise color and the color and fish were spectacular. We saw sting rays, many sea cucumbers and even a lion fish (think Deuce Bigelow)! We spent two nights here then moved to our next island, Mantaray, where we also stayed in a beautiful bure, and this one was on stilts. We adopted a cat on this island, who slept under our bed at night, and was a soft as could be! We snorkeled more, and took the kayaks out around the island. This resort was one of our favorites because it was really nice, built eco-friendly, and had the best snorkeling out of all the places we snorkeled. From Mantaray we headed to Kuata for two nights, then onto Bounty Island for the last night. Kuata was a very traditional Fijian resort where you almost felt like you were living with the locals. We became friends with a beautiful Fijian child, and helped pick off the bubble gum like substance that became wrapped around my foot after I accidentally stepped on two sea cucumbers within minutes of each other. On Kuata we visited a Fijian village where we bought some handmade wooden artifacts, also there we went on a guided summit walk for sunrise. Bounty Island was probably the most resort like of all the islands we visited, and also where Celebrity Love Island (a British show) had been filmed for the last four years. It had a pool, and our bure had air conditioning, and hot showers (most showers in Fiji just use local water, and since it is so warm, they don't bother heating the water).
On the last day of our package we went on a sailing trip to the island where Tom Hanks filmed Castaway. We sailed on the Seaspray, the boat they used to film the "Adventures on the Seaspray" which we never heard of until then. For seven days straight we snorkeled, swam, got incredibly tan(a bit burned), kayaked, and remained wet for most of the day. We relaxed and learned that it in itself is tiring.

The Fijians take great pride in their hospitality, and everywhere you go they greet you with Bula! They are very welcoming and accommodating. They taught us some of their language, how to weave bracelets, how to drink kava (made from a root of a pepper and the official Fijian drink which numbs your tongue when you sip it ), and just how to slow down! Everything there was no problems, take your time, we are on Fiji time (which probably translates into if we say we will pick you up at 9 am Fiji time, it will more likely be around 9:45am). We learned some tips on fitting in with their culture, such as you do not wear anything on your head as it is a sign of disrespect to the chief of the village, shoulders and knees must be covered, and you don't touch their heads, as that is a huge insult. They also shed some insight into the coup (this being the fourth in 20 years). As we learned, many Fijians welcomed the coup because the current Prime Minister was "bankrupting" Fiji and perhaps a bit corrupt. The goal then of the military taking over (although they all acknowledged that the tactics weren't correct) is for the military to prove that this was the case. Consequences did occur including suspension from the Commonwealth, as well as various sanctions imposed by several countries, however it seems that this has been accepted by the Fijians because it needed to be done. Other interesting information about Fiji is that the country is comprised of about 51% of Fijians, the next largest portion is Indians at 42%, and the reminder Asian and European descendents. Therefore Fiji is know for its great curry dishes (including the delicacy of goat).

Fiji was a grand time and absolutely spectacular! I guess we tend to use Hawaii as a comparison because of the island factor, and we both thought Fiji definitely beat Hawaii in any sense and by a lot. Fiji, at least where we went, was less commercialized, more authentic, and very hospitable. Despite it being a ten hour flight from LA, we would return to Fiji before we returned to Hawaii.

It was a great way to end our trip to the southern hemisphere. Our trip home seemed to go by quite fast. In the process we celebrated two Christmas Eve days (because we crossed the international date line), and made it home to Denver and to the beautiful snow by 9:30 PM on Christmas Eve.


P.S. I will post a picture or two when we find the cord to connect our digital camera to the computer.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Fred


Wasn't it just yesterday that I began writing this blog? It sure feels like it! We have just over four days left in Australia, and of course Saturday will come before we know it! Since my last post we have been trying to spend as much time with our friends and complete all those last minute things. My Christmas lunch here for my co-workers went well, and it was a great time. It also prompted me to get a lot of cleaning done, so at least I don't have all that to do on these last days. This past weekend we climbed Mt. Lofty located in the Adelaide Hills. Suprisingly it was a bit of a challenge and reminded of us of all the great hikes in Colorado that we are returning to.
Probably the most 'exciting' news to write is about my new friend - Fred. Last week when I was cleaning the back verandah area I noticed this huge black thing, looking similar to a scorpion. On closer inspection I realized it was not a scorpion but perhaps one of the largest black spiders I have ever seen, and very nasty looking. In fact, so nasty looking I got goosebumps! So what do I decide to do? Catch it for Kyle of course! I put on my cleaning gloves (because that is logical), got a glass to catch him in, and then about a minute later my senses came to me... Perhaps before trying to catch him, you should see if he could possibly kill you so to the computer I went. I knew the exact webpage to go to since I had visited it many other times, including the third day after we arrived in Australia (to identify one large spider sitting on our post box). Anyway, on this webpage they have spiders in Australia listed from most dangerous to harmless, and right towards the top is a very similar looking spider to the one sitting out back and that is when I realized that I wouldn't be trying to catch him for my dear husband. It was hard to identify which spider it was - a funnel web spider (the deadliest in Australia and I think also the world) or if it was a Black House Spider that delivers a very painful bite in which you should seek immediate medical attention, however probably won't kill you. I guess you could see it was the good vs bad news spider version. What to do next? I tried calling Kyle at school to tell him to run home (1.5 minute walk or a 45 second run for him) but of course they couldn't find him anywhere. So, no Kyle, just me and Fred, and that is when I remember about my camera! I went and grabbed it, and tried to get as close as I could because let's face it - if I didn't have proof, it meant nothing. I even tried taking a video of it, but Fred just sat there, (and Kyle thought the video wasn't very exciting and deleted it). Anyways, Kyle finally called me back, but by then Fred had disappeared into the abyss of the cinderblock wall. Well, my life has since become consumed by Fred as he is such a demanding friend. You may wonder how his name came about and it's simple: Fred the spider I would like to see dead. Heartless definitely, but the idea of having him out back isn't exactly comforting.
By the next day I had done several hours of research on these spiders, trying to pinpoint what make and model Fred was for sure. I learned heaps about spiders including their habitats, mating patterns, etc. I was determined to see him again, but more importantly while Kyle was home. Two nights later, I took the flashlight out back, and there was Fred sitting on the wall. I yelled for Kyle, but apparently Fred became scared and ran back into the wall. Awhile later I went out again, and Fred was even farther out on the wall and this time I whispered for Kyle. Finally, Kyle got to meet Fred! We grabbed the camera and Kyle got some incredibly close up pictures of Fred - it was with these we were able to confirm that Fred is indeed a Black House Spider. Anyways, so ends the story with Fred, I didn't see him last night, maybe because I sprayed some water in the crack trying to encourage him to find a new home (one that doesn't include in my house or anywhere near it). At this point I flip out when I feel something touching me because I am convinced it is Fred. Nothing like a return to the US to get over this!
We say goodbye to Fred, and our life here in Australia on the 16th, go to Fiji until the 24th, and then return to the US and then to Colorado by about 7PM(MST) *hopefully* on Christmas Eve. With that in mind, so ends blogging here in Australia. I'll sign off on the same note I signed off when leaving the US a year ago - Godspeed (but now I actually know what it means!).

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Round-up of the last few weeks

The last couple of months since our trip to Queensland have flown. I chaperoned a field trip with Kyle’s class to the SA Museum and the Botanic Gardens, where one of the children I was in charge of decided to run face first into a tree providing an interesting afternoon. We attended a performance of Australian schools called Wakakirri which ‘encourages young Australians to be open minded, confident and active through creating and sharing stories’. We also took a couple of tours around Adelaide to city icons as well as attended the Adelaide Christmas Pageant (an annual parade). We taught our Australian co-workers and Kyle’s students about Halloween by making ghost popcorn balls and orange spiders which proved to be a hit! I also attended the horse races in Adelaide in honor of Melbourne Cup – one of Australian’s most famous sporting events. We also took a long weekend trip to the Yorke Peninsula, a couple of hours west of Adelaide. Then we prepared for Kyle’s parents, Owen and Norma, arrival on the November 18th. Our first day with them was a visit to the markets, then a quiz night. These nights are designed as fundraisers for organizations where you compile a table of ten people and spend the night answering questions. Kyle and I attended one back when we first got here and had a blast, however this one was arranged a bit differently and therefore not as fun. I hope to bring this concept back to USA and use it in some capacity in the future. We also traveled down to the beach, where we met up some other fellow exchanges and rode the waterslides and got each other wet on the bumper boats. Fun was had by all. We also visited the Adelaide Zoo where we saw some crazy baboons.
Next on the agenda was preparing a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for our Australian mates who never had experienced this holiday. Some had never seen such a large turkey (which I had to special order from the butcher). We probably had the hottest Thanksgiving ever with temperatures maybe around the high 80s. The next day after dinner we traveled to Clare Valley and Barossa Valley to wine taste. We stayed in a fabulous place called the Rising Sun, and had some great meals, as well as some wonderful wines. Owen and Norma then left mid week for their long journey back to the US. That takes us up to last night activities – an awards show for the organization I work at here in Adelaide. My team was nominated for an excellence award for our work on obesity in the under fives so I got a free ticket, and Kyle came along. We didn’t win, but the band was so much fun – called Planet Square. They were dressed as geeks, and played some great music.
We have a little over two weeks left here in Australia and I am sure it will fly. This weekend will be busy with the exchange league hosting a farewell picnic. I will finish up work early next week, and am hosting the staff Christmas lunch on the 7th. It shouldn’t be too much work because it is going to be fully catered.
I have started packing, cleaning and organizing for our departure on the 16th. Currently we have plans to go to Fiji, however the military there has threatened a coup to overthrow the government (with a midnight deadline this evening), so we are unsure what that means for traveling (although the US government website has no travel advisories listed for there). Kyle finishes school on the 15th, and is completely flat out at the moment with report cards, and all that other end of the year stuff.
The most famous cricket rivalry is currently happening in Adelaide called the Ashes Tournament. This has Australia playing England and provides subsequent bragging rights to the winner. The history of the Ashes is quite interesting incase anyone wants to look it up.
We are looking forward to our return, however it definitely is bittersweet. It is hard to believe its December already! I’m not sure when the next post will be but hopefully everyone is enjoying the holiday season. Peace on Earth!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Let's go Tropo!


We were back from our last trip a week, then headed out on our last major 'holiday' in Australia that took us to tropical Queensland for fifteen days. All I can say about Queensland is that it is like Hawaii, only 100 times better(and probably my leading recommendation for a honeymoon for anyone who is interested). Queensland is the northeast section of Australia, filled with tropical rainforests, and since it is located above the Tropic of Capricorn, considered to be in the tropics. Just flying into Cairns took us back to our honeymoon in Hawaii - the small airport, rainforests, green and warmth. We spent the first four days in Cairns, where we visited Daintree World Heritage area (did many great hikes), Karanda, a cute town north of Cairns, and of course took a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef for some snorkeling. The trip out to the reef took about 1.5 hours on a very fast boat (when Kyle was here last time his boat took three hours!). The weather was spectacular, and the ocean fairly calm (That picture is Kyle getting ready!). We snorkeled in two different locations, saw tons of fish, sting rays and a reef shark! We also visited a tropical fruit farm, and licked (yes licked) some green ants because of the high vitamin C. Seriously, Kyle was in shock when after our guide told us about these ants, I walked up to the tree, grabbed an ant by his head, and licked his back end. He said, "Melis, wait, I need to get a picture because I can't believe you are doing this!" I replied, "If I wait I might change my mind!" Of course Kyle had to do it because he said he would never hear the end of it if he didn't (You know the bantering he would receive - I licked an ant and you didn't!) The funny thing is Kyle's ant bit him on the hand! Anyways, we had our vitamin C dosage for the day and now can say we have licked ants. (By the way, the taste was just a real concentrated version of a lemon or something acidic like that).
Queensland is also home to the Ulysses Blue Butterfly - considered one of the most beautiful butterflies in the world. I have wanted to see one of these since I was in 5th grade when I learned about them. I was quite happy to fulfill this small dream.
After leaving Cairns we headed south towards Brisbane (our final destination). We visited a couple of islands including Dunk Island and Magnetic Island before arriving in Airle Beach (a popular Aussie destination). It was here we boarded a sail boat for a three day sail around the Whitsunday Islands. This is by far one of the best things we have ever done. It was the most amazing time. We snorkeled off the boat (jumping off the yacht into 90 feet of ocean was a bit daunting), fished, and hiked on some of the islands. Our boat had nine people total on it, and everyone was really nice including the two crew members. Sleeping on the boat took a bit of adjustment and the second day I had some sea sickness (probably the worst I ever have had) but took some ginger tablets and then was fine. Ginger has a very soothing quality about it, doesn't cause drowsiness and natural - a perfect cure! We also visited what they say is the most photographed beach in Australia, Whitehaven. It had beautiful white sand that felt like baby powder. The inlet was filled with sting rays, and very blue tranquil water. We didn't swim here because I forgot to mention that it was 'stinger' (jellyfish) season. Anytime we snorkeled we needed to wear our stinger suits. The best explanation of these is to picture yourself wearing a full body set of pantyhouse in black - not the most attractive thing!
After leaving the yacht, we continued our journey south, stopping in Noosa and a couple of other coastal towns. We finally arrived in Brisbane, toured the city for a day, then the next morning, got up and flew home to Adelaide.
We had a fabulous time on this trip, and would love to return to Queensland. I was a bit depressed coming because this was our last big trip in Australia but then Kyle told me to get over it because in nine weeks we would be in Fiji, and he's right!

A whirlwind trip to Canberra and Melbourne


On our way out of Sydney we stopped briefly at the Olympic Park then headed into the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours west of Sydney. There we visited the Three Sisters (pictured), a famous Australian icon. We also visited several waterfalls in the area then headed for Canberra, about a 3.5 hour drive. Arriving in Canberra (said Canbra) midday, the capital of Australia (our Washington, D.C.), we visited the War Memorial Museum, the Parliament House for a tour, and the Art Museum. The War Memorial Museum is quite an amazing place, and considered a must-see in Australia. It was filled with many displays and facts about wars that the country participated in. Overall Canberra is a bit on the boring side, as far as a city goes, but filled with some fascinating museums and history. This is the part of the trip that we said bye to Kyle as he was returning to Adelaide and work!
The next day began the 'girls' portion of the trip to Melbourne via Alpine National Park which houses Australia's highest peak, Mt. Kosciuszko (7314 feet). This is also the region where the story about the "Man from Snowy River" was written, and later made into a movie. It was a long drive to Melbourne and we didn't arrive there until 9:30 at night. The next day we headed into Melbourne to Federation Square. We visited the Art Museum, then another museum that was displaying a Picasso exhibit. Also happening in Melbourne that day was the funeral for Australia's most famous rally race car driver, Peter Brock. After a fun evening, we headed to bed, got up early and started our drive home via the Great Ocean Road. (This would be my second time there and the location of the half marathon I ran back in May.) This turned into an incredibly long day of driving, something like 17 hours in the car. Needless to say, I couldn't wait to get home and sleep in my own bed.
The last few days of Sondra's visit included trips to some neighboring Adelaide towns. Then, a hour before returning the rental car, I hit a curb (kerb as they spell it here) and did $1200(AUD) of damage. Not the best note to end on...

Monday, November 06, 2006

A visit to the New York of the Southern Hemisphere?


Although we spent one night in Sydney when we first arrived, we didn't see much outside of the airport, so I was excited to get there. Our trip began on a funny note when Kyle and I both accidently tried to go through security with knives. It was quite comical because Kyle went through first (he forgot his camping knife was in his first aid kit), and was instructed that if he wished to keep the knife, he needed to check it. Our friend Lou was the only one available with luggage allowance and a bag to check, so she was in the process of going back through to check the bag with the knife, when I went through. I also forgot that I was carrying a knife (one fine hot pink Swiss army knife given to me as a present from my friend Beth before leaving the country last year). It is at this point I yelled to Lou, across security, wait Lou, I have a knife too! Just imagine two Americans yelling we have knifes in an airport...
When we got to Sydney we took the worst cab ride ever to our accomdation. (I actually was giving him directions off a map in a city I had never been to - that's how bad it was)! When we finally settled in we began to prepare for our next day's adventure - climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Lou decided not to do because she can't handle hanging with us Americans :), so she was off on her own as we headed up the bridge. They climbing company dresses you up in these space looking suits, with a headset and hat, and makes everything very clear as to the rules you need to follow which was a bit intimdating. We weren't cameras, so we don't really have any pictures to post. As we started our climb, a bit on the nervous side (well, Kyle wasn't) we realized that this was going to be easy. The whole process took about four hours, and we were glad to be done because they take it really slow, and there are a bunch of people up there too. We were happy to have done it, but probably wouldn't do it again because the thrill factor is low and the price is high. Once we finished we went to a pub located right beside the bridge to wait for Lou to return from her days journey. It was there that Sondra and I had these fabulous drinks called Chocolate Trains. They say climbing the bridge you burn 600 calories, and I am sure we replaced those quickly with one of these drinks. It was like drinking ice cream! Our next destination was a place called the Australian Hotel, a place our climbing guide recommended with very awesome gourmet pizza. This was also the place we changed clothing in the bathroom for our next adventure (we were running out of time). We were off to see Pirates of Penzance at the Sydney Opera House and probably the thing I was most excited about doing. The Harbour looked pretty with the lights on the bridge and on the opera house, and the show was very funny. It also starred some guy who apparently is Australia most famous opera performer (can't remember his name at the moment).
The next day we headed back into the city for a visit to Bondi beach, the world famous Iceberg's Resturaunt, and Darling Harbour. We also met up with one of Lou's friends for a bit, rode the ferry and then headed back to our accomdation to prepare for our dinner reservations at this place called Sea Level. It was at this time, enroute to the resturant that we had the best cab ride ever (after waiting 1.5 hours for a cab to pick us up). This cab driver blasted music and was very very funny! It reminded me off someone you would meet in Jamaica (not that I have ever been there!). After dinner we went to a club for a couple of drinks where we met some new Aussies, and then Sondra lost her diamond earring getting into the cab, and that pretty much ended our evening out. When we got back to our accomdation Sondra, Lou and I decided it would be fun to stay up which we ended up doing, which in hindsight is where the trip began to deteriorate, sort of.
So... overall impressions of Sydney are quite average. I expected to be wowed by it, and I really wasn't. I can't remember if it was Sondra or Lou that noticed all the garbage laying around in the Harbour areas, and you know how it is once someone says something like that, you notice it everywhere. The public transportation does need some improvement, as numerous times our trains were late, or changed, or cancelled without any warning. Our visit to Darling Harbour was also a bit of a let down, and as it was explained to us later by a person who lived in Sydney for five years, Darling Harbour back in the 1980s was a complete dump, then they city decided to do some revitalization in the area. With this, the area became more popular and is close to many Sydneysiders hearts not because it is the most fabulous place, but because it is such an improvement which makes sense.
By no means would I rule out living there if we did another exchange because it does have that big city feel and we still have so much more to see, but it hasn't replaced my other favorite cities. I think Sondra had a nice time, but I don't think she absolutely loved Sydney either. Kyle had a pretty positive perspective of Sydney, he's been there before, but I think his sentiments about Sydney from his first visit actually were pretty accurate. Things such as it having the Bridge and the Opera House and the ferry system are neat, but lacking 'something' in other ways... I think another visit to Sydney would be fun, and would give us a chance to get to know it better, but at this point, I am not exactly dying to go back.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bring in September...

The beginning of September began with a weekend trip to see the Southern Right Whales (so named because when killed, they float, therefore they are the 'right' whales to hunt) down in Victor Harbor. It was pretty amazing because they were so close to the shore. We also got to a skink (a lizard type animal) and some beautiful waterfalls with lilies growing wild next to them. We also visited a tiny German town about 45 minutes away called Handorf and much to my delight we got to do a bunch of shopping!
On September 10th, my friend from grad school, Sondra, arrived from California for her two week trip in Australia. She was our second visitor to the land down under - our adoptive country that we have been calling home. I couldn't wait for her to get here and was so excited to pick her up from the airport. When we met her she had all the signs of an overseas traveler who had just spent 16 hours flying. NO, she didn't look particularly tired, but her fingers were covered in ink, a hazard of flying! I found this extra humerous because when we were enroute here I had two pens explode on me - something with the pressurized cabin/elevation. We brought her back to our place, asked her if she wanted to take a shower then a nap or would she like a glass of wine, and being the girl that we love, chose the latter. The next few days were spent reconnecting and looking forward to our next adventure east - Sydney.

The Day of the Grange


I don't have any excuse for not keeping up on my blogging. It was hard to get back into the swing of things after returning from our outback trip. The next couple of weeks were fairly low key but definitely filled with some memorable moments. We spent some great times with our new friends here. We were treated to a great place called Windy Point Restaurant which overlooks Adelaide and had amazing food. Then on August 19th we participated in my first ever soccer tournament. The gym that we joined here has soccer every Wednesday morning at 6am that we had been going to. As part of the gym franchise, they host this annual soccer tournament. Our team came in third place, which wasn't that bad since a couple of us were new to soccer.
The highlight of the month came on August 20th - the day of the Grange. I don't expect non-wine lovers to ever begin to understand this day, but it was truly amazing. My boss, Mel(She is the blonde in the picture, with our friend Lou on the other side.), invited us to dinner at here place in Sterling, a beautiful town in the Adelaide hills. It was at this dinner that they (Mel, her husband, Denny and son Thom) brought out a bottle of Grange. I realize that this doesn't mean much to those not interested in wine, but this is the wine that people wait their whole lives to drink, and most don't get the chance. The bottle that was opened was vintage 1988, and was just past its prime. Therefore, if it didn't get drank now, it would start its slow decline into mediocrity. Grange is one of the world's most expensive wines. The bottle they opened retailed at almost $400! Kyle and I insisted on not sharing with us, I mean after all who were we? They persisted, and poured each of us a glass. There were six of us imbibing this wine, so that meant each glass was almost &70 a piece! Can you imagine? Needless to say, I was shaking as I picked up the glass, afraid of spilling. The wine was so amazing, it was so full, and by far the best glass I ever had, despite the fact that it had passed its optimal use by date. By the nights end my boss figured out that we drank over $1000 worth of wine...Frivolous is an understatement. Remember it forever - of course!
On August 21st we were invited to a cocktail party at the Government House with the Governor, Marjorie Jackson (the woman Kyle and previous met on our other post). Everyone at my job was jealous of the invitation - I guess it was that special. The last weekend in August took us to the one of Australia's major wine regions - the Barossa, where Kyle and I visited close to ten wineries and come home with a trunk load of fantastic wine. We also went to two nice places to eat while we there, and I thought I broke my hand when I feel down some stairs in the middle of the night (and no it wasn't because of wine, it was because I was in a strange place, and all Kyle had to say about the event when I woke him up in tears was "Melis, I think you are going to lose that finger nail". Regardless, it was nice to have that little getaway to end August.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The World According to Kyle

Apparently I have gotten lazy with blogging, so I thought I would take Kyle's post and put it on this blog for your enjoyment...

The next leg of our trip began at the Apollo rental car office and spent the next hour waiting for the slowest employee in the world to go through a camper rental with the family in front of us. Once we finally got our car, we started heading north. There isn’t much to see once you leave Alice, so small things like the marker when you pass the Tropic of Capricorn become things to stop at! I was enjoying it because there is no speed limit in the outback areas of the Northern Territory, the roads are dead flat and smooth-surfaced with no vegetation for 100 feet on either side of the road, and there are very few other cars on the road. All of this meant we felt perfectly safe cruising along at 150 km/h (93 mph!) for hours on end, which got us north fast! We passed Tennant Creek and camped at Banka Banka Station. It was a little unnerving trying to cook dinner with an emu roaming through your campsite - they are HUGE birds! This far from cities and their subsequent light pollution, we were treated to an AMAZING view of the night sky. The Milky Way has never looked so bright! There was no threat of rain that night, so we even got to sleep with the tarp off the tent so we could stare at the stars while we drifted off to sleep.

In the morning we packed up and headed to Daly Waters for breakfast. This is a tiny town centered around the local pub - it is full of trinkets and such brought by travellers from around the world. Everywhere you looked there was something funny or interesting to check out. Just out of town there was a “tree” that supposedly had some explorer’s initials carved into it from long ago that we stopped to check out. I say “tree” because it was really nothing more than a 10 foot high stump. We couldn’t find the initials anywhere, and we felt like the victims of some outback practical joke! Back on the road again, we stopped at the Devil’s Marbles, some sandstone rocks that have eroded into giant spheres.

As we neared the town of Katherine, we finally noticed the weather getting warmer. We stopped in to the Mataranka Hot Pools to take a dip in some naturally heated spring water. It was great! We went on to Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park, also known as Katherine Gorge. We booked a boat tour for the following morning to check out the gorge and camped for the night. The boat tour was a neat way to explore the gorge and hear some of the Aboriginal history of the area. There are many sections of the gorge separated by rocky areas of the river which meant that we had to boat up one section, get out, hike upstream to the next boat, and venture as far as we could before having to repeat the process. We got a good look at the first three gorges in this manner, then headed back downstream, repeating what we had done to get upstream. In the visitor center, we checked out pictures of the severe flooding from the previous wet season. The northern part of Australia is in a monsoonal weather pattern, meaning that there are only two main seasons - the wet and the dry. The wet season (December - April) brings huge rainstorms, high humidity, and most of the year’s 65 inches (!) of rainfall. The dry season (May - November) brings dry, sunny days with temperatures in the 80s and cool nights.

Katherine Gorge is where we saw our first crocodile and learned the difference between freshwater and saltwater, or estuarine, crocodiles. “Freshies” are smaller and only live in freshwater areas, and normally don’t attack humans unless they are really provoked. “Salties” are much larger and a lot more dangerous. They can live in fresh or salt water, and will make a meal of a human if one happens into their habitat. Because of the seasonal flooding that occurs in this area, many areas are unsafe during the wet season because these animals can travel undetected into areas inaccessible to them during the dry. However, in places frequented by people, there are signs everywhere warning you about this risk. We played it safe and didn’t go swimming anywhere unless we knew it was nearly impossible for a saltie to have gotten in, and there were many other people in the water before us!

The first place we took a dip was at Edith Falls. We felt a bit nervous about swimming here because of all of the warning signs but we knew that it had been months since any croc would have been able to swim into the area and there were lots of other people swimming (and not being eaten). We then drove into Kakadu National Park and cut off the main road toward Gunlom Falls. It was 25 miles on a dusty dirt road but well worth it. We had a great campsite, hot showers, and even a slideshow at night! One of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the area came with her children to talk about bush tucker - wild foods that were (and still are) traditionally hunted and gathered by Aboriginal people who live in the area. It is absolutely amazing how much these people know about their land and how they had managed it so sustainably prior to European settlement. Some of the food looked really good, but some of it (witchetty grubs and file snakes in particular) looked a bit like an episode of Fear Factor! In the morning we hiked up to the top of the falls and enjoyed the early morning views before heading back to the main road and deeper into the park. We ran into several other teachers from Adelaide in the Kakadu visitor center, and they advised us not to miss the Yellow Water Billabong boat tour. We booked one for that afternoon and squeezed in a quick run up Mirrai Lookout where we could see smoke from bush fires set by local Aboriginals. They intentionally burn patches of land shortly after the wet season (before things get too dry) so that if a bush fire is started accidentally later in the season, it doesn’t have as much fuel and quickly burns itself out.

We returned for our boat tour and were first in line so we managed to get a spot up front. While this provided a great view of things on both sides of the boat, it put us pretty close to some of the toothier inhabitants! This trip was simply amazing. We saw more bird life than I have ever seen in one place - the pictures give you an idea. We also got a good close look at several huge saltwater crocs! They occasionally attack each other, and one of the crocs we saw was missing a leg. We took so many pictures it was ridiculous, but there was so much to see!

We headed back to the car and headed over to Nourlangie Rock. This is one of the two major Aboriginal rock art sites that are open to the public in Kakadu. We had seen lots of pictures of Aboriginal artwork, but to see it in person is much more impressive. One of the things we learned was that these paintings were always being painted over, layer upon layer. Most of them are made using red, yellow, or white ochre mixed with spit or animal fat to make a suitable paint. Because they get painted over and over and often do not use organic material which can be dated, it is often impossible to tell how old some of the paintings are. However, some can be guessed based on what they depict. For example, pictures of people with guns had to have been painted after European arrival in 1788, and paintings of the thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger) show that there were thylacines in these areas prior to their extinction after the arrival of Europeans. We stayed the night in a campground in Jabiru and visited the other major rock art site, Ubirr. This gave us a great perspective of where Aboriginal people congregated and a glimpse into how they lived. After checking out this site, we headed west toward Litchfield National Park.

Now, we had seen a lot of termite mounds in the Northern Territory. I read somewhere that the biomass of termites below ground is actually greater than all of the sheep, pigs, cows, and horses above it. That’s a lot of termites! Many of these termite mounds are lumpy, pointy structures three to five feet tall. Some, though, are called cathedral mounds, and they resemble castle turrets as they rise 15 or more feet above the ground. As we entered Litchfield National Park, the first things we stopped to see were the magnetic termite mounds. These are thin and wide, and are aligned so that they all point roughly north to south. This helps them deal with the scorching summer heat as the sun only hits the broad side of the mound in the morning and late afternoon, while the strongest midday sun hits the mound on the skinny side, helping to keep the mound cool. These mounds have a slightly eerie feel to them, though, as they resemble gravestones in the fields surrounding you.

We pressed on down the road, stopping to take in various waterfalls along the way. We paused to take a dip at a couple of them, including Buley Rockhole, where you can wander up and down the stream as it tumbles over several small falls. After camping for the night, we got in one last swim at Wangi Falls, where we were surprised to find the trees full of animals we had never seen in person before - flying foxes! These huge (and I mean HUGE) fruit bats were returning from a night of feeding and were making quite a racket - they actually sound like crying babies! It was a little disconcerting the first couple times they flew overhead with a five-foot wingspan, but I thought it was pretty cool.

We then headed up to Darwin, amazed that our trip had come to an end so quickly. We drove a few laps around the city, dropped off our bags at the bus station, and returned the rental car. Our flight didn’t leave until late, so we had some time to walk around this beautiful, well-planned city. We had a nice dinner and decided to head to the theater to watch Ten Canoes, an Aboriginal story about a man and what he does when one of his wives goes missing. It was a great movie, and a fitting way to end our trip to the Top End. You can bet that we were planning the next trip on the flight home, though!