Top time in the Top End: Kakadu National Park

The final days of our journey through the centre of Australia were spent in two more of the Northern Territory’s wonderful national parks.

The first of these was Kakadu National Park, which we visited on a two-day coach tour. Kakadu has important facts in common with Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It is owned by the local Aboriginal people; is leased back to the federal government under a joint-management agreement; and it has a dual-listing as a world heritage site, for both natural and cultural qualities. You can find out more about the park here, including the fact that it is about half the entire size of Switzerland!

After a brief stop at a pub for morning tea – it’s an ‘outback Australia’ thing – we and 19 other members of the tour group squeezed ourselves into three light planes for a one-hour flight over stretches of the park. There we are, smiling for the camera aboard that small aircraft, as captured by one of our tour-buddies!


Kakadu has two two main physical elements: the massive sandstone Arnhem Plateau, which we first met at Nitmiluk NP; and its extensive network of rivers, floodplains and wetlands, fed by the annual monsoonal rains. Here are some of the views we had of these features.

   

           

After our scenic flight and a bite of lunch, we got to see one of the wetland areas at close quarters on a cruise around Yellow Water Billabong. (Btw, if you search Wikipedia for the meaning of ‘billabong’, the entry includes just one photo – Yellow Water!)

The airborne object in this photo from our tour is not another small plane. Maggie captured a dragon-fly in mid-flight!


Of course, where there is water in the Top End, there will be animals lurking. And not just any animals. I’m talking about saltwater crocodile-type animals, as in the centre of the photo on the right. It had been a cold night and our tour guide explained that the crocs were not yet on the move; they needed another hour of warm sunshine to recharge their batteries.

We weren’t about to check the veracity of that statement! (That’s a My cousin Vinny allusion, dear readers.)

        

And here is our tour guide, Dennis, son of a New Zealand man and a significant local Aboriginal woman. His commentary was full of interesting information. He also had a classic Australian sense of humour, ie dry and razor-sharp, and his impersonations of a crocodile putting an end to a human life were worth the admission fee alone!


Here are some more scenes from our extensive journey around the billabong. The birds in the last photo of this group are magpie geese. They are not shielding themselves from the hot tropical sun. They are hiding from birds of prey, of which there is an abundant supply in this rich environment!

   

   

Kakadu’s world heritage listing for cultural reasons derives from two main factors: the fact that the indigenous people of the area have a continuous history of active connection going back many tens of thousands of years; and the park’s vast collection of rock art.

Our tour itinerary included two of the three main rock art sites which are readily accessible to visitors. It was an interesting enough experience but we would have gained a more meaningful appreciation if we’d had the time available to go on one of the in-depth viewings led by one of the park’s expert rangers. You can learn more about the rock art in Kakadu here.

   

 

The last item on our Kakadu itinerary was a boat trip along the East Alligator River, led by Roman, son of a European man and a local Aboriginal woman.

It wasn’t long before we saw why this otherwise peaceful river was given its (erroneous) moniker by a British explore in the 1820s

   

Roman was particularly knowledgeable about the area’s flora and the numerous uses made of it by the traditional occupants. His explanation of how a spear was made was especially interesting; pity I didn’t capture it in a video to share with you!


The East Alligator River marks the boundary between Kakadu and Arnhem Land, a vast area in which traditional indigenous culture and practices continue strongly. For this reason, outsiders cannot visit Arnhem Land without a permit. That said, commercial tour groups are generally welcome and our time with Roman included a brief visit to the river’s eastern shore.

   

We definitely enjoyed our visit to Kakadu but, in two days, we barely scratched the surface of this vast and diverse area. Any person who has a special interest in, say, rock art, birdlife, geology or tropical flora, would be well-advised to allow several days for their explorations.

Next stop, Litchfield National Park!

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Top time in the Top End: Katherine Gorge and Darwin

At the end of our week in Central Australia, we re-boarded the Ghan late in the afternoon for the overnight journey from Alice Springs to Darwin. Next morning, we pulled in to the town of Katherine, at the southern edge of what Australian’s call ‘the Top End’, being the part of the Northern Territory which has a tropical climate.

Katherine is best known for the nearby Nitmiluk National Park. This is the home of the Katherine Gorge, which comprises thirteen distinct sections that make their way through a series of right-angled splits in the 1600 million-year-old Arnhem Plateau. This massive sandstone plateau is so old that it contains no fossils!

   

At the level of the river that flows through the gorge, the view is attractive enough but the scenery is not especially stunning. From the air, however, it is quite spectacular. I have seen this view in photos and television shows but, as an experience, it remains an unrequited wish on my bucket list. If you click here, you will get an idea of what it’s like.

One way to add value to a visit to the gorge is to take a boat tour with Nitmiluk Tours, the tour company owned by the local Jawoyn people. (Nitmiluk is a Jawoyn word meaning ‘place of cicadas.) Most of the commentary is provided by Jamie, who began working in the park 25 years ago in his late teens. He has a vast knowledge of the park’s geology, ecosystems, flora and fauna, as well as the area’s significance to the Jawoyn.

Cruising through Katherine Gorge with James and Jamie from Nitmiluk Tours

Many of the local animals are nocturnal, in order to avoid the intense heat of the day. However, we did get to see a few crocodiles. Relax! These are freshwater crocs, smaller than the fearsome saltwater ones, and will only attack a human if they feel threatened. I have swum in a river where some lived and I’m here to tell you the tale.

If you click on this photo, you should be able to spot a crocodile lying along the water’s edge on the left-hand side. Great camouflaging!


The park is also renowned for its vast ‘collection’ of rock art, paintings which adorn the exposed faces of the plateau. Some of the works by the Jawoyn’s ancestors were painted more than 5,000 years ago. James, who is an initiated Jawoyn man, showed us a small sample. In this photo, you might see an image of a kangaroo on the right-hand side.

In the next two photos, you can see into the second of the thirteen gorges, and one of the many small, sandy beaches that form as the soft sandstone of the plateau erodes and washes down to the gorge. So, we learned a lot that was valuable but I’m still hankering for a visit by helicopter!

   

After we returned to the Ghan, we began the last leg of our journey by rail through the centre of Australia, arriving in Darwin just as the sun was setting. It had been a great journey, very comfortable, excellent meals and consistently good-quality service.

Two more national park adventures awaited us. Before those, we spent a day exploring the heart of Darwin, beginning with its hop-on, hop-off bus. It wasn’t the most glamorous of vehicles – not recommended for the summer months – but it took us to the popular sights, with a good recorded commentary, supplemented by the informative, good-natured driver.

Our first ‘hop-off’ location was the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). Our priority here was the permanent exhibition about Cyclone Tracy, a small but intensely powerful cyclone which struck Darwin in the early hours of Christmas Day, 1974. 71 persons were killed and many more injured, 70% of houses were destroyed and all services were severed.

It was a traumatic event, felt keenly by most Australians, and it took many years to rebuild Australia’s northern-most capital city. So, it meant a lot to Maggie and I to learn more about the details of what occurred during and after the cyclone hit.

As were leaving MAGNT, we came across an unusual sculpture display in the building’s forecourt. Here is a sample.

What was this all about? You can read the answer in the next image, followed by another two of the pieces. They’re colourful and quirky, playing to the special place of ‘bush mechanics’ in the communities and culture of outback Australia.

   

We hopped on the next bus that came along and, on the advice of the driver, hopped off at a relatively new waterfront precinct to have a light lunch at an oyster bar. Here we are, glasses of prosecco in hand and about to share a dozen oysters, with trios of the molluscs prepared in four different ways. The oysters had been flown in from the southern coast of the country, more than 2,500 kilometres away, and they were as fresh as if they had just been harvested before we sat down. Thank you Mr Bus Driver!

Later that day, we went on a ‘sunset cruise’, one of the most popular activities with visitors to Darwin. We had dinner on the boat’s bow-end terrace, enjoying the balmy conditions and taking in the view.

   

Our lunch of oysters was one of four excellent meals we enjoyed while we were in Darwin. I mention this, because Darwin is a small, knock-about city, more famous for its beer-can-boat regatta than its food culture. And when it comes to food, expectations would be that most dining options would be either a variation on seafood, chips & salad, or a cuisine that reflects Darwin’s proximity to South East Asia.

Our other meals of note were at two bistros that specialised in tapas, one with a Moroccan bent, the other Spanish. Here is one example, featuring char-grilled kangaroo, served at Moorish, a renowned Darwin establishment. It was very more-ish indeed!

We had booked to travel all the way to Darwin on the Ghan mainly so we could travel out of the city to visit the Top End’s renowned national parks. So, our experiences in Darwin itself came as a bonus and we would recommend to anyone heading that way to spend a couple of days there.

As for the parks, I will share those stories in my next two posts.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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I’m still thinking about that painting

As foreshadowed in my previous post, I learnt a lot about the Wave Hill walk-off, a major event in modern Australian history, when Maggie and I viewed the Still in my mind exhibition in Alice Springs. In this post, I will tell you more about the painting that added wow factor to my educational experience.

(Note: I am grateful for permission from karungkarni Art & Culture Centre to share the information below, as well as assistance from Artback NT.)

The painting is called Aerial view of Jinparrak (Old Wave Hill Station). It is quite large, about 1.5 metres by 1 metre. You can see an image of the painting in full colour on page 7 of the document that is here.

If you are interested to see this through, I suggest that you keep the image open in one window, so you can hop from here to there, as we go along.

The work was painted in 2015 by two senior Gurindji artists, one female, one male, who lived at Jinparrak at the time of the walk-off in 1966. The woman’s name is Biddy Wavehill Yamawurr Nangala, and the man is Jimmy Wavehill Ngawanyja Nangala.

The exhibition’s catalogue includes a conversation that the two artists had, to explain what they were trying to do and why. Most of what they said was in their own language. Those words are reproduced in their entirety in the catalogue alongside English words that convey their meaning. Here, in English, is what they had to say, including some additional notes [in square brackets] from the catalogue.

Jimmy: This is the history – what I’ve seen with my own eyes – what it looked like at Wave Hill Station. I just improvised. It’s not a Dreamtime story or anything like that. It’s history from old people who used to tell me all kinds of things. I kept it all in my head.

I’d seen it from the old days so I thought, ‘I’ll have to put down [represent] that station.’ I just did it so people can be reminded when they listen to the stories.

[Describing the painting] I put down this bore here, and over here is where the babies were born. And over here is where the women went after they knocked off for the day – under the wanyarri (native bauhinia trees). We [the men]never used to go near there; we’d go round the long way. And from this bore, you see the boy-house. [Aboriginal stock workers were referred to as ‘boys’]. The stock boys used to get water from here. And from the big camp they came too. And on the other side of the boy-house, the river’s somewhere there. This is where people used to sleep in windbreaks [humpies made of branches and leaves] in the cold season.

Biddy: This was the ceremony place for the women. We used to go up there.

Jimmy: This is the boy-house and the big camp, and the yard from where people walked off. They followed the fenceline and came this way [the direction of Kalkaringi].

Biddy: There was only one bore for the whole camp. You had to fetch water with a yoke and bucket. Kartiya (white people) didn’t help us with taps.

Jimmy: One old lady used to go all the time with a bucket and [so did] the men from the boy-house. Kartiya didn’t live like that; they had taps and everything at the station at Wave Hill.

We thought about it and we decided to make the painting of the station so that people can see what it was like in the old days, because when people walked off, the station people went over everything with a bulldozer. They only left their buildings – maybe for history. They must’ve been angry and destroyed our camp. [Note: The camp was, in all likelihood, razed to destroy evidence of the poor conditions.]

I feel happy that I’ve created this piece of history so people can know something about Jinparrak where we’d lived all our lives.

Biddy: It’s nice and big, so you can see it properly.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Looking at the painting, you will see not only that it is quite magnificent but also how much detail it contains. The catalogue provides a key to the painting, identifying 37 different details. Here is that key. (If you click on it, you’ll be able to read it more readily.)

To me, Aerial view of Jinparrak is quite a treasure, for both its historical and cultural values. And, take this in. I am reliably informed that, 53 years after the walk-off, Biddy still recalls the name of every Aboriginal person who lived there – about 200 in all – and in which humpy they lived. Amazing!

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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The Alice – heart of our country, home of our flies

There are thousands of cattle grazing in Central Australia, providing a rich breeding ground for bush flies. So, visitors to ‘The Alice’, as Alice Springs is affectionately called, spend a lot of time doing ‘the Aussie salute‘ if they are outdoors during daylight hours without a netted hat or insect repellant.

A couple of mid-year overnight frosts will reduce the population for a few months but that hadn’t occurred before we disembarked from The Ghan to spend a week in Alice Springs and the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. I had come prepared, but I can tell you, there is quite an art to getting yourself protected from both the flies and the sun’s rays without making a mess of your face and your clothes!

Anyway, with that more or less sorted, we quite enjoyed ourselves in and around this relaxed and historic town, which has a population of about 25,000.

The most significant event in the town’s early history was the construction of the overland telegraph line from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, to link up with an underground cable to the Dutch East Indies, now modern day Indonesia. This major feat of surveying, engineering and construction, which took place in the early 1870s, dramatically shortened the time taken for information to be exchanged between Australian residents and most other parts of the world. The telegraph station in the vicinity of what became Alice Springs was one of the most important in the network.

This marker, dedicated by the Institution of Engineers, Australia, celebrates the fact that the 3,178 kilometre line was constructed in less that two years under the direction of Charles Todd, whose name was later given to the ephemeral river that makes its way through the modern town. The name of Todd’s wife, Alice was given to the waterhole from which the telegraph station drew its water supply; the station precinct became known as ‘Alice Springs’; and, in 1933, that became the town’s name.

The heritage-listed telegraph station buildings are maintained in excellent condition and contain some modest technical displays and information boards.

 

   

The telegraph line, its workforce and the increase in European economic and government activities that it facilitated were not such good news for the Aboriginal residents of central Australia. Slowly but surely, many of them lost access to their traditional sources of food and water and to sites that were important for reasons of social cohesion and long-established cultural practices. Conflicts ensued, bringing down the force of the British colonial justice system.

In the early decades of the 20th century, salt was rubbed into these wounds when Australian authorities implemented a policy of separating Aboriginal mothers from children fathered by a non-Aboriginal man. In the name of ‘saving the half-castes’, as they were called, the children were taken, often by force, and placed in supervised accommodation. For several years in the 1930s, the old telegraph station outside Alice Springs was one such place, having become technologically obsolete in 1932.

Information boards at the old station share stories of the varied impacts of this practice, known now by the term ‘The Stolen Generations’. This matter continues to generate a variety of emotions and opinions but, nowadays at least, it is a story that is out in the open and is mostly being handled with sensitivity and positive purpose.


So, a mixture of significant reasons for visiting the Old Telegraph Station, and a contrast of proud and dark events that is not uncommon in Australia’s short modern history.

Next, something that is a source of untarnished pride across our nation – the Royal Flying Doctor Service. We visited its base in Alice Springs, where much of its pioneering work began.

The RFDS or ‘Flying Doctor’, as it is known, is the largest aero-medical service in the world, having grown from initial trials in 1928 to have 1,600 paid staff, numerous volunteers and a fleet of more than 70 aircraft operating from 23 bases. More details of its history are available here.

The service was initiated by John Flynn, a Presbyterian minister and head of the Australian Inland Mission. Now, I’m no fan of missionaries of any persuasion, but I have no difficulty acknowledging Flynn’s devotion to the well-being of Australians who lived in remote places. That is what drove him to find a system and resources for providing emergency medical care across Australia’s outback.

Since 1994, Flynn’s efforts have been celebrated on one side of Australia’s $20 note, which is why I bought the fridge magnet. The items depicted on the note include the plane that launched the first trial of the service; the pedal radio invented by an associate of Flynn to enable communication between remote locations and the service bases; and the ‘body’ chart devised by an RFDS nurse to help patients describe their symptoms. The last of these is still in use today, 68 years on! A new version of the note will be released later this year; it includes an image of another vital outback service, the ‘School of the Air‘, which was initiated by RFDS members and used the same pedal radio technology.

And here is the interior – minus all manner of medical equipment – and the exterior of one of the modern fleet of RFDS aircraft.

   

Just across the road from the RFDS base is an Australian reptile centre, where we came up very close and friendly with some of the inhabitants! For example, here is a Bearded Dragon lizard enjoying the warmth of Maggie’s hand.


Meanwhile, I was swaddled in a python! My warm neck was its preferred location.


Our next destination was the art galleries at the Araluen Arts Centre, where I was keen to view an exhibition called Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality.

This exhibition commemorates and explores one of the most significant events in modern Australian history, the August 1966 walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen and their families from the Wave Hill cattle station, which was located on their traditional lands.

Although the strike was sparked by poor wages and conditions, it also focused attention on Aboriginal land rights, resulting in dramatic changes to Australian laws and land tenure policies, changes which continue to roll through the country to this day. A summary of the walk-off event is here, including the story of two famous songs which it inspired.

It was one of the most remarkable exhibitions I have ever seen. (You can find out more about it here.) I knew that the events were important – I was 12 at the time of the walk off and 20 by the time the land hand-back occurred – but I knew little of the detail. I was captivated by the way the exhibition blended so many forms of visual, spoken and written material, some historical, some new.

As Maggie knows all too well, I have an unquenchable thirst for information in such situations and I greedily took it all in. Then, ‘just in cases’ (that’s a Love Actually reference), I called into the gallery shop on the way out to buy the book produced in conjunction with the exhibition.

For my own records, I took a photo of my favourite image in the exhibition. It is called Aerial view of Jinparrak (Old Wave Hill Station) and is a large work painted in 2015 by two senior Gurindji artists, one female, one male, who lived at Jinparrak at the time of the walk-off. Obviously, it is not my right to publish an image of this remarkable painting on my blog. However, I will devote a subsequent post to it and show you where you can view it online.

Our last visit of note was to the Olive Pink Botanical Garden, Alice Springs’ modest but fascinating botanical garden.

Here, if you are fortunate, you can view the Sturt Desert Pea, central Australia’s most famous flowering plant. You won’t see many of these in my hometown – too cold and too wet for too much of the year, for starters!


And why does the garden bear the name of two colours, olive and pink? Well, that’s because a woman by that name founded it, lobbied to have it secured officially and was its first, honorary, curator. She was also famous as an anthropologist, campaigner for Aboriginal social justice and artist.

This image of Olive Pink adorns the wall at the garden’s cafe. Amongst other text, it says that she was once called “the most ferocious woman in captivity”. Now, that’s a serious rep! Reminds me of a couple of my female cousins, actually.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Up close with Uluru and Kata Tjuta

This post shows you what we did and saw when we weren’t watching the sun rise or set over Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

First, a walk into Walpa Gorge, one of two trails open to the public at Kata Tjuta. (Some locations are closed to the public for conservation reasons or because they are used for significant ceremonies by Anangu male elders.)

   

The next photos show the conglomerate material from which Kata Tjuta was formed.

   

Here is the dry bed of a stream which runs after each fall of rain over Kata Tjuta

This last photo was taken from the same spot but in the opposite direction, towards some of the sand dunes which cover much of the national park and make up the oldest system of stable sand dunes in the world.

Later in the same day, we were driven around Uluru to view sites that relate to Anangu creation stories associated with the rock. So, this is an appropriate time to tell you a little about the significance of Uluru to the traditional owners and their community.

First, you might like to see a welcome from one of the traditional owners. It’s here.

Secondly, I was interested to learn that Uluru is not regarded as a sacred site in its own right. However, it is still a sacred place to the Anangu because it is where the four most important creation events occurred, events which the Anangu believe account for some of the key features of the rock. Further explanation of this distinction can be found here.

The creation stories are very powerful but they are also shared openly with a wider public, by way of education. So, our non-Aboriginal driver/guide was at liberty to tell us the stories of Mala, Lungkata and Kuniya and Liru. If you read these stories, ostensibly about how physical features came to be, you will discover that they also provide important lessons as to how Anangu persons should behave as they grow up.

We viewed some of these sites from our tour coach but we did have time to walk to Mutitjulu waterhole, where the fateful battle between Kuniya and Liru took place.

Mutitjulu waterhole

The next group of photos illustrates the variety of rock features. It is not difficult to imagine how they could have inspired creation stories.

         


 

Sadly, there is also a destruction story associated with Uluru. Despite the wishes of the traditional owners and the park managers, a significant number of individuals climb the rock each day. They come from Australia and from overseas, with the express intention of doing this, almost as if it is some sort of hunters’ trophy.

Even if you don’t care much about Aboriginal cultural values, there are strong safety and environmental reasons why you should not climb on the rock. You can find out more here, including a downloadable fact sheet.

Happily, climbing on Uluru will be banned from 26 October 2019. Soon enough, would-be climbers will either stay away or, preferably, find adequate reward from all the other ways you can enjoy yourself during a visit to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Our first visit was very short – just two nights and one-and-a-half days – and we have already decided to return, sooner rather than later, perhaps after there has been a good period of rain to bring on a display of native wildflowers.

Also on a happy note, we bought a painting of the night sky from a local Aboriginal artist, pictured here with her bright-eyed daughter.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Sunset, sunrise … sunset

This second post about our recent journey through the centre of Australia introduces you to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, one of the most iconic locations in Australia.

Uluru

Kata Tjuta

Let me begin by saying that it is very difficult to convey anything like the majestic physicality and enchanting spirituality of Uluru and Kata Tjuta through images shot by amateur photographers using smart phones. But I will do my best and I will supplement the images with words and some links to specific information.

Fifty years ago, when Maggie and I were nearing the end of our high school years, the vast majority of Australians called these two sites by the names given to them by European explorers in the mid-19th century: Ayers Rock and The Olgas.

However, our country’s relationship with the two sites has undergone significant change since 1985, when the traditional Aboriginal owners were given title to this area, then leased the national park portion of their land back to the national government and entered into a joint management arrangement for the park. (In 1977, it had been renamed according to the local Aboriginal language. Ayers Rock reverted to Uluru and The Olgas to Kata Tjuta.)

Over the last 30 years, I have interacted with numerous Aboriginal Australians, socially or through work. No other aspect of the life of my country matters more to me than remediation of the profound impacts of Europeanisation of our continent on the well-being of the peoples who have lived here for as long as 80,000 years. So, I am very happy that most Australians know what I am referring to when I say that I have been to Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

But I digress! Let me tell you some basic facts. At its highest point, Uluru is 348 metres above the ground and its circumference is 9.4km. The highest of Kata Tjuta’s 36 domes is 546 metres above the ground. The geological history of how they each came to be formed as we see them today is very interesting. You can read about it here.

One of the favoured activities when visiting the park is to view one of the formations at sunset or sunrise, or both!

We began with sunset at Kata Tjuta.

  

We were up very early the next morning to watch the sunrise over Uluru, with Kata Tjuta in the background to the north-west of ‘The Rock’, its affectionate nickname.

The rays of the rising sun lit up Kata Tjuta in colours that reminded us of some of the works of Albert Namatjira, a justly-famous Aboriginal painter.

Later the same day, we were taken to a viewing area on the northern side of Uluru for the sunset, one of the most photographed sights in Australia.

 

In my next post, I will show you some finer details of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta and tell you a little about what they mean to the Aṉangu, the local Aboriginal people.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Journey through the middle of Australia: days 1&2

Maggie and I have recently returned from a fortnight’s journey through the middle of Australia, from south to north. Our journey began in Adelaide, the capital city of the state of South Australia and finished in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, extending over 23 degrees of latitude.

Our principal mode of travel was the passenger train called The Ghan, named in memory of the men who came with camels from western Asia – including Afghanistan – and from northern Africa, in the mid-19th century, enabling Europeans to journey into the sandy deserts and scrubland of the inner regions of Australia.

The trip from Adelaide to Darwin is 2979 km long and takes 54 hours over two nights and three or four days, at an average speed of 85kmh. We took the four day option, which involved alighting at Alice Springs, the main town in Central Australia, in order to visit some of the spectacular sites in that region. A week later, we re-boarded The Ghan for the journey to Darwin.

The first group of photos were taken at the station in Adelaide while we were waiting to board our carriage. Our train was nearly 750 metres long; the middle photos were taken from the same point, looking in opposite directions.

The fourth photo shows the scene in the reception hall, where we were treated to free bubbly and live music from a guitarist-singer, by way of acclimatising us to the quality of experience that awaited us!

   

Then, we and the other 250 passengers were invited to make our way, by foot or golf-cart, to our carriage and settle into our cabins. We had booked a ‘Gold Superior’ cabin, the middle quality, which provided is with twice the standard floor area, a ‘three-quarter’ bed, complimentary bubbles, armchairs, a coffee machine and sundry other creature comforts.

The train’s passenger carriages were laid out in groups of three separated by a lounge car (see below), a dining car and a galley, followed by a mirror image of that configuration. The standard of the meals was remarkably high, given the cramped conditions, and the wine list featured a generous selection of popular table wines from Australia’s most esteemed wine regions.

               

Before we went to sleep, I organised us to lie face up on the bed with our heads up against the window. Then I turned all the lights out, giving us a wondrous view of the cloudless night sky, with countless thousands of bright stars and a clear image of the Milky Way. I had been fortunate enough to enjoy such a view before; for Maggie, it was a magical first.

We had set our travel clock to rouse us at an ungodly hour the next morning, so we could join most of our fellow-passengers for an outback sunrise experience. Being a winter’s morning far from any maritime influences, the temperature was close to freezing but the train crew had risen even earlier to light two bonfires and prepare tables laden with hot drinks and warm bakery items.

There was a bit of a buzz amongst the passengers as the sky began to lighten, although most of us were equally pleased to return to our cabins and catch forty winks.

  

As the sun climbed through the morning, we entered the vast region of Australia known affectionately as the ‘Red Centre’. I think you can see why that is the case! Believe it or not, every 10 years or so, there is enough rainfall to cover much of this land with floodwaters, most of it remaining inland to replenish underground water supplies or drain into Lake Eyre, which is up to 15 metres below sea level. (More info here.)

 

Early in the afternoon, we crossed from South Australia to the Northern Territory and crossed the dry bed of the Finke River, said to be the oldest riverbed in the world. Nowadays, it is dry most of the time, sometimes for years on end, but the indigenous gum trees are able to grow long roots to tap into water lying well below the parched surface.

  

Before much longer, The Ghan was slowing down as we reached Alice Springs, the main town of the Red Centre, rich in history and the country of the Arrente aboriginal people.

This is where we broke our journey for seven days to explore both ‘The Alice’ and the World Heritage-listed sites of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. I will share those experiences with you in subsequent posts.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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