Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 1) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps


The historical information in this blog is accurate so far as I can recall. However others are welcome to add comment which correct any factual inaccuracies and the blog will be updated as people do this.


February 13, 1988. BHP’s team had been drilling at Coronation Hill near Kakadu for months. More than enough time for us to carefully prepare to confront the crew from the Big Australian, as it was then known. In 1982 the preparation for the Franklin River blockade had taken months, with hundreds being trained in non-violent protest, with offices and communications plans carefully laid.

But in the NT, we didn’t do things like that. No, the plan was laid a couple of days before over a cafe latte and a bowl of pasta at the Roma Bar which was, then, the only place in the NT where, mythology had it, you could get a decent flat white. It was also the meeting place for all things ‘left’ in the NT.

Here with a single good bomb you could have wiped out most the NT Labor Party (if you could call it left), most of the leftie-stirrers from the Northern Land Council (NLC), every progressive lawyer in Darwin and anyone else with pretensions to undermining civilisation as the NT Government, the miners and the pastoralists saw it.

“What’ja doin’ next week?”. The question forced out through a mouthful of good Italian pasta and parmigiana was, it turned out, a leading one. No invitation to a good party or a day at the beach. Or this remains the legend of how this blockade was planned by a few of us.

No the invitation was to appropriate a leased NLC vehicle, obtain an access permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority, with the consent of traditional custodians, chuck in a couple of blue tarps and swags, an esky with enough food and drink for a week and rack off to Coronation Hill, which lay in the middle of the proposed Stage 3 of Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu is one of Australia’s best known and important national parks. For many years Governments had been promising to incorporate a third stage into the park, the areas comprising the old Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral stations. This would protect the headwaters of the South Alligator River and the famous Yellow Waters.

The discovery of gold, platinum and palladium in the old uranium mining areas of the South Alligator River Valley had started the Commonwealth Government backtracking. The Wilderness Society, ECNT and other organisations had been campaigning to ensure that the Commonwealth Government kept its promise.

The Wilderness Society had recently obtained a legal opinion written by barrister, Tim Robertson and fortified by that and a few beers later that day, the idea of occupying BHP’s drill rig was agreed.

Coronation Hill Permit
The permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority to enter onto the South Alligator Bula Complex.

The plan was to…well…go the exploration area. We had no plan about what we would do, no idea how many people BHP had working there, what their reaction would be, how long we might have to stay. There was no plan B in case of illness, violence or police arrest. It was the ultimate fly by the seat of your pants action.

In fact you could say…strategy preparation: nil. Planning for potential confrontation and violence in an isolated area, 150 kilometres from the nearest help? Don’t you worry about that. Communications strategy?..nope. Breakdown or injury? She’ll be right. Arrest potential and strategy? WTF. Exit strategy? What? But we were well armed with hubris and over-confidence.

Coronation Hill Age article
Government announces plans to “legitimise” BHP’s right to be at Coronation Hill (in effect stating their doubt about existing rights)

At this stage there were two of us, Richard Ledgar and me who had agreed to go. Not sufficient for our major intervention. We carefully fished around for a third person, making certain that we didn’t know them or anything about them, just to be certain that we could increase the margin for error as much as possible. We found Scott Wootten who agreed to accompany us on our meticulously well planned confrontation with what was then Australia’s largest company.

Ranger water
The NT Government had a fairly blasé attitude towards Aboriginal health and welfare (cartoon, Michael Pickering)

Richard and I knew each other well but we’d only just met Scott. So there was clearly no risk, under stress, for internal tension between the three of us. Our only contact with the outside world, was two way radio, powered by car battery. In the event of that failing, we planned to resort to carrier pigeon.

So, backed by the Wilderness Society (TWS) and fortified with local support from the NT Environment Centre (ECNT), the moral backing of the traditional custodians and sanctified with the legal opinion provided to TWS, which said that the drilling at Coronation Hill was illegal, off we went into the night.

Late on the 13th a white land cruiser, with our team of three, approached the first locked gate on the road on the road to Coronation Hill. The least organised, most impromptu and most poorly resourced “blockade” in Australian history was about to start.

rotated_Michael Pickering Cartoon - Eyes of their whites
The Government’s view of the land councils was that the problem was just the white advisors of the Central and Northern Land Council (CLC, NLC) and without them the traditional owners would be compliant (cartoon Michael Pickering)

We were armed with our permit from senior Jawoyn traditional owner, Peter Jatbula, and keys which allowed us access to Coronation Hill an area designated  a sacred site by the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority. Other than that we had no right of entry and had to pass through several locked gates. The keys we had – issued as part of the Aboriginal permit, would open some, but for the rest our key was a bolt cutter.

Our legal opinion written by Wilderness Society legal counsel advised that the renewal of the mining exploration lease at Coronation was invalid as it had been incorrectly renewed. This was to be brandished at the unknown number of BHP workers, a bit like a wooden stake or cross at a vampire in the absolute knowledge that they would instantly admit defeat and pack up and leave.

Chris Harris, Richard Ledgar, Scott
How the NT News (Darwin’s newspaper) saw the Coronation Hill occupation

We planned to occupy BHPs rig and other equipment to highlight the illegality of the lease, to denounce the proposed gold mine in what had been promised by the Hawke Government as Kakadu National Park’s 3rd stage, and to condemn the desecration of Jawoyn sacred sites.

We had food for a week and expected to be arrested within a couple of days; we hoped the occupation and our arrest wouldlead to national media coverage on mining in and around Kakadu, an issue that had already been highly controversial and frequently covered by the mass media, and thus force the Government’s hand.

Our only means of communication with the outside world was via VJY, which was a short wave radio network which provided communications between remote areas in the territory. In the event of accident or any conflict with BHP staff we were more than 150 kilometres from any friendly assistance from comrades in Darwin.

Members of the Federal Government appointed Resource Assessment Commission visit Coronation Hill to inspect and report back to the Government

Just on dusk we passed through the final gate onto Coronation Hill itself, which we unlocked with our special key obtained from the hardware store. No illegal BHP chain shall go uncut!!

The proposed gold mine was the site of an old uranium mine and was part of what the Jawoyn traditional owners saw as “sickness country”. The boundaries of sickness country coincided almost exactly with the areas which had produced uranium deposits and had been mined subsequently.

Traditionally Bula, the spirit that inhabited this area, would create sickness if disturbed and this was one reason that local Aborigines were so opposed to further mining.

The drill site was quiet, with no security and no BHP employees present; everyone had knocked off for the night and were down at the main camp about 100 metres away. We did a quick recce and then set up camp just above the drill site and next to the front end loader. Camp was simply the vehicle, a tarpaulin, fridge and basic supplies, plus three swags and the radio. Satisfied that no one know we were there we turned in for the night.

Coronation Hill occupation
Occupying the drill rig while the BHP crew wait for us to make a mistake.

It was a dawn call in the morning as we were uncertain what the movements of the workers on site would be, but we were certain that they wouldn’t be offering us café latté from their BHP funded espresso machine.

We occupied the drill rig and then went to find the employees. In essence BHP had two pieces of equipment essential to their operations, the drill rig and a loader/backhoe. Due to our careful strategic planning we had just sufficient blockaders to occupy both and have a spare person to guard our camp, radio and to prepare food.

Neither machine could be left unattended at any time, so we could only change shifts when there were no BHP staff present. This left us all plenty of time to relax comfortably in the tropical sun with nothing to do and no one to talk to for hours on end, as clearly envisaged in our strategy.

We arrived in their camp and presented them with the legal opinion and a media release, as well as a notice stating that they were in illegal occupation of a sacred site and therefore liable to prosecution. All this was done with some degree of trepidation. Paranoia told us that had they so chosen the workers could have quietly murdered us, disposed of our bodies in some old mine shaft and then denied all knowledge of our arrival.

They were requested to cease operations and leave the area. The employees were clearly gob-smacked and didn’t know what action they should take. They returned to the accommodation area to discuss the unforeseen arrivals.

BHP coronation hill advert 10-3-1989
A story about BHP’s infamous advert posing the “it’s the platinum and palladium or the Pig-nose turtle” question

As it turned out in the long-run, we might just as well have pierced their entire operation with the metaphorical vampire stake since the legal opinion and the subsequent publicity that the occupation generated led directly to the abandonment of the entire mining proposal.

We returned to the drill pad and called the Environment Centre NT (ECNT)  to update them and give the go-ahead for the first media release. This set of a storm of action at our media centre under our blue tarp with numerous calls from national and local media. The media centre consisted of a portable radio and battery extracted from the NLC vehicle.

The use of the NLC vehicle and radio was another stroke of brilliant planning.  From the point of view of the NT Government, which behaved as if the proposed Coronation Hill mine was the only thing saving the NT from the next great depression, this implicated the NLC.

Monsoon forest at the creeks on the way to Coronation Hill

To the NT Government the NLC (which was the regional representative organisation of the traditional owners) was the Great Satan which continued to seduce the naive Traditional Owners from their rightful path – a path which would lead them to untold mining riches and, of course, more wealth for their white brethren.

So our use of NLC equipment, even though it was leased to Richard and technically entirely under his control, was a gift to the government. The end result being that a week later, on our exit from Coronation Hill, he lost his consultancy contract with the NLC. In our brilliance and careful planning we failed to foresee something so bleeding obvious.

But, ironically, it was our almost entirely non-existent media strategy and threadbare equipment that proved our greatest strength. Every broadcast over VJY, which is an open radio network, every media interview and every communication with our comrades in Darwin were monitored by anyone caring to listen including the Commonwealth and NT Governments, the NLC, the media, BHP and, no doubt, the intelligence services, among others. Normally one might think this a great disadvantage but it proved to be the opposite.

BHP’s chosen strategy was to intimidate us with their presence and sheer numbers. So whenever we called anyone or anyone called us, they would crowd around the radio to listen in thinking this would prevent us being able to talk for fear of communicating our deadly and secret strategies.

We quickly realised it had the opposite effect because we could bullshit away about how great our media coverage had been, or how the NT Government couldn’t intervene because it was Federal Government land and how the Federal Government had received legal advice that we were right about the leases having been incorrectly granted. For the BHP staff, listening in, it was quite demoralising.

To our support crew back in Darwin we’d tell them of our plans to stay as long as necessary, despite having no clue about how we could possibly do that since, after a week, we’d be reduced to three rice crackers between us; leaving aside the likelihood that we’d either die or heatstroke or boredom or both.

Our greatest satisfaction was knowing that our small effort at preserving Kakadu was being broadcast to the world to the world at remarkably regular intervals via a string of calls from national and regional broadcasters.

This included one ABC reporter who greeted us one day with “How is it going, Comrades?” completely unaware that every right wing philistine who thought the ABC was a nest of communist vipers was listening, and that his comment simply reinforced their prevailing views about the ABC.

Apart from this we resorted for entertainment to a range of unorthodox recreation. Among those, for me, was sitting up on the drill rig trying to learn to whistle effectively. I sat there inserting my fingers into my mouth at various different angles for a couple of days while various siffling and snuffling sounds emerged, much to the bemusement of the gathered BHP drillers, until one day a clear high pitched whistle emerged.

For the next two days I continued to practice while both my colleagues and the drillers became increasingly annoyed at being subjected to a variety of meaningless piercing whistles for no apparent reason. But at least now I could attract attention when needed.

Aside from this and reading, there was little to do except drink tea and coffee. We were ill prepared for our week long sojourn. And of course even had there been reception in this remote area of Kakadu-to-be there were no mobiles and no computers in this epoch.

By day four a sort of somnolent truce had settled over the place but on day five the BHP management decided they needed to get rid of us. This involved variously increased efforts at harassment including verbal and physical intimidation and culminating in hiring a helicopter to hover over the camp tarpaulin in an effort to blow it down and away.

Unfortunately for them, they were unaware that I had a private pilots licence and was well aware that the pilot of the chopper was acting in breach of all aviation rules. A quick call to the ECNT, assisted by the eavesdropping of the BHP interlopers, in which I said that I planned to make a formal complaint to the aviation authorities, at which point the pilot was at risk of his or her licence and the chopper quickly disappeared.

By day seven it was reasonably clear that we had successfully stopped work and elevated the issue up the national agenda. We had done this to the degree that we were shortly thereafter invited to Canberra to discuss the issue with then Resources Minister, John Kerin. Nevertheless it was clear we were not going to achieve our recently decided goal of getting ourselves arrested and therefore further elevating the issue in the public eye.

The NT Government could not arrest us because the mining lease was on Commonwealth Land and the Australian Government, we believed, was unwilling to do so because having clearly indicated that we believed we were legally on the lease, we had also earlier declared publicly that we would prosecute for unlawful arrest if anyone tried to arrest us.

By the end of day seven we made the decision to leave, leaving only the issue of how to get out of the place. The problem being that the NLC had decided to reclaim its vehicle leaving us stranded with no transport. So we had to arrange to get picked up by our colleagues in Darwin.

In keeping with the rest of the occupation, our exit from Coronation Hill was met by yet more unplanned eventualities. As we proceeded down the road back to Darwin, travelling at our normal speed of about 110 km, I was driving David Cooper’s landcruiser when I glanced out the window to see a wheel accelerating past the passenger side window. Moments later the vehicle lurched and their was a great grinding and tearing sound.

The bolts holding the rear passenger side wheel had sheered off, leaving us stranded 150 kilometres from Darwin in the middle of the night. So ensued a trip back to Pine Creek to get a new wheel and wheel studs. A glorious end to our brilliant campaign.

Postscript: While the Coronation Hill occupation elevated the issue a step or two higher on the national agenda it took another two years of vigorous campaigning by environmental and Aboriginal organisations before the Government even reduced the size of the exploration area (which it euphemistically called the “conservation area”) and until 1991 before the Commonwealth Government stopped the exploration and included the area in Kakadu National Park.

Images from these campaigns: Campaigns and Direct Actions

 

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 6 Jasper Gorge)

_MG_0534 We decide on our route beyond Katherine as we are leaving Katherine. As a group advance planning is clearly our forte. We all have jobs that require immense planning and so we are avoiding it like the plague. But we are at least managing to buy diesel before leaving town.

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We plan to stay at Jasper Gorge tonight. As I am the only one that has traveled this way before, the others ask me numerous questions about the route, the history, the camping area. Sadly, my memory is not up to the task so I just give them random lies.

 

As we leave town, Kaylee is on the phone to Telstra….again. Her second call to Optus reveals that, in fact, despite their previous assurances, her phone was locked to Optus. In order to unlock it we have had to back it up restore the factory settings and then restore the backed up files. It is good that Australia’s unrivalled communications industry makes things so easy. But the phone still does not work. So it is back to Telstra. Kaylee has had to take four blood pressure tablets just to deal with them.

By the time we lose reception, the problem is still not resolved.

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We travel on. A quick stop at the Victoria River roadhouse for ice creams are in order. The country around the Victoria River and Gregory National Park has changed to magnificent sandstone escarpment and woodland. Beyond Victoria River we turn left for the Jasper River Gorge. I worked throughout this area in the 1980s, with the local traditional owners (TOs), when Gregory National Park was being established.

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Under the Commonwealth Land Rights Act, any land which remained in public ownership and had not been alienated for grazing, mining or national parks, was open for a land claim. The NT Government had deliberately attempted to alienate the land as national park to prevent a land claim but had forgotten to immediately gazette the park at the same time as they resumed the former grazing lease.

One of the land council lawyers had spotted this and in the few hours before the NT Government could redress its oversight had lodged a land claim. As a result the Government had been forced to involve the traditional owners in joint park planning and management in a way they never intended.

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The road to Jasper Gorge is where I committed one of my most fundamental crimes against the local Aborigines. We were traveling down the road when one of the TOs spotted a large goanna crossing the road. Cries of “run ‘im down” echoed around the vehicle but I instinctively swerved to avoid it and the goanna shot away into the bush. “Ah bloody stupid whitefella…stop, stop”. I braked as hard as I dared and the mob jumped out pursuing the goanna through the bush with a couple of rifles. It had run up a tree and was a gonna. Goanna for dinner. But I was in disgrace for my shameful driving and hunting skills.

At 4 pm we arrive at Jasper Gorge. It is a beautiful deep water hole fringed by Pandanus and bordered by rocky gorges and spinifex hills as far as the eye can see. But you cannot swim. The only other negative is that previous visitors apparently thought that there was no requirement to bury toilet paper. The level of laziness and lack of care never ceases to amaze.

There are two other vehicles and nearly full moon. We sit around our first camp fire of the trip. Roger and I plan our first album. The fact that neither of us can sing does not deter us. Roger maybe can manage backing vocals but I am not convinced that I can even meet that standard.

Jill finds a cane toad but is not convinced that it is a cane toad. Roger can decide whether it is a cane toad or frog despite the fact that it is the size of a large feral cat. He fails to kill it and has no excuses. He is an environmental failure.

In the morning we walk up the ridge. The country is beautiful and we all enjoy the walk except for Kaylee who had decided to walk in sandals and has been brutally attacked by the resident spinifex.

At 10 am we leave for Halls Creek via Top Springs and Kalkarinji. The country flattens out. It is about 700 kms to Halls Creek, mostly on dirt roads, so there is a long drive ahead. The sky is filled with whistling kites which are ubiquitous in the Territory but we also come across two magnificent wedgetails feasting on a dead wallaby.

_MG_0576We pass Victoria River Downs Station, once the world’s largest cattle station. It is still immense and there are seven helicopters parked next to the road ready to do the mustering and finally arrive at Top Springs in time for lunch. Roger asks about vegetables but is told “Too far to bring ’em, you can’t keep ’em and nobody buys them”. But we do succeed in buy the world’s worst and most expensive apples. Diesel is up to $2.30 a litre.

We are making good time but will not make Halls Creek today. At 3 pm we arrive at Kalkarinji. This is where Vincent Lingiari led the walk off from Wave Hill station and started the land rights movement. It is immortalised in the song by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly “From Little Things Big Things Grow”.

 

We consider staying at the camp ground but Kaylee reports back that it does not look enticing. She reports back that the camp ground resembles a cross between the local footie oval and ground zero after a nuclear attack except that the toilets would undoubtedly have been in better condition at ground zero. after After fuelling up we press on.

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At four we start looking for camp sites but we are rocky spinifex country; there are few camp sites that do not require a grader to make them usable. We explore a few side tracks and apart from trespassing on a couple of stations have found nothing useful. Finally at 4.30 we stumble on a road workers old clearing. It is a gem, nicely cleared. The road workers as in there wont have found a beautiful spot with views and nicely cleared. The one downside is that it is only one hundred metres from the main road and at 3 am the night’s convoy of road trains rolls through.

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If you have never heard empty road trains passing over corrugations, imagine Deep Purple in the concert in 1972 at which three members of the audience were rendered unconscious by the volume, and then amplify it somewhat. Kaylee reported she could not hear me snoring less than a foot away for the sound of road trains. Given that she normally complains that she can hear me snoring under four doonas from a distance of a kilometre this is something of a record.

We have reception. Kaylee is excited because she has so been looking forward to talking to Telstra….we know that the stress levels are rising….arms are starting to flap around and attempts to assist are met with impromptu shooing motions. Two calls later, two rounds explanations and of switching phone on and off there is still no solution to the lack of data. The climax is postponed until Halls Creek which is where we will next have reception. Dinner is roast chicken and pasta with warmed water laced with a slight nose of dust and a delicate flavour of saline extract.

Sunrise at the Kalkarinji roadworkers clearing is equally beautiful. Sun is rising as the moon is setting. Jill and Kaylee both remain in a semi-comatose state until intravenously fed their first tea. Kaylee calls it her transitional tea and, generally, nothing of world significance happens until it is consumed.

Roger, on the other hand, is engaged in hand to hand combat with Mother Earth. Out here there is no easy way to dig a 15 cm hole for the morning toilet stop. The ideal solution would be either a jackhammer or a small amount of AMFO and a detonator but absent those tool it is a long laborious struggle through rock-hard dirt with a shovel. Just make sure you eat your muesli afterwards.

After tea and disputed muesli standard (each person eats different muesli and considers the others muesli a disgrace to humankind) we press on. The landscape changes. We have been passing through a magnificent landscape of red and green after one of the biggest wets of recent years all interspersed with giant termite mounds. Now we are passing through a vast expanse of grasslands. All is going well. We crest the rise of a hill and pull off to admire the view. There is a hissing sound and it is not Jill’s normal expression of disapproval in the face of most comments offered by yours truly.

Sadly we regard our rear passenger tyre. It is an ex-tyre due to an unfortunate incident with a nail. But no problems..the bush mechanics are on to it. We pull out the air jack in which we have been extensively trained. For those who have never used one this involves placing a rubber hose over the end of the exhaust and starting the engine. The exhaust gases then fill the jack raising the vehicle. Rumour has it that it is easy to use and much safer than a standard jack but we are determined to prove otherwise.

If you happen to be on a trip with someone you don’t like, get them to hold the hose on the exhaust. Apart from the burn marks on their hands they are likely to be numbed into semi-consciousness for several hours be the exhaust fumes. I am unsure why I was allocated this particular job. But in any case I am a singular failure and after several attempts during which the jack becomes part inflated and the slumps sideways repeatedly like some badly designed dildo, we give up and get out the bog standard scissor jack. With this antiquated machine we change the tyre in minutes. We are elated.

Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 5 – Katherine)

Beyonce has returned!! Our vehicle which suffered a cracked brake line has been returned to us but with no guarantees. The mechanic believes the repair will last for our trip, at least, but someone, somewhere in the future, will suffer the same fate. It appears that the original modifications to the vehicle were not carried out to spec and this has led to the brake problem.

Roger wants to see Katherine Gorge so we decide on a two night stay in town. We book into the Katherine River Lodge. It is clean but cat-swinging is prohibited. The motel has a large resident population some of whom appear not to like each other much. Our neighbour has pasted a large sign on the pole outside his door “Don’t touch my laundry you bitch”. The next room is occupied by a young Chinese woman. We approve of her ability to adopt Australian practice but we wonder, since she is stealing male underwear, if she is into cross-dressing.

photoThe first night brings another major decision. Will we stay at the motel and partake of the $15 pasta night or get takeaways. Kaylee vetoes the pasta night. She has seen a picture of one dish which she describes as looking like excreted tape-worms covered by a dollop of pasta sauce. We want Thai but the nearest Thai restaurant is at the Border Store. Chinese takeaway it is.

We use Katherine to finish numerous jobs. Roger has a job application to write. Among other jobs I have to my tax return to complete so that I have something to live on for the next few weeks. Kaylee has to change her phone over from Optus to Telstra Pre-paid so that she can get reception. For Kaylee, dealing with Telstra is as desirable as an Abbott Government or walking on hot coals. Katherine is the start of the Telstra saga.

With numerous jobs to do that require internet we become permanent members of the Coffee Club which provides free internet, half-decent coffee and air-conditioning. By the time we leave town we are on first name terms with most of the staff. Jill and Roger are unaware that I have invited all of them to stay with Roger and Jill at Bundagen. Surprises are good things in life.

A key task for Kaylee is to get her Telstra sim card working so that she can occasionally have phone and internet access on this trip but, more particularly, on her 1000 km bushwalk along the Bibulman track through south-west Western Australia. The phone is working but she cannot get data.

There are no Telstra shops in Katherine, so Kaylee is on the phone to Telstra. Telstra advises Kaylee that it is not their problem but Optus since the phone must be locked to Optus. Kaylee calls Optus who advise that it is not their problem as it is not locked to Optus. By this time there are a long stream of expletives emitting from the vicinity of Kaylee. She abandons the issue for now as it is time for her, Roger and Jill to decamp to Nitmiluk, where Roger and Jill are kayaking up the gorge. I am left to the pleasures of tax returns and similar tasks.

Kaylee calls Telstra. After an hour on phone to Telstra most fragile objects within metres of Kaylee are at risk of imminent destruction. But apparently the problem has been resolved. Fat chance.

Roger, Jill and Kaylee return from Nitmiluk. Kaylee has multi-tasked by calling responding to a call from Energy Australia from the lookout at Nitmiluk. This is another of her favourite tasks. Two months late, Energy Australia advises her that they have been unable to activate her solar panels because Adam Cartwright, her electrician, failed to tick box six on the form which he submitted two months ago. But in keeping with the extraordinary level of customer service in Australia, rather than ringing and advising Kaylee of the issue, they decided the customer should use their omniscience to automatically know that there was a problem.

Kaylee has suggested that one of their helpful staff could perhaps ring the electrician and not to call her for two months since she wouldn’t be answering her phone.20140708_144600

And my parcel is still lost. Abandoning all hope I have concentrated on other tasks. A tour of Katherine’s op shops has delivered me a long sleeve shirt and a mossie-proof pair of long trousers. With my exceptional packing skills I have ended up with 6 pairs of jocks, 6 cords to charge my phone, 8 pens, a tube of punctured rectal cream which leaks through everything, enough warm clothes for Antarctica but no long trousers or long-sleeved shirt or coffee maker. My walking boots which gave me blisters walking 200 metres down Ann St in Brisbane have, however been replaced. My consumer blitz also delivers me a new espresso maker and a head torch (another useful omission during my packing frenzy).

Post Katherine Gorge kayak we meet back at the Coffee Club. We are now life members. Jill and Roger report, they covered the Katherine Gorge sprint of 3.2 kms in the unparalled time of 30 minutes. Since the Olympic record for the K1 2000 metres is about 30 seconds, some Olympic training is still required but I don’t mention this.

During their absence I have discovered the Katherine library which has also set a world record for a public library internet charge of $6 per hour. A good book burning is deserved for unrivalled public exploitation.

We have some final tasks before we leave. Woolworths is calling, as is shopping for a few car spares. We head for Repco to buy hoses and belts among other things but in keeping with all things mechanical leave empty handed. Katherine’s biggest car spares place has no spares for Australia’s second most popular four-wheel drive.

Our time in Katherine is almost at an end. Time for a barbie at the hot springs and a moonlight swim. We head out to the springs for dinner. It’s the last supper in Katherine.

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 4) – Kakadu Pt. 2

The end of week one sees us heading for Cooinda to do the obligatory Yellow Waters Cruise and, beyond that, further south to Gunlom and Koolpin Gorge._MG_0475

We are booked in for a sunset cruise and arrive in time to set up camp and head down to Yellow Waters, a part of the South Alligator wetlands. I last did this cruise 20 years ago. There was one boat with about 15 people on the evening cruise, now there are four boats each with forty people on board.IMG_0403

The Yellow Waters sunset cruise used to be one of the truly great wetland experiences, particularly later in the year when up to a million magpie geese feed on the wetlands along with thousands of other water birds. I am cynical that with 160 people on four boats it will be anything other than a very superficial tourist experience, but am pleasantly surprised. You still get to see much of what you would have seen in a smaller boat and the guide is excellent. The only drawback being one can’t really ask the questions one used to be able to ask.

_MG_0423We spend the night at the Cooinda Hotel camp ground. It’s not the most peaceful or natural of locations and for pretty much every resident of the campground sleep was an intermittent exercise up until about 2 am, at which point the group of ten or so Indian tourists, who had been attempting to imitate a Bombay Indian wedding with 1000 guests, decided to turn in._MG_0527

Dinner duties were allocated to Kaylee and I, but Jill decided that, after about 36 seconds without food, she was hungrier than a bear after winter. Jill has a metronomic gastric system which requires replenishing with tea at about 10 minute intervals and food about every two hours. As a result, when Kaylee and I decamped for pre-dinner drinks at the hotel, dinner duties changed hands. This was to later cause mayhem in the dinner stakes since she and Roger cooked dinner with unauthorised ingredients, thereby throwing succeeding dinners into chaos.

_MG_0518The stress involved in the theft of Kaylee’s and my dinner ingredients leads to an urgent requirement for relief for Jill. This involves plugging her earphones into her iPod, closing her eyes and performing a public dance routine that involves some form of cross between rap, salsa, a brolga dancing, yoga, and giving birth. But it seems to work for Jill and provides some degree of hilarity for the rest of the campground.

On Monday July 7, we decamp for Koolpin Gorge and Gunlom (formerly UDP (Uranium Development Project Falls – named romantically by mining companies at the height of the 60s uranium boom). However Koolpin is closed due to a large saltie having been spotted. It’s now almost 50 years since crocodiles were hunted almost to extinction and they are no longer scared of humans. As numbers have increased the smaller crocs have been forced further upstream and places where it was perfectly safe to swim 20 years ago are no longer safe._MG_0417

With plan A foiled by too much crocodile sex, we head for Gunlom. Jill has attempted to reach back into her memory synapses and has convinced us that she once visited Gunlom and that it was the highlight of her previous trip to the NT…astoundingly fabulous. She has talked it up so much that she is now nervous that we will not be impressed.

All of this area including Koolpin was once excluded from Kakadu. The Hawke Government promised to include it as the third extension of Kakadu and the two grazing leases, Gimbat and Goodparla were resumed for that purpose. But in the 1980s BHP discovered gold at Coronation Hill._MG_0514

As a result there was a 10 year struggle to prevent gold mining before Kakadu was eventually extended in 1991. So this area has a special significance for me as I was part of that struggle for the three years when I lived in Darwin and for a week in February 1988, Richard Ledgar, another local, Scott Wootten, and I sat on BHP’s drill rig and loade_MG_0420r at the exploration site at Coronation Hill to highlight the illegal nature of the exploration permit.

(for more on Coronation Hill see:

http://chrisharris.id.au/on-top-of-coronation-hill/ and images at

https://www.flickr.com/photos/29402953@N02/sets/72157606707022747/detail/

As we drive towards Gunlom the butterfly wings start beating again. Kaylee comments that she has noticed an odd noise under the vehicle but we all rush to reassure each other that chaos is not about to befall us again. We pull in for a short walk up a gorge to a waterfall.

After a quick leg stretch we are getting into the car and Jill notices a bit of metal hanging down beneath the car. We check it out – it is a metal plate that protects the underside of the radiator which has buckled. Not much we can do. But Jill decides on immediate remedial action and decides to repair the loose metal by backing over the largest rock in the car park. That fixed it. No more loose metal. We pick it up and chuck it in the back of the Nissan. As we are driving to Gunlom, Jill comments once again on the spongy brakes.

We arrive at Gunlom at lunchtime and after a quick lunch head straight for the plunge pool for a swim. There are about 10 people swimming and a conversation ensues about water temperatures at various beaches including WA._MG_0506

This leads onto the the issue of WA shark attacks at which point I “politely” point out that the WA Government’s policy on killing sharks could only have been designed by a bunch of ignorant, ill-informed fuckwit bogans. The man on my right demurs and a “conversation” ensues in which it turns out our fellow tourist believes that anything that threatens human life should be exterminated including all crocodiles.

I refrain from telling him that he is Richard Head or pointing out that his knowledge of ecology could fit into a box of matches, so peace is restored.

We are standing around after swimming and the chaos theory activates for the fourth time. A passing tourist tells us he has noted a leak near the rear passenger wheel. He thinks it might be transmission fluid. We check it out and it is clearly a brake line issue. At this point there is no mechanic, no phone line, internet or mobile reception.IMG_1495

The four of us enter bush mechanic mode in which state all Australians know everything about repairing cars with bog, fencing wire and cable ties. It appears the join between the metal brake line and the rubber brake line is leaking. We opt for a bodgy repair using two pack bog which we borrow from our neighbours. If we can slow or stop the leak we figure we can get to Pine Creek on the spare lot of brake fluid we have purchased from the campground caretaker

Eventually Roger locates the exact source of the leak which is a crack on the upper side of the brake line. The bog will clearly not work. We now need to find something to bind the pipe. It must be non-porous, highly flexible and resistant to break fluid. We debate where to find this magical repair material. Eventually Jill suggests dental floss. The brains trust considers. It’s a wax coated nylon, thin and flexible. Perfect. Roger and Jill go to work and in an hour the brake line is perfectly bodgied with dental floss and white cable ties, of course, to coordinate with the dental floss.

The following morning we leave Gunlom. Roger is on the wheel and I am on the handbrake. We make haste slowly. The process is that at each creek crossing Roger slows the car with the gears and where necessary I add extra braking with the park brake. We try to avoid doughnuts wherever possible but soon the excitement is getting too much for us and Roger and I decide to form a rally driving team on our return to civilisation.

At 10 am we arrive in Pine Creek sans accidents. Finally I call Nathan the company owner and explain the dilemma. There is nowhere in Pine Creek where we can get the brake lines fixed and we cannot buy more brake fluid to replenish our supply. Nathan cannot send a replacement vehicle because he is not allowed to risk the safety of his mechanic in a dodgy vehicle but, no worries, it’s ok for us to go to Katherine where we can get the brakes repaired. Boldly we press on using our patented gears and handbrake technique.

Roger and I are bonding nicely and we decide, in addition to our rally driving venture, to form a band based on our shared knowledge of Patti Smith and the Grateful Dead. The conversation mutates into one about road trips and I reveal that in 1993 I toured the US, Canada and Mexico in an $1100 blue and white Kombi purchased in Oregon and equipped with everything a person could wish for; a reconditioned engine and a Grateful Dead sticker. Could any human being be more cool?

Finally we roll into Katherine and overshoot our designated mechanic when the gear/handbrake stop is not effectively coordinated. By the time we eventually stop we are in downtown Katherine where, cleverly avoiding an oncoming road train with an extra notch on the handbrake, Roger and I drop off Kaylee and Jill at the Coffee Club. The Bundagen/Byron Rally Drivers Assocation then manages to turn around and drop the vehicle off at the mechanics. At this point we have no prognosis on the recovery of our vehicle which we have named Beyonce.

In the absence of any future but an indefinite stay in Katherine town, a place which would feature only one star on any reputable trip advisor, we decide to drown our sorrows with alcohol. We ask a local shopkeeper which is the best pub. She wouldn’t recommend any. I translate for Jill and Kaylee. She means we have a chance of encountering Aborigines in them which makes them undesirable destinations. It appears the RSL is the drinking whole of choice for the colonial white population. Absent other recommendations we decamp for the RSL.

Wandering the streets of Katherine while Roger goes to check up on the vehicle, we are hailed by a passing motorist. She is worried that we appear lost and has seen a group of blackfellas approaching. Our safety is of concern, apparently. She is extremely friendly and offers us a lift to the RSL but her attitude epitomises the state of race relations in Katherine which veers between fear, distrust, contempt and pure racism and hostility.

At the RSL we must remove our hats…it’s important to respect dead people but not the living ancestors of this ancient continent’s original inhabitants.

We settle in for a stay in Katherine, which remains the shit hole it always has been.

Beating About the Bush, 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 3 – Kakadu, Pt 1)

We approach the Kakadu Highway the main road between Pine Creek and Jabiru. Kaylee complains about the brakes, they are spongy and it takes a while to stop. But we think maybe it is just dust or water in the brakes. Next stop is Nourlangie Rock.

The car park is packed. It is a chaos of buses, cars and a parade of 4WDs in all shapes and sizes. Two rangers are checking park entry tickets. They are being harangued by a French man in his 50s who appears not to understand that it is not the rangers’ fault that he is apparently functionality illiterate and cannot understand signs with the simple words “park entry permit required”. I wish I had a baguette and I would stuff it somewhere he deserved.

It is the antipodean version of my experience in France where ignorant English speakers would behave like ill-mannered louts if someone couldn’t speak English. First ask your question. If you don’t get the answer you want repeat the question, just louder until you are shouting. Always felt like I should hand them the quotation that says “the definition of stupidity is repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome”.

We do a lazy tour of Nourlangie, admiring some of the world’s finest indigenous rock art, and then climb to the lookout. We wonder why the parks service still insists of retaining signs calling it Nourlangie when the interpretive signs clearly say that the traditional owners want it renamed with its traditional name. Renaming would have the additional advantage that a large proportion of visitors would no longer be able to find it and would make the visit of the remainder much more pleasant.

 

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Anbangbang Billabong

 

 

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Nourlangie Rock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of the visitors are blissfully ignorant that if our Governments of both political persuasions had got their way, Nourlangie Rock would have been blessed with the sound and dust of the Koongarra uranium mine only a couple of kilometres distant. The proposed mine lease was only added to the park this year due to the persistent opposition of the Aboriginal traditional owners to mining at the location.

Lunch brings us to Jabiru, the mining town created for the Ranger uranium mine. It is a little oasis of neo-colonial white development on Aboriginal land. The Ranger mining lease existed before the park was created and prior to land rights, so traditional owners had no right to veto it, had they wanted to.

Tidy quarter acre blocks bake in the sun each with their ugly brick veneer home. In common with most white communities in the NT, Jabiru has a major drinking and domestic violence problem but the fact that it is hidden behind the neat facades of modern Australia mean that the whites can look down on the black community for which the issues with alcohol and violence are played out on the streets.

Ranger has been operating for about 35 years. It is a model of mismanagement, regularly enduring accidents, leaks of contaminated water and similar malfunctions. But neither Federal nor NT Governments really care since both are client states of the mining industry. So Ranger which should have been closed years ago goes on blithely.

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Three wise monkey syndrome

Our party of four stumble on. We plan nothing but still operate more smoothly than the Ranger mine. We have forgotten that it is Saturday, so our planned shopping expedition suffers credit card interruptus because the supermarket closes at 3 pm and we are forced to decamp sans espresso maker. Mawson was forced to eat huskies and I shall be forced to drink earl grey. In fact I shall apparently be forced to drink very often. So far we are two days behind schedule, solely and only because Jill insists on stopping for tea about every 17 minutes. Few first world problems could be more daunting than earl grey tea every 17 minutes and no coffee.

Next stop is Ubirr. The road is now sealed and the crossing of Magela Creek is now a routine exercise. Many of the side roads down which one could venture to the flood plain have been closed and locked with gates. The camp ground which used to border the East Alligator is now set back 3 kilometres from it and the Border store which was once an archetypal remote store now has a Thai restaurant.

 

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Ubirr Sunset
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Ubirr Sunset

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ubirr is not only a major rock art site but also one of the best places in the park to experience the interaction of flood plain and stone country. I have visited it more than 20 times over the years to experience the sublime sunsets from the top of the rock and the unequalled sense of the spiritual. Some of that remains although the numbers watching the sunset have increased more than 10 fold and there are more than 200 people enjoying the Kakadu equivalent of Uluru’s sunset strip.

Jill is so seduced by the elixir of sunset and flood that, despite her alleged fear of heights, she think she can fly and edges ever closer the the rock edge much to Kaylee’s consternation, who as a result has her tranquil Ubirr experience stressed.

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Atop Ubirr
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Barramundi Rock Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner time brings us to the Border Store, which is arguably Australia’s most remote Thai restaurant. We eat duck curry surrounded by $1000 art works all of which lean crazily on bits of wire. But the food and coffee are good. But no dessert…Kaylee is devastated and is suffering dessert withdrawal symptoms which lead to an onset of memory loss over coming days…such as losing her phone which she plugged in only 30 seconds ago and going for a shower with no soap, towel, shampoo, or change of clothes, but she took her phone.

Before leaving the Ubirr area we embark on a short walk around the rock country near the East Alligator River. As with almost of Kakadu there is rock art on most of the rock outcrops. Crane your head and some figure or creature appears; the entire landscape is peopled by the spirits of 40,000 years of occupation.

Finally we head down to Cahills Crossing where one crosses the East Alligator from Kakadu into Arnhem Land. The crossing is a sort of mythical divide between Aboriginal Arnhem Land and the rest of Australia and is impassable in the wet. The occasional person has become crocodile bait here. In 1987 a local miner imbued with alcohol immunity waded into the downstream side of the crossing to fish one evening, despite warnings of sitings of a large black crocodile. He was reported to have said that he had been fishing there for 15 years. Minutes later he was dead. So it goes.

Most years people get caught out by a sudden onset of the wet and get trapped on one side or the other; in 1988 a sudden wet caught dozens of vehicles on the Arnhem Land side and the Gagadju Association did a nice business towing vehicles across using its grader. Cost $200 a pop.

Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 2) – Twin Falls

To Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls

At noon, Darwin lies 200 km behind us. We have entered Kakadu National Park. The blind have commenced to lead the blind, as Roger asks me for dirt road driving tips.

It is true that I spent four years driving four-wheel drives around the NT but I also very successfully wrote off Kaylee’s Subaru on a dirt road in NSW, by spinning it 360 and rolling it back on to its wheels on the other side of the fence; some might argue that this makes me eminently qualified since the greatest cause of death in the NT is single vehicle roll-over…so my skills are clearly in keeping with NT driving.

We are heading for Twin Falls where we have a permit to camp on top of those falls. At 3.30 pm we turn onto the Jim Jim Falls road. Where there used to be a beautiful bush track winding through the trees, the national parks service has now created a corrugated four lane dirt monstrosity. Such are the perils of re-visiting favourite spots 20 years on.

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We stop at the camp ground just 10 km from Jim Jim falls. We are sold a $12.50 ticket to take a boat trip up Twin Falls gorge. The cost is a rip-off but is apparently justified because one can no longer swim up the gorge, as we used to, due to saltwater crocs. Crocs in the gorge and sharks in the camp ground.

I am under the illusion we need to take this boat to get to the start of the waterfall. Years ago we used to climb the scree slope on the far side of the plunge pool and walk from there to the top of Twin. IMG_1452We race to get the final boat which is advertised as departing at 5 pm. But when we arrive we discover the last boat departs at 4 pm. Fortunately we also discover the walk starts from the car park near Twin Falls, not from near the plunge pool as it used to do. It is success through chaos.

I am nervous about the (short) day walk. My knees and ankles have got progressively worse over the last years, the heritage of too many football, skiing and running injuries. I am now a human melange with a 58 year old body, the standard chronologically challenged brain of any male and 80 year old knees and ankles, according to the knee specialist.

There are four in our party….me, my partner, Kaylee MacKenzie and two very old friends Roger Horton and Jill Everett. Kaylee and I have travelled together extensively but we have not travelled as a group . We are conducting a social experiment in tolerance and learning. In many  ways it is not the Odd Couple but the Odd Quartet.IMG_1444Roger is a tall, calm, tolerant red-head, in many ways  the perfect traveling companion.

Kaylee and Jill are highly excitable, exuberant individuals with a  tendency to being highly stressed and a commensurate tendency to want things to be under control. They  are both teachers…enough said. Being modest, I hesitate to describe my numerous qualities but I am  blessed with a tendency towards order and loss. If I can give orders, I will, and I can lose almost any small  items put into my care.

IMG_1445 We climb up the escarpment towards the top of Twin Falls. We are in full late evening sun, it is still 35 degrees plus in the sun. I have a sweat discharge rate high enough to fill Sydney harbour in about 2 hours (as Australians are wont to describe flow rates).

We arrive in Twin Falls Creek as the sun is starting to set. It is just as I remembered; a little miracle of cool swimming holes, pure white sand, red rocks, cascades, bird life and orchids everywhere. Every bushwalkers idea of a perfect camp spot. And there are no mosquitoes worth talking about. The sun sets, doing its cliff reddening duties, as the moon rises. We laze in the water hole, Roger lights a small fire and Kaylee cooks Rat and couscous. We are part of the Gods of Small Things.

It is July 6. We leave our camp site departing for Nourlangie Rock and Jabiru. On the way out we detour to  what is advertised as the falls lookout. But the fall are beautifully hidden around a rock outcrop. No view of  the falls. Lucky for the parks service that they are not a retailer or ACCC would have them for breakfast.

 

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While on top we discover two things; the National Parks Service should be sued for false advertising and Kaylee likes to keep her dress colour coordinated even in the bush. In an effort to coordinate her toenail colours with her shirt colours she bashes her toe on a rock. The resulting    pink and purple colours coordinate with her shirt perfectly.

The matching toe
The matching toe

The shirt

It is July 6. We leave our camp site departing for Nourlangie Rock and Jabiru. On the way out we detour to  what is advertised as the falls lookout. But the fall are beautifully hidden around a rock outcrop. No view of  the falls.

 

Lucky for the parks service that they are not a retailer or ACCC would have them for breakfast.

On returning to the bottom of the escarpment we detour to take the $12.50 boat trip up the gorge. Dennis,  the  guide and boat driver, gives us a run-down of the gorge including the fact that they found a 3.5 metre  saltie here a few years ago after it was opened to tourists and at the time swimming was still allowed.

Hence we now have to take a boat and cannot swim in the falls plunge pool. All that water and nothing to swim in. It’s why few people visit Twin Falls these days.

Hence we now have to take a boat and cannot swim in the falls plunge pool. All that water and nothing to swim in. It’s why few people visit Twin Falls these days.

Next stop is Jim Jim Falls. It is just running and is crowded with visitors and swimmers. Swimming is still permitted immediatley below the falls as it is higher than the final plunge pool at Twin and the giant rocks provide a barrier to saltwater crocs. But it’s no longer the peaceful place it once was.

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Traveling Kakadu is like a permanent exercise in deja vu for me; I spend 3 years out here working for the Northern Land Council at its Parks and Tourism officer. In that role I advised traditional owners on general management issues and on the development of the new plan of management.

Since I worked here visitor numbers appear to have risen about eight-fold. Everything is new and shiny and bound around with rules. Almost everything requires a permit, most major roads have been sealed, small campgrounds have become giant parking lots far removed from the beauty spots at which they were once located. They pulled down paradise and put up a parking lot. So it goes.

 

Beating About the Bush – 60 Days in Northern Australia (Part 1 – Darwin)

Chaos overtakes one very quickly on long trips. The butterfly wings start beating as the aeroplane engines stop and disorder instantly overtakes order.

Overnight in Brisbane and the disappearing fairy has already been in action. Missing, one camera lens, at least one pair of the ten pairs of reading glasses that will be lost en route, the camera manual and miscellaneous other items. But I am redeemed for my sins by having lent my house to friend, Jane Lyons, who mails the items to me in Darwin.

Stepping off the plane in Darwin, one descends into the maelstrom of Darwin airport. It’s a model of Australian transport planning where Government guesses approximately how many people it thinks will use the airport in five years time, then develops an entirely new oil industry and some new mines and finally takes twice as long to build it as planned. Hence it is already too small before it is even finished. Perfect; it can join Sydney’s roads and railways as an example of political foresight.

Darwin, more than 26 years after “permanently” departing, and years after my last long visit, is bizarrely familiar.

The airport is full, literally, with Darwin’s mixture of human hundreds and thousands; the terminal is teeming with black, brown and brindle from every corner of the world, every profession and every attitude. Tourists, rednecks, hippies, professionals, public service, oil industry.

20140627_182742I head for David Cooper’s flat in Nightcliff. David and I shared a house together in Darwin in 1986 and have remained firm friends through Simpson Desert trips, a multitude of partners, jobs and changes of residence. On some foolish night over beer and pesto, long ago, I was created his daughter’s Godless Father, with the responsibility of making her irresponsible, corrupt and Godless. Sadly only the last succeeded and she remains a model citizen unlike all my erstwhile contemporaries who are all Godless communists, fornicators, and conservationists.

David, like Darwin, changes little. At 56 he owns two plastic spoons, a broken boom box, 3 CDs, five milk crates, a saucepan for boiling water and three sets of sheets. Not one shred of wifi microwaves has ever passed his door and to communicate with the world he uses semaphore. The ultimate conservationist, he puts us latte and chardonnay sipping neo-conservationists to shame. But, crucially, his house is full of beer and other essentials

There are more than 60 nationalities living in Darwin. It’s very multicultural communities with a highly visible Aboriginal presence but it’s also home to one of the most redneck, racist Governments in Australia, both historically and currently; hard to believe given the profile of the Queensland, WA and Federal Governments.

This is reference back to a 1990 trip across the Simpson when on arriving in Broken Hill we circled the town like dying vultures looking for espresso. On spotting a cappuccino sign we descend like ravenous timber wolves and order four coffees. The machine is on, the proprietor removes the handle. We are slavering. Then he reaches for the tin of Pablo (definitely the worst instant coffee ever made) and a collective psychic groan is emitted that can be heard in Newtown and Fitzroy.

20140627_182833The most visible changes to Darwin are Mitchell St where hordes of backpackers check each other out and estimate, from beneath the effects of eight Coronas, their chances of a one night stand. Failing that they can compete in projectile vomiting the dollars they have just earned.

Darwin’s population, including Palmerston has grown 50% in 25 years from 80,000 to 120,000, but it’s still hard to get a decent meal out in most parts of Darwin. However in keeping with Australian culture one no longer has to rely on one cafe, the Roma Bar, for decent coffee. In recognition of the coffee drought that will surely descend, we coffee up.20140627_182458

Darwin’s city buildings are outstandingly some of the ugliest to have ever graced a capital city but it does have one of the best small city museums in Australia and elsewhere, in which still ‘lives’ Sweetheart a six metre crocodile which was drowned in the Daly river when he was being re-located.

I have been in Darwin four days patiently waiting for my parcel and the rest of the road-trip crew. On the morning I am due to pick them up at the airport I call our 4WD hire company. Nathan tells me his vehicle has disappeared. It is overdue. My package, courtesy of Australia Post, is also lost in action. The butterfly wings are beating rapidly. I borrow David’s car to pick up my fellow travellers, warning them that it is highly possible given the disappearances that these disappearances are likely to be balanced by the karmic re-appearance of a piece of MH370 that has hitherto been lost in the stratosphere.

We are consigned to another night in Darwin. It turns out to be the NT’s celebration of partial self-government. Only in the NT could they celebrate that. It is an excuse for a massive fireworks display. But unlike the rest of Australia where Governments take the nanny state approach in the NT they take the Darwinian approach of the survival of the fittest. Anyone can buy fireworks and release them pretty well anywhere.

Mine host and partner, Karen, elope to a hotel in deepest downtown Darwin which is a largely fireworks free zone. Kaylee and I remain in his flat and are subjected to the biggest bombardment since the RAF murdered thousands in destroying Dresden during World War 2. We awake in the morning to news of one blinding, a farmer who burned his entire hay store, 70 random bushfires, two house fires and numerous minor burns. It is Darwin hospital’s busiest day of the year. Another glorious celebration of partial self-government.

And our four-wheel drive is still lost. Finally at 2 pm the errant vehicle emerges. The party “lost track of time and distances”. Nothing has changed up here since Burke and Wills. And my package is still somewhere between Byron and Darwin. Australia Post can’t even track it since it appears the Byron PO “forgot” to scan the barcode properly. Being Byron, we understand. And of course it is likely that our friends in the Darwin PO have the same handicap.

Nathan puts us up in a Darwin Hotel. Roger and Jill our erstwhile travelling companions demonstrate their long experience of boutique hotels by declaring our neo-3 star hotel as “luxurious”. Gina Rinehart eat your heart out.

Finally next day Nathan arrives at 8 am with the vehicle. We have a quick one-hour demonstration of how everything works which, it subsequently, emerges, we all heard quite differently and don’t know what does what. Consequently Roger tries to cook dinner the first night with the fridge. In recognition of my immense ability to lose anything smaller than a truck tyre I am prohibited from looking after the keys or the emergency beacon.

At 10 am we finally depart Darwin.

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