MistyNites

My Life in Motion

The Red Centre

It’s interesting how different an experience people can have at a place. I recently heard someone say their friend described Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) as ‘just a big rock’ and as such they weren’t fussed about going themselves. To say my opinion of Uluru is the total opposite would be an understatement. From the moment I stepped off the airport transfer bus at the Ayers Rock Resort, there was the hint in the air of something special. I cannot put in words the emotions that I have attached to the next few days of my trip. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but something about this place spoke to me in a manner that I cannot describe. Perhaps it was the immense heat fogging up my perception. Or the mesmerising idyll of the red sandy desert. Or the fact that I saw some things that I’d wanted to for a long time. Or perhaps it was all of it, combined together into a hot desert perfection. Whatever the reason, Australia’s Red Centre is a very special place for me.

A lot of people visiting Uluru do so from Alice Springs, nearly 6hrs away. Without your own transport this means being tied to the constraints of an organised tour. When I found out about the Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara, the nearest accommodation to Uluru, I knew that this was where I was going to stay. Offering a choice of accommodation types, a retail and eatery zone, and ready access to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, it was the perfect base to explore the area. I was on a budget and had booked into the backpacker wing of the Outback Pioneer Lodge. The complementary shuttle from the nearby airfield circled the upmarket resort accommodation first before dropping me off at the lodge. There was a bit of queue to check in, but getting this out the way, I was soon dumping my stuff and getting out to explore. The resort is set up in a large U-shape with a wide wild zone in the middle. The tourism and retail centre was at the far side of this central wilderness zone from my accommodation, but despite the heat and availability of a resort shuttle that regularly loops between the zones, I decided to walk under the blazing sun to the retail area to arrange some excursions, grab a drink at the cafe and visit the supermarket to stock up on food. Reliant on a twice weekly train delivery for supplies, there were quite a few empty sections where stock had run low. This was life in the Outback.

 

Taking the shuttle bus back to the lodge, I followed a trail leading out the back of the accommodation, up a small hill to a view point where I could see not only across the desert to Uluru but also Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas), the lesser known rock formations in the region. A crowd gathered as the sun lowered, and we watched the changing colours across the famous red rock. The resort is littered with walking trails, several of which lead to natural hillocks offering a sunset and sunrise viewing spot. Aside from the people, I was accompanied by some doves and as the sun lowered, a large colony of ants appeared out of the ground. Aside from a few wisps near the horizon, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I watched in silence as the rocks turned from orange to various shades of red, and the sky went through a range of blues. Only once the colour changes faded into darkness did I leave to eat dinner before going on a night time excursion.

 

My trip to Yulara coincided with a temporary outdoor art exhibit called the Field of Lights. At the time of visiting, it was only due to be there for a few months, but it has since been extended until 2020. Made up of 50,000 lights spread across the equivalent of 7 football fields, the artist Bruce Munro has created a colour-changing light display to be enjoyed in the darkness of the desert night. It has proved very popular and was close to being booked out during my visit. I had had problems making a booking online in advance and as such thought I would have to miss out on it, but I was lucky to be able to grab a last minute ticket the day I arrived, and at the scheduled time on my ticket, I joined several coach loads of people to drive out to the field in the middle of nowhere to go see it. After a briefing from the staff about how best to enjoy it, and when to be back at the bus, I did my best to escape the crowd and take it all in.

Two paths lead through the exhibit – a long path and a short path. I opted for the longer one first and once the crowd of visitors thinned out a little, it was easy to get lost in my own thoughts. Early on into the experience I looked up to see not only an amazing array of stars but I was overwhelmed to see the Milky Way very distinctly sweeping across the sky above my head. I’d never seen the Milky Way before and I was awestruck at how clearly it appeared. I spent the rest of the night torn between the dazzling light display below eye level and the mesmerising astronomic display above me. Following first the long path and then looping back round through the short path, I was last to get back to the bus pick-up area, only to discover our bus was running late. I spent the time staring up at the Milky Way until it was time to board and return to our accommodation where I attempted to sleep in the hot and tiny dorm room.

 

The next morning I was awoken by my roommates stirring so it seemed like a good idea to get up and watch the sunrise. Donning my clothes and making the short distance to the lookout hillock, I huddled in the chill morning air watching the colour creep back into the sky and the landscape below it. It amazes me how cold the desert night is, considering how hot the desert day is. I’ve read stories of people lost in the desert succumbing to the cold nights despite putting up with the hot arid days. As time passed I was eventually joined by others although less than had ventured out the night before for the sunset.

The hulking outline of Uluru grew clearer and clearer as the sky turned from a deep blue, lightening through to peach and pink ahead of the sun bursting above the horizon. Then the form of Uluru changed once more from a deep red, lightening up to the characteristic orange. In the distance, Kata Tjuta went through the same changes and it was very evident it was going to be another cloudless day. Aside from those other early risers, there were a couple of courting doves strutting around the lookout, and unfamiliar birds flitting around the nearby foliage.

 

The sun rose quite quickly and there was plenty of light spilling across the landscape by the time I retraced my steps back to my room to get ready for the day. I had pre-purchased a ticket for the Uluru Hop-On, Hop-Off bus service and arranged to be collected for the first day trip into the park. Ready and waiting, I was excited to board and get going, ready to explore up close the behemoth that I’d come all this way to see. Just a short drive from Yulara, we reached the entrance to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, an exposed tourist mecca under the baking Outback sun. This was the day I had waited for for a very long time.

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Heading East

My visit to Western Australia’s Rottnest Island, an absolute gem of a place, marked the most western point of my great Australian adventure. From now onward, it was all about moving eastward. I’d arrived back in Fremantle in the darkness, and made my way back through the streets with the hope of grabbing some dinner at the Fremantle market. Unfortunately, I arrived just as the place was beginning to wind down, and I was forced to pick my way through the Friday night revellers to find a place to get dinner. Thankfully the market was open again on Saturday morning, because my brief foray into it had looked like it was worth some time, so that next morning, after I lazily got myself up, packed up once more and checked out of the prison hostel, I headed down there for brunch. And it was awesome.

Full of stalls selling artwork, gifts, homeware, clothes, jewellery, and a ream of other things, it also had a fresh fruit section at one end, nestled amongst a choice of food options, with sweet treats, meat, and drinks also well catered for. Whilst quite different from Adelaide‘s Central Market (my favourite market in Australia), my enjoyment of the Fremantle market rivalled that which I had had wandering around Adelaide’s market, and I wished many times, that I not only owned a house, but also lived locally, so that I could go to town buying beautiful paintings and the like. I spent quite a bit of money there, finding gifts for my family, buying gifts for myself, and sampling several of the food and drink options. I have a rule that I will never diet on holidays – travelling is all about enjoying, experiencing and embracing cultures, and I very much include cuisine in that category. After 4.5 weeks on the road though, I had definitely overindulged and was both looking it and feeling it. But I wasn’t ready to stop pigging out yet.

 

Eventually though, it was time to bid farewell to Fremantle and head back to Perth. My flight was leaving early the next morning, so I needed to be in a more convenient location to get to the airport, meaning I was returning to the hostel in Perth’s city centre that I had stayed at a few nights prior. It was a noisy trundle through Fremantle’s streets with my suitcase, returning to the train station to catch the convenient service back to Perth, then after trundling to the hostel and dumping my stuff, I was ready to explore the state capital’s city once more.

I was aiming for Elizabeth Quay, but I got side-tracked at Stirling Gardens where there were some life-sized sculptures of kangaroos and a view across to the pretty St George’s Cathedral. At the far end of the garden was the Supreme Court building which stood looking rather grand. Towering above it was a hint of what was to come, as I discovered a plethora of large cranes dominating the skyline as I moved closer and closer to the quay. The Bell Tower is a rather distinctive spire that points sharply up towards the sky, and for a small fee you can go up it and get a view over the nearby area. What I discovered sadly, was that its view is very rapidly diminishing as a multi-million dollar development including casino and restaurants is rising up from the ground right next to it. The view it used to have over Elizabeth Quay and the city centre skyrises, was marred by the cranes at the time of visiting, but will eventually be blocked out. As unique as the building is to look at, I feel the value in going up to the lookout level will soon be rather limited.

 

Skirting round the construction site, the area around Elizabeth Quay was much more pleasant to wander around. The broad expanse of the Swan River lies to one side, and the waterfront development to the other. It was yet another roasting hot day, and after taking in the views over Elizabeth Quay from Elizabeth Quay Island, I managed to procure a table at the exceedingly packed rotunda-shaped restaurant overlooking the waterfront. In a moment of thoughtlessness, I requested a table in the sunshine, and proceeded to perspire greatly as I sipped on a chilled cider and tucked into a pizza. Nearby, the beautiful archways of the Elizabeth Quay bridge led off to the far side.

 

Once full, I joined the steady stream of people to meander across the bridge, arriving at the sparkling First Contact Sculpture which stood proudly on the banks of the river. From this far side, the cranes made an interesting juxtaposition against the spire of the Bell Tower, and I simply followed the waterfront back round in a circle, admiring the large arches of Spanda up close, and finding myself at Gusto Gelato, a locally famous gelato parlour with a rather long queue out the door. I did not need any more food, but I wasn’t going to miss out on a local legend, and thank goodness I didn’t skip it, as it turned out to be the most deliciously delightful ice cream I have ever eaten.

 

After vegetating at the waterfront to allow for a bit of digestion, I decided to round off the afternoon by taking a long walk north in an effort to justify all the calories I’d eaten that day. I had my sights set on Hyde Park in the north of the city, and made a beeline for William St, a long road that led from the waterfront all the way there. This led me first through the streets of skyrises in the CBD (central business district), across the railway lines of the central railway station, and north into a student area and then Chinatown. The TAFE building had some artwork on its walls which distracted me briefly away from the main road, and I perused the windows of the Asian food marts and Chinese restaurants as I passed.

 

By the time I reached Hyde Park, after what felt like a very long time, the clouds had begun to pack in a little, and I was a little disappointed with the park itself. I think the name had led me to believe it would be some beautifully grand expanse, but although the central lakes provided some incredible reflections as I walked around, it was smaller than I imagined, and being September at the time, the plant life was not in its prime. It was however very busy: surrounded by residential streets and being a Saturday, it was abuzz with families and friends enjoying themselves with picnics. I sat for a while in contemplation. I was moving into my final week of my trip, and it was suddenly hitting me that my adventure was nearly over. Grabbing a bubble tea on my way back through Chinatown, it was time to return to my hostel, ahead of an early rise the next morning.

 

After all the overindulgence the day before, I awoke feeling a bit rotten. In the end, I had to quickstep to the bus stop to catch the airport bus, making it with just a few minutes to spare. Being early on a Sunday, both it and the airport were quite quiet. Taking off and heading east, I was returning to Adelaide in South Australia, a city I hadn’t been to since 2014. One of my old work colleagues from my former life in Scotland has made Adelaide her home, and having not seen her since that last trip, I was to have a flying visit with her for 24 hours. My stay coincided with the Adelaide Show, and after picking me up, we headed straight there.

A smaller version of the Melbourne Show which I’d attended back in 2012, it was still full of activity, from carnival rides to eateries, to outdoor shows and beyond. We decided to do one carnival ride, a 9D movie experience that was pretty terrible, then we watched drone racing, a sport which I’d never known was possible, and then we stood for ages for a prime viewing spot at the pig racing, an event which proved highly popular and entertaining despite not lasting very long. We hung out over drinks and food, catching up on each other’s lives, before heading indoors to join the crowds at the show bag arena, something which had amused and intrigued me in equal measures at the Melbourne Show. An entire hall was dedicated to selling bags containing whatever themed goodies your heart could desire, from kids shows, to daytime tv and movies, as well as perfumes and magazines. My need for a hat at my next destination tempted me to buy the Home & Away themed show bag, and finally it was time to head back to my friend’s place for dinner and drinks.

 

My friend’s partner ran me back to the airport the next morning. There was a sense of familiarity about the place, and I grabbed myself some breakfast before meandering around the displays and shops. I was amused to find a smiling face at the bottom of my cup of coffee, but it seemed fitting as I was heading to a part of the country that I had wanted to visit for some time. I had an indirect flight with a very short connecting time, so I was a little anxious when my flight was delayed. After take-off we headed north over the great Australian desert landscape, the near-featureless expanse stretching out for miles below us. Against the burnt orange, great grey-white lakes offered occasional contrast, and then finally we descended towards Alice Springs, a semi-green little oasis amongst the burnt orange. We’d managed to make up some time, and in the end the plane landed just 10 minutes late. Alice Springs airport was small, and in the shortest time I’ve ever spent in an airport in my whole life, I entered the terminal building having disembarked the plane, to find myself already at the gate for my next flight, and they were announcing boarding as I walked in the door. Assured that my luggage would be there to greet me at the other end, I headed back out onto the tarmac to board my second flight. Then it was just a 40 minute plane ride to Yulara, the closest airport to Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock. And so began the incredible trip to Australia’s Red Centre.

Rottnest Island

When I stepped outside to be greeted by a grey, overcast morning, I was a little disheartened. But with a ferry to catch there was no time to waste on disappointment, and so I hoofed it down to the Fremantle wharf near the mouth of the Swan River. It was a busy sailing with workers, locals and tourists all in the mix. In just 25mins, the Rottnest Express whisked us out onto the Indian Ocean and across to one of Western Australia’s gems: Rottnest Island. When I first read about it, I discovered that it was home to a marsupial creature that I hadn’t heard of prior: a quokka, and out on the island, they were effectively a guaranteed sighting. I’d booked a deal with the ferry company to get a day’s bike rental with my ferry ticket, and this opened up the whole island to explore at my leisure. I was certainly going to make the most of it, and it didn’t take long for the island’s charms to grasp me firmly. What followed was the highlight of my short but sweet Western Australia explorations.

Arriving into Thomson Bay, there was a flurry of activity as supplies for the island and bikes for the tourists were unloaded. After saddling up, my first port of call was the IGA food mart to get some edibles for the day. It wasn’t until I came outside that I realised I had walked right past a quokka, and having spotted one, I suddenly realised there were many others. Whilst I tried to remain casual about the whole thing, there were several people kneeling and lying down trying to get selfies and close ups with the inquisitive creatures, and it was hard to resist joining in. I succumbed eventually, as they were more than eager to come up close, and it left me feeling excited for the day ahead.

 

I cycled along the Thomson Bay foreshore towards Kingston Barracks. I had tried to book a night here but unfortunately they were closed for the season, and the other accommodation on the island was outwith my budget. So I was eager to cover as much distance as I could before the evening ferry back to the mainland. The barracks themselves didn’t hold my attention for long, but nearby there were more quokka nibbling on the verge, and further round there was a peaceful and deserted little beach.

 

There were plenty of other cyclists, but it never felt busy or overcrowded, and there were several routes and directions to choose from. Following the coastline, I reached Henrietta rocks where a walkway lead down to a rock-strewn beach and a shipwreck lay sticking out of the water a little off shore. I read that it was a good place to snorkel, and I had planned on going in for a nosy, however there was not another soul in sight, and with my track record of sea swimming, I was nervous about going on in my own with no witnesses. I had an internal argument for many minutes before eventually moving onwards.

 

Skirting along the expansive Porpoise Bay, I took a detour out to Parker’s Point where I nabbed a picnic bench to have a snack. There was a cute little beach down the steps from here, and I was excited to find a mother and baby quokka asleep in the bushes nearby. After watching them in silence for a while, I sat back on the bench and opened up some of the food I’d bought. Suddenly, one of the quokka that had been asleep, shot out of the bushes at the sound of the wrapper and not only came right up to me, but started trying to climb up my leg to get to my food. Clearly they’ve been fed in the past, and had a clear association of food and humans, but whilst I stood my ground and gave her none, it was an incredible experience to have her sit right by my feet and watch me intently. Eventually she realised that I wasn’t giving in, and with the food finished she wandered off.

 

Still hungry, I opened another packet of food and out shot a mother and baby to play the same game with me. I was busy trying to join in the game of quokka selfies, and failing badly when a couple from New South Wales joined me. We chatted for a while as they ate, the quokkas again paying them a lot of attention, and as I readied myself to move on after a while, two large king skinks were spotted near the verge.

 

It had been hard to leave that spot, but there was so much of the island to see. By now, the cloud was well on its way to burning off and it was actually turning out to be a gloriously hot and sunny day. As the road continued to follow the coast, there was a consistently beautiful outlook to be had. Round a few bends was Little Salmon Bay and then a beautiful stretch of white sandy beach that curved round Salmon Bay. Considering how beautiful a beach it was, there was only 1 family on it, the kids splashing around in the shallows. Had I had the benefit of more time, I would have lazed on this beach for some time, but with time marching on, I too had to move on.

 

A little further along the road, I took a turn-off onto one of the inland roads, back-tracking a little to take the road to Oliver Hill. Despite the road winding up the hill to the remants of the World War II battery, I was dismayed to see a sign at the bottom saying you couldn’t cycle up. I’m still not sure why this was the case, but I ignored it for half the distance, then dumped my bike in the bushes before marching up the rest of the way, sweating in the heat of the day. After rounding the bend, the slight gain in altitude provided a sweeping view across the large expanse of Serpentine Lake which stretches out towards the island’s airport.

 

At the battery itself, it is possible to do a guided tour into the tunnels, but I wasn’t really fussed about this, so just wandered around the hilltop and a nearby path to soak up the view. From here, there was a view across to the Wadjemup lighthouse and back towards Thomson Bay. Inside one of the guns there was a pair of swifts flitting in and out to a nest. Outside the gunnery, a little train stop marks the end of a railway line that takes people to the battery from the Kingston barracks.

 

Reunited with my bike, I cycled to the shore of Serpentine Lake before back-tracking to the coastal road I’d left before. At the next turn-off I headed towards the lighthouse. A pretty white-washed lighthouse, I parked my bike up and wandered up to the base to discover it was possible to pay a small fee to be taken up by a local guide. On such a beautiful day, I thought it would be worth it just for the view alone. The small group had to squeeze into the increasingly narrow space as we climbed the circular steps up towards the light itself, and a door led out onto a terrace where despite a bit of wind, there was a 360o view over the island. I was enjoying the view immensely until I looked down to see someone walking off with my bike, and then I couldn’t get back down the lighthouse fast enough. I was immensely relieved to discover that my bike was still there and I had confused my bike for a similar looking one.

 

The view from the lighthouse had made me realise how much ground I still had to cover, so I was quick to get back to the main coast road and pedal the distance to the Neck and onwards to the West End. There were a few more people around now, but even with the regular passing of other cyclists, it still didn’t feel overcrowded. There was so much choice of bays and beaches, that everyone seemed to be finding their own wee spot of paradise. At West End however, it was a little busier. On the bus route from Thomson Bay, there were people milling around waiting for the next one.

This was supposed to be a good location to see seals, but unfortunately there were none to spot whilst I was there. After taking a look down at the cliffs and bays that lined the coast here, I sat myself down at a seating area to have a late lunch whilst staring out to sea. Incredibly, I saw two passing humpback whales, which although quite far out from the coast, were still very recognisable, and after all my luck whale watching in Queensland, I couldn’t believe that I was seeing them again on the opposite side of the country.

 

It was quite a beautiful spot to hang out, but it was the busiest part of the island aside from the wharf, so eventually I pushed onwards. The peninsula had a few side-tracks that I took, winding my way back towards the Neck. I found a viewing spot overlooking Mable Cove and Eagle Bay which I had to myself, and then back at the Neck, I took my time passing the white sand of Rocky Bay. The beach here was long and expansive, covering a large section of the northern aspect of the peninsula and neck.

 

Once back on the main section of Rottnest Island, I took the road that headed round the northern coastline, and this brought me first to Stark Bay which was the far end of the same beachfront as Rocky Bay. As much as I was enjoying the sunshine, I was exceptionally hot and sweaty, something that makes suncream application a rather messy affair. Further along the northern coast, was a little turn-off to City of York Bay, and as I’d been at all of the beaches so far, I was tempted to go for a swim and hang around for a bit. There was simply too much choice, and not enough hours in the day.

 

After spotting another quokka mother and joey at the side of the road, the beautiful Catherine Bay was next and after this, I took a detour down to Parakeet Bay which was both stunning and absolutely deserted. A hot and sweaty mess, I decided that this would be the perfect spot for a swim, and took my shoes off to wade into the water. Luckily I did this before getting changed, because as it was September, the water was frigid and my hopes for a cooling dip were dashed. I paddled for a while then wandered across the sand looking at the quokka and seabird tracks that swept across the beach. The sand was a beautiful white colour and the beach was backed by a small dune, making it the perfect rest stop even without the swim.

 

After a while, I rejoined the northern coastal road, passing part of the large Lake Baghdad. The Wadjemup lighthouse stood proud on the hill at the far side, and before I knew it, I reached the settlement of Geordie Bay, a cute little place with holiday homes overlooking yet another gorgeous beach. There was a small store and cafe here, and I took the opportunity to grab refreshments before it closed. Beyond here was a loop leading around the Geordie Bay to Longreach Bay and an area known as the Basin where there were yet more quokkas.

 

Shadows were beginning to stretch across the ground as the sun lowered, and as sunset approached, I picked my way through the holiday park to Bathurst Lighthouse which overlooked Pinky Bay. This turned out to be a popular spot to watch the sunset, with people appearing on the beach and by the lighthouse, many with picnics and wine to watch the approach of dusk. It was yet another beautiful sunset, and I watched the sky change colours before returning to my bike in the growing darkness. Suddenly there were quokkas everywhere, and whilst the light was no longer amenable to photographing them, there was no shortage of them to look at as I meandered back to the wharf at Thomson Bay.

 

Everywhere was closed up for the night with the exception of the Rottnest Hotel. Being a Friday night, it was packed, and I had to forego getting a meal due to the long wait time, instead settling for a cider in the beer garden. It was amusing to watch the quokkas and their joeys move through the sea of feet in the beer garden, and I was immensely sad, though tired, when it was time to pedal back to the wharf to catch the ferry back to Fremantle in the darkness. I’d definitely covered as much of it as I could in one day, thanks to the bike hire, but with the World’s cutest marsupial and a plethora of beaches and bays, Rottnest Island definitely deserves far more time.

Incarcerated in Fremantle

It’s been close to 16 years since I headed off on my first solo adventure, and over that time I’ve stayed in a myriad of accommodation, often hostels, across 6 continents. Many of these places are a blur: forgotten blandness that served no more purpose than to give me a pillow to lay my head on at night. Then there are those that have stuck in my mind, either because of the premises itself or because of a strong memory that it is attached to it. Whilst looking around for a place to stay in Fremantle in Western Australia, I decided to make use of my YHA membership and stay in the hostel that was attached to Fremantle Prison. The hostel itself has been converted from the former Women’s Prison, and as such, the dorm rooms are old cells, and the social areas the old exercise yards.

From the train station near the Swan river, it was a bit of a slog through Fremantle’s streets to get there. I checked in and walked straight round to the prison to inquire about their tour options and decided to splash out and get the all-tour pass. With 4 different tour options offering a variety of styles, these are the only way to access the prison beyond the entrance courtyard. First up would be the torchlight tour that night. The prison ‘guard’ recommended I visit Old Shanghai for dinner, what was effectively a large shed containing a selection of Asian eateries. Whilst my food choice was disappointing, it was a great atmosphere, the place packed full of families and friends enjoying a weekday get-together. Thoroughly satiated, it was time to head back up the hill for my tour.

Built in the 19th century by the convicts it would contain, it remained open as a working prison until 1991, although its condition during those later years of use brought some controversy. It later achieved heritage status, and is now open to the public. My evening tour was to be conducted completely by torchlight, and so followed tales of some of the interesting characters that graced its cells, and warnings about the ghosts that have been seen wandering. Even the former Women’s prison where I was staying is reported to have one. We wandered through a couple of the cell blocks, the kitchen and exercise yards, and round to the hangman’s gallows. In the darkness, this was a rather uncomfortable place to visit, although I guess that’s the point. Afterwards, I found a convict board at the hostel, and did my very best impression of an inbound prisoner.

 

With the 4-tour pass valid for 12 months, I was told most people spread the visits out, but the next morning I was booked to spend the day at the prison completing the other 3 tours. I seemed to amuse a few of the staff there. The morning tour was at a civil hour and so I was able to escape to the main street of Fremantle to get a coffee and muffin from a couple of the area’s recommended eateries. Back at the prison, I was 1 of only 3 people that had signed up to do the Tunnels tour: kitting up and descending into the depths below the prison. After a safety briefing and donning up in protective clothing, a harness and a life jacket, we were ready to go, heading down in pairs down the 20m drop via 3 sets of vertical ladders. The immediate section of the tunnel system was dry and we wandered through, crouching where necessary. When we reached the lower sections which are flooded, we each boarded a little boat to paddle our way through the labyrinth. The tunnels were built by convicts, and I could only imagine how miserable it must have been to work down there day after day. We weren’t able to go into some sections as the air was deemed unsafe, and at one point, our guide told us to turn our flashlights off and navigate in the pitch black. It was difficult not to feel unnerved, trying not to bash into the boat in front whilst not being left behind, following a voice to make sure you took the right turn and grabbing onto the limestone walls to feel your way through the darkness. With the lights turned back on, we passed a cockroach running up the beam, and eventually we headed back to where we’d started, and began our paired ascent back to the surface.

 

We got taken up to the guard tower at the back of the prison which came with its own ghost story and then we were done. After lunch in the prison cafe, I joined the lunchtime Doing Time tour with the same guide I had had the night before. We covered a mix of sections that I’d seen in the dark the night before, and new sections I hadn’t been to yet. We were told about life in the prison and what it would have been like to be a prisoner during the various times throughout its years of use. Finally, immediately after finishing, I found myself to be the solo person on the Great Escapes tour, which being an introvert was a little on the awkward side for me, but my guide regaled me with stories about some of the exceptionally crazy attempts that had been made by convicts desperate to escape. The vast majority failed but it was fascinating listening to what incarceration had driven these people to attempt. This last tour took me into a section of the prison that no other tour had, and by the end of it, I could confidently say I’d covered a large percentage of Fremantle Prison.

 

After changing clothes due to the heat of the day, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the main streets of Fremantle, zig-zagging back and forth to see what I came across. There are some pretty buildings dotted around the place and I followed a trail of these round to Bathers Beach on the western coast. Even on a weekday, there was quite a crowd here, and as the sun set over the Indian Ocean, there was a choice of vantage points to watch it from. Sunsets and sunrises are so regularly missed during my day to day life. In fact, if it wasn’t for travelling, I could probably go a whole year without seeing a single sunrise, and only seeing sunsets at the weekend. But when I’m on holiday, or abroad somewhere new, they take on a whole new significance for me, and I had seen so many of them on my great Australian Adventure.

 

Once in darkness, I was lucky to get a table at the very popular Little Creatures Brewery. My view whilst I ate was overlooking a replica Tall Ship which was moored up right next to the brewery. With an outdoor deck and a children’s sand pit on site, there was a nice vibe to the place. Heading back to the hostel afterwards, a large Ferris wheel lit up the nearby park, and I took an indirect route back to visit the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlour that I had spotted during the day. Finally reaching my hostel, I noted the lack of ghosts, and settled in for a sleep ahead of another early start. But my reward for this early rise was what turned out to be my favourite place in my brief foray into Western Australia.

Terra Australis – Western Australia

In a country as big as Australia, navigating distance also means navigating time. Leaving Darwin behind in the Northern Territory, I flew west towards Western Australia (WA) which was an hour and a half behind the city I’d just left, two hours behind the city I’d started my adventure in, and five hours behind my hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand. Australia likes to confuse things by not adopting daylight savings in every state, so the time differences between states have a seasonal fluctuation. I landed in Perth, the biggest city and state capital of WA and sat on the bus into the city as the sun set. I walked through the city streets to my hostel in descending darkness, eager for a good night’s sleep. Aside from my immensely enjoyable night at sea on the Great Barrier Reef, I had had a plethora of disturbed nights due to the activities of my roommates in shared hostel dorms. I was booked into a dorm room once more, but was pleased to discover there was an available private room to upgrade to. I stepped inside and jumped on the double bed, only to soon discover that the room was overlooking the multiple train lines that headed into Perth’s main train station, and with every train announcing its arrival with a horn, my initial elation dulled slightly as the reality of repetitive train noises sank in.

After an obligatory night in doing laundry, I fell asleep with ease, only to be awoken early by the morning trains tooting below my window. There was no point lying in, and with blue sky above, I got up, checked out and headed out amongst the city workers heading to their day’s employment. I was headed towards Kings Park and the Botanic Gardens within it. I had a particular route in mind, but got a little way-laid, stumbling upon the Barrack’s Arch and then Jacob’s Ladder which was a steep collection of steps which had a surprising amount of people running up and down it for their morning exercise. Beyond here, the entrance to the park was only a little further, and before I’d even made it to the Botanic Gardens, I had fallen head over heels in love with Perth. Kings Park itself is massive, and the views back to the city centre and across the Swan river were stunning. Past a few lookouts, the large war memorial stood proudly on the hilltop against a blue sky. Nearby was a popular cafe and a gift shop which I made the most of by buying some unusual souvenirs.

 

With the mercury rising and the sky remaining blue, it was time to explore the Botanic Gardens. There are a myriad of routes to take through the gardens, and the entrance was marked by a light-catching sculpture that bus loads of tourists crowded around for photo opportunities. Despite being a weekday, the place was mobbed. I opted to take the long loop around the upper aspect of the gardens first and was rewarded with a stunning array of plants and viewpoints as well as wildlife. There were birds I’d never seen before and couldn’t identify, rainbow lorikeets, and a lizard I’d never seen before either. The route took me across a beautiful glass arched bridge also and below me a school party walked on one of the lower trails.

 

Cutting through a woodland section where the light through the branches created a beautiful dappled effect, I made my way back to the garden entrance via a lake with a fountain. This fountain pattern changed over time, and the lawn around it was littered with people enjoying the beautiful weather. After watching the cycle of water, I headed through a wilder section of the gardens with reams of colourful flowers in great swathes spreading away from the footpath.

 

After grabbing a snack at the cafe, I took the clifftop walk which skirted past the Botanic Gardens, and followed the river at height into the depths of Kings Park. This took me under the arched bridge and once away from the Botanic Gardens was a much quieter trail to follow. In fact I stumbled across three furry creatures at the side of the track which I think are bandicoots but I’m not completely sure. It was turning out to be a great place to spot wildlife even although I was still within the city. Eventually the track ended at a lookout and I cut up into Kings Park which was more arid in comparison to the lushness of the Botanic Gardens. A myriad of walking trails cut through the bush and with my park map, I found myself in the far corner of Kings Park at May Drive Parkland.

 

By now it was well into the afternoon and I was starving so a late lunch was in order, and the cafe here was still busy. Nearby a children’s play area and zones to explore lay around a small lake. It was still really hot under the baking sun, so I took my time shade hopping, wandering around the parkland before cutting up a long length of cut lawn back up an incline towards the DNA tower. A metal lookout structure designed to look like the helix of DNA, the view at the top wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped, with the city of Perth a little hidden from view. It had also started to cloud over by the time I’d reached here, and the haze that was forming was a little disappointing.

 

A nearby nature walk followed by a meander through other sections of Kings Park led me in a drawn out way back to the top end of Kings Park, where I trudged my way back to the hostel. After a fantastic day cruising around the incredible inner city green space, it was now rush hour, and I had to join the crowds of people in commuting across the city. Retrieving my luggage, I dragged it to the nearby train station which had woken me up early with its comings and goings, and found my way to the very busy platform to take me to Fremantle on the other side of the Swan River. I’d read so many recommendations to spend more time there than in Perth itself, but frankly my first day in Western Australia had set me off well for loving the place.

Darwin Delights

During the Top End’s dry season, the Mindil Beach markets run weekly, and having been recommended a visit, I was sure not to miss out. Returning to Darwin from Litchfield National Park, I asked to get dropped off there instead of my hostel and the place was buzzing. The sun was still up although lowering and there were crowds packed into the market itself as well as draped across the sand, which was now cool enough to walk on, many of them parked up with edible delights to watch the sunset. There was so much choice for food and the queues at many of them were long. Seeing as I was at the seaside, I opted for fish & chips, and was sadly disappointed with my choice. Nevertheless, I ate what I could stomach whilst the sky turned from orange through to red. Over three weeks into my Australian adventure, I’d been utterly spoilt with sunsets.

 

After the sun dipped below the horizon, I returned to the market which was amazing. Aside from the food stalls, there were some incredible craft stores, and I drooled over a lot of the stuff, wishing I had a big enough house and a lot of money to own it. I ate ice cream, and dutch pancakes, and drank iced tea as I meandered. I was told that Europeans are a great lover of Indigenous artworks, and true to my roots, I saw beautiful painting after beautiful painting. I was determined to find myself something made by an Indigenous artist that was transportable and affordable, and eventually gave in and bought an expensive satchel made by an Indigenous artist through a Co-op. It is so beautiful and was so expensive that I’m actually reluctant to use it, but it came with a photo and bio of the artist that made it. At the outskirts of the market there was entertainment in the form of fire juggling and whip cracking. Having gone round and round the stalls, darkness was now upon me, and being on a backpacker’s budget, I walked past the taxi rank and walked the streets of Darwin back to my hostel.

 

I had one final full day in Darwin and it was yet another scorcher. In fact the sun symbol displayed on my phone’s weather app for many days ahead on the forecast, and my whole time in Darwin had been a fairly steady 35-36oC. Despite the heat, it was going to be a day of walking. I headed to Cullen Bay marina, the picturesque and upmarket part of the city down the hill from where I was staying. There were some boaties eating and planning their race, and I people watched in the outdoor seating area of the cafe, against a background of boats. Nearby, a life-sized statue of a crocodile stands with its mouth agape, a friendly reminder that this is croc country. There are some boutique shops here and the Sea Link ferry to Mandorah on the far side of the immense harbour, and the Tiwi islands leaves from here.

 

I followed the path round the coast and back up the hill to a wasteland patch of grass that overlooks Mindil Beach. A black cockatoo strutted about near the top of a walkway through bush, down the hill to the beach. I walked as far as the bridge at the casino where more black cockatoos were causing a ruckus. Mindil Beach was deserted, partly because it was a weekday, and partly because the sand quickly gets too hot to walk on during the day. After admiring the view, I retraced my steps, happening upon some unusual birds as I returned to the bush.

 

I found myself back at Bicentennial Park, where I’d wandered on my arrival in the city a few nights prior. Overlooking the expansive Darwin Harbour, there are a myriad of viewpoints to look out from. I took my time, ending up at the war memorial and the lookout over Stokes Hill wharf. Round the corner from here is the Supreme Court, the Christ Church Cathedral, and the Smith Street Overbridge which crosses over Kitchener Drive a few stories below, and ends up at the Darwin Waterfront precinct where there is an incredible view and a lift that takes you down the drop in altitude.

 

On the hop-on, hop-off bus two days prior, I had spotted the WWII tunnels that dove into the cliffside, and had decided at that stage that I would go in them before leaving. However, now that I was here, I wasn’t overly fussed, my stomach demanding attention instead. Nearby, I took a table at Chow!, an asian restaurant. I regretted sitting outside as it was unbearably hot, but the food was incredible. I had seen laksa on menus everywhere in the city, and finally got hold of one to eat. I chose roast duck laksa washed down with a chilled cider, but between the hot weather and the spices in the soup, I was sweating buckets.

 

Winding my way to the end of the Stokes Hill wharf, I spotted a ray in the water below. I followed it for a while before it disappeared, and I pressed on to the recently opened joint venture of the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) and the Bombing of Darwin museum. I knew a little about the RFDS already thanks to an Australian soap called The Flying Doctors that aired in the UK when I was growing up, however like the cyclone that destroyed Darwin which I’d learned about at the Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory, I’d never heard about the bombing of Darwin that occurred in 1942 during the Second World War. On entering the museum, I was guided to a virtual reality headset experience which was incredible, and placed you right into the thick of the action via an animation. Although the exhibition was small, the videos and holograms meant it was easy to pass quite a bit of time here, and I was impressed with how well it had been done.

 

After indulging in some ice cream, I returned to the Waterfront Precinct and went to the Wave Lagoon. I’d made it here later than planned, and had somewhere to be in the evening, so I had only 40mins to enjoy the place. I couldn’t believe it when I saw someone in the pool who I’d seen regularly on my Queensland travels, and I managed to make an idiot of myself several times trying to get myself into the rubber tubes that are provided to ride the waves. I was only able to experience one cycle, and would have loved to stay there longer: the water was so refreshing. But I had booked myself on a sunset cruise and time was marching on.

 

I raced back to the wharf and boarded Sundancer, my sailboat for the evening. There had been a few options for cruises in the harbour, and I went for a mid-range price, which had included canapes and a glass of champagne in the price. However from the moment we left the wharf behind, not only was there a constant service of delicious nibbles, but the champagne was free flowing. After all the heat of the day, and the hours of walking, I found myself relaxing and frankly getting rather merry. I’m not a regular drinker, or a big drinker, but it felt great to let my hair down, and every time my glass ran dry, I was more than happy to accept a top-up. I did take photos of the passing scenery at the beginning, and then later as the sun was setting, but I spent quite a bit of time chatting with a fellow passenger, as well as sunbathing, and stuffing my face. I was positively pissed by the time we returned to the wharf which made for an interesting walk back to my hostel. Needless to say I woke up with a wicked thirst.

 

My flight out of Darwin wasn’t till the afternoon, so I had one last morning in the city. Long before I’d even booked my trip there, I’d heard about a place in the city where you could cage dive with crocodiles. Upon discovering of its existence, I told myself that if I ever made it to Darwin, I’d do it. Unfortunately, I had underestimated its popularity and didn’t bother to book ahead. When I was in Cairns, a few nights before leaving Queensland behind, I’d gone on the website to discover it was booked out for my entire stay. I was gutted. Nonetheless, I decided to spend the morning at Crocosaurus Cove, effectively a crocodile zoo, right in the heart of Darwin’s city centre.

I’m not a fan of zoos or aquariums, so didn’t have high hopes for the place, but it turned out to be bigger than I expected. I spent a good bit of time in the reptile house looking at the scaly creatures that inhabit the Northern Territory. The crocodiles outside were huge and included Burt, the crocodile star of Crocodile Dundee. I got to feed some juvenile crocodiles and watched as people took part in the cage-diving experience that I had wanted to do. Whilst I always leave these places a little sad at the enclosure sizes some creatures are kept in, it was still an interesting experience.

 

But finally it was time to collect my luggage, and jump on the shuttle to the airport. By the time I’d queued to check in my luggage, I didn’t have long to wait. At my gate, the flight was called and they requested row after row, but mine was never called. The gate emptied out and I sat there waiting and wondering. Suddenly, they announced the gate was about to close and I shot up and ran over. The ground staff crew gave me a curious look as I’d clearly sat there all along without boarding. I’m assuming I missed my row being called, but nonetheless, I was on my second domestic flight of my great Australian adventure, and another new region awaited.

Nature in the Northern Territory

Whilst it’s always interesting to wander round a new city, I’m really a lover of nature, wildlife and open spaces. So it was inevitable that my trip to Darwin would include a trip out of the city. Both Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks are within reach of Darwin, and I would have loved to have explored both, but alas, I really only had 1 day to spare, and that meant making the decision to do a day trip to Litchfield National Park, being as it was both smaller and that bit nearer to the city. Without my own transport, I looked around at the day tour options, made my choice and hoped for the best. My big bugbear with organised tours is being restricted to the itinerary that they set, meaning missing out on places, or not getting to stay for as long as I would like. I also hate being stuck with a group of strangers being ferried about the place, so if I have to use them, I’ll do my best to use a small group, locally run tour service, rather than a big group corporate tour company. Whilst this was an option for Litchfield, it meant an additional stop at the Adelaide river to go crocodile watching, something that I really wasn’t fussed about doing. It really came down to the choice between a big couch tour to Litchfield alone, or a small group tour to Litchfield and the crocs. In the end I chose the latter.

I waited outside my Darwin hostel in the early morning light, and was collected by my guide early. In fact everybody being picked up was ready early meaning we got out of the city ahead of schedule. There were only 7 of us which was great. As we were such a small group and had extra time, our guide decided to take us to the Window on the Wetlands visitor centre where we had time to peruse the display on the local flora and fauna, and have a look over the landscape from the upstairs viewing deck. Whilst the ground wasn’t as red here as I’d seen from the plane, there was definitely a frontier feel with forests bordering onto exposed arid ground. The access road to the Adelaide river crocodile cruise had a similar feel with a watering hole next to the road attracting wild cattle and a plethora of birds. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited Australia, but despite hiking out bush in every state I’d previously visited, I was yet to spot a snake in the wild. As we trundled along next to the watering hole though, a snake suddenly appeared on the road and rapidly shot across to the other side, disappearing out of view as quickly as it had come into it.

 

I’d seen pictures of these crocodile cruises where they entice crocodiles to jump out the water with bait, and I am uneasy at wildlife being manipulated for the sake of a tourist buck as much as I am about the association that these wild and deadly creatures will make between the food and the humans. I wasn’t really sure how I’d feel about this part of the tour, and I wouldn’t have done it in any other circumstance, but I duly boarded the little boat and listened to the skipper tell us about the local crocs. They’d been sailing this river for years and had named the crocodiles they saw. They knew their behaviour, their personality and had a reasonable idea of their age. Despite my reservations, I had to give them their dues: they really did have a keen interest in the crocodiles.

The Adelaide river is broad, and even this far upstream could have quite a tidal influence. The water itself was silty and brown and so there was no way of telling what was in there. It didn’t take long for us to find crocodiles. Unlike the freshwater crocs I’d seen at Kuranda in Queensland, these saltwater crocs, or salties as they are known, are huge. Stumpy who was missing part of a leg was the first to come over and investigate us. Like an iceberg, it is a mere fraction of the beast that is visible above the water, and that is why they try to make the crocodile jump, to show off its hunting style and sheer size. They explained to us that they were selective with who they tried to bait, making sure they didn’t pick the same crocs each time, and gauging their behaviour as they went. So although Stumpy came over voluntarily, they left him alone, moving further along the river.  Next we found Candy, a female and although smaller than the males, still a good sized croc. She eyeballed us, circling the boat, and when the bait was lowered, she demonstrated a shallow jump.

 

Despite the dirty-looking water, it was a lovely river to cruise down. Even in between croc sightings there was an ever changing bank to look at. Our third crocodile interaction was with Cassanova, the largest of the crocs that we had spotted. He was absolutely massive, and this was apparent even before he jumped out the water, but when he did leap upwards, the extent of his size became undeniable. These are definitely creatures not to be messed with. He demonstrated his jumping skills several times before we left him behind to cruise back along the river. As we did, the crew started throwing meat morsels up into the air and suddenly multiple birds of prey appeared, and these kites swooped in with great skill to catch the meat in mid air. They followed us for quite some time along the river until the meat ran out.

 

I had enjoyed the experience, and was glad to have seen some wild crocs up close, but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the way they went about it. As we left, there was still plenty of activity at the watering hole. Now, there were water buffalo and a large black-necked stork amongst the crowd of fowl. After watching them briefly, we headed onwards towards Litchfield National Park. Our lunch stop was interesting to say the least, a random cafe in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere that was run by a nudist. The food was fantastic, and after filling up, it was time to get going.

 

100 kilometres (62 miles) south-west of Darwin, Litchfield National Park covers 1500 square kilometres (932 square miles) and is most known for its waterfalls and giant termite mounds. There was no way I was going to see everything in just one day, so this was always going to be a highlights tour, but it gave me plenty of desire to come back another time with my own transport. Our first stop was at the giant termite mounds. I’ve seen termite mounds in Australia before whilst out bush, but these were different. Within close proximity there were two types: magnetic mounds which were thin and on a north-south orientation to aid with temperature control, and cathedral mounds which were comparative giants. One of the largest cathedral mounds was surrounded by a boardwalk, allowing a 360o exam of it without being able to damage it. They might be built by tiny insects, but these structures were impressive.

 

With several waterfalls to choose from, I didn’t know which ones we were going to get to see. Our longest and first stop was at Wangi Falls, probably the more well-known and busiest of the waterfalls. It was exceptionally busy with groups of people in and out of the water. Whilst everyone else got straight in the water on such a hot tropical day, I took a quick wander along a short walkway leading round the pool edge, viewing the scene from a differing angle and coming across some rather large St Andrew’s Cross spiders. I’ve seen these in Australia before but none this big and their webs were laced across the gaps between the foliage.

 

The water temperature was perfect, but it was murky so judging the depth was completely by feel. After hanging around in the shallows, I started swimming across to the rock face, initially straight across the pool, then around the edge where I could hop between the shallower parts. I’m not ashamed to admit I have a fear of drowning. If I can see the bottom below me, even if it is out of my depth, I don’t have a problem, but like out in the open ocean, the murky waters made me uneasy as I didn’t know how deep it was. Once at the rocks, the side was exceedingly slippy and it was difficult to find something to hold on to without banging my legs against the rocks or slipping into the water. Myself and one of my companions for the day worked our way between the narrow ribbon waterfall and the wider waterfall, above which a group of guys in their twenties were unbelievably scaling the rock face quite high up and jumping into the water below. They had some balls climbing up the slippery rocks and as much balls jumping into the water when you couldn’t see where the rocks stopped or the deeper parts were.

 

Eventually we had to get out of the water, and we tucked into the tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten as we dried off, then we were off to the next stop. Florence Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall with a plunge pool at the bottom of the gully. We didn’t have time to go swimming here, instead we took the path to the lookout with a view down onto the falls from above. The guys who had been cliff diving at Wangi were already here doing the same thing and we watched again as they scaled the steep rocky sides, finding narrower and narrower ledges to jump from. I’m not sure how it came up in conversation, but I mentioned to the guide about my experience licking the butts of green ants in Queensland, and before I knew it, we were all letting green ants bite our skin in order to lick their abdomens. I remember thinking the first time around that it was a sentence I never thought I would say, and yet here I was, once again licking ants’ butts.

 

Our final stop in Litchfield National Park was the Buley Rock-pools. Here we had time to go swimming again, and I really didn’t need much persuasion to get back in the water. A series of small waterfalls cascading down a gradient created a myriad of little plunge pools, some of which were just deep enough to sit in, and a couple that were deep enough to swim in. I sat under one of the upper falls letting the thundering water massage my shoulders and back, before moving to the deeper pool at the bottom. Again the water was murky and the rocks were slippery resulting in me accidentally kicking the rock with my foot. The cool water helped to dull the throb a little bit, but unfortunately my toe nail had separated itself partly from my toe. It didn’t detract from the experience though, and lazing in the pools was a nice way to round off the afternoon.

 

I had hoped we would see Tolmer falls on the tour as well, but it was now time to leave the park behind and head back to the city. It didn’t take long for the head nodding to start as most of us slept our way back to Darwin. The light was getting lower as we drew into the city, but the day wasn’t over yet. I got dropped off at Mendil Beach, instead of back at my hostel, ready to experience a Darwin gem.

Terra Australis – Northern Territory

When faced with the choice between a cheaper indirect flight and a dearer direct flight, I would normally pay a little bit more for less airport time. Hanging around in airports, whilst good for people watching, is a bane of travelling that I would happily eliminate, with hours of my life having been wasted in these culture-less man-made boxes. However, on this occasion, the direct flight out of Cairns was first thing in the morning, and when I booked my flights many months earlier, I had naively thought I would want the extra time in the Great Barrier Reef‘s gateway city, and for that reason I’d chosen to book an unknown regional airline, Air North, which took off at a much more civil lunchtime slot. As it turned out, I really didn’t get Cairns, and found myself spending the morning before my flight at the hostel and the nearby mall, eager to get away from the rather drab city. But I didn’t regret my choice of airline, and although it meant more airport time than I’d needed, I was actually glad to experience the route it took.

Leaving Tropical North Queensland behind, we were soon to leave land behind, flying over the Gulf of Capricorn, a large expanse of water that separates the top of the state of Queensland with the top of the Northern Territory. When we next hit land, there was a lot of bush but also a lot of red desert. It was exciting to see the arid landscape I’d seen so many times on the television. Our indirect flight landed in a tiny settlement called Gove. The runway was surrounded by red desert and it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere in the Outback. The only annoying thing about it was that we all had to disembark, and go through security in the tiny Gove airport building before being allowed back on the plane. Despite having just come from Cairns, I was selected to be taken aside for explosives screening. I was surprised at how many people were getting off in Gove and how many people were getting on. It was clearly a transit hub for the local area. But finally we were on our way to a city that I had longed to go to for some time, the Territory’s capital, Darwin.

 

People in Queensland had told me to expect a massive culture shock when I got to Darwin. A comparatively small city, it has the largest percentage of Indigenous Australians compared with any other city in the country. The way people talked about the place, they made it sound like it was a poor and ‘backwards’ city, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find when I landed. What I discovered though, was a city that I loved, and one that I would have loved to have had more time in. Over the course of 3.5 days, I packed as much of the local area in as I could, but with the benefit of a car on another occasion, I would love to go back and do more.

It was evening by the time I’d checked into my accommodation, and I was quick to dump my stuff and get out to the nearby Bicentenial Park where locals were out for an after work stroll. It was a well-maintained stretch of parkland with some views out over the wide expanse of Darwin Harbour. As the sun lowered, I wandered around passed packed bars, and up the main shopping street of Smith Street where I found a night market that the driver of the airport shuttle had told me about. There was a plethora of stalls selling mainly Asian-inspired food, and I tucked into a delicious meal of pad thai and sangria. The heat was worse than Queensland, and I struggled both outdoors and indoors. I escaped into the air conditioned space of a pop-up art gallery that was open late, hiding out there till I was guided towards the exit at closing time, sweating my way back to my hostel dorm, who’s air conditioning was wholly ineffective.

 

I prefer to do most of my city exploring on foot when I’m abroad, but in the tropical climate and with Darwin quite spread out, I acknowledged that this wasn’t going to be sensible here. With the rise of a hot sun the next day, I bought myself a ticket for the city’s hop on-hop off tour bus which gave me 24hrs use of their services. Up the length of Mitchell Street, packed with bars and youth hostels, the bus headed towards Cullen Bay, an upmarket part of the city with swanky apartment blocks overlooking a gorgeous marina. Round past the casino and Botanic Gardens, I got off in the suburb of Parap which has a Saturday market. The food options were almost the same as the previous night’s market and this was interspersed with fruit & veg and local crafts. After grabbing breakfast and having a wander around, I jumped back on the bus, completing its loop via Stokes Hill wharf and back around, getting off again at the Botanic Gardens.

 

I love visiting Botanic Gardens, some being better than others. There were some interesting patches within Darwin’s gardens, but exposed to the constant sunshine, I was going through water like crazy. Near the entrance was a beautiful fountain in a pond, and the vegetation was a mixture of colourful flowers and tropical canopies. Walkways wind through the various sections, revealing a waterfall and some trees I’d never seen before, including a chunky and nobbly boab tree.

 

Eventually I cut to the coast at Mendil Beach where I had my first interaction with some Indigenous Australians. I had already seen where some of the comments about Darwin by the Queenslanders had come about: there were many drunk Aboriginals wandering the city’s streets, and all the beggars that I had seen had also been Indigenous people. Here at the beach, a group of ladies sitting in the park said hello and I returned the greeting. They quickly went back to their native tongue as I passed. Under the beating heat the sand was too hot to walk on and it was deserted.

 

A path through some much desired shade brought me out a little along the coast at the Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory. Being one of the bus stops for the hop on-hop off service, I had planned on jumping back on the bus here and moving on, but at the last minute I decided to head inside. The museum is free to enter so I used this as an excuse to utilise the building’s air conditioning. In the foyer was a display of painted car parts by an Indigenous artist, and a little pond at the side had a resident hog-nosed turtle floating about. Apparently, Indigenous artwork is much-loved by European visitors. It is certainly a very distinctive style and I myself loved many of the artworks that I saw over my Australia trip. Had I been rich and a homeowner, I could have bought a whole personal gallery whilst I was there.

 

Aside from the gallery of artwork, there was a display of local fauna which of course included all the venomous creatures that reside in the territory, but what was most interesting to me was the area dedicated to Cyclone Tracy that devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974. I hadn’t heard about this disaster before, but living as I do in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city devastated by two earthquakes, many of the photographs of the cyclone’s damage looked all too familiar. This city too had suffered at nature’s grip and been rebuilt.

In the afternoons, the hop on-hop off bus has an added section to its loop of the city, heading past Fannie Bay to East Point Reserve. This was a popular area with locals, and one that I would love to come back and explore in depth. It was quite a way out of the city centre, and I was reliant on the tour bus to take me back. Unfortunately the last one left in daylight hours, and so I had just a couple of hours to explore. From the military museum where the bus stop is, I meandered to the cliffs of the coastline and followed the walking track back towards Fannie Bay. There was plenty of evidence of erosion along the cliff edges, and signs warned of crocodiles in the vicinity.

 

Once overlooking Fannie Bay, the skyline of Darwin was evident in the distance, and the beach was long here, being well used by families that were camped up under the trees cooking barbecues with friends and family. Most people were congregated around the strip between the beach and Lake Alexander, and presumably drawn by the smell of food, there was a mob of birds of prey swooping overhead. The smell of food was making me a little hungry and seeing the groups of people enjoying themselves together made me feel a tad lonely. By the time I’d wandered back to the Military Museum to catch the last bus back to the city, there was a lone bagpiper playing outside in memorium for a board member that had recently died. No matter where I am in the World, my little Scottish heart always bursts with national pride at the sound of a bagpipe.

 

Back in the city, I found a dumpling store down an alley and procured some yummy food to take to Bicentennial Park and eat. With the sun setting, it was just a matter of finding the desired vantage point to watch the sun go down. I’d been spoiled in Queensland with all the sunsets I’d witnessed there, so the Northern Territory had a lot to live up to. The sky burned a deep red as the sun’s orb faded below the horizon. It had been a good introduction to the city, and I’d made note of those places to go back to. But the next day I had an early rise to visit one of the nearby national parks. There was definitely much to see in the Northern Territory.

The Great Barrier Reef

Below the waves of the sparkling Coral Sea, stretching for 2300 km (1400 miles), the submarine landscape of the World’s largest coral reef system lies steadfast yet ever changing, off the coast of Australia’s Queensland. Over 2,900 reefs and 900 islands make it the biggest structure made out of living organisms, and unsurprisingly it is visible from space. For many visitors to Australia, a trip to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a given, but for me, it had taken 5 years and multiple visits to this vast country to come even close. I love being by the sea, and I love the creatures that dwell in the oceans, but getting into the open water and exploring them in person is not a natural activity for me. So suffice to say, I’ve never really been fussed about going to the GBR, but now, working my way as I had up the Queensland coast, it seemed only sensible to reach Cairns and see what all the fuss was about.

The health of the GBR has been a hot topic of late, with reports of invading species such as the Crown of Thorns starfish decimating reefs, pollution changing the fragile water quality and of most note, the devastation of climate-induced coral bleaching. Like many ecosystems, those of coral reefs are a fragile sort, with many creatures and plant life living in symbiosis with each other. In other words, the presence of one organism is crucial to the presence of another. Coral by nature is colourless. It is the algae that colonise their tissues that give coral their fabulous and ranging colours. But rather than being a parasite, these algae are the life source for the coral. Without the algae, the coral fade to white, and eventually they starve and die. As sea temperatures rise, or pollution alters the water quality, the algae are the first to suffer, the coral following suit. My first experience of the GBR was in its southern reefs off the Whitsundays. The snorkelling conditions had been magical, but the coral bleaching was very much in evidence across the whole reef. The reef floor was littered with a graveyard of white coral, and there was more white coral than coloured coral in large sections of the reef. It was sobering and a little disheartening to see. I was intrigued to see how the northern reefs were coping.

After an enjoyable day up in Kuranda, the next morning I had an early rise to meet my pick-up to drive me to the Cairns marina where I was to board my transport for the day. There is an unbelievable amount of choice when it comes to getting out to the reef, from day trips to overnighters, helicopters to boats, diving to snorkelling. It is almost overwhelming. I had booked myself on an overnight reef experience, involving a boat trip out to a moored mini-cruiser which would take me around a selection of reefs over the course of about 30 hours. Most of the people on the boat were just going out for the day, but those of us with a special ticket, got sent up to the wheelhouse where a bacon & egg roll and a platter of fresh fruit awaited us for breakfast. I love spending boat journeys out on deck watching the world go by as the wind whips my hair into the biggest tangle of knotted curls, so I was a little irked that we were confined to the cabin for a while as introductions, formalities, paperwork and liability forms were sorted: an inconvenient necessity that I was glad to get over with. It was a sunny day, and the loungers on the top deck were the perfect spot to soak up the rays as Cairns disappeared behind us, eventually disappearing out of view.

 

It took some time for the Reef Experience boat to finally reach the Reef Encounter, the floating ‘hotel’ that was to be my base till the following afternoon. The small group of us changed vessels, whilst the many day trippers moored a little way away. For my first experience of a floating ‘hotel’, the Reef Encounter was easy to like. Stepping into the lounge area which appeared both dated but yet retro, the crew were welcoming, smiling and eager to get us settled and into the water. We were shown to our rooms and I was delighted to discover that my twin-share cabin was all mine, and after living in backpacker dorms since I’d left Noosa behind, this was the most amazing news I could have been given. Better still, unlike some of the others, my room was upstairs so I had a sea view and looking out the large windows, I spied the Saxon Reef.

 

The days were divided around a schedule: early morning snorkel or dive, then breakfast; morning snorkel or dive; mid-morning snorkel then lunch; afternoon snorkel or dive; mid-afternoon snorkel or dive then afternoon tea; night-time dive then dinner; and amongst all this water activity, the boat would move between reefs offering 3 separate locations over two days and the opportunity to learn to dive or gain further dive certification. I’ve done a lot of adrenalin activities in my time but diving has never been something I’ve been interested in. I have a fear of drowning and so the thought of being deep under the water and having to rely on a breathing apparatus doesn’t fill me with much excitement. I was one of only 3 people on the boat who wouldn’t be diving, and as the water activities went on over the 2 days, I began to realise that perhaps the experience was lost on me a little. Undeterred, I was aware that I would likely only visit the GBR once, and I was determined to make the most of it.

Briefings and welcomes over, I got kitted up in a wetsuit and got into the water for the morning snorkel session. Straight away the difference between Saxon Reef and Hardy Reef in the Whitsundays was obvious: there was next to no coral bleaching to be seen. The fish life was incredible and plentiful and excitedly on my first trip out I saw an eel. The water may have been calmer at Hardy Reef, but here the ecosystem seemed so much healthier. I stayed in the Coral Sea for about an hour, bobbing around watching life go on below me before coming out for lunch. The chef on board was incredible and I tucked into the first of many incredibly delicious meals. By the time of the afternoon snorkel, I was surprised to see a swell had appeared and the sea conditions were suddenly quite different to the morning. Still at Saxon Reef, I made a point of exploring different areas than I had on the morning snorkel and I found massive shoals at the fringes of the reef. In fact I got so distracted by them that I got whistled at for having strayed out of the snorkelling zone.

 

The top deck of the Reef Encounter offered the perfect sunbathing zone, and armed with a book from the library in the lounge, I pretended to read in between getting to know my fellow passengers and soaking up the sun. The boat had a bit of a rigmarole to go through to leave its anchorage and move on to a new spot. We anchored at Norman Reef offering a change of scene for the next water session. Here though, things were very different. The reef was not right next to the boat but a bit of a swim away, and the sea was quite choppy now. The sun was still shining but the sea did not look in the least bit inviting. I was nervous before even getting in the water, and one of my companions on the boat who was also a little nervous asked to buddy with me so that we could keep an eye out for each other. Unfortunately for her, I turned out to be the worst snorkelling buddy ever.

 

As fine as I am in the swimming pool, being in the open ocean can be a bit hit and miss for me. If conditions are calm and there is something to grab my attention, I can overcome any fear I have and push it to one side. A couple of years prior I had a panic attack whilst snorkelling in the open ocean off the Galapagos Islands. The sea conditions there had also been choppy and my guide at the time had thought the sensible thing for me to do to stop panicking was to stick my head under water and look below me. Little did he know that the sight of a deep oceanic abyss with no bottom in sight would be the catalyst for my fight or flight mechanism kicking in. It had taken all the resilience I could muster to stay in the water that day and complete the snorkel.

So now in the Coral Sea, I wasn’t far from the boat when I started to have water splash into my snorkel, sending me into a bit of a choking fit. My buddy suggested I alter my swimming technique which worked for her but didn’t work for me, and as she swam ahead of me oblivious, the choppy water repeatedly splashed into my snorkel, and as I failed miserably to clear it, I began to swallow water which sent me into a blind panic. Now, part of our welcome briefing had included a run down of emergency signals to give if you get into trouble, but it is incredible how even when I was struggling to clear my throat and breathe properly without taking on more water, the underlying thought process going through my head at the time was that I didn’t want the embarrassment of being a bother to the crew and so I stubbornly didn’t call attention to myself and just allowed myself an attempt at drowning in silence. Wearing large flippers generally makes treading water a relatively easy experience, but in full blown panic mode they weren’t quite enough and for one brief moment, I felt myself slipping under the surface and it finally dawned on me that I would actually drown if I didn’t get my act together. It was a terrifying experience, and my heart was thudding up into my mouth by the time I reached the steps at the back of the boat. When I signed myself back on board, I’d been out in the water for just 5 minutes and when asked why I’d come back in so soon, I was still too embarrassed to admit what had actually happened.

Sheepishly I hung around the lower deck for a while watching the others in the water, before grabbing myself a calming cup of tea and retreating to the sundeck to take stock of what had just happened. Afternoon tea came and went, and as the evening wore on, a few of us headed to the hot tub at the bow of the boat. What more could you ask for on a floating ‘hotel’ but a hot tub. It was a little cramped with us all in it, but it was just what I needed at the end of the day, and it was a great place to get to know the others on board. Dinner was a social affair with crew and passengers eating together. Everyone had such incredible stories to share and even the Captain who was a Kiwi, joined our table, and once again the food was delicious. By the time bedtime came around, there was a gentle rocking and rolling to send me off to sleep.

 

It felt amazing waking up in the morning after a blissful night’s sleep on an exceptionally comfortable bed. I’d requested a wake-up call for the early morning snorkel but decided to skip it, moored as we were still at Norman Reef. During breakfast, we raised anchor once more and moved on to another reef, known as Fingers. It was actually still part of the large Norman Reef but not only was the reef right next to the boat here, the positioning of our mooring relative to the wind direction meant the sea wasn’t looking quite so unappealing. We spotted two turtles at the surface as we anchored and this was encouragement enough to get back in the water. The conditions were not how I would have liked them to be, but I did my very best to quell the fear of drowning, and focused on the amazing reef below me.

 

From a snorkellers perspective, as amazing as the reef life was, I had been surprised at how drab a lot of the reef looked. A lot of the coral is a range of browns with the odd splash of purple or pink for good measure. I know that with depth, the colour spectrum becomes limited, so I wasn’t sure if this depth was dulling the colours, in which case diving the reef would be a much better visual experience, or if the reef actually was just this dull and every photo I’ve ever seen is heavily photoshopped. Perhaps the change in sea conditions favours the more drab-coloured algae. Either way, the fish life was probably the best of any snorkel experience I’ve ever had, but I felt that perhaps the coral wasn’t. Maybe my memory was tricking me, but I felt that the coral in Fiji had been rather more colourful than what I was looking at here.

 

Following a spot of sunbathing and more turtle spotting at the surface, I was surprised to see that a tidal change by the time of the mid-morning snorkel meant that the coral was suddenly much closer to look at, and in places I had to try very hard not to be bashed against it in the choppy surface waves. I was finally relaxing into the snorkel again, and I spotted a cuttlefish which I watched for some time until the strong current made me aware that I had a bit of work to do to get back to the boat. It was easy to dry off between snorkels by heading to the top deck to sunbathe for a bit, and I was quite dry by the time lunchtime came around. By now I’d got to know the other passengers reasonably well. Some of them would be leaving with me that afternoon, whereas a few others were working on their diving certification so were staying another night. One guy had been on board for a week and had dived at every single dive site that the boat was allowed to visit.

 

Finally it was time for the last snorkel, and the wind had picked up once more creating the undesired surface chop. I sought out the cuttlefish again, watching it dart around the seabed, then I watched the divers exploring below me before being mesmerised by some large fish that were hanging out under the boat. I was both sad to get out of the water and glad all at the same time. Snorkelling the GBR had been a mental challenge, one that nearly got the better of me. I think had the water been as calm as it had been at Hardy Reef, the experience would have been utterly amazing, but there was part of me that was always fighting off the fear, and so the experience was a little tainted.

 

I showered, gathered my stuff together and transferred back to the Reef Experience which had by now berthed right next to the Reef Encounter. We were again ushered into the wheelhouse where we were plied with wine, cheese and crackers, and feeling like I was at a VIP party with those that I had gotten to know over the previous day, I was quick to get just a little bit tipsy. The trip back to Cairns was a very different experience than the one out had been. The wind and chop meant that we were buffeted the whole way with a cross wind and waves that pushed us from the side, such that we rocked and rolled and dropped over rising crests. I thanked my trusty stomach for holding firm, and embraced the experience, knowing that I had experienced the roughest boat trip of my life between Isabella Island and Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, and therefore nothing could ever be as bad as that.

 

Twenty-one days prior I had landed in Queensland, and now I was on my last night in the state. I marked the end of the first stage of my great Australian adventure with some ice cream on the esplanade. The next day I was to head to the airport, leaving Queensland behind, and flying deeper into the tropics.

The Village in the Rainforest

If it hadn’t been for 2 incredible excursions over 3 days, I would have really hated Cairns. The city itself was soulless and a real let down after all the beautiful places I’d stopped at on route up the Queensland coast from Broadbeach. After being left with nowhere open to get breakfast before heading off, there was a 30 min drive round various hotels for pick-ups and out of Cairns to the lower station of the Cairns Skyrail. The village of Kuranda is nestled amongst the rainforest outside of Cairns and is perfect for a day trip away from the city. It can be reached either by train from central Cairns, or via a cable car from north of the city, and everywhere you read about Kuranda it is recommended to go there one way and come back the other. I decided to take the cable car there and come back on the train, both of which need to be booked in advance to save disappointment.

 

With no eating allowed on the cable car and a timed slot to ride it, I shovelled a muffin from the cafe into my mouth as fast as I could stomach it. The ride up through the rainforest is estimated to take 90 minutes including a couple of stops on route, so I wasn’t sure when I’d get to eat. I had a mother and daughter in the cable car with me, and from the moment we left the station, we were all in awe looking out of the window. The lower portion of the ride starts the climb up into the trees, with a view over the rolling hillside and out over the coast behind us. From the very beginning, I loved this experience and it was well worth the money.

 

Once up the initial hill, the first stop was Red Peak station at 545m (1788ft), surrounded by rainforest. Here, there was a raised boardwalk taking you through the mid-layer of the canopy. It was short to walk round it on your own, but I opted to wait for the guided tour that ran at regular intervals, which was informative and added a whole new level of interest to the surroundings. Life in the rainforest is all about competition, with the plant life competing against each other for sunlight and nutrients. It is incredible to see the amazing adaptations that some plants have undergone to out-do their neighbour, from growing into them, to literally strangling the life out of them.

 

The next section of the cableway was the longest, and here the line was just above the top of the canopy. It was a stunning sight, with the green of the rainforest disappearing in all directions over the nearby hills. Below us, there was the occasional gap in the foliage allowing an insight into the forest below, and there was a constant thrum of the forest life mixed with the workings of the cableway. The total length of the cableway is 7.5 km (4.6 miles), and there was so much to take in. As we approached the next station, the waterfall that it is named after came into view. I can imagine that after a tropical storm, this cascade would be amazing to view in all its glory, but when I was there, it was a relative trickle compared to some of the photos I had seen of it at its best.

 

The Barron Falls station had a walkway to 3 different lookouts. I could see over to the train line on the far side of the large gorge that I would be taking to go back to Cairns later that evening. Unlike the last station, this one felt busy with each lookout a jostling match for the prime spot to take photos. I took my time but was overall a little unawed with the view. That said, it was still a good opportunity to get out amongst the trees of the rainforest and the depth of the gorge was still impressive.

 

The final section of the cableway cut over some more trees before swinging down over the wide Barron river, over the train line and into the Kuranda cableway station. The main street of Kuranda is just a short uphill walk from the station, and it is full of artisan and craft shops, lending the place a slightly hippy feel. There was some beautiful art here, and had I had my own place and a lot of money, I could have gone to town here. Instead, I had to be satisfied with just ogling at it. I’d been told by the driver of the shuttle bus about mango wine, so when I came across a woman selling the stuff out of a window, I took no persuasion whatsoever to set about sampling the stuff, eventually settling on a bottle of mango sauvignon and a bottle of sparkling mango. It had seemed like a good idea at the time until she handed me the bag containing the two giant export boxes and I realised that not only did I have to carry these for the rest of the day, but I also had to carry them around Australia for the remaining 18 days of my Australian trip.

 

Undeterred and a little tipsy on the mango wine in the heat, I kept going round the shops, eyeing up the various food options to choose from. Everywhere was busy, and I was looking for something unusual. Inside the Rainforest Market I found a creperie that made savoury crepes and settled on one of the many choices to have for a much-needed meal. Afterwards, across the road there was another market, the Heritage Market, out the back of which I stumbled across a plane wreck being swallowed by the jungle. The sign next to it explained that it had been staged, but it looked like a genuine plane wreck, and reminded me of the movie Crocodile Dundee. Peering inside it, the vegetation is doing a good job of claiming the wreckage as its own, and just shows how nature will always adapt to its surroundings, even when a man-made structure is dumped within it.

 

Australia is famous for its large proportion of the world’s most venomous creatures, and in Kuranda there is a Venom Zoo. I passed it by on my way to a walking track that would lead me through the rainforest of Jumrum Creek Conservation Park. I was totally in love with the rainforest here. I secretly hoped to stumble across a Cassowary, one of Australia’s large flightless birds. This was the part of the country where they could be found, but unfortunately they are an endangered species, so it would be pure luck if I saw one. Following a boardwalk, even though the streets of Kuranda were never far away, the vegetation was so dense that I felt like I was deep within the rainforest. An avid bird watcher, there was plenty of life flitting and singing amongst the trees to keep me occupied, and I took my time meandering down to the bank of the Barron river.

 

When I’d left the skyrail station behind on arrival, I had seen a sign advertising a river cruise. I hadn’t been going to bother, but now, realising I had enough time, I followed the river walkway upriver, under the cableway and round the bend till I found myself at the small boat tied up on the bank. There was just a small group of us on board, and amusingly a pair of swallows had built a nest amongst the lifejackets that hung from the boat’s roof. The birds flitted around the boat and above our head as we both idled at the bank of the river and cruised slowly along the water.

 

On the opposite bank of the river we passed the still form of a freshwater crocodile that was sunning itself on a rock. Much smaller than their saltwater equivalents, the locals deem these guys safe enough to get in the water with, the boat driver telling us that the locals swim in the river here amongst them. They might be small, but they still have a good set of teeth on them, so I’m not sure how comfortable I would have been with swimming there. In a little bay just past the croc, was a plethora of turtles. Initially hidden but coming to the surface in a feeding frenzy, there were also a lot of decent sized fish here, and we idled for a while near the bank watching the turtles and fish in the murky water.

 

We could see a good way down the river from here, and it was a pleasant cruise downstream and underneath the cableway. We spied two more crocodiles and more turtles, and the driver told us about a male cassowary that was sitting on its nest just a short walk into the bush. I would have loved to have gone to see it, but this was when they were at their most dangerous, the male being very defensive when they are brooding. Between the changing view of the rainforest as we drifted along the river, the flitting of the birds around us and the crocodile spotting, it turned out to be a very enjoyable spur-of-the-moment addition to the day’s excursion.

 

By the time we returned to the river bank to disembark, it was time to make the short walk to the train station to board the scenic rail back to Cairns. Unlike the Skyrail, the train was packed, and although I was lucky enough to get a window seat, the windows were compact and awkward to look out of. I also was hemmed in by young children who wouldn’t sit still, and the general vibe from several of the people around me was one of disappointment. I could hear people grumbling about how cramped the train was, and how poor their view was, which considering it was supposed to be a scenic train ride, was a little disheartening.

 

Despite this there were some incredible views where gaps in the vegetation allowed. We stopped at the Barron Falls lookout which provided a view of the falls from the opposite side of the gorge to the cableway. Overall, it was a downhill meander, in and out of the bush, and eventually crossing the flat plain back to Cairns. The whole journey took around an hour, and although it was nice to have done both journeys, the Skyrail was by far the better experience. It had been an incredible day, and I was a little sad to be back in the banality of Cairns. Thankfully I had another excursion away from the city lined up for the next morning.

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