I wond’r if the boguns are going to bottle us? A battle of words with drunk locals and enjoying beautiful Aboriginal art in Darwin

Unexpectedly our first stop once arriving in Darwin wasn’t destined to be my Cousin Jess and her fiancé Ben’s place; instead it turned out to be O’brien’s Autoglass :-/ While taking a detour past Daly River to have a look round an Aboriginal art centre on friendly advice from wise Grey Nomads (it was very inspiring and we even got a peek at the workshops, although the town felt a little rough), a stone kicked up from a passing caravan smashed violently upon our windscreen. Fortunately the resulting crack didn’t affect my driving visibility too much, although was definitely going to need some attention before departing from Darwin.

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Once we’d booked our windscreen replacement for later in the week (fortunately our insurance was going to pick up the majority of the bill, bar the excess), we headed to Jess and Ben’s place, which turned out to be a large, modern townhouse positioned picturesquely overlooking a marina 🙂 That evening Jess and Ben treated us to a hearty feed of chicken schnitzels, washed down with icy cold golden lagers and conversation about cyclones at the local (water) Ski Club, while the sun scorched the dusky skies as it sank slowly below the warm waters of the Timor Sea.

Escaping the humidity while sightseeing on two wheels

Darwin is (in)famously known for extremely humid conditions, even during its ‘winter’ months, so I was understandably hesitant to trust Joella’s suggestion of saying goodbye to the comfort of our car’s air-con and instead venture out for the day on bicycles. Almost immediately however, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the passing air cooled us, as we speedily navigated Darwin’s superb network of cycle lanes on two wheels.

Our first stop once in town was a much deserved coffee and brunch at Kopi Stop, where we treated ourselves to some lovely veggie jaffles (Aussie for toasty). After refuelling, we were ready to explore Darwin further, and headed to the beautiful recreation area of East Point just past Fannie Bay (snigger snigger..).

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We hadn’t done much research about the Northern Territory’s capital before arriving, and to be honest we weren’t sure what to expect, but once we’d spent time trundling around Darwin’s (surprisingly lush green) coast, beaches and harbours, we quickly grew fond of Australia’s largest ‘Top End’ city. And that was before visiting the magnificent Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory… Conveniently entry was free, and the standard of the exhibitions was superb. We were especially impressed by the Natural World section, full of Australia’s many unique, weird and wonderful animals from past and present including various dinosaurs, sawfish and giant clams.

After being in awe of Aussie’s animals, things quickly turned to a more sombre mood while learning about the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy back in 1974. The scale of the disaster was shockingly brought to life through full size replica houses to demonstrate the damage caused, as well as a darkened room where a recording of the storm can be heard. It was all very sad, and we struggled to understand recent decisions to relax building regulation that were put in place as a result; no longer needing safe rooms and a decrease in wind speed buildings are required to withstand.

Struggling with difficult dining decisions at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market

Despite Jess mentioning the markets can get busy, we weren’t expecting large crowds in comparison to those we’ve grown accustomed to back in London. However, after arriving then spending quarter of an hour to find a parking space, we soon realised Jess wasn’t kidding! After parking on an unlikely spot along a grass embankment lined with infinite palm trees, we followed the smells, lights and noise towards the market strip that lay parallel with the busy beach peppered with people gobbling food.

There we were greeted by far more stalls than we’d seen earlier in the afternoon when cycling past, all selling tantalisingly tasty looking foods from all over the world, as well as a multitude of other crafty goodies. An up-tempo didgeridoo band provided a fitting soundtrack as we snaked up and down, struggling to decide what we should treat ourselves to. Finally we settled upon a mixture of flavoursome Turkish wraps, stuffed Indian roti’s, chicken laksa soup and superb mini Dutch pancakes – yum!

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Once full, we were able to focus more on our atmospheric surroundings, as we explored the eclectic mix of stalls offering the likes of ‘roadkill’ themed burgers, whipping tutorials and the opportunity to have your name written on a grain of rice. After enjoying another lovely, but busy sunset from the beach, we made our way back home for beers and banter.

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Uncovering the fascinating world of Aboriginal Art

The next day started off productively; sitting in a coffee shop that was suitably blaring the Wombats back catalogue, as we waited for our windscreen to be fixed. Once all done, we headed down-town to go shopping in the many aboriginal art shops and galleries that line Darwin’s streets and alleyways. Fortunately the town centre is fairly compact, allowing us to park up and leave the car, before immersing ourselves in the magical world of aboriginal art

What we expected to be a brief two hour wander, turned into a full-day mission, as we delved deeper and deeper into the many stacks of rainbow coloured paintings. Not only was it a feast for the eyes, but we found it truly fascinating too; learning about the methods used to create the intrinsic patterns as well as the meanings behind the various shapes and symbols.

We were tempted by many of the pieces, however one by Eddie Blitner stood out for us more than others. It features a celebratory brolga bird – which represents going for your dream and expressing yourself creatively on a professional level in Aboriginal culture – formed from what seems like an infinite number of fine white lines across a scorched yellow background. Unfortunately our time with it was short lived, as it needed to be wrapped-up ready for posting – it was far too big and expensive to be chucked in the back of our car! Not only had the painting burned a hole in our pocket, but so did the parking ticket, which had shot up from free for the first 2 hours, to over $50 for the next 3 :-/

Finding ourselves in hot water (literally) with some intoxicated boguns

Having originally planned to squeeze in a day trip to the famous Litchfield National Park, we soon came to our senses, deciding against spending X hours driving there and back (you’re better to spend a night there). Instead, Jess suggested we check out the much closer Berry Springs – a natural hot springs in amongst the rainforest – which understandably didn’t need much selling to us!

After a swift 45 mins drive, we arrived first unexpectedly at an enormous car park, rammed full of fellow hot spring seekers. It wasn’t looking likely to be as peaceful and tranquil as we’d hoped, but happily the size and number of pools meant it wasn’t to be too crowded. Once we’d grabbed our ‘noodles’ (highly recommended long foam tubes to keep you afloat) and taken some amusing photos next to the crocodile warning signs, we excitedly made our way into the surreal balmy waters surrounded by tropical foliage.

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Unexpectedly, our relaxation was soon disturbed by a couple of Boguns (Aussie Chavs / Neds) that had got people’s backs up, by uncaringly taking glass bottled beers into the water. Jess gave them evils, which led to us receiving a tirade of abuse. Fortunately their behaviour was more entertaining than threatening, and we quickly learned to ignore their pathetic grumblings about ‘arrogant tourists’, which made no sense seeing Jess is a local!

For our final evening we all tucked into some pricy, but highly scenic fish and chips at La Beach next to Cullen Bay. There we huddled together on the grass eating out of paper wrappers, in an attempt to prevent the circling seagulls from thieving our golden battered prizes. As we successfully finished the last of our chips without any losses, we were treated to one more beautiful sunset over the water – a highly satisfying ending to our stay in Darwin 🙂

I wond’r if we have enough petrol to make it to the next town? Petrol scares and kayaking with crocodiles en route to Darwin

Our first days drive from Cairns to the nice little historical town of Croydon was a rather sophisticated affair by our standards, seeing us drop past Coffee Works in Mareeba, the region that grows 80 % of Australia’s coffee. There we took the opportunity to sample some cold brew nitro – silky smooth icy cold black coffee that tricks your tastebuds into thinking it’s been sweetened and has milk added, by being poured from a tap with the help of Nitrogen, similar to beers like Guinness, mmmm…

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Settling back into outback life

The next days travels took us past Normanton, where we checked out the impressively large tourist information centre that reminded us more of a museum, staffed by local Aboriginals with great local knowledge. Before heading off we couldn’t resist taking some obligatory photos with ‘Krys the Savannah King’ – a massive life-size replica of the largest Saltwater Crocodile ever caught. It was hunted and killed in 1957 by Krystina Pawlowski, a Polish crocodile hunter who amazingly switched sides and became an outspoken crocodile conservationist in her later life! That evening we camped in a sunny show ground with plenty of space for a spot of badminton – a great way to stretch our stiff legs after a long days drive 🙂

The following few days saw things become even more desolate, with towns growing further apart and roads deserted, except for the occasional monstrous road trains we overtook once having plucked up the courage!

Surprisingly we didn’t often know where we were headed each night, as the maps hadn’t finished downloading on the WikiCamps app (Australia’s campers bible) and we rarely had any signal. Amusingly this meant all we had to go on was distance and direction, while trying to home our flashing blue dot in on a campsite, shown on a blank background. It certainly provided some entertainment at the end of tedious afternoons full of monotonous driving!

A benefit to being in the wilderness of the Outback however was the enormity of the nights sky; with no light pollution, the infinite twinkling stars that flooded the sky above us was truly spellbinding.

Despite the emptiness of our surroundings, there were usually things to see along the way to reward us for driving these long lonely roads. A couple of notable examples were the never ending magnetic termite mounds that stretch out into the horizon (so called as they’re always aligned North to reduce heat from the sun) and the brilliant Royal Flying Doctors Museum in the lesser known town of Cloncurry. John Flynn is famous for setting up the innovative Royal Flying Doctors Service back in 1928, bringing much needed medical help to the remote towns of the Outback. The impressive museum features three floors full of fascinating history and enthralling stories, brought to life through a variety of galleries, exhibits and film.

Almost running out of petrol, en route to Katherine

With such large distances between anywhere, comes an element of risk. We’d done well so far to always fill up with fuel when having the chance, but unfortunately forgot while wrapped up in the awesomeness of the museum. We only noticed we were running on empty once half way to the next town, so couldn’t turn back. The next hour was therefore spent in nervous silence, as Joella and I struggled to take our eyes from the petrol gauge, willing the car to keep going. Thankfully our seemingly never-ending tank did us proud, and we made it to the forecourt of BP in Mount Isa, wearing the biggest Cheshire Cat smiles imaginable! To prevent a similar occurrence in the future, I taped a reminder to the steering wheel so it wouldn’t happen again.

After spending a night in Camooweal – the last Queensland town before the Northern Territory border, we intended to hit Tennant Creek the following day and explore the surrounding area. But following a friendly chat with the groundsman of the campsite, our plans soon changed. He recommended avoiding Tennant Creek due to the seeming collapse of the community (petty and violent crime among parts of the Aboriginal population continues to grow). Instead we headed to Banka Banka: A cattle station full of cowboy charm, featuring fire pits, dangerous bulls and camels!

Now a day ahead of schedule, we were nearing true civilisation once again; in the form of Katherine – the town “where the outback meets the tropics”. But before arriving, we couldn’t resist stopping in past the famous Daly Waters Pub for a quick feed. The old world establishment (by Australian standards) is as you’d expect from an Outback pub, but with one significant difference; there’s random stuff hanging from every inch of the ceiling and walls. As the story goes, this peculiar ritual originally started with a bunch of bras being hung up by a bus load of women, who’d lost a bet with their driver! While pretty much draped in lingerie and tucking into our steak pies, we conveniently used the free wifi to book some kayaking the next day, to explore some nearby gorges…



Attempting to avoid crocodiles and snakes in Nitmiluk Gorge

After a very early start the next day, we eventually arrived at the jetty and climbed aboard the boat that shuttled us through the first gorge. During our briefing en route, we were surprisingly advised the signs we’d spied earlier were in fact correct and there are crocs about!

With relief, we learned these are of the fresh water variety, and have brittle jaws that prevent them from tackling larger prey like humans, although can still bite if provoked. Apparently, we can be sure there are no dangerous Salt Water Crocs present from the annual floods, through the use of three methods: 1) Low level helicopter surveys during the day, 2) Night time boat inspections using search lights to look out for reflections from their eyes, and 3) Traps. Although reassuring to a point, these practices don’t sound very scientific or entirely foolproof :-/

Once we’d arrived at the end of the first gorge, we picked up our double kayak and began exploring the second, then third gorge beyond. Kayaking proved to be a fantastic way to witness the beauty of these natural geological formations in such tranquil surroundings, while they slowly changed colour from reds to oranges as the sun rose higher in the sky. Following multiple foul mouthed tirades from me, Joella can confirm it did prove difficult finding a rhythm while paddling together, but we eventually got the hang of it. On our return leg through the first gorge, we were pleasantly rewarded to a double sighting of Freshwater Crocodiles, thankfully from the safety of the boat 🙂

That evening we treated ourselves to a stay in the more expensive campsite within Nitmiluk National Park, allowing us to fit in a longer trek the next day without any driving beforehand. We opted for the charmingly sounding ‘Butterfly Gorge Trail’ that proved to be full of diverse surroundings; first we began with a hike up to a scenic viewpoint of the first gorge below, followed by trails through arid landscape then finally down into a gorge enclosing luscious rainforest.

During this last section through the thicker undergrowth I heard an ominous rustling sound that led me to immediately scream: “RUN, THERE’S A SNAKE!” despite failing to see anything that resembled a threat. We then embarrassingly spent 10 minutes trying to decide whether to proceed or turn back. It was only until some fellow hikers casually strolled past without any sort of issue, that we decided to continue, feeling a little stupid in the process! Thankfully our bravery was eventually paid off, with a beautiful waterside view of the second gorge, appropriately surrounded by fluttering butterflies.

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Next stop: Darwin, to visit my Cousin Jess and her fiancé Ben!

I wond’r how much it’ll cost to fix our car? Costly adventures exploring the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef in Cairns

Arriving in Cairns was a significant milestone on our Australian Odyssey – marking the completion of our drive North up the East coast. Although Queensland’s fifth biggest city isn’t anything to write home about, that really isn’t an issue considering Cairns is famously the gateway to both the tropical Daintree Rainforest and the worlds largest single structure made from living organisms: the Great Barrier Reef!

We’d fortunately lined up a housesit on the outer edges of town that perfectly matched our dates, featuring an outdoor swimming pool, cinema room, pool table and an expansive balcony looking out to the surreal rainforested hillside overlooking us. While there we had the fortune of caring for a rather boisterous American Staffy named Bosun, who turned out to be the biggest (and strongest) dog we’d looked after thus far. Although this made me feel like a bad ass gangster, it did mean we weren’t comfortable walking him further afield.

Therefore we opted to go dogless for our first days expedition to Cairns’ impressive Botanical Gardens; where we walked through never ending walkways surrounded by tropical fauna and explored galleries set up in old WWII naval oil tanks, to the exotic soundtrack made by the many colourful birds above us.

Underwater adventures in the Great Barrier Reef

Despite seeing a myriad of stunningly colourful fish off Whitsunday Island the week before, we were keen to spend some more time in warmer waters while we had the chance. Having decided against another expensive tourist package deal, we initially struggled to find availability on a boat that would take us to one of the nearby islands before the weather turned. Eventually however, our relentless efforts proved fruitful and we successfully booked ourselves tickets to Fitzroy Island, on board the aptly named 1,000 bhp ‘Thunderbolt’ high speed reef boat!

Even with the additional time for the Captain to complete a series of doughnuts to show off the power of his impressive vessel, we made it to Fitzroy Island in little over half an hour. After disappointingly finding out the Turtle Sanctuary tour was fully booked, we set off along the rocky pathway to Nudey Beach, which has recently been voted the best in Australia. Wanting to make the most of our time, we briskly and carefully changed into our swimmers (it’s strictly NOT a nudist beach despite its name suggesting otherwise) but stopped short of putting our snorkel gear on after realising the conditions; to say the water was choppy would be an understatement :-/

So, with a glimmer of hope that the other side of the Island would be sheltered from the prevailing winds, we headed back in the direction of Welcome Bay from where we’d arrived. Just as we hoped, the water was far calmer, so we continued up the beach to the famous reefs that surround ‘Bird Rock’ – a prominent boulder so named because of the large quantities of bird poo that cover it like icing on a cake (it even glows in the moonlight apparently)!

Almost immediately on entering the water — the reef is handily just metres from the beach — we were greeted by a welcome party of assorted fish that grew larger as we snorkelled further out, consisting of Parrotfish, Wrasse, Surgeon Fish and Butterfly Fish. Although we were truly entranced by the cloud of colours that surrounded us (despite the murky waters due to the choppy waters), we secretly wished for the opportunity to meet a Green Turtle in its natural environment. You can therefore guess our astonishment and joy, as a turtle calmly paddled past! We couldn’t resist following at a distance, mesmerised at the beauty of how gracefully such a large animal moves from rock to rock, grazing on the sea grass and algae. Although we planned to do a walk or two around the island, we ended up far happier spending our entire time underwater.

Rush hour in the Daintree Rainforest

Understandably, given the impressive size of the Daintree Rainforest (almost 500 sq miles) there’s a plethora of walks and trails to choose from, and as per usual we were struggling to decide on which to attempt while keeping in mind the four hour return journey from Cairns. Eventually we settled upon Mossman Gorge, as it had good reviews, no entrance fees and meant we weren’t going to need to take the ferry further North.

After some beautiful driving along relentless hairpins that hugged the cliff edge with the beaches below, we arrived at the Centre. There we fought with our conscience, while considering whether to ignore signage requesting visitors pay $10 per person for shuttle buses to the beginning of the trails. After completing the pleasant 20 min walk, we were glad with our decision; especially considering at no point did we go through any Aboriginal settlements, which was a key argument for taking the bus.

Unfortunately, once beginning the trails, we realised we’d made a bad decision. Rather than being greeted with spacious, peaceful walkways surrounded by nature, we instead found ourselves feeling like we were on the London Underground: shuffling along narrow paths, constantly queued up behind large groups of tourists almost the entire time :-/ Despite this, we made the most of our time there and completed the full Rainforest Circuit Track that did have some picturesque streams and pools, but were ultimately glad to leave the hordes behind.

Nursing a poorly car back to full health

Rather than making a speedy getaway, we did the complete opposite: While driving back to Cairns, our trusty steed suddenly lost all power, requiring us to swiftly pull over before coming to a complete halt in the middle of the road. Fortunately we made it, just, to a garage in the nearby town of Mossman. After taking a look, the mechanic reckoned the transmission had gone, and would need to tow us back to Cairns where they’d have the parts and could fix automatics. His initial estimate was $2,500 🙁

The next day we played a spot of pool, trying to take our mind of things, as we waited for a phone call from the garage to confirm the damage and when they’d be able to get it done; we were on a tight schedule needing to get back to Sydney at the beginning of August for a house sitting assignment, and still had over 8,000 km to go. Hating the suspense, I gave the garage a call and we immediately breathed a sigh of relief – the work was almost complete and was going to cost just $650; phew!

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Once we’d replenished our food supplies — consisting mostly of tinned cans — we set off once again towards the dusty world of the Outback, on our way to Darwin…