Finally, after six months, we reached our ultimate destination - Australia. We took the night flight from Bali which landed in Darwin at 6am but didn't actually get out of the airport until 7.30am, absolutely shattered, after being searched and interogated by customs and quarantine - the first time in the trip this has happened to us.
Sugar cane, bananas and agriculture in general are so important here that quarantine is very strict in an attempt to stop disease and pests from coming into the country. At immigration we had to give in a form we'd filled in which asked if we had: any medicines (paracetamol); food (water, coffee, sweets); wood (hairbrush, lamp etc); soil (on most people's shoes) and ten other questions. We answered it honestly unlike most people who went through without being searched. Our bags were completely unpacked which was a bit of a nightmare because they are at the stage where they are so full that packing has to be meticulous (everything squeezed into the right place) to fit everything in. In the end we only had one thing confiscated which was a diary which I had just bought in Bali which had a tiny bit of banana leaf on the cover - a definite no no but I hadn't even remembered that I had anything with banana plant on it. Luckily they tore the pages out that I'd written on so I don't have to rewrite the final weeks in Bali. The other problem we had was that the customs officers tried to make us pay duty on the laptop, refusing to believe that we weren't going to sell it at the first opportunity. However, eventually, when Richard asked how he would get his money back when he left the country with the laptop they realised that that might be a problem and instead have 'marked his card' so when we try to leave the country we will have to produce the laptop or pay the duty.
So, eventually we left the airport - the last people - it was 7.30 on Saturday morning and a lot of the hostel rooms were already booked up by the other people on the flight who were an hour ahead of us. We'd heard good reports about the hostels in Oz but we found the ones in Darwin a bit expensive for what you got. The first place we stayed was Gecko Lodge where we paid about £22 for a tatty room without ensuite and no hot water in the shower - spiders, yes - hot water, no. We moved after a couple of nights to Globetrotters Hostel where for a dollar less we got a private bathroom. The good thing at both hostels was the free brekkie and meeting other travellers.
Darwin is a small place, with only about 80,000 residents and it was here that we realised how different Australia is from home. There are lots of small differences - some better, some worse, some just different. The first thing we noticed was that at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon all the shops are shut - Darwin town centre was a ghosttown, everything was shut and none of the shops were due to open until Monday morning!! Sunday opening hasn't reached half of Australia yet. But we found a few things to do starting with some motor racing the day after we arrived....
This was an experience. It was a lovely day and there was some good racing going on as well as drag racing, Formula Holden races,
parachuting and all the other entertainments
you expect from a racing day. The most amusing thing was the crowd which was 99% Australian but behaved like a goodnatured
British football crowd.
The races were Holden (Vauxhall at home) versus Ford and Holden nearly always win so Holden supporters rip Ford supporters apart with intellegent taunts
like 'we're better than you'. The retort being 'no you're not we're better than you', it didn't get much further than that - except the
rapid addition of obscenities as the VB was consumed.
The V8 Supercar series is basically the same as TOCA back home, for those of you who know your racing. The current championship is being
dominated by Mark Skaife - he'd won 6 of the first 7 races of the season, and won the major race when we were there as well: he's further
ahead in his championship than Michael Schumacher is in F1.
The funniest thing about the day was the courtesy bus we got back to town. A woman driver - and unfortunately she lived up to the stereotype attrocious woman driver. The first thing that happened was that a bloke got on the wrong bus - he'd spotted one of his neighbours on the bus so thought he was on the bus home but our bus was going into town. Ten minutes down the road he'd worked this out and, cheekily (and drunkenly), asked the bus driver to take a detour and drop him at his local pub. She refused and got some lighthearted verbal abuse about being a woman driver. This obviously rattled her because she took a wrong turning. She tried to hang a U'y but ended up off the road on some gravel. Trying to get back onto the road turned out to be a problem because the bottom of the bus was too low and driving at full acceleration at the slope back to the road we got stuck on the bank four or five times making an awful gratting noise when the underside of the bus ground against the bank. Hoots of laughter from a slightly drunken busload of people didn't encourage her and of course, all the woman driver comments came out again. Eventually, she managed to get back onto the road but only by continuing in the wrong direction so she decided to drop this guy off at the pub he wanted to go to afterall. The whole bus was in fits by now but also slightly worried that we were at the mercy of a mad bus driver and for the rest of the trip home she kept zooming right past the bus stops when people had rung the bell for their stops, dropping them several hundreds of metres down the road. I don't know if she hadn't driven a bus before or wasn't from Darwin or whether she was just thrown by a happy, drunk and voluble busload of passengers and lost her nerve and marbles.
It took a whole 36 hours in Oz before we were invited to our first Aussie BBQ. Imogen, who made us pancakes for breakfast in Gecko Lodge, was a backpacker from England and she organised a great BBQ for about 15 people where for about £1 we had sausages, burgers, salads, potatos, bread - good stuff. Thanks Imogen for organising a great evening.
Another thing you can do in Darwin is get thrown out of a pub for being drunk. Richard tried it at The Victoria Hotel, not as posh as
it sounds it's actually a raucous backpackers pub and we were there with this drunken bunch of people singing and dancing the night away.
Richard, knowing he'd had enough to drink and still suffering from a sore foot after the surfing incident,
was sitting at the side of the
dancefloor and drinking coca-cola while the rest of us knocked back the beers etc and were dancing away. One of the bouncers approached
Richard and escourted him out of the pub before the rest of us realised what was happening. Apparrently his quiteness in the midst of
lunacy made him look threatening!!! Drunkeness without disorderliness is more of a crime here than at home so we'll have to watch out.
Here was a beach filled with literally hundreds of people waiting for the
sun to set. Most of them were more organised than us with our bottle of water and cheese sandwich; they had esky's with wine or
champagne and glasses - very civilised!
The market was a cross between Camden and a country fair. I'm sure you can buy boomerangs, t-shirts with aboriginal pictures on them and even digeredoos in Camden but there was also a hippyish band playing, some whipcracking going on, fire jugglers, kids having pony rides on tethered ponies that went around in circles and food stalls selling interesting food - the best was 'RoadKill - you kill it we cook it' which had roo, croc, emu, wallaby, possum...etc. So far in Oz we've only tried Roo which was pretty good, a bit like a strong flavoured lean steak.
Kakadu National Park has been the home to Aboriginal families for over 50,000 years. It is now jointed managed by four traditional families and Environment Australia, and is a World Heritage Area.
First stop after reaching the park was Nourlangie Rock where there are some interesting Aboriginal rock art sites.
This was one of the more impressive pictures. They are drawn with ochre which fades away
so some of it had almost vanished or was faded and difficult to see while some drawings had been recently touched up. Interestingly
the art is often drawn over by other artists and so there were some really old pictures, maybe 2000 years old, intermingled with
pictures that only dated back 30 years.
Next we took a cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong and our observant guides pointed out some beautiful birds and cute wallabys hopping and
bouncing away from us. It is a beautiful spot. We also saw some salties - saltwater crocs (although we were in fresh water). Salties are the more
aggressive crocs whereas freshies (freshwater crocs) are apparently quite placid - I don't want to test the theory by swimming
with a freshie though. Mostly we just saw the salties eyes and snout popping up above the water - silent and deadly - they were just lying
about in the water watching us watching them. We also saw a couple of crocs basking in the sun. None of them batted an eyelid at our presense.
We tried to keep all limbs in the boat.
It's difficult to imagine the scale of Kakadu at 19,000km2. Someone told me it was the size of Switzerland, I'm not sure if that is right but it is certainly big. Travelling overland you can only cover a minute section of the park and even when we took a one hour flight we didn't cover the whole park. But we did get a wonderful view of the wetlands (similar to the Okavango Delta I'd visited in Botswana), the striking, massive rock formations of the Arnhem Land Escarpment and Dinasaur Valley, a Uranium mine, some purposefully started bush fires (lit to help regrowth and also to act as a fire block to stop natural fires from spreading) and the coolest shaped hotel we've ever seen which was built in the shape of a crocodile
We had been looking forward to arriving in Australia because although South East Asia was a fantastic experience it was sometimes hard going because we don't speak any other languages (we can say thank you in Thai, Cambodian, Laos and Vietnamise now but that's about as far as we got I'm afraid) and although these countries and the people are beautiful we did miss civilisation. Having said that our welcome to Australia wasn't what we'd expected. We gone over the borders of countless SE Asian countries nervous that someone might decide to make life difficult for us and nothing had happened so we weren't expecting it coming into Austalia and we were very tired from the flight. Added to that was the fact that it wasn't as cheap as we'd expected and the hostels were worse than some of the accommodation we'd found in Asia. To me the worst thing was the futility of the quarantine system. Only searching 20 per cent or so of arrivals into a country won't stop disease and pests entering the country because it only takes one person to slip through with something and other travellers must have known that they would be searched if they filled in the forms honestly and so didn't.
But there are lots of good things about Australia. Most importantly - wine! For me having access to good wine has been fantastic as I'd really missed it in Asia where I don't think I had more than a couple of drinkable glasses of wine. There is such a good choice of lovely wines here and as an added bonus something like a Jacobs Creek or Hardys is the cheap house wine and it's much cheaper than at home. The weather is great and the scenery and wildlife are absolutely beautiful. But, perhaps the nicest thing is that the people are really friendly and chatty. As an example, imagine a shop assistant who obviously doesn't want to serve you and gives you that look which says you are an amoeba (or an even lower life form) and that she (could be a he but they are mainly she's I'm afraid) has much better things to do than to help you find the suncream or sell you a roll of film. Well we've never had that experience in Australia. Here the shop assistants go out of their way to be friendly and helpful even if it means losing a sale by sending you to another shop where they sell the product cheaper or have something more suitable to your needs.
After just over a week in Darwin it was time to move on because we were due to meet Pat and Clive (Richard's Mum and Dad) in Cairns in six days time so we headed through the Northern Territory to Queensland.