Archive for June, 2012

Puttin’ on the Britz

June 18th, 2012 6:19 am by Dave from here

Thursday morning we got in touch with the local campervan agent in Broome. They didn’t have any of the small high-mileage Backpacker camper vans like the one whose engine blew on us. They gave us a Britz van which is SO much nicer. You can stand up in it. It has a microwave oven. It has a refrigerator instead of a cooler. (You have to go to a powered site every other day to recharge the battery which runs it.) It has a toaster and a French press. It’s a diesel Toyota and gets much better gas mileage, with a much larger tank, than the unleaded Mitsubishi we had before. It has 96000 km on it, instead of the 213000 km the other one had. Still, the old van had a couple advantages — it had a huge water tank, making me comfortable to stay by the road if that ended up happening. This one hardly holds enough water for washing dishes for one meal. The old van’s camp stove worked awesomely; this new one is harder to light. But it is built-in, and you get to cook inside; arriving after dark isn’t so much of a problem.

After screwing around in Broome for awhile, we finally got on the road and made it as far as the Sandfire Roadhouse. It has the best showers I’ve seen in Australia, powerful and hot.

Friday was another reasonably long drive. We stopped for gas in Port Hedland, which is a large town catering to the mining industry, and which you are warned against staying in in all the guidebooks and by all the tourists you meet. Our next destination was another rock art site near the town of Karratha, where we were also warned against staying. We were advised to stay in Point Samson, a nice little beach community between all of this heavy industry; from the beach we could see four tankers lined up waiting to take a load of natural gas to China. The line of ships reminded us of the Panama Canal.

On Saturday we drove a few kms to Karratha, got directions to the rock art site, and went there. Karratha turns out to be a major center of industry, both processing of natural gas, and transshipping iron mined inland onto ships headed to China. A train we passed on the way to the site had 240 cars; those trains apparently hold the record for both weight and number of cars. As we headed down the 3km dirt road to the site, we passed a major natural gas processing facility. The site turned out to be piles and piles of boulders, many dozens of which had various designs on them. Apparently there are 700 sites on the peninsula with similar collections of petroglyphs. There is quite a struggle between the natural gas industry and the aboriginals in this place, and one can easily guess who pays the government more. After a few hours scrambling around, we got back on the road and headed towards the Coral Coast, stopping at another obscure roadhouse with minimal facilities.

Sunday we continued on towards Exmouth, and on the way passed the first large kangaroo we’ve seen, in the form of roadkill. Poor thing. The smaller ones we’ve seen are pretty dumb, actually, dumber than deer. Little surprise so many of them end up feeding crows and eagles. We continued on to Cape Range National Park, the land component of the Ningaloo Marine Reserve, where we got in an evening snorkel and a green flash, and stayed at a nearby caravan park where we had the Sunday roast with a bunch of other old fogies. Monday we snorkeled three times in the park and saw another green flash; there wasn’t much live coral to speak of but there were many cute fish. (The place where you find really bright coral these days is largely The Past). It’ll be interesting to compare Ningaloo with the Great Barrier Reef.

At sunset, the road out through Cape Range is lined with kangaroos and wallabies of all sizes. Evolution is gradually winnowing out a detectable majority in favor of those who jump away from an oncoming car rather than toward it.

Another thing we did on Monday was to replan much of the rest of the trip: we were scheduled to drive from Adelaide to Cairns, stopping briefly to see Ayers Rock (Uluru). Now we are scheduled to fly from Adelaide to Alice Springs, where we will do a five night drive to not only Ayers Rock (staying longer there) but another nearby attraction called Kings Canyon as well. We’ll then return to Alice Springs and fly to Cairns. We’ll spend less time driving and more time “being there”. The saleslady at the camper van rental place seemed disappointed we were cancelling our trip. But “Awesome Campers” advertise 1998 model year vehicles, and after our breakdown, and upgrade, I’m actually kind of happy to pay a little more for a just-barely-luxurious late-model van from Britz.

This is the first camper van vacation we have ever gone on. It is instructive to learn what the issues are: French press, refundability, not blowing up the engine.

Next Service 288km

June 18th, 2012 6:16 am by Dave from here

The transit ended successfully, and we packed up and drove a short distance to Cooinda, where there was a sunset cruise on wetlands. There were several dangerous saltwater crocodiles, which is all that anybody wants to talk about to Australian tourists, and some pretty birds.

Thursday we did some serious driving, stopping briefly to go on a cute walk under a cliff face. Being under a decaying cliff face is as nerbous as being on top of one, but the only sign of geologic activity we were subjected to was a large pile of honeycomb attended by a bunch of angry bees. It had fallen from an overhang several tens of meters up. Unlike the honey that was oozing out of Boris’s walls back in the day, I didn’t try any. It was well attended. We stayed at Timber Creek, which was named 150 years ago because there was wood there. The trees are pretty small up at the top end.

Friday we continued the serious driving. We had been playing a game of Nim with our food, and we were down to three slices of bread and the shards of carrot between my teeth. In other words, we were ready for the Western Australia quarantine inspection at the border. A few km later on, we stopped at Kununurra and stocked up, and continued to Turkey Creek Roadhouse, the pick-up spot for our all-day tour to the Bungle Bungles. I suppose that Turkey Creek was named for Turkeys. It now goes by its Aboriginal name, which nobody uses. We stayed in an unpowered site, as usual, which in this case amounted to on-the-street parking. The street was a dirt road to no apparent place so it was a good investment on the part of the roadhouse to appropriate it as a rental.

Our all-day Saturday tour picked us up at 5:30am, drove three hours into the park, showed us Echidna Chasm, fed us lunch, showed us Beehive Domes and Cathedral Gorge, and drove three hours back.

The Bungle Bungles, now known as Purnululu National Park, are a small mountain range about 35×25 km whose most recent geologic cause was a meteor impact which caused cracks in the sandstone. Over the millenia, water carved out the cutest chasms and gorges. Echidna Chasm is to narrow in places to walk to without twisting sideways. The tour guide assured that the catchment for these slots is tiny compared to the ones in Arizona, and even after a downpour the water is only waist deep.

Much of the rock is covered with orange rust and black, with the parts that are submerged every rainy season in their original white. The iconic image of the Bungles is Beehive Domes, a series of striped domes at the south end. It is just as special a place as Bryce Canyon (and at the same times of day) but is shaped somewhat differently. A special shout out to our neighbor Callum for insisting that we go there.

We then had two days to get to Broome to catch our next two scheduled all-day tours. The distances between roadhouses and towns continued to increase — it really was 288km from Turkey Creek to Halls Creek. One needs to manage fuel carefully. Sunday we drove to Fitzroy Crossing, where there was another afternoon cruise on Geikie Gorge, part of the large Devonian reef which winds around much of the Kimberley, the northern end of Western Australia. The cliff faces had been eroded into fascinating shapes, and undangerous freshwater crocodiles sunned themselves. We learned about a fruit that looks like the squashes that grow wild near our house but actually are soft on the inside and taste like a combination of banana and passion fruit. We were warned not to eat too many due to their laxative effect. We stayed at the Fitzroy Hotel and Caravan Park, which is essentially a caravan park for the 1%. People had mysterious antennas, solar panels, and the fanciest imaginable caravans and vehicles to tow them. We felt pretty humble, one of the three vehicles in the “unpowered” area (another one was the solar panel caravan). We accidentally parked next to the dump site, further increasing the humiliation.

Monday we continued the drive. About 175km along the way, we heard a sound like a machine gun, and I brought the car to a stop. The guy behind us stopped and noticed oil coming out the exhaust and pointed out we’d likely blown a piston. He had a satellite phone, and we arranged to get towed. After 90 minutes or so, we stopped another vehicle with a sat phone, and they said that the tow truck was on the way and would arrive in 90 minutes. And, just over four hours later, an hour before sunset, it did — it put the dead van on the flatbed and drove it and us to Broome. We managed to get out an email in a small window of cell coverage asking the travel agent who arranged our tours to find us a place to stay, since we no longer had a van to park in a caravan park. Bill, the driver of the tow truck, allowed it was all right with him if we slept in the wrecking yard. That seemed a little down market after Fitzroy, caravan parks provide a lot: water, showers, toilets, the absence of junkyard dogs; it seemed it was prudent to get a hotel. Besides, tour pickups at a towyard? The travel agent booked us into the “Broome-Time Lodge”. (“Broome Time” is the town’s self-effacing name for the tendency of never arriving anywhere on time.)

I called the camper van helpline and told them that we’d be on tours the next two days and that we’d deal with the van replacement on Thursday morning.

Tuesday we had another all-day tour, with the same pattern — get picked up early (around 7am), drive a couple hours, see stuff, see the sunset, drive back a couple hours, get back too late for dinner. This one went around the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome. The first highlight was when the vehicle’s fan belt broke, and the radiator broke off all of the fan blades. Miraculously, a shop near where we were was able to put on a new belt and fan, and we continued with a slightly abbreviated version of the tour. We had an hour to see the town church, with its mother of pearl altar which has some local fame.

The second highlight was going mudcrabbing. We picked up Vince, a local Aboriginal, who led us out onto this tidal plain and into these mangrove forests. It was a fascinating landscape — you could picture roots under the ground which sent up tiny little shoots, which is basically what we were walking on. Mudcrabs tend to hang out under the rather horizontal trunks of mangrove trees, and the group (not us) collected about six crabs altogether. We returned to the bus, Vince threw the crabs onto the fire, and we feasted on them as well as the normal tour lunch. The rest of the tour was fairly perfunctory, but we saw a nice sunset on the beach. No green flash though.

Wednesday was yet another all-day tour, though a larger group in a larger vehicle. We went to Windjana Gorge, another part of the Devonian reef, where we saw some beautiful birds and many “freshie” crocs. The signs pointed out the fossils in the reef. Then we went to Tunnel Creek, a cave walk where we walked through up to two feet of water. That was a blast.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been more expensive in the end to have rented a 4WD vehicle and driven to those places ourselves, but it’s hard to find places that will let you take a rented 4WD vehicle into the Bungles.

Coarse Art and The Transit

June 5th, 2012 7:20 pm by Dave from here

Monday we drove into Kakadu National Park, where there was still time at the end of the day to go to Ubirr, one of the main rock art sites. Aboriginal rock art there ranges from 20,000 years old to the present; some of it was restored in 1964 by “Barramundi Charlie”. They are serious about not taking the artifacts seriously — it was performance art in 20,000 BC and it’s performance art now. Many of the drawings are of fish and other animals: one of the galleries was apparently used as a teaching guide for fishing and hunting. A ranger being followed by an educational film crew gave a talk about about the art, and we saw a sunset from a nearby lookout.

Tuesday we had time to explore the Nourlangie art site. In addition to drawings of fish, there were various spirits, and even some hands reminiscent of Cueva de las Manos in Argentina. Some of them were making gang signs as well — the three fingers held together in the center, and the outer two spread. On the way to and from Nourlangi, we stopped at an overpass and watched egrets fighting, bee-eaters foraging, cormorants drying their wings, some spoonbills and many ducks hanging around, and a few mighty Jabirus wandering around and plucking things out of the water. The day was annoyingly cloudy, a little concerning on the eve of the transit of Venus. Many of the previous cloudy days were described as “clear” on all the weather sites, but at some point we finally got a site to admit that it was “cloudy” in Darwin, though it was expected to be clear later.

And indeed, on Wednesday morning, it is gloriously clear, and we set up the telescope and have been watching Venus move in its orbit across the face of the sun. We have heard stories from many fellow travelers as they have come by to look at the sun. Whenever we lose the sun it takes fifteen minutes to find it. Fortunately, the transit moves at a more stately pace than a lot of occultations we struggle against.

Turtles and Fine Art

June 5th, 2012 7:12 pm by Dave from here

Our final morning in Darwin was spent buying some snack food for the car, and visiting the beautiful Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which featured a fascinating exhibit on Cyclone Tracy, which wiped out Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974. We went to a fancy restaurant for lunch, since there won’t be any more fancy restaurants for weeks. Then we headed to Nauiyu, home of the Merrepen Arts and Sports Festival.

The Merrepen Arts Festival has a hundred or so oil paintings by local Aborigine artists for sale, ranging from $250 to $3500. They were shown for inspection, and offered for sale Sunday. A few will be auctioned. There were also many pretty fabrics and silks for sale. The sports aspect of the festival is happening continuously on the local football field. We didn’t really know what game we were watching; it turned out to be Australian football, which has a ball shaped like an American football, no markings on the field, and completely different rules.

In the evening there was a concert, featuring some fire dancers, Leah Flanagan from Darwin with her band, Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier from Melbourne and local favorites the Emu Sisters. Deborah Conway was the hit, with interesting lyrics and great mandolin/steel guitar/guitar work by Mr. Zygier. The Emu Sisters aroused lots of enthusiasm, but they basically alternated between two songs about three times, and were a little tuning-challenged.

Sunday morning we went to the art sale, were disappointed to see that the $550 work we wanted was immediately snapped up, probably before the shopping spree officially opened, and arrived at the $950 work we wanted, a depiction of barramundi caught in nets, simultaneously with a Polish expatriate who was kind enough to let us have it. Afterwards we walked over to a fire pit where some elderly Aborigines were cooking two wallabies and two turtles. We watched them open up the pit and start slicing open the critters. We got to taste some turtle liver and a turtle egg, as well as a little meat from turtle and wallaby. Also the local version of bread, which they called Damper. Also a plant they called Yams, but it has nothing to do with anything we or any other culture calls yams, being a kind of spiny tuber. It tastes like potatoes.

In the afternoon we drove north to Litchfield National Park, where we saw “magnetic termite mounds”: a species of termite makes very thin mounds which are on a north-south axis to minimize exposure to the sun. Seeing a whole field of them aligned was quite interesting. Most of the other mounds we’ve been seeing are more generally cylindrical, though some are twenty feet tall. We also saw three cute waterfalls, but it was a little too late in the day to go swimming, and there was also the issue of not having the campsites fill up. The National Park camps don’t take reservations.

Getting on the Road

June 5th, 2012 6:59 pm by Dave from here

We arrived at the Paravista Motel around 1:30am. The management had left our key in the mailbox. After a few hours of sleep we caught up on our laundry, left our luggage, and headed out to pick up the campervan. We returned to the motel, picked up our luggage, and had a long conversation with the proprietor. He had been a bouncer and is now a corporate counselor. All about the Uninformed Subconscious and Auditory Visual and Kinaesthetic types. The most helpful innkeeper I’ve ever met. He told us where to go shopping for the things we needed, including a replacement CamelBak nipple: ours had somehow come off. It was $14. I also got a domesticiPad SIM card which seems like a better deal (4GB for $30) for data than our AT&T international data roaming plans, assuming we can find enough Vodafone (in Nauiyu all we see is Telstra).

He also said that he had had to get an airport issued last minute visa to go to the United States a few months ago, because the US also now requires pre-issued visas of everyone, even rich white people.

The Australians are nothing if not rich, but tan. The campgrounds here cost as much as a Formule1 or Motel 6 in the Northern world.

After a nice dinner in downtown Darwin (Indonesian steam-table food), we headed to our first campground nearby, where we learned that the office closed at 7pm. Some guy took us to a site anyway, and we settled in for a warm night.

Rest Stop in Fiji

June 5th, 2012 6:48 pm by Dave from here

One of the benefits of having been delayed 15 hours in Los Angeles was that our flight happened in the daytime, and we were able to get a proper night’s rest beforehand. But this meant arriving around 8pm, followed by a three-hour drive at night after our eleven-hour
flight.

We spent three days at the Pearl South Pacific Resort in Pacific Harbour on the south coast of the main island of Fiji relaxing with our Fijian friend Siral. Much of the time was spent geeking out — we handed him down an iPhone, and bought him an HP netbook. We drove to Suva to get a wireless modem for the netbook (people in Fiji don’t generally have wired broadband connections to their house). We also visited the Immigration Office to check progress on Siral’s passport: they are expecting a shipment of 40,000 blank passport books “next month”, though it has been “next month” for more than a year now. How does a country get so out of control of its own passports? They must be in arrears to some printing company.

We decided to drive back to Nadi through the mountains instead of along the coast, on a road clearly shown on the tourist map. Like many such adventures, the road shown merely in white on the map, instead of yellow, started out being a perfectly nice paved road. The one we turned onto was a “good gravel road”, which was supposed to go through the village of Nabukaluka. We saw the road up ahead failing to cross a river, and started seriously doubting the map. People we asked had different opinions on whether the roads on the map existed; we tried another road and it quickly became too challenging for our little Toyota Vitz. We had to turn around and drive back to Suva, and then back to Pacific Harbour on the coast road. It was such a disappointing experience that I had fast food and drank Coca-Cola for the first time in several years on the way back.

The hotel tourist office suggested many possible activites, including jetskiing, tag lining, and skydiving. When I expressed interest in something less extreme, like walking along the beach, I was warned of the dangers — some stray dogs hang out around the beach and I could be bitten. My walk turned out just fine, but some big blue jellyfish washed up on the shore probably indicated why no one was swimming in the ocean. They also had several kayaks one could borrow and paddle up the river in; the first one Ray tried had a crack in it which made it immediately fill up with water and sink. We found a couple ones which were intact and had a short but very peaceful paddle on the river which runs through the upscale housing development there.

We returned to Nadi, had another delicious Indian meal cooked by Siral’s mother (and a kava ceremony — more kava than ceremony; they are Indian and not Fijian — with his father and brothers), and headed to the airport to fly to Darwin via Brisbane, two four-hour flights on 737s. The second flight had individual seat-back displays of 24 channels yet nothing on. Even the map channel was three-fourths advertisements. Virgin Australia.

We were lucky to get on. Without my knowing it, Australia started requiring pre-issued visas about five years ago. The guys at the Virgin Australia desk checkin desk put on frowny faces and typed furiously into their bad airplane user interfaces and issued us boarding passes. It seems they had got us visas on line. So far as I know, no money changed hands.