23 August 2003
Another month, another continent, another letter to all…
Since our last message, we’ve been traveling through the continent / country of Australia. As both of us had previously been to the usual places in Australia—Sydney, Melbourne, Great Barrier Reef—we decided to concentrate on places that harder to get to. Our first stop was the Northern Territory, specifically Alice Springs, the West MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon, and Yulara (Ayers Rock and the Olgas).
Here we faced the shock of adjusting from one of the most crowded and technologically advanced cities in the world, Hong Kong, to an untouched place of red soil and rocks, very sparse in population. We also had to adjust to the local concept of ‘resort’, which really means a room made of cinder blocks in most cases. Apparently what qualifies a place as a ‘resort’, besides prices that are higher than comparable city accommodations, is the musical entertainment consisting of a lad, either old or young, who is at the end of his career or has just won a karaoke competition and is typically seen during the day attending the local gas station.
Our trek through this area was truly magnificent. We rented a 4×4 and drove through the outback, really enjoying the emptiness. We started in Alice Springs, a pleasant surprise as it is much larger and more civilized than what we had expected. We then drove along the West MacDonnell Range, a wonderful set of mountains with many dramatic gorges to hike into. Wishing we had more time to explore further, we took an unsealed road, about 300 km long, to Kings Canyon; there was literally nothing along the road, although every once in a while, we would see a mirage or two, like a house or a Home Depot ;-), or some (real) signs made out of steel drums with warnings such as ‘lift your foot from the pedal mate’. Kings Canyon welcomed us with some stunning scenery—colors of red, orange, and gold everywhere. We enjoyed our time there with a 6 km/4 mi hike up and around the canyon, and then we relaxed for the remainder of our time.
After Kings Canyon we headed to Yulara—the home of Ayers Rock (aka Uluru) and the Olgas, and this is where our experience of awe turned a little less so. Don’t get us wrong—Ayers Rock and the Olgas are very interesting, and when you’re up close they are phenomenal rock structures. However, we were a little turned off by some recent laws that were put in place at the request of the Aborigines. As we walked around Ayers Rock, which is a National Park, we found signs posted indicating that photography of certain locations was prohibited because they were sacred places of the Aborigines, and only ‘trained’ person could access them. Period! There was no other explanation or education, and these prohibited locations accounted for 60% of the rock!
Our next stop was the northern part of the Northern Territory—Darwin, Kakadu National Park, and Katherine Gorge. This area is known for its bearable dry season (May – September) and its oppressive wet season (October – April). We were expecting sub-tropical vegetation, but instead found green trees with a dry under bush, with the odd bushfire here and there. The area is famous (and listed as a World Heritage site) both for its ecology and for its aboriginal art. Based on our experiences in Yulara we were weary of anything aboriginal, but we were pleasantly surprised as it was expressive and spellbinding, we were allowed to photograph it, and we were given the background on its significance and meaning.
After Kakadu, we made our way to Katherine Gorge—what yet again is another wonderful area of Oz. We spent a couple of days there and had a very enjoyable time canoeing up and down the gorge in a splendid, sunny day. Ask us in the future about our canoeing techniques—one of us is slow and methodical; the other is fast and intense. Hmm… Overall, we only had about seven days in this region and wished we had more. But we had to move on to the best kept secret in Australia—Western Australia.
While writing this journal, we debated on whether if we should tell you the glorious things about our next stop, Western Australia, or keep it to ourselves. The State is such a jewel, and it’s so big that we only got an introductory view of it—in our two weeks there. We started in Perth, truly a lovely place, with over 1 million inhabitants big enough to be a real city but small enough to have a sense of calm and tranquility. We spent five very enjoyable days there, exploring the city, nearby Freemantle, the beaches and the countryside. We then headed south for the area of Margaret River, known as the wine country of Western Australia. In form similar to our experiences in South Africa we got a little out of hand on the first day with one of us driving on the wrong side of an empty road (correct side in the US) and the other not realizing what wine we were actually tasting (gulp gulp gulp). However, we had some terrific wines and fell in love with the area: the town itself is a few minutes drive to the coast and the entire region is astonishing. Unfortunately some of the fabulous wines we tasted are not distributed in the US, so we’re trying to figure out some creative ways to get them.
After a short detoxifying period, we headed up to the northwest area of Western Australia: Monkey Mia and Exmouth. This area far exceeded our expectations—we didn’t want to leave . Monkey Mia is known for the daily feed of the ‘wild’ dolphins. Although the rangers would not guarantee when or if the dolphins would come in, we learned quickly that these smart animals know exactly when to arrive and how to work the rangers and the crowd. They would ‘magically’ appear at around 8AM, 10AM, and noon; people would line up along the shore to greet them and after a bit of ‘socializing’ with the crowds the rangers would bring out fish to feed them. Just as interesting, and almost more charming, were the giant pelicans. Although they look dumb and dopey, they are also quite smart and had figured out when the feeds took place and would come to get some fish as well.
We headed north to Exmouth after a couple of days and were blown away with this next adventure. Exmouth is located on the northwest cape near the Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo reef; the land has the red dirt and bushes of the outback, contrasting with the water that is turquoise blue with beaches perfectly white. It’s a gorgeous piece of paradise that has not been ruined by indiscriminate tourism. Tourists are confined to small lodges and caravan parks and there are battles within Western Australia to ban the building of proposed resorts. The town has about 2,500 inhabitants and was created only 40 years ago when the Americans built a naval base to house the world’s most powerful radio transmitter, used to communicate with submarines at sea. The Americans are now gone but the base still exists and is maintained by the Aussies.
This area is primarily known for the Ningaloo reef, which is compared to the Great reef in grandness, but has the added bonus of being as little as 10 yards away from the shoreline (the Great Barrier Reef is at least a 45 minute boat ride away). Although the coral in Ningaloo was damaged in 1999 by the category 5 cyclone Vance, the quantity of variety of fish and mammals is unparallel. We went diving for two days on the reef and only wished we could have done more. One of our dives was on the Navy Pier, a part of the Naval base, where over 250 species have been sighted; we saw at least 50 including sharks, eels, sea snakes, groupers, cod, star fish, angel fish, manta rays, sting rays and the list goes on and on. Each school of fish was in the hundreds—seriously—and the diving was accompanied by the song of the whales loitering nearby.
Exmouth was our last stop in Australia and we’re currently on our way to Italy to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Mike’s parents. Afterwards, we will be off to South America.
Kristen and Mike