Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon

Beautiful places. Images cannot capture the impressions we came away with. Even though occasionally some of the 'walks' were busier than Dunedin's main street at lunchtime—and I'm not really exaggerating, just in case you're wondering!—it kind of got lost in the weight and majesty of the landscape.

One of the impressions that was always lurking somewhere was an 'awareness, the knowledge that in effect we were traveling across what once was the floor of a shallow inland ocean, and the 'mountains' were just the leftovers of the shallower parts of that sea; that everything we saw had been worn and shaped by millions of years of wind and rain—an awareness reinforced when doing something as simple a picking up a small piece of sedimentary rock and rub it, to have it turn to sand, or break into tiny, dusty pieces when dropped.

Still, and despite the futility, here are a very few images...


On our journey through the N.T. we chanced upon Dingos less often than I would have expected, but in at least two instances the meetings were surprising enough to make me suspect that we may have had their company more often than I'd known.

Here's one, by the side of the road. This was the one of the pair hiding in the shadows. The other was scavenging on a piece of something on the road. Might have been roadkill or cattle-dung; I'm not certain.

Another meeting took place at night-time, at Kings Canyon, with my wife and I walking back to our motel from a noisy barbecue restaurant, where we had been entertained by a pair of country music performers calling themselves The Roadies: Ruben and Petrea.

Mellow with wine, full stomachs and lots of laughs, we made our way back to our unit. The Dingo appeared in the street light, loping casually along the road, inspecting us as it took a little detour to avoid getting too close; and presently loped on and disappeared into the night.

'Cool', I thought.

My wife wasn't quite as relaxed about the matter.

"Was that a Dingo?"
"He just..."

Something along those lines.

The next meeting was with Dinky the Dingo (here are two links: 1,2; though the video I snapped with my Cybershot and the last bit of remaining memory was much better than the YouTube version, but it's too big to post)—and his owner Jim, who isn't as famous as Dinky, but has a very interesting personal story as well.

Finally, we saw two young Dingos in the Alice Springs Desert Park, an absolute and quite wonderful and charming 'must-visit' feature of the town.

Of course, I'd seen Dingos before: in zoos, mainly on the Australian East Coast; from which they are now banned, partially by a 5000 km long fence and partially by being considered pests in the East, which means they are hunted without mercy and private ownership is basically prohibited. By contrast, in the N.T. they are not only not considered pests, but there are moves underfoot to start a serious conservation programme. And much needed it is. As Jim explained to the guests at his restaurant who watched Dinky howl—much more musically than many a human singer—Dingos have only one set of cubs per year. Cross-breeds with dogs-gone-wild breed much more prolifically; and hence the pure Dingos are likely to become effectively extinct within a few decades. The situation in many ways mirrors that in some human societies I can think of but won't mention.

Jim also told us other stuff about Dingos. Like that they first came to Australia just a few thousand years ago and that it was probably either a pregnant female or a single pair, because that's what the genetics of the pure Dingos indicate. Meaning they all sprang from highly incestuous couplings. Damn good genes, if you ask me!

Dingos also exhibit behavior and capabilities more to be expected in felines: they have some ability to climb trees; an uncanny ability to land on their feet; and they use all their senses while hunting, which makes them different to dogs who tend to be specialized and prone to sensory tunnel-perception, confining their attention to either hearing, smell or sight. Apparently the Dingo turns on all three full blast. Dingos also—and this made a lot of sense to me—don't smell; stink that is, like dogs tend to, and especially in the Australian climate. Read the article in the ABC link to find out more about Dinky, who is a 'character', much like his owner.

I'm not a 'dog' person but a cat guy. A lot of that has to do with living in a urban context and with the fact that over the years dogs have been bred into so many munted varieties that one can almost forget that the ancestor of these creatures is actually something like a wolf. Or a Dingo maybe, who is like a mix between a wolf and a jackal. Behind those eyes and in their demeanor I though I detected something approximating intelligence, though it's not of the kind found among humans. (And how could it be? At this point I'd love to start a tirade about the abuse of the term 'intelligence' by just about everybody and sundry, but refrain with some effort.)

My problem with not being a dog-person is that dogs seem not to know that. There's got to be something lurking in my psyche I haven't quite figured out yet. Either that or they know something I don't. That's a thought I could choose to find disturbing, but don't. A wolf in a previous incarnation? A Dingo?

Back to Dingos: Thing is—and this is something I can't explain, mind you—but I sense that I actually just like them. This is not a rational thing, to be sure, and so don't ask me to explain it; but I think it may have been the Dingo on the street in the night. Not for an instant did it occur to me to be in the slightest concerned during the encounter. It was more like "Yo, buddy; how's hunting tonight? Scavenged any nice inadequately-sealed rubbish bins?" I didn't even notice my lack of either surprise or concern about meeting up, unarmed, with the prime predator of the Australian continent without a fence between us, until I reflected on the encounter afterwards when my wife told me that she wasn't quite at ease with the notion of having these guys roaming around freely in the countryside and generally having a good time, and never mind the pesky humans all around.

It occurs to me that, supposing I had a crapload of money—which I don't, but one can dream—might consider doing something serious about keeping this species alive; like maybe opening a sanctuary for the N.T. somewhere near Alice. It would be an effort I could resonate with. That's a new one for me.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Alice Springs

Alice Springs, a.k.a. The Alice, will, for me, always be fondly remembered as the place where I lost my fear of horses and instead learned to ride them. That's some years back now—with the 'some' being somewhat of an understatement—but when I first came to Australia, pretty much fresh from Germany and traveling around to have a look at this new home of mine, I was shit-scared of horses. That had been a source of some embarrassment for me where I came from—details will not be forthcoming!—and when I got to Alice, which then was pretty much the closest thing to a Wild West town you could find outside the US, I told myself to get a life and deal with my fears. Not as easily done as said. Horses are big creatures, that can do serious harm to you if they're so disposed; and they can act quite unpredictably—well, if you don't know them, that is.

So I went to this riding school and a guy, let's just call him 'K', who was dressed like your stereotypical cowboy, minus the gun, and who, for the rest of my sojourn there referred to me as the 'bloody German', told me "So, you wanna learn how to ride? Well, go fetch a horse."

Whereupon K gave me a rope (I think; might have been a bridle) and pointed at an enclosure where milled about what to me looked like a small army of large animals, all of them horses.

"You want me to go in there?"

"You wanna learn how to ride? Go get one." (I may be paraphrasing. It's been a while. Still, the gist is the same.)

I nearly crapped myself (I think; maybe not; memory dim on that point) and entered the corral; and was soon immersed in the then-mind-numbing presence of horses, none of which seemed to like me, but who didn't appear to want to do me harm either. By some miracle, whose details are lost in the mists of time, I managed to snag one and drag it to the fence—only to have K tell me that that one really wasn't suitable for me. He then took pity on me and got me a horse and so proceeded the lessons for several days, until I had to move on, now without a fear of horses. Indeed I ended up doing some quite stupid things, later when I lived in Townsville for a time, and tried for a time to help break in horses. The experience ended suddenly when I was thrown against a fence with my back, remained in stunned numbness for several minutes, but then turned out to be unharmed. Still, I told myself, that maybe there were things I should not do; being attentive to my health and welfare and all that. So I didn't, but I continue to love riding horses; even, or maybe especially, 'spirited' ones. Just don't get much of a chance to do so.

Anyway, Alice is the place where it all started. Meaning I am rather fond of the place, because it's got good memories. It also has a peculiar charm that I've yet to understand; but my wife felt it as well, so I'm not making it up.

This gentleman was sitting, drawing I think, in the middle of the dry bed of the Todd River. Don't know how long he had been there or how long he remained after I sneaked this photo. But there is a leisurely air about this image—I hope you get it—that very much captures something of the charm of this place. And if you didn't do so earlier have a look at the Wikipedia entry for the town. It's worth a study, words and images alike.

We're seriously considering the possibility of packing up here and moving over there. Indeed, I will probably make an outright effort to see how this can be done. Time for a change of scenery methinks.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Heading south...

Darwin looks so much bigger than it really is. With about the population of Dunedin, this kind of view deceives greatly and makes it look like a metropolis. It may, of course, one day become more metropolitan. One day...

Ancient mining equipment, suited for a gothic movie.

The Hiway Inn, situated at the junction of the Stuart and Carpentaria highways. Here it isn't horses being exchanged like at the many 'waystations' dotting the landscapes of the inhabited areas of Tethys, but everything from road trains and tank-carrying army vehicles to tiny cars like our Corolla are being tanked up with fuel—brought here by yet other road trains. But as for the rest of it, the functions of what's usually called 'roadhouses' around here is pretty much the same. Fuel, food, drink, lodging; and occasional entertainment.

Not far from there, a little bit off the main highway, a place called 'Daly Waters', famous basically for its pub.

And it appeared to me that it's here that old helos come to die...

The thing about being a tourist, even one speeding along for long stretches at 90+mph—and, no, dear N.T. policeman, I never said that; you misread; put your damn glasses on!—is that, even though you may overtake these tanks on low-slung semi-trailers, when you stop they overtake you and you've got to do the whole damn thing again. The stops may be idyllic—spot the wallaby and Kookaburra in the picture below—but you pay for them by being made to feel like some road-bound Sisyphus.

I lost count of the number of times we overtook these babies in their long stretched-out convoy.

Often, by the time we were sitting up the butt of one of them, we had overtaken a whole bunch of vehicles with no hope of overtaking this sucker: cars with trailers, trucks, road trains campervans, etc. That's where the 1800 cc came in handy, plus the very nice acceleration of the Corolla, and on occasion, when the coast was clear, the overtaking maneuver took in all 100-200 meters of tank-plus stragglers. Hit the right-hand lane, make sure the coast is clear—not difficult, with roads as straight as can be as far as the eye can see, and usually on level ground...

...turn on your lights high beam, so they know you're coming, and here we go!

The army drivers were invariably polite and freed as much of the right lane as they could. It helped not having a wide vehicle ourselves, plus the fact that the N.T. roads have a very good surface. They need to. They are the arteries of the Territory, who need to carry huge and heavy vehicles without rutting in summer temperatures of 40+ degrees Celsius. None of the pansy-ass road surfacing common here in New Zealand.

Anthills. Anthills. Anthills. They're ohh and ahh at first, and you marvel at all the shapes and sizes—from Lord of the Rings dimensions... barely a bump on the ground—but after a while it's like "look, these are a bit different, huh?" "yeah..."

There are, my wife concluded quite rightly, a lot of ants—and termites, which I think aren't strictly 'ants'—in Australia. Well, yes. No matter where you sit down, you got to watch out for these little blighters crawling around the place.—just in case they're either of a noxious and very painful variety, or else because they soon summon a shitload of buddies to the tourist who has so suddenly appeared and carelessly dropped bits and pieces of his lunch here and there; or maybe just planted his butt in some place and said butt looked potentially interesting.

This is but a small portion of a bunch of boulders called The Devil's Marbles, just about 100 km south of Tennant Creek along the Stuart Highway. So we got up real early that morning in our Tennant Creek motel, so we could get to the Marbles before sunrise and watch it there. We managed it in time all right—early enough in fact to awaken several of the hundreds of tourists camped, in tents, cars, caravans, campervans, there since I-don't-know-when-the-day-before— and watched the sunrise. A truly amazing sight. Even the tourists couldn't really spoil it, though I hate tourists. (Yeah, I know. Don't say it or even think it, or I will have to come and kill you).

For the clueless among you, that's me pointing at the sun, just so you know where it is.

And that's our little rental. When we collected it from AVIS's Darwin office it was all clean and without the gazillion bugs littering the front, and also without the fine red dust that had by then seeped through even the tiniest gap as we trundled over some unsealed roads to places you can only get to via unsealed roads. N.T. dust is among the finest mineral dust in the known universe. Oh, yes, definitely.

Friday, August 17, 2007

So, what do clouds look like?


To start with, I stumbled upon this, which I thought very cool. How to people find the time to do all this stuff?

To continue with...

The next few blogs will have loads of images, or so I would anticipate. Holiday pictures from the Australian Northern Territory. A very cool place, in a figurative sense since it's either hot or very hot, though away from Darwin it's much better.

Our travels—in an AVIS rental, a ridiculously overpowered new Toyota Corolla 1800cc, whose utility only became obvious when we hit the open road—took us along the route marked on the map below, flying into Darwin and out of Alice Springs.

In between that we visited friends in Darwin, visited Kakadu National Park and saw the sun set over the wetlands west of Unbirr, watched some amazing wildlife, visited Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the amazing Kata Tjuta (Olgas), met Dinky the Dingo and spent time in Alice Springs. Plus, I finally got to be driven in a Rolls Royce, though that definitely wasn't a part of the general holiday schedule, nor was the fact that the drive was at almost 100 mph in a 50 mph speed zone. I also got to see one of the cars—an Aston Martin Lagonda—once featured in the movie Cannonball Run. All of these cars, and more, plus the Bentley he used to pick us up from Darwin Airport—yep, first ever ride for me in a Bentley as well—I found with the owner of the garage shown below; 20 miles south of Darwin, in a little collection of houses called 'Virginia'.

But that, as they say, is another story, and the car was being restored to its former glory, so driving it was not on the cards. There are lots of stories to be told here, and they'll probably come to the forth as time goes on from here.

Let's start with Darwin, which is a small city, by Australian standards at least, that is currently expanding like crazy, mainly because of the influx of money from the mining industry in the areas surrounding it and the growth of the peripheral industries that tend to grow up around money; plus the whole 'urban' shebang.

Darwin would like to have both, N.T. spirit and urban sophistication. I think it'll lose the former and gain the latter. The 'Territorians', as they call themselves, can't have both. The N.T. spirit is incompatible with 'urbanity'; that's what makes the place so endearing, to me at least, and always has, ever since I first traveled through there. Even the continuous stream of tourists cannot change that. There are aspects associated with the N.T.—as there are with Australia as a whole—that are troubling; but there is no perfect, or even approximately perfect, human society. Nor, as I think should be clear from my novels and whatever else you hear me say or write, do I think that perfection or even an approximation is desirable. Those of us who have, to some degree at least, a choice of which imperfect society we want to live in, have to make that choice—or not, as may be their inclination; in which case that's also a choice.

From Darwin we went to Kakadu National Park for a few days, where we saw lots of crocs and amazing wildlife, aboriginal art on ancient rocks surfaces, flew over the eastern parts of the park in a Cessna 180 and got a first taste of the endless ocean formed by the mostly uninhabited expanses of the N.T.

And that's enough pics for today. 8)