South Australia

The Nullarbor

After two months in Western Oz, we finally make it across the border, into a new territory! We also travel along the longest straight road in Australia, 146km long (although I can’t say it seemed different from most of the other drives we’ve done).

Best. Sign. Ever.
Best. Sign. Ever.

Right along the border between Western and South Australia, we visit Eucla National Park, famed for its old telegraph station ruins, half-buried in white sand dunes.

Eucla's Old Telegraph Station
Christina entering Eucla’s Old Telegraph Station

The road east takes us through our last expanse of emptiness, the Nullarbor. The name comes from “nullus arbor” meaning “no trees”, a fact we can confirm. It also looks uncannily like Nevada/Idaho. The reason for this treeless plain is the rock underneath: 200,000 square kms of limestone—the biggest, flattest piece of limestone in the world, up to 300m thick. Even more amazing is that this giant slab of limestone juts right up against the ocean, along the Great Australian Bight. The resulting cliffs are stunning.

Nullarbor cliffs
Nullarbor cliffs

All along this coast we looked for Southern Right Whales, but sadly we were a little late to the party. The whales spend the winter here giving birth and resting in the shallow waters, sometimes only a few meters away from the cliffs (which has created quite a tourist industry), and spend the rest of the year in Antarctica. However, we don’t feel as bad about missing them when we find out it’s been a bad year altogether. It used to be you could spot several dozen mother and calf pairs at peak season, but this year the most they saw at one time were six. And they didn’t come nearly as close as years past. I think it’s probably a combination of climate change and El Nino.

Whale (not to scale).
Whale (not to scale).

 

Eyre Peninsula

We made our way down along the Eyre Peninsula to Lincoln National Park at the very tip. We had a nice time here, with a quiet little beach next to our campground in Spalding Cove, and lots of kangaroos and emus running around to keep us entertained. This is also the best place in Australia to see Great White Sharks, so we basked in the warm, fuzzy feeling that they were nearby. However, we were also being tormented by a much more horrible and terror-inducing beast… the Great Australian Fly. Although we brought one fly-net with us, we were wise enough to buy a second in Esperance. Most of hikes from here on out would be overshadowed by them. Literally.

Christina & Paul putting s good face on for the camera
Christina & Paul putting s good face on for the camera

From here we drove north towards the mountains, through a town called Whyalla, but it’s also known in some circles (my kind of circles) as Cuttlefish Mecca. Yet again, we missed the season. But something tells me we’ll be here again… Hundreds of giant cuttlefish court, fight and mate here in the winter, all with dazzling color-changing flashes and shows. Yup, we’ll be here again, somehow.

 

Flinders Range

Here, the flies worsened. In case you haven’t experienced it yourself, camping with swarms of flies is one of the least-enjoyable things you could do. Cooking is a pain, everything has to be constantly covered and fanned. Eating is impossible with a fly-net on, so we end up sweltering in the car (after killing the 5-6 flies that inevitably get caught inside with us). Our only escape is the tent. So after a difficult night, we hoped by climbing a mountain maybe the wind would keep them away.

With our fly-nets on, we set out on the trail. Most of the hikers we passed also had nets, so at least we weren’t the only people who looked like idiots. We even passed a group of people with multicolor streamer-wands to swat them away. As we made our way toward the trailhead, we were stopped by a mob of juvenile delinquents:

With our spirits lifted by the friendly encounter, we hiked up Mt. Ohlssen-Bagge, and were rewarded with a spectacular view. And fewer flies!

Christina & Paul look out over the Flinders Range
Christina & Paul look out over the Flinders Range

And we had plenty of company from the reptiles running around, too. The trail was very steep and rocky, and it seemed like every time I laid my hand down on a rock, it ended up inches from a skink or dragon, who just looked at my wondering why I was trying to steal her sunbathing spot.

Don't wake the dragons
Don’t wake the dragons

At our campsite, we also had a deadly redback spider behind the toilet. I hoped she would at least eat some flies.

Friendly neighborhood fly-killer
Friendly neighborhood fly-killer

 

Mt. Remarkable

Remarkable for somehow having more flies than any other park. And with the weather taking a turn toward hellish (38C), our usual respite, the tent, was quite unbearable. Luckily, the next day was going to be much cooler, so we planned a long hike to keep ourselves busy. We chose the popular Hidden Gorge trail (18km) which turned out to be one of our absolute favorite hikes of the trip. Since we started early, we saw lots of kangaroos, and even a pretty yellow-footed rock wallaby hopping straight up a cliff.

Hidden Gorge Trail
Hidden Gorge Trail

We also saw at least five goannas, one of whom wasn’t the least bit concerned about us and went about digging for food right in front of us.

Happy Goanna
Happy Goanna

And yes, the flies followed us the whole time. The photo below shows how many flies we typically carry around with us, but at their peak there were easily three times as many.

Paul and his flies
Paul and his flies

 

Adelaide

After a brutal week of flies, we were so excited to be in a city (and indoors at an Airbnb) that we completely forgot to take any pictures. We did manage to eat some fantastic indian food, though.

Fleurieu Peninsula

The marine emblem of South Australia is the extraordinary leafy sea-dragon. A spectacular animal (related to sea horses) they are native to these seaweed-rich coasts, and nowhere else in the world. And although we desperately wanted to see them in their natural home, the weather and water was pretty cold, and another scuba-diving trip was not in our budget. But at least we scoped out the dive site for in case we come back (Rapid Bay Jetty, in case you’re wondering).

On the southern side of this peninsula is Granite Island, a little island connected to the town of Victor Harbor via a 630m wooden boardwalk. Turns out it’s also South Australia’s most-visited national park, and it’s home to a small colony of Little Penguins (they come ashore in the evening).

Christina headed for Granite Island
Christina headed for Granite Island

The large granite boulders are what’s left after the limestone around it eroded, and has the same geology as “Remarkable Rocks” on Kangaroo Island to the west (which I visited 10 years ago). Although not as large and strangely-shaped as those of Kangaroo Island, these granite rocks still had some character.

Paul and Granite
Paul and Granite

The wooden boardwalk that connects the island can also be travelled by horse-drawn tram, which has been in service since 1894.

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Stare down

 

Naracoorte Caves

From the coast, we travelled inland to several other parks, including Cox Scrub (where we went on a rainy 4km hike through sandy terrain), Padthaway (where we searched unsuccessfully for koalas on a 4WD adventure…pushing our poor Subaru to the limit), the Naracoorte Caves and Bool Lagoon.

Naracoorte Caves fossil skeletons
Naracoorte Caves fossil skeletons

South Australia’s only World Heritage Site, this cave system was excavated in 1969, and was found to hold some of the best fossils of ancient megafauna marsupials from 200,000 years ago. They have a strange old museum/animatronic display with recreations of these bizarre animals…which sounded too intriguing to pass up. It was meant to bring the creatures back to life and give visitors a chance to walk back in time, but now it just “frightens small children” as the receptionist said. And he was right. Even for a 28-year-old, the creepy jolty-movements of the moving stuffed animals was enough to give me scary flash-backs…especially the snub-nosed kangaroo that looked like an evil, giant Tim Burton-esque rabbit… Most of the displays were clearly 30 years old, showing wear and tear and molting fake fur underneath a good deal of dust. Unforgettable, I suppose.

Wonambi Fossil Museum
Wonambi Fossil Center –  Thylacoleo carnifex (Marsupial Lion)

After shaking-off the strange experience of the museum, we then made our way to the Wet Cave, where we explored the various caverns at our leisure.

Entrance to the Wet Cave
Entrance to the Wet Cave
Paul in the shadows
Paul in the shadows
Large Cave, with interesting roof bubbles from CO2
Interesting roof bubbles from CO2

Just as we where about the leave, we were graced with the presence of an animal we’ve been desperately searching for, and had nearly given up hunting. They are nocturnal, timid and yet fairly common across the whole country (which made us even more annoyed), and here we found one in the middle of the afternoon only a few meters from the parking lot, and happy to walk right up to us. Relative of the platypus, the echidna is the only other egg-laying mammal alive today. And again, impossibly cute.

Echidna, being cute as a button.
Echidna, being cute as a button.
More echidna
More echidna

 

Bool Lagoon

After the caves we drove over to our next campsite, at Bool Lagoon, and immediately made a new friend. This turtle was trying to cross the road (wisely doing so right past the turtle-crossing sign). After snapping the photo, I decided Paul needed a better look (he was waiting in the car), so I picked her up and brought her over to the car window. He was not amused.

Long necked-turtle trying o cross the road
Long necked-turtle trying to cross the road

The next day we walked along the many boardwalks in the reserve. There’s usually water under them, but with the drought everything was very dry and there were barely any birds at all.

Bool Lagoon Boardwalk
Christina on the Bool Lagoon Boardwalk

 

Canunda National Park

We thought we’d visit SA’s coast one last time, so we spent a few nights in Canunda National Park, where we went on a nice 10km walk along the cliffs and beaches on the Seaview Hike.

Seaview Hike
Seaview Hike
Cliffs
Cliffs

We then headed south toward the border, for a visit to our last parks in South Australia.

Piccaninnie Ponds

This little park (along with Ewans Ponds, nearby) is special because of its crystal-clear limestone pools, which you can snorkel and scuba dive in. We opted for a just a little walk around, which turned out be a boon for snakes! We saw 4 snakes within an hour (3 red-bellied black snakes, one eastern brown), all highly venomous, of course. Three of them were shy, and disappeared off the narrow grassy trail as soon as they saw us, but one of them was a bit more nervous. She stayed perfectly still, but she started flattening her neck (a sign of unease or aggression in snakes). We had to pass by her to get back to the car, so we waited a minute, and slide by her VERY slowly, and made it out without any trouble. Sure got our hearts pumping, though.

 

Red-Bellied Black Snake - highly venomous!
Red-Bellied Black Snake – Beautiful! -iridescent purple black on top, and red-orange belly. Lovely creature. One of the most venomous land snakes in the world.
Paul at the ponds
Paul at the ponds

Although we didn’t jump in the water ourselves, we got a glimpse of the strange underwater world thanks to the GoPro. Here’s a little video of what the ponds look like underwater:

 

That wraps up South Australia! Victoria here we come!

 

 

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Coastal

Shark Bay

The next stop on our way down along the west coast is Shark Bay. It’s a huge marine park comprised of multiple national parks and World Heritage Areas. The first bay, Hamelin Pool, is home to some of Earth’s first creatures: stromatolites (cyanobacteria). While they’re not much to look at, walking amongst them is like walking back in time, to see the organisms responsible for making the oxygen in our atmosphere.

Paul and the stromatolites
Paul and the Stromatolites
Pied cormorants
Pied cormorants

A little farther up the peninsula is Shell Beach, a suitable name for a vast stretch of beach made entirely of little cockle shells that thrive in the super-salty water of the shallow bay, 25-30 feet deep in some areas. They used to make stone bricks out of them, too.

Endless cockle shells
Endless cockle shells

Farther still, is an amazing rugged cliff looking down on crystal blue ocean where the casual onlooker can sit back and leisurely watch all sorts of sea creatures wander into the bay. Within a few minutes we saw shovel-nosed sharks, several reef sharks, stingrays, a pod of dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales in the distance. Not bad!

Eagle Bluff
Eagle Bluff

That night we celebrated with margaritas! Our tequila even came with its own sombrero.

Christina enjoying her margarita. Quesadillas with guacamole in the making.
Christina enjoying her margarita. Quesadillas with guacamole in the making.

The next morning we made friends with a shingleback skink who was happily sunning herself in the middle of the road, who, when provoked by a waving hand, showed-off her fabulous blue tongue 🙂

Skink!
Skink! AKA bobtail, stump-tailed skink, bogeye, pinecone lizard or sleepy lizard.

Monkey Mia

Our next stop was a very touristy spot called Monkey Mia (I still haven’t figured out why it had that name) where local humans have been hand-feeding wild dolphins for decades. In the ’60s they used to let people feed them as much as they pleased, and the dolphins loved it, coming back every day to get a free meal. However, after about 20 years they noticed a sharp decline in young dolphins. Turns out all the free meals meant the mother dolphins weren’t teaching their calves how to find wild fish, and so they couldn’t survive on their own. These days, they are limited to 3 feedings a day, starting at 8am. All the humans line up on the beach and listen to the rangers while awaiting the dolphins (they all have names, and we saw mother, daughter and granddaughter). Some special people get picked to hand-feed the dolphins, while trying the evade the hungry fish-stealing pelicans. We were not the chosen people.

Australian pelicans waiting for their share of fish
Australian pelicans waiting for their share of fish
Monkey Mia dolphins come in to grab a bite
Monkey Mia dolphins come in to grab a bite

The dolphin experience was a nice treat, but the real draw of Shark Bay for us was the dugongs. Relatives of the freshwater manatee (with a forked tail instead of a rounded tail), dugongs are the only true vegetarian marine mammal, eating seagrass all day long. They are actually negatively buoyant, with very heavy bones, so they don’t need to exert any energy while feeding on the bottom. But this means they only have time for one breath each time they surface. While they remain a threatened species, about 20% of the world population resides in Shark Bay. The best way to see them is to jump on a wildlife cruise, so we dutifully followed suit.

Dugong taking a breath
Dugong taking a breath
Dugong taking a dive
Dugong taking a dive. 

The cruise also stopped at a pearl farm, which is a huge industry all the way up to Broome and beyond (and has its own crazy history involving kidnapping aboriginal women and forcing them to dive down to collect pearls, and later a huge migration of asian labor, including the still-best Japanese). We got to see some of the new inventive techniques they use to create unique shapes under the shell (hearts, anchors, dolphins, etc) and imbedding gold and gem stones to be covered in nacre (the white, iridescent coating that makes a pearl a pearl).

Oyster shells with anchor shape (top) , gold & opal (bottom right)
Oyster shells with anchor shape (top) , gold & opal (bottom right)

 

Kalbarri National Park

This park has both red rock gorges and rocky ocean coast, making it one of my (Christina’s) very favorite places in Australia. We started inland with a lovely loop hike (imaginatively called The Loop) starting on the rim at Nature’s Window (a large wind-created hole) and followed the trail down into the red and white banded gorge along the Murchison river.

Christina looking out at the Murchison River
Christina looking out at the Murchison River
Nature's Window
Nature’s Window with squatters
Tree with flowers
Tree with flowers
Interesting patterns in the rock
Interesting patterns in the rock
Pretty cliffs
Pretty banded cliffs
Friendly lizard
Cute lizard

The second part of the park, and its most spectacular in my opinion, it the wild coastline. Even though we’re farther south, the water still has that tropical light blue color, paired with white limestone cliffs or iron-rich sandstone. What is truly stunning about this part of Western Australia is the mix of warm-tropical and cold-water marine life. The west coast of Australia has the only southward flowing current in the southern hemisphere (the currents along South America and Africa both flow north). The Leeuwin current brings down tropical marine species from Southeast Asia, while the cold waters from Antartica bring the nutrient rich water north. They meet here and form a wonderful seascape that mixes coral reefs and bright tropical fish with seaweeds and kelps of the rocky intertidal.

Rock Island
Rock Island

One of the best places to explore was Eagle Gorge Beach, which was a small beach, but had an amazing amount of marine life, from little snails in the tide pools, to a huge crab-eating gull, and the remnants of creatures washed up on the beach (endless shells, urchins, cuttlebones, etc). I could have stayed there for days exploring all the nooks and crannies!

Paul in the tide pools
Paul in the tide pools
Shells galore
Shells galore
Urchin shell with seaweed
Urchin shell with seaweed
Literally every color of the rainbow...in shells!
Literally every color of the rainbow…in shells!
Cuttlebones everywhere, every size. Cuttlefish mate all at once and then die (like salmon), so their internal bones drift onto beaches around the same time.
Cuttlebones everywhere, every size. Cuttlefish mate all at once and then die (like salmon), so their internal bones drift onto beaches around the same time.

We continued along the coast to other beaches, lookouts and bluffs, each one presenting new and beautiful treasures.

Christina on edge
Christina on edge
Crab!
Crabs!
Sandy path around the beach dunes
Paul on a sandy path 
Kangaroo on the trail
Kangaroo on the trail
Christina at Red Bluff
Christina at Red Bluff
Paul at Red Bluff :)
Paul at Red Bluff 🙂

Where ever we went, the whales weren’t far, and today we managed to get a photo!

Humpback whale breaching!
Humpback whale breaching!

 

Ningaloo Blue

The Ningaloo Marine Sanctuary is a barrier and fringe reef that spans 260km on the north west coast of Western Australia. It also has long been high on our list of places we couldn’t wait to see in Australia. During our live-aboard trip at the Great Barrier Reef we talked to one of the crew who claimed that Ningaloo was better than the GBR, more pristine, what the GBR had been like 10-15 years ago. With that testimony, plus our own ideas of what Ningaloo would be like from our previous research, we developed some very high expectations. Simply said, our imagination did not even come close to the actual experience.

Turquoise Bay - voted #2 beach in Australia
Turquoise Bay – voted #2 beach in Australia

Cape Range

One of the great things about the Ningaloo reef is that a lot of it is accessible from shore and is in relatively shallow water. Meaning you don’t need a boat or scuba equipment to enjoy the natural wonders under the water. All it you need is snorkel gear. Some of the best snorkeling is off the shores of Cape Range National Park. So naturally we camped out there for a couple days. Little did we know, but Cape Range is a very popular National Park. Which means you have to queue up early in the morning just to get a camping spot. It was all worth it.

Gorgeous wildflowers. Sturt's Desert Pea
Gorgeous wildflowers. Sturt’s Desert Pea

Our first day of snorkeling was bittersweet. Sweet because we saw more fish on the first snorkel than our whole trip at the GBR. No, not really. But we did see a lot of fish, in large schools. And they were HUGE! On our second snorkel we saw blue spotted sting rays, an octopus (it changed colors right in-front of us!), and a couple of lionfish. The bitter part of the day was that some how, I got sea-sick while snorkeling and vomited up my lunch while on our second snorkel. It was extremely disgusting for me, but extra food for the fish. Ew. Gross. I know.

Snorkeling off the beach. The water was this color everywhere!
Snorkeling off the beach. The water was this color everywhere!

Our second day was equally cool with the addition of seeing a gigantic sting ray. It freaked us out since we swam almost right over where it had been hiding (and we were only in a meter of water). That day I took precautions and took some Dramamine before getting in the water so no seasickness. We also saw our first turtle during our second snorkel.

Exmouth

The next couple of days we laid low and enjoyed some beach time. This also gave me time to recover from the seasickness before our scuba trip. As we were sitting on the beach, I was staring out over the water and then all of the sudden I see the spouting of water, a whale’s back, and then a fluke. In shock and excitement, I called out to Christina, “WHALES! Christina, whales!!” The rest of that day we spent whale watching. They were migrating Humpback whales heading south for the summer and there were plenty of pods for us to watch. They put on quite a show too. We saw many breaches, tail and fin slaps. A truly unexpected treat.

View from the lighthouse, great whale watching stop. (Also some crazy antennas in the distance)
View from the lighthouse, great whale watching stop. (Also some crazy antennas in the distance)

There were also tons of emus all over the place, which was really fun.

Male emu with chicks!
Male emu with chicks!

Before our scuba trip we had to go out snorkeling one more time since we talked to a couple at our new caravan park who said that they saw sharks during their snorkeling adventures. On our next time out, what do you think we saw, a nurse shark! It was super cool, but also a little frightening. This was not small reef shark. It was at least two to three meters long. Christina assures me that nurse sharks are the puppy dogs of sharks. I trust her.

The next day we went on our scuba diving trip. First on our way to our dive site, we saw more whales. Some just swimming along peacefully, others breaching out of the water putting on a real show for us. Our two dives we very similar so here’s a run down of all the different sea life we saw: sea snakes, white tipped reef sharks, lion fish, nudibranchs (tiny flamboyant sea slugs–which are just incredibly beautiful), a frog fish, a wobbegong shark, beautiful soft and hard corals, a ton more fish, and an octopus. The shear diversity of aquatic life was just astounding. Best dive trip yet.

Coral Bay

First thing we did in Coral Bay was go to the daily free fish feeding on the beach. Everyone gets a few pellets of fish food (feeding them bread is very bad for their livers), and they come right up to your feet, and swim between your legs. Such a fun surprise!

Fish feeding in Coral Bay
Fish feeding in Coral Bay

After all that excitement you think things couldn’t get better, but they did. Ever since missing out on seeing Manta Rays in Japan, I’ve been looking forward to seeing and swimming with Mantas ever since. Luckily for us, Ningaloo is one of the best places to see Manta Rays in the world. Which means we used some of our scuba money for snorkel adventure with Manta Rays. The best place to see them is the southern part of Ningaloo Marine Park, off a town called Coral Bay.

Manta Ray!
Manta Ray!

The snorkel trip was equally stunning as the scuba diving trip. Not only did we get to swim with two Manta Rays, but we saw a bunch of white tipped reef sharks at a cleaning station (where little cleaner wrasse eat their parasites), some really gorgeous and abundant corals, a big tiger shark (we saw it from the boat), turtles, dolphins, and, again, a whole mess load of fish.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1012.

Snorkel Selfie
Snorkel Selfie

Overall, it was a truly awe inspiring week. I’m going to say it now: favorite part of the trip…so far. And to finish off, here is a video of our wonderful underwater adventures!

Pilbara Rocks!

Karijini

According to a Western Australian website, “The Pilbara region in Western Australia has some of the world’s most ancient natural landscapes, dating back two billion years and stretching over 400,000 square kilometers… and the Pilbara is also known as the engine room of Australia – home to a massive mining industry in crude oil, salt, natural gas and iron ore”. We didn’t spend a lot of time in this region, but we can definitely confirm that there are quite a few rocks and that there are numerous mines. I remember driving the highways and seeing a sign for a mine site every hundred or so kilometers. Fortunately, in the middle of this rugged and formidable terrain there is an oasis called Karijini National Park.

In Karijini there are a number of different gorges that lie within it’s borders. The gorge that is the most accessible and therefore the most visited is Dales Gorge. Dales Gorge campground is where we called home while we explored the different features of the gorge. Unlike other gorges where the campgrounds are situated on the floor of the gorge, this campground was on the terrain above the gorge, meaning all hikes would be downhill first and uphill second. Not our favorite way to hike, but the features of Dales Gorge made all exercise well worth it.

First day we visited Fern Pool.

Fern Pool
Fern Pool

Fern Pool sits at the most western part of the gorge and is a beautiful waterhole. It was a particularly warm day so we decided to test the waters. The water turned out to be pretty cold, around 22 degrees celsius, but refreshing for a short swim. While we swam some other tourists pointed out a colony of fruit bats perched in the trees along the waters edge. Very cool.

The next day we set out to walk the gorge. A cool feature of Dales Gorge is that you can walk along the northern rim, look down into the gorge from a number of look outs, and then descend into the gorge itself.

Christina at the top of Dales Gorge
Christina at the top of Dales Gorge

The gorge hike takes you from the surface, past a cascading waterfall, and into the floor of the gorge itself, traipsing along the banks of the river to where it ends at a feature called Circular Pool.

Fortescue Falls
Fortescue Falls
Christina with stunning geometric rocks overhead
Christina with stunning geometric rocks overhead
Christina overlooking the river
Christina overlooking the river

Clearly it was my turn to take pictures (expect for the animal shots).

Along our hike we found many butterfly chrysalises and one newly pupated butterfly!

Fresh butterfly
Fresh butterfly drying its wings

We also found a skink hiding in the bushes. We didn’t notice it at first but if you look closely it only has one arm!

One-armed skink
One-armed skink

Not only were there cool animals on this walk, but really interesting rock formations.

Round on square
Round on square

Once we reached the end of the gorge we decided that it would be a good idea to cool off in the crystal clear water of Circular Pool. Where Fern Pool was cold but refreshing, Circular Pool was just frigid. I can’t stand cold water for too long so I was in and then out with in only a few seconds. But it was very beautiful none the less.

Paul gathering strength for the plunge
Paul gathering strength for the plunge
Circular Pool from above
Circular Pool from above

Overall, Dales was an average campground and a spectacular gorge. But this was only a stop over for the area which we had been anticipating before we left on our trip: Ningaloo!

Kakadu

Kakadu National Park is Australia’s largest park, covering more than 20,000 square km. It’s over 2 BILLION years old and has been continuously inhabited by more than 52,000 years – making it one of the few places World Heritage listed for both it’s cultural and natural values. The landscapes represented in it include savanna woodlands, monsoon vine forests, broken ridges, stone country, tidal flats, mangroves, coastline, floodplains, rivers and billabongs – with incredibly rich biodiversity filling in every nook and cranny. We spent 5 days here, and barely scratched the surface!

Gunlom

One of the most famously photographed locations in the park is Gunlom Waterfall, or rather the infinity pool at the very top with views of the South Alligator River (misnamed by some explorer who had spent time in the southern US and thought the immense reptiles lurking about were alligators—not crocodiles). As you’ll see most things were named quite haphazardly, even the name “Kakadu” was created when they in misheard the aboriginal word “Gagudju” (one of the languages spoken in the region… gotta love the lazy arrogance of colonizers… Anyway, the hike was straight up a rocky mountainside, and completely worth it!

Christina in the infinity pool at Gunlom Falls
Christina in the infinity pool at Gunlom Falls

 

Paul looking over the pools at the top of Gunlom
Paul looking over the pools at the top of Gunlom

The upper pool was actually more fun to play in, it had a narrow little canyon to swim up, with huge boulders and water-carved rock holes all along it. After scrambling around some rocks we got to another tiny waterfall, and a watery cave with a giant orb weaver spider (size of my hand) with a web spanning clear across the entrance! No pictures, since we were swimming the whole time, but quite memorable 🙂

Christina at the upper pools. The canyon we swam up is right in the middle.
Christina at the upper pools. The canyon we swam up is right in the middle.

Yellow Water

After being in crocodile territory for about a month, we still had not seen a single one. So we splurged on a sunset boat cruise to spot the elusive beasts. The South Alligator River is the only river in the world protected from source to mouth, and is the jewel of Kakadu with marvelous wetlands teeming with wildlife. We ended seeing at least a dozen crocs, which made me one very happy camper.

River cruise boat. You can see the smoke in the distance from controlled burns
River cruise boat. You can see the smoke in the distance from controlled burns

 

Croc!
Croc!

 

White-bellied sea eagle. He swooped down in front of us, grabbed a turtle, and flew of with it in its talons!
White-bellied sea eagle. He swooped down in front of us, grabbed a turtle, and flew of with it in its talons!

 

Gorgeous little Azure Kingfisher
Gorgeous little Azure Kingfisher

 

Female Jabiru (stork) landed right in front of the boat as the sun was setting
Female Jabiru (stork) landed right in front of the boat as the sun was setting

 

Lovely crocodile basking in the light
Lovely crocodile basking in the light

 

Perfect sunset over the water lilies
Perfect sunset over the water lilies

Ubirr & Nourlangie

One of the main attractions of Kakadu is the ancient rock art. We learned a lot about native culture from some free ranger-led walks at these sites. Aborigines have lived there so long that their oral histories and dreamtime creation stories literally recount geologic history. I’m talking about 52,000 years worth of changes in climate and ecology. As the oceans rose and fell, the vegetation and wildlife changed with it, and the local people had to adapt by switching methods for hunting and gathering, which was all recorded in their stories, with incredibly accurate detail. One of the major creator beings is the Rainbow Serpent, who passed through the landscape creating rivers and waterholes, split the rock faces and made hills and mountain ranges, helping form the habitat for all beings. There’s also Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, a very important being in this landscape created and managed by fire.

Lookout at Ubirr rock site
Lookout at Ubirr rock site

When the first archeologists and anthropologists came to study the rock art and shelter sites, they would find a piece of something 10,000 years old and instead of spending years trying to find out what it was, what it was used for, etc, the local aborigines would wander by and tell them exactly what it was. This living archeology is virtually unheard of anywhere else.

Ancient rock art by aborigines
Ancient rock art by aborigines. The Lightning Man is on the top right, in white.

Tragically, most of the tribes have been wiped out and driven off their land, something more heartbreaking than I can possibly imagine. Even worse, there is still plenty of racism, which we casually overhear on hikes and at campsites (often times not so casually). I hope most of it will die off with the previous generations, as all the school curriculums now emphasize cultural understanding and a less biased history, and all the young australians we meet are just as disgusted as we are at the antiquated attitude. The white rangers who gave the tours (there are aboriginal rangers, too, but many of them were at a funeral the day we went) were so incredibly passionate and respectful of Aboriginal culture and did a great job of telling their stories with utter humility and with the acknowledgment that they knew just a tiny fraction of aboriginal culture and could never do it justice. Out with the old, in with the new—the better.

Enjoy the dragonfly
Enjoy the dragonfly

GBR

We have finally arrived in Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. We found another couchsurfing host, Levi –this was his first time hosting, and he’s never surfed before (!)– but he was fantastic. Our topics of discussion included AFL (footy/aussie rules/the most intense game ever), the NBA (he’s super keen), traveling in South America (he’s planning a trip), the Royal Australian Navy (he’s a member) and each of our future life plans. His roommate happened to get getting scuba certified that very weekend, so we had plenty of advice to share.

Couchsurfing in Cairns (Levi is second from the left)
Couchsurfing in Cairns (Levi is second from the left)

During our one day in Cairns before boarding our ship, we visited the Esplanade which has a lovely public swimming area and heaps of shops and markets. We relished the sun and soaked it in for a few hours.

The Cairns Esplanade swimming pool (with sand!)
The Cairns Esplanade swimming pool (with sand on one side, cement of the other)

On our way back, we noticed signs for–of all things– the Great Moscow Circus! In Cairns! We pulled over to take some pictures (we could see camels and zebra in the back), and just then a family walked out of the tent asking if we wanted free tickets because their daughter got too scared. Free tickets to the circus, right now, why not?! And so Christina got to relive her childhood birthdays and Paul got to see his first circus ever (I still can’t believe it myself).

The Great Moscow Circus tent in the middle of tropical Cairns
The Great Moscow Circus tent in the middle of tropical Cairns…Christina holding free tickets

With an early start, we jumped on the Reefkist for a two-hour ride out to sea to our new home away from home (away from car/tent), the Kangaroo Explorer:

The liveaboard dive boat Kangaroo Explorer (operated by Cairns Dive Center)
The liveaboard dive boat Kangaroo Explorer (operated by Cairns Dive Center)

For five days and four nights we got to hop between reefs and scuba dive as much as our bodies would allow (9 for Paul and 15 for Christina).

Christina in her element, about to jump into the ocean
Christina in her element, about to jump into the ocean at Milln Reef

We were also fortunate enough to have a Minke whale swim right past our boat (two of the instructors jumped in to snorkel with her), as well as have some dolphins bow ride right below us. And yes, we saw sharks (only a couple little guys).

Our fellow shipmates included Dana and her dad Joe (from Toronto), a New Zealand high school class, 2 Germans, 3 Americans, 1 Frenchman, 3 Brits, as well as many others we didn’t meet, and a seemingly endless rotation of international crew & dive masters (the Reefkist met up with us everyday to swap guests and crew, since you could stay for any number of nights you wished). Dana and Joe are avid world travelers (and dive masters themselves) and made for great dive buddies, so we had plenty to talk about over meals.

Dana, Joe, Christina & Paul on the Kangaroo Explorer, on the Great Barrier Reef
Dana, Joe, Christina & Paul on the Kangaroo Explorer, on the Great Barrier Reef

Speaking of food– being served 3 warm meals a day was a welcome break from our little camp stove and having to do dishes hunched over with a cold water trickle from our water jug… but it turned out that five days was just enough time to get through the meal cycle without it repeating. Turns out five days is also the perfect amount of time to get your sea legs… so naturally when we got back to land, our bodies were a tad confused and needed another few days to re-adjust back to solid land…

So why not re-adjust in the rainforest?… next stop Daintree National Park.

New South Wales

Our first week on the road has been soaked with rain. The first campsite we barely found because we thought the road had turned into a floodway (turns out it just turned sharply around the corner). We tested out all our new gear and all was well. Then we headed to the mountains.

Washpool National Park

This park is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area (which includes 40 parks). After climbing the mountain into the park, we were greeted by the famed lyrebird walking across the road. We set up camp and went on a quick stroll by the creek in the last hours of daylight.

Down by the creek
Not a lyrebird.

We made a fire because it was quite chilly (in the 40s F) and because, quite frankly, we had nothing else to do. Camping in winter means sunset is around 5pm, so we quickly decided to reset our internal clocks and try to go to bed early. Next morning we woke up to the dawn chorus of birds (none of which we recognize). But it was quickly stifled by more rain. We decide to be bold and hike anyway.

Rainforest hike
Rainforest hike in the rain
Christina sitting happily at Washpool waterfalls
Christina sitting happily at Washpool waterfalls

The first half of the 8.5km walk was serene and beautiful. The second half, was full of panic and shear terror. Leeches. Little ones, mind you, but the first ones either of us have ever encountered. All I remember is running down the path stomping and trying not to slip down the soggy hillside, on the verge of tears but too out-of-breath to bother with anything but getting back to camp. Every time we stopped to do another leech check, it felt as though they were seeping out of the ground and falling from the trees (which they were). All was well in the end, by the time we made it back the rain had stopped and only one had drawn blood (my blood). The rangers even made a joke about it… Ha ha ha.

All in all, it was a gorgeous park and we had it all to ourselves the entire time. Lots of birds and even a little furry critter we couldn’t identify (all we saw were glowing eyes in the dark, probably a possum).

Mist over the forest floor
Mist over the forest floor

Byron Bay

Byron Bay is a moderately-sized tourist trap, the eastern-most point of Australia. A subtropical Santa Cruz with a brewmaster-less brewery (they’re importing a new one from South Africa), lots of backpackers, dreadlocks and ukeleles in carrying cases. Our initial intention was to make this a lunch stop, but after three days we decided hot showers, food and dip in the ocean would be a welcome change of pace. It was strange to go from the cold isolated mountains to the warmish seaside hubbub in one day. But the beach really is beautiful and worth the stop.

Nothing beats coming out of the shower to a rainbow
Nothing beats coming out of the shower to a rainbow
Paul feasting on an Aussie burger -- with beetroot. And a nice ale to wash it down.
Paul feasting on an Aussie burger –with beetroot– along a Billygoat lager from Byron Bay Brewery
Sunrise over Byron Bay
Sunrise over Byron Bay

 

Minyon Falls

We were originally planning to visit Border Ranges National Park, but unfortunately they seem to be rebuilding every single road in the park, so it’s closed. Luckily, on the east coast of Oz you’re never too far from another wonderful park, so we ended up at Whian Whian State Conservation Area, near the hippie town of Nimbin (we felt right at home).

Here’s a little video I made: