06 June 17
Darwin airport is pretty tiny. Passengers feed into it through one end and out of it through the other. Domestic disgorges in the cavernous far end. International exit through sliding glass doors, pulling or pushing whatever baggage has survived the eternal paranoid self-righteous onslaught of the Customs and Border Protection Checkpoint hidden from view from us anticipating a battle-hardened traveller from abroad. Ram should be coming any moment. Or not. Always someone has to be last to collect their luggage. Or last to be released from the professionally paranoid. Or who’s bag somehow disappeared enroute forcing the hapless baggageless passenger to deal with whatever Lost Luggage service the airport/airline feels is appropriate.
Not sure what seat she has. Sit at the back and she may as well nestle in for the long run. By the time she makes immigration three-quarters of a plane shall be in front of her. As a non-Australian passport holder she’ll get the stern scrutiny of a Customs and Border Protection Officer. As will all the others before her. It can take hours. Then, if she’s in The Bad Guys Book as I always seem to be, Customs part of the Border Protection will definitely wanna look in her bags, asking with piercing eyes and a demeaner halfway between intimidating and entrusting. Only they aren’t. The wanna get the Bad Guy and everything they say and do is training geared to get you to realise the tragic error of your ways and own up to attempting smuggling some decent dope into Pure Idyllic Utopia Australia. Thing is if they had more decent dope available I’m sure they wouldn’t have the devastating methamphetamine epidemic which is currently smiting Australia. Anyway, I always get searched. Well, at least I used to. Nowadays it’s not so frequent.
I’ve been among the first to get through the scrums at immigration only to be comprehensively searched at customs, despite generally travelling only with a light ryggsäk. Consequently last to exit the airport. For no matter how much contraband I smuggle I’ve yet to get caught. Of late, I don’t bother. The insane drive which makes it impossible for me to believe in their paranoia has lessened.
The glass doors slide open and Ram pops out, with that big grin and smiley face I love so much and instantly any residual doubts or trepidation evaporates. This is the woman I love. No matter the dramas we force on each other, no matter the miscommunications, nor the challenges we face, it’s clear to me she is my woman and I am her man. Tough, reliable, smart, good-looking, sexy, down to earth. For sure she has her eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. But then again so do we all, particularly me. And mine challenge me let alone anyone close to me.
Somehow someway I really need to combat the lingering last elements self-destructiveness which has provided a life of adventure and wonder but which causes me to lose the very things I believe I seek. Such as a good, long term respectful and loving relationship. With Ram. How do I let go, accept and enjoy her presence in my life? How do I remove the phenomenally stubborn wall, useful decades ago to protect me from the almost insurmountable forces allied against me, which kept bad people her at a safe distance but it also prevents us enjoying the intimacy we both crave? I don’t need this wall any more. Thing is, it went up so damned early it’s so entrenched as a part of me I’m at a loss as how to remove it. Ram suggests I also go to a Hoffmann Q2 and I suspect she’s right. I’ll look into once ‘home’, wherever that is. Which is yet another intransigent problem we face.
Anyway, such thoughts come and go in an instant before we hug and kiss our first meeting in over twelve months.
For the next three days we retreat to the Paravista hotel a few kilometres from Downtown Darwin. Built just after Cyclone Tracey trashed Darwin Christmas Eve 1974. It was a small but intense cyclone reaching 217 kph gusts before the anemometer at Darwin Airport was destroyed, along with the rest of Darwin, costing sixty-five lives (bom.gov.au/cyclone/history/tracy.shtml). I doubt it’s had any major refurbishment since then, retaining the beige-brown 70s’ interior. It is however, spotless and managed by extremely friendly staff.
Mindil Beach is but a short walk away and with it stunning sunsets, the Ski Club which overlooks those stunning sunsets and the Mindil Beach night markets. All of which we take in.
There is that moment though, on Mendil Beach, where we face off against The Water. Now every non-Australian knows that the waters in Australia are simply deadly. And the more northern you are the more deadly the water: HUGE sharks, even HUGER crocodiles and insidiously tiny lethal jellyfish, and not to mention the blue-ringed octopus nor the cone shell. Death, instantaneous and brutal awaits the hapless water-goer in northern Australia.
There’s a life guard lounging in the shade of a portable gazebo, keeping a watchful eye on extremely shallow water and no surf. Few people to watch. We approach him.
“What kind of risk are we facing if we want to swim?” I ask.
He laughs “You’re pretty safe”
“Na, yer safe” he responds emphatically.
There we have it, in Nannyville, THE dude responsible to safely patrol a public beach has cleared in three words any risk. He wouldn’t even be here if there were even a trace of a risk. And there would be countless large signs telling us of the dire and immediate consequences of being so stupid as to want to go for a swim.
Surely, I hope/think, this must reassure Ram. Not a chance. We have to wade a hundred meters before the water gets to waist deep. Others are splashing around. Some guy even has his kids in the water. It takes a while. Step by step. Coaxing, pointing out the kids, the other tourists, the dude on the beach who’s clearly not alarmed. Step by step we make it.
Now, swim? Nope, Ram is still nervous. Takes a while more, a bit more coaxing, more reasurring, but finally she goes for The Plunge. We don’t dwell mind you, but first steps, or dips, have been taken.
Of course, being tourists, we ‘do’ the archetypical Darwin sunset cruise, choosing Streeter, a revamped pearling lugger originally from Broome (streetercruisers.com.au).
There’s no dinner included which allows us to bring what we want to eat rather than endure someone else’s concept of a sunset meal. Being grazers we enjoy fine cheeses, dried biscuits, hummus, avocado and tomato. And smoked sea trout, one of my favourites. A few beers to wash it down.
Settling on the back deck with two other couples, one from the east coast and Marls and Andy from New Zealand.
The mild sea, the beauty of the sunset and the unique commonality of travellers creates an intimate atmosphere and we share freely our food. The rest of the guests occupy the front deck.
14 June 17
Litchfield is a small, value packed National Park barely one hundred kilometres south of Darwin. Highly accessible via asphalt road, with short walks to pretty much all the sights it is far more user friendly than Kakadu. And it’s free. In comparison Kakadu costs 45$ per person for seven days, for which the visitor can enjoyrough gravel access tracks up to sixty kilometres long followed by walks ranging from the wheelchair access to ‘difficult’. Unsurprisingly, Litchfield is also pretty busy in peak season. It can be ‘done’ in a day, apparently. I’ve been here several times before for at least three days.
Since it’s Ram’s first official camping night in Wild Australia, we decide on the Banyan Tree Caravan Park just outside the Park’s eastern border for the first night. To go through the routine of setting up camp in a more controlled environment.
Love Australian’s. We’d barely set up the impressive Oztent before the neighbour on one side comes up and start’s chatting away. Then the other neighbour joins in. We met Kim and Lynne at the Paravista after I witnessed their impressive trailer-reversing skills whilst they parked their 4WD and camper-trailer. So there we are: instant social group, fielding tons of questions and asking our own, savouring the unique community atmosphere travellers in Australia seem to create. Definitely should be exported to Europe.
The Odd Couple, a horse and donkey in the paddock next door provide light-hearted humour. Later, the ubiquitous ‘sausage-sizzle’ draws the caravan park together. Great idea: fire up the barbi, invite everyone to enjoy their share of free, yes free, sausages and socialise. Works. The sausages may be crap but the idea’s great. We sit and eat and talk more with Kim and Lynne and the other couple, plus a variety of other travellers, and enjoy a beer.
15 June 17
We don’t start early. It’s not the purpose of us being here. In fact we pretty proud to make it to the magnetic termite mounds less than twenty kilometres away. And we have a car. We are not on bicycles. Here we run into a bit of a problem. In a nutshell: Anarchy vs Order.
Anarchy is the rejection of hierarchy, of societies based on voluntary association, the abolition of ‘traditional’ forms of government, to summarise Wikipedia (wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchy). I simply call it self-governance in which I am best positioned to know what’s best for me, and any consequences I may have on the welfare, liberty and integrity of others.
Order on the other hand means, among others: A condition in which freedom from disorder or disruption is maintained through respect for established authority (3.b, the Free Dictionary http://www.thefreedictionary.com/order).
What’s all this got to do with magnetic termite mounds? In the way the national park managers in Australia seem to organise sites of interest, there is a carpark bordered by a minimalist fence. A pathway leads to boardwalks which curve over what would be wetland come the wet season, and back to the carpark. So far so good. However, the magnetic termite mounds which are the centre point of this point of interest are kept tens of metres way from the board walk. Any normal photo would be of non-descript savannah-woodland in the background of a dry-wetland. The person who took the photo would have to point out the tiny grey monolith occupying like 2% of the photo and try to impress the viewer just how spectacular they are. The true beauty of the magnetic termite mounds can only really be appreciated when you walk around them. They can be two metres across, yet less than fifty-centimetres wide. Mud knives slicing the sun, an amazing form of passive airconditioning devised by brainless creatures three millimetres long.
Two hundred meters to the west the paltry fence ends and the intrepid, the anarchist can walk out across dry-wetland to where a large number of magnetic termite mounds stand tall and impressive. Here’s where it gets interesting. The carpark, the fence, the boardwalk are all designed to passively direct a person to a preferred behavioural choice without any explicit requirement to do so. There are no signs saying anything about having to, that is being obliged against penalties that shall apply, to use the boardwalk. Being an anarchist I go: Lemme get this straight. We’re talking termite mounds here. And rock hard but buffalo trampled dry-seasonal wetland, that has been burnt. There’s no vegetation as such to walk across and trample. If I walk out here, walk around some termite mounds and take photos, what negative impact shall I create? It may not surprise you if I conclude, Well, none.
Ram has a different opinion about this. We should, obviously, stick to the boardwalk. It doesn’t matter that there are no signs saying we can’t walk into the ‘wild’ area. Eventually, and it takes a while, I convince her she’s not going to get arrested, and her nationality, Europe’s current Bad Country, Romania, despised by all the West, means nothing here in this land of multiple nationalities. They are not going to persecute her any differently than they would me, simply because she’s Romanian.
It gives you an idea just how insipid and institutionalised racism and xenophobia is in Europe, and how that has settled deep in Ram’s world-view of herself based on her nationality. Our discussion is less whether we should walk out there, but more about “I don’t want to give them an excuse (to persecute me as a Romanian), I’ve just arrived here”. It’s a mind-set I’ve encountered many times before. In the 80s in Australia if a man had a Philippine, Thai or Indonesian partner there was always the insinuation that this she was a ‘Mail Order Bride’. That women from these countries are somehow less than a occidental woman. The assumption that any Eastern European woman visiting the Netherlands must be a potential (trafficked) sex worker.
We don’t dwell long in the ‘wild area’.
16 June 17
Finally we break camp and set-up in the lower 4WD campsite at Florence Falls. Here, we again catch-up with Kim and Lynne, making light-hearted comments about how we’re following them.
The purpose of National Parks in the Top End centres almost exclusively on water, and on swimmable water. Waterfalls and plunge pools. In previous visits several of the major attractions, including Wangi, THE major attraction, were closed coz of croc-risk.
Australia is a ‘Nanny-State’, in which responsibility is taken from the individual and owned by The State. All very insidious. However, on occasion a dose of nannying comes in handy. Like blithely jumping in plunge-pools in an area populated by the world’s largest and most successful reptilian predator. One that actively hunts, well, E V E R Y T H I N G including people. And no one should ever underestimate the unmitigated stupidity of tourists.
In the 80s there were a number of fatal crocodile attacks with a preference for Americans. They would jump in regardless of the signs and warnings of crocodile risk. Favoured joke circa 1988: how do you stop two crocodiles fighting? Answer: give them a Yank. Ha Ha.
Crocodile risk like all risk, can be managed. I love the way Parks Australia, responsible for managing the park on behalf of and in conjunction with Traditional Owners, believes the risk is best managed:
With a tropical climate, it’s natural that people want to swim while they’re at Kakadu. The trouble is the crocodiles – they live in our rivers and billabongs, and you don’t want to meet them up close!
The safest places to swim are the public swimming pool in Jabiru and the pools at the various resorts and hotels.
Some places are safer to swim than others. Some of the pools up on the escarpment, above the water falls, are less likely to be accessible to crocs.
We don’t recommend that people swim in Kakadu’s waterways, but some people choose to do so at their own risk. (emphasis added)
If human life is so valuable to the Australian authorities surely they’d move against the frivolity and far more lethal activity of letting all we stupid and irresponsible people drive automobiles. 1290 people died in automobile accidents of all classes in 2016.
The number of crocodile deaths in the Northern Territory was … four … in 2014 (http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/northern-territory/record-year-for-fatal-crocodile-attacks-in-northern-territory/news-story/e71d7ee8dd4b30641447d9b114cb1039). Total number of deaths, according to the same article, since 1974 is … twelve. That’s an average of … three … crocodile related fatalities per year over forty years. I’m not trying to diminish the risk. The risk shall always be there. To put it in perspective though, as a cyclist, between January and May of 2014 Australia recorded twenty-six cyclist deaths (https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/jun/23/cycling-accidents-rising-in-australia). So, if I were really concerned about my heath and safety let alone my life, I would neither drive a car nor cycle in Australia. And I would enjoy a ‘sensible’ dip in certain managed waterways in the Northern Territory.
Anyway, having been involved in trying to devise policy to guide society on a desired behavioural trajectory, I know stating stupid things, no matter how effective they may be in achieving the desired policy goals achieves nothing. As an example: fossil fuel use drives accelerated climate change. To mitigate climate change and meet all international goals and targets, simply cease using fossil fuels. Bang: CO2 emissions basically end and we are saved.
Funnily enough whilst it would solve CO2 emissions it would end civilisation as we know it and people know that. Thus they’d continue using fossil fuels.
Similarly with stating the ‘safest places to swim’ are in swimming pools and ‘we don’t recommend that people swim in Kakadu waterways’, is not going to achieve anything. People will make their own risk assessment and go ‘Fuck it! I’m going for a swim!’.
Florence Falls are impressive. Two large waterfalls into a large plunge pool. Ram is not a good swimmer, although of late she’s taken adult swimming lessens to improve her skills. How ever inviting Florence Falls plunge pool is, the large group of white Australian males in the pool each with beer in hand and who are loud and raucous remove any desire to go for a swim. Empty discarded beer cans lap the side of the plunge-pool. It’s a tiring aspect of how some Australians enjoy ‘wild’ attractions: boisterousness and beer. It seems difficult for them to enjoy a place without a beer, or two, in hand. We decide to walk the 1500 metres to Buley Pools instead.
The walk follows the creek flowing from Buley to Florence. Because it’s a walk and because there are carparks at both Buley and Florence, few people actually do this walk. Consequently the delightful pools along the way are largely bereft of people. In some small jacuzzi-sized pools half-way between Buley and Florence we enjoy a wonderful dip.
As it is the high-season Buley has a lot of people splashing around. More families and less beer. After enjoying a swim and chilling out, we wander back.
Max (& Ram)
Florence Falls, 18 June 2017