A closer look at Alice Springs

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Over the last few posts I’ve been documenting my trip to the Territory in June. It was deeply enjoyable especially getting to the Top End where I’d never been before. I had been to Alice Springs before – as far back as 2002 so I was keen to renew acquaintance and stay with a good friend, who was shocked when I reminded him had just moved there when I came calling 16 years ago. It was good to be back in the middle of Australia and experience Alice’s unique aura once more.

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Alice Springs has an impressive geography slap back in the middle of the Macdonnell Ranges. The place even has its own geological event named for it, the Alice Springs Orogeny, 150 million years of tectonic mountain building that created not only the Ranges but also the Uluru/Kata Tjuta formation 450km south-west. Seen here is Mount Gillen to the south of town as seen from Billy Goat Hill in the centre of town.

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Above is the view north from Billy Goat Hill over the town centre and Anzac Hill beyond. Billy Goat Hill as the name would suggest is where goats were herded in the past.  Known as Akeyulerre in Arrernte language, it was also a special place for local Indigenous people though it is now mostly derelict.

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This is the view from Anzac Hill looking south over the town and Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to town. The outsized glass building on the left is the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. The four-storey $18 million courthouse opened in 2016 and has divided local opinion especially over the public/private agreement between the government and Sitzler Construction.

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Like most memorial places in Australia Anzac Hill is strong in remembrance of Australian action in overseas wars, especially the First World War. There is, however, a glaring omission when it comes to local conflict. The first European expeditions in the 1860s and 1870s came across groups of Aborigines , but these meetings were generally fleeting. The first cattle reached Alice Springs in 1872 and Europeans established pastoral stations.  Once settlers moved into the area, increased contact with the original inhabitants was inevitable. The consequences were monumental and devastating for the Aborigines, and the effect are still felt.

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Situated an easy 4km walk north along the river from the centre of town is the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the birthplace of the township. The Overland Telegraph route followed in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart’s 1862 trek across Australia south to north. The station was established in 1871 along with 11 others to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide and link with an underwater cable network to London. More modern facilities were then established in the new township of Stuart in 1932 (Corner of Railway Tce and Parson Street) and the Station ceased operation. The town was later renamed Alice Springs after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd.

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This is the view from the Telegraph Station to Trig Hill. As the name suggests, the hill was used by ordnance surveyors to map the region.

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The view back to the Telegraph Station from the top of Trig Hill.

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A little further past Trig Hill is this small cemetery. There are three gravestones in the cemetery  and two more are buried in a secondary enclosure.

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Ernie Bradshaw died from tuberculosis aged 27. He arrived from Melbourne six months earlier hoping this dry country would improve his health. Ernest Flint, who worked on the Overland Telegraph line, died here aged 33 and was the first person buried in the cemetery.

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The Todd River is usually dry but despite not having any permanent waterholes it supports a wide range of plants. In the rare event rain does fall and the river fills up it heads south through Heavitree Gap for up to 140km before disappearing into the Simpson Desert. River flows are quickly soaked by the parched landscape and what is not evaporated filters through the soil and rocks to recharge the groundwater basin.

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It being a Friday evening I joined my friend on one of his weekly rituals, an end of week climb up Mt Gillen. I was glad of the company. The un-formalised and un-signposted route required local knowledge and some headlights for the tricky trip back down in the dark.

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My iphone did not do justice to the twilight views from the top of Mt Gillen.

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Alice Springs is a town like no other in the outback, a cultural as well as physical oasis. The town has a thriving art and social scene and a constant influx of young creative visitors. It also means that overseas acts such as Irish singer Mary Coughlan are prepared to break her own holidays to perform here – by happy coincidence on the weekend I was there. She played with her regular guitarist and a local talented bassist at the best pub in Central Australia – Monte’s. A great night in the middle of everywhere.

On to Kata Tjuta and Uluru

The morning after my visit to Kings Canyon, it was back on the road south – three hours to Yulara. Yulara is the township associated with Uluru and the home of Ayers Rock Resort which was booked out solid when I arrived (the reason why I later ended up camping at Curtain Springs 180km away). I stocked up at the supermarket and from the town lookout saw Uluru gleaming in the distance 25km away. But a closer visit to the Rock would have to wait till later in the day.

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First I was heading 50km west still within the same national park to Kata Tjuta. I stopped at the viewing area 15km out to get my first good look at the ancient red rock formations though they looked more brownish at this distance.

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But red they were as confirmed at closer range.  Kata Tjuta is a Pitjantjatjara phrase meaning “many heads”, and that image too looked more obvious a couple of kilometres out. The largest of the domes, Mt Olga (hence the old European name for the entire range “the Olgas”) is 546m above the surrounding plain and 198m higher than Uluru.

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Mount Olga was named in 1872 by Ernest Giles, in honour of Queen Olga of Württemberg (daughter of Tsar Nicholas I).  On her 25th wedding anniversary in 1871 she and her husband, King Charles I of Württemberg, named Giles’s expedition funder  Ferdinard Mueller a baron and the now von Mueller wanted to repay the compliment.

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This part of Central Australia is in the Amadeus Basin, formed 800 million years ago. Around 550 million years ago, an event known as the Woodroffe Thrust lifted rocks northward and when they eventually eroded they created the deposit known as the Mount Currie Conglomerate. Uluru and Kata Tjuṯa are made of sediment originating in this Mount Currie Conglomerate and both have a chemical composition similar to granite.

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The Pitjantjatjara and fellow traditional owners the Yankunytjatjara people knew these rocks for thousands of years before they were renamed for obscure German royalty. They still hold the ancestral dreaming law known as Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa has many deep, complex meanings and refers to the period when ancestral beings created the world.

 

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Most of the dreaming law is not accessible to outsiders. But one legend surrounds the great snake king Wanambi, who lives on the summit of Kata Tjuṯa and only comes down during the dry season. His breath could transform a breeze into a hurricane in order to punish those who did evil deeds.

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There are two major walks in Kata Tjuta and I did both that day. The first, the Valley of the Winds walk is a full 7.4km circuit of the rocks, which guide books say takes four hours but I did in an hour and a half.

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The second walk is the Walpa Gorge Walk which takes you deep into the structure. Walpa (windy) Gorge is a desert refuge for plants and animals and the track gently rises to an ephemeral stream, passing rare plants and ending at a grove of spearwood.

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The walk gives visitors a close-up glimpse of the amazing sheer walls of granite. And no matter how warm it is in the Territory sun, it can get quite chilly in the shadows.

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This is the view looking out from Walpa Gorge.

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On completion of the second walk I drove back to Uluru. I’d last been to this part of the world in 2002 and was keen to renew acquaintance though I would do things a little differently this time. I’ve written before how I did the climb in 2002 though later admitted this was the wrong thing to do, ignoring the wishes of traditional owners. As it turned out the day I returned was too windy and park rangers closed the climb anyway. A wise decision as my memory of that climb (especially the way down) was that it was deeply treacherous and dangerous and one false move would end in certain death.

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The local Anangu, Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluru which has no known meaning. On 19 July 1873, surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named the Rock in honour of Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. In 1993, it was renamed “Ayers Rock / Uluru” and became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to “Uluru / Ayers Rock” on November 6, 2002. While the resort retains the name Ayers Rock, it is fading from common use as Uluru becomes the generally accepted name.

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Uluru is a 10km diameter inselberg which means “island mountain” in German. Inselbergs are prominent isolated hills that rise abruptly from lowlands in a hot, dry region. Uluru is also often referred to as a monolith, although this is term is avoided by geologists as ambiguous. I parked my car along the Mala Walk (named for the rufous hare-wallaby) and although I planned to do the full 10km circuit of the rock, I stopped to admire the artwork embedded in the rock along the Mala Walk illustrating the stories of the Tjukurpa. Traditionally Indigenous people made paint from natural minerals, mixed with water or sometimes animal fat. Colours most commonly used were red, yellow, orange, white, grey and black.

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Uluru rock is composed of arkose, a coarse-grained sandstone rich in the mineral feldspar. The sandy sediment, which hardened to form this arkose, was eroded from high mountains composed largely of granite. Over 500 million years ago the newly-formed Petermann Ranges were similar in size to the Himalayas but eroded quickly without plant cover. The sand that became the arkose sandstone of Uluru was dumped at the bottom of the mountain range. As geologist Dr Marita Bradshaw puts it “Uluru is almost just shedding of granite.”

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From a distance, Uluru looks smooth and featureless. But up close its face is weather-beaten – pitted with holes and gashes, ribs, valleys and caves.

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Scientists debate the formation of the caves at Uluru. Some say they can begin with water lying in dimples in the rock when the weathering process forms a hollow and gradually ‘eats’ backward and upward into the rock until it becomes a cave. Others say the ‘high’ caves on the southern side of Uluru may have begun by water soaking in when the plain surface was at a higher level and again the weathering process could again eat upward and backward to form a cave. The spaced high caves on the north-eastern and western faces may have begun by the flaking process and honeycombed out by wind and water over time.

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As I returned to the Malu Walk on completion of the 10km circuit, the evening sun poured tantalising shadows on the rocks. Uluru’s flaky surface results from the chemical decay of minerals.

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Mutitjulu Waterhole is one of Uluru’s many hidden gems.

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This was the cave where the old people sat and the cave’s ceiling is blackened by fires. Here they told stories and keep their spears and tools and cook up malu (kangaroo) the younger people would bring them.

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On completion of the walk I timed my drive out of the park to coincide with sunset. Uluru’s sunset car park was heaving with tourists but a little further along the road you could stop (legally) and quietly enjoy the magnificent rock change colour as it reflected the fading sunlight.

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A visit to Kings Canyon

An absolute highlight of my recent trip to the Territory was a visit to Kings Canyon, a place I’d never been to before.  Situated about four hours out of Alice Springs, the canyon swings into view along the road to the Kings Canyon Resort where I was staying the night. I looked forward to a closer view and I was not disappointed.

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The area is the home of the Luritja people, who call it Watarrka. The first European here was Ernest Giles in 1872 who named the creek for his old friend Fielder King and he also named the Gill Ranges for expedition funder George Gill. However with no access roads the area was mostly unknown until 1961.

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A shallow sea once filled this land 440 million years ago. By 400 million years ago Watarrka was a windless plain covered with sand dunes. That became the Mereenie Sandstone, hard and brittle due to its tough quartz grains cemented with silica.

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Huge forces pushed up the rocks 350 million years ago cracking the brittle Mereenie Sandstone. Kings Canyon was one of those cracks, gradually widening over 20 million years of erosion. Wind, rain and floodwaters seeped into Carmichael Sandstone below further weakening the Mereenie layer.

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The George Gill Range lies at the intersection of three major landforms: MacDonnell Ranges to the north-east, Lake Amadeus to the south-west, and the Simpson Desert to the south-east.

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The bee-hive like domes on the top of the range provide evidence of the sand dune past due to its cross-bedding (groups of inclined layers). The wind deposited sand in different directions over time. The sand on the windswept plain gradually subsided compacting layers below and silica-rich water cemented the grains together.

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Wind, rain and floods deepened the crack in the Mereenie getting down to the softer Carmichael below which now forms the rubbly lower slopes of the canyon. As it eroded it sent huge blocks tumbling down the cliffs. Markings on the south wall were probably formed by the release of stress as the sandstone cracked.

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Tempe Downs cattle station was established here in 1896, but a run of bad seasons forced the stockholders out to Kathleen Springs. But the cattlemen were here to stay. In 1983 the station surrounded 1000 sq m so that a national park could be established.  The nearby resort opened in 1992.

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Ripple marks are evidence there were once shallow lakes here.

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Jack Cotterill pioneered tourism here. His son Jim and Aboriginal man Leslie built a bridge of timber and sandstone slabs across a deep crevice in 1962 to give people access to the North Wall of the Canyon.

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The view back out of the Canyon from the North Wall.

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The red-brown colour is formed by two processes. It is either water that has seeped in and soaked up iron oxide which deposits a crust on the outside or it is iron-rich dust blown onto the surface and chemically fixed to the sandgrains by a fungus.

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According to NT Parks the 6km loop of the Kings Canyon Rim Walk takes “3-4 hours”. As usual this is grossly inflated. Even with all the interesting features to look out for, it takes around 90 minutes.

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The Garden of Eden is a sacred place of the Luritja people, especially for male dreaming stories. They ask people do not swim here as human activity and contaminants such as sunscreen can affect the health of the hundreds of species that call the garden home.

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The beehive domes give the canyon a “lost city” feeling. They are the result of erosion of vertical cracks in the sandstone.

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The Lutitja say the domes are young kuninga men who came here during the Tjukurpa (Dreamtime). Kuninga are western quolls who still inhabit the area.

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There is a longer walk of 22 km which takes two days along what is called the Giles Track. It crosses the top of the range from Kathleen Springs to Kings Canyon
with a halfway entrance/exit point at Reedy Creek/Lilla.

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The many colours of the North Wall tell a story. The red-brown is only a veneer, underneath is a pale-coloured rock, compacted white beach and dune sand, 360 million years old. The dark rusty streaks are from rainwater filtering through the rocks soaking up iron oxide. The green and black patches are algae.kings18

The Luritja named the area Watarrka, after an acacia tree found within the park.

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Watarrka’s cycads are among 17 relict species that are up to 400 million years old.

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This dry cliff becomes a spectacular waterfall called Kestrel Falls after heavy rains. It takes its name from the Nankeen Kestrels that roost in the cliffs.

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After doing the cliff side walk, I did the shorter walk up the creek bed. The Luritja call King’s Creek Watarrka Karru and it is a ceremony place on the quoll dreaming track.

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The Kings Creek Walk path comes to an abrupt end 500m meters from the official end of the track. A heavy rainfall event caused a rock fall blocking access to the viewing platform. The NT Parks and Wildlife Commission are building a new platform.

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After my walks I retired to the Kings Canyon Resort, 10km away, where I watched the Canyon change colours as the evening progressed.

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A drive through the Territory

After a visit to Nitmiluk National Park it was time to head south from the Top End deep into the Red Centre. Here are a few highlights of a couple of drives to and from Alice Springs.nt1

The first day was a long 1200km slog from Katherine to Alice as I wanted to get there before dark. There weren’t too many stops to enjoy the scenery but I did check out the Telegraph Station at Barrow Creek 200km south of Tennant Creek.  Barrow Creek was named in 1860 by John McDouall Stuart after South Australian MP J H Barrow. One of the 15 telegraph stations of the Overland Telegraph exploring party was set up here in September 1871 by John Ross as it assessed Stuart’s route through Central Australia. The site was chosen due to surface water and for a well site. It was completed by 1880 with an elaborate stone fence, wagon shed, blacksmith’s hut, cemetery and a verandah. A century later the microwave telecommunications link replaced the telephone carrier wave system making the station redundant.

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I landed in Alice late that evening and the following morning I headed further south. My destination was King’s Canyon and then on to Uluru, but my travels there deserve a blog post of their own so I won’t talk about them here. But when I was looking at the ways to get to King’s Canyon I thought there were two ways, a shortish way via the Mereenie Loop but which involved getting permits to go through Aboriginal land and also had long stretches of dirt. Then there was an all bitumen-route via the Stuart and Lasseter Hwys but considerably longer in distance. Then a mate told me about the Giles Road, a dirt road of 100km named for explorer Ernest Giles but a short cut to the Canyon and some beautiful desert views along the way.

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On my way from Kings Canyon to Uluru, I passed another monolith. Mt Conner is visible from the Lasseter Hwy and so resembles Uluru many people are fooled into thinking it is Uluru. Indeed I made that mistake when I first took this route 16 years ago and was surprised to see Uluru when I thought it was at least 150km away.  Fool-uru strikes again. Mt Conner is an impressive rock in its own right, a 650m-tall flat-topped, horseshoe-shaped mesa, part of the same substrate beneath Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  Known as Artila in Dreamtime stories it was the home of the feared Ninya, or Ice Men, the creators of cold weather. Explorer William Gosse gave it a European name in 1873 after South Australian politician M. L. Conner.

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Mt Conner is now on a private property called Curtain Springs, a pastoral lease on 416,400 hectares that is a combined cattle station, roadhouse and tourist resort. With no room at the Ayers Rock Resort I stayed the night here at its free camping and checked out its pub for a beer and a meal. I didn’t have time but the property runs walks to Mt Conner and the equally impressive nearby salt lakes.

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I caught the red desert dawn the following morning on my way back to Alice Springs.

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But I did a quick detour back 10km on the Giles Road to check something I missed on my way out – the Henbury Meteorite Craters. Around 4000 years ago, a large meteorite travelling at 40,000 kilometres an hour broke up before impact and hit the ground at Henbury. Several tonnes of nickel-iron alloy were scattered around a wide area and a 44kg piece is now in the Alice Museum of Central Australia. At the site there are 12 impact craters from seven to 180m wide and up to 15m deep. Over time the sharp outlines were worn down by wind and rain to become board undulating mounds.

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My time in Alice is also worthy of a separate post so I’ll fast forward a couple of days to my drive north again to Tennant Creek and back to Mount Isa. First stop is Aileron 150km which has a hotel and roadhouse and also one of Australia’s curious “big things”. In Aileron’s case it is two big things “the Anmatjere Man” and ” the Anmatjere Woman And Child”. The larger statue of the man on the hill is 17 meters tall and weighs eight tonnes. The 2005 sculpture by local artist Mark Egan is made from steel frame, mesh wire and ferris cement.  The same artists added the woman and child monument three years later.

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Further north again is Wycliffe Well, self-styled “UFO centre of Australia”. Situated 375km north of Alice it has the inevitable roadhouse which is covered in otherworldly art. According to Vice magazine which drove through here in 2017 it was originally developed by former owner Lew Farkas who tried to capitalise on Wycliffe Well’s notoriety as the spot for UFO sightings. There have been UFO sightings around Wycliffe Well for decades apparently “because of its cosmic alignment of landforms, tectonic plates, and manmade structures, which emit a type of UFO-friendly energy.” and its proximity to US military intelligence base Pine Gap. “So, you know, aliens,” Vice concluded.

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My base for the last night before heading for home was the Devils Marbles Hotel at Wauchope another 40km up the road. Here I took the time to do a couple of late evening hours walk around the Marbles, or Karlu Karlu to give them Aboriginal name. I was there most recently in January and wrote about it in more detail here.

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A visit to Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine

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After a long day’s drive from Darwin and a refreshed night at one of Katherine’s motels it was time to drive 30km out of town to what I and countless others come to town to see – Nitmiluk Gorge. This deep gorge carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River draws thousands of visitors to the Nitmiluk National Park each year. The park is owned by the Jawoyn people.

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Entry to the park is surprisingly free but your feet have to pay the bill. A steep set of stairs takes you into the first part of the walk, the Baruwei Loop Walk.

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The reward for the climb comes quickly with terrific views over the Katherine River and beyond. The Katherine is part of the Daly River system and its headwaters are in the national park. Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart was the first European to see the river on 4 July 1862, and named it after Catherine Chambers, daughter of expedition sponsor James Chambers, though he changed the spelling.

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This is the view looking back to the visitor centre. The centre has a restaurant, souvenir shop and cultural displays and I enjoyed a beer there as a reward for a long walk. But that was much later in the day.  In the meantime I headed away towards the Southern walks to explore deeper the Gorge system and surrounding escarpment away from the daytrippers who just do the Baruwei Walk or who take a boat trip.

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I’m headed towards Pat’s Lookout but first a detour and a clamber down to the Southern Rockhole. Situated 4km from the entrance it is a seasonal waterhole and there was nothing flowing when I arrived in June in the middle of the dry season. But with no-one around the croc-free waterhole, there was enough water for a refreshing skinny dip before continuing on my way.

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This was the view from Pat’s Lookout, looking out on to the Second Gorge. There are nine gorges in total, though the ninth is a good 20km into the park.

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This is another view from Pat’s Lookout. At the bottom of the picture is one of the Katherine Gorge cruise boats. Nitmiluk Tours are run by the Jawoyn People and leave from a jetty near the visitors centre.

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While at Pat’s Lookout I bumped into a Danish man in his 70s named Sven who asked me to take his photo overlooking the Gorge. I did that and then kept going. I missed one of the directional signs (sometimes placed on the rocks, sometimes placed in the foliage) and was backtracking the way I came when I bumped into Sven a second time. He had been here a couple of days and said the signs got harder to follow as you got deeper into the park and he had got badly lost the day before. We agreed to accompany each other figuring we had a better chance of finding the signs together with two pairs of eyes instead of one. This proved a smart move as one more than one occasion one of us would miss a sign, but the other spotted it. At the next turn-off we decided to head to Butterfly Gorge. The cliff in the photo above is on the way to Butterfly Gorge.

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As the name suggests it is a popular spot not just for bushwalkers but for common crow butterflies which were in abundance. Though they refused to pose for any of my photos. The Gorge itself is a tranquil paradise tucked at the base of a low sandstone plateau. Sven suggested we get in for a swim. I told him that was not advisable given the number and size of crocs my colleagues in the Katherine Times keep writing about in these parts. Sven thought better of it and we just admired the view and moved on.

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But we did want to get our feet wet and from our trip down we knew there was a pleasant waterhole back on the walk just up from the river. We backtracked to the waterhole and discarded shoes and socks and talked of life in Australia, Denmark and Ireland. We were at least a couple of hours from the entrance and it was getting late so we went back to the visitors centre to enjoy that aforementioned beer. I thanked Sven for his company, he said he wouldn’t have gone down to Butterfly Gorge if we hadn’t met. But I’ll be back – There is still plenty of Nitmiluk National Park I need to explore.

From Darwin to Katherine

After four days in Darwin it was time to start up the car and hit the road south again. The first stop was only 15km out of town at Charles Darwin National Park. The park has national significance for its ecological diversity and Aboriginal and war history. It also protects part of the nationally significant Port Darwin wetland and contains 36 of the Territory’s 51 mangrove species. The Second World War era bunkers were fenced off and locked up as a storage area for military explosives while the shell middens in the area date back for thousands of years.

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This view of the city from Charles Darwin National Park shows why the park was so significant to the Larrakia people. It was only a short canoe ride away and a good spot to keep an eye on who was coming on to country.

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Another few kilometers further south is the turn-off to Humpty Doo and the Kakadu National Park. I did not have the time to detour to the Kakadu but I did check out Fogg Dam on the traditional lands of the Limilngan-Wulna people. This spectacular wetlands is just 70km south of Darwin with great birdwatching and is also a haven for water pythons, freshwater turtles and other wildlife including saltwater crocodiles. Fogg Dam has one of the world’s highest biomass of predator (water pythons) to prey (dusky rats) ratio. The pythons make their homes in the cracked mud during the hot dry season from August to October while waiting for the rains.

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The next detour was via Batchelor to Litchfield National Park. Home to the Kungarakan and Marinunggo peoples the park is named after Frederick Henry Litchfield of the Finniss Expedition that travelled from South Australia in 1864. This was the first European expedition to visit the Top End by land with orders to explore and survey a site for the new settlement in the Northern Territory.  A highlight of the National Park are the hundreds of termite mounds mostly up to two metres high, some a century old.

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The termite mounds are enormous magnetic compasses, with their thin edges pointing north-south and broad backs pointing east-west. This minimises exposure to the sun, keeping the mounds cool for the magnetic termites inside. The four metre high cathedral termite mound is the outstanding feature of this part of the park. To create the mounds, the termites cut up grass stalks and store them around the outer chambers foraging from underground and displacing the sediment on the ground. As the mound grows, the termites fill the outer chambers with soil and start again on the next level.

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Another 15m further on in the Park is the turnoff for Florence Falls. There is a short walk from the carpark to the Falls but I take the longer option via Shady Creek walk which loops along a stream through the rainforest-filled gorge and woodlands back to Florence Creek. The falls are ideal for a cool dip on a hot day and plenty of others have the same idea. It helps the waterhole is croc free.

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This is the view of the Falls on the short walk back to the carpark. dar2d

Refreshed it’s back to the Stuart Hwy and the town of Adelaide River. An hour south of Darwin, Adelaide River played an important role in the Second World War and many fled here after the bombing of the city and the port.  Its war cemetery is home to 434 military graves and the adjoining Civil Cemetery honours 63 civilians including the nine Darwin post office workers killed in the February 19, 1942 bombing. The cemetery also has a Memorial to the Missing, where 292 service personnel who were killed in Timor and New Guinea campaigns are remembered.

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Next stop is Pine Creek, another hour down the road.  In the early 1870s, workers on the Overland Telegraph Line discovered gold in the area starting a rush that lasted two decades. The telegraph station opened in 1874 and a large influx of Chinese workers came in to work in the goldfields. By the mid-1880s, the Chinese outnumbered Europeans 15 to one in Pine Creek and many went into business. But they were devastated by a 1892 fire that destroyed the town. When the gold ran out, the population of Pine Creek dwindled and most of the Chinese returned home in the 1890s.

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A steep road from the centre of Pine Creek leads to a lookout with panoramic view of Enterprise Pit. The Pit was an open cut mine, now full of water 135 metres deep. It began as the Enterprise Shaft in 1906 and was worked until 1985 when Pine Creek Goldfields developed the open cut mine extracting 764,000 ounces of gold in its 10-year life span. dar5

My detours had turned what is normally a two and a half hour trip from Darwin to Katherine into a five hour haul. I was happy to get into Katherine and relax before a big day following to check out the Nitmiluk National Park, with its world-famous Katherine Gorge.

Four days in Darwin

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In my last post I wrote about the two days it took me to get 1600km to Darwin from Mount Isa. Now I had four days where I planned to do no driving at all. The name of my motel was City Edge and that described it perfectly, nowhere was too far to walk to. Darwin Harbour had surprisingly high cliff faces with a large tidal range and there were great views over the harbour and out to the Arafura Sea.

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There is a long and pleasant path along the cliffside promenade. From where I stood to Cox Peninsula on the other side of the harbour was a long 120km journey thanks to the harbour’s many channels. So perhaps too far to walk.

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It didn’t take long to find a reminder of the Second World War. I’ve written before about the bombing of Darwin, based on the book An Awkward Truth. The book was critical of the lack of preparation and secrecy that hamstrung recovery efforts but there was also great courage. The Japanese bombing raid took place February 19, 1942 with the sinking of the US destroyer Peary the biggest loss of life. In the 1950s a diver salvaged this four-inch gun from the ship and the Australian Navy restored it for the 50th anniversary in 1992. The gun points to Peary’s final resting place.

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Further along the promenade was parliament house, the seat of the Northern Territory’s unicameral Legislative Assembly. Building work commenced in 1990 and it opened in 1994. According to the NT parliament website, the building was designed for Darwin’s tropical climate. “Its facade diffuses 80% of direct sunlight.  Visitors are invited to note the top of each of the corner columns of the building, which represent an architectural salute to the site on which Parliament House stands.”

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I moved on to give architectural salute to another building celebrating a different branch of government. The Supreme Court lies just south of parliament house and the building in Darwin was officially opened in November 1991 when it was proclaimed that it “shall be surrendered and delivered to the Judges of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory for the purposes of the administration of justice in and for the Northern Territory of Australia”.

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The trifecta of government buildings in the area is completed by government house. Of distinctly older vintage, the home of the NT Governor dates from 1870, the oldest surviving European building in the city. The mid-Victorian Gothic villa, has been adapted for the local climate with shaded verandahs and porches and has survived earthquakes, cyclones and Japanese bombing.

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Moving along I get my first view down to the revamped portside. Raised stairwells and lifts offer a quick way down but I want to detour to a museum dedicated to part of the city’s Second World War story.

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My destination is the underground oil storage tanks. When the Japanese bombed in 1942 a major target was the open air fuel oil storage tanks at Stokes Hill. As a result engineers began looking at designs to put the tanks underground tunnels. In 1943 contractors began work on a series of tunnels running 15m under the escarpment.  The longest tunnel was 200m long and pipe headings connected to an underground pumping station. The tanks were designed to hold distillate, diesel and furnace oil. Work was hard and slow but the tunnels leaked and corrosion set in as water seeped between the steel lining and the concrete walls. The tunnels were kept secret after the war and stored fuel for the RAAF until heavy rain made the system inoperable. It was reopened to the public in 1992.

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The Darwin portside area has been used for thousands of years by the Larrakiah people who traded sea cucumbers with Macassan sailors. In 1865, surveyor, W.P. Auld, named Stokes Hill after the Commander of the Beagle, (of course the port was named for the Beagle’s most famous passenger) who had visited in 1839. The first of three wharfs was built in 1885. With an 8m tidal range the jetty stood high on timber piles. Cyclone damage in 1897 and worm infestation weakened the structure and the second, Town Wharf, was completed in 1903.  It severely damaged in the first Japanese bombing raid. The third and current Stokes Hill Wharf was built in 1956 of steel and concrete with timber decking. It served as the main port of Darwin until facilities were transferred to the new Port at East Arm in 2000. The Wharf has been transformed into a tourist precinct of bars and cafes.

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Another tour of Darwin took me towards the northerly bays. Above is Doctors Gully, home of the fish-feeding establishment Aquascene (feeding times are related to the tides so it was closed on low tide as I arrived). The area is named for Dr Robert Peel, the medical officer with Goyder’s survey party in 1869. This was an important site of Chinese market gardens and in the war was a base for Catalina Flying Boats.

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Continuing north I ended up at Cullen Bay, home of the Marina and ferries out to the Tiwi Islands and Mandurah on the Cox Peninsula. It was also the home of a lovely pub called Lola’s Pergola where I stopped to soak in the seaside atmosphere.

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It being a Thursday I kept on the northward journey towards Mindil Beach and the Mindil night markets. The markets date back to 1987 and they moved from their original location at Darwin Mall after local businesses complained. They have been under the coconut palms of Mindil Beach ever since and now hosts 300 stalls every Thursday and Sunday evenings, not to mention thousands of visitors looking for bargains, live music and great food.

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Meanwhile there was a film crew on the beach. A close-up of the clapperboard revealed it was a scene in Top End Wedding. According to Screen Australia, this new feature film co-written and starring Larrakiah local Miranda Tapsell and directed by Wayne Blair is a “hilarious and heart-warming comedy of successful Sydney lawyer, Lauren, and her fiance Ned. Engaged and in love, they have just 10 days to find Lauren’s mother who has gone AWOL somewhere in the Northern Territory, reunite her parents and pull off their dream Top End Wedding.” Not sure about the movie but I was told off about the clicking of my phone camera on set.

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What the filmmakers and everyone were here for was to watch the famous Mindil sunset. Mindil comes from the Larrakiah word ‘Min-deel’, meaning sweet nut grass. The beach has always been a popular place to camp, and swim and was a significant cultural site.  In the war years it was a rest site for military personnel. Cyclone Tracy destroyed a caravan park on the site in 1974.

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Another day, another beach. Fannie Bay Beach is further north of Mindil Beach and part of the East Point Reserve. Behind the beach is Fannie Bay Gaol, site of the NT’s last execution and these days home to a museum. The water looks inviting but the “danger: crocodiles” signs are everywhere. Best to stay out and admire the view.

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Also at East Point Reserve is a monument (and empty beer bottle) commemorating the arrival of the first flight from England to Australia in 1919. After the First World War the Australian government offered £10,000 for the first Australians in a British aircraft to fly from Britain to Australia. Six entries started the race and the winners were pilot Ross Smith, co-pilot brother Keith Smith and two mechanics in a Vickers Vimy bomber. The Vimy left Hounslow Heath on November 12. It flew 17,911km via Lyon, Rome, Cairo, Damascus, Basra, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon, Singora (Songkhla), Singapore, Batavia and Surabaya, reaching Darwin on December 10.

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A friend alerted me to the fact that Shellie Morris was playing in Darwin that night. Sadly I was already booked in that night but found that the Garrmalang festival where Morris was playing did have a free opening event I could attend. Garrmalang is the Larrakiah word for Darwin and the Festival showcases Indigenous talent and celebrates song, dance, language, knowledge, heritage, family and country.

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But the reason I couldn’t hang around to watch Morris was that I had a date with the Deckchair Cinema, the cinema under the stars on Darwin’s tropical waterfront. There I sat in one of the deckchairs, enjoyed a beer or two and watched an excellent movie (The Death of Stalin) in balmy surrounds with only the occasional bat reminding me I was outdoors.

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On my last morning I walked out past Mindil Beach again to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. NT’s premier cultural organisation has been at Bullocky Point since 1981, and is home to internationally renowned cultural and scientific collections and research and exhibition programs. These include Sweetheart, the legendary 5m crocodile which was caught and accidentally killed in 1979. The body was presented to the Museum where the taxidermist prepared Sweetheart as a skin mount and a skeleton.

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The Cyclone Tracy exhibit tells the story of the weather event that ripped through Darwin on Christmas Day 1974. It features the sound booth which captures the spinechilling howling gales that caused so much destruction that day. The Category 4 Tracy is the most compact cyclone ever in the Southern Hemisphere, with gale-force winds extending only 48km from the centre. Tracy killed 71 people, caused $837 million in damage, destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings leaving half the city’s 47,000 inhabitants homeless and required the evacuation of 30,000 people.

 

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The museum’s most interesting exhibit was by artist and cartoonist Franck Gohier. His exhibition “A thousand miles from everywhere” brings together works that cover the major themes of Gohier’s work from the global influence of Pop art and capitalism through to the bombing of Darwin, Cyclone Tracy and the city itself. Inspired by the anarchic spirit of punk, Gohier has been making art since the 1980s since studying at Charles Darwin University. Importantly, Gohier has made a career in Darwin, with regular exhibitions in Sydney and public institutions in the southern states.

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On my way home I popped into the peaceful George Brown Botanic Gardens (named for a former Darwin mayor). The gardens cover 42 hectares with a notable collection of north Australian and tropical species. The gardens are a popular exercise spot and often combined with a visit to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. The gardens have been in Darwin for over 130 years, surviving bombs and cyclones. This is one of the few botanic gardens in the world with marine and estuarine plants growing naturally.