Down Under - Winter/Spring 2009 travel blog

Florence Falls

Ken and the termites

Tulmer Falls swimming hole

cathedral mound


magnetic mound

twisted bark


welcome to Darwin

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Litchfield Nationa Park

The Northern Territory is a place of contrasts from the vast central desert to the tropical north where we are. The north is a wild, untamable place with cyclones whipping the coast depositing huge amounts of rain which cut off access to many settlements and sights. There are a few fine roads which safely funnel travelers, but when you drive a desert road, you may not see the next car in weeks. We understood that we would change time zones as we sailed west, but in Darwin we had to change our clocks only HALF an hour. Go figure. The ship’s casino also has to remain closed while we sail along the coast of the Top End. That doesn’t bother us at all, but is unheard of in the cruising industry.

Locals refer to this area as the Top End and Darwin is the capital of this vast tract of emptiness. It is the largest state in Australia when it comes to acreage, but has only 200,000 people. The people who live in Darwin must really want to live there. It has been destroyed by cyclones with great regularity over the years. Mostly recently in 1974 the Cyclone Tracy left only 400 of the 10,000 buildings there standing. Obviously every building we saw today looked modern. This city is closer to Indonesia than it is to most of the other cities in Australia and has a higher percentage of Asians living there than other parts of the country. Many of our fellow travelers from Oz have never been there. It is cheaper for them to fly to tourist destinations outside of the country than to fly to Darwin. In 1871 as the telegraph lines were run across Australia, someone dug a post hole and discovered gold. The story is familiar. People poured in seeking to make their fortune, and the only ones who really got rich were the Darwin merchants. Uranium has also been mined in the area.

Until the release of the recent film Australia, many Aussies had no idea that Darwin was bombed severely and regularly by the Japanese in world War II. Its remoteness allowed the politicians to keep things hush hush, lest it affect the morale of the country. The Japanese bombed here in order to prevent the Allies from setting up a base of operations in Darwin, but no one knew that at the time. Living with the constant fear of invasion as well as the ongoing loss of life must have been terrifying. Much of the Australian navy as well as a number of our warships which had been moved here after the loss of the Philippines, were sunk here just a few days after Pearl Harbor.

Our arrival in Darwin was delayed by the very strong tides that flow in this area. I don’t pretend to understand, but we had to time our comings and goings because of the tide, which meant we didn’t arrive until mid day. We drove to Litchfield National Park to see the termite mounds. There are many different kinds of termites here and they have different ways of coping with the high heat in the rainy season. Some build cathedral shaped mounds. The nooks and crannies are supposed to provide shade and access to the occasional breeze. The magnetic mounds are flat and perfectly aligned on a north south axis, to avoid facing the direct rays of the sun. Australia is a very old continent and much of its soil is worn out and devoid of nutrients. When the termites leave a mound it eventually crumbles back into the soil and the nutrients generated by termite life in the mound provide a good growing spot for plants. The average termite queen lays 50,000 eggs a year. It’s a wonder that this entire land isn’t covered with mounds. The other claim to fame for Litchfield NP is some nice waterfalls, gushing well at the end of the rainy season. It would have been nice to take a dip in the pools at their base, but they were inexplicably closed to swimmers. As we drove back to the ship heat lightening blazed in the sky, providing glimpses of the miles and miles of empty bushland.

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