AUSTRALIA'S OUTBACK - COOBER PEDY TO KATHERINE...

Trip Start Jan 12, 2003
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Trip End Dec 20, 2003


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Sunday, June 15, 2003

AUSTRALIA'S OUTBACK - COOBER PEDY TO KATHERINE...

We've made it all the way to the Top End. Liz has indeed sung her way across the country and Jon has survived. From time to time we were lucky enough to pick up a radio station as we made the long, 1700-mile drive north across the continent. You'd think country, folk, or even classical music would be the choice. Instead, it was mostly dance and Top 40. We had a least one chuckle thinking of the rough and ready rancher settling in after a hard day at work, grabbing a coldie, and turning up Britney Spears just as loud as he could.

Cooper Pedy could be called the opal-mining mecca of the world. The dusty town is surrounded by larges piles of earth removed from the mining and more holes in the ground than at a battlefield. It gets so hot in the summer and so cool in the winter, that people have learned the benefits of controlling the temperature by living underground. Stores, churches, hotels, and even campsites dig into old mines and make a stable cave to live in. Quite a novelty to say the least.

The outback reminded us of the American West, but there is just so much more of it. School is taught via the radio. Students tune into the School of the Air and take their lessons each day from a remote teacher. The Royal Flying Doctors make emergency and scheduled routine flights to areas that would be without medical care otherwise. As far as the eye can see there is open space. Animal life is still existent, and it was a surreal experience to be driving 200 miles from nowhere and see 3 emus running along the highway. Kangaroos are still present as well, and driving after dark is not advisable unless you fancy a new hood ornament. Highway traffic wasn't as lonely as we thought that it would be and, thankfully, there are a few stops to rest and refuel along the Stuart Highway, which is the primary north-south road that was only fully sealed in 1987. As a greeting to your fellow motorist, the "outback wave" was prevalent. It's pretty easy to do if you're ever feeling friendly and would like to try it at home sometime. Although there appear to be many varieties, the most common is the "One Finger Extension". This is done as a vehicle passes you in the oncoming lane. Using either hand that is resting on the top part of your steering wheel, you simply extend the index finger upward in the "we're number one" fashion, while leaving the remaining fingers on the wheel to steer. That's it. Simple. The greeting is typically returned. Feel free to be creative with your style of wave, just be careful that you don't accidentally use the middle finger. And don't try it in any major cities - those folks just don't understand.

Our first major stop along the route was at Uluru (also known by the European name of Ayers Rock). It's a symbol of Australia and has significant meaning to the Aboriginal people of the area, as they regard it as a sacred spiritual place. There has been much controversy over the years over rights to the land, and to the use of the monolith itself, but that aside, it is fairly safe to assume that all agree that it is truly a beautiful place. We camped here for 3 nights, each of which had a star show that brilliantly lit up the sky. It's one of those places that you wonder what all the fuss is about until you get there. Then you understand.

After a brief stop off in the oasis town of Alice Springs, we continued north until we hit Darwin. Close enough to Southeast Asia to be bombed by the Japanese during World War 2, Darwin has rebounded into quite an international city. The climate reminded us of Florida back home. The warm tropical air and palm trees made shorts and flip-flops the required dress. We packed the fleece away and stayed there awhile. It still seemed strange that, in Australia, heading north means warmer weather.

Next stop was Kakadu National Park. What is arguably the premier national park of Australia, Kakadu is comprised of swampy wetlands, coastal shorelines, and rocky plateaus. It also contains some of the most impressive Aboriginal rock art in the country. The wildlife is amazing (seems to be a trend, huh?) and birds of all colors and sizes filled the air. Unknowingly, we made our campsite near a tree that was the home of a sugar glider - a cute little fuzzy possum that glides or "flys" from tree to tree. After the sun went down each night, he'd glide past our heads on his way out to find dinner. It was also at Kakadu that we'd see our first saltwater crocodile. An ominous and downright creepy creature, they make the North American alligator look timid. Their sheer size is intimidating enough. On a boat trip within the park, we were able to get right up near a big fellow. He didn't budge. We think we both knew who was boss and there was nothing else he had to do to prove it.

We moved on just a bit south to the Katherine Gorge. Carved out by the Katherine River, the gorge is actually 13 gorges each separated by rapids. The river moves slowly enough that it is actually possible to canoe against the current and make a trip up into the first 3 or 4 gorges and return within a day. Saltwater crocodiles aren't present (or so they say) and it is safe to swim as well. We rented our canoe. They told us that you couldn't canoe through the rapids and you'd have to carry the canoe over the rocks. "No problem," we thought, until we arrived the next morning and climbed into our canoe. The "canoe" looked more like a 2 person kayak, was made of a hard yellow plastic, probably weighed 300 pounds, and navigated somewhat like a battleship. Carrying it across the rocks was just not going to happen as we couldn't lift it out of the water, much less carry it. Jon was nominated to swim and pull our vessel up the rapids. Liz was there to laugh and take pictures. The evidence is attached.

We are now on the homeward stretch, heading back to the eastern coast of the country. Our budget is stretched here much more than it ever was in Asia and we are considering calling Guinness to discuss the possibility of being a contender for the most peanut butter sandwiches ever eaten in a 3-month period. Or maybe we should just not worry about it and go have a Guinness. We'll let you know what we decide on, but that will have to wait...

Until Next Time,
Jon and Liz
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