Sunday, May 27, 2012

Australia Day Four: Kakadu and Darwin

On our last day in Kakadu, we enjoyed a quiet morning, sipping coffee and listening to all the nature sounds just outside our door. Around mid-morning, we reluctantly lugged our bags out to the car. But we had a surprise: a wallaby send-off party! In the clearing where we'd been night-time wildlife watching the past two nights were four wallabies, placidly grazing.

After a while, the wallabies noticed that they were being watched. They hopped closer to the forest edge, stopping every few hops to glance back suspiciously at us.
Hey! Quit lookin' at us!

We decided to leave the wallabies in peace, and headed out. We were planning to head back down the Arnhem Highway to Darwin, but first we decided to swing by the South Alligator River one last time, just to see if we could spot any of the crocodiles we'd heard so much about. We didn't have any reptile luck, but we did spot a very exciting bird - a kookaburra!
Blue-winged kookaburra

I immediately started singing the song:

♫ Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
Merry, merry king of the bush is he
Laugh, kookaburra! Laugh, kookaburra!
How gay your life must be ♫

I think it's kind of funny us American kids grew up singing this song at school - none of us had any idea what a kookaburra was!! But now I know that the kookaburra is a very large kingfisher that's well known for their propensity to eat snakes - I've come a long way since second grade.
Fly, kookaburra! Fly, kookaburra!

The kookaburra was the most exciting bird around, but it wasn't the only one. As usual, there were magpie-larks hanging around. And below the kookaburra's tree was a purple swamphen. We'd seen those birds around in New Zealand, and it was neat to see one again.
Purple swamphen

After some time spent admiring the birds and the river, we got started on our journey back to Darwin. We took it slow and kept an eye out for wildlife. We were pulling into little side roads along the way, hoping we might see something interesting.
One of our random detours

We got lucky right away when we saw some more wallabies - and one of them had a little joey in its pouch (a WALLABABY)! We stopped and the mom looked up at us, then reached down and shoved her baby all the way into her pouch! I thought it was cute to see her being so protective, but apparently her baby didn't appreciate it very much. We could see him wriggling around inside the pouch, and pretty soon his head popped back out.
Mooooom, let me OUTTA here!

Further down the road we stopped again to watch a flock of galah that were hanging out on the shoulder. They're such beautiful birds!
For obvious reasons, also known as the rose-breasted cockatoo
So weird to see cockatoos in the wild!

We all know how much I love abandoned stuff, and there was some cool abandoned stuff along our route, including the burned out car we'd passed on our way in.
Probably one of the best abandoned cars I've ever seen
Banged up barrel to match the beat up car

We often saw huge trucks on the Arnhem Highway that were longer than any semis we'd seen before - they were like regular semis, but they were pulling three trailers behind. They had big signs on the front that said ROAD TRAIN. It was kind of scary when they passed us, because they made a whump-whump-whump sound.
The signs should say TRUCK MONSTER instead of ROAD TRAIN

There aren't a lot of places to stop between Jabiru and Darwin, but we did find a little place called the Bark Hut Inn, where we could get some lunch. Vegetarian options were pretty limited in the Northern Territory, but I got by with some garlicky pita bread, and stole some of the fries that came with Bryan's burger. It was a nice place to eat - the Bark Hut Inn keeps a few animals (emu, cows, etc.) and we sat outside and watched them while we ate. Adding to the entertainment were the huge blackbirds that would swoop in to steal any food that was left unattended for even a second.
Expert food snatchers

After lunch and a little rest, we got back on the road. It wasn't much longer to Darwin. We stopped just on the edge of town to visit Charles Darwin National Park. As soon as we pulled in, we got the feeling that this park might be a bit past its prime. There weren't many people around and everything looked a little deserted. There was a beat up old camper in the parking lot, and it appeared as though people were living there, and there were a lot of signs warning visitors to lock their cars. Kinda strange.

According to signs posted around the park, Darwin played an important role in defending Australia during World War II. Specifically, it was used as a "bomb dump," a repository for tons of explosives. There were bunkers all over the park. Cool!
Old bunker for storing explosives

One of the bunkers was open and served as a little museum, full of artifacts from the WWII era.
Scary stuff
Old-school typewriter

We followed a path off of the carpark and it meandered along, past bunkers, little skinks, and lots of neat plants that I couldn't identify!
Cool twisty plants

Some of the bunkers were open and some were locked up tight. Just as Bryan walked into one of the open ones, I saw some movement above the door. A 4 or 5 foot long snake slithered up over the bunker so fast we couldn't even snap a photo! It was pretty cool to see it, but I'm glad it didn't drop down on Bryan while he was in the doorway!!

 We hiked all the trails in the park before heading back to our car. It was nice to get out and stretch our legs after a few hours cooped up in the car. Back at the carpark, there was an open area that afforded a nice view of downtown Darwin. Unfortunately it was kind of a hazy day.
Downtown Darwin off in the distance

It was late afternoon by the time we left the park, and we were ready to check into a hotel and then go get some dinner. We headed back to the Holiday Inn, where we'd stayed a few nights before. It was a Tuesday, so we figured we wouldn't have any trouble getting a room. Boy were we wrong! The Holiday Inn was full, and the people at the desk informed us that the train comes in on Tuesday and we'd have trouble finding an available room. Uh-oh! We headed out on foot, and stopped at a couple places. We were temporarily encouraged to hear that there was one vacancy at the Novotel, but immediately disappointed when we were told that the room cost FIVE HUNDRED dollars a night. We tried to keep a straight face when the concierge tried to offer us the sweet deal of four hundred dollars a night. We declined.

After a few more discouraging stops, we decided that hotel-hunting would be easier on a full stomach, so we stopped at the delightfully named Hog's Breath Cafe. They had a variety of Australian ciders, which Bryan and I had become obsessed with on our trip, so we were happy to try a couple more.
I liked both, but preferred the Aussie Cider

Bryan and I both had great food. It looked so good when it showed up on the table that I immediately forgot about my intention to take photos, and just dug right in instead. I had an avocado and mushroom salad, which, I was amused to find, had deep-fried potatoes and mushrooms in it. Playin' it pretty fast and loose with the word "salad" there, but it was SOOO GOOD that I didn't mind. Bryan had what looked like something delicious that my mom would make - chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, and gravy. He looked pretty blissed out on his side of the table. I think the Hog's Breath was probably the best food we had in Australia up until then!

After dinner, we drove out of the main part of town and stopped at the Vitina Studio Motel. The friendly lady at the front desk told me that they had vacancies, and proudly informed me that they also had the cheapest rooms in Darwin (the rooms were cheaper than a lot of others, but were, in my opinion, still overpriced. That just seems to be the way things are in Australia). Anyway, we were grateful to have a place to crash for the night, so we gladly checked in and got comfortable!

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Australia Day Three: Exploring!

On our first full day in Kakadu, we spent some time lounging around our room. We made coffee and took it out on our little back porch. It was loud out there, but for a pretty cool reason: there was a flock of about 60 squawking cockatoos on the lawn and in the trees just outside our room!!! Most of them were little corellas.
Probably the cheekiest birds I've ever seen
Bryan captured this photo at just the right moment!

Apparently these birds are very playful. According to our Australian wildlife bookthey have been observed swinging from telephone wires and riding windmill blades around until they fall off, then flying back to the top to ride the blades back down again. Pretty cute. Watching them on the lawn, diving in and out of the sprinklers and rolling around with each other reminded me of watching the monkeys!!
Little corella play time looks suspiciously like little corella death battle time
♥Birdbrain love♥

It was a good morning for bird-watching. We sat on our porch and watched the little corellas for quite a while, but when we finally walked around a little bit, there were even more birds within about a 20 meter radius of our room.
Crimson finch

One of the prettiest birds we saw was a pink and grey cockatoo called a galah. They're common all over Australia, but they're still an exciting sight to see.
Flocks of cockatoos can be as large as a couple thousand!

 We asked for some hiking suggestions at the front desk, but they looked at us disdainfully and said that most people get started a little earlier in the day. Well la-de-da! There were several trailheads right around the Aurora Kakadu, but unfortunately they were all closed for the season. So Bryan and I got in the car and set off down the Arnhem Highway on our own. We pulled off at South Alligator River to admire the view.
South Alligator River, which is confusingly full of crocodiles, not alligators...

Bryan and I don't usually think of ourselves as big bird people - we don't go out looking for specific birds, we just look for any wildlife we can find. But in Australia, it seemed like there was a new bird around every corner! We couldn't help but be birdwatchers!
Eastern yellow robin
There were always raptors overhead. Watch out, little lizards!!

We followed a little trail down closer to the river, and felt right at home when we saw some fiddler crabs, chubby mudskippers, and colorful dragonflies.
Sometimes bugs are pretty!

Once we'd exhausted the area around South Alligator without spotting any of the massive crocodiles that we'd heard so much about, we hopped back in the car and drove back down to Mamukala, where we'd stopped briefly the night before. It was nicer in broad daylight! And, guess what was there?! If you said MORE BIRDS, you win the prize!
Green pygmy geese - they look so geometrical!
Another intimidating raptor

After hanging out at the wetlands a while, we drove on to the Bowali Visitor Centre. They were more helpful than the people at the Aurora Kakadu had been, and they gave us some advice on places to go where the trails were open. We headed for the Mirrai Lookout, a short hike where we were told that we might see some wildlife. Luckily, we saw some before we even got there! A couple of storks wading in the water were impressive enough to get us to stop the car along the road.
Black-necked stork eatin' some delicious fishes
Heeeeere, fishy, fishy, fishy

It wasn't long after our stork pitstop that we reached the Mirrai Lookout trailhead. We got started right away on the 3.6 km hike. It was pretty steep going, but as an older guy who passed us on his way down observed, "no problem for youngsters like you!" There was a bit of wildlife along the trail, including the ubiquitous droptail skinks and a couple other lizards, one of which I haven't been able to identify.
These skinks flick their tails slowly back and forth,
like they're trying to hypnotize you!
Kind of looks like a changeable lizard, but I don't think it is!

After an hour or so, we got to the lookout point, which was a tall metal tower. The view from the top was pretty nice!
View from the Mirrai Lookout tower

In addition to the great view, the tower also had some wildlife of its own - it  was FULL of spiders!
St. Andrew's cross spider
This one was about the size of a man's hand! AH!

On our way back down the trail, we spotted some wallabies! We'd seen some the day before from the car, but it was neat to see some without panes of glass between us.
They were still pretty skittish!
Sweaty wallaby-watchers
My outback explorer

Before long we were back in the carpark. We hopped in, planning to head for Nourlangie, a nearby destination that had been recommended by the people at the Visitor Centre. But just as we were pulling out, something crazy popped out of the brush next to us. It was a HUGE raptor, flying away with a HUGE animal in its mouth! The animal was about the same size as the bird! Unfortunately, we couldn't snap a photo fast enough, and the bird got away with its dinner. It was pretty cool though!
He looked like this!

On the way to Nourlangie, we saw more wallabies on the roadside.
Eatin' some grass with an ADORABLE BABY

The Nourlangie hike (about 1.5 km) was neat because it had great views, and it was also a rock art site, with ancient aboriginal drawings.
Pretty view from the Nourlangie trail

We came upon the rock art pretty quickly. Some of it, like the kangaroo below, was referred to as "modern art," since it was completed within the last 1000 years. Modern indeed!
A kangaroo and a...kangaroo wrangler?!
Bryan, petting a rock kangaroo

I liked the art that depicted dancing. From the drawings, it looks like the ancient aborigines probably thew some killer parties.
Gettin' down, aborigine style

This next one was my favorite. A quote directly from the sign accompanying this drawing. I'm totally serious.
This is Nabulwinjbulwinj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam.
Yup. So ladies, if you ever see a yam flying at your face, don't take the time to think "What the HECK?! Who threw this YAM at me?!" RUN. Because you're about to be EATEN.
Nabulwinjbulwinj, yam-throwing lady-killer

Anyway, while we walked the rest of the trail, I kept a keen eye out for any errant yams. I didn't see any, but we did spot a lot of massive termite mounds.
Hangin' out at the termites' house

Toward the end of the trail was an open area, up out of the rocky area with all the art. There were great views up there, and the rocks surrounding us were bright orange in the fading daylight.
A rewarding view toward the end of the hike
Bryan on the rocks

We left the scenic overlook behind and quickly encountered a friendly bird along the path. It was a sulphur-crested cockatoo, and he was very busily dismantling a tree branch. Watching him effortlessly snapping twigs with his beak made me realize that you really wouldn't want to be bitten by one of those guys!
Watch your fingers or you might lose them!

The sun was setting by the time we got back to the car, and we'd only eaten oranges and granola bars for lunch, so we decided to head to Jabiru to see if there was anywhere there that we could eat dinner - we'd heard there was a small mall there. When we got to Jabiru, we realized that it was a really small place. We easily navigated to the mall, but it looked like it had been abandoned for about 5 years. It may have still been open, but we were kind of sketched out, so we just left and headed back to our place. The ride went quickly because we saw some neat stuff along the way!
A much healthier dingo than the one we saw the day before!

Bryan ate some dinner at the restaurant back at the Aurora Kakadu. When he was done we went back to our room and I ate my leftovers from my American-sized meal the night before. Then we got all  ready to go out and look for some more wildlife in the darkness!
Stylin' night-time wildlife explorers

The night before we'd been hearing this strange, repetitive woof-woof that we assumed was dingoes. But it wasn't! It was OWLS! The so-called barking owls, to be specific. Pretty weird, huh? On our night-time expedition, we saw three or four of them flying around, making their strange barking noises. They were very hard to photograph, but Bryan got one grainy photo.
Barking owl looking at us!

We went back to a field where we'd been looking for wildlife the night before. We watched huge black flying foxes swooping silently out of the trees. Flying foxes are massive bats - the biggest bats in the world - and it was stunning to see them hunting in the wild. They were so quiet!! I can't imagine being a little mouse, scampering along, and looking up and HOLY MOLY how did THAT THING get right in front of me without me hearing it?!?! The flying foxes were awesome to watch, but photographing black, flying bats in the dead of night was pretty much impossible.

The next thing we saw was easier to snap a photo of: a tree frog!! SO CUTE!!!!!!!!!! And then we ended up on a frog streak.
This is a dainty green tree frog. Don't you just LOVE him?!?!
Not sure what this one is...maybe a Copland's rock frog?
The cane toads are taking over the world!
Not sure who he is either! But isn't he sweet?!

We were on the lookout for more frogs and we were walking through the grass when Bryan said, "SNAKE!" I whirled around and saw it, right there about 2 feet in front of us. AH! Normally I'm pumped to see snakes in the wild, but this was too close for comfort. I also suddenly felt very insecure - I wanted to keep my flashlight on THIS snake, so we could watch where it was going, but at the same time, I wanted to shine it all over the place and make sure the snakes weren't closing in on us from all sides! I admit it, I freaked out a little. And Bryan made fun of me a little...but I had it coming!
Brown tree snake, the source of my mini freakout

In my mind, the snake was deathly venomous and bent on killing us. But of course, a little research showed that, although it can be very aggressive when confronted, it's not considered dangerous to adult humans. But I didn't know all that at he time, so we headed back to our room as I looked every which way with my flashlight, expecting snakes at every turn.

On the way back, we stopped to watch a praying mantis stalking a frog on a wall. It was really weird to see an insect scaring the daylights out of an amphibian instead of the other way around. The praying mantis would move closer by inching slowly forward while rocking slowly back and forth. It looked like he was mimicking a leaf in the wind.
Run, froggy, run!
I can see why the frog was scared! He's intimidating!

Back at our room, we thought we'd sit on our back porch for a while and listen to the barking owls and other night sounds. When we got to our porch, there was a little guy waiting for us, in between our back door and the screen.
Hey pal! Wanna hang out?

The frog seemed pretty scared with us lounging around in his territory, so we went inside pretty quickly. We drank a couple of yummy ciders (Strongbow - I really liked the pear one, but Bryan wasn't too keen!) and went to sleep to wild sounds outside our cozy little room.

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