Last October, sitting next to a roaring woodstove on the other side of the world, we booked a backpacking trip on Australia’s Hinchinbrook Island, the largest island national park in the world. It was the only thing we planned in advance for our trip to this enormous country, purchasing our permits to camp there before our flights.
So it was a bit surreal when we finally boarded the boat on a sunny morning, headed for the uninhabited, mountainous outcropping of land in the Coral Sea.
We had booked five nights and six days to walk and enjoy the 32-kilometer Thorsborne Trail, but opted to walk the trail both ways. Not only did it save us nearly $200 on transport to and from the island, we would have been so bored with all the downtime.
Hinchinbrook is like a mini Australia. We saw just about every type of landscape we had driven or hiked through (aside from the massive expanses of nothing, thankfully).
The trail passed through jungles similar to the ones we just left in Daintree, through the arid desert-like forests of the Flinders Ranges, the swampy grasslands and beautiful swimming holes of Litchfield and Kakadu, and the mountains, rolling hills, and stunning beaches of Victoria and New South Wales. It was amazing, and we were glad we got the chance to see each place twice. (more…)
Far northern Queensland is lush and tropical, bearing a palette of colors far removed from the arid, red Australia of the imagination.
Rolling hills hold field upon field of vibrant green sugar cane, their silvery tassels catching the breeze and the sunlight. Behind the ocean of cane, a near-constant shroud of pearl gray mist blankets dark green mountains and tumbling waterfalls. Not far off to the east, sandy beaches line the edge of the Coral Sea.
Due to usually cool weather there were no vegetables to harvest, and we found ourselves with an unexpected but not unwelcome abundance of time to explore both sides of the highway. It was a leisurely change from our past two months of long drives and endless places to see. Suddenly we had time to stop wherever and for however long we pleased, enjoying the small, out of the way places that are sometimes the most enjoyable.
Kakadu is everything a national park should be: a massive and untouched sanctuary for diverse wildlife, a site to experience ancient culture, holder of some awe-inspiring scenery and natural beauty. At 20,000 square kilometers, it is Australia’s largest park, and is highly revered in guidebooks and the mountains of tourist literature that piled up in our car. Unlike past parks where we’ve had hikes planned and sites to see, the three days we reserved for Kakadu were refreshingly blank of an itinerary, aside from exploration.
One thing was for sure— after slogging along the Tabletop Track, we were more than ready for some lazy sightseeing featuring very short, very flat walks down paved paths. In the park’s excellent visitor’s guide, we highlighted trails clocking in under two kilometers and gave stars to the ones featuring a decimal point in front. Anything requiring footwear more substantial than flip-flops was out of the question. This was going to be an enjoyable three days.
Kakadu is known for its lovely and life-sustaining wetlands, home to countless birds and fish, turtles, snakes and— possibly the scariest animal ever—estuarine crocodiles. Signs everywhere warn you not to enter or even get close to the water, frightening you off with a depiction of a toothy and malevolent-looking croc, jaws wide open ready to gobble you up should you dip a toe in the river.
The scary part is that in Australia, warning signs mean something. People have met their early and unpleasant ends due to croc attacks inside the park, and the stories are too common and too gruesome for comfort.
We wanted to see one from a safe distance, and were on the lookout.
On our first day, we spotted a massive yet disappointingly docile-looking fellow on the far side of the river, resting in the heat of the day. While impressively long and powerful looking, we wanted action, preferably involving him lunging up to eat a bird or annoying child.
Kakadu is also famous for several extensive Aboriginal rock painting sites—something I’ve been wanting to see since we arrived in Australia. Painted in layers of ochre, pale cream, and deep red, the drawings depict several aspects of daily life—mostly, it seemed, dinner. Barramundi, catfish, saratoga, long-necked turtles and wallabies all adorned the walls and roofs of caves at Ubirr, painted in a distinctive X-ray style. Since people often painted over other images, the older images we could see date back to somewhere the last 2,000 years. It was way cooler than we expected.
After looking at several sites, we clambered up to the lookout. A wide floodplain extended below us, bright green except for a few lingering expanses of sparkling blue water. Reddish rocky outcroppings rose in the distance, and several dark green trees studded the plain. The occasional white bird or kite flew above the plain, and a vibrant blue sky spread above. We stayed up there for a long time, captivated by the colors, staring out at the plain as other visitors came and went.
The Fourth of July, in our opinion, might just be the best day of the year. What could be better than a day off in the height of summer to do whatever you please?
This year, despite being on a faraway continent full of people oblivious to the holiday, we were determined to carry out our duties as Americans on our nation’s birthday. Namely: grill meats and get drunk next to a body of water.
We happened to be in Babinda, in northern Queensland, on the morning of the Fourth of July. Babinda is a beautiful town, but also happens to share the dubious and unfortunate title of the rainiest town in Australia. Low, grey clouds unleashed rain with varying degrees of enthusiasm all day.
Undeterred, we took over a covered picnic table and proceeded to make ample quantities of some classic and unhealthy American summer foods— hot dogs, pasta salad, fruit salad, watermelon, baked beans, potato chips, orange soda. At the highly acceptable hour of 1:30 p.m., we added Dark and Stormies to the mix.
We didn’t have any flags or fireworks, but we tried our best to be patriotic:
It just wouldn’t be the Fourth of July without swimming, so despite the weather, we peeled off our rain jackets and dove in. Briefly.
This also seems an appropriate time to pass along some of the things we love about America. Being so far away from home for so long has also made us realize what we take for granted.
Beer. The beer here is an improvement over anything found in Asia, but we would have to commit all sorts of nefarious deeds in order to regularly afford $20 for a six-pack of 3.5 percent pilsner. Americans live in the promised land when it comes to beer. Oh, how we miss our hoppy and affordable IPAs!
S’mores. Imagine a place where the mention of s’mores receives a blank and questioning look. Imagine a continent devoid of graham crackers, where marshmallows are pink and taste like cherry cough syrup. Well, my friends, this land is Australia. With such an outdoorsy population, you would think Australians would have caught on to the wonder that is the s’more. But no. They have never heard of them. It’s a travesty.
Not being foreign. Though it’s not as obvious as when we where in Asia, we are still readily identified as foreigners here in Australia as soon as we open our mouths and talk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just nice to walk down the sidewalk and know that the people who pass share your citizenship and the things that come with it. It’s like you’re on the same team. Even if they’re assholes.
The price of everything. Most things in the States are cheap, but in this context, everything means the essentials: beer (which we’ve already discussed), gas (it costs $5.10 to $7.50 a gallon here), ice cream cones, and McDonalds cheeseburgers (each about double the price). Why do we care so much about McDonald’s prices? Well…
Internet. Fast, free wifi is nearly nonexistent here. The one and only reliable source of wireless is, oddly enough, McDonalds. We’re in one right now. It’s a bit depressing.
Baseball. Sunshine, warm weather, and tropical beaches aside, it just doesn’t feel like summer without baseball. Not to mention our beloved wiffle ball field.
Our friends and family. Not that we don’t like each other, but it would be nice to hang out with someone else for a change. There’s something about a holiday, especially this one, that makes you miss home.
Driving north out of Australia’s empty interior, the arid desert’s red rocks and low bushes slowly phase into the sparse trees and tall grasses of the savannah woodland. Here in the Northern Territory’s Top End, well above the Tropic of Capricorn, winter is the dry season and temperatures still rise well into the 80s. Litchfield National Park is one of the region’s top attractions, providing locals and tourists alike with deep clear swimming holes and a welcome relief from the heat.
We were there to spend four days and three nights on the Tabletop Track, a 39-kilometer walking track through the park. For better or worse (worse) we didn’t know much about it, other than that it linked up numerous waterfalls along a rocky plateau. Though the parks service deems it mandatory to purchase and carry a detailed topographical map of the area, they are apparently only available in Darwin, which was well out of the way. We came prepared with this:
As you can see, the trail is ringed by a road that accesses nearly all the highlights, so most people simply pile into their car/campervan/tour bus and drive between them. Choosing to ignore this, we packed our bags and began with a refreshing dip at beautiful Florence Falls, which was well visited but not overwhelmingly so.
From there, our first afternoon was an easy 6 kilometers through pleasant landscapes, crossed by the occasional clear stream. Fields of stiff, straw-colored spear grass, taller than us in some places, clacked gently in the breeze and, true to its name, occasionally speared us in the shins.
Every once in a while a cloud of golden dragonflies would rise from the spear grass and surround us, fluttering gracefully. Butterflies, some sky blue and black and others rust-colored, floated in the slight breeze. It was nice. We reached camp around sunset, set up alongside a quiet but friendly Cairns native, and went to bed looking forward to more of the same.
On the second day, though, the Tabletop Track revealed its true, hateful character. Spear grass disappeared as we entered a former burn zone, and we trudged through more than 12 kilometers of flat, scorched terrain, sweltering under an unforgiving sun. Sparse, twisted trees offered nothing in the way of shade, and the ground was strewn with loose rocks, looking half melted from fires or the sun or both. It was a wasteland, much more suited for a landfill, or say, Hell, than a national park.