THE SILENCE OF STARS

 

Kayaking along the Northern Territory’s Katherine River

 

When the winter months roll into my beloved hometown of Melbourne, the weather gets a little too brisk for me to wear my safari suits. So, rather than freeze me bits off, I jump on a plane to Darwin and soak up some winter warmth. Winter up north is a totally different affair, cobbers. In deepest darkest July the mercury struggles to rise into double-figures in Victoria’s capital; the average winter temperature, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, is just six degrees.

 

Darwin, by comparison, has a winter mean ‘low’ of around 20 degrees. It also has a host of activities . I often like to get out of town and explore the surrounding area, and on this occasion I’m taking my wife for a bit of paddle action on the Katherine River.

 

KATHERINE CALLING

 

This mighty waterway winds for 328km through gorges and wilderness country flanked with escarpments and forests. We’re heading downriver, putting in on the outskirts of Katherine, the fourth largest settlement in the Northern Territory 320km south of Darwin. For the next three days Mrs Safari and I will be kayaking roughly 35km. We’ll be away from the often-crowded Katherine Gorge (inside Nitmiluk National Park), floating down a section of the river fed by springs and soaks through the long dry season (April/May to October).

 

We’re heading out with Gecko Canoeing, a local operator based in Katherine. Our guide, Matt, gives us a brief kayak safety session and orientation, and then we get into our lifejackets and put-in on the outskirts of town. The river is gentle at this time of year; all rapids are Grade I. The river is spring fed and its water is filtered through sandstone, which means we can drink it. We glide past prehistoric pandanus and curvaceous tree limbs that kiss the water with their durian-esque fruits. Corridors of tropical trees shade us from the sun. The odd rapid keeps us alert, but the going is super easy for the majority of the way.

 

Daytime temperatures range from 24 to 39 degrees at this time of the year, although it can nip down to around five degrees at night, which isn’t really an issue since Mrs Safari and I will be sitting around a bonfire, or else snuggling in the tent.

 

SMOKE ON THE WATER

 

Up ahead, I hear a crackling sound. It seems somebody has lit the bonfire early. What I thought was low-lying cloud is actually smoke, the smoke of a bushfire burning beside the river. White-bellied sea eagles, Australia’s second largest bird of prey, swoop into the haze. There are also over a dozen black and whistling kites circling overhead, their eyes scouring the burning bush for prey scurrying away from the blaze. These kites are one of few birds that deliberately pick up smouldering sticks and drop them elsewhere to create more fires, smoking out their meal in the process. They are also one of the only birds that can eat and fly at the same time.

 

Eventually the smoke clears and we leave the fire in our wake and continue downriver. The water is glassy in some sections of the river, so still that it appears as though we’re sliding over trees that reflect into the water. We ripple forward, mesmerised by this meandering river. Matt dangles his fishing line over the side of his canoe and catches a fair-sized barramundi. As tasty as it looks he lets it go, carefully avoiding its sharp fins as he unhooks it.

 

CROC STAR

 

The missus is mouthing something across the water. She’s floating a few metres away so I can’t hear exactly what she’s saying. She starts pointing earnestly. Not far away from where I’m paddling, resting on the shore, a freshwater crocodile suns itself on the bank. Its mouth is wide open and it’s undeterred by our presence. It almost poses for photos.

 

The dry season is when freshwater crocodiles inhabit the Katherine River. Humans are too cumbersome to chew so they’re not going to bother us (Mrs Safari says I can be a little gristly at times). Neither are they territorial like saltwater crocodiles.

 

In the wet season the water level can rise by 15 metres, and this is when salties make their way into the inland waterways. We pass a crocodile trap with a pig’s hoof inside to entice hungry snappers, but the traps don’t see much action: on average, rangers catch just three saltwater crocs each dry season.

 

GOANNA DREAMING

 

We awake each morning to swirling river mist. The days are sunny and peaceful, devoid of anybody but us. Because we have all of our camping gear stashed in our kayaks, we the flexibility to choose exactly where we camp. Gecko Canoeing are conscientious about the environment and so limit their group sizes to eight. They also choose fresh campsites so they’re not continually using the same spots.

 

We haul our kayaks out of the water and onto a sandy bank. Goanna tracks on the sand head off into the bush. They remind me of indigenous art where goannas are represented by the markings I see before me. We gather wood for a fire and Matt warns us not to hang out our wet clothes on the bush next to where we’re camping. He points to some bugs that have tiny hairs that irritate the skin if touched. We spend the night eating, talking and enjoying the silence of stars.

 

RIVER RAGE

 

If there’s something you don’t want to do cobbers, it’s to annoy Mrs Safari when she’s driving. She’s a little more placid on the river than on the streets of downtown Melbourne, although still prone to the odd accident. She’s already bashed into some random river debris, and I’m just hoping she doesn’t accidentally collide with a Birtican duck. These prized quackers carry a $5000 fine for any hunters that kill one. If one half of a pair of Birtican ducks die, then the other one dies of sorrow.

 

One member of our group, an avid photographer, has been trying to get a picture of the great-billed heron for the last three days. And it seems as though his patience is about to be rewarded: one perches perfectly on a tree branch next to the riverbank. He lines up the shot, tweaks the settings, but the bird flies off at the last minute. His shout shatters the tranquillity and he throws his camera into the water in frustration. It makes an almighty splash. I try hard not to laugh as he kayaks around in circles trying fish his waterproof camera back in. He nearly falls out his kayak at one point and smiles at me through gritted teeth when he notices me watching.

 

I put my camera away after seeing that. It reinforces to me that this river is best enjoyed through my own eyes rather than that of a lens. I paddle to get away from him, soon re-immersing myself in the serene drift of these calm waters.

 

KEEPING IT REAL

 

It’s our last night and to celebrate an enchanting trip, Matt prepares a roast and we sit on a sandy bank in candlelight, a glass of wine in one hand and a fork of beef in the other. With the candles reduced to waxy pulps, I retire to bed under a sparkling canopy. I hear one of my fellow kayakers say that it won’t be long before we’ll all be back in the real world. To Mrs Safari and me, being tucked up in a swag miles from anywhere and gazing up to the geometric twinkle of stars, this is about as real as it gets.

 

On Safari

 

Flights to Darwin leave from all major Australian cities. Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) are the cheapest airline; returns start from around $450.

Gecko Canoeing and Trekking offer a variety of trips in remote destinations in the Northern Territory. Their packages have an emphasis on educating their guests about the cultural, historical and geological aspects of the environments being explored. All packages include transfers to and from Darwin airport. www.geckocanoeing.com

 

Check out www.tourismnt.com.au for more information about the Northern Territory.

 

 

HAVE WHEELS, WILL (HOPEFULLY) TRAVEL

 

Offbeat adventures in a second-hand car

 

It was an eventful year, 1979. Vietnamese troops overthrew the evil Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the first case of a robot killing a human was documented in the US, and the YMCA sued the Village People in relation to their hit single of the same name. And somewhere on factory line a little golden Chevette was soldered into existence.

 

Over three decades later, many drivers, many kilometres and many trips under its seatbelt, this humble golden Chevette was now mine. Along with two mates, Davo and Tom, we bought the car for $500 and planned to drive it around the South Island of New Zealand for a couple of months. Six months of hard work in Wellington, and we were ready to quit our jobs and head out for an adventure.

 

POLICE PROBLEMS

 

We hadn’t even made it to the ferry terminal before the police pulled us over. Ironically, Davo, who was driving at the time, was speeding. This is ironic because speed wasn’t something synonymous with our automobile. We’d all cringe every time we had to go uphill. The car would shake and judder its way up in second gear while a convoy of impatient traffic piled up behind us. Even heavyweight freight lorries overtook whenever they could. Our journeys were like that of a geriatric snail with arthritis, but at least we were seeing the country in detail instead of just whizzing by.

 

The police officer let us off the speeding violation and we drove aboard the ferry, marvelling at the magnificent Marlborough Sound as we wound into Picton.

 

It wasn’t long before Davo was involved in another unwanted Chevette moment. We were spluttering up a hill during a dusky drive when a possum appeared in the middle of the road. It had aeons of time to get out of the way, but was stunned into stillness by our headlights. Davo ran over the little tacker in second gear, probably at no quicker than 25km per hour. The slow motion kill was excruciating; we heard it bump several times against the chassis. Davo felt one of the bumps right beneath his feet. He was mortified. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

 

GAFFER SPACESHIP

 

The second time the police pulled us over was in relation to our number plate, which was half hanging off. Luckily we had some gaffer tape on hand, having already used it to seal up all the draught holes inside the car. Most of the interior was now covered in silver tape, which made it feel as though we were travelling inside the universe’s slowest space ship. A little gaffer tape on the number plate and we were on our way again, but not for long.

 

Strange noises had been coming from beneath the bonnet for a few kilometres, like something was a little bit loose and was rubbing against something else. We’d already had trouble starting the car and we feared the worst as we limped into Takaka, a small town in the north of the South Island. There are numerous cave systems here, including New Zealand’s deepest vertical shaft – Harwoods Hole – that plunges 357m underground. Our time in Takaka was spent with a mechanic, rather than inside a cool cave. He told us that the alternator had gone, so we paid for a replacement and hoped that would be that.

 

It was hard to believe that the previous WOF (Warranty of Fitness) carried out on our Chevette boasted that: “For its age, this reliable station wagon is in great condition and should continue to run for many more years”. Whoever wrote that had either been paid off or was using hard drugs. From that moment on, the car turned out to be nothing but trouble.

 

REMARKABLY RUBBISH

 

Three weeks into our South Island sojourn, we decided to drive our “reliable station wagon” up to the ski fields of the Remarkables, just outside the adventure hub of Queenstown. About halfway up the steep and windy road to the top, we were forced to abandon the Chevette because it was overheating; the gradient was simply too much for the motor. We hitchhiked the rest of the way and spent the next few hours snowboarding before returning to the car. Its registration was almost up and we feared that it might not pass its WOF this time around. We booked it into a garage and crossed our fingers for a miracle.

 

The grim face of a mechanic is enough to temporarily crush the liberation of a carefree road trip. The Chevette failed its WOF in spectacular fashion; there were so many defects that the mechanic had stapled an additional sheet to the report. Ten defects in all: suspension, brakes, steering manoeuvrability, corrosion on the chassis, missing sun visor, broken front and back lights (not helped when I accidentally reversed into a picnic table), and structural damage. That was just the first page. The mechanic said our biggest problem was going to be getting rid of it; it cost between $400 and $500 to get it scrapped. He sympathised with us and offered to do it for a hundred.

 

Declining the mechanic’s offer, we drove away from the garage undeterred by the Chevette’s shortcomings. The car only needed to last five more weeks before our road trip was complete. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask.

 

STARTING OVER

 

Five minutes down the road, the starter motor packed up. This was a severe inconvenience because it meant that every time we filled up with petrol we had to push start the car. We also had to park on hills so that we could roll-start it in the mornings.

 

It’s not usually a good idea to approach a steep hill in fourth gear, not unless you want to stall. But that’s exactly what I did, and instead of just letting the car roll back down the slope I decided to attempt a three-point turn. This was a monumentally stupid idea in hindsight. The engine cut out and the car was left awkwardly angled in the middle of the road facing the wrong way. I’d somehow managed to mount a curb that backed onto a steep drop into somebody’s back garden.

 

After several minutes of nail biting by Tom and Davo, and several shunts of an already knackered steering wheel by me, I eventually got the car back onto level ground. Tom pushed me so that I could bump-start the car. He fell over as he was doing so and I saw him crack his chin on the boot in my rearview mirror.

 

I drove around the block and parked. By the time I’d shut the engine off, a police car had pulled up beside me. A resident had notified them of suspicious behaviour; it was night-time and they thought we were stealing the car because we were running it with the engine off. Seeing the state of the car however, the police officers immediately realised that nobody in their right mind would steal a car as knackered ours.

 

BON VOYAGE

 

After our third scrape with the law in as many weeks, it was time to admit defeat and part company with the Chevette. Many fond memories lay within its rusty frame, but driving it had become too stressful, not to mention illegal.

 

The following morning we passed some hitchhikers who were on their way to the Remarkables. We jumped out and told the Dutch guy and his Canadian girlfriend that the car was theirs. They couldn’t believe their luck. We told them the situation and warned them not to stall it. Four months later, the car was spotted still driving around Queenstown with a wheelchair strapped to its roof. Seems like there’s still life in the old Chevette yet!

 

 

SECOND HAND v RENTAL CAR – WHICH ONE IS BEST?

 

Second Hand Car                                                             Rental Car

 

Pros                                 Cons                                           Pros                                         Cons

 

Complete autonomy                    Registration and WOF costs                     Packages mean that everything            Limited by the dates you book out

                                                                                                                           is taken care of – all you have to          the car – if you want to extend,

No hand back dates                     Cost of insurance and                                do is drive and not think about             then cars may not always be available

means more spontaneity              roadside assist                                           anything else

on the road

 

Not restricted to                          If anything goes wrong,                             All cars are regularly serviced               Can be more expensive than a really

returning the car                          then you have to pay for it                         and checked by mechanics,                    cheap second-hand car

back to a specific                                                                                               so generally there should be

depot at a specific time                                                                                     no running problems

 

Can resell once you’ve                 There’s always the possibility                                                                                    Some car companies restrict areas in

finished your adventure               you might get ripped off, especially                                                                          which you can go, i.e. some don’t like you

                                                       if you don’t have knowledge of                                                                                 driving their vehicles on gravel road

                                                       how cars work