The Ghan, Australia's premier north-south train.
Wednesday morning I caught the Ghan, Australia's north-south counterpart to the east-west Indian Pacific, from Darwin. The Ghan was comprised of similar rolling stock as its sister train, but in a different paint scheme. There was also no video screen up to, which spared me from having to watch whatever "inoffensive" film the authorities on the train had to offer.
Heading south, past the container terminal and its road train assembly points, we got into the bush. As a well-watered part of Australia, the northern part of the Northern Territory was quite green. But amidst the verdant flora, I saw red-mud colored chimneys sometimes going eight feet or more into the air. Were they eroded rock structures? Petrified trees? A few minutes of thinking helped me realize what they were -- giant termite mounds (a fact later confirmed by the inane commentary piped over the loudspeakers). There were literally thousands of them within a short stretch, indicating to me that Australia must be swarming with billions of termites.
The train ride was smooth and we got to our first stop after only 3.5 hours, the small town of Katherine. The problem with Katherine was that the Ghan stopped for four-and-a-half hours, but the train station was six miles out of town. That meant that you either sat extremely bored for a long time in a small train station in 100-degree heat or you anted up for one of the offered "whistle stop" tours, some of which weren't cheap.
Opting for the Katherine Gorge tour, I paid in the dining car then boarded a motorcoach in the train station parking lot. We drove for about a half-hour to the nearby national park, where we would catch a boat down the Katherine River. The river meanders its way through a natural gully formed by a giant fracture in the Earth?s sandstone crust, leaving a smooth-flowing waterway underneath sheer rock cliffs that go up to nearly 300 feet high.
The Katherine Gorge.
The water was crystal clear, almost like Lake Tahoe, and we could see fish from our flat-bottomed boat as they went near the surface. The tour guide was quick to point out that we were safe as only fresh-water crocodiles generally inhabited this particular river system, and then not in great numbers. So very reassuring.
With the river so shallow in this, the end of the "dry" season, we actually had to disembark our boats at one point, walk about a quarter-mile, then re-board a second boat because the river was so shallow. (It should be pointed out that the draft on our flat-bottomed boat was about a foot and you could lean out and touch the water if you so chose.)
As we were making our way back, the guide pointed out a steel-mesh tube along the shore in the approximate shape of a coffin. "That's a salt-water croc trap," he said (trap at right). The boaters, who had been calm to that point pointed out he said there were only "freshies" in the Gorge. "Infrequently," the guide said, "a young salty will get chased away from his home by a larger salty and come up the river. We've only caught two in the past 12 years here."
As our tour concluded, we made our way back to the bus and I saw some movement in the nearby picnic area. "A family of kangaroos," I thought, moving over to take some pictures. Like so much of my wildlife shooting camera work this trip, my luck was bad -- the batteries on my camera died at just that moment. Sacrificing the batteries in my GPS unit, I reloaded the camera and was able to get some nice shots.
Feeling proud that I had finally gotten a decent picture of a kangaroo, I boasted to the British man I was walking next to. "Sorry mate, that were actually wallabies," he said, putting me down gently.
Sigh. Ah well, it's a hopping marsupial -- close enough. I even saw a couple of the dreaded cane toads (an introduced species that's causing all sorts of trouble) for good measure. Below: Finally, a picture of a marsupial.
The bus took us to downtown Katherine (all three blocks of it) so we could load up supplies. There was a group of young Aboriginal men sitting in the grassy median of the road, having a chat and otherwise doing nothing. "Not meaning to sound racist," said the man from Melbourne sitting next to me (although he was sounding racist), "but that lot is taking over the country."
As I walked through the small shopping center, I saw the familiar sight of impoverished young men and women with no jobs and nothing to do that I'd seen in various parts of the United States. Only the facial features were different. In fact, in front of me in line at the supermarket was an older Aboriginal woman buying a modest amount of groceries. She swiped her EFT card (it looked quite similar to a California welfare card) through the machine several times and was declined each time. With a sullen look on her face, she eventually apologized to the cashier and walked off empty-handed.
If I hadn't been in a hurry to re-catch the bus to the train station (I literally had less than five minutes to do so) I might have had the thought to offer to buy her groceries for her. With the exchange rate, it would have been about $20 to feed her and her family. I actually feel really guilty as I write this for not thinking it at the time.
Darwin also had its share of poor indigenous people, but I'm happy to say that not one of them begged from me. In fact, although I hate buskers (Claire can attest to that) there was a Aboriginal man singing the blues on a guitar Tuesday in Darwin that actually was pretty darn good and elicited a $2 coin from me.
If anything, the poverty among Australia's Aborigines might help me understand it better at home, although it won't necessarily improve my ability to help.
I'm now in Alice Springs, and will soon head off on a guided adventure tour to Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) for two nights of camping away from all things Internet. See you on the other side.