……….and so it was that there were no more sleeps and our departure day had arrived. We both described a mixture of of angst, anticipation and excitement that rendered us both a bit hyper with emotions a bit near the surface. A tardy chauffeur, a crash ahead of us on the M25 and stationary traffic added to the tension – but it was nothing a strong gin and tonic and two glasses of wine wouldn’t cure! And we were off!
We took no time at all to settle into the rarefied surroundings of our upper deck – ducks and water came to mind – and very happily wined, dined, filmed and snoozed our way through the six hour flight to Dubai. Throughout Emirates staff silently glided along the the aisles (maybe due to the headphones that gave an ‘out of body’ experience’ feel to the whole affair) dispensing elegant largesse and bonhomie – truck Penelope eat your heart out!!!
The second leg of the journey – Dubai/Brisbane – was not quite as serene but nevertheless the 12 hours passed and Brisbane appeared through the dawn blushed cabin windows after a rather fine breakfast of eggs benedict. How did they get perfect poached eggs at that height?
Saturday 8th August Brisbane
We emerged from the airport to a beautiful but chilly day of 8 degrees and were whisked off on the short journey to our accommodation, reached by a three lane highway, 7 kilometres of which ran under a tunnel. First impressions were of a modern city built on a winding river with tall commercial buildings interspersed with lower industrial sites. The technical hitch, rather naively not anticipated, was the fact that we arrived at 7.00 am and our room was not available until 2.00 pm! We just had not thought about that as a possibility!
A quick change of footware, having left our baggage for safekeeping, and we were walking by a glorious riverside – us and what seemed like the total population of Bribane out jogging or cycling. The energy and testosterone was palpable! It was all a bit ‘full on’ for a couple who had emerged from the laval state of an 18 hour flight. We were almost blinking against the light and were surrounded by a mass of moving humanity. Never had I been surrounded by so much acid coloured Lycra taughtly stretched over so many athletic limbs (and not athletic) so early in the morning in such a beautiful setting. The river sparkled to our left and cultural galleries and museums edged the tree lined route to our right. In between we were seriously impairing the progress of the young and not so young of Brisbane keeping fit!!
We meandered along following the river as It twisted and turned back on itself. On the opposite bank, tall commercial buildings soared and the roadway along the waters edge ran precariously suspended over the river. It all felt very new, very modern and somehow go–head. We must have walked over a mile along the river when we decided to walk across a pedestrian bridge which gave us tremendous views over the water, to the other side. Here things were somewhat calmer and we took the riverside route through the botanical gardens. Our path took us past unknown trees with interesting seed pods and dangly bits and the air rang out with unidentifiable bird calls. Having turned away from the river and wandering deeper into the garden we came across ibis stalking around quite fearlessly, their long beaks jabbing into the earth, totally heedless of our passing. Other birds screeched overhead and the situation found Keith calling for his Australian bird book!
We found a cafe in the middle of the gardens and had a jolly outdoor breakfast before heading into ‘centre vile’ to buy a local telephone with Australian connectivity. Our route took us out of the gardens and past large colonial buildings. These markedly contrasted with the modern skyscrapers looming up behind them and led us from the old architecture through to the modern Queensland University of Technoliogy campass with its wide sundrenched walkways.
Leaving this behind we walked into the central commercial area where the roads covered a strict grid pattern with queens names running North to South and kings names East to West………. Very effective! Having walked and peered down several there seemed to be no sign of any shops so we decided to give up and instead explore the restaurant area of Eagle Pier. This very up market area found us pondering over the different menus and disappointed to learn that the restaurant ‘Mr and Mrs G’s’ had a private function and we would not be able to eat there – which might have been fun! As the name implied, all the very attractive venues faced the river and the two steam paddle boats offered the opportunity of actually eating on it!
Having identified this as the location for supper we wandered back into the royally named road matrix and eventually found the Queen Street Mall lined with a mix of designer shops, hotels and cafes. The Telstra phone was purchased and having become decidedly droopy despite another drink stop (it was by now nearly mid day) we decided to see if there was any chance of getting into our room before our knees buckled completely!
Back across the river we went. By now the Lycra clad excercise fraternity had given way to families and friends. All seemed very up beat. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and our first impression of Australia was of a young and vibrant society swept up in its own vitality. We on the other hand were two very sleepy English people who were totally relieved and grateful when we were told our room was ready and we could collapse for a couple of hours in a very comfortable bed!
Later somewhat refreshed, we had a wonderful fishy supper back at the Eagle Pier at the Jelly Fish restaurant. The Pier was teeming with Brisbane glitterati intent on having a great Saturday night out. We on the other hand were a somewhat subdued, but really enjoyed our meal and surroundings and wandered home tired but happy with our first day in the antipodes……..
Sleep came quickly and wakefulness equally quickly struck with a vengeance at about 3.00 am………!
Sunday 9th August
Sunday proved to be a very different day! We woke to another beautiful sunny day and had decided to go to the Queensland Show locally known as The Ekka. We were told it was an agricultural affair showing all the best of Brisbane and the surrounding area – something like the South of England or Kent County Show we thought. Perhaps buy some food for a light supper…… A way to find out more about Austalian life we thought……….
We had found out where the buses went from – another experience — and we set off, Keith carrying an empty ruck sack in which to carry home any food booty obtained along the way. We arrived at the bus stop at the same time as the bus (a good start!) and piled on – the bus was full as we crossed the river. It became much more full as we travelled along. By the time we reached our destination we were like sardines! However everyone was in very good spirits as we spilled onto the pavement and entered the show ground to literally all the fun of the fair! Overhead enormous crane like arms swung bodies terrifyingly high in the air – all that could be seen were legs dangling – and cradles on wires hurled what looked like small specks of people around equally precariously skyward. Side stall holders hailed passers by to try to hook a plastic duck for a prize or take shots with darts or hoops. There were hot dogs and candy floss, Turkey drumsticks and lamb hocks, kebabs and hamburgers – it was 10.30 on a Sunday morning!! In one arena a wood sawing competition was taking place, with the participants being loudly encouraged by their supporters. This was an island of relative calm compared to the seething madness elsewhere!
After initially feeling somewhat overwhelmed we found our feet and although still caught up with what seemed a tide of humanity, did eventually find the animals. The bird area where giant chickens peered out of their show cages, bright red combs awobble. Magnificently proud and strutting even if it was only a few paces. Enormous ducks, beaks snapping through their cage bars at unwary passers by. Huge cattle – some the size of small elephants! – but all incredibly healthy looking, filled the cattle shed. Sheep – some looking very much like goats to us – greyhounds, pigs. Hanging sides of beef, amazing vegetable displays. Large rosettes marked the champions and nearly champions ……..
The agriculture was definitely a side show to the hot dog stalls and carousels. There was definitely no produce to buy! Just after lunch we decided to admit defeat and return to Brisbane centre to see if we could find some fresh food for supper. Getting out was no mean feat – it was achieved the bus back found and we left the Ekka behind not sure what we had made of the experience!
Back in ‘centre vile’ we found Woolworths with its food hall and put together a meal to make in our accommodation which had cooking facilities. It all worked well – by 8.30 we were ready for bed, not quite sure what we had made of the Ekka but satisfied that we had made the most of our time in Brisbane and enjoyed our first taste of Australia!
Monday 10th August
We had booked a cab for 6.30. It was still quite dark when clambered aboard to be driven to the airport by taxi driver from Stockport! Not a happy soul, he took delight in telling us of the number of sharks in the river and how he used to swim across in his younger day. We had been told it would take 3/4 hour to travel to the airport. In 20 minutes we were there and in 40 we were checked in, security checked and through to the departure lounge!
We were amazed to find that our flight to Darwin was nearly 4 hours long – long enough to get to Rome or Marrakesh from home! It just underlined the distance issue that we just have not yet got to grips with. The flight was uneventful except that when we got on there was the smell of food that was quite delicious to two people who had eaten no breakfast! We were therefore somewhat crestfallen to find that everyone around us was given food and we were left out – on enquiry we found that the food had to be pre ordered. At no time in our booking or checking in process had ŵe been asked about breakfast. With no opportunity to buy anything we were left feeling a bit like ‘ Billy no mates’ and hungry!
The first impression of Darwin was the heat as we left the ‘plane- it was like a thick blanket! In the four hours the temperature had mo end up 10 – 15 degrees! A very hot sun shone from a very blue sky! It was lovely.
We had booked our accommodation to ensure ease of access to the Ghan station, this had placed us slightly out of town, but an enquiry provided detail of the bus route, so after a short siesta we were on the bus stop into town.
We went from the bus station down to the water front. It was amazing. Very modern with bars overlooking a lido type swimming area. The sun shone down and we had a drink and weighed up the outer walk way going out to see. Reading material around the decking described the bombing of Darwin harbour – the area we were walking on. Apparently the Japanese bombed Darwin harbour shortly after Pearl Harbour and dropped more bombs. We felt very ignorant – we had no idea. The bombing wiped out all communication by taking out the post office which was on the site of the current North DarwinGovernment house further along the coast. The walk around to the harbour wall brought us to an area of tables laid out in front a number of food stalls selling everything from fish and chips to steak grills and Indian cuisine. There was a take away drink shop where they sold special beers and all sorts of things to drink. People sat out on the water front with their chosen eating. Gulls an black kites zoomed into eat the chips that people threw out over the water and the birds caught the titbits mid flight! We sat and downed a couple of beers while we waited to meet up with Jo Wightman, Tony Wightman’s daughter.
We sat and watched the light as sun went down. At 7.00 we moved inland to meet with Jo. It was great to see her. Jo is really excited and committed to Darwin. She has been there for some time working now in a retail outlet. She admitted that she had not experienced the wet season. This could change her view I understand but at the moment she could not be more excited an out her life in Australia. It was great to see her so enthusiastic and happy. We were touched that she wanted to spend time with us and had given up her evening, but it was great fun to spend time with her.
Tuesday 11th. August
We were a bit undecided how to spend our second and last day in Darwin. In the end we decided to go back to town as regrettably we had no transport to get us to the national parks. On the bus route into town we me a man who was keen to share his knowledge of the area with us. As it happened his knowledge was extremely helpful.
On his advice we went to the Governors House and lo and behold within minutes we found a large portrait of our friend Helen’s father. There he was. Bern Kilgariff. He was the first speaker of the Northern Territory and obviously very well thought of. I knew from Helen that her father was a politician and although the Helen 10 brothers and sisters, her father was never at home. We now know why! We were so excited to know someone who appeared in Government House.
It was an interesting visit. Next up we took an amphibious bus trip of the highlights of Darwin and then took to the sea to look back on to the Darwin coast line. An interesting trip.
Back on terra firms we found a gallery of aboriginal art which we loved. A small purchase was made – but it was so difficult to choose. We just loved the art. All of the prices had the name and background of the artist attached to the piece. Some of them were wonderful – but far too large for our house!!
We ate dinner on the farthest point of the sea front. For me an excellent steak with prawns – ‘beef and rife’ – the only way to eat less than a 700 gram steak! Keith had the fish. The sun set over the water as we ate. It was lovely.
We just loved Darwin and went home after a beautiful couple of days.
Wednesday 12th August
Another sunny day dawned and we were off to the Ghan, the amazing train route across the desert to the south. We arrived at the Berrimah Road Goods Yard to some confusion. Unexpected confusion. People were milling. The baggage check in was not manned. Nor was the information desk – but within half an hour smiley people had appeared and we were sorted, large luggage stowed and heading for car J.
We found our cabin and met Martin our ‘ Car Attendant’ – and we had arrived! The train left dead on time at 10.00 am. It eased out of Berrimah Goods Yard passing the detritus of years of train activity – old freight cars, mysterious pumps, gadgets and levers. All lay gathering rust in the sun. Between the tracks whiskers of grass gradually became clumps and then trees appeared and we wee out on the vast area of the ‘outback’. And it is vast! For the next 5 hours we rattled through a. landscape far more verdant than we had expected, but very empty. There was no evidence of wildlife – not even a bird. Just the hot sun pouring down on the passing landscape. It certainly was not desert as we know it. But it was flat – for miles and miles to the horizon – it was flat.
However, life on the Ghan was not boring or monotonous. The train has a life and timetable of its own. At 11.30 we were called to lunch. A little early you might say – but as we had not had breakfast – eating could not come too soon! We headed as instructed to the ‘lounge’ where the others in our group of carriages (there were 30 carriages in the whole train and four to a dining car) had gathered prior to being called to lunch. The assembly comprised mainly of the 60 plus silver haired variety of human and were mainly Australian although it became clear from the accents heard over the period of the journey that in fact there were a number of nationalities represented, but these were mainly from within the younger contingent. There were also family groups, often of three generations.
We teamed up with a lively couple from Brisbane for lunch who were getting to the end of a three week holiday that had included driving vast tracks of the north west Australia and the Ghan to Adelaide was their last leg. We shared an excellent lunch. Three small courses with wine efficiently and skilfully served with not a drop spilled. Very impressive!
After lunch we adjourned to the lounge and chatted our way through the afternoon until at about 2.30 when we were told we were reaching the town of Katherine. Here we were given the choice of several free excursions. We opted for the Nitmiluk Gorge. This proved to be a lovely cruise down the oldest sandstone gorge in Australia. The cliffs are reckoned to be 900 m thick and the twisting river makes several 90 degree turns as it meanders its way along the gorge. Because of the lack of water (it is currently reckoned to be at least 10 m lower than the average height of the river) at one section we had to get off one boat and walk over the rocks before getting on another to make the final section of the journey. The cliffs soared a rich reddish brown over our heads over 70 m high.
We saw our first crocodiles along the way, small pointy nosed creatures basking in the sunshine – quite detached from the pleasure boats passing by.
We eventually returned to our embarkation point and were whisked back in our tour buses to the Ghan, which had sat at Katherine station, patiently waiting our return. We clambered aboard and were soon on our way again.
A shower in our minute but very space efficient en suite bathroom and we were ready for dinner. Accepting a later dinner time had earned Keith an exciting ‘lucky bag’ of goodies when we eventually reached the lounge again prior to an excellent dinner. Very exciting! We opted for the kangaroo steak with a slice of crocodile sausage. It felt a bit high risk but proved to be very tasty. We had joined up with Jenny and Peter again for our meal and had a very pleasant time.
Amusingly when we emerged from the dining car, everyone had gone to bed. After a whiskey nightcap – the only thing we had payed for the whole day – we adjourned to bed almost turning out the lights as we went. It was 9.45!
Arriving at our room we found beds had emerged from the walls of our cabin and we adjourned to sleep after a very interesting day. Alice Springs tomorrow!