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August 8, 2009

From the Outback and Beyond

The end of the road, Litchfield Safari Camp
Let the good times roll!

When your imagination wanders and you think of the movie-esque campground of the rugged Australian Outback, images of desolate scrub, horizons stretching beyond normal vision under a scorching sun, an oasis of sorts at the end of a dusty, narrow dirt road, and perhaps an old, faded blue tarp draped over some form of a dusty office outpost where, hopefully, someone in an Outback hat will eventually emerge and grant you a plot of ground for the night.  Well, at least that’s what I imagined, and at Litchfield Safari Camp, I met my imaginary match.  Rural, remote, dusty and absolutely perfect.

We trekked up from Katherine, and like everything in Australia, were reminded that it’s a long way from here to there.  It looks simple enough, maybe three hours between Katherine and the Litchfield turn-off, but as Columbus and I have discovered, the good stuff is always way off the highway, and in this case, our campground was at the end of the road, literally.   Now old-hands at the road-tripping aspect of RVing, we almost looked forward to our numerous encounters with Australia’s ubiquitous Outback road-trains, which Bill Bryson best describes as “…multilayered trucks up to 150 feet long…coming at you at full throttle on a two lane highway where it desires all of its lane and some of yours.  (It’s) an explosive whoomp as you hit its displaced air, followed at once by a consequent lurch onto the shoulder, several moments of hypermanic axle action sufficient to loosen dental fillings and empty your pockets of coins, an enveloping shroud of gritty red duFlorence Falls, Litchfieldst and the metallic dinks and savage thumps of flying rocks, some involuntary oral emissions on your part as the dust clears…and a sudden, miraculous return to tranquility and smoothness as the car regains the pavement, entirely of its own volition. ” And Bryson didn’t encounter road-trains from an RV, with two children.  Suffice it to say, we were ready for a tinnie from the esky by the time we rolled into Litchfield.

Waterfalls, monsoon rain forests, termite mounds the size of small huts, and desolate scrub to the horizon and beyond, Litchfield doesn’t disappoint.  Trekking into the rainforest surrounding Wangi Falls, we found ourselves in a Halloween haunted house of sorts, hundreds of bats hanging in the trees above us, screeching wildly as they jousted for position, and spider webs encapsulating large chunks of the forest, home to the scores of massive Orb spiders we’ve come to love.  The trek to Tolmer Falls took us through rugged scrub and over rock cliffs, rewarding us with magnificent vistas of the falls and the horizon beyond.  At Florence Falls — the crown jewel of the bunch — Dundee was ecstatic as he swam under the falls and into  the caves, while Sacagawea and I enjoyed swimming with the fish a bit closer to the bans.  Exploring Buley Rockhole after lunch, quietly aware that our adventures were drawing to a close, Dundee and I were climbing over the rocks to our next swimming hole when he reached back and took my hand.  ”Let me help you, mom,” he said quietly.

Thousands of miles, countless adventures, moments to treasure a lifetime.

July 29, 2009

Vagabonding through the Top End Outback

Australia’s Top End, Northern Territory.  Vast, mysterious, rugged . . . a place that even most Australians seem not to find.  You know from the moment you land in Darwin:  this is  a strange and wonderful place.  Two flights and some twelve hours after bidding farewell to the Sundancer,  we groggily stumbled into Darwin’s airport at 1AM, stunned to find the place humming.  Flights coming and going, bars and restaurants at full swing, and people everywhere.  It’s a long way, and only a certain breed finds their way here, so the airlines squeeze those revenues in the middle of the night, getting the planes safely back to points south for daylight, civilized travel.  Yep.  This is gonna be a wonderfully wild ride.

Headin' home after a wild ride with the crocs

Headin' home after a wild ride with the crocs

Hoses to fill tanks and empty tanks…and make sure to remember to distinguish the fresh water fill hose from the brown water empty.  And the bathroom…images of Robin Williams emptying the tank in the movie RV convinced even the kids that the bathroom offered a wonderful spot to change clothes.  Nothing more.  There’s  really only one way to experience this part of Australia’s wildnerness – up close and personal – so settled into our 22’ traveling home, we set off, still chugging down the wrong side of the road, but Columbus now feeling quite comfortable over there and me now resisting the need to lean to keep us on track.

First stop:  Sacagawea’s jumping croc cruise.  She’d heard of these crazy adventures before we left home, and this was her pick of the trip. We followed the directions, from the surfaced highway, to the gravel road, to the dirt track down towards the river, where we met up with Morgan, our guide for the afternoon.  “Oh yeah, that’s Godfrey,” he said as we excitedly pointed to this monstrous, prehistoric creature watching us from the water, a few meters away.  From our perch in the tinnie, we came up close and personal with Godfrey (a big guy at 5 meters and 100 years old) and his many friends up and down the Adelaide River as Morgan rammed the boat into the shoreline so the crocs could lumber up for a snack.  Jaw-dropping and utterly prehistoric…. amazing.  And what an introduction to the Top End!

From Mary River National Park to Kakadu and now Nitmiluk in Katherine, we’ve been amazed, moved and inspired by this magical place. This is Aboriginal country, with a history that dates back some 50,000 years, indigenous art to tell the story, and landscape unlike anything we’ve ever seen.  As the sun settled into the afternoon sky, we climbed to the top of Ubirr to gaze across the mass Arnhem lands, extending forever across the horizon.  At Nourlangie, we discovered the settlement nestled in the massive rock formation, emblazoned with art dating back thousands of years.  We watched the sunrise over the Yellow Waters of Cooinda as jabirus, sea eagles, kites, and kingfishers soared overhead and crocs rested comfortably up and down the shore.  Then later that day, welcomed the setting sun from the waters of Katherine Gorge, floating among the cavernous cliffs of gorges older than time.  We’ve held our breath as wallabies and kangaroos gather by the dozens in the early mornings and late afternoons, scavenging for food and casting a curious and trusting eye our way.

Settled into a wonderful routine of self-contained living, we’ve enjoyed breakfasts with the sunrise, lunch in whatever park or scenic vista we stumble upon, and dinner under the stars in state parks across the region.  Grilling steaks and burgers on the communal barbies, Columbus has honed his skills in this most revered Aussie male ritual, and has found new travelling friends along the way.

Feeling a million miles away from civilization – and not terribly interested in figuring out how to find it again anytime soon – we’ve honed new skills, discovered new wonders, and found, in ourselves and each other, nuggets we never knew were there.  Yes, it’s a magically wonderful place, indeed.

July 24, 2009

Captain, Chef, Conchologist, Hosts, Friends — The Tale of an Amazing Couple

John Boyce has had sailing in his blood since he was a kid.  That’s obvious the moment you step aboard.  He designed every inch of this boat, and carefully directed its creation over 3 1/2 years; his vision, the perfect private charter vessel.  By our measure, the reality exceeds his wildest expectations.

Lynne Boyce is just one of those women.  You marvel at her; you admire her; you learn from her . . . and you secretly wonder if she isn’t stashing Superman’s kryptonite in her small cabin below.  How else does she possibly pull it all off so effortlessly?

Together, Lynne and John are a match made in heaven — or perhaps at sea.  Lynne left her native England to explore the world, found her passion in shell collecting, and migrated to Australia on the whimsical tales of Banfield’s Confessions of a Beachcomber. John’s had sailing in his blood since childhood, and mixed with a good measure of entrepreneurial adventure, he seemed destined to a life of adventure on the water.  Together, they’ve been chartering adventures around Sydney during the summers and the Whitsundays by winter for well over two decades.  And by our measure, there’s no chance of them getting bored and moving on anytime soon.

Lynne’s life’s passion — the shells, the seas they inhabit, and the amazing symbiosis that makes nature so enchanting — is infectious.  She’s not just a guide through this spectacular world; she’s it’s steward, and she brings her guests into its spell. And she manages to do it while the chicken’s in the oven, the prawns are marinating in the galley, and the potatoes await her touch to peel and prepare.  Three gourmet meals per day appear effortlessly, and between each, adventures to some of the most spectacular vistas, waters and hidden gems of this Australian paradise. . . . and she does it all, smiling, welcoming, effortlessly.

John, the quintessential  captain, takes the helm, charts the course, and brings the adventure up close and personal for each of us…while always making sure the chardonnay is chilled and ready in time for sunset.  His vintage Aussie charm and quick wit give way to delightful conversation, and he’s quick to find the passion in each of us.  He’s taken Dundee under his wing, sharing sailing instruction and stories of the seas, while he and Sacagawea have become fast friends, affectionately nicknaming her “Zoomie” for her lightening speed underwater.

Our week in the Whitsundays has been magical, to be sure.  Memories will last a lifetime, and perhaps we’ve been changed, if even just slightly, by the wonder and inspiration of this special place.  Seasoned vagabonders always say, tho, that it’s the friends you make along the road that make travel special, weaving the fabric of connectivity between people and lands.  I’m quite sure we now understand exactly what they mean.

July 23, 2009

Whale Songs & Manta Rays

 

Manta Rays on the outer reef

Manta Rays on the outer reef

 

So beautiful...

So beautiful...

 

Blogging, even from the Outer Reef!

Blogging, even from the Outer Reef!

Holding our breath as we snorkeled, we could hear the distinctly magical sounds of whale songs wafting across the currents.  Absolutely magical….but not necessarily a surprise.  We’d been escorted by whales as we sailed to the outer reef yesterday morning, some 40 miles off shore and a beautiful three hour sail from our overnight mooring nestled amidst these special islands.  Pods of whales swam with us, tails slapping the water, adults and babies leaping out of the water.  While we were often the only boat in sight, we were definitely not alone.

I’ve dreamed of exploring the Great Barrier Reef since I was no older than Sacagawea and my older brother brought me shells from this spectacular paradise, so far away.  This week’s adventure has been the realization of that dream, and today’s excursion to the outer reef, the exclamation point.  With images of Finding Nemo dancing in our minds, we set out, swimming over the edge and into the deep blue sea. gliding over coral gardens as Nemos — oops, I mean, clownfish — darted in and out. We gazed into caves to see what treasures they held, and lay still in amazement as reef sharks darted just in front of us.

As stewards of this magnificent place, Lynne and John are careful to make sure we’re in the right place at the right time.  Lynne made sure we finished lunch quickly and admonished us that the dishes could wait:  we’ve got a date to make.  It seems that manta rays congregate on certain corals, just at certain times based on the tides.  She’d checked the charts, and we weren’t going to miss out.  As if on cue, there they were, lazing around the coral as we approached in the tender.  An amazing sight, these magnificent, gentle creatures . . . as we swam with them, they’d glide up and around us, as if to say hello, then dart off to the next coral, waiting to see if we’d follow.   Eyes wide, we eagerly played along, gliding gently above them as they rested, them swimming madly across to the next stop as they darted away.  Quite a game of hide and seek, and we loved every minute of it!

We’ve enjoyed 24 hours on the outer reef, snorkeling time and again, and watching in amazement as the tides continually change the seascape — reefs popping up above the water’s edge, then disappearing again a few hours later.  Still waters on top, betraying the strength of the strong currents below.  And at night, after the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, the stars exploded across the sky, dancing across the Milky Way in a celestial ballet unlike any we’ve ever seen.  The waters gently rocked us to sleep, and awoke us again as the sun slipped back into the morning sky.  Often alone — not another boat in sight — in this magical place, we couldn’t help be awed by the splendor, and humbled by our great fortune to have found this boat, these guides, and this experience.  Lucky, indeed.

July 22, 2009

Adventures and Wonders of the Whitsundays

Everyone had told us the Whitsundays are special.  Seasoned sailors at home got that dreamy look when we mentioned our plans to come here.  Locals around Australia seemed to heartily approve when we mentioned our sailing plans.  Yet somehow, I don’t think we fully appreciated the brilliance of what was in store.  There’s something about the raw beauty, the best of nature without man’s interference, that seems to touch the soul.  And with that touch, it brings vision, clarity, connectivity, and strength.  Sharing in the magic — parents, children, friends — is intoxicating . . . something we each seem to intuitively know is inspirational, special.

We’ve wandered lazily around the islands, from idyllic inlets to breathtaking bays.  During our snorkels, we’ve discovered new worlds of corals, scores of glorious fish, and an occasional reef shark.  Hiking into the islands’ interiors, we’ve seen vistas that touch the soul, walked across sand that glistens like new snow at Whitehaven beach, and discovered indigenous creatures like the green bummed ants (whose bums, when licked, supposedly taste like lime sherbet, according to the backpacker guide we encountered on our walk).

Onboard the Sundancer, as we roam from point to point, we’ve settled into a relaxed cadence — glorious meals, spirited conversations about all manner of topics, and a peaceful enjoyment of solitude at sea.  The kids are inspired; they’ve embraced it with fervor, and pitch in at every point.  Dundee is first mate when it comes to prepping the dinghy for our snorkeling jaunts; Sacagawea is masterful at managing the laundry strung along the lines; and both have taken the helm to do dishes when their turn comes.   As we sat watching another brilliant sunset last night, Columbus and I exchanged that knowing look . . . these are the moments, the memories, that weave the fabric of our family.  We are blessed to be here.

Time to snorkel!

Time to snorkel!

 

Exploring Whitehaven

Exploring Whitehaven

 

Sacagawea at work

Sacagawea at work

July 21, 2009

Albert

 

Albert!

Albert!

 

Old and wise, Albert

Old and wise, Albert

 

Breathtaking

Breathtaking

There’s a clever soul holding court in the corals of the Whitsunday’s Manta Ray Bay.  Albert, a humongous maori wrasse much bigger than Sacagawea, has been captivating visitors for more than two decades.  Lovingly named Albert by the local guides (in honor of Cosby’s character, Fat Albert), Albert is quite a show stopper.  

We had the honor of a private audience with Albert, snorkeling under the brilliant sun amidst breathtaking corals and fish by the hundreds.  Albert, and his friends GT, sauntered up from the depths to greet us.  His stunningly blue head, lips and chest give way to incredibly complex and beautiful patterns across his fins and body.  He glides up from beneath, his soulful eyes meeting ours, one by one, as he swims up to say hello.  Sacagawea was looking the other way as he approached, perfectly positioned for a kiss as she turned to see him.  Squeals of excitement and delight permeated the waters as she reached out to gently stroke his body as he swam by.  

Swimming with him, looking into his wise, soulful eyes as he so trustingly and knowingly met our gaze and greeted us, gently rubbing his head and body as he glides by, there’s no doubt that he’s simply a magnificent creature, one of nature’s many wonders.  He touched each of us in so many ways.  Sacagawea, a strong but tentative snorkeler, learned to dive with gusto under Albert’s tutelage.  Dundee became decidedly more confident, while also seeming to grasp a greater understanding and appreciation of this underwater world he was discovering.  And Columbus and I, we simply kicked back and enjoyed the simple splendor of it all… this place, our children, the wonders of the world before us.