Monday, June 16thWe flew from Canberra to Alice Springs in a Lockheed C130-E Hercules. We strapped into troop seats for 4 1/2 hours. John spent 3 of those hours on one of seven stretchers high above the seats. We stayed at the All Seasons Hotel. The spouses headed for town to see the sights while the course members went to Jindelee Radar site. We walked to the downtown area via the main road. Our first stop was the Flying Doctors Service of Australia. This service offers medical care to outback stations and Aboriginals who wouldotherwise be without medical care. During the tour, we learned that the Alice station was one of five in Australia and covered an area bigger than Great Britain. The Panoramic museum was a bust. It has a big circular picture of 'The Alice' as well as other pictures by the artist and some Aboriginal artifacts. The downtown area has many tourist shops. If we had time, we would have gone out to the date farms for a camel ride. Walking back to the hotel, we went by the Todd River. It is the sight of the famous boat races where the boats must be carried because the river is dry most of the year. We were warned to not cross it because the sand was soft. The river is also a popular camp sight for the Aboriginals. We learned that even though the government has built homes for the Aborigines, they prefer to sleep under the stars as they have done for thousands of years. That night, we went with 20 others to dinner in the back room at the Overlander's Steakhouse. The brave(like John) could order the "Drover's Blowout" which included buffalo, crocodile,kangaroo, camel, emu, barramundi, beef, and lamb. The food was great, but it was the entertainment that made the night. A local singer (I use that term loosely) directed an audience participation showwhich lasted hours. A few members of our group (including John) were called on stage to sing traditional Australian songs and play crudeinstruments.
Tuesday, June 17thUp early and on the bus to the airport. The sunrise in 'The Alice' is spectacular. On our way to the airport, we passed by the Todd River and saw several camps with small fires burning. We flew to Katherine and spouses were dropped off at the All Seasons hotel there while the members went to the briefings by the Mayor of Katherine and the Base Commander of Tindal. That afternoon bus took spouses to Katherine gorge for a cruise. On our way to the landing, I heard loud screeching sounds. I looked up to find 2 trees FULL of black fruit bats hanging upside down on the branches. The 2 hour trip down the gorge took us past crocodile nesting areas (no crocs in sight), Aboriginal drawings on the rock faces, and spectacular views. We only got to 2 of the gorges of the 13. If we had more time I would have taken the helicopter tour which covered all the gorges or one of the longer cruises. Katherine is a pretty small place so that night after dinner at the mess we met up outside the hotel rooms for a little songfest of our own. Mostly we sang 60's and 70's sitcom theme songs and Wiggles (Australian kids group) songs.
Wednesday, June 18thThe members left early to tour the 75 (F-18) Squadron, and as I said, Katherine is small, so a bus tour of Katherine and Tindal Air Force Base was arranged to keep us busy. Our first stop was the Springvale Homestead. The most impressive feature of this homestead is the huge raintrees from South America planted in the late 1800's. The owner was an avid gardener and tried many plants in the harsh climate. We learned how the local spear grass (which grows to 6 feet tall in the wet season) killed off the sheep by piercing their skin and working their way to the heart by muscle action. The water source was deemed contaminated in the 60's. It appears to have unacceptable levels of uranium from underground leaching. Katherine is so remote that the military offers furnished houses to those posted there. It is so hot that air conditioning runs most of the year. We flew to Darwin in the afternoon. We stayed downtown at the fairly new All Seasons Darwin Central Hotel. Darwin is full of new buildings as the old ones were either destroyed in W.W. II or Cyclone Tracy in 1974.
Thursday, June 19thMembers heard from the Northern Territory Government. Shopping recce day for the rest of us. First stop was to the Raintree Gallery. It is run by a lady who has had close association with the Aboriginies. It was the only place intown which carried burial poles, of which I took an interest in until I found out they were 8 feet tall and $800.00. The didjeridu and carved animals were also spectacular.We shopped in the downtown area and came to the conclusion that 'Australian' was our favorite shop for selection and quality. There are MANY didjeridu shops in Darwin but we had it on good authority that the Mindel Beach Markets on Thursday nightwas the place to go to buy didjeridu. I was told that $40 could buy a smallest medium one and $70 could buy a big one. We took a mini bus from the hotel to the famous Thursday night at Mindel Beach markets. I insisted on going at 4:45 because I heard it was packed by 6:00. The didjeridu stall nearest the start of the markets offered a carry bag for free for the didjeridu if you bought a large one. I bought a small one because I only wanted essence of didjeridu, although the sales lady did show me how to play it and gave me a book on it. I learned later that you should always have someone play it before you buy it because it might not be carved all the way through. With 'Junior' bought and wrapped for airline travel, we hustled off to the other stalls. Most of the stuff was cheaper than in town and I should have bought more!!!! The food was incredible, from donairs to fruit salad to tacos to satays, to you name it they have it. We were told to bring wine and a chair to sit by the beach to watch the sunsetafter the crowds a started getting thick. I saw my first live feral person. I had heard of feral cats, but when an Aussie told me she bought feral clothes for a baby I twisted my face and asked for a sign language explanation. She pointed to some tie-dyed clothing to which I nodded and said 'Hippie clothes'. Bridging the gap. Then I noticed all the feral people wearing the feral clothing. Incense, numerous massage stalls, and tie-dyed everything made this market an experience not to be missed.
Friday, June 20thMembers went to RAAF Darwin and NORCOM HQ. Five spouses rented a car and drove to Territory Wildlife Park. There are many animal parks, but this one had been rated very highly by the tourism bureau. It took us about a half hour to get there, but we could have gotten there in no time at all because Northern Territory has no speed limits on their highways. The park is divided into sections according to type of animal. Although a tram runs through the park every 20 minutes to move people from one site to the other, we walked for the exercise. It was a well organized, informative park with lunch facilities and the ever important gift shop. In the afternoon, we drove a short distance to Berry Spring. It's a swimming hole which is part of a river. Fish swim under foot but the concrete steps to the water convinced me that it must be croc free. The water was like bath water and I actually swam, which means it was only perfect conditions. We got home in time for a Hog's Breath dinnerand a good nights sleep.
Saturday, June 21The Cultural Tour began with the 7 AM feeding (hence the need for a good nights sleep) of the Crocodiles at the Crocodylis Park. This is not a crocodilefarm but rather a research park. We were given a lecture about how a crocodile is never your friend. Once a 7-month 8-foot long 'baby' chomped down a pound piece of meat WITH bone, I understood. We walked the overhead walkway which I was pleased to hear had been recently repaired as the larger jumping crocs were underfoot. The park has diversified into other native and non-native animals. The first was the Casuary. This large bird (bigger than an ostrich) has a large bone protrusion from the top of its head and a lovely blue blaze of feathers. I remember hearing about it on a documentary we watched in Canada. "Don't get too close as it can kill you". At that point in the documentary I understood that if a creature in Australia didn't kill you, it wanted to. The Casuary can rip you from stem to stern with its feet. We then saw a very nerdy ostrich that had been pumping up its feathers for the last three months to attract the female and hadn't had any success. We also saw emus, monkeys and birds. Back into the bus, we then went to Adelaide River to place a wreath at the War Memorial there. We found a Canadian Army communicator's grave who had died after the war ended in Europe. Near the Memorial was a tea shop with Charlie the water buffalo(the one in the Crocodile Dundee movie) in a pen next to the shop. Next, we drove through Batchelor on our way to the Magnetic Termite Mounds and Litchfield Park.Some of the termite mounds were 6 feet and higher. We learned they took about 70 years to get that tall. Lunch was served at the falls in Litchfield park. The goanas, kytes, and blue winged kookaburras all wanted a piece of lunch. John was encouraged by a fellow Canadian (a feral Canadian at that) to dive off one of the rock faces into the pool created by the falls. I couldn't get my hair wet because we still had more tour to go. We drove back to Darwin to have a catered dinner (steak, snags, fish, salad) by the water (actually it was by an old sea defence gun which boasted an 8 1/2 inch muzzle).
Sunday, June 22Laundry day, even in Darwin. The hotel laundry was full so we followed the ferals to one of the many laundromats in town. This one happened to be next to an Aboriginal shop (surprise) which had T-shirts for $14. I found one with my adopted northern bird, the blue winged Kookaburra. John found an expensive Northwest Territory rugby jersey. We had time to walk around town, even to the end of the pier. We passed 'The Deckchair Cinema' which sounded like a great place to hang out, but we didn't. We ducked into theAustralian Pearling Exhibition which was also attached to the coral reef display. The coral reef display was supposed to be fantastic, but we plotted on to the wharf were we saw pictures of what a happened to the wharf when it was bombed during the war. That night, we fed the fish (bread, they practically eat it out of your hand) and then headed back to the wharf for dinner. Christos is an expensive restaurant, but the true charm of the wharf is outside. At night, tables are set up, a duo sings, and you can buydinner from stalls. We had fish and chips from the Christos takeaway stall (much cheaper when you get it in newsprint instead of on a china plate) The weather was perfect, the bugs kept their distance, and it was truly another Darwinianexperience not to be missed.
Monday, June 23Good-bye Darwin, hello Karatha. Karatha is a company town, built by Hamersley Iron-Ore and Woodside Petroleum. It is one of four company towns in the area. The houses are rented to the a worker for $35 a week and after 15 years, they own it. Sound good? It might considering that normal rents would be in the $350 a week for a 3 bedroom. Take into account it is in Cyclone alley and every house is built to war bunker standards with iron bars on the windows, the hospital does have a bunker around it, groceries are 1/3 more expensive that Canberra and there is nothing to do but go out into the bush for recreation. Oh, and they had 5 days in the high 40's in the summer. We were there to meet the men and women who serve at The Pilbara Regiment. The Regiment to only there to collect information from an area covering 1.3 million square kilometers. We went for a ride in the land cruisers in the bush to get an idea ofhow scary it can be out it the bush. We saw the local grass called spiniflex which is so hard it can pierceboots. That night we dined on food the Regiment had caught (Pilbara fish a la Dampier), killed (Seasoned de Humphry-Seasoned and roasted great sandy desert camel with sweet potatoes; Mascot stir fry- tender young pieces of Whim creek emu with stir fried vegetables), or collected off the road (Beat around the bush- Morsels of tasty Harding River Kangaroo spiced with green Thai curry). We learned that it takes a different bred to live and survive in this desolate yet resource rich part of northern Western Australia.
Tuesday, June 24thOne of the rare times the spouses went to lectures with the military members. The first stop was the Hamersley Iron -Ore plant where we met Karatha's answer to Lee Iacocca. He led us though a high tech yet relaxed and informative presentation of the iron ore market. Once I saw his Hamersley monogrammed shirt AND slacks, I wondered about his socks and underwear the rest of the lecture. . . From there we went to the other famous resource of the area - LNG (liquid natural gas) at Woodside Petroleum. It is the largest LNG plant in the world. They ship LNG mainly to Japan and domestic gas to Western Australia. The tour of the plant was a little scary when they told us all the stuff we had to leave behind (cameras, lighters, anything electric except pacemakers). We saw lots of pipes, reminded me of the refinery in Dartmouth, time for lunch then on the plane to Perth. We got into Perth and drove to Freemantle to the Tradewinds Hotel. It has a New Orleans architecture kind of feel.
Wednesday, June 25thPatrick's birthday.
In honour of Patrick, we took the train to Perth. It took a committee of 10 to figure out how to buy an automated round trip train ticket but once done, we were good to go. The ride in took about 1/2 hour and passed through the suburbs. Once in Perth, we found the main shopping area just across the street. While there are tons of sights to see in Perth, we were waylaid by the tourist shops. Our favorite was London Court off of Hay Street Mall. It looked like, well, London. After spending a day in Karatha we had asudden hankering for Iron-Ore jewelry. It's cheap and from a distance it kinda of looks like black pearls. Back on the train to Freemantle (no one checked our ticket coming or going) to get ready for our sunset cruise. The Hotel also owns a boat which can be hired for the night. We started at 4:30 and cruised to Perth and back past some pretty fine looking homes. Back to the hotel to hop into the great hot tub.
Thursday, June 26thOff to Freemantle for last minute look and last ditch purchases in order to be back to the hotel at 1:15 to catch a bus to the plane. First go to Fast Eddy's for a huge burger and fries so as to avoid Box Lunch blahs on the plane. Oops, the plane can't go today, the spouses load all the luggage onto the bus and move into the Novatel in Perth for the night. The hotel has a gym and a hot tub!!! Very nice. John gets home and explains he got 'the nut' (a prestigious roving award given members displaying non-traditional behaviors) for having to wear my blue socks with his uniform because he forgot his black ones after wearing combats & tans earlier in the trip. I notice they are all stretched out and have a hole in them. We go to an Irish Pub that night where the singer knew 'Farewell to Nova Scotia'. He learned it playing at Dick Turpin's in Halifax in the 70's. Thanks to the British exchange officer's wife, John meets an ex Canadian submariner who "slept beside" Dean Marsaw years ago when they both were Leading Seamen. John filled him in on the court martial and hunger strike. Julie had to be called over to validate, as the guy thought John made it all up.
Friday, June 27thThe luggage had to be outside the door at 6:00 so I got up and took a shower. I made coffee, and enjoyed the leisure of the morning until 7:11 when John said 'The bus leaves in 4 minutes'. To which I reply 'No, the bus leaves at 7:30'. Big wrong. I throw on my clothes, stick my stuff in the carry on bag and run to the bus at 7:17. I thank my stars as I know they always leave on time and the airport is an hour away in the boonies (about a hundred dollar cab ride). I mention to the women behind me that wouldn't it be funny if I did what I did yesterday and put my turtleneck on backwards. I flip down the turtleneck to find the tag in the front. Funny - ha, ha. We arrive at the airport with time to spare and while waiting to board I am honored to be the first spouse toreceive 'the nut' for the backward turtleneck. The six-hour flight home on the Herc was long, feet-freezing, shoulders boiling, afraid to drink because the toilet in the back is a bucket with a curtain around it. Somebody did something memorable and I got to give 'the nut' away.
Raining and cold in Canberra - feels like home.