Monday, September 20, 2010

Crocodiles, termites and national parks.

Before leaving Australia in destination of Indonesia we had to go visit Australia at least a bit. But before I tell you of our visits it would be good to put you in context. Australia is big, very big; in fact it is simply humongous. Darwin is the capital city of this province called the Northern Territories and, as its name states it, it’s in the North and cover about one sixth of the Australian territory. It is large but there’s almost no population about 250,000 people including the aboriginals who were already here when the Europeans arrived. Their story is very similar to the one of our Native American i.e. they lived on their lands with Stone Age means, the Europeans arrive, and the Europeans want the land and mostly what’s under it but not the people above. They kill the poor folks who try to defend themselves with arrows and spears against muskets, sharp swords and a range of viruses they never heard of and I am sure they couldn’t even pronounce the names without painfully twisting their tongues. After a few centuries of colonization half the first nations are decimated and the survivors claim the right to a certain level of self-determination with the goal of saving their ancestral culture. Of course, we could debate at length the validity of wanting to keep a way of life dating from the Stone Age. It’s as if I was claiming my right to cut my flint to make my spears. Well these people can do what they want, right? All right I know that I am sarcastic and keeping his culture is a much more complex and important thing than that so you don’t have to tell me.

The good news for them is they got the right to manage the territory and their businesses and things seem to go well. An interesting aspect of this story is that one of their obligations in order to keep the management of the territory is for them to burn the land every other year! The rationale is simple; during the dry season the bushes and grass growing between and under the trees become so dry that a lightning falling on them would cause devastating forest fires. So they burn the bushes on half the land every year in order to prevent the propagation of forest fires. But we are talking about a huge territory here! Of course nobody here talks about greenhouse gas production while back home we are tagged environmental assassins because we leave our car running for five minutes to warm it up before leaving to work in the winter by -25°C! But this is another story and the important point to know about the area is that half of the territory within 500km from Darwin is made of wetlands hence contains an incredible biological diversity. The water streams surrounded by swamps, called here billabongs, are protected by the creation of large national parks among which are the Kakadu Park classified world heritage by the UNESCO and the Litchfield Park both of which are really beautiful. With untied again the strings of our purse and went to visit them.

We started with Kakadu Park and the first site we visited was aboriginal paintings on the mountain walls. Looking at the aboriginal work we could think we are in front of ancient frescos dating from the time men fought for the control of fire but it is not the case. The painting you see on this picture was made sometime in the ‘60s by a man called Barramundi Charlie the last descendant of his nation, that I cannot remember the name, and his soul went back to the earth around 1976 taking with him all that remained of his culture and the memories of his people. But many years before dying Barramundi Charlie showed the painting of his people to a crew of the BBC, filming a documentary in the region, and told them that each of them represented a story but he refused to tell them what the stories were but for this one on the picture, which is an educational picture targeting the youth of his nation. In a nutshell the story goes like this. For the aboriginal people incest is strictly prohibited for the obvious reason to save people to suffer the same faith than some Kings of England at a certain time in history! The guy at the top of the painting is Namarrgon who felt in love with his sister Barrginj who appears in white below his right leg. The tribe members obviously found out about it and the elders, using their magic, punish them by changing the brother into a crocodile and the sister into a serpent, two solitary animals, so they were forbidden any personal relations in the future. As for the women with their breast uncovered at the bottom of the painting we are not sure how they related to the story. The story is really instructive and all but looking at the painting some questions come to mind. First, if the painting targeted the youth of his people and Barramundi Charlie was the last survivor of his them then why did he paint it in the first place? Secondly, I understand that the object of the painting is the sexual relationship within the same family but are the widely spread legs and oversized genitals really necessary? In fact when we add the breast naked women and the fact that Barramundi Charlie didn’t have a wife for quite some times we are inclined to think that this drawing is simply a kind of aboriginal Playboy! Of course by respect to the man and especially to his gone nation we will take his word for it and believe him.

After M. Charlie’s frescos we went on a tour boat on the Yellow Water Billabong to watch the unique wildlife of these wetlands. Of course the highlight of the visit was the dreaded crocodiles! There are two kinds of crocs in Australia; the fresh water crocs, which are smaller and not very dangerous, and the salt water crocs called the salties which are much bigger and with whom having a swim to pet their nose is really not a good idea! We had the chance to close sight three or four of them during our ride and we were very happy the boat we were in was all made of solid aluminum. The little beasties are very cute on pictures but having one only a few meters away makes you show a bit more respect.

Yellow Water Billabong was much more than just crocodiles. It was an abundant fauna, mostly birds, and a unique flora. Our captain was an experimented guide and she knew exactly how to steer the pontoon to take us less than 5 meters (15 feet) of the birds without scaring them away so we could watch them closely and take good pictures. Ducks, geese, egrets and other great waders were at the rendezvous to our great pleasure.

Two days later we took another tour that first took us on a boat along the Adelaide River to see the jumping crocodiles. Let’s mention this is not a special kind of crocodile but rather our guides who make them jump by showing them a juicy piece of meat attached to a kind of fishing rod. The one you see on the picture was a real monster the kind coming directly from a movie such as “The African Queen” or “King Kong”. It’s the dominant male of this section of the river, which is 150 km (95 miles) long with a crocodile population of 6000 to 7000. According to our guide this one would be about 60 years old, measures close to 6 meters (18 feet) and would weight about 1000 kg (2200 lbs)! It was even bigger than Goliath we saw in Cairns in his cage but here we were in the wild not in a zoo!

For more than an hour, our guides made the crocs jump by offering them large pieces of pork, which I consider a blatant discrimination against the Muslim crocs! Danielle even let herself jump in front of the site entrance but I didn’t venture to throw her a steak. If you think the large teethed lizards are mean you never upset Danielle before! By the way crocs are no big eaters and feed only a few times a week. Crocodiles in captivity not doing a lot of exercise are fine with one meal per week. They mainly derive their energy from the sun through their skin and are basically large teethed solar panels.

Our visit continued in Litchfield Park and as we say; a guided tour, wherever you are in the world, is not a good tour if you don’t see a waterfall! Here we saw three and at the last one we slipped in our swimming suits and dove in the fresh water. It was very refreshing but to come back to the bus we had to climb up a 135 steps stair! No need to say we were as sweaty up there as we were when we arrived.

In North Australia it is not only the 6 meters crocs that are impressive the termites are also quite something and they appear to be pretty good architects. We find many types of termites in Litchfield Park but our visit focused on two specifically. The first one build cathedral mounds which are tall tour shaped structures where they shelter when the area floods during the wet season. The second type of mounds is called magnetic since all mounds are facing the magnetic north. Nope, this is not tomb stones you see on the picture but termites mounds. It is interesting to note that termites are found everywhere in the area which makes a total population of many billions. Danielle reminded me that quarantine people, when a boat comes into Australia, search thoroughly every pieces of wood on the boat in order to find out whether we carry with us …. any termites! In the world of xenophobia it is hard to beat!

Obviously we couldn’t go through Australia and not taste their famous Fish & Chips which the taste only equal its fat level! We went to a small restaurant located in the Fishermen’s Warf area where locally caught fish is sold. The fried barramundi was really good and I am talking about the fish here not the aboriginal I talked about previously! Fries were not bad either and it is interesting to notice that Australians don’t call them “French fries” but instead use the name “chips” hence the name of Fish & Chips. Similarly, shrimps are called “prawns” and don’t get it wrong because a few times we ordered shrimps and the person serving us seemed to have no idea what we were talking about. A quick note here. We already mentioned how expensive things are in Australia, well the fish, the fries, two beverages each and four breaded shrimps cost us close to $50! And at this price we eat on a piece of paper with plastic forks.
Now that we had a good visit of Australia we will leave within a week to Indonesia, which is North-West of Australia. According to our cruising guides internet is not really strong in Indonesia so it is possible that we won’t be able to post anything for a while. But as soon as we get a decent connection we’ll show you the marvel of this great South-East Asian country.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sailing the Coral Coast.

Our next step was now to sail from Cairns, on the East coast of Australia, to Darwin on the North side. This meant sailing the northern part of the Australian East coast up to Cape York and the Torres Strait by sailing inside the famous Great Barrier Reef, which was made even more famous in the movie “Finding Nemo”. So while wrapping up in Cairns we were very excited and looking forward to go sailing in these paradise waters we heard so much about and anchoring on the lee of a sand island in waters so clear you have the impression the boat is floating in mid air and finally at the pinnacle of our fantasy we would snorkel among colorful corals where we would find Nemo hidden in his anemone. But we hadn’t come out of the six mile long channel leading out of Cairns that we had a very clear reality check; the wind was blowing! During the week or so we took to reach Cape York we had to sustain winds with an average speed of 25 knots going 35 knots at night. The night anchorages were by all standards the crappiest ones we’ve ever seen and consisting, in the best cases, of a sand pit sticking out of the water offering no wind shelter and barely any wave protection. We sure were sailing fast with such wind strength and that’s what we needed since the whole area is formed of scattered reefs we were forced into specific channels, which were very busy with the continuous stream of cargo ships sailing along the Australian coast. The reefs here are not coral reefs but rock reefs and while anchored in the middle of a rolly anchorage and sustaining near gale force winds the last thing that came to our mind was to put our fins and try to find Nemo in those crocodile infested waters and anyway even if he was there he would be probably suffocating in those sandy waters offering less than 10 feet of visibility. So, to say the least we were very disappointed by this part of Australia but on the plus side I should mention that reefs offer an excellent protection against the ocean swell and combined with the constant wind and currents we were making very fast progresses all the way.

I might sound a bit negative here in my description of the area but one thing we cannot take away from this part of the Australian coast is the magnificent beauty of the landscape. The high humidity level gives beautiful sunsets and the rocky shores present red, yellow and white cliffs standing straight like guardians of the sea. We took the time to take a walk on Flinders Island where I was hoping to sight some crocodiles but to Danielle’s relief we saw none :-(

After the Coral Sea we then reached the Torres Strait, which is the channel between Australia and Papua New Guinea, allowing us to transit from the Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean. The trick about Torres Strait is that there are islands and reefs everywhere and the water between them is very shallow. The most straight forward way to transit is to pass through the “Prince of Wales” channel keeping on port Wednesday, Thursday and Friday islands. Now here’s a little quiz for you erudite folks; on what days of the week were those islands discovered by the first explorers? The crossing of the strait went very smooth as we timed our passage with the tidal stream, which can reach up to three knots, and all we encountered along the way was actually not a cargo ship but a submarine! With 35 feet of water in the channel they obviously had to surface for the crossing.

With the Torres Strait behind us we then entered the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Arafura Sea on the North side of Australia. This is a huge shallow gulf which required about two days to cross. At this point we had given up on the idea of stopping anywhere in these deserted aboriginal lands and were sailing directly to Darwin. After the Gulf of Carpentaria we sailed, for one day, the coast of the Northern Territories then entered another gulf called the Van Diemen Gulf with tidal streams flowing up to 4 knots at its entrance and exit. This part was straight forward beside the weird gusty winds we had in the first half of the night and the daily calls from the customs plane checking our identity and whereabouts as the Australian Authorities exercise a tight control of this border used a bit too often by illegal immigrants trying to find a better life in Australia from the poor South-East Asian countries. All along the way we had to plot a detailed route to follow and plan the daily anchorages. Here you can see Danielle working on the navigation software to analyze the charts and ensuring we make the most of each day as our time window in Australia is quite limited due to the cyclone season starting in October in the area.

By lack of seeing any Kangaroos so far we took the opportunity to eat some at least! Where in the world could you find Kangaroo steaks on the shelf at the grocery store??? The meat of the marsupial was actually pretty good and we fixed it roasted in the oven with carrots and potatoes. It was yummy and tender and no, it doesn’t jump in the stomach afterward!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A little bit of Cairns, Australia.

After countless working days dedicated to the boat we took the time to see a bit of Australia. We went to the Cairns Wildlife Dome, which is a small biodome built over a casino where we can find a colorful sample of the Australian’s fauna and flora. Being used to the human presence animals were easy to approach for the pictures. To try to take a picture of a parrot in the wild is practically impossible even if we find them in large number. We can hear them but they are hard to see and when we finally see one it takes a zoom the length of a trumpet to get a decent frame.

But the key animals here were koalas and “Goliath” the crocodile. Koalas seem to sleep all day so pictures were easy to take. As for Goliath, this 4m (12 feet) long crocodile, he sleeps all day long as well but the picture were taken with a fence in between thank you very much! The worst is that the Australian Coast we now need to sail to get to the Torres Strait is infested of those big large teethed lizards. I am so looking forward to swim in the Great Barrier Reef with a knife between the teeth in case we meet the rest of Goliath’s family!

Like any good developed country Australia has its fast-food chains. At first we may think we have here one of the local chain with a familiar look. But look closer to the “Hungry Jack’s” logo on the left of the counter. It really starts looking like “Burger King” isn’t it? Well that’s exactly what it is with the Woppers and all. The reason is simply because the name “Burger King” was already used before the American chain came here to fatten Australians. It is quite amusing to see many well known brands in North America named differently. For instance Kellogg’s “Rice Crispies” become here “Rice Bubbles” and obviously we bought some with two bags of marshmallows. You have no idea how we look forward to make Rice Bubbles squares!

Here Danielle saunters along the dock at Marlin Marina in Cairns. There’s nothing particular about this picture other than Danielle’s nice smile although surmounted by her large sunglasses she bought in Panama (in Latin America they like huge sunglasses!). Latin America is maybe far behind but the sunglasses are very good so too bad for the local fashion.