Friday 12th May Cairns

'Tis a pity that taking a trip like this, a tour across Arnhem Land to Darwin – seeing places we've never been able to see before, and escaping the incipient winter cold – involves going to the airport and getting on a plane. In days gone by, it was exciting; but now, it is really just tedious. But there's not really a better way of doing it.

After getting everything ready, we were well prepared when we woke this morning. A few last-minute things, and a finish of cleaning so the house is clean when we get home, and we went out for a walk. Across to RMH, Grattan St., and what used to be the southern border of Melbourne University. Now it has extended itself into a lot of the adjacent area in Carlton. We walked past all the new underground rail loop works (it looks like Grattan St. is about to be re-constituted, after a year of two) and down to Pelham St. where we found a lovely little cafe to sit and have a coffee at.

And then home, buying an almond croissant at the Bread Club to have on the plane.

After eating what food we had left for lunch, and packing our vegetables (we had found there is no restriction on bringing fruit and vegies into Queensland) we walked down to the station, and off to the airport. We were early. Better than late! After dropping our bags off we walked around a lot, doing the length and breadth of the airport. Through security (Alison had the little scissors from the Outback Spirit's first aid set removed) and we walked around more. Looking for a newspaper. In the whole airport, we found a single copy of “The Sun”. Very slim pickings. Then onto a full plane to Cairns, with a family with a somewhat unsettled baby behind us. One of the many families with little children on the plane.

It was dark when we landed. Uneventful. While waiting for our luggage, I asked the price of a shuttle to the hostel. $30. Looked up Uber - $25. So I booked an Uber while we walked across to the pickup spot; but they couldn't find a driver. “Try again in a few minutes”. So I did, and the price had nearly doubled to $46! So we walked back and took the shuttle.

Which was quite a peasant trip, dropping people off as we drove around parts of Cairns which were familiar; and then, dropped off at Traveller Oasis, which was very familiar. We are in the room Brian and Vicki were in when we were her last year, just across from our old room. Off with my long pants and into shorts!

By now, at was after 8pm. We walked across to Cairns Central, where the supermarkets were still open; bought some food, came home and cooked it, read for a while in the warm balmy evening.

Saturday 13th May Cairns

We slept well but both woke frequently. And, today, did little. A day of relaxation after the somewhat hectic few days prior.

We'd decided not to bring any breakfast food, but to go out. We walked past the sometimes-open cafe just around the corner, because it was closed till 10am. So we went to the Lifeline Op Shop a little further on – where I bought my third pair of my favourite Salomon shoes. Amazing. Perhaps I'll throw out the older pair I wore up here?

Now it was after 10am, but the cafe was still closed. We walked through the unappealing Cairns Central shopping centre, and on to Rusty's Markets – where we breakfasted, at last, on a coffee and a vanilla slice. And bought some oranges.

Back via a walk around town and through Coles, where we bought some spring rolls for lunch at home. Came home and cooked them; a very nice but a tad scanty lunch.

I was feeling quite tired. The previous days catching up with me. So we retired to our room and read for a while, till my eyes closed. No sleep as such, but a rest.

Then time for a walk again. Cairns is not looking very healthy; the traffic, both cars and pedestrians, was very light; and there were lots of closed / empty shopfronts. We dropped into “Happy Travel”, where last year we booked our trip to the Frankland Islands; the girl there remembered us! Down to the seafront and the lagoon, where Alison had a paddle; around the swish waterfront area to the Hilton, in whose cafe Alison remember sweet potato chips which were both delicious and not over-priced; but they were no longer on the menu. Further round the seafront, then back to Rusty's Markets, but everyone was packing up there. So we ended up having, at last, some sweet potato chips at a pub in the middle of town. (They were very nice).

Back home, getting some food for dinner (our last home-cooked meal for two weeks!) and a sit on our balcony. It's about to get dark, and I still feel a bit tired. We've been here now for less than 24 hours and Cairns seems very, very familiar to me. Heading out tomorrow,after an early night, will be fine.

Sunday 14th May Nhulumbuy

We stayed awake till 10pm, and slept better. Still woke at 7am, as usual, though; and not as tired, thank goodness. Alison went and made a cup of tea to have before we got up; shower, exercises, playtime, more tea, re-pack all our stuff; and at 9am we went down to the office to check out. Leaving our bags there and having a good chat with Kathy, the owner, who remembered us, and that we had a medical background!

With nearly three hours before we had to go off to the airport, we headed back into town. We did need a bit of breakfast, but the cafes all seemed to serve very large and very egg-y breakfasts. Not what we wanted. So we ended up with coffee and a mix of pastries at Rusty's Market again.

Back to the street; and despite passing a street sign saying the Art Gallery was closed on Sundays, it turned out not to be. A look around it, and then down to the lagoon again, and it was time to head home.

Kathy called a taxi and off we went. We checked in at the Air North counter (luckily we were on the flight – we'd not had any sort of ticket given to us) and went outside to sit on the grass and eat our salad we'd brought for lunch. (It was meant to go with the last of our roast chicken, but I'd forgotten to take it out of my checked bag! We'll have to eat it at the other end.)

Onto the plane, which is quite full; but we are in the front row of economy class, in very nice spacious seats, in some ways better than the business class in front, and certainly better than the ones behind. Our good luck!

We landed in Nhulumbuy. We were found by Ian, our guide from Outback Spirit; and everything went smoothly. There are 21 of us on this tour, in a large specially-made 4WD bus. Despite its capability, he told us that, thanks to recent heavy rain, we may not be able to drive across Arnhem Land as was intended; we may have to fly some (or all?) sections instead. Whether this is a good or bad thing for us, I don't know yet; certainly it's not so good for the company running the tour.

On to the bus. In the seat pocket there is a chart of the daily seat rotation – a very good thing to have arranged. And everyone is wearing a name badge, which makes it all a bit easier. We began with a drive (with a very knowledgeable commentary) down towards Macassar Beach. To see what the road was like. It was fine for a lot of the way, but then got to an impassable mud bowl. (Everyone got out to have a look and ended up with very muddy shoes.) We had to do a U-turn, and drove back past lots of bauxite strip mining sites to the township of Nhulumbuy. A very spread-out town with the appearance of a mining town, which is how it all began. The bus drove us around the town and up to Walkabout Lodge, our home for the next two nights.

We had an hour to settle in (we washed mud off our shoes and did some washing) before it was time for drinks, outside by the pool, at 6pm. Everyone sat at a long table, and all the drinks were included for us. So everyone had one (or more) and the process of getting to know each other began. At 6.30 we moved inside for dinner; inside it was very noisy and hard to hear, but the food was excellent. A bit too much of it, though; I'll have to tone it down a bit.

Alison and I were the first to leave. We walked around the block (in the dark) and came home again.

Tomorrow we need to leave by 8am, so we will have to get up a tad earlier than we have been doing.

Monday 15th May Nhulumbuy

My sleep continues to improve. But luckily we woke when we should – the alarm clock, which I'd put on for 6.30am, developed flat batteries in the night. I began the day by diving into the swimming pool without checking the water temperature; fortunately, it was fine. Then it was breakfast – I just had muesli, and didn't even look at the cooked and pastry alternatives.

Travel like this, not having to worry about where you are going to sleep or eat, is really easy. We got back on the bus at 8am and headed off to Wirrawuy Beach, where (after passing to very long bauxite conveyor belt, and the being-dismantled refinery), some of the local Yolngu people held a corroboree for us. I was impressed by the musicians, especially the didgeridoo player; at the end, we all had to get up and do a dance (fortunately a group dance) as well.

This was followed by a healing session, using some local leaves which had been boiled for an hour. They were quite oily; they were rubbed onto any painful parts of your body. My body had no painful parts, so how well it worked I don't know.

Back on the bus, and on to Shady Beach where we had a very nice picnic lunch. Back then (along roads which are now a bit familiar, but as I'm not driving I have no real idea where we are) to the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre, at Yirrkala. We were given a talk here by one of the locals, then wandered around it. It had some very good art works.

Up to a lookout from which we could see Nhulumbuy township, the bauxite works, and the sea and islands beyond; a walk along another beach, up to (but not onto) the little nearly-island at the end, which is a sacred site.

It has been interesting hearing about the local stories of creation; and while I appreciate their culture is tied up with it, it does conflict with Darwinian theory which I think is much more valid. And while their history is oral-based, and dancing and singing is an integral part of it, I don't really appreciate ritual in general. (This morning Ian, our guide, mentioned “The Memory Code”, a book by Lyn Kelly about how the Aborigines, without written words, managed to remember their history. Lyn lives in Castlemaine and we know her.)

We got home via a visit to the Woolworths Supermarket here, which is much like a Woolworths Supermarket anywhere. And then a bit of free time; I was even able to do some ironing!

Before pre-dinner drinks, we walked down to the town beach, and eventually found it – and found that it was private aboriginal land, and you needed a permit to go onto it. So we didn't, and we walked home instead.

Dinner tonight was outside – much less noisy than last night, inside. 

But the dinner was fine – especially as we had only one main course between us, to avoid over-eating. Now it's 9.30 and time for bed. Early, but... we get up early too

Tuesday 16th May Murwangi Camp

It was qite a relaxed beginning to the day – because, thanks to the rain, our planned eight hour bus trip across to the Arafura Swamp was replaced with a flight. So after breakfast we got on the bus and drove to the airport, where we were divided into two groups, one for each plane – Cessna Caravans. We were told where to sit; our luck was in! I was in a single seat behind the pilot, with a good view out the windscreen; Alison was allocated the co-pilot's seat, up front next to the pilot! (And not only that – it will be the same seating on our next four flights.)

While we missed the bus trip experience, it was more than made up for by seeing the country from the air and getting to the airstrip at Ramingining in just under an hour. We did get a ½ hour bus experience driving along the road to Murwangi Camp; I managed to get the front seat in the bus for this section. The road was often quite bumpy (or very bumpy) and we drove through a number of swimming pools. Doing this for eight hours + would not have been so much fun.

Murwangi is an Outback Spirit camp, with 12 glamping tents. Because were there very early, thanks to flying, the tents weren't ready. We had a welcome drink and then lunch. A lovely salad. The food on this trip has been excellent.

We were allotted tent 4, but it turned out to be a twin. I enquired about this, and we were moved to tent 12, the furthest away (and thus most private) one.

The tents are very comfortable, all with air conditioning (which we were told we needed to leave on),wooden floor, ensuite, verandah.... very comfortable.

We stayed in looking at our far too many photos till afternoon tea time at 3pm; then had a walk around the camp and down to the rusty, disused stockyards at the far end of the airstrip. We walked back in the lovely late afternoon light, before going over to a very sociable pre-dinner canapes and drinks, followed by an excellent and not too big dinner with lots of talk.

Now it's after 9pm and time for a shower and bed; bedtime and wake time are both getting earlier and earlier.

While I worry about drinking too much alcohol, most of the others on the tour had an alcoholic drink or two with their lunch. I really don't like doing that!

Wednesday 17th May Murwangi Camp

There were lots of noises in the night – barking owls being very prominent – but nothing disturbing. The sky was clear and the night cooler than recent nights have been. And the (very big) bed very comfortable too.

I woke to see the eastern horizon reddening. We went off to a very nice breakfast, then all gathered at the muster point at 8.30am. Half of us went down to the pontoon, to do the boat trip on the swamp; our half got into two open-backed 4WD's and went on a tour – with Frankie, one of the “TO's” (traditional owners) to explain things in Yolngu, and Keith to tell us about it in English. We saw dingoes, buffalo, and horses; termite mounds both cathedral and magnetic; and lots of trees and plants with various uses. And tried tasting green ants as well.

(The buffalo are feral and damage the country. But every year a lot are rounded up and taken away, and the TO's are paid $170 per head for them. So there's no consensus on their eradication.)

After morning tea and a talk from Keith which diverged into the politics of Aboriginal self-determination and the Voice to Parliament, we returned for lunch.

After lunch it was our turn for the boat trip on the swamp. We meandered very slowly; turned right down past water lilies and 60-year palms to an enormous expanse of lotuses; then back the other way past paperbarks, seeing more buffalo and (near the body of a dead buffalo) four crocodiles of varying sizes.

Back to afternoon tea, and we retired to our tent. I washed all my clothes, read, and had a shower before going over to pre-dinner drinks and dinner.

Alison had suggested a day without any alcohol, and I (despite the alcohol being “free”) thought it a good idea. So I had soda water with my dinner. We were sitting across from Helen and Graham, whom I'd found difficult to talk to previously; but ended up chatting easily with them till after most of the others had left! It is sometimes strange how things go.

Thursday 18th May Maningrida

Today was another moving day. We packed up by 7am, and went up to breakfast. We had Eggs Benedict, and it was (in stark contrast to the other meals we've had here, which have all been top-notch) the worst Eggs Benedict I've ever eaten. But... I didn't leave hungry, so I can't complain too much.

After saying goodbye to all the staff, we headed back out on the not very good road, and continued into Ramingining to the Bula'bula art centre. (We were permitted only to wander around the centre, but not go into any other areas in town.) We were greeted by Mel, the director (a white woman with some aboriginal heritage) and saw all the artists at work; and upstairs went to the “Ten Canoes” exhibit, with many of the props from the film.

Many of the group bought something, but nothing took our fancy.

Then back to the airstrip for our next flight, sitting in the same seats in the same plane, to Maningrida, 30 minutes by air away. Back onto another bus and down a slightly less bumpy road (but in an older bus with poorer suspension) to Barramundi Lodge.

Barramundi Lodge is the same sort of thing as the past two days' Murwangi Camp, but built in forest at the top of an escarpment with great views over the plain below. It's big thing is barramundi fishing, which is on the itinerary for tomorrow. We had lunch and then a nice, warm, free afternoon with the opportunity to go for a shortish walk before dinner.