Family Vacation Down Under


down-under“We don’t get many Americans traveling through the Outback,” our guide Jeff tells us. There may be a reason for this. His manner is grim. We’ve heard about the dangers—Australia boasts 300 types of fish with poison-tipped spines. Even the male platypus has a poison claw that should have evolved out long before now. Our guidebook advertises “the deadliest creatures on earth” and a cab driver warned us not to fall asleep in our car—“the crocodiles will pull you out.” The kids are certain that we will not return from our vacation, where the box jellyfish sear flesh off the bone.

Jeff wears a khaki work shirt and very short belted shorts. To me the look is Swiss. And the personality is Swiss. Very efficient and a little on the reserved side. Diligent and hardworking, he insists on stacking all of our Northface duffel bags into the back of his jeep. He stacks the blue bags with the other blue bags, yellow with yellow. He will not let the kids help. Already, it seems—my son, 13, and daughter, 10, do not amuse him.

We just found out that on our puddle jumper back to Darwin we can only take 35 pounds so we’re scrambling on the asphalt to pull out what we can do without. Our kids bravely offer to give up all of their stuff, save for an iPod and 7 Nancy Drew mysteries. I’ve seen my son survive a week on a change of clothes, the sanitary seal on the toothpaste not popped. There is a beauty to this, I think, surrendering my hair flattener. It’s fruitless anyway. Our final Outback destination advertises No Electricity as an amenity. No TV. A full bar, but not a bar on a cell phone.

Our short stay in Sydney was not without danger.  My travel partner signed us up for the “Bridge Climb” —500 feet—the world’s largest steel arch bridge nicknamed “the coat hanger” for obvious reasons. We were stripped of all our belongings, dressed in astronaut suits and given a breathalyzer test (the first and the last for the kids, I hoped).

We scaled vertically. “If you’re squeamish about heights I wouldn’t look down,” our perky guide announced in our ear phones, then, “This is the part that our guests find most exhilarating!” Clipped to the railing by a carabiner, we climbed a skinny ladder over the freeway. The glacial wind tangled my hair, obscuring my vision of my daughter, who was above me, wearing her pink tennis shoes. I flashed to her slipping on an icy rung, bungeeing 40 feet then dangling over the freeway by a carabiner. I called out, but my face was cement.

The kids don’t need to be doing this, I think. I’ve been a little frosty since the bridge outing and I hope the situation improves.

The road sprawls, burned to shrub and soot like the end of the world. The bush is smoking, fires still smoldering that were set to burn off dead grasses and bring new growth, leaving the air thick as coal dust. Jeff guns along the sunburnt road into the vastness. We drive for hours—4 maybe—before braking at a rest stop. Jeff tells us we have 20 minutes to stretch our legs and get a snack. Before we can tell him that we don’t want a snack, that we want to keep going, please (and get the hell out of here!) and get to the oasis of the Crocodile Hotel, he disappears. Inside is a dark tavern serving deep-fried kangaroo and “coffee light” in milk boxes. Punk-walking emus the size of camels block the bathrooms, scaring tourists for crocodile fritters.

Back in the jeep, dusk is gathering. The jungle glows red in the gloam. In the front seat Jeff is telling us in great detail about the creation of the thousands of termite mounds that stand like gravestones throughout the bush. At the equator daylight slips away quickly and I’m searching the hazy twilight for signs of life. “What type of animals might we see?” I ask from the back seat.

“This isn’t Africa,” Jeff says. I’ve interrupted his spiel about it taking the termites a year to make three feet of mound—echidna and certain aborigines will crack them and suck out the billions of termites for an impromptu feast.

“You’ve seen a wallaby,” Jeff says. “Maybe a dingo.”

We became acquainted with the dingo at the Sydney zoo, and, incidentally, fed a sausage to the nocturnal bilby—nearly extinct, and commercialized last Easter as the “Easter Bilby”—pastel marshmallow bilbies on store shelves—to promote awareness for its plight. The bilby is not quite as cute as the bunny, more angular and skittish, and the nocturnal part is creepy for an Easter Bunny, but could be convincing to children in its ability to deliver baskets.

So when Jeff jerks the steering wheel and screeches a U-Turn on the empty highway, we recognize the dingo at the side of the road. It’s a golden dog. Pointy ears, but well-groomed looking and not one bit ferocious—it could be wearing a jeweled collar. It’s no warthog, for instance. But this isn’t Africa so we stop to watch it slink away, the kids and I still hoping for a Pumba.

On our last vacation we roughed it in the bowels of a dank catamaran in the tropics with no air-conditioning nor espresso. Our clothes were soaked from the humidity. Nothing dried. Ever. So my travel partner promised that this time we’d be staying in “nice places,” i.e. a swimming pool that isn’t empty and access to caffeinated beverages.

We arrive at the Crocodile Hotel in Kakadu National Park in the pitch dark. No street lights, no stars—only the searing red crocodile eyes affixed to the lobby. The draw is the hotel’s crocodile shape, a marvel when seen by a helicopter, but on the ground the metal “claws” of our stairwell bring to mind the barbed wire of a prison. The dark pools in the courtyard are shaped like crocodile innards—intestines, kidneys. The “heart” is boiling. Ah, the hot tub. The owner has a sick sense of humor, which we start to appreciate when we go to dining room and see the effort of the “Croc-tail” bar and the custom AstroTurf with its orange cartoon crocodiles. It’s Vegas in its Flintstone portions, the all-you-can-eat buffet is made of Styrofoam rocks. But instead of being gimmicky it feels like the real thing. In the middle of nowhere it’s the only place in town. The nightly music is local.  My son’s slab of kangaroo served by an Aborigine waiter has been barbecued outside. My daughter’s sweet Barramundi fish from the South Alligator River is robust and flaky, its skin crisped, the chips plumped in blistering oil. The Vegemite, which looks like Nutella but isn’t, is inedible unless you are from here. Even then, we’re told a little goes a long way.

The Aussies are still apologizing for the South Alligator River. In 1820 Lt. Phillip Parker King erroneously named it when he mistook the crocodiles for alligators. They have pride here, and are maybe a little touchy that the country was started by convicts in the late 18th century. England, annoyed by the liberation of the 13 colonies, sent boatloads of prisoners here to till the land.

Before dawn we are yanked from our beds into the painful operating room light of the hotel bathroom where the shower explodes out like a fire hydrant. We are back in the jeep without coffee, passing our first sign: “Large Crocodile Crossing. Extreme Danger.”

“Why are people in the river?” Ethan asks.

“They don’t listen!” Jeff says. “They stand up to their knees in the water to fish and they ride around in little dingies.”

Not good, I think, then turn to make sure that the kids got the message. But they stare straight ahead, hungry and sleep-deprived.

In Aboriginal land we stop in front of a wooden shack to pick up our guide. The terrain is sparse—scrubs and termite mounds. Carmine asks why the dogs sleeping on the lawn are so skinny. Jeff tells us not to expect our guide to look us in the eye, because the Aboriginal people consider it disrespectful. “I’ve gone there with different guides and heard multiple explanations for the same paintings. None of them are made-up, they’re just different interpretations for different ages,” he says.

Our guide’s jeans look too warm for the hot day, the exposed skin around his ankles is tanned to leather and his fingernails are thick as tortoise shell. He could be 80-years-old and speaks no English that I can understand but mumbles and points. Like a lizard, he moves sideways attached to the huge rocks, some sharp, others worn smooth and slippery, some punched with holes for paint troughs where ancient clans mixed their paints made from the red rock. People 20,000 years ago lived here in the rainy season, feverishly painting the rock roofs of their shelter, carrying on with their lives behind sheets of rain.

We climb for an hour into this natural gallery in the rocks, stumbling and sliding down smooth slate. Tucking under rock shelves, we are taken in by the paintings done in deep reds and oranges, astonishing figures telling stories that are worth the flight to Australia to see. Beyond, the expansive plains are prehistoric with scraggly bushes and gnarled palms. In the crevices spiders and shrubbery fern overhead. The great rocks lean in toward us, threatening to collapse into each other, making us nothing.

We eat dark fruitcake, savoring the candied fruits, and the oranges Jeff has brought in his backpack, then move through fallen boulders to a sacred burial place that is still in use. The dead are set out to be devoured by nature then tucked into the crevices. We see skeletons in tattered clothes, human skulls, exposed bones that seem as if they shouldn’t be there. Our guide points up to an explosive flame-colored figure with wings spread like a dragonfly, but no, I’m corrected, it’s their creator woman and Earth Mother God, Warramurrungundji. The kids are jumping from rock to rock and Jeff tells them to please stay still, that this is their church. Our knees are skinned, our backs sore from falling, but humbled in this sacred place, we do not sit.

The Yellow Waters Cruise has bragging rights. Despite the crowded barge-style boat, the river is opal at sunrise, a bird haven. Aloof crocodiles as long as our boat motor alongside us through the lotus flowers still squeezed shut.

Our handsome captain tells us that he is half aborigine, half Aussie. But he gestures like an Italian. Crocodile lore abounds. “These are “salties,” he says as we pass a few early risers, as opposed to “freshies,” which are wimps. Don’t even get him started about alligators—in the States they live on cats and dogs. (I’m really getting what an embarrassment the “Alligator River” is. At least “in the States” we can change our names.) He tells us that the saltwater crocodile will come out of nowhere and pop a human head like a watermelon. Everyone moves a few inches away from the edge. But the sun is up, taking the chill off the water. Kookaburra stare down from every tree, and black-necked jabaroo with spread wings shake off water and preen in the perfumed air. Lotus open before our eyes though we never see it happening, the way children grow.

Now for crocodile gourmet: the captain tells us that tourists claim that crocodile tastes like chicken, but that’s because they’ve only had farmed crocodile that are fed chickens. This part of world knows what crocodile tastes like. Barbecued, it’s a savory oily meat, pungent and sweet at the same time.

Back in our crocodile room, the four of us sing a Kookaburra round. My daughter and I sing about the joyful Kookaburra laughing in its tree and eating gum drops, while my travel partner and son try to drone us out with a different version:

Kookaburra sits on an electric wire

Jumping up and down cuz his tail’s on fire.

Fry, Kookaburra, fry Kookaburra, how tasty you will be.

The effect is symphonic and side-splitting, but the maid out in the hallway skips our room. No towels tonight.

We drive for hours and hours, stopping only for a hike to a natural dunking pool with crocodile warning signs all the way there. Jeff assures us that the pool is checked regularly and that tourists getting eaten would be bad for business. He might be making a joke here. Tumbling into the still pool, the aqua waterfall is an attractive nuisance, and we go in. The water is clear and cold and tastes sweet, and as I swim with Ethan and Carmine across it, jade-colored fish spring up before us and nip at our feet. Ethan points out where the river trickles into the pool, and that any crocodile worth its salt could get in there. Our swim is short.

We 4-wheel deeper into the bush for an itchy picnic on the river. Jeff tells us not to go too close. With some excitement, he tells us that they’ve made a movie about this very place—Rogue—a Crocodile Jaws.

Carefully we sit in our plastic chairs for a picnic of cold cuts and hard cheeses on onion rolls out of the back of the jeep that Jeff prepares with an urgency. What we really need is whiskey. The bushes move. The horseflies sting.

I thank Jeff for lunch.

“No worries,” he says.

The “no worries” throws me, because, actually, I wasn’t worried—not about his lunch-making anyway. I understood the “no worries” after he hauled our luggage and I thanked him because I shouldn’t worry that he moved the stuff himself—it wouldn’t throw out his back, for instance. But this Aussie expression is odd. For example, if I ever get the opportunity to flat-iron my hair (which is looking unlikely) and he says it looks nice and I say thank you, would he say “no worries?” I plan to test this.
 We drive further into the middle of nowhere, toward the Bammuru Plains Wild Bush Resort for “pure bush luxury.” That’s what my travel partner promises me since I’m looking a little stoic. But this Shangri-La is further than where the map ends—highways turning into dotted lines like broken capillaries. Out in the bush we see signs—“Military Mission in Progress”—and actual camouflaged tanks, the highlight of the trip for Ethan.

Two hours later we are bouncing along a gravel road in and out of scorched ditches, stopping at chain-linked gates where Jeff asks Ethan to get out and open them. How ‘bout that, mate? As if that would be fun for him. As if he’s five and gets to step up to the counter and pay for the ice cream. As if I’m not thinking that some animal, hunting in the sinking sun, will have him for dinner. But thank God this isn’t Africa.

A family of buffalo stare at us like we’re nuts. Not one person around—no sign of life on a sketchy gravel road that might have been used some time in the last century. There is no way a luxury resort is anywhere near here. Not even a budget hotel chain would find this terrain attractive—it looks like a cemetery with all these termite mounds. Would it kill them to have a sign? Something reassuring like “Bammuru Plains Wild Bush Luxury one mile.”

“They need to do a better job of advertising,” my daughter says.

But that’s the point. The people who go here don’t want anyone to find them. If the place really exists.

We pull up to a gate with a sign: “Tuberculosis Quarantine” with the skull and cross bones.

“I don’t think this is it,” Jeff says.

“I hope not,” I say. “Son, stay in the car.”

Into the bush we drive until we can’t go any farther. A dead end. We are off the map, chartless, like the explorers who first came here—the convicts. It’s getting colder. At night the winter temperature drops into the thirties.

“I thought this was it,” Jeff says. He’s turned the engine off. It occurs to me that he could run out of gas. “Last time when I came here and dropped off Nicolas Cage I drove right to it,” he said.

This does nothing to reassure me. I saw the house Nicolas Cage bought in New Orleans because it was gruesomely haunted. I am not a person who seeks out unnecessary adventure, especially when I have my kids along.

Not a moment too soon, Jeff backs the jeep out of there, and a mile down the gravel road we see a shaky hand-drawn black arrow on a piece of driftwood pointing to the left.

“There we go,” Jeff says.

I do not have high hopes for this resort, which is 9 “rooms” on a working buffalo farm. But even a tent, if it zips, is not sounding half bad. When we pull up to the resort—more like a handful of weathered wooden buildings—the green wetlands open up before us to grazing Asian water buffalo and diving birds in the cinnamon air. Three cheerful staff members waiting with cold towels and hand-squeezed pineapple juice show us to our rooms—screened-in porches with feather beds cast out in the savannah bush on the fringe of the floodplains, wallabies scattering past as if on motorized Hoppity Hops. I fall onto the bed, kick off my mud-caked Patagonia trail shoes, and I’m consumed by the down comforter.

Having never had their own hotel room, the kids are thrilled by their separate quarters—more than a stone’s throw from ours, but if they were to scream—loudly—we would probably hear them. The resort has also provided the kids with a horn in case a buffalo rampages, which does ease my mind somewhat. And since there’s no mini-bar, they can’t get into too much trouble. We are camping, I tell myself. For example, there are no locks on the doors.

Dinner in the lodge is communal—all the guests share a table with the staff members, who are drinking. The delicious red wine makes my ears hot, the chef is for real. The barramundi is done two ways, one with pickled ginger and onions with tender potatoes. The buttery shellfish tastes like lobster but when I ask about it I’m given a photograph of the “cockroach of the sea” to take home (it’s no lobster). Desserts are crepes light as lace infused with chocolate that is almost sweet and a lemony fruit punch sorbet. The chef explains everything, hovering. Carmine compliments the sorbet, saying it tastes exactly like the frozen lemonade they get at amusement parks.

Under glowing candlelight, a burly guide regales us with more crocodile horror: He himself has been taken three times—once fishing, once getting too close to the water’s edge, and once doing something very stupid, which he won’t tell us about.

“How’d you get away?” my son asks.

“Stabbed him in the eyes,” he says, holding up his two meaty index fingers. He tops this off with a story about a saltie taking a young girl who was playing in the water. Then he moves on to the Stone Fish. “If you step on it, you’ll be dead in 20 minutes. Say goodbye to your mum, kids.” Tears spring to daughter’s eyes.

I’m getting tired of all this. Hey, in the United States we have mountain lions dangling from our oak trees. And Grizzlies that will even eat your toothpaste. Our alligators live on our cats and dogs.

“Have you eaten crocodile yet?” the guide asks my daughter, perhaps to cheer her up.

She nods.

“Tastes like chicken, eh?”

“Nope,” my daughter says. She will not be labeled a tourist.

On the way to the rooms, navigating by moonlight, the kids vow to never set foot on the sand at Hayman Island, our last destination. Spooked by a quartet of Cane Toads that are perched on our steps, they run to their tent. Croaking out some tune, the toads are bug-eyed, cartoonish, and deadly if you eat them. But if you only lick them behind the ears you’ll hallucinate like you’re on acid. We don’t tell the kids this.

During the night, wallabies scratch at our screens.  I shine a flashlight on them and they bound away like fleeing intruders. Just before the light, the Kookaburras warble and shriek, then are joined by the trilling Magpie Geese and Whistling Ducks in an outdoor symphony. Up on elbows we look out through our screen that is brightening before our eyes. The shapes of sculpted palms sharpen in the sandy light like the gentle turn of a kaleidoscope. We are surrounded by posing wallabies, their paws up in prayer. They look at us curiously, innocent, but maybe not, like the poison-spitting Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park. A thundering herd of buffalo is upon us. We are in the middle of a stampede.

Breakfast is crusty warm bread with butter and marmalade, English pudding and rich coffee, which we gulp in order to get out on the swamp before sunrise. The airboat is out of Road Warrior, crude, and impossibly afloat. The Mad Max of the Outback. Fortunately they now have two airboats. Last year, the lone airboat broke, forcing a guide to wade through the waters, pulling it in. Our guide Chris tells Ethan, that yes, crocodiles have jumped up on the boats, but more likely the crocodiles will take down water buffalo that wade through the brackish water eating grasses.

Around us a dozen baby buffalo hang out with a few full-grown ones, who Chris says are the kindergarten teachers for the babies left behind. The buffalo have learned that the calves are an easy feast for the crocs.

“What’s that hum?” I ask as we board the air boat. It sounds otherworldly, an X-Files experience. And it’s getting closer. Like The Langoliers.

“Magpie geese,” Chris says. This seems hard to believe. But there are tens of thousands of them out on the swamp.

The air boat makes such an ear-splitting racket that we have to wear ear mufflers. As we whisk through the tall grasses, dark-winged magpies burst out before us, wings flapping like bats. They part, letting us out to the mirrored water. One ungainly bird falls back, flying along at our side like the Wicked Witch of the East. At a clearing Chris kills the motor and we count the hoods of crocodile eyes in the rippled water. The sun is up. The water has turned to tea.

Around us the white lotus with egg yolk centers are open. Pale moths hover with white egrets, or “buffalo egrets,” gull-like birds that follow buffalo for stirred-up insects. The much sought-after Jabaroo, stork-like with red legs and feet, alights from its monster nest at the top of a paper tree. With an eye on the water, Chris serves us chocolate chip cookies. We sip surprisingly strong espresso made from tea bags. Ethan stands on the edge of the boat and sticks an ore in the water tangled with algae to test its depth. I freeze.

The crocodiles keep their distance so Chris revs up and we happen upon a 9-foot beauty stretched out on a fallen tree getting energy from the morning sun. Among the frilly lily pads with the white puffs of popcorn lilies, the ecosystem is complete, serene and ferocious.

Up close the crocodile’s powerful tail is studded with yellow and pink jewels. The sun on its face, it appears to be smiling. Soon it must slide back in the swamp to cool its brain and eat. We go.

Chris drives us on the afternoon safari: Four-wheeling through black cracking mud flats, dust pillowing up around us. At the water’s edge Chris climbs out and looks for crocodile in the bushes before telling us to climb out. At the shore is the strangest fish of all—the slider. Hundreds of them. These wide-mouth, bulging-eyed creatures slide along on top of the mud flats slurping up insects and lesser fish. I can’t take my eyes off them and for a few moments I forget about what’s in the bushes.

In the jungle full of Screw Palms and Mistletoe, where weeping Banyon Fig trees strangle their tree-hosts, we search for the dingo. The sun going down, we follow two domesticated-looking dingos that are double-teaming a wallaby, which gets away. Our German Shepherd puppies could do better.

Where are the kangaroos? I am still catching hell for making the kids leave the Sydney Zoo before we could find the large “Red Roos.” I had pictured kangaroos as common and annoying as deer that you have to swerve your car to avoid. Wrong territory. Like the Statue of Liberty does not exist in California. It’s becoming more obvious that Australia is an enormous country.

Itchy and windburnt, we drive toward the sinking sun. Chris pulls off-road, and just as I’m thinking that we’ll never get home, he stops the jeep under a skeletal paper bark tree in front of an open plain. The pink and creamsicle sky is deepening into cherry flambé behind the Dr. Seuss palms. The kids jump out of the jeep and run towards the sunset, kicking at the sky.  I eat melting Triple Cream Brie with figs and French Bread, while Chris mixes stiff Gin & Tonics, and serves them to us in the gloaming. A few sips and we don’t care that there’s a crocodile under every bush.

The breeze is fragrant with night-blooms and I’m rather relaxed as we drive back to camp at twilight. There might be something to overexposure, the way arachnophobes are forced to confront spiders.

Two miles from camp, we have to stop at a cattle gate at the edge of the river. Chris jumps out to unlock it. He gives Ethan a flashlight. “Shine it on the beach and see if you catch any red crocodile eyes.”

“Cool,” Ethan says.

The gate unlocked, Chris hops back in the jeep, the jungle cackling with night birds. I watch his hand turn the key, but nothing lights up. Why do people ever turn off their engines out here? He fiddles under the dash, and grabs another flashlight. “Just a second,” he says, trying not to worry us. But it’s on the brink of dark, and the mosquitoes are buzzing.

“Let me try something,” Chris says, jumping out of the jeep and lifting the hood. Under the shine of the flashlight, red eyes look on. I think of that guide having to wade the air boat back to shore, of us having to walk back to camp.

We could stay here all night, training flashlights on the shore and slapping whining mosquitoes that are thickening around us, sticky as a web. Worst case, in the morning the cowboys mustering cattle will find us. If it’s their day to muster. Or we could walk back to camp (and away from the water) shooing simpering dingo that are only an irritant to those of us who go jogging where mountain lions hang from the trees.

We give the car a huge shove and pushes it along as Chris tries the engine. It starts with a roar, and as it rolls along and we jumps in.

“Thanks,” I say as Chris drives us through the gate.

“No worries,” Chris says.

In tropical Queensland, nursing Windex-colored drinks and mosquito bites, we spend a day on a pontoon that’s permanently anchored at the Great Barrier Reef, the extravagant coral as varied as tropical-flavored lifesavers. A must-see and many options to see it: snorkel, scuba, or the take the semi-submersible. It’s a cookie cutter day complete with a buffet lunch, a massage therapist who will charge to your room, and a giant trained fish named Wally that could be a wind-up, but is actually fed enough prawns so it hangs out all day like a dog, posing with scuba divers. We return to our resort with our photos and it all feels a little too pat. I’m at loose-ends at this “nice” place, where the pool is not only full but it’s the largest in the southern hemisphere.

“That’s because the jellyfish will kill you if you go on the beach,” my son says.

Well, maybe. But we need to check it out. Adventure might be something you get used to, and even start to crave. Like Vegemite. But a little goes a long way.

On our pillows we get our daily printed list of activities for the next day. By the weekend we’ll have done the list and we need to go home. Every night at 6:30 pm we go out on our deck and a hundred thousand shrieking bats launch out over the lagoon, shadowing the moon like Halloween. It’s a fantastic spectacle, predictable as Disneyland fireworks.