Sunday, October 30, 2011

Twin Falls & Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu

We picked a very hot day for our trip to the edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment -to Twin Falls and Jim Jim Falls - with driver/guide Steve from Top End Explorer Tours. In these last few weeks of the season we were Steve's only passengers so we had the undivided attention of this genuine Kakadu character and fearless four wheel driver.

It was an exciting drive to the Twin Fall gorge - a tough, sandy, 60klm or so, four wheel drive track that the Landcruiser handled easily even though the bumps and gullies looked pretty mountainous to me. We also drove through 80-90cm of water at Jim Jim Creek - "that's nothing", said Steve, "compared to how it is in the wet season"!

This was (saltwater) crocodile country so the small boat that carried us up the Twin Falls Gorge was a sturdy little thing.

Once off the boat we had a long, difficult walk over sand slippery boulders, and a short boardwalk (which gets removed by helicopter at the start of the wet season) to get to where the spectacular Twin Falls makes it's way over the edge of the escarpment to the Kakadu floodplain below.

140 million years ago (the age of dinosaurs) Kakadu was under a shallow sea. The sea cliffs that formed the shoreline are the remnant escarpments we're seeing today. They've been eroding at the rate of 1 metre every thousand years, so these escarpments would have been a huge amount higher when the dinosaurs roamed this region.

We were hot and bothered from navigating the boulder walk (in 39oC heat) but no swimming allowed in this beautiful pool!

Steve then drove us North to the point on the track where we could start the walk to Jim Jim Falls. By now it was REALLY HOT and our boulder walking track was very craggy, slippery and uneven...and over a kilometre to navigate to the Falls. Very helpfully Steve estimated that the capacity of the boulders to absorb heat probably made the track around 70oC at some points.

Steve was a bit younger than us: curly long grey hair, no hat, beer belly and surf sandals (get the picture). He was also carrying a pack with all our lunches and spare water. He still managed to dance over those boulders, while I made every gingerly step a very considered and sweaty one!

But, no crocodiles at Jim Jim Falls, nor any actual waterfalls at this time of the year, so it was fabulous to take a dip and cool off in the crystal clear water, straight off the escarpment.

Steve was a very interesting fellow, despite his ruffian persona. He lives with his German scientist wife and young son in Jabiru, along with a local Aboriginal elder artist and his grandson, plus extended family members at various times. His insights into the the issues facing Aboriginal people in NT and the impact of the government's Intervention and the effect of mining royalties on local communities were very thoughtful, sensitive - and eye opening.

He was also a politics junkie - knew as much as we did about the minutiae of current federal politics (if not more). Apparently he quizzes all his clients about what they think of Tony Abbott. He reckons 98% of his clients think he will never be Prime Minister!

Rob did enjoy meeting someone new to have a good rant with!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kakadu - Yellow Water Wetlands

The Gagudju Lodge at Cooinda, on Yellow Water in Kakadu, is only about three and a half hours drive from Darwin, allowing some time to buy a case of mangoes from a farmer's truck on the way down.

Kakadu has World Heritage listing for both its cultural and its natural value. Generations of Aboriginal people have lived on and cared for this country for tens of thousands of years and it's a land of exceptional beauty and unique biodiversity.

However, it's hard to get around the fact that there are lots of estuarine (saltwater) (person eating) crocodiles living in the wetlands of Kakadu.

On our first afternoon at Cooinda we walked to the Yellow Water billabong and straight away saw our first crocodile, cruising slowly beside us on the smooth waters reflecting the late afternoon light. We later found out it's nick name was Pluto Pup, but I won't tell you the story about how it got its name.

The sunset Yellow Water cruise boat was just returning........

....and we were extra careful to stay on the specially constructed metal walkways at the edge of the billabong.

We joined the sunrise cruise ourselves on Saturday morning. At this time of the year, the pre monsoon storm season, a lot of the Kakadu wetlands on the floodplains have dried up so large billabongs like Yellow Water become a haven for all sorts of animals and birdlife waiting out the end of the "dry".

Including many, many crocodiles... and I have not used the zoom on my camera to get these shots! There is an average of about 26 crocodiles for every square kilometre of wetlands.

The so called "Jesus birds" (they walk on water!) are a frivolous presence in amongst the menacing crocs.

If you look closely enough you might see that the croc below is devouring a rather large hunk of a magpie geese. We saw the whole process of the kill!

This pair of jabiru(s) kept a safe distance.

The bird life was extraordinary. I was lucky to get this shot of an azure kingfisher...

This croc was so close to the boat I had to zoom out to get him all in the frame.

People do go fishing in Yellow Water (in very strong large boats) but they don't use live bait. I think barramundi is the most desired catch, but only if they are at least 55cm.

Over thousands of years Aboriginal people have developed all sorts of ways of hunting and collecting food from these waterways safely. But they did not have to contend with the explosion in the numbers of crocodiles since the seventies when they became a protected species in Australia.

It was an amazing two hours we spent on Yellow Water.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Conference culture

I was in Darwin last week for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Conference. It was a stimulating, energising three day conference..with lots to learn and some successes to celebrate (as well as the continuing HUGE challenges).

At the end of each day there were opportunities to experience some unique Northern Territory Aboriginal culture.

In the late afternoon of the first day we were invited to join some prominent Larrakia elders and their families for a picnic style meal after a tour of special sacred Aboriginal sites around Darwin.

This beautiful child, all the way from Groote Eylandt, across the Arafura Sea from East Arnhem Land, was never out of the arms of some loving family member. I was amused by how much she enjoyed having her photograph taken.

The Darwin Mills sisters are part of the extended family too, and a wonderfully wild bunch of women. Ali "Arjibuk" Mills (on the right) had a national hit last year with her
Waltjim Bat Matilda (Yes, that well known song about a sheep duffer, sung in Aboriginal Creole). They would have sung and played and told us wild stories all night!

We met lots of Territory school kids too..including the winners of the Northern Territory Battle of the School Bands this year. They performed all their own material and were exceptional musicians and singers.

Their school was in Yirrkala which is in Yolgnu country (where some of Skinnyfish Music's best artists, including Yothu Yindi and Gurrumul are from). English is a second or third language for these kids, but they all sing in English.

.....and young male dance groups from schools on Elcho Island, just off the North East coast of East Arnhem Land.

We also met some bright spark young urban Aboriginal kids too. The stand out was young (only 14) Jody from Darwin High School who'd impressed us all with her searching question from the audience on last week's Q&A session on the ABC (which coincidentally was filmed in Darwin the week I was there).

Did I mention that Rob came along for the ride too? We even had time to enjoy a drink together on Darwin's beautiful Waterfront before the conference dinner on Wednesday night.

The dinner entertainment was amazing..the most laughs I've had in a long time. It had everything: kids dancing (early on), another performance by Ali Mills, and an incredibly non PC Aboriginal comedian who did the funniest skit I've ever seen about the way Europeans dance compared to the way black people dance.

And, incredibly, there were Aboriginal "gender illusionists" too, who must have spent every waking hour of their lives watching Tina Turner and Beyonce on MTV!

This is me doing my white (old) girl dancing..and not worrying at all about how silly I looked in this company!!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Celebrate some more

My sister graciously hosted a birthday celebration for me today, a wonderful chance to be spoilt with good wishes from good friends and enjoy more amazing food and wine together. Judy L. prepared Coffin Bay oysters, Jennie F., inspired by our favourite Peter Gilmour, had smoked duck breast and served it caramelised with mushroom risotto.

Maxie had roasted delicate little spatchcocks wrapped in prosciutto and served it with Middle Eastern style salads: maftoul (large grain couscous) and parsley and sultanas.

Followed by this gorgeous almond crumble and raspberry and pear dessert served with honey toasted cream (and chocolate icing).

I am really enjoying (while feeling humbled by) all this birthday love, but I also really enjoyed catching up on all J & W's travel tales, the tempranillo and tapas stories from Spain, sangiovese in Chianti and the now familiar delights of Beau Rivage in Condrieu.... and experiencing the invincible Kenny TomTom. Judy L. had more stories too from the Blue Mountains. We were also lucky to have the girls and Thomas (now a licensed driver) join us for this lovely relaxed afternoon together.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Lunch at Surrey Hills and Balmoral

There are any number of theme based walking tours you can take through Surrey Hills in inner city Sydney. Taking a designer, architectural, foodie or arty approach to exploring this eclectic suburb will reveal many delights and contrasts.

We started too late yesterday to do much exploring. We'll take a more serious approach when we're back in early November. Our main goal yesterday was to find somewhere to have a good meal well after the time people usually eat lunch.

Walking past the excellent Lebanese eateries on Cleveland Road and Elizabeth Street (all closed) and then around the corner and up Devonshire to Crown Street we eventually came to "Alchemy" a tiny Polish Cafe Restaurant with a distinctly retro feel (retro without irony I mean).

Set in the tiny rooms of an old Surrey Hills terrace, European style wooden furniture, fresh roses on the table, proper Polish comfort food, amazing cakes and fragrant Polish beer....just perfect for this rainy, cool afternoon - as hungry as we are by now.

Rob was ecstatic about his schnitzel, sauerkraut and mash (with a glass of Zamkowe beer). He rarely gets to eat food like that anymore!

But this cafe is worth visiting just for its amazing cakes and coffee. My choice was the chocolate cherry tart and Rob's was rhubarb pie. They don't have the delicacy and balance of fine dining desserts but are very yummy all the same!

Today for lunch we were a world away at the iconic Bathers Pavillion at Balmoral Beach.

As another birthday treat we met up with my friend Tania McM. for a long lunch in this gorgeous restaurant, catching up on family, travel and art news as we enjoyed Serge Dansereau's special Crave Sydney lunch menu. Dessert was another and passionfruit roulade; much much lighter and more subtle than our dessert yesterday.

Tania's generous gift of Serge D.'s French Kitchen will be an inspiring reminder of this lovely meal together and hopefully will encourage us to do that cooking school with Serge sometime in the future.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


We thought it was worth opening my birthday bottle of Veuve Clicquot a full 6 hours before the official start of October 2. We were feeling very happy, seeing the beautiful new CP print hung and the ceiling fans and lights successfully installed, all ready for the coming Coogee summer.

The streets outside 8/85 were eerily quiet as everyone else was conducting post mortems on the big AFL final in Melbourne.

But for my actual birthday celebration on Sunday night we were off to the amazing Quay Restaurant, at Sydney's Circular Quay, voted Number 26 on the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant's List and named the Best Restaurant in Australasia.

That didn't stop us taking a $2.50 all day bus ticket for Seniors ride to Circular Quay from Coogee, the first time I have been able to take advantage of this amazing deal. It's so good that us Seniors can travel so cheaply as we're off to eat at one of the best restaurants in the world.

We had a relatively late dinner booking for 8.30pm. Unfortunately, the cold, windy, showery weather was not conducive to our pre-dinner wanderings around this spectacular part of the harbour, despite the iconic landmarks.

The entrance to Quay is on the third level of the International Terminal building, with its own great view of the Bridge. Tonight it had images of NRL football projected on the pylons - although sadly for the followers the NZ team had won the grand final game against Manly this afternoon.

We had the best table in the house for our dinner. It was a very difficult choice to decide on the four course a la carte menu (instead of the 8 course degustation) and we asked the sommelier to match each of our courses with a suitable wine (by the glass).

Our thrilling, tantalizing meal started with an unexpected but luscious taster of sashimi of tuna, umami jelly and eggplant cream. Then our first courses, which we shared, were: Sashimi of blue mackeral, smoked eel flowers, sea scallops, pickled apple, nasturtiums (the tiniest baby leaves) and Tasmanian wasabi; and, an amazing Salad of rhubarb, endive, beetroot, purple carrot, rosa radish, kohlrabi, goat's curd, pomegranate molasses and violet flowers. The salad was built on a layer of delicious, deep crimson, finely grained crunch (but what was it?). Both our first courses were brilliantly matched with an organic 2011 Thistle Hill Riesling from Mudgee.

Our second courses were: Slow cooked coturnix quail breast, stone ground semolina enriched with Alba truffle butter, buckwheat, farro,walnuts, pumpernickel, paratha, and malt (another beautifully textured and flavoured dish) and gently poached southern rock lobster, golden tapioca, shaved squid, lobster velvet and pea flowers - matched with a divine 2008 Scorpo "Aubaire" Chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsula.

Our third courses were stunning too: Confit of milk fed Suffolk lamb, purple garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, sheeps milk curd, salt bush shoots, fennel pollen, Pantelleria capers, matched with a 2003 Patha Estate "Jezza"Cabernet Merlot from Orange, and the astoundingly rich and gorgeous Berkshire pig jowl, with maltose crackling, prunes, cauliflower cream, perfumed with prune kernel oil (this dish was my idea of heaven), matched with a 2010 Thick as Thieves "Star Jack" Pinot Noir from the Macedon Ranges.

Dessert was an easy pick: the famous Quay snow egg (jackfruit flavoured on this occasion) matched with a lovely 2010 Cascinetta Vieti Moscato d'Asti from Piemonte, Italy and the Ewe's milk ice cream, caramel, roasted walnuts, prune, Pedro Ximenez, chocolate bark, pulled toffee, and vanilla milk skin, matched very cleverly with a 2010 Mount Horrocks "Cordon Cut" Reisling from the Clare Valley. By this time our sommelier was spending more and more time with us explaining each wine (never boring though!). We felt like we were old friends by the end of the night. No wonder you might say, after drinking all this wine - but hey he was a great admirer of our Canberra District wines after all!

Our dinner out at Quay was unforgettable. For a timeless few hours we just gave ourselves up to the sheer enjoyment of the amazing setting and superlative food, the wine and each other's company at this very wonderful time of our lives........... Before catching the after midnight bus back to Coogee!