Week 183 – early nights

A quiet week. Tommy had a haircut (thankfully a calmer experience than last time – his screams as we arrived were quickly quelled by the car-based cartoon the hairdresser showed on her iPad!). I went to see a couple of films, both good. The first was ‘Rams’, a bleaker-than-bleak tale of two elderly estranged sheep-farmer brothers dealing with the loss of their flocks and livelihoods following an outbreak of (the fatal sheep disease) scrapie. It was grim, but there was also humour and humanity, and great stunning Icelandic vistas.


The second was ‘Sherpa’, a fascinating documentary about Mount Everest tourism, focussing on the Sherpa and the western tour operators (and giving the selfish western ‘mountain-climbers’ just enough rope to hang themselves). The film-maker decided to document the 2014 climbing season, and happened to be on the scene when a huge ice-fall killed 16 Sherpa. In their anger and grief all the other Sherpa refused to go on working (effectively ending the climbing season), calling for the government to recognise the huge risks they take. For each tourist’s single trip up a section of Everest, most Sherpa ascend at least 8 times, carrying all the heavy and bulky equipment needed for each camping stage (which means they are much more likely to be severely injured/die). It was a balanced, thoughtful, and incisive film, raising all the issues of third-world tourism at the extreme end.


Maisie’s friend Charlotte (and her mum, Adriana) came over for a film night(!) on Saturday evening. I’d borrowed several Disney animations from the library, but in the end the girls just wanted to watch ‘Monsters Inc’ again! And even then, they weren’t too keen on sitting down and watching, preferring to run around playing princess games!


On Sunday I took Maisie to a free show put on by the Melbourne Stage School. Dancers in three different age groups performed lively selections from an obscure set of musicals (including ‘Newsies’ – a show all about paper boys!).


There were huge numbers of singers and dancers and it was all very slick and impressive. Maisie sat on my lap and bobbed away with excitement.


After the show we went winter clothes shopping for the kids. Maisie was thrilled with all her new outfits (but not so thrilled with Tommy’s photo-bombing during our fashion shoot)!

Week 182 – gamelan at dusk

On Monday Jan, Maisie, Tommy and I went to the aquarium. There were lots of new things to see, including a section devoted to crustaceans (from the gigantic spider crabs to a tank full of the tiniest hermit crabs and bright blue shrimps) and funky rainbow lighting in the moon jelly tank (now they float serenely in shades of red, purple and pink).


Maisie’s favourite area didn’t feature any real fish at all. There were tables with paper and pens where you could colour in your own fish then scan it into a computer, and it would instantly be projected (swimming) onto the wall!


Tommy was most excited by the glass tunnels of the Oceanarium – it is my favourite bit too – it is always amazing to be in the shadow of the massive rays and sharks as they glide over your head. One of the biggest fish is their wonderfully grumpy-looking grouper, already weighing 200kg at 15 years old, with the possibility of reaching 600kg if he makes it to 50!


Also impressive is the large salt-water crocodile, which can be viewed from every angle. Tommy peered down at him through the glass floor. The tropical fish (and the live corals, which they have gradually been introducing over the last couple of years) are also a delight. The false gramma (pictured below), despite being tiny, is apparently very aggressive and can’t be trusted with other small fish!


Jan flew back to the UK on Tuesday, so our household dwindled once again to Maisie, Tommy and me! But happily I’d managed to persuade a number of friends to come round in the evenings remaining till Neil’s return from the US, so most days I managed to get a decent adult conversation in!


That first evening, 5 of my wonderful mum’s group friends came round for dinner. We’ve known each other for several years now, and have talked freely of anything and everything related to having children, but there are still many things that we haven’t shared about the pre-kid years. And this was a night of revelations, both happy ones and sad ones, but all serving to strengthen and deepen our relationships with (and admiration for) each other!

On Wednesday Tommy enjoyed a playdate with several little boys – Rowena’s sons Adrian and Sebastian, and Roni’s youngest, Nathan (all aged between 4 and 2). Rowena’s house was full of boys toys (cars of every size and type). Tommy could hardly contain his excitement and was keen to join in with all the games – he even picked up a 2-wheeled scooter (he is used to a stable 3-wheeler), immediately got the hang of balancing on it, and was away!


On Friday afternoon, having dropped Maisie and Tommy off at Myomi’s house (she had kindly agreed to wrangle them as well as her own two for several hours!) I joined Gamelan DanAnda for their gig at the ‘Red Stair’ (see picture!) on the banks of the Yarra river.


The weather was perfect – a surprising 29 degrees and utterly still – and the setting sun shone on us like a floodlight, illuminating the gold and red-painted carvings of the instruments, and the sparkling costumes of the many dancers (an excellent group from Geelong who we were working with for the first time). We played 2 sets in 2 hours, and gathered quite an audience of perambulating tourists and curious commuters. Although the playing was far from perfect and the level of faff(!) was high, we all felt energized and exhilarated at the end of the gig!


On Saturday afternoon Maisie had been invited to her friend Juno’s birthday party (Juno, Maisie and Charlotte are ‘the team’ – her first clique – at childcare). It was an outdoor event (in a local park) and unfortunately the weather was overcast and distinctly chilly. But while the adults stood around shivering, the kids had a fine old time dashing around on petal hunts, playing pass the parcel and eating a lot of sweet food. Tommy (who hadn’t been invited but was in tow anyway) ate his weight in cake (‘cake, cake, cake!’ he chanted excitedly for the rest of the day).


Neil arrived home from his US/Uruguay trip on Sunday morning. His talks had gone well, and he’d met many interesting people, but, as ever, eating (as a vegan) had been a challenge. On his first night in Uruguay the ‘vegetarian’ option was meatballs (not considered ‘proper’ meat – most people were eating steak!), and the next day it was fish. Luckily he managed to find a supermarket near his hotel!


Neil had managed brief visits to several of Washington’s renowned museums, and had bought Maisie an astronaut outfit (an accurate copy of the ones worn by the US space crew). She absolutely loved it, and spent the afternoon watching footage of rockets launching and life on the space station, and making her own rocket out of old toilet rolls.

Week 181- gypsy jazz and sand sculptures

We had a couple of hours to kill in Alice Springs before our flight home on Monday, and escaped our muzak-filled hostel to find some breakfast in town. The pedestrianised high street was lined with chain-stores interspersed with aboriginal art shops and welfare centres. A Melbourne-style cafe was reeling in all the tourists with their giant veggie breakfasts and fresh juices (delicious home-made hash browns, tomatoes grilled with fresh herbs, huge melting slabs of halloumi etc).


We flew back with Qantas, and were pleasantly surprised to to be provided with food and on-screen entertainment (a rarity on domestic flights!). I watched the Chinese dating show ‘If you are the one’ – there are no games played here, instead all the participants ask each other direct searching questions about wealth, morals, family circumstances, previous relationships etc. It was fascinating!

Tuesday was Sonya’s last day in Melbourne. Happily it was hot and sunny so she, Tommy and I headed to the beach for a splash (Tommy) and a swim (Sonya). We went to a newly opened Mexican veggie place for lunch, and enjoyed some fine cocktails and healthy burritos (while Tommy polished off a whole plate of paprika-covered chips!).


Neil headed off to the US on Wednesday, for a 10-day work trip taking in New York, Washington and Montevideo(!). It was very cold and wet. After getting completely drenched on our way to and from the supermarket, Tommy and I went over to Jules’ house for a play, and Tommy fell in love with their dopey labradoodle, Einstein (they were both about the same size and colour!). At bed time, we had to get out the winter pyjamas!


On Thursday Myomi and I took the kids to this months’ ‘Rock-a-bye-baby’ music session. Playing were ‘La Mauvaise Reputation’, a great local gypsy swing band. Surprisingly, it appeared to be the music of choice for every boho Fitzroy mum – there were so many of them with their funkily dressed broods there that there was no room left to dance – although Maisie and Christopher did their very best (they were right at the front – see photo far right)!


Jan arrived back from Airlie Beach on Thursday evening, for a four day visit before heading home to the UK. On Friday we caught the train down the coast to Frankston to see their annual sand sculpture exhibition.


We went for a little walk along the beach first, and the sea proved too enticing – both kids went straight in wearing all their clothes!


The sand sculpture show is themed each year – this time it was ‘A day at the zoo’. Most of the larger pieces tackled a continent, the lively animals (depicted playing, leaping, running, feeding etc.) set against imaginative contextual backdrops (including a replica of Machu Picchu, a great Angkor Watt carved head, and an intricately detailed thatched mud hut).


There were some alternative takes on the theme (the Loch Ness Monster and a Yeti made an appearance), the most beautiful of which was an incredibly intricate steam-punk styled mural which was like a puzzle picture – the more you looked at the mass of cogs and pistons and wheels, the more different animals materialised!


Maisie wasn’t very interested in the sculptures – she headed straight for the craft area, where she had a go at making things with the unpleasantly greasy builders sand that is used for the sculptures (she made a birthday cake).


Tommy, on the other hand, loved all the animals, particularly those that were his size. On the way back to the station we passed a marvellous kids shoe shop (a rarity here!) and Maisie and Tommy both chose a new pair of winter shoes which they were both ridiculously excited about (and I like them too!).


We had a quiet day on Saturday, the kids taking Jan on a tour of their favourite bits of the park before a typically chaotic brunch at Leroy’s (our fault, not the restaurant’s!). In the evening I went out with Lizzie K. We decided to see what tickets were on last-minute offer at the comedy festival. We hung around the huge chalk boards outside the City Hall which list the (100+) shows that are on each day, and were mobbed by enthusiastic young entertainers advertising their performances. They tried to sell us comedy boxing, a yeti-based sketch show, surreal tale-telling, live musical improv etc.

After lengthy considerations (over cocktails!), we chose a story-telling session by young Aussie comedian Wil Greenway. The bleak premise of ‘Vincent goes splat’ (not revealed in the blurb – although perhaps the title should have given it away!) was a mid-air meeting between two men who happened to take suicide jumps off the same tall tower at exactly the same moment. As they fall they discuss the circumstances that led to that point. Unfortunately those circumstances, whilst bizarre and occasionally vaguely amusing, were also full of unnecessary gore (my least favourite thing of all!). The performance wasn’t so bad, and time didn’t drag but I just hated the story. Not one to look out for!


On an autumnal Sunday morning we headed to the beach. It was too breezy to relax and too cold to be in the sea (although the kids did, and it was annoying to have to wade after them), so Jan valiantly facilitated sandcastle building activities. In the afternoon I went along to a Kebyar rehearsal at Jeremy’s studio, as the group will be performing an outdoor gig on Melbourne’s south bank (just by the Casino!) next week. It was great to play Kebyar again with Jeremy’s group (which is getting better, but is still far from the heights of Lila Cita).

Week 180 – many shades of red!

On Easter Monday we took both kids down to the skate park with their scooters. It was the first time we had let Tommy loose on the ramps, and he was utterly fearless, zooming up and down the gentler gradients and even attempting a couple of the steeper ones. Maisie had to up her game as she had someone to compete with!


In the evening I went to see ‘A Bigger Splash’, a sultry tale of partner-swapping and intrigue amongst the glamorous summer folk of a rocky Italian island. The casting was enticing (Tilda Swinton played a rock star, Ralph Fiennes her sex-crazed former agent and lover) but the film was disappointingly less than the sum of its parts.


Neil’s Easter break extended till Tuesday (and Maisie was in childcare) so we had a day to hang out with Tommy! We went to see another of the free kids shows put on as part of the comedy festival. The (Belgian) group performing were called ‘The democratic circus of Belgium’ and their clever spin on an entertaining selection of juggling, tap-dancing routines and magic tricks, was to frequently ask the audience to vote on what they wanted to see next. Two choices were always offered (one of them was occasionally ‘a lecture on the history of democracy in Belgium’!) and the audience voted by holding up a red or yellow card. Towards the end of one juggling routine we were asked whether we wanted to see a spectacular finish or a damp squib, and the audience voted overwhelmingly for the fail!


We walked down to ACCA to see their latest show, which brought together eight newly commissioned projects by emerging Australian artists. With Tommy in tow we had to walk through quickly (he isn’t good in galleries!), but that was fine as there wasn’t much of interest. The most entertaining pieces were both sound sculptures – one was a series of metal archways on castors each rigged up with a differently pitched drone, which changed pitch depending on its proximity to the other arches (you could move them around yourself); the other was four great sheets of paper cascading down the wall of one room which would periodically vibrate rapidly making a thundering rushing sort of noise. Tommy was pretty spooked by it!

In the evening Elizabeth and I went to see Rich Hall’s comedy festival show. He was very endearing, and had many clever, perceptive and entertaining things to say about American politics, late fatherhood and living in Montana, also several funny songs about IT and dogs (he did repeat his greyhound song of last week!) but he didn’t really make me laugh this time, which was a shame!


Sonya returned on Wednesday. We started the day with a delicious breakfast of courgette fritters and immaculately frothed milky coffee at our favourite well hidden vegan cafe in Balaclava, then caught the train over to Williamstown. We wandered round the beautiful Jawbone marine sanctuary (site of some of Victoria’s only coastal mangroves) and followed the bay round to the Williamstown docks. We were hoping to see the Sea Shepherd fleet, but when we got to the wharf where they are moored, it turned out that all of them (there are 4) were at sea!


Tommy, at least, enjoyed a close-up view of a couple of tug boats. We caught the ferry back into the centre of Melbourne, past the container port (which was the busiest I’ve ever seen it, with 6 ships in dock!). I thought Tommy would be thrilled to be at sea, watching all the boats and building works (they are currently constructing a new port big enough to load the new super-container ships), but he wasn’t happy! He only perked up when we went under the great road bridges and he could shout excitedly at the cars passing over our heads.


In the evening Sonya and I went out for a dinner at Uncle (our reliably excellent local Vietnamese restaurant), and then dashed into town for the first of two comedy shows we had booked in that night. First up was Hannah Gadsby, who had impressed me a couple of years ago with her hilarious slide-show on the rise of the selfie and art history. This time she decided to tackle Taylor Swift and all her inspirational nonsense. She briskly picked apart Tay-Tay’s lyrics (inclement weather seems to be her favourite hackneyed metaphor) and shot down her claims to have been the bullied under-dog. Hannah told stories of her own childhood in Tasmania, never fitting in, spending her weekends rummaging in the dump with her father; and about her many bizarre encounters with dogs. She was clever and funny, but my Taylor Swift knowledge was too patchy to fully appreciate what she was doing!

Next up was Simon Munnery. The audience was tiny, which made the atmosphere slightly tense to begin with, but his gentle eccentricities soon warmed everyone up. He started out with a series of increasingly ridiculous opening lines, told several odd tales about being on tour (the funniest of which ended with him accidentally fondling Ben Elton’s shoe), and quibbled with common misuses of the English language (his daughter’s use of ‘like’, and phrases such as ‘new and improved’). Familiar bits of North London often made an appearance in his tales, which was a bonus!


On Thursday Sonya, Maisie, Tommy and I went to visit the Chinese Temple which is currently being built on a desolate site between a cement works and a railway bridge in the industrial suburb of South Kensington(!). I last went over a year ago, and since then, a large and ornate new pavilion has been erected alongside the main temple (and construction is still ongoing).


It is clearly a well-funded project – the carvings, statuary, murals, tapestries etc. are beautifully made and plentiful. But it is always pretty much deserted (there were only a couple of old Vietnamese men and a few builders around), and graffiti has started appearing on the exterior walls.


Maisie and Tommy were fascinated by everything – the prayer ribbons hanging from the paper blossom trees, the ceremonial bells and drums (it was hard to stop them from having a go!), the (rather inviting!) offerings of fruit and flowers, the great gods and goddesses in their ornately decorated shrines (Maisie took a fancy to the ‘angry red-faced’ one), and the hundreds of tiny identical gold and red lanterns hanging from the ceiling.


In the afternoon we headed back into town to catch another of the free comedy performances. Four French clowns dressed as a SWAT team emerged from the top of one of Federation Square’s crazy-paving building walls (see picture!) and proceeded to abseil down in a variety of silly ways, before bumbling through a series of stealth manoeuvres involving rubbish bins, ice-cream and stranded teddy bears.


Maisie thought it was the funniest thing ever, guffawing loudly and frequently exclaiming how silly they were! Tommy was just as fascinated by the large crowd, and put on his own (happily fairly endearing) show.


On Friday Sonya and I flew to Uluru (Ayers Rock) for a whistle-stop tour of the Red Centre. The trip started well when we were moved to the front seats of the plane, from where we had clear views of the vast desolate expanses of red sand and rock, with the occasional great swirling tranche of white (salt lakes – pictured is Lake Eyre, the largest lake in Australia on the rare occasions that it is full of water!)…


…or neat incisions of black (mines). As we were descending, the plane did a full circle, to allow everyone a good view of the rock!


Our cheery tour-guide (/cook/driver/DJ/first-aider!), Dan, met us at the airport and we joined our party of 23 (most of them in their teens or early twenties, and German/Swiss, Scandinavian, English or American) in the cosy mini-bus.


We drove straight to Uluru, first stopping off at the cultural centre, where we learnt some of the local Aboriginal creation stories (only the simplest versions of the stories are shared with non-aboriginals, those that are taught to 5-year-old children), and about the early colonial forays into the desert, and the years of negotiations that have led to the local aboriginal groups taking back ownership of the area and helping train non-aboriginal national park staff.


There were also lots of fascinating details about flora and fauna, the various desert terrains, and the many types of bush foods and medicines. Anything remotely edible was harvested – tiny grass seeds or shrivelled fruits would be ground up into flour and mixed with water to make bread. The only numbers the aborigines needed were 1, 2, 3 or many (if the men went hunting, they would be lucky if they caught 3 kangaroo, say, and the women gathering plants would always harvest ‘many’ fruits or grains).


As we started our first walk around the rock, Dan told us a little about the local aboriginal art. The desert art is perhaps the simplest and most codified in form (the dot paintings) – and it was that way because there was so little time to paint (the business of survival taking up most of every adult’s waking hours).


We had a look inside a small cave where traces of C19th (and earlier) aboriginal paintings still survive on the unexposed rock. The paintings served educational purposes – there were the concentric circles of waterholes, the tracks of kangaroo and emus, shapes of leaves and snakes (tight waves for venomous snakes, larger curves for non-venomous ones) and a sprinkle of ochre spots indicating the Milky Way (which we had wonderful views of every night!).


The ground at the foot of the rock was carpeted with swaying white/gold grasses, tiny purple flowers, small fruiting shrubs (we spotted the bush plum), and a variety of glowing green trees such as desert gums and oaks. Armies of tiny (and not so tiny!) ants snaked across the path, and we walked through clouds of butterflies (browny oranges with flashes of blue, and brilliant lime green) and dragonflies. A trickle of water dripped down the rock into one of its many water-holes – Dan said that he’d only seen that happen 3 times in his several years of leading tours. The reason for the unusual lushness was a series of recent storms – and in less than a month it will all have dried up again.


The rock itself was magnificent – it really is so unlike anything else as it is simply one massive boulder – sand that was fused together millions of years ago, then forced up out of the earth (at an 80 degree angle, hence the almost vertical striations) by a huge geological event. It is thought (although no-one knows accurately) that 90% of it is still under the ground. The sandstone was originally a whitey-grey colour, but soon after it rose from the ground, a cloud of iron dust swept through the desert and coated it. Over the years it rusted, giving the rock its amazing distinctive colour. It really does glow at any time of day.


The texture was like clay, or skin, or ice-cream, with great gashes like wounds, and scars and crevices (all of which are accounted for in the aboriginal stories of the place – a wiggling scar represented a snake, a great crack was where a female elder had smote the rock in anger).


We went into the women’s cave, where the women would prepare food, grinding seeds to make bread. The caves were a life-saver on a 50 degree day in the desert – it could be up to 20 degrees cooler inside there. We weren’t allowed to photograph the men’s cave, which is still a sacred place. Within it were three strangely shaped protuberances – said to be three elders who permanently look after the place. Nearby was the children’s cave – their school – covered with instructional paintings of plants and animals.


Just before dusk we drove to the official sunset viewing point (along with every other coach party in the area).


It was a big event – most of the tourists had a glass of champagne in one hand, and a table loaded with canapes within striking distance (we didn’t!).


Sonya and I got as far away from the hoards as we could and made friends with a tiny dune lizard as the rock burned an ever more vividly coppery red on the horizon.


It was at its most brilliant just as the sun disappeared, and within minutes shadows had crept up its sides reducing it to a dull terracotta (which still perfectly set off the pink and blue-grey lines of the Belt of Venus).


We arrived at our campsite in the dark. Dan rustled up a kangaroo bolognese (enjoyed by all – I am already a fan of the meat!) and everyone rolled out their swags for the night. I had decided that I was just too old to sleep al fresco, so had booked Sonya and I a tent! It was a relief to have a tiny bit of our own private space (and we didn’t have to endure a chorus of snores or worry about snakes).


Dan woke us at 5am the following morning. We had to pack and eat breakfast before dawn so we could make it to another viewpoint (thankfully within walking distance!) to watch the rock regain its glow.


It was nice to be awake before the flies (they were a horrible nuisance – apparently they were introduced along with the colonisers’ cows).


After the party atmosphere of dusk, dawn was a more serene experience – everyone was quiet as the stars gradually extinguished and the deep indigo of the sky turned turquoise with subtle swathes of pink.


The rock looked especially mysterious – moonlike in texture – as the light began to pick out its wrinkles and pockmarks. Kata Tjuta (‘Many Heads’), our next destination, was bathed in a spectacular peach glow.


It was a half hour drive there, and the air temperature was already hotting up (the paths are closed when temperatures reach 35+ degrees) as we started our trek through the ‘Valley of the Winds’.


Kata Tjuta is another spectacular rock formation that emerged from the ground at the same time as Uluru. Although it is the same colour (dyed by the same cloud of iron ore), it is very different in form – a jumbled series of giant lumps and bumps, and formed from conglomerate (fused rocks), so different in surface texture too.


Hidden between the humps are green valleys that were once prime hunting grounds for the aboriginal peoples (kangaroo and goanna were the main prey). And for this reason, it was the sacred place for the men (with Uluru being the special place for the women).


The walk was pleasantly strenuous, taking us up steep slippery rock faces high into the clefts between curving red cliffs and down scree-like paths into flat valley basins…


…green with grasses, flowering bushes covered with fluffy yellow blossoms, and pretty clumps of flowers, including the ‘pretty-but-useless’ pictured.


As I walked I disturbed many crickets – I managed to track down one particularly well camouflaged specimen (pictured!).


On our way back to camp we stopped to take photos at a viewing point in nearby dunes (colourful – with lots of tiny silvery and purple flowering succulents).


A huge spider had made a web under the viewing platform canopy, and baby spiders were just hatching out of its egg sac!


We also enjoyed views of the incredible desert oak – a tree which sends its roots down 85 metres to the water table. While the roots are working their way down the tree looks like a sorry sort of Christmas tree, but as soon as they hit water it starts growing branches. Many of the specimens we were looking at were over 150 years old!


After a lunch-time barbecue, we set off on a 3.5 hour drive to King’s Creek, where we were to stay the night. I loved driving through the desert – there were so many different terrains – my favourite was a gently rolling heavily wooded area.


In other places great red rocky escarpments went on for miles, and sometimes little dunes rose from the flattest of plains. We stopped for a photo in a red sandy dune overlooking a great salt lake, and the heavily eroding ‘Mount Cooper’ (which reminded me of desert scenery in America).


In the late afternoon we stopped to collect mulga wood for the evening’s camp fire. It was a bit scary plunging through the tangled woodlands, the branches swathed in spider webs (Dan warned us to look out for them – many of them are poisonous!).


We arrived at King’s Creek Station at dusk. It looked familiar, and we learned that it was where many of the camel-training scenes from the recent Aussie film ‘Tracks’ were filmed. A baby camel was grazing placidly with a few cows. He was the prettiest camel I’ve ever seen and very docile (he was happy to eat from everyone’s hands).


The mulga wood burnt fast and furiously (see picture!). After 20 minutes or so, all that was left was a bed of extremely hot coals, and this is what Dan used to cook our supper (chicken stir-fry and damper!) on, in big soot-blackened pots. After our tasty repast, he led us on a night walk to a completely pitch black spot where we could enjoy a sky glittering with stars. The Milky Way was so bright and clear. Other constellations were quite hard to spot as there were so many extra stars within and around them!


While we marvelled at the sparkling heavens, Dan told us some scary stories. One was the age-old urban myth about a couple alone in a car at night in a remote place where a serial killer is on the loose – which Dan cunningly embroidered with local details – and these were enough to convince many people that the story was true! Other (true) things he told us about the general lawlessness of the Northern Territories were more unsettling!

It was another pre-dawn start on Sunday, and as Sonya and I headed for the shower-block by torchlight, a brilliant shooting star arched a silvery trail above our heads – a magical start to the day!


A short drive took us to King’s Canyon, a dramatic sandstone gorge with precipitous walls measuring over 100m high. The first steep ascent (nicknamed ‘Heart Attack Hill’) took us to the rim of the gorge just as the sun appeared over the horizon.


The deeply striated layers of reddish sandstone (once layers of sand at the bottom of an inland sea) glowed copper in the gentle dawn light.


Dan pointed out some of the plants that were used by the local aboriginal groups for medicinal purposes – one had fragrant leaves that when crushed and stuffed up your nostril would clear sinuses (and at a baby’s birth, the leaves were burnt, creating a smoke that would help clear the baby’s airwaves).


Another medicinal plant also had more sinister uses – the milky juice from broken leaves would be squeezed into a child’s eyes to temporarily blind them if they needed punishing for doing something particularly naughty. They wouldn’t just be blinded – they would also be led far away from the settlement and had to find their way home alone!


Dan also told us about the Ghost Gum (pictured) which can choose to ‘strangle’ branches that are not doing well, depriving them of water so that they wither and drop off. He also told us about the rare ‘pygmy koala’ – pointing out a very tiny koala at the top of a tree, which on closer inspection turned out to be a cuddly toy!


Looking out over the rim of the canyon we were directed to shout in unison, and the returning echoes were very clear.


The view was spectacular – the cliffs opposite looked as though they had been cut through with a knife – but this is just how they collapse (one of the paths was closed as they reckoned another huge section is to shear off soon).


Looking out of the mouth of the canyon across the desert plains, you could see Mount Cooper (100km or so away) very clearly, and if you looked really hard (I could just about see it through my zoom lens) you could see the bumps of Kata Tjuta (300km away!!).


The path meandered through a moon-like landscape of small deeply fissured curved mounds – I’d never seen anything quite like it.


At one stage we plunged into a hidden valley – below us were great gum trees, a deep flowing creek and clumps of huge red-fruiting ferns – you could see why it is nicknamed ‘The Garden of Eden’.


A little path took us to a large water-hole at the far end of the valley, full of crazy copper-golden reflections.


It was beautiful, but it was heaving with tourists eating their mid-morning snack, loudly sharing bawdy anecdotes about their travelling exploits, which echoed around the rocky walls.


We had finished our 3 hour walk by 10am – it was confusing to look at my watch as it felt like it should be early afternoon already (the days were so long and action packed!).


We went back to the campsite to pack up, and had half an hour’s free time. I went on an insect safari and photographed as many as I could sneak up on!


The variety of colours and intricate patterns on these tiny creatures was astonishing.


Dragonflies were blue, green and red…


…and crickets sported every shade of brown, red and yellow.


The scariest insect we spotted was a giant green locust with a nasty red pointy body (the size of my hand!).


A long afternoon drive through the desert (still endlessly fascinating!) was broken up by a visit to an NGO-run aboriginal community centre with an art shop and a friendly atmosphere (where I bought two beautiful original paintings).


Later we stopped at a camel ranch, where a few of our group went for a quick trot on a camel (there are more camels in Australia than in any other country – they are exported to the Middle East!).


They also had a gentle tame dingo, and a couple of red kangaroos (they were much small than I’d imagined – about the same size as the grey kangaroos we have here in Victoria), and some brilliant lime green budgerigars (we only saw one wild one flash past in a sunset streak of liquid green).


We were mobbed by miner birds – just like the noisy miners we have in Victoria, but with slightly different colouring – the yellow-throated miner. It’s a wonderful thing about Australia – each region will often have its own very specific variant of a particular type of bird.


In the late afternoon we made it to our final destination, Alice Springs. It’s an odd place, a little slice of colonial suburbia in the middle of the desert, but with every other block or so left wild, so it is neither one thing or the other. The white inhabitants work in the tourist industry or mining, and the many aboriginal inhabitants are forced into some sort of white-fella existence. Our tour group met up for supper in a deserted bar and I chatted to some of them for the first time (it’s not really possible to get to know 23 people in just over 2 days!). They were all very nice young people, despite being obsessed with taking selfies, and having dreadful taste in music(!) – and they didn’t drink or smoke at all.