Australia’s Kakadu National Park floods trap tourists after they ignore closed road signs

Australia floodsWhat is it with German tourists and Australia’s Northern Territory? If they’re not getting eaten by crocodiles or succumbing to dehydration, they’re blatantly ignoring road signs and driving their way into croc-infested floodwaters. NT News online reports that four wayward Germans visiting remote Kakadu National Park drove their rented four-wheel-drive–allegedly at 80mph, no less–through the flooded crossing at Magela Creek and Oenpelli Road. The group were en route to see the famed Aboriginal rock art at Ubirr, in the East Alligator region of the park.

The car stalled out, leaving the foursome stranded in three feet of water, smack-dab in the middle of a 300-foot crossing. Despite their apparent inability to heed large, glaring warning signs and screams from more intelligent roadside onlookers, the Germans possessed enough survival instinct to clamber to the top of their vehicle, where they were rescued by police 30 minutes later.

Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in Australia, including Kakadu. I’ll be the first to point out that the international media and popular film and literature make the country out to be some kind of fauna-invoked death wish. If the great whites and saltwater crocs don’t get you, the box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopi, brown snakes, taipans, or redback and funnel web spiders will.

I’m not disputing the deadliness of these creatures. And I can’t deny that certain situations like the current floods in Queensland make an encounter more likely. The advice to avoid “crocky” areas of tropical Northern Australia is no joke, and should be taken very seriously. In general, however, it’s easy to avoid crocs and the rest of these much-maligned critters; your odds of ever seeing one (even if you’re Australian) are unlikely. It’s a huge continent, guys, and like most venomous or aggressive species, most of these animals won’t attack unless provoked.

When I visited stunning Kakadu (with a seasoned outfitter from the region, because there’s no shortage of untrained, self-proclaimed, even downright dangerous guides in the world), it was this same time of year; the “Wet,” or monsoon season. It’s low season for tourists because many roads are flooded, and as such, that does make for greater statistical odds for a croc encounter. But more to the point, why would you intentionally disobey safety precautions, especially when you’re in a foreign environment/they’re prominently displayed/designed for easy comprehension by international visitors?

The bottom line is, whether you choose to explore isolated places alone or with an environmentally-responsible, accredited professional, use your brain. Obey the rules, because they exist for a reason. Behave with respect for the land, flora, fauna, and people. Your stupidity or carelessness often cause more than just inconvenience to others. It can result in great expense and lost lives, including those of your rescuers. If nothing else, you’ll become fodder for global news outlets, who use you as an example of what not to do.

Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

Aboriginal artNo one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]

Photo of the Day (8.24.10)

I think it’s fair to say that everyone deserves to experience a moment like this in their lifetime. A remote beach. A dramatic sunset. Stormy clouds hanging in the distance with nightfall soon approaching. Flickr user Ka wai punahele immortalized this picture perfect moment on the coast of Australia’s sparse Northern Territory, just outside the city of Darwin.

Casuarina Beach (the gorgeous subject of the photo) is in Darwin’s northern suburb of Brinkin, which is just a stone’s throw from the Darwin Airport. Darwin is one of Australia’s most modern capital cities, having been rebuilt once after WWII and again in 1974 after Cyclone Tracy.

Do you have a once-in-a-lifetime moment from your travels that must be shared? Upload it to our Gadling Flickr pool and it could be tomorrow’s Photo of the Day!

Qantas & Tourism Northern Territory offer cheap flights to Australia’s Red Center

Gadling loves Australia. We’ve been proponents of Americans visiting Oz for a while and I was fortunate enough to check out Australia’s Red Center last year. The added flights – and the costs of those flights – have often kept Americans from delving deep into the heart of this fascinating country. Now, however, Qantas and Tourism Northern Territory are partnering to make travel from America’s West Coast to Central Australia cheaper than ever.

Packages to Alice Springs, Darwin or Uluru (Ayers Rock) are only $999 from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Travel must be booked by January 26, 2010 and your visit to Australia will have to be between May 1 and June 8, 2010. You’ll want to spend a few weeks Down Under, so this five week window is more than enough time to explore the heart of Australia.

Qantas and Tourism NT are also partnering with local tour operators and hotels to offer deals for visitors. You can learn more on the Qantas Vacations website.

For more information on Australia’s Northern Territory, check out the series from my trip there last year.

It may seem like 2010 just started, but there’s no better time to plan your travel for the year than now!

Outback Australia: Where are the Americans?

Close to 300,000 people from outside of Australia visit the Northern Territory every year. And if I noticed anything about those tourists while I was there it’s that the vast majority do not speak English. That is by no means a judgmental statement. I enjoyed sharing meals and experiences with travelers from France and Germany. But I was often the only “Yank” for miles. The more time I spent in the Territory, the more I was taken by how I was a bit of a novelty there. “New York,” as most of the locals would begin their greetings, “sure is a long ways from here.” But is it that much farther than Paris or Berlin or London? Why don’t more Americans travel to the Northern Territory?

According to Tourism Northern Territory, 51,000 people from North American visit every year (details on travelers solely from the United States were not available). That pales in comparison to the 62,000 Brits and 136,000 residents of other European countries who make their way to the Outback every year.

Americans surely are traveling to Oz. Anyone who has spent time in Sydney or at the Great Barrier Reef can attest to bumping into American students, backpackers and tourists taking photos of the Sydney Opera House and snorkeling along the east coast. But Americans seem to be ignoring Australia’s Top End, which is odd since it is the region of the country that is most distinctly Australian.

By no means am I diminishing New South Wales, Queensland or Victoria (the more popular states for foreign visitors), but people who travel there often experience only a snippet of true Australian culture. Sydney is a wonderful city and one of my favorite places to relax with friends, but, for all intents and purposes, it feels like the United States. And while the Whitsunday Islands make up one of the most beautiful corners of the world I have ever had the pleasure of visiting, you’ll find people who can make a convincing argument that the Cayman Islands or Hawaii are just as, if not more, impressively gorgeous. There simply are a lot of places with crystal blue water and great snorkeling.

But the Northern Territory is unlike any place I have ever seen (granted, I have not been to the plains of Sub-Saharan Africa). From red rock outcrops to seemingly endless flood plains to the charmingly quirky Centralia town of Alice Springs, the Northern Territory offers a range of natural beauty and culture that simply cannot be found in the more “civilized” cities of Australia’s east coast. Things move slower in the Territory, as evidenced by a saying I heard repeated throughout my travels: “NT stands for not today, not tomorrow, not Tuesday and not Thursday.” Things get done in the Territory and the people who live there work hard on cattle ranches, in mines and on farms. But you won’t see a lot of people wearing watches, scheduling meetings or asking for the status of the last staff meeting’s deliverables. This is a place defined by seasons of the year, not by the time of day.

What Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane do have are direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco. And those flights are almost 15 hours long. For residents of America’s east coast, it will take close to five hours to get to one of those departure cities. Add in layovers and airport waiting times, and you’re looking at 24+ hours of traveling just to get to Australia. In other words, it can be a hard sell to convince people to add another flight across a country just as large as the United States when they’re already sick of recycled air and stiff legs. But believe me, it’s worth it.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle keeping Americans away from the Northern Territory is our culture. Americans do not typically take vacations that last in excess of a week. That is often because of both limited vacation time allotted by American companies and a culture that, unlike Europe, doesn’t consider month-long holidays commonplace. Thus, it becomes challenging to take vacations that require multiple days of travel just to reach to your intended destination. This often discourages people from even approaching their employers about taking an extended holiday.

When I landed in Sydney after more than a day’s worth of travel, I was actually eager to board my 4+ hour flight to Darwin. Sure, I’d been to Sydney before so I didn’t feel compelled to linger there, but I also was brimming with anticipation of the great unknown that is the Northern Territory for a first-time visitor. You don’t have to visit Sydney to picture it in your head. You do need to stand atop Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park to truly understand just how massive, wild and beautiful the Northern Territory truly is. And that’s why Americans should be going to the Northern Territory. If you’re willing to travel to Australia – to the opposite side of the planet – then you already have some sense of adventure. If you let that guide you, one more flight just seems like the next logical step.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.