Snakes and Ladders Katherine Calling
Snakes and Ladders and Katherine Calling
Our second night on The Ghan travelling north to Darwin from Alice (re-named from Stuart to Alice after Alice Todd, wife of Charles Todd who was head surveyor and orchestrator in the building of the Adelaide to Darwin Telegraph Station in Alice Springs that ran from 1871 to 1932) towards Katherine took us along the newest 1420km section of the crossing from Adelaide to Darwin which was completed in record time opening in 2004 and finally linked the two cities opposite eachother on the north and south coasts of Australia. A country divided by a railway line.
The full moon arced over us in the night sky, a heavenly headlight sending a shining silver line down the back of our wheeled snake as it sped more quietly on its new tracks through changing countryside. I lay in bed watching the semi blurred scenery passing by. Gone was the hot red centre and the nests of spinifex, gone were the views of the distant hills. Instead the sun of the new day painted a pale lilac glow through a woodland of trees that were charred up the lower trunk after a cool burn, designed to keep the undergrowth low and thin and prevent the risk of all engulfing fires.
Then into the tropical climate of the top Northern territory and luxuriant green woodland all around. This area is fed annually by the generous monsoon which raises water levels in the rivers by five metres in places and fills the frequent scooped out pools at the side of the track with water. These ‘scoops’ are where earth was dug out and used to make the base of the railway line. To travel on the Ghan at the height of the monsoon and see birds and wildlife around them taking a drink must be a lovely sight. We were travelling at the anticipated start of the monsoon.
Humanlike forms, hunched head and shoulders and bodies swathed in cloaks of ochre look as if they’re doomed to wander the forest forever, solitary and moronic. The biggest of the hundreds we viewed from the carriage window have unwittingly become partners to the aborigines in their burial practices. The termites that built the ochre mounds and now live in them also dine on the sweet centre of the tree trunks and aborigines use these hollowed out trunks or moriety as they are called. Their artists paint beautiful dot and swirl pictures on them, doubtless telling a story about the deceased in their designs. After a corpse has decomposed in the ground the bones are retrieved and placed in the wooden tubes. Then the top is knocked off a big, derelict mound and the tubes are respectfully placed upright in the mound. Finally stones are used as a lid to prevent animals breaking in to the vertical grave.
Rob awoke and climbed down his ladder to have a look outside with me. Two beautiful sand coloured Brahman Cattle with their floppy ears and humped necks stared at us as we passed. We sensed our amazing trip was coming to an end and we’d do it all again just so we could see those earthy scoops full with rainwater, walk through the Simpson Gap to get a sense of country geology, and ride on a camel as a reminder of the essential work done by these princely ships of the desert and maybe take a fixed wing plane flight over the MacDonnell Range to see the bigger picture.
Instead our final expedition from the Ghan was to the Katherine River Billabong for a boat ride guided by Jamey, a member of the Jawoyn Clan and accompanied by a ‘nuisance’ of what looked like small houseflies intent upon obtaining a drink from any available orifice on our bodies especially the eyes.