Nori Jemil, winner of the 2010 Travel Photo of the Year competition (Travel Icon category), on the second part of her trip to Australia's Northern Territory
I reconsider how lucky I am having been kept awake, not by fear of shadow-lurking wildlife, but by the rather domesticated chorus of my snoring companions! In the thick of the night I sat up in my swag, observing the canvas-clad sleepers whose bulging forms reminded me of the similarly vocal walruses I had just encountered on a recent trip to Norway. It is 5:30am.
It's inky dark and the nearly full moon is still up; stars fight for prominence in its glare. Just like the song we waited while our billy boiled this morning for tea and coffee, dipping our tin cups into the huge pot on the still burning campfire. Today we're heading for the sunrise views of Mount Sonder, so breakfast of raisin toast made over the fire and all kinds of cereal will have to wait until our return. Remember, this is a photography trip and it's all about the light.
For me the real shots come when the sun sends more heat over to Mount Sonder and the foregrounded spinifex glows in its glory. I'm glad for the thermal layers this morning though, and for my newly purchased photographer's gloves, which luckily have materialised from the bottom of my backpack. For breakfast we are accompanied by birds who sweep through and hoover away any miscreant crumbs.
We break camp and have our first shot at rolling the swags. After three attempts during which I heave, pummel, push, roll and kneel on the thing, I'm still left with something more rectangular than spherical. Aldo, who has been observing me quietly offers to help, but when he too gets the same result we both agree that I've been given a rather malformed swag, though it doesn't stop our guide nicknaming me peanut for the rest of the trip.
Next stop is Gosse Buff Crater or Tnorala, the site of a 130 million year old meteor impact. Local belief has it that an indigenous woman living amidst the milky way tragically dropped the wooden bowl which contained her baby. The impact left a huge a dent in the earth. One of my travel companions, Errol, says it reminds him of the Superman story.
After lunch we reach our new camp and set up quickly before heading off for the afternoon shoot at Finke Gorge National Park. It's a series of red granite boulders and I can't resist the temptation to follow the others and climb one. Sadly I realise I'm too small to even get my foot on the first hold but when I turn to depart my three daring companions insist on hauling me up, despite my fearful protestations. It is well worth the clamber. Grenville talks photography and we spend so long up there with the 360 degree panorama that by the time we descend to rejoin the group sunset is fast approaching. Three of us linger, transfixed by the burnished gold of the previously red-hued rocks. I decide here is where I want to photograph the sunset, and so we make it down a little later than the others in the now crepuscular light, but in perfect time to see the full moon rise.
It is with initial trepidation that we eat dinner and watch our first two dingoes pass by the camp. Later I encounter one alone, my head torch illuminates its eyes in the darkness before it heads off placidly. You hear many stories about dingoes in the Outback, but according to both Josh and Grenville they are rarely anything other than quietly inquisitive. I am even told a story later of one camper who awoke in the morning to find a dingo curled up on the bottom of his zipped-up swag, obviously in an attempt to keep warm in the desert night. Not that different to your average Labrador then?
Tonight five of us form a breakaway group in an attempt to avoid the noisy sleepers, though bringing a bottle of Australian port with us makes us a little more loquacious than usual and we realise it only when poor Errol, quietly snoring under the next gum tree, ups and moves himself to another solo spot. It's time for bed, and I sleep soundly tonight. Sorry Errol.
I wake up and the first thing I see is the low full moon, muted yellow across the rocky formations of the Finke Gorge Range. Though due to set in half an hour, it's still bright so I turn in the other direction, my eyes accustomed to the darkness and I observe the constellations shining bright. I could get used to this. There's not far to walk for our sunrise shoot, as we're camped next to the creek in Palm Valley. Just as Shakespeare instructed, 'Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon', daylight replaces darkness as one orb dips half an hour before the appearance of its replacement. The reflections in the water morph from pinks and pastel blues to stronger hues. I spend so long taking pictures that I forego breakfast, though my friend Zoe shares her Lamington with me later on the bus.
After some shots of Palm Valley and more granite reflections in still billabongs, we arrive at the start of our walk. Half the group take the high trail with Josh where he gives us a cultural insight into aboriginal lores, animal track spotting and dreamtime songlines. The other group walks with Grenville along the lush green borders of the water, replete with cycad and red cabbage palms after which the valley gets its name.
Last year the area received just under a metre of rain, roughly five years' worth in 12 months. The desert here is boom or bust, and for us it's boom time with wildlife and flora in abundance. We luck out with three wallaby sightings, one watching us cautiously from the bush and another a real Qantas Aussie icon, sitting atop a distant precipice. The other group sights large lizards, monitors and a huge goanna, so we're all satisfied. I can't stop singing a line from Midnight Oil's The Stars of Warburton... "and the smell of the wallaby stew", which probably doesn't go down well with any vegans.
It's blazing hot as we lunch out the back of the trailer next to the house of the famous Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. We're on the Larapinta Drive, 154km from King's Canyon and the next service station. The generator, or Jenny as she is affectionately known, is fired up again as we all negotiate for one of the six electrical sockets. Plates have been replaced by hands, and no one bothers to cut their sandwiches in half now. It's a case of eat and go. Who knows, people may even stop sanitising their hands soon!
We stop on the Mereenie loop to look at the Aboriginal road signs – two 44 gallon drums painted with the words "Lift um foot" and "Puttum back down" – namely 'slow down' and 'speed up again'! Arriving at our next camp is a treat; we're spending two nights here and there are showers, a cafeteria with REAL coffee and, more importantly for some, the sale of cold Aussie beers.
Our campsite's a little removed however, next door on the cattle station. Our doorless loo is a corrugated dunny. Apparently some previous visitors had refused to use the otherwise perfectly normal toilet unless it was suitably curtained off, so a wag of a guide put up a shimmery, diaphanous cloth that Isadora Duncan would have been happy to dance behind. Anyway, it's a respectable walk from camp and surrounded by vegetation, so we all happily go in twos or sing while we're in there!
Photos of sunset and the full moon rising are taken from the bush next to camp over the George Gill ranges. It's all rather serene; a cold tinny in one hand and a finger on a tripod-supported SLR, until we first hear and then see the tall silhouette of Errol crashing over his gear in circular slapstick fashion in the distance. He's OK but as his limbs are as long as those of his Manfrotto it makes for hysterical viewing. Hope it wasn't lack of sleep which induced this clumsiness! Sorry Errol.
An after-dinner treat of sweet damper cooked in the campfire and we retire. I'm a little psyched about tomorrow, our walk up and around King's Canyon or Watarrka, and its initial path endearingly referred to as Heart Attack Hill. I remember it from 15 years ago, though we're tackling it early rather than in the midday sun. Still with my double whammy of cameras and heavy lenses I know it'll be tiring, so I try to get to bed a little earlier.
PLUS take a look at photos from Nori's prize trip here
Take a look at winner Jan Koštál's images from the prize trip here
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