Located about 250 km from Darwin, Umbrawarra Gorge is a surprisingly accessible camping and swimming spot.  The road turns off the Stuart Highway, shortly after Pine Creek on the way to Katherine, with about 20 km of unsealed road varying from easy when freshly graded and dry, to difficult when deeply corrugated and criss-crossed with washouts after heavy rain.

An excellent campsite with fire places and toilet facilities provides an ideal base to explore the gorge itself: a beautiful narrow water way lined with towering cliffs, deep pools shadowed from the afternoon sun, here by smooth rock faces, there by a craggy lasagne of stone.  Pick your way among the scattered boulders and it gets better the further along you go, water holes teeming with tiny fish, monitors stalking the surface, tongues flicking, or lying flat on exposed rocks soaking up the sun’s rays, sandy beaches dappled with leafy shadows.

Erykah Badu has finally released part 2 in her New AmErykah series, following up 2008’s amazing Part 1.  I was under the impression this was going to be a two part concept, commentary on the state of the USA and the world, but it turns out that this disc is a much more straightforward piece of work, with subject matter reminiscent of Badu’s earlier recordings.  It feels like she lost her nerve at some point between the two albums, and decided to go with something a lot more accessible, which ends up feeling like a light breeze on a summer’s day compared with Part 1’s tornado.

The new album has been released into a storm of publicity, thanks to Badu stripping down in Dallas while filming the video for “Window Seat”.  I’d given up waiting for this some time last year, and the only reason I heard about it was because of the nudity in the video, so if it was simply a publicity stunt, it’s obviously worked.  She has come under significant criticism for filming the video, which has had the effect of beating up the story even more.

Given her track record I’m inclined to believe it was done in the name of artistic expression, and any publicity she was chasing was to open people’s minds to her idea, rather than sell records.  Badu herself said it best in an interview with the Dallas News: “The song “Window Seat” is about liberating yourself from layers and layers of skin or demons that are a hindrance to your growth or freedom, or evolution.”

Badu brings her usual blend of soulful singing and perceptive, witty lyrics, matched with smooth sonic backgrounds that ooze past the listener’s ears, making it an enjoyable album.  Sadly, for me there is nothing really arresting about any of the songs.  In fact, the only track that made me stand up and take notice was “Turn Me Away (Get Money)”, simply because the first strains of the Sylvia Striplin sample kicked in and I had terrifying visions of a Lil Kim and Erykah Badu collaboration.

Ultimately, New Amerykah Part 2 (Return of the Ankh) is an enjoyable album, which disappoints mainly because of its mind-blowing sibling Part 1.

Edith Falls middle pool
Finding beautiful swimming spots in the Northern Territory is easy, if you don’t mind sharing the water with deadly creatures.  Fortunately, while the lower pool at Edith Falls is surrounded by crocodile warning signs, the middle pool pictured above is clear.  It’s worth climbing the rocks behind the waterfall to the upper pool and taking in the scenery, perched between glass-smooth waters and a torrent of water.

“You won’t be able to do the Mereenie Loop in your car, not after the rains.  Sections of the road have been completely washed away.  There’s another track you could do though, Ernest Giles Road.  We came through there the other day in a Camry, so you’ll be fine.”

The sign at the turnoff promised 100 km of unsealed, heavily corrugated red dirt and sand, just what we were looking for.  A short cut through to the Stuart Highway on our way to Alice Springs, it was also a chance to push our car to its 4WD limits.

I began tentatively, cautiously easing the car over the deep corrugations as we bumped along, gear clattering away in the back.  While the state of the track was an impediment to speed and comfort, it was relatively clear and wide, and apparently quite safe.

I picked up speed as my confidence grew, and the bone-rattling furrows in the road flattened out.  Soon we were flying along at 80 km/h, clouds of red dust billowing behind us.  We were looking good for an early arrival at Alice Springs – we’d be able to relax, maybe find somewhere with a pool, have a few beers and get some much-needed rest after several days in the outback.

Almost imperceptibly at first, the steering wheel took on a mind of its own and the car began to drift, tyres losing their grip in a deep bank of sand covering the track.  I gunned the engine, hoping to maintain forward momentum.  There was no need for panic; the road was straight, wide and clear in both directions, and the sand drift petered out after a few hundred metres.

Suddenly a metal post, three quarters buried in the sand and almost invisible from a distance, reared up at a 70 degree angle in front of the car.  Braking sharply or swerving on the treacherous surface was impossible, and we braced for the inevitable impact, hitting with the crunching sound of metal tearing against metal.

I started to panic, jerking the car to an inelegant halt just beyond the sand drift.  Throwing the door open, we leapt from our seats to assess the damage.  Visions flew through my mind: shredded tyres, fuel tank torn open, spewing petrol onto the hot gravel, an engine hopelessly mangled by slivers of metal, axles mutilated and useless.  Imaginations running wild, we inspected the car.

Tyres looked ok.

No obvious fluids leaking from the undercarriage.

“Oh shit.”

Protruding from between the rear axle and the exhaust was the metal post, dangling about 10 centimetres above the ground.  I dropped to my knees to examine the damage, but the ground was baking hot, making a detailed assessment impossible.  Grasping the post, I made an ineffectual attempt to shake it loose, to no avail.

“What the hell are we going to do?”

200 km from the nearest petrol station and mobile phone reception, we had few options.  We could wait in the car with the air conditioning running, hoping someone passed by before our water and petrol ran out.  We could set out for the main road on foot, hoping we didn’t die of heat exhaustion before we found help.  Or we could drive the car back to the main road, hoping not to exacerbate any damage that had already been done.

We resolved to try driving back, figuring we would find out pretty quickly if anything serious was wrong.  After about 10 minutes of nervous staring at the temperature and fuel gauges, we arrived at the intersection.  The car seemed to be operating fine, but we still had the metal post hanging from its underside like an arrow emerging from armour.  We had no idea of the severity of the wound beneath, but seeing as we had made it that far, decided we might as well strike out for the petrol station at Eridunda.

By the time we reached Eridunda we had travelled more than 200 km, with no apparent problem other than a constant rattling of metal under the car.  My heart rate was beginning to return to normal; although Eridunda is little more than a road house and petrol station, at least there was a constant flow of traffic.  There was also a source of shade there, allowing us to clamber underneath the car without burning ourselves on the blistering hot ground.

There didn’t seem to be any serious damage.  The post was aluminium, a soft metal heated even softer by the sun, and had merely bent itself around the axle.  Relief washed over me.  We were going to make it to Alice Springs on time, our car was not going to need an expensive repair job, and we were safe.  With the assistance of a local, we extricated the warped, torn post, and soon were flying down the highway again, this time with a new resolve to stick to sealed roads until we reached our destination.

 
Klute – Fear of People (2000)
A kid I used to know left this record at my house one day with a bunch of other tunes in around 2000. I had never heard of Klute before, but the name of the album intrigued me, so I threw it on. Instantly I was drawn in by the crisp drums, the lush synths, and the unique sound that Klute always represents. Still pushing the envelope in 2009, I don’t think he has topped Fear of People: minimal yet diverse, beautiful yet with an undercurrent of menace.

Aesop Rock – Labor Days (2001)
Aesop Rock had showed glimpses of brilliance on Music for Earthworms, Appleseed and Float, but Labor Days was the first time the beats came together with concept for an entire full-length, causing swelling in the jeans of hipsters everywhere. “All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day put the pieces back together my way” became my theme music for more than a year when this dropped. This is an album with very few weaknesses. Musings on the nature of life and work, truly beautiful portraits of life in New York, battle raps, and the whimsy of the stunning “No Regrets” come together on this album, expanding the artistic palette of hip hop without the accompanying self-consciousness that relegated crews like Anticon to side-show status.

Groundation – Hebron Gate (2002)
Around the middle of the decade I was thrashing reggae non-stop. Chantdown Babylon every Saturday afternoon, More Fire every month at Deep 11, loving everything from Sizzla to Jah Cure to Midnite Band. Groundation appealed to the real music lover in me: a 9-piece band fronted by one of the most distinctive voices in music, singing songs of freedom and spirituality with a blend of joy and righteous anger. More accessible than many of the Caribbean-based reggae artists, they provided the soundtrack to many a recovery session and lazy weekend afternoon. This gets the nod over other Groundation releases thanks to the guest appearance by Con Carlos and the Congos, the overriding theme of war, and the relaxed, floating brilliance of songs like “Babylon Rule Dem.”

Radiohead – Hail to the Thief (2003)
When this was released many long term fans criticised this album, claiming the band’s creative development had stalled somewhere between Kid A and Amnesia, but I prefer it to both those albums. The haunting intro to “Sit Down, Stand Up,” Thom Yorke’s declaration that “something big is gonna happen” on “Go To Sleep,” and the beautiful “Where I End and You Begin” are all classic moments that elevate this record above Radiohead’s other work this decade.

MF Doom – Viktor Vaughn the Vaudeville Villain (2003)
Rap records with cartoon samples had been done before, but none quite on the level of this. When I first copped this album, I listened to it a few times then went interstate for a couple of weeks – by the time I returned I was desperate for another listen. Doom’s word play while telling actual coherent stories on this record is pure genius, with suitably sinister spooky beats setting off the tales of crime and mayhem. People talk about Slick Rick, Scarface, and Biggy as the best story-telling rhymers in the game, but to me none can touch Doom on this record.

Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
I didn’t want to include two releases by the same artist on this list, but I couldn’t resist – Doom really could do no wrong for a span of a year or more back around the middle of the decade. Madvillainy is an album full of songs that are great by themselves; together the sum is even greater than the parts. It’s a testament to Doom and Madlib that they can create an album with no theme, full of tracks that barely hold a consistent theme even within the individual track, yet as a whole this stands up as one of the best. The biggest strength of this record is the imagery it conjures up, Doom’s constant stream of quotables teaming with Madlib’s samples and occasional raps to paint vivid pictures that come to mind whenever I hear the words “Figaro,” “Fancy Clown” or “Meat Grinder.”

Kenny Larkin – The Narcissist (2004)
Detroit techno sure changed a lot since Cybotron’s “Clear.” Kenny Larkin took time out from his work as a comedian to throw together The Narcissist, a deep-listening album that highlights Larkin’s sense of humour as well as skill in constructing sophisticated, sensual sounds. Sparse and minimal yet lush and organic, for me the record peaks on “A Part of Me,” a track best listened to while staring confusedly into a mirror after a two day binge (may or may not have happened).

El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007)
Definitive Jux has had a hell of a decade. Founded just before 2000, the label has seen a string of critically acclaimed releases from artists like Cage, Cannibal Ox, RJD2 and Rob Sonic. The pinnacle came in 2007 when El-P dropped his fourth solo record, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. El took the futuristic throwback hip hop production he developed on Fantastic Damage and perfected it, combined with some of the most complex, thoughtful and original raps ever written. Every time I listen to this record, as the last strains of “Poisenville Kids” fade out, I’m left feeling empty, as though nothing I listen to next is going to come close.

Fanu – Daylightless (2007)
D&B was the genre I listened to most over the last 10 years, but trying to identify a full album that has the consistency and durability of some of the great 90’s releases is tough. The one I’ve settled on couldn’t be more different stylistically from those classics – where Adam F’s Colours and Goldie’s Timeless conjure up images of sun filled cafes and cruises along Beach Road, listening to Fanu’s Daylightless is more like walking through a city minutes after a volcanic eruption has buried the dwellings and citizens in tonnes of ash and molten rock.

I remember one Friday night at around 2am on the way to Mount Hotham, halfway up the mountain I popped this in the deck. Outside of the car was black, with ghostly white tree shapes looming suddenly from the dark and snow falling heavily. Daylightless was the perfect soundtrack. After about 30 seconds my mate turned to me with a grin and said “this music…you planned this didn’t you.” A resounding endorsement if ever I’ve heard one!

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War) (2008)
I always thought Badu had a soulful voice and demeanour, but I first started really taking notice of her lyrics after hearing her on “Liberation” off Outkast’s Aquemini album, where she rips on fame and life in the music industry. New Amerykah Part One takes things a step further, with deeply personal and political poetry unheard of from a mainstream female R&B / pop singer. The force of the lyrics is matched by the understated power of the backing music – a blend of funk, soul, hip hop and jazz that rewards repeated listens. This is not a mainstream album by any stretch of the imagination, yet somehow experienced relative commercial success.

When a crocodile bites down it exerts around 350 kilograms per square centimetre of force – that’s around eight times what a Great White Shark can do.  I always thought it would make a snapping sound, but it actually sounds more like someone banging two wet surfboards together really hard, a THUNK noise that suggests you really should stay as far away as possible.

With that in mind, we headed down to the Adelaide River, about an hour from Darwin, to get up close and personal with a few crocs on a “Jumping Croc Tour.”  Initially I wasn’t that interested, it seems pretty cheesy to watch a guy waving meat around and coaxing crocs into jumping out of the water (not to mention unfair on the poor crocs), but a few recommendations convinced us it was worth a look.

Within five minutes on the water I’d completely changed my tune, after seeing a six metre croc about 30 centimetres from my face, flying out of the water and snapping at a sizeable chunk of meat.  These reptiles are awe-inspiring: huge, prehistoric in appearance, with a glare of intelligent hatred in their eyes, and amazingly patterned skin.  Their speed and agility in attack is fearsome, especially when contrasted with their apparent laziness.

We definitely got our money’s worth – the tour was an incredible opportunity to see these giant predators about as close and as deadly as I’ll ever see them and still live to tell the tale.

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Sign outside a “boutique” housing development in Richmond.

Branding a housing development has its benefits – it makes it easy to identify and refer to, and can be the first step in a consistent design aesthetic for the entire complex.  But Hive Living?

Maybe it’s trying to appeal to that crucial market segment that live like nonautonamous drones having their every move directed by a dominant queen.  I hear it’s getting pretty big these days.

Do you read the newspaper?
What about a day old newspaper? Two days old?
Or do you check the Internet for the latest news?

Where does the value come from in news media?  Is it the lessons we can learn from reading the stories?  Entertainment value?  Neither of these is dependent on how out of date the news we’re reading is.  Yet somehow it’s only entertaining if it’s recent, preferably brand new.

I get why some news has to be breaking stories.  Information is crucial to making good business decisions.  Deciding whether to head out sailing for the day needs the latest assessment of weather conditions.  For Joe Schmoe reading the MX on his way home from work though, what’s the point?  It could all be completely fictional for what he cares, right?

Somehow there is a point though.  Nobody bothers to read a day-old newspaper lying on a train seat.  The stories just aren’t that interesting.  Either people are subconsciously preparing themselves for inane discussion about current affairs with acquaintances, or there is some inherent value in news being fresh.  But if freshness is its only appeal, is it really worth reading?  If you’re not going to read today’s news tomorrow, why bother reading (or watching) it today?

Of course all this discounts the appeal of a two year old Woman’s Day sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, or the entertainment factor of reading interesting articles at any time.

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Ahhh the weather.  For some people, it’s the fall-back, the last desperate gasp before a conversation falls off the precipice of blandness, but me, I love talking about it.  That probably says more about me than I should be admitting, so let me clarify – I’m not some kind of meteorology fiend by any means.  I just reckon the weather is not only one of the biggest factors in deciding what I’m going to do whenever I have spare time, it’s the most pervasive example of natural phenomena that we see on a day to day basis.  So why wouldn’t you talk about it?

One thing that spins me out is seeing weather reports where they tell you the actual temperature, then tell you what temperature that feels like.  I never could figure out what that means – is there some dude who starts in the morning at the actual temperature then stands outside yelling up through the window “Yeh feels a little colder.  Hotter.  Colder.” or what?  Turns out (surprise surprise) I was wrong.

The Weatherzone website has this explanation for what the “feels like” number means.  Basically, they adjust the temperature for wind chill and humidity factors, which, to be honest, feels like BS to me.

This guy is easily the sickest frog around.  I’m not sure what’s the best thing about him, his horns, the smug look on his face, or the camo style skin patterns.  It’s an Amazonian Horned Frog, from pretty much anywhere in the Amazonian Basin.  Not only do they look awesome, they are freakin huge.  Like as big as a small dog.  Not to mention aggressive; until I read about these monsters I didn’t even realise frogs HAD teeth.  I thought they were just little green creatures who caught insects with their tongues and just slurped them up.  This dude would seriously destroy Kermit one on one, believe that.