Hi. I’m Madolline.
And I’m seeing the world One cat at a time

A Christmas cat sit in Australia’s Top End

A Christmas cat sit in Australia’s Top End

I don’t think anyone plans to visit Darwin during the summer, but I decided to brave the humidity when I accepted a house and cat sit commencing mid-December.

It’d been a good eight or nine months since I’d travelled anywhere, and this meant some Australian destinations had suddenly become more appealing. I started to think Darwin—in Australia’s Northern Territory—might be a good option for a Christmas getaway. I’d never been to Darwin, the Northern Territory was letting Queenslanders in without having to quarantine and there hadn’t been a COVID-19 outbreak up there in months.

As luck had it, something came up on Aussie House Sitters. An almost month-long sit in Darwin. There was a bit of back and forth during my initial conversation with Pepper the Persian’s owner because I was in Queensland and these guys are in the Northern Territory. I also had to check with work, check border restrictions, and look at flight availability, but we got there in the end. I was flying to Darwin on 16 December 2020.

One four-hour flight later and I’d arrived in Australia’s Top End. ‘The weather isn’t as bad as they say,’ I thought to myself as I exited the airport. But that’s because it rained less than five minutes ago. I was now on my way to meet the couple I was sitting. One of the first things I remember them telling me about Darwin was it’s unusually busy for this time of year. They said most businesses close for the wet season because there’s no backpackers to employ and tourist numbers are down. I guess I chose the best wet season to venture up here because not much was closed.

The couple’s apartment complex was a bit of an unusual one—instead of a single high-rise tower, it was made up of five or six four-level buildings called ‘residences’. They told me they’d just finished moving all their stuff in to this particular apartment over the weekend. They’d been living in the complex for a while, but in a one-bedroom apartment in a neighbouring residence. With their upcoming holiday, Christmas, and everything else going on in the world, they didn’t have time to unpack some of their stuff. The main bathroom was being used to house their art collection. But because they’ve got two bathrooms in the new place, showering wasn’t an issue.

Pepper popped her head out of the second bedroom as if to say ‘Who’s this?’ She was much smaller than I imaged. And she’s got the cutest lion cut. These guys get her shaved regularly so she doesn’t succumb to the heat. I was then briefed on to prepare Pepper’s breakfast and dinner. She gets a small serve of mince mixed with pumpkin twice a day. Her treats include a small bowl of biscuits no more than three times a week, and a sachet of wet food once or twice a week.

I was also shown the pool and gym areas, and told the beach was five minutes down the road. Fannie Bay is really beautiful, but you’re not allowed to swim there because crocodiles and box jellyfish might be lurking. The couple mentioned I could walk to the CBD in less than an hour, but I would be crazy to do that:

  1. given how sweaty I’d be, and
  2. when the bus comes every half hour.

Darwin’s bus service proved to be somewhat reliable for a smaller city. The bus I would be catching most days ran every half hour regardless of whether it’s a weekday, Saturday or Sunday, or public holiday. And it showed up every single time. On time, too.

The first day

I returned to the apartment the next morning for the first day of the sit. I noticed an A4 print out in the lift detailing the complex’s cyclone procedure. Cyclones—not something that occurred to me ’til this moment. And, thankfully, not something I had to worry about in the end.

Pepper hid in the second bedroom for about 20 minutes, but was sitting with me on the couch in no time. While Pepper spends most of her day in the second bedroom, she enjoys relaxing on the balcony just as much. Cats on a balcony makes me a little nervous—you never know if they’re going to jump over or not. The couple said Pepper is good like that, but we agreed you never know what they’ll decide to do one day.

A few days later

I decided to hire a car so I could visit places not reachable on Darwin’s public transport system. Hiring a car up here meant a ridiculous amount of rules I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Australia, the USA or Japan. Big name rental companies have a limit on the amount of kilometres you can do each day. You can do more, of course, but you’re billed per kilometre. The Budget Rent A Car customer service lady then decided to tell me I’m only covered for accidents within 50km of Darwin CBD after I had paid an extra $100 for insurance. Thanks. And I was advised not to drive between dusk and dawn because I won’t be covered either.

My first stop was at the ‘world famous’ Humpty Doo Hotel. My uncle said this pub was worth a visit. He remembers it being a bit of an unruly joint when he was here in the ’80s or ’90s, but I knew I wasn’t going to see much at midday. Just a couple of tradies having a beer on their lunch break. I did get a bit of a shock when someone called out to me. Turns out it was one of the ladies from my Kakadu tour.

I continued down Arnhem Highway to get to Window on the Wetlands for my crocodile cruise. There’s several companies doing crocodile cruises, but I booked with Spectacular Jumping Crocodile Cruise. All of them charge about the same price and each tour goes for an hour. We saw about six or seven crocodiles in this time, and one of them was the rare white-headed girl called Pearl. The guy told us she’s the only one in the world like this. And they think she’s related to another white-headed crocodile, called Michael Jackson, who was shot in 2014 not long after he ate a local fisherman.

The next day was spent venturing out to Adelaide River. The town’s bar is known for its taxidermy’d buffalo who featured in Crocodile Dundee. It’s also full of fun memorabilia dating back to World War II. But other than the bar and rail museum, which was closed, there’s not much else to see in Adelaide River. I planned to drive straight through to Robin Falls, but the road was partially flooded. Another big no-no in the rental car. So to Berry Springs it was.

By now it was Christmas Day. The first day I got to relax. I slept most of the morning before getting lunch. Hardly anything is open in Brisbane on Christmas Day and I thought Darwin—being way smaller than Brisbane—would be the same. Nope. I was able to dine in at the local momo and kebab shop, and there was no public holiday surcharge. Christmas lunch cost me $13. I then went for a walk along Fannie Bay and called mum for Christmas before calling it a day.

The rest of my time up here was spent sweating it out around Darwin and relaxing with Pepper. Pepper was incredibly easy to care for. She didn’t lash out once. I enjoyed seeing her chase flies at night, pole dance up her cat tree and run through her tunnel at lightning fast speed. I think everything Pepper does is made funnier because she has that classic Persian face.

Things to do

Street art

Street art wasn’t something I was expecting to see much of up here, but I was wrong. Austin Lane, Shadforth Lane and West Lane are good places to start, but Darwin has murals scattered all over the CBD and suburbs.

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Darwin

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Darwin is definitely more museum than art gallery, but that’s how I like it. There’s a Cyclone Tracy exhibition, crocodile Sweetheart has his own display, and a huge shed out the back houses 20+ boats and canoes from all over the Southern Hemisphere

Fannie Bay Gaol

Fannie Bay Gaol is part of museum and free to visit. The tour guide gave everyone ‘homework’ that needed to be presented before we could leave. He asked me to tell him the name of the gaol’s cat and when it died, and the names of the last two men hanged there. He seemed genuinely excited to hear the answers and helped me navigate the The Territory Check In app.

World War II oil storage tunnels

Not something on my original itinerary, but I went to visit the World War II oil storage tunnels on my last weekend in Darwin. The tunnels were built to hide and protect oil supplies from the Japanese. It’s a pretty interesting attraction and the guy who runs it told me it’s often hired out for art shows.

Litchfield National Park

I visited Litchfield National Park on an AAT Kings tour. I hate group tours, but, sadly, it was cheaper to do it like this. We visited Florence Falls, Tolmer Falls and Wangi Falls, and made stops at some termite mounds and Howard Springs. I planned to visit most of these places on my own, but Darwin’s car rental rules put an end to that plan.

Nightcliff Beach

I walked up to Nightcliff Beach after being disappointed by the suburb’s Sunday markets. Unlike some of the other beaches up here, there’s plenty of green space to sit and watch the ocean. There’s even a coffee van/cart/caravan across from the jetty.

East Point Reserve

East Point Reserve is at the back of Fannie Bay. It’s a nice stretch of coastline, with more amazing red-, orange-, yellow- and white-coloured rocks. East Point Reserve reminds me of Tasmania’s Bay of Fires except you can’t swim up here.

Cafes

Darwin has no shortage of good cafes. My favourites were Laneway Coffee and Ruby G’s. Ruby G’s has two locations—in the city and at Coconut Grove. The Coconut Grove cafe has more dishes and pastries to choose from. Ray’s Patisserie and Cafe isn’t bad either. It’s one of the only coffee shops in the city open from 6am. And Salvator’s has a good selection of cakes.

Things not do

Parap Village Markets

I was told the laksa at the Parap market is probably the best in Australia, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than eating something hot when it’s already 32°C at 10am. There’s long lines for ATMs and the queues to order food are even worse.

Kakadu National Park

A lot of people come to the Northern Territory to visit Kakadu National Park, but I don’t think the AAT Kings tour showcased the most memorable parts of the park. I know you can’t see much in one day, but I wasn’t wow’d by the billabong cruise or Aboriginal art walk. Especially when I paid nearly $300. Most of the day is spent onboard the bus, with only two or three hours (if that) dedicated to activities.

Nightcliff Markets

There wasn’t much on offer at the Nightcliff Markets. A few people selling clothes, someone else selling plants and some hot food stalls. It still drew a substantial crowd, but I can’t work out why.

Darwin tips

If anyone’s reading this and thinks they’d like to visit Darwin, here’s some things I’ll share with you first.

  • Buy calamine lotion and hydrocortisone cream. This is for the heat rash you’re bound to get. I developed heat rash after a mere two hours in Darwin, and had to apply the hydrocortisone cream once or twice a day for the rest of my stay.
  • Invest in a thermos water bottle—cold water won’t stay cold for long without one.
  • Your hair will get really knotty from the humidity. I don’t have a solution for this, but I can’t wait to put a proper treatment in it later today.
  • Take bug spray if you’re doing a crocodile cruise. There’s flies aplenty along the Adelaide River.
  • Always take an umbrella with you. The rain will come and go throughout the day, and it can storm in the morning and again in the afternoon.

Next stop

This trip was limited to just the one house and cat sit so my next stop is home. Or at least I hope I can get home. Brisbane was declared a COVID-19 hot spot after a quarantine hotel cleaner contracted the UK strain of the virus. Once in Brisbane, assuming my flight doesn’t get cancelled, I’ll be there for the next six months at least. That’s because my contract job was extended until the end of the financial year. I’ll re-assess my travel plans towards the end of May.

One final thing. For anyone who’s interested (and I know there’s a few of you), there’s more photos of Pepper on my cat sitting Facebook page.

How COVID-19 affected my cat sitting travels in 2020

How COVID-19 affected my cat sitting travels in 2020

I was fortunate enough to spend about three weeks house and cat sitting in the US earlier this year before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on all our lives.

This was back in February and March, and I was in Charleston and New York City. Coronavirus wasn’t a big concern in Charleston. It was talked about on the news, but it was business as usual for the best city in the United States. There was no social distancing, and nobody was wearing a mask or latex gloves. But it started to get serious when I got to New York City. There was hardly anyone on the subway, tours were getting cancelled, and almost everywhere was sold out of wipes and hand sanitiser. Museums and galleries closed, and I wasn’t able to check out the Morgan Library before it shut its doors. I did, however, get my photo taken for the New York Post before flying back to Australia a few days earlier than planned.

It was a good thing I changed my flight when I did because the Virgin Australia flight attendants announced it was now a full flight. Clare—the lady I was cat sitting for—decided it was best to fly home early, too. Her flight from Mexico arrived around the same time I flew out of LAX.

My last-minute change meant I got stuck with a middle seat and I found myself sitting between two other Australian girls. One was about 20 and she told us she got a diving scholarship (this is a thing?) at a university in Arizona. The other girl, I think she was a little older than me, went to Los Angeles to meet up with a guy she had been messaging on Instagram.

Some 14 hours later, we arrived at Brisbane International Airport. We were told biosecurity officers would be escorting two passengers off the plane before anyone could disembark. These passengers had let the flight attendants know they were experiencing COVID-like symptoms just before we touched down. I remember the crew being shocked neither person asked for a mask or mentioned the possibility they were sick. Everyone else was given a COVID one-pager before getting to passport control and customs, and then we were free to roam the airport before making our way home.

The next two weeks were spent confined to my house. I guess I should be grateful I was able to quarantine at home. International arrivals must now quarantine at a government arranged hotel at a cost of $2,000 per person. What’s worse is they have to foot the bill themselves.

Later in the year

Australians have been banned from travelling overseas since the end of March. There’s a few exceptions, but anyone who’s considering it must seek approval from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Those who’ve thought about taking an interstate holiday instead have had to contend with the constant closing and re-opening of state and territory borders, and these rules can take effect almost immediately.

With no real travel plans, I accepted two short sits in Brisbane. One was just for the weekend and the other was a week-long sit in West End. I’d looked after both cats before—Kushy is kind of a regular and the other cat, Jaspurr, is the one I cared for last Christmas. I then spent another weekend with Kushy in October.

Christmas 2020 plans

I’d been keeping my eye on Aussie House Sitters hoping to score a Christmas sit in Hobart, Perth or Darwin. Tasmania remained closed to the rest of Australia ‘til late October and Western Australia only just opened up. This meant Hobart and Perth were a no-go. The Northern Territory was my only option unless I wanted to stay put.

There was a sit in Darwin that piqued my interest and it was all confirmed a few days after responding to the couple’s ad. Even though I accepted it back in September, there was some unexpected uncertainty about it going ahead. The couple planned to travel to Adelaide. Adelaide was declared a COVID-19 hotspot on 16 November 2020. Not long after, the entire state of South Australia went into a six-day lockdown. This very strict lockdown was then relaxed one or two days in when the state government learned a hotel security guard lied to them. Adelaide’s no longer a declared hotspot and everyone’s holiday plans are back on.

Darwin for the Christmas break

Darwin wasn’t on my list of must visit places before COVID hit, but I’m pretty excited about spending December and January up north. This is probably a little longer than most people would spend in Darwin, but I’ll be hiring a car for some of the trip and I have a list of places I want to visit. It’ll also be nice to do nothing after picking up a fulltime contract job in July. I think this is the longest I’ve gone without taking an interstate or international trip.

Daytime temperatures will be around 35°C and nights won’t be much cooler. This sit couldn’t be more different from my Boulder house and cat sitting experience two Christmases ago. Christmas Day was a mere 2 or 3°C, and I was snowed in on New Year’s Eve. The closest I’ll get to snow is hail during an afternoon thunderstorm.

I must complete a border entry form no more than seven days before arriving in Darwin and present it upon arrival at Darwin International Airport. I’ll be keeping an eye on the news while I’m there in case anything changes for Queensland or the Northern Territory. I—like most Australians holidaying across the country—want to avoid hotel quarantine at all costs.