We retraced our steps from Darwin to Katherine to pick up the Victoria Highway towards Western Australia. Out of town we passed yet another cattle muster point but this one was full of cows waiting to be loaded up to the road train. I wondered how far they were going and in temperatures in the high 30s, how much water they will have. Back home there is a campaign to reduce the time and distance live animals are transported when they could be slaughtered closer to their source and we have good refrigerated transport. Trucks are an improvement on the days when cattle had to be driven large distances to market. Some of the old drove roads in Scotland are long distance walks. This morning’s coffee stop was at Adelaide River in a quirky café. After topping up the caffeine levels, I nipped to the toilet and this notice raised a smile:
Coming into Katherine we could see a large amount of smoke hanging over the area and hoped that our road would not be closed by bush fires. Fortunately, it was not closed but we did see several small fires still smoking along the way. The termite mounds are smaller out here. We had lunch at a rest area observed closely by a magpie who had to be shooed away from stealing our food a couple of times.
Highway One is in the process of being upgraded in several places between Katherine and Kununurra. Some parts are complete but others still underway. We wasted about 30 minutes sitting at three different sets of traffic lights. I did spot some colourful vegetation out of the window at one red light.
There are large cattle stations and on a hot day, dozens were crowded together under the trees, trying to get some shade. There were large numbers of crows and raptors at every dead wallaby on the road, some a little reluctant to move as we drove past. Red sandstone cliffs appear near the Victoria River and then the road enters the Judbarra/Gregory National Park. Apparently, the name is in the process of being changed. We passed two memorials today. One to Noel Buntine who seems to have been a local cattle transporter and road train pioneer and one to T.C. Durack who I am still trying to place. Eventually we arrived in Timber Creek. When I checked in at the store next to the hotel, I discovered that the receptionist was from Liverpool. Our good fortune continues, as another guest wished to extend his stay and not move out of the room we were due to be in, we were upgraded to a motel room with a bit more space. She also told us that while they no longer feed crocodiles in the creek, we might see some around 5pm. We did not but did see lots of fruit bats hanging in the trees and another small bird which I will identify when I have a bit more wifi time as I had to leave my bird books at home.
Today was payday so the bar was full. The hotel, motel and campsite tend to dominate the town but there are locals here as well as workers and travellers. The bar/restaurant have rather utilitarian décor, vaguely reminiscent of some of our older prisons but there were some interesting old photographs on the wall of the local area and community. Today’s mileage was 368 miles and the total so far: 4,950.
Having spent a few days in the outback it was time today to return to the city and the ocean. Our motel was just off the highway in Katherine, so we were on our way fairly quickly. Highway One was fairly quiet although we did see our first four tanker road train and there were the inevitable roadworks. Our coffee stop was in Pine Creek at a café where a cat was sitting outside the door ready to greet us. Further on in the town is a railway museum. It was closed when we passed by, but I had a brief look around. Inevitably the gold rush was the reason the railway opened in 1889. It was extended to Katherine in 1917 but never got as far as Alice Springs. When a nearby mine closed in 1976 the railway closed. In 2004 the Darwin to Adelaide line opened which we must do at some point.
There are a couple of locomotives in a shed. As it was closed I had to take photographs through the wire enclosure.
We continued north into a more rocky and hilly landscape. Just after Hayes Creek, the option to divert via the Dorat Road to Adelaide River where it rejoins Highway One. It was even quieter and the termite mounds even bigger. Some were almost 3 metres tall.
We saw some kangaroos grazing in the bush but all too soon we were back on the main road. A sign to a place called ‘Tortilla Flats’ raised a smile. After Mount Dam the water pipe ran alongside the road. Bad signage nearer Darwin meant that we missed our exit but third time lucky we were on the correct road and off to the airport to dump the rental car. Some bizarre rules mean that we could not keep the same car all the way around according to the offices in the UK and Sydney. The woman in the Darwin office thought that we could have had a rolling contract. Anyway, it is pleasant to be car-less for a day and hopefully we can re-negotiate the fee we are being charged which is for those dropping off at a different destination. Whichever car we have, it will be returned to Sydney where we started. One bit of good news is that when we checked into our hotel, we got upgraded to a suite with an ocean view! The following morning, en route to the Botanic Garden, I spotted an Avis office in town. While James went in to switch the car pick up to that office I explored the Catholic Cathedral opposite.
We walked the just under two miles to the Gardens and enjoyed being back in a green oasis after the dry outback.
Unlike the last one we visited, the epiphytic greenhouse was open and gave me some ideas to try with my orchids and some of my succulents if they have survived my absence. After a cold drink at the cafe it was time to walk a little further to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. One of the exhibitions was 66 out of the 300 entries for the Telstra National and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. There were other galleries of art work and I particularly liked some of the linocuts and wood engravings and hope that these will inspire me to get back to my art over the winter.
There were other very colourful works as well as galleries devoted to the geology and natural history, Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day in 1974 which I remember being reported on the TV and some early 20th century history of the Territory. After walking back to the hotel (with a diversion to a cold beer) it was time to relax with the AC on. Later on we found Darwin’s bookshop: Readback Books and Aboriginal Art Gallery. As usual when travelling I have to restrict myself and we bought one novel which we can leave behind when finished. I overheard the proprietor telling another customer that her main business was the art gallery and the books were a hobby. Sunset is later up here but it was so cloudy little could be seen. Today was the autumn equinox and a full moon. However, we could not see the moon for cloud so here is last night’s almost full one.
We spent one night in Tennant Creek in a motel at the edge of town. The town was originally built around gold mining but that was short-lived. Around half of the town’s population are of indigenous descent. Unfortunately, it has most often been in the news due to crime and alcohol problems, the most recent horror being the rape of a two year old girl. I had not read about this before I arrived but had noticed the active police presence on the streets and it is the first motel we have stayed which had prominent notices about CCTV at the reception and about not letting people you don’t know into your room. Our experience was very positive, and I was glad to read in the Guardian about moves to solve some of the community problems. The restaurant in our motel was closed so we had our evening meal at the sports club. Most of them will allow people living more than 5km away and who have photo ID to register temporarily and use the bar and restaurant. It is also a good way to meet some locals. Tennant Creek does have a museum and art gallery devoted to indigenous art, but we did not have time to visit them. I did appreciate this street art.
In the morning we carried on northward on the Stuart Highway, passing a manganese mine and still in dry country with little wildlife to see as much of it is nocturnal. Further on, as vegetation started to appear, we passed a group of cows by the road and then an Australian Bustard. I still have not managed to get a photograph of one despite spotting a few. Dressed up termite mounds continue to be found along the highway. The craze started around five years ago and is mostly done by tourists. The first town we reached, Elliott, had a big sign on entry announcing all the facilities in the store including coffee. However, that was not on offer when we stopped. We had our lunch in the shade of a tree opposite the Daly Waters Pub, mobbed by a flock of Apostle Birds. The pub claims to be historic having had a licence since 1893 and the place Amy Johnson landed in 1930 having flown from the UK to Australia. Inside there are huge amounts of memorabilia from visitors.
Nearby is The Stuart tree. He or one of his party is said to have carved the letter S into the bark on his journey from Adelaide to Darwin. There is no written corroboration of this in his journals.
Nearby is the site of the old telegraph station. As we continued our journey to Katherine, the temperature rose to 38 degrees. In the evening the almost full moon was framed by palm trees.
The following morning we had arranged to go on a boat trip up Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. There are 13 gorges between Arnhem Land and the sea but boat trips only cover a few. We chose a two-hour cruise of the first two gorges but three hour and breakfast/sunset cruises are also available. Canoes can be hired and in the wet season power boats are used. Our cruise took us past 17 Mile Creek which flows into the river and is often used by the Jawoyn people for fishing
and then through the sandstone gorges:
There is a 400m walk between the first and second gorge where we boarded another boat. The path passes some rock art. There is a lot in Nitmiluk some only 150 years old, others thousands of years old. We saw one example:
Having cruised around the second gorge we returned to the first, keeping an eye out for freshwater crocodiles. Unfortunately, the water temperature is quite high at the moment so they do not need to lie on the rocks to get warm and we did not see any. Back at the Visitors’ Centre for refreshments I had a look at some of the local paintings on display and for sale. One local artist often works in the centre.
James also spotted this dragonfly sitting on a door. I have not identified him yet.
So for, the total mileage is 4,358 miles. We only drove 41 miles to the gorge and back today but the previous day’s total was 422 miles. Tomorrow we continue north to Darwin.
A cold beer watching the sun go down over the sea followed by locally caught barramundi fish and chips was almost the perfect evening if such a thing exists.
We enjoyed relaxing because we have a few long driving days ahead. After Normanton, Highway 1 is gravel and no car hire company will let you drive long distances on gravel. For us, hiring a 4WD for this would be costly so we have to divert inland for a while and sample more of the outback. Carpentaria Shire describes itself as the Outback by the Sea.
We left the Karumba landscape behind, passing a couple of Brolgas en route.
After a fuel stop in Normanton we carried on south on this Route 83 which is also known as the Matilda Highway and runs from Karumba to the New South Wales border. It is another development road with some single lane sections and plenty of road trains. There were frequent signs warning of flooding and it must be impassable at some points in the wet season. After crossing the Flinders River, we passed through dry grassland with the large seed heads of grass blowing across the road reminiscent of tumbleweed. Burke and Wills Roadhouse at the junction with the Wills Development Road was a good coffee stop but also provides a lot more. I was slightly surprised to hear three men who were eating a huge plate of chips, chatting in Punjabi.
Continuing south, rocky outcrops and hills started to appear.
After crossing the Dugald River we passed a huge zinc mine which only achieved commercial production earlier this year. The road then passes by a few hills and descends into Cloncurry.
Cloncurry has been a town since 1884. Two of its claims to fame are as the birthplace of the Flying Doctor Service and the destination of the first Qantas flight. The surrounding area is mainly devoted to cattle farming now but between Cloncurry and Mount Isa is Mary Kathleen, the ruins of a uranium mine and community. Mount Isa is another town which grew up because of mineral deposits in the area; mainly lead, copper, silver and zinc. This lead to concerns about lead levels in children 10 years ago and now pollution is very closely monitored. The town is still dominated by the huge mine chimney. The bottle shop there is also the largest we have seen so far. The following morning we were back on the Barkly Highway, out of mining land and again in beef country. There was even a Drovers’ Museum in Camooweal, our coffee stop. The sign stated that the town was at 236m altitude and the population was 310. Shortly after Camooweal we drove into Northern Territory and gained 30 minutes due to the time difference. Here we were in dry grassland.
70km later we passed the first cyclist we had seen since leaving busier towns and the tourist zone. We had driven 276km before crossing a watercourse that had any water in it despite the road going over several rivers and creeks. Before we got to the Barkly Homestead Road House, the bush and termite mounds had reappeared. At the road house was a sign asking customers to forgive them for their higher prices. They explained that they had to generate their own power and it took 5,000 litres of diesel per day to do this. Standing there in sunshine and wind, I did wonder why they were not using solar/wind power.
We continued towards Tennant Creek. The roadside was littered with fragments of tyres and there were frequent skid marks. Some wrecked cars and lots of oil drums were left rusting by the road. We saw one more recent car that had left the road and were just wondering whether anyone was in it when we saw a notice: ‘police aware’.
Fairly close to our destination when we saw two dead cows by the roadside. Unlike other roadkill there were no crows or raptors feeding on them. I can only assume that the lack of water was responsible for the lack of birds. The total mileage for the last two days was 839 miles bringing the total so far to 3,895, a little more than the length of the Lincoln Highway we drove in 2016.