Australia

April 1 - 15

 

April 1, 2013

Easter Monday and perfect weather to hike. We parked our bus in downtown Cooktown and hiked to the botanical gardens to find the trailhead to Finch Bay. This is a bay on the east side of the Grassy Hill headland that lies to the south of the Endeavour river. The hike began in thick rainforest and seemed little used. We saw an enormous spider, in a web across the trail and this sparked the precaution of the foremost hiker wielding a web sweeping stick to clear the trail. There is nothing quite like getting a face full of human-eating spider to ruin your day. After a couple of hundred yards, the trail crossed a narrow wooden causeway over a streamlet. On the end of the causeway was a large brown snake which took off into the undergrowth as we approached. Naturally Annette followed it with her camera whilst I stood at a safe distance, reminding her loudly that Australian snakes are both poisonous and aggressive when they feel like they are threatened. The snake shot up a tree and climbed the branches as though riding an elevator. Then it disappeared in front of our eyes. There was no way those skinny branches could support that snake and nowhere for it to hide - but nonetheless it was gone. Wow! We had been worried about lethally poisonous, trail hiding snakes; we didn’t know they could hide in the trees with the carnivorous drop bears.

trail head trail flowers mushroom canopy lizard beach boulders

Our trail to Finch Bay climbed over the ridge and then plunged to the wide sandy beach below with awesome views of blue water and white sand. This would be a great place to camp as long as you knew that the crocodiles did not swim around the point. We hiked back into the thick brush to follow the rocky coastline before plunging downwards over steep and broken rocks to Cherry Tree Bay, another wild and beautiful place. It would have been a perfect hike, except that we ran out of beer too early in the day and there remained a long, hot climb over Grassy Hill and back down to Cooktown. We were savoring the promise of the traditional Barra, chips and beer at the wharf-side restaurants but all were closed on Easter Sunday. Back to our bus where food and refreshment awaited. An excellent hike.

April 2, 2013

Today’s destination was Cairns, a coastal town of around 150,000 that is a popular tourist destination. However, we are coming here to get our bus serviced and carefully piloted the final section of highway which was very steep and with multiple hairpin bends. We stayed the night at the “Cool Waters” caravan park on the outskirts of Cairns and spent a delightful hour feeding stale bread to a coterie of turtles and fish in the nearby stream. We were joined in this endeavor by three small children, who not only helped us throw bread but provided a running commentary on the fish we were seeing. Annette was sure that they were going to be simultaneously drowned and eaten by crocodiles but in fact, all survived.

April 3, 2013

We dropped off our bus at SVS (www.svscairns.com.au) to be serviced and the SVS folks provided us a ride to the downtown marina. We are temporarily homeless and we wandered the waterfront, reminiscing on where DoodleBug was moored in 2006 and waiting for the mall to open with its shops and restaurants. We began our shopfest at one of Annette’s favorite stores that sold kangaroo and crocodile products. They had a prominent “going out of business sale” sign in the window but the discounts offered were small. Nevertheless, when we left the store, I was carrying the best part of a crocodile in a heavy carrier bag. We spent most of the day touring the various aboriginal art galleries. Annette is searching for some well executed and authentic aboriginal art but it was in short supply. There were plenty of paintings by artists who claimed to be aboriginal but examination of their “bio” and photograph showed otherwise. Then there are those who really are aborigines and again, having a pure bloodline doesn’t automatically guarantee that you can paint. Annette has painted copies of aboriginal work that look far better than some of the work we viewed. The reason that I am being cynical here is that we saw in Bali that much of the so called aboriginal artwork is actually derived from Indonesia.

The road to Cairns Cairns waterfront Cairns waterfront DoodleBug's slip Fruit Bat tree

In mid afternoon I called SVS and was told that the work on the bus would not be completed today. I had requested a detailed check of all of the systems plus the scheduled replacement of the timing chain. We had anticipated that the work would take longer than one day and were carrying overnight toiletries thus we found a waterfront hotel and checked ourselves in. We had both completed luxurious showers (Australia doesn’t have those stupid US federally approved “misting” shower heads) when the phone rang to say that in fact the bus was ready. OK then. SVS’s shop foreman picked me up from the hotel in the bus and gave me a detailed report on the work they had done. I really was impressed with the detail of the service and feel that this is a shop I would heartily endorse. We drove our sparklingly clean and freshly serviced bus to the downtown area to visit the “night market”, a mecca of food, souvenir stalls and Chinese / Thai massage operations. Parking was in short supply and I was pleased to find a couple of spots vacant under a large tree. We parked the bus, got out and began to walk towards the market when Annette said, “Look!”. Above our heads were hundreds of fruit bats. These were not the moth sized bats of the Undara lava tubes, these were rabbit sized poop machines. The sidewalk bore evidence of their excretory capability and there was a distinct fecal odor to the air. Their tangible threat hung like Damocles’ toilet, right above my clean motor home with its innocent and vulnerable solar panels. No way! We backed out of the spot and re-anchored across the street under a bat-less tree.

The night market is a fun place to browse, situated about a half block from backpacker’s hotels, so there is usually an international flavor to the attendees. Annette was on a dedicated search to find coin purses made from Kangaroo male body parts. She did find them but was unimpressed, so instead she purchased three coin purses made from cane toads. I got a massage from a very pretty Korean masseuse, who said I was very tense and suggested that I suffered from too much driving. “No”, I said, “too much shopping”.

April 4, 2013

This morning we bought fuel, groceries, vitamins (you can live on a 100% beer diet if you take a multi-vitamin) and then headed back to the Cairns Marina to the crocodile products store. Annette had been negotiating with the manager by telephone to buy a crocodile tooth pendant. They had made a deal this morning and we swung by toCampsite wallabiesCampsite wallabies close the deal and pick it up. Back to the Undara lava tubes. Actually, Undara lies on the east-west highway to Normanton on the southeast corner of the bay of Carpenteria and we need to go there. We picked up a campsite and that evening attended a campfire wildlife lecture. The lecturer was an Undara Guide and was very entertaining, being both knowledgeable and a fun lecturer. Everything was going smoothly until he told the kids that they could roast marshmallows on the campfire while he talked. What little self control the kids had shown up till now, evaporated in an instant and I am frankly amazed that we didn’t have to call either paramedics or fire-service.

April 5, 2013

This morning when we awoke, there was a wallaby “family” grazing around the bus. Annette was very excited and was trying simultaneously to take pictures, remove the sunshade blocking the windscreen, while opening the side window. We broke camp and then parked the bus, in order to take a local hike and burn off some calories. We chose a hike through the bush to the top of a nearby bluff and then dropped off a slope to the banks of the “hundred mile swamp”, before looping back to where we had left the bus. The hike was beautiful with great views from the top of the bluff and an abrupt change of vegetation as we descended to the swamp land. What surprised us is how little the trail appeared to have been used by others.

We rolled out of Undara and were soon heading west, crossing the Cape York Peninsula. At Mount Surprise (population 160) there was a sign stating that all vehicles must be washed to prevent the spread of “weed”. There was a free underbody wash that powered a prodigious amount of water below and along the lower panels of the vehicle. As we drove through the wash, we were completely blinded by the spray and edged forwards hoping we didn’t hit anything. I expected the bus to spring a leak in places but now clean, we rolled on west along the empty highway.

"free" car wash"free" car wash"free" car washGulf Development roadGulf Development roadRiver crossing

At Georgetown (population ~ 300), we stopped to view the Ted Elliot mineral collection. The mineral collection was an elaborate affair, housed in its own building and displaying nearly 5,000 specimens. The tour began with an utterly forgettable video presentation, which we sneaked out of part way through but the mineral collection itself was awesome. Well laid out and well displayed. I don’t know if Ted ever married but if he did, his wife must have been overjoyed to have this lot donated and moved elsewhere.

Twenty kilometers west of Georgetown is the “Cumberland chimney”, the last vestige of an 1800’s gold mine. The chimney was built in 1889 as part of a steam powered, gold ore stamper / crusher. Since there is a railway line nearby, I asked the lady at the information center if they burned lumber or coal to produce the steam. She said that it must have been lumber, since there is no coal in Queensland (!!??). OK then. A quick glance at the miserably short scrubby trees growing in the this part of the state, confirmed my opinion as to the reliability of her answer. We took a picture and moved on.

Cumberland chimneyCumberland chimneyGrey termite moundsWallaby dent

The road west is single lane black-top and when we saw a “road-train” approaching, we slowed, pulled completely off the blacktop and stopped until it had passed. Those boys really drive fast and my guess is it takes a while for them to stop. In order to give ourselves more time to get out of the way, I determined to drive no faster than 80 kms / hour (50 mph) on the empty, single lane sections of road stretching to the horizon, bounded by red earth and scrub. At ten minutes to four, a wallaby shot out of the grass on the left side of the bus and we hit it with a solid thump. I pulled off the road and stopped and whilst I checked the damage to the bus, Annette walked back down the road to check the damage to the wallaby. The front bumper of the bus had taken the brunt of the collision and was concertinaed in one area but no other damage. The wallaby however did not fare so well. It was stone dead and after Annette dragged the corpse clear of the highway (so that the predator birds did not also become road kill), she found that the wallaby had been carrying a baby, that was also dead. We have killed two Australians! As we continued on our journey, a pall had settled over the bus and whereas before I was scanning the highway for road trains, I was now anxiously scanning the verges for additional kamikazes.

There were scores of wedge-tail eagles along the road and scores too of dead ‘roos and wallabies. Annette had estimated the wallaby’s weight at 35 pounds and the damage to our bumper was remarkable. I imagined the potential damage of a full blown “red” kangaroo, with five to six times the weight and with the vehicle travelling atCroydon pub wall the speed limit. Kinetic energy ten times our collision? Not a pleasant thought. We passed a mango farm and then pulled into the pub at Croydon, population around 300. We ordered “flathead” fish and chips and chatted to the three English girls running the bar. They hailed from Winchester and Hull and had somehow managed to get themselves hired to work in this remote pub in the Australian outback. Just down from the pub was a caravan park where we pulled into for the night. I asked the park manager if bicycle riders were at risk of collision with kangaroos and he said “Certainly”. He explained to us that he had been walking, carrying a pile of towels between cabins in the park, when he had been knocked down by a kangaroo.

Across from the park was a store with a sign proclaiming “super-market”. Annette pronounced this as being the size of an average “convenience” store / 7-Eleven / Git-n-Go, etc. We bought ice-cream bars for dessert and stood eating these, in darkness, in the middle of the road at the intersection of two highways, with the southern cross gleaming above and the silence of the bush around us.

April 6, 2013

The highway west of Croydon was a recently surfaced two lane road and after yesterday’s experience, we drove at 80 kms. per hour, scanning the verges. We passed what I thought was dried roadkill in the middle of the road and I pulled to the center of the road to straddle it. The “it” raised itself and began to walk slowly across the road. I had by this time braked to a stop and Annette jumped out of the bus and ran back down the highway, to try and get a picture of the four foot monitor lizard that was now hurriedly heading for the bush. It was obviously undamaged and moved with alacrity, once it realized that she wanted its picture. We passed three more smaller lizards as we drove west and marveled that these are first we have seen that weren’t roadkill. As the highway turned north towards Normanton and the Norman river, the terrain changed from dry scrub, to treeless tidal flats. On either side of the road were scattered a couple of dozen huge Brolga cranes and a pair of Black Necked Storks also called Jabirus. Spectacular birds standing almost four feet tall.

Monitor lizard Monitor lizard Krys Krys

We passed a very dead feral pig and after yesterday’s experience of hitting a 35 pound wallaby, we are so grateful we didn’t hit that sucker - It would have put a dent in an M1 Abrams. We passed lots of wedgetail eagles, dead wallabies and dead kangaroos but arrived in Normanton unscathed and without further victims. Normanton is famous as the site of the largest estuarine crocodile hunted. It was shot in 1947 by professional hunter, Kristina Pawlowski. She made a career bag of 5,000 crocodiles and then decided to become a “conservationist”, proving that after all, she was a total putz. A bronze replica of the crocodile she shot is on display at a roadside park in downtown Normanton. It is 24 feet long and was estimated to have weighed over two tons. Kristina stated that it was fast asleep on the bank when she shot it.

Normanton Normanton railway station Normanton railway station Road to Karumba Tidal flats

We headed over to the railway station to see the information center and museum exhibits but found them all closed, on a Saturday and in tourist season. A friendly local schoolteacher warned us that if we needed fuel, both of the gas stations in town closed at noon Saturday. We hurtled over to the closest station and topped up our tanks - just in case, before continuing our trek to the coast at Karumba, allegedly a big shrimping center. This place was also locked up tighter than a drum but we followed the line of “Utes” pulling trailers with “tinnies” and outboards to Karumba Point. This is where the action is and both of the caravan parks were near full to bursting. We checked in at the park office and Annette bought 4 kilos of frozen shrimp, planning to barbeque some quantity of them tonight. Before this magical event, we took a stroll to the beach and walked amongst the thousands of beach shells whilst keeping a wary eye on the water’s edge. Multiple signs warned of the danger of crocodiles and besides, we had seen the “Crocodile Dundee” movie. We were astonished to see a toddler with a puppy on a leash, paddling in the muddy water as dusk and feeding time approached. The parents had their backs to the water but after a while, the mother told the kid to get out of the water. Watching a crocodile attack on that child might have put me off my barbequed shrimp supper. Fortunately neither event occurred and I noted that there is cooked shrimp left over for Po’ Boys tomorrow.

April 7, 2013

A “Down day” today. We stayed another day at Karumba Point to plan our next move. We began the day with a beach walk but en route to the water’s edge, found an informal Saturday market underway. Annette found Peter selling stock-whips and purchased a shorter and more utilitarian version, in order to practice and increase her expertise. Peter has lived in the area for some number of years and we arranged to meet him later to discuss our possible routing. The issue is that the road we want to take is “unsealed” and other opinions as to its condition, have indicated that it is "possible” with a four wheel drive vehicle, if you are prepared to get stuck. We aren’t driving a four wheel drive vehicle but Peter maintains that our knowledge of the condition of the roads is dated; only about 300 km of the 1086 kms. from Normanton, Queensland to Daly Waters, Northern Territories, remains unsealed. In addition, he said that this area has received little rain during the “wet” and the 300 kms. of dirt road is very drivable with a two wheel drive vehicle like ours, provided that we take it easy and adopt the precaution of first walking the creek crossings, before attempting to drive them.

Brolga crane at KarumbaBay of CarpenteriaBay of CarpenteriaBay of CarpenteriaBay of Carpenteria

We continued our beach walk and marveled at the quantity of shells we found. The beach is coarse sand and this overlays a sandstone / limestone mix, made up of ancient shell beds. The Gulf of Carpentaria is a warm and shallow sea, rather like the Gulf of Mexico and likewise teems with fish. Everywhere, there are small boats crammed with anglers, just like Padre Island, Texas but with one marked difference. There are no swimmers, no water skiers, no sail boarders, in fact no activity that places human bodies in the water. The water looks clean and inviting but the lethal combination of estuarine crocodiles, sharks and jellyfish make the risks too high.

We did visit that afternoon with Peter and Anne and by then, Peter had telephoned his sister Christine, who runs a gas station in Borroloola. She reported the roads in “good” condition with occasional motor homes, such as ours, “coming through”.

beach combingmud crabstock whips

Annette just had to buy a local mud crab at a cost of $35. I personally don’t believe in working for my food more than once but as a gesture of solidarity, I drank beer and provided verbal encouragement, as Annette struggled to extract edible meat from the armored corpse. I found a pair of vice grips to crack the claws with and several paper towels to mop up the blood, after she cut her hand on its shell. The crab seller had told her to rip off the back of the shell and discard the “dead man’s fingers” within. An apt description, I thought. All told, her yield amounted to a “handful” of crab meat. Perhaps charitably eight ounces, giving a price of the extracted meat of $70 per pound. Enough for a couple of crab cakes provided you add plenty of bread crumbs.

April 8, 2013

The big push west begins today! We topped up our diesel tank, filled our two extra 20 liter fuel jerry jugs, checked that the water tank was filled and then drove to Normanton for the last ATM we might see in a while, the grocery store for food and drinking water and finally the “bottle” shop for a couple of cases of beer. The latter is the only place in Australia where you can purchase beer in quantity. These facilities are almost always associated with a “hotel”, which we already know, means a pub. We have never found a town in Australia without a “pub” but in the outback, we have found a pub without a town. On the road from Karumba, we had slowed for “three baby emus” walking sedately along the blacktop. Then they launched awkwardly into the air and flew away. Emus don’t fly! These were “Bustards” and look rather like large geese with long spindly legs. We checked at the tourist information and were assured that our proposed route was closed to conventional vehicles, like our. High clearance, four-wheel drive only. The information booth lady assured me that just last week, she had attempted to drive the road in question, in an SUV. She had been forced to turn around after 20 kms. because the road washouts and corrugations were too severe for her to continue. At the grocery store, the lady setting out the vegetables assured me that the road was in fine condition and the river crossings were all “low”, due to the lack of rain. We decided to head down the first road section to Burketown and if we had to reverse course, then that is what we would do.

Little Bynoe RiverCranes and PelicansBustardDry river bedEagleTermite moundTermite moundRoad Kill

We left Normanton on sealed road and passed a road-train pulling three trailers. If road-trains were coming through, the road must be passable to some degree. Shortly thereafter, we passed by the location of Burke and Wills camp number 110 and as we transited to unsealed roads, we saw two more vehicles. We were not to see another vehicle for the next four hours. The empty road stretched before us and it was like driving through a zoo. This is savanna country, deep grass with scattered trees. I kept expecting to see a pride of lions, or a giraffe or two in the distance but instead saw wallabies resting under trees, scores of Brolga cranes, Black Necked storks, Bustards and huge Wedgetail eagles. There were several river crossings but the culverts or crossing points were concreted. Only one place had water over the road and it was perhaps an inch deep. The streams were filled with huge rocks and the water was milky green and cool looking under the shade of large trees. The largest river crossing was at the Leichhardt River and the concrete causeway passed just above the rocky falls of the river. A terrifying place with the river in flood. Today, it looked a beautiful place to explore and we would have done so but for the large sign warning travellers of the risk of estuarine crocodiles. If you don’t know the rules, don’t play the game! We pressed on towards Burketown and passed the only other vehicle of the day.

Leichart RiverLeichart RiverSavannahBurketown

Burketown is touted as “the Barramundi capital of the world” and we first headed for the historic post office and museum. Closed. “Frank”, the proprietor was out of town. I almost quipped that he was probably wrapping up his rehab but demurred, as the lady who provided this information might have been Frank’s sister. All else in town was closed, thus we headed over to the caravan park, parked, plugged in the power and turned on the air-conditioning. By dusk, the temperature had dropped, the only restaurant in town was open and we walked over for barra and chips. OK but not world class. The restaurant is named for Burketown’s other famous attraction, a meteorological phenomenon called “Morning Glory”. This is some kind of rolling cloud formation. “Wrong time of year” was the response to our enquiry.

April 9, 2013

The caravan park owner / manager provided the information that there was 300 mm water flowing over the causeways at the Calvert and Robinson river crossings. I carefully measured the distance from the ground to the body of the Coaster at 320 mm. Theoretically, the river water would only be at axle height and not pushing against the body of the vehicle itself. I then queried a couple of fellow campers, who were wearing work clothes and had a serviceable looking “Ute” parked nearby. They assured me that the road out to Doomadgee was in good condition, there was low water at the river crossings and further, all of the crossings were concreted. We filled

Wills HighwayWills Highwaywater crossingwater crossingwater crossingwater crossingwater crossing

DoomadgeeDoomadgee grocerywreck in bushwater crossing

 up our diesel tank again and headed west. The road to Doomadgee was excellent and we made good progress. We passed no other vehicles but tire tracks in the dirt showed several vehicles had passed recently. Doomadgee is an aboriginal community 93 kms west of Burketown and we stopped at the single store to query the road conditions ahead. Annette reported that the store carried the usual groceries, plus red-hatted garden gnomes, art supplies and Tabasco. The lady at the check out said the road was open west but heavily corrugated. She was immediately corrected by a customer, who added that the grader had gone through last week and the road was freshly graded to the Queensland border. Thus fortified, we set off again, bound for “Hells’ Gate Roadhouse”, 80 kms. further west. It was a beautiful drive with blue sky, sunshine, the green of the bush contrasting with the red dirt of the road. Most sections of road did appear to have been recently graded, with just a few rough spots where it had been too wet for the grader. The river crossings were mostly concreted but there were several places where the water flowed across the road and we drove in first gear, trying to see ahead that there were no potholes to drop our axle into. The water depth was about a foot (300 mm) but this was not the place described as the major crossings. We were still in Queensland and the troublesome crossings were all allegedly in the Northern Territories. Our river transits were both exciting and mysterious, as we usually plunged into cool shadow by the tall trees along the riverbanks but these crossings were also troubling in that we had been assured that all were dry to the Queensland border and this was not the case.

We had been told in Burketown that Bill Olive had recently retired and had taken up residence at Hell’s Gate Roadhouse. When we arrived at Hells’ Gate, there was but a single person in evidence and unsurprisingly, this turned out to be Bill Olive. He was a fount of information. We would have bought a beer but he had recently lost his liquor license since the government had judged his operation a public nuisance. I appears that most of his customers were aborigines, who drove the 80 kms. from Doomadgee at breakneck speed, to buy a couple of cases of beer and some groceries. They would also buy a little fuel from him. Bill said that his customers preferred to keep their trucks near empty, in case they were stolen. In this event, they couldn’t be driven far. Since the government had grabbed Bill’s liquor license, his annual sales had dropped from $1.2M to around $190K. Bummer. I felt bad in that we needed neither diesel nor beer since both gauges were still showing “full”. Bill provided the unwelcome intelligence that several of the other rivers to the west were “over the road” and the reported depth was one meter – about thigh depth. He suggested that we wait at a crossing where we were unsure, watch a four-wheel drive go through and see how they made out. When I pointed out that we hadn’t seen another vehicle on the road in two days, Bill remonstrated that three small 4WD’s travelling together had gone by just this morning. A meter water depth was just not going to work for us. The bus is 24 feet long long and beside the obvious problems of the interior filling up with water, the force of the current on the bus body would likely push us off the causeway, down the falls to the waiting crocodiles below. Bill suggested that if we continued another 110 kms. west, across the border into the Northern Territories, we could cut southwest over the Calvert Road for 258 kms. and then pick up the Tablelands highway back north for another 170 kms. The latter was sealed but this combination made it 538 kms. to the next fuel stop, all but 170 kms. on dirt roads. A quick calculation and we decided that it was doable and bidding goodbye to Bill, we set off.

Hell's GateHell's Gate International Air terminalHell's Gate barHell's GateThe road to NTThe road to NT

The road was indeed graded for most of the 50 kms. to the Northern Territories border but after we left Queensland, the quality of the road deteriorated sharply. The causeways across the minor river crossings were not concreted and we plunged steeply to a mud and rock filled stream bed before scrabbling at an acute angle up the other side. As I remarked to Annette, my prior experience in crossing stream beds on a mountain bicycle really paid off here. I would pick my track through the obstacle, shove the gear shift into bottom gear and hold the power about medium throttle until we poked out at the top of the bank. Really glad the bus has “duallies” on the back axle. Still a very pretty drive through savannah with some heavy brush thrown into the mix where the road would cross the streams draining nor’ nor’ east into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Annette remarked that the windshield that had been cleaned in Burketown was still remarkably free from bugs. We saw ‘roos in the mid afternoon and lots of cattle and flies. Finally we arrived at the undistinguished turn, and proceeded west southwest, heading uphill into the tablelands. This road was rocky and rugged in the beginning and at times, little more than a track. We were concerned in that “Matilda” (the Tom Tom GPS) refused to recognize its existence - not too surprising since it is shown on the paper maps as a “minor unsurfaced road” but another possibility was that we had simply taken the wrong turn. There were few recent tire tracks but that those that existed, we followed. My theory was that the Redbank mine, invisible to us as we passed its turnoff some thirty kms. back, would likely use this track as a supply route “in the wet”. We pressed on. After some 30 kms. we came upon the Calvert Hills Station and pulled into their yard. The man who approached to meet us indicated that the road was a little rough for the next 40 kms. or so but would smooth out once we got on top of “the tablelands”. He suggested a campsite some forty kms. further down the road and we again set off, seeking the “third concrete culvert” along the track. This took nearly an hour but we forded a stream and turned into a gravel pit area that had been used by the road maintenance crew in times past, as a staging area. We have not seen another vehicle since Doomadgee early this morning and this will be our first bush camp “alone”.

The road to NTThe road to NTwater crossingNorthern Territories Borderwater crossinginside NTinside NT

Calvert turn offFuel warningfollow tire trackstermite moundsKangaroos and Cattleapproaching the Crawford stationthe Crawford station

In the spirit of the early explorers, I fired up the generator we have been toting since Sydney, switched on the air-conditioner and turned the propane hot water furnace on for our shower. Annette and I then took a walk through the bush in the vicinity of our campsite but the nearby water hole showed only cattle hoof prints in the mud and nothing but miles of bush all around us. I decanted the extra diesel from the jerry jugs into the main tank and thoroughly cursed the officious, bureaucratic morons who dictated the so called “spill proof” spouts on the jerry jugs. You cannot buy jerry jugs without these worthless contraptions and I have spilled more fuel using them than I ever did before they were mandated. Eventually the jugs were empty and I didn’t spill any. Just grumbled a lot. The fuel gauge now shows “full” again. You could not hear the generator from inside the bus but it sounded really loud outside and at 9:00 p.m. when we shut it down, the bush was whisper quiet around us. The stars gleamed hard above with the scatter of the milky way. We saw a satellite passing dimly and a sudden burst of light from a star, that immediately dimmed. A distant supernova? It was now quite cool in the bush compared to the baking temperatures of earlier today and we were quite comfortable sleeping with just the side windows slightly open.

Crawford StationCrawford Stationtermite moundstoppled moundwater hole

April 10, 2013

We arose early and since there was no cell or internet connections to delay us, we set off in the pre-dawn darkness, the bus headlamps lighting the track before us. The track was rough in places and the dim light of an approaching sunrise did not provide sufficient contrast of the washouts and similar obstacles, so we drove cautiously. A blown tire or broken axle would be a problem anywhere but particularly out here. We could see high ground to our left side and as the trail rose to meet it, the vegetation changed from bush to savannah and the rocks became fewer. Soon we were skimming over sandy trails at 70 km / hour, with only the occasional drainage to slow us down. There were a couple of places that were scary for us in that they looked like giant mud holes with deep vehicle ruts. If we got bogged down in mud, we were likely going to be sitting for a while until someone came along the track who could pull us out. Fortunately, this didn’t happen and each time we passed such an obstacle, I would pat the dash encouragingly and say, “Good girl! Well done!”

Crawford Tabletop roadCrawford Tabletop roadFeral catCrawford Tabletop roadCrawford Tabletop roadCrawford Tabletop roadCrawford Tabletop road

Our map showed an intersecting track around the mid-way point of our passage between the Savannah route along the coast and the Tablelands Highway blacktop and if we had calculated correctly, we should pass this about an hour after we broke camp. Sure enough, we began to see scattered cattle in the bush and then a side road bearing the name of a distant station. There were also additional tire tracks joining our route and the surface seemed smoother. As we drove, flocks of bright green budgerigars would explode from the sides of the trail like scattering green jewels. We saw no kangaroos or wallabies but all kinds of storks, bustards, kites and eagles, galahs and “pied” birds that take time and a field guide to identify. Sometimes we would have to come to dead stop to move cattle from the trail and then the trees went away and we travelled through an ocean of grass, stretching to the horizon, uninterrupted by bush or beast. Matilda had begun to acknowledge that we might be on a track she approved of and the kilometers were being eaten away. At around 1130 a.m. we arrived and turned north on the blacktop and were immediately passed by two vehicles heading south. We have done it! We have crossed the unsealed portion of the “Savannah Way”.

Cape Crawfordlaundry dayemu herdingthe sty outbackswat and driveBustard

The highway north to Cape Crawford was single lane and so badly patched and rippled, it was like riding a bucking bronco and we were forced to slow to 60 kms. / hour in order not to become airborne. In fact, sections of the dirt road we had driven across were smoother. Nevertheless we arrived in cape Crawford in early afternoon and purchased fuel. I estimate that we still had 34 liters remaining in the tank when we did this - far more than I had expected. We decided to spend the night here at the caravan park and also enquired about the advertised helicopter tourist flights. We were told that, “she” the pilot, was not yet “back”. She is probably in rehab with Frank the postman.

April 11, 2013

Cape Crawford had no cell phone service, no internet and the like and we had already seen the roadhouse. Time to split this pop-stand! We headed west for Daly Waters on the Stuart Highway. Daly Waters is a stop in the road with a population of around 23 souls but has had an amazing history. It received its name from John Stuart, when he stopped here during his third and successful attempt to cross Australia from south to north in 1861. There remains a tree here that has a large “S” on it, allegedly carved by the Stuart party. The telegraph line that reported the capture of Ned Kelly and his gang, reached Daly waters eleven years later in 1862 and I presume a regular track would have existed to maintain the telegraph. I don’t know when the airstrip was created but the airfield here was an important stop on the 1926 London to Sydney race and also a refueling stop for Qantas (Queensland And New Territories Aero Services). In WW II, there was an airbase here and it was bombed by the Japanese some 90 or so times, presumably because the airstrip was first used by the RAAF and then later by the US Airforce, as a base for B-17 super-fortresses. The airport was closed to commercial traffic in 1965 but the original Qantas hanger still stands. The outback pub was built around 1930 and received its liquor license only 8 years later.

passing road trainDaly WatersDaly waters pubMarine badgeThe "Stuart tree"Stuart treetripod and baskethangar view

We began our tour with a historic beer apiece at the bar. The pub’s décor probably hasn’t changed much since the American airforce was here, although the furniture would have been newer then. The interior of the pub was covered with pinned banknotes from across the planet, bras, underpants, billed caps, medals and military patches, plus decades of rusting junk. Annette donated a US Marine Corp patch from the military surplus store at Aransas Pass, Texas and which was promptly stapled into place. Part of the current bar had been used as a surgery for the WW II hospital but the latter was then moved about 50 kms. further south to put it out of Japanese bomber range. We headed over to see the Stuart tree with the “S” carved on it but first visited the “zip” line. This was a WW II construction in that the airfield was on one side of the river and the pub on the other. When the river was in flood, the early method to cross the barrier was a rope strung between trees but after a couple of accidents, a pair of steel tripods with a cable stretched between them was used. This still stands on the site, together with a steel basket for passengers and during the war, was a popular and exciting ride for the perennially thirsty, younger set. Next we headed over to the Qantas hangar which stood at the now abandoned airstrip. The hangar had a good display of photographs from the war, showing a busy and active airfield, a far cry from the weedy, dusty look of abandonment today.

We checked into the caravan park operated by the pub and parked alongside a near identical white Toyota Coaster motorhome converted bus. Later when we met the owners, Ed and Debbie, we were surprised to discover that not only this is the first Coaster motorhome we have seen on our trip but that the conversion had been made by the same company, Silversun in Brisbane. Ours is a more recent conversion and we are grateful to Ed and Debbie for allowing Silversun to practice on their bus before doing the work on ours. Our new met friends are semi-retired in that they are travelling Australia most of the year and funding their travels with their “60’s Revolution Show”. Eddie does Roy Orbison and Elvis impersonations and Debbie does Cher (They have a gig next week in Katherine, see: www.eddiedaniels.com.au). Since we we were parked alongside and in an identical bus, the pub people naturally assumed that we were were part of the band and Annette was asked if she was perhaps a dancer. They were a fun, adventurous and interesting couple to visit with and we closed the bar down, chatting late into the night.

April 12, 2013

We headed north this morning, following the route of the Stuart highway. Some 50 kms north of Daly Waters was a fading sign on the side of the road indicating a WW II historical site, plus parking. We pulled the bus into the gravel parking area but it was weedy and showed little signs of use. We searched fruitlessly for the historical “site” and finding nothing, opened a gate and while scanning for snakes in the the brush on the other side, we followed an old trail but still found no trace of any artifacts. Back on the highway again, we had begun to roll north, when we spotted a sign, facing only the south bounders and indicating that the ruins of a WW II hospital lay on the other side of the highway. After reversing along the Stuart highway through the heavy traffic – OK, there was nobody in sight – we reparked on the west side of the highway and searched the east side of the highway. This time we found a weedy, overgrown trail that led to the extensive ruins of the sought after WW II hospital and a fading sign, punctured by ten “OO” buckshot pellets, explaining its history. The slabs of the buildings were extant but the buildings themselves had been sold --- wait for it --- to the owner of the Daly Waters pub! No wonder the old photos looked so familiar; the pub’s outbuildings and extensions had been built from the recycled hospital buildings.

camp hospitalcamp hospital

Next stop was Larrimah, the WW II terminus of the Darwin to Adelaide railway. The southern section of the railway was begun from Port Augusta (just east of Adelaide) in 1878 and reached Oodnadatta by 1891. Construction of the northern section began in Darwin in 1883 and by 1929 it had reached Larrimah. The southern portion had a narrow gauge line extending from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs and this was also completed in 1929. This left a gap of 1,000 kms., where no rail was laid. In the 1930’s, Australia anticipated war with Japan and began preparations for defending the continent. Darwin was the key port and outpost on Australia’s northern frontier and plans were made to supply and defend it, by bridging the gap between the two railheads with truck convoys. In the early 30’s an experimental truck arrived from England, together with two “self guiding trailers” and thus began the experiment of the Australian “Road Train”. The museum at Larrimah had photographs of this vehicle, a necessary development in order to multiply the amount of war materiel that could be transported along the unsealed road between the two railheads. The Larrimah railhead was abandoned in 1976 and the line closed, with the rail being torn up and shipped to the east coast for use on the sugar cane railways.

Larrimah Inntelephone equipment1940's road train

Larrimah had also been an important repeater site on the overland telegraph and you can easily imagine the accumulation of turn-around truck drivers, plus transiting troops that would have been billeted here. Today the population is “11” and there is a pub, a free museum – very extensive and covering the history of the rail, the trucking effort, the telegraph, plus a free zoo. We wandered the zoo and marveled at both the broad selection of animals displayed and the time it must take for the pub’s employees to care for all of these beasts and birds.

Mataranka hot springsMataranka hot springsMataranka hot springstreesRoper riverRoper river

Next stop along the highway was Mataranka. All had insisted we stop here to enjoy the hot springs. The lady at the fuel stop said she wasn’t sure if the hot springs were open because of the “recent rain”. Huh? Springs derive from down; rain comes from up - why would too much rain affect them? We drove over to the hot spring resort and found most trails closed. The walk to the springs that remained open was through tall trees and between the trees were scattered posts, perhaps 60 feet tall, such as you might find used for freeway intersection lighting. Atop the posts were large sprinkler heads and these are used in season to dissuade fruit bats from roosting above the trails. The single pool that was open was crystal clear, with a bluish tinge and looked very inviting. The other pools were closed and the balance of the trail showed flood debris in the tree branches some eight feet or so above trail level. We would have stayed longer but the trails were also signposted with warnings that the recent flooding had allowed crocodiles to migrate into the park and the flood debris looked even more menacing as we edged past, looking in all directions at once. In addition, the mosquitoes had found us and promised misery, offsetting any possible hot spring delights. Before we left town, we checked out the museum of the “Never Never” but it was a bust. Not worth the $3 per head admission fee. We moved on.

termite moundstermite moundsFreshwater crocodilewallabies

Later that afternoon we arrived in the town of Katherine and found a slot at the Springvale Homestead park. The toilet / shower facilities were a little squalid but we can operate “self contained” and besides, we were already sucked in after watching the park manager feed a crocodile in the large spring fed pond that occupies the center of the park. This was a full grown, fresh water crocodile, about eight feet long. The croc was not a pet and was fed a chicken neck from a wire on the end of a pole. Although this was not an estuarine crocodile, seeing this primeval predator emerge from the water, crawl part way up the bank and then snap at the chicken, sent a chill through this ape descendant. We were standing about a dozen feet away and there was nothing between the croc and ourselves. I offered the park manager five dollars if he would put his head in the croc’s mouth but he wouldn’t take my generous offer. On our return walk to our bus, there was a mowed field that was hosting almost one hundred grazing wallabies. Annette tried to sneak forwards to take a picture but disturbed a nearby chained dog which began barking. It was quite a sight seeing this flock of wallabies scattering into the bush.

April 13, 2013

This morning when we awoke, there were wallabies grazing all around the bus. A great way to be reminded that we are in Australia! We headed out on a Saturday morning for some “tourist shopping”, bearing in mind that rural Australia typically closes around mid-day Saturday and for the balance of the week-end. Our first stop was at “N. T. Rare Rocks”, where Annette purchased locally found, “zebra rocks”, fossilized mud wasp nests and steel balls from a gold mine rock crushing machine. But of course, you the reader, could have predicted this, right?

NT rare rocksrock crushing steel ballsrock collector heavenrock collector heaven

Almost all of the local art galleries close for the week-end during tourist season but we did telephone several and found a couple of galleries open. At “Gallop Thru Time Gallery”, we looked at an extensive selection of aboriginal paintings and met a local aboriginal artist, Kenneth Wark. Kenny had wandered into the gallery as we were browsing the artwork. He was clutching handful of reeds he had just plucked from the river bed and he borrowed a knife from Peter, the gallery proprietor, in order to trim his reeds to “painting length”. He paints with reeds instead of brushes and trims the reed to achieve the different widths he needs. Unsurprisingly, he prefers to work in air-conditioned gallery space and much of his work was on display. Annette has been collecting aboriginal art since her last visit to Australia in 2006 and chatted at length with Kenny about his style of “X-ray” art and the meaning of several of his creations.

Kenny prepares his reedsKenny explains paintingartist and purchaser

Shopping sated, we then returned to our site at Springvale Homestead and after dark, cooled off in their spring fed swimming pool. However, before entering the water, we carefully examined the pool by flashlight to ensure that we were not about to share it with any of the parks reptilian inhabitants. Frogs and bugs, OK; crocodiles, not.

April 14, 2013

We began the day with a drive to Nitmiluk National Park, aka the Katherine Gorge. Several years ago it was decided to rename the towns, rivers and the like from the Anglo-Saxon labels the early explorers had applied, back to their traditional Aboriginal names. The result is that there are now two names for many places and few but the aborigines can pronounce them. Just as in the Pacific Islands, aboriginal peoples had hundreds of different languages and dialects, often in close proximity to each other, plus these languages, like German or Welsh are “polysynthetic”. That is, they string together a bunch of descriptors or concepts in to one long unpronounceable composite. (Try “abanmarneyawoihyiukyirrurndeng” in aboriginal diction or “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch” in Welsh).

On the approach to the gorge were multiple idle helicopters waiting for tourists. I had already checked their pricing and at $660 for the pair of us for a 45 minute tour, we had swiftly returned to our original intention of hiking. The hike we had selected was a 4 km. loop walk that climbed the wall of the gorge before returning along the crest of the escarpment. It was another hot day and we were grateful for the multiple shade trees found on the climb up the gorge wall. A great view of the river and cliffs from the summit and an overall pleasant walk.

Gorge trailGorge trailKatherine riverKatherine riverTrail Bat tree

On our return to Katherine, we hit the Katherine museum, a good stop. There were extensive displays of aboriginal artifacts, as well as WW II memorabilia, plus displays and a video of the Katherine floods. The large catchment basin above the gorge funnels massive quantities of the water into the gorge bottleneck, which has repeatedly flooded the town. The video showed the 1998 flood when the river rose 55 feet and most of the town’s residents had to be evacuated by air. Like many places, Katherine has a “1,000 year flood”, every couple of years. There was an outside display of the telegraph repeater station and lots of early machinery that somehow found its way to this important outback town. The museum grounds were also the site of “Marksie's Stockman's Camp Tucker Night” (Ph: 0427 112 806, www.marksiescamptucker.com.au) and we had booked a camp fire dinner with Geoff Mark, aka “Marksie” for this evening. When we arrived, Marksie informed us that the other couple who had booked, had just cancelled their dinner due to an illness and we were slightly embarrassed to be Marksie’s only customers for the evening. The ambiance was perfect, with the coals of a well laid camp fire, decorated with aged and well used billies, cast iron cooking pots, tin mugs and the authentic trappings of the cooksite on a cattle muster. There was the sliver of a new moon that did not wash out the stars of the night’s sky, plus multiple wallabies grazing nearby. One wallaby in particular came to the campsite when called to be fed “damper” bread and grunted impatiently when Marksie wasn’t fast enough to provide same. Marksie is a master story teller and wove a non-stop patter of stories, some probable and some not, into his preparation of the evening’s meal. You can look up the menu on the link above but for us it was great evening and a not to be missed experience.

Camp firesMarksie cookingFirst courseBilly teaMarksie swings the billy

April 15, 2013

Tax day. Well it will be for the USA tomorrow, ‘cos we are nearly a day ahead of the USA, across the date-line. We left the Katherine campsite this morning and headed to town to refuel, dump our holding tanks and get beer. No rinse hose at the dump station (per the information center – the local council won’t replace it because the aborigines keep stealing it) and you can’t buy beer before two in the afternoon. We headed north along the Stuart highway and stopped to visit the historic pub in Pine Creek. The pub was built from local iron wood and bricks made from termite mounds and as we were the only customers, we chatted to the pretty bartender. She is from Toronto, Canada and came out here nine months ago with her Australian boyfriend, who works in a local gold mine. When she first arrived in Pine Creek, population less than 700, she gasped, “Where is the town?”. Welcome to the outback!

termite mound bricksThe bar at Pine Creekpainted buffalo skullpainted buffalo skull

Apparently Pine Creek doesn’t have aboriginal customers, or if they do, they are allowed to buy beer before two p.m. We repaired our supply shortage from the local bottle shop and headed northeast into the Kakadu National Park, arriving at Yellow River in mid afternoon. Earlier posted information had indicated that this facility was closed but this fortunately turned out to be untrue and we settled into a campsite and booked a river tour for the morrow.