footloose and fancy free in oz

A bloke, his better half, and a 4WD truck, in the wild blue yonder of the red continent

Trials, tribulations and triumphs along the Top End

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Becoming increasingly intimidated by the resident croc population just metres away from our camp near Burketown, we packed up on Sunday morning. It was nature’s way of telling us that it was time to continue along the Savannah Way towards the Northern Territory. Our plan included a 450km detour to Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill National Park) on the far north western edge of Queensland.

After calculating that our diesel reserves in both fuel tanks were more than adequate (it’s several hundred kms to the nearest fuel), it no longer mattered that the we’d failed to check the opening hours of the only service station in town. It was closed on Sundays.
Oops.

1 Savannah Way to Boodjamulla

Dipping into Boodjamulla

We knew that from Burketown on, we would have to contend with unsealed roads all the way. However, much to our surprise we encountered pretty good conditions and even some sealed sections. Then, just after Gregory Downs, it quickly deteriorated with the last 30 or so kms a bit of a nightmare to drive. The road was awful and it seemed to take forever to get us there. More than once we wondered out loud if the National Park was worth this onerous detour. When we reached our destination however, the anguish of the drive vanished. (Actually, at first it got worse when we realised that we’d arrived with a flat tyre. It got better once the bloke used his sexy tyre changing skills.)

We found ourselves in a magical oasis complete with a stunning gorge flanked by fiery red cliffs and a pristine river slowly winding its way through it, all fringed by lush vegetation. In context of the harsh savannah with its sparse vegetation that surrounds it for many, many hundreds of kilometres in all directions, this place seemed surreal. Like an oasis in the desert.

3 Boodjamulla

7 Boodjamulla Lookout

Most welcome of all, given we were sweltering in mid to high 30s temperatures, was the notion that the gorge was safe for swimming. I should add that I’m a ‘nervous’ swimmer at the best of times, pretty much ideally suited for swimming pools and bath tubs. So, given the deep dark waters of the gorge, I only really managed quick dips accompanied by frantic strokes. Don’t mock me … I reckon it’s common knowledge that dangerously scary creatures lurk in those depths. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that I count curious fish of any size amongst them. Much to my displeasure there were a fair few of them in the gorge, all suffering from short-sightedness based on the close range from which they inspected my anatomy. Or perhaps they were just emboldened by the “no fishing” signs everywhere.

8 Boodjamulla

The next day we hiked a short way to a ridiculously attractive area of the gorge, where picture perfect cascades create pretty little spa pools – perfect for swimming. Surprisingly, we found a sign alerting swimmers that crocodiles inhabit the river. Gulp! But, as was explained to us, we need not be too alarmed because they are “freshies” (freshwater crocodiles) and they tend to keep to themselves unless provoked – unlike their aggressive cousins, the “salties” (saltwater or estuarine crocodiles). I was a tad nervous as to what might constitute aforementioned provocation. For all I knew, some croc might take offense at my hectic egg-beater-impersonating swimming style.

4 Boodjamulla Cascades

Well, obviously neither of us got chomped on (by anything other than curious fishies). In fact, we never even saw a freshy. I guess it’s official, I’m an over-reacting drama queen.

5 Boodjamulla Freshies Warning

Boodjamulla is a very special place for the local indigenous people who have always been attracted to the permanent water source of Lawn Hill Creek – a rarity in these parts. Here they are said to have had the longest continual association of people with the landscape in the history of the earth. It sounds like a long time, and it is. Archaeologists talk about continuous settlement for well over 30,000 years, dating back to the Ice Age. I guess there’s no arguing with that as an endorsement for the place.

2 Boodjamulla

Apart from the National Park camp there is one other facility at Boodjamulla, otherwise it’s a very long way to nowhere. That other place is  Adels Grove,  a pretty Campground cum Outback Lodge that has its own airfield and also attracts the well-heeled fly-in/fly-out clientele, many of them in their own planes. They come to experience the Outback without too much inconvenience but I gather some of their guests don’t always “get it”. You can’t blame them, I suppose. You hop on your private plane in Melbourne, watch a couple of movies, then land among some pretty landscape a few hours later … and ask where the nearest Café or Sushi place is.

But while I first scoffed at their easy access option, our experiences on the remainder of the Savannah Way made me ponder the wisdom of those frequent fliers.

Shake, rattle and toll – more Savannah Way

We had planned to continue on the Savannah Way and into the NT. As incurable optimists, we naturally gravitated towards the alternative route that our literature described as the “iconic Savannah Way alternative for the adventurous minded”.  That sure sounded like they had us in mind when they wrote that. Yup, we figured it definitely was our kind of route.
Besides, a bit of character building would do us no harm.

“Lambs to the slaughter” is all I can say now.

12 Bowthorn Station

10 Alt Savannah Way River Crossing

Our route included fun parts, like this section where the road is also the river bed for several hundred metres. (It took the blonde one among us a while to figure out where the road went…)

The route led us through a cattle station with 75km of privately maintained road, whereby the term “maintained” is very loosely used. In fact, the narrow road was so badly corrugated and full of rocks, holes and bulldust, that we managed a maximum speed of, wait for it, 12km/h. At minimum speed, a toddler learning to walk could have overtaken us in full flight. Even the few Landcruisers that came towards us called it a “very slow road”. Most of them gave us a pitiful look and said something along the line of “yeah … probably not much fun in your rig”.
No bloody kidding!

9 Alternative Savannah Way

The road to impending doom has several gates

We managed to drive barely 50km that day before we decided we couldn’t hack it anymore and set up camp for the night. We’d only just sat down after dinner when I got up to select a sweet soundtrack (for the record, it was NZ’s Antix) to enhance the amazing isolation and inject a ‘Friday night vibe’, when all of a sudden the whole power system goes down. The bloke checked all connections, fuses etc., to no avail. We barely slept that night; it dawned on us that something bad might have happened. The next morning the bloke confirms that, not being a sparky, there’s nothing further he can do. No two ways about it, the power system urgently needed to be seen to. The only problem was our location, or should I say isolation.

13 Map

It left us with two choices: We could either backtrack this hellish road and then make our way 370km in the opposite direction to Mount Isa, or push on along the Savannah Way towards the NT, as planned, and hope that there was a suitable technician in Boorooloola  – a 600km drive along a gravel road of variable quality. We chose the latter but first had to endure the remainder of this gnarly private road, then back onto the Savannah Way towards the unenticingly named Hell’s Gate. On the plus side, the road got better in places (lifting our average speed to 30km/h) but some sections were so bad that you’d think they hadn’t graded the road since Adam was a boy.

14 Road Train

Seeing a dust cloud approaching means one thing: pull off the road

It was a pretty solemn drive. Neither of us said much, and both of us sported a look on our face that asked “whose bloody idea of fun was this?” Late that day, we arrived at Hell’s Gate (the name is even more curious given it’s the gateway to the Northern Territory); it consisted of a roadhouse cum servo (that’s a “petrol station” in English speaking countries) and a plane landing strip; the weekly mail-plane had just taken off as we got there. We topped up our tanks up and paid, luckily without having to hand over any vital organs or our first-born.  Just the bank balance was fine, thanks.

18 Diesel Price Cape Crawford

Fill ‘er up … while the wallet gently weeps

When we asked about the condition of the road ahead, towards Cape Crawford, we were told it was “not that good really”. There had been several broken down cars lately, we were advised. In fact, just as we got there a lady and her grand-daughter had left in the mail-plane en route to Mt Isa. Their car, a new Nissan Navara ute, with 13,000 km on the clock, didn’t fare too well and broke. You read that right; it didn’t “break down”, it “broke apart”.  Yup, the cab had started to come away from the body – you could put your hand through it.

17 River Crossing

One of many river crossings on the way to Boorooloola

Seeing we still had 350 km of dirt road ahead of us including quite a few river crossings, those comments didn’t really lift our mood much. Nor did the fact that our freezer was defrosting at a rate of knots (while the contents of our fridge became an olfactory nightmare), or that we were taking 300 litres of water on the mother of all drives, yet couldn’t take a shower because there was no frigging power to run the water pump.

15 Welcome to the Northern Territorry

The road was vile in places with sharp and uneven corrogations often more than 15 cm deep, random rocks of various sizes, and massive holes filled with treacherous bulldust. If ever there was a day for wearing my big girl’s pants, this was it.

Animal crackers to lighten the mood

At one point, as we were hopping and bopping over gnarly corrugations, we saw a kangaroo standing in the middle of the road just ahead of us. It just sat there unperturbed and glanced at us with a too-cool-for-school expression. I could swear I detected a look of derision in the bugger’s eyes, and a bizarre resemblance with Jim Carey. Since we were approaching at a glacial speed, the kangaroo had all the time in the world to send another arrogant look our way, before ever so slowly hopping across the road towards the grassy vegetation on the embankment. Just as he approached the other side, something side splittingly hilarious happened courtesy of a hollow that was hidden by tall grass.

It unfolded in slow motion: with the last nonchalant hop, the animal’s hind legs came to land in said hollow; it lost its balance, coming down hard in a humungous face-plant which evidently surprised the animal that suddenly found itself in an impromptu slapstick animal comedy with two approaching spectators laughing their heads off. We just about pissed ourselves at the sight, as the roo righted itself, took one last scornful look at us, brushed its face, and hopped off into the distance.

This entertainment made up for at least 100kms of shitty road.

But there wasn’t much else to make up for the remaining 550km.

As for the fact that there was no help for us in the tiny outpost settlement of Boorooloola … well, that just meant we would have to wait until we got to Katherine, a further 650 km up the road. But, seriously, it didn’t matter anymore because … hallelujah … it was sealed road all the way.

16 Scrub Fires

Parched conditions spontaneously ignite many scrub fires

Assault of the batteries

On Monday afternoon – after 2 ¾ days of solid driving – we arrived in Katherine and pretty much landed at the door of an electrical and solar specialist who diagnosed one of our (new and very expensive deep cycle) ‘house batteries’ as being … I think the technical term was “dead as a duck”. It had no charge and, most surprisingly, an open circuit. It was literally broken. Most likely a manufacturing fault that had been aggravated by the rough roads.

While we were gutted, our pain was eased by the knowledge that our fancy pants SSB batteries came with 24 months unrestricted warranty. The only issue was enforcing the warranty!  This, as it turned out, sounds much easier in theory (assuming the customer is in Sydney), than it is in practice (when the customer is someplace like Katherine, NT, and the seller is in Sydney … and freight cost is in excess of $100 for one of those 37kg suckers).

Thankfully, the company agreed to send a replacement relatively promptly, albeit to Darwin. Eight agonising days later, the replacement battery arrived, was installed and we were sent on our merry way. Ecstatic and jubilant we drove to the nearest supermarket to generously restock our fridge and freezer. Upon our return – shopping bags laden with chilled and frozen goodies – our power display panel seemed odd. The lights weren’t on. That couldn’t be right … !
And the fridge, it didn’t seem properly cold either…
The water tap also didn’t work …  and the power was down.

26 SSB Battery Bank

Last look at our terminally ill sparks

Our hearts sank and a sense of déjà vu – or perhaps it was doom – overcame us. Once again, there was no clue as to what was wrong. Cutting a long and sordid story short:  After visiting a series of battery and electrical specialists, including one nominated by the battery manufacturer, it transpired that when the first battery shat itself, it put immense pressure on the remaining batteries in the bank, damaging two further batteries.

Well, if we thought it was difficult getting one battery replaced under warranty, we were about to learn the meaning of ‘reluctant warranty replacement’.  It was a further week-long saga which involved exhaustive examination of our system by sparkies, solar specialists, battery experts and auto electricians, all of whom came to the conclusion that there wasn’t some other fault (as the battery company had insinuated in an effort to avoid honouring the warranty). Though, in a weird kind of way, it was also a gratifying experience as it resulted in several professional compliments for the quality our system.

In the end, we received four new, but different, deep cycle batteries from a partner company of our provider, Battery Crank, who happened to have four 6V 250Amp batteries in stock – the only ones in Darwin, and likely the NT for that matter. Their team was awesome and made a huge difference to us.

We felt incredibly lucky and tremendously relieved that this torturous and costly episode was at last over.

Amped with a silver lining

Living literally weeks without power i.e. refrigeration, running water, lights, ability to charge the phone (we had to spend many hours on the phone to sort this mess out), laptops etc had taken its toll and left us a bit bruised. It had been a huge inconvenience that seemed to go on forever. Groundhog Day in the stifling heat of the NT.

21 Canoeing the Kathereine River

Staying out of the water in the Katherine River

On the up-side, we met some amazing people who helped us in amazing ways. Alex and Nicola in Katherine offered us a spot on their property to stay for a couple of nights where we had access to water and were camped near the picturesque Katherine River. They also lent us their canoe for an adventurous paddle upriver towards the Katherine Gorge. Mind you, somewhat disconcertingly – just as we were about to set off – we met Chris, a local ranger, who had just put fresh bait into the crocodile trap, mere metres from where we launched the canoe. Incidentally – for those of you who think that crocodile attacks are very rare – he told us about several attacks, including one little more than a week ago when his son’s 26 year old friend, Sean, lost his life in the Mary River. Chilling stuff!

20 Chris with Crocodile Trap

Chris the Ranger just after he’d baited the crocodile trap, partly visible at the water’s edge. In February, a 4.5 m croc was caught in this very trap, he said.

In Darwin we loved the team at Battery Crank, especially Chris who with his wife is also on a travelling adventure and has been stationed in Darwin for a while. We had a lovely Saturday lunch together, swapped stories and received some great advice and tips.

And then we met John, an organiser at a Christian outreach centre, who allowed us to camp on a vacant community site in Darwin, again with access to water. Given that caravan park fees are a hefty $48 – $50 a night in Darwin (and we found it difficult to sneak away somewhere) we were immensely grateful for his kind help.

In addition, most other battery people, sparkies and solar specialists were very accommodating in pushing our ‘job’ ahead of the queue so we could proceed with ‘ticking’ items off.

19 Gecko Takeaway

Hungry gecko caught with a mouthful

Darwinism

All in all, Darwin was good to us. It was a relief to have access to the specialist services we needed and once it was all sorted, we hung about town for a while to get our mojo back. It was good to take another look at the place where we bought Truckie 11 months ago.

Darwin seems an oddball place of sorts. Its geographic/strategic importance would have you believe it’s a whole lot bigger than it really is. To us it actually feels smaller than the 120,000 population indicates. Mind you that may be changing as the area is currently booming, along with much of the NT, courtesy of a mega LNG and other mining projects.

There’s a renegade vibe, and prosperity is palpable around the fringes with a distinct bogan feel everywhere. Darwin is a bit rough and ready, like a hackneyed muscle car with a chipped and supercharged V8 engine under its bonnet … and seemingly unburdened by pesky rules. But it’s also refreshingly culturally diverse – the only place we’ve encountered like it here so far. There are obviously many neighbouring Indonesians along with other cultures. This mix creates rather an exotic ambience with an Aussie twang that I found endearing. It comes into its own at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market – lovely atmosphere with loads of ethnic food stalls, live music, and all manner of market fare.

27 Darwin Mindil Markets

Mindil Beach Sunset Markets – Darwin

You can’t help noticing that there are loads of backpackers about. In fact, the centre of town which is pretty much “tourist central” is thick with them. I’m unsure to what extent it’s a seasonal phenomenon, after all many of them come here to seek work during the mango harvest. This year, however, the harvest is delayed because “the Wet” didn’t really happen last year.

With all the mining investment there’s huge pressure on accommodation across the region. The suburbs are sprawling, cheap-and-nasty worker accommodation villages are in various stages of construction, property prices have predictably gone north and rent is hideously expensive – on a par with glitzy downtown Brisbane areas.

The overwhelming feeling is that the place is ramping up. Many thousands of workers are needed for the construction phase of various projects (4000 alone for the Ichthys LNG project alone) and then there’s also the growing contingent of 2500 US troops that are occuppying, I mean being stationed in, Darwin.

28 Darwin Rockets

Garden ornaments RAAF style

On the other side of the coin is the indigenous population that you see a lot of in the NT. Sadly, one encounters hordes of stereotypical alcohol ravaged aborigines living a third world existence. It was unbelievably tragic witnessing taxi after taxi pull up outside the bottle shop on Thursday morning  (just after benefits are paid) and seeing boxes upon boxes of booze being uploaded by aborigines who clearly couldn’t afford clothing. Successive governments have evidently failed those people, while agencies and the booze industry have benefited from the government largesse. I don’t know what to say, except that it breaks our hearts.

Litchfield National Park

24 Litchfield Buley Rock Pools

Beuly Rock pools – delicious for swimming and on this day gloriously private

During the early waiting game stage of our battery assault, we drove to Litchfield National Park for a few days’ respite. It’s a lovely National Park with some absolutely superb swimming holes where even the ridiculously fearful, such as moi, can enjoy a relatively cooling dip. Though at a guesstimated 27 degrees, the water is refreshing only by contrast to the high air temperature.

Several areas have (crocodile-free) swimming with waterfalls, gentle cascades and natural pools. Just what the doctor ordered for people without a shower or usable washing machine.

23 Litchfield Swimming

The only fly in the ointment, as it were, was the fish population. Most of the places only had teensie little critters, which I can cope with, but at Florence Falls we encountered some of their mates. I suspect them to be distant relatives of Piranhas.

After I joined the bloke into the beautiful pond – it always takes me an insufferable long time to ascertain it’s safe to submerge my entire body – the bloke suddenly starts jumping in the water. He looked like a trained dolphin leaping, accompanied by screams of “ouch”, “shit”, “you little biting bugger” and other less sanitised expressions. Witnessing his distress, my reactions were swift. It took me exactly 2 ½ nanoseconds to jump into action. Not coming to his assistance, of course, but getting myself back to the safety of the shore.

Well, would you believe it, it turns out, that the fish in this pond find scabs on humans an irresistibly tasty morsel! The bloke had a few scratches and grazes on his elbows and knees that were healing nicely, but they were all literally nibbled off! When he came out of the water, he looked like a bleeding shark attack victim. OK, slight exaggeration, but you get my drift.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Plenty of others we spoke with had the same experience. So, if you venture to Florence Falls, be sure you don’t have any bites, cuts or grazes that are healing. I would have been a smorgasboard with hundreds of festering insect bites all over my body. And frankly, I don’t much feel like having any part of me, no matter how insignificant and/or ‘fleeting’,  on the menu of some other creature. Admittedly though, it occurred to us that we might have to change our big picture view on this matter. When we told this story to our son, he asked what size these fish were.  Our thoughtless answer, “pan size”, elicited raucus laughter from him followed by something uncharitable about the shoe being on the other foot.

25 Goann in Litchfield

I saved the bloke from literally stepping onto this reasonably sized goanna. The equally surprising discovery was that this fella swam very well … in the very rock pools I considered safe!

22 Tree Frog

Tree frog cuteness

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2 thoughts on “Trials, tribulations and triumphs along the Top End

  1. aw…tree frog…..cute photo…..great comment from the son re fish ….hahahaha

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