Thursday, September 24, 2009

Southbound on the Stuart

After Mataranka, we head south again and the long distances start again. On the first day we clock up 700km, south through Tenant Creek and down the Stuart Highway, stopping at the Devils Marbles (interesting, though not amazing, before stopping for the night at Wycliffe Well. A roadhouse in basically the middle of nowhere wouldn't normally rate a mention but this is one of those weird, quirky places that you don't expect to find in Australia. It's supposedly the UFO capital of Australia (which I suspect might be pumped up a bit by the owners of the roadhouse and caravan park in order to drum up business) but it's the other idiosyncrasies about the place that get you- the large selection of imported beers, the Elvis statues, and the monkey shrine(!?).

As we head south, the country gradually gets more arid, and around the tropic of Capricorn the tropical North gives way to the central desert.The next day we knock off the remaining 350-odd km to Alice springs easily enough, stopping on the way at the impressive big man statues at Aileron.

Alice itself, for all it's reputation is a little underwhelming- it comes across as a fairly prosperous, modern town, but not one particularly overflowing with character, although the backdrop of the McDonnell ranges is impressive.

However there's some interesting stuff to check out, including the road transport haul of fame (basically a shrine to the mighty road train) and we're lucky enough to catch a dance event held by the local Aboriginal community and attended by people from communities up to 11 hours drive away, which is fantastic.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

So What exactly does a Kaka Du?

Left Darwin for 3 days in Kakadu national park, stopping off at the Adelaide River for the obligatory jumping croc cruise (fun, if a frivolous waste of pork chops). Kakadu is spectacular, and even toward the end of the dry season there's a load of wildlife- all kinds of waterbirds (such as the magpie goose in the pic below), dingoes (heard howling in the night, cool if a little creepy)and of course crocs. The Aboriginal rock art is the best I've seen so far and the views out over the floodplains and escarpments are unforgettable. It's bloody hot though, 37 to 39 degrees the whole time, and the mosquitos are killer!
Headed down the Stuart Highway to Mataranka afterward en route south- would have been a nice spot except for the fact that a huge colony of flying foxes had moved into the palm trees near the hot pools, and the bastards stink to high heaven. Loads of wildlife, both feral and native again- feral pigs, wallabies, cane toads as well as the foxes.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Darwin- beachside markets and bombers

After 2 months in one of the most sparsely populated regions on the planet, it's pretty weird being back in a city. Plenty would argue that Darwin barely qualifies- the NT's capital (and home to more than half of it's population) is actually barely half the size of Wollongong, (or about the size of Tauranga or Dunedin for the Kiwis) and wandering around the CBD on a Saturday afternoon it feels more a provincial backwater than a state capital. The museum is interesting- some great displays of Aboriginal art and artifacts, and some fascinating stuff on Darwin's short history. If Territorians have an attitude that they have had more crap to deal with than other Australians it's not without foundation, having had to almost totally rebuild the city twice within the space of 50 years, first after the Japanese flattened it during WWII, then again after cyclone Tracy did an even more thorough demolition job in 1974. It still seems a bit of a haphazardly laid out place though- with the port and CBD at one end, a big airport complex in the middle and suburbs on the opposite sides, with the occasional miserable looking aboriginal settlement here and there.
We head to Mindal markets in the evening, which as well as a nice sunset, provide a whole swag of nice ethnic food nibbles, including East Timorese pork and bean stew and grilled camel (which for the record is a bit chewy, and tastes something like venison).

Oh and the aviation museum is pretty cool too- amongst other military and civilian planes and choppers they've got an entire B-52 Stratofortress bomber there (formerly based in Darwin, and kindly donated by the US military when it was retired from service), which takes up almost the entire width of the museum! Just try not to think of the number of unfortunate Viets and Cambodians that it likely rained high explosives onto at some point....

Katherine and Litchfield National Park

After Kunanurra we hit the the road again, and crossed the border into the Territory after 2 and a half months in WA. It was a lengthy 500km+ haul to Katherine, but with the 130km/h NT speed limits we made pretty good time and were in Katherine by early afternoon. The drive itself was more interesting than expected, with some fantastic scenery through the Victoria River region.

In Katherine we took the obligatory cruise through the gorge, then headed up to Edith Falls and Litchfield National Park en route to Darwin.

The surroundings in the Top End are noticeably more tropical and so is the humidity (although the temperatures are still in the mid-low 30s) so the fact that pretty much every spot we visited had a swimming hole was pretty welcome!

The other thing thats immediately noticeable about the Top End is the number of World War II heritage sites. For the rest of Australia and NZ I guess the war was something that happened a long way away- it only really affected us directly in that so many of our grandfathers got turned into meat patties there. In the NT the war affected Australia directly- Darwin was bombed more than 40 times (which pretty much meant it had to be completely rebuilt, considering it was only a small backwater of a few thousand people then) and almost the entire state acted as a forward base for the allied war effort against Japan. It's fitting then that Adelaide River is the site of Australia's only war cemetary, and those Australians who lost their lives in the NT defending AUstralia are buried there.

Wyndham and Kunanurra - TP for my Bungle Bungle

After 1000-odd kms of dust and corrugations a 50km highway cruise up to Whyndham through some beautiful country was quite a treat, not that the destination was that much to rave about.

Wyndham really feels like the end of the line- WA's most northerly port is a dusty, uninviting place, although the 360 degree view from the five rivers lookout above town is pretty awesome, although impossible to capture in pictures.

We head on to Kununurra, which provides another incongruous experience- in one of the most remote areas of Australia, there's this oasis of lush, irrigated farmland created by the huge Ord River irrigation project. The caravan parks even have sprinklers constantly watering the lawns- something I can't remember the last time I'd seen anywhere in the country! In the evening we take a cruise on the Ord river, which provides a few more nice photo opportunities.
We decided a while back that the road into the Bungle Bungles was both too far out of the way and too rugged for the Subaru to tackle (especially after the kicking it got on the Gibb River Road), so take the soft option of an early-morning fly-over. The views of the Bungles, Lake Argyle and the Argyle diamond mind are incredible- I'm jealous of the people who we drop off at the Bungle Bungles to spend a day hiking in the area and experiencing it close up.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Gibb River Road - 900km of Subaru abuse

After an early start from Broome we head across to Derby to prepare for the Gibb River Road. 650-odd km of dirt road through the heart of the Kimberley, built in the 60s as part of the government's beef roads programme to serve outback cattle stations, and now a magnet for outback travellers from all over Australia and the rest of the world. As we head towards Derby the first boab trees appear- Australian relatives of the African baobab (name shortened in typical Aussie fashion) that look like something dreamed up by HP Lovecraft. Derby doesn't really hold a lot of interest, so after checking out the huge prison boab outside town and taking a look at the wharf (check the photo below, it was taken with the tide a little below mid-tide, and at high tide it's only a couple of metres from the road, Derby experiencing the biggest tides in the southern hemisphere) we decide to get started on the Gibb half a day early.

The first 100km of the road are in pretty good condition- at times we're cruising along the flat red dirt at 100km/h, at least until an oncoming road train or other vehicle temorarily blinds us with a huge dust cloud! The terrain is flat, and the temperature is climbing- by mid-afternoon the mercury nudges 38 degrees, and for the next week it hits at least 34-35 every day. We turn off the main road to head down the side road to Winjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, which proves to be slower going due to some heavy corrugation in places. The sight of the sheer escarpment of the Napier Range rising ubruptly out of the plain is amazing, and unlike anything I've seen aywhere else- the closest I can thin of is the karsts of Halong Bay in Vietnam, but transported onto dry land in arid savannah country.

Tunnel creek is fairly empty, with the pools of water in the underground passages less than

knee deep, but it's still an interesting spot. On the way back we visit the ruins of an old homestead and police outpost, where there are some informative information boards detaling the regions bloody earlier history- when the local Aboriginal population were forced off their traditional lands by pastoralists or rounded up to work as indentured labourers in the pearling fields around Broome. Winjana Gorge is spectacular, and a 7km return walk through the gorge early the next morning rewards us with loads of sightings of freshwater crocodiles cruising the waters of the river.

The next day we head on east, as the road crosses first the Napier and then the King Leopold ranges, the scenry becomes more spectacular and the feeling of real isolation kicks in with the realisation that we're hundreds of kms of dirt road from the nearest town. The road becomes rougher in places, with the occasional creek crossing (no obstacle at this time of year as we're deep into the dry season, but they must be a different proposition after the wet!).

We still make pretty good time, and we reach the Mt Barnett roadhouse (approximately the halfway point) by mid afternoon, after stopping at Galvan's Gorge, a beautiful spot a short walk off the road. We fill up on some seriously expensive gas ($1.95/litre!) and head down the side track to Manning Gorge, our second campsite. There's a fantastic swimming hole right next to the campground, and in the morning we discover an even better one (maybe Australia's best? let me know if you know a better one!!) a 45 minute walk away. The waterfalls are pretty much dry at this time of year but it's still beautiful- I can only think about how amazing these places must be just after (or during) the wet season.

Heading east again, we reach the Kalumburu turnoff after another 100km or so. From here the road becomes rougher and stonier, and slower going- it's now a struggle to keep much above 50km/h. The roads well formed enough, but so dry that it's corrugated badly- and the harsh, stony surface means you can't risk running too lower a tyre pressure, although I drop them to 32psi all round. Amazingly (considering that we're on a set of well-worn road tyres) we complete the entire road without a single puncture (guess I used up all the bad tyre luck in Karajini). Elenbrae Homestead provides a welcome break from the teeth-ratttling corrugations, and it;s almost bizarre finding a green, well tended garden and scones and toasted sandwiches hundreds of kms into the bush! We puch on toward Home Valley, our 3rd night's stop, getting toward the eastern end of the road. Although the road

conditions at this end are the worst, the scenery is also the most spectacular, with the Cockburn ranges providing an incredible backdrop to the last 70-80km of the journey. The spectacular country also obviously attracts the tourists, with Home Valley and El Questro boasting a lot more in the way of facilities than further west. I even manage to catch the All Blacks' last gasp Bledisloe Cup triumph on the TV at the resort bar (although we still take the cheap option and camp in the adjacent grounds).

In the morning we take a horse trek with a local aboriginal guide for a couple of hours. It's the first time I've ridden in over 20 years- and marred slightly by the fact that I'm allocated a rather wobbly old horse who manages to fall over whilst trying to have a feed with me on his back! Still I escape the tumble with mothing more than a slightly cut hand, and we continue on the ride, but there's no way I'm letting the old fella move at more than a steady walk after of that!

In the afternoon we cross the Pentecost River, the only major river crosssing on the Gibb. It's rocky, although not particularly deep- but it's made a bit more interesting by a bunch of idiots wo've decided to park their 4WD in the middle of the (saltwater croc infested) river to have a piss-up! I ignore their signals to slow up as I pass them- no way I'm risking bogging my vehicle to avoid splashing these knob-ends.

Much to my chagrin though, a couple of km past the river I realise I've left my wallet at Home Valley. luckily it's only about a 15km back-track, but it does mean we need to cross the river (and run the idiot gauntlet) twice more, and the last time the water level has risen a bit, making for a nervous few moments, as water starts to wash onto the Subaru's bonnet! To it's credit though the car handles everything we throw at it, and after another 30km of corrugations we arrive at El Questro.

You could easily spend a week exploring this place with it's network of gorges, walks and 4WD tracks, but unfortunately we only have an overnight stop although El Questro and Emma Gorges are still fantastic. I've gotta admit though I'm starting to get a little gorged-out! We exit the gibb just after midday on the fifth day- amazingly without a puncture or any other mechanical issue. I think the car could probably do with a wheel alignment though, and decide that we'll get it serviced a couple of thousand kms early in Darwin or Alice.

The Dampier Peninsula extends North of Broome for almost 200 km to cape Leveque. Connected by only a single (still mostly unsealed) road, it's a beautiful backwater, with only a few aboriginal communities and some relatively low-key tourist development. We spend a couple of days there, exploring secluded bays down the sandy 4WD tracks of the area, going mud crabbing with a local guide (catching and eating some of the biggest and best crabs I've seen!) and just enjoying the beautifully unspoiled coastline. No doubt in a couple of years they'll seal the rest of the road and it will be invaded by hordes of grey nomads in their caravans and backpackers in Wicked Campers, but for now it's a welcome respite from the tourist rat race up the WA coast (ie NOT having to fight for a campsite with hordes of caravans and their noisy generators!).

Can't get away from those catholic missionaries either- the area was the centre of one of the early missions and there's a couple of interesting little churches at Beagle Bay and Lombardina.