Just a little bit of tar seal,
Just a little bit less rough.
Get me off these corrugations
I think I’ve had enough!
(Composed somewhere in the Limmen National Park as I drove). 🙂
Leaving the Bungles via it’s 55km access road we found it had been largely graded over the few days we had been there. This however was not as good as it sounds. It’s a pretty rocky track & the grading had left a large number of house brick sized sharp rocks strewn along much of it’s length. We weaved constantly trying to avoid the worst whilst maintaining vigilance for oncoming vehicles, frequently driven too quickly by ignorant or uncaring drivers seemingly willing to play chicken around every corner & over every crest of the always unpredictable track. Reaching the highway, amazingly unscathed, a result of both luck & judgement, we turned south to the town of Halls Creek where we managed to clean ourselves in the grubby showers at the Shell servo, topped up a few groceries from the small supermarket & left town via the Duncan Road heading eastward. We had earlier planned to follow this road to it’s end, taking us almost around in a circle, bringing us back to the highway east of Kununurra & en route to Katherine, but our extended stay in Kununurra had seen us revise this plan a little. We cut out a planned re-visit to the Keep River NP (followed by a first visit to the Gregory NP), & instead decided to only visit the Gregory NP, so when the Duncan Road swung northward at the intersection with the Buntine Hwy (dirt) we continued eastward on the Buntine, to Kalkarindji (Wave Hill). It is said that the southern section of the Duncan Rd is the prettiest & it didn’t disappoint, although most of the waterholes & gorges renowned for their pleasant camping were dry or almost dry & stagnant. The one we most wanted to visit, Marella Gorge has been closed to the public, apparently due to the station owners on who’s land it is having tired of inconsiderate campers who failed to respect the place. We had been told by folk who had talked with station employees just weeks earlier that although there was a ’No Camping’ sign erected that this wasn’t policed, said with a wink. We found a gate securely wired shut & a sign saying ‘No Public access’, & turned around disappointed. We had just one night on the Duncan at Palm Springs, once the water supply for the original township of Halls Creek (which we passed through on the way). A pretty little roadside spot with enough room for around half a dozen campers or day visitors to park next to the pretty waterhole with spring water flowing in from where it came out of the ground a short distance away, palm trees & a large rock background made it a picturesque spot for a cooling swim.
The Buntine Highway was in excellent condition, a rare smooth dirt road & took us across the border from Western Australia to the Northern Territory where in a split second we gained 1 1/2 hours. After 13 months in WA we had grown to like their lack of ‘Daylight savings’ & subsequently found the change harder than we thought to accommodate into our lives. I still wake at around what is now 4:30am – at least an hour & a half before dawn. It was a Sunday late afternoon when we reached Kalkarindji/Wave Hill, the town now named after the event referred to as the birthplace of Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia. It was at nearby Wave Hill Station where led by Vincent Lingiari the Gurindji aboriginal workers on the station walked off the station in protest to gain equal pay to their white counterparts in what is now seen as a defining moment in Australian History. https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/wave-hill-walk-off
The town seemed deserted so we set up camp at the small caravan park alongside the closed general store & paid our fees when it opened in the morning. We found the town cemetery a short drive away on the outskirts of town & paid our respects at Vincent Lingiari’s gravesite before settling in for what we thought would be a very quiet night. Were it not for the loud refrigeration unit which cut in & out all night, always leaving just enough time for us to slip into those first few moments of dozing off before firing up again, & a midnight visit from a mob of horses which had a liking for the watered green grass on which we were camped, it would have been quiet. As it was, it was probably the noisiest camp we have experienced anywhere! In the morning we deemed it wise to ‘tell someone’ where we were going, the advised strategy when heading into another remote area, even advised by the entry signs to the National Park. Thinking the Kalkakarindji Police Station would be a good place to do this we drove across town to let them know our travel plans, & to get their phone number to call when we emerged 300kms+ further north from the Gregory National Park to let them know we were OK & not to put a search & rescue mission into operation. We would have done this if we had been able to find a cop, but all we found was a note in the window of the copshop saying to ‘call this number no one is here’. We called it only to find it was a generic police number, putting us through to a robot answering machine some 800kms away in Darwin. As we drove out of town there were more people around, several smiling & waving to us as we passed. Moments before we left the phone signal behind a friend, thousands of kilometres away in Newcastle, NSW rang us & we had a roadside conversation. He became our ‘lifejacket’ if required, knowing our plans & agreeing to raise the alarm should he not hear from us within 4 days. He is a friend we knew we could trust & who would take the role seriously. Thanks George.
From south to North through the park we followed 3 tracks – the Gibbie, Wickham & Humbert tracks, all 4wd low range driving through often very rocky, sometimes steep & wooded country. It was often extremely dusty, every one of the multitude of creeks we crossed was dry bar one. We camped next to the flowing Fish Hole creek the first night. Next morning alongside the crystal clear water lined with pandanus & under shady paperbark trees it was freezing, the coldest morning we have experienced since we were in Alice Springs 14 odd months ago in July. To compound the effects of the cold a lucky find meant we had to get the tools out. The metal just sucking any pretence of heat from our hands. Geez, it was lucky though! We have a hot water system in the rear of the Patrol, a marine calorifier. Water inside an insulated tank is heated by the cars coolant which circulates through a copper coil inside the tank. It’s an effective system, but does have an achilles heel. I had to extend coolant hoses from under the cars bonnet to the tank in the rear canopy & back again. These obviously needed to be protected not just from hot exhaust pipes but also from risk of damage in off road situations. As an extra precaution I fitted a low coolant alarm in the cab to give earliest possible warning of impending mechanical doom should coolant be suddenly lost. Mostly this vulnerability is reasonably taken care of, but the achilles heel is the connection of the two hoses at the bottom of the tank, underneath the floor of the canopy in the most inaccessible spot imaginable. Why I allowed myself to make this design faux pas I cannot imagine, but I did. We had just finished packing up & were ready to leave Fish Hole Creek when I spotted the tell tale green coolant dripping from the bottom of the chassis & immediately guessed what the problem was. My guess proved correct. No split hose, just a worm drive hose clamp (Jubilee clip) which had worked it’s way loose over the bump & grind of the tracks. Accessing it to determine that tightening it would resolve the problem would mean some major dismantling & take considerable time…… unless …………… there was one chance using a combination of tools we had to hand combined with teamwork & the ability to contort our bodies & limbs into difficult & unnatural positions. It worked & 30 minutes later we were again packing & ready to leave!
Why that first drip occurred at just the moment I was looking in it’s direction who knows, the thought of sudden & potential coolant loss later that day, especially if in a situation where we could not simply just stop doesn’t bear thinking about, but there is no doubt it was most certainly provident.
We met a group of rangers & Gurindji people, the only other people in the park, camped together for a meeting who described our route ahead as ‘Rugged’ but ‘do-able’ with our Tvan, (which turned out to be a very accurate description) but warned of the jump up on the Wickham track which they described as a ‘Big arse hill’. We had to wait until we got there to find out what that meant. The hill itself was long but mainly not too steep, but by the time we reached the steep section we were on a narrow ridge which dropped away from us steeply just a couple of metres away on both sides. Turning back or reversing down the hill were simply not possibilities! Going up was the only possible consideration! It looked daunting, but we had managed something similar on the Munja Track (albeit without the psychological impact of the steep drop-aways on both sides of us) which had turned out to be easier than it looked. I was confident the car could manage it if I got it right. A scramble on foot up & down the section a couple of times, together with placing a few strategic ‘helper’ rocks & I was ready to go once I got my breath back. Once again the Patrol shone through, with just a second or two of heart stopping wheelspin before the tyres bit again, the line I took worked just as I hoped. This was not a place to risk ‘barreling up at speed & potenially being thrown off course, & I congratulated myself on having fitted the diff locker to the front axle, allowing us to take a far more measured approach. The 360 degree view at the top of trees & hills to the horizon was breathtaking.
Gregory NP must be the dustiest place we have travelled to date. We accumulated layers of dust up to an inch thick on every horizontal or near horizontal surface around the car. We were filthy. Just moving close to the car or the van created mini ‘avalanches’. The interior of the Tvan remained dust free – more than could be said about it’s pull out kitchen or the car. We had daily sneezing rituals, usually early in the morning. We enjoyed another opportunity to again see country from the vantage point of remote two wheel tracks which was what the Gregory is really about. After the very special & pretty unique spectacle of the Bungles the Gregory held little which was new to us. Primarily it is a 4wd’ing experience which we enjoyed, but possibly not one which might draw us back for a return visit. In hindsight I wish we had offered to volunteer at the ranger/TO camp – which doubtlessly would, if they had accepted our offer, have given rise to an unforgettable cultural experience, but stupidly my fear of rejection prevented me offering.
Back onto sealed road just east of Timber creek & east toward Katherine through the Victoria River region It is dramatic country but so much of it was burned & ugly as a result A cleaner in the toilets at Victoria River roadhouse suggested it has been mostly recent & believed to be deliberate. It is just so ugly & we are fed up of seeing it. Right across the top end we have seen so much more burned country than when we visited in the past. By now we were on a mission to both enjoy some blacktop driving for a change & the opportunity to reminisce in the place we spent an unplanned 2 months 10 years earlier, so we pushed on to Katherine, making vows to return to the Victoria River region to give it a closer look. From the highway the river & the imposing cliff landscapes are impressive. We hope we will be able to see it green & unburned on our next visit. Manbulloo Station campground, is where we called home for almost 2 months whilst getting a replacement engine into our Nissan Civilian bus 10 years ago. Strangely our visit brought good memories flooding back. The traumatic nature of the events seem to have been left in history with the story having been recounted on many occasions.
Edith Falls, 60kms north of Katherine is a spot we could not pass by. It is a lovely spot with good camping & swimming. An old favourite too. We had a couple of days there before returning to Katherine for a ‘Big shop’ , restocking/ & re-fueling & then a little over 100kms down the Stuart highway to Mataranka, where we would turn eastward along the Roper bar road. At Mataranka we couldn’t resist the charms of the Bitter Springs experience again before heading out of tow to camp for the night in the Jalmurark campground in Elsey NP some 15kms away on the banks of the Roper River. Bitter Springs is unique. It is a length of winding pandanus lined creek, with water so clear it could almost be described as ‘of optical clarity’, & from a thermal spring, with a temperature of slightly above body temperature. It has a consistent flow giving rise to the possibility of floating along this piece of heaven for some hundreds of metres, getting out, walking the short smooth paved path back to entry point & repeating, over & over. It is heaven, & costs nothing. It is also safe from crocs, always a good thing when swimming!
Next day saw as on a single lane bitumen road headed east. We (I) had expected a dirt road as soon as we turned off the Stuart highway, so was surprised to find this ragged edged bit of bitumen sneaking across the country. We stopped early at the Mt Price roadside rest area behind a large rock, with the rock between us & the road & a dead & abandoned smashed up car behind us. It doesn’t sound the best as I write it, but it really was perfect for our purpose. It was remote, free, & private, & importantly it had both a soft sandy ground & the dead car. We were about 1000kms overdue for an oil change & this couldn’t have been a better place to do it. Whilst in Katherine we had bought a suitable oil drain pan – one with a screw on lid (making it easy to pack into the car after use – either to carry the contents to a suitable disposal place or to pack away after emptying without any mess cleaning up). The butcher we bought some supplies from had also given us a strong oil tight 20 litre container. So a comfortable, ant free surface to lay on under the car, the ability to drain the oil without leaving any mess, & a place to leave the used oil without guilt …… in the dead car of course. Vehicles like this are collected every once in a while by wreckers & a leaving a little extra oil inside, within a secure container was something I had no qualms about.
It was a hot night, unusually so. We had become used to cooler nights, but this was both hot & humid. We had seen no other vehicles on the road since leaving the Stuart Highway, & none since we arrived in the rest area had passed. What to do in such circumstances other than to strip off. It is dark, silent & we are out of sight of the road & I am stark naked save for my socks & boots when the sound of what turned out to be two large trucks with bright headlights & bedecked with many marker lights like christmas trees changed everything. Instead of driving past as I expected they both pulled into the rest area, their headlights showing they were headed straight toward ‘our’ rock. Imagine the frantic efforts of my goodself struggling to rapidly dress, expecting to be caught in the headlights like a panicked rabbit at any moment. Large boots do not fit easily through the shorts I had to hand especially when in the hurried state I found myself in with the lights getting rapidly closer. MrsTea was in hysterics, cackling away at my dilemma. At the last moment I dived behind our car still trying to cover myself. The trucks pulled up on the other side of the rock & the drivers got out, to check their loads before continuing on, as it happened. With the shorts on over my knees I successfully did my best to convince my goodwife to tone down her mirth & we silently listened to the truckies calling out to each other without any knowledge of our presence just metres away. Finally the truck motors fired up again & they pulled out, again to the wifely cackles & comments I so richly deserved!.
Next day we left for the Limmen National park, but when the signpost to Limmen pointed right, we continued straight on for another 30kms taking us across the unmarked border into Arnhem Land. Generally this requires a permit to be on Aboriginal land but we had read that it was ok for us to visit the community of Ngukarr (pronounced Nooker) to get fuel. At this stage the amount we could fit into our tanks would be a top up giving us a further 200km range, but would ‘cost’ us 60 kms to get it. Given that we had several hundred kms to the next fuel outlet, with unknown length side trips in between we thought it worthwhile. We were however not 100% confident in our source (Wikicamps app) of info suggesting we’d be ok without a permit so entered the town with mild trepidation, totally unnecessary as it turned out. As we drove around, looking for the servo we stopped & asked a group of young boys where we could buy diesel. Their initial lack of any helpful response fed my concern that we might be doing the wrong thing, but moments later when one of the kids got past my pommie accent & understood what I was asking his face beamed with a wide smile & he shouted directions across the street. I thanked him & gave him the thumbs up. Not to be outdone his mates jumped on their bikes pedalling after shouting out further clarifications as to where the servo was. We found it, 2 pumps alongside the general store, a self service bankcard job which an old white haired fella by the name of Colin showed me how to use after welcoming us to his country & asking us about our travels. The general store was well stocked & had a small bakery attached so we grabbed a pie each for lunch before leaving. Later as we were driving back toward the Limmen turnoff a car passed us headed into Ngukurr with it’s driver hanging out of the window waving enthusiastically & wearing a huge grin across his face. It was Colin. Although only in the community for a short time our observation was that it felt quite different to the number of other communities we have visited previously Not only was the welcome warm, it was apparent from the outset, as we drove around, that there were people all over, someone having their hair cut in their front garden, groups of folk walking & talking together, children playing etc, this in contrast to the often initial ‘deserted’ nature of communities where streets have often been empty.. Here was a lack of the ‘cultural shyness’ & the often apparent lack of confidence in conversing with unknown whitefellas. We left town feeling that here in Ngukarr folk who were in their own country felt far better about themselves than those who’s country has been misappropriated & who’s presence is barely tolerated within white country. It was good to see. We still want to spend a longer period of time in Arnhem Land, it’s high on our wish list, but finding a way to do so without being a gawking tourist is not easy. We are not interested in brief & expensive ‘cultural tours, nor to be employees/experts, but would love to just meet more Colins & have the time to become friends in the hope of sharing & learning.
First stop in the National Park was at Munbililla Campground, better known as Tomato Island although the reason for this anglicised name was a mystery to the few people there. This is a fishing camp alongside the Roper River, normally packed to the gills (pun) by fishing folk together with their boats & 44 gallon drums of outboard fuel – all in the name of catching baramundi, a loved eating & sporting fish. Hundreds of people & boats who stay for months at a time. We found the place a huge almost deserted dustbowl. Only half a dozen die hard fishermen & women. This year the ‘barra’ are just not biting, blamed upon the previous poor wet season & lack of monsoonal water flows. No fish, no fishers – empty campground. Apparently a common theme right across the top end of Australia this year. We made it an overnighter & moved , slowly, shaken & stirred over roads which became increasingly corrugated, with only sections of bulldust & soft sand to give occasional relief. On roads like this we often found our speeds reduced to around 20kph, sometimes as low as 10kph, never above 40kph. It takes a long time to get anywhere at those speeds but we resolutely resisted the urge to say ‘bugger it’ & go faster. A choice between ‘wear & tear’ on our bodies or damage to our vehicle. That night we enjoyed camping alongside another of the Limmen’s Rivers, the Towns River. Stayed a couple of nights, watching wildlife, campfire cooking & chilling. Very pleasant – alone in the wilderness. The water, perhaps 150kms from the rivers estuary into the Gulf of Carpentaria did not rise & fall with tidal movement, but was mildly saline. Attempts at fishing were carefully undertaken with the likely presence of saltwater crocs in mind, but we didn’t see any, neither did I catch any fish despite trying a variety of baits from our fridge. Something was particularly skilled at eating raw chicken, borrowed from that night’s tea, in the hope of converting it to fish, off my hook, I felt it bite frequently but never saw what it was. Ah well least I kept my fishing record consistent & failed to contradict MrsTea’s expectations of me as a provider!
Next camp was Butterfly Falls, obviously an impressive location when water is running, but little more than a dark tannin stained pool toward the end of this years dry season. MrsTea enjoyed a dip, but the water colour didn’t enthuse me. The campground, another we had all to ourselves was a pleasantly treed one & made a good base for us to visit one of the Park’s two jewels in the crown, the Western Lost City. 28km of 4wd track took us to these awesomely photogenic natural rock formations along the edge of a large escarpment, the result of an ancient seabed being eroded, along with the level of land surrounding it. Hopefully the following photos back up my description.
The Southern Lost City is similar, but different. The western formations are larger & grander, but the Southern are impressive in their own right. Rather than ‘walking along’ them looking at them, the Southern Lost City provides a more immersive maze-like experience walking among them. Advice prior to visiting had been conflicted with some claiming the Western to be ‘better’ than the Southern & vice versa. We just found them different & consider both equally worth visiting. The Southern is however more easily accessed.
A short distance outside of the national park is Lorella Springs Wilderness Park, a place I heard about over 10 years ago & had wanted to visit ever since. It is advertised as an extremely remote, ‘untouched’ 4wd adventure location. Boys Own stuff. We had intended to spend a week there but in the end stayed only 3 nights. We left feeling that we had received poor value for money & that the ethos of the place put customer service & satisfaction way below that of making a dollar. Had the lack of water in many of it’s swimming & boating locations at the end of a dry dry season not been so, we would not have felt differently, there were still some great places to visit on this million acre station & we enjoyed swimming in hot springs, & had a good drive to ‘Walkers Rock’ where we looked for & found some aboriginal rock art & petroglyphs. We could understand that toward the end of the season staff may be tired/ burned out & visitor numbers were dropping off, but felt it reasonable to expect reasonable service. Being ignored whilst waiting for service at the staff counter displayed an unacceptable disinterest in the customer experience. From the outset when we booked in & after waiting a considerable period of time for two of them to cease their chat with each other (without any acknowledgement of our obvious presence) our views of the place were influenced when we enquired if we might be able to borrow a high lift jack for a short time to aid in changing a shock absorber. The response “I could ask around the staff to see if anyone might hire you one”. When driving to what they describe as their NO.1 attraction the road was horrendously corrugated, easily the worst we have ever experienced, regular readers will know we have seen bad, well believe me these were worse. Over more than a 10km stretch it made for a 4 hour return nightmare journey to have a swim in a lovely location for 30 minutes. Somehow that equation simply did not add up. We felt they should either grade that road or close it. Upon our return we suggested this tactfully when asked for feedback & became ‘blamed victims’ by an animated staff member (whom we believe to be one of the station family members) who’s attempts to advise me how to drive & claiming he could drive that section of road at 90kph were met by incredulity on my part. It was a clear example of any problem being ours not theirs, & displayed an an ignorant & arrogant approach to customer service. All he needed to do was to acknowledge our experience & apologise. To have done so would have left us willing to recommend Lorella Springs to others, albeit with the proviso of it being best early in the season & to expect high prices, (eg.$9 per can of VB beer) but we left feeling angry & mistreated & will not recommend the place to anyone. This was also the place we had previously considered caretaking for a wet season, something they seek volunteers for each year. It is no longer a consideration for us. When we compare our feelings about what we consider comparable places (eg.Mornington Wilderness Park – same cost )& Bachsten Creek Camp (another remote but smaller operation) it is like comparing chalk & cheese, & when we examine the differences it comes down to how the customer is viewed & treated. At both of those places it was obvious that ensuring patrons were happy was understood as being essential is spreading positive ‘word of mouth, good business sense & thus a win win situation for all. Enough said!
Back on the Nathan River Road, which winds north / south through the Limmen NP, we continued southward, finding the rough road less rough, eventually reaching a T junction. Right to continue around 45 kms south to Cape Crawford on the sealed Carpentaria hwy which goes from Daly Waters on the Stuart Highway to Borroloola, or left along the Ryans Bend road in a north westerly direction for 70+ kms joining the Carpentaria hwy just 30kms west of Borroloola. Just 45kms to sealed road but a total of over 200kms to Borroloola, or 70 odd kms of dirt & a total of a bit over 100kms to Borroloola. Decisions decisions. We took the shorter route hoping that the road condition might continue to be better than it had been in the north of the Limmen. Our optimism paid off & we enjoyed the drive finding a nice spot for a lunch stop into the bargain. In these parts this is a real bonus …… for those unfamiliar with travelling through these remote places it may be easy to imagine that when seeing no buildings & often other vehicles for sometimes days at a time it would be easy to just pull off the unfenced roads wherever we like. The reality however is often quite different to this. The graded roads usually have high sides of loose dirt/sand & rocks, created by the grader & added to each time the road is levelled. Driving over these is potentially risky (getting stuck or punctured) & often there would be little point as it would mean driving into vegetation hiding who knows what, & frequently with minimal shade at best. Just stopping on the dusty road itself is often the best/only option, so when a beautiful pandanus lined creek with shade & easy access presents itself as it did on the Ryans Bend Rd – it becomes lunchtime, regardless of the time.
30 minutes after leaving the river behind we reached the smooooth Carpentaria highway. All the car noises were instantly cured with just one exception. The high silica content dust we had spent the past fortnight driving through, & which had found it’s way between the leaves of our rear suspension, continued to cause the suspension to squeak & groan, only now it was more noticeable. Previous water crossings had provided brief relief from the squeaks, but only as far as the next stretch of bulldust. A hose will achieve the same result.
Instead of continuing straight to Borroloola & the promise of a phone signal & internet, we detoured down the highway for a further 20kms to camp behind a roadside gravel pit, but a gravel pit with a difference. This free camping spot which we had to ourselves was just a short walk from the Garambarini rock formations & bird hide. The official Norther Territory government name for the place is the Caranbarini Conservation Reserve, but there on it’s information board it mentions in small letters that the local traditional owners have always known it as Garambarini, the dreamtime birthplace of the White Cockatoo. That it is called something different (an inexplicable attempt at mild anglicising of the traditional name?) seemed disrespectful to us, & in our view could only be a veiled (or not so veiled) comment along the lines of ‘It’s ours now) – a poor reflection upon modern white culture. Thought had been put into the marked 2km walk around & through the rock formations. In many ways similar to the lost cities or even the Bungle bungles, but with a difference which we really appreciated. Here the gaps between eroded sandstone columns forming a maze of chasms which were fun to explore. For those who cannot or choose not to travel off road, these are very accessible, direct from & very close to the bitumen highway, making an easy & very worthwhile visit. We walked early in the morning before continuing back up the highway to the small town of Boroloola where we are set up in a pleasant small caravan park with a list of ‘domestic & internet chores to be completed.