Matso’s Broome Brewery

For many who’ve travelled throughout Australia, the highlight is a little-known beach-town on the North-west’s remote Kimberley coast. 1,871 km from Darwin and 2,240 from Perth, Broome is literally one of the most isolated places on earth, and, with the possible exception of the Nullarbor, getting to Broome constitutes Australia’s longest and most remote drive. But it was worth it, because waiting for us was one of Australia’s most experimental breweries…and Sarah.

Sampling Matso's beer and cider at the brewery in Broome, Western Australia

Oh yeah, that’s good…

After Kununurra, we cracked out our “solar shower” and got naked at the roadside. Of course no-one passed. The closest person in any given direction may well have been two-hundred kilometres away. Probably not, but that’s how it feels out there.

Not even backpackers and tourists tend to take this road – most who make it out his far opt instead for the more challenging and scenic Gibb River Road (and for the very brave, the Kalumburu Road too).

Bush fire in Australia

Driving towards a bush-fire…

Driving through bush fire in Western Australia

…and then through it…

Roadtrain in bush fire

…and passing a massive “road-train”!

Over another 1,200 kilometres, we battled the monotonous, boab-besieged roads, “prepare to stop” single-lane bridges, wandering stock (cattle) and bush-fires, passed the Wolf Creek crater on the Tanami Road to Alice and got free coffee and fuel in Halls Creek. Also in this region are the Mimbi Caves, Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles) and the “friendly trees“, but I’ve never been one to focus on the “sights”, as I’ve said here and here and plenty of other times.

Wandering stock on single-file bridge in Kimberley, Western Australia

Outback hazards: wandering stock and single-file bridges

Some clever person in the police had decided that signs which read, “LOCAL POLICE ARE NOW TARGETING…” can be easily adapted to add “…DRINK DRIVING”, “…SPEEDING”, etc…but hadn’t expected people to furnish them with the likes of, “...CINDY“, “…GAYS“, “…DONUTS” and so on. How did they not see that coming?

Other than Halls Creek, the only “major stop” on the road from Kununurra to Broome is Fitzroy Crossing. Both are essentially Aboriginal towns in the middle of nowhere with a bad reputation – in other words, my kind of town. Fitzroy Crossing is also home to another of Australia’s historic Outback pubs, the Crossing Inn.

The Crossing Inn, Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia

A brief stop at the Crossing Inn, Fitzroy Crossing

The Crossing Inn is the oldest Kimberley hotel still on its original site – the banks of the Fitzroy River – where it’s been since 1897, when a guy called Joseph Blyth acquired a “wayside house license” for his “shanty inn and trade store”. The Crossing Inn also has an Aboriginal art gallery, selling only works by local artists. According to the tourist leaflet, there’s also “the Gallery Bar where you can sit and enjoy a relaxing beer in comfort and style”…

…So it was with some surprise – actually, after living next to Arnhem Land, I completely saw it coming – that we walked in at 1.30 on a Wednesday afternoon to find hundreds of people – all Aboriginal, save the bartender – already mad drunk and yelling, loud music pumping. The place was wild! It was one hell of a party!

One woman took us and led us to her table. “We were drinking here, when the water was here!” She pointed to the stacks of bricks and watermarks, some higher than the seats, where people had scrawled lines in chalk and marker and signed them and dated them and written other unintelligible nonsense. In the Wet (season), the river can rise to 13 metres above the old crossing. And the water comes through at approximately 30,000 cubic metres a second. At times like this, the pub can only be reached by boat.

We even caught a barra!” She laughed.

Inside the Crossing Inn, Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia

Inside the Crossing Inn

Another guy tried to convince us to stay for another beer, said he’d been to England, London, not very convincingly, told us about Tunnel Creek, once hideout to Jandamarra, up 83 kilometres of unsealed dirt road. “You’ll make it bro!” He said.

The rebel Jandamarra was a Bunuba man who led one of Australia’s only armed rebellions against the colonials. He was able to cross the spinifex and hot, jagged rocks barefoot while it tore up the boots of his pursuers, and his mysterious disappearing tricks at Tunnel Creek led people to believe he had superhuman abilities. (Only later were his hidden trails discovered. His real power was his knowledge of the lay of the land.) Aboriginal legend said he was immortal, a spirit residing in Tunnel Creek, and that only an Aborigine with equal powers could kill him. This seems to me like one of those “legends” furnished after the fact, since it’s a big coincidence that he was killed by Micki, another famed Aboriginal (non-Bunuba) tracker, at Tunnel Creek in 1897 – yes, the same year the Crossing Inn officially opened its doors. There’s a lot more to Jandamarra’s story. Look him up.

Writing about the Outback (here, here, etc) it seems I’ve fallen into the same trap as everyone else: I’ve described the few “things to do” along the road, rather than the hundreds of kilometres between them – the experience of being on the road itself – the time spent daydreaming, thinking, writing poetry, watching the road go by, re-assessing ourselves, our dreams… In this respect, as a chronicler of life as it is really experienced (which is how I see myself) I’m afraid I’ve failed you.

That night, at Nillibubbica Rest Area, we were settled in for a night of Madras lentils and rice and writing when some French guys pulled up and came over to say hello. It turns out our ‘Patisserie’ van acts as a magnet for French people, who wander the wilderness in search of fresh croissants and, instead, settle for a beer or two. We joined Vincent, Sébastien and…the other one at their camp, drank and shared stories long into the night.

Backpacker van mattress trouser press trick

My new invention: the backpacker trouser press!

There’s also Derby, a short detour off the main highway, if you really like boabs, or if you think that the “Horizontal Waterfalls” are actually horizontal waterfalls.

Finally, we arrived in the pearl of WA. (Broome has a long pearling history. So, yes, that’s a pun.) Broome is home to many beaches from dirty, orange Town Beach – the best place to watch the “Staircase to the Moon” – and immaculate, surf-washed Cable Beach – 22.5 kilometres of flat, white sand that you can even drive up and down (with a 4WD) and which, north of the rocks, is clothing optional. The Roebuck Bay Caravan Park turned out to be $28 per person (not per site – thanks again Lonely Planet) so like many backpackers in Broome, we spent our days jumping waves, sunbathing and taking advantage of the free beach showers at Cable, then parking up for the night on Carnarvon Street, where in the morning we were perfectly placed to enjoy the cheapest eats in Broome, at Coles in the Paspaley Plaza shopping centre.

Cable Beach, Broome, Western Australia

Cable Beach: 22.5 kilometres of flat, white sand

Chinatown, including Johnny Chi Lane, and the cemeteries shed light on Broome’s Asian and multi-cultures and tragic pearling days. Sun Pictures outdoor cinema is the world’s oldest picture garden and a registered historical building (which looks exactly the same as every other building in Broome – corrugated tin). Movies are $17 per person and show at 7 pm. (We saw Gone Girl.)

Sun Pictures world's oldest picture garden outdoor cinema in Broome, Western Australia

At Sun Pictures: the world’s oldest picture garden

Further out of town, at low tides Gantheaume Point (Minyirr) boasts tracks of dinosaur prints that are over 130 million years old. From Gantheaume, the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail – an 82 km “songline” – runs north up the Dampier Peninsula, a large, isolated area of Aboriginal lands, red cliffs and pristine, empty beaches. This is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting journeys in Australia, and Sarah had just made it. You’ll require plenty of water, spares (tyres, fuel, etc) and the necessary permits from both the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (apply at www.daa.wa.gov.au at least three days in advance) and usually also from the community itself (on arrival). You can take the Cape Leveque Road for about 14 km, then take a left on Manari Road up through Barred Creek, Quandong Point, James Price Point and – if you have a 4WDCoulomb Point (Minarriny). You can also take Cape Leveque Road all the way up the peninsula to, you guessed it, Cape Leveque. Roads and communities can close at short notice for “sorry time” so check with the Broome Visitor Centre before you set off.

The Matso’s Brewery

Matso's Broome Brewery, Western Australia

Matso’s Broome Brewery!

At Matso’s we ended up getting through a couple of tasting paddles, several bottles and more. Here are my findings:

Trying Mango Beer at Matso's Brewery, Broome, Western Australia

Ruth trying the Matso’s Mango Beer

  • Mango Beer – Their finest work
  • Chilli Beer – A real kick, but think twice before you order a jug
  • Chango – Literally they mix the two finished products (Chilli and Mango Beers) for those who can’t take the heat of the chilli or the sweetness of the mango. It’s not best brewing practice, but the outcome is good.
  • Hit the Toad lager – Not their area of speciality
  • Pearler’s Pale Ale
  • Session Pale
  • Smokey Bishop – A delicious dark lager. Smokey, malty and toffee-y.
  • Ginger Beer
  • Lychee Beer
  • Desert Lime Cider with Wild Ginger
  • Mango Cider with Desert Lime
  • Amber Wheat Beer – The best wheat (and amber) beer I’d ever had. A five-star beer!
  • Saison – I believe I missed this one, but I hear it was a firm favourite.
Brewer's test tap 4.7% traditional Bavarian-style amber wheat beer at Matso's Broome Brewery, Western Australia

“The best wheat beer (or amber) I’ve ever had!”

[I later came across a recipe by Matso’s Head Chef, Sebastian Schacher, for “Chilli Mussels with Matso’s Mango Beer” which included such steps as, “Open the beer and take a big swig from the bottle…”]

Drinking Chilli Beer at Matso's Broome Brewery, Western Australia

Sampling Matso’s Chilli Beer…

Ruth's reaction to drinking Chilli Beer at Matso's Broome Brewery, Western Australia

…and Ruth’s reaction too.

A text from Sarah said to meet at “the Roey” on Dampier Terrace…only, when we got there, there were two bars – the classier Roebuck Hotel and the Roey, where the barmaids walked around in their underwear – a phenomena known in Australia as “Skimpies“.

“Okay, I feel like, from what we know of Sarah, this is either not her kind of bar or really her kind of bar…”

We text her for confirmation.

The answer came simply, “the Roey”.

We asked in both bars if we were in the Roey and everyone said yes.

Eventually Sarah found us and the drinking commenced. It turns out she works for the same company who own Matso’s and spends her breaks there. What a life! She was now living in a shared house of wild Irishmen and women, who had been out last night (and the night before and the night before that) so weren’t going to go out again tonight…and then promptly showed up anyway. We met Aine, Johnny and Teddy, a great bunch, and a fierce debate commenced about ordering tap water on a night out.

“What’s the f’cking point of buying a f’cking drink if you’re gonna dilute it with f’cking tap water? We drink to get drunk!”

In the end we all agreed that drinking water on a night out is only acceptable in the following cases:

  • Before the night
  • At the end of the night, before going to sleep, to avoid a hangover the next day
  • In certain other, rare situations, for the express purpose of tactically prolonging the night and in order to consume more alcohol later
Swearing at the Roey or Roebuck Hotel in Broome, Western Australia

“How many fingers are we holding up?” (At the Roey with Sarah and Johnny!)

Aine and Teddy disappeared, photos were taken, we got chatting to the bartenders and barflies, Aine and Teddy re-appeared, we crossed paths with another contingent of the Irish house, then all ended up in Skylla (Lounge Bar), which it seems is also part of the Roey and bills itself as “Broome’s premier nightspot” and “the hottest party destination in Broome”, where we danced the night away. Poor Teddy was the first man down, I don’t know what happened to Aine, me and Ruth crashed in the van, parked conveniently just round the back, and Sarah and Johnny presumably walked off together into the sunrise. It had been one hell of a night.

On waking, craving once again the simplicity of the road, we made a hungover exit, Perth bound…

Categories: Australia, Travel Stories, Western Australia | Tags: , | Leave a comment

The Hoochery Distillery, Kununurra

On the road again, we cooled off in Katherine Hot Springs, camped overnight in the bush and the next morning pushed on on the Victoria Highway, west, bound for the Western Australia border.

Katherine Hot Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Katherine Hot Springs

We passed Timber Creek, where we’d hoped to catch Sarah, only some guy’d jumped behind the bar and threatened her with a bottle (just the tip of the iceberg) so she’d escaped to Broome. More on that later…

In Judbarra (Gregory National Park) we swung off on a three-kilometre stretch of unsealed road, followed by a brief stroll into the bush ’til we came upon Gregory’s Tree – a big old boab sacred to the Ngaringman people and that still clearly displays the inscription carved into it on 2nd July 1856 by Augustus Charles Gregory. (We now know that carving into boabs isn’t such a good idea. The poor thing’s lucky to be alive.) We ate the last of our apples, and honey in sandwiches.

Gregory's Tree, Judbarra National Park, Western Australia

Gregory’s Tree

At the border the quarantine guy asked if we had any fruit, honey, etc.

Then he searched the van anyway.

The landscape had by now assumed the rugged beauty of the Kimberley – Australia’s remote north-western corner and “last frontier”, which, in much the same vein as Kakadu and Arnhem Land, is home to escarpments, rivers, waterfalls, gorges, Aborigines, rock art, outstations and pristine coastline, as well as Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles).

After many kilometres we rolled into Kununurra and headed for the Info Centre in search of seasonal work that we knew we wouldn’t be able to stop and take.

Instead I found out there was a distillery in town – the “Hoochery Distillery” – Western Australia’s “oldest legal still” – so we picked up Weaber Plain Road (you can also catch this directly from the Victoria Highway) and headed north for about ten minutes or so.

Hoochery Distillery, Kununurra, Western Australia

Rolling up at the Hoochery Distillery

The wind shook the palms.

The doors were barred.

We rang a big old bell overhead and after a minute or two a woman (“Desley”) came and let us in.

“There’s a storm coming,” she said.

Desley was nice and friendly – like maybe she’d been on the rum a little herself. She told us about the current owner, “Spike”, otherwise known as Raymond Bernard Dessert (pronounced “Desert”) III (“the Third”).

Hoochery Distillery's Honk and Holler Cafe in Kununurra, Western Australia

Welcome to the Hoochery Distillery’s “Honk and Holler Cafe”!

The distillery’s “Honk and Holler Cafe” blended the vibrant Mexican colours and American styling (wagon wheels) of his southern Californian past with Aussie tin and other recycled local junk.

Kimberley Moon boab tree mooning art

I probably need to credit this artist…

Their Ord River Rum is “Australia’s Best Rum,” having won the gold in Melbourne, 2014. (Bundaberg’s not going to be happy about that.)

For $5 we tried a paddle of three rums:

  • The mahogany charcoal filtered, 56% Overproof Ord River Rum, which is simply gorgeous!
  • The Single Barrel Ord River Rum, which came in at around 78%
  • The Raymond B. Whiskey
Tasting Raymond B. Whiskey, Overproof and Single Barrel Ord River Rum at Hoochery Distillery, in Kununurra, Western Australia

Tasting the Raymond B. Whiskey, Overproof and Single Barrel Ord River Rums

…and finished off with the heady and “famous Ord River Rum cake”, which even though I’m not usually a cake guy is fucking amazing!

Famous Ord River Rum cake at Hoochery Distillery, Kununurra, Western Australia

The “famous Ord River Rum cake”!

The other offerings at Hoochery currently include:

  • Kimbeley Moon white rum
  • Spike’s Reserve limited release, 10 year aged rum
  • Premium Dark Ord River Rum
  • Cane Royale Liqueur with chocolate and coffee
  • Aguardiente Verde Aniseed Liqueur

After saying goodbye to Desley, we fuelled up at the Shell garage (where we encountered our first “free coffee for the driver”) and raced the storm out of there.

Cheers sante prost salud l'chaim barrels at Hoochery Distillery, Kununurra, Western Australia

Cheers!

That night, after dark, we pulled up at the new Muluk Rest Area, where a plaque told us that a 25 year old kid called “Muluk” had recently passed away here. It didn’t say how he’d passed away. Well, at least if we get murdered in the night, this will become the “Roy, Ruth & Muluk Rest Area” …

In loving memory of Vincent George Ramsey Muluk rest area plaque

At least if we get murdered in the night this will become the “Roy, Ruth & Muluk Rest Area”…

Categories: Australia, Travel Stories, Western Australia | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Uluru (Ayers Rock) & Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

This isn’t a post about one of the “wonders of the world”, it’s a story about the journey to get there – a journey of several days and thousands of kilometres, through the great Australian Outback.

“…all around you is a 360 degree golden Mitchell grass emptiness…the great Australian outback.”

- Ted Egan, Australian folk musician

The Olgas at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

The road to Kata Tjuta!

I woke up. I was in the front seat of the van. Roughly two hours had passed and yet the landscape hadn’t changed. Red earth and a 360 degree golden Mitchell grass emptiness.

It was in this landscape that we came upon Aileron roadhouse. We pulled off the Stuart Highway and came to a rest on the red earth and Mitchell grass. Like most travellers who stop here, we were hooked by the giant Anmatjere man who has been built on the top of the hill – along with a sign that says “AILERON” in the same fashion as the one over Hollywood that says, “HOLLYWOOD” – for the express purpose of enticing people like us to stop.

Giant Anmatjere man of Aileron, Northern Territory, Australia

The giant Anmatjere man of Aileron

There’s an Aboriginal art gallery that was closed, but to our delight the giant Anmatjere man now has a giant woman, with giant child, and spearing a giant goanna, to keep him company, and from a certain angle you can even see the giant vagina.

Giant Anmatjere woman at Aileron roadhouse, Northern Territory, Australia

“…from a certain angle you can even see the giant vagina.”

We passed a herd of goats.

“Wait,” said Ruth. “Do you notice anything strange about one of those goats?”

Goats and kangaroo in Australia

“Wait, do you notice anything strange about one of those goats?”

I scanned them, then saw it: on the right, on all fours, hunched down to goat height and eating the goats’ food with a sheepish look on its face, was a massive kangaroo.

As we watched, two goats were play fighting nearby and one made a charge at their new goat friend, only to realise his mistake just in time and slowly back away.

We ate crisp sandwiches, pissed on the red earth and Mitchell grass emptiness and went on our way, having seen not another human soul.

“I’m 46 miles from Alice
And I’m thousands of miles from my home.”

- Catherine Britt

About 45 kilometres from Alice – and singing “46 miles from Alice” – we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, where there is a picture of a goat and some informative plaques. This was the first time I’d left the Tropics since India. Also, being a Capricorn and “stubborn goat” myself, this was a very spiritual experience for me. (I’m kidding.)

Tropic of Capricorn Enjoy your rest sign in Northern Territory Australia

“Being a Capricorn and ‘stubborn goat’ myself, this was a very spiritual experience for me. (I’m kidding.)”

Alice Springs (Mparntwe in Arrente) was the biggest place we’d been in over three months. The stop signs, presence of other cars and having to actually look for a place to park, cook or even take a piss stressed me out (yes, I guess road-rage is relative) so we hit a bar in Todd Mall called Epilogue to use the WiFi and charge our phone from a plug-socket in the back.

On our map, the Todd River runs, big and blue, directly through town. It took us a couple of minutes to realise that the vast expanse of orange dust that cuts through Alice is in fact this Todd “River”. A sign warns, “no swimming” and once a year the “Henley-on-Todd Regatta” sees people running Flintstones-style down the dry river bed in bottomless boats. The event was once cancelled, sadly, due to water in the river.

We were meeting Paige and Sanka, but Liquorland and BWS were closed. (Sunday.) We bought some food in Coles and then in Woolworths somewhat optimistically bought some lemonade as a mixer. Then the woman on the checkout said to Ruth, “and do you have a receipt for the items in your bag?”

“What, these things that say ‘Coles’ on them?”

“Oh. Oh, they have ‘Coles’ on them don’t they.” Still craning to check. “Sorry…just procedure.”

Ruth stormed off, but, being of somewhat tramp-like appearance, I’m fairly used to this kind of thing, so took the opportunity to confirm her impression of me by asking where one might find alcohol at 2 pm on a Sunday afternoon. She idly mentioned that yes, only the drive-through bottle shops are open, and gave me crappy directions to one that went: “Do you know [a place]?

“No.”

“Okay, well do you know [another place]?

“No.” I know here. Give me directions from here!

But it didn’t matter. Alice is small, so we drove ’round the corner and found it – the Todd Tavern – and picked up a carton.

We tracked down Paige and Sanka to a caravan plot at Heavitree Gap (Ntaripe, where the East and West MacDonnell Ranges almost meet under the clean, blue desert air like a natural south city gate). They weren’t in yet. We went to the bar and tried to wangle a staff discount (since we’re technically employees of the company) but the chef wasn’t having any of it.

Then we ran into Sanka on his break. He gave us the code and we poached a shower (2389?) and then cracked open the beer (and cider) and joined him. Paige got back and it turns out her parents were wine-makers in the Clare Valley and that we have a lot in common: we’ve both been around a fair bit and hate our hometowns with a passion.

The scrapbooks came out (Paige is Queen of Scrapbooks, at least in the way that Michael Jackson was the King of Pop), we shared stories, learned of her time spent homeless in London playing Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater), their trips to Sri Lanka, New Years’ Eve under Sydney Harbour Bridge with the cockroaches and the Poles and a random gang of Sri Lankan refugees – just one small part of an epic road-trip from Adelaide to Brisbane that we would soon attempt to plagiarise ourselves.

Sanka had to go back to work and, a few drinks later, the rest of us called a cab and hit “the town”. The cabbie, who quite amusingly (for us Brits at least) was called Frank, turned to me and said, “this’ll make you laugh, right, but I just got out of rehab…Yep, this is my first day back on the job in…”

He went on to tell us about “the trouble with the Aborigines” – we passed many – and that “all the taxi drivers are Indian…all called ‘Singh’! Haha!” He laughed a kind of nervous laugh that shook his sinewy arms and his whole, racked body, on which something had taken its toll.

“Ice,” he said. “I gave up alcohol…and then, better late than never, got into the “party substances”…”

He gave us his card (to poach work from his company?) so I was able to negotiate a discount fare for our return. (Frank: 0431111372. Alice Springs Taxis: 131008.)

Bojangles was closed. Town was dead. We headed to Monte’s, where backpackers and locals alike crowded in booths amidst cool, scrappy, unpretentious decor in the beer garden kept cool by glittering misters in the heat of the day, then later by the arrival of night as the sun came down long and slow and barely noticed, spreading out its red glow over the Gap as we drank craft ale, cider, whisky, rum and coke, ate incredible pizza and talked the night away – travel and work goss’ mostly…

Monte's bar and restaurant in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Paige, Ruth and a delicious pizza at Monte’s in Alice Springs

Afterwards we called up Frank again, who veered all over the road as he twisted round to speak to the girls in the backseat, gesturing all over the car with one wild, scrawny old arm, the other clasped so firmly on the wheel that his knuckles had turned white.

Back at theirs, we sat outside the caravan, joined now by Sanka.

On hammock at Heavitree Gap, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

Sanka, Paige and Ruth hangin’ at the caravan

Finally, shattered, we said our thank yous and goodbyes and crashed out in the van in their parking spot.

We woke as the sun came over the tallest tree and (very quickly) began to warm up the van. (7.40 am?)

I got started on breakfast (tea, coffee, porridge oats) at the barbeque area – a tremendous desert wind blew through and tossed a china mug to the floor, smashing it to pieces – then we knocked, but there was no sign nor sound of Sanka, so left a note saying we’ll see them in Europe…

Leaving town, we spotted the Medicare building, so registered inside. Aborigines hung around – inside and out front – covered in various bandages, crutches and splints, scraggly greying hair, big, knarled noses, cowboy hats and dusty chequered shirts, mostly old, many obese.

Then we drove out of Alice, and that same, flat, bright orange Mitchell grass emptiness enveloped us once again.

“…Alice. Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?”

- Gompie

We put the MacDonnell’s behind us, passed strange mesa-hills, stopped for fuel prices at Stuart’s Well and Desert Oak, all roadhouses now blending into one – some I may remember ’til the day I die, but most already forgotten by the time we reach the next one – and the giant hedgehog, (which later disappeared without a trace!)

Out on the road again, we saw red swirling in the distance like a bush fire. No, it was a kind of tornado, whipping up the red earth in its path, coming right for us. We came to a complete stop and it just missed us.

As the sun sat on the horizon, winking goodbye, we rushed for Sandy Way rest area, the closest free camping to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort; twenty-something kilometres further on) is extortionate.

You have to drive over the dunes and along a red-dust track to get to the camping area. It doesn’t get much more Outback than this! We found an out-of-the-way spot on the edge – the beginning of the infinite Australian wilderness.

Sandy Way rest area free camping

At Sandy Way rest area, the closest free camping to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

A green 4WD camper played accordion, banjo, gypsy music as we cooked a stack of fried egg sandwiches, darkness set in and I tossed the shells into the blackness beyond the lantern light, should a hungry dingo pass this way.

We talked, danced – the music still playing through the “night” – and pissed naked in the starlit sand…surprised to find ourselves drifting off around eight or nine.

We woke to darkness at 4.30 am and started out, back over the dunes, for Yulara – the light from the headlights cutting wedges in the darkness, then fading imperceptibly as the pale blue light of dawn leaked into the sky and gave shape to the landscape, revealing the lone and distant Mount Conner, Uluru’s decoy, which we, like the many thousands of tourists before us, mistook for the big rock itself.

We passed Yulara Airport (and the signs that tell people which side of the road we drive on in Australia, despite the fact that we were thousands of kilometres into Australia in any given direction) and found the Shell garage, but it was closed until 6 am (by which time we – and everyone else who comes here to see Uluru at sunrise – would miss it). So, running on empty, the sky lightening fast and now following the column of rear lights, we paid our $25 each and entered Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – the woman stressing that we right our “own names” on them “as soon as possible”, fearing what I’d already thought of: we’re going to sell these (or give them away) at Sandy Way on our return. (You get three days.)

We’ve all seen the photo of Ayers Rock, but there’s nothing like seeing it grow and change shape and twist and contort and rise up before you a big indigo blotch against the dawn sky, as you snake towards it through the vast expanse of nothingness.

Approaching Uluru at dawn

“There’s nothing like seeing it contort and rise up before you a big indigo blotch on the dawn sky!”

The best spot to see Uluru at sunrise (without the aid of a helicopter) is the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku lookout, from where you can even see Kata Tjuta some 50 kms away in the distance.

Sunrise at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Sunrise!

Ayers Rock at sunrise in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Uluru from Talinguru Nyakunytjaku Viewing Area, the best spot to see Ayers Rock at sunrise

From there we hit the Mala car park, from where you can pick up many walks, including a foot-beaten trail leading up to the top of Uluru. A locked gate said the path was closed and listed the penalties, while a guy, who’d already jumped it with his kids, yelled back to his wife and friends, “Come on! They’ve just kept it locked to try to scare you. They can’t do anything.”

Actually, he’s right. Climbing Uluru is not against any Australia or Northern Territory laws. But, because it’s not something that is done in Aboriginal culture, the Anangu – who co-manage the Park – do everything they can to try to convince people not to do it, from not opening the gate in the morning to locking it for “adverse weather conditions”, “rescue operations” and mysterious “cultural reasons”. They even sell T-shirts, bumper stickers and so on with the slogan, “I didn’t climb Uluru.”

I don’t have a problem with anyone climbing it – actually it’s exactly the kind of quasi-rebellious stunt I’d have pulled in my younger years – but we didn’t climb it because my days of needing to prove I can get to the top of big things for no reason are over. (Though I reserve the right to retract this statement at any time.)

Oh, and over 35 people have died trying it.

Panoramic of Ayers Rock in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

The classic Ayers Rock panoramic…

Aboriginal rock art on Ayers Rock at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Aboriginal rock art on the Uluru base walk

In the typical photo of Ayers Rock (just Google it) it’s one smooth, rounded red rock. However, walking the base walk – around the caves, rock art, sacred, sensitive sites and Dreaming stories, ephemeral waterfalls, giant pockmarks in the rock as, over the millenia, it dies of some mysterious disease that rocks know – you see the myriad views, colours and textures. Every bend reveals new facets and shapes.

Pockmarks and weathering of Ayers Rock at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

“…giant pockmarks in the rock as, over the millenia, it dies of some mysterious disease that rocks know.”

Texture of Ayers Rock in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

“Myriad views, colours and textures. Every bend reveals new facets and shapes.”

Kangaroo warning sign and Ayers Rock at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

It doesn’t get much more Australian than this!

At the Cultural Centre they play a really interesting documentary about the struggle of the Anangu. There’s a bit where one of them makes the point that selling art and handicrafts and trinkets to survive isn’t helping them, it’s marginalising and hindering them. I knew it! Fuck you, Lonely Planet! In the displays, pictures showing the dead are covered, as is also the custom further north in Kakadu and Arnhem Land.

We found some shade and fell asleep…

…Then made it back to Yulara for that fuel. I forgot which side the tank was on and the guy came out to say I was “stretching the pumps” – even though I clearly demonstrated I wasn’t – and made us move.

“What’s your problem?”

“It’s not my problem, it’s the boss.”

“Tell your boss to get fucked!” (You don’t mess in this heat.)

Since there’s nothing to do in Yulara except exchange money for shit, we headed to Kata Tjuta, all blue – all that sky between it and our eyes. First you come to the Dunes Viewing Area, which is the best place to see Kata Tjuta at sunrise, then the Sunset Viewing Area, which…well, is pretty self-explanatory.

The Olgas from the Dunes Viewing Area in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) from the Dunes Viewing Area

From here there’s a short, easy hike into Walpa Gorge or the more intense Valley of the Winds, which is probably the best way to get amongst and experience the Olgas, but, like Kings Canyon, has to be started first thing or it gets too hot.

Kata Tjuta means “many heads”. There are 36 domes and the tallest is actually 200 metres taller than Uluru. (Uluru is 348 metres…with a “girth” – which we all know is more important – of 9.4 kilometres.)

Drinking Traveller laying on bench with the Olgas at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

At the Olgas…

Then we split for another aptly named Sunset Car Park, this one at Uluru, then hit the road again.

Ayers Rock Sunset Car Park at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Uluru from the Sunset Car Park

I saw a two metre snake crossing the road but couldn’t swerve and heard it pop and splatter its underbelly against the van’s. Poor thing.

Strong side-winds swept unchallenged across the open emptiness. Another tornado crossed the road right in front of us, scattering bits of dead, dried-up scrub and dust and Mitchell grass, and giving the van a violent shake on its way past.

We stopped at Curtin Springs (Roadhouse) where they allow free camping. Showers are $3, but of course we snuck in anyway, the lights attracting literally hundreds of crickets and beetles that flew at us and swarmed our stuff and we had to make a naked run for it.

We enjoyed a nice pasta dish and then had to pack it up hurriedly as the dust storm came.

I dreamt of storms and life on the road…

Sleeping in backpacker camper van at Curtin Springs Roadhouse, Northern Territory, Australia

Living my dream

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Leave a comment

The Constant Traveller

field-wheat-grass-path-blowing-wind

I piss where I will, as I move, and my tears fall at my feet

I travel overland

Over vast expanse of sea

I howl, cry and roar

Or whistle as I walk

Down hallways, highways

Long and empty

Across them too

Brushing through the trees

Valleys, tunnels, underpasses

That echo as I tread

Kicking up dust

Sand and shit and virgin snow

And think I recognise my own footprints

From long ago.

 

I blow through

At a hundred mile an hour

Shake and stir shit up

Or breeze idly by

But I never stop.

 

I travel day and night

An empty beach in pre-dawn glow

Over rock

Tarmac

Grass

Grain

And rubbish dumps

Leave a trace

Mark a trail

Make a mess

Smash a window

Go by unseen.

 

I piss where I will

As I move

And my tears fall at my feet.

 

I can be harsh, or cold

As bitter Black Sea winter chills

Far-flung glaciares

Saint Petersburg city streets

My mood dark and heavy burdens borne

But what I pick up

I soon drop.

I travel light.

 

Or warm, gentle, favourable

After long summer’s eves

Of orchards, vineyards, poppy fields

Along the riverside

In the clouds and skyscraper hotel rooftop bars.

 

Sometimes I meet others like me

Travel together a while

Become inseparable

Come to blows

Go our separate ways.

 

I’ve been travelling so long

I don’t know when I started

Or how I’ll come to rest

How I’ve changed

What I’ve lost

Or what I’ve gained.

A memory? Idea?

An experience or two?

Have I left it all behind?

Acquired something new?

Made of entirely different stuff?

Hollow and see-through

Is there anything still in me

From those days when I set out

On this endless journey?

I know I’m not the same throughout.

A single cell, particle or grain?

Thought or string or chain?

 

I gave up trying

To steer my course

Control or even choose my path

Leave it to the gods or God or

Nothing in particular.

 

I’ve travelled all over

Seen, touched and tasted

Passed by everything

All but still and stagnant secrets

Which I’ve no part in.

 

Today an eagle

Rested on my back

I helped to push a boat out

And a man, from a cliff

I’ve helped and I have hindered

If you know I’m on my way

Better to work with me

Than try to go against

Sometimes in my anger

I’ll throw it from my path

Or go around, and admit

No-one’s all-powerful after all.

 

But let me roam

‘Cause you may keep me (out) a while

But you’ll never really stop me

I’ll prevail.

I was born to move!

 

I am wild

I’m free

Or as close as we can hope to be.

Categories: Travel Poetry | 3 Comments

Untitled

Tree falls in storm

…falls on death ears, like trees outside, in the storm, that no-one’s ’round to hear…

Is there anybody else here

who understands?

who thinks these thoughts?

who feels the same?

who knows my pain?

 

Is there anybody out there?

 

Imagine plays in this lonely bar,

falling on death ears,

like trees outside, in the storm,

that no-one’s ’round to hear.

 

Universal SoldierAvatar

on Blu-ray, DVD,

they call for war in others’ yards –

the other overseas.

 

I held a mirror to their face,

but they didn’t know themselves

and I realised, you can’t change yourself,

let alone the falling leaves.

Categories: Travel Poetry | Leave a comment

Mango Wine Tasting at the Red Centre Farm

It was a morning of ghosts. After the abandoned aerodrome at Daly Waters we passed Dunmarra, named after a man called Dan O’Mara who went missing here and was never found (the Aborigine trackers pronounced his name Dunmarra), then detoured three kilometres west through Newcastle Waters Station to the ghost town of Newcastle Waters.

Jones Store in Newcastle Waters ghost town, Northern Territory, Australia

Exploring the ghost town of Newcastle Waters

The Junction Hotel – so called because it sat on the junction of the Murranji, Barkly and North South overland stock routes – appeared in the early ’30s when Jack Sargent offered to wipe some of his debtors’ slates clean if they helped build him a pub out of scrap.

Jones' Store wall made of old bottles in Newcastle Waters ghost town, Northern Territory, Australia

The walls of Jones’ Store, built from scrap and old bottles

Any good boss drover kept their camps “dry”, so the Junction did well. The most popular drinks were beer, rum and the “Rankine Bomb” – an 8 oz glass of straight rum, with a head of port.

Max Schober took over after Sargent and a guy called “Harry” worked the bar for him, coming up with the idea of storing a select amount of beer in wet straw to keep it cool. As people got too drunk to notice the difference, they were moved on to the warm beer, thus preserving the precious stock.

The last beer was drunk at the Junction in 1960, when Schober took his business, and the liquor license, to Elliott. The hotel briefly operated a bottle shop, but eventually closed in 1976.

View from Jones Store, Newcastle Waters ghost town, NT

Creeping around the abandoned buildings of the ghost town.

We wandered through the bar and around the simple accommodation buildings, built between 1935 and 1955. Vast networks of cobwebs hang from everywhere. Thick layers of dust sit on everything. Someone’s put an empty brown bottle on the bar, presumably in an attempt to make it feel like you’re “stepping back in time”. The resulting effect is an eerie one.

Brown beer bottle on bar at Junction Hotel pub, Newcastle Waters ghost town, Northern Territory, Australia

A lone beer bottle adorns the abandoned bar at the old Junction Hotel

The “Last Great Cattle Drive” left Newcastle Waters in 1988 for Longreach, Queensland. Since then Newcastle Waters has been practically deserted. What was once Jones’ Store, built in 1934, has been turned into a kind of ghost museum.

Jones Store museum in ghost town of Newcastle Waters, Northern Territory, Australia

Ghost museum: This fella scared the crap out of me!

We fuelled up in “dodgy” Elliott (population: 350-ish) surrounded as it is by Abroiginal communities and outstations, then made it to Renner Springs Desert Inn roadhouse, 100 kilometres from Elliott and another 250 North of Tennant Creek – in other words, in the middle of nowhere – to visit our friend Alix, who was working behind the bar and let us camp free.

The Infamous Renner Rum bullshit placemat at Renner Springs Desert Inn roadhouse, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

God, I wish this was a real drink!

We ate parmies and drank and wrote our journals while we waited for her to finish. Two mutual friends, Aliza and Jon, had once left a hat in here and Alix had been looking for it ever since she arrived. I looked up at the hats that lined the ceilings and walls. A conservative estimate suggested at least a thousand hats.

“923, last time they counted.”

Drinking Traveller graffiti on ceiling of Renner Springs Desert Inn, Northern Territory, Australia

I was allowed to write this, by the way. It’s encouraged.

Okay, I thought as I tried to think up the most methodical approach. This is gonna be tough.

I started in one corner and began thumbing through the hats, but after about ten, there it was, in my hand, unmistakably theirs!

“How the hell did you do that?”

Hat at Renner Springs Desert Inn roadhouse, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

Finding our friends’ hat at Renner Springs roadhouse

Alix finished at 11, at which point we cracked out the beers, drank more, chatted. Alix is one of those great, genuine people that you can’t help but like. Then somebody brought out weed, peacocks and a dog called “Butternut” wandered around us, I turned ghostly pale and passed out, while the others burst out laughing.

Selfie at Renner Springs Desert Inn, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

Selfie with Alix in Renner

I somehow stumbled back to the van.

There was no sign of Alix when we got up (she’s not a morning person either) which was probably for the best since we were caped in sweat and looked like shit. We showered, ate, chatted to a yardie, then used the WiFi password Alix had given us to send her a goodbye message.

The Tanami Desert on our right, the Barkly Tableland to the left, the Tropical North disappeared behind us and the quintessential red-earth Outback stretched out ahead.

Where almost all of us are from, there’s the town/city and there’s the country, with its fields, hedges or fences or walls, planted crops or mowed grass or cows or sheep or whatever, and all these things we call “natural”, but out here, in the absence of those things, you realise that they are far from natural. They are all signs of human presence. Here the occasional roadhouse and even the road itself are but specks in the desert, hemmed in by the encroaching wilderness. Really this land is a raw and wild one, and there are nowhere near enough people passing through to tame it.

We passed Threeways, where the Barkly Highway – the only sealed road from Queensland to the Territory – meets the Stuart; Attack Creek, where Stuart was turned around by the “hostile” Warumungu; and fuelled up in Tennant Creek, the only sizeable settlement (population: 3000-ish) between Katherine and Alice.

Australian farm wind pump silhouetted at sunset at Bonney Well rest area on Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

Wind pump sunset at Bonney Well Rest Area

We camped 87 kilometres south at Bonney Well rest area, with bore water for cooking pasta and a cup of tea under the great arc of white-gold-dust that is our galaxy, the Milky Way.

As we lie awake in the van, road trains – the only vehicle that can travel at night without fear of ‘roos and wandering stock – thunder by in the night, all lit up magical like the Coca-Cola advert.

Australians, on a global scale, are an early-rising lot, so we had the place to ourselves when, at 7.20 am, I climbed out, pulling on my jeans, desperate for a piss.

We cooked and ate oats with jam and full-fat milk under the shade of a tree, then, when the sun came over, caught a bit of a tan then laid in bed for a while, door open, breeze blowing through, looking out across the barren, rocky, red dusty landscaping with nowhere in particular to go.

Some Italian guys pulled up with a radiator leak, but other than showing them where the water was, there wasn’t much we could do.

The Devil's Marbles or Karlu Karlu on the Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

Stumbling upon the “Devil’s Marbles”!

Later we stumbled upon Karlu Karlu (the Devil’s Marbles) – an area of granite boulders in a sea of sandstone, believed to have been created by Arranji, the Devil Man, when he passed through this way.

“This is the Devil’s country; he’s even emptied his bag of marbles around the place!”

- John Ross, of the Overland Telegraph Line expedition

Pretending to roll or push Devil's Marble at Karlu Karlu, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

The Devil playing with his “Marbles”

The “Marbles” lie at the confluence and traditional meeting place of four Aboriginal language groups (Warumungu, Kaytetye, Warlpiri and Alyawarre) all of whom know the area as Karlu Karlu. After a centuries-long struggle – involving massacres, the unwitting removal of a sacred boulder and, more recently, lengthy legal battles – the four groups now share ownership of the land, which they lease to the Northern Territory government and help to manage.

Devil's Marble boulder split in two halves at Karlu Karlu, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

Expanding in the heat and contracting at night every 24 hours proves too much for some boulders.

As with a lot of Aboriginal stories, many of those surrounding this place cannot be told to non-Aborigines (a little racist, I think) but we do know that they believe in “secret people” who live in caves beneath the boulders, are “kind” and playful, but “can make you mad…change you into one of them…say ‘Follow me’, and you can’t go back.” The traditional owners would conduct a ceremony and song to find children who were lost here, but thanks to the effects of colonisation:

“We’ve lost that song now. We’ve got no song to bring children back.”

- A Senior Traditional Owner

Alien riding bull mural at Wycliffe Well UFO capital of Australia on Stuart Highway, Northern Territory

Wycliffe Well: UFO capital of Australia!

Further along the road is Wycliffe Well, a roadhouse and caravan park that claims to be “the UFO capital of Australia”. We got out and walked around amidst staring cows and emus and a distinct lack of people. (All abducted by aliens?) It’s a very strange place, covered in murals depicting extra-terrestrials taking part in otherwise typical Outback activities.

Wycliffe Well UFO capital of Australia on Stuart Highway, Northern Territory

UFOs feature in otherwise typical Outback scenes.

Next stop was the Barrow Creek Hotel, another “eccentric” Outback watering hole in the vein of the historic Larrimah Wayside Inn and Daly Waters pubs. The only customers were half-a-dozen Aboriginal guys sat drinking outside. Inside, the walls were plastered with bank notes and so on – a nod to the not-so-distant days when travelling shearers would leave money behind the bar to ensure a drink or few on their return. In fact, in rural Australia it’s still pretty common to leave your money on the bar unattended while you go for a smoke-o or a piss or whatever, safe in the knowledge that it’ll all still be there when you get back.

Australian dollar bank notes on wall of Barrow Creek Hotel historic Outback pub, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory

Bank notes plaster the walls of the “eccentric” Barrow Creek pub

Just next to the pub is the old, stone Barrow Creek Telegraph Station – one of, I think, only four or five still in existence – built in 1872, so it’s worth the stop. (More ghosts.)

We fuelled up again at the Ti Tree roadhouse (and bar) then not much further on spotted a sign that advertised free mango wine (and ice-cream) tastings at some place called the Red Centre Farm.

“Stop the car!”

Red Centre Wines Shatto Mango A tin shed in the bush, not a castle in France The wine for the time sign at farm on Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

“Shatto Mango: A tin shed in the bush, not a castle in France”

We really were in the “Red Centre” now. The red earth was redder than ever, and out of it grew field after field of mangoes. It was scorching and dry as we stepped out and approached the little farm shop, which sold out of a walk-in “cool room” vegetables, bread and other basic groceries that seemed to come from Coles in Alice.

I’d never heard of mango wine before, so was duly intrigued.

Tim presents mango wine range at Red Centre Farm, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

Tim presents the range of mango wine on offer at the Red Centre Farm

A dreadlocked German kid called Tim locked up the store and led us round to a little tasting area out the back. A couple of German girls arrived, and then an English couple – Andy and Sheila Graham, who’d travelled overland from the UK to Singapore and now around Australia – and so we all did the tastings together (except Andy, who was driving). We tried the five drinks on offer:

Name Description Verdict
Mango Magic A white wine made with mangoes Not good
Mango Mist A sparkling white wine made with mangoes Very nice. Sheila’s preference.
Mango Moonshine A fortified wine made with mangoes My preference, as a passionate lover of both sherry and mangoes. Bought two bottles. Comes with Mango Moonshine cheesecake recipe.
Red Centre Red A standard red wine Not good. Pretty sure it’s too dry for grapes out here.
Territory Tawny A Tawny (now that Australia have stopped using the term Port, a demarcated product of Portugal) Above average. A good Australian Tawny. Nutty.
Mango wine tasting with Sheila Graham and Tim at the Red Centre Farm, Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

Me, Ruth & Sheila Graham assess the complexities of fine mango wine

Afterwards we all had a good old chat, then the girls set off in the beat-up but fully-stocked, old car for a 4WD track that would take them all the way into Western Australia and on to Perth, where they offered us a place to stay. Andy and Sheila got back on the road to see their journey through to Sydney. (Only after their return to the UK did I find out that Andy had known he had a tumour in his head since Singapore, and yet had chosen to continue travelling, despite the pain.)

We started for Alice…

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Daly Waters Historic Outback Pub

Time for the Drinking Traveller to “go walkabout”. The road became less and less familiar as we passed Jabiru and the turn offs for Nourlangie, Maguk, Gunlom, etc…until soon everything was new again.

Bras on bar at Daly Waters historic Outback pub in Northern Territory, Australia

Bras adorn the bar at the Daly Waters pub, while a “thong tree” grows in the garden.

Passing through the Kakadu National Park gates, we realised for the first time that we hadn’t left the park once in the three and a half months we’d been working there. Not even back to Darwin, a mere 210 kilometres away. I supposed this is what it’s like to “settle down”. For me, a guy who rarely spends more than two nights in the same city – let alone a “town” of population: 20 – this was a big deal.

But the reasons are simple:

  • Kakadu’s huge.
  • We worked a lot.
  • We got all our meals included.
  • I loved it there.

At the end of the Kakadu Highway, we turned left on the Stuart Highway and didn’t give another thought to the crappy old gold-rush town of Pine Creek.

Alice Springs 1263 kilometres sign in Pine Creek on Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

It’s gonna be a long drive…

The funniest part is that, if you were to give someone directions to Alice from here, they would go: “Keep going straight. You can’t miss it.” You won’t even have to stop at a traffic light, because there aren’t any.

At this point we hadn’t discovered our van had air-con, so drove with the windows down – the forty degree air spanking us round the face at 100 kilometres an hour, like putting your head in a fan-assisted oven…only “spankier”… If it weren’t for two things – traffic and heat – I could drive forever. (Coomer can testify to this, as I once rode for 16 hours straight from somewhere in the Quebecois wilderness to his hotel door in a Chicago suburb, only getting off my bike to pay for fuel.) While there’s no traffic on the Stuart Highway (unless you count the occasional “road-train” – up to four trailers pulled by a single truck), there is plenty of heat, so we switched drivers every couple of hours.

We crossed the Katherine River (which actually had water in it!) ate sandwiches and assorted melon slices, which, despite having been in our cooler, were in a sorry state, then passed through Mataranka (population: 250-ish), which if you’re interested in you can read We of the Never Never by Jeannie Gunn, because that’s the one thing that’s ever happened there.

Bitter Springs

Bitter Springs or Koran hot springs thermal pool near Mataranka, Northern Territory, Australia

Stripping down and drifting at Bitter Springs

Here we turned left on Martin Road, just a kilometre or two north of town, into Elsey National Park (free entry) and stopped at Bitter Springs (“Koran” in Mangarayi, the local Aboriginal language with 12 speakers), which stinks but is absolutely perfect after a long, hot drive.

Mataranka thermal pool in Elsey National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Mataranka thermal pool

Mataranka Thermal Pool

1.5 kms south of town there’s another turn off, to another excuse to take off your clothes and drift along at an idyllic and consistent 34 degrees: the Mataranka thermal pool, fed by Rainbow Spring and which is even more “perfect” than Bitter (because it’s pristine…and doesn’t stink). Here you also have the Mataranka Homestead (a replica of the Elsey Homestead built for the movie adaptation of the aforementioned novel) and bush walks to the Waterhouse River and a swimming hole called Stevie’s Hole.

Mataranka thermal pool in Elsey National Park, NT, Australia

Ruth at the pristine Mataranka thermal pool

Waterhouse River at Mataranka thermal pool in Elsey National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

The Waterhouse River at Mataranka thermal pool in Elsey National Park

Rainbow Spring at Mataranka thermal pools and homestead resort in Northern Territory, Australia

Rainbow Spring: source of the Mataranka thermal pools

Larrimah Wayside Inn Outback Pub

Another couple of hours and you come to the Larrimah Hotel (AKA: the Larrimah Wayside Inn) – an Outback pub that rivals Daly Waters for quirky eccentricities. You are greeted by a giant Pink Panther smoking a cigar next to an even bigger bottle of NT Draught (as far as I can tell, the Territory’s only beer – extinct but iconic – served in the 2.25 litre “Darwin stubby”) while another Pink Panther flies a glider overhead. The whole place is painted pink.

Larrimah Hotel Wayside Inn pub painted pink on Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

The Larrimah Hotel & Wayside Inn

Larrimah Hotel, Pub & Wayside Inn, highest bar in the Northen Territory

Stepping inside the Larrimah Hotel, Pub & Wayside Inn

We wandered around a kind of zoo out back, complete with crocodiles, shit-loads of brightly-coloured birds and even a wallaby who stops by of his own volition.

Wallaby at Larrimah Wayside Inn hotel, pub and zoo on Stuart Highway, Northern Territory, Australia

We met this little fella at Larrimah, which means “meeting place” in Yangaman.

I picked up a copy of Peter Camenzind at the book exchange, left some Rimbaud.

With wallaby at Larrimah Wayside Inn Hotel pub zoo ion Stuart Highway, NT, Australia

Making friends with the locals at the Larrimah Wayside Inn

Back on the road, signs warned of kangaroos. As did the increasingly frequent carcasses. I’ve never seen so much mangled, rotting flesh draped with blackened, bloodied fur. The termite hills were dressed in T-shirts. The trees seemed to grow shorter, giving way to patches of spinifex and mitchell grass.

As the sun sank toward the horizon I turned and watched as a seemingly endless herd of cattle were driven alongside us, kicking up around themselves a storm of dust that lit up a blood, gold haze in the setting sunlight. It was one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever seen.

Daly Waters Pub

With darkness falling fast, cattle in the road and wallabies threatening to join them at the last moment, we decided to pull in at the Daly Waters pub, about three kilometres down a sealed side road. Our fears were confirmed when four wallabies jumped out in front of the car. Luckily I missed them all.

Daly Waters historic Outback pub in Northern Territory, Australia

Arriving at Daly Waters historic Outback pub!

Normally I never pay for camping, but it was our first night on the road, and exceptions have to be made for such an iconic institution.

Daly Waters Pub the reel Outback of Oztralia sign in Northern Territory, Australia

“The Reel…Oztralia!”

The “decor” at the Daly Waters pub is made up of mad, rusty, rustic things – those strange things that somehow find their way out to a place like this but never leave: rego and “ROAD TRAIN” plates adorn the simple tin walls, old pastoral farming equipment lays scattered about and a well-stomped stage stands testament to the nightly, free live music that makes the pub so famous (in the Dry season). The bar is decked out with embroidered patches, bank notes, passport photos and all the other things travellers leave in places in the hope that they’ll be remembered forever…even bras.

Rego and road train plates on walls of Daly Waters historic Outback pub in Northern Territory, Australia

Rego plates adorn the tin walls.

Friendly Irish staff laid some “bush hospitality” on us, while genuine guys in plaid shirts and ‘roo leather cowboy hats stood at the bar eating “beef and barra” and steak dinners like a scene out of Crocodile Dundee (who I realise I’ve mentioned in pretty much every Australian-related post to date). There’s also a thong tree (thongs are flip-flops; sandals; jandals…sadly) and the toilets are bonafied Outback dunnies.

Eccentric bar decor at Daly Waters historic Outback pub in Northern Territory, Australia

Like a scene out of the Walkabout Creek Hotel in Crocodile Dundee

Hot, dusty and tired, we slumped down with a couple of schooners and what has to be the biggest and best pub grub in Australia. (Meals are served from 7 am to 8.30 pm and even include a free, all-you-can-eat salad bar.)

Drinking schooner of beer at Daly Waters historic Outback pub in Northern Territory, Australia

Drinking a schooner as the pub begins to liven up for the night…

Groups arrived. A Greyhound bus pulled up in the darkness outside. A couple of schooners later – the alcohol sucked straight through parched throat into the bloodstream and direct to the brain – we stumbled out, past some kind of helicopter on the roof, cheap old-school disco lights dancing on the dust.

Still in the Tropics, the nights are almost as hot as the days, so we threw open the back door, rigged up a giant mosquito net we’d had the foresight to acquire, and slept softly out in the open desert breeze, waking often to roll over and marvel at wallabies hopping around in the moonlight mere feet from the van and again when a pack of dingoes began to howl not far away in the mystical Australian night.

This is the Outback!

Of course we still had a few bites when we woke; also matching burnt elbows from leaning out the windows all day. We ate tinned spaghetti on untoasted bread with black tea and coffee for breakfast, then spent some time getting the van in order for our new life on the road.

On the way back from the shower I walked past the Aborigine cleaner taking a shit with the door open.

Stuart’s Tree

Just down the road from the Daly Waters pub is Stuart’s Tree. Though it’s really more of an unimpressive stump, Stuart’s Tree has (or was believed to have had) an “S” carved into it by the explorer, John McDouall Stuart, the first person to cross Australia overland from South to North and back again.

John McDouall Stuart Tree near Daly Waters, NT, Australia

“Stuart’s Tree”. My camera died, so I’ve pinched this photo from ntforeveryone.com.au/daly-waters.htm

His route served as the basis for the Overland Telegraph Line, which in turn paved the way for the Stuart Highway – the road we were travelling down on and still the only road from Adelaide (well, Port Augusta) to Darwin. Relatively speaking, still not a lot of people have ever come this way.

Stuart’s discovery of fresh water at Daly Waters (he named the place, by the way) probably saved his life.

Daly Waters Historic Airfield

Also down the road from the pub is Australia’s first international airfield and the Northern Territory’s oldest aviation building – the Daly Waters aerodrome. Though abandoned since the end of the sixties, the airstrip, original Qantas hangar and other structures remain as they were (natural decay and a touch of looting excepted) and it’s generally accepted for visitors to go and have a poke around, despite a sign that warns that it’s an “active airstrip”.

Daly Waters historic airfield, aerodrom hangar and runway in the NT, Australia

Daly Waters historic aerodrome and runway

We strolled around, letting ourselves into old rooms made of crumbling ply wood, trying the taps, playing with the instrument boards, reading some plaques and photos which have been put up, walking the strange, desolate runway under the white-hot sun. The wreckage of a plane lies tangled in the dry, rustling grass and two kangaroos sheltered silhouetted in the shade of some old structure.

Abandoned plane wreck at Daly Waters historic airfield, Northern Territory, Australia

Wreckage of an old plane at Daly Waters historic, abandoned airfield

Daly Waters was the last watering hole on the Murranji track, also known as the “Ghost Road of the Drovers” and the most perilous of all the travelling stock routes that connect Australia from Western Australia to Queensland. The Daly Waters pub was originally opened as a drover’s store in 1930, but came into its own in 1938 when it got a license to serve alcohol to the crew and passengers from the airport. During World War Two, Daly Waters became one of the most important airbases in Australia…with the pub servicing the servicemen, of course.

Urban exploration inside Daly Waters historic aerodrome, Northern Territory, Australia

Inside the aerodrome, left as it was in 1970

Also at Daly Waters, back on the highway, is the Hi-Way Inn. Though it lacks the character of the Daly Waters pub, it’s still a lonesome Outback roadhouse – something you’ll have to experience if making this trip. It occurred to me how strange it is that millions of people travel the USA in search of the open road peppered with old, independent diners, then complain when they only find McDonalds, while here in the Australian Outback is everything they’re looking for…

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: | 3 Comments

The Road to Gunbalanya Social Club

Living and working in Kakadu, I came to hear of Arnhem Land, an area of Aboriginal land larger than almost half of the world’s countries yet somehow hidden in a remote, isolated corner of Australia’s sparse Northern Territory. One of “the last true wildernesses” on earth, Arnhem Land is home to wild, empty beaches, pristine rivers and uninhabited tropical islands, not to mention thousands of kilometres of unspoilt rainforest, savannah and “stone country”. This is one of the few places in Australia where Aboriginal traditions and lifestyle live on.

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Gunbalanya, otherwise known as Oenpelli

Across the Arnhem Land border is Gunbalanya (also known as “Oenpelli“, “Kunbarllanjnja” in Kunwinjku, and “Unbalanj” by the original Mengerrdji-speakers) and in Gunbalanya – officially a “dry” community – there is one bar: the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club.

There are many local rumours surrounding this bar; rumours concerning the vast quantity of alcohol consumed and the crazy, dodgy situations that necessarily result. One story goes that a satellite picked up an enormous tin deposit in this spot, but when the mining company showed up, they found only a sea of discarded cans, built up over years, out the back of the pub. The cans have since been removed.

The day I heard about this place, open only four days a week, for limited hours, and selling only light to mid-strength beers by the can or stubby, it became my life’s goal to get there.

My only informant on the matter was Seb, who often drinks with Aboriginal friends and knows Arnhem Land from countless fishing trips, but he couldn’t understand why I wanted to go. Everyday in the kitchen we’d have the same discussion.

“It’s a shithole. There’s nothing there. Just drunks and petrol sniffers.” (Two teenagers died and a third got permanent brain damage back in 2006, despite unleaded fuel being banned in Arnhem Land.)

But being warned against going somewhere is nothing new to me. I had the same thing when I insisted on crossing into Mexico at a time when the US media were going nuts with the Mexican drug war.

“I like shitholes. You’ll just have to take my word for it…If you see my blog, you’ll understand why I have to go.”

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” (I like to think this phrase is also true of tourist destinations.)

“I don’t even think you’ll be able to get a drink there. You’re not a member of the community and they’re pretty strict now on who they serve.”

Signing in as International Visitor at the Jabiru Sports and Social Club, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Signing in as an “International Visitor” at the JS

The drink situation around here is very serious.

  • At the JS (Jabiru Sports & Social Club) you have to register as an “International Visitor” before you can be served at the bar.
  • The Kakadu Lodge (also in Jabiru) issue an “Alcohol Card” to their guests wishing to use their bar.
  • One of the first things I noticed about the supermarket in Jabiru was that there’s no bottle shop.
  • The traditional owners of sites such as Ubirr request that no alcohol be consumed.
  • Even the festivals are “dry”, as I found out when we went to Mahbilil Festival.
Alcohol cards for Kakadu Lodge bar in Jabiru, Northern Territory, Australia

Alcohol cards issued for the bar at the Kakadu Lodge

More on the “Aboriginal drink problem” later.

Seb gradually warmed to the idea, even if he did think I was an idiot. One drunken night he even almost signed himself up to take me there…but of course later came to his senses. Anyway, without his advice – such as to drop plenty of psi out of our tyres – I might never have made it.

I had many obstacles to face:

  • The only road into West Arnhem Land is heavily corrugated, unsealed and 4WD-only recommended. Our bakery van is definitely not 4WD, and Seb had already warned us, “in the Territory, if it doesn’t say it’s sealed, don’t risk it.”
  • This includes driving through the East Alligator, a major tidal river (twice) only possible for a brief window every twelve hours.
  • As I’ve said, the bar is only open four days a week, for limited hours. (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday evenings from 6pm, I believe.)
  • Entry into Arnhem Land is restricted and a permit is required from the Northern Land Council (NLC), who will pretty much only issue one for visits to the Injalak Arts Centre. Somehow I didn’t think they would take kindly to my true intentions. I was torn: go without a permit or lie to get one.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I would have to get a day off work – no easy feat in itself.

To complicate matters even further, the van got a flat just heading into Jabiru, at which point we discovered that some idiot had put sports wheels on it. The one tyre shop in Jabiru refused to tyre it up (Tim and Sarah had had an over-optimistic crack at the Gibb River Road – famous for its wild Outback terrain – and so the rims would most likely never hold air again) so we had to somehow procure a set of original steel rims from Darwin and the van was sat up on bricks for a few weeks.

Being not a sexy, single young woman, getting anyone to take me in their 4WD proved impossible. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)

I called the NLC to ask about a permit.

“Do you have a car?

“Er…yeah, but I’ll probably just hitch.”

“Sorry, I won’t give you a permit for that.”

“Oh, okay – ”

“You can’t do that in the communities.”

“Oh, okay.” (I said I’d call back when my car was fixed.)

A select few tour operators, either indigenous-run or who’ve gained the trust of the traditional owners, are allowed to bring in visitors, but firstly these tours start at about $250 and secondly Ruth, who worked on reception and had managed to get a free tour, reported back to me that there would definitely be no opportunity to “slip away for a bit” and that any attempt to convince the driver to make a detour via the bar would no doubt be met with a “no”.

Artist's studio at Injalak Arts Centre, Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Injalak Arts: Just a typical artist’s studio? Photo by Ruth.

Screen-printing designs at Injalak Arts Centre, Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Screen-printing designs at Injalak Arts Centre. Photo by Ruth.

Aboriginal baby in plastic tub in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Just a baby in a tub. Photo by Ruth.

There are also certain special events, such as an “open day” once a year (in July, I think) when you don’t need a permit, but it seems I’d missed all these.

Oh and if that wasn’t enough, the Wet season started, so, after three months without a single drop of rain (honestly!) the roads were now partially flooded.

(I have to confess, I did get one opening, when the tides, my day off, the bar opening times, NLC opening times, everything came together, Seb came to me and said, “we just got back from Arnhem Land and the road’s been graded…It’s in the best state I’ve seen it in two years. I think you’ll even be able to do it in your van.” And then I went and got drunk in the bar and slept through what looked like my only chance to go to the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club.

“Such is life.” – Ned Kelly

But if you’re determined enough to do something, you’ll do it (unless that something is to eat a gold brick). Another opportunity presented itself and this time, rain or no rain, I wasn’t going to waste it.

It was Friday, 7th November. The NLC was open until 4.15 pm, Injalak until 5 pm and the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club that night. According to Willy Weather there would be a record low tide of 0.6 metres at precisely 5:37 pm, which would give me a two hour window either side of that to get in, do my thing and get out again.

Incidentally it was also a full moon, 35 degrees (25 at night) and with a 60% chance of rain, which would almost certainly see me stranded on the other side of “the East” until morning. I’ll take those odds! The sun would set at 6:40 pm.

In a strange coincidence, the NLC happened to be holding a conference at our resort at the time, so I’d managed to procure a copy of the conference paperwork and an NLC keyring, which I planned to flash around later if any trouble were to arise. (You never know.) Just as I was about to leave, as an afterthought, I realised that if all the NLC staff were here, there might be nobody in their office. I called them.

They were there, but about to close.

Ruth managed to get the arvo off too, so we jumped in the van (with its fresh new set of wheels and heavy-duty, eight-ply tyres) and raced off to get our permits.

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Modern Aboriginal street art in Jabiru

I would give you directions to the NLC, but everything in Jabiru is in the same place. It’s attached to the library, if that’s any help.

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The buildings in Jabiru are smeared with hand prints. Black means somebody died and the building is not to be disturbed. I can only assume this one means, “open for business”.

All the buildings in these blocks are smeared once around with hand prints, an act that anywhere else in the world would be considered vandalism, but here, I assume, means “open for business”. When somebody dies, black hand prints are used and the area is off limits. Seb had told me about the lonesome, abandoned houses along the tracks of Arnhem Land, smeared with black; places you cannot go.

Some things you should know about Aboriginal etiquette in these parts:

  • Don’t reference, or display images of the dead.
  • They’re not big fans of intense eye contact.
  • They don’t use greetings when they meet like we Westerners do.
  • They don’t use names in the same way either. Rather “kinship terms” such as “brother”.
  • Don’t take photos without permission.
  • Boh boh (pronounced “bor bor”) is “goodbye”.

The permit is $16 and you need your vehicle rego (registration; number plate; license plate) number (I had to go back out to the car park to get mine) and they give you a copy of the tide times and a sheet of information that says in big, bold capitals:

THIS PERMIT ALLOWS THE HOLDER TO TRAVEL DIRECTLY TO INJALAK ART CENTRE FROM CAHILLS CROSSING.

TRESPASSING ON ABORIGINAL LAND WITHOUT A PERMIT IS ILLEGAL

  • DO NOT STOP THE CAR AT ANY POINT DURING YOUR ROAD TRANSIT TO INJALAK
  • DO NOT TRAVEL DOWN ANY OTHER ROAD APART FROM THE TRANSIT ROAD TO INJALAK
  • DO NOT STOP IN THE GUNBALANYA/OENPELLI COMMUNITY, GO DIRECTLY TO INJALAK

The permit itself starts like this:

PERMIT TO ENTER & REMAIN ON ABORIGINAL LAND OR SEAS ADJOINING ABORIGINAL LAND

“The person named below is authorised to enter Aboriginal land only to visit Injalak Arts and Craft Centre and partake in tourism activities…”

…and among a long list of “TERMS AND CONDITIONS” are:

“1. This permit does not authorise entry into any buildings, dwellings, living areas or camps.

2. Permit holders must travel directly to their destination and not divert. No new tracks are to be created.

4. This permit is valid only for the purposes stated herein.

5. The carrying and consumption of alcohol is prohibited under part VII of the Liquor Act.

14. Motor vehicles and boats must be in a satisfactory condition and reasonable spare parts, food, fuel and water must be carried.

16. The permit holder enters Aboriginal land at his or her own risk…in respect of death…”

…etc, etc.

To anyone who thinks it was wrong of me to break the conditions of an official document, which I signed, I have this question for you to ponder: did any problems ever get solved by hiding them under a blanket?

Sometimes (actually, quite often, in my experience) an official body or authority can be wrong while an individual is right.

From Jabiru, you head back a couple of kms on the Arnhem Highway, then turn right on the Oenpelli Highway for 40 kms (this part described in my post on Ubirr). At Cahill’s Crossing – end of the road for my Ubirr story, but just the beginning for this one – you have to drive through the East Alligator River. “Whatever you do,” said Seb, “don’t stop. Just keep driving until you hit the other side.”

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Driving through the East Alligator River!

I ploughed through, throwing up waves like I’ve never seen, too focused to look out for the crocodiles that we knew were in the water.

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Cahill’s Crossing from the Arnhem Land side – Aboriginal land!

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A permit is required to enter Arnhem Land Aboriginal land.

Once on the Arnhem Land side, it’s a 15 km stretch of unsealed road that roughly follows the dramatic Arnhem Land escarpment through flood plains and tropical monsoon forest.

“This is the beautiful part.” She told me in the NLC office, “but don’t stop. Our rangers drive up and down that road every day and they will dob you in.” The greens and blues of the floodplains and billabongs, lush with the recent rain, made quite a sight blended with the deep red earth…

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The road follows the Arnhem Land escarpment on the one side…

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…and lush, green floodplains on the other.

…and the occasional burnt-out car. Apparently the local Aborigines get free cars from the government – a bone of contention with everyone else, as you can imagine. Arnhem Land’s remoteness makes a vehicle almost a basic necessity of life out here, but the abandoned cars at the roadside prove that people aren’t likely to value something they got for nothing.

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Burnt-out and abandoned cars are a common sight on the Oenpelli road.

By the way, on a complete side note, Arnhem Land is the birthplace of the didgeridoo, where it is known by many names (none of them even close to “didgeridoo”) including mako in Kunwinjku and yidaki in Yolngu…at least up until 2011, when some guy with a name sounding something like Yidaki died and they switched to mandapul.

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The road is unsealed, heavily corrugated and the Wet season has just announced itself.

We crawled along at 20 kmph, following the tracks of other (probably better suited) vehicles, shuddering over constant deep corrugations in the dirt, over pot-holes, through “puddles” almost as deep as the river, some spanning the entire road.

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Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, prepares to sing.

When, after 15 kms, you see the sign for the Oenpelli community and the road briefly becomes sealed again, take a left and follow the road round for 3 kms, past the only four places in town you’re allowed to go: police station, park, servo and shop. At the T-junction, swing a right and park up outside Injalak Arts.

Injalak Arts is a non-profit and one of only three Aboriginal-owned commercial enterprises in the community. (The others being an abattoir and of course the Gunbalanya Social, which I still had no idea how to get to.)

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Invited into the screen-printing workshop at Injalak Art Centre.

We went inside and were greeted by Sita, a Melbourne art student on an internship here. She showed us around and introduced us to some of the artists. “We have over 300 members of the community who actively contribute art. Some work here on site. Others bring it in from their outstations.” (After all, if you don’t work in the abattoir or the club, how else are you supposed to make money here?) Some men were painting, some women screen-printing and an old lady outside weaving baskets from jim jim (pandanus) leaves. We were given a little piece of it.

Old Aboriginal woman weaving from jim jim pandanus leaves outside Injalak Arts, Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Woman weaving jim jim leaves. Photo by Ruth.

“This one’s a freebie, is it?”

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Looking out across the river behind the Art Centre

From the back of the Injalak centre is an unimpeded view of the Adjumarrllal Billabong and, behind it, Injalak Hill, after which the centre is named. They also run tours up to Injalak Hill, which is home to some of the most impressive rock art galleries in the world.

Rock art gallery at Injalak Hill, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Rock art gallery at Injalak Hill. Photo by Ruth.

Back in the shop, I threw a coin in the “camp dogs fund” – set up to feed the stray dogs of the community – for once a cause I can get on board with – found out from a leaflet that if I wanted to I could learn Kunwinjku or Gundjeihmi for free, online at bininjgunwok.org.au (and also here) and we poked around at Cambodian-made clothes and art that, like original art the world over, only those few with money to throw away can afford. Luckily for Gunbalanya, those few with money to throw away are also partial to indigenous tours.

A sign on the wall said “CDEP Work Rules…11. No grog, no gunja.”

Sita showed us the Injalak Arts Facebook page and some photos she’d taken for the centre’s 25th birthday party, which we’d missed by just a few days.

Twenty-fifth birthday party for Injalak Arts Centre in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

The 25th birthday party of the Injalak Arts Centre! Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

Magpie guese hunters in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

“We don’t like to under-cater.” Magpie geese for the party. Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

Anne Gumurdul, Traditional Owner, with freshly caught ngalmangiyi long-necked turtle on floodplains of Adjumarllarl billabong

“Anne Gumurdul, Traditional Owner, with a freshly caught ngalmangiyi (long-necked turtle) on the floodplains of Adjumarllarl billabong.” Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

 in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Dancers, Joey and Harry, at Injalak’s 25th birthday party. Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

Band at Injalak Art Centre 25th birthday party in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

The band at Injalak’s 25th birthday party. Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

I decided to broach the subject of the bar. She’d never been, but it turned out she was planning to go that evening, to celebrate one of her last nights in Arnhem Land with all the friends she’d made. She gave us directions: back though town, right after the police station, walk a bit, second left and follow it ’til it ends at the Club.

“Cool. Maybe we’ll see you there…”

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Injalak Hill from Gunbalanya

We had some time to kill, so we ambled along the banks of the billabong, though not too close (crocs) and played on the swings in the park amidst the iced-coffee cartons…

Keep Gunbalanya Beautiful sign at Injalak Arts, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land

Who are you trying to kid, Gunbalanya? Photo by Ruth.

…and the graffiti that blends ten thousand years of artistic tradition with…well, cocks.

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Traditional Aboriginal art, modern street art and graffiti penis combine in Gunbalanya.

I almost forgot – one of the conditions on the permit:

“11. All rubbish must be disposed of properly or removed from Aboriginal land.”

We did our bit.

Someone once told me that Aboriginal attitudes to litter tend to be something along the lines of: “White fellas brought litter to Australia. White fellas can pick it up.”

I think that might just be the dumbest opinion represented in this post, which considering most of the others are mine, is really saying something.

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Swinging in Gunbalanya.

As it neared 6 o’clock we got on our feet again, passed the school and a truck that seems to double as a police station, and now we were officially out of the bounds of our permit. The occasional camp dog eyed us from the dust. It was hard to believe you were in Australia, a “developed” country. I was reminded of the time I was invited onto the Montreal Lake First Nations (Native American) reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada.

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The “Police Station” in Gunbalanya

We soon became aware that we were part of a mass march or procession, the numbers growing exponentially with every street that converged onto ours. People were crossing fields and empty lots, appearing from the spaces between houses, all headed in the same direction. It was clear we weren’t going to need those directions from here. Everyone was going to the Social Club.

Dogs and wallaby at Aboriginal house in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Pet dogs and…a wallaby!

According to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald (the only other account I could find of someone having been to the Gunbalanya Social Club) this migration across town is made by 300 to 600 people a night. Remember the population of Gunbalanya? That’s between a quarter and half of it!

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The much anticipated Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club!

The outside of the Club wasn’t much to look at, but once signed in (which went down as smoothly as could be hoped for), it stood in stark contrast to the rest of the community. Shady palms lined green, well-mowed lawns. The new community swimming pool next door made sure everyone knew who paid for it; the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club, of course.

Sunset and palm trees in beer garden of Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Sunset, palms and green grass at the Gunbalanya Social beer garden

People came to watch the national news on big plasma screen TVs as it did its bit to spread racism and hatred throughout the country. ISIS or whatever they’re called were killing some hostages or something somewhere in the world, if I rightly recall.

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The locals come to watch the national news on the big screen.

There was one other table of whiteys and everyone else was Aborigine, as you might expect.

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Sipping on a hard-earned, ice-cold can of VB Gold.

We ordered a couple of cans of VB Gold without difficulty, drank those hard-earned, ice-cold bad-boys down, perhaps a little too quickly, and got in another, which we sipped and savoured out in the beer garden massaged by the long rays of the setting sun.

Drinking can or tin of VB Gold at Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Drinking a mid-strength beer at the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club. Mission accomplished.

Guys drinking Carlton Mid and VB Gold at the Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

The guys

We explored a little, took some photos and soon people were chatting to us, taking photos with us…

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Ruth getting friendly with the locals.

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“No, you can’t take my photograph.” “Oh, I’m sorry, you believe it will take your spirit away.” “No, you got the lens-cap on it.” – Crocodile Dundee

Anyway, the sun set and the storm clouds gathered and it was time to say, “boh boh.”

“Boh boh!”

We raced the storm, driving through the river in complete darkness and running into a torrential downpour not ten minutes later.

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Sunset in Arnhem Land. Time to hit the road again.

Success!

It may seem like a long way to go and a lot to go through for a couple of beers, but you know what they say, it’s about the journey, really.

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Kakadu bound!

When we got back, Seb, Maike, Pottsy, Azza, Rachael, Rod and the whole gang were sheltering in the barbecue area, already well on their way. Fast-forward to 4 am. I’m drinking with Dean. Seb’s just gone to the ranger station to drop off an Aboriginal friend, whose name I forget, but who Azza insisted “looks like a Jimmy”.

Drunk in Kakadu

Azza and Rachael, pissed at the barbecue

We’re in the middle of some deep, philosophical discussion when Dean says, “yep, that’s definitely a snake by your leg, bro,” and then, as I’m slowly drawing my legs up onto the bench, “don’t worry, it’s just a python”.

Time to call it a day.

Scar ceremony

only light to mid-strength beers by the can or “stubby”

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Maguk (Barramundi Gorge)

Only accessible in the Dry (season) and by four-wheel-drive (well, in theory), Maguk is a verdant gorge complete with tumbling waterfall, deep blue plunge-pool with crystal clear water teaming with fish, and even a “secret” path leading to a series of sparkling swimming holes hidden behind the top of the falls.

(“Secret” in the sense that it’s not advertised, signposted or mentioned in any brochures or guidebooks. Not secret in as far as almost every local knows about it and is quite happy to spill the beans.)

Despite being in a national park frequented by tourists, Maguk has somehow (perhaps due to its relatively inaccessible location) escaped the larger visitor numbers that you might expect at nearby Gunlom.

Gunlom, Kakadu National Park

Gunlom. (Photo from http://tourismtopend.com.au/.)

With all the things to do in Kakadu, everyone has their favourite spot in the park. This is mine (and Azza’s, who recommended it to us). In a place so dry, it’s no wonder all the best attractions are water-based. (Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls, Maguk, Gunlom, Mamukala, Yellow Water, the billabongs, wetlands, rivers…I rest my case.)

I won’t bore you with words when the photos speak for themselves. (In the travel blogging industry, we like to call this a “photo essay”, by which we mean we’re too lazy/busy to write and we know you’re too lazy/busy to read it.)

Corrugated, unsealed four wheel drive reccommended road to Maguk in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Driving the corrugated, unsealed, 4WD-only road to Maguk in our van

Having just had a new set of wheel rims and eight-ply tyres, we decided to take on the unsealed, 4WD-only road to Maguk in our (non-4WD) van. The corrugations, though they may not look like much to the uninitiated, gave us one hell of a beating. Seb had told me that if you go over 100 kilometres an hour, you fly across the top of the corrugations and barely feel them. This is true, but, as I got over fifty, I went into a slide, realising I had almost no control over the vehicle and almost veering off the road.

The only other way to do it was to crawl along at less than twenty.

What’s only a 10 km turnoff seemed to take an agonisingly long time.

Luckily for us, the part that makes the road only suitable for 4WDs – an area of deep sand that we would’ve had to floor it through if there was any hope of not getting stuck – had miraculously been filled in with gravel, so we made it through without incident.

We parked up and followed the rest of the trail – a 2km return walk – on foot.

Turquoise blue green water at Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

The deep turquoise waters as we approach Maguk

Estuarine crocodile warning sign at Maguk, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

“…crocodiles are known to enter this area undetected at any time.”

No climbing or jumping from rocks. Penalties apply. Warning sign at Maguk

Later we would remember (and of course ignore) this.

A path, marked only by the occasional arrow in the rock, lead through “monsoon forest”, over jagged rocks, through the river (which, I remind you, may have crocs in) and along its sandy, sometimes even beach-like banks.

River trail leading to Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Crossing the river and following it to the Gorge

As you work your way upriver, beautiful pools reflect the blue of the sky and the vibrant greens of this strange oasis and you’ll want to jump in and start swimming already, but keep going and you’ll soon be blown away by Maguk itself.

Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) through jim jim water pandanus aquaticus in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

First glimpse of Maguk through the jim jim (water pandanus)

Maguk or Barramundi Gorge in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

Maguk! (Otherwise known as Barramundi Gorge.)

I laid down on the stone slab at the water’s edge and marveled at the blue-green reflection of the gorge shimmering simultaneously along with the fish that danced in the deep blue beneath the surface.

Reflections on water and fish in Maguk, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

The reflection and deep blue, clear waters of Maguk

Photos just didn’t capture it. I had to go video.

We swam out over the deep plunge pool (in which many Taiwanese people have drowned for some reason) – the scene (almost) too perfect to be thinking about crocodiles – to hidden ledges, through vast shadows, into the sparkling sunlight and even beneath the waterfall itself.

While we were out there a local guide appeared. We told him we’d heard about a secret path that leads to the top of the waterfall and a series of swimming holes in the rock and asked him if he knew where it was. Of course he did. “You head back along the river until you see the first place to cross without getting wet. On the other side, keep walking straight, with the river to your back, and eventually, after 100 metres or so, you’ll cross a path. Turn right and just keep following it…”

Then he dove into the water and swam to a little nook in the rock that we hadn’t even noticed, just big enough to conceal him, and he was gone…

We followed his directions. The path he’d spoken of was barely distinguishable from its surroundings and at first I wasn’t sure if it was the right one…

Secret hidden trail path to swimming holes at Maguk, Kakadu National Park

A hidden, unmarked and barely distinguishable path leads to the “secret” swimming holes above the waterfall.

…but soon a couple of partial footprints instilled us with confidence, and it all came good in the end.

The path emerged from under the foliage and into the unforgiving heat of the sun. It wound around the edges of what felt like a hot, dusty canyon, then up over the crest and down again. Then we knew for sure we’d found the place.

Secret unknown swimming holes and plunge pools at Maguk, Kakadu National Park

The “secret” swimming holes at the top of Maguk

We climbed down the steep rockface to the gleaming pools.

Natural infinity pool at the top of Maguk waterfall

A natural “infinity pool” at the top of the waterfall

View of Maguk plunge pool from top of waterfall at Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, NT

The view from the top

Secret round swimming holes at the top of Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, NT

The swimming holes

We clambered over the damp rock, these tiny black frogs jumping around all over us, and followed the course of the water even further, every step revealing a new series of pools.

Barramundi Gorge behind Maguk waterfall and plunge pools

Following the gorge even further…

River at Barramundi Gorge behind and above Maguk waterfall and swimming holes

…and riding the river back again!

Deep round swimming hole plunge pool at Maguk with only one way out

Apparently the only way out of this one is to swim down a metre or two and through a tunnel…

Azza had told us about one pool that, once you get into it, the only way out is to swim down. So of course we stood on the rim and took photos.

Reflection in deep round swimming hole plunge pool at Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park

Staring into the abyss…and seeing myself at the bottom.

I considered diving in, but couldn’t see this tunnel he’d mentioned. The blackness was impenetrable. (He later told us it’s a couple of metres down…)

Reflection in Maguk swimming hole

Ruth’s arm always looks like that.

River at the top of Maguk waterfall, Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu, NT, Australia

Relaxing at the top of the waterfall

Hours passed as we swam, dove, bathed and just relaxed and enjoyed the view from our very own, personal infinity pool atop the waterfall.

Maguk/Barramundi Gorge waterfall and plunge pool in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Maguk waterfall and plunge pool from above

Eventually the threat of imminent sunburn caused us to flee the scene, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the beauty of this place.

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Sunset at Ubirr Lookout

Day off.

The van up on jacks, the wheels two-hundred kilometres away in Darwin.

I was naked (as usual) when Vero knocked. Rod had fixed his “car” and was going to Ubirr. Did we want to go?

We grabbed some sandwiches for the road, Rod fueled up on resort and we sped off through the parched landscape. The trees clung to the red earth, somehow adapted to half the year spent without rain, and the other half spent drowned in it. Termite hills as tall as me peppered the landscape, along with the occasional burnt out or abandoned car.

Burnt out abandoned car at Cahill's Crossing, Kakadu National Park

Rod’s car, next in line for a good burning.

We passed large patches of blackened, smouldering forest. At first we thought it as the work of a wild bushfire, but actually these were controlled burnings, practiced by the locals for many thousands of years. “Whitefellas” have taken this long to realise the value of the burning, but it is done when the temperature is at its coolest and helps prevent larger, more devastating bushfires, removes undergrowth and helps encourages new growth and wildlife to return to the area. The Aborigines see fire as a nature occurrence, not something to be afraid of, and part of their duty as stewards of the land.

Rod swung a left just before Jabiru and now this was all new territory for me. The Arnhem Land escarpment (of which Ubirr is an outlying piece) rose up on our right while sparse patches of water still clung to the floodplains and billabongs to our left. The grass seemed to glow as the sun shone through it like a thick crop of blonde hair on a warm summer’s evening.

We passed Merl campground and pulled up at Cahill’s Crossing. For many this is the end of the road. From here you need to drive across the East Alligator – a major tidal river – and need a permit to enter Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal land on the other side.

But that’s another adventure.

Crocodile safety warning sign at the East Alligator River, Kakadu National Park

We’d been told.

We were here because Vero – my unofficial Spanish tutor and general creator of mirth – had never seen a crocodile. (We had.) So the four of us stood on the banks and watched as crocodiles moved about on the river, appearing on the surface only briefly, before descending back beneath the water with the rest of their lot.

Fishermen fishing from Cahill's Crossing on the East Alligator River, Kakadu National Park

“Brave” fishermen fish from the Crossing…

Brave (stupid) fishermen-and-women stood on the rocks or in the shallows and fished from the Crossing, as the occasional Aboriginal car or four-wheel-drive or road-train ploughed across the river at medium tide.

Crocs shoes and crocodiles at the East Alligator River

Can you spot the Crocs™?

Road train at Cahill's Crossing on the East Alligator River, Kakadu National Park

A road-train ploughs across the river at Cahill’s Crossing with ease.

Mosquitoes and flies buzzed all around, making their usual din. The flies here – march flies – bite and draw blood. Rod killed one just as it was in the process of lunching on his leg.

Everything in the Territory bites.

We stopped at the Border Store at Manbiyarra – a remote outstation beside the East Alligator river and Arnhem Land border, famous for its Thai food – for Vero to use the bathroom, but when she saw the state of the dunny (Outback toilet) she changed her mind and we were on the road again.

At Ubirr lies a rock art painting of the Rainbow Serpent – one of the oldest creator beings, known across much of Australia (locally as Almudj in Kunwinjku, Ngalyod in Gundjeihmi and Garranga’rreli in the no longer spoken language of Gagudju, from which “Kakadu” – the name of the Park – is derived) – who split and moved rock, creating rivers, wetlands and billabongs as she made her way through the land. (At Nourlangie, Christian the ranger told us of an ancient river – wider than any around today, that once ran through these lands, creating the Arnhem Land escarpment as its Eastern bank. Listening to this, I had to wonder; could this have been the Rainbow Serpent?)

On her travels the Rainbow Serpent passed through Ubirr, leaving the painting of herself, and crossed the East Alligator. She still rests somewhere deep in Arnhem Land, in a quiet waterhole, and, if disturbed, can cause floods and other natural disasters.

Rock art shelter at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park in Northern Territory

Ruth descends into the ancient shelter.

Rock art canvas and shelter at Ubirr gallery, Kakadu National Park, NT, Australia

The rock was both shelter and canvas, for 15,000 years!

Rod led the way, scrambling up the rocks, past rock art galleries thousands of years old, one of the Aboriginal rangers giving a free talk, rock wallabies bouncing through the dusty spinifex. A one-kilometre walking trail leads into the incredible “stone country” landscape before you climb 250 metres up onto Ubirr Rock – the Nadab Lookout – arguably the most beautiful sunset spot in the park.

Mimi spirits rock art at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Australia

Mimi spirits: the first creation ancestors to paint on rock

Of all the things to do in Kakadu, the lookouts are my favourite: steeped in Aboriginal tradition, they give context and perspective to everything you see down on the ground. Up here you see the bigger picture of Kakadu National Park, and nowhere else is its raw, wild beauty more evident – especially at sunrise and sunset. (Nawurlandja Lookout at Nourlangie is another.)

Ubirr Rock Lookout and Nadab floodplain at sunset in Kakadu National Park

Ubirr Rock: the Nadab Lookout!

The sun was getting low in the sky and we sat and watched as it shone through the long grass and sank slowly into its own reflection in the Nadab floodplain.

Nadab floodplain sunset view from Ubirr Rock lookout

Ruth, Rod and Vero gazing out over the Nadab floodplain

Rod looked totally at peace in this backdrop.

“I could live out here,” he said. “In the bush, catching and cooking my own food, camping out under the stars…”

I nodded in agreement.

Sunset over the Nadab floodplain at Ubirr, Kakadu, NT, Australia

Me, Rod and Vero watching the sunset

Rod’s from “Bundy” (Bundaberg). After his “old lady shot through”, leaving him to raise his daughter as a single parent, and having never been in a plane, out of Australia, or even Queensland, he one day decided to get the most out of life, packed up and set off across the continent in his high-clearance four-wheel-drive, laden to the sky with camping and fishing gear, spare tyres and jerries, and picking up work as he went. You meet very few people in this world who understand the value of this short life, but Rod’s one of them.

Nadab floodplain sunset in Kakadu National Park, Australia

Sunset over the Nadab floodplain

The sun set, as it has a way of doing – turning the sky and its reflection from blue to gold to red to black.

Sunset silhouette of Ubirr Rock lookout in Kakadu

Ubirr, after the sunset

On the way back (85 kilometres) we didn’t see a single car.

I guess Vero finally found a toilet.

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , | 1 Comment