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