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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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:
|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.|
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…