Saturday, 29 November 2014

Devil's Marbles

830 kilometres south of Katherine Gorge we stumbled upon the Devils Marbles, huge granite boulders scattered across a wide, shallow valley. The Devils Marbles are located in the traditional country of the Warumungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra and Warlpiri people. They call the Devils Marbles Karlu Karlu, which literally translates as ‘round boulders’.

The marbles are remnants of a solid block of granite the bulk of which still lies underneath them. The granite formed 1700 million years ago, high pressures lead to cracking which allowed groundwater down into the rocks when they were still deep below the surface, this reacted with some of the minerals in the granite to form clays causing further weathering. Eventually the softer overlying rocks were eroded away exposing the granite. The weaker weathered granite was washed away exposing the boulders and blocks that remain strewn across the rocky platform.

Or a big lizard spirit dropped her eggs as she journeyed south and they turned into the rocks you see now. Take your pick.

After the marbles we happened upon Wycliffe Well, a road house, petrol station and campsite that has the highest concentration of UFO sightings in Australia - weird place, we didn’t stay for long!

Further south we crossed the tropic of Capricorn, the dividing line between the Southern Temperate Zone to the south and the tropics to the north, we had officially entered Australia’s dry centre.

Impressive for bouldering although unfortunately not allowed

Oooh I think this ones loose said Sisyphus!

And squat 1 2 3 4....!

Now that's what you call an off width crack (sorry climbing joke)

We were not alone.....

Weirdest fuel stop ever

I guess there's not much to do in the evening's around here

Oh thanks

Wahoo - although apparently its moving north at 15 metres a year!

Central deserts here we come

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Stuart Highway

The Stuart Highway is a sealed road transecting Australia from Darwin in the north to Adelaide on the south coast. The road maps closely the route taken by John McDouall Stuart in 1862. This explorer was the first white man to find a route across the continent. It took him three attempts, and he showed unparalleled leadership, as astoundingly he didn’t lose anyone on any of his explorations. Once a path across the land was found an Overland Telegraph was laid which joined Adelaide up to Darwin, then Singapore and back to Great Britain.

For the main part, our journey has followed this artery, often called the Explorers Way. It is often partnered by the railway line for long sections as the two man made lines intertwine across the landscape.

The road is straight and just goes on and on and on. Generally the scenery was flat and the road continues into the horizon as far as the eye can see, like some perspective drawing for a GCSE Arts course. The horizon shimmered under the blazing sun and mirages were a common sight. Sometimes we’d be caught by an unexpected strong gust of wind that would buffer us sideways. Sporadically dust devils would whip up over the plains and spin the dust into a vortex reaching up to the heavens.

We shared the driving, taking turns at the wheel. Due to the remoteness we would hail other drivers and always slow down to check things were okay if a vehicle had pulled off the road. We often saw only a dozen vehicles in an hour, often no one for twenty minutes and then a mini succession of three vehicles strung together. These were campervans like ours, locals in utes and road trains. These multi load lorries have to be seen to be believed; consisting of four or five artic-sized trailers these are magnificent transport machines.

In the Northern Territory the landscape was dotted with termite mounds, some of these giant obelisks towered high above the ground. In some areas these human-sized obelisks were clothed with t-shirts and hats, some even had stick arms and held beer bottles, a sort of dirtman. Our favourite was a termite mound bride, complete with wedding dress, veil and bouquet.

Often marked by a simple wooden cross we passed graves along the side of the road. Once in a blue moon dirt roads branched off to a cattle station, mine or redundant WWII airfield, but for the most part the bush was miles upon miles of gasping savannahs.

Diamond yellow road signs warned drivers of Kangaroos, Horses and Cattle.
Occasionally we caught glimpses of wildlife, soaring Wedge Tailed Eagles, Running Eagles and crows looking for carrion, often unlucky flattened Roos or reptiles. As we ventured closer into the red centre wandering steers became the road kill of choice. The cattle ranches are so large they don’t fence them. These beasts blow up with decaying gas under the hot sun and then explode. If the bodies are not dispersed by the Dingos the bones and hide remain visible for many months. Once we spotted a lone Emu crossing the road (I don’t know why…ha ha!).

Sarah had downloaded a copy of the international best seller ‘101 Campervan Tips’. Using this as our Bible we followed its common-sense advice. One tip we heeded was to refuel whenever there was the option. It was regularly 250km plus between points of interest, and you never knew if the next garage had fuel, so we kept our tank full. Unleaded petrol ranged from $1.54 to $2.20 per litre. Blue road signs encourage drivers to take a break with punchy slogans such as “Rest, Revive & Survive”, “Drowsy Drivers Die”, “Survive this Drive” and “Take a Spell”.

Our seclusion meant that the radio didn’t pick up any stations. To pass the hours we would read to each other. Sarah provided entertainment in the form of newly invented games and over-enthusiastic singing. Chris was grateful that she’d also thoughtfully downloaded from Radio 4 episodes of “Great Lives”. Our knowledge of Dylan Thomas, Rasputin, Oscar Wilde, Dr Livingston, George Orwell, Kristy McColl, Gerald Durrell and Winston Churchill was significantly enhanced.

Looks like this guy overshot a little

....and on and on and on.....

The explorer John McDouall Stuart is presumed to have carved the initial S on this tree on 25th May 1862 during his successful journey from Adelaide to Darwin 1861-2

...and on and on and on...

Its amazing what you find in the middle of the desert

Just a tiddler this road-train - only 3 trailers

One of the many telegraph stations established by the British in the 1860s following John McDouall Stuart's overland route, finally linking South Australia to the UK via Darwin and Singapore

Sarah's turn at the wheel

Livestock crossing

Maybe Sarah should have swerved for this one?!

There are apparently over a million wild camels in Australia, introduced by the first explorers to cross huge expanse of desert some escaped and have now thrived. They have started selling them back to the middle east but generally they also cull them as they do a lot of damage and have no natural predators

The iconic sight of an Australian windmill, used all over the country for pumping groundwater into storage tanks

 Why did the Emu cross the road...?....and make us brake!

The Ghan railway line intertwines with the highway and runs parallel for hundred of kilometres at times

Chris's turn at the wheel

It's amazing what animals they do have in Australia!!

A wild kangaroo bounds out of the bushes

Tiny these termites...apparently!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Daly Waters

Stopping in Katherine, the Northern Territory's fourth largest town, for a refuel we where startled at the dozens of Aboriginal people hanging around on the streets. Many had health and social issues; they were visibly very drunk or high on something and fights broke out amongst them (upsettingly including a man hitting a woman) in the time it took us to savour a cup of tea. As tourists passing through we couldn't understand the background to this social situation. Had these people left their communities, been ousted from them, or been displaced by whites some decades ago? What was apparent was that these weren't young folks, most we thought were in their fifties. We were aware how badly the aboriginal communities had been treated by white settlers even up to relatively recently but to see that there is still a significant social divide up in the Northern Territory was a real eye opener.

Driving further south down the Stuart Highway we headed for Daly Waters, a short 270km leg of our journey.  It’s called a town but it's really a pub, motel, gas station, post box and redundant WWII rear guard airfield. There was signage for a cafe but we couldn't tell if it was closed for the season, or closed for good. Driving into this hamlet we felt very much like strangers from out of town riding into a Wild West frontier high street, we just had to work out which of us was John Wayne and which was the horse.

Heading straight for amber refreshment we found the Daly Waters pub to be somewhat of a treasure chest of memorabilia. The pub itself dated back to 1930. Initialled poker brands, metal jaw animal traps, cracked leather saddles, hand tools and other rural items harked backed to those days when the pub was a supply point for cattle drovers.

In more recent years the passing clientele have left their own weird and wonderful footprint. The walls host a collection of garment name badges, signed sports caps, flags and foreign currency, and rows of bras and knickers that would put M&S to shame. My description can not do this grotto justice so here's a video....

We were told by the Irish barmaid that Daly Waters has a permanent population of 8. As we nursed our schooners of Victoria Bitter (a lager) at the bar we met one of them coming in for his evening tucker.  He was a cheery chap. A chew nails, spit rust type of guy, with the obligatory leather hat, open neck short sleeved shirt, shorts and boots. All his clothing had been bleached by the sun and dyed by the dust into the same shade of faded camel. He was stick thin, clean shaven and his short wavy silver hair looked like it had been dipped in nicotine, but he didn't smoke. It was difficult to age him as his skin was so weathered and shrivelled. I think if you had cut him with a knife he wouldn't have bled.

We also met a group of 30 enthusiasts on an organised cycling tour holiday. Their route had started at Medan in Sumatra and over four months they were pedalling to Sydney. They packed up camp and were on the road each day at 5am. They then covered about 120km and stopped for the day about 1pm. Many were French guys riding hybrids. They commented that the Stuart Highway scenery had been quite monotonous and progress was slow and painful. It didn't appeal to me but you had to admire their conviction to forge forward under the relentless sun.  

We persuaded ourselves to have a meal there and Chris rather fancied trying the Kangaroo. It was a piece of loin and came medium rare (the best way we were advised). It’s a meat with a tasty gamey flavour, but not overpowering - I guess most similar to unhung venison. On our East Alligator River cruise our aboriginal guide had stated that the tail was the most delicious part of a Roo. Traditionally the hunter would have received this choice cut. A few days later we stopped for fuel and spotted a tail in the freezer. It was quite a sight - whole and unskinned. I'm an adventurous cook and considered the challenge of concocting a scrummy tail on the campervan gas stove. A kanga tail might perhaps fit in the frying pan if whirled like a Cumberland sausage?  

Sarah couldn't remember where she'd parked the chopper

Hardly changed since 1930

In the middle of nowhere!

Rustic yet different!

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Katherine Gorge

We drove to the southern end of the Nitmiluk National Park to experience the Katherine Gorge and its many bush walks. A friendly mob of wallabies came over to our campervan during dinner and welcomed us to the area with their joeys in tow.

The deep gorge and its multiple feeder gorges is a popular tourist attraction, carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River and its tributaries. Above the gorge the escarpment is typical dissected sandstone country, baking hot by mid-morning, covered in small scrub acacia and thin gum trees. However, lush rainforest gullies inhabit giant cracks in the gorge walls, and broad valleys meander through both the high and the low country.

We chose to tackle the butterfly gorge walk, a 12km return journey and set off by 7am to try and complete it before the worst of the heat set in. We climbed gradually up on the escarpment and meandered around and over small outcrops until heading down into butterfly gorge. The trail was rough underfoot, loose stones and scree, steep inclines, large steps and generally tough going. As the walls came in closer and started to climb higher the temperature dropped and humidity rose. The foliage became greener and more lush, more birds appeared and the butterflies too. Dozens of them but all the same species hung on the rocks and flitted between the trees. A noisy flock of red-tailed cockatoos accompanied us on our march down the gorge, always remaining a few trees ahead and dropping seed husks down on us from the tree tops.

Eventually we reached the flatter gorge bottom and spring water began to flow around the tree roots. Suddenly we rounded a sharp bend and there she was, the confluence with Katherine Gorge. A stretch of sky blue water winded its way into the distance guarded by vertical sandstone cliffs. We looked at each other, nodded, stripped and plunged into the cool waters, instant refreshment and relinquish from the growing heat.

After a long swim we returned to the bank for our late breakfast picnic and as we turned to retrace our steps a number of fish came to feed on our crumbs in the river. They were followed by a much larger shape in the water, which rose to the surface and grabbed a morsel of apple core, a long neck turtle – awesome!

As we climbed back up the gulley, the cool shade gave way to the thin scrub and blistering heat. It was only 10:30 but the temperatures on the escarpment were already in the high forties and still rising. We hot footed it (literally) back the way we had come and after 2 hours found the shade of the campsite and the cold showers a welcome relief.

The welcoming party at the Katherine Gorge campsite

A female can have a joey in her pouch, an older juvenile that still comes to feed, as she produces two different types of milk simultaneously, and a fertilised egg  that she can freeze its development until the young joey leaves the pouch

Its obviously very hard work for a mum

This wildlife watching is easy

On top of the escarpment overlooking the valley and gorge systems of the Katherine River

Catching a glimpse of the red-tailed black cockatoos

Into the cool shade of the butterfly gorge

The gorge teemed with this single species

Some weren't so lucky

The clear waters of the Katherine River

No "Salties" in this one so fine for a refreshing dip

A long necked turtle appears to finish off our apple

The heat on the return march was blistering and the rocks radiated it from every angle so that even the soles of your feet were roasting

The Katherine River as it leaves the gorge and heads out to the undulating plains