The Stuart Highway stretches nearly 3,000kms from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin. It is named after John Mcdouall Stuart who was the first recorded person to cross Australia from South to North and return in 1862. The road follows much of his original expedition and also the telegraph line that was completed in 1872 connecting Australia with the rest of the world. In the Northern Territories the road is often referred to just as “The Track”.
Leaving Alice Springs we were very quickly away from civilisation. The red outback loomed large once again and the tar road cut through it in a long straight line stretching into the distance. Traffic was light and was predominantly made up of road trains and “grey nomads” heading North now that the wet season was finished. According to one report we read, there are about 100,000 people constantly on the road in Australia travelling around their beautiful continent. Many of these are retired and slowly doing a circuit of Australia. They tend to move with the weather and whilst we had hoped to be slightly ahead of the pack as we pulled into the Devil’s Marbles it looked as though they had all arrived here at once.
The Devil’s Marbles are gigantic boulders carved out of the rock by the forces of nature. They make a natural break at the end of a long days drive. The boulders are a special place for a number of Aboriginal groups and at both sunset and sunrise made for lovely walks in amongst the wonderfully shaped boulders.
We broke the next day’s drive by stopping in Tennant Creek and visiting the Nyinkka Nyunyu Aboriginal museum and gallery. This gave an excellent overview of the Warumungu people who lived in the area. There were a series of displays known as “bush TVs” which depicted life since the Europeans had arrived. It is not a pretty story and it’s amazing some of the things that were still been done to these people even in my lifetime. Recently there has been a lot of change and progress with land been handed back to the local community. However there is still a long way to go and traditional Aboriginal life is as far removed as you could get from Modern Australian life. Australia is a land of immigrants and whilst it has its issues as every country does it has welcomed wave after wave of immigration and largely been successful in integrating them. It’s a shame there has been less success with the original inhabitants of Australia. The museum also had a walk showing the different bush foods that grow in the desert. It’s was interesting to see how life could be sustained in such a harsh environment and how important been able to find water and food was.
We headed out of Tennant Creek and continued North. It was a long drive to the next place so we would need to break it at a rest stop or out in the bush. As the rest stops were full of caravans with the same idea, we followed a track down into the bush and camped in a gravel pit. The isolation was much better and we could hardly hear the road trains passing in the night. We had a lovely fire to cook on but it was hot again and getting sticky. During the day we had crossed the imaginary line from the red centre of Australia into the Tropical Top End.
Driving each day was relatively featureless, the road was straight, and the scenery just dry bush. It was not without its minor incidents though. As we were driving we noticed a big flock of red tailed black cockatoos. They are large beautiful birds but obviously not that bright as when they took off one flew into our windscreen. Well actually it missed the windscreen but hit and smashed the protective sun visor we have on the top of the windscreen. Amazingly the bird survived been hit by a 10 tonne truck at 80 kmph and flew off into a nearby tree. We stopped to pick up our smashed plastic and the bird was squawking away in a tree, although I suspect it was not feeling too well.
Our next stop was at the iconic Daly Waters pub. This is a Northern Territory institution and is one of the oldest pubs in the Territory. There was nothing for miles and miles around yet people flocked to the pub. The interior of the pub was lined with travellers memorabilia including bras, thongs and other items of clothing. We decided to stay the night and enjoy the traditional beef and barra barbecue. The food was good and the icy cold beer very welcome in the heat. I think Gilly and I were about 20 years younger than anyone else there (except children ), well Gilly was anyway. There was also live entertainment although the singer was only just alive. He belted out a series of tracks, none of which had been written since I was born. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable evening and certainly a different one out in the Outback.
The town of Matarnaka is famous for been at the setting for the book “We of the Never Never”. However we were there to visit something different. Bitter Springs is an oasis in the Outback and we spent a pleasant afternoon floating gently down the springs looking for turtles in the crystal clear waters. It seemed strange seeing palm trees and ponds that had formed in the wet season, particularly after the dry centre. It was a sign that things were going to change as we entered the much wetter Top End.
The other important point was finding a place where I had an internet signal so I could follow an important football match back in England. And it was worth it. Middlesbrough are back in the Premier League!
And I wasn’t the only one interested in the result.
From the town of Katherine, where we stopped to resupply, we had a choice. We could go east to Kakadu National Park or continue North up the track to Darwin. Our plan had been to go to Kakadu but we found out that as it was still early on the dry season not all the sights were open. The friendly lady in the information office told us that most would be open on a week so we decided to head North and go through Kakadu on the way back down.
Before Darwin we headed into Litchfield National Park. Here some things were also still closed for maintenance. We eventually found a nice campsite near a large waterfall and if to remind us that the wet season was not that far behind us we had two big storms. It wouldn’t have been so bad except the rain did not reduce the temperature and just made the humidity worse. Evenings were particularly unpleasant as it was hot and humid and you could not sit outside because of the mosquitos.
The days were much better though as we swam in some beautiful rock holes and beneath a waterfall. It was lovely to sit in the cool water. The park is also famous for its Magnetic Termites that build their termite mounds in an exact North South direction so as to minimise the impact from the suns rays.