From panther pubs to cattle stations...
Tablelands, Northern Territory
Thankfully it was a morning we had a little bit of a sleep in! I well and truly needed it today! After breakfast, we headed over to the hotel where we met a lovely old man who took us on a little journey on a cargo train on the now defunct rail line. We saw lots of wallabies and plenty of birds and termite mounds out in the morning sunshine, it was a fabulous, although rather bright and bumpy, start to the morning that did nothing for the pounding headache that was coming on. Well, the fresh air may have helped some ;) We learnt a little bit about the history of the town from him as we travelled slowly up the line.
Larrimah is a tiny settlement on the Stuart Highway, about 534km south of Darwin. The North Australian Railway, also known as the line to nowhere, ran from Darwin to the town of Birdum which was just south of Larrimah. Birdum no longer exists, and this is where the Larrimah pub originated until it was moved to Larrimah in 1952 after the war. During WWII, Larrimah became the railhead because it was on the Stuart Highway, unlike Birdum, so was easier to transport the supplies they flew in up to the Adelaide River on the cargo train we were travelling on. Larrimah was also used as a staging camp for troops travelling by road before they continued their journey by rail. The line was eventually closed in 1976. A couple of the local men keep a little section of it cleared so they can show the tourists around, such as what we are doing today. We reached a point where it was very overgrown and obviously had not been cleared, so we went back the way we came.
We can see during the daylight hours that there is actually a little zoo and aviary round the back of the pub. They rescue animals from around the area, and it is kinda of a little sanctuary. A man named Bob took us out back to a small enclosure where they keep "Sneaky Sam", a rather large saltwater crocodile. The water was very murky and we could just about make out his snout and eyes lurking in the pool. He kept appearing and then silently disappearing, it was quite creepy. Bob took a makeshift fishing pole and stuck some chicken drumsticks on the end and dangled it above the water. The eyes and snout disappeared again. All was quiet. and then, BAM! Sneaky Sam jumps out of the water and devours the chicken. Holy crap! We were less than a meter away from this prehistoric beast with only a wire mesh fence in between us! He performed for us a few times before he ate the line and went back to lurking under the water. Finally success! We had seen a saltwater crocodile! And yes, it wasn't in the wild, but he was a rescued croc, not bred in captivity, so that counts for something, right? And who else can say they have been less than a meter away from a snapping salty?!?! I was a tad freaked out with slight concerns for our safety! But all's well that ends well.
Bidding Larrimah and the locals a fond farewell, we pile back into our little love bus and head south. We noticed in front of us and coming towards us a guy wearing pink and riding a unicycle! Sandro snapped a photo of him, I managed to fail completely in that regard. Turns out it was Samuel Johnson, riding around Australia to raise money for breast cancer charity, Love Your Sister, in support of his sister, Connie, who has terminal breast cancer. Pretty cool to see him out in the middle of nowhere riding along the Stuart Highway!
We come to the Daly Waters International Airstrip, which was Australia's first international airport, and served as a refuelling point for flights to Singapore. The last flight left on April 1 1970, but it is still used by the RAAF. Close to this, near a chain of ponds, we find the Stuart Tree. Here the explorer John Stuart apparently carved an 'S' into the tree as he was attempting to cross Australia from south to north in May 1862. Daly Waters was the name given to a series of natural springs in the area by Stuart after the governor of South Australia, Dominick Daly.
It was here that the always fabulous and outrageous Kim donned on an Akubra hat and a beard and proceeded to get into character as John Stuart, and give us a little history lesson on these parts. Highly entertaining and informative. we also got to try some bush passionfruit which were lovely, sweet and sour. :)
Stuart finally reached Darwin in July 1862, as the first man to cross the continent from south to north, and that opened the way for the Overland Telegraph to be built, and the main road from Port Augusta to Darwin was built, which is now called the Stuart Highway. This road is 2834kms long, and is still the only direct road, though the current Hwy is actually a tiny bit to the east of the original track, which was washed away and damaged during floods. The new Hwy had to be built up and reinforced so it wouldn't wash away during the wet season. It is along this we have been travelling since Darwin the Stuart Hwy is also notable for being at the centre of media attention when British tourist Peter Falconio disappeared and suspected murdered in 2001 while travelling this road.
Most of the settlements around the Stuart Highway were developed on the original Overland Telegraph Route and its repeater stations, including Darwin, Katherine and Daly Waters, and it is here at the famous Daly Waters Pub we stopped for lunch. We prepared burgers by the pool and sat out the front in the shade to enjoy it with a cold drink. This pub is rather interesting and is a must see for anyone who is travelling this road. The pub is adorned with all sorts of interesting paraphernalia, from a thong tree out the back to a wall of bras, and the wall of currency pinned on it. The tradition goes that the stock men used to leave their money pinned on the wall while they went droving, and it was kept dry and well for their return. Now people from all over the world pin their money on the wall in the hopes they will return for their investment someday. Across the road is a self service station where you fill up with petrol then pay at the pub across the road. Above this, there is helicopter on the roof, and also a sign with the McDonalds logo saying 'Drive through - 286km ---->'.
Definitely worth the drive. With frangipanes in our hair, we board the bus for another leg of our driving tour of Australia. A long drive and a few buffalo sightings later, we arrived at Dunmarra Wayside Inn for a pit stop. It is here I think that we discovered the flies, and the need to dash in and out of the bus as quick as you could to stop the flies getting in the bus. It was an interesting experience. Around here there was a left turn off the Stuart Hwy onto an unsealed road called the Barkly Stock Route on which there was a rather large warning sign that someone had spruced up to give us a chuckle. It is supposed to say "No Fuel'. There isn't much traffic on the Stuart Hwy, it is mainly used by road trains and the occasional grey nomad caravan.
We drove through the settlement of Elliott, which is almost half way between Darwin and Alice Springs. There are two Aboriginal communities here, with about 355 people living there altogether. It is very remote, and clearly a very, very poor town and not much here. We stopped at a service station (which was just about the only thing in the town except for the run down houses/shacks) for another cold drink and a bathroom. Then blink your eyes and it was gone again.
This part of the trip had long stretches of driving between stops. There was a lot of ground to cover to get from Darwin to Alice Springs in three days, about 1500km. The scenery was great, and luckily we had enough room to stretch out and make ourselves comfortable, otherwise this could have become a very uncomfortable ride. The bus had been making a very loud noise for most of the journey so far and it was really hard to maintain a conversation, or hear the music over the noise. Luckily I had some earplugs, which when I remembered them, made a huge difference. Lots of napping, snacking, flipping through magazines and staring out at the scenery was to be had on this leg of the journey. Hannah, Lia, Joshua and I started playing riddles to keep ourselves amused. It was quite hilarious. They were awesome at translating to English for me, as my German is pretty much non-existent! That kept us occupied for quite some time.
It was also around this time that we noticed the scenery was changing and we were traversing a different climate region. The plants were different, more like scrub, and the red was showing a lot more than before. We stopped at one point, and you could see the road in a straight line as far as the eye could see. And it was red. Very red. Although there was still some green, it was clear we were not in Kansas any more. Travelling through the Barkly Tablelands now, we arrived just before sunset to set up camp at Banka Banka Cattle Station.
It was the first operational pastoral lease in the region, and was once the largest and most prosperous cattle station in the area. The owners, Mary and Ted Ward, developed a garden so great there it became a supply camp during WWII. It was a regular stopping place for travellers, and Ted was among the first to truck cattle by road in 1945. Mrs Ward had no children, but she cared for the children of her Warumungu employees and they didn't like the policy of removing part Aboriginal children from their mothers. They took them in and sent them to school in Alice Springs at their own expense until 1961, when a government school opened in Banka Banka thanks to her efforts. She spent money on her Aboriginal staff while economising on repairs and improvements of the station. She was known as the "Missus of Banka Banka". In 1968 she arranged construction in Alice Springs of a large red brick building to house former employees and their families, known as the Mary Ward hostel. She was awarded a MBE in 1968.
Evs needed a big walk, so off she went in order to find a water hole. Apparently there was not so much water as hole, but it got the energy out of her. We unrolled our swags on the ground, which would be the first time we were to use them outdoors, until Kim pointed out you don't know what's crawling around on the ground so therefore they should remain rolled up until sleeping time. Clever kids we are ;)
We noticed once we arrived that the humidity had dropped right off and there was a nice breeze, it was a lovely change after that stinking, close, humid air we had been breathing up until now. It was a big change, and very noticeable, and a great big relief.
We joined up with another group of Wayoutback adventurers who were travelling in the opposite direction. They were playing cricket when we got there. We had a bit of a chat with some of them, and got a bit of an idea what we were heading for and vice versa. We were lucky enough to have one of the other guides bring us out a new bus so we could drive the next day without the god awful noise, so we said goodbye to the noisy bus and moved all our stuff onto the new (identical, but hopefully not noisy) bus.
We then headed to the top of the hill for a delicious sunset, and photo shoot. The light was absolutely amazing and the view second to none. We came back down to create dinner. Salads and sausages/burgers tonight I recall, and this was when I accidentally put the cheese in the salad so poor Lia couldn't eat any of it, but we salvaged a bit of the leftovers which she graciously thanked us for. You'd think being a vegetarian, I'd be slightly more sensitive to a vegans needs than others, but no this was the second time in two days I had tried to make her eat the cheese!
After dinner, Hannah pulled out her camera and some sparklers and, along with Lia and Joshua, proceeded to take long exposure photos of this. Kim had some cool glowy bally thingys in the bus which we then turned into a massive game of running around in the dark with glowing sticks and taking photos of it. Rather much fun. One of the guides told us the Dreamtime story of the emu in the sky. Definitely worth a read.
In the wet season, the emu dips its head down to the ground for a drink, and in the dry season it raises its head to the sky, this is how they knew what season it was. The emu is in the Milky Way, with its head in the Southern Cross, and as there is absolutely no light pollution here, you can see it brilliantly. I still look for it today whenever I am looking at the stars.
Once rolled out, we climbed into our swags and slept for the first time under the stars in the outback. It was so quiet and so dark, I'd never in my life seen so many stars before. It was the most perfect way to fall asleep, counting stars and thinking of all the Dreamtime stories. I didn't want to close my eyes...