It was time to hit the road and travel through the outback. We had six days and 3000kms to cover. We hired a campervan, cranked the music up and stepped on the gas. During the six days we travelled between 300-800km a day, some days we didn't see any sign of life by the side of the road (beyond roadkill) for 200-300kms so we had to keep a close eye on the petrol gauge and fill up at every opportunity. Although there weren't many dwellings or villages there was a steady stream of traffic on the road so if we had broken down we wouldn't have had too wait too long for help. But we couldn't rely on the mobile phone to ring for help as it didn't work in most of the outback. In fact the mobile phone range is pretty bad in Australia as a whole and apart from the area immediately surrounding big towns there is very little coverage - what you need is a satellite phone but they are a bit expensive.
The outback scenery wasn't just the dry, barren desert that you might imagine. It was very dry and there were barren areas
but there was
often bush or scrubland and the species of trees and bushes changed frequently as did the colour of the earth so the diversity was
quite interesting. The change in colour of
the earth was obvious in the colour of the termite mounds which varied from grey to
yellow to brown to the bright red earth which is associated with the centre of Australia. We saw quite a lot of wildlife along the way
but unfortunately it was nearly all roadkill, mostly wallabies and kangaroos of varying sizes. Often we would come across a large number
of birds of prey scavenging on a roadkill site in the middle of the road and some of them took a lot of beeping before they would move.
I was worried about a roo running out in front of us which would be impossible to avoid so we tried not to drive at dusk which is
when they become active in search of food and often bound across the road straight in front of cars.
The roads were pretty bad compared to roads at home. When we hired the campervan we had to agree not to take it off road (onto dirt tracks etc) and so we had chosen to take the main highway route across the country which was supposedly all sealed roads. Unfortunately there were a lot of roadworks with detours onto dirt tracks which could last for a few kilometres at a time. We were lucky that the campervan could cope with that but we did have one problem when a stone from a passing car flew up and put a big chip in the middle of the drivers side of the windscreen. Luckily we had paid for the full insurance which covered us for windscreen damage aswell. The other scary thing about the roads is that often the sealed roads just fall away to dirt at the edges and they are not wide enough for two way traffic so when another car comes towards you you have to put two wheels onto the dirt which can sometimes be quite a drop from the road level. The roadtrains are the scariest things to pass coming the other way because when they put their wheels into the dirt they throw up loads of dust which forms an orange cloud around your car and can last for a few seconds when you are driving blind. Trying to pass a roadtrain on your side of the road can be fun too. The roads tend to be very straight which is good for overtaking because you can see a long way ahead which you need to be able to do when you are passing roadtrains which can be upto 55 metres long.
The track we drove down in the NT didn't have a speed limit so some drivers were going incredibly fast but we couldn't get the campervan much over 140kph because of the bumpy roads and the height of the van which swayed in the wind. However, the NT is unusual and most Australian states have relatively low speed limits compared to England and they enforce them much more stringently, or so we'd heard. Once we hit Queensland the speed limit plummeted to 100kph which is about 60mph and there are so many radars and speed cameras that if you don't stick to the speed limit you have a good chance of getting caught - not like at home where you can do 80mph on the motorway without expecting to get a ticket. More about speeding tickets later...
Because of the long distances, bad roads and the tedium of driving along dead straight roads for hundreds of kilometres without seeing and signs of civilisation people sometimes fall asleep at the wheel so there are lots of signs encouraging drivers to take lots of breaks. There are also 'driver reviver' stops where you can get a free coffee which is a great idea. We had a free coffee not at a 'driver reviver' stop but in a pub in Queenslands outback, a place called Charters Towers where the only place open at 2pm was a pub so we asked for a tea and a coffee and were told to help ourselves as it was free. We couldn't believe it - it was there for people who had had lunch at the pub but when we tried to pay for it they wouldn't let us - something that truly was free - we were gobsmacked.
On the first day we drove 320km down the track (the Stuart Highway) to the town of Katherine which is a popular place to visit because of this beautiful gorge. We went on a peaceful cruise down the gorge which is in Nitmiluk National Park and saw another croc and some more Aboriginal Rock Art. The boat jetty was surrounded by trees which were absolutely full of big bats (probably flying foxes) hanging upside down and screeching and squealing. I guess they were waiting for the sun to set when they would fill the skies.
That evening we went to see a performance of a Corroboree where the Jarraluk dancers peformed tribal dances to songs which were mainly about food. They had names like bird or wallaby and described how they were hunted and how good they were to eat. The little boy at the front of the picture above was the star of the show demonstrating a great sense of rhythm as he stomped around the fire. There was a digeredoo in the band and during the interview some of the audience had a go at it with amusing results. Mostly it was the men that danced with the women wailing, smoking and chatting in the background and at the end the crowd was encouraged to join in - first the men and then the women. When Richard called me chicken I had to run up and join in with the fun.
We spent our first night in the campervan at a caravan park so that we could hook up to some power and make a cup of tea in the morning. The van was well-equiped with a microwave and fridge (good for storing those tinnies) and it was pretty comfortable to sleep in and nice to be out in the open air.
The next day we made an early start so we could cover the 830km to our next destination which was Wycliffe Well, the UFO sighting capital of Australia. On the way we stopped at Daly Waters pub, the oldest pub in the NT which had real character; there was even a cowboy at the bar nursing his stubbie (bottle of beer). After a good lunch we filled up with petrol and went back to pay in the pub where they trust us to tell them how much petrol we'd put in the tank. We left the pub just as the tour buses arrived spewing people into the pub for their true Aussie outback pub experience - we were lucky to get that experience sans tourists.
Just before sunset we arrived at the Devil's Marbles which Aborigines believe are the fossilised eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. The bright orange rocks in this area eroded to form massive orange spheres. There are hundreds of them ranging from football sized to absolutely massive and together they are pretty impressive. The Aborigines believe that they are the fossilised eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. Then we drove the last 100km to Wycliffe Well Caravan Park and were just in time to have dinner before they stopped serving at 7.30pm - this was not unusual so whenever we arrived in a town for the evening the first thing we had to do was find out when the local pub or cafe stopped serving food. The next morning we had a look around the caravan park which is full of these lovely tacky models of UFOs, aliens and even Elvis and the Incredible Hulk. Unfortunately we weren't visited by any aliens.
Wycliffe Well is about 500km north of Alice Springs in the centre of Australia but we were heading for Cairns on the East Coast so we'd taken a bit of a detour (130km) to see the marbles and we headed north back up the track. Just before we headed east we stopped to take a look around a battery stamp at Tennants Creek - an old gold rush town established in the 1880's. The gold mines and battery stamp aren't in use anymore but the battery where the gold is extracted from iron ore is still in working order.
During the day we travelled 200km without passing a petrol station and crossed the border between the Northern Territory and Queensland. We were expecting to find some sort of border post and to be searched because there are certain plants and animals you can't take across state borders but there was nothing but a small sign welcoming us to Queensland. Our destination for the night was Camooweal, population 300. The Rough Guide describes Camooweal as follows: There's no way to aviod Camooweal but you might wish there were; the township's atmosphere of lazy aggression is exacerbated by a total lack of charm...., post office and hotel - a risky place for a last drink in Queensland... move on. We parked our van behind the hotel in question but instead of venturing in for dinner we cooked our first meal on the stove in the van - sausages and listened to the sound of angry raised voices in the bar as we fell asleep.
More driving through Queensland's outback. We spent the night in the town of Richmond which has a population of 800 and is one of the biggest in the area. Other places marked on our map had smaller populations, one had five inhabitants and another had sixteen.
A shorter drive today of less than 500km to reach the east coast. Townsville a big town but without much to do - although Magnetic Island which is just off the coast is meant to be very nice - but we didn't make it there. The caravan park we stayed at was on the edge of town on the coast with a lovely view over the sea, as we had our first encounter with the public BBQ system that is all over the country. Basically, parks and picnic spots all over have gas barbeques installed that are free to use - you just bring your food along and cook up something nice, a few we have seen have been a bit messy, but most are kept very clean. They are often quite busy in popular areas, but plenty more places have been totally empty.
We were heading to Cairns in Northern Queensland to meet Pat and Clive, Richard's Mum and Dad who had driven up the coast from Sydney. They had actually arrived in Australia before us. On the way to Cairns we took a detour off the main highway to Mission Beach which is a lovely bit of ocean and a sleepy coastal village. We decided to do a loop to get back on the highway rather than doubling back on ourselves and once again found ourselves off road with a map that didn't tell us when we would find a sealed road again. We went through some lovely countryside and luckily found the main road again after 20km's or so. To see what we got up to in Cairns go to the Cairns and Northern Queensland page