June 17, 2010
I am sitting in the relative warmth of the camper van, the grey flat sea and unappealing brown beach just moments away, hidden in the gloom. My tropic-thinned blood is being warmed with 2 jerseys, a beanie, socks, gloves and a scarf, and a bottle of warming red wine keeps me company while Rijk battles the elements cooking on the barbie in the 10 degree heat. Ah, Yeppoon! We reached the coast this afternoon, driving into the rain-soaked little town of Yeppoon, hungry and tired after a long days driving, although perhaos better to start at the beginning, for otherwise a jumbled account this will turn into!
Rijk and I collected our camper in Darwin on Monday, and after a frantic day trying to provision Tiny (now also referred to as Thirsty), our high top van, we admitted defeat and left early on Tuesday. We got as far as Litchfield National Park, where we set up camp under the stars and wandered the delicious waterfalls and rock pools, mossy walks and Australian scrubland, along with a couple of hundred like minded Australian families, kids on holiday (great timing on our behalf!) and a bewildering array of camper vans, roof top tents, caravans and tents. So many people, in fact, that just as we had lit our fire and settled in for our first night of camping what did we get but 2 girls asking to share our campsite as they couldn’t find their own. After a brief frosty reception from me (was so looking forward to the prickly silence of the Outback, my HEAT magazine and a celeb-gossip catch up!), we invited them to share our fire (Oh, yeah.. thanks mate, says the one, we were planning on throwing our chops down anyway… BRISTLE!) . They turned out to be all right and when we saw they only had a couple of sleeping bags and some ground mats, not even a swag to call their own, well, we left them to the fire and retired to the comfort of our curtained, kitchened and double-bedded palace! The next day saw us fleeing the growing stink of the one and only composting long drop toilet and heading to Edith falls, where a huge rock pool at the end of a series of gorges provided a good place to stretch out the legs after the few hundred kms drive.
The national parks are really well set up and there are so many of them in Australia. Most of them seem to have free entrance for non-campers, and even the camping fees, in comparison to the rest of this VERY expensive country, seem reasonable. We had our first lesson in barbeque etiquette at Edith falls, when we decided on an early dinner and started cooking one of the many gas barbies in the campsite. Rijk stood next to the bbq, bare-chested and Stetson-ed, cooking our steaks to perfection. All the passers-by stopped for a good natured chat and an Aussie chin wag, commenting on the early braai-ing and how good the seasoned food looked. We realized we were getting death stares from the dad in the next camper, who we had apparently unintentionally beaten to the bbq by a matter of seconds. He was wearing shorts that probably fit him 5 years ago but were now held together by the lowest button, his gut threatening even that poor unfortunate. He too was bare chested, and also wearing a Stetson. Unfortunately, when he jumped onto the bbq as we took off our meat, the passers by neglected to stop and chat to him, and there were no good natured chin wags. He scoured the bbq looking at us in annoyance and irritation, and then tried to impress the rest of the campers with a dazzling display of soccer with his kids. This ended with a yelp of pain, a gut wobble, and him hobbling painfully into the camper, not to be sighted for the rest of the evening. How unfortunate then to bump into him at the BBQ’s for the next 2 nights!
The Northern Territorians are known by their moniker, Territory Tough (as opposed, apparently, to South Soft) and this mad max attitude was proven by their celebrations of Territory Day, the day that celebrates the Northern Territiory becoming a self governing territory as late as 1978. On this one day, every shop in the NT sells fireworks, to anyone, for whatever personal use they feel necessary. Fireworks are totally illegal in the rest of Australia, so this laissez-faire attitude is marveled at. We drove into the very small town of Katherine, and saw huge banners advertising fireworks lining the entire street. We abandoned our plans of going into another national park and bought some fireworks. Rijk was torn but eventually decided that the too-big-to-carry, $200 family packs that were being carted away by every man and his dog were overkill, and settled for a smaller bumper pack. The evening started with the official Katherine fireworks display in the Showgrounds, opened by 3 very nervous, podgy and uncoordinated police reservists, a local Country singer and a 7-member children’s choir singing local songs. The bugs looked like snow fall around the big lights and everyone munched on huge hunks of BBQ sauce dripping steak squashed between pieces of white bread while cheering on their sister/brother/auntie. While we waited for the show to start, the rest of Katherine got busy, letting off their fireworks all around us. Our show was fantastic, with huge flowers of light spinning and spiraling into the sky above us. Bangbangbang they exploded to the delighted shrieks of children and applause from all the adults. As we left we saw that every garden and sidewalk was hosting its own fireworks show, and so found a suitable parking lot for our quite impressive display of wonderfully named Chinese concoctions.
Katherine Gorge was the next stop (where again, for 2 nights, we competed with our friend Hobble for BBQ space) and Rijk’s first excited sighting of the wallaby. The tiny kangaroo and its baby spent a productive night foraging around our camper, dragging their tails through any dry branches, twigs and leaves that they could find, upturning nearby camper’s washing up, rooting through another neighbour’s rubbish and generally making a huge amount of noise. Next morning, when we had to wake up early to go kayaking up the gorge, we were a lot less excited to see the little blighters hopping their merry way to bed. The gorge kayak was spectacular, and as an added bonus, on the return trip some Frenchies beckoned us to the bank to see a Freshwater croc sunning itself. The 5 m wire trap a little further on, baited with the bloody and raw head of a pig did nothing for any thoughts of swimming!
Sadly, leaving Katherine meant leaving the heat of the Top End, and heading into the chilly South. I had big expectations for the Outback, and as we traveled further and further into the desert, all my expectations were met. The scenery is spectacular in the endless, flat- plained way of the Karoo, punctuated with evocatively named creeks and brought into perspective by huge moody skies. Bull Creek, Mistake Creek, Deadfellow Creek and my favourite, Hellhole Creek flew past in various degrees of mudiness thanks to the little rain that had fallen. The little towns that we passed through were wonderful, most of them having populations of under 200, a dusty and windswept main street comprising a road café catering to the 56 metre, very impressive road trains that ply this one lane highway, a few abandoned buildings, which added to the feeling of time having stopped, and a museum of some sort. I am, I have realized, a consummate tourist. Show me a museum, the more random, ramshackle and unexpected, the better. I want to poke around in the back of the general store, looking at the cracked and faded pictures of the bustling town, circa 1900. I want to marvel at old newspaper clippings shrouded in cobwebs and I definitely want to sit in ancient armchairs in draughty bars, listening in bewilderment to the old-timers talking stock and drought in accents so broad that I don’t understand a word. However. We had a schedule, and there isn’t any surf in the Outback and Sydney waits for no man. Or some such thing. So I can unfortunately give you only a glimpse of the wonders that await the curious deep in the Outback. We traveled through Mt Isa, which a blind Lonely Planet writer called Striking. He was almost certainly a family member of the Tourism official, and possibly recently out of a jail cell. As we only have the 7 yr old Lonely Planet, and I am sure the mistake has been rectified, we will forgive his dubious taste. Hurrying through the belching smoke stacks of Mt Isa, we reached the teeny town of Kynuna. We walked into the Blue Heeler bar and found amongst all previously stated newspaper clippings and photos a huge, roaring fire. Have I mentioned that it was a furious cold snap and that the days were probably around 15, the nights under 10degrees? I can tell you one thing, night time emergences from layers and layers of sleeping bags into the ice chest of the van, warding off the condensation droplets that fall from the fibre-glass top, and then making one’s way across 50m of bushveld in order to have a wee in the draughty bathroom block is no fun at all! Anyway, back to the huge, crackling, mighty fire, big glasses of red wine and chatting to the Grey Nomads (the older generation living their retirement dreams from a caravan). What a treat! The Nynuna Station has an amazing history of Flying Doctors, devastating floods, parching droughts and a surf competition. Yes, you read right! Every year there is a surf competition and all of the stockmen, ringers and jambucks arrive with whatever boats/vessels/surf boards that they can find and race around the desert like lunatics pretending that they are at the seaside. The hotel is also the only building still standing that has any association with the first days of the song, “Waltzing Matilda”, which was written by Banjo Paterson, who drank at the Blue Heeler. (I was hurried past the Waltzing Matilda museum, otherwise could tell you more!)
Winton positively oozed charm, character and history. Waltzing Matilda was written about the Great Shearer’s Strike in 1891, which had Winton as its centre of unrest. The first board meeting for Quantas airline happened in Winton, and then, to top it off as an A-1 kind of place, Australia’s biggest Dinosaur find was made just outside Winton. Here there is evidence of the world’s only recorded dinosaur stampede which happened around 95 million years ago. They have one of the few operating Open Air Theatre and Museums and can boast of having the world’s largest deck chairs. (Even though I wasn’t allowed near most of these places, I LOVED this town). Jericho was another great stop. For every paid campsite, there are free sites at the side of the roads which have toilets, water and BBQ’s. We stayed at one of these in Jericho, next to the river Jordan and behind Lake Galilee. Seriously! Unfortunately, parking under a tree for the second night in a row, and obviously not learning the lesson from the first of fat rain drops and tree droplets hammering like Chinese torture on the roof, we were up at 4:45 am, packed and ready to go. A healthy pie, a raisin scone and a cupcake made up breakfast and then I was whizzed at top speed past the mining towns of Opalton, Emerald and Sapphire, grumbling all the while! We did manage a stop off at the incredible Stockman’s museum before arriving at the none too sunny little town of Yeppoon, a bottle of red next to me and Rijk arriving back with delicious bbq’ed steak!