So we arrived in Darwin, the capital of The Northern Territory, a positive metropolis …. OK, maybe not a metropolis, but in comparison to the last week and what lies ahead it’s as big as it gets.
To be honest we didn’t get a great deal out of Darwin itself, other than two new campervans! (more on that in a minute). It’s a nice enough place with a lagoon style waterpark, boardwalk with shops and cafés and a reasonable city centre. It provides everything you would need to get by but it lacked a bit of spark. It is essentially a base from which to explore the nearby National Parks, with tours of all descriptions and length being offered from numerous outlets. It is also very close to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and as such is an important sea port. It was also an important location during World War ll and the bombing by the Japanese in February 1942 is considered Australia’s ‘Pearl Harbour’ and memorials to that day are all over town.
After a day of wandering around we felt we had seen most of the significant things on offer including Mindil Market (we have seen better) and we were thinking we might have been stuck for something to do on our second day. However, as luck would have it, we had turned up in town while the biggest sporting and social event of the year was happening, The Darwin Cup horse racing festival. So we bought a couple of tickets and set off for the track with, to be honest, quite low expectations. “Don’t get too excited, I can’t see this being up to much”, said Steve “Let’s give it a couple of hours and see how it goes”…….. Ten hours later we were walking back to the van having had a brilliant day! The place was packed out with over 20,000 people, most of whom had made a great effort with their outfits and would have fitted in more than comfortably at Royal Ascot. We felt distinctly under dressed, which is quite an achievement in Australia! We still had a fantastic day and even managed to get a couple of winners using the old ‘shut your eyes and point’ method. Probably the most impressive thing of the day was watching the Aussies drink on a big scale, unbelievable!
We also used our time in Darwin to stock up on provisions, recover from a lot of driving and attempt to get a couple of defects with the van sorted out. They included the DVD player (we said it was a posh van!) which wouldn’t play DVDs and the fridge which had turned itself into a heater, which wasn’t ideal considering it was a steady 34 degrees during the day and 25 degrees at night. The hire company had a base in the city so it was the perfect place to get things fixed, or so we thought. I could write an entire post about the events of the next three days, but I will summarise. A replaced DVD player and a replaced fridge fan was the first attempt, and we were on our way, however, the fridge broke again within a day, became a heater again and also developed a horrendous ticking noise. Another call to the company and we were then told there were no spare vehicles and we would have to wait four days for a new fridge to be brought by road from Melbourne. Steve then threatened to camp at the front of the Darwin depot until it was sorted. Miraculously, 40 minutes later we had a call informing us that there had just been a cancellation and a new van was available in Darwin! We drove the 100 miles back to town from our campsite, moved our gear from one van to the other and set off again with a working fridge. We hadn’t got far before another problem arose, this time it was the air conditioning unit which started discharging water into the passenger foot well. Sarah started bailing it out with a dustpan but it was getting too much. “I think we might sink”, was her final shout before she donned her face mask and snorkel.
Yet another call to the hire company and this time a mechanic drove the 100 miles to us, spent less than 10 seconds looking at the problem and declared he couldn’t fix it. Luckily another miracle had just happened, yet another cancellation and this time we were promised another van would be driven out to us the following morning. They were true to their word and the following morning another van appeared. We moved all our gear again and finally we were underway in a van which had a DVD player that played DVDs, a fridge that kept food cold (and even frozen) and an air conditioning unit that kept the cab cool, and better still, dry!
Australia is a big old place, very big, and it is sometimes difficult to get a perspective as to how big it actually is, while at the same time feeling very empty. There is an often seen postcard here (yes, they still have postcards!) which has a map of Europe placed inside of a map of Australia and barely filling half of it. This led Steve (who is a bit of a numbers person) to do some research on the figures. 85% of the population live within 35 miles of the coast, therefore, away from the ocean people are few and far between. The Northern Territory is over five times the size of the UK and has a population of less than 250,000, which is around about the same as Southampton. Considering 60% of them live in Darwin that doesn’t leave very many to fill the rest of the space as we were about to find out.
Our first stop after Darwin was Lichfield National Park. Where Kakadu had been all about the crocs and wildlife, Lichfield was about waterfalls and swimming holes. The park is much smaller than Kakadu and while you could easily spend a week or more there you can comfortably see the major sites in two or three days.
There are a few midges and mosquitoes around, so one evening Steve was cooking outside on the barbeque, and decided to spray his arms and legs with insect repellent and then his head as well for good measure. He assembled all his ingredients and cooking equipment and then went to spray some olive oil on to the cooking surface, only to pick up the insect repellent instead. Very slowly he began to realise his mistake of mixing the two cans up just as the olive oil started to run down his head into his face and his arms and legs were covered in it. “SARAH” he shouted “Get me something to sort this mess out” Unfortunately Sarah couldn’t see anything to help as the tears of laughter were rolling down her face!
Wangi Falls and Florence Falls are two of the most popular and for good reason, even though it is the dry season, the falls are still pouring water into the swimming holes and they are great locations to spend a few hours.
At Wangi Falls there is a lovely, little walk where you can stroll up and around the top of the falls. At one point the path is only wide enough for one person so Sarah strode out in front with Steve, as ever, wandering along a few steps behind! All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a Green Tree Snake dropped off a branch and hit the path between us. It missed Sarah’s head by no more than an inch. Steve stopped mid stride as it straightened up like an arrow and shot into the long grass beside the path. He shouted at Sarah to look but it was so fast by the time she realised what was happening it was gone. “I heard a thud behind me”, said Sarah “but didn’t realise what it was”. “A split second earlier and that would have landed on your head”, said Steve “It’s a shame really as you’re after a new hat”.
After Lichfield Park we started our long journey South, with our ultimate destination being The Red Centre and Uluru. However this was a couple of thousand kilometres away so we had a few days on the road to fill. We didn’t actually get very far on our first day as we decided to make another stop just a couple of hours down the road at Edith Falls. We had stopped here on the way North and thoroughly enjoyed it so we both couldn’t resist another dip in the fabulous watering hole there. It’s a bit of a hike up to the pool and in some places on the way down you have to scramble over a few boulders but it is well worth it. This time we arrived in the late afternoon and at one point had the entire place to ourselves!
As we slowly made our way along the Stuart Highway, which runs all the way to Adelaide in South Australia, our progress on the map looked almost insignificant. We would see a ‘place’ signposted a couple of hundred kilometers away and we would look forward to getting there only to find it was a roadhouse and nothing more. Eventually we pulled into the town of Mataranka which is famous for its hot springs. We thought a well earned rest and relaxation in the hot pools was in order. It really was a scenic location with a crystal clear stream of water winding its way through palm trees and fed from the ground at a constant 34 degrees centigrade. A real oasis in the outback.
The problem was everyone else seemed to be having a well earned rest as well. The place was packed and, after The Darwin Cup, easily the busiest place we have seen in a long time. It was possible to find a little spot to be on your own but it was definitely overcrowded, plus they do love their ‘noodles’ in Australia. Not the edible kind but the foam flotation device kind! They were everywhere. Some regulars had even adapted and shaped them into floating chairs! It was a bit of a strange scene, so we had an hour or so there and moved on.
We squeezed in another night at The Daly Waters pub. We really enjoy it there and it was just as good as the previous time we stopped. The couple who do the entertainment are fast becoming legendary, well at least in our campervan they are. Steve can’t decide if they are a pair of comedians trying to play music or a couple of musicians trying to be funny. Either way they are great entertainment. Sarah thinks they are quite talented. Steve on the other hand thinks that dressing in bright yellow trousers, braces and a flat cap, then playing the ukulele and singing “Wonderwall” by Oasis, whilst reading it off your phone having never even heard the song before, in front of a load of half cut Aussies is just mad and brave!
We had considered staying a night in Tennant Creek which is the only sizable town between Darwin and Alice Springs but we had seen some really negative press about the place so we decided to drive straight through stopping only for fuel. The place has reportedly serious issues with alcohol and crime and this was evident as we passed through. Boarded up businesses and people wandering the streets obviously in drink was the theme and this was in the middle of the day. It looked like a forgotten town, left to its own devices. Most countries have places like this and we have seen our fair share around The World, but thankfully, not many at all in Australia. We continued on for another hour and landed on what seemed like another planet to Tennant Creek. The Devils Marbles. This was a beautiful and strange place, a series of rock formations that have been weathered by the elements and eroded into huge, smooth almost spherical rocks. The campsite there was right next to the ‘marbles’ and we were able to walk for a good couple of hours in and out of the rock formations.
We watched the sun go down and the black sky set in as thousands of stars filled the night sky. Light pollution is minimal there in the middle of nowhere, the nearest inhabitants are 100 kilometres away in Tennant Creek and the lights went out there a long time ago! The display of stars was one of the best we have seen. You know it’s a good night sky when the Milky Way is clearly visible to the naked eye.
A final push from the Devils Marbles saw us eventually arrive in Alice Springs. ‘Alice’ is the second largest place in The Northern Territory but is still only a small town. It is a major stop on the luxury Ghan railway which carries passengers from Darwin to Adelaide for a significant price! The town grew up around the gold mining industry and it has adapted itself to tourism with a few things going off around the immediate area but essentially it has become a staging post for the big attractions which lay a few hours further South. We stayed the night, stocked up on groceries and fuel and headed off along the Red Centre Way to Uluru, or Ayres Rock as it used to be known.
We have found that very occasionally you see something for the first time and it is so visually impactive it stops you in your tracks and then in years to come you can close yours eyes and see it clearly in your head. Iguaçu Falls, Table Mountain, Bryce Canyon, Moraine Lake and Torres Del Paine are some that spring to mind. Ayres Rock is now definitely on the list.
We spent three days in the National Park where Uluru is located and we gave it the whole works. Up before sunrise to view it, back at sunset for a different perspective, from a distance, from up close, and we even did the 10km walk around it and explored the little gorges and water holes. It lies there towering in the middle of the desert, surrounded by low level bush, the occasional tree and lots of red dirt and all the time we never got bored of seeing the different colours and textures of the monolith.
Uluru is not the only site within the National Park as Kata Tjuta (formerly called The Olgas) is also there standing about 30 miles or so from Uluru. It is a series of 36 huge domes which probably looked like Uluru a zillion or so years ago but have been weathered and eroded to create the peculiar looking formation. There is a great walk there called ‘The Valley Of The Winds’ which meanders between and around some of the domes giving great views.
On our way back towards Alice Springs we took a detour of over 150 miles to go for a walk! It sounds a little bizarre but that’s the sort of thing that happens in The Northern Territory. Luckily it was a great walk, and probably more visually impressive than Uluru. Kings Canyon was the destination and the walk was around the rim of the canyon. It was quite steep to get up to the top and then it was up and down as we walked around the strange landscape.
It is a very dry area but at one point you can drop back down into a place called the ‘Garden of Eden’ which is an oasis in the dry surroundings, with palm trees and a small lake at the bottom. We had lunch there and again at one point we were all alone. It was so quiet and the structure of the canyon walls made even whispering sound loud.
After Kings Canyon it was back to ‘Alice’ for an overnight stop and another restock of supplies. We made an early morning start and had been moving along the road with yet again no other traffic in sight. Then on the horizon we saw something in the road. Is it a mob of kangaroos? Is it a herd of cattle? No. It’s a train of camels! You really have to expect anything out here.
We now had over 3000 kilometres to drive across The Outback to The Gold Coast and five days to do it as we had arranged to meet up with our friend Glen again for another catch up. That’s about the same distance as driving from London to Athens. “Lucky we like a good road trip”, said Sarah. “Lets get on with it”!!