Gregory Downs Roadhouse, QLD. Thursday 1st June 2017
The Northern Territory covers about one sixth of Australia’s land mass and the Top End is the northern part of it. I’d been to the Territory before of course, when I visited Alice Springs. On that occasion I’d only traveled south of Tenant Creek, this time I was north of it, where the Top End is considered to begin. But one question on my mind as I rode there was this: why did the Northern Territory never become a State? After all, there’s Western Australia, South Australia, so why not North Australia? The basic answer seems to be that there was nothing and nobody there – not of any consequence to the settlers in the south at any rate.
South Australia attempted to colonise the north during the late 19th century. It was slow going but Palmerston (later renamed Darwin,) and Port Darwin were established and some pastoralists began operations there. When I said ‘nobody there’, I meant Europeans. There were plenty of indigenous people but in the Australian mindset of that time, they didn’t count. There were problems with populating and administering the area, although the numbers did slowly grow. SA kept trying to create a northern colony in its own image but gave up in the end and sold the area to the new federal government in 1911.
One of the fundamental problems with the NT was that it didn’t have much to offer economically and is still reliant on the Federal Government for much of its income. At 30% it has the highest proportion of Aborigines out of all the states too. In effect it’s unable to be independent financially and to contribute to national funds. This situation is improving, especially with an increase in mining activity. There is a desire among many Territorians to apply for statehoood, although a 1998 referendum on the proposal failed. Current thinking is that it is likely to come about in 2018. It’s a complicated business though, so I’m not going to bore you too much but will use my usual cop out and provide you with a link for further reading if you wish to learn more.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t even got there. My journey from Mount Isa was going to include lots of dirt. A 1,400km journey, more than 1,000kms of that on gravel roads, as I rode from Queensland to the Territory. I would be camping and refueling at small roadhouses, with only two small towns to call in at for supplies. Probably my last ever taste of outback Australia. Gregory Downs was the first of these, where I watched the Maroons, Cockroaches and some frogs.
I know that sounds very odd so let me explain. Every year Queensland and New South Wales enjoy an interstate Rugby League challenge called the State of Origin. The Maroons (QLD) and the Cockroaches (NSW) battle it out across three games for nothing other than honour. Oh yes, not forgetting lots of TV money. It’s a big event and the first game happened to be on TV that evening. What does ‘state of origin’ mean? It refers to the location of the players’ first professional club, either QLD or NSW. No other states are involved, the competition simply reflecting the general sense of rivalry between the two states. Gregory Downs is in QLD and the bar was filled with a large crowd of road workers,billeted just across the way. It was very noisy but good natured, although things went quieter when QLD, usually the stronger team, lost by a big margin. It was good fun and I was cheering for the Maroons too. Fortunately they won the next game so the third game is a decider. It’s a real shame I’ll have left Aus by the time it’s played.
And the frogs? Well this was very peculiar. I had used the camp site toilet earlier and when I flushed it I saw a pair of frogs legs fighting the flow of water as it came out from under the rim of the bowl. I looked behind the cistern and found a pair of blinking eyes staring at me from a green face. Ah, mystery solved. A frog had wandered into the toilet. Not quite! I lifted up the cistern lid and found a whole family of them looking up at me, sitting on the various bits of plastic inside. I counted nine of them, who had clearly taken up residence. I stared at them, they stared back at me. In the end I put the lid back on and left them to it. Who am I to disrupt nature’s ways? When I left next morning I told the staff about them and their response was “Only nine? There’s usually more than that.” We had a laugh about it and then I hopped it.
Meanwhile there had been an increase in volume from my exhaust and I could feel a buzzy vibration coming from the bike. I had a good look around and discovered that a weld had broken on the exhaust header pipe. It was where a lug is welded on for the purpose of securing the heat shield. This was annoying but not a disaster and it explained the increase in noise and vibration. It also explained why my leg was getting hot! The escaping exhaust gas was warming me up nicely. So when I came to the small town of Burketown I located a young guy who had a TIG welder and asked him to try a repair. We couldn’t undo the rusted in heat shield bolts so he only managed to weld about a third of the crack. But he did manage to charge me $50 for the privilege. OK, I know that TIG welding is specialised but even so, it came as a bit of a shock!
Feeling poorer, and a bit hard done by, I carried on to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse for another night in the tent. No frogs here but I chatted with Kate, who comes from London, about road conditions further along. (One of the guys working there comes from Gravesend, so it was almost like a reunion.) This part of QLD tends to be a bit wetter than most other parts. I was now in the tropics, where there is more rainfall and the creeks actually have water in them most of the time. She told me the latest news about Calvert Creek and the Robinson River, two crossings that I would need to take care at. The roadhouse isn’t quite the fount of all knowledge but they do gather useful information from other travellers as they pass through, and share it.
When I headed off along the track I actually came to five creeks, all with water in and with varying degrees of difficulty. Hang on, they’d only mentioned two! The dreaded Robinson River was by no means the worse. I managed to drop the bike in the sandy exit of one of them, with no damage done. I’d tried to ride up in 2nd gear instead of 1st and just didn’t have enough momentum.
I stayed in the town of Borroloola that night and rang Hells Gate to give them an update on the creeks. It seemed right to pass back some information. The town has a high Aboriginal population so there are restrictions on the sale of alcohol. I fancied a beer so I walked up to the local restaurant, where I could get a drink with food, and enjoyed the best piece of battered Barramundi I’d eaten since arriving in Aus. It’s a delicious fish, always moist and tasty. Much better than cod. A couple of beers to wash it down too.
Parked next to me on the campsite was a very battered looking trailer, towed by an equally battered truck. I got into conversation with the elderly Kiwi who was with it and he told me quite an amazing story. As well as living in it, he uses his trailer as a kitchen too. He drives out to stations at shearing or mustering time and cooks meals for the hands. He was driving along one of the nearby tracks and was just crossing a narrow bridge when a road train came round the bend, going too fast and with no way of stopping. My Kiwi friend accelerated off the bridge, managed to swing his truck to one side but the trailer was squashed up against the bridge railing by the road train, half tilted over. Meanwhile the road train had just carried on as if nothing had happened. He was unhurt but his trailer was pretty smashed up. He has a satellite phone so he rang the police and they managed to stop the truck 200kms further along the road. The driver said he simply had no chance of stopping the truck. It was found to weigh 165 tonnes. The legal limit is 73 tonnes! The driver said his company forces him to run overweight. If he didn’t agree he’d be sacked, he said. How awful. Meanwhile the old fella had to arrange for a crane to come down to lift the trailer off the bridge railing and also had to get two tyres helicoptered in to replace the burst ones. That must have cost a powerful amount of money but the freight company will have to pay for it. The driver will be prosecuted as well.
So with that cautionary tale at the forefront of my mind, I carried on, taking extra care at any bridges I came to. The road was getting steadily rougher though. Plenty of corrugations and stony creek crossings – the dry ones that is. At one point I stopped for a break and noticed something a little odd about the bike. The rear light lens was missing. What? Where on earth had that gone? At the same time I realised that the rear mudguard had fractured on both sides, right where the indicators are mounted. It was clear that the vibrations had been taking a toll. Later, when I was discussing the various faults with the factory, they refused to accept this damage as a warranty claim. Their point was that taking a bike off road was going to be risky. I was astonished by this attitude. My belief is that if you’re going to sell a bike aimed at off road riders then you should fit components robust enough to handle the work involved. I never had any problems of this kind with my Suzuki. This bike isn’t proving to be anything like as tough. So I’m not too happy with CCM at the moment.
I called in to have a look at the Southern Lost City. Skyscrapers dominated the landscape here, but built from sandstone rather than concrete and glass. Once upon a time they were part of the seabed but movement of the Earth exposed the land they were part of. Erosion has done the rest. They reminded me of the Bungle Bungles, over in Western Australia, although their rock content is different. There are other examples of the same thing in this region.
I bush camped that night and discovered that I’d left my wash bag behind in Borroloola. Now that’s the kind of thing that is seriously annoying. A moment of forgetfulness leading to loads of hassle. But being on the road brings these fun filled moments.
I was gradually making my way north and west, towards the Stuart Highway, which is the road that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. Grace had told me about the hot springs up at Mataranka and had recommended Bitter Springs as the best one to visit. I camped in the nearby site and walked down there for a dip. The water was only lukewarm so I felt a bit disappointed, but what did strike me was how the vegetation had changed significantly over the last few days. Since leaving Mount Isa the scrub land had gone and been replaced by woodland. But here I was in tropical forest. Palm trees, giant ferns and fig trees. They all love the wet areas and the walk down to the spring revealed their dank habitat, among the wetlands. I was quite taken by the change from the random shapes of woodland trees to the almost geometric patterns these plants offered the eye. I’ve no idea why this should be. There must be a reason but I don’t know it.
Nature’s perfection. A marked change in flora.
Camping next to me was Dan and Colleen, a friendly biker couple. Dan has a Honda Goldwing, with which he tows a trailer, although this time they were trying out their new caravan and the Grey Nomad lifestyle. Dan had brought me over a beer as soon as I’d pulled in and they invited me over for some dinner and good conversation. Being able to share a meal with friendly strangers is one of the delights of travelling in Aus.
Next day I made it to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory and Australia’s northern front line and gateway to Asia. I was heading up there to stay with Dave for a few days. Dave is a terrific guy who offers hospitality to motorcycle travellers as they enter or leave Australia via the port. Darwin is probably the most common entry point for overlanders as there’s a regular freight service to East Timor and to Indonesia. I’d contacted Dave via the Horizons Unlimited website (horizonsunlimited.com) and he’d invited me to stay while I sorted out my Indonesian visa and organised the shipping of my bike. He’s a very well travelled man, having been to Europe and South America often. He has bikes there ready for him to fly in and ride. He’s a great fan of the Isle of Man TT and has been there several times, as well as to Northern Ireland to watch bike racing there. He’s a gregarious character and he had plenty of tales to tell. There were five other people there too: a Swiss couple, Thomas and Sylvie; another Swiss guy, Kevin; Joe, a Kiwi; and Elaine, a French woman who was staying at Dave’s long term. She had a van parked on the lawn, which she slept in. Apart from Elaine, they had all met up at a Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia and had decided to share a container to get their bikes across from Dili to Darwin. The problem with coming in to Australia with a vehicle is that it has to go through quarantine and it’s impossible to know how long this will take. I’ve done it twice and have been fortunate both times in that my bikes were cleared in less than a week.
I had some jobs to do on the bike and Dave was happy to lend me the equipment I needed and to assist me as well. I sorted out some wiring, cleaned the bike up after its dirty experiences and made various adjustments to this and that. Dave has a big shed and I put it to good use. He decided I needed a Camel Toe, which in this case is a large foot to go on the bottom of my side stand. Perfect for stopping it sinking into the sand.
I went into the city (Dave lives about 20kms outside it) and found the Indonesian consulate. The process for getting a sixty day tourist visa was far easier than I had expected it to be, especially compared to my previous experience in Melbourne. They’d told me it would take over four weeks because they had to send my passport back to the UK for processing. That was obviously nonsense because the helpful guy in Darwin said it would be about four days. And that’s all it took in the end.
My plan had always been to arrive in Darwin, sort out the visa and shipping, then tour the local area. I arrived in early June so had plenty of time on my hands. Getting the visa took a bit longer than it should have though because a three day weekend got in the way. Most states have a bank holiday for the Queen’s official birthday so I had to wait an extra day. I’m no royalist but it would be a handy excuse for another one in the UK. Meanwhile the others where getting the real run around with regard to releasing their bikes. Their container still hadn’t passed its quarantine inspection, let alone the bikes inside it. Problems with spiders I believe. I learned later that things moved quite quickly for them once the container was given the all clear and they had their bikes the next week. Their experience is a warning though. Things may not happen very quickly when taking a vehicle into Aus.
Darwin itself is a nice city. It’s not large and the CBD is only a few blocks in length and width. It’s a nice place, with plenty of parks and gardens. None of the buildings are very old. Let’s be fair, neither is the city really. But it suffered almost total destruction when it was hit by Cyclone Tracey in 1974 and had to be rebuilt. It was originally called Palmerston but the name was changed in honour of Charles Darwin. There is now a suburb called Palmerston so the name has stuck around. It is a port so there’s plenty of shipping activity as well as marinas all around. There are several headlands so there’s plenty of seashore to enjoy. The winter weather is invariably sunny and warm, with little rain, so it’s a great place to walk around. It has a tropical climate so summers tend to be wet and often stormy. Cyclones are not all that uncommon.
Perhaps Darwin’s biggest reason for a special place in Australian history is that it became the country’s front line in WW2. On the 19th February 1942 around 188 Japanese aircraft bombed the harbour in a raid that equalled Pearl Harbour in terms of size and damage. In fact it was the same aircraft, from the same aircraft carriers, that carried it out. Many ships were sunk and some of the town centre buildings were destroyed, most notably the post office. The two raids killed at least 243 Australians and allies. Almost 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed. Fortunately all but essential civilian personnel had been evacuated because the threat had been present for some months. Even so, the city was not prepared militarily, giving the raiders an easy ride. The true record of events was suppressed throughout the war so as to avoid undermining morale, especially in the southern states. The city suffered a total of sixty four air raids over the next two years, although none were as devastating as the first one. It became a military base, both for American forces as well as Australian ones, and was the launch pad for the Allied invasion of South East Asia. It’s the 75th anniversary of this event so there was plenty of information on display. Lots more information here:
I visited the Aviation Museum and saw some great aircraft. Best of all was the absolutely huge Boeing B52 bomber. Too big to get a photo of the whole plane. FOUR engines on each wing! The F-111 was another fine aircraft on display. Sleek and purposeful.
Having been to the visitor centre I took a stroll around the CBD, following the Heritage Walk. A few interesting buildings to look at, also another Knowledge Tree, this one still alive though. But the strangest place out of all of the sights was the Oil Tunnels. When the Japanese first bombed Darwin they either had prior knowledge or were simply lucky, because they hit several of the oil storage tanks just after they’d been filled up. The port was a naval base and the government needed to find a way of protecting the stored oil from the raiders. So a scheme to dig tunnels under the cliff was born. In retrospect it seems a rather crazy idea and at the time many people had doubts. But it went ahead and turned into one of those never ending jobs which just have to be seen through to the bitter end despite, or because of, the amount of money, time and effort already invested. The idea seemed simple. Dig tunnels into the cliff, line them with steel and then concrete, store oil in them. Sounds simple, but almost insurmountable problems arose. The rock from which the cliff is made is very loose and unstable so the actual mining task was extremely difficult. A series of wetter than usual summers meant that the already difficult drainage problems were almost insurmountable. Chief engineers were engaged and then replaced and by the time the tunnels were ready to actually serve their purpose, the war had finished anyway. The plan had been to store oil directly inside the concrete lined tunnel but constant water ingress defeated this idea. Two tunnels did get used by a commercial company post war, for storing jet fuel. But that didn’t last long because of water seepage. But they do make a unique tourist attraction and are a good example of lateral thinking.
It was fascinating to walk through the one tunnel that was open for visiting. Seeing the water running down the walls made it plain how difficult the task was. But at 172 metres long and 4 metres in diameter it certainly would have held plenty and easily protected it from Japanese air raids.
Darwin Waterfront has recently been developed for leisure, with a water park for swimmers and a nice eating area around Stokes Hill Wharf. There’s a museum there, dedicated to the events of WW2 and the Flying Doctor service. It was Sunday and they’d closed by the time I arrived, so I settled for sitting in the sun drinking coffee. There were more sites to visit in the city but I was going to leave those until I returned. But I did walk up through the Bicentennial Park, where there’s a lookout over the harbour and various memorials relating to Darwin’s history.
After a few more days, some of that time spent socialising with Dave and his friends, I got my passport back from the consulate and headed out of Darwin to explore the Top End’s beauty spots.