Topping Off The Tour. Part 2

Wangi Falls Camp Site, Litchfield National Park. Thursday 15th June, 2017

P1110973

Wangi falls, Litchfield NP

Litchfield National Park. It’s not far from Darwin, less than half a day’s ride, and was the first place I chose to visit on my ‘final tour’. I camped at the Wangi Falls campground for a couple of nights and explored the park from there. It’s a usefully compact park, only 1,500 sq kms, but with plenty to see. There’s five different waterfalls, tumbling down off the sandstone rock outcrops. Beneath most of them are swimming holes, with cool, clear water in which to take a refreshing swim. I sampled those delights at Wangi Falls twice, particularly when I’d returned from a hot and sweaty walk around the trail above the spectacular Tolmer Falls. The area beneath those falls isn’t accessible for swimming, being a special place for the local Aboriginals. I also took a look at the Magnetic Termite mounds. There’s an area which has hundreds of them, almost like they were planted there. I’d seen them before, up on Cape York, two years previously. The termites build them with a north/south orientation so they always have a shaded side to escape the heat in. Some species can be very destructive to buildings, but not these. They are often referred to as White Ants but are actually related to cockroaches. Their bodies are almost translucent and they have no defence against the sun or its heat.

P1120020

Florence falls and their popular swimming hole.

The Bamboo Creek tin mine was a reminder of people’s determination to extract value out of the land. They managed to haul in some heavy machinery, including a large engine. Opened in 1906, it became too difficult to extract the ore because of water ingress and it was abandoned in the 1950s. The rusting machinery left behind is a testament to the tough mining life and the tough men that lived it.

P1110966

Old tin mine workings, up on the hillside. Industrial archaeology in natural surroundings.

At the camp site I met another biker, named Jorge, a German now living in Leeds where he is a vet. His sister lives in Aus and he asked her to obtain a bike for him. She managed to get him a Kawasaki KLR650, fully equipped with panniers, at a great price. A French guy was selling it urgently so he could buy a plane ticket home. Stress sales can be a great way to find a bargain. Jorge was very happy with it and I’m not surprised.

P1120035

Jorge and his nice’n’cheap Kawasaki KLR650.

Talking of bikes, I discovered a fault with mine,of  which I had been conscious for a few days. The battery had gone fairly flat while I was in Darwin and wouldn’t always start the bike. On my Suzuki that was never a problem because I’d had a kick start as back up. No such thing on this one, so I’d bought one of those Lithium Ion battery packs that can be used to charge electronic device,s and also to jump start cars. It’s not very big, and I had doubts about its capability, but it always did the job, for which I was very grateful. While I was at the camp ground I decided to run some tests, enlisting Jorge’s help, and quickly realised that the bike’s alternator stator wasn’t working properly. There was enough output to run the bike, once it was started up, but not enough to charge the battery too. I knew I’d be OK until I left Australia, but it was another item on the list for the factory to replace under warranty. It was a bloody nuisance though and the hassle of constant jump starting tended to discourage me from making unplanned stops to look at things!

P1120058

Flying in to check my braking system. I stayed clear!

After Litchfield I decided to head down to Douglas Hot Springs, a bit further south. I’d met another biker on a camp site who had recommended them, and they sounded good. I really do wish I hadn’t listened! On the way there I was on a dirt road and came to a creek crossing. It wasn’t wide or deep so I went across at a sensible speed, but stood up on the footrests. Usually I’d be sitting down with my feet close to the ground. What I hadn’t realised was that the road base was concrete and, of course, was covered in slippery weed. As I came out of the creek the rear wheel slid round and I came off the bike. It was all at low speed but I landed awkwardly enough to bruise a rib and my foot got twisted round as I came off. The result was a twisted ankle, which was to give me trouble for several weeks. I could walk on it, so I knew nothing was broken, just for a change. But it was swollen up and appropriately painful. I managed to get to Douglas Springs and camped there for a couple of days. The problem was that the river water was hot when all I wanted was cold! There were no facilities there to speak of, so nowhere to get any ice, or similar. I paddled in the hot springs but my heart wasn’t really in it. Once I felt rested enough I headed for the town of Katherine and booked into a hostel to rest up.

P1120071

Twisting the night away.

My initial booking of three days grew, a few days at a time, into seven. I long ago learned the art of sitting still and to avoid the urge to be doing things. And my sore ankle encouraged that attitude. I bought ice and placed bags of it over the swelling. The bruising gradually went down but the ankle itself stayed swollen up and stiff to move. After a few days one of the other guys there offered me some heavy duty anti inflammation tablets. He said to only take one a day. He’d got them in Thailand when he pulled a shoulder muscle. I took one that evening and in the morning it was as if a miracle had happened. The swelling had gone right down and I could walk without limping. Wonderful! He gave me a few spares, which I took over the next few days, reveling in the relief they brought.

P1120118

Katherine Gorge from the cliff top above.

Katherine isn’t a very big place, with only a few tourist sites within the town. But there are several in the area around it. Nitmiluk National Park is the most significant. It includes Katherine Gorge, a series of thirteen gorges strung along the Katherine River like green pearls. They can be explored by canoe or on foot, but I sensibly chose to visit them on an organised boat trip. I only explored two out of the possibe three, which involved changing boats half way along. At this time of year the water level is too low to pass from one to another. It was fascinating to see how high up the water reaches in the summer months – easily five metres above the winter levels. The gorges are, of course, beautiful, with plenty interesting geology. One of these was a feature known as sub gorges. Land movement causes gaps to open up in the cliffs that line the gorge, creating sub gorges, which sit opposite each other. I hadn’t seen this before.
On the rock face near where we changed boats was some Aboriginal rock art. The Jawoyn people are the traditional owners of this area. They were among the first Aboriginal groups to successfully reclaim ownership of their land. As is common now, they immediately leased it back to the government so that a national park could be created.

P1120091

Between the gorges, where we have to walk past the rocks.

Katherine suffered from Japanese bombing during WW2, the furthest point south to do so. It was a base for troops and a supply line for invasion forces too. This information was on display in the town museum, along with much else. The town itself only started when a bridge was built across the river as the railway headed south from Darwin. The original town of Emungalan, centred around the new telegraph station in the 1870s, had many of its buildings moved there. Pastoral activity supported that town too, as did mining activity. The river had been named by explorer John Stuart, chosen in honour of the daughter of one of his sponsors, as he headed north. Perhaps the most significant incident in the town’s history was the flooding of 1998, when the river rose by twenty one metres and destroyed most of the centre of town. There had been others before, but this was by far the worst. But the town recovered and nearly twenty years later it thrives as a busy regional centre.
One of the strong impressions left by the town was how close it is to the edge of nowhere. There’s several towns on the way north to Darwin of course, but the road sign to the south told me that the nearest place of any significance was Alice Springs, all of 1,200kms away. To the west it’s Kununurra, over 500kms. To the east? Nothing. Just bush. It brought home the size of Australia and just how vast and remote the Top End is.

P1120034

The nest of a Bower Bird.

With the clock ticking, and my injuries feeling much better, I decided it was time to explore Kakadu National Park, lying north and east of Katherine. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, it is the Territory’s largest and the second biggest in Australia. Its wetlands are visited by vast numbers of migratory birds and it is populated by a huge variety of flora and fauna. I wanted to take a closer (but not too close) look at one of these, Estuarine Crocodiles – or Salties, as they’re called. The biker who had told me about Douglas Springs also mentioned Cahill Crossing, where the crocs go to catch fish along with careless tourists. Definitely intriguing enough to be worth my while. I had already seen plenty of natural beauty, which often involved walking, so me and my still painful ankle where going to limit the sightseeing to the Aboriginal rock art the park is famous for.
One difference between this park and most others is that an entry pass has to be bought. You’re trusted to go and buy one once you enter, but there are plenty of rangers around who may ask to see it. Fair enough in itself, but what annoyed me is that I had to pay for seven days when I was only going to be there three. Although it wasn’t very expensive, at $35, it’s still a bit annoying to pay for more than you plan to use. But I suppose the positive side of it is that the money helps support projects aimed at Indigenous Peoples. They own the land and are heavily involved in managing the park. It borders Arnhem Land, which is totally given over to Aboriginal people. It’s a vast area that borders the coast and had I wanted to go there I would have needed a special permit, as would all non Aboriginals. There are a number of such areas around Australia, a positive attempt to enable Indigenous Peoples to regain their culture.

P1120218

Seen at the visitor centre. A sign of the times?

Once I’d set up camp I visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Centre, where I bought my pass then looked around the information displays. The focus was on local culture; about the six or seven different seasons Aboriginals recognise; various hunting and fishing artefacts; some displays telling the stories of how children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to mission schools; how the people had to rely on working on the stations in order to get food, although without pay. The history and effects of the destruction of Indigenous culture is a long and troubling one but the existence and operation of the national parks is at least a beginning in the search for a solution.

P1120210

Figures from a Dreamtime story.

Next day, as I rode to a different campsite, I went to see the Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie. The park has created access by installing a walkway which took me up around the rocks and enabled a great view of the artwork. Fortunately they also have infoboards, essential for interpreting the drawings. It’s common to find new art drawn over old. Some of it relates to the Dreamtime stories. These are the Aboriginal creation stories; how the landscape was formed and how animals came to be. Others relate to activities such as hunting, dancing and other ceremonies. It’s not uncommon for them to be simply diagrams used to help the elders teach boys necessary skills. Some of them are as much as 20,000 years old, although most of them are clearly more recent. They tend to be located up in rocky areas, hidden from easy view. They were the best I’d seen anywhere, much better than those in Katherine Gorge, for example.

P1120202

Dancing figures. Rhythmic story telling.

Some of the drawings showed kangaroos but my next stop was all about crocodiles. Cahill Crossing is where the road into Arnhem Land goes over the East Alligator River. Was that name ironic or just a simple confusion by explorers between snappy jawed reptiles? Whatever, the river at this point is tidal and at high tide sea fish swim upriver and the salties wait upstream of the causeway and snap them up as they swim across. Clever!
I’d checked the tide times at the visitor centre and got there in plenty of time to watch the fun. The river was running downstream, across the causeway and there were plenty of people fishing. The best of them were the young Aboriginal lads who forsook expensive rods and reels and just used spools with line on. No bait is allowed so lures are used, to great effect. I’ve no idea what the fish are but by the time the tide had started to come over the causeway the lads had loaded about twenty into their car. Most of the other fishers released those they’d caught. Just downstream was a 4WD lying on its roof. By the time the tide was full all except a wheel was under water. Apocryphal tales abound about careless tourists who misjudge the strength of the water flow and end up as crocodile lunch. Was this one of their vehicles?

P1120239

Abandoned 4WD at Cahill Crossing. Did the driver become crocodile dinner?

The fishers abandoned their positions as the waters rose and eventually it was possible to see the crocs, over on the other side of the river, swimming around purposefully. It was plain to see they were catching fish although details were hard to see. It does seem as if the causeway slows the fish down, making the crocs’ task that much easier. Man and nature in perfect harmony then. It’s worth noting that fifty years ago crocs had been almost hunted to extinction, mainly for their skins. Making them a protected species has increased their numbers hugely, with 10,000 reckoned to live in Kakadu alone. Apart from a very few locations, swimming is not advised because of the risk. Finally, how do you tell the difference between a Freshie and a Saltie? A Freshie will swim away from you, a Saltie will swim towards you. But they’re not easy to see anyway. A stark warning indeed!

 

Deep and fast flowing at high tide.                                  Crocs await their lunch.

It was a ride of only a few hours from Kakadu to Darwin. Once I’d settled in I made a ‘to do’ list. At the top of it was to go to Alicross Motorcycles for new tyres. I’d called in to see owner Richard when I was in Darwin last time. He’s a friend of Dave’s and, like Dave, often helps travelers passing through, letting them use his workshop and so on. He fitted my new tyres while we chatted about bikes and traveling. I met Jason there too. He was having his racing BMW R100 checked on the dynomometer for power output. He uses it for drag racing, a bit of an unusual bike for that activity. It looked nice though.
Next task was to organise the shipping of Trixie the short distance across to Dili, in East Timor. Getting a bike across water is a vital step in any journey and can be fraught with difficulty. You hear tales of people turning up at a port, talking to crew members and getting their bike onto a local ‘onion boat’. I’m a realist and experience has taught me that the best way is to do it ‘official’ and use an agent. More expensive but always easier. Apart from anything else I planned to leave my bike in Darwin while I went back to the UK for a few weeks so I needed it all to be handled properly. Bolloré are based in Darwin and deal with ANL Shipping, a company that runs freighters to Dili, Singapore and back to Darwin. Just what I needed. I’d already chatted to Luke, at Bolloré, last time I was in the city and he’d assured me they could find a transportation frame for my bike and that they would arrange everything for me. So I called him and made the final arrangements. He couldn’t quote me a full price but was able to give me an approximation, which sounded OK.

P1120165

Coffee time visitor.

The customs office was just up the road from the hostel and I took the bike up there so they could check its details against those on the carnet. Next job was to sort through my panniers and separate all the gear I was planning to bring home with me. I won’t need my camping or cooking equipment in South East Asia as living is very cheap out there. It will just be an unnecessary burden. The rest would stay with the bike. In the morning I rode the bike to Bolloré, sorted everything out with Luke and waved goodbye to Trixie. See you in Dili!
A helpful truckie went out of his way to give me a lift to the bus stop on the main road, where I immediately got a bus back into town. Straight to customs to get my carnet stamped. And once that was all done I could relax.

P1120292

A nice display in the Botanic Gardens.

My idea of relaxing somehow seems to involve a lot of walking. From the hostel down to the botanic gardens – which were very good. Then along the seashore path to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. There was plenty of modern Aboriginal art to enjoy and puzzle over; some excellent natural history; and a film all about the effects of Cyclone Tracy. Apart from Japanese bombs, the cyclone was the most devastating event that Darwin had ever suffered. It pretty much wiped out the city, and on Christmas day to boot. There were 49 casualties, but fewer than the amount of damage caused might suggest. If there is an upside to such a disaster it’s that a rather dowdy city was turned into somewhere much more attractive; and that building regulations throughout Australia were changed to make buildings more cyclone proof. The scale of the disaster provided a wake up call to the whole of Australia and its ability to manage such disasters was stepped up considerably.

 

Modern Aboriginal art at MAGNT.

The piece of artwork above reminds me that the Maroons beat the Cockroaches, by a healthy margin, in the deciding game of the State of Origin competition. Making it, I believe, eleven wins out of twelve. It’s shame I missed the game.

So in general my last few days in Australia were spent enjoying Darwin in a very relaxed fashion, sampling coffee, food and beer. But eventually my last journey on Australian soil was completed on the airport bus before I flew out of one of the most remarkable countries I’d been to on my travels so far.

Topping Off The Tour. Part 1

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.
http://tinyurl.com/jrak5pp.

P1110682

Northern Territory humour? Or a snappy snack?

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.

IMAG0023

Frogs ahoy! And they do’t look as if they’re just passing through either.

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!

P1110681

Cracked weld. Followed by an expensive partial repair

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.

P1110720

Lying low for a while. My first ‘off’ with this bike.

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.

P1110714

Don’t argue with a road train!

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.

P1110793

Please try harder on the next model CCM! More robust components are required.

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.

P1110740

The Lost Southern City shows off its tower blocks.

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.

P1110950

Elanine, Sophie, Thomas, Kevin and Joe.

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.

P1110797

One of Dave’s friends called round with this beautiful Panther.

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.

P1110819

Darwin’s Knowledge Tree. An Aboriginal meeting place.

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.

P1110932

Tailfin of the Boeing B-52 bomber. A truly massive aircraft. Four engines on each wing!

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:

http://tinyurl.com/j3vfo5k

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.

P1110917

The beautiful F-111 bomber.

P1110862

One of the oil tunnels, built beneath the cliffs.

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.

P1110860

Water ingress, the reason why the idea didn’t work.

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.

P1110947

Dave’s patio area. We ate and socialised out there.