Sunday, 30 June 2013

Kakadu National Park

Yellow Water.
The road from Pine Creek to Jabiru showed a few squiggles on the map and Devil (F650GS Twin) and Dwarf (R1200GS) really enjoyed themselves. We bought our national park passes at the Mary River Roadhouse and then we were into the park. As we rode along I tried to identify the creek crossing where in 1985, when the road was still gravel, Steve and I had “walked through” first to test the depth of the water. The road is sealed now, and all the creek crossings have little bridges.

By lunch time, we were both feeling the heat and we decided to treat ourselves to lunch at Cooinda Lodge. This idea lasted until Steve saw the $28 price tag on a hamburger. After that, we parked the bikes at Yellow Water and had a cup of tea and an apple instead. It is wonderful to gaze upon the wetlands at Yellow Water and we were fortunate that the flood waters had receded and the boardwalk had just opened. Near the boat ramp, a 4.5m croc was showing off in the water. He seemed to be having fun parading his full length and strength to the punters on the cruise boats.

We picked Kakadu Lodge, in Jabiru, for our Kakadu experience and by mid afternoon we had checked in for four nights. By now we were so hot that we decided to swim first and put the tent up later. While we were cooling off in the pool, Steve counted the number of times we had put the tent up on this trip and he came up with 42.

Ubirr rock art.
The following morning we joined in our first ranger presentation at Nourlangie. Kakadu National Park employs six rangers during the dry season to provide interpretive presentations at various cultural and geological sites around the park. These presentations are free and provide an interesting way of learning about the park. Most national parks have information boards for you to read. Kakadu has these too, but to join in a ranger presentation takes the learning experience to a whole new level. The rangers bring along artefacts, like a crocodile skull and ancient Aboriginal tools and you have the opportunity to ask questions. I was really taken by the lessons on Aboriginal kinship and law. We enjoyed our day at Nourlangie so much, that during our stay in Kakadu we joined in presentations at Mamukala Wetlands, Ubirr, and a slide presentation on Estuarine Crocodiles. While we were enjoying the rock art in the main gallery at Ubirr, ranger Joel pointed out the intricate detail in the paintings. We couldn’t see this detail with our naked eyes, but through the binoculars the level of detail was amazing. Through the ranger presentations, our visit to Kakadu was transformed into an enlightening experience and has left us wanting to learn more about Aboriginal culture.
The bird observatory at Mamukala Wetlands is a bird watchers paradise. We spent hours watching the little Jacana’s walking on the water lilies. Timing is everything and if you happen to be at Cahills Crossing, the border to Arnhem Land, towards high tide, you can watch the crocodiles feeding on mullet and barramundi as the fish are swept upstream in the swirling water. From the safety of the lookout the crocodiles came so close to us that you could see the colour of their eyes. I am still amazed that they only have a brain the size of a walnut.

When we rode away from Jabiru, I peered into each little billabong and looked in wonder at the beautiful Pandanas trees. This is the first place we have visited that I didn’t want to leave. I feel a strong connection with Kakadu and I know one day I will return.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Daly Waters to Katherine

After a night partying at the Daly Waters pub we were pleased that the ride to the Mataranka Hot Springs was only a short one. With the promise of a homemade pie at the Pink Panther pub in Larrimah, we made haste to the little outback town, only to be told “it’s too early in the season and we haven’t started making pies yet.” The cafe on the highway was also closed, they had gone shopping. The folks up here call it Territory Time and it’s something you have to get used to. Smiling all the while, we joined the other travellers in the town lay-by and brewed our own cuppa.

Mataranka Hot Springs.
By lunch time we were setting up the big tent on a dusty camp site at Mataranka Homestead. When we were last at Mataranka, way back in 1985, the camp sites at this park were grassy. Now the seasons have changed and the continuous flooding has washed all the grass away. The hot spring was just as wonderful as we remembered and we lazed around in the 34°C shady pool for hours. Millions of litres of water flush through this pool every day and to swim in fresh water, without the smell of chlorine, is wonderful.

I should report, on the day we left Mataranka, the town’s roadhouse had sold out of the famous Mataranka pies by 11am and the cafe, which allegedly makes awesome fruit scones, had run out of scones and run out of flour too; Territory Time!

Jane and Arnold.
We made the town of Katherine home for a few days so we could wash and shop after over two thousand kilometres on the road. At the town markets I met Arnold Jalapala from Barlib Aboriginal Arts and Craft. I spent a long time choosing a set of Arnold’s music sticks. When I’d found my set of sticks Arnold played a tune with me on the didgeridoo. Sometimes magic moments just happen and this was one of them.

It takes a while before you realise how hot it is up here in the Top End. On the day we went walking in Nitmiluk National Park, we lazed around our campsite drinking tea and it was 10:30am before we headed off on the 8km Windolf Walk at the gorge. There are warning signs everywhere about heat stress and carrying enough water. I know when I’m beaten and I bailed out of the walk after the 4km Baruwei Loop, by now it was well over 30 degrees and we were walking in full sun. Steve took our last two litres of water and an apple and continued on to Pat’s Lookout. I waited for Steve at the visitors centre for two and a half hours before he turned up sweating and bedraggled and with not a drop of water left. After half an hour Steve still hadn’t cooled down so and he rode the 30km back to Katherine in shorts and a T-shirt.

Katherine Gorge from Pat's Lookout.
There is nothing like a swim and a few beers to wash away the cares of the day. We had learnt that we need to set out early, in the cooler hours of the day, to enjoy walking in the Top End.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Winton to Daly Waters

Luckily there was no overnight dew and we rolled up the big tent dry as we wouldn’t need it on the three day ride from Winton to Daly Waters. As we rode out of town we were surprised by a sign post telling us there was no fuel at Mckinlay (240km). Where fuel is concerned we always play by the rules and we obediently filled up at Kynuna (160km). As we rode through Mckinlay we couldn’t help notice the thriving roadhouse!

The south easterly trade wind was still assisting with our fuel consumption and Devil was purring along the Landsborough Highway consuming only 3.5 litres per hundred. Just south of Cloncurry a forest of ant hills appeared and we saw our first wedge tailed eagle since the Nullarbor Plain. I really enjoy these days out on the road. Life seems incredibly simple when all we have to do is ride, rest, and ride some more.

50m long road train dwarfs the bikes.
I remembered riding the road between Cloncurry and Mt Isa in 2010 and I was delighted to be back for a second turn. The road meanders through rocky hills and valleys and we both enjoyed leaning into one sweeping corner after another; this has got to be one of the best outback rides in the country.

By 4pm, the little tent was up in a caravan park in Mt Isa and we were kicking back in our big camp chairs, drinking beer and musing over the days ride.

Little tent at Daly Waters, where we met some other bikers.
When we are using the little tent everything, clothes bags and food boxes, stays in the bike panniers and the trailer. This keeps us tidy and minimises the work load when we are packing up and preparing for the next day’s ride.

Steve set the alarm for first light and by 8am we were queuing for fuel in the middle of town. We usually like to fill up with fuel the night before and while we waited we remembered why. Then we were on the road again. With the sun behind us we rode along as happy as can be. At lunch time we rested on the veranda at the old pub in Camooweal, while our hostess served homemade apple and rhubarb pies with delicious coffee. The Northern Territory border is only a few kilometres from Camooweal and we stopped at the border crossing, horrified at the graffiti on the welcome sign. While Steve took photographs I stood in quiet contemplation, excited about the road ahead, and at the same time, wondering when we would visit Queensland again.

Barkly Roadhouse was a welcome site when we pulled in for fuel and a camp site at the end of the day. We had the pick of the grassy sites and then made haste towards the unisex, ensuite style bathrooms. Communal ensuites simply don’t work when the campsite is busy because no one can use the toilet and shower at the same time and queues usually eventuate. Despite the ablutions, Barkly Roadhouse is a great place to rest up for the night and the tucker in the roadhouse looked excellent. I like the little sign at the front of the roadhouse which makes no apologies for the extortionate price of fuel, explaining that the roadhouse used 500 litres of diesel everyday to run the generators; point taken.

The next morning we were back on the road as soon as we felt the kangaroos were tucked up in bed. It is about 560km from Barkley to Daly Waters and we had to get on with the ride so we could be off the road by 4pm; kangaroos start becoming active around this time. The tail wind was still with us and the riding was sweet and easy. Three Ways, where the Barkly Highway meets the Stuart Highway, is a real staging post and it is only here that we felt we had arrived in the Northern Territory.

As we rode north, the south easterly wind which had been kind to us for so long, caused turbulence when we crossed paths with the south bound road trains. You don’t appreciate how many road trains are on the road until you have to make allowances for them every time you meet. As we trundled northwards the temperature started to rise, half a degree at a time, and by 2pm it was 30 degrees.

We stopped for afternoon tea in a free camping rest area. These rest areas are full of travellers and if you don’t claim your spot by early afternoon you will find there is no room at the inn. I attempted to use the pit toilet but was turned away by the swarm of flies when I lifted the seat. It amazes us how many people are prepared to spend the afternoon sitting in a lay-by when, for example, Daly Waters pub only charges $7 per person per night for an unpowered tent site which includes a hot shower and a flushing toilet.

We fuelled up on the highway before making our way to the Daly Waters pub. Our road map showed the road out to the pub was gravel. When I was paying for the fuel, just for something to say, I asked the attendant if the road was gravel and she assured me it was. No one was more surprised than me when it was bitumen all the way. I guess they spin this yarn to try and get punters to camp at the highway roadhouse instead.

Chilli and Jane at Daly waters pub.
The Daly Waters pub lived up to all the hype and that night we dined on outback steak and wild caught barramundi. We drank cheap wine in the beer garden and thoroughly enjoyed Chilli’s outback show. Chilli is the resident bush poet and balladeer and he made us laugh and cry. So here we are, chilling out in the Northern Territory and it feels good.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Emerald to Winton

The road runs west between Emerald and Longreach and we felt pleased to be heading in this direction if only to gain a little more daylight at the end of the day. We stopped for morning tea at the little town of Alpha. We chatted to an old lady who was manning the “free coffee for driver” station. Alpha is coal country and this old lady made a point of telling us that the townsfolk had nothing but praise for Gina Rinehart who made charitable donations where ever she could. As we walked away I overheard he say “I wonder how much she’s donated for the races?”

I always enjoy musing over the names of places and creek crossings that we pass along the way. Billaboo Creek worked its way into my mind and by the time we arrived at Barcaldine I’d written the first verse to an outback poem.

We sat on the pavement at Barcaldine while the girls at Ridgee Didge Cafe cooked us a good Aussie burger with fries. The cafe was on an intersection of a busy cattle road train run. We enjoyed watching the trucks pull up at the stop sign and then negotiate the right hand turn. The trucks kicked up the dust as they accelerated down the road and when our burgers arrived we had to protect them from being seasoned with something that wasn't pepper.

The Tree of Knowledge monument.
We couldn't leave Barcaldine without visiting The Tree of Knowledge. I spent a quiet moment contemplating where the founders of the Australian Labour Party held their first meeting, to negotiate better working conditions for the shearers, all those years ago.

By the time we arrived in Longreach, the landscape and the wonderful outback riding had made such an impression on me that the only way I could try to describe what I had found here was to finish the poem I started on the road to Barcaldine.

The black soil plans from a jump-up.

There is a place called Poverty Plains and I know what they found there.
If you take a peek at Billaboo Creek you might find a dingo’s lair.
Cattle trains, running on lunatic soup, pass with a yaw and a sway,
The wild pigs and roos who didn’t hear them coming, took their last breath that day.

We called at a pub in Longreach, and there was an old bloke propped up at the bar.
I said “Are you a local around here?” He said “I’m no local by far.
There ain’t many locals in this town and there’s none in ‘ere to be found.
You only thought of as local if you got someone in the ground.”

We rolled out the swags on a jump-up and looked out over the Black Soil Plains.
They call this land Channel Country, she keeps pushing up fossilised remains.
This year the drought has taken hold, even ghost gums are struggling to breathe.
If it doesn’t rain in the next three weeks, all the sheep and cattle must leave.

The next morning we’re drinking billy tea and warming ourselves in the desert sun.
“Where to next, south or west?” “Let’s try out luck at Opalton.”
In the distance, cattle are kicking up the dust, taking part in a bangtail muster.
There’s a stockman, cracking his whip in the air, getting the beasts to do what they ought a.

The folks out west seem to smile a lot as they go about their day.
Bush poets and balladeers, they all pass this way.
As we roll up the swags and head on down another dusty track,
I know part of me will always ride free, in the outback.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Roma to Emerald

 As we tried to pull out of the caravan park in Roma, three road trains and three utes sneaked in front of us. The exhilaration of a morning ride was replaced by frustration as the road trains lumbered up the hills and the work utes, manned by drivers paid by the hour, seemed reluctant to overtake but insisted on driving close to the trucks and only a couple of car lengths from each other. Overtaking seemed like a hazardous procedure so we stayed in the queue, down to 40kph at times. Eventually, one by one, the road trains took their leave but we didn’t have the road to ourselves until we reached Injune nearly one hundred kilometres away.

We topped up with fuel and sipped a cup a soup while we enjoyed the warmth inside the visitors information centre at Injune; it was only 12 degrees outside.

From Injune we continued northwards. We had settled down by now and had fun with a few twists and turns along the way. Now and then we passed cattle grazing on the side of the road. We slowed down for each one but these old timers just looked at us as if to say “what are you slowing down for, we ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
We easily found the turning to the Carnarvon Gorge National Park. The first 25km is a narrow, sealed road. Then there’s an undulating stretch of gravel for a further 12km. We both got our boots wet on a creek crossing by making a slight misjudgement on the depth of the water. There were many young steers lining the unfenced road. These feisty beasts galloped away when we rode by and it gave us an uneasy feeling wondering which way they were going to turn. When the road turned to gravel we trundled along at an easy pace to the Takarakka Bush Resort campground.
Carnarvon Creek at the campground.
As soon as we arrived we could feel the peaceful atmosphere soaking into our bones. It was like everyone who stays there is under the spell of the Carnarvons (as the locals call them). No one rushed around, everyone spoke in a quiet tone; it is something I will never forget.

One of the many creek crossings.
We stayed at Carnarvon Gorge for three nights. On the first day we walked 14km along an easy track and enjoyed the moss garden, the natural amphitheatre, and Aboriginal cave paintings. When I was alone in the amphitheatre I couldn’t help myself and I sang. I was surprised that some of the low notes resinated more than the high notes.

When we rode away from Takaraka, and the gravel track turned to bitumen once more, I noticed that I didn’t want to “kiss the pavement;” off-road motorcycle instructor, Simon Pavey, would be proud of me. The cattle were still grazing close to the road, some of them locking horns over a tuft of grass. We were both pleased when the cattle properties were fenced again and we could adopt a more relaxed riding style.

Main crossroads at Rubyvale.
We made Emerald (named after the green pastures and not the precious stone) home for a few days and we wasted no time before visiting the eccentric gem field towns of Sapphire and Rubyvale. Sapphire is the only miner’s common left in Queensland. Under common law, each miner is entitled to own two head of cattle. These cattle are allowed to graze, untethered, in the confines of the common’s land. On the day we visited, a small herd were making themselves at home in the main street of town. If you accidently run over one of these beasts you are required to pay full market value as compensation. I dragged Steve into every jewellery shop I could find to gaze upon the beautiful sapphires. Lucky for Steve I found the selection of sizes, cuts, and colours completely overwhelming and I left town with only a souvenir to remind me where I’d been.

In Emerald we borrowed a hose and tarted up the bikes ready for the next part of the journey. When I settled down onto my sleeping mat that night I felt happy in the knowledge that we’d be riding the outback again in the morning.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Brisbane to Roma

As we rode away from Brisbane, we both knew we were taking the first steps towards home. Steve picked an easy route along the city’s suburban streets and we were soon riding in the countryside and passing through the little township of Samford. The bikes enjoyed a burn up the hill to Mt Glorious. We stopped at the rest area close to the summit but we didn’t make tea or bother to put on our wet weather trousers. Instead we decided to scurry down the mountain side as a light mist was filling the air and we both sensed that rain wasn’t far away. Too late. As soon as we rode out of the rest area the rain came and the descent became a wet and miserable experience. The tight hairpin bends seemed steep and menacing but there was nowhere to stop. We rode on past Lake Wivenhoe and the heated grips stayed on until the bikes were parked outside the bakery in Esk. Bacon and egg burgers and a large plate of chips provided welcome relief after two and a half hours in the saddle.

From Crows Nest we took the back roads through Haden and Peranga. Outside the pub in Quinalow we relied on a roadside mud map to tell us which road to take next. The bitumen soon turned to an unexpected stretch of gravel. The gravel road was short and sweet but it managed to make a terrible mess of the bikes.

We stayed the night in Dalby and then we trundled along the low road, through Kogan and Condamine, all the way to Roma. The hills of the Great Dividing Range had given way to open plains and cotton fields. When a bend appeared in the road we leant into it as we never knew when we would find another. We had to share this minor road with a few road trains. Sometimes the empty cattle trucks filled our nostrils with cow poo but we didn’t mind because riding in the outback is pure magic. When the road became only a single lane, we kept a keen eye on the state of the road verge; we only had to pull off the road twice but that was enough.

This is the busy season and there was no room at the first caravan park we tried to book into. We took this as a warning shot and from now on we will be phoning ahead.

I will always remember Roma as the home of the Bottle Tree. These beautiful trees line the streets in the CBD and the local nursery sells young ones for those who would like one of their own.

We are now relaxing at our campsite, drinking beer, and watching a flock of at least 100 kites circling overhead; life is good.