After arriving in Katherine we decided to find a campsite before going into the National Park. We stayed at a site with en-suite which was a little strange to say the least – you park up and set up your deck chairs but have the convenience of a personal little shower and toilet next to your pitch. We purchased an internet card but the connection was terrible so instead we got really drunk on VB, as you do! Next morning we used up our internet time nearer to the reception where the connection was better and by the time we had got to Nitmiluk National Park and the Katherine Gorge it was too late to rent a canoe which was the main reason for stopping at Katherine! So as we were both really hot we decided to stay at the campground in the park as there was a pool. When trying to book in there was no one at the reception and a little sign saying they would come round and collect the fee at 7am so we just went for it and had a dip.
Whilst we were staying there, there were many friendly kangaroos hanging about but one in particular stayed for ages and had a little baby in her pouch! The little roo kept poking its head out and nibbling on the grass, it was quite amazing. The mother roo came right up close to us and we fed her little bits of bread, she was very tame and stayed for about an hour grazing the grass around our chairs.
8am came and we woke up but no one had collected the monies. We decided to wash all our dishes and have a quick swim before heading to get a canoe but got busted by campground staff when in the pool. We promised to settle the balance when paying for the canoes but when we got there decided it was not really in our best interests. So a nice free powered campground for the night!
We rented the canoe and cruised off up the first gorge in the sunshine. It was very serene and picturesque once we got on the water and got going. When coming to the end of the first gorge we dragged the canoe up onto the sand next to some others whose owners had clearly walked up to the aboriginal rock art at the top of the rocks. We had a scout around to see which was the best way across, Richard insisted that the shortest distance was over the rocks to the left (where the boats are supposed to go) whereas Joy advocated dragging it up the ramp to the right. Nonetheless we went for Richard’s rocks idea. We had been told the portage time to the second gorge was 5 minutes and to this day are both sure that ‘portage’ means time spent ferrying your canoe to the other side. However, when we eventually got to the other side of the rocks about twenty minutes later (Joy’s arms having nearly snapped off due to the weight of the canoe and her ankles nearly shattered from being dragged to the other side over the rocks) and paddling along for a couple of minutes, we realised there were more rocks ahead of us and this area to the left was just a stagnant pool, closed off by rocks either side. I think both of our tempers were reasonably frayed at this moment in time after the agony of ‘portaging’ but to add insult to injury, on getting out and scoping out the area we walked down towards the right hand side of the second gorge and saw a dozen green canoes parked up on the sand. It was only now that it slowly dawned on us that maybe we were not supposed to drag our canoe over hundreds of unsteady, slippy rocks but simply dock our canoe, walk for five minutes and pick up another at the water on the other side. Sure enough, on dragging our canoe back over the rocks, two couples of fellow canoers skipped down the ramp on the right and jumped into their canoes to head back up the first gorge. Irksome.
Though we are both clearly idiots, you would have REALLY thought SOMEONE might have mentioned this quite vital piece of information to us at some point before we set off in the canoe. Just a snippet of information about the second set of canoes would have done! A clue! After our initial frustration, we managed to laugh about it and paddled along the second gorge trying to spot freshwater crocs as most of the beaches at the gorge were closed off due to it being ‘nesting’ season. Nice. We didn’t spot any but Richard did see a turtle swimming along underwater after noticing some bubbles to the right of the boat. (Joy didn’t look into the water when she saw bubbles for fear of what she might see – the Estuarine Croc traps set up along the way put her off.) We eventually managed to find a nice sandy beach where we stopped for a break and a paddle at the water’s edge before heading back.
When we returned from the canoeing we were both very tired and sun burnt and had to drive to Mataranka where there are thermal pools at about 34 degrees. We stayed near one called Bitter Springs which is named for the taste of the water due to the limestone content. As it was going dark we decided to chill until the next morning to go to the springs and yep, you guessed it, had a few more VBs and a few more rounds of Shithead!
We were all packed up and at the springs by 8am the next day which is a record for us so far. The Bitter Springs were in amongst a pretty horrible looking swampy area and had a significant amount of stagnant foam round the edges probably due to the lack of current from the lack of rain. It had an otherworldly feel to it but the water wasn’t too bad, a very clear blue colour and not as warm as we had expected. It was a short dip here in the eerieness before we moved onto the Mataranka thermal pool which is a bit more touristy and generally more developed. The pool was used by soldiers during World War II for some R & R and who were responsible for digging a bigger channel for the water to flow through. The owners of the Mataranka Homestead Resort eventually opened it up for tourists and it is now surrounded by concrete and seating but as it is out of season we got the place moreorless to ourselves. The water was completely clear and a kind of sapphire blue with sand at the bottom as opposed to the jaggedy rocks of Bitter Springs. After a very relaxing half an hour we needed to get our groove on as we had a long drive south, over 600kms to get to Tennant Creek, our half way point to Alice Springs.
On the drive down we had planned to stop at Daly Waters as it has a famous and historic pub. Unmissable! We arrived here about 12pm to get some lunch. The pub has been open since 1930 and is basically filled with various objects, new and old which passersby have left behind. The base of the bar is adorned with photos and various ID cards people have left behind. There is a selection of bras, a very large selection, various items of clothing and hundreds of notes in various currency all stuck to the walls. We sat outside where there is a huge selection of thongs (flip flops to us Poms) stuck to the pergola. We both had a Barra burger (Barramundi) which we had wanted to try for a while and it was very tasty indeed. Again we had to leave sharpish to continue our drive south.
After driving for a whole hour without a single curve in the road the next stop was Elliott for a fuel refill and an ice cream and naturally, we had to get a picture of Joy in front of the Elliott sign. On approaching Elliott though, there was a Police roadblock and we were stopped. One policeman scoped out the camper, looking all in the windows and generally snooping, while the other breathalysed Richard and checked his documents. We had a clean break and took the photo on the way out of Elliott a little bit shaken!
The next section of the drive was marked by what is generally accepted as the change from the wet north to the dry south. A town called Renner Springs is apparently where this happens. We were surprised to see the difference in change between 10kms of road. Whereas the scenery in the north has been trees and termite mounds all the way, it now gave way to shorter stumpy trees and eventually savannah. The termite mounds then began to outnumber the trees and there were many more hills and craggy outcrops. The road began curving and climbing with unobstructed views over miles of countryside. In the distance it looked like you could see the sea but we guess this was just a mirage due to the baking sun as this was probably the furthest either of us had ever been from the sea.
We arrived at our destination of Three Ways Roadhouse looking forward to a swim but unfortunately as we are now in the dry south, their dam had run dry and they were having to get water driven in at great cost. Thus the pool was just sitting a little bit stagnant, full of swimming/dying/dead insects. Fairly disapppointing at the end of a long drive – so we had to settle for a beer or two instead.
On our drive in the morning to Alice Springs we stopped at the Devil’s Marbles! These are strange boulders dotted around the land which have formed as a result of magma squeezing through the sandstone millions of years ago, then forming into giant balls of granite rock. After a few aeons, the sandstone has worn away leaving – you guessed it – the Devil’s Marbles. They were fairly impressive because they are just so huge, most of them bigger than our camper and a lot of them are stacked on top of each other in precarious positions. It’s strange to think they have formed as a result of some kind of lava lamp effect which has taken place over millions of years. Madness. Queue touristy photo opportunities!
Ahhh Alice Springs, in what can only be described as an interesting night, we decided to sample some more Aussie beers at ‘Bojangles’ – a saloon style bar with various animal skulls on the walls and a coffin that dispenses monkey nuts. The place was full of young Aussies, travellers, tourists and Cowboys alike and as the night went on the atmosphere just got better and better. It is the first time either of us have seen a man walk into a pub with a snake round his shoulders with barely anyone batting an eyelid. Tables were scarce so we decided to sit with a cowboy as opposed to standing all night (which was becoming harder and harder) and it turned out his name was Craig. He wasn’t really a cowboy, he was infact a miner (‘a single fella’s life, mate’). We proceeded to generally quiz him about his life, Richard going so far as to ask the question ‘So you blow shit up then, yeah?’. He humoured us and we had a rollicking good time chatting and boozing until Joy took a turn for the worse.. Queue taxi ride home and a stonking hangover in the morning.
We did eventually manage to rouse ourselves from slumber and after some extremely hungover shopping (cheesey rolls – here they have cheese on the top and the bottom(!), crisps, sweets, nuts, powerade, novelty postcards to send home etc..) we set off for Curtin Springs - the last cheap campsite before the extortionate prices of Yulara (home of Ayer’s Rock Resort and Uluru). On our way there we witnessed a mini twister roughly 100m away from the road. Joy was pretty scared that we’d get swept up in it like Wizard of Oz (which would have been a bit cool in retrospect) but Richard was intent on getting some photos of it, so he parked the van up on the side of the road!
Curtin Springs – what can one say? Curtin Springs is a cattle station which holds just over a million acres, although we saw no cattle we definitely heard some, we were not sure what was happening to them but it sounded painful. As we had been living an extravagant lifestyle for a few days we decided as penance we should get an unpowered site, which are free at Curtin Springs, which is nice. Luckily in the evenings it is starting to actually get cool so it was a wise decision and good to save a few pennies as everything has been more expensive than we have budgeted for. On arriving, we decided to have a little snooze in the camper but after a few minutes there was a strange, slow tapping on the window. Initially panicking that it was an angry hick, we slowly peeled back the curtain and Joy was heard to exclaim – ‘It’s a dog... no, wait... it’s a (expletive) emu!’ And lo and behold it was an emu pecking at our windows. They are fairly ugly creatures close up with silvery, salt and pepper feathers which look like matted, greasy fur and big inquisitive, almost angry eyes. When they blink there seems to be a milky residue that sticks to the eyeball for half a second before it becomes normal again. Joy probably only noticed this because she was eyeball to eyeball to it though. Eventually it wandered off to annoy some German campers and we mused on how we were happy to feed the cute little yellow birds at the campsite with scraps of bread but not the great, hulking emu, so we have now decided it’s so ugly it’s almost cute, because we feel sorry for emu-kind.
Either way, Curtin Springs was an experience, free camping but probably because the dunnies are made of loosely cobbled together corrugated tin with plenty of room at the bottom of the ‘walls’ for snakes to slither in and haven’t been cleaned since the 1970s. But it was free nonetheless, and a fairly cool evening so we didn’t even need to put our fan on and we felt fairly smug at this fact. We didn’t wake up particularly early, but Uluru was only a short drive away so we hit the road at a leisurely pace (especially as we’d just been stung for petrol at $1.78 a litre!) and cruised down the Lasseter Highway ready for the big rock.