Monday, 21 July 2014

The Outback - Mataranka to Richmond

Although we had decided to drive the Savannah way, there were still options open to us. Either we could drive the paved road as far as Daly Waters and visit the famous pub, or we could make life difficult for ourselves and go via Roper Bar, voluntarily doing an extra 400 kilometres of dirt. We were still undecided when we a­rrived at the turn off, even sitting for five minutes at the junction and having a last minute pow-wow. I could tell how much Oli wanted to ride the tougher road, and even though I was nervous we both thought that it would probably turn out to be the more rewarding option. Decision reached, we took a deep breath and went for it.

After 170 kilometres of single lane asphalt, we were barrelling down a good dirt road. There were corrugations, but nothing too major. So far we were feeling great about the decision. There was a certain charm in being in the middle of nowhere. We had even seen somebody herding cows by helicopter, a quintessential outback sight if ever there was one. We cruised past rocky hillsides, bush, and thousands of termite mounds, the red earth vibrant against a bright blue sky.

We made sure to stop at Roper Bar to fuel up, as it would be the last petrol station for 370 kilometres. It was here that the Savannah way officially started. As we turned off, the road became instantly tougher and more rugged. Rather than the lovely graded dirt road we had been bombing it down, this was harder going. The corrugations were a respectable size, but happily for us the bike handles these much better than a car, and as long as you are going fast enough you barely feel them.


Whilst it is by no means an easy road, Oli was enjoying himself, and not finding it too difficult. I was still finding it a bit nerve racking even though we have undoubtedly done worse. I was just about starting to relax into it after approximately 80 kilometres, when we came across a jeep driving in the opposite direction. Oli pulled over slightly to give them some room and also to avoid the dust. This turned out to be a big (although unforeseeable) mistake. Whilst indistinguishable to the eye from the rest of the road, this section was actually bull-dust. We hit the fine, deep powder at about 50 miles per hour. Oli held it for a while, then lost the front, after which there was no hope.

We came flying off, both taking most of the impact on our faces and eating a lot of dirt. We've had little tumbles before, but they have always been comical, leaving us completely unhurt. This was different though, and instead of springing up like usual, it felt like it took me a while to get off the floor and sit up. Thankfully we were both mostly okay, very sore but with no broken bones. The bike unfortunately was feeling the pain a little more, and was refusing to start. We got it to the side of the road and started trying to locate the issue. In our shocked state this was not too easy, with me definitely helping the situation by going through a repetitive cycle of alternatively getting it together, then losing it and crying. On the plus side though, three of our six eggs had survived the crash, which is something I suppose.

Just as we were getting to the point where we were considering having to camp in the bush,, another 4x4 approached. Fortuitously the driver was a park ranger, accompanied by her Dad. We flagged them down, and they were fantastic. They helped us both get our heads together, and we managed to get the bike going again. I was quick to accept their offer of driving back with us to the nearest camp ground (40km back the way we had come), as it meant that I could ride in the car. We picked up some of our broken luggage and slung it in the back of the truck, then waved Oli ahead with instructions to be careful.


Unfortunately my warning went straight out the window. Oli was having a fabulous time without me on the back. It's always nice to be reminded that one's bulk ruins the off-road experience, which Oli is always ready to confirm to me. When we rounded a corner and saw the bike once again on the floor, I immediately thought it had broken down again. Then we noticed Oli looking dazed and sheepish. To put it simply he had been going too fast considering that he was tired and shocked from the crash, and had come off again after hitting some loose gravel. This time the damage to the bike was more considerable, with my footpeg, a wing mirror, and the brake lever all having torn off. Oli had taken quite a whack on the head, and had also managed to scrape his back where his jacket had ridden up slightly. We picked up the bike, gathered up the things that had broken off, then once again sent Oli on his way, this time a lot slower.

After what seemed like an age, we found ourselves rolling up at the Munbililla (Tomato Island) camp ground. We both took heavenly hot showers, cooked some food and set up the tent. By the time we went to bed we were already both in a lot of pain, a taster of what was to come the next morning. Manoeuvring around our tiny tent with my immobilised neck and Oli's sore left arm was frustrating yet strangely comical.

The next morning, Oli decided to accompany the camp site owner, Lewie, to Roper Bar. We were hoping that we could buy a few bits to help with repairing the bike. Unfortunately the shop had nothing useful for us, and the 100km return journey must have given Oli's brain a good shake as he was starting to feel woozy. Still, we did the best we could with the bike, and managed to bend the front end back into something resembling it's original shape, so thought we would probably be good to go the next day.


After packing up the tent and all our gear the following morning, we realised that Oli was still not quite right. He was getting dizzy every time he turned his head too fast, and had almost no energy. We decided that trying to drive was just not worth the risk, and that we should rest until Oli felt better. We were sure he would recover, but it was pretty scary, as the nearest town with a hospital was over two hundred miles away.

We ended up spending a total of four nights at Munbililla. The owners, Lewie and Jo, were absolute gems, taking pity on us and feeding us on several occasions. They made sure we were okay and helped us out as much as possible. Although we weren't in the best state to enjoy ourselves, we just loved the place. We had beautiful bush views to one side and the Roper river on the other. Every night we watched the moon rise above the savannah, which was heart-stoppingly beautiful. We kept a good distance from the river bank though, as it was a haven for saltwater crocs. 


Finally the day came where we felt strong enough to leave. Oli was no longer woozy, and my neck had recovered enough to allow me to look down slightly. Oli was all for continuing along the Savannah, but we easily reached a joint decision to wimp out and go the paved way. Two up, loaded and with no travel buddy I just wasn't up for it any more. Whilst I loved the countryside and the splendid isolation of the back-road, my confidence had just taken too much of a knock.

I was pretty nervous for the drive back to Roper Bar, but Oli was fabulous. We took it much slower than when we had come, partially due to my fears and also because we didn't want to rattle ourselves too much whilst we were still physically recovering. At one point, we came to a sharp corner where the road surface had deteriorated into very deep sand. We both remembered ploughing through this a few days before, but looking at it again we were both amazed that we hadn't crashed then!

For this second, more cautious journey, I chose to walk that section. Oli rode on through whilst I looked out for buffaloes. In my paranoia I mistook a termite mound and some sticks for one of the creatures, and broke into a nervous jog before realising my idiocy. The fear was for good reason though, as these animals are enormous and can be highly aggressive. Just two days before, some other campers had told us a story that had given me food for thought. As they were driving along towards the campsite, a lady came bleeding and staggering out of the bush. We're not clear whether the buffalo had hurt her, or if she was injured whilst trying to get away, but essentially it had gone for her whilst she had been out jogging. Seeing all the rather fresh looking piles of dung was a strong incentive to catch up with Oli quickly and to not hang around!


Once we got to the Stuart highway we were back where we had started four days previously. We popped back to Mataranka to re-stock our food supply, then hit the road again. Oli did jokingly slow down again when we got to the Roper turn off, asking me if I was quite sure I didn't want to go on the Savannah road. Suffice to say I did not, so we laughingly continued on our way.

Our destination for the evening was the famous Daly Waters pub. The writer Bill Bryson (somewhat of a hero of mine) had visited the place for his Australia book, and it sounded like a riot. Sadly a lot seems to have changed, and although the pub itself was still a great setting, it was definitely now a commercial enterprise.

Oli was disappointed to find that he couldn't have the beef and barra BBQ as he hadn't booked ahead, so we instead went for burgers. The girl behind the bar confirmed that we could have salad by way of accompaniment,  which seemed like a good deal to us as the salad bar looked awesome. However, when Oli went to get his, he was robustly told off and informed that we couldn't have the salad, as the burger didn't count as a main meal. I went up to explain the mistake, and basically was told by the waitress running it that it wasn't her problem, that she had to do too much prep and there were too many people eating salad.

Seeing as I had already helped myself to a generous portion, we decided to just leave it. Well, I decided to leave it. Oli was annoyed, and kept making jokes about the salad police. I told him to shut up as the only thing sadder than the salad police was banging on about it all night, sadly to no avail. Other than that though we actually did have a lovely evening, and the burgers were excellent.


We were up and on our way relatively early the next morning. The pub redeemed itself slightly when I went to the bar to ask if we could buy a few slices of bread, and was given it for free. As a mark of appreciation, Oli even kept references to the salad police to a minimum, forgetting about it all together. Eventually.


That evening we made it as far as Three Ways, basically just a roadhouse on the Stuart Highway. We actually love the camp grounds in Australia so far, as I don't think there has been a night where we haven't got chatting to somebody lovely. This evening we got talking to two couples travelling together. They were happy to supply me with wine (Oli was still not allowed to drink in case he was concussed) in exchange for stories and explanations of just how little we can carry on the bike. They were great company, and we ended up going to bed pretty late.

We were making slow but steady progress towards the East coast. Unfortunately, we were slightly hindered by a re-occurrence of the pesky solder problem (see Indonesia posts), with the ignition wire once again popping out. We had suspected that this might happen, and had dutifully bought a butane soldering iron in eager anticipation. Oli was actually quite pleased to put it to the test, although was slightly less amused when it broke again fifty miles later.


Thankfully the second fix held, and we were able to make it to the Barkly Homestead for a lunch break. When I went to pay for our fuel, I couldn't help noticing some mighty fine looking cakes and pies behind the counter. After lunch I gave Oli the go-ahead to pick one. He came back looking sheepish, having been unable to decide and buying two. Despite the extra expense I wasn't complaining, and we got back on our way feeling bloated but happy.

From this point onwards the scenery became decidedly uninspiring, with hardly a dead kangaroo to break the monotony. Strong cross-winds battered us constantly, making it hard going. The winds also made it more exciting whenever a road-train passed us in the opposite lane. These are enormous and fast, and can be over fifty metres long. The resulting turbulence buffetted us about like fairies in a storm, but happily we arrived in Cammooweal in one piece. That evening ended up being a good one. Also staying at the camp site was Heather, touring Australia with her Harley (named Fat Bob). She was a chatty lady with lots of interesting stories, so it was great to meet her.

The next morning it was a short ride (in Australian terms) to Mount Isa. This was the first major Queensland town, and we needed to visit the department of transport to make sure we were all legal and insured whilst in the state. The lady behind the desk was lovely but definitely not expecting to have to deal with such a query. We all happily muddled through the process together, eventually getting it sorted. By this stage Oli and I were too tired to drive on to Conclurry, so stopped for the night on the edge of town.

We ended up taking a rest day in Mount Isa.. We hadn't had a rest day since setting off post crash, and we were both feeling it. We did start the day with plans to go to the underground hospital, which was used during the Second World War. However, when we arrived we realised it was fairly expensive. On top of this, the lady working there was so abominably rude that we decided just to leave it. We didn't mind though, as instead we just sat in the camp kitchen drinking endless cups of tea. Definitely not the worst way to spend a day.

We awoke the next day feeling so much better for having had a rest. It was a fairly uneventful drive, just more empty plains and strong winds. We did however have a little excitement when we found our path blocked by a young bull. Unhelpfully he was standing right in the middle of the road. We expected him to move out of the way as we approached, but were surprised to find that he was actually squaring up to the bike and not backing down. Not to be stopped, we just drove around him using a conveniently placed layby. Hopefully he won't be stupid enough to try this with a road train. What a jerk.

We made it as far as Richmond that day. We stopped there on a whim, which turned out to be a good shout. The campsite looked over a man-made lake, backed by the bush. The evening light showed everything at its best, and we enjoyed a relaxing stroll before dinner. Unfortunately for us though, as the sun dropped so did the temperature. Whilst we have been in the outback the evenings have been rather chilly, and this one felt like the coldest yet. We ate a huge dinner to fuel ourselves, then wrapped up in as many clothes as possible. We were hoping to make it to the coast the following morning, so a good night's sleep was essential.


Progress has definitely been slower than we expected so far. To be fair this is mainly due to our crash, but also because we just love the outback. All the empty nothingness might sound desolate, but we actually find it endlessly appealing. The quiet, the space and the loneliness all make it enticing. We can both genuinely understand why people move out here to the middle of nowhere. There really is nothing like it, and it is totally underrated or even ignored by many people who visit Australia. Even with the crash, I am still so glad we went out on the Savannah way, as it has given us a real appreciation of this part of the world. We will definitely be back for more one day.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Wild Swimming in Croc Country - Darwin to Mataranka

After spending a couple of days getting a few bike jobs sorted, we decided to spend our last day in Darwin at Berry Springs. Just forty odd kilometres out of the city, Dave had recommended the place as well worth a visit. The recommendation turned out to be a sound one. Split in to three main pools, the springs were set against a lush forest back-drop. Oli and I wasted no time getting in to the water, merrily splashing and larking about, all the while joking about crocodiles.

There was good basis for the croc jokes. Although every effort is made to make sure that the springs remain free of toothy saltwater crocodiles, a sign warned us that there was still a risk that they might enter the area undetected. Considering that these animals can grow up to six metres long and can easily take down cows, these warnings are well worth taking heed of. Happily for us though, we saw neither saltwater crocs nor their less dangerous freshwater cousins, and had a very relaxing and enjoyable afternoon indeed.

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Back at Dave's, we cooked a huge dinner by way of a farewell. Whilst we were excited to get back on the road, we had become incredibly settled in Darwin. Oli had also become dangerously addicted to Nutrigrain (breakfast cereal), and was already panicking about having withdrawal symptoms. We had a wonderful last night's sleep, our last in a proper bed for the foreseeable future, then got the final packing sorted in the morning. Saying goodbye to Dave and Thierry was hard, but I am very sure we will see each other again in the not too distant future.

Although we were sad to leave, I was ridiculously excited to be on our way. The reason for this was that we were headed straight for the Adelaide river. The purpose of this visit was to partake in the famous Jumping Crocodile cruise. This is exactly what it sounds like. Oli was understandably slightly apprehensive about going out on a tiny boat in search of six-metre aggressive reptiles, but I felt a bit like an excited child. These animals are so perfectly evolved that they have barely changed for 12,000,000 years, which is pretty amazing whichever way you look at it.

Once on board we were told to listen up for a safety briefing. We settled in, expecting that now we were in Australia there would be a long list of rules. Happily, the briefing consisted merely of a warning not to lean over the side or stick out any arms / fingers / appendages, which seemed pretty sensible really.


Over the course of the next hour we were lucky enough to see plenty of crocs. The undoubted stars of the tour were the two huge males, both lurking within their respective territories. The small boat let us get within touching distance (not that we tried this mind), and we were both struck with the sheer enormity of these creatures. As in awe as we were of them, it didn't take much imagination to envisage just how little chance a person would have if confronted by one. You would think that a six metre reptile would be easy to spot, but worryingly / amazingly they seemed to disappear under the murky water without the slightest difficulty. One second they were a considerable distance away, and the next they were popping up right alongside the boat. Incredible, but worth bearing in mind when standing by any water-way in this part of the world.


From the Adelaide river it was a few hours drive out to Litchfield National park, where we were planning to spend the next couple of nights. As we cruised along the park road we noticed a sign promising “magnetic termites”, which clearly seemed worth a minor diversion. According to the information boards, these tiny insects are sensitive to the Earth's magnetic field, using this to direct them as to the best way to build their mounds. Cleverly, they build with the smallest possible surface area exposed to the sun, ensuring that their fortresses remain cool despite the blazing heat.


Sure, they weren't as impressively huge as the cathedral termite mounds (which can be up to five metres), but they were interesting nonetheless. We rather like the termite mounds as a landscape feature, a sentiment obviously not shared by early politician Randolph Bedford, who described them as “a new depressant to the outback.”

We arrived at the campsite in the late afternoon, and busied ourselves with setting up. It was the first time we had camped in some time, so we must have been looking a little disorganised. A kindly retiree asked us if we would like to join her and her travel buddy for a coffee, which we gladly accepted. She asked us if we had any chairs to sit on, to which we cheerily replied in the negative, saying that was why we picked a spot near a tree stump. She looked concerned, and the coffee invite was swiftly upgraded to a dinner one. Her travel partner was a Vietnam veteran, a little off his rocker, but basically a nice guy.

As the sun dipped lower, we were lucky enough to see some of the local wildlife. A wallaby sniffed around the tents in the dusk, and a bush-pig trotted swiftly down the fence line. The campsite was also host to a Bauer bird, who had built his house there in order to impress the ladies. The real treat however came as the light had almost faded, when thousands of fruit bats (flying foxes) emerged from the forest and flew overhead. Their wingspans were impressive, and it was a beautiful sight. Amusingly, the early explorers were convinced that they were vampires, and apparently spent their evenings cowering under cover. To us however it was wonderful, and a spectacular finish to a long day.


Litchfield is famed for its swimming spots, which we planned to spend the next day enjoying. Feeling like it would be better if we had earned it, we first followed a short walking trail up a steep, rocky path, taking in some fabulous views. Suitably sweaty and tired, we wasted no time in getting to the water. We laughed off the crocodile warning signs like true Australians, and made our way to the water's edge. It was here that we discovered that it was rather fresh. We danced around for an almost embarrassing period of time, before finally going for it and plunging in. As swimming spots go, it's hard to beat a freshwater pool filled by two spectacular waterfalls, so despite the chilly temperature we stayed in and made the most of it.


After a highly necessary ice cream break and a short rest back at camp, we hopped on the bike and made our way back down the road to the Buley Rockholes, a series of pools and cascades along the Florence creek. It was a beautiful spot, but a little hard to fully enjoy with so many people around. We didn't stay long, instead deciding to go for a short walk along the river. Of course then we discovered another section, equally pretty but totally deserted. By this point it was too late for another swim, but we stored it away for future reference.


The next morning we packed up camp with surprising efficiency, then got on the road.  On the way we noticed a sign for the Adelaide River war cemetery. It was only a kilometre or so out of the way, so we thought it would be a worthwhile diversion. Not many Europeans are aware that Northern Australia also suffered bombing during the Second World War. The area around Darwin was very important in the conflict, and reminders of this are ever present with the many disused air-strips that run along the highways.


Aside from our cemetery visit, it was a hot, windy and uneventful drive into Katherine. We saw very little of the town other than the supermarket. Katherine would be the last town of any size before heading into the outback. Due to the isolation and the distances involved, food tends to cost a fortune out there, so we wanted to stock up as much as possible. After a quick whiz around the aisles and a bit of head scratching as to where it would go in our luggage,we waved goodbye to Katherine and rode the last 100km to Mataranka.

Mataranka itself is tiny, pretty much just a few small shops and a couple of fuel stations lining the main road. It might not sound particularly appealing, but it does have a rather wonderful card up its sleeves in the form of the Bitter Springs. These thermal pools make it well worth stopping at, and we were looking forward to a nice warm dip. Unfortunately we arrived too late in the day to go for a swim that afternoon. Instead, we spent the evening hanging out in the camp kitchen, chatting to a group of retirees. They were a jolly lot, constantly joking and larking about with each other. It was a lovely reminder that growing old doesn't necessarily mean growing up.

The next day it was high time for a swim. It was just a short walk down to the springs, so we pottered down after a big breakfast. The waters were a beautiful turquoise, set within tranquil forest. The morning was fresh, but the water itself was like a warm bath. We wasted no time in getting in and slowly floating about. There is a slight current, so it was a relaxing swim from one end to the other. Once at the end of the creek, we just hopped out and walked back to the start. The only downside (for me) was the huge spiders that had strung their webs across one of the narrower sections. I just did my best not to look up.


We spent the rest of the day hanging out a the camp kitchen, slowly becoming part of the furniture. It seemed that everyone knew about the poms on the bike, so we got a lot of chances to bore people with our stories. It had been a wonderful start to our Australia trip, but we were still slightly undecided on the next stage. We had two options ahead of us; either we could ride to the East Coast via the paved route to Townsville, or take the more adventurous Savannah Way to Cairns. After much discussion the exciting way won. We were expecting a bumpy ride...