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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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