Our time at Club Croc drew to a close, but we felt we had not plundered the full depth of Kakadu. We ventured North to the Merl campground where countless people told us we would be carried away by mosquitoes.
Thundering along the road we heard a thump around the trailer. I was pretty certain no animal had met an untimely end so we concluded investigation would be in order. We paced around the trailer mystified, until I found a chain protected by heavy duty fabric dangling jauntily from the frame of the trailer. “What’s this for?”, I asked, swinging it around my finger. W said he hadn’t noticed it before. At about the same time we realised it was dangling from the spot where the spare tyre used to be, and 2 seconds later noted a black scrape on a corner of the trailer. Clearly suffering the same brain rattling experience I endured on the 4WD roads, the spare had made a bid for freedom, glancing off the metal case where the fridges live, and bouncing off into the underbrush. We immediately jumped in the car and retraced our steps, drawing to a halt at the point of ejection, behind a guy in a minivan beating a hasty retreat. We never recovered the tyre but were richer for the knowledge of where the wrapped safety chain should have been employed.
Out of our remote camp ground we realised Kakadu is teeming with gorges and swimming holes filled to the waterline with backpackers, parents, and peeing youth conveyed via bus. Worse than Bondi on a filming day, all I could think about was the poor little freshwater crocs hiding at the bottom waiting for everyone to go home. I realised THIS was the Kakadon’t people talk about.
Undeterred, we took off up north where Kakadu borders Arnhem Land and an “All hands in the boat!!” cruise up the East Alligator River, allows you to appreciate the watchful golden eye of many a saltie at close range. At nearby Ubirr, rangers tell stories, and hundreds of people climb the nearby rock plateau in the movie footsteps of Crocodile Dundee who took Sue up there to show her ‘his territory’. Rounding off the day with a feast of unexpectedly fabulous authentic Thai food from the Border Store, we repaired to the campground to erect the tent just after sunset, when the mozzies were at their zenith.
Emptying a can of pleasingly noxious flyspray into our sleeping quarters, I remained there until the inevitable odyssey to the ablutions block was upon me. Blithely wandering off into the dark without a torch, I spent 30 minutes circumnavigating the frustratingly organically planned campground. By the time I found our spot again, I had benefited from ribald snatches of german and french conversation as I passed, and lost the battle with mosquitoes the size of small birds.
The next morning, we squeezed in a trip to the Mamukala Wetlands, which I realise are what I have always thought Kakadu would look like everywhere. Swathes of water lillies and water birds were just too far away for me to get a great shot, but it certainly made me want to jump in a tinny and putt around.
I can thank Renner Springs for a blonde discovery. Turns out those iconic rural windmills are not just ornamental, they put them where the wind blows to pump water. Cue another flappity night of unsecured canvas, and crotchety camper inhabitants.
Natural hot springs can be found about 110kms south of Katherine, just off the Stuart Highway. Choosing Mataranka, we picked our way around the bunch of people that make a career of finding public hot pools, clinging to the entry and exit steps, and giggling nervously about not being able to swim. Taking our place in the pool next to all the other sardines, we pretended not to hear blush-worthy conversation, fought the urge to stare at others body parts, and scowl at those amongst us Most Likely to Pee. I lasted about 1 second longer than W, threatening to transform the tranquility into a wave pool by fidgeting, for a grand total of 5 minutes. Hopes still high, we decided the much lower profile Bitter Springs was worth a visit. The brief summary of Bitter Springs in our tour guide ill-prepared us for our visit. Stepping into a narrow creek fringed by palms, the warm, crystal clear, deep teal, water slowly flowed, carrying us along with it. Small turtles slept on the exposed tree roots. A water monitor lazed warily on the bank. It was like that Theme Park water ride where you float around in a current on tubes, but without the screaming, garish tones, and fibreglass.
On the sterling recommendation of friends J and L, we booked one of the permit-only 4WD camp sites at Koolpin Gorge in Kakadu. Picking up the key to the gate, the ranger warned against swimming in the two pools nearest the camp, as saltwater crocodiles were known to inhabit them. The pools that ascended from these, linked by waterfalls, were not known to have any saltwater crocodiles in the house, due to the difficult access. I took it that the likelihood of actually seeing one was slim, and although the Rangers are careful not to condone swimming outside the hotel pool, taking a dip in one of the countless waterholes was business as usual.
We took one of the unmarked paths to the first croc-free pool, and boiling hot by the time we got there, popped into our own outdoor swimming arena. I’m a beach girl, and a confident swimmer, yet I’ve never developed the same love for fresh water; rivers, ponds or gorges. As I doggie paddled my way from one end to the other I observed that I wasn’t really enjoying it, and in fact, may have found my kryptonite. The black below me, silence around me (once W stopped thrashing), and my over-fertile imagination conjured up scenarios at odds with the sparkling surface fringed by perfect palms.
In standard operating mode we spent a full six minutes out of the water before eyeing off the climb to the next pool (to the right of this picture). Recalling a great summer holiday 20 years ago at Anakiwa Outward Bound with my cousin and her instructor hubby R, I channelled R’s calm and encouraging tones as I grabbed for foot and hand-holds. I found myself flat against the rock face, with a single finger wedged in a crack above me, and both feet below me claiming ownership to two small ledges via my big toes. Stuck. My right leg independently started a sewing-machine-like action, and from somewhere within, sobbing ensued. W offered a knee to stand on and once foot was transferred added, “You have to move, I cant hold you there forever” and other useful things like “Focus. You’re being silly.” Once the shrieking had subsided, I recommended he never volunteers to talk someone down from a ledge.
The next morning we decided to tackle the gnarly looking unmarked ridge to the upper pools. The view back to the camp and along the pools was stunning. To the left, the croc pools, and immediately underneath, the first pool we swam in. I looked a little closer. In the middle of the pool was a crocodile spread out like a starfish, sunning himself, and taking in the serenity. I cursed not bringing my long lens! The wide angle lens I had with me reduced the scene, and detail of the croc along with it, but I managed a Yeti quality snap all the same.
By the time we reached the pool, W hissed in exasperated tones “what are you doing back there? Get over here! You won’t get a good shot from there”. A gold beady eye at waterline caught W’s, and slipped under. We spent the next half an hour watching Colin the Croc’s progress trip around the pool, bubbles breaking the surface where we went in the day before, along the edge, and everywhere we swam. Spurred by fears that a family would lose a child if we did not report the sighting, we used the emergency phone at the campsite. One hour later a helicopter circled overhead. A couple of hours later, a Ranger appeared and concluded it was probably a ‘Freshie’, the shy and non-threatening Fresh Water Crocodile. Given that they were present IN MOST POOLS in Kakadu, he felt this was the most likely conclusion. Wishing I could turn back the clock to when I thought they existed only if you could see them, from a boat, I learned the Freshies are in most of the pools, just waiting for you to leave so they can do their own thang. Later that day, I went for another swim, in the highest pool I could climb to, and talked myself through a panic attack. I’m not brave all the time.
Reaching the Barkly highway, we were out of opal and gems and into copper/zinc-lead-silver mining country, headed for Mt Isa where Rotary invented the Southern Hemispheres largest rodeo. Offering a side of Mardi Gras and ute muster with your bull riders, I was disappointed we would miss such heady goings-on. Fighting the urge to pick up a couple of R.M. Williams longhorn seat covers, I sought out coffee at a gorgeous restored building. Packed to the ceiling with horse, outback, and mining paraphernalia, warm scones on offer to the refrains of ‘A pub with no beer’ performed live out the back, a genuine Cobb & Co mail-coach, and stabled horses drew me out. The barista had stepped out for lunch, taking with her all knowledge of coffee production. Itineraries and spreadsheets wait for no barista to return, so W set his jaw, and we rolled on.
It was 5pm. Marvelling at the diminishing light falling on Gregory National Park, my driver had the crazed stare one gets after 900km of white lines, and around eight hours of talking-book about time travel and Highlanders in the 1700s. The Widower’s words came back to us as we flew by a sign mentioning a dam. Constructed in 1959, Corella Dam supplied water to the Mary Kathleen Uranium mine. Now decommissioned, it allegedly has a hole in the wall which means it never fills. A largely unoccupied park, free campers spaced themselves 500m from each other, and we felt most when we snagged a spot near the water with a ready-made rock fireplace. “I cannot believe this spot is free!”, I exclaimed excitedly. As the arctic gale blew down the small valley through our campsite toward the water, my chicken dance against flying ember ignition in the parched grass surrounding us, kept me warm. From the house bus perched on the Ridge, Johnny Cash warned of a burning Ring of Fire, and two hardy souls hunkered down in sleeping bags, next to their fishing rods, leaned into the blast that threatened to transform their protective tarp into a magic carpet. I imagined fish caught here would prompt a geiger counter to play Verdi’s Requiem, Dies Irae, but presumably that was the least of their worries.
5am could not arrive sooner. The flappity flap of unsecured tent bits deprived all but the permanently rested of slumber. Alessi came through with a single origin colombian heart starter, and we got the hell out of Dodge.
Renner Springs presented itself in the manner of all roadhouses, at about the time when you have truly reached the limit of your ability to sit contained in a sardine tin, no music in your 1200 strong playlist hits the right note, and crumbed potato and cheese mash with gravy sounds like a well-rounded end to the day. Warmly welcomed at the Roadhouse, we threw up the Taj on the banks of an ornamental pond, eschewing pesky pegs, and paused briefly to admire the craftily silent flotilla of geese. We longed for someone to cook us a meal, and the pub, lined with caps and other clothing items fresh from years of unwashed love, looked like it would make an honest fist of a steak. When the meals arrived, they looked frightened. The seven chips on my plate attempted to conceal themselves under the small grey wedge of barramundi impersonating a jandel*. The slice of tomato, carrot shred, and tablespoon of lettuce spelt a story of eviction from their happy place at the back of the freezer. While these kitchen antics ensued, it was clear W’s steak had been stewing itself silly incorrectly sensing reprieve. It was another beautiful clear night in the Outback.
* also known as thong or flip flop
Two days of unrelenting rain taught us many new things about the camper trailer, and how folded bits of canvas are actually flexible swimming pools, overflowing at the precise moment your neckline presents a waterfall opportunity.
In Carnarvon Gorge National Park campground, ‘Van owners toiled without merit at the most popular and time-consuming daytime van-owner activity: Cleaning the Van. Brows furrowed at the campfire over the misleading advice that they would easily enter the park without 4WD capabilities, and plans made to leave just as soon as Brian finished cleaning the spare tyre with a toothbrush, so that they may bask once again in the blinding white exterior of their mobile home.
A pre-breakfast wander up the Rock Pool made me appreciate afresh the abundance of palms and cycads, and a desire to create all manner of craft out of the beautifully textured palm leaf casings that littered the forest floor.
Leaving Carnarvon, we made our way up to Emerald and joined the Capricorn Highway, so named for it follows the Tropic of Capricorn. Excited by campfire tips exchanged with a ten year old girl tenaciously seeking a spark among the rain soaked ashes, I planned to be driving when we passed Australia’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. It wasn’t to be. Rustic gem shops and attractions flew by as W fixed his steely gaze on the odometer and wordlessly expressed a mandate that given my ambitious list of target destinations filling my master excel spreadsheet, there would be no spontaneous stopovers for anything bling-related.
I had read about a riverside ‘free-camp’ in the town of Jericho, and the Grey Nomads forum was all over it. Finding a spot right on river, late afternoon, I was delirious in sunshine. The adjacent Nomad collective invited us to their campfire, and light banter about fishing and fire-making ability ensued. After a spell, a man travelling on his own with an immaculate car and ‘van, systems, levers, and pulleys for everything, and an aged dog invited himself to join our lively throng. Within twenty minutes he managed to insert references to ‘the Vietcong, Abbos, Swamp Arabs, refugees, how the Krauts have ruined free camping for everyone, French backpackers called Mr Zippy, and a great free camp up the line we should stop at’. Being guilty of over-zealous tent zipping action myself I fell silent, pondering the Pauline Hanson factor and how it seemed endemic to campgrounds Australia-wide. He didn’t say, but I think the man was a widower, possibly widowed within the last year, and I felt compassion for him. I surmised his trip has started with his wife, and he was now very lonely, with fearful and angry views that may find favour with some, but would alienate many. As the thrum of generators lulled us to sleep, I concluded sadly that he would never change.
Clapping eyes on our camper trailer for the first time since W bought it over the phone a couple of months earlier from ebay, we were thrilled! A briefing, a hook up, and we were off, Perth bound, via Kakadu. Four or so weeks of camping ahead, and around 14000km.
Navigating Brisbane to find an outdoor shop, organic store, grass-fed ruminant butcher, and supermarket where you can actually park a car and trailer provided greater challenge than what lay beyond the city bounds. Exhausted by it all, we decided a rest in Noosa would be good use of our first day. A trip to the outdoor store two more times had the trailer fitted out with the first of many improvements to come.
Turns out Noosa camp grounds are in high demand, and wedging ourselves into the last spot at a caravan park some km’s down the road, plugged in the trailer to fire up the fridge and freezer Engels, and headed to the happening end of Noosa town. The quaint little cafes and bars I recall from a trip a few years ago were gone, a row of chain stores in their place. Ending up at the potentially fabulous sounding tapas bar down the road, surrounded by 20 year olds, we gave thought to our itinerary. A jug of sangria meant we got as far as deciding to stay one more night in outer Noosa. We were off to a flying start.
The caravan park palm trees alone were worth staying for.
It was raining as I entered Brisbane, and I suddenly felt immensely conscious of the extremely ungroomed appearance of both driver and vehicle when I rolled up to a carwash and enquired as to cost of a quick once-over. Peering through cruddy windows with sundry items pressed up against them, the owner looked doubtful about both his ability and desire to make an impact, but feeling sorry for the customer who appeared to have suffered at the lack of a mirror and grown a nice mono-brow, generously agreed to have a go at the exterior only.
Checking into the Sofitel, I encountered a similar reception from the young concierge who didnt want me leaving the car within direct or peripheral vision of any other guest. The overly mirrored lift, and highly groomed liftees had me shrinking to the corner and looking forward to level 18. A lift shutdown soon after confined me to my floor for the next hour without clean city clothes, during which I reflected on my 5522 km odyssey and arrived at some conclusions.
Awakening 1: The romantic and lofty plans I had of tearing off into the desert for weeks at a time to take incredible shots were likely curtailed by the persistent sciatica that came with solo responsibility at the bridge.
Awakening 2: Must take more time to go places. Less drive time provides keys to the replica castle and other great attractions.
Awakening 3: It only took two days to start talking to myself, OUT LOUD – early onset dementia previously joked about potentially imminent. Don’t be surprised when I greet you with “…and you are??”
Awakening 4: The apparent flush of health visible in the rear view mirror, leading one to conclude road life suited one, was in fact natures soft focus through a sheen of fine dust.
Awakening 5: Any place that has a sign out saying ‘Best coffee in the [locality]’ doesn’t, and never ask a motelier who does the best pub meal.
W flew in, and staggering away from the seafood buffet, I was ready to do it all again.
Hot on the heels of the Zombie Cookie…
….I found myself staring at a tiramisu-flavoured (it WAS Melbourne after all) Puppy Cake. Bypassing the noodle-like quality of its coat, I felt the tongue and wet nose were podium material for this weeks Freaky Food Award.