Timber Creek is a small town in the Northern Territory with the three most common remote town signs; to the roadhouse, police station and medical centre or hospital. The roadhouse is typical, providing all manner of services including bar, bottle-store, restaurant, service station, and caravan park to locals and travellers alike.
We arrived on Saturday, and the roadhouse was doing a roaring trade in beer destined for a party up the road. Carloads of locals drove up, piled into the bar, emerged with slabs of beer, and yelled to other carloads of locals doing the same. The Eftpos machine sat silently trapped in a cage at the front door, and a cheery bunch of international staff buzzed about.
Travellers under 30 years of age to Australia can extend their tourist visa by one year, if they work for three months in a remote area. This means you can generally guarantee the people serving you in many small town pubs and roadhouses are a cheerful array of intrepid young people with exotic accents, seemingly well out of context, yet curiously at home.
The caravan park behind the roadhouse offered the twin attractions of crocodile and bird feeding. At 5pm, an eager bunch of kids, a couple of elderly folks, a handful of freshwater crocodiles, a varied flock of airborne raptors, and W and I excitedly gathered for feeding time. When the English girl from the pub dangled raw pieces of meat in the creek, the crocodiles looked a bit bored, but the birds were somewhat theatrical, and the kids and I were thrilled.
A whiteboard on the wall in the bar listed names of people banned from the bar, and the date they were allowed back in. Every now and then, a whiteboard person wandered in and attempted a purchase, or sat at the bar and charmingly argued why they should stay. Both the Chilean and the Kiwi behind the bar were barely 25, yet managed to deliver the bad news, wave farewell to the banned, and order a Barra and Chips at the same time with a smile. I wanted to suggest the publican run a detox program for city adolescents, currently gaining life skills from a screen, but he didn’t appear to possess the same charm as the gals.
We had left Kununurra at the break of day, and foiled the guy with the wheel covers, awning OCD, and dawn leaf-blower routine next door, determined to wake us. I like to ensure we have plundered the depths of local attractions, squeezing in The Mini Bungles and Kelly’s Knob at sunset the night before, and planning to swim at Valentine Springs, Black Rock, Marley Billabong and a handful of other watery delights on our way east. Alas, the swimming holes were in varying states of dehydration, but the backpackers were up for it, shrieking and smoking while splashing about the murky green water. We ventured to Wyndham where local artists had crafted an alien message into the saltpan, looked at another grey harbour, and deemed our work done.
From Timber Creek we drove straight through Katherine and north to Nitmulik National Park, a gorgeous park full of gorges and swimming holes just 30km from town, managed jointly by traditional owners and Department of Parks and Wildlife. Edith Falls is one of the beautiful camp areas within the park, offering shade, and , watered grass, wildlife (both two and four-legged), and a swimming hole replete with fish eager to nibble off your callouses. I am never at ease in fresh water, but became excited at the prospect of a pedicure of sorts. I watched the cute little fish dart about my legs until one took a wee chunk of my thigh.
Nitmulik is atypical for National Parks, with quirky personal touches. Edith Falls greets you with quirky quotes on a sandwich board, and the main caravan park features a rockstar-style lagoon pool, and resident 4 metre python (harmless but freaky all the same), that hung out at the pool in daylight, and on the path to the toilets at night. Moving to the main camp, we set up with haste, eager to make it in time for our Gorge Dinner Cruise, the only tour with vacancies. Waiting under the trees for our cruise to depart, a man approached enthusiastically and said “Saw you at the camp ground. You’re next to us. In the camper trailer. We’re in the Winnebago.” Pausing to reflect, I couldn’t remember anything about our fellow campers except the fact I thought there was no-one around as I changed into my bikini beside the car.
Our next destination was Karumba. The promise of abundant fresh fish and prawns, a fantastic azure vista, and location bang in the middle of the Gulf of Carpentaria took on a spiritual quality, and got me through two bush camps. To be clear, bush camp means off-the-grid, no loo in any form, no water, coverage or rubbish bins. Of course, a sweet little shower faucet in a box, some cigarette lighter power, and a bucket of pre-boiled water convinces you temporarily you need never live a civilised life again. Until you see yourself in a roadhouse bathroom, and realise your husband is not a details guy, and you need an intervention.
Karumba is all about fishing, just like the rest of the north. You cannot swim because of the crocs, it is hot as all get out, and the Barra run freely. At night the sunset pub hosts thousands of hermit crabs as they march about, pile up, then march again. At every point the road or a boat campmates the water you see signs warning of croc activity. They read “Achtung! Attention! Crocodile activity in this area”, and show a no-swimming icon. After a while we simply referred to these river crossings as Achtungs. Australia’s largest saltwater crocodile, ‘Krys the Savannah King’ met an untimely end at nearby Archer’s Creek in 1957, but the legend lives on in a life-size replica, over 8 metres long, in the main street of Normanton, where people take photos of their babies in its mouth.
Karumba’s Hotel offered two kinds of experience; the open air Animal Bar and air-conditioned Suave Bar. Alone in the Suave Bar, we were schooled by Maddie and Tae on the Country Music Channel, on being a ‘Girl in a Country Song’, which seemed to prescribe smiling over speaking, daisy dukes and cowboy boots, and a lot of admirable hair.
We had to stop at Mt Surprise for name alone. This is another small town with a tiny local population, residing in fields rich in ancient history and semi-precious gems. We made sure the pub could receive the AFL Grand Final transmission, then settled into the caravan park with resident Johnny Cash, miniature ponies, exotic birds, an emu, and another resort style pool. Always a fan of a gem, I convinced W to grab a prospector’s license, treasure map, and shovel from the gem store and we set out for the field of dreams. Before we left, I had probed the expert for tips, amongst which was the theory that good things lay two metres down. When I said we could easily dig that far, I saw a flash of focused attention pass across the eyes. It’s a look I have only seen in opal fields, carried by people living in corrugated iron lean-to’s for decades and in possession of an unshakeable belief that tomorrow they will find the mother lode. Three hours later, having dug over the well ground in the allowed areas other tourists has already toiled over, bitten by March flies, and with dust in very crevice, we departed in possession of a few small pieces of Topaz, unsurprised by the appraisal they were too small to do anything with.
Hanging up our prospecting boots, we investigated a once vast farming property owned by the entrepreneurial Collins family, the first white settlers in the Gulf Savannah, and who have owned the property since the 1860’s. Featuring caves formed by ancient lava tubes, and numerous unique geological features, the family decided to partner with National Parks to create the Undara Volcanic National Park, and developed a slick tourism venture on the property, called The Undara Experience, which thrives today. Of course the only way you get to see them is to take the tour. W and I spend a lot of time in each others company, so whenever we go on a tour I am freshly reminded that we walk at twice the pace of anyone else, and how I need to develop a more Buddhist outlook when it comes to that person in every crowd that dawdles at the back with their camera/eternally fusses in their back pack/stares into the distance/is last on the bus.
The next day we eyed Cooktown, at the base of the Cape York Peninsula, a new corner of Australia for us.