We travelled through more of the unique outback towns of the Northern Territory as we followed the long straight road through to Kakadu, Darwin and Litchfield.
This was our second visit to the Top End, when only months earlier, we had exited from our more rugged crossing of the Gulf Savannah – another epic adventure on our recent Australian trip.
The long road north of Alice …
The terrain immediately north of Alice was surprisingly hilly as we made our way through and around rocky outcrops. Vegetation was fairly sparse while red and orange rocks of all shapes and sizes were numerous.
About 30-kilometres north of the township we arrived at ‘The Tropic of Capricorn’ an imaginary line that signifies moving from the dry arid parts of Australia, to a more tropical region (well not quite), but I did have another photo opportunity to add to my collection of ‘Big Things’.
Set back about 15-metres from the road and standing around 6-metres high the monument consisted of a stylish globe of the world on top of a slanted pole with Capricorn goats carved into either side of the cement base.
Moving further north the amount of bare rock visible from the road diminished as patches of termite mounds becoming fairly common. The hills disappeared behind us and were soon a distant memory, now only incredible flatness lay ahead where we spent many a futile attempt to reach the crest of the road in front of us only to have the elusive crest match our pace and move away relentlessly never to be reached.
We stopped briefly at Warburton Memorial, commemorating Colonel Warburton who led an exploration party seeking a cattle droving route to the west coast. The party reached the west coast but was lucky to survive.
Cattle droving once dominated this region and further on at Connors Well a lasting reminder of a now defunct windmill still stood. This windmill once pumped water into a large, above ground well to supply water to travelling stock.
Moving on we passed Aileron Roadhouse, also a camping area and art studio and home to 2 amazing statues. Towering on the hill behind the roadhouse a 13-metre giant Anmatjere warrior stood, along with an Aboriginal woman and child. We were told the locals were hoping the statues would help bring tourists and maybe even a little rain, and heavens knows, they needed it.
This area is home to some famous artists from the Anmatjere tribe who wander in to paint from time to time but at this time there were only Aboriginals sitting around beneath the shade of the trees that were marked by empty beer cans. I had never seen so much rubbish on the side of a road, so any thoughts of stopping for fuel quickly vanished.
At Ti Tree we stopped at the roadhouse to top up with fuel but kept going when we saw what surrounded us. The roadhouse looked like one more roadhouse situated in the middle of nowhere, but in actual fact it was supposed to be the ‘Central Hotel in Australia’. It wasn’t a terribly clean place and it appeared that many of their clientele were again people hanging around with little to do. A pack of stray dogs wandered backwards and forwards across the highway, fortunately at one stage narrowly avoiding what could have been a rather nasty accident.
Ti Tree is a small settlement with a fluctuating population of around 150. It is also the geographical centre of Australia and has a hotel, petrol station and police station.
Apparently the locals are exceptional artists with many of their artworks on display at the Red Sand Art Gallery and the Aaki Gallery. It is also renowned for its fruit and vegetables but we didn’t stay long enough to sample the offerings!
Like so many places in the Territory, this deceptive exterior hides the interesting history of the Overland Telegraph Line, the problems of water in the desert, and the struggle to develop agricultural land. Flat plains surrounded Ti Tree with the Reynolds Ranges in the southwest and the Watt Ranges in the northeast.
One of the first features in the area to be named was Ti Tree Wells that was still visible on the western side of the highway just south of the township. It was developed during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line.
Not long after leaving Ti Tree we passed Central Mount Stuart, a fairly uninspiring, flattened dome once considered to be the geographical centre of the continent and despite its fame, I unintentionally neglected taking the obligatory photo as we whizzed straight past it.
This nondescript ‘mountain’ was a significant landmark while Central Australia was being explored and was first climbed by John McDouall Stuart. The memorial commemorates his exploration work and the Stuart Highway essentially follows the north-south route he discovered.
Now no road trip is complete without the unusual.
This trip was full of unexpected things and wineries and mango’s in the middle of the desert would have to be up there. We would expect to see mangos in tropical North Queensland but not in the outback!
Not far out of Ti Tree we came across an amazing mango farm in the middle of the desert… and a sign inviting us in for free wine tasting and mango ice creams.
Lured by the thought of delicious mangoes not to mention the wine tasting, we pulled off the highway and into the driveway of ‘The Red Centre Farm’, their motto on the gate, ‘a tin shed in the bush, not a castle in France’… and we made our way up the avenue lined with mango trees and grape vines.
The farm had a small shop that was really a general store servicing the local Aboriginal people and was operated by an Asian guy who was more than happy to offer us tastings. It would have been nice to sit a while and enjoy more samples but I had to restrain myself, as it was my turn to drive so armed with our purchased bottles of Mango Moonshine and Mango Magic we continued on our journey.
Our first encounter as we drove into the roadhouse was of an older aboriginal woman sitting near the door armed with a rolled up canvas, which she showed to everybody who passed in a bid to gain a sale.
As we entered the pub we were confronted by a wall covered in graffiti in the form of messages and money. Much of the wall was papered in Australian notes, most signed by the donor and ranging from $5 to $100 notes. There was even a $25-billion note from Zimbabwe…obviously not of the same value as our dollar!
It was beyond me who in their right mind would hand over a $100 note to stick on a wall, but people do and this place certainly gave us a glimpse of the outback characters one often hears about.
Amidst this memorabilia was also the original bar and tin ceiling and the beer is still stored in the original underground cellar.
Barrow Creek also comes with it’s own unsolved mysteries…
On 14 July 2001 this isolated and tiny outpost on the Stuart Highway became a vital part of one of the Australian outback’s most horrific and mystifying crimes when a young English couple driving a VW Kombi van were stopped by a guy and persuaded to leave their vehicle. The young Englishman was shot and his girlfriend tied up but miraculously she managed to escape and hide in the scrub along the highway. She was eventually picked up by a truck driver and taken 13-kilometres south to the Barrow Creek pub where the police were alerted.
Stop, have a drink at the pub (a true outback experience), and while you are there, think of the young Englishman now lying somewhere in the vastness of the Australian outback. If you want to be terrified, watch Wolf Creek – obviously inspired by the crime.
The pub, which is also a roadhouse and caravan park, was built in 1926 by Joe Kilgarriff and at any given time the publican and his staff represent the total population of Barrow Creek. It is said it can rise to 11 or 12 and then drop back to 4 just as quickly.
Wycliffe Well is well-known for its alien and UFO sightings and claims to be the ‘alien’ capital of the Northern Territory with the whole roadhouse geared up around a UFO and alien theme to make it a memorable spot for passing travellers.
The walls inside the shop and restaurant were plastered with newspaper and magazine articles about UFO sightings, many from the surrounding region and they had gone crazy with alien sculptures and decorated figurines and murals around the place… an amazing collection of UFO and ET-based murals, life-sized figures and also a few bizarre ring-ins like Elvis and the Phantom… it truly was a weird place!
Interestingly enough the connection with UFOs goes back many decades and there were many reports of strange objects in the sky by soldiers stationed in the area during the World War II. Some still suggest a link with the top-secret defence bases nearby at Pine Gap and the Harts Range.
Apparently UFOs are still seen regularly here, including by the owner who claims to have seen many unusual objects in the sky… however, given the large range of imported beer on sale at the bar this could well be explained – and I remain a skeptic even though the brochure for the roadhouse said, rather optimistically, that ‘you’d be unlucky not to see one’!
Continuing on we pulled in at Wauchope to refuel (pronounced Walk-up) where there was a roadhouse and camping ground. This lovely little outback-historic pub was only 9-kilometres from the famous Devils Marbles.
This settlement was established in 1917 to service the newly established Wolfram Mining Operations and the Wauchope Hotel opened in 1930 to provide a pub for the workers at the various Barkly Tablelands cattle stations in the area. It lies to the west of the Murchison and Davenport Ranges and is located just over a 1000-kilometres south of Darwin.
We pulled in to refuel and ended up enjoying a couple of beers and a chinwag with the proprietor who was quite a character. He told us some colourful tales about the local area as well as his drives in the Variety Bash.
The Variety Bash an event that was originally developed by entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Smith in 1985 when he organised a group of people to travel from Sydney to Bourke in far west New South Wales, and from there to Burketown in northern Queensland.
The annual Variety Bash is Australia‘s most successful charity motoring event. It is the focal point of fund-raising efforts by many hundreds of supporters of Variety. The money raised helps children who are sick, disadvantaged or have special needs to live, laugh and learn.
While relaxing at the bar 2 guys in wheelchairs rolled in, a French guy and a guy from Sydney... and their French support crew travelling in a motor home. They were wheel chairing down the Centre to Port Augusta, over to Western Australia and then back to Sydney.
As the afternoon gave way to dusk we began to feel weary (more from the 2-beers than the heat), so we decided to pitch our tent at the back of the pub on the only piece of green lawn for kilometres.
After 5-hours of travelling on a long, straight road in 37-degree heat, it was a welcome relief to finally be able to set up camp and enjoy a refreshing swim.
This ideal camping spot in the middle of nowhere… with a swimming pool, a lean-to camp kitchen and an amazing vegetable garden behind an animal proof fence was also home to 3 lovely and very friendly dogs who insisted on jumping all over us. It was a treat to have the dogs around us and made us miss the 2 we had left at home very much.
It was amazing to have a pool in the middle of the desert, all to ourselves, and we were told after admiring the garden that this vegetable and fruit-growing area relies on artesian water and an excellent climate.
After grabbing a bite to eat we then settled down to read our books and admire the scenery.
From the campground we could gaze out at the idyllic oasis surrounding us and only imagine the imposing gorges tucked between the spacious desert plains and khaki scrublands which would be home to hundreds, probably thousands of emus, kangaroos and camels along with other desert wildlife.
As we sat and gazed into the distance at the changing colours of the outback skies there was a feeling of exhilaration as the sun went down over the horizon painting a beautiful picture in the endless sky then leaving us with a magical blanket of stars… but despite our best efforts of sky gazing that night, we are unable to report any UFO sightings to add to the local legend down the road.
This Territory’s contrasting environment seemed to have hypnotised us. There was magic to this place that was difficult to explain and I felt I had submitted to its spell. As night closed in around us we eventually turned our interest to slumber land and retired to a still and calming silence that was later disrupted by road trains zipping past and thundering off into the distance (we could be excused for thinking we were being invaded by space ships in this part of the country)… and an Asian tour group who thought they could set up camp almost on top of us!
We left Wauchope early the next morning.
Just about everything in the Northern Territory seems to pop up out of nowhere and it was amazing that these giant rocks could just pop up in the middle of the desert.
There were literally thousands of huge boulders and we couldn’t get over the size and scale of the rocks. Many were as big as houses and were seemingly strewn at random around a wide, shallow valley as if they really were the work of the ‘Devil’!
Huge reddish boulders stacked on each other with beautiful ghost gums that looked spectacular with their white trunks against the red rocks. At sunrise and sunset they are said to glow red and orange and are a breathtaking sight.
The geology of Karlu Karlu is fascinating, telling the tale of erosion across countless millennia. The marbles have been eroded over millions of years and were certainly an unusual, yet beautiful sight of gigantic granite boulders silhouetted against the vivid blue sky.
The granite rock from which they were formed was once a single mass. Over millions of years of erosion along joint planes produced angular slabs of rocks, which gradually became rounded by wind and water into the marbles we see today. Some of the marbles appeared to have split in half fairly recently, giving the impression of a ball sliced in 2. These apparently dramatic breaks are the result of water finding its way into cracks in the boulders, speeding up the process of erosion.
Known as Karlu Karlu in all 4 local Aboriginal languages this remarkable site is a sacred place to Aboriginal traditional owners and an Aboriginal men’s site.
The Rainbow Serpent’s eggs fossilised and became what we call the Devils Marbles. Traditional owners maintain their responsibilities for the site, which has been an unbroken tradition that has continued since creation time.
We continued on along the Stuart Highway , all the time having the strangest feeling that we were driving up hill.
Heading up ‘the track’, as the Stuart Highway is often referred to, we passed road trains chugging along at a competitive pace and dozens and dozens of caravans and campervans travelling south, obviously the annual grey nomad migration after spending the winter in the warmer climate.
We had been told countless times that we were travelling the wrong way around Australia and because we were driving in an anti-clockwise direction rather than the shorter clockwise route we were driving uphill into a headwind thus it increased our fuel consumption and our mileage.
We continued along the vast long straight road with wide expenses of nothingness in between sparsely scattered fuel stops and small towns.
Tennant Creek is also known as the ‘Golden Heart of the Northern Territory’ and the site of Australia’s last major gold rush in the 1930s. People initially looked for gold in quartz, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that they discovered that the gold was still in the ironstone. It’s thought that there is still plenty of gold to be found and mining for this and other valuable minerals like manganese and copper, remains a vital economic contributor for the region.
The traditional Aboriginal owners of the area surrounding Tennant Creek are the Warumungu people.
Travelling on, we were surrounded by the Barkly Tablelands with its wide grassy plains and endless blue skies. We could only imagine the massive cattle stations that stood back kilometres from the highway as we passed the side roads that stretched far into the distance for kilometre after kilometre.
25-kilometres on we passed through ‘Three ways’ and the junction of the Stuart and Barkly Highways. From here we could head north, south or east and for most travellers they consider this intersection the middle of Australia.
70-kilometres north of Three Ways we came to Renner Springs and the historic Renner Springs Roadhouse, which was once an old army hut relocated after World War II from the army’s staging camp at Banka Banka Station. If you are travelling this highway, enjoy a bit of outback history here and camp overnight at the Station – there is a great campground with large grassy non-powered sites and clean amenities.
This one-street town is used as a cattle service stop where stock being transported from the north are given a chemical tick bath to prevent infection of herds in the south.
The town was named after Lieutenant Snow Elliott, the officer in charge of an army camp on this site during World War II and the town is still divided into North Camp and South Camp areas.
The traditional name for the township is Kulumindini and is the home of the Jingili desert people.
As we drove into Elliot, the first service station we came to greeted us with a sign that said they were out of fuel! This was a bit unnerving but lucky for us there was another fuel stop up the road, which saved the day but cost us a fortune when we bought 2 icy-poles for $9.20.
Continuing on we passed another Overland Telegraph Line monument beside the highway, this time dedicated to Sir Charles Todd, Postmaster General of the Province of South Australia, 1872… the same person the Todd River at Alice Springs was named after.
Dunmarra was just a little north of the monument, a little settlement with a very interesting story associated with its name that came about when an Overland Telegraph linesman by the name of Dan O’Mara disappeared in the early 1900s and his bones weren’t found until the 1930s. The local Aboriginal people couldn’t pronounce ‘O’Mara’ with their attempts sounding more like ‘Dunmarra’, which consequently became the name of the station.
Today, this town is little more than a roadhouse providing fuel, motel accommodation, a caravan park and other services to travellers along the Stuart Highway. It is also the turn off to the Buchanan Highway, a gravel road that leads through to Timber Creek.
It is one of the Territory’s most famous and oldest watering holes (for animals and humans), and was certainly a colourful pub, clad in corrugated iron and covered in wisteria.
It was a great place to stop for an ice-cold cold beer and check out the memorabilia.
This historic landmark is famed for its Aussie outback charm and impressive collection of clothing items left by visitors wishing to leave their mark. Like most pubs we had come to, every available centimetre of wall and ceiling was covered with some item of memorabilia; it was crammed with decades of quirky nick-knacks donated from travellers and locals ranging from underwear, to money, to caps, to t-shirts, to number plates and a whole host of other stuff…you name it, it was there. Wherever we looked there was something interesting to read or contemplate its origin and in true Aussie style their toilet was actually called ‘the dunny’.
This typical lean-too was built back in 1930 by Bill Pearce and a jug license was given in 1938. Bill was a local tin miner and he and his wife Henrietta catered for travellers, settlers and drovers.
It was steeped in character and full of characters, both local and visiting. It certainly had a very interesting aviation history too, being one of Australia’s first international airfields providing food and accommodation for Qantas air passengers en route to London. The passengers would have 25-minutes to grab a quick beer while their flight refueled before taking off again. The trip took 8-days and cost 275 pounds.
It was also the centre for the London to Sydney air race of 1926 and it played a significant part in the protection of the Northern Australian coastline in World War II with the Australian and American air forces based here along with their Mitchell Bombers, Kitty Hawks and a fighter squadron.
European discovery of the Daly River and surrounding area was in 1865 by Boyle Finniss, the first premier of South Australia and Government resident in the Northern Territory. Finniss named the area Daly Waters in honour of the then governor of South Australia Sir Dominic Daly.
It was in 1862 that John Stuart successfully crossed the continent from south to north and eventually broke through the Lancewood scrub that hindered his previous attempts to discover fresh water.
Fresh water was vital for droving and Daly Waters was the last watering hole before the perilous Muranji Stock Route. It was also a landmark stop for the Durak brothers who drove their entire herd from Queensland to the West Australian coast.
The town and river are traditionally owned by the Malak Malak people who live downstream from the community in Nauiyu and at Wooliana. They believe the dreaming tracks of the ‘Emu’ and the ‘Sun’ travelled through here on their way to the southern parts of the Northern Territory.
The Northern Territory is a place so vast with sweeping desert plains and ancient stories of the Dreamtime and is a must-see for any serious Australian explorer.
This is the end of our journey through the centre. Our travels meet here at the cross roads of the ‘Savannah Way Gulf Country’.
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