In my last blog rough, corrugated dusty roads led us to some amazing places in Northern Queensland but now the time had come to let the dust settle in that state and go explore another and so we say ‘hello’ to the Northern Territory!
Leaving Camooweal early the next morning we crossed the Georgina River and continued our journey along the Barkly Highway.
We had another long haul and a couple of days ahead of us with just under 1000-kilometres to travel.
Our next destination would be Jalmurark Campground – 12-Mile Yards in the Elsey National Park on the Roper River, where we planned on spending a few days relaxing at one of our favourite camp spots… but for now, the flat plains of the Northern Territory were waiting for us!
Just on the outskirts of Camooweal we passed a sign advising there was ‘no fuel for the next 260-kilometres’, this being Barkly Homestead. We had already read the sign the previous night and fuelled up at Camooweal having been cautioned that diesel was very expensive at the next fuel stop.
21-kilometres down the road we pulled in for the obligatory photo of ‘Harry the Hilux’ parked beside the big border sign before crossing between state and territory. It’s always a buzz crossing a border and we had now entered the Northern Territory gaining 30-minutes on our daylight hours!
Entering the Northern Territory comes with a few changes – and aside from the 30-minute daylight gain, it didn’t take us long to realise the speed limit had also changed when a couple of big road trains roared past creating a scene of swirling red dust!
We had again renewed our acquaintance with the monster road trains that thundered along the highways of the Outback and with the higher speed limit of 130-kilometres/h on the open roads here in the territory, we were constantly watching our speed… and our backs!
Encountering one of these road trains at full pace can be pretty full on, especially when some come with 3 or 4 trailers and are over 50-metres long.
Further on we stopped for another photo opportunity when a large monitor (goanna) decided to take its life into its own hands as it slowly made its way into the line of traffic before stopping to rest in the middle of the highway.
After failed attempts to move him on we continued our journey hoping other travellers would be considerate and slow for him too. He was already missing half his tail, so we gathered at some stage he had had at least one, if not more, altercations with a car or road train.
With the ‘Carpenters’ blaring out of the car speakers (the ABC radio was non-existent in this part of the world), we made our way westwards through flat, dry country where only the occasional grasses or small trees dotted the horizon. The vastness and wonder of this landscape never failed to astound me.
Just 56-kilometres after the border we stopped for a break at a 24 hour rest stop at Avon Downs.
This little stop came with interesting history and to our surprise a police station right opposite the rest area… the only building to been seen for kilometres in either direction.
After careful investigation we found a police presence had started in this area in the early 1900 when horse thieving and cattle duffers were rife. Today, I am guessing their presence is mainly highway patrol!
The longest sheep droving trip in Australian history also ended at this very spot when 11,000 sheep commenced the long and arduous journey from Rich Avon, Victoria. This journey would take 16 months and only 4,000 of the sheep would arrive at Avon Downs.
We arrived at the very busy Barkly Homestead, some 260-kilometres on from Camooweal, around lunchtime. It was a mandatory stop to grab a bite to eat, have a cuppa, stretch our legs and refresh in preparation for the next long drive…
… and was exactly as I expected, just another roadhouse in the middle of nowhere; albeit a welcome reprieve on the long journey from Camooweal.
Staffed by young backpackers from overseas (as are so many of these remote roadhouses) it provided a variety of services including fuel, caravan park facilities, guided tours, a cafe and a gift shop.
Information boards portrayed the history of the original homestead and old mud hut and old machinery was strategically placed around the grounds to add to the atmosphere.
This was obviously another very popular stop for passers through with road trains, caravans and motorhomes pulling in and out at regular intervals.
A line of roadtrains, vehicles and vans stretched from the bowsers to the road, a couple of vehicles had pulled in to the parking bays with mechanical issues or flat tyres and others lined up at the entrance to the van park that was situated just behind the roadhouse.
The beauty and vastness of the Barkly Tablelands persisted as we travelled on and we couldn’t help but feel just a mere dot in the hugeness of the landscape.
It was remote out here on the open road and we soon got a real sense of what characterises the phrase ‘Australian Outback’. We were surrounded by nothing but red dirt and a shimmering heat haze for kilometre after kilometre… as far as the eye could see!
Stunted grasses swayed in the breeze, creating a dancing, rippling prairie…
… and termite mounds again made a presence, this time dressed in various clothing items that entertained us with their rather unimaginative attire for the remainder of our journey.
With the wind blowing hard from the south east for most of the day we weren’t surprised when we came across a sign ‘WARNING HEADWINDS INCREASE FUEL CONSUMPTION’.
Apparently out this way the winds can get quite ‘cross’ but Harry Hilux handled the gusts admirably and we still had two bikes on the roof of our 4WD when we arrived at the Threeways Junction and the Stuart Highway.
Just 500-metres on the road to Darwin, we pulled into the ‘Threeways Roadhouse’ to refuel – so named as it is the junction of the only roads that link the Northern Territory with the other states.
The Stuart Highway travels north-south and links Darwin to Adelaide in South Australia (one of the longest stretches of highway on the planet at a massive distance of 2834-kilometres); and the Barkly Highway (from which we had just come) heads east-west.
However, in saying this, there is another alternative which travels east through Borroloola and Normanton to Cairns through beautiful Gulf Country… a road-trip we undertook last trip… but be warned – this road is little more than a line on the map, mostly gravel, quite corrugated and can be very rough in places!
We were already aware of the change in Territory laws for purchasing liquor and fuel so it was no surprise when we had to hand over our drivers licence before the diesel bowser could be activated. It is law to show photo ID when buying takeaway alcohol also.
Only a few hundred metres up the road it was hard to miss the 6-metre stone obelisk erected in honour of John Flynn, the pioneer churchmen and founder of the Australian Flying Doctor Service…
… and just 40-kilometres further on, after a long day of driving, we finally pulled into our first free camp in the Territory!
‘Attack Creek Memorial Reserve Rest Area’ was like most of this country – open, dry and flat… but to us, this is just part of the charm of ‘Outback’ Australia!
Named by John McDouall Stuart, ‘Attack Creek’ is the point where Stuart turned back from his 1860 expedition to cross the continent following a confrontation with Aborigines over dwindling water supplies.
This location is now marked by a road-side memorial stonework cairn surrounded by a steel post and chain fence.
Another memorial nearby commemorates a Mounted Constatable by the name of John Charles Shirley who died in the line of duty in the area in 1883.
This rest area is divided in to three camping areas and as far as facilities go, there are toilets, a water tank (non-drinkable) and a couple of shaded areas… and not much else.
Quite a number of vans and campers had already snuggled into the allocated camping areas when we arrived. Some chose to camp close to the memorial and the amenities where there was an undercover area, while others pulled in alongside the dry Morphet Creek just near the bridge. We decided to set up camp further down the track where it wasn’t quite so crowded.
These free rest areas were great for us just to hop along from spot to spot over the greater distances and were usually clean with good facilities and lots of friendly faces… however, in saying that campers do need to be respectful of these camping spots as many are being closed to overnight camping due to the fact they have been vandalised – and this one was no exception with the loo damaged and the door ripped off its hinges!
Moving on the next morning we passed the turnoff to Banka Banka Station, a large van park about 80-kilometres north of Threeways that had been recommended to us by the groundsman back at Camooweal.
This historic cattle station was the first operational pastoral lease in the region and a supply camp during World War II, providing meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables. It was occupied and run by the Ward family and is still the site of the original mudbrick homestead.
Originally bought in 1941 by Philip and Mary Alice Ward the homestead was a regular stopping place for travellers. In 1945, Philip Ward was among the first to truck cattle by road. Mary continued to run the station on her own after Philip died in 1959 and a government school for Aboriginals was opened on the property in 1961 with Mary soon becoming known as ‘The Missus of Banka Banka’. Due to ill-health she sold Banka Banka in 1970 and moved to Adelaide, where she died two years later. The Station now operates as a campground with flat unpowered grassed sites (limited shade), scenic walks, swimming, spring water, native flora and fauna, a small kiosk, and they offer scheduled slide shows and talks.
Further up the road we arrived at Renner Springs Roadhouse where we stopped briefly to take a few photos. We were eager to continue as the colourful Daly Waters Pub was still a long drive of 245-kilometres.
Elliot a bit further on, is a tiny Aboriginal community of about 100 with nothing more than a few houses set back off the highway, a memorial, a pub and another roadhouse.
Around lunch time we turned off the highway and rocked into the Daly Waters Pub. It had been a few years since we had last visited but it still had that special fascination for us… although we were surprised at how much it had changed from a once quiet roadside stop to now a very popular tourist destination.
This quintessential outback watering hole is famous for its bush hospitality, incredible meals, quirky decorations on the walls, strict parking rules and an honesty system.
The wisteria covered pub is full of all sorts of paraphernalia; business cards, money, hats, t-shirts, hats and heavens know what else plastered around.
Parking requirements are ‘angle parking mate – any angle’ and you might ask what the ‘honesty system’ is? Well, it’s the tin shed across the road from the pub otherwise known as the ‘Outback Servo’!
There’s a deranged helicopter sitting rather precariously on its roof, 2 bowsers standing in a gravel driveway… and ‘the honesty system’ means when you fill up with fuel you just walk across the road to the pub where the bar staff ask ‘how much did it take mate?’.
This is a pub with lots of history and one of the oldest in the Northern Territory being once home to the first ‘international airport’ from the 1930s to the late 1950s, almost 30 years!
Originally it was used for flying mail in the Northern Territory from Queensland then it became a staging and refuelling point for Qantas international flights from Darwin on route to Singapore and other domestic flights.
By the beginning of World War II, military air traffic replaced domestic travel and the commercial flights ceased in 1965. An original Qantas hanger still stands.
What are the odds of randomly meeting people you know just walking across the street into Daly Waters Pub? Well it was here, by chance, we met up with our Tassie friends Carol and Martin and Lisa and Steve – welcome to our blog again guys.
It seems uncanny that we always seem to cross paths with these people at some stage on our road trips… last trip it was Leichhardt Campground on the road to Normanton in Queensland.
After a coffee and catch up we were soon on the road again… they were heading south, and we were continuing north to Mataranka, a bit over 168-kilometres up the road!
We passed through Larrimah, home of the Pink Panther Hotel and a small town with a big secret!
It is hard to imagine how anyone could keep a secret in this little town but in the case of missing person Paddy Moriarty no-one knows anything about the man and his red dog who vanished in late 2017 never to be seen again.
Each of the residents have their own theory about what may have happened… dingos, crocodiles – but there are a lot of ways to go missing in the outback and the police suspect foul play!
The Pink Panther Pub was the original Officer’s Mess during World War II and still has some interesting memorabilia to check out if passing through.
Meaning ‘meeting place’ in the local Aboriginal language, Larrimah came into being in 1940 with the construction of the nearby Gorrie Airfield, a major airfield servicing the war effort and later becoming the site of the rail head for the shunting yards after the demise of the township of Birdum, eventually closing in 1976.
21-kilometres south of Mataranka township we passed a sign to Elsey cemetery.
This area was made famous in the Jeannie Gunn novel ‘We of the Never – Never’, an Australian classic written in 1905 about Elsey Station, and this cemetery marks the resting place of many of the books characters.
The story goes that in 1902, newly married Jeannie (Mrs Aeneas Gunn) left the security and comfort of her Melbourne home to travel to the relatively unknown lands of the Northern Territory where her husband had been appointed manager of ‘The Elsey’, a large cattle station. Being one of the first ‘white’ women in the area, she was at first resented around the station, but her warmth and spirit soon won over. This book is a moving and simple account of her life amidst the beauty and cruelty of this land.
Finally, after another long day of travelling we arrived at Mataranka, a little township that sits on either side of the Stuart Highway and the upper reaches of the Roper River. With a population of around 250 it mostly services the outlying cattle stations and Aboriginal communities.
Without wasting any time, we headed straight for Jalmurark – 12-Mile Yards Campground in the Elsey National Park situated on the Roper River on the eastern edge of Mataranka.
Follow the signs from the Stuart Highway we headed along Homestead Road into the Elsey National Park turning right just a short distance before the homestead.
The campground is situated 10-kilometres along John Hauser Drive and is surrounded by the largest stand of Livingstonia rifida Palms in the world. It is a great campground with well-defined camp areas with built in fireplaces to cook our gourmet meals, clean amenities (hot solar showers), an honesty pay system, lots of walks, incredible wildlife and birdlife and amazing sunsets and sunrises.
This visit to the Northern Territory and the ‘Top End’ wasn’t the first for our around Australia trips, in fact we loved this area so much it was our third time back… and this campground was one of our favourite haunts.
The drive to 12-Mile took us past some lovely picnic sites and camping areas along the edge of the Roper River, most with short walks where the Roper River can be viewed from various vantage points, but 12 Mile Yards was the pick for us.
There is a boat ramp, a 5-kilometre walking track to the Mataranka Falls and at one point it even had swimming pontoons… but things have changed since our first visit a few years back and now, because of the constant fear of saltwater crocs there has been a change in the crocodile policy! The pontoons have been removed and replaced by crocodile traps… and of course, understandably, swimming is no longer an option.
This National Park incorporates the spring fed Roper and Waterhouse Rivers, which meander through the park flowing through waterholes, over rocks and tufa dams and into thermal pools with the Mataranka Thermal Pool, Bitter Springs, Stevie’s Hole and Mataranka Falls being some of our favourite spots.
The main attractions in this area is Mataranka Homestead where a hand-hewn local cypress pine replica of the Gunn’s original home stands.
Mataranka Homestead caters for travellers with a restaurant and café and has a lovely caravan park. The short walk to the hot springs is along a paved path through a paperbark and palm forest to a concrete, sandy bottom swimming hole.
With a constant temperature of 34 degrees Celsius the waters here flow and bubble from Rainbow Springs at an amazing 30.5 million litres a day.
Our favourite swimming hole was Bitter Thermal Springs further up the road. It’s not as crowded or developed as Mataranka Hot Springs and is set in a lovely bush setting where there’s lots of room to stretch out for a soothing dip.
These warm mineral enriched crystal-clear waters bubbling up from the ground were a great way to relax our mind and muscles in the beautiful natural surroundings of the park.
The Northern Territory is more than just an outback adventure!
This is Australia’s spiritual heartland rich in indigenous culture where ancient legends are deeply intertwined with the land and its people.
It is a land of beauty with iconic geographical landscapes, gorges, dense rainforests, vivid blue seas, beautiful swimming holes and 4WD tracks… all worthy of a snap at every turn!
Beyond the terracotta coloured desert scenes of flat dry land, red dirt and shimmering haze the ‘Top End’ is just begging to be loaded on your Instagram and Facebook feed.