So I was recently in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, renting out a camper and doing some plant research in the top end. I asked the lady at the camper van hire depot, if they had any relocations available going to Cairns, which is a road trip I’d always wanted to do.
She said yes, and pointed at the big campers, more like little trucks and said they would pay $250 for fuel and there would be a $250 deposit as well. I put my name down right away and went out into the top end for five days in my little rented camper.
It was good to get out there, and I found some natural hot spring, lots of interesting plants, learnt a lot about the plants there and got a chance to visit Litchfield National Park, which is a little limited in roads, and kind of keeps on these well known tracks, but beautiful nonetheless. I also found a secret waterhole in Kakadu National Park by chance, looking for a rare species of tree, which was cool as well.
I thought I might be a little bit crazy to relocate a van to Carins, when I could just as well fly, but having some time up my sleeve, after being delayed from flying overseas, I thought it would be great to catch the opportunity while I had it.
When I got to the camper depot in the mid morning, they gave me a Ford transit campervan, rather than the brand new Mercedes I was expecting. The van was quite old and rough around the edges, and I was told it had better fuel economy than the Mercedes. So I drove off in the van, went food shopping and got started a bit later than I expected and made the few hours drive down to Katherine, to camp in Katherine Gorge National park for the night, somewhere I had been a couple of times already, and well worth a trip.
I got up early at 6am and headed off at 7am, and as I drove the landscape changed from the quite lush landscape around Kakadu, and opened up a little, into drier, and more wild country, with the huge termite mounds being a constant feature.
I got to the small town of Mataranka quite early, and was amused to see a very green park entering town, with these coloured painted sculptures which looked like they were made from paper cache.
I parked in a parking lot next to a huge old fig tree. There were lots of aboriginal people around the park, who were just getting up, moving their swag to sit under the huge old fig tree, maybe even for the rest of the day.
I went over the road to this little cafe, and from the aboriginal man, I bought a couple of hot scones with a huge amount of jam and whipped cream. After I ate the scones, I went back to the van and there was an aboriginal couple there sitting on the grass just a couple of meters outside the driverside of the van.
I started talking to them, mentioning the beauty of this place, and that it felt like an oasis. They seemed quite gracious and said they were not from here, but from other parts of the top end and they told me they were here for a change of scenery. Just behind them, there were these huge grey/blue birds walking around. I asked them what they were, and they said Brolgas. Of course they were!
The birds seemed quite tame and they said you could feed them if you liked! I wasn’t game at the time, and got back into the van and on my way. I made a mental note to come back here and visit the springs another time, which looked really interesting, but seemed worthy of more time than a very quick visit.
Down the road, as the day gets hotter and the expanse opens up, it became drier until I get to the turnoff to the little township of Daly Waters. I took the side ride to the right to go into town and at the end of it, there is the touristy little shop, which turns out to be quite a big place, but with no customers in it.
I park my van under some shade and scrape the top of the van into some branches which damages the side of the top quite a lot more than I thought it should!
oh well, there goes my $250 bond. It looked like someone else had done the same thing, and the campervan company had clearly done a basic patchup job.
As I drove out of Daly Waters, I went to look at the tree into which explorers John Stuart had engraved an S and I also went to look at the old airfield where planes would land on their way from Singapore, and which was also used as a WWII base. This was all interesting enough to see.
Back on the road, soon there was a roadhouse and I turned left, onto a road towards the coast where there was only one lane, so when a car came, you had to either get off the road or else leave a wheel on there bitchumen. A lot of the little cars would go into the dirt, while the trucks would expect you to go into the dirt. Whoever is biggest, gets to stay on the bitchumen seemed to be the rule.
Now I could really feel, I was out in the sticks, and this was a long straight stretch, I got out at several points, even though it was quite hot, to look at the plants, and I found myself in this sharp and contrasty silence. Raw nature. Finally.
Then after a couple of hours driving on the straight roads, listening to music and podcasts, I end up in this little place which has a motel complex, some big shaded trees and a little roadhouse. Some aboriginal people are milling around a couple of 4wd’s. I go into the store, buy some cold water and two lighters. The lady charges me $8 for the two cheap looking lighters, with “Heartbreak Motel” written on them! She doesn’t even flinch slightly at my unholy exclamation at the price. Then I make myself some tea on the stove in the van and film some cheeky, loud birds singing wildly.
Then later in the afternoon I arrive in Borroloola. On the way into town I see some Aboriginal people get out of their 4wd and look at some plants curiously. Immediately, I feel a strange energy here, like I am somewhere entirely else, a different country. Driving through town and then back again, I can see that maybe 2/3rd’s of the people are Aboriginal and then the other 1/3rd are white. There are all sorts of characters in the road, and in the street. The vibe here is hectic and at once controlled.
I pull up in a service station and have to go into the store to get them to turn the pump on and explain to the aboriginal girl I don’t know how much the tank will cost when full, especially with the inflated prices here and only then will they let me fill the tank without prepaying. The shop seems to be run by a paranoid looking old guy with a white beard, who keeps coming out to check on me filling up. Later when I pay In the store, I see him with a clipboard writing down the readings from a breathalyser, as he tests an aboriginal man who wants to buy a slab of beer!
There is some strange energy in this town, like its a government facility or concentration camp. I drive out of town and see a sign, which says “Warning Next fuel 314 kilometres Hells Gate.”
Initially when I looked at the drive in Darwin, I figure this road cannot be TOO bad, afterall it is marked Number 1 on the highway system, and being the No 1 road in Australia it mustn’t be too bad! (yeah, good logic I know)
As I take this road into the bush, the road starts corrugate pretty bad, which means I can’t travel too fast at all, without it being quite too noisy and jolty and bumpy. Every now and then, I get out and look at some of the plants and trees, and find the nature out here is just pristine. I take some photos and keep driving, seeing how far I can make it tonight.
Then I hit a water crossing, not too severe, but where were the signs saying this was a 4wd only road? I think they pretty much expect you to have 4wd out here!
Then at the next water crossing I see some guys collecting some water from the river, who council me on the drive through the rocky river, as it looks really quite deep. But I have experience with these water crossings, having lived in a house that had 12 river crossings.
Then towards dusk, I see a camp of about 8 people sitting around a fire next to 2 4WD’s. It gets dark and I keep driving. When it becomes dark, I can feel that the spirit of the land is even more distilled. I decide to stop driving at 8pm, and find a place by a river to pullover. But when I stop near a river, there is pain in my heart, which is really strong. I have no idea what that is about, so I keep driving, up and away from the river a few hundred metres until my intuition tells me it is okay to stop.
Immediately, I turn off the engine, get out of the van and I am into the silence, the stars here are just crystal clear, and I start slipping into an altered state. And this is normal when you really get out into the wilderness, but I don’t think most people ever really get the chance or know it is possible. I think Australia is one of these few places in the world you can actually find places like this which will transport you. (Africa is the other continent)
This is a strong state I find myself in, probably equivalent to about 200 micrograms of LSD strong, at least for me. I go over into the scrub and stand on the earth and meditate. Immediately, my feet are pulsing, lightly physically jolting, like my energy field can truly meet the earth here. There is life all around me, I can’t quite see all the beings clearly, but there are many around me. Then I sit down on the earth and meditate for about half an hour.
An old aboriginal lady comes to me, like she is part of nature, just so old, like a tree or a shrub, and asks me to help her people. At that time, I wonder what I can do? It seems like such a big problem. Since that time, I have thought about it, and some ideas have come. And more than that, it just seems like one problem in a world with so many problems. So many people being fucked over, the majority really.
I go to sleep at 10pm, and wake up completely refreshed at 4am. It is probably the best I have slept in a long time. I get going at 6am, as I know this road is slow. Soon, the forrest opens up a bit, and I reach the border with QLD. There is a bit of bitchumen, but then back to the corrugation.
Finally in the mid morning I get to “Hells Gate”, which is a tiny little roadhouse in a big green clearing with a petrol pump. There is a middle aged bald man and an attractive blonde lady running the shop, selling cutesy things like herbal tea and various knick knacks. There is another couple in the shop, and the bald man says to the man, “It’s a wonderful life isn’t it?”
There is just something about this place – you are not anywhere, in between somewhere. It feels real, but also alien, truly alive. I felt this way when I was 15 and went on a school bus trip to visit Uluru with my school.
I asked the blonde lady if I can have an iced coffee, but she does’t know how to make one! So I tell her how (put the expresso in cold milk and add ice) She brings it to me and it is wonderful. I leave and tell them they should put iced coffee on the menu, which they think is a good idea.
The road onwards opens up more into cattle farms, some interesting rock formations and more of a feeling of “civilisation”, farms and more sealed road. Eventually I arrive at an aboriginal community called Doomadgee, which I heard of somewhere before. I go for a little drive around town and notice nothing too special. Both black and white people are looking at me funny and I can see there is a big river beyond the town.
I can feel there are bad spirits here. The same feeling in my heart I had in Booroola. It is quite strong. Funnily enough when I go to the roadhouse, there are instructions saying that it is not allowed to go outside of commercial areas.
Some time driving outside of Doomadgee, I stop on a concrete waterway, and when stopping see the front left tyre slip off, and then onto the rocks which are covered in a metal net. I get out of the van horrified to see the left back tyre is almost slipping as well. It takes me a good 15 minutes thinking about how I can get out of this, eventually, I decide to turn the wheel to the right, and just hope it will bring the van off the rocks. With great relief, I find it works.
There are quite a few rivers out this way which I find surprising, the country is not as sparse as you may think also, lots of bridges to cross. And I even encounter groups of wild horses a couple of times.
And then another town begins, seemingly the first real town, with just a few shops, a park and some people wandering around.
Eventually I come to a memorial for Burke and Wills, the fated expedition that started in Melbourne and got as far this, and they tried to see the coast from their camp at the billabong, but could only see mudflats. They all died trying to get back to Melbourne apart from one of them who survived because the aboriginals found him and took him in.
At the memorial, was the water hole where they camped at, and where they engraved their names into trees. Though there is not much left of the trees into which they made the engravings. Of course I was the only one there, and it is quite a thought provoking sight.
At dusk, I make it to Normanton, finally to a caravan park, which I can plug my camper into. It feels like now I am back into civilisation, but the funny thing, I was not “out” for so long, but it was like slipping into the dreamtime, into the “never never”, the dreamtime which is eternal.
Back onto completely sealed roads, the next day the first interesting thing I see is a town called Croydon, which used to be the 4th biggest town in Queensland, once being a gold mining town and now a shadow of its former self. The town in quite setup for tourists, though there isn’t much to see, except a huge museum which was interesting enough and a few buildings that retain some colonial charm.
The land then became more and more fertile, more habitable. Then I drive into what looks to be the first real town called Georgetown. It is like a small town out of the 1950’s. I order a bacon and egg hamburger at the roadhouse there. The girl at the counter gives me a meat patty hamburger by mistake, but then quite embarrassed by her mistake, cooks me a bacon and egg hamburger. The few other people around the roadhouse, all I can hear of their conversations are names of other places, “Cairns”, “Brisbane” “Sydney”: the big smoke. But the horizon is vast in this town, what little there is of it, it is just a little blip on the map.
And then onwards I go through Mount Surprise which is a big centre for gem collectors and also has a railway station, and I do find a restored railway carriage in the middle of nowhere taking tourists for rides.
I take the van trundling forward until I reach the dry rainforests. I have never seen dry rainforest before and the vegetation is completely different to a normal rainforest, as the trees have to survive the long dry season each year.
Then I end up in almost a real town, Mount Garnett, go into the service station there and find some organic coconut water in the fridge! I eventually get to the hot springs of Inot, which is a small river, out of which comes the hot water. I put on my bathers and go down and lie in the hot water for about half an hour. They are not too hot and very refreshing! Apparently some people burn themselves because they are too hot. My journey is almost at an end, and I feel very good.
Then I drive to Kuranda in the middle of the rainforest, just a half from Cairns, and order fish and salad at a cafe there late at night, and after that drive to Milla Milla, in the dark, finally in the rainforest, which as I know, creeps on you so suddenly.
I take the van back to Carins the day after I tour around the tablelands looking for plants. They don’t seem too worried about the damage as they note it has been damaged there before, and I’m happy to get my $250 deposit and $250 fuel money back. And they also don’t seem phased that the screws have completely fallen out of the fridge due the shaking from the corrugation, and don’t seem to notice that I carried out the trip a few hundred kilometres shorter than if I had of taken the sealed road from Darwin to Cairns. It was a great trip, so much better than I thought it would be, so nice to experience the diversity and breadth of the Australian landscape, and have a little glimpse into remote towns and aboriginal people.