The Trek North to Darwin

The Devils Marbles

Blog #18 – The Trek North – Days 111 to 130 of 180

The game plan was to stock up on supplies in Alice before heading north as there not many large towns on the Stuart Highway with large grocery stores.  There are some places out here where cash is king so it is wise to make sure you are carrying some.  I also topped off my gas tank for the BBQ whilst I had the chance then fueled up.  Simone & Wendy had already gone through on the way to Ti Tree as the day was getting on.

Ti Tree Roadhouse & Caravan Park

We left Alice at 1.30 pm with 194 klms before our next stop at the Ti Tree Roadhouse.  The road was long, hot & boring with not much to see.  We rolled into Ti Tree at 4pm and booked into the Caravan Park behind the roadhouse after being advised not to stay at the free campground due to some petty thievery.  This is an issue in some places in the NT which does not seem to be well controlled.  The tourist park operators in Alice had also warned us that you need to lock things like all the trailer doors overnight.  This was very disappointing, as well as an inconvenience, locking everything up each night, especially for me as the trailer has 7 lockable cabinets.

To stay overnight here on an unpowered site is $25 each which is very expensive compared to other places we have stayed.  The pub food was mediocre and the fuel very expensive.  If you have a choice and come this way, find another place to stay.

Overnight I received a message from Wendy saying she had a change of plans and was going to Gemtree to do some birdwatching instead.

So, Simone, Greg & I had dinner at the Roadhouse Hotel that night and planned the next stage of the trip.  Simone had to be in Darwin by the 13th as her van was booked into Jayco for repairs.  Her van was in serious need of repairs as the door locks were not working (made of plastic) plus the door frame itself was loose.  Simone was heading to Banka Banka the next day as she was running out of time.  Our journey north would be much more leisurely.

For someone like me living in rural Victoria with excellent communication facilities it is disappointing travelling in outback SA & NT where these services are abysmal.  I know in an emergency I can use my sat phone to summon help but just everyday communications such as checking for news, weather or post blogs the task is almost impossible.  Is it the end of the world? – no, but the people in the outback get a very poor service from the big telcos compared to the people living on the eastern part of the country who take these services for granted.

Karlu Karlu/The Devils Marbles

Next morning it was up early to head for Karlu Karlu/ The Devils Marbles another 210 klms further north. Along the way we passed the turnoff to Ali Curung which used to be called Warrabri.  Mum & Dad taught here for a very short stint on their way to Areyonga.  As it was 40 klms in & out down dirt roads I gave that a miss and pushed on.  There are only 28 campsites at Karlu Karlu and it was on a first in first served basis.  We arrived and the camping area was already more than half full at 10am.  By midday the place was packed.  As we had plenty of time before our flights from Darwin, we decided to stay here for 4 days as well.  There were plenty of walks around the rock formations to enjoy the scenery. 

The Devils Marbles are a sacred site known as Karlu Karlu in the language of the traditional owners the Warumungu people. These impressive granite boulders are peppered around a sprawling valley about 100 kilometres to the south of Tennant Creek.

The “Marbles” have been formed over millions of years by the act of erosion and rise up out of the desert scenery in a surreal display of granite – kind of like a natural art exhibition. Each boulder comes in a different size, ranging from between 50 centimetres to six metres across. Perhaps the most amazing part of the scene is that many of the huge stones are balanced on top of each other, seeming to defy gravity. Even today, they are continuously evolving in a constant stream of cracking and erosion.

As well as making an eye-catching natural landscape, the Devils Marble are important to the local Warumungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra, and Warlpiri people who live in the traditional country that surrounds them. They refer to the wonder as Karlu Karlu which, when translated into English, simply means “round boulders”.

The Aboriginal history surrounding the Marbles is fascinating, and they are now protected under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act. Many legends of the stones have been passed down through several generations, but they are incredible secret so only a few can be shared amongst visitors in the region.  One of the most popular Dreamtime stories that involves the rocks relates to how they came to be. The legend introduces “Arrange”, an ancient ancestor of the local people who once walked through the area. As he passed through, he made a hair-string belt, which is a traditional garment worn by initiated Aboriginal men. As he began spinning the hair into strings, he dropped big clumps of them which then turned into the big red boulders we see today. According to the end of the legend, Arrange went back to his origins in Ayleparrarntenhe, where he is thought to still live today.

Over the next days I was totally gobsmacked as some of the feral members of our society clambered up and over the rocks totally disregarding the signs saying this was a sacred site and not to climb over rocks.  Unfortunately, there was no ranger permanently on station here to enforce the rules.  When I spotted them, I would call out to remind them that this was a sacred site and that they should get off the rocks.  Our ability to visit these places could be put in jeopardy by this crass stupidity.  It is already being seen in places such as Kakadu where some locations are now closed to visitors due to such disrespect.

The nights here were very crisp and cold but excellent for sleeping.  The howling of the dingoes in the distance each night reminded us of who was the apex predator in the bush in these parts.

Banka Banka Station

After 4 days at Karlu Karlu it was time to be back on the road again.  We had packed up the previous night and only had to hitch the trailers on to get an early start.  Tennant Creek was a 100 klms north so we opted to fuel up and have breakfast there.  Our trip today would be around 207 klm which makes for an easy day’s drive.  Again, we had been told by others coming south that we needed to be there early as it filled up fast so we were on the road by 0730.  The other good part about driving early in the mornings is it was quite cool and did not overly tax the vehicles.

Arrived in Tennant Creek just as the town was opening up for business.  There already was a queue at the fuel station due to one diesel pump not working.  I was going to have breakfast there but there was no parking for trailers so drove back into town looking for a café.  The first one I found didn’t really make coffee the owner said but he could make me an instant coffee.  I politely declined but he did tell me there was a fancy café on the other side and up the street that might help.  Best advice I had had that day as the coffee at the Red Centre Café was good and the toasties even better.  So, I ordered breakfast for Greg & I as takeaway as he was still in the queue at the fuel station.   Once he had fueled up and breakfast transferred it was time to be back on the road heading north.  We arrived just after 10am with only 2 others in the queue before us.  The manager came out and told us that they didn’t take bookings until 11am but if we wanted too, we could drive around to the area for unpowered sites and setup camp and pay them later.  Also, we could have as much water as we needed as their supply was spring fed and limitless.  Very civilized I must say.  The campsite was lovely & grassed even though it did not have the correct orientation to utilise my roof solar panels but I would be OK using the supplemental Safiery 250W Solar Blanket.  The cost here was quite cheap and we paid only $10 each per night for an unpowered site.  First thing we did was dump our water tanks and fill with the spring water.  There was no need to put the large camping mat down as we were on grass so that saves time. 

Again, we opted to stay for four days to fill the time in.  There really was not a great deal to see at Banka Banka so it was time to relax and do a little maintenance on the vehicles.  It was a very peaceful place but a little too close to the highway for my liking with road trains going through at night time which tends to disrupt your sleep.

It was good to talk to other grey nomads as you can find all types of snippets on the good and the bad of places stay.  This way you can build a small reference of places to visit or stay in the future.  The other major chore to get done was the washing and this we did before all the machines were taken up by the latecomers.

The motorbike had not been off the trailer for quite a while so we offloaded it and Greg took it down to the waterhole some 2 klm away.  On the way back he had a flat tire on the front but he managed to limp it back to the trailer.  We found it had sheared off the inlet valve on the tube.  This was not a spare I had contemplated so off I went to have a chat to the manager.  Their mobiles were hooked to a satellite via Optus so they rang the tyre place in Tennant Creek for me.  They had a spare but could not change the tyre for me.  That was OK so the plan was I would drive back first thing in the morning to get the tube then do some shopping before heading back. 

Early start next morning to do the 200 klm round trip to Tennant Creek.  It was nice driving in the mornings as it quite cool.  Picked up the tube and was reminded by the proprietor they would not fit it for me – grumpy bastard – happy to pay the $35 and leave them to there version of customer care.  Went back to the Red Centre Café and had a substantial breakfast before heading back out of town.

On the way north again, I found the turnoff to the Devil’s Pebbles so went down to have a look.  They are nowhere near as impressive as the Marbles so took the obligatory photo and headed north again.

It was good having Greg along as he is very good mechanically and had the tyre repaired in no time.

Time to start charging batteries again as I was down to 50%.  So orientated the 250W solar blanket to the sun and started charging.  After an hour I was back to 100%.  One of the park rules here was that you could not use generators which in way is good as the park was very peaceful from a noise perspective.

All too soon it was time to pack up again.  It seems foolish now but Greg & I had a disagreement as to where stuff was as, to me, I couldn’t find where stuff was.  Anyway, I ended up packing all my gear away myself that night ready for an early start.

Daly Waters Pub

Another 200 klm drive early the next day saw us at the iconic Daly Waters Pub.  The owner must be a bit of an aviation buff as there are bits of aircraft & helicopters everywhere including a DeHavilland Sea Venom from when Australia had aircraft carriers (HMAS Melbourne & HMAS Sydney).  Both of those ex WWII ships have long been retired – HMAS Sydney being the last as it retired after the Vietnam War.

The pub is quite interesting and like others has become the final resting place for ladies’ undies and bras tacked to the roof.  I wonder what aliens would think of this culture shock if they ever saw it.  Also in the bar was a massive moose head – where that came from, I have no idea.

The camp ground was mainly dirt & stone and getting very packed by 1030am.  Again, we opted to stay for 4 days.  All the time we had been discussing the route to follow once we returned from Perth.  What I was not aware of was that Greg was now in serious pain from his back injury and did not want to do more dirt.  That afternoon he announced he was going to Perth the next day via Port Augusta and was abandoning the trip.  This came as quite a shock to me but it was his decision.  Why he would go that way and not cut across to the WA border from Katherine I have no idea.

Juvenile Grey Butcherbird

We transferred all my gear that he was carting and split the supplies before settling in for the night.  By this stage all the borders were open.  Greg left early the next morning heading south.  I kept texting him to make sure he was Ok as that journey was long.  He made the SA/WA border in three days only to miss the deadline by two hours and would need to quarantine in his daughter’s house for 14 days.  As I was also to stay at Angela’s for her birthday this put me in a bind as I could no longer stay there because Greg was there in quarantine.  Sadly, I made the decision to cancel my flights so I could not attend either.  QANTAS was good and credited the flights so I will use that to visit my sister Fiona around Christmas (fingers crossed COVID does not interfere again).

However, even with the setback of Greg leaving the journey will continue as I had a friend to visit in Darwin.  There was not much to do at Daly Waters once you had visited the museum exhibits and enjoyed the pub grub but drink but even that palls after a while.  Most days I spent looking for birds and did manage to get some shots of red-tailed black cockatoos and red-winged parrots.  The weather was heating up which made things uncomfortable for sleeping.  I had forgotten my youth when growing up in Papua New Guinea and was not used to this sort of heat and this was the dry season and supposed low humidity!

All too soon it was time to pack again and hit the road.  Another early start for the following day to beat the rest of the travelers into the next stop.  One thing that I forget to mention is that I have had another Safiery Solar Blanket failure.  This team it short-circuited and burnt a hole in the blanket.  This is now the fourth of these (two replaced under warranty including this latest one).  Unfortunately, they have no stock on hand so again my plans have changed in that I now look for powered sites which are appreciably more expensive.

Mataranka Homestead

Pulled into Mataranka Homestead Resort after a leisurely 2 ½ hour drive up from Daly Waters Pub.  I was the first in that morning and lucked onto a powered site close the amenities and only 250 metres from the heated pools.  Again, opted for another 4 days stay as our bookings in Darwin were still in place even if I was not going to fly.

One part of the journey that I have enjoyed is visiting many different places along the way and I am still surprised that many of my fellow travelers come to one place and stay for months.  The bloke next to me had been at Mataranka for two months and planned to stay for another two months before returning to Adelaide.  I don’t think I could ever do that especially as there are limited activities around here.

I did enjoy the heated pools and spent three hours a day bobbing around the pool on a pool noodle each day.  Had to drive into town to buy the noodle and supplies which was about 10 klms away.  The small town had three service stations and two supermarkets plus a convenience store which was quite surprising.  They also sold a great pie – not as good as Copley in SA but not bad.  Like many territory towns they have a liquor problem with the indigenous people.  You really had to watch them as they lurched out of the pub into roadway without looking.  Very sad to see this sort of behaviour whenever I went into town.

There are two springs near the town and I went to visit the other, Bitter Springs, on the second day.  It was much more difficult to get too as there is limited parking and it was quite bit cooler.  A few days after I left Mataranka, it was closed due to crocodiles being spotted in that section of the river.  You need to have a healthy respect for salty dogs in the NT & Nth Qld and there is plenty of signage warning where you cannot swim.

I enjoyed my stay at the Mataranka Homestead but did not bother going down to the entertainment at night as I was not really interested in the world-famous whip cracking show played to music.  I would much rather read a book as that was not my type of entertainment.

It was becoming a habit now where I would pack up the night before so I could get an early start the next day.  Because of the huge number of tourists in the NT at this time many places would not take bookings anymore and it was a case of get there early to get a spot.

Pine Creek – The Lazy Lizard

One big croc skeleton

Rolled into Pine Creek around 1000 am to be told that no bookings would be done until 1100 am.  So, I parked up and sat outside enjoying a coffee and a slice of cake whilst I waited.  I was very surprised when a ½ later Simone, whom we had met at Trephina Gorge, showed up for fuel.  I thought she would have been in WA by now after getting her caravan fixed but she had decided to do Litchfield NP and the walks around there before trekking west.  It was nice to catch up with someone I had met.

Finally booked into a non-powered site for two days at the Lazy Lizard Caravan Park.  Setup camp then went for a drive around the town that took all of 5 minutes – it is not very big.  It is one of the gateway towns into Kakadu so is quite busy.

I had been following the posts of a professional bird photography guide Mark Rayner who due to COVID had been stuck in NT with a group of photographers.  He had stayed here the previous week and taken photos of the rare Hooded Parrot.  So, I contacted him on Facebook to find where in town they were spotted.  It was in the park not 200 metres from where I was staying so off, I went to search.  Sadly, I could not find any.  The next morning as I got up, I spotted three of them not 10 metres from my camper so sneaked over to the car to grab the camera.  Managed to get quite a few shots until another nearby camper strolled over to ask what I was photographing. The birds took off not be seen again. Grrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!  At least I managed some shots.

The food at this park was quite good and reasonably priced plus it saved me from having to cook.   As this was only a short stay, I had not unpacked much so it was easy to pack everything that second night for another early start for Darwin.

Australian Bustards – there were 9 in the group but too far apart to get them in a single shot

Darwin Boomerang Motel & Caravan Park

After another 2 hour drive I had finally arrived into Darwin.  The place I was staying is called Virginia but Coolalinga is the closest suburb with lots of shops.  The Caravan Park has a tavern attached to it.  This Park is quite small compared to most others with only 60 sites in total.  The journey north had now ended but I was not going to be flying anywhere so time to sit down and start planning the next leg of the journey with thoughts of coming home not so far away.

Next time COVID rears its ugly head again and forces another change in plan.

5 Comments on “The Trek North to Darwin

  1. Love the Devils marbles, gorgeous rock formations and those stunning colours..such gorgeous cockatoos..and Daly waters pub looks interesting..Mataranka looks pretty with the warm pools..how great to spend time bobbing around in them..love the hooded parrots ..gorgeous colours..termite mounds look amazing too.. great read Dave..stay safe travelling solo..x ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reading again mate l am really enjoying you tales mate. Also pissed off with covid for the first time as l can’t get to my sons wedding in Cairns

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another good read. Love the photos too. Seems a shame Greg has bailed but if he was in pain hat’s understandable. Its amazing how full the caravan parks get, I guess its all those baby boomers going on road trips. Covid is stuffing up loads of holiday plans. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Wooly, well, you certainly have had some changes along the way. Sorry Greg had to leave the trip; I hope he recovers from his back pain soon.

    Still loving all your photos, I love that one of the red-tailed black cockatoos, the hooded parrots too, even the female was a pretty colour, shame about the camper that scared them off. That heated pool would have been awesome for aches and pains. You have been so lucky to have missed the covid 19 shuts. But I think you may be about to run into some now. We were doing okay for a while. I look forward to your next blog. ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

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