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 The GRAYnomad Chronicles :: #009

Editorial

We drive and drive and drive, through north west Queensland, into Northern Territory, up the Stuart Highway and finally get to Darwin. It's been ten months since we left Canberra and at last we clap our eyes on the Arafura sea and wonder...now what!

On reaching the top end we get to watch some television and, just to reinforce my last editorial, we see a story about the collapse of Worldcom.

The reporter was interviewing some of the 14,000 workers who have a very uncertain future, people with mortgages, kids, cars payments etc., all wondering how they are going to manage.

Then we cross to aerial shots of million-dollar extensions being performed on multi-million-dollar mansions owned by Worldcom executives, the same executives who cashed in their share options days before the crash.

We cross again, this time to President Bush saying what bad boys Woldcom et al are and that big business has to have higher ideals and should do the right thing. Yeah right!

Well mister Bush you didn't go far enough! These bastards are enemies of the state, they cause more heartache and pain than any gun-wielding slob knocking over a petrol station at 3AM. They should be jailed and stripped of any assets obtained in these scams.

Thud..ouch! (sound of Rob falling of soapbox).

As it happens the Worldcom farce may have a direct affect on this web site, you see it's hosted by Ozemail and it seems that Ozemail is owned by Worldcom. So if the site disappears one day it's probably because someone pulled the plug on my ISP.

 

 

Mon 3 Jun 2002

I spend the morning poking around the Stockman's Hall of Fame, getting some film developed in town and checking last night's uploads to the web site. Then after lunch we leave town.

11501
Statue outside the Stockman's Hall of Fame.

At about 4PM we stop for coffee at a rest area about 40k from Winton. There's not much here so I suggest that we should press on a while and, almost simultaneously, fall asleep in my recliner, so we stay put.

Shortly after sunset a drilling crew pulls in right next to us. The driver leaves the engine running for ages but we assume that it was just to let the turbo cool or something.

Eventually he kills the motor but that only reveals that another smaller engine is also running. "Oh that's just to provide power for the crew to cook" I say, somewhat hopefully. I peer out from the truck and, sure enough, the crew is cooking.

A couple of hours later it seems that they are still cooking. I peer out again and their van is in total darkness. Further investigation reveals a freezer truck parked on the other side of their rig. There's no way it will be turned off tonight so we fire up Wothahellizat and move to a gravel dump a few kilometres down the road.

11505
I climbed up on a mound of dirt to photograph the truck but decided the mound's shadow was more interesting.

Tue 4 Jun

After an early start we park on one of Winton's side streets shortly after the shops open. It's still windy as we walk the main street, eventually arriving at the Matilda Centre.

11507
Interesting garbage bins in Winton's main street.

11508
Banjo Paterson's statue at the Matilda Museum.

Here we purchase a book of mud maps of the surrounding area then head south on the Jundah road towards the Bladensburg National Park.

The track notes in the book indicate the distance to each turnoff and item of interest, but none of the figures match with our odometer (which I had tested just yesterday).

Eventually we reach the Bough Shed water hole and are pleasantly surprised to actually find some water in it.

11509
Campsite at the Bough Shed water hole in Bladensburg National Park.

Wed 5 Jun

Leaving the water hole we drive west until we hit the Jundah road then turn north back to Winton. There's a Flying Doctor Bash passing through Winton at present and many of the cars race past us.

Chris notices a lone sheep on the side of the road so we stop to investigate. I find that the sheep has little use of its legs and can only manage to hobble on its knees. I try to approach slowly but each time I move a bit closer the sheep struggles to escape.

Realising that I'm causing the animal distress I try another approach and stride quickly towards it. This works because the sheep doesn't even try to escape such a fast moving object and simply sits there.

Closer inspection reveals that this is an old sheep, probably just dying from old age. I don't quite know what to do, if I had a rifle I could put it out of its presumed misery but I don't so I leave it with a bowl of water.

11514
Sick sheep on the side of the road.

A few kilometres down the road we encounter another strange sight. There's a Toyota Tarago parked on the side of, and facing, the road. Nothing strange about that in itself but there are three safety seats, of the type used for babies, sitting on the ground in front of the car facing the road, rather like they were for sale. Still nothing particularly strange I suppose, until we notice that there are three babies sitting in the seats. Now that's strange, I wonder if the babies were for sale.

We arrive back in Winton, have breakfast, and drive out of town via the main street. The road to Kynuna is extremely long and straight. Most of the time the view through the windscreen is exactly the same as the view in the mirrors, a dead straight highway stretching to the horizon where it shimmers in the heat haze and merges, seamlessly, with the sky.

Pulling into Kynuna we decide to stay next to the BP roadhouse for $5 rather than continue in the hope of finding a spot further down the road.

11517
They don't like people free camping in Kynuna.

The five dollar fee includes power which we don't really need as our batteries are full, but I will allow me to fire up the big computer and do some scanning of the negatives I had processed in Longreach.

Thu 6 Jun

There appears to be three resident Brolgas in the park and they are doing the rounds of the vans when I emerge. Many people feed them but I'm content to take photographs.

11520
Brolgas looking for a feed from the caravan park's occupants.

11523
It's amazing what you can scratch with a long neck.

I do some servicing before we leave and, after topping up the engine oil, I remove the piece of wood that passes as a bonnet prop and go to place it in the appropriate spot when I fall off the ladder.

I land on two feet and the bonnet closes so I think no more about it and we drive off.

About 15k down the track there's a mighty bang from somewhere under the cab. I bring the truck to a halt and we clamber out to see what the problem is. We spend several minutes peering here and there but there is no obvious witness marks or missing bits. Then I remember the earlier ladder incident.

I open the bonnet and, sure enough, there's the piece of 2x1 sitting down near the side of the motor with a large chunk gouged from it. It seems that when I fell I did so before I had correctly placed the prop in the correct spot and, after a while, it fell onto the engine fan.

We lunch in Mc Kinlay and spend a few minutes checking out the pub that was used in the Crocodile Dundee movie.

11602
The Walkabout Creek pub as used in the Crocodile Dundee movie. Same pub, different location, it's been moved to the highway to make it easier for the tourists.

An hour or so later the truck encounters it's first hill in weeks as we approach Cloncurry. I actually have to change gears on the open highway, something I don't think I've done since we left Carnarvon Gorge several weeks ago.

We pass straight through Cloncurry and drive into the sun through a fascinating landscape of rocky hills, finally pulling into a rest area 60k east of Mount Isa, it's already chock-a-block with campers enjoying happy hour. After some messing around getting the truck level I join them but I have to take wine, I've run out of beer :-(

Things are finally warming up, whether this is because we've travelled a few hundred kilometres north or it's just got warmer we don't know, and don't care. As long as it's warm.

Fri 7 Jun

After a quick cuppa we leave the rest area and drive towards Mount Isa (the Isa). The landscape between Cloncurry and the Isa is an amazing collection of small boulder-strewn hills looking rather like huge piles of rubble.

We pull into a rest area within sight of town and consult our map. It seems that there may be some spots along the Liechardt River so we determine our route through town and drive off.

The plan is simple, we turn left at the shopping centre, drive over the bridge, then turn left again and we're along the river.

Things start well, the left-hand turn at the shopping centre goes off without a hitch and we carry on to the bridge. However, just before we get to it, we see that it has a load limit of eight tonnes so we're forced to turn right into one of the main streets.

No problem, we'll go over another bridge, around the block, then hang a right into the street we want. We do this but as we approach the street we discover that the intersection has a "no right turn" sign.

Now we're stuck, we can't turn right and can't go straight ahead because of the limit on the bridge. The curbing is designed so a right-hand turn is impossible without driving over a gutter or two, which of course is exactly what we do.

It looks like we're here at least until Tuesday as our mail hasn't arrived and it's a long weekend so we have to find somewhere to stay.

We spend the day browsing the shops and searching for a camping spot with no luck on the campsite front. One caravan park said we could stay on a vacant field with no services for $10 a night. We're here for at least four nights so that's $40 for the privilege of parking on their dirt. We drive back out the highway and park on the Department of Main Road's dirt for free.

Sat 8 Jun

The underground tours of the mine are booked out until next Friday so I go exploring as best I can from public land.

I find what appears to be a disused barracks, a very depressing building with all windows and most doors bricked up.

11607
The rear of the old barracks. Note the bricked up windows and anti-climb spikes on the down pipe.

Not far away is an empty office building, the sign on the front says "Enterprise Mine Site Office" but it's obviously not been occupied for years so presumably the Enterprise Mine now has a new office.

11611
The Enterprise Mine's old headquarters.

For an hour or so I explore every room of the large rabbit warren of a building. It's quite depressing seeing the remnants all the occupant's workaday lives. Old press clippings, manilla folders and data cables are strewn over the floor of what was obviously a busy place. It's also a little spooky as many of the rooms lack windows and are pitch black.

I had just finished reading "The Postman", a story about post-apocalypse USA, so the exploring of these deserted buildings seemed somehow appropriate, as though I was a character in the book.

11613
One of the old mine heads.

While I am walking around one of the old mine heads a security guard rides up on his bike, his shift is about to start but he seems happy to chat. He's been a miner all his life, originally in northern Wales, until making the change to security guard. He explains what many of the buildings and structures are and, while much of it went over my head, I did absorb enough to give me a better feel for how things work.

11616 11623
Downtown Mt Isa from the lookout.

11618
Locomotive and mine head.

11606
The leaning chimneys of Mt Isa.

11610
The original open cut, that's one big hole.

11621
Machinery near the copper smelter.

11615
The copper smelter.

11620
Detail of the copper smelter.

Shortly after, while photographing the copper smelter from the side of the road, another guard pulls up in a security vehicle. "Just travelling are you?" he asks, "Yeah, this machinery is fascinating" I reply, "thought I'd get some photos". He tells me of another spot where I can get some shots.

Given the heightened terrorist awareness in the US these days I wonder what these two guard's responses would have been at an American mine.

Tue 11 Jun

Finally the shops are open. I collect our mail then spend a couple of hours in the Telstra shop setting up a new dial-in account.

By the time we're ready to go it's nearly 4PM, too late to do much driving but we decide to at least leave town even if it's only for a few kilometres.

I remembered that there was water available outside the showgrounds so we drop in to fill up. Max & Dorothy Haines and Alan & Margerate Harris are camped there so we decide to stay.

Wed 12 Jun

Up early and hit the track. It's 185k to Camooweal on a notoriously bad road and I'd like to get it over with. As we leave town we see our first hint that we're heading to the Territory, a sign reads "Darwin 1606".

We'd been talking with Alan & Max about how slow we drive and I had said that no matter what time we leave they would still pass us. Secretly however I wanted to get to Camooweal before them.

As it turned out we didn't think the road was as bad as everyone said, it is only one lane for much of the trip but, as we are driving a heavy vehicle, we don't get off the road for cars, so most of the trip is on bitumen.

As we approach the 80k zone just outside Camooweal I see Alan's motorhome coming up behind me, we're only a kilometre or so from the town limit and I'm desperate to get there before him so I plant the foot.

The truck rockets from its usual 65k cruising speed to 66 and then 67k, huh, eat your heart out Alan Harris, catch me if you can.

We pull into a rest area just inside the town, it looks nice enough but we've heard about a good spot just out the other side of town so Alan borrows a car from a friend and we go to investigate. It's a great spot so Wothahellizat moves, the others seem happy to stay in town.

The area we move to is along the banks of the Georgina River just about 2k out of town. The actual river is dry but there is a large water hole that forms a wetlands haven for birds. We pick a spot on the bank and set up camp.

Thu 13 Jun

We really should continue north today but what's the point of this lifestyle if you can't hang around when you find a nice place. There is a large number of waterbirds here, Brolgas, Herons, Cormorants and Egrets to name a few.

Early this morning the horses came down to drink. Apparently the other day they were frolicking in the shallows which would have been great to photograph but today I am content to get a shot of them drinking and then spend the rest of the day wandering around with the camera and relaxing.

11702  11704  11714
Early morning light on the lilies.

11710
A Brolga looks for breakfast.

11715
Dancing Brolgas.

11719
Ducks cruise the lake before sunrise.

11711
Wothahellizat rests near the banks of the lagoon.

In the evening I sit with a beer and soak in the atmosphere. As the sun sets there's an incredible ranges of noises, all sorts of grunts, twitters, honks, quacks, screeches and squawks from who-knows how many birds.

Then the horses return and add to the cacophony with whinnying, neighing and the soft sucking sound of hooves being pulled from the clinging mud.

As if on some unheard signal the horses explode from the lake and disappear. I sit a little longer then go inside.

It's been a marvellous day, but tomorrow (and probably the next few days) we plan to put some miles under our belts.

11717
Evening.

Fri 14 Jun

The sun is barely off the horizon as we turn west onto the highway, the truck's shadow stretches ahead more than a hundred metres.

Just a few kilometres down the road we see a bright reflection guiding us westward like a beacon. As it turns out the guiding light is the sun reflecting off the "Welcome to the Northern Territory" sign, very appropriate. Seconds later we pass it and enter the Top End. At last.

For the entire day we continue west, at first chasing our ever-shortening shadow, then losing it for a while until it reappears behind us and, once again, grows enormous. Finally we pull into the 41 Mile Bore rest area, ten hours and 380k later.

There were only two items of interest today. Firstly, some cattle grids. We encountered two grids that, for the most part, were normal. They had all the usual infrastructure, such as warning signs and fences right up to the road. There was just one thing missing, the actual grid. In place of several steel rungs, separated to stop cattle crossing, there was only ten or so parallel white lines painted on the road.

Now I don't understand. I know that many animals cannot differentiate between a real object and a painted one so they are easily confused by an optical illusion, and I assume that's what is happening here.

But, what's with the signs? Can the cattle read? Do they look at the sign and think, "Bugger, I'd love to cross those lines and wrap my molars around that grass on the other side of the fence, it looks much greener. But, paint me black & white and call me a Friesian, if that ain't a cattle grid, it says so right there".

And if this isn't the case, why bother with the signs?

The second thing of interest was another sign. This one read "Take care with fire", well that makes sense, fire can be very dangerous, but in this case the advice was a little moot. The entire countryside for miles around had been burnt to a crisp, in fact the only thing not burnt was the sign.

11720
Take care with fire!! I guess not everyone reads signs.

Sat 15 Jun

It's late afternoon and I'm getting pretty tired when we finally reach the rest area we've been heading for, near Newcastle Waters. We pull in but there really isn't any flat spots and, when I apply the handbrake so I can get out and put levelling blocks under a wheel, it seems to have no affect. It has been a bit iffy lately and I figure it needs adjusting but not now. We'll have to camp somewhere else.

Fortunately, within a couple of kilometres we find a nice and flat truck rest area, we pull in and I promptly fall asleep. When I wake we have a neighbour camping out of his four-wheel-drive so I grab a beer and go for a chat.

Our neighbour's name is Graham and he was a teacher in the outback communities during the 50s and 60s and he had some interesting stories. For example, apparently, when twins were born to traditional aboriginal families the smallest and/or weakest was left to die. Why? because the families were nomadic, the man hunted and the woman gathered, but she also carried everything, including the young children.

It was not considered possible to carry two children as well as sundry goods and chattels so one child had to go. This sounds hard but then so was life for these people.

Another story he told me that illustrates the toughness of the aboriginal people is one about the woman who did his washing. She was a good worker and took pride in doing the job properly, but one day she asked if she could go home because she "had a pain".

The washing was done but not hung to dry so Graham said it was OK and he would get some of the children to hang the clothing. She was not happy as it was her job but the "pain" was getting worse so she left.

An hour or so later she return to finish the washing, complete with new-born baby. The "pain" was labour, she had ducked home to have a baby then returned to work.

In these days of six months maternity leave for the mother, three months I'd-like-to-stay-home-too leave for the father, and all sorts of grants that sponsor the over population of the planet, maybe we should take a leaf from the Australian Aboriginal's book.

During the course of the conversation it transpired that Graham knows a friend of ours from Canberra.

Sun 16 Jun

While performing my around-the-truck check this morning I noticed the cause of our handbrake problem. The spring brake chamber's bracket had broken and the chamber was swinging in the breeze. The result of this is that, when the chamber is activated, it's the chamber that moves and not the brake linkage.

I could probably fix it here but it will be easier with power so we decide to strap it to the chassis and drive to the next road house.

An hour or so later we pull into Dunmarra, we go into the road house and ask if we can pay a few dollars to plug in and do some welding. "How much welding?", the owner asked. "Not much", "How big's the welder?", "Just a small one".

He looked behind the counter as if consulting the "Not much welding with a small welder" price list then said "Are you going to buy anything while you're here?". Behind him there was the chalk board with the menu for the cafeteria and, as it happens, I'd been hankering for a hamburger for days so I said that we'd have lunch. No charge for the power.

Four hours later I've set up my workbench, removed a wheel, unbolted the broken bracket, prepped and re-welded it, added two gussets and some lengths of 10mm roundbar for strength, bolted it back onto the chassis, reconnected the linkages and airline, tested it, packed away the tools and workbench, had a shower and am sitting in the roadhouse eagerly awaiting my hamburger.

Our goal for today is to reach a rest area 33k south of Mataranka and spending four hours fixing a handbrake was not factored into that goal but we made it anyway.

As we pull in we see a couple of familiar motorhomes, the Max & Dorothy Haines and Allan & Margerate Harris are there and happy hour is already in full swing with some other travellers. We join in and sit around the campfire until midnight.

Mon 17 Jun

Pulling into Mataranka we stop in one of the large parking areas off the main street and go for a wander.

As we return and I'm just climbing into the cab when I spot a 6x6 ACCO pulling into the car park. It's driver had also spotted ours and he was making a bee-line for it.

It seems that they have three old ACCOs and they use them on the farm. He asked if he could take a photo with the trucks side by side to show his dad, I also take a photo.

11722
Two ACCOs, side by each. Seeing this original version took me back five years to when we bought ours.

We drive to the northern end of town and turn down the road to Bitter Springs, a small oasis with incredibly clear and deep water. You can swim here but not camp so we drive back through town and out to the "12 Mile" campground in the Elsey National Park where we check in for a day.

Tue 18 Jun

It's nice here so we decide to spend another day. Early in the morning we set off on the 4k walk to Mataranka Falls. It's a pleasant walk but the first 2k is mostly sand which makes it much harder.

The falls are very pleasant and apparently it's quite safe to swim although the signs further up river say something like "estuarine crocodiles are sometimes found after the wet season". It's the word "sometimes" that I don't like.

11801
You can swim here, crocodiles are only found "sometimes".

11803  11805
Mataranka falls and nearby creek with crystal-clear water.

The water is crystal clear and on drinking some I find that it's fairly warm and tastes peculiar. No surprise I suppose, after all the district is called the Mataranka Hot Springs and such water is likely to be laced with minerals. On exit from the ground the water temperature is 34 degrees which isn't really that hot, maybe they should have a name change in the spirit of full disclosure, how about the Mataranka Reasonably Tepid Springs.

Wed 19 Jun

We're leaving this morning so I go to lower the pop-top. It doesn't sound right, but worse than that, it doesn't work. There's obviously something wrong with the hydraulics. I try a couple of times with no joy so decide to investigate.

The hydraulic power pack is easily accessed in one of the storage bins, and when I lift the door I see hydraulic fluid everywhere. A closer look reveals that one of the steel lines had come out of its fitting so each time I activated the pump it simply spewed fluid, all over the contents on the floor of the bin.

We spend over an hour cleaning up and fixing the lines.

On our way out to the highway we drop in to the actual hot springs, nice but crowded and the park is very much a caravan park with rows of vans parked cheek by jowl, unlike 12 Mile which is very National Park-ish, with semi-secluded campsites most with their own picnic table set and access to a BBQ fire (bring your own wood).

Thu 20 Jun

We stop briefly in Pine Creek, then turn off on the "Scenic route" which is actually the old highway which also provides access to the Daly River area.

The drive is in fact quite scenic but when we see the turnoff to our proposed lunch spot we brake the cardinal rule of large motorhomes and poke our nose down the narrow trail without checking if we could fit all the way and/or turn around.

There is some good news, and some bad news. The good news is that we can fit all the way down the trail. The bad new is that we can't turn around at the end.

Due to various things, like trees and parked vehicles, it's almost impossible to turn the truck around. For over half an hour I nudge the nose around bit by bit, sometimes driving up the bank, sometimes into the scrub or into a dry boulder-strewn creek bed until, finally, we are pointing back the way we had come.

When finished someone who had been watching the whole episode came over and asks if I have power steering. When I say no he replied "Jees you must have shoulders like an ox!". Well I don't but if we do this too many time I will.

For the record the trail in question is the entry to Robin Falls, the falls are quite nice and there are several campsites, no facilities but a nice creek for swimming and plenty of shade.

11809
Robin Falls, a nice place but be careful if you're driving a large vehicle.

We rejoin the scenic route and before long reach the township of Adelaide River and spot an interesting sign at the show grounds.

11811
Adelaide River Show Society?, or maybe the locals just can't spell all that well.

Soon after we pull into a rest area just outside Manton Dam (that's 5k north of the Manton Dam reserve which is no camping). The rest area is only 65k south of Darwin and makes a good staging point to head into town the following day.

The dam is one of the many WW2 interest points on the highway. You can have a look at the vintage pumps and diesel motors and walk to the top of the dam wall.

11812
The level indicator next to the dam wall.

11817
Valve controls for releasing water from the dam.

Fri 21 Jun

We finally enter Darwin. Friends had recommended the Lee Point Caravan Park so we check in for a week.

We're here. Nine months after leaving Canberra we finally hit The Top End.

 

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