Into the Top End
1, 1994 07:18
17:06 Barkly Highway (West of Camooweal), Queensland
:: 21 SEP 94
After just over 72 hours in Mt. Isa, we escaped. The cylinder head apparently
came back from the machine shop straightened, polished and with 2 new
valves sometime in the morning. When I called a little after noon (rather
than walk in like I'd optimistically been doing) the receptionist told
me the head mechanic was at work reassembling Stan's innards and had suggested
by 1 PM all would be well. Well, this turned out to be not exactly true.
We sauntered up to the station At 1:15 and saw Stan parked outside the
garage . . . with his hood up and the head mechanic standing arms akimbo
looking down at the poor thing. Beside him stood a rather dejected looking
young mechanic. Uh, ohhh.
From about 15 meters away Katrin picked up on the possible problem --
the front bumper didn't look much like the one we'd checked Stan in with.
Upon our arrival the young one beat a hasty retreat. Chris, the head mechanic,
looked at the bumper, looked at us, looked at the bumper...
"How d'ya like that? Nice work."
Outback Queenslanders are ever forthright. Turns out the young one, while
performing some final adjustments on the hoisted car, turned the engine
over to test his progress. Stan, perhaps as anxious to get on the road
as Katrin and I, was prematurely in gear and leapt off the hoist coming
to rest against the wheel alignment equipment. We never learned the fate
the wheel aligner but Stan's damage was as entirely obvious as it was
entirely cosmetic. Chris learned of the prang only just as we arrived
and obviously hadn't figured out what to do about anything.
"I don't know what I'm gonna do about him [the young mechanic] .
. . what do you want to do about the bumper?"
Blank looks from Katrin and Patrick. Both were prepared for some new
engine trouble but this was a new twist.
"She runs fine though. Doesn't blow much smoke and that cylinder
head's fair dinkum now."
Three people looked down at the dented but serviceable bumper.
"I can get you another one."
Katrin and I exchanged a wordless glance and I know that through both
our minds crossed the resolution, "Not one more night in Mt. Isa!"
We responded together,
Three people looked down at the dented but serviceable bumper. Chris
quietly walked away.
I asked Katrin if she really minded the defacement of her (faded, somewhat
stained and well used) car, though not in so many words. The reply was
as I expected. "Not if fixing it means waking up in Mt. Isa tomorrow."
Chris came back to the car with a screwdriver and fiddled a bit with
the idle. Then he left again. Katrin and I looked at the straight, shiny,
fair dinkum [Oz meaning: true, the right thing] cylinder head. The young
mechanic came back, apologized, and fiddled a bit with the throttle linkage.
Chris came back and told Katrin the bill was ready and that there was
no charge for the $72 tune-up servicing that had been our initial hope
for fixing up poor old Stan.
"That's about right since I can get a replacement bumper for about
50 or 60 dollars."
Katrin and I shared a glance and shrugged.
"Seems fair," Katrin replied and headed for the office to pay
Chris turned his attention to the exploits under the hood and lightly
berated the youngster for adjusting the linkage too tightly. He took the
wrench from the youth and set about making the proper adjustment.
"See, that's why the car leapt off the hoist when you started her
up. Set properly she would have simply stalled out."
The young mechanic nodded, then slunk away.
"If you're wondering," Chris said to me, "I put 'er back
together. Well, he did some of the minor adjustment work, but I put 'er
I grinned at him, nodding, "I know, your receptionist told me as
much when I called in."
That seemed to satisfy him and I headed for the office to catch up with
Katrin. By 2:30 we'd packed up, bought food for the trip, headed across
town to the beginning of the Barkly Highway and got the hell out of Mt.
9:20 Carpentaria Highway (Westbound from Cape Crawford
Roadhouse), Northern Territory :: 23 SEP 94
Two days and 1000 kilometers lie between us and Mount Isa. That time
and distance revealed to us the two small towns and a pair of road houses.
The first fuel stop came 200 kilometers west of The Isa at Camooweal,
a town stretching about as long as a bat of the eye at 100k/hr. Thirteen
Ks later, without fanfare or even a sign-post, we crossed into the Northern
Territory. The Australians seem less impressed at border crossings than
I'm used to because it wasn't until we reached Barkly Homestead 250 kilometers
later that we were reminded the Northern Territory time zone lags behind
Queensland by one half hour. Again, I expected a sign.
We'd reached the roadhouse at Barkly Homestead shortly after sunset.
Let me explain a little about roadhouses. Between Tennant Creek and Camooweal
lies 500 kilometers of cattle stations, aboriginal land trusts and, splitting
the distance, the Barkly Roadhouse. There, as advertised, you can buy
beer, fuel and a meal. You can erect a tent, park a caravan, purchase
a bed for the night or just shower, post your mail and move on.
There is nothing else there but since roadhouses deal only in necessities
that is all there need be. They generate their own electricity because,
even along the principal trans-Australia highway there are no power lines.
They take their water from deep in the earth. Everything else comes by
way of the highway originating in either Darwin to the north west or the
Queensland east coast.
19:53 Nitmiluk National Park, Gorges Sector (near Katherine),
Northern Territory :: 25 SEP 94
The Barkly Roadhouse is supposed to be the most expensive place in Australia
to do business. Fuel runs around $0.95 a litter. A pretty mundane Motel
room fetches $70 Australian. We opted for the camping at $7.50 per person.
Really, we paid for a spot of dirt nearly supporting some grass. It seems
that in the Northern Territory, no one believes in stocking camp sites
with picnic tables.
There is one other item worthy of note concerning the Barkly Roadhouse.
It marks the beginning of the Tablelands highway that runs 377 kilometers
directly north ending in another 'T' intersection with the Carpenteria
Highway at the Cape Crawford Roadhouse. Again, only cattle stations and
aboriginal land trusts lie between. This is the single most barren piece
of country I ever traveled through.
A summary of Cape Crawford Roadhouse: beer, food, fuel, rooms, camping
sites. Again, it generates power and takes water from a bore well. Not
very tasty water either though nothing beats a cold beer in this kind
of heat anyway.
We make a side-trip from Cape Crawford Roadhouse to Borroloola, an "open"
town in the Narwinbi Aboriginal Land Trust. Open means you can stay there
without acquiring a permit as required in all other Aboriginal Land. I'm
not sure what I'm looking for there. I'm not certain I discovered anything
other than to feel the part of the interloper. I've driven through dozens
of small towns and never felt in the least bit self-conscious yanking
out the camcorder and pointing it at plants, buildings and people. In
Borroloola I collected images only of the MacArthur River, the flowing
water we'd seen since...wow, the Atherton Tablelands some 3,000 kilometers
ago. The thought of filming the buildings and people felt disrespectful,
voyeuristic, intrusive -- like the worst kind of journalism.
Borroloola is an open town probably because there was originally enough
white ownership of businesses in the town to effectively lobby for an
exception to its status. Apparently, only 3 such towns exist in all the
Northern Territory. However, in Borroloola there is no mistaking who the
majority are. I felt more than a little uncomfortable with the obvious
goal of cruising into town to have a gawk at "how the Aborigines
live." I really hate catching myself behaving such as this.
We returned to Cape Crawford Roadhouse for the night and then logged
the last of the extreme bush travel via the Carpenteria Highway. We reached
relatively thick populations at the Stuart Highway outside the town of
Daly Waters. Towns here are separated by little more than 100 kilometers
rather than the 1,000 or more kilometers we'd grown accustomed to. You'll
pass oncoming cars every few minutes and not only will many of these people
not initiate a wave, they won't return one either.
I miss the bush already.
19:45 Nitmiluk National Park-Gorges Sector (Katherine),
Northern Territory :: 26 SEP 94
I'm right knackered (Oz for bushed, exhausted) from a prolonged walk,
on the order of 20 K in 30+ degree heat. We started at 10AM and finished
about 7PM with a couple swims in the river and a long rest waiting for
sunset right at the end. We probably drank about 6 or 8 litters of water
each -- can't really tell how much because we drank deeply straight from
the Katherine river both times the trail took us down the gorge to it.
While reaching water at the Mataranka thermal pools and the Katherine
river were the two highlights of the trip, the indomitably arid bush country
played the principal role.
The comment from two teenagers met along the trail sums up the adventure
fairly well, "Hot, tired and thirsty." Their parents added an
all-important, "but worth it." Even the little bit of rain forest
was bone dry, and the rock and soil radiated heat the mild breeze laboured
to whisk away. I streamed sweat most of the day. And shot one roll of
film -- 36 slide exposures -- and most of a 120 minute video tape.
21:37 Darwin, Northern Territory :: 29 SEP 94
Australians use the descriptive term 'The Top End' when referring to
the northern third of the Territory. Having skirted the region's southern
edge we now find ourselves in Darwin, the Territorian capital and the
Top End's business center. Tomorrow we will drive into its focal point,
Kakadu National Park.
During prolonged periods of travel the occasional rest-stop becomes necessary.
The past three days in Darwin provided just that. The room we've taken
sports a full bathroom, table with chairs, ceiling fan and a refrigerator.
The YWCA calls it a 'double' but I always considered that definition to
imply a bed capable of comfortably sleeping two people while this room
sports a pair of single beds. Still, it's luxury to those accustomed to
camping with a 'mattress' consisting of a blanket, two towels and a jumper
[a sweater in Oz].
We haven't cooked a meal for ourselves in three days and rather than
desert hikes and wallaby feeding for entertainment we've been shopping,
restauranting and catching a few flickers. We're doing normal 'weekend'
things -- changing the routine and catching up on some unfinished business,
like working out airfares back to Battle Creek, Michigan for Tim's wedding
in November. [Tim, tell me again why the Best Man can't just send a telegram?]
But I was telling you about the Top End...
16:00 Darwin, Northern Territory :: 30 SEP 94
It consists primarily of bush and desert with bits of 'rain forest' to
break up the monotony. One must understand the term 'rain forest' may
be applied rather loosely. Often, the distinction between bush, desert
and rain forest may rest not in the amount of rainfall, but in the availability
of groundwater near the surface. At Mataranka the thermal springs rising
through the limestone nourished an amazing variety of palms and other
water-thirsty plants. The atmosphere within this oasis is moist, cool,
pleasant. However, the words 'sudden' and 'total' describe the transition
from rainforest to arid bush. On your right, exotic green damp cool and
on your left, heat burnished grass eucalypt. A step to either side immerses
you in one or the other.
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