Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Into the Top End
Date: October 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 up.

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 back together."

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. Isa.

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, 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.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --