Tuesday, May 27, 2008

DAY 215: Mataranka to Katherine

Mon 26th May 2008
105 km @ 20.0 km/hr
Sunny, scattered cloud, 29 deg C
Elevation of destination 112m
Distance to date 13282 km (8301 miles)

Backpackers Anonymous prevented me getting to sleep last night by playing mainly the same music track from 2100 to at least 0130 when I must have finally got to sleep. Drink? Drugs? Who knows? I tried to block out the music with foam ear plugs and padding between ears and my Assos balaclava, but the bass still came through loudly - it’s impossible to eliminate. So I slept in a little until 0745 but still got away for 0830 via a stop at the Servo (filling station) for stove fuel (petrol), my fuel (Double Shot Paul’s of NT Iced Coffee) and overpriced Buttercrunch biscuits (double usual price).
The first 10km were a bit draggy but thereafter the SE wind resumed control over yesterday’s rebellious NE-er, and as I was heading due NW I had the perfect tailwind - right in the small of the back lol - bliss! The road was a bit busier than lately, more cars and lorries and many caravans and campervans. No shoulder, so had to jump off and watch the mirror more for dodgy situations - the mirror is a blessing as you can see hazards before you eventually hear them, when it can be too late.
The road is pretty flat with the odd draggy uphill, but average speed kept on increasing all day. Sometimes I was soft-pedalling at 30 km/hr which is probably a first on this trip, what with a 30kg wind-dragging pannier load. Scenery as in pics - larger trees, more standing water, greener than lately and a lot more birds. I saw a magnificent Brahmini Kite coverting it’s roadkill feast until I got the camera out, whereupon it flew off, camera shy. Lots of Apostlebirds everywhere.
I passed lots of WWII ‘Historical Sites’ which usually amounted to nothing at all really unless you're an old soldier - old field hospitals or airfields - and in many cases there’s nothing to see since the vegetation has taken over the cleared sites again. Many of these sites don’t even have a track access and look no different from the rest of the bush. The Aussies, bless ‘em, haven’t got much history, so tend to clutch at straws. A historical site in Britain could be a 12th century building whereas here it could be a 1900’s building - I think they try too hard to have history - perhaps more emphasis on the amazing natural assets that Australia has would be more appropriate, an area where Oz could score very highly on a world-scale basis. I don’t think everyone’s twigged this yet.
After 60km (or 56km depending which sign you read because they all read differently as does the map also!) there’s a nice rest area with tank rainwater, and I used some of this in preference to the ghastly-tasting Mataranka bore water to make 2 mugs of tea, which went down a treat with the costly Buttercrunch biscuits. It was actually brunch with the Apostles, since a flock of 12 were in close attendance as I ate, squawking and squabbling over dropped morsels, and drinking from the small puddle created under the tankwater tap. Birds are great to watch at close quarters; there’s all sorts of little dramas going on between themselves, and a definite ‘pecking order’ (pun not intended).
The strong tailwind continued afterwards and faithfully blew me to Katherine and, I expect, a day of rest or two for me after the 787 km / 6 day ride from Tennant Creek. First stop was the VIC where I picked up a few brochures and asked about caravan parks, the nearest of which is Red Gum (1km from town, $10 pppn), which I chose. I wanted to do a day’s canoeing on the Katherine River, but when I phoned they weren’t able to do this as they were fairly booked up with 3-day trips, and I’ll have to ring them back again to see if this can be done when I pass through Katherine again in 2 weeks time before heading west (I’m heading first to Kakadu, Darwin, Litchfield NP and then Katherine again).
After setting up the tent I went into town to check e-mails (38 after a week; worse than working) and get something for dinner. Woolworth’s supermarket was like Alladin’s Cave after all the expensive and limited-choice country groceries, and it took a lot of willpower to resist buying too much. Before I leave Katherine for Kakadu NP I will stock up, but for the meantime I bought fresh crusty rolls for tuna and onion sarnies, plus Greek-style mango and Passion Fruit yoghurt and fresh fruit for desert. Oh, and a bottle of Cab Sav to wash it down lol. Not to mention the local rag the NT News.
Katherine is, like Tennant Creek, home to many indigenous people, and this again made this place feel instantly more ‘real’ to me on arrival. They’re very noisy and loudly argumentative with each other, shout using bad language habitually, and don’t worry about doing all this in the centre of town, yet this seems somehow fascinating to me and I can’t explain why - maybe I’ll be able to explain this eventually. As I say it kind of feels ‘real’ to me in what seems sometimes to me to be an artificial and sanitised society.
Well, dinner was delicious, tempered only by awareness, after her e-mail I read this afternoon, that Lyn is feeling somewhat overwhelmed by work at the moment; working long hours as a gardener as well as many more hours with Mary in setting up a new house-sitting business. I hope she gets through this OK and I feel frustrated that I can’t help at all - telepathic hug anyhow!

DAY 214: Bush camp to Mataranka

Sun 25th May 2008
112 km @ 17.4 km/hr
Sunny, scattered cloud, 26 deg C
Elevation of destination 123m
Distance to date 13177 km (8236 miles)

My hastily-chosen campsite proved to be a good one, nice flat ground with no sharp stones; partly hidden, and not frequented by mozzies. I slept under the mesh only so saw the moon set in front of me, and watched it move through the sky above me as I fell asleep. I woke early though due to the strong smell of animal urine very nearby - maybe it thinks I’m trying to permanently muscle-in on it’s territory and is making the point.
After breakfast I pushed the bike back through the thorny undergrowth to the road, and got underway with very little wind in evidence. The 36 km to Larrimah took just over 2 hours, the incentive of home-made pies at Fran’s Cafe drawing me along. Larrimah is a small settlement composed mostly of a hotel (Pink Panther), roadhouse and Fran’s cafe and a few houses. Fran was doing a good trade with no free tables so I sat down with a couple from Rosebud on the Mornington Peninsular in Victoria, that I had passed through a few months ago. One of Fran’s specialities is camel pie, and a lady customer said they were delicious so I ordered one, and yes, it was good, very good, with proper flaky pastry. I followed up with a Devonshire tea as we had a good chat about where to go and what to see - the couple were travelling back from Darwin and Katherine. The bill was a bit of a shock at $22 (that included a glass of milk too), but it was worth it I guess. A shrewd old dear that Fran!
On I went north, with scores of caravans passing me both ways, mostly waving or tooting, and having to get off the road onto the cinder shoulder a few times when traffic was going both ways. The vegetation changed to widely-spaced tall trees for endless km as the road slowly wound and becoming more undulating. The wind was of little assistance for a lot of the time today, and after months of SE was more like NE today, i.e. On my right side. Flies were a minor problem so I didn’t need to wear the net.
There’s one rest area with water, some 44km N of Larrimah, where I stopped for a while and soaked my top under the tap for a nice cooling down. The last 30km featured a couple of long draggy climbs but I was in Mataranka around 1630, and checked in at the Motel CP which looked OK ($10 pppn). I also decided to eat at their restaurant as I didn’t have much food in, and as it was Sunday nowhere was open to buy more. I went for kangaroo cutlets, salad and veg, followed by home-made apple strudel with ice cream and cream, washed down with a couple of beers - it made a nice change from bush pasta again!
Tomorrow Katherine, and I can collect the chainring that St.Kilda Cycles resent after sending me the wrong one. Theoretically I could then change the whole transmission, but it seems to be holding up well at the moment - perhaps because there are few hills to put strain on it? I may go around Kakadu NP first with the old one and change it either at Darwin or katherine on the way back down to Kununurra. (I need a bike shop chain whip to remove the rear sprocket unless I can do it with the old chain in a vice).

DAY 213: Dunmarra RH to bush camp 36 km S of Larrimah RH

Sat 24th May 2008
104 km @ 18.4 km/hr
Sunny, 25 deg C
Elevation of destination 190m
Distance to date 13065 km (8166 miles)Another very cold night saw me fully clothed with everything, including head, inside the sleeping bag, and then I was only just warm enough. I stayed put until the sun was well up, at around 8, and sat under her watchful eye whilst having breakfast. I though I’d probably camp at Daly Waters Hotel tonight, which is only 47km, so I got cracking on trying to fix the bike pump.
Unless there’s something missing, such as an ‘O’ ring that has fallen out, it all looks OK, but was still blowing back when connected to the partly pressurised tyre - through the pump metal shaft where it enters the pump body. I didn’t have silicon grease to hopefully sprayed some WD40 on the key bits. I also made a small washer out of some Katadyn neoprene tubing and placed it inside the nozzle body just in case one was there and has fallen out. But then the pump was hard to operate, however it seems to stop the leaking. Whether I can pump hard enough to get up to rock-hard is another question. Anyhow, for the time being I’m OK because the tyre stayed hard all night after pumping it up with the borrowed pump, and with a bit of luck and no more punctures I’ll find another pump in Katherine, assuming there’s a bike shop there.
It was now 1030 and I was hungry again so had cereal and toast at the roadhouse (and a free drivers coffee) before departing. I must say the folk that run this place are very nice and friendly, and prices are unusually reasonable too for a roadhouse.
Plenty of lorries on the road today, but they gave me a wide berth and I gave them a wave. I’ve learnt that they’re mostly heading for the busy port of Darwin for importing and exporting goods to and from China and the far east - especially cattle going out, but there are plenty of cars coming in too.
One lorry driver told me he hauls cattle from Cloncurry to Darwin - that’s a trip of 1700 km - I wonder if the cattle get any relief during that time? I certainly haven’t seen them being loaded or unloaded anywhere.
I stopped for an iced coffee and banana muffin at the Hi-Way Inn Roadhouse and was surprised to see a couple cycle in just after me, and the guy was hauling a trailer with a little girl toddler in it - sound familiar? Yes, this was the family that had left Normanton the very day I cycled into the town, that the lady at the VIC told me about! They were taking the mostly gravel ‘Top Road’ to Darwin via Hell’s Gate and Boroloola (1080km), whereas I chickened out and chose the longer tarmac route via Cloncurry and Mount Isa (1395km). The two routes rejoin at this very point where we met, so a bit of a coincidence that we arrived there within the same hour! They are Gunnar, Sandra, and the wee one is Kimberley; I don’t think she’s more than 3, and they are from Germany. Kimberley was enjoying an ice cream and looked very pleased with it. Gunnar told me he did this same trip 8 years ago, when he also cycled up to Cape York - hardcore stuff, and I’m impressed. Sandra’s bike has panniers and it looked as if they were pretty heavy too, whilst Gunnar was hauling Kimberley in her trailer. They have been carrying 30 litres of water at times. I was surprised that Gunnar’s bike has no suspension, which I’d thought would be an advantage on such rough surfaces. I forgot to take a photo for the website, but maybe I’ll see them again yet.
I said goodbye and cycled the remaining 6km to Daly Waters pub. When I saw the open caravan park I had doubts about whether I would stay here after all; there was little shade and it was pretty dusty-looking, and also quite crowded. When I saw the hordes in the pub, mostly taking photos rather than drinking, I decided it wouldn’t be very enjoyable for my tastes and abandoned plans to stay here. I had another iced coffee and took some pics myself, and also had to accept a 2 Euro coin pressed upon me by an admiring and nice German lady who had seen me cycling down the road and wanted me to have it as a ‘talisman’. Fame....another groupie!! The pub is amusing with scores of bras, caps, coins, notes and number plates hanging everywhere, but I’ve seen it all before e.g. at the Drover’s Arms near Loch Lomond.
After 2 iced coffees I was pretty charged up and charged down the road with a little tailwing for the most part, and put on another 50km or so on a pancake-flat road. I was struggling to find a decent campsite in the fenced bush, but finally managed a reasonable one, a bit near to the road but quite well-hidden. There are lots of road trains going through now it’s dark; I guess they time it so they miss the caravanning hordes tootling along at 60 km/hr during daytime.
As soon as I got off the bike I donned leggings and long-sleeved top to hopefully avoid being mozzie-bitten. During the last 3 days they’ve taken over from the bush flies who have reduced significantly. The former like wetter conditions and the latter dry - and it is significantly wetter now. The last 2 mornings there has been a good deposit of dew that has been absent for weeks in the very dry central Outback that I’m now leaving.

DAY 212: Elliott to Dunmarra Roadhouse

Fri 23rd May 2008
99 km @ 17.6 km/hr
Sunny, 25 deg C
Elevation of destination 229m
Distance to date 12961 km (8101 miles)

I took ages to get to sleep last night - lots of banging outside, music playing loudly somewhere, some stones under the tent sticking in my back, and just a general feeling of unease with this poor caravan park. After a few hours sleep I was awoken by the loud trumpeting of the many peacocks resident here - a sign on the shop door says to help yourself to one if you want one! Er, no thanks, you can have them!
I had breakfast with Steve, the Irish guy parked next to me, then packed up carefully to avoid getting bulldust onto my gear and myself, which wasn’t easy. I took my key back to the shop for the return of my $5 deposit and complained to the owner about the dusty park - when the brochure says “grassy sites”, but she wasn’t interested and walked off muttering that she wasn’t arguing, so I left it at that. If anyone’s coming this way be warned - it’s the first CP on the left as you come into Elliott from the south.
I noticed another CP next door as I left, but couldn’t see if it was any better than the first one. I passed quickly through Elliott - it’s a dismal and dreary place that is starting to look like a ghost town - the houses look as if they were thrown up in a few minutes using leftover building materials. Only redeeming feature was a friendly wave from an aboriginal lady as I passed out of town.
So, back onto the same old road - flat, straight and fairly featureless - but I switched into spiritually absent mode and didn’t notice these features. I stopped briefly for a snack at the rest area after 23km, since this is the last one until Dunmarra Roadhouse, then ploughed on. The road starts to undulate after the Newcastle Waters junction (I didn’t go on the 3km detour for a look as I think it’s just a ghost town), and the landscape changes significantly from dry scrubby Savannah to green undergrowth and bigger trees; clearly there is more water around to support this. I even saw a few muddy puddly creeks, whereas these have been bone dry for the last 1000km. As a result a few more birds started to appear, including the Apostlebirds again, and the presence of a lot more roadkill pointed to a more abundant habitat.
There was no metalled shoulder but the road isn’t too busy again so it isn’t important; there is a good gravel shoulder anyhow. The main carriageway is quite bumpy though, and I didn’t appreciate the jarring effect on my sore nether region. Scores of people waved and/or hooted, which was nice, and I’ve got into the habit of waving at everyone coming towards me, though I can’t always see if they wave back, as if it matters.
Between 30 and 40km the road bore to the left into the wind a little, and as it was also mostly uphill this was annoying, but after this the tailwind was back and helping me along again.
I stopped at 60km and got the billy on under a shady tree, and enjoyed two leisurely mugs of tea and jam butties. 90 minutes later I was at Dunmarra, and celebrated with an ice cream and Cookiedough Kit-kat and iced coffee, as you do.
I had planned to cycle another 20km or so and camp in the bush, but fate had other ideas, and I punctured 3km N of Dunmarra, in the rear of course, and with nowhere to lean the bike. I removed all the gear and fitted a replacement tube after failing to find anything sticking in the tyre, but when I came to pump up the tyre again I found that the (expensive) Zefal pump was blowing back. No matter what I did, as soon as I stopped pumping the air escaped through the nozzle end of the pump. I reckon a seal / ‘O’ ring or similar has fell out, but I’m puzzled since the pump was working OK 2 weeks ago and I haven’t touched it since. I tried to flag down the few vehicles that passed over the next half-hour but the 2 that stopped didn’t have a tyre pump, so I started to walk the bike back to the roadhouse; however as I had managed to get a little air in I risked riding back with all my weight positioned over the handlebar i.e. not on the soft rear tyre. One of the two that stopped were a Japanese couple, who nodded affirmatively when I asked for a pump, but supplied me with one of those plastic pumps that you blow beach balls up with! Awww, bless!
It was starting to darken as I arrived back, so I decided to camp at the roadhouse CP (very nice site with pool and only $5!). One of the campers had an electric pump so we had the tyre back up to 50 psi in a jiffy, and it appears to be holding OK later on. I now have no way of pumping the tyres up until I get to the bike shop at Katherine nearly 300km north; let’s hope I don’t need one.
After setting the tent up I cooked a curry using half a pack of green curry paste and served it with the rice, but it was so hot as to be utterly inedible - so this was the second disaster of the day, and it went in the bin. I therefore went to the roadhouse for dinner of a burger ‘with everything’, and as it also came with a huge pile of chips I was unable to finish it despite 2 more cartons of iced coffee to wash it down!
Lets hope tomorrow brings more normality....

DAY 211: Banka Banka Station to Elliott

Thurs 22nd May 2008
149 km @ 18.6 km/hr
Sunny, 24 deg C
Elevation of destination 215 m
Distance to date 12862 km (8039 miles)

Another cold start to the day that kept me wrapped up longer than intended, added to which once up and about I had a few ‘callers’ asking about the ride, so it was 9 before I got away. There were a few tame calves wandering about the park, and I had to laugh at their antics in chasing off a collie that kept trying to herd them up.
Nothing much to report about the road - just the same as it’s been for several days - completely uninhabited except for Renner Springs where there’s a roadhouse but nothing else. I stopped here for lunch after 62km, preparing for another 90km if I go all the way to Elliott. There’s a hilly stretch after about 50km which slowed me down a little, but nothing over 4 or 5%, although a few km long. The weather is good for cycling - nice 25 deg C; sunny, and a decent tailwind - it’s just the scenery that's a bit monotonous! Mind you if you look closely the vegetation changes constantly either in type of tree / shrub, or density etc., and if I knew more about these things it would add more interest.
The tailwind veered to my right side sometimes but was fairly constant SE, and usually assisted me. I rolled into Elliott around 1730 after considering bush camping, and when I saw the caravan park wished I had - there was absolutely no grass, only red dust that would get everywhere. The brochure says there’s “shady, grassed, sites”; well, it’s a lie! Too late now though, and to add insult to injury as I was trying to get some pegs in the rock-hard ground a few hundred mozzies came to help, so it was a case of drop everything and apply the repellant. I got cooking as soon as I could to avoid them after dark when they’re at their worst, but the repellant and a burning mosquito coil kept them away as it happened.
A young Irish guy parked his 4x4 next to me, and we sat out for an hour shooting the breeze and comparing notes, which was nice. I had thought I might spend a second night here since there’s some wetlands near here to have a look at, but there’s no way I’m staying at this CP again, and there’s no other unless I camp in the bush, so I may give the birdies a miss here and move on. There'll be plenty more in the north I'm sure. The Irish guy went to kakadu and told me that the mozzies are pretty thick there - I'll need to make sure that I have plenty of repellant.

DAY 210: Tennant Creek to Banka Banka Station

Weds 21st May 2008
101 km @ 18.3 km/hr
Sunny, 24 deg C
Elevation of destination 292 m
Distance to date 12713 km (7946 miles)

Up and away by 0830 on a nice sunny day again (what else?). I like the buzz in Tennant Creek; some of the towns where there are only white folks seemed a bit sanitised and artificial, but this place feels more real somehow.
The Stuart Highway was a bit busier than the Overlanders Way from Cloncurry, but still quiet compared to the south and east coast roads. There’s no shoulder but this doesn’t lead to any particular stress; it’s rare that 2 vehicles going in opposite directions pass at the same time.
I stopped at Threeways Roadhouse and had a free (driver reviver) cup of tea, before ploughing on with a continuing fresh SE tailwind blowing me along nicely. The landscape isn’t quite so bleak as it was with some bigger trees. It’s flat for the next 30km, but then starts to undulate with shallow rises and falls of several km length - easy enough. My bum was somewhat sore so that preoccupied me quite a bit today, and it’s annoying that it’s started up again after a couple of weeks pleasant respite.
I met a Japanese family at the Rest Area at Attack Creek and we had an interesting chat for a while as I made tea and sandwich.
After 101km I arrived at Banka Banka Station canping area ($6 pppn) and was pretty impressed - it’s very good value with fully-equipped camp kitchen, good showers, and cheap beer at only $2.50/tinny. I was allowed to set up in an area not normally used for camping, with lush grass - what a rarity out here! The Corellas were gathering in the trees, preparing themselves for their dusk raucousness, as I cooked a large serving of pasta and salami.
I went over for a beer and was amazed to find the couple from Birmingham camping here, whom I met in South Australia some 4 or 5 months ago - what a coincidence! They are heading in the opposite direction to me - to Cairns - after having done Darwin and the north. I never expected to see them again, but it was a nice surprise.I don't suppose we'll cross paths again though.

DAY 209: Day 2 off Tennant Creek

Tues 20th May 2008
Sunny, 24 deg C
Elevation of destination 248 m
Distance to date 12612 km (7882 miles)

I must have slept for at least 9 hours last night, despite a local dog breaking into a loud howling bark at around 1, and then didn’t stir until it felt warm enough to quit my cosy abode. I’d decided to take another day off here since it’s pretty comfortable and an interesting place, plus I hardly saw anything yesterday due to necessary maintenance.
After breakfast I went for my 0930 haircut appointment whereupon I was pretty much scalped at my request, then cycled up to the Battery Hill Mining Centre, just up the road from the Outback CP where I was staying.
The BHMC is a fascinating place, and I spent most of the rest of the morning there. I particularly enjoyed the Social History Museum which tells a lot of personal stories about the early settlers and their many hardships, such as lack of water, poor state of the roads, heat, lack of money etc. - it really brought home the resilience and resolve of these people more used to the comforts of Melbourne or London. There were many old photos helping to illustrate all this. There is also a minerals museum which dispslays some of the finest mineral samples in Australia, collected from here and all over the world - the shapes and colours of the samples is amazing.
Next I went to the Nyinkka Nyunyu Aboriginal Cultural Centre, where in contrast the influence of the white settlers is described from the Aboriginal perspective, and very well too. Lands that had been home for some 40,000 years were in many cases now out of bounds to the natives, to make room for mines and farms. Many of the established residents worked in these industries but often not for cash but just for food, clothing and rudimentary shelter. It makes for very poignant reading, but is beautifully done with little models in glass cases, and simple verbal descriptions.
After jam butty lunch back at camp I rode out to Mary Ann Lake along a concrete cycle path - it’s some 6km from town. The landscape is lunar-like with red stones instead of soil, completely bare in parts and with the odd tree sticking out here and there. As a contrast the lake is blue and the grass is green all around it of course, but there weren’t too many birds around compared to the billabong at Camooweal. I sat in the shade for the rest of the afternoon reading the Telegraph Weekly, as happy as Larry, whoever he is. I was surprised to read some of the news from home - Gordon Brown’s big troubles as PM; buffoon Boris Johnson for London Mayor!? - unbelievable, and far away thankfully.
A very good day though, and I’m glad I stayed an extra day to get these things in.

DAY 208: Day 1 off Tennant Creek

Mon 19th May 2008
Sunny, 24 deg C
Elevation of destination 248 m
Distance to date 12612 km (7882 miles)

Another cold night, but I turned the sleeping bag over so that the long side could be pulled over my head, and I was quite warm enough. I didn’t get up straight away though and waited for the sun to warm things up a bit. To think that just a few weeks ago I was practically diving out of the tent as soon as the sun hit it to avoid being baked.
I didn’t do an awful lot today but did all my washing and got it dried easily outside; found a good, fast internet connection at Leading Edge computer shop ($6/hour though) and had a leisurely lunch back at camp. I wanted to get hair and beard cut but they were booked up today and I have to wait till the morning. I had a good sort out of the tent stuff and charged all batteries up - all mundane stuff but essential, and it feels good to get it sorted.
I noticed another lump this morning in the same place as the last one - if it develops I’ll have to seek more antibiotics. I’ve had no discomfort this time though, weird.
I’m surprised at the large number of indigenous people here in Tennant Creek; it would appear they’re a majority, but it’s hard to tell since they walk everywhere and the white fellas are mostly in vehicles. The blacks are very noisy people - this isn’t necessarily a complaint, just an observation, although it does grate sometimes I have to admit. They communicate with each other a great deal by shouting very loudly across the street or even if next to the other person. The town is pretty scruffy with a big litter problem, broken glass everywhere, and there’s a heavy police presence. There’s a run-down urban air about it, and I can’t begin to understand what life must be like for these black people. It reminds me a great deal of my time in Zambia in the 70’s and 80’s, and many of the people’s mannerisms seem very similar. Even the way the whites and blacks interact is the same, not that there’s much interaction. Most indigenous people avoid eye contact with me, and most of them certainly don’t expect or proffer a greeting or exchange of any kind. It all seems very sad; there’s a world of difference between the two cultures and a gulf between white and black lifestyle and status.
I did another shop and bought stuff for a barbie tonight, which I’m about to go and cook as it’s getting cold already....