1-3 August: Heading down to Alice

Author: Mr A

Wednesday: I’m back! After flying in yesterday from the UK, it was a fuzzy start for me this morning. I left my home town of Kettering (just south of Birmingham) at 3pm Sunday night, and arrived yesterday afternoon (Tuesday) at our camp site 50km south of Darwin. It was quite a trip – 44 hours door to door – and involved 2 car shuttles, 3 train journeys and 3 flights! The worst part was flying over the top of Darwin during the early hours of Tuesday morning transiting from Singapore to Melbourne, and then spending half a day flying back up to Darwin.

Well off we went this morning anyway, with no firm plan of how far we would go. Thankfully I felt pretty good, so we made it to just south of Katherine and landed the last decent spot in a free camp. It was a great feeling to be back on the road again with my two travel mates (I count Miss Tasmania of course!).

Thursday: As I stuck my head of the Zone, I spotted a couple of cyclists having a feed. Of course I had to go and have a natter. An hour later…Catherine comes to find me. These guys have ridden across from Perth, up to Darwin and now to the east coast. I find it fascinating that people choose to cycle these massive distances, often across the featureless plains that go on for mile after mile across our interior. They have to dance with the road trains thundering along by the side of them, brave the extremes of temperature, the lack of facilities. Why do they do it? Isn’t that always the intriguing question with any challenge in life?

The Daly River Pub loomed at lunchtime and it was rude not to call in for more barramundi, before continuing on our way south.Anyway, it was a long day in the saddle, but we pulled up finally at a place we had stopped at on the way north last year. It’s just an old road that loops off the Stuart Highway for about 5km, signposted ‘Churchill’s Head’.No facilities, just a level bit of ground a view across the plains. We loved it last time, and we love it again. There seem to be so few places like this on the well trodden routes we have been following. For a start there are very few minor roads that lead off the main highway, so we are drawn to caravan parks or the crowded free camps often so close the highway that the road trains sound like they are coming right through the Zone! “Ah..the serenity”, to quote from one of our favourite movies “The Castle”.If we were to walk out of the van due west we wouldn’t reach another tarmac road for 1,325km – on the west coast of Australia, south of Broome. Not one hint of civilisation, except the Alice to Darwin railway. Nothing else. What a country. How many places in the world still have that amount of emptiness?

Friday: An early start and our excitement for the day would be a wander around Karlu Karlu (also known as the “Devils Marbles”), a pretty unusual geological formation of granite boulders.Then after lunch we were through Tenant Creek, only stopping for the dump point, and by late afternoon arriving at our camp for the night in a small service centre for the surrounding aboriginal communities called Ti-Tree. Guess what sort of trees grow here?

The camp is actually a “gated community” for caravans – apparently this is a high crime area so a tall fence has been built around the whole site! Another “functional” camp on our dash down the Stuart Highway from Darwin to Alice.

Tonight is forecast to drop to 5 degrees – which is going to be a shock considering last night was 21! An amazing variation in temperature in a day’s drive.

27-31 July: Solo in Berry Springs

Author: Mrs A

Location: Berry Springs, Northern Territory


I found I am still capable of procrastinating when needing to do some work on the laptop. I did all sorts of things, like wash the car, wash the caravan, wash the roof of the caravan, clean out the kitchen drawers, defrost the freezer, even supermarket shopping…but eventually I needed to get sat down at the laptop and do the analysis I had promised myself. The good news is, that once I got stuck into it, I really enjoyed the work and reminded myself why it has been my lifelong career!

I decided to reward my good behaviour with a visit to Berry Springs Nature Park, after all, this is the reason the caravan park is here. It is just a ten minute drive away.It was blissfully peaceful on Monday afternoon, in stark comparison to Friday afternoon when I had cycled over to find it absolutely full – later finding out Friday was a public holiday in Darwin, which explains the crowds.Berry Springs consists of a series of pools, starting at the waterfall, fed by crystal clear springs. I enjoyed a nice shoulder massage as the water crashed over the rocks, before swimming along the creek to the main pool and lower pool. The pools are quite large and deep, ideal for swimming, kept topped up by a weir. Apparently below the weir is crocodile country, so I stayed clear from there!

There are plenty of native fish in the pools, clearly used to people swimming in their home.The water is a beautiful temperature.

Every day here is 32 degrees and sunny, sometimes a little patchy cloud lately, but fine weather. There is no rain expected at this time of year. This makes for some lovely sunsets – best enjoyed over a water view.Miss Tassie particularly enjoys the pontoon over the water – firstly because there are no canines around, but secondly I think it reminds her of our swimming pool at home. She usually likes to lie beside that, and has similar feelings about our local lake. I accompanied her each evening for our private sunset viewing.

Tuesday: The final day of July and also our final day in Berry Springs. It began early for me with a trip into Darwin for a haircut, to pick up Mr A’s repaired bike tyres and finally to collect Mark himself from the airport.I had a brief moment of blow-dried glamour down by the Darwin waterfront, before the humidity made any semblance of bounce drop and the breeze blew the last bits out. Why do hairdressers never believe me when I say their bouncy blow dry is unlikely to make it back to the car, let alone beyond the next 20 minutes?Mark arrived safe and sound after his long journey – a little frazzled having left his friends’ house in the UK 40 hours ago, and having travelled by three trains and three planes to finally reach this spot. Still, all flights had left and arrived to schedule so no complaints. All went as well as could be expected on his trip, and he really appreciates all the messages of condolence he has received.

After returning to the Zone and reuniting with Princess Tassie, we whisked ourselves off back to Berry Springs for a swim. I had purchased a floatation noodle for each of us this time, which made it a very relaxing hour, and just what the doctor ordered after such an arduous journey!

23-26 July: To Berry Springs and Darwin

Author: Mrs A

Location: Berry Springs, Northern Territory

Monday: It was a busy morning of packing up while Mr A took the Landcruiser into Katherine to get the wheel alignment checked (standard check post new shocks). Finally we took off up the highway, about a three hour drive to Berry Springs.

Berry Springs is a tiny rural settlement located about 60km south of Darwin. These days it is primarily a jumping off point for Litchfield National Park, Berry Springs Nature Park and the Territory Wildlife Park.

Our park is located beside Lake Barden, a horseshoe shaped lake designed specifically for waterskiing – no action here at the moment though, just lots of birds and a few crocodiles apparently (hopefully of the freshwater variety!).Checking in for 10 days, I believe we have one of the best sites in the park. Nice and shady, grassy with no neighbours for about 15 metres. Better still, we had barely set up when the campground managers came over with three boxes of wine – our Vinomofo and Ross Hill deliveries have made it safely. Sadly the Tscharke wine delivery made it in a leaking crumpled mess to the Berry Springs Post Office with just enough time for the courier to photograph it and then take it away again. Will we ever get to try this wine? Third time lucky we hope…

Tuesday: Mark finished off his packing and we loaded up the car with his case plus our poor punctured bike tyres to take them into Darwin. Forty-five minutes later we were pulling up outside Cycle Zone (we thought it was an appropriate name!) and dropping them off. It seems my bike is going to be a simple (if costly) fix, but Mr A`s Surly tyres will need a bit more thought.

We then went off to find lunch – TripAdvisor came to the rescue here, and we were soon calling into the Magic Wok Restaurant. There, we selected raw vegetables and meat from a selection (a wide variety including buffalo, crocodile, emu, kangaroo and other interesting choices), chose a sauce and a noodle or rice. You pay depending on the weight of your plates. We both decided on seafood laksa, which was outstanding.

Soon it was time to drop Mark to the airport for his flight to Perth and onward to the UK. I jumped in to the driver`s seat for the first time in a long while and drove on back to Berry Springs to chill out with my furry housemate.

Wednesday: for me a day of washing and working – doing analysis on some research I have conducted while travelling. Mid afternoon I got a message from Mark to say he had safely made it into London and was on the train travelling across the city. It all seemed so fast!

Miss Tassie did a little exploring, deciding the nearby lake is ideal for sunbathing.

Thursday: I received a message early to let me know my bike was ready to collect, so I decided to spend the morning writing my report and then head back into Darwin in the afternoon. Annoyingly our lovely new washing machine decided to start pumping out error codes, and I spent an hour trying to sort that out..not solved yet.

I drove into Darwin, relieved at the nice quiet roads and easy parking outside the bike shop. My tyres are now tubeless, so now hopefully no more punctures. I am really looking forward to jumping on my bike for an explore. Mark`s bike tyres are still in the workshop.

Given I was already in town, I decided to hang around and check out the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. I last went to those when I was up here backpacking 19 years ago. Being a little early, I walked around the coast to the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory, dipping my toes in the Timor Sea along the way.

The museum is well worth a visit. It not only covers the Northern Territory`s natural history (with an extensive collection of fossils and taxidermy), a display and recordings of Cyclone Tracey in the 1970s (which instill fear into anyone listening to the 200 mile an hour winds ripping apart the flimsy wood and corrugated iron homes), but also the history of settlement. It is this which is quite shocking when viewed through today`s eyes.In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Northern Territory was quite a tough and unruly place to live. The climate is challenging to say the least, and settlers trying to grow crops were also stymied by poor soils, high temperatures and rainfall followed by drought. Aboriginal people largely carried on their usual life, with some being employed by pastoralists and hotel operators, and as stockmen, hunters and laborers.

In 1911 that all changed with several policies introduced as part of the`White Australia`goal. Aboriginal people were suddenly severely restricted in their movement, and it is at around this time children were removed from Aboriginal families and placed into missions, especially if they were of mixed decent. There was an assumption that Aboriginal people would simply `become extinct` while the children could be assimilated into white society – a shocking perception given what we know now about the continuous occupation of Australia by Aboriginal communities for up to 60,000 years. This policy continued right up until the 1970s.As you leave the museum and see young Aboriginal people sprawled drunk over the pavement, you see that it is now sadly alcohol addiction and a lack of sense of belonging which is killing them.

On to more cheery things…The Mindil Beach Market consists predominantly of food vendors, surrounded by jewellery, artwork and some clothing stalls. There is a good atmosphere with live music being played and plenty of visitors.I had an early dinner and purchased a raw gluten-free, dairy-free cake (Mark’s worst nightmare!) as a treat for dessert before returning to Berry Springs for the evening.

21-22 July: Katherine welcomes us for the weekend

Author: Mrs A

Location: Katherine, Northern Territory

Saturday: Leaving Bitter Springs, it was just over an hours’ drive up the highway to Katherine. We last visited here about 15 years ago when we hired a Landrover Troop Carrier in Darwin and explored the region.

We set up at the campground and headed to the shops in town to finally replenish our ailing fruit and vegetable supplies – we have not seen fresh food since Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands, so were down to the last scraps.

The scenery is gradually becoming a little lusher, with occasional patches of grass and tropical landscaping – a long way from the wet tropics of northern Queensland but a step improvement from the dusty dry standards of our recent travels.We set up under the shade of some of the tallest trees we have seen in a month, demonstrating just how much more water falls in these parts.

Buoyed by our good experiences at Bitter Springs, we decided to check out Katherine Hot Springs. This little known natural feature was just 200 metres from our camp, so it seemed logical to have a look.

We looked at the flowing pools first, steps leading into a deep turquoise creek with quite a few people sitting in there enjoying the warm water. Lower down a large group of young men sat in the water with cans and bottles of beer, obviously enjoying a rather rowdy Saturday afternoon despite the strict ‘no glass or alcohol’ rules posted around. Unlike Bitter Springs, this is not National Park run, and seems not to be policed by anyone. Disappointed, we decided to give it a miss.

As we turned a corner we spotted a deep pool, the source where the warm water wells out of the ground. It was blissfully empty and quiet, so we jumped on in for a swim.It was a small deep pool, but you could swim quite a bit due to the continuous strong current – a bit like a 33 degree centigrade swimming treadmill!

Sunday: Our morning started with visitors – Joadie and Derek, fellow Zoners, live and work at the airforce base in Katherine, so they popped over with coffees to say hello.Before we knew it, three hours had passed, many stories and experiences shared and laughs had. Hopefully we will meet again on the road some day.

When we last visited Katherine we had hired canoes and paddled along the Katherine River through several of the gorges. We recalled the heavy, 18kg bathtub like boats that you have to drag over rocks to reach the next gorge. Our inflatable Packrafts were a much better option at around 3kg, so we called the tour company which ferries people to the start of the paddlable gorge to see whether we could bring our boats instead. It was immediately clear they didn’t want to forfeit their hire money, so we abandoned that idea and decided to do something completely different.

The Cutta Cutta Caves National Park is located about a half hour drive south of Katherine, and home to a set of limestone caves originally explored in the early 1900s. We decided to join a tour.

It’s always hard to look at caves and not compare them to the spectacular displays at the Jenolan Caves or Wombeyan Caves back in NSW. These were a long way from the splendour of those, but as we learned, are equally as old. Rain predominantly falls in these parts between December and March, meaning the chemical reactions which result in stalagmites and stalactites are infrequent and they are slow to grow.The caves have also been poorly cared for – in the early 1900s they were used for wild parties, and during World War II soldiers used the stalactites for target practice. With this preamble Mr A and I wondered what on earth we were here to see!

Fortunately the caves were embraced within the Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1967, were cleaned up and walkways provided. Solar panels and banks of batteries supply all lighting in the caves. These are the only caves open to the public in tropical Australia.

They were named Cutta Cutta Caves in 1967 by the local Jawoyn people, meaning cave of many stars, named after the glittering limestone features. While it is admitted the local Jawoyn knew about the existence of the caves, they apparently did not enter them and our aboriginal guide told us there is no evidence they feature in any stories either.

As with all caves, much of the talk was about what people think the rocks features look like, with a profile of Elvis, a dragon, unicorn and kangaroo among the more interesting.It was interesting to hear that the caves flood every wet season, and the water drains out through underground streams – ending up at the springs we swam in yesterday – funny how everything is linked!

The caves are home to a couple of endangered species of bat, mouse spiders (we didn’t see any but apparently they’re quite big!) and snakes among other critters. We spotted a Banded brown tree snake curled up along the wall as we explored.We finished our stay in Katherine with a night out at the local Chinese restaurant. There are in fact three Chinese restaurants in Katherine, but Regent Court Chinese is the one to visit. Fortunately we booked, as it was very busy, and great food.

19-20 July: Bitter Springs brings the sweetest relief

Author: Mrs A

Location: from Daly River to Mataranka, Northern Territory

Thursday: Along with the masses we departed Daly River by 8.30am and continued our journey north. This time we were heading to Bitter Springs in Elsey National Park, just 2km away from the small township of Mataranka.

Before long we were pulling into the van park and booking a site for two nights, looking forward to the rest that comes with not moving on every morning. As we left the office to find ourselves a spot we looked behind us and saw a queue of eight caravans. Having just been told they have six sites left (no booking allowed for less than 3 nights) we could see there were going to be some disappointed parties.

It was so good to get properly set up on a decent patch of dirt. Yes, it is still dry and dusty, but there has been some effort at landscaping and sprinklers are on all day long to dampen down the particles (definitely no grass to water).

This area is known for its hot springs, but as we soon learn, there are none, just a beautifully warm and crystal clear river which wells up from deep underground, emerging a very civilised 33 degrees centigrade. We hired a couple of floating noodles and headed up to see what the fuss was about.

Arriving at Bitter Springs we found a beautiful crystal clear river, surrounded by water lilies, pandanus palms and melaleuca trees. Flitting around, despite the 30 or so people floating in the water, were kingfishers, paperbark fly catchers and white faced herons.After all the heat and dust of the past few days, this was just what the doctor ordered. We swam up the warm river about 20 metres and were soon away from the crowds and had a lagoon all to ourselves. Just bliss. This has to be a stop over if you’re heading this way.

Friday morning we decided to check out Mataranka’s hot springs, which are the more famous location. It was nowhere near as nice as Bitter Springs, much less natural with everyone confined to the same small area.We did a short walk along the river before returning to Bitter Springs for a dip in the serenity.Top tips for visiting Bitter Springs (Stay at Bitter Springs Caravan and Camping):

  • If you can stay three or more nights, book ahead
  • If you don’t need power, then book a riverside site – many birds, and more like bush camping with optional toilets and showers within a short distance
  • Don’t bother with Mataranka hot springs, save yourself the drive and just enjoy Bitter Springs
  • Bring along a noodle – the water is moving fairly quickly in parts, and it’s much easier to just float
  • Or if you don’t have a noodle then hire one from the campground – $5 deposit of which $4 is refundable on return – for as many days as you need it
  • Don’t just stay swimming in front of the steps into the water – swim up to the left to escape the crowds and find a little privacy

We concluded our stay with a catch up for Friday night drinks with some fellow Zoners, Scott and Jo, who had arrived for a few nights. As always we learned lots from these more seasoned caravanners and enjoyed a tour around their ‘Time Zone’.

18 July: Off to the oldest pub in the NT

Author: Mrs A

Location: from Banka Banka Station to Daly Waters, Northern Territory

Wednesday morning saw us pull out by 8.30am, point our noses again in a northerly direction, and aim for our next destination, Daly Waters.The flat dry landscape continued, broken only by the occasional herd of cattle ambling alongside the highway and flocks of black kites feeding on the night’s roadkill.

We had decided to stop over at Daly Waters for tonight, a tiny settlement (population 9 with a roaming population of well in excess of 100 per night) with a pub as the primary feature. Another dusty dry paddock became our home for the night, the caravans all crammed in cheek by jowl – clearly all visitors are simply overnighters.

The Daly Waters Pub as we see it was licensed n 1938, but there has been a drinking establishment here since the 1890s, parts of which still exist, integrated into the ‘modern’ pub. Since the 1980s it has become a place where travellers leave their mark. By mark, I am talking about bras, underwear, badges, hats, flip-flops, name badges, paper currency…even car number plates are attached to one of the walls around the bar. It has a lot of character, even if it is not a very authentic Australian outback bar. The staff are all backpackers, with wide reaching accents from Ireland to Slovakia and it has a good reputation for its food.

We’ve not seen a fresh vegetable in a store for many kilometres and our stocks are running very low, so we decided to enjoy lunch there….and while we were waiting for lunch, what the heck, decided to book in for dinner too!

Our evening meal was set in the courtyard where perfectly cooked medium-rare steaks accompanied by a slice of barramundi were served up promptly at 7pm. We helped ourselves to bread, salad and vegetables from a buffet and sat down to enjoy. How they cook everyone’s steak to order and get it right, I don’t know, but they managed it and it was a great feed.

The backdrop to our meal was a couple of singer-songwriters from Nimbin of all places (back in NSW near Byron Bay), led by Lou Bradley wearing a dress made from a vintage Sisal sheet. She was very funny and their music wasn’t bad either. It made for an entertaining evening.