The Great Aussie Road Trip Part 5: Alice Springs to Cairns

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November 5th 2015
Published: November 5th 2015
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Alice Springs to Cairns in 3 Days

Continued from Part 4...

Day 14:

We are up just after 8:00. Today will be a long day on the road. We pack our things and load the van. After a little breakfast we bid farewell to our host and hit the Stuart Highway around 9:30. We are basically going to see how far we can go today. The only thing we actually want to see is the Devil’s Marbles, about 400 km north on the side of the road. Other than that, all we will see is this long flat road.

North of Alice Springs we see something that I had heard about, but thought was just a legend: a no speed limit zone. There is literally no speed limit. It’s called an “open speed” area and the sign urges you to drive to the conditions. This is pretty awesome, but I really don’t want to go any faster than 130 kmh, which the normal speed limit in NT. It’s nice to know that I can’t get pulled over for speeding though if I drift to 140 or something. More roads should be like this!

The miles go fast at 130 kmh. And there are no towns to pass through and very few trucks to pass so it’s a constant speed. Even with a 10 minute stop for gas and a rest we are at Devil’s Marbles by 1:00. It’s right on the side of the road we don’t even need to go out of the way. I make a quick sandwich and we set off to explore the marbles for a little bit.

The Devil’s Marbles are a series of large granite boulders that are very round in shape. They are scattered across the desert in this area. Some balance on others, some are split in half. It’s a pretty cool thing to see and we are glad we stopped. There is a 20 minute walk through the marbles and we take that trail, stepping off here and there to explore the rocks. It’s very sunny today for a chance, and very, very hot. The desert sun beats down on us as we walk the flat track. Maybe it was a good thing we have had so many cloudy days here. This sun is damn hot!

Back at the van I speed north to Tennant Creek, the only actual town we will pass through today. A couple thousand people live here, mostly Aborigines. We fill up on decent priced gas, use the 3G for a minute and head off. There is nothing really to see here and the sooner we get moving the sooner we get to the tropics. Nimarta takes the wheel and after a few kilometers we take a right turn on Highway 86. This is a straight shot to the east coast, though we will head north a bit to Highway A1 sometime tomorrow. The road is flat and straight and boring as hell. We are heading back into clouds too and it seems it may be raining ahead of us.

It’s just past 5:00 when we roll into Barkley Homestay to fill up on gas. From here it is over 300 km until the next gas station. This is the longest stretch of our journey with no services or people. We have decided to camp at one of the rest stops along the highway tonight. Hopefully there will be some other people and not just snakes!

As we drive east from Barkley the sun sets behind us. This is the first time in days we can actually see the sun set. It is a bright red as it fades behind the horizon. The sun sets early here now that we are considerably farther north: 6:30! We stop to take pictures of the sunset and see if we can cook up some dinner. This would be a good spot, a rest stop on the side of the road, but the flies just won’t let us be. This is the worst they have been since King’s Canyon. There is no way we will be able to cook and eat here. We figure the flies will be just as bad anywhere on this road and decide that we need to wait until it’s completely dark to make dinner. It’s the only escape from the Demon Flies, as I call them.

As the day turns into night we enter some new terrain. All of a sudden the desert gum trees and brush that have dotted the landscape for the past six days disappear and we are in a barren grassland. The grass is brown and about 1-2 feet high. What the hell? A grassland in the Outback? It looks like someone just cut all the trees down in this area, maybe many years ago, for a cattle farm or something. But it’s becoming too dark to really see what’s going on. We can now see lightning in the distance too. It’s impossible to tell how far away it is, but it lights up the night sky every few seconds. It feels like we have just entered a horror movie. Ironically, it’s Halloween night. Suddenly I’m afraid of being attacked by zombie kangaroos yielding machetes!

We escape any possible dangers in the Outback grassland and roll into a rest stop on the side of the road about 50 kilometers from the Queensland Border. It’s pitch black now and we can see stars above us. The lightning is still in the distance. We will be safe from the flies here, and the zombie kangaroos too. There are a few other campers here and a small homestay across the street so we feel pretty safe. Dinner is leftover lentil curry and we chow down pretty fast. No wine tonight.

We could stay here and be pretty comfortable. But we have been warned about bringing fruits and vegetables across the border to Queensland. Australia is pretty serious about border crossings even though it’s all the same country. Apparently you’re not supposed to bring fruits and vegetables across borders, something to do with fruit flies. Someone at a gas station told us that people do it all the time, but if there is someone at the border checking they will make you throw away your produce. We have a lot of apples and oranges and some super overpriced bananas we don’t really want to part with. So we decide that if we cross the border at night (it’s nearly 9:00 now) there won’t be anyone working.

We head off into the night. We are heading straight for the lightning again. There is another good free campsite in Comoweel, about 60 km down the road right across the border. Hopefully the storm is further off in the distance than that! There is no one at the border and we roll across into Queensland. This is the second biggest state in Australia and it’s got a little bit of everything. We will be here for eight nights now, making it the state we will spend the most time in on our trip.

After some struggles we finally find the campsite. There is one other car there and they have a little yappy dog that runs out and chases our van. This annoys them, as it appears they were in the middle of some campsite love-making. We go far enough away so that we don’t bother the dog and pack up for the night. There is a nice breeze but that soon turns into heavy winds and it’s quite loud but we manage to fall asleep. We have done nearly 950 km today. So yeah, we’re tired.

Day 15:

The flies come out in the morning and swarm our faces. We pack up as quickly as we can and head to town to fill up on gas before hitting the road towards Mount Isa, the largest town in Outback Queensland with a population of just over 20,000 people. The drive is pretty boring until we get near the town. Now I see why they call it Mount Isa. Similar to Alice Springs, it is enclosed by little rocky mountains and hills. This town is home to the largest mine in Australia and we can see it from afar. We later learn that it mines copper and lead.

The information center is quite new and clean and we use the bathrooms to wash up and grab some brochures for where we are headed. But before heading off we drive up to the Mount Isa lookout point, which gives a 360 degree view of the city. It’s not a bad little place for the middle of nowhere. And when I say middle of nowhere I mean it. They still have a Blockbuster. Who has Blockbusters these days!? The middle of nowhere does. As we drive out of the city I realize something about this place that sets is apart from other Outback towns and cities we have passed through: there are no wandering Aborigines. There are no loiterers or jaywalkers. Maybe this particular area was is not home to any native clans? Or maybe the Queensland government has different programs for them? I’m not sure, but all I know is that they are not on the streets here.

The drive to the next down, Cloncurry, is pretty scenic, probably the most scenic thing we’ve seen since the drive to Ormiston Gorge. We roll up and down through rocky hills with lush desert vegetation. Save all the rotting cow carcasses on the side of the road it’s a very pleasant drive. We stop for lunch in Cloncurry and get serenaded with some crow music from two annoying crows eying our lunch. This town has the record for hottest temperature ever recorded in Australia, which is amazingly only 118 Fahrenheit. That’s like a normal summer day in Phoenix!

Back on the road we turn north towards the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was not part of our original plan, but from the gulf it’s a straight shot east to Cairns so we figured why not see the ocean from the northern side of Australia. We have about 450 km to go to the water and we want to make it there for sunset, hopefully without the relentless Outback flies.

As we are driving, though, we decide that it’s not worth going up to the northern coast. It’s 70 km out of the way and we will have plenty of time on the east coast coming up. We roll into the little town of Normantown just after 5:00. I need to get gas. But we have a problem: everything here is closed. Literally everything. The BP gas station is closed at 5:10. WTF! There is nowhere else to get gas in town and we don’t have nearly enough to get us 180 km to the next town. So now we have two options: 1) stay in shithole Normantown, which is apparently the ass hole of Australia, and hope that BP is open tomorrow morning, or 2) drive north to the coast like we were originally planning.

Staying overnight in this awful, depressing town does not appeal to us, so we decide to drive to the coast, where there is a service station that we can get gas at. It’s a quick 70 km and as we turn west for the final stretch to the coast we get to see something we haven’t seen yet: wallabies! Wallabies everywhere! There are hundreds of them on the side of the road munching on grass and hopping around. I have to drive carefully to make sure I don’t hit any. They scamper off as the car approaches, though. Maybe they are smarter than the roos.

The gas tank is on E by the time we reach the service station. But this one is closed too. What is wrong with this area? No one is allowed to drive outside of business hours? Now we don’t have two options. We have to stay here – we don’t have enough gas to go anywhere. We continue down the road to the beach and are rewarded with the sight of the ocean. It’s been nearly two weeks since we said goodbye to the Southern Ocean in Port Augusta. Now we are near Indonesia, a totally different climate. Nimarta wants to touch the water but a sign on the beach clearly forbids it. This is crocodile land and no one is allowed to even get near the water.

Right next to us is a place called the Karumba Sunset Tavern. People are sitting outside in the beer garden having dinner and drinks. Since we are stuck here for the night we figure we might as well make the bet of it and head to the tavern to get a beer. $3 for an Asahi – we’ll take it. We find a spot outside and relax as the sun is about to set. Perfect timing. The sun is red as it sets over the horizon. I can see why this place calls itself the Sunset Tavern. The outdoor beer garden is pretty cool too. It’s got palm trees and wooden high tables. It reminds me of the Cook Islands. It’s hot and humid, but much to our delight there are no flies. I can’t describe how amazing this feeling of being fly-free is. We celebrate by getting a second beer and an order of fish and chips.

As darkness comes the hermit crabs come out. Now it really feels like the Cook Islands, where the hermit crabs came out every night on the beach when we were eating dinner. These guys are smaller though. And there are also toads, a lot of them, croaking about. For an unplanned night this is turning out to be pretty cool. We head over to a little caravan park to sleep for the night and get a decent shower. It was hot in the Outback, but at least we didn’t have to deal with humidity. Here it’s humid as well as hot, and I can’t stop sweating. Sleeping will be difficult. We seem to be the only ones at the park and leave the doors and sunroof open as we sleep. If a wallaby jumped into bed with us that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Day 16

The sun rises at like 5:30 AM here. They really don’t understand daylight savings time, it appears. Dark at 6:30 PM but light at 5:30 AM? What is that about? By 5:00 the birds are chirping incredibly loudly. So loudly that I really can’t sleep. We decide to leave and go find a place without so many trees that hopefully won’t have as many birds. The gas station is not open yet, but they have some parking sports out back so we park there and try to get some more sleep. At 7:00 we awake for good and fill the van with gas, now that the gas station is finally open. Karumba has been a fun place to stop for the night but we want to get on our way. We hope to get as close to Cairns as possible today.

We knew about driving at night in the Outback before this trip. The kangaroos all come out at night, so you have to go really slow if you want to drive after sunset. But one thing we did not expect was wallabies in the morning. They are not all over the place but we can still see them around. Just after 8:00, as we are about 15 km outside of shithole Normantown, we get the road scare of the trip. A wallaby darts out into the road in front of the van! I jam on the breaks as soon as I see it in the road, not wanting to swerve and lose control of the car. I feel something clank and come to a stop. I don’t see anything on the road behind us. I check under the car: no dead wallaby. I walk back to where I thought I hit him and see the wallaby slowly hopping. I think he may be injured so I approach, but just then he hurries away, hopping like nothing ever happened. Looks like this guy narrowly escaped becoming roadkill.

As we leave Normantown and drive towards Cairns we notice all the deal wallabies on the road. Their carcasses scatter all over the side, and center, of the road. Contrary to my earlier opinions, these guys are apparently not very smart. Either that, or they have a major suicide problem. The thing just sprinted out in front of the van like it wanted to get hit. Maybe he wanted to join his friends in wallaby heaven. We avoid the dead wallabies as we speed towards Cairns.

We stop for lunch in a town called Georgetown. It’s not quite as nice as Georgetown in Washington DC but it’s a step up from Normantown. We actually find a really nice picnic spot in a little park under a mango tree. Colorful birds watch us as we eat, begging for bread. Nimarta tries to feed a bird a piece of chicken. It doesn’t eat it and she wonders why. Birds don’t eat other birds, I say. She gives it some bread. It’s still rather dry here, so a few flies find us. But it’s so nice not to be swarmed by them.

Puffy white clouds fill the sky as we head to the coast. Soon we are engulfed by fields of green grass and healthy cows, as opposed to the skinny cows in the Outback. The landscape is changing drastically before our eyes. Up ahead we see mountains full of green vegetation. This ain’t the Outback anymore, folks. We stop at a viewpoint that has 20 wind turbines and take in a view of the rain forest ahead of us. We are still about 100 km from the coast, but we have officially entered tropical northern Queensland.

The road begins to wind as we drive through the mountains. All of a sudden it feels like we are back in New Zealand. There are even fern trees to make us feel at home. It’s a lot cooler here too, and the fog is thick, like it will start raining any minute now. We have decided to go to Bramston Beach tonight. It’s south of Cairns by about an hour, but the closest beach to us now. We pass through Wooroonooran National Park on our way and are amazed at the lush green vegetation. It’s a world away from where we were yesterday.

After the national park we come to some clearings. But they are not really clearings – they are sugar cane farms. Sugar cane is apparently big business here. Sugar cane fields are literally everywhere. There are also banana trees, mango trees, etc. We stop on the side of the road to buy a fresh watermelon for only $4. What a deal! The cloudy mountains are in the distance as the sun shines on the fields. We have officially entered the tropics. If you blindfolded me and dropped me off here I’d swear I was on a tropical island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. We also buy a fresh papaya, because why not?

The two highest mountains in Queensland are behind us now as we head to the coast. It’s 15 km through sugar cane fields and thick rain forest and we arrive in Bramston Beach just after 6:00. After nearly 7500 km on the backcountry roads of Australia we have made it to the Pacific! Immediately we are glad that we decided to come here 3 nights early. It’s gorgeous. The coast is mountainous, like most tropical islands. We didn’t really expect this though from Australia. It’s a pleasant surprise. We can’t really go in the water because there may be crocs and jellyfish, so we will have to save our swimming for tomorrow.

We decide to pay $20 to camp at the park on the beach. We park the van literally 50 meters from the water and set up our table for a candlelit dinner with the sounds of the ocean waves crashing in the distance. It’s a stark contrast from our candlelit dinner at Uluru, but just as enjoyable. Tropical birds sing (more like scream) above us as we eat and polish off some bottles of South Australian wine. It’s very humid here and the mosquitos are out. I get about a million bites but that’s ok. Our tropical holiday has begun.


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